The War in Context  
  Iraq + war on terrorism + Middle East conflict + critical perspectives     
U.S. troops launch offensive in Iraq
By Jackie Spinner, Washington Post, October 1, 2005

About 1,000 U.S. troops stormed through the western Iraqi town of Sadah near the Syrian border early Saturday morning, battling foreign fighters loyal to al Qaeda, the military said in a statement.

A joint force of Marines, soldiers and sailors took part in the assault, which the military dubbed "Operation Kabda Bil Hadid, " or Iron Fist. The operation aimed to "root out al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists operating in the area and to disrupt terrorist support systems in and around the city," according to the military.

No civilian or military casualties were immediately reported in the offensive, according to news agency reports. The U.S. strike comes two weeks before a referendum on a new constitution for the country. [complete article]

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Buying of news by Bush's aides is ruled illegal
By Robert Pear, New York Times, October 1, 2005

Federal auditors said on Friday that the Bush administration violated the law by buying favorable news coverage of President Bush's education policies, by making payments to the conservative commentator Armstrong Williams and by hiring a public relations company to analyze media perceptions of the Republican Party.

In a blistering report, the investigators, from the Government Accountability Office, said the administration had disseminated "covert propaganda" in the United States, in violation of a statutory ban.

The contract with Mr. Williams and the general contours of the public relations campaign had been known for months. The report Friday provided the first definitive ruling on the legality of the activities. [complete article]

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Miller's big secret
By Dan Froomkin, Washington Post, September 30, 2005

So what was Miller doing in jail? Was it all just a misunderstanding? The most charitable explanation for Miller is that she somehow concluded that Libby wanted her to keep quiet, even while he was publicly -- and privately -- saying otherwise. The least charitable explanation is that going to jail was Miller's way of transforming herself from a journalistic outcast (based on her gullible pre-war reporting) into a much-celebrated hero of press freedom.

Note to reporters: There is nothing intrinsically noble about keeping your sources' secrets. Your job, in fact, is to expose them. And if a very senior government official, after telling you something in confidence, then tells you that you don't have to keep it secret anymore, the proper response is "Hooray, now I can tell the world" -- not "Sorry, that's not good enough for me, I need that in triplicate." And if you're going to go to jail invoking important, time-honored journalistic principles, make sure those principles really apply. [complete article]

See also, A CIA-did-it defense for Scooter in the Plame leak case? (David Corn).

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Prophylactic spin on Iraq
By Tony Karon, Rootless Cosmopolitan, September 30, 2005

Mindful of the American public's sharply declining enthusiasm for squandering more blood and treasure on his failed Iraq enterprise, President Bush is once again adopting his administration's preferred prophylactic strategy for spinning the slow moving disaster. Thus, his warning on Wednesday that insurgent violence will increase ahead of next month's constitutional referendum. Just as he warned that it would increase before the handover of sovereignty to Iyad Allawi last year, and also in the runup to January's election. Perfectly true, of course, but that's not the point: The purpose behind the spin is, firstly, to convey a message to the American public that although the situation looks out of control, it is, in fact, evolving according to expectation. There may be bloody chaos breaking out all over Iraq, but we told you it would. More importantly, this particlar trope of spin subtly suggests that reaching the said political milestone -- handover of sovereignty, election, referendum -- will somehow turn the tide against the insurgency and end a military mission that costs America $5 or $6 billion a month, as well as scores of dead and hundreds of wounded. And therein lies the basic fallacy of not only of the spin, but also of the U.S. exit strategy in general. That much has been proved at each of the previous "turning points," after which violence actually increased, and it's simply wishful thinking to imagine that holding the referendum -- even if the bulk of Sunnis vote in it -- will end the insurgency. [complete article]

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Officials fear chaos if Iraqis vote down the constitution
By Joel Brinkley and Thom Shanker, New York Times, September 30, 2005

Senior American officials say they are confident that Iraq's draft constitution will be approved in the referendum to be held Oct. 15, even though Sunni Arabs in Iraq are mobilizing in large numbers to defeat it.

In testimony before Congress on Thursday, the senior American military commander in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. of the Army, said the most recent analysis of intelligence from across the country supported the Bush administration's optimistic predictions that the referendum would pass.

But if the constitution is defeated, several officials said they feared that Iraq would descend into anarchy. [complete article]

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The myth of the Shi'ite crescent
By Pepe Escobar, Asia Times, September 30, 2005

A specter haunts the Middle East - at least in the minds of Sunni Arabs, especially Wahhabis, as well as a collection of conservative American think tanks: a Shi'ite crescent, spreading from Mount Lebanon to Khorasan, across Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf and the Iranian plateau.

But facts on the ground are much more complex than this simplistic formula whereby, according to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait, Tehran controls its allies Baghdad, Damascus and parts of Beirut.

Seventy-five percent of the world's oil reserves are in the Persian Gulf. Seventy percent of the Gulf's population is Shi'ite. As an eschatological - and revolutionary - religion, fueled by a mix of romanticism and despair, Shi'ism cannot but provoke fear, especially in hegemonic Sunni Islam.

For more than a thousand years Shi'ite Islam has been in fact a galaxy of Shi'sms. It's as if it was a Fourth World, always maligned with political exclusion, a dramatic vision of history and social and economic marginalization.

But now Shi'ites finally have acquired political representation in Iraq, have conquered it in Lebanon and are actively claiming it in Bahrain. They are the majority in each of these countries. Shi'ism is the cement of their communal cohesion. It's a totally different story in Saudi Arabia, where Shi'ites are a minority of 11%, repressed as heretics and deprived of their rights and fundamental freedoms. But for how much longer? [complete article]

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Tomdispatch interview with Cindy Sheehan
TomDispatch, September 30, 2005

TD: Tell me about his [Casey Sheehan's] decision to join the Army.

CS: A recruiter got hold of him, probably at a vulnerable point in his life, promised him a lot of things, and didn't fulfill one of the promises. It was May of 2000. There was no 9/11. George Bush hadn't even happened. When George Bush became his commander-and-chief, my son's doom was sealed. George Bush wanted to invade Iraq before he was even elected president. While he was still governor of Texas he was talking about: "If I was commander-and-chief, this is what I would do."

Back then, my son was promised a twenty thousand dollar signing bonus. He only got four thousand dollars of that when he finished his advanced training. He was promised a laptop, so he could take classes from wherever he was deployed in the world. He never got that. They promised him he could finish college because he only had one year left when he went in the Army. They would never let him take a class. They promised him he could be a chaplain's assistant which was what he really wanted to do; but, when he got to boot camp, they said that was full and he could be a Humvee mechanic or a cook. So he chose Humvee mechanic. The most awful thing the recruiter promised him was: Even if there was a war, he wouldn't see combat because he scored so high on the ASVAB [Career Exploration] tests. He would only be in war in a support role. He was in Iraq for five days before he was killed in combat. [complete article]

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Decline in Iraqi troops' readiness cited
By Josh White and Bradley Graham, Washington Post, September 30, 2005

The number of Iraqi army battalions that can fight insurgents without U.S. and coalition help has dropped from three to one, top U.S. generals told Congress yesterday, adding that the security situation in Iraq is too uncertain to predict large-scale American troop withdrawals anytime soon.

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who oversees U.S. forces in Iraq, said there are fewer Iraqi battalions at "Level 1" readiness than there were a few months ago. Although Casey said the number of troops and overall readiness of Iraqi security forces have steadily increased in recent months, and that there has not been a "step backwards," both Republican and Democratic senators expressed deep concern that the United States is not making enough progress against a resilient insurgency.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his commanders yesterday publicly hedged their forecasts of U.S. involvement in Iraq, leaving it unclear when troops will be able to come home or how long it will take before Iraqi security forces can defend their homeland. The officials also gave somber forecasts of significant insurgent attacks in the coming weeks as Iraq faces important political milestones. [complete article]

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Bombs kill 105; U.S. toll grows
By Louise Roug and Mark Mazzetti, Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2005

A series of coordinated bombings killed 95 people in the Iraqi city of Balad on Thursday as U.S. military leaders in Washington downgraded their estimate of the number of Iraqi troops at the highest state of readiness.

Commanders who visited Capitol Hill told lawmakers that U.S. troop reductions were needed in part to break an Iraqi "dependency" on American forces. But, underscoring the difficulty of disengaging, Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the number of Iraqi units at the highest level of readiness had fallen from three battalions in June to one.

U.S. officials also reported that five American soldiers had been killed by a roadside bomb the previous day, the deadliest single attack on U.S. forces in nearly two months. The five were attached to the 2nd Marine Division, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force. At least 13 members of the U.S. military have been killed in Iraq since Monday. [complete article]

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Judith Miller free from jail; she will testify
By David Johnston and Douglas Jehl, New York Times, September 30, 2005

Judith Miller, the reporter for The New York Times who has been jailed since July 6 for refusing to testify in the C.I.A. leak case, was released Thursday from a Virginia detention center after she and her lawyers reached an agreement with a federal prosecutor in which she would testify before a grand jury investigating the case, the publisher and the executive editor of the paper said.

Ms. Miller was freed after spending more than 12 weeks in jail, during which she refused to cooperate with the inquiry. Her decision to testify was made after she had obtained what she described as a waiver offered "voluntarily and personally" by a source who said she was no longer bound by any pledge of confidentiality she had made to him. Ms. Miller said the source had made clear that he genuinely wanted her to testify.

That source was I. Lewis Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, according to people who have been officially briefed on the case. Ms. Miller met with Mr. Libby on July 8, 2003, and talked with him by telephone later that week, they said. [complete article]

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Judge orders release of more Abu Ghraib abuse photos
By Julia Preston, New York Times, September 30, 2005

A federal judge in Manhattan ruled yesterday that the Defense Department must release dozens of withheld photographs and videotapes that show abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, rejecting an argument by top military officials that publishing the images would endanger American troops.

"Our nation does not surrender to blackmail," wrote the judge, Alvin K. Hellerstein of Federal District Court.

Judge Hellerstein was responding to a statement by Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said publication of the images could provoke acts of terrorism against American soldiers.

"Our struggle to prevail" in Iraq, the judge wrote, "must be without sacrificing the transparency and accountability of government and military officials." [complete article]

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Guilt by association
By Christopher Dickey, Newsweek, September 29, 2005

When I asked the waiter for a glass of wine, I saw the man across the table from me recoil ever so slightly, as if I were testing him. Which, in a way, I was. We were ordering lunch in the old Jewish quarter of Granada, Spain, at the Torquato Restaurant (his choice). Across a narrow valley the palace and the paradisiacal gardens of the Alhambra stood as tribute to the glories of the Muslim caliphate that ruled this part of Europe for more than 700 years. But I hadn't come for historical tourism on that afternoon of Jan. 11, 2001. I had been working to set up a meeting in faraway Afghanistan with a reputed terrorist mastermind named Osama bin Laden. I'd been told that my luncheon guest, Tayseer Alouni, a naturalized Spaniard whose family lived in Granada but who worked for Al-Jazeera television in Kabul, might have the connections to make that happen.

Indeed. On Monday of this week a Spanish court sentenced the Syrian-born Alouni to seven years in prison after convicting him of collaborating with Al Qaeda. At the same trial, 17 other alleged members of an Islamist cell, part of which prosecutors linked to planning for the September 11 attacks on the United States, received sentences ranging up to 27 years. [complete article]

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Campaign methods put to test in tour to boost U.S. image
By Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, September 30, 2005

When Karen Hughes met with Egyptians on a boat on the Nile River during the second day of her Middle East tour, she wore a piece of jewelry she had just purchased from the noted Egyptian designer Azza Fahmi: a pearl necklace with a medallion inscribed with the Arabic words for "love, sincerity, friendship."

The inscription echoed the themes that Hughes, the undersecretary of state and confidante of President Bush charged with burnishing the U.S. image in the Muslim world, stressed relentlessly at every public forum during her five-day trip to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Hughes focused on common love of family, her desire to reach out to bridge gaps in perception, and the long history of friendship and exchanges between peoples.

Indeed, Hughes brought the tactics of American political campaigning to the world of diplomacy, mixing evocative images with simple and sometimes hokey lines -- "I am a mom and I love kids" -- designed to strike an emotional chord with Muslim audiences. [complete article]

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U.S.-Iran: Here we go again
By Tony Karon, Rootless Cosmopolitan, September 28, 2005

Tempting as it is, I shall avoid invoking my all time favorite lede in discussing the U.S. effort to get UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. That -- my all time favorite lede -- would be the observation by a certain 19th century German journalist that all the great events in history occur twice, first as tragedy and then as farce. But seeing as how we’re avoiding that reference, we'll settle instead for the idea that the barking dog running down the road is unlikely to have planned for actually catching that car. And it appears that the Bush administration, similarly, appears not to have gamed the outcome of its effort to challenge Tehran's nuclear program at the UN Security Council. [complete article]

See also, Why Iran isn't a global threat (Ray Takeyh).

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Uzbeks stop working with U.S. against terrorism
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, September 30, 2005

After cutting off U.S. access to a key military base, Uzbekistan has also quietly terminated cooperation with Washington on counterterrorism, a move that could affect both countries' ability to deal with al Qaeda and its allies in Central Asia and neighboring Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.

The government of President Islam Karimov, one of the most authoritarian to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union, has made a broader strategic decision to move away from the 2002 agreement made with President Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and is cooling relations with Europe as well, the officials said.

The move follows tough criticism from Washington and the European Union over Uzbekistan's crackdown on protests in May in Andijan province, where human rights and opposition groups say hundreds died. Uzbekistan has charged that terrorists initiated the violence.

As tensions deepen, Karimov is shifting his strategic alliance toward Russia and China, the officials said. In July, Tashkent banned U.S. troops and warplanes from the Karshi-Khanabad air base, which was used for counterterrorism, military and humanitarian missions. [complete article]

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Guilty plea planned in secrets case
By Jerry Markon, Washington Post, September 30, 2005

A Defense Department analyst charged with passing government secrets to two employees of an influential pro-Israel lobbying group plans to plead guilty at a hearing next week, court officials announced yesterday.

Lawrence A. Franklin, 58, will enter his plea in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on Wednesday, the court said. Sources familiar with the case said Franklin is expected to plead guilty to conspiracy and possibly to other counts. He also is planning to resume his cooperation with prosecutors, they said.

Any scheduled plea can collapse, even at the last minute, though the sources said they do not expect that to happen. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the plea agreement is not finalized.

If Franklin enters a plea, it will be a major development in a long-running investigation into whether classified U.S. information was provided to the Israeli government. The two employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, have also been charged, and Franklin could be a key witness against them. The two AIPAC employees were fired after their alleged contact with Franklin. [complete article]

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Just vote no
By Fred Kaplan, Slate, September 27, 2005

When Iraqis go to the polls Oct. 15 to vote on the constitution, it would probably be best if they rejected it. Elections for a new parliament are scheduled to take place this December in any case. Let them be for a new constitutional assembly (as current law provides in the event of a rejection), and let the process start over again. Further delay may prolong the chaos, but passage of this parchment will almost certainly make things worse -- and for much longer still.

I say this with nothing but dismay. The Bush administration wants to withdraw most U.S. ground troops from Iraq by the end of next year, as do I. The official rationale will be: We've done our job; Iraq has a new government and a new constitution; we'll keep a cadre of troops behind for training and essential security, but otherwise the defense of Iraq is up to the Iraqis. But if there is no new constitution, no new government, a major pullout will be harder to justify.

And yet, the whole point of a constitution is to establish a foundation of consensus, to put forth a rule book that's accepted (even if reluctantly) by all the key factions; in short, to lay the groundwork on which politics can legitimately be played out.

This, Iraq's constitution clearly does not do. [complete article]

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The 'second' man
By Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, Newsweek, September 28, 2005

U.S. intelligence officials and counterterrorism analysts are questioning whether a slain terrorist -- described by President Bush today as the "second-most-wanted Al Qaeda leader in Iraq" -- was as significant a figure as the Bush administration is claiming.

In a brief Rose Garden appearance Wednesday morning, Bush seized on the killing of Abu Azzam by joint U.S-Iraqi forces in a shootout last Sunday as fresh evidence that the United States is turning the tide against the Iraqi insurgency.
But veteran counterterrorism analyst Evan Kohlmann said today there are ample reasons to question whether Abu Azzam was really the No. 2 figure in the Iraqi insurgency. He noted that U.S. officials have made similar claims about a string of purportedly high-ranking terrorist operatives who had been captured or killed in the past, even though these alleged successes made no discernible dent in the intensity of the insurgency.

"If I had a nickel for every No. 2 and No. 3 they've arrested or killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, I'd be a millionaire," says Kohlmann, a New York-based analyst who tracks the Iraq insurgency and who first expressed skepticism about the Azzam claims in a posting on The Counterterrorism Blog ( While agreeing that Azzam -- also known as Abdullah Najim Abdullah Mohamed al-Jawari -- may have been an important figure, "this guy was not the deputy commander of Al Qaeda," says Kohlmann. [complete article]

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Zarqawi 'hijacked' insurgency
By Bradley Graham, Washington Post, September 28, 2005

The top U.S. military intelligence officer in Iraq said Abu Musab Zarqawi and his foreign and Iraqi associates have essentially commandeered the insurgency, becoming the dominant opposition force and the greatest immediate threat to U.S. objectives in the country.

"I think what you really have here is an insurgency that's been hijacked by a terrorist campaign," Army Maj. Gen. Richard Zahner said in an interview. "In part, by Zarqawi becoming the face of this thing, he has certainly gotten the funding, the media and, frankly, has allowed other folks to work along in his draft."

The remarks underscored a shift in view among senior members of the U.S. military command here since the spring, as violence, especially against civilians, has spiked and as Zarqawi, a radical Sunni Muslim from Jordan, has aggressively promoted himself and his anti-U.S., anti-Shiite campaign. U.S. military leaders say they now see Zarqawi's group of foreign fighters and Iraqi supporters, known as al Qaeda in Iraq, as having supplanted Iraqis loyal to ousted president Saddam Hussein as the insurgency's driving element. [complete article]

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Female suicide bomber attacks U.S. military post
By Jackie Spinner, Washington Post, September 29, 2005

A female suicide bomber dressed like a man detonated an explosive belt outside a U.S. military facility in the northern Iraqi city of Tall Afar on Wednesday, killing at least five civilians and injuring more than 30, the military said. The unidentified woman was the first known female suicide bomber in the insurgency that began after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The bomber "was denied entry" to a building, called a civil military operations center, that was used as a semipublic place for U.S. soldiers to interact with local people, said Maj. Gary Dangerfield, a spokesman for the Army's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tall Afar. Residents whose homes were damaged in the recent U.S.-Iraqi offensive in the city could make claims for damages at the facility.

The group al Qaeda in Iraq asserted responsibility for the attack, calling the bomber a "sister" affiliated with the Malik Suicidal Brigade. In an Internet posting, al Qaeda in Iraq, which is led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who is the most feared and wanted insurgent in Iraq, said the bomber attacked the center because it was a gathering spot "of converted volunteers." Residents said the building used to be an Iraqi army recruiting center. [complete article]

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A mixture of excitement and fear stalks the land in Syria
By David Hirst, The Guardian, September 28, 2005

When Lebanese police last month arrested four former army and intelligence chiefs, once pillars of President Lahoud's pro-Syrian regime, as suspects in the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, Arab commentators quickly understood that something profoundly significant was happening - not just for Lebanon, but the whole Arab world. The arrests were made at the request of Detlev Mehlis, head of the UN team investigating the case. Although, technically, the Lebanese state was exercising its own sovereign authority, it could never have done so without the international support that Mehlis embodies.

For Gharida Dergham, of the pan-Arab newspaper al-Hayat, the inquiry "will cause an earthquake in the whole Arab region ... the era of political assassinations is over". For Rami Khouri, of Beirut's Daily Star, the arrests marked "a truly historic turning point that could shatter the dominance of political power by Arab security and military establishments"... with "the same impact in this region as the birth of the Solidarity trade union movement had in eastern Europe 25 years ago ... ultimately resulting in the collapse of the communist police state system".

Perhaps. But the resistance to such a process will be fierce, and nowhere more so than in the first place to which it must spread if it is to take hold even in Lebanon, let alone the rest of the Arab world. That place, Damascus, is where Mehlis last week embarked on the crucial widening of his mission. [complete article]

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Al Jazeera hires an ex-Marine
By Sally B. Donnelly, Time, September 27, 2005

Josh Rushing, former Marine captain and an accidental star of the movie Control Room made news of his own last week when he signed on to become the American face of the controversial Arab news network Al Jazeera-International. Top U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have repeatedly complained that Al Jazeera's coverage is unfair or untrue. Yesterday, Rushing sat down with TIME for his first interview on why he took the job and what the new network will cover.

The 33-year old Rushing came to fame in Control Room, a movie critical of media coverage of the Iraq war as a military public affairs officer who increasingly questions how the war was being portrayed by the Pentagon. In the movie, Rushing is articulate and passionate in defending the troops and never directly criticizes the war. And his honesty draws viewers to his side -- he describes his different reactions to seeing on Al Jazeera images of Iraqi casualties one evening and dead U.S. soldiers the next. "It upset me on a profound level that I wasn't bothered as much the night before," Rushing explains at one point in the movie. "It makes me hate war. But it doesn't make me believe we can live in a world without war yet." He admits—then and now -- to being troubled by the "politicization" of the military command and what he describes as U.S. TV networks being "co-opted" by the Bush Administration. [complete article]

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A matter of honor
By Capt. Ian Fishback, Washington Post, September 28, 2005

I am a graduate of West Point currently serving as a Captain in the U.S. Army Infantry. I have served two combat tours with the 82nd Airborne Division, one each in Afghanistan and Iraq. While I served in the Global War on Terror, the actions and statements of my leadership led me to believe that United States policy did not require application of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan or Iraq. On 7 May 2004, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's testimony that the United States followed the Geneva Conventions in Iraq and the "spirit" of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan prompted me to begin an approach for clarification. For 17 months, I tried to determine what specific standards governed the treatment of detainees by consulting my chain of command through battalion commander, multiple JAG lawyers, multiple Democrat and Republican Congressmen and their aides, the Ft. Bragg Inspector General's office, multiple government reports, the Secretary of the Army and multiple general officers, a professional interrogator at Guantanamo Bay, the deputy head of the department at West Point responsible for teaching Just War Theory and Law of Land Warfare, and numerous peers who I regard as honorable and intelligent men.

Instead of resolving my concerns, the approach for clarification process leaves me deeply troubled. Despite my efforts, I have been unable to get clear, consistent answers from my leadership about what constitutes lawful and humane treatment of detainees. I am certain that this confusion contributed to a wide range of abuses including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment. I and troops under my command witnessed some of these abuses in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is a tragedy. I can remember, as a cadet at West Point, resolving to ensure that my men would never commit a dishonorable act; that I would protect them from that type of burden. It absolutely breaks my heart that I have failed some of them in this regard. [complete article]

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GOP loses a powerful enforcer
By Janet Hook and Maura Reynolds, Los Angeles Times, September 29, 2005

The indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) undercuts one of President Bush's most powerful allies at a time when the GOP is already battered by other ethics controversies, plummeting public confidence and intraparty divisions over budget policy.

The departure from the leadership ranks of DeLay, a commanding figure in the House's machinery for enforcing party discipline, could hamper Republicans' ability to advance political and legislative agendas.The indictment is the latest in a series of developments that have put the GOP on the defensive, among them the Bush administration's halting initial response to Hurricane Katrina, soaring gas prices and continuing violence in Iraq. It comes less than a week after Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) acknowledged he was under investigation for a stock sale, giving new ammunition for Democrats who seek to call attention to alleged ethical lapses to bolster an argument that Republicans have abused power in Congress and the White House.
[complete article]

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Republicans see signs that Pentagon is evading oversight
By Douglas Jehl, New York Times, September 29, 2005

Republican members of Congress say there are signs that the Defense Department may be carrying out new intelligence activities through programs intended to escape oversight from Congress and the new director of national intelligence.

The warnings are an unusually public signal of some Republican lawmakers' concern about overreaching by the Pentagon, where top officials have been jockeying with the new intelligence chief, John D. Negroponte, for primacy in intelligence operations. The lawmakers said they believed that some intelligence activities, involving possible propaganda efforts and highly technological initiatives, might be masked as so-called special access programs, the details of which are highly classified.

"We see indications that the D.O.D. is trying to create parallel functions to what is going on in intelligence, but is calling it something else," Representative Peter Hoekstra, Republican of Michigan and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview. [complete article]

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Unmaking Iraq: A constitutional process gone awry
International Crisis Group, September 26, 2005

Instead of healing the growing divisions between Iraq's three principal communities -- Shiites, Kurds and Sunni Arabs -- a rushed constitutional process has deepened rifts and hardened feelings. Without a strong U.S.-led initiative to assuage Sunni Arab concerns, the constitution is likely to fuel rather than dampen the insurgency, encourage ethnic and sectarian violence, and hasten the country's violent break-up.

At the outset of the drafting process in June-July 2005, Sunni Arab inclusion was the litmus test of Iraqi and U.S. ability to defeat the insurgency through a political strategy. When U.S. brokering brought fifteen Sunni Arab political leaders onto the Constitutional Committee, hopes were raised that an all-encompassing compact between the communities might be reached as a starting point for stabilising the country. Regrettably, the Bush administration chose to sacrifice inclusiveness for the sake of an arbitrary deadline, apparently in hopes of preparing the ground for a significant military draw-down in 2006. As a result, the constitution-making process became a new stake in the political battle rather than an instrument to resolve it. [complete article]

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Al-Sistani will not tell people how to vote on constitution
AKI, September 27, 2005

The office of Iraq's influential Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has issued a statement denying local media reports that he has issued a fatwa, or religious edict, telling Shiite Muslims to vote 'yes' in the referendum on Iraq's constitution on October 15. "The Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani will not issue any fatwa on the referendum on the draft Iraqi constitution," the statement, reported by Iraqi TV channel al-Iraqiya, said.

"The news which appeared in the newspapers in the last few days are completely inaccurate," the message said. "Ayatollah al-Sistani does not intend to intervene in this issue, inviting voters to vote, yes, but without expressing any preference." [complete article]

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Societies worse off 'when they have God on their side'
By Ruth Gledhill, The Times, September 27, 2005

Religious belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.

According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.

The study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society. [complete article]

Read the study, Cross-national correlations of quantifiable societal health with popular religiosity and secularism in the prosperous democracies (Journal of Religion and Society).

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Baghdad neighborhood's hopes dimmed by the trials of war
By Ellen Knickmeyer, Washington Post, September 27, 2005

In the chaotic, hopeful April of 2003, Baghdad's Karrada district was one of those neighborhoods where residents showered flowers on U.S. forces entering the capital. Revelers threw water on one another and the Americans, exuding joy at the crushing of a dictatorship that had silenced, tortured and killed their people.

Now, with the end of the third and in many ways hardest summer of the U.S.-led occupation, the lights of Karrada are dimmer. The collapse of Iraq's central power system has left Baghdad averaging less than eight hours of electricity a day.

The crowds on the sidewalks have thinned -- kidnapping and other forms of lawlessness since the invasion mean Baghdad's comparatively liberated women seldom leave home without a good reason.

Car bombings and other insurgent attacks, as unknown in Baghdad before the invasion as suicide subway bombings were in London until this summer, have killed more than 3,000 people in the capital since late spring. [complete article]

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Man said to be Zarqawi's no. 2 killed in Baghdad
By Luke Baker, Reuters (via WP), September 27, 2005

U.S. and Iraqi forces said they have shot dead the second-in-command of al Qaeda in Iraq, dealing what a U.S. commander called on Tuesday a serious blow to the militant group at the heart of Iraq's insurgency.

U.S. and Iraqi forces tracked Abu Azzam, said to be the right-hand man of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the most wanted man in Iraq, to a high-rise Baghdad apartment building where he was shot on Sunday, U.S. spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Boylan said. [complete article]

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Purported al Qaeda newscast debuts on Internet
By Daniel Williams, Washington Post, September 27, 2005

An Internet video newscast called the Voice of the Caliphate was broadcast for the first time on Monday, purporting to be a production of al Qaeda and featuring an anchorman who wore a black ski mask and an ammunition belt.

The anchorman, who said the report would appear once a week, presented news about the Gaza Strip and Iraq and expressed happiness about recent hurricanes in the United States. A copy of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, was placed by his right hand and a rifle affixed to a tripod was pointed at the camera.

The origins of the broadcast could not be immediately verified. If the program was indeed an al Qaeda production, it would mark a change in how the group uses the Internet to spread its messages and propaganda. Direct dissemination would avoid editing or censorship by television networks, many of which usually air only excerpts of the group's statements and avoid showing gruesome images of killings. [complete article]

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Musharraf's balancing act
By Tony Karon, Rootless Cosmopolitan, September 21, 2005

There's a tendency in Washington to want to believe those who profess friendship and shared interests, particularly when they say the sorts of things that confirm the beliefs, however misguided, prevalent in the corridors of U.S. power. The Afghan warlords appeared to have developed a knack for it.

I watched Tora Bora on TV, of course, and I remember seeing the warlords subcontracted to go up and flush out Bin Laden mugging for the cameras every morning, scowling like so many extras in an old Hollywood pirate movie, vowing to go up and destroy al Qaeda -- "we hate the terrorists," they'd snarl, on cue, aaarrrh. But there always seemed to be the hint of a grin at the edges of those scowls, a game face that anyone who has ever lived or traveled in the Third World would instantly recognize it as belonging to a hustler. Their vows to go up and finish Bin Laden never seemed any more credible than those of the Fox News harlequin Geraldo, donning a helmet and brandishing a .45 on camera at the bottom of the same hill. Particularly when events began to take on a familiar pattern, of morning scowling at the cameras, then a charge up the hill, which cranked up the Qaeda heavy machine guns, prompting a retreat and an air strike before bad light stopped play and the warlord's men would knock off for the night and vow to return the next day to finish the job.

But if you stopped to consider it for a moment, through the prism of the interests involved rather than the wishful fantasies concocted in Washington -- and this, granted, in retrospect -- you have to wonder why it would have been in the interests of provincial Afghan warlords to hurl themselves selflessly at the guns of al-Qaeda. They were happy to take the money, and the vehicles and the weapons offered by the Americans in payment for outsourcing the Tora Bora job. Those would be inordinately useful in their battle with rival warlords over the next hill on such bread and butter issues as taxing opium production. But it made no sense to waste good fighting men on a contract killing for the Americans when the target was well-armed, well dug-in and desperate. At the crucial moment, it turned out some of the same warlords turned out to have made their own deals with Bin Laden, too. And why not? Warlords, borrowing for a moment John Foster Dulles's aphorism about American statecraft, don't have friends; warlords only have interests. They're always at war with their neighbors; always in danger of being obliterated by ambitious rivals within their own ranks. Their survival is based on a combination of force, and cunning, outwitting their opponents, internal and external by carefully balancing competing interests, and always picking the right moment to change horses. [complete article]

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Saudi storms
By Christopher Dickey, Newsweek, October 3, 2005

The shoot-out earlier this month around a seafront villa in the Saudi Arabian city of Ad Dammam lasted almost 48 hours, and ended only when security forces brought in light artillery. They blasted the opulent home until the roof came down on the people inside. In the immediate aftermath police said they couldn't tell from the charred remains just how many members of "a deviant group" had died in the battle. Finally, with DNA tests, they counted five. Police also found enough weapons for a couple of platoons of guerrilla fighters. The inventory given out by the Saudi Interior Ministry included more than 60 hand grenades and pipe bombs, pistols, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, two barrels full of explosives, video equipment, a large amount of cash and forged documents.

It was the documents that really set off alarms. According to a Saudi Interior Ministry statement, they included forged passes to enter "important locations." The Saudi daily Okaz quoted the minister, Prince Nayef, saying the cell -- which was linked directly to Al Qaeda -- had planned major attacks on some of Saudi Arabia's key oil and gas facilities. "There isn't a place that they could reach that they didn't think about," said Nayef. And their ultimate target was the global economy. Saudi Arabia is the greatest source of oil on earth, with a quarter of known reserves and a proven policy of trying to stabilize prices even in today's volatile markets.

If the incident made few headlines at the time, it's because it ended on Sept. 6, when the United States -- and oil traders -- were focused on the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Yet precisely because of the shortages brought on by that storm and the damage still being counted from Hurricane Rita, Saudi Arabia is more important than ever to world oil supplies. What's worse, according to several analysts, Al Qaeda knows it. [complete article]

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Suicide bomber targets oil workers in Iraq
By Neil MacDonald, Financial Times, September 26, 2005

A suicide car bomber on Monday rammed a busload of oil workers in Baghdad, killing at least 10 and wounding 30, in an attack on a vital industry at the centre of sectarian disputes in next month's constitutional referendum.

The attack occurred in front of a police building, and while state oil employees bore the brunt of it, some casualties may have been policemen.

Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, minister of oil, condemned the “targeting of innocents” in what he saw as an intentional attack on his staff.

Sunni Arab insurgents frequently attack oil facilities in a campaign to foil US-backed efforts at economic reconstruction, but have not so far focused on oil workers. [complete article]

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Bush taps into oil reserves and urges conservation
By Caroline Daniel, Financial Times, September 26, 2005

President George W. Bush on Monday made a rare public appeal for Americans to share cars and curb non-essential driving as part of an effort to reduce high petrol prices following the two hurricanes that have struck the Gulf of Mexico coast.

"We can all pitch in by being better conservers of energy. I mean people just need to recognise that the storms have caused disruption and that if they are able to maybe not drive, on a trip that's not essential, that would be helpful," he said.

For an administration criticised for focusing energy policy on bolstering supply, rather than limiting demand, his comments mark a remarkable shift. While the action has been triggered by the loss of 5.4m barrels a day of refining production from the hurricanes, it also reflects growing political pressure. [complete article]

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Missteps hamper Iraqi oil recovery
By T. Christian Miller, Los Angeles Times, September 26, 2005

The failure to rebuild key components of Iraq's petroleum industry has impeded oil production and may have permanently damaged the largest of the country's vast oil fields, American and Iraqi experts say.

The deficiencies have deprived Iraq of hundreds of millions of dollars in potential revenue needed for national rebuilding efforts and kept millions of barrels of oil off the world market at a time of growing demand.

Engineering mistakes, poor leadership and shifting priorities have delayed or led to the cancellation of several projects critical to restoring Iraq's oil industry, according to interviews with more than two dozen current and former U.S. and Iraqi officials and industry experts. [complete article]

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Shia in Baghdad join attack on U.S.
By Kim Sengupta, The Independent, September 26, 2005

American and Iraqi forces fought prolonged gun battles with followers of the radical Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr in what is seen as fresh evidence of growing Shia resistance.

Eight Iraqis were killed in the clashes yesterday in Sadr City, a vast slum outside Baghdad. The fighting follows the upsurge of violence faced by British forces in the Shia south.

For more than a year the vast majority of attacks on coalition forces have been carried out by Sunni insurgents. However Mr Sadr has formed an alliance with Sunnis to oppose the country's new constitution and his paramilitary Mehdi Army has been increasingly active against American and Iraqi government forces. [complete article]

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'How can you establish a free media in such fear and anarchy?'
By Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, The Guardian, September 26, 2005

I had been dreading this moment for weeks, but I knew it would come inevitably. The night before leaving for Baghdad; preparing for yet another trip to that doomed city to report on yet more violence. For weeks at a time, I had lived in denial. I had told myself, no, it's not happening; no, I am not going back there. I have had enough, I am not going back to Iraq. But then I gave in, I started assuring my worried friends that I would be safe there - after all, it's not that dangerous.

Last Monday night I sat, sheepishly, in my bedroom, packing my bags. I was drowning in depression - a mixture of fear and anxiety smouldering in my guts. I wanted to distract myself, so I started going through my favourite bedtime routine: checking the wires for the latest pictures from Iraq. What atrocity had I missed that day by hiding in London?

I soon came across an out-of-focus image of a policeman lifting a cover to show a dead body lying in a hospital morgue. It was the sort of photograph I had seen a hundred times before. Then I read the caption: "A policeman lifts ... the body of Fakher Haidar al-Tamimi ..."

My heart stopped and my eyes started watering. It can't be Fakher, I told myself, and started to frantically search the web for more details. Seeing his byline on a New York Times story from the day before, I was briefly reassured. But then I read the story of his death on the same website. [complete article]

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Teachers and bus driver killed at Iraqi school
By Bassam Sebti, Jackie Spinner and Daniela Deane, Washington Post, September 26, 2005

A group of nine men wearing Iraqi police uniforms stormed an elementary school south of Baghdad Monday, ordered all the male teachers and the school bus driver into a room and sprayed them with bullets, killing six, in a rare attack on a school in Iraq, officials said.

"These men were terrorists wearing police uniforms," said Capt. Muthana Ahmed, director of the provincial police force in the area about the attackers. "No prior warning was made."

Ahmed said the children at the Jazeerah Primary School in a village near Iskandariyah were not in the room where the teachers and the school bus driver, all Shiites, were shot. [complete article]

See also, At least 42 killed in violence across Iraq (WP).

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Blair dashes hopes that UK soldiers may leave Iraq early
By Andrew Grice, The Independent, September 26, 2005

Tony Blair has dampened hopes that he will set a timetable under which British troops would start to pull out of Iraq next spring.

Ministers told The Independent that British troops were unlikely to take on a different role in Iraq before next summer - and would then gradually hand over frontline duties to the Iraqi army and police before a staged withdrawal was contemplated at a later date. Despite growing pressure to set a date for troops to return home, ministers insisted that such a deadline would not be set. [complete article]

See also, Blair out of step as voters swing behind Iraq withdrawal (The Guardian).

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Report attacks 'myth' of foreign fighters
By Brian Whitaker and Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian, September 23, 2005

The US and the Iraqi government have overstated the number of foreign fighters in Iraq, "feeding the myth" that they are the backbone of the insurgency, an American thinktank says in a new report.

Foreign militants - mainly from Algeria, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia - account for less than 10% of the estimated 30,000 insurgents, according to the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

The report came as President Bush said a pullout of US forces would embolden America's enemies, allowing the Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden "to dominate the Middle East and launch more attacks on America and other free nations". [complete article]

See the CSIS report, Saudi militants in Iraq (PDF).

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A web of faith, law and science in evolution suit
By Laurie Goldstein, New York Times, September 26, 2005

Sheree Hied, a mother of five who believes that God created the earth and its creatures, was grateful when her school board here voted last year to require high school biology classes to hear about "alternatives" to evolution, including the theory known as intelligent design.

But 11 other parents in Dover were outraged enough to sue the school board and the district, contending that intelligent design - the idea that living organisms are so inexplicably complex, the best explanation is that a higher being designed them - is a Trojan horse for religion in the public schools.

With the new political empowerment of religious conservatives, challenges to evolution are popping up with greater frequency in schools, courts and legislatures. But the Dover case, which begins Monday in Federal District Court in Harrisburg, is the first direct challenge to a school district that has tried to mandate the teaching of intelligent design.

What happens here could influence communities across the country that are considering whether to teach intelligent design in the public schools, and the case, regardless of the verdict, could end up before the Supreme Court. [complete article]

See also, New analyses bolster central tenets of evolution theory (WP).

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Fresh Israeli air strikes on Gaza
BBC News, Septeber 26, 2005

Israel has continued air strikes on the Gaza Strip, hours after Palestinian militant group Hamas announced that it was ending rocket attacks on Israel.

Israel said it was targeting premises used to store or produce arms. No serious casualties were reported.

The Hamas announcement came after Palestinian militants in Gaza fired dozens of rockets into Israel. [complete article]

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Likud displaying signs of a ruling party imploding
By Daniel Ben Simon, Haaretz, September 26, 2005

On Sunday, for the first time in years, the Likud displayed the signs of a ruling party in the process of imploding. Thousands of central committee members who came to the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds on Sunday paced the lawns and paths like people facing the specter of losing an election. The contest that Benjamin Netanyahu forced upon the party's chairman has torn the movement in two and pitted member against member, as if they were genuine enemies. During the committee meeting, members cursed each other and accused each other of destroying the party.

When hundreds of members walked out at the start of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's speech, Nehemia Lahav had trouble believing his eyes. In his 42 years as a Likud member, he has never seen hatred this deep among the party's ranks. "I've attended central committee meetings and witnessed other battles, but I've never seen anything like what is happening now," he said. [complete article]

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New guns, new drive for Taliban
By Scott Baldauf and Ashraf Khan, Christian Science Monitor, September 26, 2005

An internal debate within the Taliban - whether to launch increasingly aggressive attacks against the US-led coalition or to allow the insurgency to bleed the Afghan government over time - has been settled this year, according to a rebel commander and Afghan security officials.

In the most violent year of their insurgency to date, the Taliban have gone on the offensive, launching more pitched battles in an effort to persuade the international community and Afghans that this remains very much a nation at war, says Mullah Gul Mohammad, a front-line commander for Jaish-e Muslimeen, a recently reconciled Taliban splinter group.

"For the past many days we [the Taliban and the Jaish] have been fighting together against our common enemies," says Mullah Mohammad, who says he traveled from Afghanistan to Chaman, Pakistan, for an interview. The insurgents are flush with new weapons - including surface-to-air missiles - and cash, he says, and are pausing only to see if the US military decides to draw down forces following the Sept. 18 parliamentary elections. "If they stay, we would launch our attacks anew." [complete article]

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Wrong way in Iraq
Editorial, Washington Post, September 25, 2005

As Iraq moves toward a referendum on its new constitution just three weeks from now, many of its senior politicians readily concede that the charter is seriously flawed, and that its approval may worsen rather than alleviate the relentless violence. Leaders of neighboring Arab states and some Bush administration officials seem to share this view. Yet none of these officials or leaders has been willing or able to stop the political process from going forward. Some, like Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, speak hopefully of fixing the constitution by adding an annex between now and Oct. 15. Others, including senior Bush administration officials, more realistically look past the referendum to parliamentary elections at the end of the year. These, they hope, will produce a different and more representative group of Iraqis able to settle the many conflicts that the constitution leaves unresolved.

Faced with sinking domestic support, the Bush administration seems driven by an unwise zeal to produce visible results in Iraq -- such as a ratified constitution -- however problematic they may be. At best, administration policymakers are calculating that moving forward with the referendum offers better odds of eventual success than trying to stop and start over. Yet, judging from what even supportive Iraqis are saying, the risk is very great that the constitutional process will either tip Iraq decisively toward civil war or produce a state far from the goal of a tolerant democracy for which nearly 2,000 Americans have given their lives. [complete article]

Comment -- Astute up to the last line, the Post's editorial writers stumble when they express hope about rescuing "the American mission."

"Failure is not an option" is a rallying cry now favored by Iraqi politicians, but for them -- unlike their American counterparts -- failure most likely means demise or exile. The way forward for America, however, may actually depend on a few officials (most likely unelected, preferably from the Pentagon) standing up and declaring that this mission is a failure. That doesn't mean saying, we failed - let's bail out; it means saying that what we thought we could accomplish on our own now requires help (and a great deal of it) from others. It means giving up the idea that this is an American mission.

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Preventing the war
By Paul Woodward, The War in Context, September 24, 2005

My comment, Ending the war?, disturbed, antagonized or disappointed quite a number of readers here, so for the sake of clarity I need to say more.

To say, "End the war - bring the troops home now," is to imply that withdrawing foreign troops from Iraq is the means that will result in the goal of ending the war.

If the presence of American troops in Iraq is the principal cause for the continuation of the war, bringing the troops home now would naturally result in the end of the war.

Some people might think it's that simple, though for many others I suspect the phrase "end the war" is really just a figure of speech. "End the war" probably means "end America's involvement in the war in Iraq. If the Iraqis want to carry on fighting, that's their choice."

While I don't dispute that the occupation of Iraq is fueling what is in part a nationalist insurgency, the driving force behind most of the violence in Iraq is a struggle about the distribution of power in Iraqi society. In as much as America and Britain are generally perceived as having aligned themselves with the interests of the Shia and Kurdish communities, coalition forces are partisans in the conflict. Nevertheless, the struggle will continue whether American troops are present or absent. The key question is: What would it take to steer this from a violent to a non-violent struggle?

For a long time the Bush administration held up the promise of a turning point - the formation of an interim government, holding elections, the formation of a transitional government, the drafting of a constitution. At each of these junctures we were supposed to catch a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel. Eventually, even the most ardent supporters of the war lost faith in these predictions and so the strategy of "staying the course" has come down to a promise that "as Iraqis stand up, we will stand down."

The irony now is this: Most supporters and opponents of the war seem to have reached the same conclusion. The end of the war is nowhere in sight. The only disagreement seems to be about how fast America and Britain should pull out.

Earlier this week, The Guardian reported on British plans for an "exit ticket" and quoted an official saying, "We will settle for leaving behind an Iraqi democracy that is creaking along."

In everyone's eagerness to get out of Iraq the most urgent question is being avoided: What can be done to prevent a full-blown civil war? As dreadful as conditions already are, they can easily get much, much worse.

Some observers glibly say that Iraq is merely a colonial invention that was destined to fracture. But the reality on the ground does not lend itself to the neat construction of a Shia-Sunni-Kurdish federation. Editorialists can easily write that "Sunni Arabs need to accept the reality that Iraq is no longer theirs to rule," but the fact is that currently there really is no ruling power - that's why the war continues. A resolution to the conflict - if one can be found - will need to involve every faction that's willing to talk. It won't come from a hastily drafted constitution or a rapid withdrawal of troops.

Since most of the troops are fresh-faced kids who probably hadn't a clue what they were signing up for, I share the sentiment that they should be brought home. But bringing the troops home isn't the same as ending the war. Whether it would bring the end of the war closer is open for debate, though as I've already made clear, I don't think it would. I am however absolutely confident of one thing: When there are no more American soldiers in Iraq, the American media and the American public will gladly turn their attention to domestic concerns (some pressing, but many trivial) and if the streets of Baghdad are then flowing with blood, as with most other conflict-torn regions of the world, we will take comfort in the knowledge that this is not American blood. The difference this time - and it's a thought that should unsettle the conscience of any thinking person - is that we lit the fuse. Knowing that we bear a huge responsibility for the ongoing conflict does not imply that we know how to end it; it simply means that we can't disown it.

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For many, anger has grown since start of war
By Carol Morello, Washington Post, September 25, 2005

John McNamara never believed the 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified, but as a soldier in an Army transportation unit, he dutifully took part in a war he did not support.

When he left Iraq six months later, he was just happy that he survived.

Now out of the military, McNamara donned his desert camouflage uniform again yesterday to march against the war in which he served.

"Being part of something I didn't agree with didn't sit well in my stomach," said McNamara, 25, of Boston, carrying one corner of a banner for a small, fledgling group called Iraq Veterans Against the War. "Joining this protest, it is the only way I can help end it. It feels good." [complete article]

See also, Katrina and Cindy blow into town (Tom Engelhardt), Antiwar fervor fills the streets (WP) and Democrats still fear dissent on Iraq (Joan Vennochi).

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Britain to pull troops from Iraq as Blair says 'don't force me out'
By Peter Beaumont and Gaby Hinsliff, The Observer, September 25, 2005

British troops will start a major withdrawal from Iraq next May under detailed plans on military disengagement to be published next month, The Observer can reveal.

The document being drawn up by the British government and the US will be presented to the Iraqi parliament in October and will spark fresh controversy over how long British troops will stay in the country. Tony Blair hopes that, despite continuing and widespread violence in Iraq, the move will show that there is progress following the conflict of 2003.

Britain has already privately informed Japan - which also has troops in Iraq - of its plans to begin withdrawing from southern Iraq in May, a move that officials in Tokyo say would make it impossible for their own 550 soldiers to remain. [complete article]

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Report: U.S. image in bad shape
By Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright, Washington Post, September 24, 2005

As Karen Hughes, longtime presidential adviser and new public diplomacy guru at the State Department, prepares to leave this weekend on a "listening tour" of the Middle East, a congressionally mandated advisory panel to the department warned that "America's image and reputation abroad could hardly be worse."

The panel's report, which has been seen by senior officials but not yet officially released, said a fact-finding mission to the Middle East last year found that "there is deep and abiding anger toward U.S. policies and actions." The Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy cited polling that found that large majorities in Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia "view George W. Bush as a greater threat to the world order than Osama bin Laden." [complete article]

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The broken contract
By Michael Ignatieff, New York Times, September 25, 2005

A contract of citizenship defines the duties of care that public officials owe to the people of a democratic society. The Constitution defines some parts of this contract, and statutes define other parts, but much of it is a tacit understanding that citizens have about what to expect from their government. Its basic term is protection: helping citizens to protect their families and possessions from forces beyond their control. Let's not suppose this contract is uncontroversial. American politics is a furious argument about what should be in the contract and what shouldn't be. But there is enough agreement, most of the time, about what the contract contains for America to hold together as a political community. When disasters strike, they test whether the contract is respected in a citizen's hour of need. When the levees broke, the contract of American citizenship failed.

The most striking feature of the catastrophe is not that the contract didn't hold. That is now too obvious to argue about. Many municipal, state and federal officials, elected and appointed, forgot the duty of care they owed to their fellow citizens. Some fled when they should have stayed at their posts. Some promised help they could not deliver. Some failed to rise to the terrible occasion. All of this is now well documented. What has not been noticed is that the people with the most articulate understanding of what the contract of American citizenship entails were the poor, abandoned, hungry people huddled in the stinking darkness of the New Orleans convention center.

"We are American," a woman at the convention center proclaimed on television. She spoke with scathing anger, but also with astonishment that she should be required to remind Americans of such a simple fact. She - not the governor, not the mayor, not the president - understood that the catastrophe was a test of the bonds of citizenship and that the government had failed the test. [complete article]

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Rita's revelation
By Christopher Dickey, Newsweek, September 23, 2005

Acts of God are on everyone's mind just now. They're forcing mass evacuations, inundating cities, driving up the cost of gasoline, weakening the economy, undermining the war effort in Iraq. The Almighty is so often on the tongue of politicians these days, both American and foreign, that invocations of the divine have started to sound like little more than boilerplate. Of course, over the years, few politicians have called on God more often or more automatically than the leaders in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

So when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke to the United Nations last Saturday, it shouldn't have surprised anybody that his language was fit for a Revolutionary Guard revival meeting. Peace and tranquility depend on "justice and spirituality," he kept saying. "Faith will prove to be the solution to many of today's problems." You might hear the same pieties from our own zealous politicos. But here's the problem: on the question of nuclear proliferation -- a very big question indeed -- Iran's fundamentalists seem to have a clearer sense of fundamental realities that ours do. [complete article]

See also, U.N. body cites Iran on nuclear program (WP).

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Global warming? You better believe it
By Derrick Z. Jackson, Boston Globe, September 24, 2005

As the media screams about the one-two punch of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the question becomes how many more times does America need to be knocked to the canvas before we answer the bell on global warming.

The only talk from our leaders is about rebuilding. In his address to the nation from a ghostly New Orleans, President Bush said, "When one resident of this city who lost his home was asked by a reporter if he would relocate, he said, 'Naw, I will rebuild but I'll build higher.' That is our vision of the future, in this city and beyond. We will not just rebuild, we will build higher and better."

It figures that Bush would talk about building higher in the lowest city in the United States, in a presidency where he has ignored the rising waters of the planet. He said, "Americans have never left our destiny to the whims of nature and we will not start now."

Actually, there is no better time to start understanding that nature is at the mercy of our whimsy. Our destiny depends on it. [complete article]

See also, Early snowmelts heating Alaska Arctic: study (Reuters).

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New Orleans: Prisoners abandoned to floodwaters
Human Rights Watch, September 22, 2005

As Hurricane Katrina began pounding New Orleans, the sheriff's department abandoned hundreds of inmates imprisoned in the city's jail, Human Rights Watch said today.
Inmates in Templeman III, one of several buildings in the Orleans Parish Prison compound, reported that as of Monday, August 29, there were no correctional officers in the building, which held more than 600 inmates. These inmates, including some who were locked in ground-floor cells, were not evacuated until Thursday, September 1, four days after flood waters in the jail had reached chest-level.

"Of all the nightmares during Hurricane Katrina, this must be one of the worst," said Corinne Carey, researcher from Human Rights Watch. "Prisoners were abandoned in their cells without food or water for days as floodwaters rose toward the ceiling."

Human Rights Watch called on the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct an investigation into the conduct of the Orleans Sheriff's Department, which runs the jail, and to establish the fate of the prisoners who had been locked in the jail. The Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, which oversaw the evacuation, and the Orleans Sheriff's Department should account for the 517 inmates who are missing from the list of people evacuated from the jail. [complete article]

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New reports surface about detainee abuse
By Josh White, Washington Post, September 24, 2005

Two soldiers and an officer with the Army's 82nd Airborne Division have told a human rights organization of systemic detainee abuse and human rights violations at U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, recounting beatings, forced physical exertion and psychological torture of prisoners, the group said.

A 30-page report by Human Rights Watch describes an Army captain's 17-month effort to gain clear understanding of how U.S. soldiers were supposed to treat detainees, and depicts his frustration with what he saw as widespread abuse that the military's leadership failed to address. The Army officer made clear that he believes low-ranking soldiers have been held responsible for abuse to cover for officers who condoned it. [complete article]

See the HRW report, Leadership failure.

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Up for grabs: The Shiite keystone of Iraq
By James Glanz, New York Times, September 25, 2005

The funnel-shaped southern region of Iraq contains energy, water and strategic wealth without parallel anywhere else in the country; in fact, some analysts think Iraq would not be a viable nation without it.

But when British military forces clashed with members of a Shiite militia called the Mahdi Army in Basra last week, the confrontation made plain how far the south's most important city has slipped from the control of political leaders in Baghdad and into the hands of warlords and local religious chiefs. [complete article]

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British special ops in secret war against Iranian agents
By Michael Smith and Ali Rifat, The Sunday Times, September 25, 2005

Two SAS soldiers rescued last week after being arrested by Iraqi police and handed over to a militia were engaged in a "secret war" against insurgents bringing sophisticated bombs into the country from Iran.

The men had left their base near the southern Iraqi city of Basra to carry out reconnaissance and supply a second patrol with "more tools and fire power", said a source with knowledge of their activities.

They had been in Basra for seven weeks on an operation prompted by intelligence that a new type of roadside bomb which has been used against British troops was among weapons being smuggled over the Iranian border. [complete article]

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U.S.-Shia clash erupts in Baghdad
BBC News, September 25, 2005

Four militiamen loyal to Iraq's radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr have been killed in clashes with US forces in Baghdad overnight, Iraqi officials say.

It is the first such fighting since a rebellion by supporters of the cleric ended more than a year ago. The US military confirmed it had fought "anti-Iraqi forces" in eastern Baghdad. [complete article]

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The twilight world of the Iraqi news stringer
By James Glanz, New York Times, September 25, 2005

We were investigating a terror cell responsible for beheadings and assassinations. Although it was my first job with this Iraqi stringer, he was proving quite efficient in his various roles as translator, reporter and "fixer," or facilitator: He had worked through a good friend, he said, to score us an interview with an Iraqi government intelligence source who would illuminate the workings of the cell from the inside.

It came as a surprise, then, when the stringer, or locally hired journalist, was not allowed to sit through the interview itself. Later, the feeling changed to deep discomfort when the man described as a friend took me aside, clearly with official approval, closed a big set of ornate wooden doors behind us and delivered these simple but chilling words: "How well do you know the background of your translator?"

Finally, as the "friend" laid out a detailed but ultimately implausible theory that the stringer might be linked in some distant way to the terror cell itself, the ground shifted again: I wondered if I was being used to pass a warning to an enterprising Iraqi that not all of his reporting had been appreciated by officialdom. [complete article]

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Bush plea for cash to rebuild Iraq raises $600
By Mark Townsend, The Observer, September 25, 2005

An extraordinary appeal to Americans from the Bush administration for money to help pay for the reconstruction of Iraq has raised only $600 (£337), The Observer has learnt. Yet since the appeal was launched earlier this month, donations to rebuild New Orleans have attracted hundreds of millions of dollars.

The public's reluctance to contribute much more than the cost of two iPods to the administration's attempt to offer citizens 'a further stake in building a free and prosperous Iraq' has been seized on by critics as evidence of growing ambivalence over that country. [complete article]

See also, Hundreds not thousands join pro-Iraq war rally (CNN).

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Israel widens anti-militant raids
BBC News, September 25, 2005

Israel has stepped up its response to rocket strikes from the Gaza Strip, threatening a prolonged attack "without restrictions" on Palestinian militants.

Israeli aircraft launched a series of overnight air raids, injuring several people, and arrested more than 200 suspected militants in the West Bank.

The escalation of violence comes only a fortnight after Israel's military withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. [complete article]

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Noteworthy articles from the last seven days:

Sorry, Mr President, homilies won't stop the hurricanes
By Jeremy Rifkin, The Guardian, September 23, 2005

Iran knocks Europe out - again
By Pepe Escobar, Asia Times, September 24, 2005

A.Q. Khan: From patriot to proliferator
By Douglas Frantz, Los Angeles Times, September 23, 2005

Radical roots take hold in southern Iraq
By Timothy M. Phelps, Newsday, September 21, 2005

Iran makes North Korea look easy
By Tyler Marshall and Alissa J. Rubin, Los Angeles Times, September 22, 2005

To say we must stay in Iraq to save it from chaos is a lie
By Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, September 21, 2005

The secret history of U.S. mistakes, misjudgments and intelligence failures that let the Iraqi dictator and his allies launch an insurgency now ripping Iraq apart
By Joe Klein, Time, September 18, 2005

This is a mess of our own making
By Fmr. Col. Tim Collins, The Observer, September 18, 2005

Al-Qaeda's slaughter has one aim: civil war
By Peter Beaumont, The Observer, September 18, 2005

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