The War in Context  
  Iraq + war on terrorism + Middle East conflict + critical perspectives     
Shia accuse U.S. forces of appeasing insurgents as attacks kill 11 soldiers
By Kim Sengupta, The Independent, January 7, 2006

US forces have suffered one of the highest daily casualty rates at the hands of the Iraq insurgency, with 11 troops killed.

Meanwhile yesterday, thousands of Shia Muslims marched in protest through Baghdad, accusing the Americans of hindering the war against insurgents in their attempt to appease the Sunni community.

The American deaths, in Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi, came during a renewed offensive by insurgents which also saw two devastating suicide bombings that claimed 120 lives.

The main Shia party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), raised the spectre of an outright descent into civil war, warning that the continuing sectarian attacks by Sunnis would force Shia retaliation. [complete article]

See also, Anger vies with calls for calm (LAT).

Juan Cole

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Americans said to meet rebels, exploiting rift
By Dexter Filkins and Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times, January 7, 2006

American officials are talking with local Iraqi insurgent leaders to exploit a rift that has opened between homegrown insurgents and radical groups like Al Qaeda, and to draw the local leaders into the political process, according to a Western diplomat, an Iraqi political leader and an Iraqi insurgent leader.

Clashes between Iraqi groups and Al Qaeda have broken out in several cities across the Sunni Triangle, including Taji, Yusefiya, Qaim and Ramadi, and they appear to have intensified in recent months, according to interviews with insurgents and with American and Iraqi officials.

In an interview on Friday, a Western diplomat who supports the talks said that the Americans had opened face-to-face discussions with insurgents in the field, and that they were communicating with senior insurgent leaders through intermediaries.

The diplomat said the goal was to take advantage of rifts in the insurgency, particularly between local groups, whose main goal is to expel American forces, and the more radical groups, like Al Qaeda, which have alienated many Iraqis by the mass killing of Iraqi civilians. [complete article]

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As Sharon ails, Palestinians face own travails
By Steven Erlanger, New York Times, January 7, 2006

The sudden political disappearance of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, struggling for life after a massive stroke, has thrown the future of any peace process with the Palestinians into question. But the Palestinian Authority itself is in such disarray that it may be incapable of negotiating on terms any Israeli leader could accept.

There is spreading chaos, a sense of deterioration and growing concern among both Palestinians and Israelis that the Palestinian Authority, nearly bankrupt and facing a huge budget deficit, may look like a failed state even before it becomes one.

Life for ordinary Palestinians is becoming harder, with less security and optimism than a year ago. The Israelis pulled out of Gaza - a thrilling moment for many Palestinians - but the territory has become practically lawless, not a model for a future state, and Palestinian voters seem set to punish the divided Fatah movement that monopolizes the Palestinian Authority. [complete article]

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Nearly 100, LSD's father ponders his 'problem child'
By Craig Smith, New York Times, January 7, 2006

Albert Hofmann, the father of LSD, walked slowly across the small corner office of his modernist home on a grassy Alpine hilltop here, hoping to show a visitor the vista that sweeps before him on clear days. But outside there was only a white blanket of fog hanging just beyond the crest of the hill. He picked up a photograph of the view on his desk instead, left there perhaps to convince visitors of what really lies beyond the windowpane.

Mr. Hofmann will turn 100 on Wednesday, a milestone to be marked by a symposium in nearby Basel on the chemical compound that he discovered and that famously unlocked the Blakean doors of perception, altering consciousnesses around the world. As the years accumulate behind him, Mr. Hofmann's conversation turns ever more insistently around one theme: man's oneness with nature and the dangers of an increasing inattention to that fact.

"It's very, very dangerous to lose contact with living nature," he said, listing to the right in a green armchair that looked out over frost-dusted fields and snow-laced trees. A glass pitcher held a bouquet of roses on the coffee table before him. "In the big cities, there are people who have never seen living nature, all things are products of humans," he said. "The bigger the town, the less they see and understand nature." And, yes, he said, LSD, which he calls his "problem child," could help reconnect people to the universe. [complete article]

An online edition of Albert Hoffman's book, LSD - My Problem Child, can be read here.

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NSA: Amanpour, other CNN reporters not targeted for surveillance
By David Ensor, CNN, January 7, 2006

A senior U.S. intelligence official told CNN on Thursday that the National Security Agency did not target CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour or any other CNN journalist for surveillance.

NBC raised the question in an interview with The New York Times reporter James Risen, asking him whether he knew anything about possible surveillance of Amanpour by the NSA. Risen, author of a new book, "State of War: the Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration," said he had not heard anything about it. [complete article]

Comment -- I know this might put a damper on some of the blog chatter, but maybe we'd get a bit more light and less heat on this issue if Andrea Mitchell took an unprecidented step in the history of journalism, pulled the curtain back and explained why she asked the question. Or would she prefer to borrow a line from Scott McClellan and say, "NBC cannot comment on this matter while we are engaged in an ongoing investigation"?


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Pentagon study links fatalities to body armor
By Michael Moss, New York Times, January 7, 2006

A secret Pentagon study has found that as many as 80 percent of the marines who have been killed in Iraq from wounds to the upper body could have survived if they had had extra body armor. Such armor has been available since 2003, but until recently the Pentagon has largely declined to supply it to troops despite calls from the field for additional protection, according to military officials.

The ceramic plates in vests now worn by the majority of troops in Iraq cover only some of the chest and back. In at least 74 of the 93 fatal wounds that were analyzed in the Pentagon study of marines from March 2003 through June 2005, bullets and shrapnel struck the marines' shoulders, sides or areas of the torso where the plates do not reach.

Thirty-one of the deadly wounds struck the chest or back so close to the plates that simply enlarging the existing shields "would have had the potential to alter the fatal outcome," according to the study, which was obtained by The New York Times. [complete article]

Defense Tech

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Inquiry says FBI erred in implicating man in attack
By David Stout, New York Times, January 7, 2006

Overconfidence in its own fingerprint-identification technology and sloppy paperwork contributed to the F.B.I.'s wrongly implicating a Portland, Ore., lawyer in the deadly 2004 Madrid train bombing, a Justice Department investigation said Friday.

But the investigation, by the department's inspector general's office, said there had been no misconduct by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and no abuse of the antiterrorism USA Patriot Act in the case of the lawyer, Brandon Mayfield.

Mr. Mayfield was jailed for two weeks in May 2004 as a material witness before he was cleared.

Although Mr. Mayfield's Islamic faith was not a factor in the initial stages of the bombing investigation, when F.B.I. technicians erroneously concluded that a print found on a plastic bag near the Madrid attack scene matched one of Mr. Mayfield's, it may have slowed his ultimate exoneration, the Justice Department inquiry found. [complete article]

Comment -- A part of this story that doesn't seem to have been given enough attention is the fact that Mayfield's fingerprints were identifiable in the first place. Presumably his prints were already in the IAFIS database containing 47 million criminal prints, along with an unspecified number of civil prints. Whether he provided his fingerprints when he entered the military, for a criminal background check or for some other reason, I have no idea. Although there's obviously a civil liberties argument that only the fingerprints of convicted felons should be kept in the IAFIS database, a broader (and I would say more compelling) issue is that inclusion in the database is discriminatory. Anyone who goes through immigration processing to become a permanent resident or naturalized citizen must provide fingerprints, and now anyone visiting the US must go through the US VISIT program and be photographed and printed. A non-discriminatory policy would not discriminate between citizens and non-citizens. Instead, law enforsement is making use of a checking system that is being expanded through opportunistic methods. Meanwhile, there is still debate about the fundamental reliability of fingerprint analysis.

Talk Left

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Evangelical leaders criticize Pat Robertson
By Larry B. Stammer, Los Angeles Times, January 7, 2006

Evangelical leaders said Friday that they were embarrassed and incensed by televangelist Pat Robertson's assertion that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had suffered a massive stroke, was stricken by God as punishment for ceding the Gaza Strip and a portion of the West Bank to Palestinians last summer.

Officials of conservative Christian churches and organizations suggested that Robertson was losing religious and political influence as a result of his remarks on Sharon and other recent controversial comments.

"I'm appalled that Pat Robertson would make such statements. He ought to know better," said Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest U.S. Protestant denomination. [complete article]

See also, White House denounces Robertson's remarks on Sharon (WP).

The Washington Note

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Report rebuts Bush on spying
By Carol D. Leonnig, Washington Post, January 7, 2006

A report by Congress's research arm concluded yesterday that the administration's justification for the warrantless eavesdropping authorized by President Bush conflicts with existing law and hinges on weak legal arguments.

The Congressional Research Service's report rebuts the central assertions made recently by Bush and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales about the president's authority to order secret intercepts of telephone and e-mail exchanges between people inside the United States and their contacts abroad.

The findings, the first nonpartisan assessment of the program's legality to date, prompted Democratic lawmakers and civil liberties advocates to repeat calls yesterday for Congress to conduct hearings on the monitoring program and attempt to halt it.

The 44-page report said that Bush probably cannot claim the broad presidential powers he has relied upon as authority to order the secret monitoring of calls made by U.S. citizens since the fall of 2001. Congress expressly intended for the government to seek warrants from a special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before engaging in such surveillance when it passed legislation creating the court in 1978, the CRS report said. [complete article]

Read the CRS report [PDF].

Daily Kos.

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Sharon rushed back to operating theater for emergency surgery
By Steven Erlanger, New York Times, January 6, 2006

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was rushed back to the operating theater Friday morning when doctors detected new bleeding in his brain. [complete article]

Olmert meets Peres to discuss continuing Sharon's policies
By Mazal Mualem, Haaretz, January 6, 2006

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with MK Shimon Peres on Friday morning to discuss continuing the policies Ariel Sharon began, Peres told reporters after the meeting.

The policies include "an unhesitating war on terror, as well as an unending effort in the direction of the peace process," he said. Peres said everyone sees Sharon as a key figure, not just because of what he has done, but because of the hope that he would have been able to continue along the same path. [complete article]

Without Sharon, Bush's Mideast path uncertain
By Tyler Marshall and Laura King, Los Angeles Times, January 6, 2006

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke has left a gaping hole in the Bush administration's approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and stabilizing the broader Middle East.

For much of President Bush's tenure, U.S. policy in the dispute has been shaped more by Sharon's ideas than any other factor. [complete article]

Centrist cause in Israel seeks new leader
By Scott Wilson, Washington Post, January 6, 2006

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon forged a new centrist movement among Israelis who embraced his push to give up land occupied in war, but his massive stroke just months before national elections has left the electorate with no obvious party or politician to continue what he began. [complete article]

Opinion -- The strong man (David Grossman and Karma Nabulsi), Facing youthful dreams (Tom Segev), and What Sharon did (Christopher Hitchens).

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11 U.S. troops killed in one day in Iraq
By Jason Strazusio, AP (via Yahoo), January 6, 2006

The U.S. military on Friday announced the deaths of six more American troops killed in the recent barrage of violence that has swept Iraq, bringing to 11 the number of troops slain on the same day.

A U.S. Marine and soldier died in the attack by a suicide bomber who infiltrated a line of police recruits in Ramadi on Thursday, killing at least 58 and wounding dozens. Two soldiers were also killed in the Baghdad area when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb, the military said Friday.

In addition, two U.S. Marines were killed by separate small arms attacks while conducting combat operations in Fallujah, the military said. [complete article]

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3 GOP senators blast Bush bid to bypass torture ban
By Charlie Savage, Boston Globe, January 6, 2006

Three key Republican senators yesterday condemned President Bush's assertion that his powers as commander in chief give him the authority to bypass a new law restricting the use of torture when interrogating detainees.

John W. Warner Jr., a Virginia Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, issued a joint statement rejecting Bush's assertion that he can waive the restrictions on the use of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment against detainees to protect national security.

"We believe the president understands Congress's intent in passing, by very large majorities, legislation governing the treatment of detainees," the senators said. "The Congress declined when asked by administration officials to include a presidential waiver of the restrictions included in our legislation. Our committee intends through strict oversight to monitor the administration's implementation of the new law."

Separately, the third primary sponsor of the detainee treatment law, Senator Lindsey O. Graham, Republican of South Carolina, told the Globe in a phone interview that he agreed with everything McCain and Warner said "and would go a little bit further." [complete article]

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Voices from history echo anew
By Jim VandeHei, Washington Post, January 6, 2006

President Bush summoned most of the living former secretaries of state and defense to the White House yesterday for what participants described as a cordial but pointed discussion about the future of Iraq. [complete article]

Comment -- Vacuous, low-risk PR! I'm sure that a few White House staffers felt perversely and smuggly confident that there was little risk that any of the participants in this exercise was going to shock anyone with any bold new ideas.

Brad DeLong.

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End this evasion on permanent army bases in Iraq
By Gary Hart, Financial Times (via Huffington Post), January 4, 2006

It has been the dream of Republican neoconservatives at least since 1998 - and probably years before - to overthrow Saddam Hussein and to use the new client state of Iraq as the US's military and political base from which to pacify the complex and troubled Middle East. Leaving aside the plausibility of this notion, it is not one with which the great American leaders of history would have identified and certainly not one they would have attempted to carry out in secret.

Having failed in this enterprise, as some of us predicted, the question is: what now? There is still the possibility that a central remnant of this secret scheme may yet be salvaged. Surprisingly, the trick has drawn little attention from the American audience. It is to help install at least the semblance of a "democratic" government in Baghdad, even one that in author Fareed Zakaria's perceptive term is an illiberal democracy; to construct permanent US military bases at strategic points throughout the country and then persuade the new "democratic" government to invite us to stay. [complete article]

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Cheney's Cheney
By David Ignatius, Washington Post, January 6, 2006

Who is David Addington? The simple answer is that he's Vice President Cheney's former legal counsel and, since the indictment and resignation of Scooter Libby in October, Cheney's chief of staff. But behind the scenes, the polite but implacable Addington has been a chief advocate for the interrogation and surveillance policies that have created a legal crisis for the Bush administration.

Addington, 48, is in many ways Cheney's Cheney. Like his boss, he has exercised immense power without leaving many fingerprints. He operates with a decorous, low-key manner, but colleagues say he can intimidate and sometimes bully opponents. Though working out of the relative obscurity of the vice president's office, he has been able to impose his will on Cabinet secretaries and other senior administration officials. His influence rests on two pillars: his unyielding conviction that the powers of the president cannot be abridged in wartime, and the total support he receives from Cheney. [complete article]

Read more about David Addington here(Source Watch).

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Iran's abrupt no-show stuns atomic negotiators
By Elaine Sciolino, New York Times(IHT), January 6, 2006

Iran threw negotiations on its nuclear program into disarray Thursday, abruptly canceling a high-level meeting with the United Nations' nuclear monitoring agency in Vienna as the head of Iran's negotiating team was said to have returned home to Tehran.

The unexpected turn of events stunned and frustrated both International Atomic Energy Agency officials and foreign diplomats. They scrambled to make sense of the Iranian no-show at the meeting, which was scheduled so that Iran could explain in detail its formal decision to restart sensitive nuclear research and development activities Monday. [complete article]

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U.S. ambassador escapes Taliban suicide bomb
By Declan Walsh, The Guardian, January 6, 2006

The US ambassador fled a central Afghan town after a Taliban suicide bomber killed 10 people and wounded 50, further stoking fears of an Iraqi influence on the escalating insurgency.

Ronald E Neumann was not hurt when a man exploded a landmine strapped to his body about one mile from the governor's office in Tirin Kot, capital of Uruzgan province.

American bodyguards bundled him into a small room for 15 minutes before whisking him away, said the deputy governor, Abdul Aziz. The provincial police chief was critically wounded in the attack.

A purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Mohammad Yousuf, named a local Talib, Abdul Rahim, as the attacker. "Our intention was to kill the US ambassador," he told Reuters by satellite phone. [complete article]

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'Mafia State'
By Christopher Dickey, Newsweek, January 5, 2006

The cold blue eyes of Abdel Halim Khaddam shed no tears for Ariel Sharon this afternoon. For more three decades, Khaddam was the right-hand man of Syrian dictator Hafez Assad in open wars and diplomatic showdowns with Israel, often turning Lebanon into the main battleground. Sharon's drive on Beirut in 1982 handed the Syrians a stunning defeat. But Syria slowly won its vengeance, supporting Hizbullah's relentless campaign of terror and attrition -- a war that has never really ended. "As far as Sharon is concerned, his death or disappearance will not change anything," Khaddam told Newsweek after the Israeli prime minister suffered a major stroke. "The difference between the Israeli factions is less one of substance than of degree. There will [at most] be a change in the map of Israeli political alliances." He sees no chance of negotiations or peace agreements any time soon.

Yet this same Abdel Halim Khaddam, who continued to serve as Syria's vice president after Bashar Assad inherited the top job from his father in June 2000, is now presenting himself as the man who might help replace the much-hated and increasingly isolated regime in Damascus. Last summer Khaddam left Syria for exile in France. Until last week, he said nothing in public. But in the last few days, from a luxurious townhouse in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods of Paris, Khaddam has gone public with vague plans to bring democracy to Syria and with specific accusations against the regime he once served. [complete article]

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Bush slams Arabic TV
Ajazeera, January 6, 2006

George Bush, the US president, has criticised Arabic television for giving a false impression of the United States - but admitted that Americans needed to do a better job of communicating their ideals.

Launching a National Security Language Initiative to boost the teaching of foreign languages, Bush said it was a way to help combat the notion that the United States was bullying in imposing its concept of freedom.

"You can't convince people unless you can talk to them," Bush told a State Department audience.

The language initiative, which aims to boost learning of Russian, Chinese, Hindi, Farsi, Arabic and other languages, was part of a strategic plan to protect the United States and spread democracy, Bush said.

"You can't figure out America when you're looking on some of these TV stations - you just can't - particularly given the message that they spread," he said. "Arabic TV does not do our country justice." [complete article]

See also, Foreign-language learning promoted (WP).

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Iraq blasts kill at least 130 Iraqis, 5 U.S. soldiers
By Nelson Hernandez and Saad Sarhan, Washington Post, January 5, 2006

Suicide bombers carried out twin assaults Thursday on one of Shiite Islam's most sacred sites and a police recruitment center, killing at least 130 people and wounding hundreds.

Five American soldiers were also killed by a roadside bomb in the capital, the U.S. military said.

The attacks on the Shiite holy city of Karbala, about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad, and Ramadi, the capital of Iraq's Sunni-dominated Anbar province in the west, contributed to what was one of the bloodiest days since the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003. [complete article]

See also, Violence in Iraq should decrease this year, U.S. general says (AFP).

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America's waning clout in Iraq
By Jill Carroll and Dan Murphy, Christian Science Monitor, January 5, 2006

As the weight of the Shiite Islamist victory in Iraq's election is still being calculated, US influence in the country - in reconstruction, security, and politics - is steadily receding.

While a diminished US role in Iraqi affairs was inevitable, the speed of the retreat raises some risks to the establishing of a stable, US-friendly Iraq. The Shiite parties that dominated the vote in December have closer affinity to Iran than to the US. At the same time, the Bush administration is planning sharp cuts in reconstruction aid, a major point of leverage in Iraqi affairs.

"I think it's pretty clear our influence is waning as far as agenda setting," says Noah Feldman, a law professor at New York University and a former top US adviser on the writing of Iraq's Constitution. [complete article]

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Sharon to be on respirator, deep sedation at least 24 hours
By Yoav Stern, Jonathan Lis, Aluf Benn and Tamara Traubman, Haaretz, January 5, 2006

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will remain under heavy sedation and on a respirator for at least 24 more hours, and continues to be in serious if stable condition, the director of director of Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem, Jerusalem said Thursday.

Neurosurgeons had fought to stabilize Sharon's condition and stop new bleeding detected in his brain Thursday morning, more than eight hours after the prime minister was rushed into emergency surgery having suffered an "extensive" stroke and a massive brain hemorrhage. [complete article]

Era of uncertainty to begin for Israel and Middle East
By Donald Macintyre, The Independent, January 5, 2006

[Sharon's] absence will throw up even more imponderables than his presence ever did. And nowhere more so than on the question of a lasting peace with the Palestinians. Before Mr Sharon's second stroke, conventional wisdom had already began to form about the Israeli general election on 28 March. It was that by sheer force of his personality - and with very little yet clear about his future programme - his new party, Kadima, would become the single biggest in the Knesset, making him virtually unchallengeable as a third-term Prime Minister.

Labour, under Amir Peretz, a new leader committed to substantive negotiations with the Palestinians, would be a runner up and - perhaps - a coalition partner. And the man who had become in some ways Mr Sharon's bitterest rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, would come a respectable third, perhaps forming a vigorous right-wing opposition. Without Mr Sharon, those assumptions are all shattered. Kadima has some substantive figures; Ehud Olmert, ex-officio the current Prime Minister, and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni are two of them. But it will have an uphill struggle to convince the electorate that Kadima's appeal was as anything more than as a personal vehicle for Ariel Sharon - and that without the old man it will be an empty shell. [complete article]

See also, Difficulties in treating this type of stroke (NYT).

Just World News

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Surveillance court is seeking answers
By Carol D. Leonnig, Washington Post, January 5, 2006

The members of a secret federal court that oversees government surveillance in espionage and terrorism cases are scheduled to receive a classified briefing Monday from top Justice Department and intelligence officials about a controversial warrantless-eavesdropping program, according to sources familiar with the arrangements.

Several judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said they want to hear directly from administration officials why President Bush believed he had the authority to order, without the court's permission, wiretapping of some phone calls and e-mails after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Of serious concern to several judges is whether any information gleaned from intercepts by the National Security Agency was later used to gain their permission for wiretaps without the source being disclosed.

The court is made up of 11 judges who, on a rotating basis, hear government applications for surveillance warrants. But only the presiding judge, currently Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, was notified of the government eavesdropping program. One judge, James Robertson, who also serves on the federal bench in Washington, resigned his seat on the surveillance court in protest shortly after the wiretapping was revealed by the New York Times in mid-December. [complete article]

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What it means to John Kerry, Wesley Clark, and Bill Clinton if Bush wiretapped CNN's Christiane Amanpour, January 4, 2006

As reported below, NBC's Andrea Mitchell - based on some information she clearly hasn't yet made public - is asking if Bush specifically wiretapped CNN's Christiane Amanpour. The fact that the question was asked so publicly and so specifically means that Mitchell knows something.

Why would Bush do this? Because, as I reported a few weeks ago, journalists have some of the best contacts out there and it's not unusual for journalists to talk to both sides of the story, or in this case, the good guys and the "evil doers." What a better, if not illegal, way to find the terrorists and their associates?

But before you say "yeah, go for it," consider the implications of tapping Christiane Amanpour's phones: [complete article]

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Cheney cites justifications for domestic eavesdropping
By Jim VandeHei and Dan Eggen, Washington Post, January 5, 2006

Vice President Cheney said yesterday that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks might have been prevented if the Bush administration had had the power to secretly monitor conversations involving two of the hijackers without court orders.

As part of an effort to sell Americans on the administration's recently disclosed program to eavesdrop on telephone and e-mail communications between the United States and people overseas without a warrant, Cheney told a small group of conservatives at the Heritage Foundation that instead of being able to "pick up" on the terrorist plot "we didn't know they were here plotting until it was too late."

But Cheney did not mention that the government had compiled significant information on the two suspects before the attacks and that bureaucratic problems -- not a lack of information -- were primary reasons for the security breakdown, according to congressional investigators and the Sept. 11 commission. Moreover, the administration had the power to eavesdrop on their calls and e-mails, as long as it sought permission from a secret court that oversees clandestine surveillance in the United States. [complete article]

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A cult of presidential power
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch, January 4, 2006

As 2006 begins, we seem to be at a not-completely-unfamiliar crossroads in the long history of the American imperial presidency. It grew up, shedding presidential constraints, in the post-World War II years as part of the rise of the national security state and the military-industrial complex. It reached its constraint-less apogee with Richard Nixon's presidency and what became known as the Watergate scandal -- an event marked by Nixon's attempt to create his own private national security apparatus which he directed to secretly commit various high crimes and misdemeanors for him. It was as close as we came -- until now -- to a presidential coup d'etat that might functionally have abrogated the Constitution. In those years, the potential dangers of an unfettered presidency (so apparent to the nation's founding fathers) became obvious to a great many Americans. As now, a failed war helped drag the President's plans down and, in the case of Nixon, ended in personal disgrace and resignation, as well as in a brief resurgence of congressional oversight activity. All this mitigated, and modestly deflected, the growth trajectory of the imperial presidency -- for a time. [complete article]

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At least 80 Iraqis killed in 2nd straight day of big attacks
By Richard A. Oppel Jr. and John O'Neil, New York Times, January 5, 2006

Two new suicide bombings rocked Iraq today, killing at least 80 in an attack at a shrine in the Shiite city of Karbala and a police recruiting station in the Sunni city of Ramadi.

Preliminary reports from the Iraqi police said that 52 people had been killed and 64 wounded in Karbala, south of Baghdad. In Ramadi, early reports put the death total at 35, according to Reuters.

The killings come on top of attacks that killed more than 50 people on Wednesday, as violence appears to be escalating again after a lull around the time of last month's parliamentary elections. [complete article]

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Bush sees changed military role and reduction of troops in Iraq
By James Gerstenzang, Los Angeles Times, January 5, 2006

President Bush outlined Wednesday a shifting role for the U.S. military in Iraq in 2006, forecasting a continued reduction in troop strength and a move away from combat and into advisory and training roles.

At the same time, he acknowledged problems within the Iraqi police force as well as what is clear from news reports: that violence continues and that ethnic and religious divisions continue to wreak havoc. [complete article]

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U.S. plans Afghan jail for terror suspects
By Jimmy Burns and Rachel Morarjee, Financial Times, January 4, 2006

The US government has plans to build a high-security prison in Afghanistan to hold terror suspects, including some who would be transferred from the controversial US naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

The site selected for the jail is Pol-e-Charki, a rundown prison near Kabul dating from the Soviet era. Some of the base's prison facilities have recently been refurbished as part of a European Union-financed criminal justice reform programme backed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Western diplomats say the UN and the EU have been resisting US plans to have the Pol-e-Charki base turned into a secure prison that would hold Afghan terror suspects. The UNODC project was intended to house prisoners involved in drug trafficking. [complete article]

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High school teacher beheaded in Afghanistan
By Carlotta Gall, New York Times, January 5, 2006

Suspected Taliban insurgents dragged a high school teacher from his house on Tuesday night and beheaded him, the latest killing in southern Afghanistan in what seems to be a campaign against educated community leaders, Afghan officials said Wednesday.

The headless body of Abdul Habib, a teacher at one of the two high schools in Zabul Province, the Sheik Mathi Baba School, was found Wednesday morning.

Gunmen broke into his house near the provincial capital, Qalat, and killed him late Tuesday night, said a spokesman for the provincial governor, Gulab Shah Alikhel. "It was the work of Afghanistan's enemies," he said, the term officials use for Taliban insurgents and other Islamic militants.

The killing follows a spate of attacks on teachers, mullahs, community elders and aid workers in recent months. [complete article]

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Israel's Sharon suffers massive stroke
By Steven Weizman, AP (via WP), January 4, 2006

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke Wednesday and was on a respirator after falling ill at his ranch. Doctors operated to drain excess blood from his brain.

Powers were transferred to his deputy, Vice Premier Ehud Olmert.

Dr. Shlomo Mor-Yosef, director of Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, said Sharon suffered "a significant stroke," adding that he was "under anesthetic and receiving breathing assistance." A few minutes later, Mor-Yosef emerged to say that initial tests showed Sharon had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, or bleeding in his brain.

Mor-Yosef said Sharon, 77 and overweight, had "massive bleeding and was being transferred to an operating theater." [complete article]

See also, A tragic end to Ariel Sharon's one-man show (Haaretz).

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U.S. strike on home kills 9 in family, Iraqi officials say
By Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Omar Al-Neami, New York Times, January 4, 2006

American F-14 warplanes killed nine members of an Iraqi family, including women and young children, during a bombing and cannon strike on Monday night that obliterated a home near the northern industrial city of Baiji, Iraqi officials said Tuesday.

American officials said the warplanes had been pursuing insurgents who had been observed setting up a roadside bomb. They fled to a building, and the American planes struck the building and destroyed it.

The attack enraged Iraqi officials in Baiji, about 150 miles north of Baghdad, who said that the airstrike was unjustified and that it had destroyed an innocent family. [complete article]

Left I on the News.

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Suicide bomber kills at least 42 during Iraq funeral procession
By Hassan Shammari and Nelson Hernandez, Washington Post, January 4, 2006

A suicide bomber and heavily armed gunmen attacked a funeral procession for a Shiite politician's bodyguard this afternoon, killing at least 42 people on an unusually violent day in Iraq in which insurgents also ambushed a large convoy of fuel tankers.

A police officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that the attackers suddenly struck a group of 150 mourners gathered around the burial site for the bodyguard, Mohammed Hadi Baga, who was shot yesterday while working for his uncle Ahmed Baga, a local leader of the Dawa Party. [complete article]

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U.S. allies in Iraq: valuable but dwindling
By Mark Sappenfield, Christian Science Monitor, January 4, 2006

As member nations consider another calendar year in Iraq, the Bush administration's "coalition of the willing" appears increasingly unwilling to commit to the cause indefinitely.

Last week, two countries finished withdrawing the last of their troops from Iraq, and two others decided to cut their forces by about a third. In all, the coalition has declined from a 2003 high of 38 nations and 50,000 troops to 28 nations and about 20,000 soldiers today. [complete article]

See also, Iraq wants U.S. choice out as chief of brigade (WP).

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From cabinet rooms past, a gathering to assess Iraq
By David E. Sanger, New York Times, January 4, 2006

It will be an unusual sight on Thursday in the Roosevelt Room of White House, and deliberately so: President Bush will engage in a consultation of sorts with a bipartisan collection of former secretaries of state and defense.

Among them will be several who have left little doubt that they think Mr. Bush has dangerously mishandled Iraq, ignored other looming crises, and put critical alliances at risk.

The meeting was called by the White House, which sent out invitations just before Christmas to everyone who once held those jobs.

The invitees were told that they were being asked to attend a briefing on Iraq and other issues. It was unclear, one recipient said, "how interested they are in what we are thinking." [complete article]

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EARLIER Money meant for the inner city went to fight the intifada
By Michael Isikoff, Newsweek, May 2, 2005

The pitch from superlobbyist Jack Abramoff was hard to resist: a good way to get access on Capitol Hill, he told his clients a few years ago, was to contribute to a worthy charity he and his wife had just started up. The charity, called the Capital Athletic Foundation, was supposed to provide sports programs and teach "leadership skills" to city youth. Donating to it also had a side benefit, Abramoff told his clients: it was a favored cause of Rep. Tom DeLay.

The pitch worked especially well among a group of Indian tribes who, having opened up lucrative gaming casinos, had hired Abramoff to protect their interests in Washington. In 2002 alone, records show, three Indian tribes donated nearly $1.1 million to the Capital Athletic Foundation. But now, Newsweek has learned, investigators probing Abramoff's finances have found some of the money meant for inner-city kids went instead to fight the Palestinian intifada. More than $140,000 of foundation funds were actually sent to the Israeli West Bank where they were used by a Jewish settler to mobilize against the Palestinian uprising. Among the expenditures: purchases of camouflage suits, sniper scopes, night-vision binoculars, a thermal imager and other material described in foundation records as "security" equipment. The FBI, sources tell Newsweek, is now examining these payments as part of a larger investigation to determine if Abramoff defrauded his Indian tribe clients. The tribal donors are outraged. "This is almost like outer-limits bizarre," says Henry Buffalo, a lawyer for the Saginaw Chippewa Indians who contributed $25,000 to the Capital Athletic Foundation at Abramoff's urging. "The tribe would never have given money for this." [complete article]

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Israelis bar leading Palestinian candidates from canvassing in East Jerusalem
Daily Star, January 4, 2006

Israeli police stopped two leading candidates from canvassing in occupied East Jerusalem on the first day of the Palestinian election campaign Tuesday, prompting new threats to cancel the whole ballot.

But the United States said Tuesday it wants Palestinian elections to go forward as scheduled and thinks Palestinians should be allowed to vote in East Jerusalem.

"We believe that people must have access to the ballot," in East Jerusalem, a White House spokesman said. "Arrangements have been made in the past to ensure that those persons can vote and we believe some arrangements should be possible at this time."

Mustafa Barghouti, runner-up in last January's presidential election, and the former peace negotiator Hanan Ashrawi were both attempting to defy a ban on any election activity in the eastern half of the city. [complete article]

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After Israel, who can run Gaza?
By Rafael D. Frankel, Christian Science Monitor, January 4, 2006

As the first year devoid of an Israeli presence since 1967 dawns in the Gaza Strip, armed militias roam the streets freely, foreigners are kidnapped with regularity, and the measure of a man in this coastal territory is not his political title, or even the size of his house, but the number of AK-47-wielding bodyguards he employs.

When Israel left Gaza four months ago, full control over the 1.3 million people was ostensibly transferred to the Palestinian Authority (PA). But its authority in this coastal territory has deteriorated to such a state of anarchy, that the best-armed gangs or families are effectively the law now.

"Yasser Arafat left a terrible legacy of violence behind him where people are always acting outside the law," says Eyad Sarraj, a Palestinian political analyst and a candidate in the Jan. 25 elections. "Now, with him gone, everyone is fighting for his power." [complete article]

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Plans for Holy Land theme park on Galilee shore where Jesus fed the 5,000
By Conal Urquhart, The Guardian, January 4, 2006

The Israeli government is planning to give up a large slice of land to American Christian evangelicals to build a biblical theme park by the Sea of Galilee where Jesus is said to have walked on water and fed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish.

A consortium of Christian groups, led by the television evangelist Pat Robertson, is in negotiation with the Israeli ministry of tourism and a deal is expected in the coming months. The project is expected to bring up to 1 million extra tourists a year but an undeclared benefit will be the cementing of a political alliance between the Israeli rightwing and the American Christian right.

However, the alliance has not been welcomed by all Israelis, including some who fear the ultimate aim of the evangelicals is the conversion of the Jews to Christianity rather than support for Israel. [complete article]

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CIA gave Iran bomb plans, book says
By Josh Meyer, Los Angeles Times, January 4, 2006

In a clumsy effort to sabotage Iran's nuclear program, the CIA in 2004 intentionally handed Tehran some top-secret bomb designs laced with a hidden flaw that U.S. officials hoped would doom any weapon made from them, according to a new book about the U.S. intelligence agency.

But the Iranians were tipped to the scheme by the Russian defector hired by the CIA to deliver the plans and may have gleaned scientific information useful for designing a bomb, writes New York Times reporter James Risen in "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration." [complete article]

Comment -- CNN quotes CIA Director of Public Affairs Jennifer Millerwise Dyke who issued this statement Tuesday about Risen's book:

"Readers deserve to know that every chapter of 'State of War' contains serious inaccuracies. The author's reliance on anonymous sources begs the reader to trust that these are knowledgeable people. As this book demonstrates, anonymous sources are often unreliable."

The CIA is of course much more responsible and only relies on named sources like "Curveball."

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Secret services say Iran is trying to assemble a nuclear missile
By Ian Cobain and Ian Traynor, The Guardian, January 4, 2006

The Iranian government has been successfully scouring Europe for the sophisticated equipment needed to develop a nuclear bomb, according to the latest western intelligence assessment of the country's weapons programmes.

Scientists in Tehran are also shopping for parts for a ballistic missile capable of reaching Europe, with "import requests and acquisitions ... registered almost daily", the report seen by the Guardian concludes.

The warning came as Iran raised the stakes in its dispute with the United States and the European Union yesterday by notifying the International Atomic Energy Authority that it intended to resume nuclear fuel research next week. Tehran has refused to rule out a return to attempts at uranium enrichment, the key to the development of a nuclear weapon. [complete article]

See also, Iran to resume its nuclear work; U.S. warns of seeking restraints (NYT).

Arms Control Wonk.

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Agency first acted on its own to broaden spying, files show
By Eric Lichtblau and Scott Shane, New York Times, January 4, 2006

The National Security Agency acted on its own authority, without a formal directive from President Bush, to expand its domestic surveillance operations in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, according to declassified documents released Tuesday.

The N.S.A. operation prompted questions from a leading Democrat, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, who said in an Oct. 11, 2001, letter to a top intelligence official that she was concerned about the agency's legal authority to expand its domestic operations, the documents showed. [complete article]

Read Nancy Pelosi's letter.

The Volokh Conspiracy

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The spy plan's spoiler
Editorial, Los Angeles Times, January 4, 2006

James B. Comey can hardly be considered soft on terrorism. As deputy attorney general, he has been one of the Bush administration's chief prosecutors of the war on terror, pursuing accused bombers and terrorists from Riyadh to Chicago. So his refusal to approve the administration's warrantless wiretaps of Americans cannot simply be dismissed as the rantings of an Al Qaeda apologist.

But Comey's objections, made in 2004 and first reported Sunday in the New York Times, do more than rob the president and his defenders of one of their favorite arguments. The article was based on the accounts of unnamed administration officials, and Comey isn't giving the reasons for his opposition to the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program. But they're easy to guess. [complete article]

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NYT Public Editor says he won't reveal questions for Keller
By Joe Strupp, Editor & Publisher, January 3, 2006

Public Editor Byron Calame of The New York Times said he was not concerned that the lack of cooperation he received from Executive Editor Bill Keller and Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. in his attempt to probe the newspaper's actions in the domestic spying case would affect his ability to do his job in the future.
In his column, Calame revealed that both Keller and Sulzberger declined to speak with him about the issue, noting that they ignored a list of 28 questions that Calame had sent them. "Despite this stonewalling, my objectives today are to assess the flawed handling of the original explanation of the article's path into print, and to offer a few thoughts on some factors that could have affected the timing of the article," he wrote Sunday.
Calame told E&P he did not plan to pursue Keller or Sulzberger on the eavesdropping subject again or write about it again at this point. [complete article]

Comment -- Since I'm not a paying subscriber to the NYT, I imagine Byron Calame won't regard me as a "real" reader. Be that as it may, I thought I'd give him my two cents:
As The New York Times' Public Editor, you are described as "the readers' representative." Editor & Publisher reports that after having been stonewalled by the Times' executive editor and publisher, "Calame told E&P he did not plan to pursue Keller or Sulzberger on the eavesdropping subject again or write about it again at this point." If this is the case, it's hard to see how you can honestly claim to be acting as the readers' representative. You should either insist on getting answers to questions that you clearly believe deserve answering, or you should quit. If you do neither, you are undermining your own credibility and that of the Times' in claiming that it truly has a "readers' representative."

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Bush could bypass new torture ban
By Charlie Savage, Boston Globe, January 4, 2006

When President Bush last week signed the bill outlawing the torture of detainees, he quietly reserved the right to bypass the law under his powers as commander in chief.

After approving the bill last Friday, Bush issued a "signing statement" -- an official document in which a president lays out his interpretation of a new law -- declaring that he will view the interrogation limits in the context of his broader powers to protect national security. This means Bush believes he can waive the restrictions, the White House and legal specialists said.

"The executive branch shall construe [the law] in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President ... as Commander in Chief," Bush wrote, adding that this approach "will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the President ... of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks."

Some legal specialists said yesterday that the president's signing statement, which was posted on the White House website but had gone unnoticed over the New Year's weekend, raises serious questions about whether he intends to follow the law. [complete article]

Comment -- Gone unnoticed by the Boston Globe and other newspapers, but not by Marty Lederman.

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Dismissal of terror detainee cases sought
Reuters (NYT), January 4, 2006

The U.S. Justice Department will seek to dismiss more than 180 cases involving inmates at Guantanamo Bay who have challenged their detention in court, court documents showed on Tuesday.

The department filed a notice to judges presiding over the cases at the U.S. District Court in Washington to advise them that by the end of next week the Justice Department would file official motions to dismiss the cases.

The notice comes a week after President George W. Bush signed new legislation banning cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners. The anti-torture law also curbs the ability of prisoners being held at the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba to challenge their detention in federal court. [complete article]

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Democracy, and all that talk
By Mark LeVine, Asia Times, January 4, 2006

In the wake of the third Iraqi vote in less than a year, President George W Bush is once again arguing that the country's US-sponsored political process epitomizes a new, democratic focus in US foreign policy toward the Muslim world.

While persuasive, his argument is only two-thirds correct. Without the missing third, the "complete victory" the president has defined as his desired outcome to America's involvement in Iraq, and indeed in the larger "war on terror", will remain elusive.

It is true that the rhetoric and tactics surrounding US foreign policy have changed dramatically in the four years since September 11, 2001. Yet at the much more important substantive level it remains grounded in the Cold War paradigm that supported - and often necessitated - the violence, authoritarianism and corruption that helped foster today's terrorist menace.

The most honest and straightforward expression of this paradigm was given in a 1948 State Department memorandum by director of planning George F Kennan: "We have 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its population. Our real task in the coming period is to maintain this position of disparity." [complete article]

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Sunni group near deal with Kurds on Iraqi government
By Richard A. Oppel Jr., New York Times, January 3, 2006

The largest Sunni Arab political group in Iraq unexpectedly moved toward agreement with Kurdish leaders Monday on a broad framework for a coalition government. The group, the Iraqi Consensus Front, said it would abandon claims that national elections last month had been rigged once international election monitors finish their review of the allegations.

The move drew a rebuke from other Sunni Arab political leaders who accused the Sunni consensus party of violating an agreement to press ahead with claims of Sunni disenfranchisement during the vote on Dec. 15 and to not bargain on their own for a role in the new government.

"They violated an agreement with us that they will not go alone to talk about the government," Saleh Mutlak, a leader of the Iraqi National Trend, another leading Sunni Arab political group, said Monday night.

The Sunni consensus party and the Kurds remain far apart on several crucial issues, including one they highlighted at a news conference on Monday: the Kurds support introducing federal states throughout Iraq, while the Sunnis, who fear the loss of revenue from large oil fields in the Shiite-dominated south, want only the Kurds in the north to have a semi-autonomous state. [complete article]

See also, Sunnis bargain for Iraq role as Allawi fades (LAT).

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Iraqi oil minister resigns to protest higher fuel prices
By Nelson Hernandez, Washington Post, January 3, 2006

Iraq's oil minister announced his resignation Monday, saying that the government had acted in an authoritarian way in forcing him to take a mandatory leave last month and that its policies were worsening the condition of the country's poor.

The raising of oil prices last month was "anti-democratic and lacks foresight," Minister Ibrahim Bahr Uloom said at a news conference.

Iraq's oil industry is in crisis as insurgent groups capitalize on unpopular increases in gas prices by bombing oil pipelines and gas stations and attacking drivers of fuel tankers. In December, the country's oil exports hit their lowest monthly level since U.S. forces overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Reuters news agency reported.

Now political recriminations have been added to the mix. Uloom had threatened to resign after the government announced the sharp fuel price increases last month. Several days later, he said Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari had placed him on mandatory leave.

Uloom's announcement Monday was a recognition of political reality; over the weekend, the government named Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi as oil minister. [complete article]

See also, Chalabi likely to succeed in new Iraq government, despite controversy (Knight Ridder).

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U.S. cedes duties in rebuilding Afghanistan
By Griff Witte, Washington Post, January 3, 2006

Four years into a mammoth reconstruction effort here that has been largely led, funded and secured by Americans, the United States is showing a growing willingness to cede those jobs to others.

The most dramatic example will come by this summer, when the U.S. military officially hands over control of the volatile southern region -- plagued by persistent attacks from Islamic militias -- to an international force led by the NATO alliance. The United States will cut its troop strength by 2,500, even though it is not clear how aggressively NATO troops will pursue insurgents, who have shown no sign of relenting.

At the same time, the U.S. government is increasingly allowing Western allies, or Afghans themselves, to take on the tasks of rebuilding a country that has suffered more than two decades of fighting and remains beset by poverty, drugs and insurgency. [complete article]

See also, British military fears big Afghan losses (The Times).

Juan Cole.

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Bush and the Republican mutiny
By Tony Karon, Rootless Cosmopolitan, January 3, 2006

Iraq, overwhelmingly unpopular abroad and increasingly so at home, stands at the center of Bush's decline -- the fact that his agenda is collapsing despite his party's control over all the levers of government is a sure sign that the sober Republicans who may have long doubted the wisdom of Bush's choices are now no longer remaining silent. The irony is that they appear to be more inclined than the Democrats have been to distance themselves from Bush, and to challenge him directly on matters of national security. The Democrats are still flailing about unable to take a coherent position on Iraq (with a few honorable exceptions). Listen to John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, and you hear an often incomprehensible excercise in self-congratulatory political ju-jitsu -- they're quite simply not prepared to challenge the basics, which leaves them to argue that they would have invaded Iraq, but done it "properly" -- more troops, more allies, that sort of thing. Frankly, that's the same unprincipled, politically cowardly doggerel we've heard from them all along, and is ultimately so indistinguishable from the administration's own positions that it simply make the Dems sound petty and partisan. [complete article]

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A life, wasted
By Paul E. Schroeder, Washington Post, January 3, 2006

Early on Aug. 3, 2005, we heard that 14 Marines had been killed in Haditha, Iraq. Our son, Lance Cpl. Edward "Augie" Schroeder II, was stationed there. At 10:45 a.m. two Marines showed up at our door. After collecting himself for what was clearly painful duty, the lieutenant colonel said, "Your son is a true American hero."

Since then, two reactions to Augie's death have compounded the sadness.

At times like this, people say, "He died a hero." I know this is meant with great sincerity. We appreciate the many condolences we have received and how helpful they have been. But when heard repeatedly, the phrases "he died a hero" or "he died a patriot" or "he died for his country" rub raw.

"People think that if they say that, somehow it makes it okay that he died," our daughter, Amanda, has said. "He was a hero before he died, not just because he went to Iraq. I was proud of him before, and being a patriot doesn't make his death okay. I'm glad he got so much respect at his funeral, but that didn't make it okay either." [complete article]

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Society marked by reality of war
AP (via Washington Times), January 2, 2006

Nearly 1 million members of the U.S. armed forces have been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other danger zones since the September 11 terror attacks, a figure that has implications both for the military and society at large, analysts say.

For the first time in 30 years, a significant portion of society will have seen the misery and violence of war for an extended period.

"The only silver lining you can find in these numbers is that, for a generation to come, America will have many, many adults who understand the reality of what war is all about," said Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. [complete article]

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Presidential history lesson on the value of building consensus
By Ronald Brownstein, Los Angeles Times, January 2, 2006

The president whom George W. Bush may resemble most is not his biological father, George H.W. Bush, or even Ronald Reagan, who often seems his ideological father, but James K. Polk, a dynamic and willful leader few discuss anymore.

Polk, when elected president as a Democrat in 1844, had more political experience than Bush (Polk had spent 20 years in elective office, compared with Bush's six). But like Bush (who was 54 in 2000), Polk was young (49) and extremely self-confident when he took office.

Polk may be the only predecessor who matched Bush's determination to drive massive change on a minute margin of victory. Polk won by fewer than 38,000 votes of 2.7 million cast. Over four tumultuous years, he pursued an ambitious, highly partisan agenda that offered little to those who had voted against him. Sound familiar?

Strong on vision but weak on building consensus, Polk advanced his goals more than seemed possible in a closely divided country. But Polk's tactics deepened the nation's divisions and fanned the flames that later exploded into the Civil War. [complete article]


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So much for the President's assent to the McCain amendment
By Marty Lederman, Balkinization, January 2, 2006

The President signed the Defense Appropriations bill on Friday. In his signing statement he did at least two notable things.

First, with respect to several provisions of the bill, the President signaled his intention to reserve his authority, as Commander in Chief, to ignore statutory mandates. These include provisions that require advance notice of congressional committees before the use of funds to initiate a special access program, a new overseas installation, or a new start program; and a "report and wait" provision that requires the President to wait 15 days after notifying six congressional committees before using certain appropriations to transfer defense articles or services to another nation or an international organization for international peacekeeping, peace enforcement, or humanitarian assistance operations.

Most importantly, as to the McCain Amendment, which would categorically prohibit cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees by all U.S. personnel, anywhere in the world, the President wrote:
The executive branch shall construe Title X in Division A of the Act, relating to detainees, in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with the constitutional limitations on the judicial power, which will assist in achieving the shared objective of the Congress and the President, evidenced in Title X, of protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks.
Translation: I reserve the constitutional right to waterboard when it will "assist" in protecting the American people from terrorist attacks. [UPDATE: Or, as Matthew Franck eagerly puts it over at the National Review, "the signing statement . . . conveys the good news that the president is not taking the McCain amendment lying down."] [complete article]

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Sharon aims to scrap peace plan - report
By Dan Williams, Reuters, January 2, 2006

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans eventually to scrap a U.S.-led "road map" to peace with the Palestinians and instead seek Washington's blessing for annexing occupied West Bank land, a newspaper said on Monday.

The report by senior staff of Maariv newspaper gave no source, but Sharon's initial plans for last year's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip were first floated in a similar way. [complete article]

Abbas threatens to delay election
By Arnon Regular, Haaretz, January 3, 2006

Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas said yesterday he would delay upcoming parliamentary elections if Israel bars Jerusalem Arabs from voting. This is the first time that Abbas has indicated he would postpone the January 25 vote.

"We all agree that Jerusalem should be included in the elections, in the same way as in the past," Abbas said.

In the past, Jerusalem residents voted in a virtual absentee ballot system, because Israel says interim peace accords ban such political activity in Jerusalem.

With Fatah increasingly in disarray, the party's powerful central committee met late Sunday to discuss the party's election prospects. After the gathering, members sent a letter to Abbas citing the declining security situation in Gaza and Israel's threat to prevent Jerusalem's Arabs from voting, and demanded that the election be postponed, Abbas Zaki, a committee member, said. [complete article]

Shin Bet: Israel will be in 'deep trouble' if Hamas wins poll
By Gideon Alon, Haaretz, January 3, 2006

Shin Bet Director Yuval Diskin cautioned Tuesday that Israel would be in "deep trouble" if Hamas emerged victorious in parliamentary elections scheduled for late January.

According to Diskin, following a victory or strong showing, the militant Islamic group would make every effort to install its activists in Palestinian security arms, thus assuring that there would be no efforts made to head off terrorism launched from Palestinian-controlled areas. [complete article]

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Why the NSA's snooping is unprecedented in scale and scope
By Shane Harris and Tim Naftali, Slate, January 3, 2006

The magnitude of the current collection effort is unprecedented and indeed marks a shift in how the NSA spies in the United States. The current program seems to involve a remarkable level of cooperation with private companies and extraordinarily expansive data-mining of questionable legality. Before Bush authorized the NSA to expand its domestic snooping program after 9/11 in the secret executive order, the agency had to stay clear of the "protected communications" of American citizens or resident aliens unless supplied by a judge with a warrant. The program President Bush authorized reportedly allows the NSA to mine huge sets of domestic data for suspicious patterns, regardless of whether the source of the data is an American citizen or resident. The NSA needs the help of private companies to do this because commercial broadband now carries so many communications. In an earlier age, the NSA could pick up the bulk of what it needed by tapping into satellite or microwave transmissions. "Now," as the agency noted in a transition document prepared for the incoming Bush administration in December 2000, "communications are mostly digital, carry billions of bits of data, and contain voice, data and multimedia. They are dynamically routed, globally networked and pass over traditional communications means such as microwave or satellite less and less."

The agency used to search the transmissions it monitors for key words, such as names and phone numbers, which are supplied by other intelligence agencies that want to track certain individuals. But now the NSA appears to be vacuuming up all data, generally without a particular phone line, name, or e-mail address as a target. Reportedly, the agency is analyzing the length of a call, the time it was placed, and the origin and destination of electronic transmissions. Those details would be crucial in mining the data for patterns -- according to the officials the Times cited, the goal of the NSA's eavesdropping system.

Pattern-based searches are most useful when run against huge sets of data. Many calls and messages must be analyzed to determine which ones are benign and which deserve more attention. With large data sets, pattern-based searching can create more nuanced pictures of the connections among people, places, and messages. Deputy Director of National Intelligence Michael Hayden, who until this year was the NSA director, recently hinted that the NSA's eavesdropping program is not just looking for transmissions from specific individuals. It has a "subtly softer trigger" that initiates monitoring without exactly knowing in advance what specific transmissions to look for. Presumably, this trigger is a suspicious pattern. But officials have not actually described any triggers, raising the question of whether the NSA has been authorized to go on such fishing expeditions. [complete article]

Comment -- The NSA - like every other Cold War creation - has yet to demonstrate it's value in the post-Cold War era.

Signals processing that is based on a "watch list" can only be as good as the intelligence used for compiling the list. Now that al Qaeda has made the transition from organization to movement there is no way of tracing connections that have no more substance than inspiration. In response, the NSA is apparently now focusing its attention on pattern-based analysis of communications. Theoretically this might handle the problem of tracking down previously unknown terrorists, but when Michael Hayden talks about the subtlety of the surveillance mechanisms involved, it's hard not to imagine that they also involve certain gross assumptions, such as, that every communication going in and out of Saudi Arabia deserves special attention. If I was an Arab-American with relatives in the Middle East, I'd be concerned that this fact alone might position me in a "pattern" that pushes one of the NSA's "soft triggers."

The argument about whether civil libertarians are undermining counterterrorism often rests on an unproven presuppostion: that the efforts of agencies such as the NSA are actually effective. (The most frequently cited "proof" is the fact that there have been no more attacks in the US since 9/11, yet evidence of foiled attacks is far from compelling. If attacks haven't been foiled, it's debatable whether they've been deterred. After all, al Qaeda is famously patient.) At the same time, any discussion about the balance between national security needs and civil liberties will necessarily be hamstrung when the surveillance methods are shrouded in secrecy. It's obvious that these methods wouldn't work if they were made public, so we end up with an assurance that has become all too familiar: Trust us.

But why should we trust an administration that so clearly demonstrated its untrustworthiness by starting a war under false pretenses?

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The book behind the bombshell
By Romesh Ratnesar, Time, January 1, 2006

In the abstruse world of espionage, it's not always easy to know when you are in on a secret. So when intelligence sources approached New York Times reporter James Risen in late 2004 with evidence that the Bush Administration was running a covert domestic-spying program, Risen says he "wasn't sure what to believe." As Risen and Times colleague Eric Lichtblau looked into the story, more whistle-blowers came forward, convincing the reporters that the eavesdropping claims were credible. At that point Risen asked a few "very senior" government officials what they knew about the spying program. "They would look at me with these blank expressions, and say, 'No--that can't be going on,'" Risen told TIME. That's when Risen knew he was sitting on a major scoop. [complete article]

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Bolton plans to restart stalled efforts to restructure U.N.
By Colum Lynch, Washington Post, January 2, 2006

John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said he will start the new year by reinvigorating stalled efforts to restructure management of the world body, beginning with a controversial push to seek assurances that the Security Council's five major powers will be guaranteed posts on a new Human Rights Council.

Bolton said in an interview that the Bush administration wants to ensure that the United States is never again denied membership in the United Nations' principal human rights body, as it was in 2001, when Austria, France and Sweden defeated a U.S. bid for membership in the Geneva-based Human Rights Commission. But his initiative would also boost efforts by China and Russia, two permanent council members with troubled rights records, to gain membership in the new body.

The proposal is part of a broader drive by Bolton to place the five permanent Security Council members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- at the center of U.N. decision making. But an official involved in the negotiations warned that creating fresh privileges for the council's most powerful states "would turn off a large chunk of the membership." [complete article]

Comment -- That "large chunk" is called "the rest of the world" - and includes countries such as India, Japan, and Brazil that have long been waiting to join the UN elite as permanent members of the Security Council. Bolton obviously thinks he can pursue a classic divide-and-rule strategy while tempering animosity directed specifically at the United States by attempting to wed US interests to those of the permanent 5. The most likely effect will be to further undermine the credibility of the UN while fueling support for populists in the Third World who already regard the UN as an American stooge.

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Bush defends spy program and denies misleading public
By Eric Lichtblau, New York Times, January 2, 2006

President Bush continued on Sunday to defend both the legality and the necessity of the National Security Agency's domestic eavesdropping program, and he denied that he misled the public last year when he insisted that any government wiretap required a court order.

"I think most Americans understand the need to find out what the enemy's thinking, and that's what we're doing," Mr. Bush told reporters in San Antonio as he visited wounded soldiers at the Brooke Army Medical Center. [complete article]

See also, Behind the NSA spying furor (Newsweek).

Think Progress, Washington Monthly, Left Coaster, and Left I on the News.

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Muslim scholars were paid to aid U.S. propaganda
By David S. Cloud and Jeff Gerth, New York Times, January 2, 2006

A Pentagon contractor that paid Iraqi newspapers to print positive articles written by American soldiers has also been compensating Sunni religious scholars in Iraq in return for assistance with its propaganda work, according to current and former employees.

The Lincoln Group, a Washington-based public relations company, was told early in 2005 by the Pentagon to identify religious leaders who could help produce messages that would persuade Sunnis in violence-ridden Anbar Province to participate in national elections and reject the insurgency, according to a former employee.

Since then, the company has retained three or four Sunni religious scholars to offer advice and write reports for military commanders on the content of propaganda campaigns, the former employee said. But documents and Lincoln executives say the company's ties to religious leaders and dozens of other prominent Iraqis is aimed also at enabling it to exercise influence in Iraqi communities on behalf of clients, including the military. [complete article]

Juan Cole.

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U.S. has end in sight on Iraq rebuilding
By Ellen Knickmeyer, Washington Post, January 2, 2006

The Bush administration does not intend to seek any new funds for Iraq reconstruction in the budget request going before Congress in February, officials say. The decision signals the winding down of an $18.4 billion U.S. rebuilding effort in which roughly half of the money was eaten away by the insurgency, a buildup of Iraq's criminal justice system and the investigation and trial of Saddam Hussein.

Just under 20 percent of the reconstruction package remains unallocated. When the last of the $18.4 billion is spent, U.S. officials in Baghdad have made clear, other foreign donors and the fledgling Iraqi government will have to take up what authorities say is tens of billions of dollars of work yet to be done merely to bring reliable electricity, water and other services to Iraq's 26 million people.

"The U.S. never intended to completely rebuild Iraq," Brig. Gen. William McCoy, the Army Corps of Engineers commander overseeing the work, told reporters at a recent news conference. In an interview this past week, McCoy said: "This was just supposed to be a jump-start." [complete article]

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Italian is kidnapped and bombers hit U.N. in day of Gaza chaos
By Eric Silver, The Independent, January 2, 2006

The Gaza Strip sank deeper into self-destructive anarchy yesterday amid mounting criticism of Mahmoud Abbas' leadership and demands for his Palestinian Authority to postpone parliamentary elections due to take place on 25 January.

Two days after kidnappers released Kate Burton, a British human rights worker, and her parents, Palestinian gunmen seized an Italian member of an 18-strong European parliamentary delegation visiting a candidate in the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis. [complete article]

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Fundamentals of politics challenge Iranian leader
By Nahid Siamdoust, Los Angeles Times, January 2, 2006

On the surface, little seems to have changed in the Iranian capital since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in August. The streets still bustle with traffic. Women's Islamic dress is no more conservative, though it is no longer drenched in the summer's hot color, pink. In cafes, boys and girls sip the latest coffee concoctions and listen to Niaz, an Iranian band, and even Pink Floyd.

But underneath the veneer of normality, Iranians are watching as their controversial president settles into office -- and their country hardens under his fundamentalist leadership.

In his first five months in power, Ahmadinejad has carved an image of himself as a religious extremist and political radical. To many in the most conservative circles, this is a welcome change. But in Tehran's usually hectic bazaar, merchants complain of stagnant business. Inside homes, families wonder whether they need to brace for stiffer economic sanctions or international isolation. [complete article]

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Justice deputy resisted parts of spy program
By Eric Lichtblau and James Risen, New York Times, January 1, 2006

A top Justice Department official objected in 2004 to aspects of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program and refused to sign on to its continued use amid concerns about its legality and oversight, according to officials with knowledge of the tense internal debate. The concerns appear to have played a part in the temporary suspension of the secret program.

The concerns prompted two of President Bush's most senior aides - Andrew H. Card Jr., his chief of staff, and Alberto R. Gonzales, then White House counsel and now attorney general - to make an emergency visit to a Washington hospital in March 2004 to discuss the program's future and try to win the needed approval from Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was hospitalized for gallbladder surgery, the officials said.

The unusual meeting was prompted because Mr. Ashcroft's top deputy, James B. Comey, who was acting as attorney general in his absence, had indicated he was unwilling to give his approval to certifying central aspects of the program, as required under the White House procedures set up to oversee it. [complete article]

NSA gave other U.S. agencies information from surveillance
By Walter Pincus, Washington Post, January 1, 2006

Information captured by the National Security Agency's secret eavesdropping on communications between the United States and overseas has been passed on to other government agencies, which cross-check the information with tips and information collected in other databases, current and former administration officials said.

The NSA has turned such information over to the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and to other government entities, said three current and former senior administration officials, although it could not be determined which agencies received what types of information. Information from intercepts -- which typically includes records of telephone or e-mail communications -- would be made available by request to agencies that are allowed to have it, including the FBI, DIA, CIA and Department of Homeland Security, one former official said. [complete article]

The NSA's overt problem
By Michael Hirsh, Washington Post, January 1, 2006

As the controversy over the legality and propriety of domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency rages on, one question has not been adequately addressed: Is the NSA's approach really the best way of tracking terrorists? While there's no question that the NSA's covert move into domestic surveillance raises serious legal and ethical issues, the equally important and less examined question is whether -- more than four years after 9/11 -- the agency's methods are suited to tracking the jihadists. [complete article]

TalkLeft, Washington Monthly, Volokh Conspiracy, and Evan Kohlmann.

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Behind the eavesdropping story, a loud silence
By Byron Calame, New York Times, January 1, 2006

The New York Times's explanation of its decision to report, after what it said was a one-year delay, that the National Security Agency is eavesdropping domestically without court-approved warrants was woefully inadequate. And I have had unusual difficulty getting a better explanation for readers, despite the paper's repeated pledges of greater transparency.

For the first time since I became public editor, the executive editor and the publisher have declined to respond to my requests for information about news-related decision-making. My queries concerned the timing of the exclusive Dec. 16 article about President Bush's secret decision in the months after 9/11 to authorize the warrantless eavesdropping on Americans in the United States.

I e-mailed a list of 28 questions to Bill Keller, the executive editor, on Dec. 19, three days after the article appeared. He promptly declined to respond to them. I then sent the same questions to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher, who also declined to respond. They held out no hope for a fuller explanation in the future. [complete article]

Amercan Future and Left I on the News.

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Myth and reality in Iraq
Editorial, Boston Globe, December 30, 2005

When Craig Jeness, an official of the United Nations' election-monitoring mission in Iraq, confirmed Wednesday that the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections there were "transparent and credible," he was not only affirming the validity of the vote and the honesty of Iraq's own electoral commission. In a way, Jeness, a Canadian, was also doing a favor for the Sunni Arab political leaders who have been alleging large-scale electoral fraud.

Those leaders had been telling their followers that if they got out the Sunni Arab vote, they would win a share of representation commensurate with that of the major Shiite parties. This forecast was based on a myth that many Sunni Arabs tell themselves: that they are in the majority, as befits their previous role as the dominant group in Iraq's political and economic life. [complete article]

Comment -- The idea that the end of the war will come within sight as soon as the majority of Sunnis come to terms with the reality of their minority status, is an appealingly hard-nosed realistic perspective. Nevertheless, this expression of "realism" obscures the fact that the breakdown of Iraqi identity is as much a product of the occupation as it is the effect of the manifestation of core ethnic identities. Moreover, it's hard to imagine that those Americans who argue that Iraqi Sunni power should be commensurate with the size of the Sunni population, would accept the same argument if applied globally. Even so, why exactly should a country in which fewer than five percent of the world's population lives exert such a disproportionately large influence over the rest of humanity and the planet on which we all depend? The fact is, whether it is in Iraq or the United States, those who possess power are always inclined to see the inequities from which they benefit as intrinsic features of a natural order.

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Iraqi civil war? Some experts say it's arrived
By John Daniszewski, Los Angeles Times, January 1, 2006

On any given day, a group of Shiite police might be hit in a Sunni suicide attack or ambush. A militiaman in the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security services might arrest, torture and kill a suspected Sunni insurgent. Or a Kurdish official in the new government might be gunned down between home and office.

Unless the assassination target is prominent, or the number of victims rises to at least the high single digits, such events barely rate a mention in Western news reports. Yet the most reliable estimates are that about 1,000 Iraqis have been dying each month, most of them killed by fellow Iraqis.

The term "civil war" conjures images of armies massed against each other, and ultimately the breakup of a state — a far cry from the democratic paradigm the U.S. government meant to achieve in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein 2 1/2 years ago.

Iraqi politicians and leaders routinely extol the country's unity and its aversion to civil war. Last week, Abbas Bayati, an official of the Shiite-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said it would never happen, because the country's religious leaders would not permit it.

Other experts inside and outside Iraq are less sure.

James Fearon, a Stanford University political scientist and an authority on modern conflicts, believes that Iraq's civil war began almost as soon as Hussein was ousted, and that it is now obscured and partly held back by the presence of foreign forces. [complete article]

See also, 5 killed at office of Iraqi party (WP).

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U.S. forces step up Iraq airstrikes
By Sarah Baxter, Ali Rifat, and Peter Almond, The Times, January 1, 2006

American forces are dramatically stepping up air attacks on insurgents in Iraq as they prepare to start the withdrawal of ground troops in the spring.

The number of airstrikes in 2005, running at a monthly average of 25 until August, surged to 120 in November and an expected 150 in December, according to official military figures.

The tempo looks set to increase this year as the Americans pull back from urban combat, leaving street fighting increasingly to Iraqi forces supported by US air power. [complete article]

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2006 is so yesterday
By David E. Sanger, New York Times, January 1, 2006

Before he retreated behind the fences of his ranch here to ring out a bruising year, President Bush made it clear that even with three years to go, he already regards his presidency as a big one in the sweep of American history.

He insists that his real motive in conducting the war in Iraq is to democratize one of the least democratic corners of the earth. He regularly quotes Harry Truman, who rebuilt Japan and Germany while remaking American national security policy from the ground up. Several of his speeches have deliberately included Churchillian echoes about never surrendering to terrorists and achieving total victory, along with made-for-television imagery to drive home the message.

Mr. Bush, of course, is trying to give larger meaning to a war whose unpopularity dragged down his presidency last year. But at moments he often seems to also be talking directly to historians, tilting the pinball machine of presidential legacy. It may not be too early: the year 2006, many in the White House believe, will cement the story line of the Bush presidency for the ages. And there is growing acknowledgment, perhaps premature, that his standing will rise or fall with the fate of Iraq. [complete article]

Washington Note.

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A humbling year
By Vicki Haddock, San Francisco Chronicle, January 1, 2006

If 2004 was the year of bravado -- when the country was high on hubris -- then 2005 was a year for comeuppance.

After the disaster duo of Hurricane Katrina and the government's bungled response ... after a mounting death toll in Iraq, where we had naively declared "Mission Accomplished" ... after our national fascination with gas-guzzling SUVs stalled out amid record gas prices -- Americans had a rendezvous with reality in 2005. Increasingly, we've grown reluctant to place our trust in leaders who exude confidence in confidence alone. [complete article]

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Image problems hamper US on goals abroad
By Howard LaFranchi, Christian Science Monitor, December 30, 2005

Stopping Iran's nuclear program. Limiting the growing influence of an increasingly authoritarian Russia over the former Soviet empire. Making more friends than enemies in the Arab world.

Those are just some of the major foreign policy challenges the Bush administration will confront next year. But to do that, experts say, it must shake off the legacy of 2005 - a year aimed at rebuilding America's bridges to the world that instead kept the US in the diplomatic doghouse.

Two disappointments, they say, stand out. First, despite some optimism earlier this year, America's allies still doubt whether the US has changed its unilateralist ways. And second, this year's domestic events - from the slow federal response to hurricane Katrina to the domestic spying controversy - are influencing US ties with the world as much as international issues. [complete article]

Comment -- The supreme obstacle to the improvement of America's image abroad is the assumption that persists inside the administration (and across much of the country) that America suffers simply from an image problem - that it is above all a victim of the distorted views of others.

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British admit being at terror grilling
By Peter Beaumont and Helena Smith Athens, The Observer, January 1, 2006

British officials have admitted MI6 officers were present during the interrogation of 28 Pakistanis in Greece, despite apparent denials by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.

They insist, however, that the officers took no active part in the men's arrest, questioning or abuse that was later alleged.

As the story of the interrogation of the Pakistanis, picked up in Greece following the 7 July London bombings, has turned into a political scandal in Athens, officials in the UK have retreated from Straw's insistence that the allegations of British involvement were 'fabricated' and 'utter nonsense'.

Instead, in a series of interviews with officials, it has been made clear to The Observer that MI6 officers were present as observers of the interrogations. [complete article]

See also, Accused of kidnapping, 10 agents face lawsuit (NYT).

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North Korea gathers kit for nuclear bombs
Michael Sheridan, Sunday Times, January 1, 2006

North Korea is working to restart a reactor that would produce enough plutonium to make 10 atomic bombs a year, a leading American nuclear scientist has revealed.

Siegfried Hecker, former director of the US government's top secret Los Alamos laboratory, also said the North Koreans reprocessed 8,000 fuel rods to make up to 14kg (30lb) of plutonium last summer, despite taking part in six-party talks hosted by China to end their weapons programme.

"They have the plutonium," he said. "We have to assume the North Koreans can and have made a few nuclear devices."

Hecker's revelations were based on information gleaned during two visits to North Korea, the last in August 2005, in which he met physicists and, in a pure moment from spy fiction, was handed a specimen of weapons-grade plutonium, stored in a marmalade jar.

His findings are being studied with increasing concern in Washington. North Korea further hardened its defiant stance this weekend by ending all United Nations food distribution to its people and by ordering out aid workers, including a British team from the charity Save the Children. [complete article]

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Syrian critic is accused of treason
By Hassan M. Fattah, New York Times, December 31, 2005

The Syrian Parliament called on the government Saturday to indict former Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam on treason and corruption charges over his televised criticism of President Bashar al Assad the day before.

Lawmakers, meeting in a session that was broadcast live, excoriated Mr. Khaddam for insulting Syrian pride and accused him of corruption and high treason. Even his decision to live in France since his forced resignation six months ago drew cries of betrayal.

"You don't deserve to be a Syrian," one lawmaker called out. "You can go to hell because no Syrian can ever forgive you, who hoped to return to your country one day on an American tank."

Mr. Khaddam, who became vice president in 1984, told the pan-Arab satellite news channel Al Arabiya on Friday that President Assad had threatened former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon months before his assassination, and that no Syrian authority could have made the decision to kill Mr. Hariri on its own. But Mr. Khaddam did not specifically accuse Mr. Assad of making or participating in the decision to assassinate Mr. Hariri. [complete article]

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