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Iraq's Sunnis and Sadr's movement make peace
AFP, February 25, 2006

The movement of firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, alleged to have played a role in the anti-Sunni violence over the last few days, publicly made peace with political and religious Sunni leaders.

Four sheikhs from the Sadr movement made a "pact of honor" with the conservative Sunni Muslim Scholars Association, calling for an end to attacks on places of worship, the shedding of blood and condemning any act leading to sedition.

The agreement was made in the particularly symbolic setting of Baghdad's premier Sunni mosque Abu Hanifa where the Shiite sheikhs prayed under the guidance of prominent Sunni imam Abdel Salam al-Qubaissi.

The meeting was broadcast on television and the religious leaders all "condemned the blowing up of the Shiite mausoleum of Samarra as much as the acts of sabotage against the houses of God as well as the assassinations and terrorization of Muslims." [complete article]

Who'll stop an Iraq civil war?
By Tony Karon,, February 23, 2006

Sadr's centrality in averting a civil war is based on three factors: He has emerged as the key power broker in the Shiite alliance that dominated January's election; his primary support base is among the 3 million Shiites of East Baghdad, which would put his militias on the main frontline of any sectarian civil war; and his uncompromising stand against the U.S. presence -- as well as his opposition to the idea of a Shiite autonomous region in the south favored by the largest party in his coalition -- has given him unparalleled credibility (for a Shiite leader) among Iraq's Sunnis. While Khalilzad has drawn the ire of the Shiite leadership for his efforts to pressure it into doing more to accomodate the Sunnis, Sadr represents a Shiite kingmaker with a history of reaching out to Sunnis on the basis of a common (if anti-American) Iraqi nationalism. [complete article]

Comment -- While a sense of the inevitability of civil war reverberates through commentary, events, and the reported remarks of many ordinary Iraqis, it's worth keeping in mind that opportunities for newfound power are already at hand for Moqtada al Sadr. At this point, he clearly has a much greater interest in consolidating his position rather than unleashing a beast that no one can control. Who knows? Perhaps Sadr pictures himself ending up as Iraq's Khomeini!

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Attacks surge in Iraq despite curfew
AP (via NYT), February 25, 2006

A car bomb exploded in a Shiite holy city and 13 members of one Shiite family were gunned down northeast of the capital Saturday in a surge of attacks that killed at least 30 people despite heightened security aimed at curbing sectarian violence following the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine.

At least one more Sunni mosque was attacked in Baghdad on Saturday after two rockets were fired at a Shiite mosque in Tuz Khormato, north of the capital, the previous night. Shooting also broke out near the home of a prominent Sunni cleric as the funeral procession for an Al-Arabiya TV correspondent slain in sectarian violence was passing by. Police believed the procession was the target.

The violence occurred despite an extraordinary daytime curfew in Baghdad and three surrounding provinces. Stretched security forces could not be everywhere to contain attacks that have killed more than 150 people since Wednesday's shrine bombing and pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war. [complete article]

A nation teeters on brink of civil war
By Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2006

It is not uncommon to hear Iraqis speaking of civil war as if it has become inevitable, as if the only questions worth asking are when it will begin, what will spark it — or whether they will one day look back and realize that this civil war, this ambiguous threat, was already underway when the Golden Mosque in Samarra was blown up.

Others won't talk about it at all, skittering away at the mention of "civil war" as if avoiding the thought can make it go away. And there are many Iraqis who believe that their country will still manage to steer clear of all-out conflict. But quietly, people are beginning to ponder how it would unfold.

"We've never had that experience before," said Qassim Rubaii, a 49-year-old Shiite salesman. "For me, I cannot imagine myself killing a Sunni, or imagine a Sunni will kill me."

"My daughter is married to a Sunni," he said. "Does that mean I have to fight him?"

A sense of hardening identity seems to pervade the streets of Iraq; a note of defiance in the way that Sunnis and Shiites now speak of one another. Many display a new bitterness about the injustice meted out by the other sect. Despite calls for calm from clerics and political leaders, religious passions smolder.

"My father is Sunni and my mother is Shiite. I never knew the difference between these two sects before the occupation started," said Umar Kahtan, a 19-year-old high school student who stood with other men in the streets of the middle-class neighborhood of Karada.

But now, he said, "there are people who would kill someone because his name is Umar or Ali…. The politicians aren't doing enough to help protect the religious sites. They can't even protect themselves." [complete article]

Iraq and U.S. face difficult, decisive time
By Paul Richter and Mark Mazzetti, Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2006

Army Col. Jeffrey J. Snow, who commands the 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division based in western Baghdad, said the commanders want Iraqi soldiers and policemen, rather than U.S. troops, to patrol the streets and intercede to quell the violence.

"If we rapidly mass on a particular area, we could incite an incident. And we're careful not to do that," said Snow, who spoke Friday by teleconference to reporters at the Pentagon.

Because of that sensitivity, the American military largely watched the violence from the sidelines over the last several days. And as a result, the success of the central project of Bush's presidency may no longer be in the administration's hands.

"This is extremely serious," said one Defense official who makes frequent trips to Iraq and who spoke on condition of anonymity because of agency rules.

"Whereas previous insurgent activity has mostly been aimed at making parts of Iraq ungovernable, this has split the government. And it significantly weakens the government."

The violence raised doubts about whether U.S. leaders will be willing or able to continue reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq this year. At the same time, some U.S. officials and congressional aides pointed out that continuing strife could convince Congress and the American public that U.S. troops shouldn't be embroiled in a civil war. [complete article]

U.S. report on Iraqi troops is mixed
By Robert Burns, AP (via WP), February 25, 2006

The number of Iraqi army battalions judged by their American trainers to be capable of fighting insurgents without U.S. help has fallen from one to none since September, Pentagon officials said yesterday.

But the number of Iraqi battalions capable of leading the battle, with U.S. troops in a support role, has grown by nearly 50 percent. And the number of battalions engaged in combat has increased by 11 percent.

The Pentagon says its short-term goal is to train more Iraqi units to a level where they can lead the fight, because that allows U.S. troops to focus on tasks besides combat and could reduce U.S. casualties. [complete article]

Comment -- Ironically, the whole issue of raising the strength of Iraqi forces so that "they can stand up as we stand down" will be turned on its head if, as now appears to be happening, the shift is occuring from insurgency to civil war. The troops that the US has been busily training will in all likelihood not be supressing the conflict - they will be components of Shia and Kurdish forces. All the US will have accomplished is in making them better trained and better equipped for a war that America cannot stop.

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On Mideast tour, Rice focuses on Hamas
By Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, February 25, 2006

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a high-profile tour of Egypt and Saudi Arabia last June, she confronted those governments about opening up their political systems. Revisiting both countries this week, however, her call for greater democracy appeared more muted, as some of the aftershocks of the democracy push have given autocratic governments more leverage in their dealings with the United States.

The Bush administration had advocated legislative elections in the Palestinian territories as a way to reinvigorate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, but the move resulted in a sweeping victory last month by the radical Islamic group Hamas. Now, in order to restore hopes for reviving stalled peace talks, the United States needs the help of Egyptian and Saudi leaders to press Hamas to moderate its unyielding demand for Israel's destruction.

Rice did win Arab agreement that the incoming Palestinian cabinet must support peace talks with Israel. But while the United States plans to cut aid to the Palestinians immediately after Hamas members are given posts in the cabinet, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia urged patience before acting against Hamas -- time both countries can also use to fend off U.S. demands for greater democracy. [complete article]

See also, E.U. set to give cash lifeline to Palestinian authority (FT).

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Muslim haters, fun with numbers, and sex with animals
By R.J. Eskow, Huffington Post, February 24, 2006

If 30,000 Muslims have rioted (probably a high number, but if you've got a more accurate one let's hear it), that's 0.000023% of all Muslims, or one Muslim out of every 43,000 worldwide. The frequency of reported rapes in the US suggests that an American is one hundred times more likely to be a rapist than a Muslim is to be a cartoon rioter.

As for the myth that all Muslims are terrorists, commentators should do the numbers, too. The Fundamentalism Project (Marty/Appleby) has found that 20% percentage of Muslims fit the "fundamentalist" criteria - a figure that is essentially the same for all major religions. [complete article]

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Religious strife shows strength of Iraq militias
By Edward Wong and Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times, February 25, 2006

The sectarian violence that has shaken Iraq this week has demonstrated the power that the many militias here have to draw the country into a full-scale civil war, and how difficult it would be for the state to stop it, Iraqi and American officials say.

The militias pose a double threat to the future of Iraq: they exist both as marauding gangs, as the violence on Wednesday showed, and as sanctioned members of the Iraqi Army and the police. [complete article]

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Muslim clerics call for an end to Iraqi rioting
By Robert F. Worth, New York Times, February 25, 2006

With the streets of the capital and other major cities largely emptied by an extraordinary daytime curfew, imams across Iraq called Friday for an end to the sectarian rioting that has left more than 170 people dead over the past three days, as political leaders held emergency meetings to contain the crisis.

But in their sermons and public statements, both Sunni and Shiite political and clerical leaders also betrayed an ominous polarization of attitudes about who was at fault for the outbreak of violence, along with an increased hostility to the American role in Iraq. [complete article]

See also, Iraq's insurgents focus on creating civil strife (Knight Ridder), Fear of informants has stoked climate of fear in Baghdad (Knight Ridder), and Iraq shrine bombing was specialist job: minister (AFP).

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Saudis thwart assault on key oil installation
AP (IHT), February 24, 2006

Assailants driving two cars loaded with explosives attacked the world's largest oil processing facility here Friday, but were prevented from breaking through the gates when guards opened fire on them and blew up their vehicles, Saudi officials said.

The explosions killed at least two attackers and severely wounded two guards. For several hours afterward, the security forces exchanged fire with other attackers, a witness said.

The Saudi oil minister said the attack 'had not affected operations at the Abqaiq processing plant, denying a report on Al Arabiya television that the flow of oil was halted briefly after a pipeline was damaged. [complete article]

Foiled attack on Saudi oil sends ominous message
By Elizabeth Douglass, Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2006

A suicide bomb attack at a huge Saudi Arabian petroleum facility rattled world energy markets Friday, sending crude prices soaring more than $2 a barrel in New York as it underscored the fragility of world oil supplies.

The massive Abqaiq processing plant was undamaged when at least two cars exploded outside its gates, Saudi officials said. Although operations weren't interrupted, the assault on the world's largest oil producer exacerbated the ever-present fear that the flow of oil could fall short of the globe's voracious appetite. Traders call that anxiety petronoia. [complete article]

Saudi oil facilities: Al-Qaeda's next target?
By John C.K. Daly, Terrorism Monitor, February 23, 2006

Former CIA agent Robert Baer has considered the implications of terrorist attacks on Saudi oil facilities, writing, "At the least, a moderate-to-severe attack on Abqaiq would slow average production there from 6.8 million barrels a day to roughly a million barrels for the first two months post-attack, a loss equivalent to approximately one-third of America's current daily consumption of crude oil. Even as long as seven months after an attack, Abqaiq output would still be about 40 percent of pre-attack output, as much as four million barrels below normal -- roughly equal to what all of the OPEC partners collectively took out of production during the devastating 1973 embargo" (see Robert Baer's Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold our Soul for Saudi Crude). An al-Qaeda assault on Abqaiq would have the added propaganda effect of killing Americans. Abqaiq is an oil-company town; in 2005, nearly half of its approximately 2,000 inhabitants were U.S. citizens. [complete article]

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What price xenophobia?
By Christopher Dickey, Newsweek, February 24, 2006

Notwithstanding pro forma demurrals, the driving theme here is that "Arabs" -- usually talked of generically as if there were no difference between those in Dubai, say, and those in Baghdad or Benghazi -- can't be trusted to operate American ports. When Bush says the posturing on Capital Hill is sending the wrong signal to some of the few friends the United States has left in the Arab world, he's right. (Too bad he's sent so many of the wrong signals himself on other Middle Eastern issues.) And it's obvious much of the debate is conducted by people who have no idea what kind of place Dubai is, and what kind of people -- or person, really -- runs it. [complete article]

See also, Taste of the future (David Ignatius).

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Neocon superhawk earns his wings on port flap
By Jim Lobe, IPS, February 23, 2006

Love him or hate him, Frank Gaffney is effective.

The founder and president of the Washington-based Centre for Security Policy (CSP), a small think tank funded mainly by U.S. defence contractors, far-right foundations, and right-wing Zionists, Gaffney was among the first to seize on the government's approval of a Dubai company to manage terminals at six major U.S. ports and helped blow it up into a major embarrassment to Pres. George W. Bush.

Indeed, it was Gaffney who wrote the first nationally syndicated column about the approval, which, if sustained, would turn over the management of terminals in the ports of New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Miami, Baltimore, and New Orleans to Dubai Ports World (DPW), a government-owned company based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). [complete article]

In Dubyous battle
By Ian Williams, Asia Times, February 25, 2006

On Thursday, the Dubai company offered to delay the part of the deal related to the US to give the Bush administration more time to convince lawmakers the deal posed no security risks.

The fuss was wholeheartedly embraced by Democrat legislators, who, if not as all-around xenophobic as the Republicans, do not usually have to be pushed hard to grandstand on an anti-Arab platform.

While most of their voters, for example, considered the Iraq war a disastrous mistake even before it was started, both New York Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton have yet to withdraw their support for it. And they led the charge against Dubai, almost the only ally the US has in the region. For a New York politico, the only good Arab is a pilloried one. [complete article]

See also, Arab firm offers to delay deal on seaports

Port problems said to dwarf new fears
By Paul Blustein and Walter Pincus, Washington Post, February 24, 2006

For people who have grown anxious about U.S. port security because a Dubai company may soon manage operations at six container terminals on the East Coast, Kim Petersen suggests that the real grounds for concern lie elsewhere -- such as the fence he saw at a West African port a few months ago.

The newly built fence was a source of pride to the port's officials, who wanted to show that they were protecting their facility against any terrorists seeking to sneak a bomb aboard a U.S.-bound container. But it was a 5 1/2 -foot-tall chain-link fence -- hardly sufficient for the task, said Petersen, president of SeaSecure, a maritime security firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The tale illustrates a point emphasized by many people familiar with security operations at U.S. ports: Among all the reasons to fret about vulnerabilities to terrorist attacks, the nationality of the companies managing the terminals is one of the least worrisome. [complete article]

The boy who cried wolf
By William Grieder, The Nation, February 23, 2006

David Brooks, the high-minded conservative pundit, dismissed the Dubai Ports controversy as an instance of political hysteria that will soon pass. He was commenting on PBS, and I thought I heard a little quaver in his voice when he said this was no big deal. Brooks consulted "the experts," and they assured him there's no national security risk in a foreign company owned by Middle East Muslims--actually, by an Arab government--managing six major American ports. Cool down, people. This is how the world works in the age of globalization.

Of course, he is correct. But what a killjoy. This is a fun flap, the kind that brings us together. Republicans and Democrats are frothing in unison, instead of polarizing incivilities. Together, they are all thumping righteously on the poor President. I expect he will fold or at least retreat tactically by ordering further investigation. The issue is indeed trivial. [complete article]

Comment -- Even though by this point most of the performers in this piece of political theater must know that the issue is bogus, the national sentiment that they are tapping into is not trivial: it's ethnic hatred. Serbians knew how to build national unity through hatred of Muslims, as did Germans find a sense of "togetherness" by ostracizing, vilifying, and then exterminating Jews. The port security issue is simply the latest instance of Americans nurturing a malignant bond through increasingly public displays of Arab bashing.

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Shiite leader calls for Iraq unity
AP (via IHT), February 24, 2006

Iraq's most influential Shiite political leader called Friday for Sunni-Shiite unity and condemned the killing of Iraqis.

The statement by Abdul Aziz al- Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was seen as a bid to help pull the country from the brink of civil war after a wave of Shiite outrage triggered by the bombing of a Shiite shrine on Wednesday.

Hakim said those who carried out the bombing at the Askariya shrine in Samarra "do not represent the Sunnis in Iraq." He blamed followers of Saddam Hussein and of the rebel leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, saying, "We all have to unite in order to eliminate them." [complete article]

See also, Clerics take lead after Iraq bombing (LAT), Baghdad calm after sporadic fighting (Aljazeera), and Daytime curfew in four Iraqi provinces halts violence (WP)

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Violence strains U.S. strategy and imperils pullout plans
By Steven R. Weisman and Robert F. Worth, New York Times, February 24, 2006

The violence in Iraq after the bombing of a Shiite mosque this week has abruptly thrown the Bush administration on the defensive, and there were signs on Thursday that American officials recognized new perils to their plans to withdraw troops this year. The American enterprise in Iraq seemed beleaguered on two fronts, political and military. [complete article]

See also, Is Iraq headed for civil war, or worse? (Reuters) and Can Iraq avoid civil war? (The Times).

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Car bombers foiled at Saudi oil site
By Salah Nasrawi, AP (via WP), February 24, 2006

Suicide bombers in explosives-laden cars attempted to attack an oil processing facility that handles about two-thirds of Saudi Arabia's petroleum output on Friday, but were stopped when guards opened fire on them, causing the cars to explode, officials said.

The Saudi oil minister said the blast "did not affect operations" at the Abqaiq facility, denying an earlier report on Al-Arabiya television that the flow of oil was halted briefly after a pipeline was damaged. [complete article]

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U.S. envoy says sectarian violence threatens Iraq's future
By Edward Wong, New York Times, February 24, 2006

The American ambassador to Iraq said Friday that the country was on the precipice of full-scale civil war, and that Iraqi leaders would have to come together and compromise if they wanted to save their homeland.

The ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, made his remarks as sectarian fury in the streets appeared to ebb after two days of reprisals over the bombing of a major Shiite mosque. The violence prompted the most powerful Sunni Arab political group to suspend talks with Shiite and Kurdish politicians on forming a new government. "What we've seen in the past two days, the attack has had a major impact here, getting everyone's attention that Iraq is in danger," Mr. Khalilzad said in a conference call with reporters.

The country's leaders, he added, "must come together, they must compromise with each other to bring the people of Iraq together and save this country." [complete article]

See also, Violent cycle of revenge stuns Iraqis (NYT).

Comment -- Yesterday afternoon, State Dept. spokesman Adam Ereli, disputed that there had been a lot of incidents of violence following the Askariya Shrine bombing and went on to say, "rather than see a collapse or a setback, I think in some ways, you can see an affirmation that the approach we've been taking has worked. You've got political leadership acting together on behalf of the common good and you've got security forces demonstrating a capability and a responsibility as a national entity that we've been working to develop and that has now been put to the test and I think is proving successful." Who's Ereli being coached by? Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf?

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More clashes shake Iraq; political talks are in ruins
By Edward Wong, New York Times, February 24, 2006

A groundswell of sectarian fury continued to roil Iraq on Thursday after Wednesday's bombing of a major Shiite shrine, leaving at least 138 people dead in the past two days and political negotiations over a new government in ruins.

The threat of full-scale civil war loomed over the country as Sunni politicians lashed out at Shiite leaders on Thursday, accusing them of igniting anti-Sunni reprisals, and at the American military, charging it with standing idly by as the violence erupted. The most powerful Sunni Arab political group said it was suspending talks with Shiite and Kurdish politicians on forming a new government.

The killings and assaults across Iraq amounted to the worst sectarian violence since the American invasion. They have provoked questions about the proper role of the American military, its ability to control powerful Shiite militias, whom many Iraqis blamed for the attacks on Sunnis, and the Bush administration's plans for drawing down troops. [complete article]

Comment -- Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports:
In Washington, the State Department insisted that US policy in Iraq was succeeding and denied that political negotiations had collapsed, only that they had paused for a day. "Come on, let's not blow this out of proportion," said spokesman Adam Ereli, who denied reports of widespread violence. "Rather than see a collapse or a setback, I think in some ways, you can see an affirmation that the approach we've been taking has worked."

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Iraq sectarian conflict reverberates beyond borders
By William Wallis, Financial Times, February 23, 2006

The bombing of one of Shia Islam's holiest sites in Iraq has reverberated across the Muslim world. But so transparent is the attempt to drive a wedge between Islam's two main sects, that it may, outside Iraq, have the opposite effect to the one the bombers had intended.

"We are expecting a very big demonstration in Bahrain today, and it will be shared between Sunni and Shia, which is a very good thing," said Sheikh Ali Salman, the young leader of Bahrain's Shia el Wefaq party.

In Iran on Thursday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, cautioned against retaliatory attacks by Shia. "There are definitely some plots to force Shia to attack the mosques and other properties respected by the Sunnis," he said. "Any measure to contribute to that direction is helping the enemies of Islam and is forbidden by sharia [law]."

The conciliatory note struck by some Shia leaders in the wake of the Askariya mosque attack reflects the acute sensitivity throughout the region to the danger that sectarian sensibilities in several countries might be inflamed by any escalation towards civil war in Iraq. [complete article]

The power of symbols

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Iraq's burning season
By Paul Rogers, Open Democracy, February 23, 2006

In the last weeks of 2004, shortly after November's assault on Fallujah, 5,000 troops drawn from the 1st infantry division and Iraqi forces were sent into Samarra to take the city from insurgents. A few months later, a twelve-kilometre-long earth wall was bulldozed all the way round the outside of the city, broken by just three entry/exit points which could, so the theory went, be policed to keep out insurgents.

Within the city, US army units were housed in public buildings and other locations, with extensive free-fire "killing" zones around them, extending for 100 metres. In the process, houses were cleared of occupants to keep the surrounding areas free for garrison protection by machine-guns mounted on the roofs. Patrols were mounted throughout the city to ensure it was clear of insurgents.

The result of this intense security activity – even prior to the 22 February mosque assault – was failure. Samarra's economy has largely collapsed in the face of this foreign occupation, and the city's population has fallen from 200,000 to 90,000 since the US plan was implemented. Armed attacks by insurgents, which initially fell by half, are again increasing; indeed, insurgents are operating in the city so successfully that they are once again setting off roadside bombs within the city itself, in spite of the wall and the roadblocks. The number of such bombs rose from eight in October 2005 to fifteen in January 2006. [complete article]

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How costly is too costly?
By Mark Engler, TomDispatch, February 23, 2006

So how much will the war cost? The question occasionally appears in the media, never a new issue, never a settled one either. Still, there are some certainties about the costs of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. One is that it keeps going up. The President has now submitted a "guns over butter" budget to Congress that increases Pentagon spending to $440 billion, while taking away funds from social services at home and development assistance abroad. One of the great curiosities of this huge sum is that it does not include funding for the wars we are actually fighting. Those are appropriated separately -- this year, the White House will reportedly be asking for another $120 billion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, roughly equal to what it spent in 2005.

Another certainty of wartime accounting is that the cost of the war in Iraq will remain far higher than the Bush administration wants anyone to think. It's already stratospherically beyond the initial estimate of $50-60 billion used to sell its war to the public. That number was meant to conjure memories of the previous Gulf War -- Operation Desert Storm -- an engagement Americans recall as swift and relatively painless, in part because an array of allies helped pay for it. The U.S. ponied up only $7 billion for that conflict. The administration's other magic trick was taking Larry Lindsey, the White House economic advisor who publicly suggested in late 2002 that a military return to Iraq would cost closer to $100-200 billion, and making him disappear. [complete article]

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Big problem, Dubai deal or not
By David E. Sanger, New York Times, February 23, 2006

In the political collision between the White House and Congress over the $6.8 billion deal that would give a Dubai company management of six American ports, most experts seem to agree on only one major point: The gaping holes in security at American ports have little to do with the nationality of who is running them.

The deal would transfer the leases for ports in New York, Baltimore and Miami, among others, from a British-owned company to one controlled by the government of Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates. But the security of the ports is still the responsibility of Coast Guard and Customs officials. Foreign management of American ports is nothing new, as the role already played by companies from China, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and trading partners in Europe attests.

While critics of the deal have raised the specter that it might open the way to the "infiltration" of American ports by terrorists from the Middle East, the Dubai company would in most cases inherit a work force that is mainly American, with hiring subject to the same regulations as under the current British management. [complete article]

Comment -- The fact that this story is still the focus of both the media and Washington shows the appalling condition of political life in America. But since we have our homeland security hullabaloo and the Islamic world has its cartoon frenzy, there's clearly no clash of civilizations. Both East and West, there's a surfeit of passion and a deficit of reason.

For Dubaians, the American objections to DP World appear rooted in racism and hypocracy. Justin Raimondo describes the affair as a "smear campaign against an entire country – indeed, against an entire region of the world." And in considering the implications for foreign investment, the Washington Post wonders whether the United States is prone to "self-destructive fits of xenophobia." President Bush now faces a GOP rebellion and the Wall Street Journal identifies the ways in which port security issues are homegrown, having nothing to do with who owns the terminals. Meanwhile, the New York Times provides some background on how a terminal operates.

The biggest irony in all of this is that in as much as port security is a real issue, it's not actually being addressed!

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Arab democracy is exposing the blind spot of U.S. policy
By David Hirst, The Guardian, February 23, 2006

Some argue that Hamas will be forced to go through exactly the same evolutionary process, from militancy to moderation, that Arafat and the secular nationalists did before it; that it already is, in fact, with its language of "truces" whose legitimacy goes back to the prophet Muhammad himself. That might well be. But Hamas has made it clear that it will not, cannot, metamorphose itself overnight as Israel and much of the west, with their conditions for engagement with it, seem to expect. That would negate much of the basis on which it was elected. So the plain fact now is that Arab democracy will not merely impede further advance in the Arab-Israeli peace process, it will endanger what the process has already achieved.

It will certainly do so, at least until America and the west, undergoing a long-overdue metamorphosis of their own, decide that Israel should become democratic too. Not for its Jewish citizens, which essentially it always has been, but for the Palestinians, at whose expense it came into being and has perpetuated itself ever since. If there is a chance of checking the resurgence of Palestinian and Arab rejectionism, it is by checking the persistent rejectionism of the other side and getting Israel to accept what in practice it never has: that very partial restitution of Palestinian national rights embodied in the Oslo accords and their two-state formula. Arafat and his now-fallen Fatah leadership persuaded his people to accept that historic concession, and reports from the occupied territories suggest that, in spite of Hamas, they still largely do. But that is not much use so long as Israel fails to honour the historically much less onerous, reciprocal concession that the world should now be urgently demanding of it. [complete article]

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Apartheid in a cage
Der Spiegel, February 23, 2006

"As long as you want to maintain the Israeli settlers in Hebron and give them a semblance of a normal existence, you must destroy everyone else's existence." (An Israeli soldier serving in Hebron).

Like every young Israeli, 23-year old Yehuda Shaul served in the army. And like many military postings in the country, his was not an easy one. Yehuda spent one year of his three-year compulsory military service in Hebron, a city south of Jerusalem -- and on the front lines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli settlers have taken over large chunks of the town, and many of the Palestinians who live there would like them gone. Yehuda was in Hebron during the most intense phase of the so-called Second Intifada -- the period of Palestinian uprising lasting from 2001 until 2004.

After military service, it's not uncommon for young Israelis to bolt the country. A year of travelling through the Latin American jungle, the rice fields of Asia, or the mysticism of India -- the perfect antidote to the violence of day-to-day military life in Israel. Yehuda, though, stayed at home. And founded "Shovrim Shtika" instead. "Breaking the Silence." [complete article]

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Nasrallah dares America to try to disarm Hizbullah
By Karine Raad, Daily Star, February 24, 2006

Hizbullah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Thursday dared the United States to come to Lebanon's shores and try to take the resistance's weapons. Nasrallah's made his comments before tens of thousands of Shiites, many of them denouncing the U.S., who rallied in Beirut's southern suburbs to protest the bombing of one of their sacred shrines in Iraq.

Nasrallah's speech was delivered in the wake of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Lebanon to promote the full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559.

Nasrallah lashed out at the U.S. administration, which he accused of seeking to disarm the resistance in order to serve Israel's interests.

"America wants the resistance's weapons? Then let America come to Lebanon's shores and try to take them," he said. [complete article]

See also, Rice makes surprise visit to Lebanon (WP).

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Furor over cartoons pits Muslim against Muslim
By Michael Slackman and Hassan M. Fattah, New York Times, February 22, 2006

In a direct challenge to the international uproar over cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad, the Jordanian journalist Jihad Momani wrote: "What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras, or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony?"

In Yemen, an editorial by Muhammad al-Assadi condemned the cartoons but also lamented the way many Muslims reacted. "Muslims had an opportunity to educate the world about the merits of the Prophet Muhammad and the peacefulness of the religion he had come with," Mr. Assadi wrote. He added, "Muslims know how to lose, better than how to use, opportunities."

To illustrate their points, both editors published selections of the drawings -- and for that they were arrested and threatened with prison.

Mr. Momani and Mr. Assadi are among 11 journalists in five countries facing prosecution for printing some of the cartoons. Their cases illustrate another side of this conflict, the intra-Muslim side, in what has typically been defined as a struggle between Islam and the West. [complete article]

See also, Islam vs. the West: clashing sensibilities (Salim Muwakkil).

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Iran pledges financial aid to Hamas-led Palestinians
By Steven Erlanger, New York Times, February 23, 2006

A senior Iranian official pledged on Wednesday to provide financial support to a Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority, which is already in budget trouble and facing more aid cuts.

"We will definitely help this government financially in order to resist America's cruelty," said Ali Larijani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, referring to the Palestinian Authority. He spoke in Tehran after meeting with the senior Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, but provided no details or figures about what kind or level of support oil-affluent Iran would give. [complete article]

Egypt rejects appeal by Rice
By Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, February 22, 2006

Egypt rejected U.S. efforts Tuesday to win international support for a clampdown on aid to the Palestinian Authority when Hamas ministers take power, arguing that the radical Islamic group should be given time to accept Israel.

"I'm sure that Hamas will develop, will evolve. We should not prejudge the issue," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit told reporters at a news conference with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrived here on the first leg of a Middle East tour to line up support for the U.S. position. [complete article]

Saudis reject U.S. request to cut off aid to Hamas
By Joel Brinkley, New York Times, February 23, 2006

Saudi Arabia on Wednesday joined the list of Arab countries that said they were unwilling to cut off money to Hamas, as the United States has requested.

Saudi Arabia gives the Palestinian government $15 million a month, and Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during meetings here that "it would be height of irony, at the time when we need to take care of these people who are seeking peace, that we shall fall short of doing so," he said during a news conference Wednesday night. [complete article]

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Condi's baffling new Iran strategy
By Fred Kaplan, Slate, February 21, 2006

How to handle Iran may be the thorniest problem in global politics today -- nobody seems to have a solution -- but the Bush administration's newest idea is simply baffling. Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for $75 million in emergency funding to promote internal opposition to Iran's fundamentalist regime.

"The United States," Rice testified, "will actively confront the policies of this Iranian regime, and at the same time we are going to work to support the aspirations of the Iranian people for freedom in their own country."

This statement does sum up America's two main interests in the fate of Iran: first, to lure the regime away from developing nuclear weapons; second, to help create the conditions for a friendlier, democratic regime that might be either less interested in building nukes or less inclined to brandish them.

The trouble with Rice's request for emergency funding is that it's counterproductive to both goals. Nearly every nation has an interest in halting, detouring, or at least slowing down the Iranian mullahs' quest for atomic bombs. But, as even most critical observers acknowledge, one motive for the Iranians is self-defense -- to deter an attack, principally by the United States or Israel. That being the case, an American policy that explicitly promotes, and publicly funds, Iranian regime change will likely compel the mullahs to accelerate their nuclear program -- and certainly to resist outside pressures to shut it down. [complete article]

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Iran's delay on enrichment deal seen as bid to avoid sanctions
By Peter Finn, Washington Post, February 22, 2006

Iran continued Tuesday to parry a Russian offer to enrich uranium on Russian soil for its nuclear energy program, putting off any move to finalize a deal because it has no real incentive to bend yet, according to diplomats and Russian analysts.

Instead, the analysts say, Iranian negotiators are probing for divisions within the informal coalition of Russia, China, the United States and the European Union that is opposed to Iran developing a nuclear weapons program. [complete article]

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Over 130 killed as sectarian violence sweeps Iraq
By Lin Noueihed and Mussab Al-Khairalla, Reuters, February 23, 2006

More than 130 people, including dozens who joined a demonstration against sectarian violence, were killed in bloodshed across Iraq despite calls for calm on Thursday from leaders fearful of civil war.

A day after a suspected al Qaeda bomb destroyed a major Shi'ite shrine, Iraq canceled all leave for the police and army and minority Sunni political leaders pulled out of U.S.-backed talks on forming a national unity government, accusing the ruling Shi'ites of fomenting dozens of attacks on Sunni mosques.

Washington, which wants stability in Iraq to help it extract around 130,000 U.S. troops, has also called for restraint, reflecting international fears that the oil-exporting country of 27 million may be slipping closer to all-out sectarian war.

But the main Sunni religious authority made an extraordinary public criticism of the Shi'ites' most revered clerical leader, accusing him of fuelling the violence by calling for protests. [complete article]

See also Sectarian violence surges after shrine bombing (WP), In the destruction of a golden dome, the debris of certainty (Philip Kennicott), and Shock over Iraqi reporter's death (BBC).


Comment -- While moderation is now clearly far from the minds of more than a few headline writers (e.g. The Independent's "The day hell was unleashed"), the US military seems to be in denial about the direness of the current situation. AFP quotes coalition spokesman, Major General Rick Lynch, saying, "Some drive-by shootings against mosques have been reported ... that's where we are. So we are not seeing civil war igniting in Iraq. We are not seeing 77, 80, 100 mosques damaged in Iraq. We are not seeing death on the streets." Does that mean that, as far as possible, US and other foreign forces are doing their best to stay off the streets?

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The power of symbols
By Paul Woodward, The War in Context, February 22, 2006

In response to the bombing of the al-Askariya shrine in Samarra, President Bush issued an eloquent statement:
I ask all Iraqis to exercise restraint in the wake of this tragedy and to pursue justice in accordance with the laws and constitution of Iraq. Violence will only contribute to what the terrorists sought to achieve by this act.
Is it inconceivable that while addressing his fellow Americans after September 11, 2001, Bush could have expressed a similar sentiment?

In New York City, four and a half years ago, al Qaeda simultaneously created and destroyed a great symbol of American power. Before 9/11, aside from those New Yorkers and tourists for whom the Twin Towers were a visible presence, how many people across this country or around the world would have ranked those stark monoliths as outstanding American icons? For that matter, before 9/11 how many Americans if shown photographs of the United Nations Secretariat Building and the World Trade Center would have correctly distinguished one from the other? Truth be told, the iconic power of the Twin Towers only emerged as they were turning to dust. The destruction was staggering and the tragedy horrific yet the symbolism was an ex post facto concoction. It didn't have to be seen that way.

Now consider today's destruction. For some Americans it might seem obscene that I would draw a parallel. After all, whereas almost 3,000 people died on 9/11, at this time there are no reports that the explosion in Samarra directly resulted in any fatalities. Yet the significance of what happened cannot be measured in numbers.

What was destroyed today in Samarra was not a hub of commerce, but "a symbol of divine dominance engulfing the emotional and physical being of the faithful." More specifically, it was an assault on one of the holiest shrines of Shia Islam. As one Iraqi said, "This is something greater and more symbolic than attacks on people. This is a strike at who we are." And whereas on 9/11 the future of the United States was in fact not in peril, the future of Iraq now hangs in the balance.

Will this attack, as Juan Cole suggests, mark "a tipping point" - the final outrage that unleashes a Shia uprising?

Few people in Iraq will have heard or have had any interest in President Bush's wise counsel, but if we were to draw parallels with his response to 9/11, his counterpart in Iraq today would be Moqtada al-Sadr who said, "We will not only condemn and protest but we will act against those militants." Ayatollah Sistani on the other hand is appealing for calm and a week of mourning, though he clearly recognizes the need for people to release their anger. Yet he too offers an ominous warning: "If the security systems are unable to secure necessary protection, the believers are able to do so with the might of God."

The question now: has the need for vengeance already fixed an unyielding grip in the Shia heart? With 90 Sunni mosques attacked in just one day of reprisals, civil war is as close as ever to being an undeniable reality.

Juan Cole

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Al-Askariya shrine: 'Not just a major cathedral'
By Sam Knight, The Times, February 22, 2006

Today's attack on al-Askariya shrine marks the first time that Iraqi sectarian violence has targeted one of the country's central religious symbols.

The Shia Muslim shrine has existed in the middle of the ancient city of Samarra, one of the largest archaeological sites in the world, since 944, when it was built to house the tombs of two ninth century imams, direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. [complete article]

See also, Dozens of Sunni mosques attacked throughout Iraq (AP), U.S. says will help rebuild bombed shrine (AP), and Blast destroys golden dome of sacred Shiite shrine in Iraq (NYT).

Comment -- I don't think one needs to be a Shia, an Iraqi, or a Muslim from anywhere to sense the magnitude of this loss. American offers to help rebuild the al-Askariya shrine are obviously well-intentioned but there are times - and this unfortunately could be one of them - when damage is truly irrepairable. It will take much more than money and materials to restore what was also destroyed in the blast: the sanctity of a sacred site.

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Shiite leader cites U.S. in shrine blast
AP (via The Guardian), February 22, 2006

A Shiite political leader said Wednesday that U.S. Zalmay Khalilzad shares some of the responsibility for the bombing of a major Shiite shrine because of his criticism of Shiite-led security forces

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, cited Khalilzad's statement at a press conference Monday that America would not continue to support institutions run by sectarian groups with links to armed militias.

"For sure, the statements made by the ambassador were not made in a responsible way and he did not behave like an ambassador," al-Hakim told reporters. "These statements were the reason for more pressure and gave green lights to terrorist groups. And, therefore, he shares in part of the responsibility." [complete article]

Samarra: Shia pilgrimage centre
BBC News, February 22, 2006

Over the centuries, the central Iraqi city of Samarra has attracted millions of Shia pilgrims from all over the Muslim world.

They travel to the city to worship at the sacred tombs of Ali al-Hadi and al-Hasan al-Askari, the 10th and 11th Shia Imams, and the site where the 12th Imam, Mohammed al-Mahdi, disappeared. [complete article]

See also, Iraqi cleric Sadr vows revenge over shrine blast (Reuters) and Blast at Iraqi Shiite shrine spawns reprisals against Sunnis (AP).

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Shiite protests roil Iraq
By Juan Cole, February 22, 2006

Tuesday was an apocalyptic day in Iraq. I am not normally exactly sanguine about the situation there. But the atmospherics are very, very bad, in a way that most Western observers will miss.

The day started out with a protest by ten thousand people in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, against the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. These days, Shiites are weeping, mourning and flagellating in commemoration of the martyrdom of the Prophet's grandson, Imam Husayn. So it is an emotional time in the ritual calendar. when feelings can easily be whipped up about issues like insults to the Prophet. An anti-Danish demonstration in Karbala is a surrogate for anti-American and anti-occupation sentiment. The US won't be able to stay in Iraq withiut increasing trouble of this sort.

Then guerrillas set off a huge bomb in a Shiite corner of the mostly Sunni Arab Dura quarter of Baghdad, killing 22 and wounding 28. Another 9 were killed in other violence around Iraq. These attacks are manifestations of an unconventional civil war.

Then real disaster struck. The guerriillas blew up the domed Askariyah shrine in Samarra. The shrine, sacred to Shiiites, honors 3 Imams or holy descendants of the Prophet. They are Ali al-Hadi, Hasan al-Askari, and his disappeared son Muhammad al-Mahdi. Thousands of Shiiites demonnstrated in Samarra and in East Baghdad, against this desecration. [complete article]

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Ports, prejudice & cartoons: On hypocrisy, xenophobia and danger
By Lounsbury, 'Aqoul, February 19, 2006

The emerging US controversy over Dubai Port World (an atrocious name I may add, even DP World is bad - hereafter at 'Aqoul, DPW) buying out historic UK port operator P&O - which incidentally includes a portfolio of US assets.

That unfortunate fact - a portfolio of US assets, which is to say management interests in six US ports on the United States Eastern Sea Board - has occasioned the exposure of a vein of ugly sentiment and public commentary, as well as typical for the "blogosphere" blind and ill-informed reaction. Another confirmation that Right and Left blog authors’ sneering with respect to the real media is badly misplaced.

This post – which will be updated and moved forward as I develop it – is intended to correct the poorly-informed xenophobic knee-jerking on Left and Right. [complete article]

Strife deepens over port security
By Alexandra Marks, Christian Science Monitor, February 22, 2006

"What we're seeing is a very unfortunate knee-jerk reaction in terms of the Muslim world," says Lester Lave, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business in Pittsburgh, noting the United Arab Emirates is a key US ally in the Muslim world. "If you treat your strong allies this way - this is like a poke in the eye - then what in the world should people who are not our strong allies expect from us?"

In past two years, the US has been negotiating a free-trade agreement with the UAE. Professor Lave agrees that security is important, but he believes it can be negotiated in the contract. Some homeland- security experts say the interagency review, which was led by the Bush administration's Treasury Department, may have provided even greater security guarantees than most international business deals do.

"In a weird way, the interagency review allows the US to hold international companies to a higher level of standards and accountability," says Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. "There are some legitimate security concerns, but it's going to come down to enforcement, and arguably at a higher standard than we have had in the past." [complete article]

Bush would veto any bill halting Dubai port deal
By David E. Sanger and Eric Lipton, New York Times, February 22, 2006

President Bush, trying to put down a rapidly escalating rebellion among leaders of his own party, said Tuesday that he would veto any legislation blocking a deal for a state-owned company in Dubai to take over the management of port terminals in New York, Miami, Baltimore and other major American cities.

Mr. Bush issued the threat after the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, and the House speaker, J. Dennis Hastert, publicly criticized the deal and said a thorough review was necessary to ensure that terrorists could not exploit the arrangement to slip weapons into American ports. Mr. Bush suggested that the objections to the deal might be based on bias against a company from the Middle East, one he said was an ally in fighting terrorism.

"If there was any chance that this transaction would jeopardize the security of the United States, it would not go forward," Mr. Bush said, discussing a government review of the deal that began in October and ended on Jan. 16 without producing any objections from officials in his administration. [complete article]

Comment -- The blogosphere continues to hyperventilate but I still haven't come across anyone using the line, "the UAE - like Germany - a country tied to the terrorists who attacked America on 9/11." I wonder why?

I'm not sure whether to regard it as disturbing or amusing, but at this point I think George Bush could come out and say absolutely anything and a significant number of people would conclude it must be false. Bush says, "I've been looking into this Intelligent Design business and realize now it's a bunch of crock. Darwin was right." In the anti-Bush alternate reality, Intelligent Design suddenly acquires new credibility.


Holy moly!!! I just had an epiphany! No need to worry about DP World managing US ports. All we have to do is ban entry to ships from the Middle East. Then we can just make up the shortfall in oil supplies by taking over Russia (can't really say "we won the Cold War" if we didn't get a prize) and Venezuala and probably Nigeria too. Problem solved!

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Germany weighs if it played role in seizure by U.S.
By Don Van Natta Jr., New York Times, February 21, 2006

For more than a year, the German government has criticized the United States for its role in the abduction of a German man who was taken to an American prison in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he said he was held and tortured for five months after being mistaken for a terrorism suspect.

German officials said they knew nothing about the man's abduction and have repeatedly pressed Washington for information about the case, which has set off outrage here. At a meeting in Berlin last December, Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded an explanation from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice over the incident.

But on Monday in Neu-Ulm near Munich, the police and prosecutors opened an investigation into whether Germany served as a silent partner of the United States in the abduction of the man, Khaled el-Masri, a German citizen of Arab descent who was arrested Dec. 31, 2003, in Macedonia before being flown to the Kabul prison. [complete article]

Comment -- At least to my eye, this article has an ugly subtext. There's an insinuation -- a suggestion not fit for print, but of course that's the beauty of insinuation: it requires no ink -- it's just a hint that if German authorities were really complicit in Khaled el-Masri's kidnapping and torture then that implies that the United States has been unfairly singled out by those who regard torture and kidnapping as unnacceptable tools for combatting terrorism. The Americans have been real troopers about being willing to do the dirty work, but some of those Europeans - well they've just been hypocrites and that's unconscionable! Is that what Mr. Van Natta wants us to think?

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The Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community's secret historical document reclassification program
By Matthew M. Aid, National Security Archive, February 21, 2006

The CIA and other federal agencies have secretly reclassified over 55,000 pages of records taken from the open shelves at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), according to a report published today on the World Wide Web by the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Matthew Aid, author of the report and a visiting fellow at the Archive, discovered this secret program through his wide-ranging research in intelligence, military, and diplomatic records at NARA and found that the CIA and military agencies have reviewed millions of pages at an unknown cost to taxpayers in order to sequester documents from collections that had been open for years. [complete article]

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Musharraf losing his grip
By Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times, February 22, 2006

Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of the six-party opposition religious grouping the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), who was briefly detained on the weekend, has set a deadline of March 23 to depose Musharraf, but there are clear signals that within a matter of weeks the military regime could have further lost some of its grip on power.

The administration has already in effect been sidelined in the tribal areas of North West Frontier Province, where in South and North Waziristan a Taliban-led administration is in place and the Pakistani security forces cannot move beyond their district headquarters of Wana and Miranshah.

Similarly, Balochistan province has turned into a quagmire, with the armed forces having lost their iron grip to insurgents, who are now calling the shots. Almost daily, the fierce resistance blows up gas pipelines and electricity lines in the resource-rich region, and there is little the Pakistani army can do. Last week, three Chinese engineers and their Pakistani driver were gunned down in Balochistan. The Chinese are helping build the important warm-water Gwadar port.

In such a situation, the country's largest province, Punjab, has been the only base from which the establishment has been able to maneuver freely. Now even this is under threat. [complete article]

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U.S. warns Iraq it won't support sectarian goals
By Sabrina Tavernise and Robert F. Worth, New York Times, February 21, 2006

The American ambassador to Iraq issued an unusually strong warning on Monday about the need for Iraq's political factions to come together, hinting for the first time that the United States would not be willing to support crucial public institutions plagued by sectarian agendas. "The United States is investing billions of dollars" in Iraq's police and army, said the ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad. "We are not going to invest the resources of the American people to build forces run by people who are sectarian." [complete article]

U.S. ambassador in Iraq accuses Iran of meddling
By Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2006

In a scathing complaint about Washington's longtime nemesis, the top U.S. diplomat here accused Iran on Monday of fomenting trouble in Iraq's southern provinces by calling for the withdrawal of British troops. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad suggested that Iran was focusing attention on Iraq in an attempt to distract the international community from Tehran's nuclear program. [complete article]

Police tied to death squads
By Solomon Moore, Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2006

A 1,500-member Iraqi police force with close ties to Shiite militia groups has emerged as a focus of investigations into suspected death squads working within the country's Interior Ministry. Iraq's national highway patrol was established largely to stave off insurgent attacks on roadways. But U.S. military officials, interviewed over the last several days, say they suspect the patrol of being deeply involved in illegal detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings. [complete article]

Iraq's tortuous search for unity
By David Gritten, BBC News, February 21, 2006

Two months after the elections, Iraq's political parties are repeating the tortuous wrangling that epitomised negotiations over the transitional government and the draft constitution. The US and UK are showing increasing impatience with this process, in which Iraq's political parties are pursuing narrowly-defined ethnic, sectarian and political interests. [complete article]

Car bomb kills at least 21 in Baghdad market
By Sabrina Tavernise and Robert F. Worth, New York Times, February 21, 2006

At least 21 people were killed and 27 people were wounded when a car bomb exploded today in a market in a Baghdad neighborhood, according to the Interior Ministry. The blast shattered the outdoor market in the Dora neighborhood, according to the spokesman. [complete article]

When can we leave?
By Sally B. Donnelly,, February 19, 2006

Pentagon officials have been saying for some time that Iraqis must take more responsibility for securing their country. But can these local forces protect its critical infrastructure without U.S. help? Top American officials disagree, and that has caused friction between the State and Defense departments and may complicate the planned reduction of U.S. troops. [complete article]

Iraqi province cuts off U.S. forces
AP (via The Guardian), February 20, 2006

The governing council of Karbala province said Monday it was suspending contact with U.S. forces over the behavior of soldiers during a visit to the governor's office two days ago. The decision followed similar moves by leaders of Maysan and Basra provinces, which have frozen ties with British forces in southern Iraq. [complete article]

U.S. counterinsurgency academy giving officers a new mind-set
By Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post, February 21, 2006

Again and again, the intense immersion course, which 30 to 50 officers attend at a time, emphasizes that the right answer is probably the counterintuitive one, rather than something that the Army has taught officers in their 10 or 20 years of service. The school's textbook, a huge binder, offers the example of a mission that busts into a house and captures someone who mortared a U.S. base.

"On the surface, a raid that captures a known insurgent or terrorist may seem like a sure victory for the coalition," it observes in red block letters. It continues, "The potential second- and third-order effects, however, can turn it into a long-term defeat if our actions humiliate the family, needlessly destroy property, or alienate the local population from our goals."

At points, the school's leaders seem to go out of their way to challenge current U.S. military practices here. Short said in an interview Friday inside his sandbagged headquarters that he has issues with "this big-base mentality" that keeps tens of thousands of troops inside facilities called forwarding operating bases, or FOBs, which they leave for patrols and raids. Classic counterinsurgency theory holds that troops should live out among the people as much as possible, to develop a sense of how the society works and to gather intelligence.

As Apache attack helicopters clattered overhead, Short also offered an unconventional view of Iraq's December elections, which many U.S. officials have portrayed as a great victory. "You can ask just about every Iraqi, 'What about the elections?' " he said. "They'll say" -- Short shrugged his shoulders -- " 'Well, we voted five times, and nothing's happening out here.' " [complete article]

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U.S. dilemma: dealing with Hamas
By Howard LaFranchi, Christian Science Monitor, February 21, 2006

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in Cairo Tuesday on the first stop of a trip aimed at addressing the delicate issue of Hamas - with decisions pending on dealing with the Palestinian Authority that are as portentous as almost any the Bush administration has made on Middle East affairs.

How the administration handles the militant group's role in a Palestinian government will permeate President Bush's democratization program for the Middle East. Repercussions from the US response to Hamas's rise to government will spill over into Iraq, while playing an important role in America's image in the region. [complete article]

Iranian leader praises Hamas
By Scott Wilson, Washington Post, February 21, 2006

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on Muslim nations Monday to fund the Palestinian government after Hamas takes control of the cabinet, praising the radical Islamic movement for ignoring international pressure to recognize Israel, according to Iranian state television.

"The only way to succeed is to continue resistance against the occupier regime," Khamenei told Khaled Mashal, leader of Hamas's political wing, during his visit to Tehran. The Palestinians "knew that their vote for Hamas meant the fight against the Zionist occupier regime," he said. [complete article]

Iranian FM denies wanting to 'wipe Israel off the map'
Reuters (via Haaretz), February 21, 2006

Iran's foreign minister denied on Monday that Tehran wanted to see Israel "wiped off the map," saying President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been misunderstood.

"Nobody can remove a country from the map. This is a misunderstanding in Europe of what our president mentioned," Manouchehr Mottaki told a news conference, speaking in English, after addressing the European Parliament.

"How is it possible to remove a country from the map? He is talking about the regime. We do not legally recognize this regime," he said. [complete article]

Palestinians are being robbed by Israel
By Amira Hass, Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2006

What debilitates and cripples the Palestinian economy is Israel's heavy, systematic restrictions on movement within the occupied territories — hundreds of roadblocks and military checkpoints that delay, prolong and sabotage normal economic activity and, hence, potential tax revenues.

The Palestinian Authority cannot compensate for the "lost" -- or perhaps it would be more accurate to say "stolen" -- tax revenues. [complete article]

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Storm over ports: Who's behind the Dubai company in U.S. harbors?
By Tony Karon with Douglas Waller,, February 20, 2006

The claim that six U.S. port facilities are being "sold" to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates may be grist to the election-year mill for politicians from both parties, but the resulting furor may obscure the challenges of port security. The transaction in question is the $6.8 billion acquisition by Dubai Ports World of the British P&O shipping company, to become the world's third largest port-operator. Among P&O's numerous worldwide operations are contracts to operate port facilities in New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia. The transaction was approved by the Bush administration after a routine evaluation by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, an inter-agency body that assesses the security implications of foreign acquisitions of major U.S. infrastructure assets. U.S. officials say that both P&O and Dubai Ports World have solid security records. [complete article]

Comment -- What's the political lesson four and a half years after 9/11? Xenophobia is alive and well in America. It doesn't make any difference whether you're a Democrat or a Republican -- drum up some fear about the Arab threat and you're sure to win applause. And as one progressive commentator sardonically suggests, since no self-respecting progressive wants to risk being seen fomenting fear of Arabs and Muslims, "I'll fulminate instead against any 'foreign power' running our ports. That way I maximize the upside and minimize the downside." Where else can you be liberal and xenophobic? Only in the land of the free!

Does this mean that I'm dismissing the whole notion of "homeland security"? Far from it, it's just that I think that under darker-skinned DP World ownership, P&O will continue to have as much interest in security as it did when owned by white foreigners. Why? Call me naive, but I don't actually think that DP World is a front for al Qaeda. Just like every other shipping-related operation, it is profiting from the free flow of goods in a globalized economy. And as everyone involved in shipping containers knows, security is now an operational requirement in international trade.

As Stephen Flynn points out, "a terrorist event involving the intermodal transportation system could lead to unprecedented disruption of the global trade system, and East Asia has the most to lose." For this reason, when it comes to port security, it's not the US ports that are leading the way; it's Hong Kong. While only 5% of containers passing through US ports get scanned, in Hong Kong it's 100%!

In The Independent, Jeremy Warner says, "it's hard to see what harm this xenophobic nonsense can do to a deal which has been approved both by shareholders and all relevant regulatory authorities, including the US Committee for Foreign Investment." But he also observes that, "The environment in the US for Arab businessmen and financiers has become so hostile that it's scarcely worth the hassle of staying."

So, just think about: While the money you spend on high-priced gasoline is swelling the coffers of the Middle East, the efforts of many members of Congress are now ensuring that much of this capital will never be re-invested in the United States.

Xenophobia isn't just bad -- it's plain stupid!

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How an internal effort to ban the abuse and torture of detainees was thwarted
By Jane Mayer, The New Yorker, February 20, 2006

One night this January, in a ceremony at the Officers' Club at Fort Myer, in Arlington, Virginia, which sits on a hill with a commanding view across the Potomac River to the Washington Monument, Alberto J. Mora, the outgoing general counsel of the United States Navy, stood next to a podium in the club's ballroom. A handsome gray-haired man in his mid-fifties, he listened with a mixture of embarrassment and pride as his colleagues toasted his impending departure. Amid the usual tributes were some more pointed comments.

"Never has there been a counsel with more intellectual courage or personal integrity," David Brant, the former head of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, said. Brant added somewhat cryptically, "He surprised us into doing the right thing." Conspicuous for his silence that night was Mora's boss, William J. Haynes II, the general counsel of the Department of Defense.

Back in Haynes's office, on the third floor of the Pentagon, there was a stack of papers chronicling a private battle that Mora had waged against Haynes and other top Administration officials, challenging their tactics in fighting terrorism. Some of the documents are classified and, despite repeated requests from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee, have not been released. One document, which is marked "secret" but is not classified, is a twenty-two-page memo written by Mora. It shows that three years ago Mora tried to halt what he saw as a disastrous and unlawful policy of authorizing cruelty toward terror suspects. [complete article]

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The Guantanamo detainees: the government's story (PDF)
By Professor Mark Denbeaux and Joshua Denbeaux, February 8, 2006

The media and public fascination with who is detained at Guantanamo and why has been fueled in large measure by the refusal of the Government, on the grounds of national security, to provide much information about the individuals and the charges against them. The information available to date has been anecdotal and erratic, drawn largely from interviews with the few detainees who have been released or from statements or court filings by their attorneys in the pending habeas corpus proceedings that the Government has not declared "classified."

This Report is the first effort to provide a more detailed picture of who the Guantanamo detainees are, how they ended up there, and the purported bases for their enemy combatant designation. The data in this Report is based entirely upon the United States Government's own documents. This Report provides a window into the Government's success detaining only those that the President has called "the worst of the worst."

Among the data revealed by this Report:

1. Fifty-five percent (55%) of the detainees are not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the United States or its coalition allies.

2. Only 8% of the detainees were characterized as al Qaeda fighters. Of the remaining detainees, 40% have no definitive connection with al Qaeda at all and 18% are have no definitive affiliation with either al Qaeda or the Taliban.

3. The Government has detained numerous persons based on mere affiliations with a large number of groups that in fact, are not on the Department of Homeland Security terrorist watchlist. Moreover, the nexus between such a detainee and such organizations varies considerably. Eight percent are detained because they are deemed "fighters for;" 30% considered "members of;" a large majority – 60% -- are detained merely because they are "associated with" a group or groups the Government asserts are terrorist organizations. For 2% of the prisoners their nexus to any terrorist group is unidentified.

4. Only 5% of the detainees were captured by United States forces. 86% of the detainees were arrested by either Pakistan or the Northern Alliance and turned over to United States custody. This 86% of the detainees captured by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance were handed over to the United States at a time in which the United States offered large bounties for capture of suspected enemies.

5. Finally, the population of persons deemed not to be enemy combatants - mostly Uighers - are in fact accused of more serious allegations than a great many persons still deemed to be enemy combatants. [complete report PDF]

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The not-people we're not holding at Guantanamo Bay
By Dahlia Lithwick, Slate, February 16, 2006

The only real justification for the continued disgrace that is Guantanamo is that the government refuses to admit it's made a mistake. Releasing hundreds of prisoners after holding them for four years without charges would be big news. Better, a Guantanamo at which nothing has happened in four years. Better to drain the camp slowly, releasing handfuls of prisoners at a time. Last week, and with little fanfare, seven more detainees were let go. That brings the total number of releasees to 180, with 76 transferred to the custody of other countries. Are these men who are quietly released the "best of the worst"? No. According to the National Journal one detainee, an Australian fundamentalist Muslim, admitted to training several of the 9/11 hijackers and intended to hijack a plane himself. He was released to his home government last year. A Briton said to have targeted 33 Jewish organizations in New York City is similarly gone. Neither faces charges at home.

Guantanamo represents a spectacular failure of every branch of government. Congress is willing to pass a bill stripping courts of habeas-corpus jurisdiction for detainees but unwilling to probe what happens to them. The Supreme Court's decision in Rasul v. Bush conferred seemingly theoretical rights enforceable in theoretical courtrooms. The right to challenge a government detention is older than this country and yet Guantanamo grinds on.

It grinds on because the Bush administration gets exactly what it pays for in that lease: Guantanamo is a not-place. It's neither America nor Cuba. It is peopled by people without names who face no charges. Non-people facing non-trials to defend non-charges are not a story. They are a headache. No wonder the prisoners went on hunger strikes. Not-eating, ironically enough, is the only way they could try to become real to us. [complete article]

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U.S. ruling dismisses Arar lawsuit
By Tim Harper, Toronto Star, February 17, 2006

A U.S. federal court has dismissed a lawsuit against the Bush administration brought by Ottawa engineer Maher Arar, essentially giving Washington the green light to continue its practice of sending terrorist suspects to third countries where they could be tortured.

Brooklyn District Court Judge David Trager cited the need for national security and secrecy in making his decision, but also raised the possibility of Canadian complicity in the decision to send Arar, now 35, to Syria in 2002, where he was tortured for almost a year.

"The need for much secrecy can hardly be doubted," Trager wrote in an 88-page judgment. "One need not have much imagination to contemplate the negative effect on our relations with Canada if discovery were to proceed in this case and were it to turn out that certain high Canadian officials had, despite public denials, acquiesced in Arar's removal to Syria." [complete article]

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White House working to avoid wiretap probe
By Charles Babington, Washington Post, February 20, 2006

At two key moments in recent days, White House officials contacted congressional leaders just ahead of intelligence committee meetings that could have stirred demands for a deeper review of the administration's warrantless-surveillance program, according to House and Senate sources.

In both cases, the administration was spared the outcome it most feared, and it won praise in some circles for showing more openness to congressional oversight.

But the actions have angered some lawmakers who think the administration's purported concessions mean little. Some Republicans said that the White House came closer to suffering a big setback than is widely known, and that President Bush must be more forthcoming about the eavesdropping program to retain Congress's good will. [complete article]

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Israel's policies are feeding the cancer of anti-semitism
By Paul Oestreicher, The Guardian, February 20, 2006

I passionately believe that Israel has the right, and its people have the right, to live in peace and in secure borders. But I know too that modern Israel was born in terror and made possible in its present Zionist form by killing and a measure of ethnic cleansing. That is history. Tell me of a nation with an innocent history. But the Zionism at the heart of Israeli politics is about the present and the future. It makes me fear for the soul of Israel today and the survival of its children tomorrow.

The Israel characterised by the words of Golda Meir that "there was no such thing as Palestinians ... they did not exist" is an Israel that is inevitably surrounded by enemies and that can only survive militarily and economically as a client state of the world's only superpower, for now. Nor can its nuclear monopoly in the Middle East last for ever. Peace cannot be made by building a wall on Palestinian land that makes the life of the miserably conquered more miserable still. A Palestinian bantustan will be a source of unrest and violence for ever.

I say all this despairing of the Israel I love. Its people are my people. The Palestinians are my neighbours. I wish they had stronger and better leaders. I wish their despairing young people had not been driven to violence. Just as I understand Jewish fears, I understand their despair. Only an Israel that understands that too can change it. And there are Jews in Israel and in the diaspora who know it. Most of them, out of a fear of being thought disloyal, are afraid to say what they know to be true. The state of Israel has become a cruel occupying power. Occupations, when they are resisted, are never benevolent. They morally corrupt the occupier. The brave body of Israeli conscientious objectors are the true inheritors of the prophets of Israel. They are the true patriots. What nation has ever loved its prophets?

But the main objective of my writing today, is to nail the lie that to reject Zionism as it practised today is in effect to be anti-semitic, to be an inheritor of Hitler's racism. That argument, with the Holocaust in the background, is nothing other than moral blackmail. It is highly effective. It condemns many to silence who fear to be thought anti-semitic. They are often the very opposite. They are often people whose heart bleeds at Israel's betrayal of its true heritage. [complete article]

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Hamas dismisses Israeli sanctions
BBC News, February 20, 2006

Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniya has dismissed the effect of Israeli financial restrictions on the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Mr Haniya told the BBC that Arab and Islamic states would offset a drop in Western aid and said Hamas would not disarm and recognise Israel. [complete article]

See also, Israel suspends tax money flow to Palestinians (NYT).

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Many die in fresh Iraq bombings
BBC News, February 20, 2006

A suicide bombing on a bus in Baghdad has killed at least 12 Iraqis. Eleven people have died in other violence, including a restaurant bombing in the northern city of Mosul.

In a separate development, the US has threatened to cut aid to Iraq if the new government includes politicians with a sectarian bias. [complete article]

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Bush and Blair have brilliantly done Bin Laden's work for him
By Simon Jenkins, The Sunday Times, February 19, 2006

Bin Laden's intention in 2001 was to portray the West as scared, emotionally vulnerable, over-reactive, decadent and careless of liberal values. The West has done its damnedest to prove him right.

I distrust "basket" analysis but events do sometimes rush in a certain direction. Last week alone brought new revelations of torture by American troops in Iraq. British soldiers were filmed beating demonstrators in Basra. British ministers sought new powers of detention without trial, a national identity database and impediments on free speech. A sectarian leader became prime minister of Iraq and British marines were flown to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. The United Nations demanded the closure of Guantanamo as a torture camp. The European media indulged in an orgy of finger-pointing at Muslim religious sensitivity. Muslim extremists reacted on cue.

Were I Bin Laden I could not have dreamt that the spirit of 9/11 would be so vigorous five years on. I have western leaders still parroting my motto that "9/11 alters everything" and "the rules of the game are changed". I have the Taliban resurgent, financed by Europe's voracious demand for oil and opium. I have the Pentagon and Scotland Yard paying me the compliment of a "long war" of indefinite duration. My potency is said to require more defence spending than was needed to contain the might of the Soviet Union. [complete article]

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Talking to terrorists
By Martin Bright, The New Statesman, February 20, 2006

The British government has a terrible dilemma. Should it refuse to deal with radical Islamic movements altogether, and so risk alienating large parts of the Muslim world, or should it make overtures towards the leaders of these movements and face down accusations that it is appeasing Islamofascists?

The New Statesman can reveal that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has opted for the latter course, and has decided on a policy of engagement with what it calls "political Islam". To this end, it proposes to develop "working-level contacts" in Egypt with one of the Middle East's most militant groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in many countries in the region and considered a terrorist organisation by the United States.

A leaked memo to the Middle East minister Kim Howells, dated 17 January and obtained by this magazine, shows that the government is preparing to open lines of communication with the Brotherhood, seen by many as the chief inspiration behind much modern Islamic extremism. [complete article]
(Note: The New Statesman only allows free access to one article per day for non-subscribers. So, if you follow this link but decide you want to read the article later, save it on your desktop!)

In the Mideast, the third way is a myth
By Shibley Telhami, Washington Post, February 17, 2006

The reality shown by Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections is this: If fully free elections were held today in the rest of the Arab world, Islamist parties would win in most states. Even with intensive international efforts to support "civil society" and nongovernmental organizations, elections in five years would probably yield the same results. The notion, popular in Washington over the past few years, that American programs and efforts can help build a third alternative to both current governments and Islamists is simply a delusion.

In Arab politics there are primarily two organized power groups: Islamic organizations, drawing their support from a disenfranchised public mobilized by the mosque, and governing elites. Sure, there are many other organizations, sometimes even ones whose aspirations match those of large segments of the public, but their chances will remain small. This we have ascribed to bad governments always forcing the choice between themselves on the one hand and the Islamists on the other. [complete article]

Comment -- In line with the popular view of the Middle East as backward, it seems to be widely assumed that the strength of the Islamists can be ascribed to a nostalgic longing for the recreation of an earlier golden age. Nevertheless, it doesn't take a particularly astute observer to realize that if mosques have been the one arena to which unpopular regimes provide unparalleled freedom, then the freedom inside the mosques would turn them into the petri dishes of political activism. Naturally, political activism cultivated inside a mosque takes on a religious flavor.

Those in the West who are now having second thoughts about the wisdom of unleashing democracy in the Middle East need to accept that it's too late to turn back. Instead of regarding the Islamists as an inimical force, efforts should now be directed at welcoming them onto a wider political stage. Even so, it's hard to avoid sensing that intertwined within the Western fear of Islamists there is also a largely unspoken yet overarching fear of Islam itself.

Differing perceptions seem to hinge on that to which one ascribes primacy: politics or religion. If one thinks that it is politics that shapes religion, then all things are possible. If, however, one regards politics as the vehicle for expressing religious values then dogma wins the day.

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'Suicide-ready' Taliban lie in wait for troops
By Massoud Ansari, The Sunday Telegraph, February 19, 2006

Stroking his long beard and flashing a smile, Mohammed Khwaja, a Taliban organiser in the lawless borderlands of Pakistan's tribal areas, contemplated the imminent arrival of British troops in Helmand province.

"We thought that it would be between us and the US, but it looks like souls of the British buried in the Helmand after they were killed by the Afghan warriors in the 19th century may be feeling bored.

"Now they are calling their grandchildren to be reunited with them in hell," he said.

By the early summer, 3,300 troops will be based in Helmand, in southern Afghanistan, close to where 962 British troops were slaughtered at the Battle of Maiwand in 1880. [complete article]

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Their master's voice
By Max Rodenbeck, New York Review of Books, March 9, 2006

When Osama bin Laden speaks, people listen. They tend, however, to hear different things. Take the coverage of his latest voice-from-the-mountain tape, released in mid-January. The New York Times and The Washington Post both headlined with the words "Bin Laden Warns of Attacks." The equivalent two highbrow Arabic-language newspapers, al-Hayat and al-Sharq al-Awsat, led instead with the news that the al-Qaeda leader had offered a truce.

Neither version was wrong. As all four papers went on to explain, bin Laden had done both things: threatened to strike America again, and proposed a hudna, or cease-fire. Yet the difference in emphasis pointed to the roots of deeper misapprehensions. How, more than four years after September 11, and after so much subsequent bloodshed, can this fugitive terrorist still command the respect and admiration of a good number of his fellow Muslims? And why, after the mobilization of so many resources, has America's campaign against him produced such unsatisfactory results? [complete article]

See also, Bin Laden compares U.S. "barbaric" acts to Saddam's (Reuters) and A bomb-builder, 'out of the shadows' (WP).

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Pakistani riots about more than cartoons
By David Montero, Christian Science Monitor, February 17, 2006

As elsewhere in the Muslim world, Pakistan has seen an upswing in violence following the publication in Danish and other newspapers of caricatures of the prophet Muhammad.

Local TV has been awash with images of young men rampaging through the streets, hurling stones, and carrying sticks. Some youths simply seemed swept up in organic chaos, smiling and waving before cameras. Others destroyed hundreds of cars and trashed banks and restaurants like Pizza Hut and KFC in Lahore. A bank guard opened fire, killing two young men, and a third bystander was killed during clashes between students and police. In Peshawar, an 8-year-old boy was killed after being accidentally shot by a protester firing into a crowd. One man was killed by downed power lines.

Over the past week, Islam and religious fervor have been fingered as the source of the spreading violence. But to some analysts, the erratic nature of the demonstrations points to different root causes.

The flash conflagrations, they argue, highlight a profound discontent in Pakistan over economic and social inequality that has deepened over the past five years, sparking alienation and resentment. [complete article]

See also, Hundreds held in Pakistan cartoon rally (FT).

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Nigeria cartoon riots kill 16
By Amelia Hill and Anushka Asthana, The Observer, February 19, 2006

Rioting over the controversial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad claimed another 16 lives last night in Nigeria as churches were burned by protesting Muslims.

The violence erupted as the Danish cartoonist whose drawings originally sparked the furore, Kurt Westergaard, used an interview with a British newspaper to defend the right to a free press - and said the Islamic faith provided 'spiritual ammunition' for terrorism.

More than two weeks after the controversy began, after-effects are still being felt around the world. The first protests in Nigeria flared in the provinces of Borno and Katsina: witnesses said hotels and shops were torched by protesters who ran wild after police fired teargas to disperse them. [complete article]

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More than 1,000 protest cartoon depiction of prophet
By Kareem Farim, New York Times, February 18, 2006

More than 1,000 Muslims gathered yesterday for a rally and prayer session across the street from the Danish Consulate in Manhattan, protesting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that have set off a series of violent demonstrations around the world since their first publication in Denmark.

The rally, billed by the organizers as a stand against the vilification of Muslims, was considerably larger than another one this month, drawing South Asian, Arab, African-American and other Muslims to a plaza a block from the United Nations as the sun peeked out after a morning of rain. [complete article]

See also, Muslims assault U.S. Embassy in Indonesia (AP).

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U.S. holds secret talks to weaken Hamas
By Uzi Mahnaimi, The Sunday Times, February 19, 2006

Senior Israeli and Palestinian representatives have held secret talks in America to discuss ways of sidelining Hamas, the Islamic militant group that took power for the first time in the Palestinian territories yesterday after emerging as the surprise victor in elections last month.

Senior figures linked to the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government took part in two days of talks in Texas. The meeting was chaired by Edward Djerejian, 65, a former US ambassador to Israel and Syria, who was briefed by the US State Department before it began.

News of the contacts between the Israelis and supporters of the Fatah party of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, emerged as the new Palestinian parliament, dominated by Hamas, was sworn in yesterday in Ramallah, on the West Bank. Abbas then asked Hamas to form a government.

Hamas, which is committed to the destruction of Israel, immediately rejected calls by Abbas to open negotiations with the Jewish state. Abdel Aziz Duaik, who was elected speaker, said Hamas would try to live up to its "rightful duty to resist occupation".

A participant in the US talks, held on February 8 and 9 at the James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy in Houston, said those present had discussed how to sideline Hamas, whose parliamentary victory has been seen as a serious obstacle to any peace settlement. [complete article]

See also, Hamas and Abbas clash over path for Palestinians (NYT) and Cash flow to Hamas is more restricted, deeper underground (WP).

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As the Israeli Hamas-response team laughs
By Gideon Levy, Haaretz, February 19, 2006

Even if we put aside the awful political inanity of pushing Hamas into a corner instead of giving it a chance to change its ways, and even if we ignore the fact that Israel plans to confiscate tax revenues that do not belong to it, the policy of the Kadima government raises questions about its humanity. Where do we get the right to abuse an entire people this way? Is it only because of our great power and the fact that the U.S. allows us to run wild and do whatever we want?

We stopped talking about morality a long time ago - after all, we are not living in Finland. Still, it would be good to ask: What country would dare to exacerbate the living conditions (which are so miserable in any case) of the residents of a territory under its occupation? What was the sin of the 4,000 lucky people from Gaza whom Israel still allowed to work within its borders, and to whom it is now closing the gates? Did the decision-makers call to mind the sight of these downtrodden people, crowded and humiliated at the Erez crossing on their way home from an exhausting day of work? More than half of all Palestinians are already living in poverty according to the last United Nations report, published in December. Last year, 37 percent had difficulties obtaining food and 54 percent of the residents of the "liberated" Gaza Strip cut back the amount of food they consume. Child mortality rose by 15 percent and the average unemployment rate reached 28 percent. To travel in the West Bank, the Palestinians have to traverse no fewer than 397 checkpoints and, in addition to this, Israel now wants to wield an even heavier hand.

If there is still a staying obstacle, it is only the constraint of image: Israel fears the spread of hunger only because of the world's reaction and not because of the bestiality it entails. [complete article]

See also, Palestine on brink as Hamas takes over (The Guardian).

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A lesson from Hamas: Read the voting law's fine print
By James Glanz, New York Times, February 19, 2006

Democracy rests on the will of the majority. Or so the speeches say. But in reality, election systems are almost never designed to achieve majority rule alone. Like the famous checks and balances of the American system, they also try to give a wide range of groups a portion of power. But sometimes the framers of an election law can wildly miscalculate, allowing one faction to game the system and gain power far out of proportion to its share of the vote.

That's what seems to have happened in Hamas's victory in the Palestinian territories, according to a new analysis by an American who advised the Palestinian Authority on the elections. It represents a cautionary tale for other new democracies, like Iraq's, whose systems are being designed with the help of outside experts.

The reasons behind the overwhelming Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections go beyond a vote that was split among the numerous candidates backed by Fatah, the former ruling party, this new analysis shows. It strongly suggests that a quirk in the electoral law itself helped convert a slight margin in the popular vote into a landslide for the group. [complete article]

Comment -- Hmm... So, it was cunning tactics, not successful campaigning, that brought Hamas to power. I guess as novice democrats, the Palestinians still have a lesson or two to learn from seasoned democracies such as the ones that flourish in America and Britain. Still, they could be forgiven for being a little confused. George Bush came to power in 2001 after his opponent got the majority of the votes and Tony Blair secured his third term as British prime minister when he received a grand total of 24,421 votes in 2005 (the votes he received as MP for Sedgefield). So what's the broad message here? That the US needs to study the fine print before it bestows its blessings on someone else's election? Or, that if the result of the election is not to the liking of this administration then the word will go out that the process was "democratic" in name but not in spirit -- and since it's the spirit that counts, to hell with the results!

While James Glanz' analysis of the Hamas victory draws heavily on the work of American elections expert, Jarrett Blanc, here's a passage from Blanc's own analysis that paints a somewhat different picture:
These statistics in no way mean that Hamas' victory is illegitimate. Election results are often disproportionate to the popular vote. In the United Kingdon elections last year, Labor won 35 percent of the vote to the Tories' 32 percent, but Labor holds 55 percent of the seats and the Tories only 31 percent. Hamas ran a smarter and more disciplined campaign than its competitors, and it has been rewarded with seats.

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After neoconservatism
By Francis Fukuyama, New York Times, February 19, 2006

The Bush administration and its neoconservative supporters did not simply underestimate the difficulty of bringing about congenial political outcomes in places like Iraq; they also misunderstood the way the world would react to the use of American power. Of course, the cold war was replete with instances of what the foreign policy analyst Stephen Sestanovich calls American maximalism, wherein Washington acted first and sought legitimacy and support from its allies only after the fact. But in the post-cold-war period, the structural situation of world politics changed in ways that made this kind of exercise of power much more problematic in the eyes of even close allies. After the fall of the Soviet Union, various neoconservative authors like Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol and Robert Kagan suggested that the United States would use its margin of power to exert a kind of "benevolent hegemony" over the rest of the world, fixing problems like rogue states with W.M.D., human rights abuses and terrorist threats as they came up. Writing before the Iraq war, Kristol and Kagan considered whether this posture would provoke resistance from the rest of the world, and concluded, "It is precisely because American foreign policy is infused with an unusually high degree of morality that other nations find they have less to fear from its otherwise daunting power." (Italics added.)

It is hard to read these lines without irony in the wake of the global reaction to the Iraq war, which succeeded in uniting much of the world in a frenzy of anti-Americanism. The idea that the United States is a hegemon more benevolent than most is not an absurd one, but there were warning signs that things had changed in America's relationship to the world long before the start of the Iraq war. The structural imbalance in global power had grown enormous. America surpassed the rest of the world in every dimension of power by an unprecedented margin, with its defense spending nearly equal to that of the rest of the world combined. Already during the Clinton years, American economic hegemony had generated enormous hostility to an American-dominated process of globalization, frequently on the part of close democratic allies who thought the United States was seeking to impose its antistatist social model on them.

There were other reasons as well why the world did not accept American benevolent hegemony. In the first place, it was premised on American exceptionalism, the idea that America could use its power in instances where others could not because it was more virtuous than other countries. The doctrine of pre-emption against terrorist threats contained in the 2002 National Security Strategy was one that could not safely be generalized through the international system; America would be the first country to object if Russia, China, India or France declared a similar right of unilateral action. The United States was seeking to pass judgment on others while being unwilling to have its own conduct questioned in places like the International Criminal Court. [complete article]

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Advise and assent
Editorial, Los Angeles Times, February 19, 2006

The the United States Senate has a body called the Intelligence Committee is an irony George Orwell would have truly appreciated. In a world without Doublespeak, the panel, chaired by GOP Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, would be known by a more appropriate name -- the Senate Coverup Committee.

Although the committee is officially charged with overseeing the nation's intelligence-gathering operations, its real function in recent years has been to prevent the public from getting hold of any meaningful information about the Bush administration. Hence its never-ending delays of the probe into the bogus weapons intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq. And its squelching, on Thursday, of an expected investigation into the administration's warrantless spying program.

The committee adjourned without voting on a proposal to probe the National Security Agency program, under which government agents have set up wiretaps on Americans without the warrants required by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. President Bush has acknowledged that he greenlighted the program, essentially claiming that Congress gave him the power to break federal law and violate Americans' 4th Amendment rights when it authorized the use of force after the 9/11 attacks. Though the administration's legal defense has been laughable, its argument that the powers are essential to fight terrorism has scored political points, ratcheting up the pressure on the Senate.

Roberts justified his committee's cave by saying the White House had committed itself to working with senators to pursue legislation on the matter. Translation: Bush won't accept any curbs on his power whatsoever, but he'd be happy to see a bill legalizing his wiretaps. [complete article]

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Propaganda effort in Iraq a mistake, Rumsfeld says
By Mark Mazzetti, Los Angeles Times, February 18, 2006

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Friday criticized a U.S. military program that pays Iraqi newspapers to plant stories favorable to the American mission, and mistakenly said the Pentagon had shut down the program shortly after its existence was revealed.
"When we heard about it, we said, 'Gee, that's not what we ought to be doing,' " Rumsfeld said Friday during a taped interview on PBS' "The Charlie Rose Show."

Rumsfeld said the contractor, Lincoln Group, and commanders in Iraq were notified of the Pentagon's concerns and ended the propaganda effort.

"They stopped doing that," he said.

Rumsfeld's remarks were made available by PBS producers before the show aired late Friday night.

One person familiar with Lincoln Group's operations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of an ongoing investigation, said the program in Iraq was still active as of a week ago. [complete article]

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Rebels' arsenal includes politics
By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times, February 19, 2006

Once viewed as a series of scattered cells with unfocused goals, Iraqi insurgents have begun to develop a coordinated political agenda, reaching out to Sunni Arab politicians and distancing themselves from foreign fighters whose attacks against civilians have alienated possible allies in a new government.

The political engagement is still in its nascent stage, and there is no sign that extreme factions of the insurgency, including those led by foreign Islamists such as Abu Musab Zarqawi, have shown any willingness to cease operations. But there are signs that certain segments of the insurgency may be refraining from attacks to give counterparts in the political arena time to promote their agenda: setting a timeline for U.S. troop withdrawal and preventing the division of Iraq into federal regions. [complete article]

Comment -- While changes in the operation of the insurgency are here being characterized as "a process of the institutionalization of the insurgency", I suspect that the process is one that is as much occuring in the minds of observers as it is in the behavior of insurgents. More specifically, the "change" is a sluggishly growing recognition that the insurgency actually has a political agenda. After three years of fighting it's starting to dawn on more than a few people outside Iraq that the insurgents have goals - that they're not just crazed deadenders and nihilistic jihadist fantacists.

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Iraq's Jordanian jihadis
By Nir Rosen, New York Times, February 19, 2006

Jordan has long been thought of as the quiet country of the Middle East. People called it the Hashemite Kingdom of Boredom and went there for a rest. King Hussein and his son, King Abdullah II, who assumed the throne in February 1999, were friendly enough with the United States, respectful toward Israel and measured advocates of modernization. As for the Islamist stirrings that have roiled the region since the Iranian revolution of 1979, it was widely believed that the king's domestic security service, the Mukhabarat, had infiltrated every group that might think to stir unrest. But in truth Jordan had not been insulated from the radicalism that has engulfed the Mideast in our time: in 1970 and '71, Jordan's Palestinians, who then, as now, made up a majority of the country's population (today, 5.6 million), erupted, and their insurrection was brutally put down. And in the course of finding ways to sustain its political dominance, the Hashemite monarchy gave the Muslim Brotherhood — the local variant of an Islamist movement that began in Egypt in the 1920's — control of educational policy, which would hold dark implications.

Now we know that the quiet kingdom was producing the man thought to be spearheading the deadliest aspects of the Iraqi insurgency — and who brought the fight back to Jordan in three hotel bombings last December: Ahmed Fadeel Nazal al-Khalayleh, better known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi after his hometown of Zarqa, a poor city an hour's drive north of Amman. How the quiet kingdom of Jordan could produce a man who has become known as the Sheik of the Slaughterers is a question at the heart of contemporary jihad. Zarqawi is exceptionally cruel, but he is otherwise not such an exception. Jordan is home to many jihadis, young men from much the same milieu that produced Zarqawi, and especially since the United States invaded Iraq nearly three years ago, Jordan has increasingly become a not-so-quiet place, a place where local Islamists cross easily into Iraq and back, a place where a jihadist underground can seem almost a normal part of a nation's life. And if such an underground can become normal in quiet Jordan, what is to keep it from becoming normal in any Muslim country? [complete article]

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New Iraqi unity coalition imperils Shiites' prime minister pick
By Nelson Hernandez, Washington Post, February 19, 2006

A handful of Iraqi political parties have met in recent days to discuss a government that would unite the country's disparate ethnic and sectarian groups, a step that could result in an attempt to defeat the ruling Shiite coalition's nominee for prime minister.

The choice of incumbent Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, last week to serve a four-year term in Iraq's most powerful office appeared to be a fait accompli a few days ago. Jafari had the backing of the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition of Shiite religious parties that won the largest share of seats in parliamentary elections in December and that was expected to have enough votes to put its candidate in office.

But since the Shiites voted to choose Jafari, representatives from Kurdish, Sunni Arab and secular parties that include multiple factions said they had met to discuss a broad-based coalition that could potentially overpower the Shiite candidate. The politicians, as well as Western officials, said in interviews that the race for prime minister was far from over. [complete article]

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Iraq: The death-squad war
By Michael Hastings, Newsweek, February 27, 2006

Interior is one of Iraq's most dishonest ministries, according to Judge Rahdi Hamza al-Rahdi, director of the government's top anti-corruption agency, the Commission on Public Integrity. Roughly 400 MOI officials are currently under the commission's scrutiny.

The fears are underscored by the way the MOI runs its detention facilities. Bribery is said to be so rampant that a standard list of under-the-table fees has apparently evolved. Mohammed Abid, a defense lawyer in Baghdad, says clients describe prices that range from 30,000 Iraqi dinar (about $21) for one minute on a mobile phone to $40,000 in U.S. currency for release from custody. Those rates are independently confirmed by an Iraqi police officer who has spent two years working at Al Hakimiya and does not wish to be named, out of fear and shame. "I'm coming forward for reasons that are between me and Allah," he says. "I have done things. I needed to tell someone." He says torture and beatings are part of the daily routine, creating an eager market for guards who sell painkillers to the inmates. [complete article]

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Oil attacks costing Iraq $6.25bn
BBC News, February 19, 2006

Attacks by insurgents on Iraq's oil industry cost the country $6.25bn (£3.6bn) in lost revenue during 2005, according to the Iraqi oil ministry.

A total of 186 attacks were carried out on oil sites last year, claiming the lives of 47 engineers and 91 police and security guards, a spokesman said. [complete article]

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How to stay alive in a war zone
By Kim Sengupta, The Independent, February 19, 2006

There are some basic rules to reporting Baghdad. Do not make an appointment to see anyone you do not trust absolutely. Do not go out before checking whether any suspicious vehicles are loitering outside. Do not assume a road that was safe yesterday will be safe today. If you are a white man, sit with the blinds drawn or lie on the back seat. If you are a white woman, wear a burka.

As the latest figures show, none of this guarantees safety. Last week the Committee to Protect Journalists announced that 22 journalists had been killed in Iraq in 2005. The total since the invasion three years ago is now 61 - which makes Iraq the deadliest country for journalists in the last quarter of a century. This is the most dangerous place in the world to report, the frontline where you are most likely to get killed or end up in an orange jumpsuit in a video. [complete article]

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Noteworthy articles from the last seven days:

Iran: The consequences of war
By Paul Rogers, Oxford Research Group, February, 2006

Ahmadinejad on the warpath
By Mahan Abedin, Asia Times, February 18, 2006

Iran was on edge; now it's on top
By Megan K. Stack and Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times, February 18, 2006

Iraq power shift widens a gulf between sects
By Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times, February 18, 2006

Europe's contempt for other cultures can't be sustained
By Martin Jacques, The Guardian, February 17, 2006

Rumsfeld aims to elevate role of Special Forces
By Greg Jaffe, Wall Street Journal, February 18, 2006

The mess in Iraq
By Peter W. Galbraith, New York Review of Books, March 9, 2006

Moktada al-Sadr changes the political dynamic in Iraq
By Robert F. Worth and Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times (IHT), February 16, 2006

Anatomy of the cartoon protest movement
By Anthony Shadid and Kevin Sullivan, Washington Post, February 16, 2006

The roots of Muslim outrage
By Olivier Roy, Newsweek, February 13, 2006

The limits of propaganda
By Anatol Lieven and David Chambers, Los Angeles Times, February 13, 2006

The evolution of terrorism in 2005
A statistical assessment

By Prof. Dr. Rik Coolsaet and Teun Van de Voorde, The War in Context, February 13, 2006

In their own words: reading the Iraqi insurgency
International Crisis Group, February 15, 2006

"No one told me why I'm putting my life on the line in Samarra"
By Tom Lasseter, Knight Ridder, February 15, 2006

U.S. reports discovery of apparent death squad in Iraq
By Liz Sly, Chicago Tribune, February 15, 2006

The Basra video should lay to rest a scurrilous lie
By Jasem al-Aqrab, The Guardian, February 16, 2006

Why we're publishing the new Abu Ghraib photos
By Walter Shapiro, Slate, February 16, 2006

Mounting concern over Afghanistan
By Scott Baldauf, Christian Science Monitor, February 14, 2006

Getting away with murder
By Tim Golden, New York Times, February 13, 2006

U.N. report sparks row over demand to close Guantanamo
By Philippe Naughton, The Times, February 16, 2006

Innocent, but in limbo at Guantanamo
By Warren Richey, Christian Science Monitor, February 13, 2006

Talking with the guys from Hamas
By Rami G. Khouri, Agence Global, February 11, 2006

Israel cuts Jordan Rift from rest of West Bank
By Amira Hass, Haaretz, February 13, 2006

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