The War in Context Christopher Dickey quote
  Iraq + war on terrorism + Middle East conflict + critical perspectives     
How the neo-cons lost the war
By Con Coughlin, The Telegraph, October 28, 2006

Once a week Tony Blair and his closest aides gather in a room at the back of Downing Street for the Prime Minister's weekly video conference with his close friend and ally, President George W. Bush.

It is a select gathering. Apart from Blair himself, the only other regular attendees are Jonathan Powell, his long-serving chief of staff, and Sir Nigel Sheinwald, his highly experienced foreign policy adviser. At the White House the President is usually accompanied by the brooding presence of Vice President Dick Cheney, who sits on a sofa listening in on the conversation, but rarely contributes anything of note.

On the two occasions that I interviewed Blair and Bush this year, both had just finished their video conference, an indication that, despite the enormous political damage both have suffered during the past three years, the transatlantic relationship remains stronger than ever.

Inevitably Iraq dominates the conversation. For an hour or more the two leaders discuss the latest developments and reassure each other that, irrespective of how dire events might appear, somehow everything will come good and that benighted country will ultimately settle down and become a fully functioning democratic state at peace with itself and the outside world.

So long, that is, as they remain united in their determination to stay the course and see the job through. Which is why, despite the seemingly endless violence and bloodshed, Blair and Bush are incapable of facing up to the fact that Iraq today is as far-removed from a peaceful settlement as it was in the spring of 2003 when the US-led military coalition first took control of the country following Saddam Hussein's overthrow.

Even with Bush's Republican Party facing defeat in next month's Congressional elections – mainly because of its association with Iraq – the President gave an impromptu press conference this week at which he insisted that his policy to help transform the country from Baathist tyranny to Western-style democracy would ultimately succeed.

In London, Blair was equally resolute in resisting calls from opposition MPs for a debate on withdrawing troops, with Downing Street officials again insisting that they would remain in Iraq "until the job is done". However much Bush and Blair continue to comfort themselves by indulging in the politics of delusion, significant cracks are starting to appear in the edifice of their contention that the coalition's mission will ultimately prove a success. [complete article]
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Don't mention the war: Israel seeks image makeover
By Dan Williams, Reuters, October 27, 2006

After decades of battling to win foreign support for its two-fisted policies against Arab foes, Israel is trying a new approach with a campaign aimed at creating a less warlike and more welcoming national image.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has argued that the protracted conflict with the Palestinians is sapping Israel's international legitimacy, this week convened diplomats and PR executives to come up with ways of "rebranding" the country.

"When the word 'Israel' is said outside its borders, we want it to invoke not fighting or soldiers, but a place that is desirable to visit and invest in, a place that preserves democratic ideals while struggling to exist," Livni said.

The campaign is a departure from the government's long-held practice of "hasbara," or "explaining" itself to Western audiences that may have little sympathy for crackdowns on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Now Israel wants to create an alternative image abroad, focused exclusively on assets like tourist attractions and business innovations. In the words of one campaigner and ad executive, the aim would be to create "a narrative of normalcy." [complete article]

Comment -- OK, how about ending the occupation, dismantling "illegal outposts" and settlements in the West Bank, destroying the so-called security fence, returning the Golan Heights to Syria, Shebaa Farms to Lebanon, releasing Palestinian political prisoners, and agreeing to East Jerusalem as the capital of a sovereign Palestinian state on territory defined by the internationally recognized 1967 borders. I'm sure that would help with Israel's image problem. Of course, that's not the actual task in hand. The real object of this exercise is to improve the way Israel is perceived without having to change the way it acts; improve international relations and help ameliorate the "demographic problem" by boosting Jewish immigration. In other words, it's about training people to disbelieve what they see and believe what they are told.
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A deadly scandal continues in Gaza
By Patrick Seale, Daily Star, October 27, 2006

Israel has killed 2,300 Gazans over the past six years, including 300 in the four months since Corporal Gilad Shalit was captured in a cross-border raid by Palestinian fighters on June 25. The wounded can be counted in the tens of thousands. Most of the casualties are civilians, many of them children.

The killing continues on a daily basis - by tank and sniper fire, by air and sea bombardment, and by undercover teams in civilian clothes sent into Arab territory to ambush and murder, an Israeli specialty perfected over the past several decades.

How long will the "international community" allow the slaughter to continue? The cruel repression of the Occupied Territories, and of Gaza in particular, is one of the most scandalous in the world today. It is the blackest stain on Israel's patchy record as a would-be democratic state. [complete article]
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50 years after Suez, U.S. hegemony ebbing fast
By Jim Lobe, IPS, October 27, 2006

As the Middle East prepares to mark the 50th anniversary on Oct. 29 of the Suez Crisis that effectively ended European colonialism, a half century of U.S. hegemony in the region also appears to be coming to an end, according to a growing number of analysts.

The observation is based primarily on the serious damage done to Washington's position in the Middle East by its 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, where more than 140,000 of its troops remain bogged down in what seems likely an increasingly futile effort both to crush a Sunni insurgency that it failed to anticipate and prevent a larger sectarian civil war.

In addition, however, the passivity – or obstinacy – of the administration of President George W. Bush in failing to revive any kind of Arab-Israeli peace process, particularly in the wake of last summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah or the ongoing deterioration of the Palestinian Authority, appears to have brought both Washington's image and influence in the region to an all-time low. [complete article]
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U.S.: vice president endorses torture
Human Rights Watch, October 26, 2006

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney has issued the Bush administration's first clear endorsement of a form of torture known as waterboarding, or mock drowning, said Human Rights Watch today. In a radio interview yesterday, Cheney agreed that subjecting prisoners to "a dunk in water" is a "no-brainer" if it could save lives. After being asked about this technique, he said that such interrogations have been a "very important tool" used against high-level al Qaeda detainees such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and that they do not, in his view, constitute torture.

Cheney's comments on the legality of waterboarding contradict the views of the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Defense Department, as well as fundamental principles of international law, and could come back to haunt the United States if not corrected by the Bush administration, Human Rights Watch warned.

"If Iran or Syria detained an American, Cheney is saying that it would be perfectly fine for them to hold that American's head under water until he nearly drowns, if that's what they think they need to do to save Iranian or Syrian lives," said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. [complete article]
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Hezbollah 'to join talks on Lebanon unity government'
AFP, October 27, 2006

Shiite militia Hezbollah said it will join talks on a national unity government proposed by parliament speaker Nabih Berri, adding that it hoped the initiative would break the impasse in Lebanon. [complete article]
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No easy answer to 'Kurdish question'
By Kim Murphy, Los Angeles Times, October 27, 2006

Driving north through these folded, wheat-colored mountains, it is easy to forget you are in Iraq.

Miles to the south, the Iraqi flags disappear, replaced by the flags of Kurdistan, a state that does not officially exist. Here in the northern mountains, though, even the symbols of the Iraqi Kurdish authority are nowhere to be seen.

Most of the flags here are those of the Kurdistan Workers Party -- the PKK, listed by the U.S. and the European Union as a terrorist organization responsible for the loss of thousands of lives in a separatist campaign across the border in Turkey. Deep in the mountains, all the road checkpoints are operated by PKK guerrillas. A giant portrait of imprisoned guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan stretches across a rocky slope.

The fact that much of Iraq's rugged northern borderlands with Turkey and Iran are under the day-to-day control of a militant organization might come as a surprise to those who thought U.S. forces had handed over authority nationwide to a new Iraqi government. [complete article]
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42 Iraqis die as insurgents attack police near Baquba
By Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Kirk Semple, New York Times, October 27, 2006

Police officers acting on a tip about several kidnapped colleagues rode into deadly insurgent ambushes near here on Thursday, resulting in two intense battles that left at least 42 people dead, including 24 police officers, officials said.

Five American service members were killed Wednesday in Anbar Province, the military command reported Thursday, raising the American death toll in October to at least 96, one of the worst monthly tolls of the war. [complete article]

Sadr threatens rogue commanders of his Iraqi militia
AFP, October 27, 2006

Radical Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has threatened rogue commanders in his Mahdi Army militia with the wrath of God, his principal mouthpiece told worshippers at prayer Friday. [complete article]

See also, U.S. seeks missing soldier in Baghdad Shi'ite slum (Reuters).
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Dissent grows over silent treatment for 'axis of evil' nations
By Helene Cooper, New York Times, October 27, 2006

Ever since President Bush first proclaimed there to be an "axis of evil" in 2002, pundits, diplomats and politicians have urged him to talk to its members. But in the last few weeks, with Iraq experiencing a further surge in violence, North Korea testing a nuclear device and Iran continuing to defy a United Nations Security Council demand to stop enriching uranium, the cries for dialogue have grown louder.

James A. Baker III, the Republican former secretary of state, said this month that he believed "in talking to your enemies." After North Korea's nuclear test, former President Jimmy Carter said that "the stupidest thing that a government can do that has a real problem with someone is to refuse to talk to them."

Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, said last weekend that even at the peak of the cold war, "when there were nuclear missiles pointing at every major U.S. city, there was a direct line between the White House and the Kremlin."

The question arises: Is any of this cutting ice with the administration? [complete article]
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Democrats are divided on a solution for Iraq
By John M. Broder, New York Times, October 27, 2006

If the Nov. 7 election in the United States is a referendum on the Iraq war, what are the choices?

President Bush admitted Wednesday that things were not going as well as he had hoped in Iraq and that he was adjusting tactics on the ground to deal with the continuing military and political problems there. He said his overarching goal -- victory -- remained unchanged, but he gave no sense of what it would take to achieve it.

Democratic leaders and candidates are virtually unanimous in opposing the president's conduct of the war, and most advocate American disengagement -- either quickly or slowly. But most are not calling for an immediate withdrawal of American forces or offering a vision of what postwar Iraq should look like. They say they stand for change, but the variety of formulations is dizzying. [complete article]

U.S. evangelical support for Iraq war slipping
By Ed Stoddard, Reuters, October 27, 2006

A new poll shows support for the war in Iraq is slipping among white evangelical Protestants, previously a key pillar of support for President George W. Bush's conduct of the conflict.

The poll is the latest bad domestic news for Bush and the Republicans about Iraq with just 12 days to go to congressional elections in which the Democrats are widely expected to capture control of the House of Representatives.

Conducted by the PEW Research Center, it found that 58 percent of white evangelical Protestants surveyed felt the United States made the right decision in using force in Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein, below the 71 percent in a previous poll in September.

This compared to little change overall among committed Republicans, with 78 percent saying it was the correct course versus 76 percent in September. [complete article]

Staying the course right over a cliff
By George Lakoff, New York Times, October 27, 2006

"Stay the course" was for years a trap for those who disagreed with the president's policies in Iraq. To disagree was weak and immoral. It meant abandoning the fight against evil. But now the president himself is caught in that trap. To keep staying the course, given obvious reality, is to get deeper into disaster in Iraq, while not staying the course is to abandon one’s moral authority as a conservative. Either way, the president loses.

And if the president loses, does that mean the Democrats will win? Perhaps. But if they do, it will be because of Republican missteps and not because they've acted with strategic brilliance. Their "new direction" slogan offers no values and no positive vision. It is taken from a standard poll question, "Do you like the direction the nation is headed in?"

This is a shame. The Democrats are giving up a golden opportunity to accurately frame their values and deepest principles (even on national security), to forge a public identity that fits those values -- and perhaps to win more close races by being positive and having a vision worth voting for.

Right now, though, no language articulating a Democratic vision seems in the offing. If the Democrats don't find a more assertive strategy, their gains will be short-lived. They, too, will learn the pitfalls of staying the course. [complete article]

Fiasco then, fiasco now
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch, October 27, 2006

Are we now officially out of our minds? On Tuesday, General George W. Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Zalmay Khalilzad, our ambassador to Iraq, gave a joint press conference in Baghdad that was all for home consumption. By home, I mean Washington DC. I mean Indiana. I mean Texas. Baghdad's Green Zone was essentially a stage set for a political defense of the Bush presidency.

If the news hadn't been quite so grim, this tandem's act might have qualified as an Abbott and Costello comedy routine, including the moment when the lights went out -- while "gunfire and bomb blasts echoed around the city" -- thanks to our inability to resuscitate Iraqi electricity production. [complete article]
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Iran 'steps up nuclear programme'
BBC News, October 27, 2006

Iran has reportedly taken another step in its uranium enrichment programme, in defiance of international pressure.

It has activated a second set of centrifuges - the machines used to enrich uranium - the semi-official Isna agency has said.

A BBC correspondent says Iran would need tens of thousands of centrifuges to make industrial-scale nuclear fuel. [complete article]
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Taliban handpick their targets
By Jason Motlagh, Asia Times, October 28, 2006

Taliban militants are targeting Afghan government officials in yet another nod to Iraqi insurgents, marked by a spike in assassinations and attempted attacks in recent weeks that coincide with a greater reliance on suicide terrorism and the use of imported bomb technologies.

The killings appear to represent a systematic campaign to undermine the weak government of President Hamid Karzai, both to create fear in urban centers with a heavy security presence and distant provinces that have in past months experienced the bloodiest fighting since the hardline movement was ousted five years ago for harboring al-Qaeda operatives.

"This really is a deliberate campaign to assassinate Afghan officials," Barnett R Rubin, a leading expert on Afghanistan at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Asia Times Online. "We have seen well-placed suicide bombers operating more effectively than they ever have before." [complete article]

Kabul opens inquiry into Nato bombing deaths
By Tom Coghlan, The Telegraph, October 27, 2006

The Afghan government yesterday launched an investigation into claims dozens of civilians were killed in Nato bombing raids on suspected Taliban positions this week in southern Afghanistan.

The death toll could be the largest among civilians in a single incident since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Afghan officials said they believed up to 60 Taliban and 85 civilians died in the bombing. Nato officials confirmed at least 12 civilian deaths following "rolling clashes" between joint Nato and Afghan forces and groups of Taliban fighters in Punjwai district, which lies 10 miles south-west of Kandahar city. However, Nato spokesmen said responsibility for the deaths remained unclear. [complete article]

Afghan blast kills 14, Taliban vow more attacks
By Saeed Ali Achakzai, Reuters, October 27, 2006

A bomb ripped through a bus in southern Afghanistan on Friday, killing 14 civilians as the Taliban threatened to step up already rising suicide attacks.

The threat came after the Taliban accused NATO forces of genocide after the latest in a series of civilian combat deaths.

"We want to inform the foreign forces and their slaves that their defeat is inevitable in Afghanistan," the Islamist group's one-legged military commander, Mullah Dadullah, told Reuters by satellite phone from a secret location. [complete article]
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Cleric won't step down over rape remark
By Rod McGuirk, AP, October 27, 2006

Australia's most prominent Islamic cleric declared Friday that he would not resign for suggesting that women who don't wear head scarves invite rape, saying he would only leave his post "after we clean the world of the White House first."

Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali apologized Thursday for comparing women who fail to wear scarves to "uncovered meat." He has been banned from giving sermons for two or three months by the governing association of his Sydney mosque.

Al-Hilali's remark about the White House was his only comment to reporters outside the mosque who asked whether he would resign. His words drew cheers and applause from supporters.

His spokesman later said al-Hilali was making the point that President Bush's foreign policy and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq were more deserving of criticism than a sermon. [complete article]
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Bush's proposal of 'benchmarks' for Iraq sounds familiar
By Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post, October 26, 2006

The text of President Bush's news conference yesterday ran to nearly 10,000 words, but what may have been more significant were the things he did not say.

The president talked repeatedly about "benchmarks" for progress in Iraq, using that word 13 times. But he did not discuss the consequences of the Iraqi government missing those targets. Such a question, he said, was "hypothetical."

That response left unclear how the benchmarks would be different from previous times when the United States has set out intentions, only to back down. [complete article]

Iraqi premier denies U.S. assertion he agreed to timelines
By John Ward Anderson, Washington Post, October 26, 2006

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lashed out at the United States on Wednesday, saying his popularly elected government would not bend to U.S.-imposed benchmarks and timelines and criticizing a U.S.-Iraqi military operation in a Shiite slum in Baghdad that left at least five people dead and 20 wounded.

Maliki's comments came a day after U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the prime minister had agreed to timelines for accomplishing several critical goals, including developing plans to deal with militias, amend the constitution and equitably distribute Iraq's oil revenue.

"I affirm that this government represents the will of the people, and no one has the right to impose a timetable on it," Maliki said at a nationally televised news conference Wednesday. "The Americans have the right to review their policies, but we do not believe in a timetable." [complete article]

Ethnic cleansing in a Baghdad neighborhood?
By Mark Kukis, Time, October , 2006

The place was empty when U.S. soldiers burst in, raiding a house in Baghdad's violent Washash neighborhood in the hopes of finding killers involved in sectarian murders. By the look of things, no one had been there for some time, even though neighbors in the area reported seeing people dragged inside in recent weeks. But apparently someone involved in the area's sectarian violence had been there recently: left behind was a leather-bound day planner that gave a disturbing picture of the systematic nature of Baghdad's bloodshed. [complete article]
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In Syria, Iraq's fate silences rights activists
By Ellen Knickmeyer, Washington Post, October 26, 2006

Horror at the bloodshed accompanying the U.S. effort to bring democracy to Iraq has accomplished what human rights activists, analysts and others say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had been unable to do by himself: silence public demands for democratic reforms here.

The idea of the government as a bulwark of stability and security has long been the watchword of Syrian bureaucrats and village elders. But since Iraq's descent into sectarian and ethnic war -- and after Israel's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, on the other side of Syria -- even Syrian activists concede that the country's feeble rights movement is moribund.

Advocates of democracy are equated now with supporters of America, even "traitors," said Maan Abdul Salam, 36, a Damascus publisher who has coordinated conferences on women's rights and similar topics.

"Now, talking about democracy and freedom has become very difficult and sensitive," Salam said. "The people are not believing these thoughts anymore. When the U.S. came to Iraq, it came in the name of democracy and freedom. But all we see are bodies, bodies, bodies." [complete article]
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CIA tried to silence EU on torture flights
By Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, October 25, 2006

The CIA tried to persuade Germany to silence EU protests about the human rights record of one of America's key allies in its clandestine torture flights programme, the Guardian can reveal.

According to a secret intelligence report, the CIA offered to let Germany have access to one of its citizens, an al-Qaida suspect being held in a Moroccan cell. But the US secret agents demanded that in return, Berlin should cooperate and "avert pressure from EU" over human rights abuses in the north African country. The report describes Morocco as a "valuable partner in the fight against terrorism".

The classified documents prepared for the German parliament last February make clear that Berlin did eventually get to see the detained suspect, who was arrested in Morocco in 2002 as an alleged organiser of the September 11 strikes.

He was flown from Morocco to Syria on another rendition flight. Syria offered access to the prisoner on the condition that charges were dropped against Syrian intelligence agents in Germany accused of threatening Syrian dissidents. Germany dropped the charges, but denied any link.

After the CIA offered a deal to Germany, EU countries adopted an almost universal policy of downplaying criticism of human rights records in countries where terrorist suspects have been held. They have also sidestepped questions about secret CIA flights partly because of growing evidence of their complicity. [complete article]

Israel's experience with harsh questioning may provide guidance
By Dion Nissenbaum, McClatchy, October 25, 2006

Mahmoud Sehwail, the director of the Palestinian torture-treatment center, said Israel's newest methods had led to an increase in the number of detainees with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"They concentrate on psychological torture because it doesn't leave physical marks, and the harm is more severe and more long-lasting than the physical," he said. "What is the aim of torture? It's not to kill his body, it's to kill his spirit and kill his soul."

Mohammed Barghouthi - the labor minister for the Palestinian Authority, which is led by the militant group Hamas - was held and questioned for 48 days this summer before being released without charge. He said he was shackled to a chair in a painful position for hours at a time. But more painful, he said, were the threats against his family, the screams of interrogators and the humiliation of other Palestinian lawmakers that he was forced to witness.

"I am able to forget the physical torture, but not the psychological torture," Barghouthi said in an interview at his West Bank home. "It is engraved in my memory. I could take the treatment if I had done something wrong, but when the arrest is political, it is hard to take."

Israel's intelligence service declined to comment on specific cases and would say only that all of its interrogations are legal. It wouldn't address whether harsh tactics were effective in producing useful intelligence, a key dispute among U.S. officials, many of whom argue that information obtained from such questioning is unreliable. [complete article]
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Pelosi works to shore up image
By Nathan Guttman, October 25, 2006

When the news broke last week that former President Jimmy Carter is set to release a book highly critical of Israel, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi quickly issued a statement denouncing the views of her fellow Democrat.

"With all due respect," Pelosi declared in a written statement, "he does not speak for the Democratic Party on Israel."

Pelosi, the San Francisco lawmaker who is poised to become speaker of the House of Representatives if the Democrats win control of Congress, spoke out after reading excerpts from an advanced draft of the book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid."

Officials at Jewish organizations in Washington said this week that the minority leader's attack on Carter is in line with what they describe as a straight-A record on Israel. Still, Pelosi has struggled to convince many activists in the pro-Israel community that she is not the "San Francisco liberal" her GOP critics portray her to be. And Republicans have been arguing that their best, perhaps only, hope of hanging on to the House is to convince voters that Pelosi would be a weak wartime leader. [complete article]

Study: Israelis and U.S. Jews no longer seen as one nation
By Amiram Barkat, Haaretz, October 26, 2006

Two recent studies challenge the customary perception that Jews living in Israel and the United States, which make up 80 percent of the world's Jewry belong to the same nation.

One study indicates that Israel occupies a marginal place in the younger generation's Jewish identity. The other finds that Israeli pupils' knowledge of American Jewry is negligible. [complete article]

Poll: U.S. Jews back strike against Iran - by Israel
The Forward, October 27, 2006

Support among Jews for an American military strike against Iran has declined during the past year, according to an annual survey of American Jewish opinion released Monday.

The survey, commissioned by the American Jewish Committee, found that only 38% of American Jews support American military action, down from 49% last year. But, according to this year's survey, 57% back an Israeli strike against the Islamic Republic.

"What it means is that a majority of people are prepared to support military action, but by one country and not another country," said the AJCommittee's executive director, David Harris. The discrepancy may be explained by an overall lack of Jewish confidence in the Bush administration, he speculated. According to the poll, only 33% support the way America is handling the issue of Iran's nuclear program, and 65% believe that the United States should have stayed out of Iraq. [complete article]
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War now works against GOP
By Peter Slevin and Michael Powell, Washington Post, October 26, 2006

A visitor to Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick's campaign Web site will immediately hear a 20-second audio clip of a contentious television interview about Iraq with his Democratic challenger, Patrick Murphy. The clip ends: "Tough times demand honest answers, not Pat Murphy."

Fitzpatrick, a freshman Republican, hoped to throttle Murphy on an issue critical to the 2004 victories of President Bush and the Republican Congress. But Murphy, a 33-year-old West Point graduate and a veteran of the war, has battled his way into contention by directly attacking Fitzpatrick and Bush on their party's handling of Iraq itself.

"When we went there in 2003, we had a mission to get rid of Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction. We're still in Iraq 3 1/2 years later and the mission isn't clear," Murphy told an audience here last week. "Together we can change it. We can change what we're doing in Iraq."

Just three months ago, Republican strategists believed that doubts about Iraq could be contained -- or even turned into an electoral advantage -- if the battle was framed as a vital front in the war against terrorism. Voters would be invited to choose: Stand firm or capitulate.

But the issue is not playing out that way. In both parties, a consensus now exists -- buttressed by polls -- that disaffection with a war grown costly and difficult to manage is the gravest threat to continued Republican rule. [complete article]
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War, law and American democracy
By Bryan Long and Chip Pitts, Open Democracy, October 25, 2006

In both deed and word, the George W Bush administration has discarded core international laws, ranging from the Geneva conventions, to those against torture, to the laws governing the use of force. These monumental breaks with the past have been accepted with little comment or debate by the Republican-controlled and supposedly "conservative" Congress. Media attention, in the United States at least, has focused on whether the Iraq war was justified or necessary; the wider implications of a policy of preventive war remain largely ignored.

Yet this new, open-ended war is destabilising the world, and corroding democracy in the Unites States homeland. Did the events of 11 September 2001 really justify discarding the rule of law that the US had previously been so careful to nurture? [complete article]
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Will sanctions work against Iran?
By Tony Karon,, October 25, 2006

The North Korea example may, in fact, have convinced Iran that China and Russia are unlikely to buckle to U.S. pressure for tough sanctions, and the most hawkish element in Tehran may be encouraged by a perception that North Korea's defiance has forced the U.S. to deal with nuclear arsenal as a fait accompli. Even before Pyongyang's test, Iran's position appeared to be hardening against a compromise with the Western demand for suspending enrichment. Tehran's leaders appear to believe that a deadlock in which they continue enrichment while facing limited sanctions will ultimately force the West to make more concessions to Iran's terms. That confidence is helped, no doubt, by the crisis in Iraq, where the U.S. prospects of stabilizing the situation may depend substantially on Iranian cooperation. In the wake of North Korea, Iran's response to the threat of U.N. sanctions may well be a Farsi equivalent to President Bush's "Bring it on!" [complete article]

U.S., European allies at odds on terms of Iran resolution
By Colum Lynch and Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, October 26, 2006

The United States and its European allies split Wednesday over the terms of a U.N. resolution calling for a ban on Iranian trade in ballistic missiles and nuclear materials, according to Security Council diplomats.

The Bush administration supports the Europeans' broad aims of sanctioning Tehran for refusing to halt nuclear activities. But the White House declined to endorse a European-backed draft resolution, fearing it would be too weak to constrain Iran from developing nuclear weapons, U.S. and European diplomats said.

On Wednesday, France, Britain and Germany presented Russia and China with the text of a resolution that requires states to "prevent the supply, sale or transfer" of Iran's nuclear and ballistic programs and would halt Tehran's ability to secure financing and technical assistance for them. The resolution would also ban travel and freeze the assets of individuals associated with the weapons programs, said a council diplomat who has seen the draft.

But it exempts Russia from the trade embargo, allowing it to continue a previously approved nuclear energy agreement to support the construction of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant. [complete article]

Defiant Iran
By Christopher de Bellaigue, New York Review of Books, October 5, 2006

For all his rhetoric of social reform and making the state more Islamic, the truth is that Ahmadinejad has not changed Iran very much. It is the same inefficient, partially democratic, near theocracy that it was during Khatami's presidency. Its economy remains, if anything, even more dependent on revenues from oil, by far the country's most important commodity. The prominent elements of Ahmadinejad's vague program of general "upliftment"—to spend oil revenues to help the common man and increase the state's already considerable control over the economy—seem designed mainly to reinforce the status quo that the reformists tried to challenge.

Why, then, do Iran's leaders speak with new confidence about the future? One answer is that as recently as 2003, after two neighbors, Afghanistan and Iraq, fell to American forces, Iran's region of the world seemed dark and foreboding. But now it is full of promise, and the reasons for this are the means the Bush White House has employed to pursue its ambition of reshaping the Middle East and, in particular, its disastrous occupation of Iraq. Bush apparently wanted to force the Islamic Republic to moderate its behavior dramatically and to weaken it internally to the point where it would collapse. On both counts, he has achieved more or less the opposite of what he intended. [complete article]
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Israeli Arab's rising voice of opposition
By Ilene R. Prusher, Christian Science Monitor, October 26, 2006

With his graying beard, shalwar chemise tunic, and madrassah-style cap, Sheikh Raed Salah looks more like a Pakistani mullah than most of the "Palestinians inside," his term for the 1.4 million Arabs like himself who live in Israel.

Other terms that Sheikh Salah speaks in would easily make most Israelis uncomfortable.

The charismatic leader of the Islamic Movement of the North warns supporters, as he did through the holy month Ramadan, that the Al-Aqsa Mosque - Islam's third-holiest place - is more in danger every day. The threat: Israel.

Israel "will not survive another 20 years" and Jerusalem will soon be transformed into the world capital of Islam, he says in an interview at his office here, which is adorned with traditional Palestinian embroidery and a glittering mother-of-pearl model of Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, the famous Muslim shrine.

If opinions like Salah's existed in the past, they rarely went beyond the mosque. But Salah has become increasingly vocal and popular inside the Jewish state - buoyed by what seem to be deteriorating prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, wider regional unrest, and the growth of anti-US sentiment. [complete article]
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Hamas's path to reinvention
By Khaled Hroub, Open Democracy, October 10, 2006

A remarkable yet mostly overlooked transformation has been taking place within the thinking and political practice of Hamas over the past few years. The process started long before the radical Palestinian movement's victory in the legislative elections of 25 January 2006 in the West Bank and Gaza. Its essence has been a shift in the justification behind Hamas's "hardline" positions: in particular, from their rejection of any concession over the "land of Palestine" on religious grounds (based on the claim that Palestine is waqf [endowment] for successive Muslim generations which no one has the right to compromise on), to a political and pragmatic argument for this stance.

The language may have changed; the policy remains. Hamas's response to demands that it recognise Israel as a precondition of the inclusion of its government into the regional and international system is a consistent, and political, one: Israel itself is "borderless" and the country's leaders have never - whatever the current prime minister Ehud Olmert proclaims about his ambition for 2010 - clearly identified the borders of their own state - so what is the geographical extent of the Israel that we are asked to recognise? [complete article]
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Lieberman out of the shadows: Israel's Minister of Strategic Threats
By Jonathan Cook, Electronic Intifada, October 25, 2006

The furore that briefly flared this week at the decision of Israel's Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, to invite Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party into the government coalition is revealing, but not in the way most observers assume.

Lieberman, a Russian immigrant, is every bit the populist and racist politician he is portrayed as being. Like many of his fellow politicians, he harbours a strong desire to see the Palestinians of the occupied territories expelled, ideally to neighbouring Arab states or Europe. Lieberman, however, is more outspoken than most in publicly advocating for this position. [complete article]
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Israel violates Palestinian prisoner rights: report
By Luke Baker, Reuters, October 26, 2006

Israel's policy toward Palestinian prisoners is "arbitrary and disproportionate" and violates international humanitarian law by moving them out of occupied territory, an Israeli rights group said on Thursday.

B'Tselem, an independent body that monitors Israeli actions toward the Palestinians, said the vast majority of the 9,000 Palestinians being held by Israel were illegally imprisoned inside the Jewish state.

"Holding these prisoners and detainees in Israel flagrantly breaches international humanitarian law, which prohibits the transfer of civilians, including detainees and prisoners, from the occupied territory to the territory of the occupying state," B'Tselem said in a 53-page report. [complete article]

Solana: Israel must uproot West Bank outposts, advance road map
Haaretz, October 26, 2006

Israel must evacuate all illegal West Bank outposts and do its part to advance the internationally-backed road map for peace, the European Union's foreign policy chief told Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Thursday.

Javier Solana told Livni during talks in Tel Aviv that despite the prevailing chaos with the Palestinian Authority, the road map was still an existing plan in dire need of immediate implementation, Army Radio reported.

He implored Livni to remember Israel's obligations to the plan, adding he was concerned by a comment he had heard a day before by a "cabinet member" intimating that Israel has no plans to remove West Bank settlements or outposts. Solana on Wednesday held introductory talks with incoming minister on strategic threats, MK Avigdor Lieberman. [complete article]

Israel thwarting Hamas effort to set up West Bank security force
By Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz, October 26, 2006

The conflict between Israel and Hamas is likely to escalate soon in light of the Israel Defense Forces' decision to try to thwart the establishment of a Hamas security service in the West Bank.

In Gaza, Hamas' "Special Security Service" has become one of the organization's main power bases in its struggle against Fatah. Members of this force are well-equipped and very disciplined, and they have won almost all their street battles with Fatah gunmen.

Though the service's more than 5,000 members appear on the Palestinian Authority payroll, in practice, they answer solely to Yusuf a-Zahar, a member of Hamas' military wing and brother of PA Foreign Minister Mahmoud a-Zahar. [complete article]

PA official: Hamas interior minister brought $2 million into Gaza
AP, October 26, 2006

Hamas' interior minister brought $2 million into the Gaza Strip in a new effort by the ruling Islamic militant group to flout international sanctions, a Palestinian official said Thursday.

The official said the Hamas-led government would use the money to make one-time $50 payments to 20,000 members of Palestinian security forces by the end of the week. [complete article]
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Why this fear of Islam?
By Linda Heard, Arab News, October 24, 2006

An astute Egyptian friend recently forwarded an article that appeared in last Sunday's Independent newspaper titled "Drunk and Disorderly: Woman in UK Are the Worst Binge Drinkers in the World".

Appended to the e-mail was this comment from my friend pointing out the inherent irony. "Instead of recommending that UK women learn a thing or two from their compatriot Muslim sisters to save millions of pounds for the National Health Service, the jokers in Number Ten Downing Street instead make a big issue about a dress code that has zero effect on the well-being of the country."

He's surely got a point. According to the article "one in three 17-30-year-olds is now classed as a heavy drinker, bingeing on four or more drinks in one session at least once a fortnight", which translates to liver damage, premature death, cancer, heart problems, an escalation in anti-social behavior, lost working hours and puts those women at risk of sexual assault.

This trend affects one in out of every three young women and yet British politicians, including Prime Minister Tony Blair, seem more concerned about the handful of British women who have chosen to don the full veil, which poses no danger to either themselves or to the public at large. [complete article]

Veiling the issues: a distractive debate
By Tina Beattie, Open Democracy, October 24, 2006

Muslims are tolerated providing they demonstrate that they are "moderate", but the communication of values is all one way: there is a suggestion that "we" have nothing to learn from "them", but "they" still have much to learn about "our" British values. But Britain is a multicultural society, and notwithstanding citizenship tests and much rhetoric about the meaning of Britishness, the multiple identities of those who inhabit this small island renders the term "British values" almost meaningless, unless in itself it signifies a capacity for diversity and non-uniformity.

In any case, the failure to recognise that religious traditions, including Islam, are custodians of values from which secular society might learn, is a product of a post-Enlightenment world view, in which a progressive concept of history leads to the belief that the rationalised, secularised west is more advanced than its religious and non-western counterparts. It is for "them" to catch up, rather than slowing "us" down with their different values and priorities.

This persistent theme implicitly informs much public debate about Islam, even if it has been debunked by postmodernists, whose conversation tends to fall on deaf ears outside their own esoteric intellectual and cultural milieus. However, we should listen to what they are telling us, because they caution us against the progressive and triumphalist view of history that has gripped western consciousness for the last two centuries at least, and which is closely associated with western imperialism and global conquest. [complete article]

Comment -- When it comes to the defense of "our values" and "our way of life," isn't personal freedom supposed to be right there at the core? British Muslim women who chose to wear the niq­ab are exercising their freedom, yet apparently much of the population would rather that they bow to public pressure and discard this "symbol of separation." They must make the effort to fit in to a society that increasingly values homogeneity above diversity.

Whereas until recently the Western secular liberal view was that the veiled women of the Islamic world needed to be freed from the impositions of patriarchal societies, women in the West veiled by choice are now being presented as a cultural threat. Whether veiled in response to or in defiance of social pressure, it seems that the West's self-proclaimed attachment to freedom is nothing more than a cultural Trojan horse: the real goal is the exclusion of the other.
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NATO bombs kill scores of Afghan civilians: officials
Reuters, October 26, 2006

NATO warplanes killed at least 50 civilians, mostly women and children, in bombing in southern Afghanistan during a major Islamic holiday, local leaders said on Thursday.

The incident happened on Tuesday, the middle of the Eid al-Fitr festival marking the end of the Muslim fasting month, in Panjwai, an area where the alliance said it had killed hundreds of insurgents in a two-week offensive last month.

NATO says it killed 48 insurgents during heavy fighting in the area in Kandahar province on Tuesday and had received credible reports several civilians were killed in the operation. [complete article]

Photos cause outrage in Germany
By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times, October 26, 2006

It wasn't the best day for the picture of a German soldier simulating oral sex with a skull to have appeared in the nation's biggest newspaper.

The outrage Wednesday about photographs of German troops posing with a skull in Afghanistan swept through Parliament just as Chancellor Angela Merkel's administration announced a major restructuring of the military to handle increased international missions.

The five pictures appeared in Bild under the headline: "German Soldiers Desecrate a Dead Person." They show the skull in various positions, including mounted on a jeep and held near the waist of a soldier with his fatigues unzipped. The newspaper blocked out the faces of the troops. [complete article]
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War on West shifts back to Afghanistan
By Sebastian Rotella, Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2006

The conflict in Iraq is drawing fewer foreign fighters as Muslim extremists aspiring to battle the West turn their attention back to the symbolically important and increasingly violent turf of Afghanistan, European and U.S. anti-terrorism officials say.

The shift of militants to Afghanistan this year suggests that Al Qaeda and its allies, armed with new tactics honed in Iraq, are coming full circle five years after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban mullahs.

Until Sept. 11, 2001, Afghanistan was the land of jihad: hallowed ground where fighters from across the Muslim world helped vanquish the Soviet Union in 1980s, fought alongside the Taliban in the 1990s and filled training camps overseen by Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Loss of the Afghan sanctuary scattered the networks and sent Bin Laden fleeing toward the Pakistani border region, where many anti-terrorism officials believe he remains.

After the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003, Muslim extremists from the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and Europe flocked to confront the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Although foreigners have been a minority in the Iraqi insurgency, militants such as Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi played a major role in suicide attacks and kidnap-killings.

But insurgent leaders in Iraq are now mainly interested in foreign recruits ready to die in suicide attacks, anti-terrorism officials say. Moreover, the conflict is dominated by violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. In contrast, an accelerating Afghan offensive by the resurgent Taliban offers a clearer battleground and a wealth of targets: U.S. and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops, and the Western-backed government. [complete article]

Militias defy peace deal to impose Taliban rule on Afghan border
By Isambard Wilkinson, The Telegraph, October 25, 2006

Taliban militias in Pakistan have set up offices, introduced taxes and taken control of justice in the tribal agency of North Waziristan, where last month the government signed a peace agreement with militants.

In violation of the agreement, a Taliban shura, or council, distributed pamphlets of its policies at the weekend, while militants have begun to patrol the area's streets and have already killed numerous "American spies".

A "tax schedule" detailed how businesses are liable to pay charges to the Taliban. Trucks entering the agency will pay for a six-month pass and petrol-pump owners will have to make contributions to the council. The taxes were described as a "donation" in the pamphlet. [complete article]
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German ministers 'knew about CIA torture cells'
By Tony Paterson, The Independent, October 25, 2006

The German government is alleged to have received first-hand evidence that the CIA began torturing terrorist suspects at secret prisons in Europe shortly after the September 11 attacks, despite claiming it only knew about such sites through the media.

Stern magazine quoted a leaked German intelligence report yesterday which said that only weeks after September 11 2001, two agents and a translator visited a US military prison at the American "Eagle Base" in the Bosnian town of Tuzla, where they saw a torture victim.

The German intelligence report said US interrogators at the base had beaten a 70-year-old terrorist suspect with rifle butts and that "his injuries meant that he had to be given 20 stitches to the head wound he sustained". The report said the American interrogator responsible "appeared to be proud" of his actions. [complete article]
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More U.S. troops may be Iraq-bound
By Ellen Knickmeyer, Washington Post, October 25, 2006

The top American commander in Iraq said Tuesday that he may call for more troops to be sent to Baghdad, possibly by increasing the overall U.S. presence in Iraq, as rising bloodshed pushes Iraqi and American deaths to some of their highest levels of the war.

The commander, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., also said he now believed Iraqi forces would be ready to take over security responsibility from the Americans no sooner than late 2007 or early 2008. The announcement of a 12- to 18-month target again pushes back the withdrawal of the bulk of the 145,000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq. [complete article]
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The Bush Administration's war of the images
By Tom Engelhardt, TomDistpatch, October 25, 2006

Recently, speaking of his war in Iraq, George Bush put the Vietnam analogy back in the public eye. He was asked by ABC's George Stephanopoulos if New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was on the mark in suggesting that what "we might be seeing now is the Iraqi equivalent of the Tet Offensive."

The President's reply: "Mm-hmm. He could be right. There's certainly a stepped-up level of violence. And we're heading into an election."

The nationwide Tet Offensive has, of course, long been seen as the turning point in the Vietnam War, the moment when the American political establishment lost both the media and the American public in its Vietnam venture. That's what the President is certainly alluding to, though the present chaos in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq hardly qualifies as a "Tet Offensive" and, as the polls indicate, the American public had already been lost to his war.

Nonetheless, for Bush, who (like the rest of his administration) had previously avoided Vietnam-analogy admissions like the plague, it was certainly a sign that he feared the loss of the war he had fought most fiercely since September 12, 2001 -- the war to pacify the American public and the media. [complete article]
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Iraqi realities undermine the Pentagon's predictions
By Michael R. Gordon, New York Times, October 25, 2006

In trying to build support for the American strategy in Iraq, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said Tuesday that the Iraqi military could be expected to take over the primary responsibility for securing the country within 12 to 18 months.

But that laudable goal seems far removed from the violence-plagued streets of Iraq's capital, where American forces have taken the lead in trying to protect the city and American soldiers substantially outnumber Iraqi ones.

Given the rise in sectarian killings, a Sunni-based insurgency that appears to be as potent as ever and an Iraqi security establishment that continues to have difficulties deploying sufficient numbers of motivated and proficient forces in Baghdad, General Casey's target seems to be an increasingly heroic assumption.

On paper, Iraq has substantial security forces. The Pentagon noted in an August report to Congress that Iraq had more than 277,000 troops and police officers, including some 115,000 army combat soldiers.

But those figures, which have often been cited at Pentagon news conferences as an indicator of progress and a potential exit strategy for American troops, paint a distorted picture. When the deep-seated reluctance of many soldiers to serve outside their home regions, leaves of absence and AWOL rates are taken into account, only a portion of the Iraqi Army is readily available for duty in Baghdad and other hot spots. [complete article]
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Idle contractors add millions to Iraq rebuilding
By James Glanz, New York Times, October 25, 2006

Overhead costs have consumed more than half the budget of some reconstruction projects in Iraq, according to a government estimate released yesterday, leaving far less money than expected to provide the oil, water and electricity needed to improve the lives of Iraqis.

The report provided the first official estimate that, in some cases, more money was being spent on housing and feeding employees, completing paperwork and providing security than on actual construction.

Those overhead costs have ranged from under 20 percent to as much as 55 percent of the budgets, according to the report, by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. On similar projects in the United States, those costs generally run to a few percent. [complete article]
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Osama's answer to Iraq's violence
By Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times, October 25, 2006

That the spiral of sectarian killing between Sunnis and Shi'ites in Iraq has reached crisis point is evidenced by a recent landmark gathering of prominent religious scholars from both sects at which they called for an end to the violence.

In a joint declaration, signed at Al-Safa Palace overlooking the Holy Kaaba in Mecca, the religious scholars, in a move toward mutual recognition unprecedented in Iraq, called for a complete end to sectarian killings.

Meeting under the auspices of the 56-country Organization of the
Islamic Conference (OIC) and the International Islamic Fiqh Academy, a member organization of the OIC, the Shi'ite and Sunni scholars called on Iraqis in plain terms to stand united in protecting the independence, unity and territorial integrity of their country. "This is necessary," they said, "in order to put an end to the [foreign] occupation and restore and reinstate Iraq's Arab-Islamic role."

The declaration, in essence a fatwa, has received full approval and endorsement from key Shi'ite and Sunni leaders in Iraq, most notably from influential Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
OIC secretary general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said he could not say what effect the decree would have, admitting, "It is a moral obligation. Neither the OIC, nor anyone else, has power over the consciences of men."

This, in a nutshell, is the problem in Iraq: militia and other leaders no longer have control over the "consciences of men", and a seemingly endless circle of violence appears to be the result. [complete article]
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Saudi prisoner release gives U.S. pause
By Carol J. Williams, Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez, Los Angeles Times, October 25, 2006

U.S. officials, apparently caught off guard by the Saudi government's recent release of more than two dozen former Guantanamo Bay prisoners, are voicing fears that the men will join the camp of violent extremist groups.

The Saudis released the 29 men from jail for observance of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and atonement, with instructions to return to custody by the end of this month.

Saudi officials said that although the men were still under investigation for possible terrorist ties, they were not considered serious threats. "Throwing people in jail and letting them rot is not the answer," said Nail Jubeir, spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

But the commander at the sprawling camp here for suspected terrorists is skeptical. [complete article]
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Pre-emptive attack on Hamas eyed
By Joshua Mitnick, Washington Times, October 25, 2006

Applying a lesson from the recent war against Hezbollah, Israeli leaders are increasingly talking about staging a pre-emptive military offensive in the Gaza Strip in order to avert a Hamas buildup of improved missiles.

Israeli forces already operating in the Gaza Strip Monday killed at least nine Palestinians and wounded 20. But officials and politicians say a broader operation against Hamas is necessary if Israel wants to deny it the ability to stockpile weapons like the Shi'ite militia Hezbollah, which was able to build up its arsenal during six years of relative calm.

"We should not allow Hamas to build in Gaza what Hezbollah built in Lebanon," said Ephraim Sneh, Labor parliamentarian. "[A broad offensive] seems to me almost unavoidable because the accumulation of arms in Gaza in the hands of Hamas and other terror organization is intolerable." [complete article]
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Not only the right to worship is sacred
By Amira Hass, Haaretz, October 25, 2006

The main Israeli control method, and the most effective with respect to the occupier, is the limitation of Palestinian freedom of movement to a minimum: within the occupied territories, between district and district, between town and village, village and its lands, between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, between going abroad and coming back.

This is not just a system: This is a policy no less destructive than the bombings and the bombardments, and it preceded the current intifada and developed under the aegis of the Oslo process. Every Palestinian is injured by this policy, and many Palestinians dare to look for individual ways to defy and challenge it.

But as a collective entity, the Palestinians have not turned the demand for the restoration of freedom of movement into an exalted goal, worthy of shared and organized effort. [complete article]
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Bush's new tack steers clear of 'stay the course'
By Peter Baker, Washington Post, October 24, 2006

President Bush and his aides are annoyed that people keep misinterpreting his Iraq policy as "stay the course." A complete distortion, they say. "That is not a stay-the-course policy," White House press secretary Tony Snow declared yesterday.

Where would anyone have gotten that idea? Well, maybe from Bush.

"We will stay the course. We will help this young Iraqi democracy succeed," he said in Salt Lake City in August.

"We will win in Iraq so long as we stay the course," he said in Milwaukee in July.

"I saw people wondering whether the United States would have the nerve to stay the course and help them succeed," he said after returning from Baghdad in June.

But the White House is cutting and running from "stay the course." A phrase meant to connote steely resolve instead has become a symbol for being out of touch and rigid in the face of a war that seems to grow worse by the week, Republican strategists say. Democrats have now turned "stay the course" into an attack line in campaign commercials, and the Bush team is busy explaining that "stay the course" does not actually mean stay the course.

Instead, they have been emphasizing in recent weeks how adaptable the president's Iraq policy actually is. Bush remains steadfast about remaining in Iraq, they say, but constantly shifts tactics and methods in response to an adjusting enemy. "What you have is not 'stay the course' but in fact a study in constant motion by the administration," Snow said yesterday. [complete article]

Comment -- The White House might be busy trying to reinvent President stay-the-course Bush and turn him into an Ali-like tactician who knows how to dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee, but the course metaphor -- movement, steady or tacking -- really doesn't work. Bush and his Iraq policy are in paralysis. American forces are stranded in Iraq.
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There's one last thing to try
By Fareed Zakaria, Newsweek, October 30, 2006

American policy in Iraq over the past two and a half years has been a mixture of nation-building and counterinsurgency, neither with much success. But the United States is now facing an even more difficult task: ending a civil war. People in Washington have decided to postpone any policy rethinking until the midterm elections are done, because we don't want politics to interfere with this process. After that, the hope is that the Hamilton-Baker study group will report its findings. Then we can begin making some of the moves it recommends. There's just one problem: conditions on the ground are deteriorating rapidly. Violence in Iraq has become largely sectarian in nature and has drastically worsened in the past two months. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 9,000 people every week are being driven out of their homes. The Iraq Casualty Coalition, which calculates Iraqi deaths based on local press reports, says that August and September were the two deadliest months on record for Iraqis, and October is set to exceed those levels. One more symbolic explosion -- another Samarra bombing, say -- could set off a chain reaction that will make things completely uncontrollable. [complete article]

Comment -- The idea that arm-twisting -- in the form of threatening a U.S. withdrawal -- could turn things around in Iraq, is strangely self-contradictory. On the one hand it is acknowledged that the government would collapse without American protection, yet supposedly this weak government is simply holding back from wielding the political power needed to rein in the militias. Rather than suffering from an unwillingness to pull hard on the reins of power, the problem seems to be that there are no reins. Maliki's latest announcement of a crackdown appears primarily to be an exercise in telling the Americans what they want to hear.
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U.S. sees light in Iraq's darkness
By Dave Clark, AFP, October 24, 2006

The United States ambassador to Iraq has assured US voters that victory can still be achieved in this war-torn country within a year as long as Iraqi leaders live up to their promises.

At a news conference Tuesday that was briefly plunged into darkness by one of Baghdad's daily power cuts, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad described the battle to save Iraq from extremists as "the defining challenge of our era".

But as he and the top US commander in Iraq, General George Casey, briefed reporters in the heavily-fortified Green Zone, gunfire and bomb blasts echoed around the city beyond as the war's grim death toll continued to mount. [complete article]

See also, White House won't shift Iraq strategy (AP) and General may increase U.S. troop levels in Baghdad (NYT).
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Iraqi prime minister acts to rein in militias
By Ellen Knickmeyer, Washington Post, October 24, 2006

Iraq has ordered its security forces to crack down on unlawful acts by armed factions, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Monday in a rare public rebuke to the Shiite militias allied with his government.

Although the statement was bolder than usual for Maliki, it fell short of directing that the illegal militias be disbanded, a move that American officials are increasingly urging as sectarian bloodletting and other violence soar. [complete article]

Following a death trail to Sadr City
By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2006

The teeming district of more than 2 million people — no one knows the population with any certainty — operates as a kind of autonomous city-state in a shaky, informal truce with U.S. troops. Although it suffers regular car bomb attacks, Sadr City is among the safest districts in a fearful capital.

Markets still bustle here with a vibrancy drained from much of Baghdad. A citywide curfew that extinguishes most night life is largely ignored here. Many police eschew body armor. Men still play dominoes and sip tea at smoky cafes.

Yet the very source of the stability, Al Mahdi militiamen who enforce security and rigid Islamic codes of dress and behavior, evokes dread elsewhere in Baghdad, where turf is fast being carved up along sectarian lines.

The Al Mahdi army was born in Sadr City three years ago, the urban disenfranchised answering the call of clerics who sought enthusiastic legions to shield holy places and oust the "occupier."

"People here do not like the Americans, but they are exercising restraint," said Fatah Sheik, a prominent leader in Sadr City. "In my personal opinion, the earth beneath the occupiers should be jolted and shaken so that they don't get the idea they are standing on solid ground and decide to stay longer." [complete article]

Bloodletting continues in southern Iraq
By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2006

A militia chief's brother, kidnapped last week in an apparent act of vengeance that sparked a two-day battle over control of a southern Iraqi city, was found dead Monday amid signs of simmering unrest between rival Shiite Muslim groups that is undermining security in the relatively stable south.

At least 50 other Iraqis were killed or found dead around the country during the day as part of relentless political violence that has marked the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which is just ending. [complete article]
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Senior U.S. diplomat's candor gets play in the Middle East, ire at home
By Dan Murphy, Christian Science Monitor, October 24, 2006

When senior State Department official Alberto Fernandez said in an interview on Al Jazeera Saturday that US policies in Iraq have been marked by "arrogance" and "stupidity," he was expressing a sentiment widely held in the Arab world.

To many Arabs, it was a stunning moment of candor. It led front pages of newspapers across the region. Mr. Fernandez - whose fluent Arabic and dozens of regional television appearances have made him the voice of American policy to millions in the Middle East - struck the sort of tone that public policy experts say the US needs if it is to regain some of its credibility in Arab eyes.

The only problem was, his comments were immediately disavowed by the Bush Administration. Now the future of Fernandez - one of America's most potent public diplomacy weapons in the region - is clouded, and the Arab view of an America that admits to no mistakes has become more entrenched. [complete article]
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Avigdor Lieberman is a strategic threat
Editorial, Haaretz, October 24, 2006

In a cynical move with few parallels in Israeli politics, the cabinet voted on Sunday in favor of Avigdor Lieberman's proposal for amending the system of government. Most cabinet members oppose the proposal, so when they voted for it, they knew that they were being untrue to themselves.

Particularly egregious was Minister of Pensioner Affairs Rafi Eitan, who said that he voted in favor because he knew this terrible proposal has no chance of making it through the Knesset. The reason that most cabinet members voted for the bill was their desire to stay in power at any price.

Lieberman is entering the government with a big wink. He knows that the system of government will not be changed, but he also knows that he has managed to do something that, until Sunday, seemed impossible - to secure himself the most sensitive post in the country, minister in charge of strategic threats.

The choice of the most unrestrained and irresponsible man around for this job constitutes a strategic threat in its own right. Lieberman's lack of restraint and his unbridled tongue, comparable only to those of Iran's president, are liable to bring disaster down upon the entire region. [complete article]

See also, World silent as fascists join Israel government (Ali Abunimah) and Israeli premier reaches out to far right (NYT)

Settlements grow on Arab land, despite promises made to U.S.
By Amos Harel, Haaretz, October 24, 2006

A secret, two year investigation by the defense establishment shows that there has been rampant illegal construction in dozens of settlements and in many cases involving privately owned Palestinian properties.

The information in the study was presented to two defense ministers, Amir Peretz and his predecessor Shaul Mofaz, but was not released in public and a number of people participating in the investigations were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements.

According to security sources familiar with the study, the material is "political and diplomatic dynamite." [complete article]
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Soros considers backing peace initiative
By Guy Dinmore, Financial Times, October 23, 2006

Israel's summer war with Lebanon's Hizbollah ended after 34 days, but a fierce debate within the American Jewish community over the nature of Israel's relationship with the US rages on, spurring efforts to create a powerful voice to lobby for peace with the Palestinians.

George Soros, the financier and philanthropist, is said by friends to be considering giving his support to a new initiative for an influential alternative that would lobby for US engagement and a negotiated two-state settlement.

Organisers deny they intend to rival the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), one of Washington's most effective lobby groups, and say some of their number include Aipac supporters. But with sufficient funding, its outlook could be seen as a counterweight to Aipac, which strongly backed the unilateralist course set by former prime minister Ariel Sharon.

"The Lebanon conflict provided a sense of urgency to discussions," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, an organiser of the proposed new "Israel project". The discussions represented "a new effort to promote the perspective in the Jewish community that Israel's security depends on ending this [Palestinian] conflict peacefully". [complete article]
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Coveting the Holocaust
By Chris Hedges, Truthdig, October 23, 2006

While Armenians are still fighting to have the genocide of some 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Turks accepted as historical fact, many Jews have found in the Nazi Holocaust a useful instrument to deflect criticism of Israel and the dubious actions of the pro-Israeli lobby as well as many Jewish groups in the United States.

Norman Finkelstein, who for his writings has been virtually blacklisted, noted in "The Holocaust Industry" that the Jewish Holocaust has allowed Israel to cast itself and "the most successful ethnic group in the United States" as eternal victims. Finkelstein, the son of Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, goes on to argue that this status has enabled Israel, which has "a horrendous human rights record," to play the victim as it oppresses Palestinians or destroys Lebanon. This victim status has permitted U.S. Jewish organizations (the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and others) to get their hands on billions of dollars in reparations, much of which never finds its way to the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors. Finkelstein's mother, who was in the Warsaw ghetto, received $3,500, while the World Jewish Congress walked away with roughly $7 billion in compensation moneys. The organization pays lavish salaries to its employees and uses the funds to fuel its own empire. For many the Nazi Holocaust is not used to understand and deal with the past, and more importantly the universal human capacity for evil, but to manipulate the present. Finkelstein correctly writes that the fictitious notion of unique suffering leads to feelings of unique entitlement. [complete article]
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Fallout of Hamas's rule spurs Palestinian desire to flee
By Joshua Mitnick, Christian Science Monitor, October 24, 2006

Ahmed Hushiyeh holds degrees in political science and communications, and dreams of becoming a photojournalist. But after a futile search for a job, the young Palestinian works as a janitor at his alma mater, Birzeit University.

He is saving money in the hopes of moving to Europe, enrolling in another university, and finding work. Political paralysis during Hamas's brief tenure leading the Palestinian government and escalating violence between rival security forces has convinced Mr. Hushiyeh that his career path lies abroad.

"I am not optimistic. The situation is only deteriorating. Maybe outside, the opportunities are much better," he says. "Every young man wishes to have a job and have a life. But when he sees what we have here: occupation, siege, a low standard of living, security crisis - all of this creates a desire to leave. I want to get out of this crisis."

Like Hushiyeh, a growing number of Palestinians are openly saying they'd like to leave the West Bank and Gaza if given the chance, raising concern about the possibility of a Palestinian brain drain. The sentiment, which flouts the long-held Palestinian belief that Israeli occupation can only be resisted by staying put, is yet another indication of the deepening despair since Hamas was elected to run the government. [complete article]
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Shards of agony in southern Lebanon
By Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2006

There were no fireworks or feasts this year. Instead, it was the funeral of a child that ushered out the holy month of Ramadan in this tiny village of olive farmers.

Ashraf Shibli was 11 years old, and his family remembers him as a clever and curious boy. On Sunday afternoon, he set off a cluster bomb while foraging for pine cones in a sun-dappled grove. The first thing the villagers heard, echoing over the hills, was the explosion. Then they heard his older brother's screams; Ashraf died instantly, his father said.

This village of poor farmers buried his body in the rich soil Monday. The buzz of helicopters rattled the skies overhead. On what should have been one of the most joyful days of the Muslim calendar, this village was like much of south Lebanon: suffused with sadness.

"The war is not over for us," said Ali Hussein Shibli, father of the child, his face grizzled and dazed.

"In the end, nobody really looks after you -- not [Saad] Hariri, not Walid Jumblatt," he said, naming two of Lebanon's sectarian leaders. "Not Hezbollah. Who is going to give me back my son now that he's dead?" [complete article]
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The CIA's travel agent
By Jane Mayer, The New Yorker, October 23, 2006

On the official Web site of Boeing, the world's largest aerospace company, there is a section devoted to a subsidiary called Jeppesen International Trip Planning, based in San Jose, California. The write-up mentions that the division "offers everything needed for efficient, hassle-free, international flight operations," spanning the globe "from Aachen to Zhengzhou." The paragraph concludes, "Jeppesen has done it all."

Boeing does not mention, either on its Web site or in its annual report, that Jeppesen's clients include the C.I.A., and that among the international trips that the company plans for the agency are secret "extraordinary rendition" flights for terrorism suspects. Most of the planes used in rendition flights are owned and operated by tiny charter airlines that function as C.I.A. front companies, but it is not widely known that the agency has turned to a division of Boeing, the publicly traded blue-chip behemoth, to handle many of the logistical and navigational details for these trips, including flight plans, clearance to fly over other countries, hotel reservations, and ground-crew arrangements.

The Bush Administration has defended the clandestine rendition program, which began during the Clinton years, as an effective method of transporting terrorists to countries where they can be questioned or held. Human-rights activists and others have said the program’s primary intent is to send suspects to detention centers where they can be interrogated harshly, and have criticized it as an illegal means of "outsourcing torture." [complete article]

See also, Italy's top spy is expected to be indicted in abduction case (NYT).
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IAEA head: Iran close to enriching uranium
By Dafna Linzer, Washington Post, October 24, 2006

Iran has taken another step in its ability to enrich uranium, the head of the U.N. atomic energy agency confirmed yesterday, as the Bush administration and European allies failed to reach agreement on sanctions against Tehran's expanding nuclear program.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that Iranian technicians had pieced together a second line, or cascade, of 164 centrifuges and are days away from using the cascade to enrich uranium.

"It's in place and ready to go," ElBaradei said in a brief interview yesterday.

European officials suggested that the new cascade is a political move by Iranian officials who are hoping to send a defiant message to the U.N. Security Council as it weighs possible sanctions. [complete article]
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Fearing war and Islamist rule, Somalis pour into Kenya
By Shashank Bengali, McClatchy, October 23, 2006

Somalis are fleeing their homeland in the greatest numbers in years as Islamic militants seize control of more territory and edge closer to a military showdown with the weak interim government.

The new arrivals say Islamist militias are imposing harsh laws within hours of taking over towns, including banning the popular narcotic plant khat, a mainstay of Somali commerce. Refugees said the militias had banned the sale of charcoal for environmental reasons and curtailed key transport routes north to Mogadishu and south to Kenya.

"They came and said they were in control of business and I had to stop selling immediately," said Mohammed Hussein Abdi, a khat dealer in the southern port of Kismayo, which the Islamists seized last month. [complete article]
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The Fernandez problem
By Marc Lynch, Abu Aardvark, October 22, 2006

Reading [the remarks by the director of the State Department's Arab media outreach office, aired on al-Jazeera,] makes clear that the parts of Fernandez's comments which have been quoted extensively are mostly a throat clearing preface to saying that Arabs need to move on and talk about Iraq's future instead of "gloating" over American problems. This is a way of establishing credibility and a reputation for candor with Arab audiences - two things that almost all American spokespeople who stick to the administration's script lack. His humility treats those audiences with respect, rather than trying to force talking points crafted in Washington down the throats of skeptical listeners who live in the region and know better. At a time when everyone in America is talking about how and why the US failed in Iraq, and everyone in the Arab media is following those American debates, how credible could he be if he continued to whistle along and pretend otherwise? The admission of some blame about the past sugar coats the key argument about the need for Arabs to step forward and take some responsibility for the future - which is exactly what the US needs right now.

By the way, most of the furor over the interview has missed the really significant part of his interview: his indication of American willingness to negotiate with any part of the Sunni insurgency other than al-Qaeda. This clearly is America's new policy, and it needed to be communicated directly to Iraq's Sunni communities without the filter of interested intermediaries. By airing this invitation to talks on al-Jazeera, which is probably the most widely viewed television channel among Iraq's Sunnis, Fernandez accomplished something of real political significance. [complete article]

See also, State Department official: I misspoke on Iraq policy (CNN).

U.S. offers amnesty in secret talks
By James Hider, The Times, October 23, 2006

American forces are negotiating an amnesty with Sunni insurgents in Iraq to try to defuse the nascent civil war and pave the way for disarmament of Shia militias, The Times has learnt.

The tactic marks a dramatic reversal of policy by the US military, which blocked attempts to pardon insurgents with American blood on their hands after handing over sovereignty to a secular Iraqi Government in June 2004. [complete article]
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The Iraq war in 8 minutes
By Greg Mitchell, Editor and Publisher, October 22, 2006

Over the years, I have made few requests of readers of this column, beyond hinting that, maybe, you ought to return here from time to time. But now I have to urge you to drop everything, finish reading this come-on, and then link to the video described below. It's the most revealing little (eight-minute) video I've seen yet on our country’s preposterous position in Iraq.

Aptly, it is titled, "Iraq: The Real Story." It won't turn your stomach, in fact, you may even chuckle in spots (like you might have done in reading much of "Catch-22"). But, hopefully, you will end up screaming at the computer screen. [complete article]
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Into the abyss of Baghdad
By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times, October 23, 2006

I keep seeing his face. He appears to be in his mid-20s, bespectacled, slightly bearded, and somehow his smile conveys a sense of prosperity to come. Perhaps he is set to marry, or enroll in graduate school, or launch a business -- all of these flights of ambition seem possible.

In the next few images he is encased in plastic: His face is frozen in a ghoulish grimace. Blackened lesions blemish his neck.

"Drill holes," says Col. Khaled Rasheed, an Iraqi commander who is showing me the set of photographs.

He preserves the snapshots in a drawer, the image of the young man brimming with expectations always on top. There is no name, no identification, just a series of photos that documents the transformation of some mother's son into a slab of meat on a bloody table in a morgue.

"Please, please, I must show these photographs to President Bush," Rasheed pleads in desperation, as we sit in a bombed-out palace along the Tigris, once the elegant domain of Saddam Hussein's wife, now the command center for an Iraqi army battalion. "President Bush must know what is happening in Baghdad!" [complete article]

See also, To stand or fall in Baghdad: capital is key to mission (NYT).
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Stark lessons from Iraq
By Jim Hoagland, Washington Post, October 22, 2006

The bloody chaos of Iraq under U.S. occupation is shaking Western governments into sobering reassessments of that conflict and of war itself. More urgently, some of these governments have launched tightly held contingency planning for the consequences of a possible American failure in Iraq.

"There will be no papers or staff meetings on that subject in our main ministries," one European senior official told me recently. "It would leak, and that would be disastrous. But our intelligence agencies have begun to work on where the terrorists would go post-Iraq. That is a threat we cannot ignore now."

The deepening doubts about America's commitment and strategy in Iraq that dominate polling for U.S. midterm elections have spread across the Atlantic in recent months as insurgency has metastasized into sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shiites. [complete article]

Comment -- America's inability to learn from history is unlikely to be remedied by the humiliation of failure in Iraq. But if one simple lesson is too hard for Washington to grasp, perhaps the rest of the world can hold the following idea in mind and use it to restrain the United States from any future efforts to impose its ignorance on others.

In a contest between foreign power and native understanding, foreign power -- however much material and military strength it can wield -- will always lose. Even in an era when a sense of racial superiority and colonial entitlement led Western nations to have few qualms about subjugating others, eventually native power based on native knowledge would reassert itself. Nowadays the reclamation of power asserts itself much more quickly but it always rises out of the same awareness: this is our land, not yours; it is ours because it is the place we know.

The dawn of wisdom in America's re-visioning of its relationship with the Middle East would be to recognize that it does not now possess the power that it fears losing.
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By James Kitfield, National Journal, October 20, 2006

Civil wars come on slowly at first, and then in a rush. They follow the track of contagion and the law of the tipping point. A recent war game organized by two former CIA analysts, Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution and Daniel Byman of Georgetown University, posed this question: What actions could the United States plausibly take to control the unfolding civil and sectarian strife in Iraq? Scenarios ranged from a redeployment of U.S. forces to complete withdrawal, and even included voluntary ethnic and sectarian relocations to separate Sunni from Shiite and thus keep a step ahead of the ethnic-cleansing mobs. Participants in the game included former senior military, intelligence, and policy-making officials. One insight gleaned from the exercise was that the United States faces a dwindling and increasingly unsavory set of options in Iraq.

That and other hard truths have already dawned on the Iraqis. Shiites have discovered that majority rule is not the same thing as keeping that majority cohesive or using it to run an effective government. It also means living with a minority that is willing to bomb your holiest places of worship into dust. Sunnis, on the other hand, have grasped that the new Iraq is marginalizing them on a barren slice of the land they once ruled. These changes have left them afraid of the knock on the door by the Shiite death squad and the shadow of a threatening Iran. The Kurds see their paradise of autonomy in Iraq's north surrounded by ravenous neighbors who smell the blood of a civil war they can scarcely resist. All Iraqis observe Americans nervously eyeing the exit door.

"Everyone in Iraq has read about American public opinion polls and gotten the message loud and clear that the United States is losing patience and political will to stay in Iraq," said a knowledgeable diplomat stationed in Baghdad. "All sides are now keen to get a brokered deal before the Americans depart, so that the gains they've realized in the last few years aren't put in jeopardy. Iraq's neighbors are very worried that a U.S. withdrawal and implosion in Iraq could suck them into a chaotic civil war to defend their own perceived interests, possibly leading to conflict with each other."

The existential dangers for so many of those involved point to another sobering truth: Iraq may have started as a war of choice for the Bush administration, but it has become a war of great and unintended consequences. [complete article]

See also, Diplomat: U.S. arrogant, stupid in Iraq (CNN), The genteel revolt that is remaking U.S. policy on Iraq (The Observer) and How Iraq came home to haunt America (The Observer).
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Campaign ads and recruitment videos
By Marc Lynch, Abu Aardvark, October 21, 2006

That the media has become ever more central to al-Qaeda's political strategy has become something of a truism. Terrorists have always relied on the media to amplify their message, with their spectacular violence aimed not just at killing people but at spreading fear among the targeted population and at galvanizing potential supporters. Al-Qaeda has taken this to a new level, with the media occupying center stage stage in its overall political strategy. Its media arm al-Sahab has produced a great number of technically sophisticated, gripping videos, distributed first on the internet and then often getting excerpts broadcast on Arab and Western TV stations. Zarqawi's organization grew so proficient at parlaying its terrorism into graphic video that the terror itself often seemed to be made for television events. In short, these graphic, pulse-pounding videos of heroic mujahideen interspersed with carefully translated statements by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are central, not peripheral, to al-Qaeda's political strategy.

So what to make of the fact that the Republican National Committee has produced its own al-Qaeda video. This is not just a video which suggests that Republicans will be better at fighting terror. It actually very closely resembles real al-Qaeda videos. It has the same tempo, the same images, the same juxtaposition of translated statements by al-Qaeda's leaders with glorified portrayals of powerful fighters waging jihad. The images don't just resemble those used in al-Qaeda videos: many were actually taken from real al-Qaeda videos, and you can still see the al-Sahab label faintly in the background (do you suppose that the RNC paid royalties?). A political ad? This video would not look out of place on a jihadi forum, and it wouldn't surprise me if it actually gets posted on them and admired (although the production values are a bit low for an actual al-Sahab product). [complete article]
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Bin Laden's fingerprints seen on ruins of Bamiyan Buddhas
By Selim Saheb Ettaba, AFP, October 21, 2006

In 1999 Mullah Omar issued a decree that the Bamiyan statues "shall not be destroyed but protected" because Afghanistan's Buddhist population no longer existed and so there was no possibility they would be worshipped as idols.

But a resolution passed by the UN Security Council in December 2000 demanding the extradition of bin Laden and toughening of sanctions against the Taliban regime seems to have inspired a reversal of that hands-off policy towards the Buddhas, not only in Bamiyan but nationwide.

A few weeks after the Security Council resolution was passed, the Taliban issued a new decree ordering the destruction of all statues across Afghanistan because they "may be turned into idols in future".

The destruction of the two Bamiyan Buddhas allowed Al-Qaeda to drive the Taliban to a point of no return with the international community.

"It was a direct response to the demand of the Americans to hand over bin Laden," says Roy of the pounding of the Buddhas.

"This attempt (to have Bin Laden surrendered) was done for from the moment at which they destroyed the Buddhas." [complete article]

Comment -- If this report is accurate it upturns several widely held assumptions about the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Bin Laden apparently soundly calculated that at a time when most people in the West had no particular interest in Afghanistan, the destruction of Bamiyan's Buddhist icons (already designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site) would provoke a strong reaction, effectively isolate the Taliban and thereby ensure his continued protection. Rather than this being a simple and grotesque expression of the Taliban's cultural intolerance, it seems to have had much more to do with bin Laden's sophistication in understanding how to manipulate international opinion and the Taliban's naivety in following his directions. The destruction of the Buddha's thus had less to do with a medieval Islamist mindset than it had to do with here-and-now political calculations.
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In the land of the Taliban
By Elizabeth Rubin, New York Times, October 22, 2006

One afternoon this past summer, I shared a picnic of fresh mangos and plums with Abdul Baqi, an Afghan Taliban fighter in his 20's fresh from the front in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. We spent hours on a grassy slope under the tall pines of Murree, a former colonial hill station that is now a popular resort just outside Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. All around us was a Pakistani rendition of Georges Seurat's "Sunday on La Grande Jatte" -- middle-class families setting up grills for barbecue, a girl and two boys chasing their errant cow with a stick, two men hunting fowl, boys flying a kite. Much of the time, Abdul Baqi was engrossed in the flight pattern of a Himalayan bird. It must have been a welcome distraction. He had just lost five friends fighting British troops and had seen many others killed or wounded by bombs as they sheltered inside a mosque.

He was now looking forward to taking a logic course at a madrasa, or religious school, near Peshawar during his holiday. Pakistan's religious parties, he told me through an interpreter, would lodge him, as they did other Afghan Taliban fighters, and keep him safe. With us was Abdul Baqi's mentor, Mullah Sadiq, a diabetic Helmandi who was shuttling between Pakistan and Afghanistan auditing Taliban finances and arranging logistics. He had just dispatched nine fighters to Afghanistan and had taken wounded men to a hospital in Islamabad. "I just tell the border guards that they were wounded in a tribal dispute and need treatment," he told me.

And though Mullah Sadiq said they had lost many commanders in battles around Kandahar, he and Abdul Baqi appeared to be in good spirits, laughing and chatting loudly on a cellphone to Taliban friends in Pakistan and Afghanistan. After all, they never imagined that the Taliban would be back so soon or in such force or that they would be giving such trouble to the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai and some 40,000 NATO and U.S. troops in the country. For the first time since the fall of 2001, when the Taliban were overthrown, they were beginning to taste the possibility of victory. [complete article]
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U.S. to hand Iraq a new timetable on security role
By David S. Cloud, New York Times, October 22, 2006

The Bush administration is drafting a timetable for the Iraqi government to address sectarian divisions and assume a larger role in securing the country, senior American officials said.

Details of the blueprint, which is to be presented to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki before the end of the year and would be carried out over the next year and beyond, are still being devised. But the officials said that for the first time Iraq was likely to be asked to agree to a schedule of specific milestones, like disarming sectarian militias, and to a broad set of other political, economic and military benchmarks intended to stabilize the country.

Although the plan would not threaten Mr. Maliki with a withdrawal of American troops, several officials said the Bush administration would consider changes in military strategy and other penalties if Iraq balked at adopting it or failed to meet critical benchmarks within it.

A senior Pentagon official involved in drafting the blueprint said Iraqi officials were being consulted as the plan evolved and would be invited to sign off on the milestones before the end of the year. But he added, "If the Iraqis fail to come back to us on this, we would have to conduct a reassessment" of the American strategy in Iraq. [complete article]

See also, At White House meeting, no big changes on Iraq (WP).

'We have liberated Amara from the British. Basra next'
By Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, The Observer, October 22, 2006

Ten days ago I sat on a mattress on the floor of a Mahdi army safe house talking to Abu Mahdi, a slim 40-year-old, bearded former Arabic teacher and low level commander in the Shia militia.

I had first encountered him in Najaf in August 2004, when the Mahdi army seized the holy city. Now he boasted of how his comrades were effectively in control of his home town, 200 miles south of Baghdad.

"As we have liberated Amara from the British, Basra is next," he said. "My men are everywhere, can you see the British anywhere? For the people in the street it's my men who rule the town."

Yesterday morning the militia loyal to the Baghdad-based cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demonstrated that fact - and the acute dillemma facing British and American military planners - in the most dramatic fashion. [complete article]

See also, British troops to withdraw gradually from Iraq: defence minister (AFP).
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Heck of a job, Maliki!
By Sami Moubayed, Asia Times, October 21, 2006

While Sistani stepped in to end two confrontations between Shi'ite insurgents and the Americans in 2004, he no longer can get the armed groups to lay down their arms, or think twice before gunning down an Iraqi Sunni. Civil war has erupted, and men like Muqtada who offer arms, money and protection gain larger audiences than Sistani, who has nothing for his visitors except words of wisdom on co-existence and phrases from the Holy Koran.

Sistani is greatly disturbed that politicians do not call on him anymore, and when they do, they no longer listen to what he has to say. Maliki's meeting him for consultation, then rushing out to meet Muqtada, only adds to Sistani's belief that his word is no longer final in Shi'ite politics.

It proves that to get things done, the prime minister needs the consent of Muqtada, the militia leader who helped bring him to power in May. Muqtada, after all, shares identical views with Maliki over the partitioning of Iraq, which both oppose, as well as on Iranian-Iraqi relations. Although Maliki has pledged to clamp down on the militias, he has done nothing to control, or even curb, the powers of the Mehdi Army that is run by Muqtada. [complete article]

In a land without order, punishment is power
By Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, October 22, 2006

A year or so ago, just one poster adorned Sheik Adnan Aidani's wall. It was a portrait of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's faded but still preeminent cleric, whose stern visage glared down on visitors to the tribal sheik's house along a forest of date palms in the southern Iraqi countryside. Today, there are perhaps a dozen posters with new faces. The names blur, but together they represent the power, beyond appeal, of men with guns.

Aidani smiled, a little sheepishly, as he surveyed the posters. Gifts, he called them, the kind you don't return.

"Everyone's on his own," he explained.

Far from the killing fields of the capital, Baghdad, and a half-hour drive from the southern city of Basra, which has been racked by thousands of assassinations, Aidani has an unenviable task in his warren of mud brick, cinder block and concrete: keeping order in a land without it, where society is fracturing, crumbling, even disintegrating. [complete article]

The selfless and the dead
By Raheem Salman and Doug Smith, Los Angeles Times, October 22, 2006

Twice a week, the large delivery truck from Baghdad rolls into the vast cemetery in this holy Shiite Muslim city. A bus follows, bearing wooden caskets on its roof.

Half a mile beyond the cemetery gates, at the edge of the desert, the passengers get out of the bus and set to work unloading the truck's grim cargo. On an average trip, there will be 70 to 100 bodies, victims of the sectarian bloodletting that has gripped Iraq.

The men belong to a word-of-mouth burial society for the unclaimed dead, formed during the 1980s war with Iran, starting small and growing with the need. Today, about 500 men -- laborers, professionals, clerics and tribal leaders -- are members of the legation of the dead in this country where deep piety and terrible brutality have repeatedly intertwined. [complete article]

See also, On Baghdad streets, a police partnership falters (NYT).
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Weary Israel loses faith in its leaders
By Richard Miron, The Observer, October 22, 2006

On a smooth, trimmed lawn, Israel's tuneful police band entertained the thousands of visitors who trooped though the President's residence in Jerusalem during a recent open day. But few of the onlookers missed the irony that President Moshe Katsav could face a less festive visit by the police if the country's attorney-general decides to indict him on charges of rape, sexual harassment, illegal wiretapping and fraud.

For his supporters who came to shake the President's hand, it was a political witch hunt. But for others outside the President's residence, such as Naomi Schneidermann from the Association of Rape crisis centres in Israel who came to call for his resignation, it was yet another shameful episode involving the country's leadership: 'I think this affair has done terrible damage not only to the particular office of President but also in the message we are sending to our citizens.'

For months police have been investigating Israel's head of state following revelations that a woman employee at the presidential office alleged that he had raped her. A string of other women came forward with similar allegations, all of which Katsav has strenuously denied.

Katsav is the most recent and most senior figure to have been caught up in a swath of scandals that have cut through Israeli public life. On a single day last week, two former justice ministers began separate trials. Chaim Ramon, who served until recently in the current government, is charged with forcibly kissing a young female soldier, and his predecessor, Tzachi Hanegbi, is also in court following allegations of making illegal political appointments. [complete article]
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Radioactive nationalism
By Peter Maass, New York Times, October 22, 2006

In a classic Mexican standoff, two men point guns at each other's heads. Neither wants to shoot, but each knows the downside of not pulling the trigger first. It is an inherently gripping situation, and Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" offers one of the most memorable examples: in a climactic scene that takes place in a warehouse, three men aim guns at one another, with catastrophe (for macabre laughs) just a twitch away.

We can now thank North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Il, who is credited with directing several movies, for creating a Mexican standoff that outdoes Tarantino but is no postmodern parody; it takes place in the real world. Earlier this month, North Korea announced that it had exploded an atomic bomb, thus becoming the newest and scariest nuclear power in the world. This set off alarms in South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States; all have good reasons to fear North Korea and one another. We now have a Mexican standoff that involves a) as many as six participants, including b) countries that are threatening one another with c) nuclear weapons. Tarantino couldn't invent it.

Yet something -- someone -- is missing from this semi-apocalyptic drama. Warming his hands over a fire in north Waziristan or wherever, Osama bin Laden, the embodiment of evil in our times, is no more a factor than John Dillinger. True, there are fears that North Korea might try to sell a nuke to Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. But diplomats are just as concerned that Japan might choose to build a nuclear weapon or two, that South Korea would be tempted to do the same, that China, Russia and the United States will shove against one another and that in the Middle East, Iran will accelerate its nuclear program, leading Saudi Arabia and Egypt to Google "how to build the bomb."

What's happening, in other words, is an old-fashioned clash of nations and national interests, exacerbated, as often happens, by the imperatives of regime survival. The suspicions and alliances date back a century or more, though the weaponry, instead of muskets and catapults, is nuclear. After 9/11, we came to believe that the menace that mattered most was the wrath of religious terror, and our geopolitical lingua franca embraced a new vocabulary to define it -- jihad, suicide bombers, asymmetric warfare, nonstate actors. Whatever happened to nationalism and the risky maneuverings of states? Nothing, actually. Kim Jong Il, entering from stage far-left, reminds us that new threats, like Islamic extremism, do not replace old ones. [complete article]

See also, Tension, desperation: the China-North Korean border (NYT) and A shadowy nuclear saga (Newsweek).
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Nuclear "carrot and stick" approach doomed - Iran
Reuters, October 22, 2006

Iran said on Sunday that the West's "carrot and stick" method for getting it to halt sensitive atomic work was doomed to failure.

Iran's case has been returned to the U.N. Security Council because the Islamic Republic failed to heed a U.N. demand to suspend uranium enrichment, a process the West believes Tehran is using to develop nuclear weapons, despite Iran's denials.

The United States and European states back U.N. sanctions, although European officials say this will be an incremental process which Iran can curtail by halting enrichment. [complete article]
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How I came to love the veil
By Yvonne Ridley, Washington Post, October 22, 2006

I used to look at veiled women as quiet, oppressed creatures -- until I was captured by the Taliban.

In September 2001, just 15 days after the terrorist attacks on the United States, I snuck into Afghanistan, clad in a head-to-toe blue burqa, intending to write a newspaper account of life under the repressive regime. Instead, I was discovered, arrested and detained for 10 days. I spat and swore at my captors; they called me a "bad" woman but let me go after I promised to read the Koran and study Islam. (Frankly, I'm not sure who was happier when I was freed -- they or I.)

Back home in London, I kept my word about studying Islam -- and was amazed by what I discovered. I'd been expecting Koran chapters on how to beat your wife and oppress your daughters; instead, I found passages promoting the liberation of women. Two-and-a-half years after my capture, I converted to Islam, provoking a mixture of astonishment, disappointment and encouragement among friends and relatives.

Now, it is with disgust and dismay that I watch here in Britain as former foreign secretary Jack Straw describes the Muslim nikab -- a face veil that reveals only the eyes -- as an unwelcome barrier to integration, with Prime Minister Tony Blair, writer Salman Rushdie and even Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi leaping to his defense.

Having been on both sides of the veil, I can tell you that most Western male politicians and journalists who lament the oppression of women in the Islamic world have no idea what they are talking about. They go on about veils, child brides, female circumcision, honor killings and forced marriages, and they wrongly blame Islam for all this -- their arrogance surpassed only by their ignorance. [complete article]

See also, Coverings uncovered (Farzaneh Milani).
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Noteworthy articles from the last seven days:

No, Iraq is not Vietnam
By Tony Karon,, October 21, 2006

Election and empire
By Norman Birnbaum, Open Democracy, October 17, 2006

No matter what the facts say, President Bush insists that we stay the course
By Andrew J. Bacevich, American Conservative, October 23, 2006

Will the Democrats blow it again as they did in 1986?
By Greg Grandin, TomDispatch, October 18, 2006

Iraqi militias splintering into radicalized cells
By Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post, October 19, 2006

Targeting Muslims - the new Inquisition
By Bradley Burston, Haaretz, October 20, 2006

Why Israel should grab Hamas' truce offer
By Rami G. Khouri, Daily Star, October 21, 2006

Gaza as laboratory: the great experiment
By Uri Avnery, Counterpunch, October 14, 2006

Stoking Muslim anger
By Fawaz A. Gerges, International Herald Tribune, October 13, 2006

How Hezbollah defeated Israel
By Alastair Crooke and Mark Perry, Asia Times, October 12, 2006

Who are the Taleban? The question that is snaring NATO in tribal wars
By Anthony Loyd, The Times, October 21, 2006

Hillary ought to know the serious legal ramifications of allowing torture in 'ticking bomb' scenarios
By Rosa Brooks, Los Angeles Times, October 20, 2006

Expecting U.S. help, sent to Guantanamo
By Tim Golden, New York Times, October 15, 2006

Bush unleashes the nuclear beast
By Joseph Cirincione, Los Angeles Times, October 15, 2006

Curing the World's oil addiction
Editorial, Los Angeles Times, October 18, 2006
[permanent link to this entry] [home]

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