The War in Context Christopher Dickey quote
  Iraq + war on terrorism + Middle East conflict + critical perspectives     
Speaking frankly about Israel and Palestine
By Jimmy Carter, Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2006

I signed a contract with Simon & Schuster two years ago to write a book about the Middle East, based on my personal observations as the Carter Center monitored three elections in Palestine and on my consultations with Israeli political leaders and peace activists.

We covered every Palestinian community in 1996, 2005 and 2006, when Yasser Arafat and later Mahmoud Abbas were elected president and members of parliament were chosen. The elections were almost flawless, and turnout was very high -- except in East Jerusalem, where, under severe Israeli restraints, only about 2% of registered voters managed to cast ballots.

The many controversial issues concerning Palestine and the path to peace for Israel are intensely debated among Israelis and throughout other nations -- but not in the United States. For the last 30 years, I have witnessed and experienced the severe restraints on any free and balanced discussion of the facts. This reluctance to criticize any policies of the Israeli government is because of the extraordinary lobbying efforts of the American-Israel Political Action Committee and the absence of any significant contrary voices. [complete article]

Comment -- The almighty Israel Lobby is surely not as powerful as either its critics or some of its supporters believe. One should expect -- even encourage -- every American who is passionately or even rabidly pro-Israeli to wield all the influence they can muster in defense of their cause.

The real well-pool of power from which the Lobby draws so effectively, however, lies elsewhere. It rests in silence -- the silence of publishers, columnists, and public figures who are aware of the injustices that afflict the Palestinian people, but who shackle the urgings of their own awareness and adopt the path of least resistance. This is a silence that comes not from ignorance or bigotry, but from fear, cowardice, and self-interest. It is the silence of those who could but dare not challenge the prevailing narrative and thereby provide it with its strength.
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Palestinian PM in Tehran nods to Iranian support
Reuters, December 8, 2006

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told Iranians on Friday that Palestinians would never bow to pressure to recognize Israel and would keep fighting thanks in part to support from Iran.

Addressing worshippers at Friday prayers in Tehran, where he arrived on Thursday for a four-day official visit, Haniyeh said Israeli military aggression against Palestinians had increased since his Hamas government took power in March.

Iran, like Hamas, refuses to recognize the state of Israel and has sent $120 million so far this year to the Palestinian Authority toward a shortfall caused by a Western financial blockade on the Hamas-led government.

"We will never recognize the occupier of the Palestinian lands and will continue the resistance until we liberate Jerusalem ... and allow the displaced Palestinians to return to their homeland," Haniyeh said.

"They think that the Palestinian nation is alone in this war, but they are hallucinating ... We have a strategic depth here in the Islamic Republic of Iran and throughout the Islamic-Arabic world," he said. [complete article]

See also, Abbas aide: To join unity gov't Hamas must recognize Israel (Haaretz).
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Hezbollah chief rallies protesters
By Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, December 8, 2006

Hezbollah's leader, Hasan Nasrallah, vowed Thursday to keep protesters in downtown Beirut until a new Lebanese government is installed, but insisted that his group and its allies would not provoke another civil war in Lebanon.

The speech, the first by Nasrallah to the protesters who took to the streets Friday, underlined his skill as a tactician as well as the depth of the stalemate that has paralyzed political life here for nearly six weeks. In the hour-long address, broadcast live to the crowd on two sprawling screens, he trod a fine line: attempting to keep his supporters mobilized, often with provocative rhetoric, while urging restraint to forestall clashes; and holding the door open to negotiations while insisting that Lebanese officials had been complicit with Israel in waging this summer's war, in Hezbollah's strongest attack yet on the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

"We will not be dragged into any kind of strife even if you kill a thousand of us," he said as the crowd cheered and waved Lebanese flags in a square just walking distance from government headquarters, where Siniora and other ministers have taken up residence behind barbed wire and barricades. "We will not raise weapons in the face of anyone."

But he added, "Those betting on our surrender are delusional." [complete article]

See also, Analysts: U.S. at root of effort to topple Lebanese government (McClatchy).
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Bush appears cool to key points of report on Iraq
By Peter Baker and Robin Wright, Washington Post, December 8, 2006

President Bush vowed yesterday to come up with "a new strategy" in Iraq but expressed little enthusiasm for the central ideas of a bipartisan commission that advised him to ratchet back the U.S. military commitment in Iraq and launch an aggressive new diplomatic effort in the region.

On the day after the congressionally chartered Iraq Study Group released its widely anticipated report, much of Washington maneuvered to pick out the parts they like and pick apart those they do not. The report's authors were greeted with skepticism on Capitol Hill, and Democratic leaders used the occasion to press Bush to change course without embracing the commission's particular recipe themselves.

The group's 96-page report roiled some in the Middle East, particularly Israel, which rejected proposals for concessions to Syria. And it drew fire from current and former U.S. officials who called its diplomacy ideas unrealistic, unattainable and even misguided. The U.S. ground commander in Iraq, while welcoming the report's broad principles, warned that meeting its goal of withdrawing combat units by early 2008 could prove to "be very problematic." [complete article]

See also, Talking to Iran about Iraq: A non-starter for Bush (Tony Karon) and Some study recommendations run counter to Iraq's political reality (McClatchy).
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U.S. targeting Shiite militia strongholds
By Solomon Moore, Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2006

In pursuit of a missing soldier, U.S. and Iraqi special forces units have staged dozens of operations in Shiite Muslim neighborhoods that once were ruled off-limits by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.

The raids into territory dominated by the Al Mahdi army, a militia loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr, risk exacerbating tensions within the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who has shown a new willingness to confront paramilitary forces believed to take part in kidnappings and death squad operations.

"We have carte blanche at this point," said one high-ranking U.S. military commander. "Whereas before we had to tippy-toe around these areas, now we can go in there as we like to search for our missing soldier." [complete article]
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Iraq: The World's fastest growing refugee crisis
Refugees International, December 4, 2006

The UN estimates that 2.3 million Iraqis have fled violence in their country; 1.8 million have fled to surrounding countries, while some 500,000 have vacated their homes for safer areas within Iraq. An estimated 40,000 people are leaving Iraq every month for Syria alone. Other countries through out the Middle East, including Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, Iran and Turkey are also seeing increased flows. Most Iraqis are determined to be resettled to Europe or North America, and few consider return to Iraq an option. With no legal work options in their current host countries, Iraqis are already exploring the use of false documents to migrate to Western nations. [complete article]

Uneasy havens await those who flee Iraq
By Hassan M. Fattah, New York Times, December 8, 2006

Every day at dusk as the streets of this brooding city empty, people like Halima Reyahi scramble to become invisible again.

She sticks to side streets, her eyes scanning for the increasingly frequent police dragnets and checkpoints set up in search of illegal Iraqi immigrants like her. The loneliness of her exile is magnified by the fact that all four of her sons have been turned away repeatedly at the Jordanian border.

Ms. Reyahi is one of nearly two million Iraqis who have fled the vicious chaos of their country since the American invasion nearly four years ago, flooding neighboring states, especially Jordan and Syria, but also Lebanon and Egypt.

As they leave Iraq at a rate of nearly 3,000 a day, the refugees are threatening the social and economic fabric of both Jordan and Syria. In Jordan, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are trying to blend into a country of only 6 million inhabitants, including about 1.5 million registered Palestinian refugees. The governments classify most of the Iraqis as visitors, not refugees. [complete article]
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Iraq heading the Lebanon way
By Iason Athanasiadis, Asia Times, December 9, 2006

The recent saga of Nawaf Obaid, a security analyst and adviser to Turki al-Faysal, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, is instructive about the trepidation currently felt by Iraq's neighbors over its future. In a published opinion piece, Obaid warned that the withdrawal of US forces from Saudi Arabia might prompt the Saudi leadership to give funds, arms and supplies to Iraq's Sunni militias as a way of countering Tehran's support for Iraqi Shi'ite militias.

The article raised a storm of Saudi official protest. The Saudi Press Agency, a government entity, pointed out that Obaid's article does "not represent in any way the kingdom's policy". Just to be sure, it added the caveat that Riyadh's policy is "to support the security, unity and stability of Iraq with all its sects and doctrines". A few days later, Obaid was dismissed from his advisory post. He had obviously touched a raw nerve. [complete article]
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Ex-detainees seek to sue U.S. officials
By Carol D. Leonnig, Washington Post, December 8, 2006

In a federal courtroom today, nine former prisoners at U.S. military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan will seek through an unusual lawsuit to hold outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and top military commanders personally responsible for the torture they say they endured.

Rumsfeld's lawyers will argue that he cannot be held legally responsible because anything he may have done -- including authorizing harsh interrogations at the Abu Ghraib and Bagram detention facilities -- was within the scope of his job as defense secretary to combat terrorists and prevent future attacks.

At stake is whether the former prisoners can move forward with four lawsuits, filed last year against Rumsfeld, retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, former Brig. Gen. Janis L. Karpinski and Col. Thomas M. Pappas and now consolidated into one case. That would take the cases into the politically volatile discovery stage, with the plaintiffs' lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch deposing senior military and administration officials about the beatings, sexual assaults and psychological damage detailed in the military's own investigations. [complete article]
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Incoming Sec. of Defense tells Senate panel Israel has nukes
AP, December 8, 2006

Incoming U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told a Senate committee on Thursday that Israel has nuclear weapons, and that this partially explains Iran's motiviation to acquire nuclear weapons.

"They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons - Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf," he told the Senate committee during his confirmation hearing.

Though Israel is widely assumed to have a nuclear weapons arsenal, it has stuck to its policy of ambiguity on the subject, insisting against all the evidence that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. A retired Israeli general said Thursday Israel is no longer trying to convince anyone that it has no nuclear arsenal. [complete article]
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If the U.S. can talk to Iran, it can also talk to Hamas
By Paul Woodward, The War in Context, December 7, 2006

James Baker threw down the gauntlet to President Bush yesterday when he commended the Iraq Study Group report as "probably the only bipartisan report he's going to get." The White House has an alternative in the works but by the time the Half-Baked review comes out, I doubt that it will garner much close attention. The question now is this: Is the ISG report really as important as it's being billed, or simply a sign that most of Washington is now desperately clutching at straws?

If the report turns out to have much significance it may have less to do with its specific proposals than (like the Mearsheimer and Walt essay, 'The Israel Lobby') its ability to open up debate and reframe important questions. The report insists that the "United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability."

The Israeli reaction to this assertion has been to reiterate the state's existential ambiguity: Israel is seemingly in the Middle East but not of the Middle East. Ehud Olmert responded obliquely by saying that "we have a different view," but then went on to reiterate Israel's own vision of a linkage: "We always felt, like other nations in our region, that the removal of Saddam Hussein was a major, major contribution to stability of our part of the world." Now is this a uniquely Israeli conception of "stability," or of "our part of the world"?

While the ISG report might appear to be moving in the right direction by both underlining the importance of addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need for the United States to engage Iran and Syria, there is one glaring contradiction in its proposals that I guarantee the US media will ignore. At the very same time that it insists on directly engaging Iran, the ISG dutifully echoes the White House by insisting that the only Palestinians who can be engaged are "those who accept Israel's right to exist." In other words, as far as the ISG is concerned, the U.S. can persist in its policy of refusing to engage with the democratically-elected Hamas-led Palestinian government, even while it should engage with what Secretary Rice likes to call "the central bank of terrorism." Last time I checked, the Iranian regime had not made it clear that it accepts Israel's right to exist.

I guess it all comes down to the politics of power: Iran has it but Hamas doesn't. Hamas can safely be ignored, but Iran can't.

But as ISG co-chair Lee Hamilton, said yesterday, "You cannot look at this area of the world and pick and choose among the countries that you're going to deal with. ... Everything in the Middle East is connected to everything else." What he failed to make clear was that the ISG has no interest in challenging Washington's unwillingness to recognize two key nodes in that network of connections -- Hamas and Hezbollah. Even if these organizations demonstrate a greater interest in democracy than either the governments of Syria or Iran, and even if these are groups that have a greater capacity to purposefully shape public opinion across the region than does the United States, these are two regional players that Washington continues to refuse to engage. The ISG's "all-inclusive" approach has its caveats.
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Threats wrapped in misunderstandings
By Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post, December 7, 2006

The Iraq Study Group's prescriptions hinge on a fragile Iraqi government's ability to achieve national reconciliation and security at a time when the country is fractured along sectarian lines, its security forces are ineffective and competing visions threaten to collapse the state, Iraqi politicians and analysts said Wednesday.

They said the report is a recipe, backed by threats and disincentives, that neither addresses nor understands the complex forces that fuel Iraq's woes. They described it as a strategy largely to help U.S. troops return home and resurrect America's frayed influence in the Middle East.

Iraqis also expressed fear that the report's recommendations, if implemented, could weaken an already besieged government in a country teetering on the edge of civil war.

"It is a report to solve American problems, and not to solve Iraq's problems," said Ayad al-Sammarai, an influential Sunni Muslim politician. [complete article]

Comment -- The thread that can be traced back long before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, continues today and is just as evident in the Iraq Study Group, is that America has never had much interest in Iraq or its people. Among the 48 experts consulted by the ISG only two were Iraqis and both of them based in Washington. While the ISG report points out that the work of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad is hampered by the fact that out of 1,000 employees, only six are fluent in Arabic, beyond seeing this as a problem to be fixed, it should be recognized as emblematic of America's whole involvement in the Middle East.
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Baker panel's mention of Palestinian "right of return" raises eyebrows
AFP, December 6, 2006

A reference to Palestinians' "right of return" in the report issued by the high-level Iraq Study Group broke a diplomatic taboo which sparked immediate concern in Israel and surprise among Middle East policy experts.

The reference was buried deep inside a 160-page report that urged US President George W. Bush to renew efforts to revive Israel-Palestinian peace talks as part of a region-wide bid to end the chaos in Iraq.

"This report is worrisome for Israel particularly because, for the first time, it mentions the question of the 'right of return' for the Palestinian refugees of 1948," said a senior Israeli official, who was reacting to the US policy report on condition he not be identified.

A Middle East analyst who was involved in the Iraq Study Group discussions but did not participate in drafting the report expressed surprise when the reference was pointed out to him by a reporter.

"It's hard to know whether that language got in there because of carelessness -- I know there were many revisions up to the very last minute -- or whether it was a deliberate attempt to fuse something to the Bush rhetoric which wasn't there before," the analyst said. [complete article]
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Will Iraq Study Group's plan work on the battlefield
By Michael R. Gordon, New York Times, December 7, 2006

The military recommendations issued yesterday by the Iraq Study Group are based more on hope than history and run counter to assessments made by some of its own military advisers.

Ever since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States has struggled in vain to tamp down the violence in Iraq and to build up the capacity of Iraq's security forces. Now the study group is positing that the United States can accomplish in little more than one year what it has failed to carry out in three.

In essence, the study group is projecting that a rapid infusion of American military trainers will so improve the Iraqi security forces that virtually all of the American combat brigades may be withdrawn by the early part of 2008.

"By the first quarter of 2008, subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground, all combat brigades not necessary for force protection could be out of Iraq," the study group says.

Jack Keane, the retired acting Army chief of staff who served on the group's panel of military advisers, described that goal as entirely impractical. "Based on where we are now we can't get there," General Keane said in an interview, adding that the report's conclusions say more about "the absence of political will in Washington than the harsh realities in Iraq." [complete article]
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Will it work in the White House?
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times, December 7, 2006

In 142 stark pages, the Iraq Study Group report makes an impassioned plea for bipartisan consensus on the most divisive foreign policy issue of this generation. Without President Bush, that cannot happen.

The commissioners gave a nod to Mr. Bush, adopting his language in accepting the goal of an Iraq that can “govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.” But the administration’s talk of Iraq as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East is absent, as is any talk of victory.

Instead, the report confronts the president with a powerful argument that his policy in Iraq is not working and that he must move toward disengagement. For Mr. Bush to embrace the study group’s blueprint would mean accepting its implicit criticism of his democracy agenda, reversing course in Iraq and throughout the Middle East and meeting Democrats more than halfway. [complete article]

See also, White House rules out one-on-one talks with Iran (Reuters) and The Realists' repudiation of policies for a war, region (WP).
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Democratic senator slams Iraq Study Group's report
By Marc Perelman, The Forward, December 8, 2006

Just days before its publication, the much-anticipated report of the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton commission on Iraq came under attack Monday from the Democrats' top foreign-policy voice, Senator Joseph Biden, in an address to a Jewish group in New York.

Biden, incoming chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that the Baker-Hamilton report, parts of which had been leaked to the press days earlier, does not provide a plan to reach a sustainable political settlement there. He also derided proposals, associated with Baker, to link progress in Iraq to the revival of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as "dangerously naive."

"The notion that an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement would end a civil war in Iraq defies common sense," Biden told the Israel Policy Forum. "Israeli-Palestinian peace should be pursued aggressively on its own merits, period -- not as some sort of diplomatic price to make the Arab states feel good so they will help us in Iraq." [complete article]

See also, Democrats: Panel's findings consistent with their proposals (WP).
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Neo-cons move to preempt Baker report
By Jim Lobe, IPS, December 5, 2006

To have read the neo-conservative press here over the past month, one would think that former Secretary of State James Baker poses the biggest threat to the United States and Israel since Saddam Hussein.

As the ur-realist of U.S. Middle East policy who once had the temerity to threaten to withhold U.S. aid guarantees from Israel if former right-wing Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir failed to show up at the 1991 Madrid Conference, Baker has long been seen by neo-conservatives, as well as the Christian Right, as close to the devil himself. [complete article]
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The Roman Empire is falling - so it turns to Iran and Syria
By Robert Fisk, The Independent, December 7, 2006

The Roman Empire is falling. That, in a phrase, is what the Baker report says. The legions cannot impose their rule on Mesopotamia.

Just as Crassus lost his legions' banners in the deserts of Syria-Iraq, so has George W Bush. There is no Mark Antony to retrieve the honour of the empire. The policy "is not working". "Collapse" and "catastrophe" - words heard in the Roman senate many a time - were embedded in the text of the Baker report. Et tu, James?

This is also the language of the Arab world, always waiting for the collapse of empire, for the destruction of the safe Western world which has provided it with money, weapons, political support. First, the Arabs trusted the British Empire and Winston Churchill, and then they trusted the American Empire and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Truman and Eisenhower administrations and all the other men who would give guns to the Israelis and billions to the Arabs - Nixon, Carter, Clinton, Bush... [complete article]

See also, Closer to the Abyss (Christopher Dickey).
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Carter book on Israel 'apartheid' sparks bitter debate
By Karen DeYoung, Washington Post, December 7, 2006

A veteran Middle East scholar affiliated with the Carter Center in Atlanta resigned his position there Monday in an escalating controversy over former president Jimmy Carter's bestselling book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," traces the ups and downs of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process beginning with Carter's 1977-1980 presidency and the historic peace accord he negotiated between Israel and Egypt and continuing to the present. Although it apportions blame to Israel, the Palestinians and outside parties -- including the United States -- for the failure of decades of peace efforts, it is sharply critical of Israeli policy and concludes that "Israel's continued control and colonization of Palestinian land have been the primary obstacles to a comprehensive peace agreement in the Holy Land."

Kenneth W. Stein, a professor at Emory University, accused Carter of factual errors, omissions and plagiarism in the book. "Being a former President does not give one a unique privilege to invent information," Stein wrote in a harshly worded e-mail to friends and colleagues explaining his resignation as the center's Middle East fellow. [complete article]

Apartheid Israel
By Virginia Tilley, Counterpunch, December 5, 2006

On November 27, Ehud Olmert responded to frantic international pressure and US hand signals by delivering what was billed as a "landmark" policy speech. The BBC has raised a faint cheer for the "new mood" it seems to signal. But the occasion, an annual memorial for Ben Gurion, was appropriate: in silky language, Mr. Olmert baldly reiterated the same terms and conditions that have blocked all progress toward Middle East peace for years.

Talks with the Palestinian Authority, Mr. Olmert declared, will begin only after a newly elected Palestinian government "renounces violence", recognizes Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state, abandons the right of return on behalf of the entire Palestinian people, and agrees that the large urban Israeli settlements that now dismember the West Bank will be permanently annexed to Israel.

After this abject betrayal of all Palestinian national aspirations and social needs, Mr. Olmert said, Israel will then open "negotiations" with the new government (unless Israel doesn't like that government), "significantly diminish the number of roadblocks" (how many does Israel consider "significant"?), "improve the operation of the border crossings to the Gaza Strip" (what does "improve" mean?), and release Palestinian VAT funds that Israel is illegally withholding. [complete article]
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Lebanon's Hezbollah-led opposition calls for 'historic' anti-gov't demonstration
AP, December 7, 2006

The Hezbollah-led opposition has called on its supporters to take to the streets this weekend in a massive show of force, stepping up the pressure on the U.S.-backed government that has vowed not to give in to the popular protests.

The opposition's move comes as street demonstrations by Hezbollah and other pro-Syrian parties aimed at pressuring Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora into quitting entered their seventh day with no end in sight to the deepening political crisis that is threatening to tear the country apart.

The opposition called on supporters to take part in "a historic and decisive" demonstration in central Beirut on Sunday, hoping it would be "a day in which deaf ears and blind eyes would open by meeting the legitimate demands and replacing monopoly with participation and the one-color government with a national unity government," according to a statement published in Lebanese newspapers Thursday. [complete article]
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Iraq panel calls conditions 'grave and deteriorating'
By William Branigin and Josh White, Washington Post, December 6, 2006

Conditions in Iraq are "grave and deteriorating," with the prospect that a "slide toward chaos" could topple the U.S.-backed government and trigger a regional war unless the United States changes course and seeks a broader diplomatic and political solution involving all of Iraq's neighbors, according to a bipartisan panel that gave its recommendations to President Bush and Congress today.

In what amounts to the most extensive independent assessment of the nearly four-year-old conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 2,800 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis, the Iraq Study Group paints a bleak picture of a nation that Bush has repeatedly vowed to transform into a beacon of freedom and democracy in the Middle East.

Despite a list of 79 recommendations meant to encourage regional diplomacy and lead to a reduction of U.S. forces over the next year, the panel acknowledges that stability in Iraq may be impossible to achieve any time soon. "No one can guarantee that any course of action in Iraq at this point will stop sectarian warfare, growing violence or a slide toward chaos," the study group's co-chairmen warn in a joint letter by accompanying the report. "If current trends continue, the potential consequences are severe." [complete article]

See also, Iraq Study Group Report, ISG Executive Summary (PDF), and Bringing Bush the bad news on Iraq (Tony Karon).
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Iraqi premier moves to plan regional talks
By Edward Wong and Helene Cooper, New York Times, December 6, 2006

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said Tuesday that he would send envoys to neighboring countries to plan a conference on Iraq, adding momentum to calls for a regional approach to quell the increasingly anarchic war here.

Such a proposal is already gaining attention in the United States, where the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Representative Lee H. Hamilton, is expected to recommend Wednesday that the American government should approach Iran and Syria to seek their aid in ending the war. Last week, Kofi Annan, the United Nations secretary general, suggested convening an international conference. [complete article]

Dissenting voices in Iraq gov't rising
By Hamza Hendawi, AP, December 6, 2006

Sunni dissent is rising inside Iraq's Shiite-led ruling coalition, boding ill for a government already heavily criticized for its failure to curb sectarian violence, end a relentless Sunni-led insurgency and stem crime and unemployment.

The top two Sunni Arab members of Iraq's Shiite-led government painted a dire picture Tuesday of conditions in Iraq, with one saying the government was to blame for the country's "chaos" and the other saying Iraq was worse off than Lebanon during its civil war.

The grim assessments by parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani and Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi came on a day when the unity of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's ruling coalition was dealt a fresh blow by followers of a radical Shiite cleric making good on their threat to boycott parliament. [complete article]
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With street protests, Hezbollah gambles in quest for dominance
By Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, December 6, 2006

Hezbollah has entered territory uncharted in its 24-year history as armed militia, social welfare group and nascent political party, effectively seeking an unprecedented, decisive say in Lebanese politics to protect what it sees as its interests from foes at home and abroad.

The month-long political crisis that has roiled Lebanon, hurtling it dangerously close to the precipice of civil war, marks a revealing shift for the Shiite Muslim movement that for years, at least rhetorically, tried to stay above politics, entering the cabinet for the first time in 2005.

Now, by mobilizing its rank and file and pouring them into downtown Beirut to topple the government, the movement has framed that pursuit for political power in the same martial language of this summer's war with Israel.

The imagery is often blunt: "Just as I promised you victory in the past, I promise you victory once again," goes a recording by Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah played over and over, igniting cheers each time. Banners on tents, housing thousands of supporters camped out in front of the government headquarters, display the slogan: "As with victory, change is coming, coming, coming."

"Everything is at stake for Hezbollah," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an analyst on Hezbollah and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment Middle East Center in Beirut. "There is no way that Hezbollah would back down."

"They're putting this political struggle on a par with the military struggle to show how significant it is strategically," she added. "It's basically an existential struggle for Hezbollah. It's an extension of its war with Israel." [complete article]
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Boot U.S. out of Gulf region, Iran official says
By Jim Krane, AP, December 6, 2006

Iran's top national-security official urged Arabs on Tuesday to expel the U.S. military from bases in the region and instead join Iran in a regional security alliance.

Gulf countries, suspicious of Iran's intentions, are unlikely to push out the U.S. military or end U.S. security deals they view as offering them an umbrella of protection, many in Dubai said.

But smaller countries such as Kuwait must tread a fine line between not antagonizing either the United States or Iran. Some Gulf countries refused to participate in recent U.S. Navy maneuvers in the Gulf so as not to offend Iran. [complete article]
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The price of Iran's help
By David Ignatius, Washington Post, December 6, 2006

On the eve of the Baker-Hamilton commission's report, a top Iranian official set a tough condition for his country's help in stabilizing Iraq, saying that Tehran isn't interested in such cooperation unless the Bush administration sets a timetable for withdrawing its troops.

Ali Larijani, Iran's national security adviser, said in an interview that a U.S. plan for removing "occupation forces" from Iraq would be considered "a sign of a change in strategy." In that case, he said, "Iran would definitely extend the hand of assistance and would use its influence to help solve the problem."

The Iranian official made his comments after a speech yesterday to a conference here called the Arab Strategy Forum. His remarks were the clearest statement I've heard of how Iran views its role in the region following what he described as the failure of U.S. intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon. His tone was triumphalist: In his view, America is bogged down in Iraq and "in dire need of change," while a newly confident Iran is positioning itself as a dominant power for the region. [complete article]
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A role for Syria
By Kenneth H. Bacon, Washington Post, December 6, 2006

James Baker has never met Alia Al-Naradi, but they both have an interest in seeing the United States engage Syria on Iraq. For Baker, engagement is about stabilizing Iraq to allow the United States to exit gracefully. For Alia, it's about survival.

Alia is an Iraqi refugee who fled to Syria, a country that has absorbed more than 750,000 Iraqis since the beginning of the war. Syria's resources are now stretched thin, and without international help, it may not be able to accept vulnerable Iraqis much longer. Working with Syria through the United Nations to help Iraqi refugees could provide a humanitarian first step for greater engagement. [complete article]
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At least 5 marines are expected to be charged in Haditha deaths
By Paul von Zielbauer, New York Times, December 6, 2006

At least five marines are expected to be charged, possibly as early as Wednesday, with the killing of 24 Iraqis, many of them unarmed women and children, in the village of Haditha in November 2005, according to a Marine official and a lawyer involved in the case.

The charges are expected to range from negligent homicide to murder, said a senior Pentagon official familiar with the military's nearly nine-month investigation into the episode. Several marines from the Third Platoon of Company K, Third Battalion, First Marine Regiment, are accused of killing the villagers after a roadside explosion killed one of their comrades.

Charges could also be brought against an additional one or two marines, the Marine official said, including one officer who was in the vicinity of the killings but did not participate in them. [complete article]
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What would happen if the U.S. left Iraq?
By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times, December 6, 2006

With Americans leaning consistently in favor of disengagement from Iraq, President Bush has warned that a precipitate withdrawal would create a terrorism superstate in the Middle East that is rich with oil cash and determined to topple moderate governments around it.

But to many U.S. lawmakers, regional experts and Middle East leaders, the chief risk is not a more menacing version of Taliban-dominated Afghanistan, but a Lebanese-style civil war that could result in the deaths of thousands more Iraqis and expand the conflict by drawing in neighboring states.

The sharply differing views color the growing debate over the consequences of withdrawal as incoming Democratic congressional leaders demand a troop drawdown and Bush opens the door to new approaches. A majority of Americans favor at least a partial withdrawal, but the administration also is considering a temporary troop increase as part of an effort to step up training of Iraqi forces. [complete article]
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Shiite leader sees no role for Iraq's neighbors
By James Gerstenzang, Los Angeles Times, December 5, 2006

The leader of a key Shiite Muslim faction in the Iraqi government told President Bush on Monday that his country's problems could not be solved by enlisting the help of Iran and Syria, as a blue-ribbon commission is expected to recommend.

The remarks by Abdelaziz Hakim, whose Shiite political party holds the highest number of seats in the parliament, gave the president an important Baghdad ally in his opposition to such an overture, two days before the bipartisan Iraq Study Group is scheduled to deliver its report.

"We reject any attempts to have a regional or international role in solving the Iraqi issue," Hakim said after the meeting. "Iraq should be in a position to solve Iraqi problems." [complete article]

See also, Iraqi Shiite leader speaks bluntly in Washington (WP).

Maliki urges regional meeting on stabilizing Iraq
By John O'Neil, New York Times, December 5, 2006

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq called today for a regional conference on stabilizing his country, an idea that is backed by the United Nations but is opposed by other Iraqi leaders, among them the country's Kurdish president and Mr. Maliki's chief Shiite rival.

Mr. Maliki said in Baghdad that his government would send envoys to neighboring countries for discussions on how they can contribute to reducing the violence in Iraq.

"After the political climate is cleared, we will call for the convening of a regional conference, in which these countries that are keen on the stability and security of Iraq will participate," he said, according to a translation provided by The Associated Press. [complete article]

Comment -- What is ironic about the White House's reluctance to draw Iran into discussions on solving Iraq's problems is that excluding Iran actually serves Iran's interests. Iran's image as the rising regional superpower is enhanced by the widely-held perception that it could be instrumental in de-escalating the violence in Iraq. Yet if push comes to shove, Iran might turn out not to have so much power -- and I suspect that the Iranians understand well an idea that the neocons never grasped: power held in check is often more effective than power unleashed. Largely thanks to the Bush administration and the Israelis, Iran's power resides above all in other peoples' fears.
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Gates says U.S. not winning war in Iraq
By William Branigin and Ann Scott Tyson, Washington Post, December 5, 2006

Robert M. Gates, President Bush's nominee to be the next secretary of defense, told a Senate confirmation hearing today that "all options are on the table" in dealing with the situation in Iraq, and he said he does not believe that U.S. forces currently are winning the war there.

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gates said in his opening remarks that he is "open to a wide range of ideas and proposals" in Iraq, and he pledged to consult urgently with military leaders, combatant commanders in the field and members of Congress, among others, if confirmed.

He warned that the war in Iraq risks provoking a "regional conflagration" unless a new strategy can arrest the nation's slide toward chaos. He called the status quo there unacceptable and said Iraq would be his "highest priority." [complete article]

See also, U.S. troops in Iraq shifting to advisory roles (NYT).
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The myriad circles of Lebanon's crisis
By Rami G. Khouri, Daily Star, December 6, 2006

The sectarian confrontations in Lebanon are, at one level, a straightforward local contest between two forces vying for political power and national ascendancy - the Hizbullah-led camp versus the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. In Lebanese and Arab politics everywhere, though, this first tier of contestation never explains the entire story. The wider issues and many players in Lebanon reflect, rather, the cumulative consequences of the past century. An increasingly dilapidated state-centered Arab political order is slowly unraveling in places, and reconstituting under the banner of new identities and power centers.

That order has navigated a tortuous path: from post-colonial independence, to government-dominated sovereignties, to security-run state-building endeavors, to fragmenting societies often dominated by non-state actors with an increasingly Islamist character. The recurring dynamics of this trend involve local security systems, foreign interference, regional interventions and patronages, armed militias, ethnic- and religious-based communities, freewheeling economic interests, and, all the while, a spirited but elusive quest for stable statehood and satisfying citizenship anchored in constitutions and law. [complete article]

Beirut protester killed in brawl is hailed as Hezbollah 'martyr'
By Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, December 5, 2006

The posters went up Monday morning, followed by slogans and chants. And within a day of his death in a street brawl along Beirut's increasingly tense fault lines of sect and politics, Ahmed Mahmoud became the first symbol of the mass demonstrations by Hezbollah and its allies meant to bring down the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

"Lift the Lebanese flag," an announcer intoned over loudspeakers, as tens of thousands at the protest in downtown Beirut surged toward an ambulance carrying Mahmoud's coffin, draped in a Lebanese flag. "Let us give respect to the martyr."

The bells of St. George Cathedral rang, and protesters recited Koranic verses as his body was carried through the streets. At times, the crowd shouted, "Down with the government!" His posters were hung over the crowd and plastered on car windshields. "Martyr of Lebanese national unity," one read. "Martyred at the hands of the authority's militias," said another. [complete article]

Iran v Saudis in battle of Beirut
By Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, December 5, 2006

Having looked on helplessly, or unhelpfully, during Israel's destabilising summer bombardment of Lebanon, Britain and other European countries are now scrabbling to shore up Fouad Siniora's shaky pro-western government. The foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, and her German counterpart were in Beirut at the weekend. Messages of solidarity have come from France and Italy. Even Israel is warning of dire consequences should Mr Siniora fall.

All agree that this week's Hizbullah-organised, largely Shia Muslim demonstrations, although broadly peaceful and "democratic" so far, must not be allowed to topple the government. Their attitude contrasts awkwardly with the approving western view of last year's anti-Syrian street protests by Sunni Muslims, Christians and Druze, whimsically dubbed the "cedar revolution", which ousted Lebanon's then prime minister, Omar Karami.

A Hizbullah political success would plainly complement the group's self-proclaimed military successes of August. And like Israel, the US and Britain see the potential "loss" of Lebanon as a direct gain not only for Syria and its favourite militia, but more worryingly, for Iran. This places the battle for Beirut squarely in the wider context of a regional power struggle with an increasingly confident Tehran. [complete article]
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As Rice's Iran strategy fizzles, Cheney waits
By Gareth Porter, Asia Times, December 6, 2006

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's months-long diplomatic effort to get five other powers to agree to a tough United Nations Security Council resolution on sanctions against Iran now seems certain to fail, because of Russian and Chinese resistance.

The beneficiaries of that failure in Washington will be Vice President Dick Cheney and other hardliners, who have been anticipating that such a development would help them persuade President George W Bush to begin the political-diplomatic planning for an air attack on Iran. [complete article]

Gates: Can't assure Israel that Iran won't attack
Haaretz, December 5, 2006

Robert Gates, nominated to replace Donald Rumsfeld as U.S. defense secretary, on Tuesday said Iran was trying to acquire nuclear weapons and its leaders were lying when they said the program is strictly civilian.

He said he was not sure Iran would attack Israel with such weapons because "the risks for them (Iran) are enormously high." But he also said the United States could not assure Israel that a nuclear attack by Iran would not happen.

"I don't think anybody can provide that assurance," he told the committee. [complete article]
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Row erupts over Israeli textbooks
BBC News, December 5, 2006

Israel's education minister has said school textbooks should show Israel's pre-1967 borders, prompting a storm of criticism from right-wingers.

Yuli Tamir said changes were needed to give Israeli children a proper understanding of their history.

Currently, schoolbooks show Israel's territorial conquests in the 1967 war - the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights - as part of Israel.

International law deems them occupied land that Israel has illegally settled. [complete article]

Israel embarks on PR face-lift
By Anju S. Bawa, Washington Times, December 5, 2006

Israel's international image is hurting, and the country's top officials have turned to the wisdom of Madison Avenue in a bid to "re-brand" their product.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met with public relations executives, branding specialists and diplomats in September in Tel Aviv to brainstorm about improving the country's image by using the marketing insights first developed to sell peanut butter and Pontiacs.

Israeli officials complain that the international press gives the country a warlike image by focusing on its military might and the string of conflicts with its Arab neighbors. Mrs. Livni told the Tel Aviv gathering that she would like to project a more inviting image of the Jewish state. [complete article]

See also, Too late for two states? (Raafat Dajani).

Comment -- When Israeli government ministers can't agree on what constitutes Israeli territory, why should demands be placed on anyone else to "recognize" Israel. What are they supposed to recognize when Israel clearly has problems recognizing itself?
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Egypt detains American in terrorist cell case
By Craig Whitlock, Washington Post, December 5, 2006

Egyptian authorities said Monday that they had arrested an American and nearly a dozen Europeans after breaking up an international terrorist cell that was recruiting operatives to go to Iraq.

The Egyptian Interior Ministry said the cell was "related to some terrorist organizations abroad" but did not name the network or those arrested. The official Egyptian news agency MENA reported that the suspects included nine French citizens and two Belgians, as well as two Syrians, a Tunisian woman and an undisclosed number of Egyptians.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S. officials knew the identity of the American and were "seeking consular access to this individual." He said the U.S. suspect was arrested Nov. 26 but declined to name the person, citing federal privacy laws.

A U.S. law enforcement official said the U.S. citizen "was not on our radar at all" before his arrest in Egypt and is not named on the government's voluminous terrorism watch list. [complete article]
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Why America will fail in Iraq
Baha al-Araji (spokesman for Moqtada al-Sadr) interviewed by Foreign Policy, November/December, 2006

FP: Was Iraq better off under Saddam Hussein than it is today?

Baha Al-Araji: The Iraqi people knew terrible oppression and prejudice from the dictator Saddam Hussein, and the Iraqi people once thought that the American project would end that. But because the American commanders lack any awareness of the nature of the Iraqi people, their presence has actually increased the level of oppression.

Saddam Hussein killed my father and my elder brother and jailed one of my brothers and my mother for a long time. Some of my family escaped Iraq and lived in exile, while others remained in the country. Now we are able to see, unfortunately, that the situation during Saddam's reign was better than today because then, the oppression was targeted and predictable. Today, danger and oppression overwhelm all Iraqi people without exception. [complete article]
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Who will replace John Bolton?
Foreign Policy, November, 2006

FP looks at the pros and cons of "front runner", Jim Leach, Republican congressman from Iowa, "the bureaucrat", Paula Dobriansky, U.S. under secretary of state for global affairs and democracy, "the veteran diplomat", Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, "the moderate", Lincoln Chafee, Republican U.S. senator from Rhode Island, and "the longshot" - not even worth mentioning. [complete article]
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Iraq violence 'much worse' than civil war, says Annan
BBC News, December 4, 2006

The situation in Iraq has become "much worse" than a civil war, the outgoing United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has told the BBC.

Mr Annan, who leaves office after 10 years on 31 December, said life for the average Iraqi was now worse than under the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Expressing his sadness for being unable to prevent the war, he urged regional and international powers to help Iraq. [complete article]

Comment -- The last moral refuge still being defended by supporters of the war in Iraq is the assertion that, as Condoleezza Rice said again only a few days ago, "I think there's no doubt that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein and Iraqis are better off without Saddam Hussein."

It's an assertion that even now, few Americans (and virtually none in public life) are willing to directly counter, for it requires defending the counter-assertion: that the world and the citizens of Iraq were better off when Saddam Hussein was in power.

What should be recognized as an indisputable truth, is for so many Americans still so difficult to utter. Yet as Kofi Annan says of the people of Iraq, "They had a dictator who was brutal, but they had their streets. They could go out. Their kids could go to school and come back home without a mother or father worrying, 'Am I going to see my child again?'" These were real freedoms and they have been lost and no one can say when they might be refound.

Those who refuse to acknowledge that most Iraqis were truly better off with Saddam in power, but who do admit the blunder of this war, are implying that the error rests more in the war's execution than its conception. But to insist that Iraqis were better off under Saddam is not a defense of his regime. It is simply a recognition that war is inherently unpredictable and thus should never be embarked upon unless it is truly unavoidable. And it is an acknowledgement that in human life there are few if any absolutes. Only by treating Saddam's reign as an unqualified evil was it possible to entertain the idea that any alternative would be preferable. Yet a bad as life might have been for many Iraqis living under Saddam's rule, it turns out that the new Iraq that America has been instrumental in creating is vastly worse.
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Bolton to leave post as U.S. envoy to U.N.
By Christine Hauser, New York Times, December 4, 2006

President Bush said today that John R. Bolton will end his service as the United Nations ambassador when his appointment ends this month.

Mr. Bolton became the ambassador last year under a recess appointment made by President Bush, bypassing the usual requirement of Senate confirmation after Democrats blocked a floor vote on the nomination. Because it was a recess appointment, Mr. Bolton's term expires when the current Congress ends its term later this month.

Mr. Bush had planned to push during the current lame-duck session of Congress for the confirmation of Mr. Bolton, which would have allowed him to continue as ambassador. But today's announcement suggests that the White House realized it was not going to receive the necessary votes. [complete article]
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George Bush's America
By Chris Hedges, Truthdig, December 4, 2006

The Democrats may have taken control of the House and Senate, but we still live in George Bush's America. It is an America the imprisoned Palestinian activist Dr. Sami Al-Arian, who has spent over two years in isolation, knows intimately. Dr. Al-Arian, who was a tenured professor of computer engineering at the University of South Florida until being fired, was given the maximum sentence earlier this year for what the judge, in a case that bordered on the farcical, said was his support of a radical Palestinian organization.

The imprisoned professor, who will be deported when he is released, was to have spent 57 months in prison. But his time now seems likely to be extended since, despite plea bargaining that should have exempted him from further testimony, he has been called to testify before a secret grand jury in Virginia investigating Islamic organizations in the state. It is the newest twist in a case that has become emblematic of the repression meted out to America's Muslim minority. [complete article]
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Video is a window into a terror suspect's isolation
By Deborah Sontag, New York Times, December 4, 2006

One spring day during his three and a half years as an enemy combatant, Jose Padilla experienced a break from the monotony of his solitary confinement in a bare cell in the brig at the Naval Weapons Station in Charleston, S.C.

That day, Mr. Padilla, a Brooklyn-born Muslim convert whom the Bush administration had accused of plotting a dirty bomb attack and had detained without charges, got to go to the dentist.

"Today is May 21," a naval official declared to a camera videotaping the event. "Right now we're ready to do a root canal treatment on Jose Padilla, our enemy combatant."

Several guards in camouflage and riot gear approached cell No. 103. They unlocked a rectangular panel at the bottom of the door and Mr. Padilla's bare feet slid through, eerily disembodied. As one guard held down a foot with his black boot, the others shackled Mr. Padilla's legs. Next, his hands emerged through another hole to be manacled.

Wordlessly, the guards, pushing into the cell, chained Mr. Padilla's cuffed hands to a metal belt. Briefly, his expressionless eyes met the camera before he lowered his head submissively in expectation of what came next: noise-blocking headphones over his ears and blacked-out goggles over his eyes. Then the guards, whose faces were hidden behind plastic visors, marched their masked, clanking prisoner down the hall to his root canal. [complete article]
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Beirut sit-in as much about class as politics
By Liz Sly, Chicago Tribune, December 4, 2006

The band of scruffily dressed youths shouting Shiite slogans weaved its way noisily through the shuttered streets of Beirut, past the trendy Buddha Bar, the Taboo and Citrus nightclubs, the Armani boutique and the upscale banks located in a part of the city not normally associated with displays of Shiite piety.

"Ya Ali," they chanted repeatedly, asserting their allegiance to one of Shiite Islam's holiest figures and vividly illustrating the enormity of the revolution unfolding in the symbolic heart of this historically Christian and Sunni city.

As tens of thousands of mostly Shiite demonstrators sustained their occupation of downtown Beirut for the third straight day Sunday to demand the resignation of the U.S.-backed government holed up in its headquarters nearby, the complex web of social and sectarian rifts that their protest has exposed seemed ever more dangerously apparent.

In the first violence of what threatens to become a prolonged standoff, a 21-year-old Shiite man returning home from Sunday's events through a Sunni neighborhood was shot dead during a skirmish between Sunni and Shiite youths, highlighting the potential for this latest bout of political upheaval to descend into war. [complete article]

Lebanon again at the brink
By Nicholas Blanford, Christian Science Monitor, December 4, 2006

Fresh from fighting Israeli troops in south Lebanon this summer, militant Hizbullah is engaged in a new battle - this one political. Its supporters and its opposition allies are camping on the streets of Beirut determined to bring down the Western-backed Lebanese government.

Hizbullah's new campaign, which entered its third day Sunday, brings into sharp relief the conflicting motivations underpinning the group, in which its ambitions as a national party are balanced against obligations as an Iranian and Syrian ally in the struggle to curb US regional influence.

But to win politically at home, especially in its bid to bring down the anti-Syrian March 14 ruling coalition, Hizbullah has to convince Lebanon that it isn't simply pushing an agenda dictated by Tehran and Damascus.
[complete article]

See also, The anti-Siniora craze in Beirut (Sami Moubayed) and If Siniora falls, so will UNIFIL (Haaretz).
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Israeli Arabs seek right to return to villages abandoned in 1948
By Yoav Stern, Haaretz, December 4, 2006

According to a position paper written by Mossawa - the Advocacy Center for Arab Citizens in Israel and presented in a conference in Nazareth on Friday, Israeli Arabs want the right to return to villages abandoned in 1948, educational autonomy and changes to the Israeli flag and national anthem.

The paper, written in close coordination with the Israel Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, was presented as part of the week-long Second Annual Days of Mossawa Festival and Nazareth Film Festival, which ended Saturday.

"Our goal is to achieve a historic compromise with the Jewish community in Israel," Mossawa Center director Jafar Farah told the conference. "The move by refugees of 1948 to their villages will not change the demographic balance or endanger the Jews. Unlike the refugees in Arab states, we are [already] here," Farah said. "The internal refugees [residents forced to leave their villages in 1948 who moved to other Arab communities within Israel] represent about one-fourth of the Arab population in Israel today." [complete article]

Gaza truce won't be widened to West Bank
By Scott Wilson, Washington Post, December 4, 2006

Extending a tenuous cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in the Gaza Strip to the far larger West Bank proved elusive Sunday as Israel's security cabinet decided against doing so and the governing Hamas movement withdrew from negotiations on the matter.

But the Israeli government reaffirmed its commitment to the temporary truce in Gaza despite the continuing rocket fire from there into southern Israel, which violates the eight-day-old agreement.

Israeli military officials say 15 rockets have been launched from Gaza since the truce was reached between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has suggested that the modest achievement could be a first step toward reviving dormant negotiations over the creation of a Palestinian state. [complete article]

Qatar to pay wages of Palestinian education workers
Reuters, December 3, 2006

U.S.-ally Qatar will pay the salaries of 40,000 Palestinian education workers for several months, the Palestinian prime minister said on Sunday, helping to ease an economic crisis caused by a Western aid boycott.

"Qatar will pay the salaries of all the education employees, who are 40,000. This amount will total $22.5 million per month for the coming several months starting now," Ismail Haniyeh said, adding that Qatar was also studying giving an additional $7 million per month to the Palestinian health sector.

Haniyeh told reporters in Doha a Qatari delegation would travel to the Palestinian territories in 10 days to discuss setting up an Islamic bank with a $50 million capital that would be increased to $100 million to finance development there. [complete article]

Israel creates new ministry to deal with Iran threat
AFP, December 2, 2006

The Israeli government has approved the creation of a new ministry for strategic affairs, to be headed by a controversial ultra-nationalist and deal mainly with Iran's nuclear ambitions.

During the weekly cabinet meeting, "all the ministers approved the decision to form the ministry for strategic affairs" under Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beitenu party joined Prime Minister's Ehud Olmert's government in October, a official said on condition of anonymity on Sunday.

The ministry will be responsible "for coordination between the different bodies regarding the different strategic threats Israel is facing," most notably Iran's nuclear programme, which the Jewish state and the United States believe is aimed at acquiring a nuclear bomb, despite Tehran's denials. [complete article]
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In Afghanistan, lessons in the face of violence
By Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, December 3, 2006

The teacher had been warned.

Mohammed Aref was on duty near the front gate of his school. The children were at recess, playing volleyball without a net.

The throaty rumble of a motorcycle broke through their playful shrieks and laughter. The lone rider, a man wearing a traditional shalwar kameez with his face obscured by the long tail of his turban, called Aref over to talk. Then he pulled an AK-47 from under his baggy shirt and fired six bullets into the teacher.

Aref had no way to defend himself. His only weapons were his faith in knowledge, some tattered books and a piece of chalk. He died in the dirt in front of horrified pupils.

Fifteen days earlier, Taliban guerrillas had come in the darkness and posted a "night letter" on the door of his farmhouse, telling the 50-year-old teacher to stay away from the school if he wanted to stay alive.

Aref, who earned just $50 a month, stood his ground. One of the first victims in the resurgent Taliban's dirty war on education, he gave his life trying to teach Afghan children that there is more to theirs than endless war. [complete article]

Afghanistan opium crop sets record
By Karen DeYoung, Washington Post, December 2, 2006

Opium production in Afghanistan, which provides more than 90 percent of the world's heroin, broke all records in 2006, reaching a historic high despite ongoing U.S.-sponsored eradication efforts, the Bush administration reported yesterday.

In addition to a 26 percent production increase over past year -- for a total of 5,644 metric tons -- the amount of land under cultivation in opium poppies grew by 61 percent. Cultivation in the two main production provinces, Helmand in the southwest and Oruzgan in central Afghanistan, was up by 132 percent.

White House drug policy chief John Walters called the news "disappointing." [complete article]

Panel faults U.S.-trained Afghan police
By James Glanz and David Rohde, New York Times, December 4, 2006

Five years after the fall of the Taliban, a joint report by the Pentagon and the State Department has found that the American-trained police force in Afghanistan is largely incapable of carrying out routine law enforcement work, and that managers of the $1.1 billion training program cannot say how many officers are actually on duty or where thousands of trucks and other equipment issued to police units have gone.

In fact, most police units had less than 50 percent of their authorized equipment on hand as of June, says the report, which was issued two weeks ago but is only now circulating among members of relevant Congressional committees.

In its most significant finding, the report said that no effective field training program had been established in Afghanistan, at least in part because of a slow, ineffectual start and understaffing. [complete article]
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Iraqi Army division deepens discord
By Hannah Allam, McClatchy, December 2, 2006

The overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim military force at the forefront of U.S. and Iraqi plans to secure one of the nation's most fractious provinces is accused of arresting hundreds of Sunni men on little or no evidence, threatening to rape a suspect's wife to coerce a confession, and intimidating its commander's critics, according to interviews with Iraqi and U.S. officials.

Backed by U.S. troops, the Iraqi Army's 5th Division on Saturday launched a new offensive to rout suspected al-Qaida-allied terrorists from Baquba, the capital of a province infested with Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias, warring tribes and criminal gangs.

While a U.S. military statement said the weekend operation shows the "commitment of Iraqi army officers and soldiers to protect and secure the people," local residents and Sunni leaders point to the Iraqi division's track record as one of the chief problems plaguing the restive Diyala province north of Baghdad. [complete article]

'Fear took over' in Baghdad raid
By Solomon Moore, Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2006

By the time the 11-hour battle was over, one Iraqi soldier had been killed and six others wounded, including one who shot himself in the foot. A U.S. soldier was also wounded and, according to American troops interviewed, additional casualties were averted only because U.S. Apache attack helicopters were called in and American trainers shot their way out of the ambush.

"Fear took over" among the Iraqis, Staff Sgt. Michael Baxter said.

"They refused to move. We were yelling at them to move," he said. "I grabbed one guy and shoved him into a building. I was saying, 'God get me out of this, because these guys are going to get me killed.' "

The offensive was initially billed by U.S. officials in Baghdad as an Iraqi-led success and a case study in support of the Pentagon's increasing reliance on using American troops as military advisors as a way to shift security responsibilities to Iraqi soldiers. [complete article]

De facto partition takes hold in Iraq
By Hamza Hendawi, AP, December 3, 2006

For months, the Waheed brothers steadfastly endured the killings raging around them in their mainly Sunni district, staying put as fellow Shiites packed up and left.

Finally, a death threat persuaded Majed and Mondhir Hatem Waheed to leave the neighborhood of Dora where they grew up and, together with their wives and children, join 24 relatives in an uncle's house in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr city district.

"At least, we are safe," 25-year-old Mondhir Hatem Waheed said.

In the 43 months since Saddam Hussein's ouster, entire Iraqi provinces have become virtually off-limits to one or another sect, mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods are slowly disappearing, and a Kurdish region in the north appears to have all but seceded.

In many ways, Iraq is breaking up, though not in a way in which a well-defined boundary could be established to ensure peace. It is happening amid a debate on whether partitioning this ethnically and religiously diverse nation could provide a way out of the growing sectarian violence tearing it apart. [complete article]
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Mideast allies near a state of panic
By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times, December 3, 2006

President Bush and his top advisors fanned out across the troubled Middle East over the last week to showcase their diplomatic initiatives to restore strained relationships with traditional allies and forge new ones with leaders in Iraq.

But instead of flaunting stronger ties and steadfast American influence, the president's journey found friends both old and new near a state of panic. Mideast leaders expressed soaring concern over upheavals across the region that the United States helped ignite through its invasion of Iraq and push for democracy -- and fear that the Bush administration may make things worse.

President Bush's summit in Jordan with the Iraqi prime minister proved an awkward encounter that deepened doubts about the relationship. Vice President Dick Cheney's stop in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, yielded a blunt warning from the kingdom's leaders. And Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's swing through the West Bank and Israel, intended to build Arab support by showing a new U.S. push for peace, found little to work with.

In all, visits designed to show the American team in charge ended instead in diplomatic embarrassment and disappointment, with U.S. leaders rebuked and lectured by Arab counterparts. The trips demonstrated that U.S. allies in the region were struggling to understand what to make of the difficult relationship, and to figure whether, with a new Democratic majority taking over Congress, Bush even had control over his nation's Mideast policy. [complete article]

A new U.S. option in Iraq: panic! (Tony Karon).
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Rumsfeld memo on Iraq proposed 'major' change
By Michael R. Gordon and David S. Cloud, New York Times, December 3, 2006

Two days before he resigned as defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld submitted a classified memo to the White House that acknowledged that the Bush administration's strategy in Iraq was not working and called for a major course correction.

"In my view it is time for a major adjustment," wrote Mr. Rumsfeld, who has been a symbol of a dogged stay-the-course policy. "Clearly, what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough."

Nor did Mr. Rumsfeld seem confident that the administration would readily develop an effective alternative. To limit the political fallout from shifting course, he suggested the administration consider a campaign to lower public expectations. [complete article]

Comment -- There are several points worth noting about Rumsfeld's memo.

Firstly, there's no hint here that he imagined he'd be resigning two days after sending this to the White House. The fact that the memo has been leaked now suggests that he and/or his office have a strong interest in shaping the agenda for this week's Congressional hearings on the Gates nomination. Indeed, it may also suggest that Rumsfeld didn't resign willingly and that GOP-election debacle or not, Rumsfeld and Bush were heading for a showdown that would pivot on Bush's stay-the-course intransigence.

Moving on to some of the specifics of Rumsfeld's proposals. The general thrust in his thinking seems to be that the U.S. does not so much need to transfer power to Iraqis as much as reduce the American profile in Iraq -- fewer bases, fewer patrols, withdrawal from vulnerable positions, but only a modest reduction in overall troop numbers. In tandem with lowering U.S. visibility there would be an increase in the level of American political manipulation by installing "U.S. military retirees and Reserve/National Guard volunteers" inside leading Iraqi ministries, along with placing "key political and religious leaders" on the U.S. government bankroll "to get them to help us get through this difficult period." Inspiration for the latter idea comes to Rumsfeld directly from Saddam Hussein!

At the same time, Rumsfeld indicates that he wants the Iraqis to know "they have to pull up their socks, step up and take responsibility for their country." Rather than read this as impatience in response to a government that seems unwilling to use its power, this sounds more like a directive from a corporate CEO who is chastising the executives in an unprofitable division. Taking responsibility is not to be confused with exercising independence!

Unfortunately (for Washington) there is actually no shortage of Iraqis wanting to take responsibility for their country. The problem is that many of them have violently conflicting agendas, few have faith in the capabilities of the central government, and very few are interested in pleasing Americans.
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Corruption: the 'second insurgency' costing $4bn a year
By Julian Borger and David Pallister, The Guardian, December 2, 2006

The Iraqi government is in danger of being brought down by the wholesale smuggling of the nation's oil and other forms of corruption that together represent a "second insurgency", according to a senior US official. Stuart Bowen, who has been in charge of auditing Iraq's faltering reconstruction since 2004, said corruption had reached such levels that it threatened the survival of the state.

"There is a huge smuggling problem. It is the No 1 issue," Mr Bowen told the Guardian. The pipelines that are meant to take the oil north have been blown up, so the only way to export it is by road. "That leaves it vulnerable to smuggling," he said, as truckers sell their cargoes on the black market. [complete article]
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800,000 on streets in revolution to put Lebanon in hands of Hezbollah
By Nicholas Blanford, The Times, December 2, 2006

It was last year's "Cedar revolution" in reverse. Hundreds of thousands of pro-Syrian protesters waving Lebanese flags rallied yesterday in central Beirut, vowing to remain in the streets until the Western-backed Government was overthrown.

Fouad Siniora, the Prime Minister, says that the Government is determined to remain in power, accusing the Hezbollah-led opposition of attempting to mount a coup and acting on the orders of Syria and Iran.

With neither side willing to give way, many Lebanese fear that the political deadlock will be broken only by violence.

The huge crowd, numbering perhaps 800,000 or almost a quarter of the population, packed two squares in the city centre. They had travelled from all over Lebanon. [complete article]

Hizbollah plans 'surprises' in drive to oust Lebanese leader
By v, The Sunday Telegraph, December 3, 2006

Hizbollah plans a steady increase of the pressure it is exerting on Lebanon's struggling government with a series of "surprises" in the coming days as part of its campaign to topple the beleaguered prime minister, Fouad Siniora.

The militant Shia group, which mobilised massive support at an anti-government rally outside the prime minister's Beirut office on Friday, has made clear that the sit-in protest around the Grand Serail building would continue until its demands for the formation of a national unity government are met.

In its drive to topple what it claims is an American puppet regime, Hizbollah has threatened to seize Beirut's port and airport and to launch a civil disobedience campaign, involving countrywide protests and strikes. If those are not successful, mass resignations from parliament are planned. [complete article]

Which way will things go in Beirut?
By Rami G. Khouri, Daily Star, December 2, 2006

There is something at once both historic and frightening about the open-ended mass street protest that was launched in Beirut Friday by Hizbullah and its allies, aiming to topple the government headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The historic element is that this is a rare instance of mass political action that is declared to be peaceful and designed to change a government. We simply do not have this tradition in the Arab world, which has been characterized more commonly by violent coups and long-running police states. It is also relatively positive that Hizbullah is focused on domestic political engagement, rather than fighting regional or internal wars. Its substantial clout and legitimacy, not to mention its armed capability, cannot long remain outside the structures of political governance or on their periphery.

It is historically useful, if slightly unsettling on the nerves, to find out exactly how the government and the opposition line up in terms of popular and political strength. The March 14 forces of the government coalition and the March 8 forces of Hizbullah and its allies have now squared off in, hopefully, a peaceful, democratic, political contest of wills. The important new element here is not just Hizbullah's aggressive domestic challenge to the government; it is also the government's resolute resistance to Hizbullah's challenge. [complete article]
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Hamas dismisses resignation call
Al Jazeera, December 3, 2006

The governing Palestinian group Hamas has dismissed a call for the resignation of the government made by the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.

A Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, described the call as "a coup."

It comes following an apparent breakdown in talks between Hamas and Fatah over the formation of a unity government. [complete article]

See also, 'Hamas blew chance to end sanctions' (Jerusalem Post).

Israel turns to intifada boss to broker ceasefire
By Harry de Quetteville, The Sunday Telegraph, December 3, 2006

A man seen by many Israelis as a cold-blooded terrorist who deserves to rot in his prison cell has emerged as a central figure in the ceasefire between the two sides.

Marwan Barghouti, whom Palestinians view as a hero of the resistance, is playing a key part in the attempt to end more than six years of violence — fuelling speculation that he is one of the prisoners Israel says it may be willing to release.

A cell in the high-security block in Israel's Hadarim Prison might not seem the best place from which to pull the many strings required to get Israelis and Palestinians talking again. But Barghouti, 47, who is serving five life sentences for his leading role in the second intifada, has been doing just that. [complete article]

The cease-fire will go up in flames
By Gideon Levy, Haaretz, December 3, 2006

The current cease-fire was achieved thanks to the U.S. president's visit in Jordan. Israel responded to the Palestinian initiative - again it is a Palestinian initiative, there has never been an Israeli initiative - after the military operations were bitter failures. After "Summer Rains" and "Autumn Clouds," after 80 were killed in one week in Beit Hanun, the firing of Qassams did not stop. The IDF hurried to respond with a typical sour countenance: Senior officers in the Southern Command expressed strong opposition in off-the-record conversations, the chief of staff was quick to declare that "the IDF was only a partially a partner in the decision" and the defense minister expressed reservations about expanding the cease-fire to the West Bank.

The IDF is not interested in the cease-fire. One can assume that neither is the Shin Bet. Reports on how the cease-fire is already being exploited for redeployment on the other side are flooding the media. And the end is known in advance. Instead of Israel promoting the cease-fire, it is acting to undermine it. A cease-fire is bad for the IDF, especially when it stems from its failures as in Lebanon and Gaza.

How intolerably easy it is for the IDF to undermine the relative quiet that has been achieved. One assassination is enough. A single soldier at a checkpoint is capable of igniting a conflagration. When the IDF wants it, every broom opens fire. And the IDF wants it, unfortunately. [complete article]
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Judge strikes down parts of executive order on terrorism
By Dan Eggen, Washington Post, November 29, 2006

A Los Angeles federal judge has ruled that key portions of a presidential order blocking financial assistance to terrorist groups are unconstitutional, further complicating the Bush administration's attempts to defend its aggressive anti-terrorism tactics in federal courts.

U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins, in a ruling released late Monday, found that two provisions of an executive order signed Sept. 23, 2001, are impermissibly vague because they allow the president to unilaterally designate organizations as terrorist groups and broadly prohibit association with such groups.

The ruling marks a victory for the Humanitarian Law Project and other plaintiffs in the case, who are seeking to provide support for the "lawful, nonviolent activities" of two groups designated terrorist organizations by the U.S. government: the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in Turkey and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers, in Sri Lanka. [complete article]

The war on terror, under new scrutiny
By James Risen, New York Times, December 3, 2006

In the frantic first few months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration created what amounted to a new secret side of the government, based on an expansive view of the president's authority to wage the war on terror. From secret C.I.A. prisons and harsh interrogation tactics overseas to warrantless eavesdropping at home, the new counterterror structure was established with little Congressional oversight or legal scrutiny.

For several years after 9/11, President Bush was given broad latitude by the legislative and judicial branches to fight terrorism as he saw fit. But 2006 has seen the American government's system of checks and balances slowly clicking back into place, forcing the Bush White House to confront new limits and more scrutiny.

A series of developments last week reflected that changed reality. The Justice Department inspector general's office announced that it had begun an internal investigation into the department's role in the National Security Agency's domestic spying program, after the administration agreed to give the office's staff the necessary security clearances. [complete article]

ACLU urges U.S. to stop collection of traveler data
By Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, December 2, 2006

Privacy advocates yesterday called on the federal government to scrap a Department of Homeland Security data-mining program designed to create terrorism risk assessments for every traveler who enters or leaves the United States.

The Automated Targeting System began as a means of screening cargo but was quietly expanded in recent years to screen and create risk profiles that will be retained for 40 years, The Washington Post reported last month after a notice describing the system appeared in the Federal Register.

The government has been scrutinizing air passengers for risks for 10 years, and assessments of some land border crossers have been conducted for about two years, a Customs and Border Protection official said in an interview Thursday. [complete article]
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Who lost Turkey?
By Owen Matthews, Newsweek, December 11, 2006

Benedict XVI stood, shoeless, side by side with the Mufti of Istanbul beneath the cavernous great dome of onetime Constantinople's famed Blue Mosque, palms upraised in the traditional Muslim gesture of peace and supplication. What precisely the pope prayed for is a matter between himself and his maker—but surely it involved healing between Christians and Muslims, an issue that has come to define his pontificate and his era. When prayer becomes a geopolitical strategy, there's a problem. The most immediate: an imminent breakdown of relations between Turkey and the European Union. Not so long ago, it seemed that Europe would overcome prejudice and define itself as an ideology rather than a geography, a way of being in the world rather than a mere agglomeration of nation-states. But that chance is now lost. "Turkey will never be a full member of the EU," predicts British M.E.P. Daniel Hannan. "There's a dawning realization of that reality on all sides."

This is a tragedy -- a catastrophe, potentially -- of epochal proportions. Europe's engagement with Turkey was a chance to show the world that the West is not incompatible with the East, that a democratic Muslim nation can be just as modern and European as a Christian one. As Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said recently, what's at stake is nothing less than "world peace, fighting global terror and the clash of civilizations." A European Turkey could have been a model for the rest of the Muslim world, too, playing "constructively the role the Ottoman Empire once played destructively—a bridge between the East and West," argues Egyptian political thinker Abdel Monem Said Aly. Accepting Turkey might well have helped Europe cope with its own issues of Muslim integration and identity. And for Turkey itself the lure of EU membership was a force for social transformation. The nation has come far in recent years; but it still has far to go in jettisoning its authoritarian legacy and creating a democracy that reaches broader and more deeply among its culturally and ethnically diverse peoples. [complete article]
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Noteworthy articles from the last seven days:

Saudis threaten to back the Baathists (again) in a new Iraq proxy war
By Tony Karon, Rootless Cosmopolitan, December 1, 2006

Saudis stepping into Iraq
By Nawaf Obaid, November 29, 2006

Anbar picture grows clearer, and bleaker
By Dafna Linzer and Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post, November 28, 2006

A day when Mahdi Army showed its other side
By Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post, November 27, 2006

How Moqtada al-Sadr controls U.S. fate in Iraq
By Jeffrey Bartholet, Newsweek, December 4, 2006

U.S. finds Iraq insurgency has funds to sustain itself
By John F. Burns Kirk Semple, New York Times, November 26, 2006

Lebanon builds up security forces
By Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, December 1, 2006

Land claim unsettles Israeli settlers
By Joshua Mitnick, Christian Science Monitor, November 29, 2006
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