The War in Context Christopher Dickey quote
  Iraq + war on terrorism + Middle East conflict + critical perspectives     
Tehran's influence grows as Iraqis see advantages
By Joshua Partlow, Washington Post, January 26, 2007

When Fadhil Abbas determined that his mother's astigmatism required surgery, they did not consider treatment in his home town of Najaf, in southern Iraq. Instead they joined a four-taxi convoy of ailing Iraqis headed to Iran.

For more than two weeks last fall, Abbas, his sister and his mother were treated to free hotels, trips to the zoo and religious shrines, and his mother's $1,300 eye surgery at a hospital in Tehran, all courtesy of the offices of Moqtada al-Sadr, Iraq's ascendant Shiite Muslim cleric. Abbas returned to Najaf glowing over the technical prowess of Iran.

"When you look at this hospital, it is like something imaginary -- you wouldn't believe such a hospital like this exists," said Abbas, a 22-year-old college student. "Iran wants to help the patients in Iraq. Other countries don't want to let Iraqis in."

The increasingly common arrangement for sick or wounded Iraqis to receive treatment in Iran is just one strand in a burgeoning relationship between these two Persian Gulf countries. Thousands of Iranian pilgrims visit the Shiite holy cities in southern Iraq each year. Iran exports electricity and refined oil products to Iraq, and Iraqi vendors sell Iranian-made cars, air coolers, plastics and the black flags, decorated with colorful script, that Shiites are flying this week to celebrate the religious holiday of Ashura. But when President Bush and top U.S. officials speak of Iran's role in Iraq, their focus is more limited. U.S. officials accuse Iranian security forces, particularly the al-Quds Brigade of the Revolutionary Guards, of funneling sophisticated explosives to Iraqi guerrillas.

"We will not allow hegemony of a hostile regime to have power over this area," U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said this week.

But changing the "behavior" of the Iranian government, as Khalilzad proposes, collides with Iran's expanding influence in Iraq, which is built on deep cultural ties as well as personal and business relationships developed during the years that many leading Iraqi Shiite politicians spent in exile in Iran. [complete article]

Comment -- The Bush administration, mesmerized by its own ephemeral grasp on power, has persistently overlooked the power of geography -- power that is literally as steady as rock. Iraq and Iran's relations are first and foremost topographically defined. Regimes can change, borders could shift, yet the contiguous mass of land upon which these two states are planted will remain. Likewise, however much America attempts to remain an enduring presence in the region, it will nevertheless remain a distant land.

Troops authorized to kill Iranian operatives in Iraq
By Dafna Linzer, Washington Post, January 26, 2007

The Bush administration has authorized the U.S. military to kill or capture Iranian operatives inside Iraq as part of an aggressive new strategy to weaken Tehran's influence across the Middle East and compel it to give up its nuclear program, according to government and counterterrorism officials with direct knowledge of the effort.

For more than a year, U.S. forces in Iraq have secretly detained dozens of suspected Iranian agents, holding them for three to four days at a time. The "catch and release" policy was designed to avoid escalating tensions with Iran and yet intimidate its emissaries. U.S. forces collected DNA samples from some of the Iranians without their knowledge, subjected others to retina scans, and fingerprinted and photographed all of them before letting them go.

Last summer, however, senior administration officials decided that a more confrontational approach was necessary, as Iran's regional influence grew and U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran appeared to be failing. The country's nuclear work was advancing, U.S. allies were resisting robust sanctions against the Tehran government, and Iran was aggravating sectarian violence in Iraq. [complete article]

Israel tries to cut off Tehran from world markets
By David Hearst, The Guardian, January 26, 2007

Israel is launching a campaign to isolate Iran economically and to soften up world opinion for the option of a military strike aimed at crippling or delaying Tehran's uranium enrichment programme.

Pressure will be applied to major US pension funds to stop investment in about 70 companies that trade directly with Iran, and to international banks that trade with its oil sector, cutting off the country's access to hard currency. The aim is to isolate Tehran from the world markets in a campaign similar to that against South Africa at the height of apartheid.

Meanwhile, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is to be pursued in international courts for calling the Holocaust a myth, and saying Israel should be wiped off the map. The case will be launched under the 1948 UN convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, which outlaws "direct and public incitement to genocide".

Before flying to London to spearhead the mission to sell the sanctions, the Likud party leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, said: "A campaign to divest commercial investment from Iran, beginning with the large pension funds in the west ... either stops Iran's nuclear programme or it will pave the way for tougher actions. So it's no-lose for us." [complete article]
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Cooperative tone of Sadr surprises U.S.
By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times, January 26, 2007

Muqtada Sadr, the radical anti-American cleric, has backed away from confrontation with U.S. and Iraqi forces in recent weeks, a move that has surprised U.S. officials who long have characterized his followers as among the greatest threats to Iraq's security.

Thursday, a leader of the Sadr movement in one of its Baghdad strongholds publicly endorsed President Bush's new Iraq security plan, which at least some U.S. officials have touted as a way to combat Sadr's group.

"We will fully cooperate with the government to make the plan successful," said Abdul-Hussein Kaabai, head of the local council in the Shiite Muslim-dominated Sadr City neighborhood. "If it is an Iraqi plan done by the government, we will cooperate."

Over the last several weeks, the Shiite cleric and his followers have dropped their threats to quit Iraq's U.S.-backed government, and after years of shunning the "occupier," they have allowed their emissaries to meet with U.S. officials. [complete article]

Comment -- The one thing that political observers of all stripes have a hard time acknowledging and perhaps even recognizing is that, without question, Muqtada al-Sadr has turned out to be the most durable figure in Iraqi politics. While this is something others are reluctant to admit, this is without doubt a fact about which Sadr himself must be keenly aware. Indeed, the fact that it took others so long to take him seriously has been something that he has invariably turned to his advantage. So when it comes to interpreting his latest tactical move we should probably interpret it, like nearly everything else he does, in the context of his strategic prize: post-occupation Iraq.

Iraq leader and Sunni officials in clash on security
By Marc Santora, New York Times, January 26, 2007

Iraq's Shiite prime minister and Sunni lawmakers hurled insults at one another during a raucous session of Parliament on Thursday, with the prime minister threatening a Sunni lawmaker with arrest and the Sunni speaker of Parliament threatening to quit.

The uproar revolved around the new Baghdad security plan, but it came as the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, is under increasing pressure to demonstrate evenhandedness. President Bush's new strategy for Iraq hinges in large measure on the Iraqi government's ability to rein in both Shiite and Sunni militants.

In Parliament on Thursday, Mr. Maliki focused his anger on Sunni lawmakers, accusing one of being involved in sectarian kidnappings. The confrontation erupted after Mr. Maliki described the outlines of the new Baghdad security plan and pledged there would be no "safe haven" for militants.

The leader of a powerful Sunni bloc, Abdul Nasir al-Janabi, provoked Mr. Maliki, saying over jeers from Shiite politicians, "We cannot trust the office of the prime minister." [complete article]
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Analysis: A year after elections, Hamas riding high
By Khaled Abu Toameh, Jerusalem Post, January 25, 2007

Marking the first anniversary of their landslide victory in the Palestinian Authority parliamentary election, Hamas leaders on Thursday had every reason to be satisfied.

Political and financial sanctions imposed by the international community have failed to bring down the Hamas-led government. Moreover, efforts by PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party to undermine the government of Ismail Haniyeh have also been unsuccessful.

Many observers today admit that they were mistaken in their earlier assessments that Haniyeh's government would collapse as a result of the local and international pressure. Their predictions that Hamas's popularity would drop have also proven to be wrong.

In a speech in Gaza City, Haniyeh boasted that "Zionist schemes" had failed to topple the "elected" government or force Hamas to abandon its principles. "The government did not collapse after one year," he declared. "Nor did it make compromise the rights of the Palestinians."

Addressing the international community, Haniyeh said the financial sanctions imposed on his government have proven to be "ineffective." The sanctions, he added, are a form of "collective punishment" against the Palestinians for choosing Hamas. "Those who decided on the sanctions are no longer able to justify them from a moral point of view," he said, noting that Hamas has been able to find other sources of funding.

Almost immediately after the results of the January 2006 election were announced, many Fatah leaders were quick to declare that Hamas would not stay in power for more than three of four months. The Palestinian public, they explained, would soon discover that Hamas would fail because of its inexperience in running a government, its extremist policies and financial sanctions imposed by the Americans and Europeans.

But as the months passed and Hamas continued to cling on to power, Fatah, with the backing of the US and some European countries, embarked on a public campaign aimed at overthrowing Haniyeh's government.

Millions of dollars have been invested in an unprecedented media onslaught aimed at discrediting the Hamas-led government, but to no avail. Dozens of spokesmen employed by Fatah over the past year seem to have failed to convince the majority of the Palestinians to turn against their government. [complete article]

Progress amid mistrust
By Khaled Amayreh, Al-Ahram, January 25, 2007

Despite the inconclusive outcome of the Abbas-Meshal meeting in Damascus earlier this week, Hamas and Fatah have been able to achieve significant progress towards the formation of a national unity government that would replace the present beleaguered Hamas-led government.

Reliable sources close to Hamas in Gaza told Al-Ahram Weekly that both groups already reached agreement in principle on the identity of potential ministers who would be at the helm of the most important portfolios. [complete article]

See also, Abbas: Hamas talks should last 2-3 weeks (AP) and Livni warns Abbas against striking deal with Hamas (Haaretz).

Comment -- The mistake that Washington and Tel Aviv makes -- a mistake that has been repeated by powerful elites throughout history -- is to equate weakness with stupidity. The Palestinians are economically and militarily weak and thus they can easily be duped -- so the tacit assumption operates. It is the counterpart of an assumed "right to power" through which those who possess power see the simple fact of that possession as a demonstration of their fitness to hold power.
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Should Israel be in Bush's back seat?
By Tony Karon, Haaretz, January 27, 2007

Sober minds in Washington have concluded that Iraq is lost, but Bush is having none of it - as he made clear last week, he intends not only to up the level of force, but also to begin directing it at Syria and Iran. Those in Israel tempted to welcome this development may be suffering from the same geopolitical psychosis as President Bush: the belief that military force translates automatically into power. If anything, 2006 highlighted the fact that America's overwhelming military advantages have failed to tip the region's political balance in its favor; on the contrary, resorting to military force over the past four years has actually been accompanied by a precipitous decline in America's ability to influence events in the region and beyond, much less impose its will. [complete article]
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Israel on the Potomac: power under pressure
By Norman Birnbaum, Open Democracy, January 25, 2007

Notwithstanding their own prosperity, Jews generally favour the American welfare state - and (a vocal minority of the Orthodox excepted) consider that modernity demands a rather liberal reading of the Old Testament in matters of sexuality. In foreign policy, Jews have generally been multilateralist: their great modern hero was Franklin D Roosevelt. Many American Jews, moreover, share with their fellow-citizens the view that a negotiated solution to the conflict with the Palestinians ("land for peace") is desirable.

There is a contrast here with the most audible and influential voice of American Jewry, the network of individuals and organisations often referred to as the "Israel lobby" - the grouping led jointly by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations. Their work - coordinated with, inter alia, the Israel government, its embassy in Washington and the political parties of the Israel right - takes a very different approach to that of most American Jews, above all in foreign policy.

The lobby supports American unilateralism, disparages the large parts of world opinion critical of the Israel occupation of Palestine, and endorses Israel's most repressive measures against the Palestinians; and many of the lobbyists, having successfully agitated for war on Iraq, are now mobilising for an equally hard line against Iran.

Its tactics have (until recently) been remarkably successful in neutralising the considerable criticism of Israel, and of the American alignment with Israel, voiced by many in the American churches, among the leadership of some black organisations, and by anti-imperial Democrats in Congress. Its rhetorical weapons include insisting on a direct connection between Arab and Muslim opposition to Israel's occupation and European anti-Semitism. The argument is that those who voice sympathy for that opposition are objectively anti-Semitic, whatever they may believe or say. If the critics are Jewish, the explanation is simple: they suffer from self-abnegation if not self-hatred. [complete article]
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Taken for a ride by the Israeli Left
By Steven Friedman and Virginia Tilley, Electronic Intifada, January 26, 2007

Uri Avnery is a human rights crusader of venerable standing. He has fought, written, published and campaigned for Palestinian rights for some sixty years. He has stood on the political barricades and faced down bulldozers to defend Palestinians from Israeli military abuse. His articles, books, and magazine denounced Israel's seizure of Palestinian land before most of the "new historians" learned to write. He even denounces legalized discrimination against Palestinian Israelis in uncompromising terms and has called for Israel to become "a state of all its citizens", although still retaining a large Jewish majority (e.g., see his recent "What Makes Sammy Run?"). As a founder of the peace group Gush Shalom, he remains the recognized godfather of liberal Zionism and no one doubts his sincerity in insisting on a two-state solution.

Given all this, it may seem odd that many people working hard for a stable peace in Israel-Palestine find Mr. Avnery so immensely irritating. The reason stems from his moral contradictions, all too common to liberal Zionism: that is, while taking an unflinching moral stand against racist abuses of Palestinians, he somehow drops the same principles in assuming that Israel itself has a right to preserve its "Jewish character" at the expense of Palestinian rights. For it is all too obvious that sustaining an "overwhelming" Jewish majority in Israel, essential to preserving its "Jewish character," requires that Israel sustain a whole cluster of racist practices, such as giant Walls to keep people from mixing and not allowing Palestinian exiles to return.

Liberal Zionists who cling to Mr. Avnery's analyses consistently trip over this moral fallacy. They want the occupation to end and find oppression of Palestinians morally abhorrent, and some even believe that discrimination against Palestinian Arabs must end. But they don't want Israel's status as a state run for only one ethnic group to end. They must therefore endorse whatever discrimination is deemed essential to preserving Israel's Jewish majority, particularly in keeping those Palestinians expelled from what is now Israel from ever coming back. In this view, Israel itself is morally okay -- a "miracle," as David Grossman recently put it -- or it would be okay if its leaders hadn't stupidly stumbled into military occupation after the 1967 war. [complete article]
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Lebanon: Shadow of civil war looms again
By Sami Moubayed, Asia Times, January 27, 2007

In short, Al-Manar [Hezbollah's TV station] was saying: this is not a Shi'ite rebellion. Last month Nasrallah had given a speech to the opposition demonstrators, pointing out that a Sunni would replace Siniora as prime minister, showering the Sunni community with great praise. Al-Manar has run several TV programs and themes about the lives and words of former Sunni leaders, to show the world that (1) it is not opposed to the Sunnis and (2) the Sunnis are not only represented by Fouad al-Siniora.

Programs on former leaders such as Saeb Salam, Salim al-Hoss, and Riyad al-Sulh were repeatedly shown on Al-Manar TV. Sunni anger has been increasing in the Arab world after all, especially since the war on Iraq in 2003 and the rising power of Iraqi Shi'ites. The death squads in Iraq, the liquidation of Sunni notables and burning of Sunni mosques all contributed to the Sh'ite rebellion. The anti-Shi'ite tone was silenced briefly during last summer's war in Lebanon, thanks to the steadfastness of Hezbollah and the charisma of Hasan Nasrallah, only to re-emerge, in dramatic proportions, after the hanging of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein on December 30.

Now comes the crisis in Lebanon. The Sunnis of March 14 want to invest in rising Sunni nationalism in the Arab world to use it against Hezbollah. The charisma of Nasrallah, his towering popularity in the Arab and Muslim world, and Hezbollah's heroism during the summer war all make it difficult for March 14 to sell their argument to the Arab masses. The more the White House supports Siniora, the more it is easy for Hezbollah to discredit him. [complete article]

Curfew and questions in Beirut
By Sami Hermez, Electronic Intifada, January 25, 2007

Reports say that four people died today, and there are more than 30 injured, 13 of which are soldiers. This brings the count up to nine since Tuesday. What do we call the events around us? Clashes, riots, scattered violence, civil strife, war? The way we define things governs the way we act and react. And now we are at a moment of loss, partly because we are unable and partly because we are unwanting to define; but the media will jump in to define for us.

I speak to a friend on MSN and she calls this a civil war, others are saying this is just an outbreak of violence and the more we call it war the more our anticipations will lead us down that path. At some point though we need to recognize the situation at hand; perhaps defining in advance can minimize the impending catastrophe rather than if we recognize the disaster in hindsight. If we consider that the war has begun we can work to end it; if we deny that it has begun then we will continue to triage the situation until it turns into a state of emergency. [complete article]
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Bush to pump another $8bn into Afghanistan
By Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian, January 26, 2007

The White House announced a major shift in its strategy towards Afghanistan yesterday that will see more aid and military help for the country after four years in which it has suffered from Washington's overwhelming focus on Iraq.

Facing failure in Iraq, where violence is worsening, the US is anxious to avoid a similar catastrophe in Afghanistan.

Billions of dollars are to be pumped into Afghanistan to help build up the army and for reconstruction projects such as roads, water, schools and clinics. [complete article]
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U.S. picks an inauspicious time to restart Mideast talks
By Steven Erlanger, New York Times, January 25, 2007

It would be hard to imagine a less promising moment for the United States to restart serious Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.

Six years after the last such talks, the Palestinian government is controlled by Hamas, which preaches Israel's destruction. Approval ratings for the Israeli prime minister are barely in double digits. Gaza and neighboring Lebanon are in turmoil. President Bush is weak.

Yet the administration is holding a meeting on Feb. 2 of the so-called quartet, whose other members are the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, to be followed by "informal talks" between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, with help from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, about the shape of a final peace treaty and the nature of a Palestinian state beside Israel.

The Americans are responding to pleas for re-engagement from the European Union, the Palestinian president and moderate Arab nations.

But expectations are purposely low. Ms. Rice and her Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, have borrowed a phrase from frustrated Palestinians and speak only of providing "a political horizon" to the two parties. They have been vague about the content and the path. [complete article]

Comment -- The official line from the Bush administration is that these upcoming talks are a confidence-building exercise aimed at buttressing support for "moderate" Palestinians while undermining support for Hamas. Clearly though, this latest "initiative" is no such thing -- at least it's not an initiative aimed at bringing the creation of a Palestinian state any closer. At the end of this article, David Makovsky from the pro-Israeli, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, gives the game away when he says, "The issue is a derivative of getting Arab support for Iraq and Iran policy." The administration wants "a broad front, and this is part of helping those Arab leaders they see as important on these other issues." In other words, all this is about is offering a token of concern -- a fig leaf with which Arab leaders can protect themselves as they get drafted into supporting the U.S.-Israeli confrontation with Iran.

If Israel's prime minister was giving any thought to addressing the conflict with Palestinians, he gave no hint of such a preoccupation when he spoke yesterday:
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert devoted one of his most important policy speeches of the year Wednesday to a single topic -- Iran -- saying Israel will respond to a nuclear threat "with all the means at our disposal."

Addressing an annual security conference in this seaside city, he said the international community has no choice but to act forcefully against Iran and its president, Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, who has repeatedly called for Israel's destruction.

"When the leader of a country announces, officially and publicly, his country's intention to wipe off the map another country, and creates those tools which will allow them to realize their stated threat, no nation has the right to even to weigh its position," Olmert said.

"It is the obligation of every country to act against this with all its might."
Mahmoud Abbas would do well to consider whether it really should be his role to be a supporting actor in the campaign against Iran.
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Rival mobs plunge Beirut into anarchy
By Iman Azzi and Rym Ghazal, Daily Star, January 25, 2007

Clashes erupted between government loyalists and opposition supporters in Lebanon on Thursday, escalating swiftly and leaving at least three dead and 158 others wounded by the time a rare curfew was imposed on the city at 8:30 p.m. Scenes across the capital were reminiscent of the country's brutal 1975-1990 Civil War; burning cars, reports of snipers on rooftops and a curfew for the first time since 1996.

Thirteen Lebanese Army soldiers, including four officers, were also wounded while trying to defuse the violence that spilled over from a political argument on a university campus in Tariq al-Jdideh.

Premier Fouad Siniora, speaking from the Paris III donor conference, called for restraint.

"What are we doing? No one can help a country where its own people can't help themselves," Siniora said. "We have to set an example for those people who came from all over and are watching Lebanon that we are trying to build a country, not a battlefield."
As the clashes progressed and escalated to various areas across Beirut, Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah released an unexpected fatwa urging residents to "respect" the curfew.

"For the sake of this country and civil peace, we issue a fatwa," Nasrallah said during a live telephone announcement broadcast on several stations. "I ask you to fully cooperate with the Lebanese Army and to respect army measures already adopted or those due to be adopted in the next few hours."

Pleading for calm, Nasrallah said: "Everyone should evacuate the streets, remain calm and leave the stage for the Lebanese Army and security forces." [complete article]

Nasrallah says he can topple government whenever he wants
By Rym Ghazal, Daily Star, January 25, 2007

Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said Wednesday that the opposition was holding back its efforts to bring down Premier Fouad Siniora's government for the sake of civil peace, but his main Christian ally promised "more surprises" in the days to come.

"The opposition has the political, popular and organizational strength to bring down the unconstitutional government tomorrow or the day after," Nasrallah added.

"What has so far prevented the fall of this 'clique' that is clinging to power is not international support but the patriotic feelings of the opposition and its desire to preserve civil peace."

"We are not an occupying force in Lebanon," he said. "We are above all these accusations and divisive statements. This is our country, just like it is everyone else's." [complete article]

Donors pledge $7.6 billion for Lebanon
By John Ward Anderson, Washington Post, January 25, 2007

The embattled Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora won more than $7.6 billion in pledges of financial assistance on Thursday from international donors eager to help rebuild the war-ravaged country, stabilize its economy and improve the security situation.

The package -- including pledges of grants and loans totaling $1.1 billion from Saudi Arabia and $770 million from the United States -- is a major boon for Siniora, whose government has been buffeted since early December by a Hezbollah campaign to topple it.
At least $464 million of the funds pledged by the United States -- or more than 60 percent of the U.S. total -- would be directed to military aid or security measures, according to an unidentified State Department official, quoted by news services, who briefed reporters traveling with Rice. That included $220 million in military aid to the Lebanese government for the purchase of small arms, ammunition, spare parts and other hardware; $184 million for U.N. peacekeeping forces in southern Lebanon, and $40 million for internal Lebanese security services. [complete article]
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In a new joint U.S.-Iraqi patrol, the Americans go first
By Damien Cave and James Glanz, New York Times, January 25, 2007

In the battle for Baghdad, Haifa Street has changed hands so often that it has taken on the feel of a no man's land, the deadly space between opposing trenches. On Wednesday, as American and Iraqi troops poured in, the street showed why it is such a sensitive gauge of an urban conflict marked by front lines that melt into confusion, enemies with no clear identity and allies who disappear or do not show up at all.

In a miniature version of the troop increase that the United States hopes will secure the city, American soldiers and armored vehicles raced onto Haifa Street before dawn to dislodge Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias who have been battling for a stretch of ragged slums and mostly abandoned high rises. But as the sun rose, many of the Iraqi Army units who were supposed to do the actual searches of the buildings did not arrive on time, forcing the Americans to start the job on their own.

When the Iraqi units finally did show up, it was with the air of a class outing, cheering and laughing as the Americans blew locks off doors with shotguns. As the morning wore on and the troops came under fire from all directions, another apparent flaw in this strategy became clear as empty apartments became lairs for gunmen who flitted from window to window and killed at least one American soldier, with a shot to the head. [complete article]
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Iraqi official offers terms from militia to avoid fight
By Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times, January 25, 2007

An Iraqi official authorized to speak on behalf of field commanders for the country's most powerful militia has approached Western military officials and laid out a plan to avoid armed confrontation, senior Iraqi and American officials said this week.

The official is Rahim al-Daraji, the elected mayor of the Sadr City district, the vast grid in the northeast corner of the capital that is the stronghold of the militia, the Mahdi Army. Mr. Daraji has met twice in the past two weeks with Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb, a British officer who is the deputy commanding general in Iraq, said a senior Iraqi official in the office of the prime minister.

During the meetings, which took place on Jan. 17 and, most recently, on Monday, Mr. Daraji laid out a proposal from what he said were all the major political and militia groups in Sadr City, the senior Iraqi official said. The groups were eager to head off a major American military offensive in the district, home to two million Shiites, as the Americans begin a sweeping new effort to retake the streets of Baghdad. [complete article]
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Smuggler's plot highlights fear over uranium
By Lawrence Scott Sheets and William J. Broad, New York Times, January 25, 2007

Last January, a Russian man with sunken cheeks and a wispy mustache crossed into Georgia and traveled to Tbilisi by car along a high mountain road. In two plastic bags in his leather jacket, Georgian authorities say, he carried 100 grams of uranium so refined that it could help fuel an atom bomb.

The Russian, Oleg Khinsagov, had come to meet a buyer who he believed would pay him $1 million and deliver the material to a Muslim man from "a serious organization," the authorities say.

The uranium was a sample, just under four ounces, and the deal a test: If all went smoothly, he boasted, he would sell a far larger cache stored in his apartment back in Vladikavkaz, two to three kilograms of the rare material, four and a half to six and a half pounds, which in expert hands is enough to make a small bomb.

The buyer, it turned out, was a Georgian agent. Alerted to Mr. Khinsagov's ambitions by spies in South Ossetia, Georgian officials arrested him and confiscated his merchandise. After a secret trial, the smuggler was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison. [complete article]
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Ex-Pentagon chief calls for peace plan
By Nathan Guttman, The Forward, January 23, 2007

In a press conference last Monday, former secretary of defense William Cohen called for stepped up American efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The event was organized by the Campaign for American Leadership in the Middle East. The group has lined up 275 former administration officials, members of Congress, business leaders, Arab American activists and Jewish communal leaders to support a statement calling on President Bush to launch a new peace initiative. [complete article]

Comment -- According to a popular view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, violence is seen as the core problem and thus "calm" is the desired solution. Enter CALM -- and beware all organizations that attach great value to a highly marketable acronym. (The Middle East needs CALM about as much as the world needs a Coke.)

Why am I so scathing about what sounds like a laudable initiative? Because it clearly draws its broad base of support by relying on vacuity. No one who signed this statement took the slightest political risk by doing so. In fact, what would be much more interesting than seeing a list of 275 card-carrying centrists would be to know who declined to sign and who wasn't even asked.

CALM's letter to the president is loaded with so much boilerplate it could have been written by the White House itself:
We fully understand the potential obstacles ahead. We also understand the consequences of failure. Failure must not be an option. You have our strong support to stay the course.
Yada yada yada....

Instead of just calling on the president to "help the Palestinians to achieve their own democratic state," how about calling on him to respect the democratic choices of the Palestinian people? Of course, for most of CALM's signatories, that would have been a far too challenging demand to make. It would have hinted at the unthinkable: recognition of the political legitimacy of the Palestinians' current Hamas-led government. Much better then to stick with some future-focused, stay-the-course, hollow rhetoric.

As mealy-mouthed as CALM's statement is, it does respond perfectly to an appeal made by then-Counselor to the Secretary of State, Philip Zelikow, last September. He said that in building a coalition with European and "moderate" Arab states willing to confront Iran, "What would bind that coalition and help keep them together is a sense that the Arab-Israeli issues are being addressed, that they see a common determination to sustain an active policy that tries to deal with the problems of Israel and the Palestinians."

In other words, the United States does not need to push for a resolution to the conflict, or apply any pressure on Israel -- it merely needs to create a sense that the administration and particularly the president is engaged in the issue.

George Bush just needs to say, "I feel your pain, I care about your future, and I'll be with you every step of the way. That's why I'm going to keep on sending Condi to the region and why I think you should recognize the immense significance each time she meets Mahmoud Abbas, they shake hands and they exchange smiles. Those smiles warm my heart because that's how I know that the Middle East is going to have a brighter future."
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Iran and the United States
World Public, January 24, 2007 in partnership with Search for Common Ground has today published the results of a groundbreaking poll of Iran and U.S. on international issues. (Full report - PDF)

Here are some of the key findings:


1. Clash of Civilizations?
Although Iranians show substantial concern about the conflict between Islamic and Western cultures, a majority rejects the idea that it is inevitable. Instead, a majority of Iranians believe that it is possible for the two cultures to find common ground. Iranians are divided about whether they should only emphasize strengthening ties with Muslim countries or put an equal effort into building better relations with the West. Americans share Iranian concerns about the conflict between Islamic and Western countries and lean toward believing that it is possible to find common ground. However, a substantially larger minority of Americans than Iranians believe that conflict is inevitable.

2. Militant Islamic Groups and Terrorism
Iranians, like Americans, are concerned about terrorism and reject Osama bin Laden overwhelmingly. Iranians are considerably less concerned than Americans about al Qaeda and other Islamist militant groups, however, and majorities have positive views of Hamas and Hezbollah. Iranians overwhelmingly reject attacks intentionally aimed at civilians, including those targeting Americans. Americans concur though the percentage of Iranians who reject such attacks is somewhat higher than the percentage of Americans who do so. A modest majority of Iranians, however, make an exception for some Palestinian attacks against Israeli civilians. Americans do not make such an exception for Israeli attacks on Palestinians.


3. Views of the United States
Very large majorities of Iranians have negative views of the United States overall, its influence in the world, its current government, its current president, and its culture. Views of the American people, however, are almost evenly divided Large majorities perceive that US foreign policy is threatening and that US bases in the Middle East are destabilizing the region and threatening to Iran. Very few believe that the primary goal of 'the war on terrorism' is to protect the United States from terrorist attacks: most believe that it seeks to dominate the region to control its resources or to undermine the Muslim world. Few believe the United States is really committed to creating an independent Palestinian state. Modest majorities of Americans take contrary views: that US bases in the Middle East are stabilizing, that the goal of the US 'war on terrorism' is to protect itself from terrorist attacks, and that the United States is committed to creating an independent Palestinian state. Most Americans, however, agree that US bases in the region are threatening to Iran.

4. Views of Iran
A very large majority of Americans have an unfavorable view of the Iranian government and its influence in the world, though the intensity of their negative feeling is not as strong as that felt by Iranians toward the US government. A clear majority of Americans also have a negative view of the Iranian people, in contrast to the more divided views Iranians have of the American people. A growing majority of Iranians believe Iran is having a positive influence in the world. A very large majority of Iranians approve of Iran playing an active international role.

5. Improving US-Iranian Relations
A slight majority or a plurality of Iranians favor a variety of possible steps that have been proposed for improving US-Iranian relations. Large majorities of Americans support most of these steps. The steps include direct talks between governments on issues of mutual concern, more cultural, educational, and sporting exchanges, better access for journalists from both countries, increased trade and more tourism. Americans especially favor intergovernmental talks, though only a bare majority favors more tourism.


6. Iran's Nuclear Energy Program
An overwhelming majority of Iranians believe that it is very important for Iran to have a full-fuel-cycle nuclear program. Majorities cite as key reasons for having such a capacity: securing Iran’s energy needs, enhancing Iran’s national technical competence, enhancing Iran’s great power status, preserving Iran’s rights to nuclear energy under the NPT, and preventing other countries from trying to economically and politically dominate Iran. Iranians express substantial concern about the potential for disruption in the supply of energy and enthusiastically support nuclear energy as a safe and important source of electricity. Americans have an even higher level of concern about possible disruptions in the energy supply, but resist the building of new nuclear power plants.

7. Nuclear Weapons and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
A large majority of Iranians support Iran's participation in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) which prohibits Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Only a small minority favors withdrawing from the NPT. Large majorities also support a Middle East nuclear free zone, and the ultimate elimination of all nuclear weapons. However a large majority thinks that there are countries with secret nuclear weapons programs, and that in the future there will be more countries with nuclear weapons. Iranians are divided about whether at some point in the future Iran will decide to acquire nuclear weapons, with many expressing uncertainty. Americans concur with Iranians in their support for the NPT regime including the elimination of all nuclear weapons, and agree that there are countries secretly acquiring nuclear weapons. However, a very large majority of Americans believe that Iran will eventually acquire nuclear weapons.

8. Negotiations over Iran's Nuclear Program
Iranians show strong resistance to negotiating away the ability to enrich uranium, rejecting as insignificant a wide array of possible incentives that could be provided by the United States and other countries. Americans showed a readiness to provide some incentives but not others. Iranians and Americans are divided about the likelihood of this dispute leading to a military conflict, but Americans are a bit more likely to believe that military conflict will occur. A majority of Americans would be willing to allow Iran to enrich uranium if Iran agrees to limit its uranium enrichment programs to the low levels necessary for nuclear energy and to give UN inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities to ensure that such limits are respected. [complete article]
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Smears for fears
By Matthew Yglesias, The American Prospect, January 23, 2007

Retired General Wesley Clark is, like me, concerned that the Bush administration is going to launch a war with Iran. Arianna Huffington spoke to him in early January and asked why he was so worried the administration was headed in this direction. According to Huffington's January 4 recounting of Clark's thoughts, he said this: "You just have to read what's in the Israeli press. The Jewish community is divided but there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers."

This, of course, is true. I'm Jewish and I don't think the United States should bomb Iran, but Thursday night I was talking to a Jewish friend and she does think the United States should bomb Iran. The Jewish community, in short, is divided on the issue. It's also true that most major American Jewish organizations cater to the views of extremely wealthy major donors whose political views are well to the right of the bulk of American Jews, one of the most liberal ethnic groups in the country. Furthermore, it's true that major Jewish organizations are trying to push the country into war. And, last, it's true that if you read the Israeli press you'll see that right-wing Israeli politicians are anticipating a military confrontation with Iran. (For example, here's an article about the timing of the selection of a new top dog in the Israeli Defense Forces; Benjamin Netanyahu is quoted as saying that the new leader "will have to straighten the army out, rebuild Israel's deterrence and prepare the defenses against threats, first and foremost, against Iran.")

Everything Clark said, in short, is true. What's more, everybody knows it's true. The worst that can truthfully be said about Clark is that he expressed himself in a slightly odd way. This, it seems clear, he did because it's a sensitive issue and he worried that if he spoke plainly he'd be accused of trafficking in anti-Semitism. So he spoke unclearly and, for his trouble, got ... accused of trafficking in anti-Semitism. [complete article]
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On the edge of civil war: the Cedar Revolution goes south
By Trish Shuh, Counterpunch, January 23, 2007

I asked one Christian Aoun supporter if the Opposition was so sure of support and committed to democracy, why didn't they just wait until the next elections and vote the March 14th movement out of office then?

Mary, who didn't want to give her last name, claimed that government corruption was so bad the nation couldn't survive three more years of it. "I hated Hariri. Many people here hated Hariri. Hariri brought us to this crisis. When he came to power in the early 1990's Lebanon's national debt was 1 billion USD. Now it will soon be $45 billion. When they tell you he was an enemy of Syria- don't believe them. He worked with corrupt Syrians to exploit Lebanon. In 2001, he even gave the Golden Key of the city of Beirut to Syria's agent in Lebanon, Ghazi Kenaan. They worked together. Now we have Saad Al Hariri..."

I also talked with a restaurant manager on posh Marad Street at the heart of Hariri country, Solidere. He said his shop was deserted because of the political situation in Beirut. I asked if what the IDF did not destroy militarily, Hezbollah/Aoun protests would end up destroying economically?

"No," said Tawfiq, who claimed government Ministers' infighting was the main problem. Each faction fought for their own benefit at the expense of the country. "We have a big, big problem with the government here," he said. "But we know who is behind all this... We are 18 different religious groups and we have to get together or we are going down... "

Tawfiq, who recently had hair to his waist but cut it after a drunk driving accident on his motorcycle, invited me for cocktails and bragged about frequenting the wildest nightclubs in town. He disputed that Hezbollah would, or even could, turn Lebanon into an Islamic Republic like Iran. "I like my scotch & Pepsi too much, followed with rose' wine." [complete article]

Hezbollah leads a fiery strike
By Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, January 24, 2007

Opposition leaders hailed the success of a one-day strike that, by choice or circumstance, closed shops, shut schools, emptied streets of traffic and blocked key roads to the airport and seaport on the Mediterranean. Government supporters spoke darkly of a coup d'etat, warning that the violence would only escalate, and some suggested that elements within the military might be complicit.

"If it goes on like this, nobody will be able to do anything. The government will have to step down," said Mohammed Harb, a 20-year-old Hezbollah supporter, standing at a fiery barricade that blocked six armored personnel carriers from passing. "And what's beautiful? It's not just Beirut. We've shut down all of Lebanon."

Siniora, who was scheduled to travel to Paris for the international conference, remained in Beirut and delivered an address on national television Tuesday evening. He promised to stand firm against what he called "intimidation" and said the military should permit "no flexibility or compromise" in keeping the peace.

More than a fight between a government and its opposition, the struggle here pits two camps that roughly divide the country in half, each sensing the other's victory as an existential threat. The divisions are as diverse as Lebanon itself, with its 18 religious sects: whether the government's patrons in the United States and France will have a greater say here, or Hezbollah's allies in Iran and Syria; what posture the country will take toward Israel; which sect -- Sunni or Shiite Muslim -- will be decisive in politics. [complete article]

See also, Six dead in wake of Lebanon strike (Al Jazeera) and Warning of new Lebanon protests (BBC).
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U.S. stages 2nd airstrike in Somalia; Ethiopians leaving capital
By Karen DeYoung and Stephanie McCrummen, Washington Post, January 24, 2007

A U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship staged an airstrike against suspected al-Qaeda operatives in southern Somalia on Monday, the second such attack this month, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

There was no immediate information on specific targets or the strike's results. The United States has said that at least three senior al-Qaeda operatives were being sheltered by the Islamic Courts movement that was ousted from power in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, by the Ethiopian military last month.

Word of the new attack came the same day as a long line of Ethiopian artillery, armored vehicles and trucks loaded with soldiers rolled toward the edges of Mogadishu, beginning a withdrawal from a fragile capital that many residents fear will now slip further into chaos. [complete article]
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5 Americans killed in Iraq copter crash
By Qassim Abdul-Zahra, AP, January 24, 2007

Four of the five Americans killed when a U.S. security company's helicopter crashed in a dangerous Sunni neighborhood in central Baghdad were shot execution style in the back the head, an Iraqi military official said Wednesday.

The official -- who, like all others contacted, spoke on condition of anonymity because details had not been made public -- said the four were shot while on the ground. He gave no other details.

A U.S. official in Baghdad, however, had earlier said there was no information to substantiate the report that the bodies had been shot execution style. [complete article]

Iraq parliament finds a quorum hard to come by
By Damien Cave, New York Times, January 24, 2007

Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the speaker of Parliament, read a roll call of the 275 elected members with a goal of shaming the no-shows.

Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister? Absent, living in Amman and London. Adnan Pachachi, the octogenarian statesman? Also gone, in Abu Dhabi.

Others who failed to appear Monday included Saleh Mutlak, a senior Sunni legislator; several Shiites and Kurds; and Ayad al-Samaraei, chairman of the finance committee, whose absence led Mr. Mashhadani to ask: "When will he be back? After we approve the budget?"

It was a joke barbed with outrage. Parliament in recent months has been at a standstill. Nearly every session since November has been adjourned because as few as 65 members made it to work, even as they and the absentees earned salaries and benefits worth about $120,000. [complete article]

Iraq struggles to finish oil law
By Steven Mufson, Washington Post, January 24, 2007

Four months ago, about 80 oil company executives and consultants packed an office on St. James's Square in London for a briefing on exploration prospects in Iraq's Kurdish region and a Kurdish draft of an Iraqi national petroleum law.

Despite the immense risks of working in Iraq -- pipeline explosions, kidnappings, insurgency, political infighting -- the oil company executives were lured by the potential rewards, which are immense, too. Outside Saudi Arabia, no country has proven oil reserves as big as Iraq's. And the oil there is high quality, easy and cheap to produce, and bottled up in reservoirs that many major oil companies were familiar with three decades ago before wars and sanctions drove them out.

"Exxon Mobil has more seismic data on Iraq than on Houston real estate," says Fadel Gheit, an oil analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. who used to work for Mobil. "If Exxon had security on the ground, the following day it would have crews there," Gheit said. "And money would be no object." [complete article]
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A no-brainer for American Jews
By Akiva Eldar, Haaretz, January 24, 2007

Dr. Saeb Erekat relates that when Bill Clinton visited Israel in 2004 in honor of Shimon Peres' 80th birthday, he had a chance to ask the former U.S. president why he blamed Yasser Arafat for the failure of the Camp David talks. Clinton, Erekat says, said Ehud Barak told him that if he blamed the Palestinians, it would help him (Barak) win the elections.

The smell of elections hovered over the July 2000 Camp David talks. Not only - and not even primarily - the smell of elections in Israel. The only journalist invited to interview President Clinton during the talks was from Newsday. Clinton did not invite the correspondent to tell him about the important talks on Middle East peace. He wanted to tell the paper's Jewish readers why they could not manage without his wife in the Senate. [complete article]
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Jimmy Carter's 'peace' mission to Brandeis
By Michael Powell, Washington Post, January 24, 2007

Fourteen members of the board of the Carter Center at Emory University in Atlanta recently resigned in protest, and several expressed particular disappointment with the use of the word "apartheid."

Carter did not step back from the word Tuesday. He noted that he and his successors, notably Bill Clinton, have tried and failed to nudge the Palestinians and Israelis toward a lasting peace. The last six years, he said, have been marked by failure on all sides. The administration of George W. Bush all but abandoned such efforts, putting the onus on the Palestinians to turn their back on PLO leaders and now the fundamentalist Islamic Hamas leadership. And the Israelis, too, have all but abandoned negotiation, he said, turning instead to the building of walls.

Carter spoke of Israeli's decision to build barriers and set aside certain highways for Israelis only as creating a "spider web" that constricts and divides historic Arab lands. The West Bank, he said, has become a place of "Bantustans, isolated cantons," referring to the territories created for black South Africans under apartheid. He noted that many liberal Israelis, from newspaper journalists to professors to peace activists, also refer to Israeli policy on the West Bank as apartheid, albeit a policy grounded not in racism but in a religion-based desire to control land. [complete article]

See also, Carter wins over student crowd at Brandeis, receives ovation (The Forward).
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One day was more than enough
By Rym Ghazal, Daily Star, January 24, 2007

The Hizbullah-led opposition's general strike against the government on Tuesday led to a nationwide protest that paralyzed the country and left its capital engulfed in barricades of blazing tires and bloodied by clashes that left at least three dead and over 130 wounded.

Late Tuesday, the opposition announced that it would lift its strike. Prior to the announcement, however, the man whom the crippling protest was aimed at unseating - Prime Minister Fouad Siniora - issued a brief, firm address to the nation in which he stood his ground and announced he would remain in office, even as the country appeared to be drawing to the verge of another civil war. [complete article]
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The new cold war in Lebanon and Palestine
By Rami G. Khouri, Daily Star, January 23, 2007

Lebanon and Palestine are the most dramatic examples of the new ideological battle that now defines much of the Middle East, where local players and medium-strength regional powers often interact with one another in parallel with foreign powers' interests and goals. While tensions were increasing in Beirut last weekend in anticipation of Tuesday's nationwide strike action by the Hizbullah-led opposition against the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, in Damascus the leaders of the two leading Palestinian political groups, Hamas and Fatah, were meeting under Syrian auspices to try and solve their dispute over who rules Palestine and defines its foreign policy vis-a-vis Israel.

If you were too young to remember the Cold War, study this dynamic closely, because it is a miniature version of the former global contest. It is possible that the Middle East-anchored new cold war we are living through these days may persist for many years, or it may be over in two or three years, depending on how both sides harness and use their competitive assets. For now, we can only identify some of the new rules and realities of the regional confrontation. [complete article]
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General calls Iraq situation 'dire'
By John Holusha, New York Times, January 23, 2007

"The situation in Iraq is dire," Lt. Gen. David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee today. But he said the planned increase in troop levels and new tactics should enable American and Iraqi forces to provide security in Baghdad.

Nominated by President Bush to take over command of United States forces in Iraq and needing Senate confirmation for promotion to the rank required for the post, General Petraeus faced questioning this morning that was friendly on the personal level but showed clear differences over policy toward Iraq.

General Petraeus warned the senators on the committee not to expect any quick turnaround in the situation in Baghdad, where simple survival, he said, is the main objective of most people. Because of the violence, the Iraqi government "has found it difficult to gain traction," he said at the hearing. [complete article]
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Crackdown 'nets 600 Sadr forces'
BBC News, January 23, 2007

About 600 fighters and 16 leaders of the radical Shia militia, the Mehdi Army, have been captured by security forces in Iraq, the US military says.

The statement said 52 operations had been conducted in 45 days targeting the militia, which is loyal to Najaf-based cleric Moqtada Sadr. [complete article]
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Scant evidence found of Iran-Iraq arms link
By Alexandra Zavis and Greg Miller, Los Angeles Times, January 23, 2007

If there is anywhere Iran could easily stir up trouble in Iraq, it would be in Diyala, a rugged province along the border between the two nations.

The combination of Sunni Arab militants believed to be affiliated with Al Qaeda and Shiite Muslim militiamen with ties to Iran has fueled waves of sectarian and political violence here. The province is bisected by long-traveled routes leading from Iran to Baghdad and Shiite holy cities farther south in Iraq.

But even here, evidence of Iranian involvement in Iraq's troubles is limited. U.S. troops have found mortars and antitank mines with Iranian markings dated 2006, said U.S. Army Col. David W. Sutherland, who oversees the province. But there has been little sign of more advanced weaponry crossing the border, and no Iranian agents have been found.

In his speech this month outlining the new U.S. strategy in Iraq, President Bush promised to "seek out and destroy" Iranian networks that he said were providing "advanced weaponry and training to our enemies." He is expected to strike a similar note in tonight's State of the Union speech.

For all the aggressive rhetoric, however, the Bush administration has provided scant evidence to support these claims. Nor have reporters traveling with U.S. troops seen extensive signs of Iranian involvement. During a recent sweep through a stronghold of Sunni insurgents here, a single Iranian machine gun turned up among dozens of arms caches U.S. troops uncovered. British officials have similarly accused Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs, but say they have not found Iranian-made weapons in areas they patrol. [complete article]

Comment -- This lack of evidence merely demonstrates that the Bush administration operates as it always has. This is government by conviction. First comes the belief, then a half-hearted effort to find tangible proof that the belief is well-founded. And that effort isn't for the sake of testing the belief -- it's done in the vain hope that there might be something to throw at the skeptics. ("See, we found some millings from an Iranian lathe, there was the aroma of Iranian gasoline in the air, the tiremarks from an Iranian truck -- just connect the dots and it's clear that there's a massive operation going on here!")

Like all other forms of faith, it is the empowerment that comes out of being a true believer that counts. If you can enjoy freedom from the torment of doubt and experience solidarity with those who share your convictions, why worry about what anyone else thinks. Their troubles are the troubles of the faithless.

To understand that there is a threat coming from Iran, all you have to know is one thing: it's Iran. It's those dang Eye-ranians, goddammit!
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Iranian sees border danger
By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times, January 23, 2007

A ranking Iranian diplomat on Monday said the chaos of Iraq was spilling over into his country, spreading a destabilizing influence to its Arab population.

The assertion by Mohammad Reza Baghban, the Iranian consul in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, runs counter to the Bush administration analysis that violence and instability flow the opposite direction — from Tehran to Baghdad.

"If you take a look at the discoveries of the Iranian police, you will find arms, ammunitions and other illegal equipment smuggled from Iraq to Khuzistan and other Iranian provinces," Baghban said in a rare interview. [complete article]
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Iran bars inspectors; cleric criticizes president
By Nazila Fathi, New York Times, January 23, 2007

Iran is barring 38 nuclear agency inspectors from entering the country in retaliation for a United Nations resolution aiming to curb Iran's nuclear program, a senior Iranian lawmaker said Monday.

The announcement came only days after Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, Iran's most senior dissident cleric, criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's defiant stance against the West on the nuclear issue in a speech on Friday, calling it provocative. His comments were the first direct public attack on the president's nuclear policy by such a senior cleric.

The two developments suggest an increasingly open debate within Iran over how forcefully to confront the West over Iran's nuclear ambitions, even as its government continues to defend them.

Two hard-line newspapers, including one owned by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have already called for the president to stay out of all nuclear matters. Ayatollah Montazeri said Iran has the right to nuclear technology but questioned the way Mr. Ahmadinejad has confronted the West. [complete article]
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Father of dead West Bank girl seeks peace with Israelis
By Greg Myre, New York Times, January 23, 2007

Even as Bassam Aramin mourns his 10-year-old daughter, killed last week during a clash between stone-throwing Palestinian youths and the Israeli police, he says he wants to talk to Israelis about making peace.

It has been a long journey for Mr. Aramin, 38, a former Palestinian fighter. He spent seven years in Israeli jails, from 1986 to 1993, for weapons possession and for belonging to the Fatah movement, which was banned at the time.

But his views gradually changed, and for the past two years he has been an active member of Combatants for Peace, a group of former Palestinian militants and former Israeli soldiers who have teamed up to urge reconciliation to both sides. [complete article]
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Rape charge for Israeli president
CNN, January 23, 2007

Israel's President Moshe Katsav will be indicted on rape charges, the Israeli Justice Ministry said Tuesday.

Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz determined that there is enough evidence to charge Katsav with the crimes, which stem from allegations from four women who worked for the Israeli president, the ministry said.

Three months ago, Mazuz recommended Katsav temporarily step down as president -- a mostly ceremonial position in Israel's government -- as he considered a number of charges against Katsav, including rape, indecent assault, and sexual harassment. [complete article]

MKs from across political spectrum urge Katsav to resign after indictment decision
By Gideon Alon, Haaretz, January 23, 2007

Members of Knesset from across the political spectrum on Tuesday called on President Moshe Katsav to resign, following Attorney General Menachem Mazuz's decision to charge him with sexual crimes, including rape.

MK Ran Cohen (Meretz) said that Mazuz's decision to indictment "does not leave President Katsav with a single moment of grace in his position. He must resign immediately, now that he has humiliated the institution of the presidency and the public."

MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) also called on the president to resign immediately, to "put an end to the disgraceful spectacle of a suspect charged with such grave offenses continuing to stand at the head of the presidential institution." [complete article]
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What's happening in Lebanon?
By Paul Woodward, The War in Context, January 23, 2007

Read the CNN headline, "Hezbollah-led protesters shut Lebanon down," or listen to the State Department's Nicholas Burns express U.S. support for "the elected government," and there's only one conclusion we are supposed to draw: Those anti-Western, pro-Syrian Islamists are trying to launch a coup.

Certainly this is the culmination of a campaign to change the balance of power in Lebanon -- so was the much celebrated "Cedar Revolution." The issue from the American perspective is not why people are taking to the streets but whether they are pro-Western. If they are, then, ipso facto, their action is part of the tide of democratic change. If they are not, then they present "a threat to democracy."

In Lebanon, an awkward wrinkle to what's currently happening is that the protesters aren't all Shiites - they also include the Maronite Christian supporters of Michel Aoun.

"Christians and Muslims unite in fight for representative government." That could be the headline but since such a government would not show deference to either America or Israel's desires, that's not the narrative we are allowed to hear.

As for why Christians have joined ranks with Hezbollah, we're told that this all comes down to the presidential ambitions of Michel Aoun. Yet look at what Israel, with U.S. support last summer, did to Haret Hreik, the poor mixed Christian and Muslim suburb of South Beirut where Aoun was born. It shouldn't be too hard to see why his sympathies are not aligned with Western powers right now.

This is the view of Haret Hreik before July, 2006.

This is the view after it was decimated by Israeli bombing.

The residents of Haret Hreik have a government that is more interested in pleasing its Western friends than representing the interests of their people. Don't the people deserve better?

For more news and commentary from Hezbollah's perspective, see Promise. For the pro-Hariri, pro-Western angle, see Ya Libnan.
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Talking to Tehran
CF Report, Conflicts Forum, January 22, 2007

For several months now, the United States and Israel have promoted what could be described as a two-tiered narrative in confronting Iran. That coming from the U.S. government has catered to the "quality" press, while that from Israel has aimed straight for the tabloid headlines. The administration line has been measured, rational, yet uncompromising. Condoleezza Rice has insisted that Iran must live up to its international obligations and curtail its nuclear enrichment program even while she reiterates the United States' desire to find a diplomatic resolution to its differences with the Islamic state. Israel's warnings, on the other hand -- which have been voiced most insistently and alarmingly by Likud leader, Benjamin Netnayahu -- suggest that unless Iran's nuclear ambitions are thwarted, a second Holocaust is imminent. [complete article]
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Confidence in Bush leadership continues to drop, poll finds
By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen, Washington Post, January 22, 2007

President Bush will deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday at the weakest point of his presidency, with dissatisfaction over his Iraq war policies continuing to rise and confidence in his leadership continuing to decline, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

With a major confrontation between Congress and the president brewing over Iraq, Americans overwhelmingly oppose Bush's plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to the conflict. By wide margins, they prefer that congressional Democrats, who now hold majorities in both chambers, take the lead in setting the direction for the country rather than the president.

Iraq dominates the national agenda, with 48 percent of Americans calling the war the single most important issue they want Bush and the Congress to deal with this year. No other issue rises out of single digits. [complete article]

Intelligence community to Congress: "The dog ate my national intelligence estimate"
By Ken Silverstein, Harper's, January 21, 2007

Back in July, I reported that, in spite of pressure from CIA analysts, intelligence czar John Negroponte was blocking a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq. The CIA describes an NIE as "the most authoritative written judgment concerning a national security issue," and a fresh one was badly needed because the last one on Iraq, which was compiled between 2004 and 2006 and leaked to the New York Times last September, had become outdated. Negroponte was said to fear that given the worsening situation in Iraq a new NIE would, of necessity, be deeply pessimistic, and that such an assessment might get leaked and embarrass the Bush Administration during last fall's elections.

Soon after that story was posted, six U.S. senators called for a new NIE on Iraq, and in August the Senate passed an amendment demanding that one be prepared. I've just learned that—months later and to the immense frustration of Congress—the new NIE is still not ready. [complete article]
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War's Arab supporters bitter over its results
By Anthony Shadid, Washington Post, January 22, 2007

With a certain satisfaction, Lebanese journalist Michael Young watched a local station broadcast images seen across the world on April 9, 2003: the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Firdaus Square, its reverberations rumbling across a stunned Middle East. Out of curiosity, he switched to a satellite station from Syria. It was showing a documentary on a venerable Damascene mosque. He flipped to another channel, where a former Egyptian general was dismissing the idea that day that the Iraqi capital had even fallen.

"If they were scared of what was happening in Baghdad, there was more power in this moment than might have been expected. The regimes were truly scared of this moment, truly scared," recalled Young, the opinion editor of the Daily Star in Beirut.

"The problem is," he added, "the Americans failed."

The coterie of Arabs who supported the U.S.-led invasion were never the target of expensive American propaganda efforts. Their unpopular stands in the Arab world earned them inboxes full of angry e-mails; a few claimed they got death threats. And nearly four years after the invasion they backed, their sense of frustration, resentment and even betrayal speaks volumes about how withered American standing is in the Middle East today and how far the region itself has deteriorated, riven as it is by escalating conflicts, worsening sectarian tension and a simmering struggle with an ascendant Iran. [complete article]

Rice's rhetoric, in full retreat
By Jackson Diehl, Washington Post, January 22, 2007

Eleven months ago Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held a joint news conference with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit to report on their talks in Cairo. After Aboul Gheit summed up the topics, Rice pointed out that he had forgotten one: "Iran. You missed Iran." She then spent most of her time on Egypt's progress -- or lack of it -- "as it faces questions of democracy and reform."

Last week Aboul Gheit and Rice again appeared side by side, this time in the Egyptian tourist capital, Luxor. Once again each offered a summary of the talks -- which this year, unlike last, included President Hosni Mubarak. This time Iran loomed large in their discussions, as did Iraq. But it was Rice who neglected to mention something: "democracy and reform." During the course of her visit to Egypt, and her latest tour through the Middle East, the words never publicly crossed her lips.

The reversal this represents is staggering -- especially to Egyptians who have closely tracked Rice's visits to their country. After all, her first notable act on moving to the State Department two years ago was to cancel a visit to Egypt in order to signal U.S. displeasure with the arrest of one of the country's leading liberal democratic politicians, Ayman Nour. Thanks in part to Rice's gesture, Nour was released and Mubarak announced a multicandidate election for president in which Nour was eligible to participate. [complete article]
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Richard Perle: U.S. will attack Iran if it obtains nukes
By Yossi Melman and Mazal Mualem, Haaretz, January 22, 2007

President George Bush will order an attack on Iran if it becomes clear to him that Iran is set to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities while he is still in office, Richard Perle told the Herzliya Conference on Sunday. Perle is close to the Bush administration, particularly to Vice President Richard Cheney.

The leading neoconservative and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute addressed the session on Iran's nuclear program. He said that the present policy of attempting to impose sanctions on Iran will not cause it to abandon its nuclear aspirations, and unless stopped the country will become a nuclear power. [complete article]

See also, Israelis prepare public for conflict with 'genocidal' Iranian regime (The Independent).
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Israelis, Jimmy Carter and Apartheid
By Tony Karon, Rootless Cosmopolitan, January 22, 2007

Jimmy Carter has been branded as everything from an agent of Saudi Arabia to a cyrpto anti-Semite in a campaign of unprecedented hysteria by a Zionist establishment desperate to squelch any discussion in America of the moral implications of Israel's apartheid policies in the West Bank and Gaza. So what, one imagines, would the same apparatus of Orwellian obfuscation, denial and diversion make of Tommy Lapid. Never mind apartheid, Lapid last week compared the actions of the Hebron settlers who regularly and viciously abuse the town's Palestinian majority to the behavior of European anti-Semites in the early Nazi era. It's entirely appropriate that someone draw attention to the vicious racism of the Hebron settlers, but you'd imagine the Alan Dershowitz-Marty Peretz crowd would turn its talk show artillery on anyone comparing Israelis to Nazis and their ilk. Except that Tommy Lapid was a member of Ariel Sharon's cabinet, and is currently the chairman of the council of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum. [complete article]

Peretz: Abusive settler can destroy gestures to Palestinians
By Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz, January 22, 2007

Defense Minister Amir Peretz warned Monday that Israel's gestures to the Palestinians are meaningless in the face of the abuse inflicted by a settler on her neighbors in Hebron, referring to footage of such abuse recently aired on television.

Addressing the annual Herzliya Conference, Peretz said that "Israel is fighting against terror, not against the Palestinian people," and said that he has instructed to ease travel restrictions in the West Bank.

"I have taken significant measures that include less strict searches at roadblocks and the opening of additional terminals. It has an impact on the sense of cooperation. We have changed our search policy at roadblocks. But it all dwarfs in comparison to footage of a settler who curses and humiliates a Palestinian family," Peretz told the conference. [complete article]

Comment -- The headline should read "...empty gestures..." Buried in the second half of the article is a report that IDF "removal" of roadblocks -- one of Israel's recent "gestures" that was supposed to signal an ease on restrictions imposed on Palestinians -- turned out to be a sham:
Peretz's comments came a day after the Israel Defense Forces admitted Sunday that the 44 dirt obstacles it said had been removed from around West Bank villages did not actually exist.

Solana shocked at growth of Israeli settlements in West Bank
Haaretz, January 22, 2007

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana Sunday urged Israel to freeze West Bank settlements and stop constructing the security fence. He hoped "the realities on the ground" brought about by Jewish settlement building would not "prevent a two-state solution from happening."

Solana said that on a tour he held on Saturday in West Bank Arab towns on Jerusalem's eastern slopes, he was struck by the growth of settlements and the defense barrier cutting into land that Palestinians want for a state.

"I had the opportunity to make a tour along the eastern part of Jerusalem and go to Abu Dis and its surroundings. You get really very shocked every time you go and you see the situation worse, the wall is more extended and settlements are more extended," Solana told reporters in Amman. [complete article]

Palestinian PM says U.S. aims to topple his govt
By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Reuters, January 22, 2007

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas said on Sunday the United States was determined to bring down his government despite the Islamist group's standing offer of a long-term truce with Israel.

Haniyeh, speaking before talks in Damascus between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, reiterated that any such accommodation with Israel did not entail recognition of the Jewish state.

"We accept a Palestinian state on the lands (Israel) occupied in 1967, but in return for a long-term truce and not recognition," Haniyeh said in a speech. [complete article]
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Disguises used in attack on troops
By Ernesto Londono, Washington Post, January 22, 2007

The armored sport-utility vehicles whisked into a government compound in the city of Karbala with speed and urgency, the way most Americans and foreign dignitaries travel along Iraq's treacherous roads these days.

Iraqi guards at checkpoints waved them through Saturday afternoon because the men wore what appeared to be legitimate U.S. military uniforms and badges, and drove cars commonly used by foreigners, the provincial governor said.

Once inside, however, the men unleashed one of the deadliest and most brazen attacks on U.S. forces in a secure area. Five American service members were killed in a hail of grenades and gunfire in a breach of security that Iraqi officials called unprecedented. [complete article]

Bombs kill at least 78 people in Baghdad
By Sinan Salaheddin, AP, January 22, 2007

At least 78 people were killed and more than 150 wounded Monday after two nearly simultaneous bombs struck a predominantly Shiite commercial area in central Baghdad in the deadliest attack in two months, officials said.

The U.S. military reported the deaths of two Marines in a particularly bloody weekend for American forces in Iraq -- a total of 27 dead in just two days.

Monday's first blast, a parked car bomb, tore through stalls of vendors peddling DVDs and secondhand clothes shortly after noon in the Bab al-Sharqi market between Tayaran and Tahrir squares -- one of the busiest parts of Baghdad. Seconds later, a suicide car bomber drove into the crowd. [complete article]

Southern tribes add to Iraqi resistance
By Dahr Jamail and Ali al-Fadhily, Asia Times, January 23, 2007

Violence is spreading further across Iraq, as Shi'ite Arab tribes in the south begin to engage occupation forces in new armed resistance.

Resistance in the southern parts of Iraq has been escalating over the past three months, leading to increased casualties among British and other occupation forces.

In the past seven months, at least 25 British soldiers have been killed in southern Iraq, with at least as many wounded, according to the independent website Iraq Coalition Casualties. So far at least 129 British soldiers have died in Iraq, the most recent being on Sunday. More than 120 soldiers of other nationalities have also been killed, most of whom have been stationed in southern Iraq. Casualties earlier were far lower.

Attacks against occupation forces appear to stem more from a growing nationalism. "This is not about vengeance," a former Iraqi Army officer from Kut, 200 kilometers south of Baghdad, said in the capital. "People have lost hope in the US-led occupation's promises, and they are thinking of saving the country from Iranian influence, which has been supported, or at least allowed, by the multinational forces." [complete article]
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Vision of rebuilding Lebanon wanes
By Hassan M. Fattah, New York Times, January 22, 2007

In August, Mohammed al-Seyed watched with some pride as tractors driven by Hezbollah men rolled in to begin scooping away the rubble and debris of a month of war with Israel, while engineers and others set to work.

This Hezbollah stronghold would soon rise again, the leaders of both the town and the militant group's building arm, Construction Jihad, said defiantly.

More than five months later, however, with winter here and Lebanon's government enmeshed in political crisis, the tractors are gone, the army of men has disappeared and Bint Jbail's town center still resembles Dresden after World War II. [complete article]
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In Somalia, new government faces old problem: clans
By Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times, January 21, 2007

Somalia's main clans are divided into a dizzying number of subclans, sub-subclans and even sub-sub-subclans, and the term clan is loosely used for large family networks, like the Hawiye, and smaller ones, like the Ayr.

There is no definitive clan chart, with different clans disputing how they are interrelated, and Somalis argue over whether they have physical differences. But all clans are based on ancient genealogies. You cannot join a clan. You are born into one.

The Islamists, who seized power six months ago, had their own solution for this. They tried to submerge clan identities under the blanket of Islam, the one thing, besides language, that all Somalis share. They delivered more stability to Mogadishu in their short reign than the city had seen for a decade and a half. [complete article]

See also, From Marine to warlord (LAT).
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Iran's strongman loses grip as ayatollah offers nuclear deal
By Marie Colvin and Leila Asgharzadeh, The Sunday Times, January 21, 2007

Iran's supreme leader is considering a change of policy on the country's nuclear programme in an effort to defuse growing tension with the West, according to senior sources in Tehran.

Alarmed by mounting US pressure and United Nations sanctions, officials close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei favour the appointment of a more moderate team for international negotiations on the supervision of its nuclear facilities.

The move would be a snub to the bellicose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose threats to destroy Israel have left Iran increasingly isolated and facing a serious economic downturn.

Tehran sources said the impetus for a policy switch was coming from Khamenei, who has ultimate power over Iran's foreign policy, security and armed forces.

Khamenei is said to believe that Washington’s aim is not only to halt Iran’s nuclear programme but to overthrow the regime.

He also considers the national interest is being undermined by an inexperienced president whose rhetoric is unnecessarily inflammatory.

Under proposals now being debated, an international group made up of the permanent five members of the UN security council, plus Germany or a nuclear power such as India, would oversee and monitor Iran's nuclear programme.

Washington may judge this too little, too late. But European negotiators would be expected to regard such a move as a significant step towards reopening talks about the programme. Tehran insists it is for civilian power but the West believes it is aimed at creating nuclear weapons. [complete article]

Comment -- Yet again, one has to ask, will the White House's own inflexibility render it incapable of recognizing a new opportunity? Or is Bush ready to shock the world and do his own Nixon-goes-to-China by making the centerpiece of the upcoming State of the Union an announcement of his desire to go to Tehran? With Cheney muttering in the background, "The regime's in its last throes," I guess it's too much to hope for such a surprise.
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Pakistani role seen in Taliban surge at border
By Carlotta Gall, New York Times, January 21, 2007

The most explosive question about the Taliban resurgence here along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is this: Have Pakistani intelligence agencies been promoting the Islamic insurgency?

The government of Pakistan vehemently rejects the allegation and insists that it is fully committed to help American and NATO forces prevail against the Taliban militants who were driven from power in Afghanistan in 2001.

Western diplomats in both countries and Pakistani opposition figures say that Pakistani intelligence agencies -- in particular the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence and Military Intelligence -- have been supporting a Taliban restoration, motivated not only by Islamic fervor but also by a longstanding view that the jihadist movement allows them to assert greater influence on Pakistan’s vulnerable western flank.

More than two weeks of reporting along this frontier, including dozens of interviews with residents on each side of the porous border, leaves little doubt that Quetta is an important base for the Taliban, and found many signs that Pakistani authorities are encouraging the insurgents, if not sponsoring them. [complete article]

More evidence of Taliban leader hiding in Pakistan
By David Montero, Christian Science Monitor, January 19, 2007

Mullah Muhammed Omar, the Taliban's one-eyed leader, eluded capture when American bombs ended his fundamentalist regime in Afghanistan in 2001. But a new report of his location is stirring an international uproar.

A captured Taliban spokesman says Mr. Omar is hiding in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan's Balochistan Province, under the protection of Pakistan's intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Abul Haq Haqiq, also known as Dr. Mohammad Hanif, made the statements in a video-taped interrogation released by Afghan intelligence on Wednesday, following his arrest while crossing from Pakistan into the Afghan province of Nangarhar.

Hanif's claims are the latest in a stream of international criticism of Pakistan. Afghanistan officials, including President Hamid Karzai, have accused Pakistan of harboring Omar, and news of his whereabouts – credible or not – is amplifying questions about Pakistan's commitment to the war on terror, analysts say. [complete article]
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At least 27 U.S. troops killed in Iraq over weekend
By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times, January 21, 2007

At least 27 U.S. troops were killed in a helicopter crash and insurgent attacks across Iraq over the weekend in one of the deadliest stretches for the American military here in nearly two years.

The surge in fatalities comes just days before President Bush's State of the Union address, which is likely to inject a note of urgency into the debate over his Iraq policy.

The weekend's deadliest episode was the crash of a Black Hawk helicopter northeast of Baghdad on Saturday afternoon, killing all 12 U.S. soldiers aboard. The military initially had said 13 were killed but revised it to 12 early today. [complete article]
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Iraq Shi'ites reach political deal
By Aseel Kami, Reuters, January 21, 2007

The political movement of Iraqi cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr said it would end a two-month boycott of parliament on Sunday, smoothing over a rift with its Shi'ite allies in the U.S.-backed government.

The political reconciliation with a group viewed with suspicion in Washington came the day after U.S. forces suffered one of their deadliest days in Iraq. A total of 19 soldiers were killed, including 12 on a helicopter and five in a clash in a Shi'ite holy city that the U.S. military blamed on militiamen.

Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been under pressure to crack down on the Mehdi Army, a militia loyal to Sadr that the United States sees as the biggest threat to security in Iraq. But his past dependence on Sadr's political support has made that difficult. [complete article]
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On the air, the voice of Sunni rebels in Iraq
By Marc Santora and Damien Cave, New York Times, January 21, 2007

The video starts with a young American soldier patrolling an Iraqi street. His head is obscured by leaves, so a red target is digitally inserted to draw the viewer's eye. A split second later, the soldier collapses, shot. Martial music kicks in, a jihadi answer to John Philip Sousa. The time and place of the attack scrolls at the bottom of the screen.

Such tapes, along with images of victims of Shiite militias and unflattering coverage of Shiite leaders, are beaming across Iraq and much of the Middle East 24 hours a day, broadcast by a banned Iraqi satellite television station that has become a major information center for the Sunni insurgency -- and the focus of a cat-and-mouse hunt that has exasperated and infuriated American and Iraqi forces.

Making the situation even more galling for the authorities, American and Iraqi officials say that money stolen from the United States probably helps pay for the station.

"They do not have programs but buffoonery, blaspheming and support for terrorism," said Jalal al-Din al-Sagheer, a senior member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite party. "The source of funding for the channel is theft."

The channel's founder, Meshaan al-Juburi, is a former Sunni member of Parliament who was indicted last February on charges of embezzling millions of American dollars meant to pay for a vast pipeline protection force he had been assigned to help build with recruits from Salahuddin Province. He was accused of collecting salaries for thousands of soldiers who did not exist. [complete article]
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Embattled, Bush held to plan to salvage Iraq
By Michael Abramowitz and Peter Baker, Washington Post, January 21, 2007

A version of Maliki's surprise proposal during the Amman meeting turned out to be the major alternative considered by Bush, White House officials said. The plan called for ringing Baghdad with U.S. troops while Iraqi security forces fought the sectarian violence in the city. Other U.S. troops in the country would shift to the borders to keep Iranian and Syrian infiltrators out, leaving U.S. forces with one main combat mission -- attacking al-Qaeda elements in Anbar province in western Iraq.

The plan had the appeal of not pulling U.S. troops out of the country while still allowing Iraqis to settle their own differences. But Bush worried that such a move might mean losing the war.

"He became convinced that that was not sustainable," Hadley said in an interview. "Let's assume that the sectarian violence does escalate. Are the American military really going to stand outside the city while sectarian violence rages in Baghdad? I don't think so." [complete article]
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Kurdish Iraqi soldiers are deserting to avoid the conflict in Baghdad
By Leila Fadel and Yaseen Taha, McClatchy, January 19, 2007

As the Iraqi government attempts to secure a capital city ravaged by conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslim Arabs, its decision to bring a third party into the mix may cause more problems than peace.

Kurdish soldiers from northern Iraq, who are mostly Sunnis but not Arabs, are deserting the army to avoid the civil war in Baghdad, a conflict they consider someone else's problem.

The Iraqi army brigades being sent to the capital are filled with former members of a Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, and most of the soldiers remain loyal to the militia.

Much as Shiite militias have infiltrated the Iraqi security forces across Arab Iraq, the peshmerga fill the ranks of the Iraqi army in the Kurdish region in the north, poised to secure a semi-independent Kurdistan and seize oil-rich Kirkuk and parts of Mosul if Iraq falls apart. One thing they didn't bank on, they said, was being sent into the "fire" of Baghdad. [complete article]
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Abbas-Meshaal talks 'back on'
Al Jazeera, January 21, 2007

Talks aimed at ending the Palestinian power struggle between Mahmoud Abbas and the ruling Hamas party will go ahead in Damascus, a senior aide to the Palestinian president has said.

Abbas was due to have met Khaled Meshaal, the exiled leader of the Hamas movement on Saturday but the talks were postponed.

"The meeting between Mahmoud Abbas and Khaled Meshaal will take place tonight," Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, said. [complete article]
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The failure of an all-volunteer military
By Andrew J. Bacevich, Boston Globe, January 21, 2007

"War is the great auditor of institutions," the British historian Corelli Barnett has observed. In Iraq, the United States has undergone such an audit and been found wanting. The defects of basic US national security institutions stand exposed. Failure to correct those defects will only invite more Iraqs -- unnecessary wars that once begun prove unwinnable.

The essential guarantor of US national security is the all-volunteer force. In its hey day -- the 1990s -- the all-volunteer force underwrote America's claim to global preeminence. Its invincibility taken for granted, the volunteer force seemed a great bargain to boot. Maintaining the world's most powerful military establishment imposed a negligible burden on the average citizen. No wonder Americans viewed the volunteer military as the most successful federal reform program of the postwar era. What was there not to like?

In fact, questions of efficacy or economy did not figure significantly in the decision to create the all-volunteer force. Back in the early 1970s, the object of the exercise had been quite simple: to terminate an increasingly illegitimate reliance on conscription. During the Vietnam War, thanks in no small part to the draft, the armed services had become estranged from American society. The all-volunteer force creation severed relations altogether. [complete article]
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Mogadishu slides towards anarchy
By Mike Pflanz, The Sunday Telegraph, January 21, 2007

Mogadishu, Somalia's chaotic capital, is sliding back into anarchy after armed groups launched the latest in a series of hit-and-run rocket attacks yesterday.

The transitional government is struggling to take control, raising fears that the city faces a Baghdad-style insurgency which could claim the lives of hundreds of civilians.

In many places, a thin line of Ethiopian soldiers is all that stands between the government and a 3,500-strong rump of Islamist fighters, who escaped when their leaders fled in December.

Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, has said he will pull his troops out before the end of this month, creating fears of a power vacuum which could be filled, once again, by the well-armed Islamists. [complete article]

Somali journalist says U.S. troops seen in south
Reuters, January 21, 2007

A freelance journalist said on Sunday he had seen U.S. troops on the ground in south Somalia working with Ethiopian forces hunting fugitive Islamists.

"They were Americans, I have no doubt," the journalist said, referring to helicopters he saw overhead and personnel he bumped into with Ethiopian soldiers at a military base.

Rumors have swirled for days that U.S. personnel were inside Somalia since a January 8 air strike aimed at al Qaeda suspects believed to be among the Islamists. [complete article]
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Noteworthy articles from the last seven days:

The neoconservative blunder of the century
Paul Woodward, The War in Context, January 18, 2007

Some at Guantanamo mark 5 years in limbo
By Carol D. Leonnig and Julie Tate, Washington Post, January 16, 2007

U.S. lacks 'explosive' evidence against Iran
By Gareth Porter, IPS, January 18, 2007

Bush's new Iran policy - war plan or propaganda?
By Gareth Porter, IPS, January 15, 2007

Hangings fuel sectarian split across Mideast
By Michael Slackman, New York Times, January 17, 2007

Why is Egypt airing insurgent TV from Iraq?
By Sarah Gauch, Christian Science Monitor, January 17, 2007

Jordanians becoming increasingly disenchanted with U.S. policies
By Tom Lasseter, McClatchy, January 16, 2007

Rice speaks softly in Egypt, avoiding democracy push
By Michael Slackman, New York Times, January 16, 2007

Rice is stalled on a road to nowhere
By Mark MacKinnon, Globe and Mail, January 16, 2007

'The jihad now is against the Shias, not the Americans'
By Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, The Guardian, January 13, 2007

U.S. policies have made Israel less safe, experts say
By Dion Nissenbaum, McClatchy, January 12, 2007

CIA gets the go-ahead to take on Hizbollah
By Toby Harnden, The Telegraph, January 10, 2007

Absolute power
By Dahlia Lithwick, Slate, January 13, 2007
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