The War in Context Christopher Dickey quote
  Iraq + war on terrorism + Middle East conflict + critical perspectives     
The Iraq insurgency for beginners
Evan Kohlmann interviewed by Kevin Berger, Salon, March 2, 2007

Who constitutes al-Qaida in Iraq now?

It includes everyone from past conflicts in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Chechnya to people from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, North Africa, Syria and Jordan. A growing number of Iraqis continue to join its ranks every day. The people in the nationalist groups feel intensely hurt to see Iraq being torn apart. This is their homeland. And now their groups are taking on an Islamic tinge or else becoming straight-up jihadist groups controlled by al-Qaida. A lot of people joining the jihadist groups are now convinced there is no future left for Iraq, that the only future left is with al-Qaida, the only people who can protect them is al-Qaida.

David Kilcullen, an astute counterinsurgency expert, told George Packer in the New Yorker that what drives a lot of young men to become jihadists is a "sense of adventure, wanting to be in the big movement of history that's happening right now." Do you agree?

Oh, yeah. For some of these guys, it's like a safari. They see themselves as knights of the round table. In fact, that's how al-Qaida now sells the insurgency to them: Are you a chivalrous knight or a coward?

Has the U.S. invasion, in fact, strengthened al-Qaida?

Definitely. And this is the depressing thing. The hardcore true believers of al-Qaida at one time were probably 10 percent of the insurgent groups. Now they're 50 percent. Al-Qaida is growing in places it shouldn't. You have groups like the Islamic Army of Iraq that have transitioned from being traditional insurgents to extremist ones. Or take a popular insurgent group called the 1920 Revolution Brigades. The very name of the group has a nationalist, not Islamist meaning. And yet very recently, the head of al-Qaida's Islamic State in Iraq issued a statement in which he said that people from the 1920 Revolution Brigade were now fighting alongside al-Qaida. The U.S. is failing miserably at containing the spread of al-Qaida. [complete article]

Looking for a new home in Iraq
By Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times, March 3, 2007

Having solidified its leadership and opened up financial lifelines, al-Qaeda is preparing for its next major step - establishing a new base in the heart of the Middle East, Iraq.

This will position al-Qaeda to step up attacks on Europe in an effort to force Western countries to cut their strategic alliances with Washington, and to serve as a nerve center to bring new al-Qaeda groups into action in the Arab world.

According to people familiar with al-Qaeda's thinking who spoke to Asia Times Online, Osama bin Laden's deputy and the group's ideologue, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, sees potential for the group to capitalize on a possible US war over Iran. Relocating the al-Qaeda leadership from the Afghan-Pakistani border areas would put it closer to this new "epicenter".

In addition, the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban has cooled after the Taliban's decision to strike a deal with Pakistan over support for the insurgency in southwestern Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda refuses to deal with any state, including Islamabad (see Pakistan makes a deal with the Taliban, Asia Times Online, March 1). [complete article]

Pressed by U.S., Pakistan seizes a Taliban chief
By Carlotta Gall, New York Times, March 2, 2007

The former Taliban defense minister was arrested in Pakistan on Monday, the day of Vice President Dick Cheney's visit, two government officials said Thursday. He is the most important Taliban member to be captured since the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The man, Mullah Obaidullah, was a senior leader of the Afghan insurgency, which has battled American and NATO forces with increasing intensity over the last year.

He is one of the inner core around Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader. The leadership is believed to operate from the relative safety of Quetta, Pakistan, where Mullah Obaidullah was arrested. [complete article]

America's Musharraf dilemma
By Najum Mushtaq, Foreign Policy in Focus, February 28, 2007

Stung by a spree of suicide attacks, Pakistan's military junta this week had to take in an unannounced guest bearing ill tidings. The United States wants General Musharraf to do more to crush al-Qaida, Vice President Dick Cheney told his host during a surprise secretive trip to Islamabad. After being defeated in Afghanistan, America's bin Laden-led enemies are regrouping in Pakistan's tribal region, said Cheney. He is reported to have warned Musharraf that if Pakistan does not produce more results, the Democrat-dominated Congress may review and revoke the American military assistance program resumed after September 11, 2001. The military's status as a major non-Nato ally of the United States could also be in danger.

Pakistan, the fifth-largest recipient of American aid, is set to get $785 million in President Bush's next budget. That includes $300 million in direct military aid, a sop to Musharraf's domestic power base in the armed forces. More than just military aid is at stake. Worse could come to pass if the United States decided to take out al-Qaida targets in Pakistan with unilateral air strikes. Although White House Press Secretary Tony Snow tried to soften Cheney's message, the Pakistani general is clearly looking down the barrel if not yet in the line of fire. A visit by Dick Cheney, who is not exactly a gun control advocate, serves as perhaps the last warning. [complete article]
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Wasington's mixed signals on Iran
By Elaine Shannon, Time, March 1, 2007

One day the Bush Administration is bashing Iran, pushing U.N. Security Council sanctions, cutting off its credit, arresting its nationals and sending more warships into the Persian Gulf. Then, practically the next day it seems, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is announcing plans for U.S. and Iranian diplomats to meet in Baghdad to discuss cooperating to quell the carnage in Iraq.

Mixed messages? For sure. But that's not by accident. It's just a new take on the classic carrot-and-stick diplomatic strategy, in which contradictions are at the core of the U.S. Iran strategy.

"It is a message of pressure and possibility," says a senior U.S. official. "We're trying to keep up the pressure but also hold open the possibility of constructive dialogue, if they meet the conditions." [complete article]

Comment -- When a bank robber points a gun at a teller and says, "hand over the money and you'll come to no harm," he is using the threat of violence as the means to exert pressure in order to bring about the outcome he desires. This is how the Bush administration approaches what it calls diplomacy. In truth, this is not diplomacy; it is simply coercion.

The premise behind coercion is that whichever party is more powerful should win in a contest of wills. The weak yield and the strong dominate.

Diplomacy, on the other hand, involves recognizing that each party has at least some legitimate interests that must be served. The goal of an agreement is to reach a mutually acceptable set of accommodations. For this to happen, each side must respect the other.
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Latest reports on Iran and North Korea show a newfound caution among analysts
By Mark Mazzetti, New York Times, March 2, 2007

For more than three years, American intelligence officials have insisted that they learned from their mistakes in the months leading to the Iraq war, when murky information about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs was presented as fact and inconclusive judgments were hardened into statements of near certainty.

The more calibrated intelligence assessments that have come to light in recent weeks, particularly on Iran and North Korea, appear to show a new willingness by American spy agencies to concede the limits of their knowledge.

The new caution reflects adherence to what some officials now call "the Powell Rule." That rule is intended to avoid a repetition of former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's humiliation after the satellite photos and intercepted communications he presented to the United Nations Security Council as proof that Iraq was stockpiling banned weapons turned out to be nothing of the sort. [complete article]

Iraq's superbombs: home made?
By David Hambling, Danger Room, Wired, February 26, 2007

Given the appropriate design (which is the tricky bit) any machine shop can turn [EFP's] out by the hundred. (Today's New York Times notes that the disks found in Hilla, Iraq "look like a thick little alms plate or even a souvenir ashtray minus the indentations for holding cigarettes.")

It took years for the American military to learn how to make these weapons on the fly. And yet insurgents in Iraq already have essentially the same capability. It's an example of what's been called 'Intermediate Technology' which takes a lot of time and money to develop, but when it exists it can be quickly, cheaply copied.

The ability to pick up and use this sort of technology gives an edge to guerrilla forces. As we have seen, insurgents have proved adept at using the Internet, mobile phones, and even interactive DVDs. [complete article]
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Will we suffer from the Iraq Syndrome?
By Ira Chernus, TomDispatch, March 1, 2007

The Iraq syndrome is headed our way. Perhaps it's already here.

A clear and growing majority of Americans now tell pollsters that that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake, that it's a bad idea to "surge" more troops into Baghdad, that we need a definite timeline for removing all our troops.

The nation seems to be remembering a lesson of the Vietnam War: We can't get security by sending military power abroad. Every time we try to control another country by force of arms, we only end up more troubled and less secure.

But the Iraq syndrome is a two-edged sword, and there is no telling which way it will cut in the end.

Remember the "Vietnam syndrome," which made its appearance soon after the actual war ended in defeat. It did restrain our appetite for military interventions overseas -- but only briefly. By the late 1970s, it had already begun to boomerang. Conservatives denounced the syndrome as evidence of a paralyzing, Vietnam-induced surrender to national weakness. Their cries of alarm stimulated broad public support for an endless military build-up and, of course, yet more imperial interventions.

The very idea of such a "syndrome" implied that what the Vietnam War had devastated was not so much the Vietnamese or their ruined land as the traumatized American psyche. As a concept, it served to mask, if not obliterate, many of the realities of the actual war. It also suggested that there was something pathological in a post-war fear of taking our arms and aims abroad, that America had indeed become (in Richard Nixon's famous phrase) a "pitiful, helpless giant," a basket case. [complete article]
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Iran and Saudis plan summit talks on crises
By Hassan M. Fattah and Nazila Fathi, New York Times, March 2, 2007

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran will visit Saudi Arabia on Saturday for a summit meeting with King Abdullah intended to tackle the Middle East's growing sectarian and political crises, Iranian officials said Thursday.

The visit, Mr. Ahmadinejad's first state visit to Saudi Arabia, was initiated by Iran, said a former Saudi official with knowledge of the discussions.

It marks the culmination of months of diplomatic efforts by the two regional powers, as well as other Arab countries, to settle the political standoff in Lebanon, cool sectarian violence in Iraq and possibly even avert a looming confrontation with the United States.

To some the trip is seen as a defensive move by an increasingly isolated Iran while to others it marks the start of another public relations offensive for the bellicose president. [complete article]
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Rice names critic of Iraq policy to Counselor's post
By Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, March 2, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has tapped Eliot A. Cohen, a prominent writer on national security strategy and an outspoken critic of the administration's postwar occupation of Iraq, as her counselor, State Department officials said yesterday.

Cohen would replace Philip D. Zelikow, a longtime Rice associate who left the administration earlier this year to return to teaching history at the University of Virginia. Despite Cohen's sometimes caustic views on administration policies, officials said he has impressed both Rice and President Bush with his writings, especially "Supreme Command," a study of the relationship between civilian commanders in chief and their military leaders.

In hiring Cohen, a professor at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies whose son served a tour of duty as an Army officer in Iraq, Rice has lured a leading figure of the neoconservative movement as her policies toward North Korea and Iran draw fierce attack from the Republican Party's right wing. Cohen has connections in that circle and deep roots in the military establishment, and he is likely to concentrate initially on Iraq and Afghanistan and on reshaping the State Department to better handle post-conflict environments. [complete article]
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Senators regret remarks on troops
By Adam Nagourney, New York Times, March 2, 2007

They come from different parties and have opposite views on what should be done in Iraq. But both Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama have now had to express regret for saying that American lives have been "wasted" in battle.

Mr. McCain, the Arizona Republican who has been a big supporter of the war and has backed President Bush's call for more troops, made his remarks Wednesday in an appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman" while criticizing the White House's management of the war.

"Americans are very frustrated, and they have every right to be," he said. "We've wasted a lot of our most precious treasure, which is American lives, over there."

Mr. Obama, the Illinois Democrat who has been a critic of the war from the start, made a similar remark in a visit to Iowa after announcing his candidacy. "We ended up launching a war that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged, and to which we now have spent $400 billion and have seen over 3,000 lives of the bravest young Americans wasted," he said.

Mr. McCain was criticized on Thursday by the Democratic National Committee for making the remark, just as Mr. Obama had been criticized by conservative groups.

"How is it that John McCain now believes American lives are being wasted, yet he so stubbornly supports the president's plan to escalate the war in Iraq and put more American lives in harm's way?" asked Karen Finney, a spokeswoman for the Democratic committee.

Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama responded to the criticisms the same way: by recanting remarks they said they regretted.

"I should have used the word 'sacrificed,' as I have in the past," Mr. McCain said. "No one appreciates and honors more than I do the selfless patriotism of American service men and women in Iraq."

Comment -- There is something utterly self-serving about 'honoring' the 'sacrifice' made by soldiers who lost their lives or were maimed in a war that should never have been fought. The charade that McCain, Obama and others wish to maintain is that the military can maintain its self-worth even in the midst of a worthless war. Thousands and thousands of lives have been lost -- American, but mostly Iraqi lives -- yet those whose consciences should now be tortured because of their own culpability in this, want instead to treat the blood lost as yet another offering that can be solemnly place on the sacred altar of nationalism. If soldiers die in the name of America, nothing else matters.

Yet whatever vote-hungry politicians might say, the lives lost in this war have been tragically wasted; it is an insult to the survivors to pretend otherwise.
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Shortages threaten Guard's capability
By Ann Scott Tyson, Washington Post, March 2, 2007

Nearly 90 percent of Army National Guard units in the United States are rated "not ready" -- largely as a result of shortfalls in billions of dollars' worth of equipment -- jeopardizing their capability to respond to crises at home and abroad, according to a congressional commission that released a preliminary report yesterday on the state of U.S. military reserve forces.

The report found that heavy deployments of the National Guard and reserves since 2001 for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and for other anti-terrorism missions have deepened shortages, forced the cobbling together of units and hurt recruiting.

"We can't sustain the [National Guard and reserves] on the course we're on," said Arnold L. Punaro, chairman of the 13-member Commission on the National Guard and Reserves, established by Congress in 2005. The independent commission, made up mainly of former senior military and civilian officials appointed by both parties, is tasked to study the mission, readiness and compensation of the reserve forces. [complete article]
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How much embassy is too much?
By Elizabeth Williamson, Washington Post, March 2, 2007

Mention the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to Lawrence Eagleburger and he explodes.

"I defy anyone to tell me how you can use that many people. It is nuts . . . it's insane and it's counterproductive . . . and it won't work," says the Republican former secretary of state and member of the Iraq Study Group. "I've been around the State Department long enough to know you can't run an outfit like that."

The nerve center of Iraq reconstruction efforts, housed in an ornate former Saddam Hussein palace with soaring ceilings and its own espresso bar, the embassy in Baghdad is one of the largest foreign missions ever operated by the State Department. Its complexity and expense, some say, hampers reconstruction efforts and drains cash from diplomatic efforts worldwide.

According to a State Department count, about 1,000 federal employees report to the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, not including hundreds of private contractors. State Department personnel are assigned to roughly half the slots in Baghdad, and the rest are reserved for an array of agencies, including about 90 from the Justice Department, 20 from the Department of Homeland Security, and four each from the Commerce Department and the Transportation Department. They are needed, officials say, to rebuild transit and mail services, to assist small businesses, to advise politicians and peasants.

The mission's closely guarded budget is a source of controversy at State, and across the federal government. At $923 million for the 2006 fiscal year, the budget was 20 times that of the Beijing embassy's that year, according to the State Department. More than two-thirds of the money pays for security. Salaries for about 600 staff from other federal agencies are not included in that figure, nor are some expenses.

"Maintaining an oversized mega-embassy in Baghdad is draining personnel and resources away from every other U.S. embassy around the world, and all for what?" said a senior State Department official, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue. [complete article]
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Western intelligence sources worried by jihadist upsurge in Lebanon
By Amos Harel, Haaretz, March 2, 2007

Western intelligence agencies are worried by a growing concentration of terror operatives associated with the global jihad movement in Lebanon.

Recent intelligence indicates that hundreds of Sunni Muslim terrorists from various Arab countries are currently residing around Tyre, mainly in a Palestinian refugee camp near the city. Some of the terrorists are apparently from Sudan and Yemen.

Both Western and Israeli intelligence agencies fear that the jihadists' growing presence in southern Lebanon will lead to more attacks against Israel and a renewed escalation along the northern border. The United Nations forces deployed along the border following last summer's war with Hezbollah are also considered potential targets. [complete article]

Comment -- To put this report in perspective, it's worth re-reading a key passage from Seymour Hersh's recent article, "Redirection":
The United States has also given clandestine support to the Siniora government, according to the former senior intelligence official and the U.S. government consultant. "We are in a program to enhance the Sunni capability to resist Shiite influence, and we're spreading the money around as much as we can," the former senior intelligence official said. The problem was that such money "always gets in more pockets than you think it will," he said. "In this process, we're financing a lot of bad guys with some serious potential unintended consequences. We don't have the ability to determine and get pay vouchers signed by the people we like and avoid the people we don't like. It's a very high-risk venture."

American, European, and Arab officials I spoke to told me that the Siniora government and its allies had allowed some aid to end up in the hands of emerging Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south. These groups, though small, are seen as a buffer to Hezbollah; at the same time, their ideological ties are with Al Qaeda.
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The case of the missing movie
By Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, Newsweek, February 28, 2007

A federal judge ruled today that suspected Al Qaeda operative Jose Padilla is mentally competent, paving the way for his long-delayed case to proceed to trial, at long last, in April. But the ruling by U.S. Judge Marcia Cooke in Miami leaves open what may be more intriguing questions than those surrounding the defendant's mental health: what happened to a crucial video recording of Padilla being interrogated in a U.S. military brig that has mysteriously disappeared?

The missing DVD dates from March 2, 2004. It contains a video of the last interrogation session of Padilla, then a declared "enemy combatant" under an order from President Bush, while he was being held in military custody at a U.S. Navy brig in Charleston, S.C. But in recent days, in the course of an unusual court hearing about Padilla's mental condition, a government lawyer disclosed to a surprised courtroom that the Defense Intelligence Agency -- which had custody of the evidence -- was no longer able to locate the DVD. As a result, it was not included in a packet of classified DVDs that was recently turned over to defense lawyers under orders from Judge Cooke.

The disclosure that the Pentagon had lost a potentially important piece of evidence in one of the U.S. government's highest-profile terrorism cases was met with claims of incredulity by some defense lawyers and human-rights groups monitoring the case. "This is the kind of thing you hear when you're litigating cases in Egypt or Morocco or Karachi," said John Sifton, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch, one of a number of groups that has criticized the U.S. government's treatment of Padilla. "It is simply not credible that they would have lost this tape. The administration has shown repeatedly they are more interested in covering up abuses than getting to the bottom of whether people were abused." [complete article]

See also, Jailers testify about Padilla's confinement (NYT).

New light shed on CIA's 'black site' prisons
By Dafna Linzer and Julie Tate, Washington Post, February 28, 2007

On his last day in CIA custody, Marwan Jabour, an accused al-Qaeda paymaster, was stripped naked, seated in a chair and videotaped by agency officers. Afterward, he was shackled and blindfolded, headphones were put over his ears, and he was given an injection that made him groggy. Jabour, 30, was laid down in the back of a van, driven to an airstrip and put on a plane with at least one other prisoner.

His release from a secret facility in Afghanistan on June 30, 2006, was a surprise to Jabour -- and came just after the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration's assertion that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to prisoners like him.

Jabour had spent two years in "black sites" -- a network of secret internment facilities the CIA operated around the world. His account of life in that system, which he described in three interviews with The Washington Post, offers an inside view of a clandestine world that held far more prisoners than the 14 men President Bush acknowledged and had transferred out of CIA custody in September.

"There are now no terrorists in the CIA program," the president said, adding that after the prisoners held were determined to have "little or no additional intelligence value, many of them have been returned to their home countries for prosecution or detention by their governments."

But Jabour's experience -- also chronicled by Human Rights Watch, which yesterday issued a report on the fate of former "black site" detainees -- often does not accord with the portrait the administration has offered of the CIA system, such as the number of people it held and the threat detainees posed. Although 14 detainees were publicly moved from CIA custody to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, scores more have not been publicly identified by the U.S. government, and their whereabouts remain secret. Nor has the administration acknowledged that detainees such as Jabour, considered so dangerous and valuable that their detentions were kept secret, were freed. [complete article]

U.S. charges Australian detainee with supporting terrorism
By Carol Rosenberg, McClatchy, March 1, 2007

The Pentagon on Thursday formally accused an Australian citizen being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with a single charge of providing material support for terrorism, setting the stage for the first military trial of a terrorism suspect under legislation that Congress passed last year.

The charge alleges that David Hicks, 31, a onetime Outback cowboy and kangaroo skinner, was in league with al-Qaida at the time of the U.S. invasion in 2001, had met with al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and had joined Taliban and al-Qaida supporters who were fighting U.S.-allied forces outside Kunduz, Afghanistan, during combat Nov. 9, 2001. [complete article]

Hicks tells of torture and abuse at Guantanamo
By Tom Allard, The Age, March 2, 2007

After arriving in Guantanamo Bay, David Hicks says he was shown a photo of a battered fellow Australian, Mamdouh Habib, and told he would be sent to Egypt for similar, brutal treatment if he did not co-operate with US interrogators.

The claim of abuse is one of many made by accused terror suspect Hicks in a document to be presented in May to a British court as he seeks UK citizenship.

The document aims to chronicle claims of mistreatment and torture by US guards and interrogators, both allegedly experienced and seen by Hicks. [complete article]

See also, Guilty plea deal could allow David Hicks to come straight home (Sydney Morning Herald).
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U.S. commanders admit: we face a Vietnam-style collapse
By Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, March 1, 2007

An elite team of officers advising the US commander, General David Petraeus, in Baghdad has concluded that they have six months to win the war in Iraq - or face a Vietnam-style collapse in political and public support that could force the military into a hasty retreat.

The officers - combat veterans who are experts in counter-insurgency - are charged with implementing the "new way forward" strategy announced by George Bush on January 10. The plan includes a controversial "surge" of 21,500 additional American troops to establish security in the Iraqi capital and Anbar province.

But the team, known as the "Baghdad brains trust" and ensconced in the heavily fortified Green Zone, is struggling to overcome a range of entrenched problems in what has become a race against time, according to a former senior administration official familiar with their deliberations.

"They know they are operating under a clock. They know they are going to hear a lot more talk in Washington about 'Plan B' by the autumn - meaning withdrawal. They know the next six-month period is their opportunity. And they say it's getting harder every day," he said. [complete article]

Sunnis - not Shiites - biggest threat to U.S. troops
By Drew Brown, McClatchy, February 28, 2007

Sunni Muslim insurgents remain by far the biggest threat to American troops in Iraq, despite recent U.S. claims that Iran is providing Shiite Muslim militia groups with a new type of roadside bomb, a review of American casualty reports shows.

While U.S. military officials have held briefings to publicize their concerns about the potent bombs known as explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) or penetrators, casualty reports suggest that such weapons in the hands of Shiite militias are responsible for a relatively small number of American deaths.

U.S. officials have said that attacks with such weapons increased 150 percent in the past year. But a review of bombings by location shows that less than 10 percent of attacks that killed at least two American service members in the past 14 months were in areas where Shiite militias are dominant. [complete article]

Soldiers shift to Baghdad outposts
By Joshua Partlow, Washington Post, March 1, 2007

American soldiers are leaving their sprawling fortress-cities and establishing many small outposts in the capital's most violent neighborhoods in a major tactical shift under the two-week-old Baghdad security plan.

Informed by counterinsurgency theory that calls for placing units full-time among the people they want to sway, U.S. troops are using their new bases to work with their Iraqi counterparts, uncover more battlefield intelligence and reinforce, by their sustained presence, the message that they will not allow militants unfettered freedom of movement.

But along with these advantages, American soldiers say these outposts pose new risks to their own safety and require pulling soldiers off patrols to protect their lodgings. The threats became apparent this month when a car bomb exploded at a U.S. outpost in Tarmiyah, north of Baghdad, killing two U.S. soldiers and wounding 29 others. [complete article]

Hospital officials knew of neglect
By Anne Hull and Dana Priest, Washington Post, March 1, 2007

Top officials at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, including the Army's surgeon general, have heard complaints about outpatient neglect from family members, veterans groups and members of Congress for more than three years.

A procession of Pentagon and Walter Reed officials expressed surprise last week about the living conditions and bureaucratic nightmares faced by wounded soldiers staying at the D.C. medical facility. But as far back as 2003, the commander of Walter Reed, Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, who is now the Army's top medical officer, was told that soldiers who were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan were languishing and lost on the grounds, according to interviews.

Steve Robinson, director of veterans affairs at Veterans for America, said he ran into Kiley in the foyer of the command headquarters at Walter Reed shortly after the Iraq war began and told him that "there are people in the barracks who are drinking themselves to death and people who are sharing drugs and people not getting the care they need." [complete article]
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America's new path on Iraq: talk to Iran
By Dan Murphy, Christian Science Monitor, March 1, 2007

The United States has agreed to do what it once insisted it wouldn't do: Talk directly to Iran about Iraq, without preconditions.

After an initial meeting in two weeks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice plans to sit down in April with the foreign ministers of some 20 countries, including two that the US considers key troublemakers in the region: Iran and Syria.

Though the meeting will be confined to the goal of stabilizing Iraq – not the dispute over Iran's nuclear program – the Bush administration's decision to participate indicates that the days of working from an "our-way-or-the-highway" stance may be over. [complete article]

See also, In U.S. overtures to foes, new respect for pragmatism (NYT), White House: U.S. won't talk to Syria, Iran directly (CNN), Iran willing to join U.S. at Iraq talks (LAT), and Iranian President to visit Saudi Arabia (Reuters).
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New polling research finds opposition to war highest among Jews
By Nathan Guttman, The Forward, March 2, 2007

Even as a new study found that American Jews are significantly more opposed to the Iraq War than are Christians, Jewish organizations decided not to take up the issue at their annual policy conference.

Drawing from the results of 13 polls conducted since 2005, the Gallup Organization found that 77% of American Jews think the Iraq War was a mistake, compared with 52% of the general American public. The poll found that Jewish opposition to the war in Iraq transcends political boundaries, with Jewish Democrats and Jewish Republicans being more likely than their respective non-Jewish counterparts to oppose the war.

"These data show that the average American Jew -- even those who are Republicans and may support the Bush administration on other matters -- opposes the war," Gallup concluded in the report, released last week.

In sharp contrast, most Jewish organizations have refused to speak out against the war, and at times they displayed support for the administration. This week, the Iraq issue was low on the agenda at the plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs -- the community's main public policy coordinating body, which is made up of the major synagogue movements, several prominent national organizations and 122 local Jewish communities. The 400 delegates passed a rash of resolutions dealing with a wide variety of issues, but nothing regarding Iraq; an open discussion was held on the topic, but it took place late Monday night and drew only about 20 people. [complete article]
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Ready to take on the world
By Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times, March 2, 2007

Al-Qaeda will this year significantly step up its global operations after centralizing its leadership and reviving its financial lifelines. Crucially, al-Qaeda has developed missile and rocket technology with the capability of carrying chemical, biological and nuclear warheads, according to an al-Qaeda insider who spoke to Asia Times Online.

While al-Qaeda will continue to operate in Afghanistan and Iraq, it will broaden its global perspective to include Europe and hostile Muslim states, Asia Times Online has learned. For the first time since its attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, this could be al-Qaeda's year on the offensive.

According to the contact, "The time has come for a message to be communicated to Europe." Asked what kind of message this would be, the contact simply smiled. [complete article]

Taliban leader's bin Laden links
Channel 4 News, February 28, 2007

In an exclusive interview obtained by Channel 4 News, a senior Taliban commander has spoken of his links with Osama bin Laden.

Mullah Dadullah said the al-Qaida leader is alive, but it's not possible to meet him.

He also warned that British troops in Afghanistan face a fierce onslaught from his fighters and said thousands of his recruits are ready to become suicide bombers. [complete article]

The mysterious Mullah Omar
By Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau, Newsweek, March 5, 2007

There's no mistaking the thrill in Ghul Agha Akhund's voice. The Taliban field commander, speaking by mobile phone from his redoubt in Afghanistan's Helmand province, says the militants' covert network of couriers has brought him a vital message. It's a dark photocopy of a handwritten note, just seven lines to congratulate the group's fighting forces on "getting even with the infidel invaders" last year and to urge them to launch "a more intensive jihad" this year. But Ghul Agha views the scrap of paper as an almost sacred artifact: it bears the signature of the Taliban's Supreme Leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. "This message from our leader is like tonic medicine," the chieftain says. "It makes us stronger."

In fact, he's doubly excited. This is the second communication he's gotten from Mullah Omar this year -- after not one word since the U.S.-led 2001 invasion. (Although not all the information in this report can be independently verified, it came from sources who have proved reliable in the past, and the details are consistent with the established facts.) This January, Ghul Agha received an audiocassette of Mullah Omar praising the virtue of self-sacrifice. "Carry out your Islamic responsibilities as I carry out mine," the officer quotes the tape as saying. "Don't look for promotions or benefits. Just serve the jihad." The message electrified Ghul Agha. "For the last few years, we heard only rumors about Mullah Omar," he says. "Now we hear from him directly!" The commander and his men are energetically preparing to launch an offensive as soon as the snow melts; he hopes this year they will cut off the provincial capital. [complete article]
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U.S. had doubts on North Korean uranium drive
By David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, New York Times, March 1, 2007

Last October, the North Koreans tested their first nuclear device, the fruition of decades of work to make a weapon out of plutonium.

For nearly five years, though, the Bush administration, based on intelligence estimates, has accused North Korea of also pursuing a secret, parallel path to a bomb, using enriched uranium. That accusation, first leveled in the fall of 2002, resulted in the rupture of an already tense relationship: The United States cut off oil supplies, and the North Koreans responded by throwing out international inspectors, building up their plutonium arsenal and, ultimately, producing that first plutonium bomb.

But now, American intelligence officials are publicly softening their position, admitting to doubts about how much progress the uranium enrichment program has actually made. The result has been new questions about the Bush administration's decision to confront North Korea in 2002. [complete article]
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Jerusalem takes a fresh look at maligned vision for Arab equality
By Orly Halpern, The Forward, March 2, 2007

After an initial barrage of hostile comments from a broad spectrum of Israeli Jews, the so-called Future Vision document on Arab-Jewish relations in Israel -- prepared by a group of top Israeli-Arab public figures -- is quietly getting a closer look from some of the Jewish state’s leading institutions.

A senior official in the Prime Minister's Office acknowledged to the Forward this week that he has met privately with a key drafter of the document and that more meetings are planned in the weeks ahead. "Did we read it? Yes. Does it interest us? Yes. What do we think of it? We can't say," said Ehud Praver, director of the prime minister's policy planning bureau.

The drafter, Arab sociologist Aziz Haidar, said that aides to the prime minister had promised to begin implementing the document's program for economic equality between Arab and Jewish Israelis "within days" after a follow-up meeting where details are to be discussed. [complete article]
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The metamorphoses of legitimization
By Meron Benvenisti, Haaretz, March 1, 2007

Among the conditions for ending the boycott of a Palestinian government headed by or including Hamas, the condition of recognizing Israel stands out. This can be expressed either in ideological terms (recognizing its right to exist) or diplomatic terms (recognizing the state and honoring agreements with it). At first glance, such a condition is self-evident: Someone who does not recognize the existence of the Jewish state seeks its destruction, and therefore, it would be wrong to aid this existential enemy, even if holding back humanitarian aid hurts millions of innocents.

Hamas leaders' insistence on not deviating from their refusal to recognize Israel, "regardless of how much the United States and the Quartet pressure us," is not only a position that rests on religious principles. It also reflects a basic Palestinian worldview: Only the Palestinians, the victims of Zionism, are capable of granting the Jewish state legitimacy. Granted, they are an occupied and defeated people, but as long as they insist on the illegitimacy of the Zionist enterprise and maintain that Israel, having been founded on stolen Palestinian lands, has no right to exist, the cloud of guilt over the fact that fulfilling the Zionist enterprise entailed destruction of the Palestinian nation will not dissipate. [complete article]
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U.S. will join talks with Iran and Syria
By Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, February 28, 2007

Since the start of the year, in fact, Rice has rhetorically divided the region between "mainstream" actors, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and "extremists" such as Iran and Syria. She suggested that rather than draw out Iran and Syria through diplomacy, the United States would seek to isolate them unless they changed their behavior on their own.

"We do have a regional approach," Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January. "It is to work with those governments that share our view of where the Middle East should be going." She argued at the time that "the problem here is not a lack of engagement with Syrians but a lack of action by Syria. ... If the government in Tehran wants to help stabilize the region -- as it now claims -- then it should end its support for violent extremists."

Yesterday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack repeatedly declined to rule out the possibility of bilateral discussions between Rice and her Iranian and Syrian counterparts, except to note that the dispute over Iran's nuclear program is already being handled on a separate diplomatic track. "I'm not going to exclude any particular interaction at this point ... on issues that are important to us, but the focus will be on Iraq," he said. [complete article]

See also, Iran gives cautious nod to Iraq talks (The Guardian).

Republican senator urges US to deal with Iran, avoid war
By Hilary Leila Krieger, Jerusalem Post, February 28, 2007

Republican Senator and possible presidential contender Chuck Hagel urged the United States to engage Iran and warned of the pitfalls of military conflict in a speech to national Jewish public affairs councils Monday evening.

Hagel, whose criticisms of American foreign policy in the Middle East have ruffled the Bush administration, also backed greater US involvement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

"A military conflict with Iran would inflame the Middle East," which couldn't be in the United States' interest, he warned. "It could not be in the interests of Israel."

"The United States should engage directly with Iran and Syria," he told the audience. "When countries do not engage, [they make] uninformed and dangerous decisions."

Though it's currently impossible to have formal diplomatic ties with Iran - which Hagel labeled a "destabilizing" power and "state-sponsor of terror" - he suggested that the US open a consulate there to facilitate greater contacts between the two peoples.

"Iran is not monolithic," he said. "We do not want to lose this pro-American generation. They're the future."

Hagel's comments were warmly received by the audience. When the sound system broke, Hagel came down from the podium to speak with those who had lined up at microphones to question him. Many offered their support for his comments and asked how they could work towards his vision. [complete article]

Baker: U.S. must change as events change
By Barry Schweid, AP, February 28, 2007

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III said Tuesday the United States should be prepared to change course in its foreign policy, and "we are doing just that in Iraq." A consistent foreign policy promotes stability, he said. "But when events change, we must be prepared to change with them."

Baker spoke in a lecture series at the Library of Congress just a few hours after the Bush administration, in a reversal, said it would join an Iraq-sponsored "neighbors meeting" with Iran and Syria.

Baker went further in his speech and a question-and-answer session, urging the administration to expand Mideast peacemaking efforts beyond Israel and the Palestinians to include Syria. [complete article]

Comment -- This has been a bad week for Dick Cheney. He gets sent to Pakistan to offer a stern warning: beware the U.S. Congress -- they might cut off your aid. Then he has to duck for cover because someone forewarned the Taliban about his "secret" trip to Kabul. But meanwhile back in Washington, the administration does a major U-turn and agrees to sit down in talks with the Iranians and the Syrians. This was surely a shift that did not come with the blessings of the vice president. Or is he now going to claim that this is another sign of success in Iraq?

To suggest that a velvet revolution is going on inside the administration would be an overstatement, but Cheney is clearly losing his power. So, I'm going to stick my neck out and make a wild prediction: So long as he can do so without placing himself in legal jeopardy, Dick Cheney will resign before the end of 2007 and make way for a GOP putative heir to the presidency. As Cheney and Bush keep an eye on their legacy they must be mindful that in 2009 they may need the favorable disposition of a latter day Gerald Ford.
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Pakistan makes a deal with the Taliban
By Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times, March 1, 2007

The Pakistani establishment has made a deal with the Taliban through a leading Taliban commander that will extend Islamabad's influence into southwestern Afghanistan and significantly strengthen the resistance in its push to capture Kabul.

One-legged Mullah Dadullah will be Pakistan's strongman in a corridor running from the Afghan provinces of Zabul, Urzgan, Kandahar and Helmand across the border into Pakistan's Balochistan province, according to both Taliban and al-Qaeda contacts Asia Times Online spoke to. Using Pakistani territory and with Islamabad's support, the Taliban will be able safely to move men, weapons and supplies into southwestern Afghanistan. [complete article]

U.S. sees new Al-Qaeda threat
By Walter Pincus, Washington Post, February 28, 2007

The new director of national intelligence said yesterday that the United States is "very concerned" that Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda leadership are attempting to rebuild their terrorist network and establish training camps in a region of northwest Pakistan "that has never been governed by any power."

"We inflicted a major blow, they retreated to another area, and they are going through a process to reestablish and rebuild, adapting to the seams or the weak spots as they might perceive them," retired Vice Adm. John M. McConnell told the Senate Armed Services Committee as he delivered his first global threat assessment to Capitol Hill. [complete article]

Watching Afghanistan fall
By Matthew Cole, Salon, February 27, 2007

In November, I traveled with the Army's 10th Mountain Division to Afghanistan's Kunar and Nuristan provinces, the region where Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri have been sighted over the past three years, to see how American forces were fighting the "other" war. What I learned is that the war in Afghanistan is going badly. Three years after U.S. forces secured much of the country and helped 10 million Afghans vote in a presidential election, the country has slid back into a dangerous power vacuum, with the Taliban again competing for control of significant sections of the country. Last November, a CIA analysis of the Karzai government found it was losing control, and American ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann warned then that the U.S. would "fail" if the plan for action didn't include "multiple years and multiple billions." Our gains, once held firmly, have been lost and the coming year may portend Afghanistan's future, with ominous rumors about a spring offensive by insurgents floating down from the mountains. [complete article]

Bombing near Cheney displays boldness of resurgent Taliban
By Griff Witte, Washington Post, February 28, 2007

Regardless of the intent, the attack demonstrated that insurgents in Afghanistan are becoming increasingly bold, willing to attack a heavily fortified U.S. target in the face of unusually tight security. Additionally, the assault was carried out in a part of the country where the Taliban has relatively little support. The Islamic militia's traditional stronghold has been in the south; Bagram is in the country's central region, about an hour's drive north of Kabul.

"It's pretty striking that they're capable of planning and executing an attack on Bagram on fairly short notice and under changing circumstances. We haven't seen anything like this before," said Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who until last month worked on South Asia policy at the State Department. "Psychologically, this has to be seen as a serious blow."

Markey said the attack is also an ominous sign with the approach of spring, which is usually accompanied by a heavy escalation in violence as conditions for fighting improve. "Everyone agrees on both sides that this is going to be a bad spring," he said. [complete article]
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Prepare for the Great Arab Unraveling
By Rami G. Khouri, Daily Star, February 28, 2007

Seymour Hersh, investigative journalist for The New Yorker magazine, has sparked fresh debate with his latest article alleging that the Bush administration's new policy to confront Iran has led it to send American money and other forms of assistance to extremist Sunni groups, sometimes via the Lebanese and Saudi governments, in order to confront and weaken Hizbullah, Syria and Iran.

Do not pity or jeer Washington alone, for every single player in this tale - the United States, Hizbullah, the Lebanese government, Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia - wriggles uncomfortably in the mess they collectively created through their shortsighted policies of recent years. I suspect this mirrors something much bigger: We are in the midst of a potentially historic moment when the modern Arab state order that was created by the Europeans in circa 1920 has started to break down, in what we might perhaps call the Great Arab Unraveling. [complete article]
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Russian official: Hamas may halt attacks
By Mike Eckel, AP, February 28, 2007

Hamas has pledged to end missile attacks and violence against Israel, Russia's foreign minister said Tuesday, but the radical Palestinian group's spiritual leader struck a less conciliatory note, saying it was not ready to recognize Israel.

With Russia markedly increasing its efforts in Middle East peacemaking, Khaled Mashaal traveled to Moscow for the second time in a year — amid deep Israeli consternation — in a visit that reflected the Kremlin's position that negotiations, rather than sanctions, are the best way to deal with Hamas.

His reception shows that Hamas is gaining at least tentative support outside the Middle East. [complete article]

A political solution won't save the Palestinian economy
By Mohammed Samhouri, Daily Star, February 28, 2007

The resignation of the Hamas-led government on February 15, and the expected formation of a new government based on the deal reached in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, between Hamas and Fatah may finally bring an end to internal Palestinian divisions and the internecine violence that followed last year's stunning rise of Hamas to power. It may also herald the beginning of a process that could lead to a reversal of the crippling year-long Israeli and Western measures against the Palestinians. This would be a break for the 4 million residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, who have seen their lives shattered by a continued lack of basic needs and rising levels of lawlessness and anarchy.

A more serious question, however, is whether a future Palestinian unity government can deal with the widespread poverty and unemployment plaguing the Palestinian territories. In the best of circumstances, the government would be operating under conditions similar to those existing on the eve of the January 2006 elections that Hamas won. On the social and economic front, therefore, there is little ground for optimism.

The crisis conditions dating back to the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000 have led to extensive damage to the Palestinian economy, so that a return to the pre-2006 state of affairs may no longer be sufficient to revive the deeply stagnant economy. Two signs in particular are disturbing, both for their adverse impact on the long-term stability of Palestinian areas, and, by extension, for their impact on a Middle East that has already had its fair share of trouble. [complete article]
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Israeli Arab group proposes new 'multi-cultural' constitution
By Yoav Stern, Haaretz, February 28, 2007

A proposed constitution written by the Israeli Arab advocacy center, Adalah, states that Arab Knesset members will be able to bring about the disqualification of bills that impinge on the rights of Arabs, and classifies the State of Israel as a "bilingual and multicultural" country rather than a Jewish state.

The proposal, entitled "The Democratic Constitution," also calls for majority and minority groups to split control of the government in such a way that will strengthen the Arab minority on issues relating to the character of the state.

Adalah's version of the constitution essentially abolishes the Jewish elements of Israel, but allows the Jewish majority to maintain its character through educational and cultural institutions. The proposal invalidates the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to people with at least one Jewish grandparent, and states that citizenship will be granted to those who come to Israel for humanitarian reasons, regardless of their religion. [complete article]

Negev desert nomads on the move again to make way for Israel's barrier
By Rory McCarthy, The Guardian, February 28, 2007

The bulldozers came for Hamid Salim Hassan's house just after dawn. Before the demolition began, the Bedouin family scrambled to gather what they could: a fridge, a pile of carpets, some plastic chairs, a canister of cooking gas and a metal bed frame.

Now, with their house a wreck of smashed concrete and broken plastic pipes, Mr Hassan and his family are living in a canvas tent on a neighbour's land. Their possessions are piled outside, along with boxes of supplies, including washing-up liquid, toothpaste, corned beef, wheat flour and tomato paste, provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

His tent is small but it affords Mr Hassan a compelling view of the future. Stretched out before him are the hilltops of the West Bank where he and his family, all Bedouin shepherds who fled Israel in 1948, used to live and graze their sheep. Standing there now is Ma'ale Adumim, one of the largest Jewish settlements which is illegal under international law. Snaking up the hillside towards his tent is the West Bank barrier, also ruled unlawful in advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice. When complete, the steel and barbed wire barrier, which here will be 50m wide and include a ditch and patrol roads, will surround Ma'ale Adumim, attaching it to a greater Jerusalem.

For the 3,000 Bedouin living here, most from the Jahalin tribe, this presents an imminent crisis. "They came and destroyed my house to protect their wall," said Mr Hassan, 62. "They really don't have enough land already that they had to come and destroy my house? We've lost everything." [complete article]
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Israel to ask U.S. for more military aid
By Moti Bassok, Haaretz, February 28, 2007

Israel will ask the U.S. government to significantly increase its military assistance to the country as part of a new multi-year aid agreement.

A high-level Israeli economic delegation led by Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer and Finance Ministry Director General Yarom Ariav will meet with an American team in Washington this week.

The present package, which ends this year, covers $2.4 billion in annual military aid. [complete article]
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U.S. to attend key Iraq conference
BBC News, February 27, 2007

The US is willing to attend a regional conference in Iraq next month that will include representatives from Iran and Syria, the White House says. Iraq said the talks in Baghdad were aimed at seeking ways to stabilise the country and would be an "ice-breaker" for Western and regional powers.

The US recently stepped up the rhetoric against Iran and Syria, accusing them of fuelling the violence in Iraq. But the US government has been under pressure to include them in dialogue.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: "We hope that all governments seize this opportunity to improve their relations with Iraq and to work for peace and stability in the region." White House press secretary Tony Snow said: "We hope and expect that Iran and Syria will play constructive roles in those talks."

The BBC's Jonathan Beale in Washington says the timing of the meeting may come as a surprise given the tension between the US and Iraq's neighbours. [complete article]

Comment -- Pressure has been mounting for months but perhaps what finally persuaded the Bush administration to abandon its resistance was word from Henry Kissinger: "The time has come to begin preparing for an international conference to define the political outcome of the Iraq war," he wrote on Sunday. He went on to say that an international conference "would be the best framework for a transition from American military occupation. Paradoxically, it may also prove the best framework for bilateral discussions with Syria and Iran." If Kissinger's influence proved decisive it's perhaps also no coincidence that this major policy shift occurred while Cheney was out of town.

And it makes you wonder: just who was it that told the Taliban where he would be? (Just kidding!)
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U.S. displays bomb parts said to be made in Iran
By James Glanz and Richard A. Opell Jr., New York Times, February 27, 2007

In a dusty field near the Baghdad airport on Monday, the American military laid out a display of hundreds of components for assembling deadly roadside bombs, its latest effort to embarrass the country it contends is supplying the material to armed Shiite groups here: Iran.

Officers of the First Cavalry Division whose unit seized the components said they had been found in a palm grove just north of the Iraqi capital two days earlier, after a tip from a local resident. An explosives expert said the components were made to be assembled into the deadly canisters called explosively formed penetrators, or E.F.P.'s, which explode and hurl out a high-speed blob of copper designed to cut through tough American armor.

"I've lost good friends to these E.F.P.'s," said Capt. Clayton Combs, whose unit turned up the cache of weapons. "And the fact that we found these before they got to the side of the road is just a huge win for us."

The cache included what Maj. Marty Weber, a master explosives ordnance technician, said was C-4 explosive, a white substance, in clear plastic bags with red labels that he said contained serial numbers and other information that clearly marked it as Iranian.

But while the find gave experts much more information on the makings of the E.F.P.'s, which the American military has repeatedly argued must originate in Iran, the cache also included items that appeared to cloud the issue. [complete article]

Comment -- This narrative has gone from the extreme to the absurd. First a bombing campaign is supposedly being masterminded by Tehran. Now (if the evidence is to be believed) Iran has been providing bomb making materials, assembly required -- and they don't even provide all the parts. This is worse than Home Depot! Iran's commitment to this project seems decidedly lukewarm. And if point-of-origin amounts to culpability, how come there are no fingers pointing at UAE?
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Time for détente with Iran
By Ray Takeyh, Foreign Affairs, February 27, 2007

Over five years after the Bush administration vowed to transform the Middle East, the region is indeed profoundly different. Washington's misadventures in Iraq, the humbling of Israeli power in Lebanon, the rise of the once-marginalized Shiites, and the ascendance of Islamist parties have pushed the Middle East to the brink of chaos.

In the midst of the mess stands the Islamic Republic of Iran. Its regime has not only survived the U.S. onslaught but also managed to enhance Iran's influence in the region. Iran now lies at the center of the Middle East's major problems -- from the civil wars unfolding in Iraq and Lebanon to the security challenge of the Persian Gulf -- and it is hard to imagine any of them being resolved without Tehran's cooperation. Meanwhile, Tehran's power is being steadily enhanced by its nuclear program, which progresses unhindered despite regular protests from the international community.

This last development has put Washington in a bind. Ever since the revolution that toppled the shah in 1979, the United States has pursued a series of incoherent policies toward Tehran. At various points, it has tried to topple the regime -- even, on occasion, threatening military action. At others, it has sought to hold talks on a limited set of issues. Throughout, it has worked to box in Iran and to limit its influence in the region. But none of these approaches has worked, especially not containment, which is still the strategy of choice in the Iran policy debate. [complete article]
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Diplomats seek way to 'reengage' Iran
By Mary Jordan, Washington Post, February 27, 2007

Representatives of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany said after meeting in London on Monday that they were committed to seeking a negotiated solution with Iran, which has defied a U.N. order to halt its uranium enrichment program.

In Washington, meanwhile, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters that the six nations had "agreed on the fact that they will go forward with a U.N. sanctions resolution."

McCormack said the six nations -- the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany -- wanted Iran to negotiate. But he also said, "We are equally committed to sending the message to the Iranian government: Should they choose not to proceed down that pathway, then there will be consequences." [complete article]
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Majority in U.S. want troop deadline in Iraq: poll
Reuters, February 27, 2007

A narrow majority of Americans favor setting a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq and a record number disapprove of the war, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released on Monday.

Fifty-six percent say U.S. forces should be withdrawn eventually even if civil order has not been restored in Iraq, reflecting a continued and gradual departure from the "you break it, you've bought it" sentiment, ABC said.

Fifty-three percent support setting a date for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, up from 47 percent over the summer and 39 percent in late 2005. [complete article]
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U.S.'s Iraq oil grab is a done deal
By Pepe Escobar, Asia Times, February 28, 2007

"By 2010 we will need [a further] 50 million barrels a day. The Middle East, with two-thirds of the oil and the lowest cost, is still where the prize lies." - US Vice President Dick Cheney, then Halliburton chief executive officer, London, autumn 1999

US President George W Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney might as well declare the Iraq war over and out. As far as they - and the humongous energy interests they defend - are concerned, only now is the mission really accomplished. More than half a trillion dollars spent and perhaps half a million Iraqis killed have come down to this.

On Monday, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet in Baghdad approved the draft of the new Iraqi oil law. The government regards it as "a major national project". The key point of the law is that Iraq's immense oil wealth (115 billion barrels of proven reserves, third in the world after Saudi Arabia and Iran) will be under the iron rule of a fuzzy "Federal Oil and Gas Council" boasting "a panel of oil experts from inside and outside Iraq". That is, nothing less than predominantly US Big Oil executives. [complete article]

See also, Oil grab in Iraq (Antonia Juhasz and Raed Jarrar)
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Russia offers Hamas leader to help lift embargo
By Maria Golovnina, Reuters, February 27, 2007

Russia on Tuesday told Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal it will try to influence Western powers into lifting an aid embargo on the Palestinian administration.

Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations make up the Quartet of Middle East mediators. Western powers cut off direct aid to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas came to power in a January 2006 election.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Meshaal at the start of their talks that Russia fully supported a deal between Hamas and the rival Fatah movement agreed in Mecca this month to form a unity government as a key peace initiative in the region. [complete article]

Hamas chief evokes 'prospect' for Israeli-Palestinian peace
AFP, February 27, 2007

The head of the militant group Hamas said Tuesday he could see a "prospect" for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict under certain circumstances.

"We have asked the international community to take rapid steps to lift the embargo imposed on the Palestinian people and the unity government and to deal with them without discrimination," Khaled Meshaal told AFP by telephone.

"This will create a political climate that could open a political prospect in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Meshaal said. [complete article]
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Siniora denies arming Sunni extremist groups
By Iman Azzi, Daily Star, February 27, 2007

Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's office on Monday dismissed a report by a prominent US investigative journalist that the Lebanese government is allowing and possibly supporting the expansion of Sunni extremist groups in Lebanon in accordance with a new direction in US government policy.

The report, written by Seymour Hersh and published Sunday on the Web site of the New Yorker, describes a "redirection" in US policy in the Middle East designed to confront Iran.

Siniora's office issued a statement saying the contentions were "totally unfounded."

"The Lebanese government rejects any armed force or terrorist group that resorts to terrorism and illegal acts," the statement said. "Therefore, information given by Hersh is surprising and totally unfounded.

"Some organizations in the North and South have received aid from parties which have identified themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government or the Internal Security Forces," the statement added. [complete article]
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Cheney unhurt in blast outside Afghan base
AP, February 27, 2007

A suicide bomber attacked the entrance to the main U.S. military base in Afghanistan Tuesday during a visit by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, killing up to 23 people and wounding 20 more.

The Taliban claimed responsibility and said Cheney was the target.

Talking to reporters later, Cheney said he heard "a loud boom" and was informed by Secret Service agents that there had been an explosion.

He was moved briefly to a bomb shelter at the Bagram base, he said, but returned to his room "as the situation settled down."

"I think [the Taliban] clearly try to find ways to question the authority of the central government," he said. "Striking at the Bagram [base] with a suicide bomber, I suppose, is one way to do that ... It shouldn't affect our behavior." [complete article]

Taliban 'knew of Cheney visit'
AFP, February 27, 2007

Cheney's visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan were unannounced and shrouded in even tighter secrecy than when US President George W Bush travelled to the two countries in March 2006.

Author Ahmed Rashid, who has written a book on the Taliban, said the bombing was a "very provocative" move by the Taliban.

"They were waiting for a high-level visit to carry out an attack. This visit, although highly secretive, was known in circles in Kabul and Islamabad," he said.

A senior Pakistani counter-terrorism official said the "sophisticated" attack "indicates the militants' preparedness and the quality of their intelligence collection in the run-up to the so-called spring offensive".

He added: "They must have had information (a) few days before that the US vice-president would be in town and stay at Bagram. This is not something you can plan with 12 hours notice." [complete article]

Comment -- Bush administration and military officials obviously want to play down the significance of this attack. Maj. William Mitchell says that Cheney does not appear to have been the target but he is contradicted by Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi.

Is a United States military spokesman not concerned that he sounds less credible than a Taliban spokesman?

What seems indisputable is that the Taliban knew Cheney was at Bagram. Whether they really thought they stood much chance of killing him, they sent a powerful message that not even around the vice president can security be effectively maintained.

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. is operating in a region where its capacity to be politically engaged is severely restricted by the demands of security. The higher the level of security, the greater the degree of isolation. What this ultimately exposes is the inability of military power to constructively shape a political landscape.

When the vice president of the United States can't visit the president of Afghanistan without risking getting blown up, it's obvious that security will stay at the top of their agenda. It's equally clear that any politician who needs to spend much of the time hiding inside a bunker has lost his power to exert political influence. In the absence of real political power, the use of military power then becomes the fall back -- the means through which embattled politicians attempt to demonstrate both to themselves and to their constituencies that they are not impotent.

Yet there is a contradiction from which there is no escape: you cannot both lead and hide.

Gov't flounders in north Afghanistan
By Fisnik Abrashi, February 27, 2007

The disarmament of Afghanistan's illegal private militias has ground to a halt and the price of weapons in the country's relatively quiet north is skyrocketing — a sign of the embattled central government's failure to assert its control, Afghan and Western officials say.

This mountainous, ethnically diverse region has been spared the intense violence in the past year that has rocked the south and the east, where the Taliban has staged a violent comeback, launching scores of suicide bombings and brazen guerrilla attacks on Afghan, U.S. and NATO forces.

But the relative calm has not helped President Hamid Karzai's government extend its influence here, despite the presence of NATO security forces. [complete article]

Ruined poppy farmers join ranks with the Taleban
By Tim Albone and Claire Billet, The Times, February 27, 2007

The tractor roared through the field, the plough tearing through the valuable poppy crop as the farmer looked on. A helicopter searched for insurgents and armed police stood watch, their uniforms replaced by robes and turbans to make them less conspicuous.

"The people are unhappy with this eradication campaign; if it goes on they will all join the Taleban," Dilbar, a poppy farmer in Helmand province, told The Times.

The prospect of such a surge in Taleban numbers is bad news for the 5,000 British troops based in Helmand and 1,400 more heading there after the announcement by Des Browne, the Defence Secretary. The fiercest fighting since the Taleban were overthrown in 2001 came last year, with more than 4,000 people killed, and intelligence reports predict a new offensive this spring. [complete article]
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Dissent in the Pentagon
Conflicts Forum, February 25, 2007

It has been two weeks since chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, publicly disagreed with the Bush administration's assessment of "Iranian meddling" in Iraq. This occurred just after the White House made strong accusations that U.S. soldiers in Iraq are being killed by Iranian-supplied munitions.

Administration officials said that the evidence they had collected led them to believe that Iran had adopted a strategy of targeting American soldiers. This view was reinforced by a triumvirate of appropriately sober senior types who dutifully flashed a wow 'em PowerPoint presentation in Baghdad, and the handing over of spent munitions with "Iranian serial numbers" to CNN Baghdad reporter Michael Ware -- who dutifully waved the evidence in front of the camera.

But Pace had his own assessment. "We know that the explosively formed projectiles are manufactured in Iran," he said. "What I would not say is that the Iranian government, per se [specifically], knows about this."

That's a lot different from what the White House said, and was taken as evidence that the same crew that cooked the books on Iraq was in the process of doing so on Iran. The difference was that this time the military wasn't going to let them get away with it. [complete article]

Comment -- In spite of the fact that so many observers are inclined to look at the Bush administration's posture towards Iran through the prism of the build up to the war in Iraq, the differences between then and now are hard to overstate.

In the Fall of 2002, the administration and its neoconservative ideological backers were at the height of their power. Few mainstream observers challenged their claim that the war in Afghanistan had been a success; the world was cowering in the face of America's unilateralist spirit; and even if the pretext for toppling Saddam seemed uncertain, there was little doubt that the United States would attack Iraq -- the only question was when?

Fast forward to early 2007. The war in Iraq has been an unmitigated disaster; America's lingering unilateralist tendencies are now widely perceived as precursors of post-imperial oblivion; the administration does not speak with one voice; and the U.S. military, while maintaining a level of discretion, is sending increasingly clear signals that when it comes to dealing with Iran, war should not be considered as an option. This might not be the message the president wants to hear, but it is one he will find impossible to ignore.
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The Iraq effect: war has increased terrorism sevenfold worldwide
By Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, Mother Jones, March 1, 2007

"If we were not fighting and destroying this enemy in Iraq, they would not be idle. They would be plotting and killing Americans across the world and within our own borders. By fighting these terrorists in Iraq, Americans in uniform are defeating a direct threat to the American people." So said President Bush on November 30, 2005, refining his earlier call to "bring them on." Jihadist terrorists, the administration's argument went, would be drawn to Iraq like moths to a flame, and would perish there rather than wreak havoc elsewhere in the world.

The president's argument conveyed two important assumptions: first, that the threat of jihadist terrorism to U.S. interests would have been greater without the war in Iraq, and second, that the war is reducing the overall global pool of terrorists. However, the White House has never cited any evidence for either of these assumptions, and none appears to be publicly available. [complete article]
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It's time to start talking
By Henry A. Kissinger, IHT, February 25, 2007

The time has come to begin preparing for an international conference to define the political outcome of the Iraq war. Whatever happens, a diplomatic phase is necessary.

Iraq will have to rejoin the international community in some manner. Its internal tensions will continue to tempt outside intervention, and these cannot be resisted effectively in the absence of some agreed principles. The conflicting interests of various countries must be restrained by a combination of a balance of power and an agreed legitimacy to provide an international sanction.

A call for an international conference would be an important step in dealing with a striking anomaly of contemporary international politics. America is widely condemned for its conduct of the Iraq war, while no country has been prepared to participate in a serious exploration of the political implications of foreseeable outcomes. [complete article]
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Looking beyond Iraq
By Strobe Talbott, YaleGlobal, February 21, 2007

With the toll of the Iraq war mounting daily and the US Congress gridlocked over how to extricate its troops from the quagmire, the question that everyone asks, is what went wrong and how can the US recover from this disaster?

The answer to the first question can be summed up in one word: unilateralism. While the senior George Bush was an arch-multilateralist, his son has been an arch-unilateralist. Profoundly skeptical about the utility of international treaties, international institutions and international law, the current president annulled, unsigned or otherwise withdrew from a range of international agreements and mechanisms: the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the International Criminal Court, the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty. [complete article]
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No 'brakes' on Iran nuclear effort
By Nasser Karimi, AP, February 26, 2007

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Sunday that his country's disputed nuclear program was like a train "without brakes" or a reverse gear, prompting Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to respond that Iran needs "a stop button."

The comments came as senior officials representing Germany and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia -- prepared to meet in London on Monday to discuss increasing international pressure on Iran to suspend its uranium enrichment program.

The International Atomic Energy Agency last week reported that Iran had ignored a U.N. Security Council ultimatum to freeze the enrichment program and instead had expanded it by setting up hundreds of centrifuges. Iran has repeatedly refused to halt enrichment as a precondition to negotiations about the program. [complete article]
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Baghdad plan has elusive targets
By Joshua Partlow, Washington Post, February 26, 2007

The engineer stood aside as Iraqi and American soldiers rifled through his daughter's wardrobe and peered under her bed. He did not mind when they confiscated the second clip for his AK-47, because he knew it could be easily replaced. He demurred when asked about insurgent activity in the neighborhood, afraid to be stamped an informant and driven from his home of 14 years. Face to face with the Baghdad security plan, it seemed to him a bit absurd.

"Obviously, the soldiers lack the necessary information about where to look and who to look for," said the government engineer, who declined to give his name in an interview during a sweep through his western Baghdad neighborhood last Monday. "There are too many houses and too many hide-outs."

American military commanders in Iraq describe the security plan they began implementing in mid-February as a rising tide: a gradual influx of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops whose extended presence in the city's violent neighborhoods will drown the militants' ability to stage bombings and sectarian killings.

But U.S. troops, Iraqi soldiers and officials, and Baghdad residents say the plan is hampered because security forces cannot identify, let alone apprehend, the elusive perpetrators of the violence. Shiite militiamen in the capital say they are keeping a low profile to wait out the security plan. U.S. commanders have noted increased insurgent violence in the Sunni-dominated belt around Baghdad and are concerned that fighters are shifting their focus outside the city. [complete article]

Bombing at Iraqi ministry injures vice president
By Damien Cave and Wisam A. Habeeb, New York Times, February 26, 2007

An explosion today inside the headquarters of the Iraqi Ministry of Public Works killed at least five people and injured Iraq's vice president, the police and witnesses said.

Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi was approaching a conference-room lectern to address ministry employees at the time of the blast, which threw him to the ground, witnesses said. Others in the room threw themselves on top of him. A statement from the office of President Jalal Talabani this afternoon said that Mr. Abdul-Mahdi "suffered slight scratches" and returned to work after the incident. [complete article]

U.S. says raid in Iraq supports claim on Iran
By James Glanz and Richard A. Oppel Jr., New York Times, February 26, 2007

A raid on a Shiite weapons cache in the southern city of Hilla one week ago is providing what American officials call the best evidence yet that the deadliest roadside bombs in Iraq are manufactured in Iran, but critics contend that the forensic case remains circumstantial and inferential.

The new evidence includes infrared sensors, electronic triggering devices and information about plastic explosives used in bombs that the Americans say lead back to Iran. The explosive material, triggering devices, other components and the method of assembly all produce weapons with an Iranian signature that has never been found outside Iraq or southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah is believed to have used weapons supplied by Iran, the Americans say.

But critics assert that nearly all the bomb components could have been produced in Iraq or somewhere else in the region. Even if the evidence were to establish that Iran is the source, they add, that does not necessarily mean that the Iranian leadership is responsible. [complete article]

Rape charge supported by strong evidence, Sunni official says
By Richard Mauer and Mohammed al Dulaimy, McClatchy, February 23, 2007

A Sunni Muslim woman's allegations that she was raped by three members of Iraq's Shiite-dominated police force took a startling turn Friday when a Sunni human rights official said that a government committee has uncovered strong evidence to support her claims.

The official, Omar al-Jabouri, said one of the woman's alleged attackers and an accomplice have been in custody since Wednesday and that a four-member special investigative panel has continued to investigate the case despite Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's public statements that the woman lied. [complete article]
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Resurgent insurgents
By Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, February 26, 2007

Fears that a revitalised al-Qaida is planning a stepped-up offensive against "soft" western targets are driving an intensifying debate both inside and outside the Bush administration over how to counter the threat. But terrorism experts say the deepening quagmire in Iraq is fatally hampering US efforts while simultaneously fuelling a sevenfold increase in fatal jihadist attacks.

George Bush and his officials have maintained until relatively recently that the al-Qaida organisation and leadership had been severely degraded since 9/11. "Absolutely we're winning. Al-Qaida is on the run," Mr Bush declared last October. But as Peter Bergen, a leading, non-government terrorism expert and New York University research fellow noted last month, the administration's assessment is now increasingly open to question. [complete article]
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Cheney warns Pakistan to act on terror
By David E. Sanger and Mark Mazzetti, New York Times, February 26, 2007

Vice President Dick Cheney made an unannounced trip to Pakistan on Monday to deliver what officials in Washington described as an unusually tough message Gen. Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, warning him that the newly Democratic Congress could cut aid to his country unless his forces become far more aggressive in hunting down operatives with Al Qaeda.

Mr. Cheney's trip was shrouded in secrecy, and he was on the ground for only a few hours, sharing a private lunch with the Pakistani leader at his palace. Notably, Mr. Cheney traveled with the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Steve Kappes, an indication that the conversation with the Pakistani president likely included discussion of American intelligence agency contentions that Al Qaeda camps have been reconstituted along the border of Afghanistan.

The decision to send Mr. Cheney secretly to Pakistan came after the White House concluded that General Musharraf is failing to live up to commitments he made to Mr. Bush during a visit here in September. General Musharraf insisted then, both in private and public, that a peace deal he struck with tribal leaders in one of the country’s most lawless border areas would not diminish the hunt for the leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. [complete article]
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Israel denies seeking air corridor for Iran attack
By Yossi Melman, Haaretz, February 26, 2007

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh denied yesterday that Israel was in talks with the United States to use Iraqi airspace as part of possible plans to attack Iranian nuclear sites.

Britain's Daily Telegraph, citing an unnamed senior Israeli defense official, said yesterday that Israel had sought permission from the Pentagon to use an "air corridor" in Iraq in the event that it decided to launch air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities. [complete article]
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Israeli forces invade and impose curfew on Nablus
Electronic Intifada, February 25, 2007

Israeli occupation forces initiated a huge operation in Nablus, in the occupied Palestinian West Bank, considered to be the biggest operation there in two years. Ma'an's correspondent reported that more than 60 Israeli military vehicles and several bulldozers entered the city and imposed curfew.

Palestinian security sources told Ma'an that a large force participated in the incursion, focused on the old city, particularly Al Yasameen neighborhood, where dozens of Israeli soldiers were deployed in the streets. The city resembles something like a military camp, the sources said. [complete article]

Planning council approves illegal West Bank building plan
By Akiva Eldar, Haaretz, February 25, 2007

The Supreme Planning Council for Judea and Samaria recently legalized the largest-ever illegal construction project in the West Bank. Part of the project is situated on private land, which belongs to Palestinian residents of the village of Bil'in.

The project calls for the construction of 42 buildings containing approximately 1,500 apartments. The buildings, already in various stages of construction, are in the neighborhood of Matityahu East, which is located in the large ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modi'in Illit.

Peace Now and Bil'in residents filed a petition against the construction a week ago at the High Court of Justice. [complete article]

Palestinian economy shrinks 21 percent in fourth quarter of 2006
AP, February 25, 2007

The Palestinian economy shrank 21 percent in the fourth quarter of 2006 compared with the previous year, suffering from the effects of international sanctions and restricted flow of goods into the Gaza Strip, officials said Sunday.

The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics said most sectors of the economy suffered declines, including manufacturing, education, tourism and health care.

Sufian al-Barghouti, the bureau's director for economic statistics, said the steep drop in economic activity was largely the result of international sanctions imposed after Hamas won legislative elections last year and gained control of the government. Up to now, foreign aid has made up about half of the government budget. [complete article]

Apartheid looks like this
By Jonathan Cook, Electronic Intifada, February 23, 2007

The scene: a military checkpoint deep in Palestinian territory in the West Bank. A tall, thin elderly man, walking stick in hand, makes a detour past the line of Palestinians, many of them young men, waiting obediently behind concrete barriers for permission from an Israeli soldier to leave one Palestinian area, the city of Nablus, to enter another Palestinian area, the neighbouring village of Huwara. The long queue is moving slowly, the soldier taking his time to check each person's papers.

The old man heads off purposefully down a parallel but empty lane reserved for vehicle inspections. A young soldier controlling the human traffic spots him and orders him back in line. The old man stops, fixes the soldier with a stare and refuses. The soldier looks startled, and uncomfortable at the unexpected show of defiance. He tells the old man more gently to go back to the queue. The old man stands his ground. After a few tense moments, the soldier relents and the old man passes.

Is the confrontation revealing of the soldier's humanity? That is not the way it looks -- or feels -- to the young Palestinians penned in behind the concrete barriers. They can only watch the scene in silence. None would dare to address the soldier in the manner the old man did -- or take his side had the Israeli been of a different disposition. An old man is unlikely to be detained or beaten at a checkpoint. Who, after all, would believe he attacked or threatened a soldier, or resisted arrest, or was carrying a weapon? But the young men know their own injuries or arrests would barely merit a line in Israels newspapers, let alone an investigation. [complete article]

In the heart of Palestinian consensus
By Danny Rubinstein, Haaretz, February 26, 2007

Forty years after the Six-Day War, the Palestinian attitude that has become consolidated toward the State of Israel is quite clear: It is possible and necessary to achieve an agreement for coexistence with Israel on the basis of the 1967 borders. Israelis who think it is possible to reach an accord with the Palestinians that includes annexation of settlement blocs in the West Bank or leaves East Jerusalem under Israeli jurisdiction are deluding themselves. In all the decades that have passed since occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, not a single Palestinian voice has been heard that agrees to less than that. Of course, there have been those who demanded more, and even today some want to destroy Israel entirely, but no Palestinian will agree to allow Israel to annex even one meter beyond the boundaries of the Green Line. [complete article]
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Hizbullah builds new line of defense
By Nicholas Blanford, Christian Science Monitor, February 25, 2007

The metal sign dangling from a shiny new chain reads: "Warning. Access to this area is forbidden. Hizbullah."

The notice strung between two concrete blocks on a hillside overlooking the Litani River, is just one indication that the Shiite militants have relocated here to build a new line of defense.

Hizbullah's strengthening presence just across the Litani – the northern border of the zone UN peacekeeping forces and Lebanese troops have been policing since last summer's war between Hizbullah and Israel – coincides with a series of land purchases here by a Shiite businessman with ties to the militant group and, critics say, with funds from Tehran.

While analysts say the military buildup does not necessarily signal any intention by the Iranian-supported militants to launch a fresh round of fighting, they say it is a troubling sign that Hizbullah is rearming just out of sight of the United Nations.
[complete article]
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The redirection
By Seymour M. Hersh, The New Yorker, February 25, 2007

The Bush Administration has publicly pledged the Siniora government a billion dollars in aid since last summer. A donors' conference in Paris, in January, which the U.S. helped organize, yielded pledges of almost eight billion more, including a promise of more than a billion from the Saudis. The American pledge includes more than two hundred million dollars in military aid, and forty million dollars for internal security.

The United States has also given clandestine support to the Siniora government, according to the former senior intelligence official and the U.S. government consultant. "We are in a program to enhance the Sunni capability to resist Shiite influence, and we're spreading the money around as much as we can," the former senior intelligence official said. The problem was that such money "always gets in more pockets than you think it will," he said. "In this process, we're financing a lot of bad guys with some serious potential unintended consequences. We don't have the ability to determine and get pay vouchers signed by the people we like and avoid the people we don't like. It's a very high-risk venture."

American, European, and Arab officials I spoke to told me that the Siniora government and its allies had allowed some aid to end up in the hands of emerging Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south. These groups, though small, are seen as a buffer to Hezbollah; at the same time, their ideological ties are with Al Qaeda.

During a conversation with me, the former Saudi diplomat accused Nasrallah of attempting "to hijack the state," but he also objected to the Lebanese and Saudi sponsorship of Sunni jihadists in Lebanon. "Salafis are sick and hateful, and I'm very much against the idea of flirting with them," he said. "They hate the Shiites, but they hate Americans more. If you try to outsmart them, they will outsmart us. It will be ugly."

Alastair Crooke, who spent nearly thirty years in MI6, the British intelligence service, and now works for Conflicts Forum, a think tank in Beirut, told me, "The Lebanese government is opening space for these people to come in. It could be very dangerous." Crooke said that one Sunni extremist group, Fatah al-Islam, had splintered from its pro-Syrian parent group, Fatah al-Intifada, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, in northern Lebanon. Its membership at the time was less than two hundred. "I was told that within twenty-four hours they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government's interests -- presumably to take on Hezbollah," Crooke said.

The largest of the groups, Asbat al-Ansar, is situated in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp. Asbat al-Ansar has received arms and supplies from Lebanese internal-security forces and militias associated with the Siniora government.

In 2005, according to a report by the U.S.-based International Crisis Group, Saad Hariri, the Sunni majority leader of the Lebanese parliament and the son of the slain former Prime Minister -- Saad inherited more than four billion dollars after his father's assassination -- paid forty-eight thousand dollars in bail for four members of an Islamic militant group from Dinniyeh. The men had been arrested while trying to establish an Islamic mini-state in northern Lebanon. The Crisis Group noted that many of the militants "had trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan."

According to the Crisis Group report, Saad Hariri later used his parliamentary majority to obtain amnesty for twenty-two of the Dinniyeh Islamists, as well as for seven militants suspected of plotting to bomb the Italian and Ukrainian embassies in Beirut, the previous year. (He also arranged a pardon for Samir Geagea, a Maronite Christian militia leader, who had been convicted of four political murders, including the assassination, in 1987, of Prime Minister Rashid Karami.) Hariri described his actions to reporters as humanitarian.

In an interview in Beirut, a senior official in the Siniora government acknowledged that there were Sunni jihadists operating inside Lebanon. "We have a liberal attitude that allows Al Qaeda types to have a presence here," he said. He related this to concerns that Iran or Syria might decide to turn Lebanon into a "theatre of conflict." [complete article]

Comment -- In this article there are two claims that will grab most of the headlines: that President Bush has directed the Pentagon to provide him with a "contingency bombing plan for Iran that can be implemented, upon orders from the President, within twenty-four hours," and that "special-operations teams have escalated their activities in Iran to gather intelligence and, according to a Pentagon consultant on terrorism and the former senior intelligence official, have also crossed the border in pursuit of Iranian operatives from Iraq."

Yet in spite of Washington and the media's focus on the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iran, an equally disturbing story here is that in the sixth year of the war on terrorism, under the Bush administration's watch, U.S. tax dollars may be ending up in the hands of al Qaeda affiliates!

America has apparently turned full circle. In the old Cold War, the United States was happy to outsource the fighting to the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. In the New Cold War, Uncle Sam appears to once again be open to recruiting a few bad men who are fit and willing to join the fight -- this time against Iran.
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U.S. funds terror groups to sow chaos in Iran
By William Lowther and Colin Freeman, Sunday Telegraph, February 25, 2007

America is secretly funding militant ethnic separatist groups in Iran in an attempt to pile pressure on the Islamic regime to give up its nuclear programme.

In a move that reflects Washington's growing concern with the failure of diplomatic initiatives, CIA officials are understood to be helping opposition militias among the numerous ethnic minority groups clustered in Iran's border regions.

The operations are controversial because they involve dealing with movements that resort to terrorist methods in pursuit of their grievances against the Iranian regime.

In the past year there has been a wave of unrest in ethnic minority border areas of Iran, with bombing and assassination campaigns against soldiers and government officials.

Such incidents have been carried out by the Kurds in the west, the Azeris in the north-west, the Ahwazi Arabs in the south-west, and the Baluchis in the south-east. Non-Persians make up nearly 40 per cent of Iran's 69 million population, with around 16 million Azeris, seven million Kurds, five million Ahwazis and one million Baluchis. Most Baluchis live over the border in Pakistan.

Funding for their separatist causes comes directly from the CIA's classified budget but is now "no great secret", according to one former high-ranking CIA official in Washington who spoke anonymously to The Sunday Telegraph.

His claims were backed by Fred Burton, a former US state department counter-terrorism agent, who said: "The latest attacks inside Iran fall in line with US efforts to supply and train Iran's ethnic minorities to destabilise the Iranian regime." [complete article]
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U.S. generals 'will quit' if Bush orders Iran attack
By Michael Smith and Sarah Baxter, The Sunday Times, February 25, 2007

Some of America's most senior military commanders are prepared to resign if the White House orders a military strike against Iran, according to highly placed defence and intelligence sources.

Tension in the Gulf region has raised fears that an attack on Iran is becoming increasingly likely before President George Bush leaves office. The Sunday Times has learnt that up to five generals and admirals are willing to resign rather than approve what they consider would be a reckless attack.

"There are four or five generals and admirals we know of who would resign if Bush ordered an attack on Iran," a source with close ties to British intelligence said. "There is simply no stomach for it in the Pentagon, and a lot of people question whether such an attack would be effective or even possible."

A British defence source confirmed that there were deep misgivings inside the Pentagon about a military strike. "All the generals are perfectly clear that they don't have the military capacity to take Iran on in any meaningful fashion. Nobody wants to do it and it would be a matter of conscience for them." [complete article]

See also, U.N. calls U.S. data on Iran's nuclear aims unreliable (LAT).
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In for the long haul
By Michael Hirsh, Newsweek, February 22, 2007

The British are leaving, the Iraqis are failing and the Americans are staying—and we’re going to be there a lot longer than anyone in Washington is acknowledging right now. As Democrats and Republicans back home try to outdo each other with quick-fix plans for the withdrawal of U.S. troops and funds, what few people seem to have noticed is that Gen. David Petraeus's new "surge" plan is committing U.S. troops, day by day, to a much deeper and longer-term role in policing Iraq than since the earliest days of the U.S. occupation. How long must we stay under the Petraeus plan? Perhaps 10 years. At least five. In any case, long after George W. Bush has returned to Crawford, Texas, for good.

But don't take my word for it. I'm merely a messenger for a coterie of counterinsurgency experts who have helped to design the Petraeus plan -- his so-called "dream team" -- and who have discussed it with NEWSWEEK, usually on condition of anonymity, owing to the sensitivity of the subject. To a degree little understood by the U.S. public, Petraeus is engaged in a giant "do-over." It is a near-reversal of the approach taken by Petraeus's predecessor as commander of multinational forces in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, until the latter was relieved in early February, and most other top U.S. commanders going back to Rick Sanchez and Tommy Franks. Casey sought to accelerate both the training of Iraqi forces and American withdrawal. By 2008, the remaining 60,000 or so U.S. troops were supposed to be hunkering down in four giant "superbases," where they would be relatively safe. Under Petraeus's plan, a U.S. military force of 160,000 or more is setting up hundreds of "mini-forts" all over Baghdad and the rest of the country, right in the middle of the action. The U.S. Army has also stopped pretending that Iraqis -- who have failed to build a credible government, military or police force on their own -- are in the lead when it comes to kicking down doors and keeping the peace. And that means the future of Iraq depends on the long-term presence of U.S. forces in a way it did not just a few months ago. "We're putting down roots," says Philip Carter, a former U.S. Army captain who returned last summer from a year of policing and training in the hot zone around Baquba. "The Americans are no longer willing to accept failure in order to put Iraqis in the lead. You can't let the mission fail just for the sake of diplomacy." [complete article]
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Beyond Baghdad, beyond 'the surge,' war still simmers
By Marc Santora, New York Times, February 25, 2007

The letter from Al Qaeda in Iraq to the members of the local police was clear.

Come to the mosque and swear allegiance on the Koran to Al Qaeda, the letter warned, or you will die and your family will be slaughtered. Also, bring $1,200.

It had the desired effect on American efforts to build an Iraqi security force here.

Nearly a third of the local police force went to the mosque, paid the money and pledged their allegiance. Another third was killed. By late October, only 34 local police officers were left to try to maintain order in this city of 100,000.

Events in Baghdad have dominated the news as American troops move aggressively to quell the sectarian violence that has set Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods at war with each other. But a visit to this restive city is a reminder not only of the many fronts of the war, but also of its many complexities. [complete article]
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Iraqis protest arrest of Ammar Hakim
By Christian Berthelsen, Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2007

The son of one of Iraq's most prominent Shiite politicians lashed out at the United States in an incendiary televised appearance Saturday, a day after he was detained by American troops.

Thousands of Iraqis took to the streets across the country to protest the detention of Ammar Hakim, whose father's political party has been a major U.S. ally. The demonstrators chanted "Down with America" and called Western forces "occupiers" who must leave the country.

Not only has the arrest angered followers of the moderate Shiite party led by his father, Abdelaziz Hakim, it has provided common ground with more radical followers of the anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr.

U.S. policymakers have advocated isolating Shiite radicals from more moderate figures in the community. But at rallies across the country Saturday, members of Sadr's Al Mahdi army, longtime rivals of the Hakim family, protested alongside members of the elder Hakim's Badr Brigade militia. [complete article]

See also, Analysis: Shiite protests send message (AP).

Iraq rebel cleric reins In Militia; motives at issue
By Damien Cave, New York Times, February 25, 2007

Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric and founder of the Mahdi Army militia, discovered recently that two of his commanders had created DVDs of their men killing Sunnis in Baghdad. Documents suggested that they had received money from Iran.

So he suspended them and stripped them of power, said two Mahdi leaders in Sadr City, the heart of Mr. Sadr's support here in the capital.

But did he do so as part of his cooperation with the new security plan for Baghdad, which aims to quell the sectarian violence tormenting the city? Because his men had been disloyal, taking orders from Iran, whose support he values but whose control he fights? Or was it just for show -- the act of an image-conscious leader who grasped the risk of graphic videos and wanted to stave off direct American action against him?

Mr. Sadr has been the great destabilizer in Iraq since 2003, wielding power on the streets and in the ruling Shiite bloc, thwarting the Americans and playing out at least a temporary alliance with Iran. [complete article]

See also, Sadr calls on Iraqi forces not to work with U.S. (AFP).

Comment -- Moktada al-Sadr is the "great destabilizer"? Like them or not, the Sadrists have from the outset been politically consistent in wanting the Americans out of Iraq. No, The Great Destabilizer -- that's a title that should be reserved for the United States.
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Leaders of Iraq's Kurdish region reportedly approve draft oil law
By Ernesto Londono, Washington Post, February 25, 2007

Leaders of Iraq's oil-rich Kurdish region have apparently approved a draft oil law that will be presented to Iraqi lawmakers in coming weeks, an eagerly awaited breakthrough that is expected to professionalize and expand drilling in the country.

The agreement was announced Saturday by Massoud Barzani, president of the regional government in Kurdish-populated northern Iraq, during a news conference in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah attended by Iraq's president, he Associated Press reported.

"We reached a final agreement," Barzani said, according to AP. "We accept the draft." [complete article]
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Murtha stumbles on Iraq funding curbs
By Jonathan Weisman and Lyndsey Layton, Washington Post, February 25, 2007

The plan was bold: By tying President Bush's $100 billion war request to strict standards of troop safety and readiness, Democrats believed they could grab hold of Iraq war policy while forcing Republicans to defend sending troops into battle without the necessary training or equipment.

But a botched launch by the plan's author, Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), has united Republicans and divided Democrats, sending the latter back to the drawing board just a week before scheduled legislative action, a score of House Democratic lawmakers said last week.

"If this is going to be legislation that's crafted in such a way that holds back resources from our troops, that is a non-starter, an absolute non-starter," declared Rep. Jim Matheson (Utah), a leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats. [complete article]
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Iran fires 'first space rocket'
BBC News, February 25, 2007

Iranian media say the country has successfully launched its first rocket capable of reaching space.

But officials said it was just for research and would not go into orbit.

Experts say if Iran has fired a rocket into space it would cause alarm abroad as it would mean scientists had crossed important technological barriers. [complete article]
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Look West for the Middle East's violence
By Rami G. Khouri, Daily Star, February , 2007

Why is the entire Arab world - even some Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain - susceptible to chronic tension that manifests itself in regular outbursts of terrorism or domestic strife? Simple and occasionally sinister minds in faraway lands would explain this by culture, religion or values, or by claiming that masses of ordinary Arabs have simply allowed their emotions to overcome them and thus have not permitted themselves to engage in the joys of modernity, democracy and liberty.

I think there is a better explanation, which will not please those far away who accuse us of blaming all our ailments on foreigners and history. I suspect that much of the Arab world is a chronic mess because it is the only region in the world that simultaneously suffers the debilitating consequences of two of the most wretched and wrenching forces in modern history: the distress and distortions of societies that Europeans manufactured, ruled over, and then abandoned in the 20th century; and the new stresses and dysfunctional nature of neo-colonial policies the United States is spearheading in the Middle East - and only the Middle East - in the wake of the end of the Cold War and the advent of the post-9/11 "global war on terror." For some reason, we in the Arab world must endure the worst of the 19th and 21st centuries combined. [complete article]
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Demolition of the willing
By Christopher Dickey, February 23, 2007

Four years ago a million people poured into the streets of Britain to march against the war they feared was coming in Iraq. I was in London, and I remember being struck by how decent, sincere and solid the protesters were. Many had come as families -- mom and pop and the kids -- just to stand up and be counted in favor of reason and diplomacy over sophistry, war and occupation.

Maybe you remember what President George W. Bush had to say about those folks. It tells you a lot about why the United States has so few friends left in the world; why its political allies have been weakened, deposed or defeated and why the public in Europe, especially, is unwilling to believe almost anything Washington says.

This is from the White House transcript of Bush's remarks on Feb. 18, 2003, three days after huge protests in Britain, Spain and Italy -- and one month before the bombing of Baghdad: "First of all, you know, size of protest, it's like deciding, well, I'm going to decide policy based upon a focus group," Bush told reporters.

A focus group. Sure. Why not compare millions of people of good conscience gathered to exercise their civic duty to handfuls paid for their opinions about the marketing of new soft drinks or campaign slogans? Why would Bush or his acolyte, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, listen to a vast sampling of public concern when the two politicians knew in their hearts they'd already taken the right decision about launching the war. [complete article]
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Europeans tell Abbas new gov't must meet conditions
By Wafa Amr, Reuters, February 25, 2007

European leaders told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that a unity government must clearly recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept interim peace deals for sanctions to end, Abbas aides said on Sunday.

"We have asked the Europeans to help us lift the sanctions but their response was that the Palestinian government must be clear in its acceptance of the Quartet conditions," senior Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said after a European tour in which Abbas sought support for his power-sharing deal with Hamas Islamists. [complete article]
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Canadian court limits detention in terror cases
By Ian Austen, New York Times, February 24, 2007

Canada's highest court on Friday unanimously struck down a law that allows the Canadian government to detain foreign-born terrorism suspects indefinitely using secret evidence and without charges while their deportations are being reviewed.

The detention measure, the security certificate system, has been described by government lawyers as an important tool for combating international terrorism and maintaining Canada's domestic security. Six men are now under threat of deportation without an open hearing under the certificates.

"The overarching principle of fundamental justice that applies here is this: before the state can detain people for significant periods of time, it must accord them a fair judicial process," Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote in the ruling. [complete article]
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Advanced geometry of Islamic art
BBC News, February 23, 2007

A study of medieval Islamic art has shown some of its geometric patterns use principles established centuries later by modern mathematicians.

Researchers in the US have found 15th Century examples that use the concept of quasicrystalline geometry.

This indicates intuitive understanding of complex mathematical formulae, even if the artisans had not worked out the underlying theory, the study says.

The discovery is published in the journal Science.

The research shows an important breakthrough had occurred in Islamic mathematics and design by 1200. [complete article]
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Noteworthy articles from the last seven days:

Should the West dialogue with Islamists?
Alastair Crooke interviewed by Abdullah Faliq, The Cordoba Foundation, October-December, 2006

The fall of modernity
By Michael Vlahos, The American Conservative, February 26, 2007

The modern Muslim
Tariq Ramadan interviewed by Steve Paulson, Salon, February 20, 2007

The British defeat in the South and the uncertain Bush "strategy" in Iraq [PDF]
By Anthony H. Cordesman, CSIS, February 21, 2007

Arabs say Israel is not just for Jews
By Richard Boudreaux, Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2007

Popularizing torture: the politics of the man behind Fox's "24"
By Jane Mayer, The New Yorker, February 12, 2007

Why should Hamas be required to 'recognize Israel's right to exist'?
By Uri Avnery, Middle East Online, February 18, 2007

The Neocon dog that isn't barking
By Jim Lobe, IPS, February 17, 2007

Global poll finds that religion and culture are not to blame for tensions between Islam and the West
World Public Opinion, February 19, 2007

Rove said to have received 2003 Iranian proposal
By Gareth Porter, IPS, February 17, 2007
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