The War in Context Christopher Dickey quote
  Iraq + war on terrorism + Middle East conflict + critical perspectives     
New voices temper Palestinian rule
By Ilene R. Prusher, Christian Science Monitor, March 22, 2007

Khouloud Daibes defies the image of a Palestinian government run by a pack of gun-toting Islamic militants.

The new Palestinian tourism minister takes the reins this week from the outgoing minister from Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement, which formed a government a year ago that much of the international community has shunned.

She is proud to call herself a technocrat – she earned a PhD in architecture in Germany and was in charge of tourism to Bethlehem, Jesus' birthplace at the turn of the millennium celebrations in 2000. Besides being a multilingual woman, she's also a Christian and a political independent.

This makes Mrs. Daibes part of a new cadre of respected and successful pro-peace Palestinians who have joined up with compatriots in Hamas in the hope of reestablishing relations abroad and staving off a civil war at home.

But this wider-than-ever variety of political orientations represented in the new Palestinian cabinet is already presenting a dilemma for Israel as US and European diplomats this week met with the new Palestinian finance minister, apparently ending a year of ostracism. Norway recognized the new government this week, and Hamas officials predict that others will come around. [complete article]

Comment -- "Khouloud Daibes defies the image of a Palestinian government run by a pack of gun-toting Islamic militants," but it should also be underlined that the Hamas government itself from the time of its election has defied the image of "a pack of gun-toting Islamic militants."

The trouble is, the Western media, in deference to the blinkered perspective of the Bush administration and its servile allies, has been reluctant to acknowledge that Hamas is making an honest attempt at democratic rule -- even while enduring an economic siege. Hamas' perseverance is finally paying off and it is now time for the U.S. and their allies to start dealing with the political realities.

The United States government is willing to talk to Iran; it is talking to the North Koreans; it is perfectly capable of talking to Hamas. Yes, this will upset the Israelis but when it comes to credibly presenting itself as a "partner for peace" the onus is now on Israel -- not the Palestinians -- to demonstrate that it has a genuine interest in entering into good-faith negotiations.

Whether such negotiations can be entered into any time soon is far from clear. The Olmert government is far too weak to do anything bold, Israeli political culture is mired in corruption and Israel's self-image is still badly bruised because of the IDF's inability to defeat Hezbollah last summer.

At the same time, the formation of a Palestinian National Unity Government should be welcomed from all quarters. Hamas's political leadership has again demonstrated that it has a practical, pragmatic, and realistic approach to governance. A strong Palestinian government, far from posing a threat, should be seen for what it is: a body that can speak for the Palestinian people and exercise a powerful political mandate.

There are those such as Elliot Abrams who subscribe to the view that it serves Israel's interests for the Palestinians to be crippled by factional conflict. According to this simplistic mindset, if Palestinians are busy fighting each other they won't be able to cause problems for anyone else. Aside from the undiluted cynicism in this outlook, it simply isn't true. Israel's security is not served by having strife-torn societies on its borders. Far from it, the lack of peace outside the "Iron Wall" (conceived as Zionism's ultimate line of defense) is actually a fault-line that extends right into the heart of this oppositional conception of Israel.

The US-Israeli project to destroy Hamas has failed. The Palestinians have an adult government. It's now time for Israel and the West to stop sulking, start talking and demonstrate that, yes, we too, are capable of acting as adults.
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An advocate of Iraq regime change wonders what went wrong
By Edward Wong, IHT, March 23, 2007

"I want to look into myself, look at myself, delve into the assumptions I had going into the war," [Kanan Makiya] said. "Now it seems necessary to reflect on the society that has gotten itself into this mess. A question that looms more and more for me is: Just what did 30 years of dictatorship do to 25 million people?"

"It's not like I didn't think about this," he said. "But nonetheless I allowed myself as an activist to put it aside in the hope that it could be worked through, or managed, or exorcised in a way that's not as violent as is the case now. That did not work out."

The thing that "did not work out" seemed very far away. Makiya was awaiting the arrival for dinner of a former student of his at Brandeis University, where he is a professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern studies. While musing on Iraq, he admitted his inability to foresee the manifold shortcomings in the project.

"There were failures at the level of leadership, and they're overwhelmingly Iraqi failures," he said.

Chief among the culprits, he said, were the Iraqis picked by the Americans in 2003 to sit on the Iraqi Governing Council, many of them exiles, who tried to create popular bases for themselves by emphasizing sectarian and ethnic differences.

"Sectarianism began there," he said. [complete article]

Comment -- Kanan Makiya still has the conceit to declare, "someone has to keep dreaming" -- and he does so from the comfort and tranquility of his office in Massachusetts. Yet as someone who served as a catalyst for this catastrophe, how can he now excuse himself for abandoning his country? If he and his neocon friends had any integrity whatsoever, they would all -- as a matter of principle and as act of solidarity with the people whose fate they presumed a right to steer -- be living in Iraq.
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Gates' effort to close Guantanamo
By Thom Shanker and David E. Sanger, New York Times, March 22, 2007

In his first weeks as defense secretary, Robert M. Gates repeatedly argued that the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, had become so tainted abroad that legal proceedings at Guantanamo would be viewed as illegitimate, according to senior administration officials. He told President Bush and others that it should be shut down as quickly as possible.

Mr. Gates's appeal was an effort to turn Mr. Bush's publicly stated desire to close Guantanamo into a specific plan for action, the officials said. In particular, Mr. Gates urged that trials of terrorism suspects be moved to the United States, both to make them more credible and because Guantanamo's continued existence hampered the broader war effort, administration officials said.

Mr. Gates's arguments were rejected after Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and some other government lawyers expressed strong objections to moving detainees to the United States, a stance that was backed by the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, administration officials said.

As Mr. Gates was making his case, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined him in urging that the detention facility be shut down, administration officials said. But the high-level discussions about closing Guantanamo came to a halt after Mr. Bush rejected the approach, although officials at the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the State Department continue to analyze options for the detention of terrorism suspects. [complete article]

Comment -- The detention facility at Guantanamo is an internment camp. It provides the means through which individuals deemed enemies of the state can be confined without legal process. It has been presented as serving a national security need but like all other forms of internment, the facility itself -- not its occupants -- poses the greater threat to America as a democratic state. When the executive branch claims the power to act as judge, jury, and executioner, the separation of powers -- the bulwark against totalitarianism -- is breaking down.

That Bush, Cheney, and Gonzalez, would defend the supra-legal entity they created is hardly surprising. But that Defense Secretary Gates would push vigorously for Guantanamo's closure suggests that he and other like-minded members of the administration now have a strong interest in staking a position in defense of the law -- even if that places them at odds with the president, vice-president. And if Bush and Cheney's legal fixer is about to get kicked out, it surely won't be too long before the flip side of loyalty -- backstabbing -- becomes the order of the day. When tightly imposed discipline starts to unravel, with the power of Newtonian mechanics, pent up frustrations can swiftly become unleashed.
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U.K. sailors captured at gunpoint
BBC News, March 23, 2007

Fifteen British Navy personnel have been captured at gunpoint by Iranian forces, the Ministry of Defence says.

The men were seized at 1030 local time when they boarded a boat in the Gulf, off the coast of Iraq, which they suspected was smuggling cars.

The Royal Navy said the group was on a routine patrol in Iraqi waters and were understood to be unharmed. [complete article]

Comment -- Times change. Having captured these pawns, somehow I don't anticipate the Iranians will be quite as swift in releasing them as they were last time.
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Iraqi Deputy PM fights for life
By Elsa McLaren, The Times, March 23, 2007

Iraq's deputy prime minister, Salam al-Zubaie, was undergoing surgery in an American military hospital today after he was wounded in a suicide bomb attack at a prayer hall.

A senior Iraqi official said that the top politician's condition was "not stable" and that he had been hit by shrapnel on several parts of his body. An aide said he had wounds to his abdomen and shoulder.

Up to six of the politician's personal security guards were either killed or injured in the attack, according to aides, in what is the second assassination attempt on a senior member of the national unity government in a month. [complete article]

British leave, battle erupts over Basra
By Sam Dagher, Christian Science Monitor, March 23, 2007

Just two days after British troops pulled out of downtown Basra, Iraq's second-largest city and center of the country's oil-rich south, fighting erupted between rival Shiite groups in street battles Thursday.

An eyewitness reported that masked gunmen swept through the center of the city carrying AK-47s and rocket launchers as members of Moqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army and the Fadhila Party, which controls the province, apparently fought over a government building just vacated by British troops.

The turmoil in the capital of the southern province, home to a key port and most of the country's oil wealth, signals the beginning of the kind of battles that could erupt in Iraq as outside forces depart, say analysts. "There will be a power vacuum in Basra," says Martin Navias, an analyst at the Centre for Defence Studies at King's College in London. "As the British begin to extricate themselves from Basra, there will be fighting among these groups." [complete article]

U.S. struggles to avert Turkish intervention in northern Iraq
By Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, March 22, 2007

The US is scrambling to head off a "disastrous" Turkish military intervention in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq that threatens to derail the Baghdad security surge and open up a third front in the battle to save Iraq from disintegration.

Senior Bush administration officials have assured Turkey in recent days that US forces will increase efforts to root out Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK) guerrillas enjoying safe haven in the Qandil mountains, on the Iraq-Iran-Turkey border. [complete article]
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House passes spending bill with Iraq deadline
CNN, March 23, 2007

President Bush slammed Democrats on Friday after the House narrowly approved a supplemental war spending bill that includes an August 31, 2008, deadline for combat troops to leave Iraq.

"Today, a narrow majority in the House of Representatives abdicated its responsibility by passing a war spending bill that has no chance of becoming law, and brings us no closer to getting our troops the resources they need," Bush said about an hour after the vote.

The House voted 218-212 to approve the $124 billion spending bill that includes the deadline. [complete article]

See also, Liberals relent on Iraq war funding (WP).
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Sooner or later, Israel will have to talk to the Palestinians
By Yossi Alpher, Daily Star, March 23, 2007

The advent of a Palestinian unity government once again clouds the issue of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and contacts. In reality, in considering the potential role of Hamas in preventing negotiations there are two categories of such talks to be discussed.

According to the Oslo Accords, any and all peace talks or even conflict-management negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians must involve the Palestinian Liberation Organization, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, and not the Palestinian Authority in which Hamas has now welcomed Fatah as a partner. In this regard, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been free to negotiate with Abbas over the past year and will continue to be able to negotiate without any direct Hamas-related constraints for the foreseeable future - or at least until Hamas becomes part of the PLO. It is unclear why Olmert declared that the advent of the new government somehow reduced the potential scope of his talks with Abbas, when previously the government was composed only of Hamas.

Logically, the fact that Abbas, as the president of Palestine, now oversees a government in which Fatah has a stake in a power-sharing arrangement should make him more attractive to Israel as a negotiating partner. After all Abbas, generally considered weak and ineffective but also a man of integrity, could now conceivably be able to "deliver" a little more effectively than previously, when Hamas constituted the entire government. [complete article]

See also, Belgian FM: New Palestinian government is more moderate than predecessor (AP) and Egypt: Israel must accept Arab peace plan before talks with PA (AP).
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U.S. isn't trying to free American jailed in Ethiopia
By Shashank Bengali and Jonathan S. Landay, McClatchy, March 22, 2007

The U.S. government will let Ethiopian authorities decide the fate of a 24-year-old American who was held here incommunicado for more than five weeks, the State Department said Thursday.

The Ethiopians haven't told American officials what charges, if any, they plan to bring against Amir Mohamed Meshal of Tinton Falls, N.J., at a hearing to determine whether he can be held as a prisoner of war - or when the hearing will occur.

The FBI has determined that Meshal wasn't a combatant in the recent war in Somalia and broke no U.S. laws. However, he could face life in prison or the death penalty if he's convicted of violating Ethiopia's anti-terrorism laws or taking up arms against Ethiopian forces, according to Ethiopian lawyers familiar with such cases.

The State Department made clear Wednesday evening that it would allow the Ethiopian legal process to take its course. [complete article]

'In the name of justice'
Jailan Halawi interviews Abu Omar, Al-Ahram Weekly, March 22, 2007

Osama Mustafa Hassan Nasr, aka Abu Omar, is an Egyptian Muslim cleric allegedly abducted in February 2003 in Milan, Italy, under the so-called "extraordinary renditions" programme run by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in which terror suspects are secretly transferred to detention centres around the world for questioning.

Cases of extraordinary rendition have recently been meticulously scrutinised by the international media, the press carrying out a series of investigative reports in a bid to unravel the mysteries and complicated circumstances of the programme.

Human rights organisations have also launched a campaign against states suspected of involvement in cases of extraordinary rendition, insisting that even under the pretext of combating terror the flagrant violation of the individual's basic rights and liberties make such cases clear violations of human rights law. [complete article]

The CIA's Italian Job
By Mohamad Bazzi, The Nation, April 9, 2007

From her third-floor balcony, the Egyptian woman saw the whole thing: a group of CIA and Italian agents snatching the imam of her local mosque off a Milan street, stuffing him into a white van and driving off. It was February 17, 2003, and Hassan Osama Nasr was walking to the mosque for noon prayers. He was stopped by a man waving a badge and shouting, "Police!" In perfect Italian, the man demanded Nasr's ID, wallet and cellphone. Then two men came up from behind Nasr, grabbed his arms and forced him into the van. It all took about three minutes.

But the agents didn't know that someone had seen the abduction. The woman called the mosque, and word spread among worshipers. By evening, the mosque's leaders suspected that Nasr--a cleric known as Abu Omar who had fled Egypt in 1990--would be sent back to his homeland. They phoned Montasser al-Zayyat, a prominent lawyer in Cairo who has spent his career defending Islamic militants. "The plan was that no one would see him being kidnapped and he would disappear," Zayyat said in an interview at his office. "But that Egyptian woman who happened to be standing on her balcony saved him." [complete article]
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Fingerprints of history
Gamal Nkrumah and Mohamed El-Sayed interview Robert Fisk, Al-Ahram Weekly, March 22, 2007

It is Pakistan, not Iran or Iraq, that serves as a true barometer for the future of the region, according to Robert Fisk, The Independent's renowned Middle East correspondent. This thesis, though novel, is not to be taken lightly. It comes from a man who has lived in, studied and witnessed the region for the past three decades. And Pakistan, indeed, is a country in turmoil.

Fisk, the Beirut-based bestselling and award- winning author, speaks from experience. He covered the Lebanese civil war, the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the two United States-led wars against Iraq and the post-11 September invasion and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan. His voice is a "passionate outcry against the lies and deceit that have sent soldiers to their deaths and killed tens of thousands of men and women," as the dustcover of his seminal book, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, so aptly puts it.

For Fisk to single out Pakistan is an eye-opener, for the populous predominantly Muslim nation is not even considered by some to be part of the Middle East proper. Fisk's contention, however, is that the West is shy to focus on the main game, preferring instead to concentrate on sideshows such as Iran's nuclear ambitions, which Fisk reminds whoever listens were first encouraged and nurtured by the West. [complete article]
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The intellect behind Islamic radicalism
The Power of Sovereignty by Sayed Khatab

Reviewed by Dmitry Shlapentokh, Asia Times, March 24, 2007

Egyptian intellectual and author Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) occupies an important place among Islamic thinkers. He was one of the most quoted thinkers who provided guidance for Islamic radicals. He is associated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and is best known for his theoretical work on redefining the role of Islamic fundamentalism in social and political change.

It is not surprising that books about Qutb proliferate. The Power of Sovereignty is written for a scholarly audience, with not much attention to style or even to the organization of the text. Still, it provides insight into Qutb's philosophy and explains the reason it has become such a powerful force.

The key to this appeal is that Qutb's teaching discards the notion that Islam is just a religion, reduced to a few rituals and obligations in daily life. In Qutb's view, Islam permeates all aspects of human life; society should be Islamic from top to bottom. [complete article]
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Al-Qaida's local dilemma
By Kanishk Tharoor,, March 21, 2007

Since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, American and British strategists have struggled – and in large part failed – to answer a single question: how can we win the "hearts and minds" of increasingly hostile local populations? Where coalition hard power succeeded so swiftly in dismantling the Taliban and Baathist regimes, its soft power has proved wholly inadequate in convincing Iraqis, Afghans and others across the Muslim world of the west's best intentions.

The White House, however, may not have to worry too much. Recent developments in Iraq's supposed "Sunni triangle" and along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan suggest an alternative view to the question. Before Washington and London finally succeed in converting those stubborn hearts-and-minds, al-Qaida and other Islamist groups may well have lost them. [complete article]

See also, In video, al-Qaida urges unification (AP).
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Israel's right to be racist
By Joseph Massad, Al-Ahram Weekly, March 15, 2007

Israel's struggle for peace is a sincere one. In fact, Israel desires to live at peace not only with its neighbours, but also and especially with its own Palestinian population, and with Palestinians whose lands its military occupies by force. Israel's desire for peace is not only rhetorical but also substantive and deeply psychological. With few exceptions, prominent Zionist leaders since the inception of colonial Zionism have desired to establish peace with the Palestinians and other Arabs whose lands they slated for colonisation and settlement. The only thing Israel has asked for, and continues to ask for in order to end the state of war with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours, is that all recognise its right to be a racist state that discriminates by law against Palestinians and other Arabs and grants differential legal rights and privileges to its own Jewish citizens and to all other Jews anywhere. The resistance that the Palestinian people and other Arabs have launched against Israel's right to be a racist state is what continues to stand between Israel and the peace for which it has struggled and to which it has been committed for decades. Indeed, this resistance is nothing less than the "New anti- Semitism". [complete article]

Expert likens occupation to apartheid
AP, March 23, 2007

An independent expert told the U.N. human rights council on Thursday that Israel's treatment of Palestinians is comparable to apartheid.

John Dugard, a South African investigator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said that "anyone who experienced apartheid has a sense of deja vu when visiting the OPT (Occupied Palestinian Territories)." [complete article]

Israeli soldiers stand firm, but duty wears on the soul
By Steven Erlanger, New York Times, March 23, 2007

At the recent talk and discussion session, one man stood and said Mr. Manekin and his friends were hurting Israel, especially its image abroad, in order to salve their own consciences. Many in the audience nodded in agreement. Tall and dignified, about 45, the man said that he, too, had served in the West Bank, "and I'm proud of what I did there to defend Israelis."

It is crucial to intimidate people at checkpoints to keep them cowed, he said, his voice shaking a little, "because we are so few there, and they are so many."

Then he said: "These people are not like us! They come up to our faces and they lie to us!"

That was enough for Uriel Simon, 77 years old, a professor emeritus of biblical studies at Bar-Ilan University and a noted religious dove.

"As for liars," Mr. Simon said, then paused. "My father was a liar. My grandfather was a liar. How else did we cross lines to get to this country? We stayed alive by lying. We lied to the Russians, we lied to the Germans, we lied to the British! We lie for survival! Jacob the Liar was my father!" he said.

As for the Palestinians, he said: "Of course they lie! Everyone lies at a checkpoint! We lied at checkpoints, too."

Everyone is afraid of mirrors, Mr. Simon said, readjusting the knitted skullcap on his nimbus of white hair. "We hate the mirror. We don't want to look at ourselves. We don't like photographs of us -- we say, 'Oh, that's not a very good likeness.' We want to be much nicer than we are. But here there are also prophets who are mirrors, who are not afraid of kings and generals. The prophet says, 'You are ugly,' and we don't want to hear it, but we have to look at the mirror honestly, without fear." [complete article]

Poll: Likud hardliners leading the pack
By Matti Friedman, AP, March 23, 2007

If elections were held today the hardline Likud party would be the overwhelming victor, a new poll showed Friday, a sign of Israelis' deep dissatisfaction with their leaders.

The poll in the Maariv newspaper showed the Likud winning 35 seats in Israel's 120-seat parliament, easily defeating Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's ruling Kadima party.

The centrist Kadima would see its power drop more than 50 percent to a meager 13 seats in the theoretical election, and the dovish Labor Party would also get 13 seats, the poll showed. The next national elections are slated to be held only in 2010. [complete article]
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So, what's Iraq actually about now?
By Tony Karon, Rootless Cosmopolitan, March 21, 2007

Four years into the Iraq war -- "hard to believe," eh, Mr Wolfowitz? -- don't expect the U.S. media to dwell on the conceptual foundations of this catastrophe. That may be because the media was rather complicit in laying those foundations. But the more interesting question, today, I think, is where the Iraq adventure is going, because its narratives have clearly unraveled, and its strategic purpose -- in the sense of attainable goals rather than fantasies -- is now far from clear. To be sure, today, Washington is clear only on what it wants to prevent in Iraq, and even then its chances of doing so are slim. Still, as Bush says, that doesn't mean it can withdraw.

It's worth noting, in passing, that the decision making structures in the United States are fundamentally dysfunctional to its imperial project -- its system of government is democratic (in a plutocratic sort of way), and distributes its flow of information and decision making across a number of bureaucratic command centers that are seldom on quite the same page, and compete for authority and resources -- a competition that occurs partly in the public eye, via "leaks" to the media, whose source is invariably the bureaucratic rivals of those who are made to look bad by the story. The executive decision makers are always vulnerable to the limited appetite of the electorate for costly imperial adventures, and the electorate gets to express its impatience every two years by using the ballot box to limit the authority of those directing the current imperial expedition.

The patience of the enemy out in the field, meanwhile, is invariably far deeper than that allowed by U.S. election cycles. Ho Chi Minh knew that; so do the Iraqi insurgents and the Shiites and the Iranians, and the Palestinians and Syrians and everybody else Washington is fighting. The Iraqis are intimately aware of the debate in Washington over withdrawal, and they know that despite the surge of troops, the U.S. will in the near future be forced by domestic pressure to withdraw most of its infantry from Iraqi streets. [complete article]
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Man with al-Sadr ties held in attack on U.S. troops
CNN, March 22, 2007

A man with ties to a radical Shiite cleric is in U.S. custody in connection with an attack that killed five American soldiers in Karbala in January, U.S. officials said.

"Over the past several days, coalition forces in Basra and Hilla captured Qais Khazali, his brother Laith Khazali and several other members of the Khazali network," the U.S. military said in a statement Thursday.

The military said the network is "directly connected" to the killings in Karbala, a Shiite city south of Baghdad. [complete article]

Freed Sadr aide meets Iraq's PM
BBC News, March 22, 2007

An Iraqi militia leader once branded a major security threat has appeared in public alongside Iraq's prime minister after being freed from US custody.

Ahmed Shibani is a senior aide to radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose political movement plays a key role in Iraq's power-sharing coalition.

Mr Shibani met Nouri Maliki hours after Iraqi government officials said they were talking with insurgent groups. [complete article]

Shiite militia may be disintegrating
By Hamza Hendawi and Qassim Abdul-Azhra, AP, March 21, 2007

The violent Shiite militia known as the Mahdi Army is breaking into splinter groups, with up to 3,000 gunmen now financed directly by Iran and no longer loyal to the firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, adding a potentially even more deadly element to Iraq's violent mix.

Two senior militia commanders told The Associated Press that hundreds of these fighters have crossed into Iran for training by the elite Quds force, a branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard thought to have trained Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Muslim fighters in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

The breakup is an ominous development at a time when U.S. and Iraqi forces are working to defeat religious-based militias and secure Iraq under government control. While al-Sadr's forces have battled the coalition repeatedly, including pitched battles in 2004, they've mostly stayed in the background during the latest offensive. [complete article]

Nine hurt in Shiite infighting assault
By Christian Berthelsen, Los Angeles Times, March 22, 2007

Rare evidence of simmering tensions between Shiite factions boiled into public view today when followers of radical cleric Muqtada Sadr stormed the office of a rival Shiite political party in southern Iraq, wounding nine people and prompting a city-wide daytime curfew, according to police and hospital officials.

The assault seems to have been prompted by a dispute between Sadr followers and a member of the Fadhila political party within the Electricity Ministry that serves the area. The governor's house was also attacked.

It came just one day after three alleged Sadr followers in the southern city of Kut stopped the mayor's car at a fake road block and shot him to death, with the help of six members of the local police force.

There is a struggle for control of the government in the area, which is run by affiliates of the largest Shiite bloc in parliament, although it is being challenged by supporters of Sadr. [complete article]
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Thousands of Iraqis who flee to Kurdish region to escape war face harsh living conditions
By Edward Wong, New York Times, March 22, 2007

About 160,000 Iraqis from outside the mountainous Kurdish north have moved there to flee a growing civil war, according to a draft of a report by an international group that tracks refugees and displaced people.

That number is the first comprehensive figure for internal flight to Iraqi Kurdistan that has been released by any organization. It is also far higher than partial estimates previously disclosed by Kurdish officials.

The draft report, by Refugees International, which is based in Washington, says the Iraqis who have fled north face harsh living conditions. Inflation is rampant, and outsiders have few decent job opportunities. [complete article]
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Members of U.S. unit, many untried, prepare to test 'a good plan'
By rnesto Londono, Washington Post, March 22, 2007

Cpl. Jon Dorsey, 20, of Sun Prairie, Wis., sitting on his cot in the gym's main hall, said he couldn't wait to go out on patrol. He had memorized the names of the city's neighborhoods and seemed to grasp the nuances of the conflict.

"We've been staring at maps for months," he said.

His friend Cpl. Lee Taylor of Oklahoma City jumped in: "We're going to meet and greet people, win the hearts and minds."

They felt adequately prepared, they agreed, albeit scared. Taylor found out two weeks before traveling to Iraq that his wife was pregnant. That night the couple celebrated by eating at Chili's, where they avoided talking about the dangers he would soon face.

"I have a lot to live for," he said. "I want to come home."

But the veterans in the group, some of whom were in Iraq for the third time, spoke less enthusiastically about the plan.

"I think everything is worth trying," said Staff Sgt. Brian Mancini, 28, of Phoenix. But he added wryly, "If I die in Iraq this time, I don't have to worry about coming back again." [complete article]
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U.N. chief shaken by Baghdad explosion
The Guardian, March 22, 2007

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon was left shaken but unhurt on his first visit to Baghdad today after a rocket landed yards from where he and Iraq's prime minister were holding a press conference.

Mr Ban, who flew into Baghdad this morning, ducked behind the podium when the impact shook the building as he addressed reporters alongside Nuri al-Maliki in the prime minister's office, inside Baghdad's fortified green zone.

It happened just as Mr al-Maliki had finished telling reporters how Iraq was gradually returning to stability. [complete article]
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Inspector General details failures of Iraq reconstruction
By Dana Hedgpeth, Washington Post, March 22, 2007

The U.S. government was unprepared for the extensive nation-building required after it invaded Iraq, and at each juncture where it could have adjusted its efforts, it failed even to understand the problems it faced, according to the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.

In a stinging, wide-ranging assessment of U.S. reconstruction efforts, Stuart W. Bowen Jr. said that in the days after the invasion, the Defense Department had no strategy for restoring either government institutions or infrastructure. And in the years since, other agencies joined the effort without an overall plan and without a structure in place to organize and execute a task of such magnitude.

Lines of authority remained unclear in the reconstruction effort. With a demand for speed and a shortage of government personnel, much of the oversight was turned over to the contractors doing the work. There was little coordination among the various agencies. The result was a series of missed opportunities to address the unraveling situation, Bowen said. [complete article]
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Arab bid for peace with Israel is 'serious' offer: Jordan FM
AFP, March 22, 2007

A dormant five-year-old Arab initiative for peace with Israel is a serious offer and will be the cornerstone of discussions at next week's Arab summit, Jordan's foreign minister said on Thursday.

"The Arab initiative represents a constructive Arab position and a serious peace offer," Abdel Ilah Khatib said, ahead of the March 28-29 summit to be hosted by Saudi Arabia in Riyadh. [complete article]

Wary of Hamas, U.S. is to trim aid to Palestinian forces
By Helene Cooper, New York Times, March 22, 2007

The Bush administration will reduce by about 40 percent the aid it is seeking from Congress for the security forces of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and set new conditions for monitoring the money because of concerns that some of it could end up with Hamas, the militant Islamist organization, administration officials said Wednesday.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is returning to the Middle East this weekend for another round of shuttle diplomacy, told a House panel on Wednesday that she would soon send Congress a revised package that would try to restrict the use of the money to security forces loyal to Mr. Abbas, whom the United States considers more moderate than Hamas. [complete article]

Israel to snub foreign envoys who meet Hamas ministers
By Aluf Benn and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz, March 22, 2007

Israel will snub foreign statesmen who meet with Hamas ministers, serving in the cabinet of the Palestinian unity government.

Political sources in Jerusalem said yesterday that according to a government decision of April 2006, whoever meets Hamas ministers will not be invited to meet Israeli officials during that same visit. The decision is still in effect and will henceforth be applied in an effort to prevent international recognition of Hamas. [complete article]

Israel satisfied, Palestinians slam Quartet boycott extension
By Jean-Luc Renaudie, AFP, March 22, 2007

A decision by major world powers to keep in place a controversial aid boycott on the new Palestinian unity cabinet led by radical Hamas satisfied Israel but left Palestinians in dismay on Thursday.

The Middle East Quartet -- the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States -- reaffirmed on Wednesday that the new coalition must renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept past peace deals. [complete article]
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Man interrupts Olmert speech, slams efforts to release IDF abductees
By Eli Ashkenazi, Haaretz, March 22, 2007

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Thursday was interrupted by a member of audience during a speech he gave in Tel Aviv, as the man accosted the premier with a barrage of questions on his efforts to release the three Israel Defense Forces soldiers currently in captivity, Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

"What are you doing to make sure they [the abducted soldiers] will celebrate, like the rest of us, Passover Sedder?" asked Danny Valla, member of Kibbutz Yotvata.

"A day doesn't go by without me making efforts to resolve this painful issue. It takes time. There's no instant solution in this case. I regret I cannot elaborate on this topic," the prime minister said in response. [complete article]

Peres to Winograd panel: I would not have gone to war in Lebanon
By Nir Hasson, Amos Harel, and Yuval Yoaz, Haaretz, March 22, 2007

Vice Premier Shimon Peres told the Winograd Committee investigating the Second Lebanon War that he would not have gone to war in Lebanon in response to the abduction of Israel Defense Forces soldiers by Hezbollah.

"If it were up to me, I wouldn't have gotten into this war," Peres said during his testimony before the committee, of which large segments were made public Thursday.

"If it were up to me, I also wouldn't have made a list of objectives for the war," added Peres. "We had no objectives, because we did not start the war. We were attacked and needed to defend against the attack. That's it." [complete article]
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Khalid Sheikh Muhammad: waging jihad from prison
By Michael Scheuer, Jamestown Foundation, March 20, 2007

If any part of KSM's testimony might be called refreshing, it was his constant lecturing of the military tribunal about the nature of war: "This is why the language of any war in the world is killing. I mean the language of war is victims." KSM engaged in none of the charlatanism of Western discussions of war; he did not speak of surgical strikes, limited collateral damage, precision weapons, or casualty-free wars. Knowing history better than his interlocutors, KSM told the tribunal: "But your [sic] are military men. I did it [the list of attacks] but this is the language of any war…Military [men] throughout history know very well. They don't war will never stop. War start from Adam when Cain he killed Abel until now. It's never gonna stop killing people. This [killing and victims] is the way of the language [of war]…You know never stopping war. This is life." Since Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, CSA, said that, "War means fighting and fighting means killing," the unchanging reality of war has seldom been better described than it was by KSM in his broken English. [complete article]

Pearl's family questions terrorist's confession
By Steve Linde, Jerusalem Post, March 19, 2007

In Pakistan, Rai Bashir, a lawyer for Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was sentenced to death in 2002 for murdering Pearl, said he would use Muhammad's testimony as evidence that his client was not guilty.

"What we were saying for so many years in our trial, in the appeal, [is] that Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh is innocent and he has not committed that murder," Bashir told Associated Press Television News in an interview in the eastern city of Lahore on Saturday. "He has not abducted Daniel Pearl, and he, along with his co-accused, is innocent. But now we are happy that this version has been verified by the Pentagon after the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad." [complete article]
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What Bush is hiding
By Sidney Blumenthal, Salon, March 22, 2007

In the U.S. attorneys scandal, Gonzales was an active though second-level perpetrator. While he gave orders, he also took orders. Just as his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, has resigned as a fall guy, so Gonzales would be yet another fall guy if he were to resign. He was assigned responsibility for the purge of U.S. attorneys but did not conceive it. The plot to transform the U.S. attorneys and ipso facto the federal criminal justice system into the Republican Holy Office of the Inquisition had its origin in Karl Rove's fertile mind. [complete article]

Prosecutor says Bush appointees interfered with tobacco case
By Carol D. Leonnig, Washington Post, March 22, 2007

The leader of the Justice Department team that prosecuted a landmark lawsuit against tobacco companies said yesterday that Bush administration political appointees repeatedly ordered her to take steps that weakened the government's racketeering case.

Sharon Y. Eubanks said Bush loyalists in Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's office began micromanaging the team's strategy in the final weeks of the 2005 trial, to the detriment of the government's claim that the industry had conspired to lie to U.S. smokers.

She said a supervisor demanded that she and her trial team drop recommendations that tobacco executives be removed from their corporate positions as a possible penalty. He and two others instructed her to tell key witnesses to change their testimony. And they ordered Eubanks to read verbatim a closing argument they had rewritten for her, she said. [complete article]
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American's rendition may have broken laws
By Shashank Bengali and Jonathan S. Landay, McClatchy, March 21, 2007

American diplomats on Wednesday paid their first visit to an American who was detained five weeks ago by Ethiopian authorities after a middle-of-the-night secret transfer from Kenya and said he was in good health.

But U.S. officials couldn't secure the release of Amir Mohamed Meshal, 24, of Tinton, Falls, N.J., who was arrested at the Somali-Kenyan border after the U.S.-backed Ethiopian army toppled the Islamist government in Somalia.

Instead, Meshal will appear at an Ethiopian hearing to determine whether he can be detained as a prisoner of war, said a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

In Nairobi, U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger praised the deportations of Meshal and some 80 other detainees who were arrested on the Kenyan-Somali border, saying Kenyan officials had complied with their own laws. [complete article]

See also, CIA didn't try to stop secret deportation of U.S. citizen, officials say (McClatchy).
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Defense spending soars to highest levels since World War II
By James Rosen, McClatchy, March 19, 2007

As the Iraq war enters a fifth year, the conflict that President Bush's aides once said would all but pay for itself with oil revenues is fueling the highest level of defense spending since World War II.

Even with past spending adjusted upward for inflation, the $630 billion provided for the military this year exceeds the highest annual amounts during the Reagan-era defense buildup, the Vietnam War and the Korean War.

When lawmakers approve a nearly $100 billion emergency spending bill in the next few weeks, Congress will have appropriated $607 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with about 75 percent going to Iraq, according to a new Congressional Research Service study obtained by McClatchy Newspapers. [complete article]
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Musharraf at the exit
By Ahmed Rashid, Washington Post, March 22, 2007

In the rapidly unfolding crisis in Pakistan, no matter what happens to President Pervez Musharraf -- whether he survives politically or not -- he is a lame duck. He is unable to rein in Talibanization in Pakistan or guide the country toward a more democratic future.

Since March 9, when Musharraf suspended the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, public protests have escalated every day -- as has a violent crackdown by the police and intelligence agencies on the media and the nation's legal fraternity.

The legal convolutions about Chaudhry's dismissal boil down to one simple fact: He was not considered sufficiently reliable to deliver pleasing legal judgments in a year when Musharraf is seeking to extend his presidency by five more years, remain as army chief and hold what would undoubtedly be rigged general elections.

Musharraf's desire to replace Chaudhry with a more pliable judge has badly backfired. After just 10 days of protests, lawyers around the country have made it clear to the senior judiciary that they will not tolerate further legal validations for continued military rule or tolerate Musharraf remaining as president. At least seven judges and a deputy attorney general have resigned in protest. [complete article]

Pakistani opposition seizes on controversy
By Griff Witte, Washington Post, March 22, 2007

Thousands of lawyers and political activists in cities across Pakistan staged peaceful rallies Wednesday as they continued their nearly two-week-old campaign against President Pervez Musharraf's decision to suspend the nation's chief justice.

In Islamabad, the capital, demonstrators converged on the Supreme Court building, chanting, "Go, Musharraf, go!" and calling the president "Bush's dog." Although there had been violent clashes between demonstrators and police at rallies last week, officers in riot gear largely avoided confrontations in Islamabad on Wednesday, and only minor scuffles were reported elsewhere in the country.

The movement against Musharraf began among the nation's bar associations, which say the president is trying to squelch the independence of the judiciary. But political opponents waving party flags far outnumbered lawyers at Wednesday's rally in the capital. With elections due in the fall, opposition groups have seized on the controversy, with some critics saying it might be the spark they have been seeking after nearly eight years on the sidelines under Musharraf. [complete article]

Comment -- To hear it from the Bush administration these days, it sounds like democracy is as elusive as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. As the State Department spokesman said this week, "Of course we can offer guidance and counsel and encouragement to continue along the pathway to democracy. But President Musharraf is good -- has been a solid friend in fighting the war on terror." In other words, if you support the war on terror, you can take your sweet time sauntering along the long and winding road towards democracy.
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Fierce fighting hits Pakistan's tribal belt
By Declan Walsh, The Guardian, March 22, 2007

Al-Qaida's influence in the lawless tribal belt of Pakistan has been weakened following a battle between Uzbek militants and local tribesmen. The Pakistani government hailed the violence in south Waziristan on the Afghan border as a victory for its policy of driving a wedge between foreign fighters and their local allies.

Since Monday tribal fighters have been engaged in a full-blooded battle with Islamist fighters from Uzbekistan, who have been living in Waziristan since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Both sides have used artillery, rockets and gunfire. [complete article]

Waziristan jihadis wage war on each other
By Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times, March 23, 2007

The present bloody infighting between al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban in Pakistan's Waziristan tribal areas is likely to end in reconciliation between the two groups that will mark the beginning of the Taliban's major Afghan offensive.

Well-placed sources maintain that the chief commander of the Taliban in South Wazirstan, Baitullah Mehsud, was in Afghanistan's Helmand province when the fighting, in which scores have died this week, erupted. He immediately rushed to South Waziristan on the orders of Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah.

He put his foot down, and the fighting has now eased. A new protocol is imminent, under which all parties will agree to fight in Afghanistan and not inside Pakistan.

How did this internecine strife in South Waziristan evolve? Is it just a battle between foreign militants and Pakistani Taliban - a clash of interests - or is it a blessing in disguise for the Taliban and a serious problem for the US-led forces in Afghanistan? [complete article]
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Italy swapped 5 jailed Taliban for a hostage
By Ian Fisher, New York Times, March 22, 2007

An Italian journalist who was held hostage for 15 days by the Taliban in lawless southern Afghanistan was ransomed for five Taliban prisoners, the Italian government and Afghan officials confirmed Wednesday.

It appears to be the first time prisoners have been openly exchanged for a hostage in the wars that the United States and its allies are fighting there and in Iraq, and the move drew immediate criticism from Washington and London, and from other European capitals.

"We don't negotiate with terrorists, and we don't advise others to do so either," said the State Department spokesman, Sean McCormack.

A senior Bush administration official said the prisoners exchanged had been held by the Afghan government, not by NATO, which is directing the allied military in Afghanistan. The official said he did not believe that NATO officials in Afghanistan had been formally alerted before the exchange.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with the Italian foreign minister, Massimo D'Alema, in Washington on Monday, the day the hostage, Daniele Mastrogiacomo, 52, of the leftist newspaper La Repubblica, was released. It was not clear whether they discussed an exchange. [complete article]
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Can American Jews unplug the Israel lobby?
By Gary Kamiya, Salon, March 20, 2007

The fact that AIPAC, which is ranked as the second-most powerful lobby in the country (trailing only AARP, but ahead of the NRA) virtually dictates U.S. policy in the Mideast has long been one of those surreal facts of Washington life that politicians discuss only when they get near retirement -- if then. In 2004, Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings had the bad taste to reveal this inconvenient truth when he said, "You can't have an Israel policy other than what AIPAC gives you around here." Michael Massing, who has done exemplary reporting on AIPAC for the New York Review of Books, quoted a congressional staffer as saying, "We can count on well over half the House -- 250 to 300 members -- to do reflexively whatever AIPAC wants." In unguarded moments, even top AIPAC figures have confirmed such claims. The New Yorker's Jeffrey Goldberg quoted Steven Rosen, AIPAC's former foreign-policy director who is now awaiting trial on charges of passing top-secret Pentagon information to Israel, as saying, "You see this napkin? In twenty-four hours, we could have the signatures of seventy senators on this napkin."

Until 9/11 and the Iraq war, this state of affairs was of little concern to anyone except those passionately interested in the Middle East -- a small group that has never included more than a tiny minority of Americans, Jews or non-Jews. If the pro-Israel lobby wielded enormous power over America's Mideast policies, so what? America's Mideast policies were always reliably pro-Israel anyway, for a variety of reasons, including many that had nothing to do with lobbying by American Jews. And the stakes didn't seem that big.

But in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq war, that all changed dramatically. 9/11, and the Bush administration's response to it, made it inescapably clear that America's Mideast policies affect everyone in the country: They are literally a matter of life and death. The Bush administration's neoconservative Mideast policy is essentially indistinguishable from AIPAC's. And so it is no longer possible to ignore it -- even though it is a notoriously touchy and divisive subject. [complete article]
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Thrown to the assassins
By David Case, Mother Jones, March/April, 2007

On the day the American tanks rolled into Baghdad, Abather Abdul Hussein and his wife, Balqes Abdel Mohammed, threw flowers. Literally. After a lifetime of turmoil and tyranny, the couple fervently believed the invasion would bring peace. Abather joined U.S. "democratization" efforts, such as a project to create a governing council for his neighborhood, and he occasionally ended up in the good-news Iraq stories that still seemed plausible in those days; one U.S. paper ran a five-column photo of him perched on a classroom chair surrounded by American soldiers, with a story about the "new Iraq."

These days, Abather and his young family are among the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have fled in fear for their lives. After months spent dodging insurgents who had targeted them for supporting the Americans, he and Balqes are relieved to have escaped—and bitter, like thousands of fellow refugees, that the superpower for which they risked their lives has abandoned them.

A short man who bundles his shattered body in layers against the desert's winter chill, the 34-year-old Abather is polite and relaxed, with an easy smile. An engaging conversationalist even in broken English, he loves to talk about Baghdad, his infant daughter, and his wife, an outspoken woman several years his senior, whom he calls a genius. "When we met she was a professor at Baghdad University," he boasts. "I was her student. When she walked into a room, hundreds of people would stand to pay her respect." Considering that his life savings will run out in two months, that he can't work legally in Jordan, and that he could be deported at any moment, Abather is remarkably stoic, though the anxiety leaks out in tics. He chain-smokes cheap Craven A cigarettes, crushing the charred filters in an overflowing ashtray; when Balqes complains, he sheepishly offers that "smoking is my only work." It's not quite true -- his one other job during the past 18 months has been recounting his nightmare, over and over again, to border guards, embassy workers, and aid agencies. In December, he reluctantly told it to me, pulling documents from a worn leather folder to corroborate the details. [complete article]
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Iraq's curse: homegrown brutality and foreign abuse
By Rami G. Khouri , Daily Star, March 21, 2007

Iraq has over 4,000 years of history. Four years of Anglo-American militarism and romantic notions of instant democratization seem like an innocently naive timeframe within which to analyze the prospects for an ancient country. The Middle East will never shed the burdens of its own inception and fractious history, unless the natives and Western armies move toward a more complete and honest analysis of what ails them both. Five cumulative problems seem pertinent, in Iraq and much of the Middle East. [complete article]
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Iraq 'talking to militant groups'
BBC News, March 21, 2007

Talks are taking place between the Iraqi government and some insurgent groups, a senior Iraqi official says.

Saad Yousif al-Muttalibi, of the Ministry of National Dialogue and Reconciliation, said none of the groups were linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Mr Muttalibi said the talks might be getting close to a point where some of the groups lay down their arms. [complete article]

Poll: Iraqis losing hope
AP, March 20, 2007

The optimism that helped sustain Iraqis during the first few years of the war has dissolved into widespread fear, anger and distress amid unrelenting violence, a survey found.

The poll - the third in Iraq since early 2004 by ABC News and media partners - draws a stark portrait of an increasingly pessimistic population under great emotional stress. Among the findings of this survey for ABC News, USA Today, the BBC and ARD German TV:

-The number of Iraqis who say their own life is going well has dipped from 71 percent in November 2005 to 39 percent now. [complete article]

Iraqi insurgents blow up car with children inside
By Michael Howard, The Guardian, March 21, 2007

US commanders in Baghdad said today that they were investigating an incident in which two children appeared to be used as decoys to get past an American checkpoint in a car that was then blown up with the pair still inside.

The attack, which was reported to have happened last weekend in the mainly Sunni neighbourhood of Adhamiya, killed the children and three bystanders. It comes amid concern that insurgents are adopting headline-grabbing tactics to counter the Baghdad security offensive. [complete article]
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U.S., Israel at odds over Palestinian coalition
By Nathan Guttman, The Forward, March 23, 2007

The Bush administration has dealt Jerusalem and its allies a series of unexpected policy defeats regarding the formation of the new Palestinian unity government.

Israel's Cabinet decided earlier this week to boycott members of the Palestinian Authority governing coalition, and the pro-Israel lobby in the United States has called on the White House to do the same. In stark contrast, Bush administration officials are opening up a dialogue with moderate members of the P.A. coalition.

In another setback for some of Israel's staunchest allies in Washington, the State Department is renewing its attempt to win approval of an aid package for P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas. In still another, lawmakers narrowed the scope of an anti-Palestinian letter that is being circulated in the Senate. [complete article]

See also, Israel defends boycott of unity government (The Forward) and West opening dialogue with Palestinians (AP).
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Resistance should only be in Palestine says Abbas envoy
Ya Libnan, March 19, 2007

Fatah el Islam militant group was accused by the Lebanese judicial authorities of being behind the twin bus murder that killed 3 and wounded 23 last Feb 13 .

150 to 200 members of Fatah al-Islam, an off-shoot of Fatah al-Intifada which operates under the authority of the Syrian intelligence , were holed up Sunday at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp by the Lebanese army and a confrontation was a great possibility as the pressure was building up.

Palestinian envoy Jibril Rajoub , who is the security adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is currently visiting Beirut to participate in an academic conference, Rajoub is extremely concerned that the situation in Nahr al-Bared could harm Lebanese-Palestinian relations and threaten coexistence in Lebanon. For this reason he urged the Palestinians to exercise caution in dealing with the Lebanese authorities.

Rajoub said that Fatah al-Islam "has nothing to do with the Palestinian cause and does not serve the cause." In a news conference Rajoub said that "the resistance should only be in Palestine and nowhere else." [complete article]
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Hizbullah's two republics
By Mohamed Ben Jelloun, Al-Ahram Weekly, February 15, 2007

The case of Hizbullah and the Lebanese state is instructive from the point of view of establishing stable and legitimate multi-ethnic and/or multi-confessional states. Indeed, while such states are sometimes politically most desirable -- because not all citizens share a single national culture, or because of territorial intermingling among national groups, or because some groups may be too small to lead viable states -- the move away from traditional nationalism and the ideal of "one nation, one state" appears problematic. Iraq at the present time is a case in point while Palestine/ Israel is the classic puzzle. Lebanon, however, I believe, is the paradigmatic example. [complete article]
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Iran 'willing to act illegally'
BBC News, March 21, 2007

Iran's supreme leader has warned his country could pursue nuclear activities outside international law if illegal action is taken against it.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's comments came as the UN Security Council prepared to discuss further sanctions against Iran to try to halt its nuclear programme.

Tehran has already rejected as illegitimate an earlier UN resolution imposing sanctions against it. [complete article]
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Who's watching the president?
By Ronald Brownstein, Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2007

At times, President Bush's second term has resembled a laboratory test of what happens to a large institution when all mechanisms of accountability are disabled.

The results have not been pretty.

Hurricane Katrina, the chaotic occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, the breakdown at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the FBI's abuse of Patriot Act powers, the troubling dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys — everywhere, the administration has been plagued by an epidemic of incompetence.

Bush has stumbled so badly at managing the basic responsibilities of government that even the National Review, the flagship magazine of the conservative movement and hardly a traditional critic of the president, used its latest cover to plaintively ask: "Can't anyone here play this game?" [complete article]
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FBI is warned over its misuse of data collection
By Scott Shane, New York Times, March 21, 2007

House Republicans joined Democrats on Tuesday in warning the F.B.I. that it could lose the power to demand that companies turn over customers' telephone, e-mail and financial records if it did not swiftly correct abuses in the use of national security letters, the investigative tool that allows the bureau to make such demands without a judge's approval.

The warnings came at a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee into a recent report by the Justice Department's inspector general, Glenn A. Fine. The report found that the F.B.I. had repeatedly violated the rules governing the letters, sometimes by invoking emergency procedures to exercise them when there was no emergency, and had bungled record keeping so badly that the number of letters exercised was often understated when the bureau reported on them to Congress.

"I just want to convey to you how upset many of us are who have defended this program and have believed it is necessary to the protection of our country," Representative Dan Lungren, Republican of California, told Valerie E. Caproni, the bureau's general counsel. [complete article]
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Will Islamists be included in Somalia reconciliation conference?
By Alisha Ryu, VOA, March 21, 2007

Earlier this month, Somalia's interim president, Abdullahi Yusuf, made the long-expected announcement that a national conference would be held in Mogadishu to reconcile differences among Somalis and move the war-torn nation toward a stable, democratic future.

The announcement said that the conference, scheduled to begin on April 16, would bring 3,000 participants together for two months of meetings and discussions.

Although the announcement did not give specific details about who has been invited to attend the talks, both President Yusuf and interim Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi have ruled out allowing anyone representing the Islamic Court Union to participate.

A Nairobi-based research analyst at the Institute of International Studies, Mohamed Guyo, says he fears the decision to exclude Islamists from the reconciliation process will significantly increase violence and turmoil in the country. [complete article]

Heavy fighting erupts in Mogadishu
Al Jazeera, March 21, 2007

At least eight people have been killed after Somali interim government forces and Ethiopian troops came under attack on the streets of Mogadishu.

Hundreds of armed men clashed with the soldiers as they entered a northeastern neighbourhood of the capital, Ali Haji Jama, a resident, told the AFP news agency on Wednesday. [complete article]

Rebels drag soldiers' bodies through Mogadishu streets
The Guardian, March 21, 2007

Somali rebels dragged the bodies of soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu today after a government assault on insurgent forces.

In scenes reminiscent of what happened after a US helicopter was shot down over the city in 1993, witnesses said they saw the bodies of a Somali soldier and an Ethiopian soldier being pulled along the ground and then set alight. The Reuters news agency quoted other witnesses as saying the bodies of five soldiers in total were involved. [complete article]
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Talking about Israel
By Nicholas Kristof, New York Times (via Thank You NK), March 18, 2007

Democrats are railing at just about everything President Bush does, with one prominent exception: Mr. Bush’s crushing embrace of Israel.

There is no serious political debate among either Democrats or Republicans about our policy toward Israelis and Palestinians. And that silence harms America, Middle East peace prospects and Israel itself.

Within Israel, you hear vitriolic debates in politics and the news media about the use of force and the occupation of Palestinian territories. Yet no major American candidate is willing today to be half as critical of hard-line Israeli government policies as, say, Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper. [complete article]

Comment -- Of course Kristof could have gone much further -- he makes no reference to the Israel lobby, AIPAC, or Abe Foxman. But the mere fact that this subject -- U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian policy and its absence from contemporary American political debate -- has got onto the op-ed pages of the New York Times is significant. Indeed, there's an argument to be made that the Israel lobby can to some extent be left out of the discussion, since the lobby's effectiveness has to a large degree relied on a self-imposed silence that so many political figures and commentators have been willing to maintain.
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West meets Palestinian ministers
Al Jazeera, March 21, 2007

In the first contact between the US and the recently formed Palestinian unity government, Jacob Walles, the US consul-general to Jerusalem, has met Salam Fayad, the Palestinian finance minister.

The EU also made its first contact with a non-Hamas minister but is unlikely to resume funding to it any time soon, EU officials said.

Tuesday's meetings came as Israel cancelled plans to meet the Norwegian deputy foreign minister after he held talks with the Palestinian prime minister.

Norway has recognised the new Palestinian government, restored full political and economic ties and called on Israel to work with it. [complete article]

Israel to snub foreign envoys who meet with Hamas ministers
By Aluf Benn and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz, March 21, 2007

Israel will snub foreign statesmen who meet with Hamas ministers, serving in the cabinet of the Palestinian unity government.

Political sources in Jerusalem said on Wednesday that according to a government decision of April 2006, whoever meets Hamas ministers will not be invited to meet Israeli officials during that same visit. The decision is still in effect and will henceforth be applied in an effort to prevent international recognition of Hamas. [complete article]

See also, Rice's Mideast minefield (David Ignatius).
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For Gaza, a question of responsibility
By Scott Wilson, Washington Post, March 21, 2007

In court filings over the past year, the government has asserted that "with the abolition of the military government in Gaza and in light of the current security situation, the State of Israel bears no responsibility to take care of the various interests of Gaza residents."

Israel likens Gaza to a country such as Syria, with which Israel has maintained a hostile calm since 1973, and argues that "the responsibility over the economic situation in Gaza lays with the Palestinian Authority."

"The question goes to who is responsible for what is happening in Gaza," said Ruth Lapidoth, professor emeritus of international law at Hebrew University and a former government legal adviser. "In my view, only in the areas that Israel has not given up its responsibility does the occupation continue."

But the Israeli government retains control over all of Gaza's border crossings, except for the transit point to Egypt; the strip's airspace and coastal waters; and the population registry used to assign Palestinian identity cards. The United Nations continues to designate Gaza as occupied territory.

By declaring the end of the occupation in Gaza while maintaining it in the West Bank, said Samir Hulileh, a Palestinian economist who has been involved in negotiations with Israel for more than 15 years, Israel is trying to push the regions apart to prevent a future state from emerging. In the past, Israeli officials have talked favorably about Gaza eventually joining Egypt and about the West Bank establishing political links with Jordan, two countries with peace agreements with Israel.

While allowing thousands of Gazans into Israel each year for brief medical visits, the government now bars them from entering the West Bank, which remains a closed Israeli military zone. Israel pledged in the 1993 Oslo accords to treat Gaza and the West Bank as "a single territorial unit" pending the creation of a Palestinian state. [complete article]
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Iraq 'should talk to militants'
BBC News, March 21, 2007

The vice-president of Iraq, Tareq al-Hashemi, has called for talks to be opened with the country's insurgents in an attempt to bring peace.

"I do believe that there is no way but to talk to everybody" with the exception of al-Qaeda, he said. He told the BBC that militants were "just part of the Iraqi communities".

Mr Hashemi, a Sunni, has personal experience of Iraq's violence. Last year Shia militias murdered his sister and two of his brothers. But he told the BBC that the only way for Iraq to make progress is for negotiations to take place. [complete article]
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Iraqis want withdrawal but not now
By Paul Reynolds, BBC News, March 19, 2007

This latest survey of Iraqi opinion is a reminder to policy-makers in Washington, London and Baghdad of the strength of opposition to the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.

Although the Bush administration is more interested in the results of its troop surge than the findings of this survey, it will take note perhaps of one figure: the number of Iraqis who approve of attacks on coalition troops has risen from 17% in a similar survey three years ago to 51% now.

That level of hostility is what lies behind the unrest and what has led to the US reinforcement in Baghdad.

However, the administration might take some heart from the finding that people are not actually calling in overwhelming numbers for an immediate withdrawal. Those who want foreign troops to go immediately are still in a minority, though a growing one (35% compared with 26% in 2005). Most want the Americans to (somehow) restore security first. [complete article]
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Conscience and the war
By Stephen F. Cohen, The Nation, March 26, 2007

Unless the United States withdraws its military forces from Iraq in the near future, a war that began as an unnecessary invasion based on deception and predictably grew into a disastrous occupation will go down in history as a terrible crime, if it hasn't already. For Americans of conscience, Iraq has therefore become the paramount moral issue of our time.

Those of us who were against the war even before it began were often disdained, but now, after four years, only the most myopic or callous among its many well-placed supporters can deny the catastrophic consequences. By inspiring legions of anti-American terrorists where there were few, by straining the US military to its breaking point, by alienating traditional and potential allies abroad, by frightening other states into acquiring new weapons and by provoking popular revulsion around the world, the war has undermined our real national security, from Russia, Afghanistan and the Middle East to the "Homeland." And by already spending more than $400 billion, suffocating other policy initiatives and polarizing the nation, it has prevented the domestic reforms this country urgently needs.

But it is the war's human costs that must be emphasized above all else. The Bush Administration and its bipartisan enablers have already squandered more than 3,100 American lives and maimed tens of thousands more for an unworthy and unwinnable military adventure whose declared purpose has changed repeatedly--from capturing Iraq's (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction, to fighting Al Qaeda, to deposing a tyrant, to spreading democracy and now to countering Iran. As a result, the families of those American victims have been left without even the solace of knowing their sacrifices were not in vain.

Still worse, all innocent life being equal, is the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe the US war and occupation have wrought in Iraq itself. Since 2003 that society has been decimated. Anywhere between 58,000 and 655,000 are estimated to have been killed, and a great many other bodies have been shattered, not to mention the thousands inhumanely imprisoned and mistreated; approximately 4 million have been driven in fear from their hometowns and villages, a figure increasing by 50,000 every month, about half of those out of the country; and much of its once modern social and economic infrastructures have been pounded into rubble. Among the major casualties is Iraq's middle class, a prerequisite of stability, whose professions, prospects and notable religious tolerance have been all but destroyed, along with many mixed Shiite-Sunni marriages and extended families. "This," lamented a young Iraqi, "is civilization gone backwards." The US war is not solely responsible for these tragedies, but it made them possible. [complete article]
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Police yield to Sunni insurgents' ultimatum
By Karin Brulliard, Washington Post, March 20, 2007

Dozens of insurgents wielding machine guns surrounded the police station before dawn Monday in Duluiyah, a majority Sunni town about 45 miles north of Baghdad. The five officers on duty walked out, hands to the dark sky, and waited to be executed.

But instead of firing, the insurgents' leader spoke: Repent, he commanded, or die.

"So we swore to quit the police and support the Islamic State of Iraq," recalled Mohammad Hashmawi, one of the police officers, referring to a militant Sunni organization active in many parts of the country.

Apparently content, the insurgents stole the officers' decrepit weapons and the station's communications equipment, blew up the building and released the officers. A similar scene played out simultaneously at another police station in the town, said police Capt. Hussein al-Jaburi. It was the fifth police station in the town to be destroyed by Sunni extremists in two weeks, he said, leaving just three standing. [complete article]
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'Ghost troops' still help fill Iraq’s lacking ranks
AP, March 20, 2007

More than three years and $15 billion into the U.S. effort to rebuild Iraqi forces,
"ghost soldiers" still help fill Iraq's army ranks and no one knows how many trained policemen remain on the job, the Pentagon and U.S. government investigators report.

The Government Accountability Office says the most serious problems lie in the logistics -- supplies, maintenance, transport -- of Iraqi security forces. One example: The police have more than 1,000 U.S.-made trucks whose computerized systems are beyond the skills of the Iraqi mechanics who repair them.

Since soon after the 2003 U.S. invasion, the training of new military and police forces has been presented as vital to the U.S. military's handing over the counterinsurgency fight to the Iraqis. [complete article]
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CIA didn't try to stop secret deportation of U.S. citizen, officials say
By Jonathan S. Landay and Shashank Bengali, McClatchy, March 19, 2007

CIA officers in Kenya failed to use their influence to win the release of an American citizen who was secretly deported to Somalia and is now imprisoned in Ethiopia, a country that the State Department says abuses detainees, according to an internal U.S. government e-mail.

The message, which was read to McClatchy Newspapers, said that some U.S. officials thought the CIA station in Nairobi had enough influence with Kenyan authorities to free Amir Mohamed Meshal, 24, of Tinton Falls, N.J., but didn't use it. The message's author worried that the failure to demand Meshal's release might set a bad precedent. [complete article]
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