The War in Context Christopher Dickey quote
  Iraq + war on terrorism + Middle East conflict + critical perspectives     
What happened to the freedom agenda?
By Paul Woodward, The War in Context, May 3, 2007

Four years ago and less than a month before triggering what turned into the destruction of Iraq, President Bush predicted that a "new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region."

Leaders of the region now meet in Egypt and we can be sure that the spread of freedom, in any meaningful sense of the term, is not on the agenda. As a measure of how bad things have become, the fact the Condoleezza Rice today spoke with her counterpart from one of the region's most repressive regimes, provides for most observers, a tiny glimmer of hope.

On World Press Freedom Day, it's worth taking a small snap shot of the region that was supposedly going to be the prime beneficiary of George Bush's "freedom agenda."

Yesterday, an Egyptian court convicted an Al Jazeera producer of harming the country's interests by making a documentary exposing the state's use of torture. The journalist, Howaida Taha, was sentenced to six months in jail.

Abdel Moneim Mahmoud, a young Egyptian blogger, passionate advocate of democracy and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, now languishes in prison, though he has not yet been charged with or convicted of any crime.

In Jordan, where the authorities routinely obstruct press freedom, in the most recent instance the printing presses that got shut down were about to expose what appears to be U.S.-sponsored plot to topple the Palestinian national unity government. A Jordanian government spokesman did not deny the veracity of the Al-Majd report but said that the publication's "news reports are based on intelligence information that offend the nation's security and interests."

Were it not for such censorship, we might at this point have a better understanding of how far Elliott Abrams, Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy, is willing to go in his efforts to promote U.S.-approved "democracy." (Censorship or not, I should have more to report on this particular story in the coming days.)

Four years ago, Bush said:
We are setting out the necessary conditions for progress toward the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. It is the commitment of our government -- and my personal commitment -- to implement the road map and to reach that goal.
Mark those words -- Bush didn't just express an aspiration; he made a personal commitment to reach the goal of helping create a viable democratic Palestinian state.

Now, in spite of the fact that just over a year ago in the Palestinian territories there occurred the freest and fairest elections the Arab world has seen, democracy has subsequently been strangled under American pressure.

Nevertheless, in what from the perspective of the Bush administration probably appears as a disturbing new development but is a real sign of hope to others in the region, there are emerging signs that Islamists and secular activists now see the need to form alliances in pursuit of freedom -- even as such freedom is obstructed by the U.S. and its "moderate" allies.

As George Bush used to like to say, freedom is not America's gift to the world.
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The Arab media paradox
By Marc Lynch, Bitter Lemons, May 3, 2007

Today's Arab media is rife with paradox. Compared to only a decade ago, today's Arab world enjoys a dizzying variety of television stations, newspapers and internet sites. The news and political discourse in these media outlets have decisively shattered the ability of states to monopolize information or control public opinion. But while technological trends have fueled the growing power and freedom of the Arab media, Arab states seem determined to fight it every step of the way. Tightening media laws, unsubtle harassment of journalists and independent media outlets and outright violence continue to cast a black cloud over Arab media freedoms.

Before giving in to despair at the bleak realities of the region's media, it is worth remembering how far the Arab media has come in only a decade. Before al-Jazeera, which launched in 1996, virtually all of the electronic Arab media and most newspapers suffered from tight state control. While some London-based newspapers enjoyed more freedom, they had relatively limited audiences. The media landscape today could hardly be more different. A wide range of satellite television stations compete for regional market share, including not only al-Jazeera but also the Saudi-backed al-Arabiya, a variety of Gulf, Lebanese and Egyptian channels and a growing number of western-backed stations. High quality independent newspapers such as Egypt's al-Masry al-Youm and al-Dustour and Jordan's al-Ghad have established themselves as major political forces. Blogs and internet sites allow for an ever wider zone of public discussion and debate.

But such optimistic trends are tempered by the harsh political realities of the region. For all their path-breaking contributions to political discourse, satellite television stations such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya remain to varying degrees subordinate to the political interests of their state sponsors. Independent newspapers operate at the sufferance of regimes that too often move harshly against those that violate the red lines. For instance, Morocco has seen a troubling series of lawsuits against the independent press and journalists such as Aboubakr Jamai, TelQuel and Le Journal Hebdomadaire. Syria's first private satellite TV station, al-Sham, was closed down the day it was scheduled to air its first news broadcast. The Jordanian Parliament this year passed a harshly punitive press and publications law. The Egyptian regime, despite its tolerance of a contentious political press, has been escalating its repressive campaign against political bloggers and independent journalists. The Saudi media remains tightly controlled, even if its margins of freedom sometimes widen. Across the region, journalists have little access to information and little protection from vengeful regimes. [complete article]
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U.S. seeks closing of visa loophole for Britons
By Jane Perlez, New York Times, May 2, 2007

[Sometimes a piece of reporting is so horrendously bad, it just has to be dissected line-by-line. Worst of all, the New York Times, dignified this piece with the honor of making it a front page story. Oy vey!]

Omar Khyam, the ringleader of the thwarted London bomb plot who was sentenced to life imprisonment on Monday, showed the potential for disaffected young men to be lured as terrorists, a threat that British officials said they would have to contend with for a generation.

But the 25-year-old Mr. Khyam, a Briton of Pakistani descent, also personifies a larger and more immediate concern [to xenophobic racist Americans]: as a British citizen, he could have entered the United States without a visa, like many of an estimated 800,000 other Britons of Pakistani origin [ -- those darkies who aren't the real Brits with the adorable accents that we love watching on PBS].

American officials, citing the number of terror plots in Britain involving Britons with ties to Pakistan, expressed concern over the visa loophole [-- a loophole that prevents the kind of racial profiling that we all now recognize is essential to the fight against terrorism]. In recent months, the homeland security secretary, Michael Chertoff, has opened talks with the government here on how to curb the access of British citizens of Pakistani origin to the United States. [Why would these people want to come to the U.S. in the first place if it wasn't in order to engage in or plan acts of terrorism?]

At the moment, the British are resistant, fearing that restrictions on the group of Britons would incur a backlash from a population that has always sided with the Labor Party. [Perhaps a more effective way of closing the loophole would be to exclude all Labour voters from the visa waiver program.] The Americans say they are hesitant to push too hard and embarrass their staunch ally in the Iraq war, Prime Minister Tony Blair, as he prepares to step down from office.

Among the options that have been put on the table, according to British officials, was the most onerous option to Britain, that of canceling the entire visa waiver program that allows all Britons entry to the United States without a visa. [Or maybe the program can just be suspended until Britain engages in some overdue ethnic cleansing.] Another option, politically fraught as it is, would be to single out Britons of Pakistani origin, requiring them to make visa applications for the United States. [Obviously the simplest solution to the whole problem would be to streamline the whole immigration process in U.S. airports and have two lanes -- one for whites and the other for everyone else. Easier still, don't let non-whites into the country.]

Rather than impose any visa restrictions, the British government has told Washington it would prefer if the Americans simply deported Britons who failed screening once they arrived at an airport in the United States, British officials said. [Clearly, this is a sly move by the Brits who are just trying to shirk their responsibility to engage in racial profiling.] The British also screen at their end, and share intelligence with the Americans.

But Washington feels strongly, Mr. Chertoff has said, that it has the right to build controls against terrorists from Britain who do not have a prior criminal record — precisely the kind of man Mr. Khyam was until he was arrested in early 2004 and put on trial for plotting to blow up targets like a major London nightclub and a popular suburban shopping mall. [With such screening controls, shoe-bomber, Richard Reid, would never have been able to board his flight. Furthermore, since he was not of Pakistani descent this clearly proves that "whites only" is the only safe way to go. I know, there are white American terrorists, but they like to hide in the woods and don't go overseas. We can't catch them in the airports.]

For its part, the British government looks with dismay at the frequency with which Britons travel to their ancestral land of Pakistan — an estimated 400,000 trips a year — where a small minority, like Mr. Khyam, link up with extremist groups and acquire training in weapons and explosives. [Obviously, the British government needs to insist that all Britons of Pakistani descent forsake any desire to visit their ancestral land -- and maybe that should go for Americans too, the ones that have silly romantic notions about discovering their European roots. The dollar's almost worthless and if you want to be safe, it's best to stay home. In fact, that's obviously the only sane way we can defeat terrorism: Stop trying to profile foreigners at immigration -- just tell them to turn around and go home. That'll fix those pesky visa loopholes!]. [complete article]

Comment -- So what's the real story here? We are six years into the so-called war on terrorism and still both government officials and journalists are being bone-headed when it comes to thinking about counter-terrorism. What the New York Times should have been reporting on was not the difficulty in closing a so-called "visa loophole"; it is the fact that nationality or ancestry are still regarded as useful identifying characteristics when it comes to spotting terrorists.

Anyone who has been through an international air terminal in recent years will almost certainly have been able to observe that, even if they would officially deny the practice, every US-bound airline appears to be using some form of racial profiling. If a passenger "looks Muslim" they are going to get extra scrutiny. As the Telegraph reports:
The Foreign Office said many British Muslims were already put off travelling to America for fear of an unwelcome reception. People of Pakistani or south Asian background are routinely picked out for special "secondary" searches and checks.
In other words, the message has gone out loud and clear: America is suspicious and afraid of Muslims. This represents a colossal failure in U.S. counter-terrorism policy.

An effective strategy should threaten no one other than the would-be terrorist. It should rely on vigilance, not paranoia; it should focus on behavior and psychology, not ethnicity and religion; it should be smart, not stupid!
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We will not bow to permanent servitude in the land of our ancestors
By Azmi Bishara, Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2007

When Israel was established in 1948, more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled in fear. My family was among the minority that escaped that fate, remaining instead on the land where we had long lived. The Israeli state, established exclusively for Jews, embarked immediately on transforming us into foreigners in our own country.

For the first 18 years of Israeli statehood, we, as Israeli citizens, lived under military rule with pass laws that controlled our every movement. We watched Jewish Israeli towns spring up over destroyed Palestinian villages.

Today we make up 20% of Israel's population. We do not drink at separate water fountains or sit at the back of the bus. We vote and can serve in the parliament. But we face legal, institutional and informal discrimination in all spheres of life.

More than 20 Israeli laws explicitly privilege Jews over non-Jews. The Law of Return, for example, grants automatic citizenship to Jews from anywhere in the world. Yet Palestinian refugees are denied the right to return to the country they were forced to leave in 1948. The Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty -- Israel's "Bill of Rights" -- defines the state as "Jewish" rather than a state for all its citizens. Thus Israel is more for Jews living in Los Angeles or Paris than it is for native Palestinians.

Israel acknowledges itself to be a state of one particular religious group. Anyone committed to democracy will readily admit that equal citizenship cannot exist under such conditions. [complete article]
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The Winograd report mainly provokes Arab disdain
By Rami G. Khouri, Daily Star, May 3, 2007

Arabs see Kadima as an apt symbol of the combined approaches of Labor and Likud, both of which have pursued virtually identical policies toward the Arabs: colonizing and expropriating Arab lands, using massive military overkill to resolve political differences, jailing or killing thousands of Palestinians, wounding tens of thousands of others, institutionalizing Apartheid-like segregation between Israeli occupiers and Palestinians, strengthening the movement to "Judaize" Jerusalem and diminish its Christian and Muslim character, and refusing to seriously consider any negotiated compromise on the core Palestinian refugee issue which forms the heart of the conflict in Arab eyes.

After 60 years of hard experience with the Jewish state, most Arabs have concluded that Israeli national policy is defined by a combination of Zionist zealotry and state military overkill vis-a-vis Palestinians and other Arabs. Political leaders who come and go - Olmert, Barak, Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin, Sharon and others - tend to be technical managers of a consistent policy rather than strategic managers who can truly change policy for the same of the wellbeing of Israel and its Arab neighbors. [complete article]
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E.U. delegation meets Hamas PM, Israel protests
Deutsche Welle, May 2, 2007

A European Parliament delegation met Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza on Tuesday despite an EU diplomatic boycott of his Hamas movement, sparking a protest from Israel.

The 25-member delegation was led by Cypriot MEP Kyriacos Triantaphyllides, the president of the European Parliament committee for relations with the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Haniyeh used the meeting to call on "the international community to work with the national unity government in an official and direct manner as it represents the will of the Palestinian people," according to a statement from his office. [complete article]
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Iraqi blocs opposed to draft oil bill
By Edward Wong and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times, May 3, 2007

Kurdish and Sunni Arab officials expressed deep reservations on Wednesday about the draft version of a national oil law and related legislation, misgivings that could derail one of the benchmark measures of progress in Iraq laid down by President Bush.

The draft law, which establishes a framework for the distribution of oil revenues, was approved by the Iraqi cabinet in late February after months of negotiations. The White House was hoping for quick passage to lay the groundwork for a political settlement among the country's ethnic and sectarian factions. But the new Kurdish concerns have created doubts about the bill even before Parliament is to pick it up for debate.

The issue comes at a delicate moment for Mr. Bush, who on Wednesday began negotiations with Congressional Democrats over a new war-spending measure. [complete article]
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Hoon admits fatal errors in planning for postwar Iraq
By Patrick Wintour, The Guardian, May 2, 2007

A catalogue of errors over planning for Iraq after the invasion, and an inability to influence key figures in the US administration, led to anarchy in Iraq from which the country has not recovered, the British defence secretary during the invasion admits today.

In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, Geoff Hoon reveals that Britain disagreed with the US administration over two key decisions in May 2003, two months after the invasion - to disband Iraq's army and "de-Ba'athify" its civil service. Mr Hoon also said he and other senior ministers completely underestimated the role and influence of the vice-president, Dick Cheney.

"Sometimes ... Tony had made his point with the president, and I'd made my point with Don [Rumsfeld] and Jack [Straw] had made his point with Colin [Powell] and the decision actually came out of a completely different place. And you think: what did we miss? I think we missed Cheney." [complete article]

Comment -- It's easy to make a strong argument that you have to be in a country in order to understand its political operations, but could the Brits be this imperceptive? Wasn't it the job of the British embassy in Washington to enlighten their superiors that Cheney was the puppet master?
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Turkish MPs vote for early poll
BBC News, May 3, 2007

Turkey's parliament has confirmed that early elections, aimed at ending a crisis over the party's candidate for president, will be held on 22 July.

MPs unanimously backed the ruling party's proposal in a vote which was carried live on national TV.

PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed a June poll after the country's top court annulled the parliamentary vote for the party's candidate, Abdullah Gul. [complete article]
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Tribunal tribulations - is the Hariri court dead?
By Joshua Landis, Syria Comment, May 2, 2007

"What's up with the Hariri Tribunal?" was the question all Levant analysts in Washington were asking this week. They were in a quandary. Many thought establishing an international court would be a slam dunk. With full French and US backing, the way was clear in the Security Council to get a court established under chapter seven strictures that could try the murderers of Rafiq al-Hariri and drape the Syrian regime in chains, at least diplomatically if not actually.

"But now it looks as if President Jacques Chirac of France, who leaves office on May 16, may be about to lose the last battle of his 12-year presidential career," writes Patrick Seale. [complete article]
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The blind spot in Israel's war probe
By Tony Karon, Rootless Cosmopolitan, May 2, 2007

Given Olmert's panicky neophyte behavior when faced with a crisis of this magnitude -- and given that it is rather obvious that as a grand strategist, he makes a pretty good mayor -- Winograd's findings on the limit of his consultations within Israel's security and political establishment in his decision making over the war suggest, to my jaundiced eye, at least, that Olmert was talking to someone else. He certainly needed his hand held. And the reports of in the Israeli press at the time of him running out of his own cabinet meetings to discuss the war on the phone with Condi Rice deepens my suspicion that Olmert did not make these blunders entirely alone (and I'm not talking about the rest of the Israeli leadership echelon that is now racing to distance itself from the decision).

This was a blunder that was, well, shall we say, Bush-esque. I'm looking forward to someone reporting this out a little more. [complete article]

Comment -- There seems little doubt that prior to the war, Olmert already had an in-principle green light from Washington when it came to the proposition of dealing with Hezbollah (and thus sending a message to Tehran), but when push came to shove, I have to wonder whether the strongest factor influencing Olmert wasn't what Condoleezza Rice might have been whispering in his ear, but instead the logic that one operation of gross disproportionality necessitates another operation of matching disproportionality.

Only two weeks earlier, in response to the abduction of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, Olmert had unleashed "Summer Rains" on Gaza in order to punish Hamas and the Palestinian population. Was he now about to turn around and flatter Hezbollah by acknowledging their military superiority over Hamas and thus show restraint after two more Israeli soldiers had been abducted? No, like Gaza, Southern Lebanon must now be bombed back into the stone age -- at least, I suspect, that was an important strand in Olmert's thinking.
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Poll: Israelis want Olmert out
Yedioth Ahronoth, May 2, 2007

The resounding majority of the Israeli public believes that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert should not be the one to implement the lessons of the Winograd report on the failures during the Second Lebanon War, according to polls published Wednesday morning.

A Yedioth Ahronoth poll carried out by the Dahaf institute found that 27 percent of the public would give Olmert another chance to mend the failures, while 72 percent think otherwise.

A full 65 percent believe Olmert should resign immediately, while 25 percent prefer to wait and see the Winograd Commission's final report, due for publication this summer. Ten percent think Olmert should remain in his post. [complete article]

Livni: Olmert must resign; opposes fresh elections
By Yossi Verter and Mazal Mualem, Haaretz, May 2, 2007

Foreign Minster Tzipi Livni said Wednesday that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert must resign in the wake of the harsh criticism in the Winograd report on his handling of the Second Lebanon War, making her the most senior Israeli official to call on him to quit. [complete article]

Nasrallah praises Winograd report; Siniora: No mention of destruction in Lebanon
Haaretz, May 2, 2007

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Wednesday praised the Winograd report for its description of Israel's failures during the Second Lebanon War, but the Lebanese government criticized the findings, saying the report did not address the massive destruction caused by Israel to his country.

"I will not gloat," Nasrallah told an audience at the opening of a book fair in a south Beirut neighborhood complex, rebuilt after being leveled by Israel Air Force warplanes during the summer fighting.

"It is worthy of respect that an investigative commission appointed by [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert condemns him," Nasrallah said. "When the enemy entity acts honestly and sincerely, you cannot but respect it." [complete article]

Olmert's legacy could yet be the failure that forces something better
By Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian, May 2, 2007

The report lays into the incompetence and hubris of the men at the top, the decay that has been allowed to eat away at the Israel Defence Forces, even the individualistic hedonism of a nation that once placed a great premium on collective solidarity. Not since the Agranat report into the 1973 war has there been such a comprehensive indictment. According to Yediot Ahronoth columnist Sima Kadmon, "The entire system screwed up."

This round of self-flagellation was not prompted by concern that the 2006 pounding of Lebanon was "disproportionate", to recall the word of that hour. Israelis still believe they had every right to take on Hizbullah, who had abducted two Israeli soldiers from Israeli soil and had thousands of rockets aimed at Israeli civilian towns. The criticism is not that Olmert fought the war but that he fought it badly. That he didn't achieve his stated aims of freeing the soldiers and de-fanging Hizbullah; that he sent troops in harm's way with no coherent plan and insufficient protection; and that a non-victory against a mere guerrilla movement has shattered the IDF aura of invincibility essential to deter Israel's enemies. It's for that series of failures that he has been slammed. [complete article]
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A case against Cheney
By Richard Cohen, Washington Post, May 2, 2007

The resolution offered by the gentleman from Ohio reads sensibly. It alleges crimes high and low, misdemeanors galore -- all of them representing an effort to mislead the American people and take them into war. It is Dennis Kucinich's articles of impeachment directed at Dick Cheney. The vice president will, of course, deny being a liar. As long as Kucinich is at it, add that to the articles.

The congressman's case is persuasive, although his remedy may be too radical. He calls for Cheney to be impeached by the House and tried by the Senate, just as Bill Clinton was for what turned out to be neither a high crime nor much of a misdemeanor. What was it, anyway, compared with more than 3,300 American dead?

In his articles of impeachment, Kucinich details the many statements Cheney made that turned out to be factually wrong. For instance, he quotes Cheney as saying, "We know they [the Iraqis] have biological and chemical weapons," which of course, they didn't. Still, that was excusable, since it was early in the game and little contradictory evidence was being presented. As Condi Rice said Sunday, "When George [Tenet] said 'slam dunk,' everybody understood that he believed that the intelligence was strong. We all believed the intelligence was strong."

But in Cheney's case, the slam-dunking went on and on -- way past the point where it was possible anymore to believe him. He continued to insist that Saddam Hussein had high-level contacts with al-Qaeda -- " the evidence is overwhelming," he once said -- while others in the government not only knew that the evidence was not overwhelming but that it hardly existed. It was the same with Cheney's insistence-- not just wrong, but irrefutably so -- that Hussein "has weapons of mass destruction," and "[t]here is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us." The percussive march of these statements is so forceful, one after another after another, that it suggests Cheney wanted war no matter what. If he was lying to himself as well as to the rest of us, that is only a mitigating circumstance -- sort of an insanity defense. [complete article]
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Bush keeps vow to veto war funding bill
By Michael Abramowitz and Peter Baker, Washington Post, May 2, 2007

President Bush vetoed a $124 billion measure yesterday that would have funded overseas military operations but required him to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq as early as July, escalating the most serious confrontation between the White House and Congress over war policy in a generation.

Bush carried through on his veto threat just after the legislation arrived at the White House, calling the timetable a "prescription for chaos and confusion" that would undercut generals. "Setting a deadline for withdrawal would demoralize the Iraqi people, would encourage killers across the broader Middle East and send a signal that America will not keep its commitments," he said last night. "Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure." [complete article]

Comment -- It's been said that a goal is a dream with a deadline, so I guess you can say that Bush's war plan with no deadlines could best be described as a dream of success -- we're going to get there; just don't know how; just don't know when... just keep on dreamin'.
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Former Iranian security official under arrest
By Najmeh Bozorgmehr and Gareth Smyth, Financial Times, May 2, 2007

Hossein Mousavian, a former security official who played a leading role in Iran's negotiations with the European Union over its nuclear programme, has been arrested.

Mohammad Atrianfar, a prominent journalist close to Mr Mousavian, confirmed he had been taken into custody on Monday from his home in Tehran.

"The unconfirmed charge is financial scandal, but there is strong speculation in political circles that it was somehow related to the nuclear issue," Mr Atrianfar told the FT. [complete article]
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Rice meets with Iraq's prime minister on eve of conference
By Karen DeYoung, Washington Post, May 2, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met here with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki Wednesday afternoon, on the eve of a crucial two-day gathering that the Bush administration hopes will convince Iraq's neighbors that the Baghdad government is serious about political reconciliation and economic reform.

On the sidelines of the conference at this Red Sea resort, attended by representatives of about 60 governments from the region and around the world, Rice also plans to hold first-time talks with her Syrian counterpart, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem.

The Bush administration downgraded relations with Damascus in early 2005 after Syria's alleged complicity in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Washington has accused Damascus of supporting foreign terrorist groups and allowing foreign fighters and suicide bombers to cross its border into Iraq. [complete article]
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Masri: Dead or alive, the terror continues
By Pepe Escobar, Asia Times, May 3, 2007

The breaking news came around noon, on state-run Al-Iraqiya TV, and it hit the Shi'ite slum, Sadr City, as well as the rest of Baghdad, as a new "shock and awe": Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, popularly known in Baghdad as Abu al-Masri, the Egyptian-born leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, had been killed in the al-Nabai area of Taji, north Baghdad. That's what Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier-General Abu al-Kareem Khalaf was telling Al-Iraqiya live - to the incredulity of many a viewer.

But the spokesman was also saying something even more striking. Abu al-Masri had not been killed by militias at the ministry (the seventh floor is considered "Iranian territory"; virtually no one is admitted). He had not been killed by death squads. And he had not been killed by US forces. He fell victim to "internal fighting" - which could be a reference to a coalition of Sunni tribes that has been fighting al-Qaeda's extreme methods, or even to al-Qaeda itself. Khalaf actually said Masri was killed by his own al-Qaeda jihadis in an ambush at the Safi Bridge north of Baghdad, an assertion that should be taken with an extreme pinch of salt. [complete article]

See also, With no body, al-Masri death in question (AP).
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Turkish government says to hold new president vote
By Hidir Goktas, Reuters, May 2, 2007

Turkey's Islamist-rooted government said on Tuesday it would put its presidential candidate to a new vote in parliament on Wednesday, after the Constitutional Court annulled a ballot held last week.

Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan left the door open to possible early national elections to resolve the standoff between his government and Turkey's secularists, including the army which has threatened to intervene. [complete article]

See also, Torn between democracy, the military and Islam (editorial, The Independent), A test for Turkish democracy (Simon Tisdall), and Turkey's democracy crisis (editorial, Washington Post).

Comment -- The international movement (dominated by neoconservatives) that has in the last decade spoken out loudly in defense of secular democracy, has a dubious pedigree. How could the United States and Israel in the current domestic political climate claim to be defenders of secularism? In the U.S., many conservatives -- now strongly represented in the Supreme Court (one of whose responsibilities is supposedly to guard the separation of church and state) -- view secularism as a Trojan horse used by liberals to suppress the expression of this nation's Christian heritage. While Israel, secular in name, regards any challenge to the state's Jewish character as a threat to the nation's existence.

As Judeo-Christian civilization tentatively opens its doors to affiliates, secularism is the price of entry. Muslims, not surprisingly, are not begging for membership. So should we be surprised that they might be perplexed about our insistence that they demonstrate their devotion to secularism?

Why don't we just stick to the common ground -- democracy? And instead of giving so much emphasis to the defense of secularism in the Islamic world, how about we get our own houses in order by giving more attention to the ways in which military power and corporate power threaten democracy at home?
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Shadowy Iraq office accused of sectarian agenda
By Arwa Damon, CNN, May 1, 2007

Iraq's prime minister has created an entity within his government that U.S. and Iraqi military officials say is being used as a smokescreen to hide an extreme Shiite agenda that is worsening the country's sectarian divide.

The Office of the Commander in Chief has the power to overrule other government ministries, according to U.S. military and intelligence sources.

Those sources say the 24-member office is abusing its power, increasingly overriding decisions made by the Iraqi Ministries of Defense and Interior and potentially undermining the entire U.S. effort in Iraq.

The Office, as it is known in Baghdad, was set up about four months ago with the knowledge of American forces in Iraq. Its goal is ostensibly to advise Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki -- the nation's new commander in chief -- on military matters.

According to a U.S. intelligence source, the Office is "ensuring the emplacement of commanders it favors and can control, regardless of what the ministries want." [complete article]

See also, U.S. to query Iraq over reported purge (AP).

Baghdad up close and personal
By Pepe Escobar, Asia Times, May 2, 2007

In explosive al-Amriya, in west Baghdad, flags of the Islamic Emirate of Iraq are on full display, and the writing is - literally - on the walls: "Long live al-Qaeda." Women are being forced to wear the niqqab - which covers the whole face - and gloves at all times, and some women have already been executed, accused of spying. All across town war widows - women who traditionally were supposed to stay at home raising the family - now have become mechanics, parking valets or electronic appliance repairers.

Sunni Heitein and mixed Sunni-Shi'ite al-Ameel are adjacent neighborhoods. The ethnic cleansing of Ameel has been persistent for the past four months. It all started - as almost everything in Iraq - as a tribal conflict, between the Sunni al-Janabi tribe and the Shi'ite al-Megasis tribe. Fighting with Kalahsnikovs, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades would go on all day, even during the Friday jumma prayers. In the end, Sunnis were forced to leave Ameel for good. The neighborhood became a ghost town, now virtually sealed off by the Iraqi Army. Iraq's per capita annual income plunged from $3,600 in 1980 - when Iraq was still a model developing country - to $860 in 2001 after 10 years of United Nations sanctions, to $530 at the end of 2003. Now it may be even lower than $400. Unemployment is at 60%. Thieves are desperate: there are not many more flush Iraqis left to plunder. The only lucrative business is to kidnap and resell foreigners. [complete article]
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Price tag for war in Iraq on track to top $500 billion
By Ron Hutcheson, McClatchy, April 30, 2007

The bitter fight over the latest Iraq spending bill has all but obscured a sobering fact: The war will soon cost more than $500 billion.

That's about ten times more than the Bush administration anticipated before the war started four years ago, and no one can predict how high the tab will go. The $124 billion spending bill that President Bush plans to veto this week includes about $78 billion for Iraq, with the rest earmarked for the war in Afghanistan, veterans' health care and other government programs. [complete article]
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U.S. cites 91 percent rise in terrorist acts in Iraq
By Glenn Kessler, Washington Post, May 1, 2007

The number of terrorism incidents in Iraq -- and resulting deaths, injuries and kidnappings -- skyrocketed from 2005 to 2006, according to statistics released by U.S. counterterrorism officials yesterday.

Of the 14,338 reported terrorist attacks worldwide last year, 45 percent took place in Iraq, and 65 percent of the global fatalities stemming from terrorism occurred in Iraq. In 2005, Iraq accounted for 30 percent of the worldwide terrorist attacks.

The figures, compiled by the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and released with the annual State Department Country Reports on Terrorism, showed that the number of incidents in Iraq rose 91 percent, from 3,468 in 2005 to 6,630 in 2006. [complete article]
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Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader 'killed'
BBC News, May 1, 2007

The interior ministry in Iraq says it has received intelligence that the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq has been killed.

Abu Ayyub al-Masri, believed to be an Egyptian, has led the group since June 2006 when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike.

One official said he was "100% sure" that Masri had been killed, but another urged caution as the body had not been recovered. [complete article]

Masri dead again? (Marc Lynch).
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Feinstein seeks to close Guantanamo
By Julian E. Barnes, Los Angeles Times, May 1, 2007

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced a measure Monday to force the Pentagon to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and move the trials of Al Qaeda suspects to the United States.

But the Defense Department got another green light for those Guantanamo tribunals to continue, when the Supreme Court declined Monday to hear the appeal of two detainees who challenged the legality of the military commissions.

In a statement, Feinstein said the detention facility had hurt America's credibility around the world because of allegations of abuse there and doubts about the legal rights afforded detainees. [complete article]
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5 Britons guilty; tied to 2005 London bombers
By Jane Perlez and Elaine Sciolino, New York Times, May , 2007

A jury found five British Muslim men guilty on Monday of planning fertilizer-bomb attacks around London, ending a yearlong trial that linked the plotters with two of the four men who blew themselves up on London's transit system in July 2005.

According to the evidence, revealed during the trial but made public for the first time on Monday, authorities had closely monitored meetings in 2004 between members of the two plots but never fully investigated the men who pulled off the transit attacks, which killed 56 people. To ensure a fair trial, the judge had ordered the news media not to make the information public until after the verdict.

The disclosure turned a victory for British authorities into a day of hand-wringing and recriminations over whether they had missed an opportunity to prevent the deadliest terrorist attack in the country's history. [complete article]
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Anger over 'Taliban' deaths
By Abdul Samad Rohani and S Mudassir Ali Shah, Asia Times, May 2, 2007

Angry protests have erupted in two Afghan provinces against apparent killings of civilians in military operations by coalition troops against Taliban targets.

On Monday, thousands of furious people took to the streets to denounce a "cold-blooded massacre" of dozens of civilians by coalition troops in the western province of Herat, which has been relatively calm to date compared with other areas where Taliban activity is high.

The previous day, protesters blocked the busy Jalalabad-Torkham Road in Ghanikhel district, Nangarhar province, to protest the killings of four rebel fighters and two women by "American soldiers" who raided a compound on a tip-off that the cell was plotting suicide car-bomb attacks on coalition forces in the coming weeks. [complete article]
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Coalition chair said planning to call on PM to resign
By Shahar Ilan, Yuval Azoulay and Jonathan Lis, Haaretz, May 1, 2007

Coalition Chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki said Tuesday that he will call for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign during a meeting of the Kadima faction on Thursday, Israel Radio reported.

Yitzhaki spoke Tuesday with a number of Kadima MKs on the possibility of replacing Olmert in the wake of the damning report on the handling of the Second Lebanon War.

Several of those who spoke to the coalition chairman told Haaretz afterward that they had discussed the need to replace Olmert immediately. [complete article]

Palestinians fear for peace talks
AP, May 1, 2007

Senior Palestinian officials worried yesterday that the Winograd report, which charged Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with severe failures in handling last summer's war in Lebanon, might further complicate delicate Mideast peace efforts by weakening his government. [complete article]
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Hezbollah reaches out, says ready for Lebanon settlement
Ya Libnan, April 30, 2007

Sheikh Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's second-in-command has reached out to rival political leaders, announcing that his group was ready for any settlement under the emblem of national unity.

"Our hands are stretched out for any national or unity proposals," said Qassem in remarks published by the Lebanese media on Monday.

Referring to Druze leader Walid Jumblatt 's reconciliatory tone in recent statements, Qassem said, without naming him, that his words were "positive." [complete article]
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Israeli leader clings to office despite harsh report on war
By Steven Erlanger and Isabel Kershner, New York Times, April 30, 2007

A government commission excoriated Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today for "severe failures" in the first five days of last summer's war against Lebanon. It accused him of deciding "hastily" to go to war, neglecting to ask for a detailed military plan, refusing to consult people outside the army and setting "over-ambitious and unobtainable goals."

The result, the commission said, was that Mr. Olmert was responsible for "a severe failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence."

The language was harsher than Israelis had been led to expect from a series of leaks reported in recent days.

While not calling on Mr. Olmert to resign -- a recommendation that may be included in a second part of the report dealing with the rest of the war, to be published sometime this summer -- the commission's findings are likely to reduce Mr. Olmert's chances of recovering his already badly damaged political credibility. [complete article]

See also, Olmert and his gov't are unfit to run the next war (Ze'ev Schiff).
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Hamas leader warns of new Palestinian uprising
Reuters, April 30, 2007

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal warned Israel could face another Palestinian uprising unless conditions in the Gaza Strip and occupied West Bank improved.

Meshaal told the Palestinian daily al-Ayyam in an interview published on Monday continuation of a Western economic embargo of the Palestinian government and military actions by Israel would "give notice to a huge explosion that would not only affect the Palestinians but also the entire region, especially the Zionist entity".

"I warn and say that I see that the current situation is heading in the direction of the conditions that prevailed in the late 1990s ... that paved the way for the al-Aqsa intifada," Meshaal said. "I warn and under 'warn' I put many red lines." [complete article]

Deputy Palestinian PM says gov't could be disbanded
By Mohammed Assadi, Reuters, April 30, 2007

The deputy Palestinian prime minister, a Fatah leader, said on Monday that a six-week-old unity government led by Hamas should be disbanded if a Western embargo is not lifted within three months.

Azzam al-Ahmad's comments, made to public school teachers holding a one-day strike over unpaid wages, were the first of their kind by a leader of the unity government that Hamas Islamists formed with President Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah faction.

"If the economic and national siege on the Palestinian people is not lifted in three months, this government should leave," Ahmad told hundreds of teachers after they tried to storm government offices in the West Bank city of Ramallah. [complete article]
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War called riskier than Vietnam
By Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post, April 29, 2007

President Bush recently said that "there's a lot of differences" between the current war in Iraq and the Vietnam War.

As fighting in Iraq enters its fifth year, an increasing number of experts in foreign policy and national strategy are arguing that the biggest difference may be that the Iraq war will inflict greater damage to U.S. interests than Vietnam did.

"In terms of the consequences of failure, the stakes are much bigger than Vietnam," said former defense secretary William S. Cohen. "The geopolitical consequences are ... potentially global in scope."

About 17 times as many U.S. troops died in the Vietnam War -- the longest war in U.S. history -- as have been lost in Iraq, the nation's third-longest war. Also, despite widespread public dissatisfaction with the Iraq war, the debate over it has not convulsed American society to the extent seen during the Vietnam conflict. However, Vietnam does not have oil and is not in the middle of a region crucial to the global economy and festering with terrorism, experts say, leading many of them to conclude that the long-term effects of the Iraq war will be worse for the United States. [complete article]

What war?
By Niall Ferguson, April , 2007

It's a theme of nearly all the great post-Vietnam movies. In "Taxi Driver" and "The Deer Hunter," Robert De Niro plays a veteran who is dismayed, if not unhinged, by homecoming. From the mean streets of New York in the former to the Pennsylvania mining town in the latter, the folks back home just don't get it about the war.

I imagine that some American soldiers returning from tours of duty in Iraq might get an even stronger feeling of alienation if they were to visit, as I have in the last seven days, those quintessential American playgrounds, Las Vegas and Palm Beach. From the casinos of Nevada to the condos of Florida, the good times are rolling, regardless of events in the Middle East. [complete article]
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U.S. sees sharp rise in global terrorism deaths
By Arshad Mohammed, Reuters, April 30, 2007

The number of people killed by terrorism around the world surged by 40 percent to more than 20,000 last year largely because of greater violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, a U.S. report said on Monday.

Global terrorism fatalities rose to 20,498 in 2006 from 14,618 in 2005 with the vast majority in Iraq, according to the U.S. State Department's annual "Country Reports on Terrorism" publication.

The number killed by terrorism in Iraq rose to 13,340 from 8,262 in 2005, Russ Travers, an official with the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center that compiled the figures for the State Department, told reporters. [complete article]
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Hagel's stand
By Robert D. Novak, Washington Post, April 30, 2007

Sen. Chuck Hagel returned from his fifth visit to Iraq to become one of two Republicans to join Senate Democrats in voting Thursday to begin withdrawal of U.S. troops. It was not an easy vote for a conservative GOP regular and faithful supporter of President George W. Bush's other policies. A few days earlier, Hagel sat down with me and painted a bleak picture of the war and U.S. policy.

Over a dozen years, I have had many such conversations with Hagel, but not for quotation. This time, I asked him to go on the record about his assessment of what the "surge" has accomplished. In language more blunt than his prepared speeches and articles, he described Iraq as "coming undone," with its regime "weaker by the day." He deplored the Bush administration's failure to craft a coherent Middle East policy, blaming the influence of deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams. [complete article]
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Who will stop the U.S. shadow army in Iraq?
By Jeremy Scahill, TomDispatch, April 29, 2007

The Democratic leadership in Congress is once again gearing up for a great sell-out on the Iraq war. While the wrangling over the $124 billion Iraq supplemental spending bill is being headlined in the media as a "show down" or "war" with the White House, it is hardly that. In plain terms, despite the impassioned sentiments of the anti-war electorate that brought the Democrats to power last November, the Congressional leadership has made clear its intention to keep funding the Iraq occupation, even though Sen. Harry Reid has declared that "this war is lost."

For months, the Democrats' "withdrawal" plan has come under fire from opponents of the occupation who say it doesn't stop the war, doesn't defund it, and insures that tens of thousands of U.S. troops will remain in Iraq beyond President Bush's second term. Such concerns were reinforced by Sen. Barack Obama's recent declaration that the Democrats will not cut off funding for the war, regardless of the President's policies. "Nobody," he said, "wants to play chicken with our troops." [complete article]
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Maliki's office is seen behind purge in forces
By Joshua Partlow, Washington Post, April 30, 2007

A department of the Iraqi prime minister's office is playing a leading role in the arrest and removal of senior Iraqi army and national police officers, some of whom had apparently worked too aggressively to combat violent Shiite militias, according to U.S. military officials in Baghdad.

Since March 1, at least 16 army and national police commanders have been fired, detained or pressured to resign; at least nine of them are Sunnis, according to U.S. military documents shown to The Washington Post.

Although some of the officers appear to have been fired for legitimate reasons, such as poor performance or corruption, several were considered to be among the better Iraqi officers in the field. The dismissals have angered U.S. and Iraqi leaders who say the Shiite-led government is sabotaging the military to achieve sectarian goals. [complete article]

Iraq's new guns for hire
By Babak Dehghanpisheh, Newsweek, May 7, 2007

It wasn't a subtle warning. Two weeks ago a convoy of 12 cars bristling with AK-47s rolled through Elam, one of the last mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad, in broad daylight. The young men cranked a dirgelike song on their stereo praising Moqtada al-Sadr and shouted at residents to get off the streets. To reinforce the point, they unloaded their AKs into the air. And they left behind a very clear message in black graffiti: DEATH TO NAWASIB, a derogatory term for Sunnis.

Three days later Ibrahim, a Sunni man in his early 20s, was walking home from a neighborhood soccer match. A black Hyundai sedan pulled up and the passenger pumped three bullets into Ibrahim's chest with a handgun. By the time a crowd gathered around, blood had seeped through Ibrahim's beige and yellow tracksuit and formed a pool on the ground. The gunmen raced off toward a nearby highway. "He got in a fight with someone during football and talked bad about the Mahdi Army and Moqtada Sadr," says an Elam resident who does not want his name used for safety reasons.

Drive-by shootings are nothing new on Baghdad's streets. But petty murders like Ibrahim's are a sign of a more worrying development. Weeks ago Sadr issued orders for his fighters to lie low as thousands of new U.S. and Iraqi soldiers deployed throughout Baghdad. For the most part they've obeyed—and the resulting drop in sectarian killings was the best news that U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus had to report last week, as he pleaded with congressional leaders to give his security plan time to work. Now individual gunmen and sometimes whole units from Sadr's Mahdi Army are breaking off on their own. [complete article]

Sunni bloc threatens to pull ministers from cabinet
By Allisa J. Ruben, New York Times, April 30, 2007

The largest bloc of Sunni Arabs in the Iraqi Parliament threatened to withdraw its ministers from the Shiite-dominated cabinet today in frustration over the Iraq government's failure to deal with Sunni concerns.

President Bush stepped in to forestall the move, calling one of Iraq's two vice presidents, Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni Arab, and inviting him to Washington, Mr. Hashimi’s office said in a written statement.

The bloc, known as the Iraqi Consensus Front and made up of three Sunni Arab parties, "has lost hope in rectifying the situation despite all of its sincere and serious efforts to do so," the statement said.

If the Sunni group followed through on its threat, it would further weaken a government already damaged by the pullout two weeks ago of six cabinet ministers aligned with the renegade Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr and further erode American efforts to promote reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites. [complete article]
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Inside the struggle for Iran
By Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, April 30, 2007

A grand coalition of anti-government forces is planning a second Iranian revolution via the ballot box to deny President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad another term in office and break the grip of what they call the "militia state" on public life and personal freedom.

Encouraged by recent successes in local elections, opposition factions, democracy activists, and pro-reform clerics say they will bring together progressive parties loyal to former president Mohammad Khatami with so-called pragmatic conservatives led by Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The alliance aims to exploit the president's deepening unpopularity, borne of high unemployment, rising inflation and a looming crisis over petrol prices and possible rationing to win control of the Majlis in general elections which are due within 10 months. [complete article]
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U.S. likely to confront Iran on nuclear activity
By Bill Brubaker, Washington Post, April 30, 2007

President Bush today raised the likelihood that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will send a rare, direct message to senior Iranian officials later this week: Suspend the nation's uranium-enrichment program, which the United States believes is being used to develop nuclear weapons, or face isolation.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Bush asserted that Rice will not shun Iranian officials at a conference of major nations that have a stake in the future of war-ravaged Iraq. [complete article]

See also, Iran to attend regional talks on Iraq violence (NYT).
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Diplomacy at its worst
By Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times, April 29, 2007

In May 2003, Iran sent a secret proposal to the U.S. for settling our mutual disputes in a "grand bargain."

It is an astonishing document, for it tries to address a range of U.S. concerns about nuclear weapons, terrorism and Iraq. I've placed it and related documents (including multiple drafts of it) on my blog,

Hard-liners in the Bush administration killed discussions of a deal, and interviews with key players suggest that was an appalling mistake. There was a real hope for peace; now there is a real danger of war. [complete article]
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Wolfowitz refuses to resign
Al Jazeera, April 30, 2007

Paul Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank, has repeated his refusal to step down, while the US president has spoken out to back him.

Wolfowitz, a former deputy defence secretary, said the charges over his handling of a pay rise for his girlfriend was a "smear campaign". He said he would not resign over "unfair charges". [complete article]
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Islamic democrats?
By James Traub, New York Times, April 29, 2007

I arrived in Cairo in the middle of a heated national debate over Mubarak's proposed reform of the constitution. During the presidential campaign, Mubarak promised to reduce his own powers in favor of the Legislature and the cabinet and to loosen restrictions on political parties. Only trace elements of those vows remained; in fact, the reforms seemed designed to consolidate, rather than dissipate, the regime's authority. Article 88, which had stipulated that elections be held "under the supervision of members of the judiciary authority," now granted that control to "a higher commission marked by independence and impartiality." Since no such bodies had been known to exist in Egypt, few figures outside the ruling party were willing to take the proposal at face value. And a new anti-terrorism provision allowed the state to set aside civil liberties enumerated elsewhere in the constitution in the pursuit of suspected terrorists. Mohamed Kamal [a political scientist who is close to Gamal Mubarak, the president's son and heir apparent, and who now serves as Mubarak's National Democratic Party semiofficial spokesman to the Western media] described this measure to me as the equivalent of the USA Patriot Act, but political activists are convinced that it will be used to snuff out opposition. (The brotherhood may be the chief target, since the regime regards it as a quasi-terrorist body.) Amnesty International described the package as the gravest threat to human rights in Egypt since Mubarak took power.

In mid-March, on the day the proposed amendments were presented to the People's Assembly, the brotherhood legislators and the dozen or so members of the secular opposition staged a joint protest. The entire group stood silently inside the gates of Parliament wearing black sashes that read, "No to the Constitutional Amendments," and carrying signs that read, "No to Electoral Fraud," "No to Dawn Visitors" and so on. The muezzin's call led to an interval of prayer, and then legislators squeezed one by one through the gates, backing the scrum of reporters and photographers into a busy two-way street. Drivers honked furiously while legislators struggled to be heard over the din. I had the impression that the brotherhood hadn't yet gotten the hang of press relations.

The entire opposition boycotted the debate; the regime, unimpressed, carried the day with the near-unanimous support of the N.D.P. and then scheduled the mandatory national referendum for the following week, presumably to prevent the opposition from mobilizing. But the tactic failed; opposition legislators urged supporters to boycott the ballot. All of the brotherhood legislators I spoke to that day said that the polling places in their constituency were literally empty. Civic groups canvassing Cairo and other major cities came to the same conclusion. Estimates of turnout varied from 2 to 8 percent. When it was over, government officials pegged turnout at 27 percent -- a figure so improbable that it scarcely seemed intended to be believed. Perhaps the implicit message was that the regime didn't care if it was believed or not.

In June 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered a landmark address at the American University in Cairo in which she bluntly declared, "The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees and when the independent judiciary replaces arbitrary justice." Egypt's democracy activists were enthralled -- though they were to become increasingly disappointed, and then embittered, as the administration offered no public response to Mubarak's crackdown. But Rice's call to the political barricades was carefully modulated, perhaps in order to limit the offense to the regime. Asked after the speech about the Muslim Brotherhood, Rice said flatly, "We have not engaged the Muslim Brotherhood and ... we won't." In fact, American diplomats had been in regular contact with brotherhood officials over the years; Rice was declaring -- in fact, making -- a new policy. And that policy still largely obtains. Rice's spokesman, Sean McCormack, told me, "We do not meet with the Muslim Brotherhood per se, as we don't want to get entangled in complexities surrounding its legality as a political party." He added, however, "Consistent with our practice elsewhere, we will nonetheless meet with any duly elected member of the parliamentary opposition." In fact, American officials in Cairo included leading brotherhood parliamentarians in a group of legislators who met recently with Representative Steny Hoyer, the Democratic majority leader of the House.

But why not engage the brotherhood openly? Is what is gained by mollifying the Mubarak regime worth what is lost by forgoing contact with the brotherhood? "Americans," Essam el-Erian [a clinical pathologist who is head of the brotherhood's political committee] said to me, "must have channels with all the people, not only in politics, but in economics, in social, in everything, if they want to change the image of America in the region." Of course, that principle applies only up to a point. The administration has, understandably, refused to recognize the democratic bona fides either of Hamas or of Hezbollah in Lebanon. But the Muslim Brotherhood, for all its rhetorical support of Hamas, could well be precisely the kind of moderate Islamic body that the administration says it seeks. And as with Islamist parties in Turkey and Morocco, the experience of practical politics has made the brotherhood more pragmatic, less doctrinaire. Finally, foreign policy is no longer a rarefied game of elites: public opinion shapes the world within which policy makers operate, and the refusal to deal with Hamas or Hezbollah has made publics in the Islamic world dismiss the whole idea of democracy promotion. Even a wary acceptance of the brotherhood, by contrast, would demonstrate that we take seriously the democratic preferences of Arab voters.

In general, I found the brothers deeply suspicious of American designs in the world but also curious about America itself. When I took my leave of Magdy Ashour [a member of the brotherhood's parliamentary bloc] once the crowd of petitioners thinned out, he asked if he could pose some questions of his own. "I've heard," he said, "that even George Bush's mother thinks he's an idiot; is that true?" And, "Why did George Bush say that America is going on a Christian crusade against the Muslim people?" And finally, "Is it true that the Jews control and manipulate the U.S. economy?" These are, alas, the kinds of questions -- with the possible exception of the first -- that people all over the Middle East ask.

Then Ashour said that he was thinking about visiting America. I asked how he could afford such an expensive journey, and he explained that the brotherhood has offered each legislator one free trip anywhere in the world -- a remarkable program for an organization said to be bent on returning Egypt to the Middle Ages. "I would," Ashour said, "like to see for myself." [complete article]

Seeking a bridge to change in Egypt
By Ashraf Khalil, Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2007

He was barely a teenager when he joined the Muslim Brotherhood. Then in college he embraced communism and "tried to convince myself I was an atheist." Finally, after two decades of struggling with his beliefs, he returned to his Islamic roots.

Today, at 68, Abdel Wahab Messiri may be uniquely qualified to create something that would shake the country's political system: a genuine alliance between the ascendant but small leftist opposition and the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most powerful Islamic group.

A testament to ideological differences, personal mistrust and decades of government divide-and-conquer tactics, the chasm separating Egypt's leftist and Islamist opposition is vast. Messiri, one of the country's most celebrated intellectuals, is one of the few public figures with respect and credibility on both sides. [complete article]

See also, The Brotherhood goes to parliament (Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher).

Comment -- What, to some in the West, must look like a threat even more diabolical than the spread of Islamism? Islamism plus socialism! No wonder there are those who see the current ideological fight as a sequel to the Cold War [PDF]. As RAND Corporation analysts, Angel Rabasa, Cheryl Benard, Lowell H. Schwartz, Peter Sickle, recently wrote:
What is needed at this stage is to derive lessons from the experience of the Cold War, determine their applicability to the conditions of the Muslim world today, and develop a "road map" for the construction of moderate and liberal Muslim networks...
Yet the West claims that many of the Muslims who want democracy aren't moderates, while many of the West's "moderate" friends see democracy as a threat.

The problem with the notion of promoting moderates is that far from this being a dimension of democracy promotion, it is really just a crude form of political branding. In the Middle East, whoever is pro-Western and Israel-friendly, is by definition "moderate."

If, however, our core concern is with the growth of democracy then we should focus on one question: Does this party or political organization constitute an authentic representation of popular will?

By that measure, in the United States can the Democratic Party or the Republican Party honestly claim to represent the interests of their constituents more faithfully than do the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas or Hezbollah represent the interests of their constituents?

Representation -- not "moderation" -- this is what democracy is about. Yet as citizens in the states that claim to be the exemplars of the democratic system, how many of us can look at our governments and our elected representatives and see them as a genuine expression of the will of the people?

See also, Muslim scholars respond to RAND's report (IslamOnline).
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Iranian tip-off may have led Americans to al-Qaeda leader
By Jason Burke, The Observer, April 29, 2007

British diplomats are checking secret reports that elements within Iran, normally hostile to the West, helped the American secret services to capture Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, the Kurdish-born senior al-Qaeda militant who was revealed last week to have been arrested on the border between Iran and Iraq late last year.

Abdul Hadi, 45, a former Iraqi army officer who speaks five languages and is a key link between the al-Qaeda leadership in western Pakistan and militants in Iraq, had 'met with al-Qaeda leaders in Iran' and had urged them to support efforts in Iraq and to cause 'problems within Iran', US military sources told The Observer

Elements within the complex matrix of interest groups that make up the Iranian regime, who have co-operated with Western intelligence services before when it has served their purposes, provided crucial elements of information, possibly through intermediaries, allowing Abdul Hadi to be captured. 'They may have felt he posed an equal threat to them,' said one Paris-based Middle Eastern diplomat yesterday. 'One of Tehran's biggest fears is of an alliance between Kurdish ethnic separatists in the northwest and al-Qaeda.' [complete article]

See also, CIA held Al-Qaeda suspect secretly (WP).
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The case of the missing agent
By Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, Newsweek, April 26, 2007

Friends and former colleagues of Levinson say the former FBI agent, the father of seven children, has become a pawn in a dangerous power struggle between the United States and Iran. Some U.S. officials (who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive diplomatic matters) said they strongly suspect that Levinson is being held hostage by an Iranian government faction: the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which handles internal security for the regime.

The most likely scenario, the officials say, is that they want to use the former agent as a bargaining chip to win the release of five suspected IRGC operatives captured by U.S. Special Forces in a raid in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil last January. The IRGC captives are suspected of providing aid to Shiite militia fighters who targeted U.S. and Iraqi government troops in Iraq. "We are very worried about this," said one U.S. official, who requested anonymity. "We know that the Iranians are increasingly concerned about those guys [the Erbil captives] and want them back." [complete article]
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The White House scales back talk of Iraq progress
By David E. Sanger, New York Times, April 29, 2007

"He is trying to fight fires coming from every direction," Ryan C. Crocker, the newly arrived American ambassador to Iraq, said of Mr. Maliki this week, speaking by telephone. "We have to be clear to him on where our priorities are, so that we can buy him the time he needs. And we have to buy the time now because he is going to need it in the future."

Mr. Crocker said that he had told Mr. Maliki that evidence of progress "is important in American terms" because "to sustain American support we have to be able to see that Iraqis are stepping up to hard challenges."

But the new view of Mr. Maliki's limitations was put bluntly by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq, who spent the week pressing Congress not to put limits on either the timing or conduct of his operations, as he described what he discovered upon returning to Iraq after a two-year hiatus.

"He's not the Prime Minister Tony Blair of Iraq," General Petraeus said of Mr. Maliki on Thursday. "He does not have a parliamentary majority. He does not have his ministers in all of the different ministries," and they "sometimes sound a bit discordant in their statements to the press and their statements to other countries. It's a very, very challenging situation in which to lead."

Mr. Bush was careful when he announced his new strategy in January to avoid public estimates of how quickly Mr. Maliki might take steps toward political reconciliation. Even now, White House officials are being careful not to describe with any precision the mix of benchmarks they expect Mr. Maliki to deliver.

By the time Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus complete a comprehensive assessment of progress in September, three months after the troop increase has been fully in place, American officials are hoping that some of the pieces of crucial legislation will have passed.

But Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates found himself pressing Mr. Maliki last week to keep Parliament from taking a two-month summer break. If lawmakers remain in Baghdad, said one senior American official who did not want to be identified because he was discussing internal White House deliberations, "we'll have some outputs then."

He added, "That's different from having outcomes," drawing a distinction between a sign of activity and a sign of success, which could take considerably longer. [complete article]

Saudi King declines to receive Iraqi leader
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, April 29, 2007

In a serious rebuff to U.S. diplomacy, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has refused to receive Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the eve of a critical regional summit on the future of the war-ravaged country, Iraqi and other Arab officials said yesterday.

The Saudi leader's decision reflects the growing tensions between the oil-rich regional giants, the deepening skepticism among Sunni leaders in the Middle East about Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, and Arab concern about the prospects of U.S. success in Iraq, the sources said. The Saudi snub also indicates that the Maliki government faces a creeping regional isolation unless it takes long-delayed actions, Arab officials warn.

For the United States, the Saudi cold shoulder undermines hopes of healing regional tensions between Sunni- and Shiite-dominated governments and producing a new spirit of cooperation on Iraq at the summit, to be held Thursday and Friday in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, the sources warn. [complete article]

See also, A Saudi prince tied to Bush is sounding off-key (NYT).
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Uneasy alliance is taming one insurgent bastion
By Kirk Semple, New York Times, April 29, 2007

Anbar Province, long the lawless heartland of the tenacious Sunni Arab resistance, is undergoing a surprising transformation. Violence is ebbing in many areas, shops and schools are reopening, police forces are growing and the insurgency appears to be in retreat.

"Many people are challenging the insurgents," said the governor of Anbar, Maamoon S. Rahid, though he quickly added, "We know we haven't eliminated the threat 100 percent."

Many Sunni tribal leaders, once openly hostile to the American presence, have formed a united front with American and Iraqi government forces against Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. With the tribal leaders' encouragement, thousands of local residents have joined the police force. About 10,000 police officers are now in Anbar, up from several thousand a year ago. During the same period, the police force here in Ramadi, the provincial capital, has grown from fewer than 200 to about 4,500, American military officials say.

At the same time, American and Iraqi forces have been conducting sweeps of insurgent strongholds, particularly in and around Ramadi, leaving behind a network of police stations and military garrisons, a strategy that is also being used in Baghdad, Iraq's capital, as part of its new security plan.

Yet for all the indications of a heartening turnaround in Anbar, the situation, as it appeared during more than a week spent with American troops in Ramadi and Falluja in early April, is at best uneasy and fragile. [complete article]

Comment -- If the U.S. and its new Sunni friends are successful in routing their common enemey, al Qaeda of Iraq, there seems little doubt that the insurgents will then return to their original task -- driving out the occupying troops. As this report says, "For all the sheiks' hostility toward the Americans, they realized that they had a bigger enemy, or at least one that needed to be fought first, as a matter of survival." This is a battlefield where all parties identify their allies and enemies in light of their current needs.
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Rebuilt Iraq projects found crumbling
By James Glanz, New York Times, April 29, 2007

In a troubling sign for the American-financed rebuilding program in Iraq, inspectors for a federal oversight agency have found that in a sampling of eight projects that the United States had declared successes, seven were no longer operating as designed because of plumbing and electrical failures, lack of proper maintenance, apparent looting and expensive equipment that lay idle.

The United States has previously admitted, sometimes under pressure from federal inspectors, that some of its reconstruction projects have been abandoned, delayed or poorly constructed. But this is the first time inspectors have found that projects officially declared a success — in some cases, as little as six months before the latest inspections — were no longer working properly. [complete article]
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Tenet on Iraq and the slam dunk that wasn't
By Michiko Kakutani, New York Times, April 29, 2007

Since the publication of Bob Woodward's 2004 book, "Plan of Attack," George J. Tenet, former director of central intelligence, has become best known for two words: "slam dunk" -- that is, for reportedly telling President Bush that intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was "a slam dunk case!" Those words have been quoted countless times, most notably by Vice President Dick Cheney, who, during a "Meet the Press" appearance last year, suggested that the administration had "made a choice" to go to war based on the "slam dunk" intelligence provided by the C.I.A. -- intelligence that later turned out to be wrong.

In his much-anticipated and intermittently fascinating new memoir, "At the Center of the Storm," Mr. Tenet writes that the whole "slam dunk" scene described in Mr. Woodward's book took his words out of context and "had been fed deliberately to Woodward" by someone in the White House eager to shift blame from the White House to the C.I.A. for what turned out to be a failed rationale for the Iraq war. In short, he says, he and the agency were set up as "fall guys," and he was made to look like a fool -- rising up, throwing his arms in the air and saying those two words, as if he were "Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah Winfrey's couch."

In fact, Mr. Tenet says he doubts that W.M.D.'s were the principal cause of the United States' decision to go to war in Iraq in the first place, that it was just "the public face that was put on it." The real reason, he suggests, stemmed from "the administration's largely unarticulated view that the democratic transformation of the Middle East through regime change in Iraq would be worth the price."

Mr. Tenet notes that his "slam dunk" remarks came "10 months after the president saw the first workable war plan for Iraq," and "two weeks after the Pentagon had issued the first military deployment order sending U.S. troops to the region." He points out that many senior Bush administration officials, including Paul D. Wolfowitz and Douglas J. Feith, were focused on Iraq long before 9/11, and that Mr. Cheney asked Bill Clinton's then-departing secretary of defense, William Cohen, before the 2001 inauguration to give the incoming president a comprehensive briefing on Iraq and detail possible future actions.

On the day after 9/11, he adds, he ran into Richard Perle, a leading neoconservative and the head of the Defense Policy Board, coming out of the White House. He says Mr. Perle turned to him and said: "Iraq has to pay a price for what happened yesterday. They bear responsibility." This, despite the fact, Mr. Tenet writes, that "the intelligence then and now" showed "no evidence of Iraqi complicity" in the 9/11 attacks. [complete article]
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The Great Wall of Segregation...
By Riverbend, Baghdad Burning, April 26, 2007

...we've finally decided to leave. I guess I've known we would be leaving for a while now. We discussed it as a family dozens of times. At first, someone would suggest it tentatively because, it was just a preposterous idea- leaving ones home and extended family- leaving ones country- and to what? To where?

Since last summer, we had been discussing it more and more. It was only a matter of time before what began as a suggestion- a last case scenario- soon took on solidity and developed into a plan. For the last couple of months, it has only been a matter of logistics. Plane or car? Jordan or Syria? Will we all leave together as a family? Or will it be only my brother and I at first?

After Jordan or Syria- where then? Obviously, either of those countries is going to be a transit to something else. They are both overflowing with Iraqi refugees, and every single Iraqi living in either country is complaining of the fact that work is difficult to come by, and getting a residency is even more difficult. There is also the little problem of being turned back at the border. Thousands of Iraqis aren't being let into Syria or Jordan- and there are no definite criteria for entry, the decision is based on the whim of the border patrol guard checking your passport.

An airplane isn't necessarily safer, as the trip to Baghdad International Airport is in itself risky and travelers are just as likely to be refused permission to enter the country (Syria and Jordan) if they arrive by airplane. And if you're wondering why Syria or Jordan, because they are the only two countries that will let Iraqis in without a visa. Following up visa issues with the few functioning embassies or consulates in Baghdad is next to impossible. [complete article]

See also, Walling off your enemies: the long view (NYT).
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Catalytic converters
By Andrew Tabler, New York Times, April 29, 2007

The Middle East is abuzz with talk of "Shiitization." Since the war in Lebanon last summer, newspapers, TV news channels and Web sites in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere have reported that Sunnis, taken with Hezbollah's charismatic Shiite leader Hassan Nasrallah and his group's "resistance" to Israel, were converting to Shiite Islam. When I recently visited the semi-arid plains of eastern Syria, known as the Jazeera, Sunni tribal leaders whispered stories of Iranians roaming the Syrian countryside handing out bags of cash and macaroni to convert families and even entire villages to Shiite Islam.

Much of the buzz is surely propaganda from the region's Sunni governments, which are known to whip up fears of Shiite plots when it suits them. But there are signs in Syria of a possible shift. Over time, could this predominantly Sunni country change its religious orientation -- solidifying its ties to Iran and creating strong repercussions throughout the Middle East? Pinning down facts is complicated not just by Syria's restrictions on the press but also by growing Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq, which has made normally hospitable Syrians wary of prying questions about sectarian issues. Furthermore, Syria is an authoritarian state that strictly enforces Ba'athism -- a secular ideology that subsumes sect and religion under a pan-Arab identity. In most of the Arab world, meddling in sectarian issues is discouraged. In Syria, it is illegal. [complete article]
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Inside Africa's Guantanamo
By Salim Lone, The Guardian, April 28, 2007

This is the most lawless war of our generation. All wars of aggression lack legitimacy, but no conflict in recent memory has witnessed such mounting layers of illegality as the current one in Somalia. Violations of the UN charter and of international humanitarian law are regrettably commonplace in our age, and they abound in the carnage that the world is allowing to unfold in Mogadishu, but this war has in addition explicitly violated two UN security council resolutions. To complete the picture, one of these resolutions contravenes the charter itself.

The complete impunity with which Ethiopia and the transitional Somali government have been allowed to violate these resolutions explains the ruthlessness of the military assaults that have been under way for six weeks now. The details of the atrocities being committed were formally acknowledged by a western government for the first time when Germany, which holds the current EU presidency, had its ambassador to Somalia, Walter Lindner, write a tough letter - made public on Wednesday - to Somalia's president, Abdullahi Yusuf.

The letter condemned the indiscriminate use of air strikes and heavy artillery in Mogadishu's densely populated areas, the raping of women, the deliberate blocking of urgently needed food and humanitarian supplies, and the bombing of hospitals. This is a relentless drive to terrify and intimidate civilians belonging to clans from whose ranks fighters are challenging the occupation. [complete article]
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82 inmates cleared but still held at Guantanamo
By Craig Whitlock, Washington Post, April 29, 2007

More than a fifth of the approximately 385 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been cleared for release but may have to wait months or years for their freedom because U.S. officials are finding it increasingly difficult to line up places to send them, according to Bush administration officials and defense lawyers.

Since February, the Pentagon has notified about 85 inmates or their attorneys that they are eligible to leave after being cleared by military review panels. But only a handful have gone home, including a Moroccan and an Afghan who were released Tuesday. Eighty-two remain at Guantanamo and face indefinite waits as U.S. officials struggle to figure out when and where to deport them, and under what conditions.

The delays illustrate how much harder it will be to empty the prison at Guantanamo than it was to fill it after it opened in January 2002 to detain fighters captured in Afghanistan and terrorism suspects captured overseas. [complete article]

U.S.: close CIA prisons still in operation
Human Rights Watch, April 27, 2007

The Bush administration's continuing reliance on secret CIA prisons violates basic human rights standards, Human Rights Watch said today.

The announcement that Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi was transferred to the Guantanamo Bay detention facility from CIA custody raises worrying questions about how long he has been detained by the CIA, where he was held, what kind of treatment he endured, and whether other prisoners still remain in CIA detention. The CIA has previously detained numerous detainees for months and even years.

"The CIA's secret detention of Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi is a blatant violation of international law," said Joanne Mariner, terrorism and counterterrorism director at Human Rights Watch. "This transfer shows that Congress will have to act to end the CIA’s illegal detention program." [complete article]
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Wolfowitz panel finds ethics breach, officials say
By Peter S. Goodman, Washington Post, April 28, 2007

A World Bank committee investigating president Paul D. Wolfowitz has nearly completed a report that it plans to give the institution's governing board, concluding that he breached ethics rules when he engineered a pay raise for his girlfriend, three senior bank officials said Friday.

Friday evening, the committee was debating whether to explicitly recommend that Wolfowitz resign, according to the sources, who spoke on condition they not be named, citing an ongoing probe into leaks.

Wolfowitz is scheduled to appear before the committee with his attorney on Monday morning and mount his defense, and the bank's 24-member board of directors will convene that afternoon to discuss the report. The sources suggested that a vote by the board could come that day.

Through his attorney, Wolfowitz vowed to continue the fight to keep his job. "He will not resign under this cloud," said his attorney, Robert S. Bennett, when told of the imminent completion of the committee's report. "He's not going to give in to these coercive tactics." [complete article]
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Saudis say they broke up suicide plots
By Craig Whitlock and Robin Wright, Washington Post, April 28, 2007

Saudi Arabia said Friday that it had arrested 172 suspected terrorists over the past several months from a network that was planning suicide attacks -- including the use of airplanes -- on the kingdom's oil industry, military installations and other targets.

Saudi officials said some of the suspects had trained next door in Iraq and had returned to the kingdom to plot the attacks. Also among the targets were high-ranking members of the royal family and the Saudi security forces, officials said.

A majority of those arrested were Saudi citizens, but a substantial number were immigrant workers from elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa who were recruited by the network after their arrival, Saudi officials said. [complete article]
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Noteworthy articles from the last seven days:

The changing face of radical Islam
By Stephen Glain, Newsweek, April 30, 2007

Dancing with wolves: the importance of talking to your enemies
By Michael Ancram, Conflicts Forum, April 19, 2007

Finding an intelligent alternative to the war on terrorism
By Paul Woodward, The War in Context, April 27, 2007

The last thing the Middle East's main players want is U.S. troops to leave Iraq
By Hussein Agha, The Guardian, April 25, 2007

Abu Roman: significance of Hamas Iraq
By Marc Lynch, Abu Aardvark, April 26, 2007

What the separation-walls mean
By Badger, Missing Links, April 22, 2007

Can Guantanamo be closed?
By Karen J. Greenberg, TomDispatch, April 26, 2007

Muslims believe U.S. seeks to undermine Islam
World Public Opinion, April 24, 2007

The road from Mecca
By Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, New York Review of Books, May 10, 2007

Africa's secret - the men, women and children 'vanished' in the war on terror
By Xan Rice, The Guardian, April 23, 2007
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