The War in Context Christopher Dickey quote
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Al-Akhbar: Failure of the Surge is leading to a new level of confrontation in the Green Zone
By "Badger," Missing Links, May 12, 2007

The Lebanese opposition newspaper Al-Akhbar this morning publishes a Baghdad-based report indicating a heightened level of Green-Zone instability. The report begins like this:
Al-Akhbar learned yesterday from reliable sources that the Iraqi political scene is about to witness "fundamental changes" in the coming days, and that the Iraqi Accord Front, the Dialogue [Front], the Iraqi [List], and other political groups, including some from the UIA, are on the verge of announcing a broad political front, currently studying an alliance also with the Fadhila bloc and Kurdish groups, with the aim of announcing a "national salvation program". These sources said what is giving urgency to this plan is a feeling on the part of the above-mentioned groups about the seriousness of the security situation even within the Green Zone, which they say has become a security refuge infiltrated by militias belonging to governing groups or connected with them, in the guise of different types of "guards" or "work details", in preparation for putting down any attempt either constitutionally to deny confidence to the government, or a coup against it.

The sources said the IAF has received an implicit warning from Prime Minister Maliki, the gist of which is a withdrawal of the IAF from the government would compel [the government] to rely on "the Iranians" [the journalist's quotation marks] to maintain order, which some in the IAF saw as an explicit threat.
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Anbar a bright spot in turbulent Iraq
By Leila Fadel, McClatchy, May 11, 2007

Ali Hatam Ali al Suleiman sat in a high-backed leather chair in his Baghdad office, proud of what the Anbar Salvation Council has done. The council, a group of leaders from the Dulaim tribe, Iraq's largest, is driving the al-Qaida in Iraq group from what had been sanctuary in Anbar province.

For four years, the province has been a battleground between the extremist group and U.S. forces. Innocent people from the tribes have been killed, mostly by al-Qaida but also by American troops, he said.

"The service we are providing is fighting al-Qaida and militias with no mercy," he said. "They corrupted our religion; they misinterpreted our values. We are Iraqis - not Sunnis and Shiites. We don't threaten to bomb and to kill; all we wanted was our dignity and to live."

Two hours with Suleiman, a Sunni Muslim, provided an insight into why - after so many years without progress - Anbar is now a bright spot in the frustration that is Iraq. They also gave a warning that the problems of American policy won't end when the last al-Qaida fighter is gone. Suleiman said the American bid to remake Iraq had failed, and warned that the United States must rebuild Anbar or suffer the consequences.

He said it was about four months ago that tribal leaders had had enough. A leading tribal sheik had been killed and al-Qaida members had dragged another leader's daughter through the streets by her hair. Dishonoring a woman this way was unacceptable, and the battle began.

"The Americans were not truly working in Anbar," he said. "We asked them to clean their hands of al-Qaida and we will drive them out."

The effort has been largely successful, said Suleiman, an elegant young sheik of 34. Life in Ramadi, the provincial capital, is reviving. Residents have cell phone service. Schools and hospitals are opening.

"We did in three months what they couldn't do in four years," he said, referring to U.S. troops. "We are not fighting al-Qaida for the sake of the Americans. We are fighting them to rid ourselves of this shame."

But the area has been destroyed, he said. Merchants have returned to their shops, but only a few can open in the ruins. The city is an expanse of wrecked buildings punctuated by the vehicle carcasses of car bombs.

Suleiman said he'd seen none of the billions of dollars in aid that have come to Iraq.

"We were the burning room for the dirty projects of the politicians," he said.

He's quietly angry at what he deems the U.S. occupation and a pro-Shiite-Muslim government. But the solution isn't as simple as kicking out U.S. troops, he said. [complete article]
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In Gulf, Cheney pointedly warns Iran
By Robin Wright, Washington Post, May 12, 2007

Aboard an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf 150 miles off Iran's coast, Vice President Cheney warned Tehran yesterday that the United States and its allies will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, close off vital sea lanes for oil supplies, or control the Middle East.

Cheney issued the blunt warning during his Middle East tour, and just two days before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes his own trip to the Gulf. The two visits reflect the growing rivalry between Washington and Tehran for influence in the region.

"Throughout the region our country has interests to protect and commitments to honor," Cheney told Navy staff aboard the USS John C. Stennis. "With two carrier strike groups in the Gulf, we're sending clear messages to friends and adversaries alike. We'll keep the sea lanes open. We'll stand with our friends in opposing extremism and strategic threats. We'll disrupt attacks on our own forces. We'll continue bringing relief to those who suffer and delivering justice to the enemies of freedom."

Despite Cheney's tough talk, however, the United States faces so many challenges in Iraq that it is also trying to launch diplomatic dialogue with Tehran to help stabilize the war-ravaged country. As Cheney spoke in the Gulf -- after stops in Iraq and the United Arab Emirates -- the State Department was working to set up a meeting in the next two weeks between senior U.S. and Iranian officials in Baghdad, U.S. officials said Friday. [complete article]

U.S. must talk with Iran
By Trudy Rubin, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 10, 2007

Iran and top Bush officials have openly signaled their interest in dialogue. The European Union's top foreign policy official, Javier Solana -- point man for multilateral talks on Iran's nuclear program -- says "the United States must engage" directly with Iran. Top Iraqi leaders say the same.

Yet, disputes within the administration still block serious talks. Vice President Dick Cheney and his circle want Iran regime change, not engagement. Rice understands the need for talks, but wants to keep them narrowly focused -- on issues like Iranian arms for Iraqi militias.

"They are taking very limited baby steps," says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. Without some broader strategy for U.S.-Iran dialogue, Parsi doesn't think such talks can go anywhere. [complete article]

Comment -- From the New York Times:
"This is about saber-rattling, and power projection," one senior State Department official said yesterday. "And who better to do it?"
That's what I'd call the State Department's "two-track spin." Just in case those of us outside the Beltway think that mad dog Cheney is off on a Strangelove mission (and I'm sure some of the crew on the USS Stennis would have been happy to saddle up one of their missiles for the Vice President), the State Department doesn't want anyone to think that they're losing in a policy making tug-of-war. Oh no, this is just a good cop/bad cop strategy.

The only problem is that the good cop apparently doesn't know what the bad cop might do next:
Senior officials said Mr. Cheney's speech was not circulated broadly in the government before it was delivered. A senior American diplomat added, "He still kind of runs by his own rules."
And noboby's too sure what they are, and maybe the self-selected vice president has just one: Cheney rules.
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Enter Al-Qaeda
By Khaled Amayreh, Al-Ahram Weekly, May 10, 2007

For sometime, Palestinian Islamic and nationalist leaders have been warning that the Israeli, American and European economic embargo against the democratically-elected Palestinian government, including the recently formed broad-based government of national unity, is driving Palestinian society towards extremism.

This week, the credibility of these warnings was vindicated when a group believed to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda, or at least espousing its ideology, attacked a school celebration in Rafah, in the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, killing one person and injuring five others. [complete article]

See also, Al Qaeda tactics expand in Gaza (CSM).

Comment -- No one disputes that the elections that brought Hamas into government were free and fair. Neither should there be any doubt that the loss of support for Fatah amounted to more than a backlash against corruption; it reflected a cold recognition that the Palestinian political establishment's efforts to win a conciliatory response from Israel as a reward for Palestinian concessions, had yielded no such result. Hamas came into power because the majority of Palestinians wanted leadership who would stand up to Israeli pressure; not back down. The U.S.-Israeli response has been to pile on more pressure while Israel continues to expand settlements and appropriate yet more Palestinian land. Efforts to delegitimize Palestinian political authority are clearly intended to force submission, yet predictably, they are having the opposite effect: they empower those who argue that democracy is a sham and an offense to Islam, and that violence is the only sure way through which people can assert their will.
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What Belfast teaches the Middle East
By Tony Karon, Rootless Cosmopolitan, May 11, 2007

The original Good Friday agreement ten years ago was brokered by very different parties to the ones who have now joined a unity government. On the Catholic side, it was the SDLP of John Hume who was the dominant voice at the table, while the Ulster Unionists of David Trimble represented Protestant loyalists. But the electorate eventually rejected those parties, and each community chose more uncompromising parties -- the Sinn Fein on the nationalist side and the Democratic Unionists on the loyalist side -- to represent them at the table.

The government of Tony Blair did not flinch or give up hope, it pressed on, pushing the chosen representatives of both communities into a process that led to agreement. And the agreement may be far stronger than its predecessor, in that it was brokered by hard men on both sides and that has left no significant rejectionist constituency on either side.

The implications for the Middle East should be obvious: Palestinian voters have chosen Hamas to represent them; imagining that Hamas could be excluded from any peace process is not only absurd, it is self-defeating and dangerous. [complete article]

Comment -- There will be many readers on this side of the Atlantic who don't grasp the significance of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sharing power, but have no doubt, man of the cloth, Ian Paisley, has in his career been a firebrand who makes Muqtada al-Sadr seem mild-mannered. A few years ago, this is how he posed in front of Democratic Unionist Party posters promising that they and he personally would smash Sinn Fein:

Contrast this with the image of Paisley and McGuiness now sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, cracking jokes (see Rootless Cosmopolitan). This is really a breathtaking political transformation.
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The terrorist we tolerate
By Rosa Brooks, Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2007

Like pirates, terrorists are supposedly hostis humani generis -- the "enemy of all mankind." So why is the Bush administration letting one of the world's most notorious terrorists stroll freely around the United States?

I'm talking about a man who was -- until 9/11 -- perhaps the most successful terrorist in the Western Hemisphere. He's believed to have masterminded a 1976 plot to blow up a civilian airliner, killing all 73 people on board, including teenage members of Cuba's national fencing team. He's admitted to pulling off a series of 1997 bombings aimed at tourist hotels and nightspots. Today, he's living illegally in the United States, but senior members of the Bush administration -- the very guys who declared war on terror just a few short years ago -- don't seem terribly bothered.

I'm talking about Luis Posada Carriles. That's not a household name for most U.S. citizens, but for many in Latin America, Posada is as reviled as Osama bin Laden is in the United States.

The Cuban-born Posada was trained by the CIA at the School of the Americas in 1961. From Venezuela, he later planned the successful 1976 bombing of a civilian Cuban jetliner (apparently with the knowledge of the CIA). He was arrested for the crime, but he escaped from a Venezuelan prison before standing trial. [complete article]

Pentagon re-charges bin Laden's driver
By Carol Rosenberg, McClatchy, May 10, 2007

The Pentagon Thursday formally filed new charges against a Yemeni man held at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, who worked as Osama bin Laden's driver in Afghanistan -- and then successfully challenged President Bush's military commissions at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The five-page charge sheet alleges, among other things, that Salim Ahmed Hamdan, 36, served as the al Qaeda founder's bodyguard.

If convicted, Hamdan could be sentenced to life imprisonment, presumably at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where he has been held in legal limbo for five years.
Hamdan, a father of two with a fourth-grade education, has admitted through his attorney to working as a $200-a-month driver for bin Laden, on his Kandahar, Afghanistan, farm, prior to the 9/11 attacks.

But Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, his Pentagon appointed-lawyer, says Hamdan has denied joining al Qaeda or engaging in terrorism.

This time, the Pentagon is charging him under a new, similar tribunal format approved by the GOP-led Congress under the Military Commissions Act of 2006.

"The government's pretty clearly decided to thumb their nose at the Supreme Court," said Swift, reached moments after the Pentagon released the charges, accusing the Bush administration of retroactively changing U.S. law to create a new category of war crime through the act. "When the Supreme Court said that Hamdan has the right to a regular trial, you try existing crimes, not make new ones," said Swift. [complete article]
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This perfect storm will finally destroy the neocon project
By Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The Guardian, May 11, 2007

Now and again people have found themselves in places where the course of history was dramatically changed: Paris in 1789, Petrograd in 1917, Berlin in 1989. Sometimes the feeling of momentous change is illusory. When Tony Blair won his first election 10 years ago, perfectly sane people proclaimed that "these are revolutionary times". As most of us realised long before his ignominious departure, that was just what they weren't.

And yet to visit the US at present, as I have done, is to experience an overwhelming sensation of drastic impending change. It's not merely that President Bush, to whom Blair so disastrously tethered himself, is "in office but not in power". Most Americans can't wait for him to go, Congress is beyond his control, and the Senate majority leader, Senator Harry Reid, has told him that the war in Iraq is lost - for which statement of the obvious Reid was accused of "defeatism" by the vice-president, Dick Cheney. [complete article]

Famed as a favourite attack dog in the imperial kennel
By Tariq Ali, The Guardian, May 11, 2007

The departure, too, was spun in classic New Labour, Dear Leader fashion. A carefully selected audience, a self-serving speech, the quivering lip and soon the dramaturgy was over. He had arrived at No 10 with a carefully orchestrated display of union flags. Patriotic fervour was also on show yesterday, with references to "this blessed country ... the greatest country in the world" - no mention of the McDonald's, Starbucks, Benetton that adorn every high street - nor of how Britain under his watch came to be seen in the rest of the world: a favourite attack dog in the imperial kennel. [complete article]

Brown may loosen U.K. ties to Bush
By Kevin Sullivan, Washington Post, May 11, 2007

Brown, 56, has more knowledge and experience regarding the United States than perhaps any British leader in history, according to analysts here. He has studied U.S. politics, economics and social policy intimately. He vacations on Cape Cod and has extraordinarily close friendships in U.S. political circles.

But analysts here say the British public's toxic feelings toward Bush and the Iraq war -- and Blair's unyielding support for both -- mean that Prime Minister Brown will have to maintain a certain distance from the White House, at least until next year's presidential election. [complete article]
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A Dayton process for Iraq
By Rend Al-Rahim, Washington Post, May 10, 2007

On March 10 the Iraqi government hosted a meeting in Baghdad that brought together Iraq's neighbors, members of the U.N. Security Council and other regional and international participants. A follow-up meeting of foreign ministers took place last week in Egypt.

But as useful as regional and international agreements may be, they cannot provide a solution. Countries in the region can exploit opportunities for mischief provided by the fissures within Iraq, but they cannot mend these fissures. The paramount problem in Iraq is the disagreement among Iraqis themselves and their reluctance to compromise, and what is needed first and foremost is an agreement among Iraqi social and political groups. Only then will regional and international agreements be relevant. Similarly, the attention the United States pays to the legal aspects of national reconciliation puts the cart before the horse: Laws and constitutional revision must be outcomes of a national agreement, not conditions for one.

The central unresolved questions in Iraq are: Who rules, and how? The heart of the problem is the Shiite-Sunni competition for power: Shiite parties see no reason to give up the gains they made after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, and they believe it is their turn to govern; the Sunnis cannot reconcile themselves to the fact that they no longer dominate the Iraqi state. Trust between the two is at a low ebb, and each side feels an existential threat that makes compromise difficult.

The United States must focus above all on an Iraqi compact. [complete article]

Comment -- The fundamental flaw in the Bush administration's post-invasion approach to Iraq has been the assumption that physical and institutional reconstruction would be sufficient to stitch the country back together. This is and always has been a democracy project in which the core of democracy is missing. That is to say, the understanding that in sufficient measure, government must be an expression of national will. As Rend Al-Rahim points out, an effective process through which an Iraqi national consensus can be forged and articulated, has yet to occur.

That the administration would have made this mistake, is however, far from surprising since in spite of its limitless use of the phrase, "the American people," this is a presidency which has always displayed a singular lack of interest in the national will.
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Give the Arab Peace Initiative a chance
By Fuad Siniora, New York Times, May 11, 2007

Almost a year has passed since Israel's bombardment of Lebanon, time enough to draw lessons from the conflict and reflect on its consequences.

Last week, Israel's Winograd Commission published an interim report scrutinizing Israel’s conduct during what it called the country's most recent military "campaign." But the report failed to draw the most essential lesson from the July war and the wars that preceded it: military action does not give the people of Israel security. On the contrary, it compromises it. The only way for the people of Israel and the Arab world to achieve stability and security is through a comprehensive peace settlement to the overarching Arab-Israeli conflict.

It is in this vein that participants in the March Arab League summit in Riyadh called again for a peace proposal originally put forward at a similar gathering in Beirut in 2002. The Arab Peace Initiative, as it is called, was introduced by Saudi Arabia and endorsed by all the Arab countries. It offers Israel full recognition by the 22 members of the Arab League in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders, thus allowing the Palestinians to create a viable independent state on what is only 22 percent of historic Palestine.

This is a high price but one the Arabs are willing to pay, as it is the only realistic path to peace that conforms to all United Nations Security Council and General Assembly resolutions addressing the conflict, and ensures the right of return of the Palestinian people. The Arab states are not seeking to wipe Israel off the map. Rather, we are seeking the legitimate goals of an armistice, secure borders and the ability of all of the region's people to live in peace and security. [complete article]

See also, Arab League sends a delegation to Israel to restart peace talks (McClatchy).
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'I feel a great sadness'
U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process interviewed by Haaretz, May 11, 2007

Does Israel use excessive force and unnecessarily harm civilians in the occupied territories as well?

Alvaro de Soto: I find it very hard to understand how Jews can surround people with cement walls and barbed-wire fences. This doesn't accord with the image I had from my encounters with the many Jewish friends I grew up with in Peru. I believe wholeheartedly that if Israel's citizens knew what was happening in the territories, they would show more sensitivity and change their view concerning the government's policy in these territories. The wall creates a cognitive barrier of denial and a release from the need to display empathy to people who live on the other side of it. If I could, I would take groups of Israeli citizens and show them how the checkpoints destroy the economy and the fabric of Palestinian life, and how the fence divides mother and child, a farmer and his land. These are destructive actions.

In addition, Israel continues to withhold VAT and customs duties, which are collected from Palestinian exporters and importers in accordance with a previous agreement. This sum amounts to one third of the PA's budget. The Quartet's position [calling on the PA to recognize Israel, implement previous agreements and cease espousing violence in order to be eligible for aid - A.E.] refers to aid from donors. It does not refer to Israeli obligations, and certainly not to obligations under agreements endorsed by the Security Council. How can the PA be persuaded to comply with previous agreements if Israel doesn't do so? I'm not sure whether many Israelis realize the consequences of this withholding: PA-salaried doctors, nurses and teachers are the main providers of basic services to the Palestinian people.

You don't accept the argument that the checkpoint and the other restrictions are necessary to prevent terror?

It seems self-evident to me, barrier or no barrier, that Israel has a built-in interest in the neighbors' well-being. Moreover, research shows that this kind of pressure strengthens extremists and weakens the moderates. How can that be in Israel's interest? In 2003, at the IPA Conference on Fighting Terrorism for Humanity, the previous UN Secretary Kofi Annan said that 'to compromise on the protection of human rights would hand terrorists a victory they cannot achieve on their own. The promotion and protection of human rights, as well as the strict observance of international humanitarian law should therefore be at the center of anti-terrorism strategies.

Terrorists thrive on despair. They may gain recruits where peaceful and legitimate ways of redressing grievance do not exist, or appear to have been exhausted. But the fact that a few wicked men or women commit murder in its name does not make a cause any less just. Nor does it relieve us of the obligation to deal with legitimate grievance. On the contrary, terrorism will only be defeated if we act to solve the political disputes and long-standing conflicts which generate support for it. If we do not, we shall find ourselves acting as a recruiting sergeant for the very terrorists we seek to suppress. [complete article]
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A rare trip through Hizbullah's secret tunnel network
By Nicholas Blanford, Christian Science Monitor, May 11, 2007

I had been hunting for one of Hizbullah's bunkers since the end of the 34-day war.

It had been a frustrating exercise, to be sure. The bunkers and rocket-firing positions had been constructed in great secrecy, the entrances cunningly camouflaged, in remote valleys along the Lebanon-Israeli border.

In addition to possible booby traps, cluster bombs, and other unexploded ordnance litter many of Hizbullah's abandoned "security zones" in valleys and hilltops along the border.

In March, I was fortunate enough to have received map coordinates from a source that led me to a bunker, which could be accessed by a 20-foot shaft. [complete article]

Comment -- During the war, Israel's PR justification for Lebanese civilian casualties was that Hezbollah positioned its fighters in civilian areas. Yet the effectiveness of Hezbollah's military infrastructure clearly depended on its secrecy. Bunkers such as the one described above, were clearly not constructed merely to provide a safe place to take a nap. These provided the means through which an army could maintain its own security and conduct operations well outside the view of informants. Israel's line that its opponents were cowardly hiding behind civilians, was a cynical excuse for concealing the fact that much of the time it couldn't locate the enemy. As a result, targeting turned into an exercise in conjecture.
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How secularists and generals tried to take down Turkish democracy
By Dilip Hiro, TomDispatch, May 10, 2007

Recently Turkey came close to experiencing a soft military coup. In late April, faced with the prospect of the moderate Islamist Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul becoming president, the country's top generals threatened to overthrow the elected government under the guise of protecting "secularism." When the minority secularist parliamentarians boycotted the poll for president, the Constitutional Court, powerfully influenced by the military's threat, invalidated the parliament's vote for Gul on the technical grounds that it lacked a two-thirds quorum -- something that had never been an issue before.

This demonstrated vividly that secularists are not invariably the good guys engaged in a struggle with the irredeemably bad guys from the Islamic camp. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkynma Partisi or AKP) called the Court's verdict "a bullet fired at the heart of democracy." Other critics pointed out that earlier Presidents had been elected without the presence of two-thirds of the 550-member Parliament.

Here was an example of the complex interplay between secularism and Islam in a Muslim country. The Turkish secular elite, fearing a further loss of power, raised the cry of "Secularism in danger!" and got their way -- for now -- even though a recent poll showed that only 22% of Turks agreed with this assessment. [complete article]
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Blueprint for the third intifada - America's reverse Midas touch
By Paul Woodward, Conflicts Forum, May 10, 2007

On May 4, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an account of a U.S. security plan for Gaza along with "Acceleration Benchmarks for Agreement on Movement and Access" that would govern travel inside the West Bank. The American plan would remove dozens of roadblocks to ease internal Palestinian travel, thereby strengthening Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' fading political fortunes. Within twenty-four hours of the plan's publication, Abbas endorsed it. But the plan was swiftly dismissed by Hamas. The organization's Damascus-based leader, Khalid Meshaal, declared the proposal was "a farce" -- as it implied that Israeli checkpoints would only be removed as the Palestinians slowly ratcheted down their resistance to the occupation. "The equation has now become -- dismantling the checkpoints in exchange for ending the Palestinian resistance," Meshaal said.

Israel was also less than enthusiastic about the program. The Olmert government said that it would study the proposal, while Israeli defense officials announced that adopting the plan would harm Israeli security. But the Israelis were clearly worried. Would the Americans insist on imposing their plan? Did its publication signal U.S. disapproval of Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories? The State Department quickly moved to reassure its nervous ally. The plan merely promoted "suggestions and ideas that we have circulated," a State Department spokesman said. "It's not any kind of formal agreement nor is it something that is being enforced on anybody." Four days later, the U.S. took further steps to reassure Israel that its "Benchmarks" document wasn't really all that important. The U.S. proposal, an American embassy official in Tel Aviv said, is not a "take it or leave it" document, but "an informal draft" of "suggestions" that could "help facilitate discussion, engagement and action."

And so, in less than four days, an American program intended to establish a positive atmosphere for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks was issued, rejected, and buried. [complete article]
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Inside Sadr City
By Pepe Escobar, Asia Times, May 10, 2007

This is the 24-square-kilometer theater where a great part of Iraq's future is already being played out; a vital element in US President George W Bush's surge; the place Pentagon generals dream of smashing into submission; one of the largest and arguably most notorious slums in the world: Sadr (formerly Saddam) City.

Sadr City is also, along with Gaza and the West Bank, the theater of the already evolving 21st-century war, pitting the high-tech Western haves against the slum-dwelling Third World have-nots. If the Bush administration had any intention of conquering any hearts and minds in Iraq, this is where it would be trying the hardest. Reality spells otherwise. [complete article]
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New front challenges al-Qaeda in Iraq
Baghdad correspondent, Conflicts Forum, May 8, 2007

The establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq -- an al-Qaeda inspired organization that threatened to split the Sunni resistance and sparked high-profile attacks against American and Iraqi targets in Baghdad -- has had the unintended consequence of uniting non-al-Qaeda Sunni resistance movements into a new umbrella organization, the Reform and Jihad Front. The RJF has brought together three main Islamic movements in Iraq -- Ansar al-Sunna Sharia Council ("The Supporters of the Sunna"), al-Jaish al-Islami (the Islamic Army in Iraq) and the al-Mujahadeen Army. While the RJF was established in response to the threat posed by ISI, a number of resistance figures were planning the formation of the front well before ISI's emergence.

In early May, according to our sources, the leaders of the three organizations that eventually formed the front traveled to Damascus to consult with a number of resistance figures on how best to respond to the al-Qaeda challenge posed by the formation of the ISI. The resistance figures met with Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed, a former leader in Saddam Hussein's Baath Socialist Party from Mosul, in a suburb of Damascus. The three leaders told al-Ahmed that they believed that the formation of the ISI would actually strengthen "the American and Iranian plot to divide our country" -- a point of view on which al-Ahmed agreed. Al-Ahmed agreed to the formation of the RJF, but counseled the three leaders that their groups would need to confront the ISI in Mosul and in al-Anbar province "in order to regain their credibility among the people." [complete article]

The faltering Islamic State in Iraq
Baghdad Correspondent, Conflicts Forum, May 7, 2007

Well-informed sources told one of our contacts in Mosul -- where the Islamic State in Iraq first emerged as a political force -- that the ISI had lost the support of a number of important resistance groups, including Jaish al-Islami and Mejles Shura al-Mujahadeen. Our contact in Mosul told us that the loss of these two groups, while not fatal, "had caused divisions in the resistance in the Mosul region." Additionally, we have been told, groups were influenced by the work of the "Al Anbar Wake Up Group" -- a movement led by Mahmoud Abu Risha, a Dulaimi tribal leader who is said to have close ties to the Americans. The ISI was forced to flee the Mosul area and have taken refuge in the Himren Mountains, between Kirkuk and Diyala. The group -- now a loose al-Qaeda run federation -- consists of Ansar al-Sunna, Jund al-Sahaba, and some brigades of al-Jihad wel-Sunna. While weakened, the ISI has successfully mounted operations in Baghdad and the Triangle of Death. "The ISI, or what's left of it, is mad as hell," one American military officer confirmed to us. "The split in Mosul back in January leaves them with something to prove." [complete article]

Abdullah al-Janabi vs. al-Qaeda
By Marc Lynch, Abu Aardvark, May 8, 2007

[In a long interview aired on al-Jazeera, Abdullah al-Janabi, the former head of the Mujahideen Shura Council in Fallujah,] very sharply criticized the declaration of the Islamic State of Iraq as one of the worst of the transgressions. The most basic condition for a state is that it should be chosen by those it rules, said Janabi, and the ISI most certainly was not. They are not the only mujahideen in Iraq, with Iraqis being the dominant presence in the insurgency (he gives the figure of 95%). He called Abu Omar al-Baghdadi's demand that all mujahideen in Iraq fight under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq a joke. As for the future, Janabi said that the insurgency would continue until the occupiers leave Iraq and a government which respects human rights and Islam is created - nationalist, not globalist goals, placing him firmly on the anti-AQ side of the current great insurgency debate. Janabi claimed that 80% of the insurgency's fighters shared this vision, and that they had political projects ready to go as soon as the occupiers left.

Criticisms of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq abound these days, but the source here is extremely interesting. It gives some fresh insight into the attitudes of the Sunni insurgency, and the real origins of the current intra-insurgency battles, along with yet another clear claim that an American commitment to withdrawal would be well received by the majority of the insurgency. While he does not seem to be currently in a leadership role (his answer to questions about that was kind of fuzzy), Janabi remains well-connected and a widely influential figure, whose rare intervention will likely have some impact, especially in the Iraqi Sunni community which follows al-Jazeera carefully. [complete article]

See also, Al-Qa'ida on the Run? (IraqSlogger).
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What the Bush administration has wrought in Iraq
By Patrick Cockburn, TomDispatch, May 8, 2007

At 3 am on January 11, 2007 a fleet of American helicopters made a sudden swoop on the long-established Iranian liaison office in the city of Arbil in northern Iraq. Their mission was to capture two senior Iranian security officials, Mohammed Jafari, the deputy head of the Iranian National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the head of intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. What made the American raid so extraordinary is that both men were in Iraq at the official invitation of the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who held talks with them at his lakeside headquarters at Dokan in eastern Kurdistan. The Iranians had then asked to see Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, in the Kurdish capital Arbil. There was nothing covert about the meeting which was featured on Kurdish television.

In the event the U.S. attack failed. It was only able to net five junior Iranian officials at the liaison office that had existed in Arbil for years, issuing travel documents, and which was being upgraded to a consular office by the Iraqi Foreign Ministry in Baghdad. The Kurdish leaders were understandably furious asking why, without a word to them, their close allies, the Americans, had tried to abduct two important foreign officials who were in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi president. Kurdish troops had almost opened fire on the American troops. At the very least, the raid showed a contempt for Iraqi sovereignty which the U.S. was supposedly defending. It was three months before officials in Washington admitted that they had tried and failed to capture Jafari and General Frouzanda. The U.S. State Department and Iraqi government argued for the release of the five officials as relative minnows, but Vice-President Cheney's office insisted fiercely that they should be held.

If Iran had undertaken a similar venture by, for example, trying to kidnap the deputy head of the CIA when he was on an official visit to Pakistan or Afghanistan, then Washington might have considered the attempt a reason for going to war. In the event, the US assault on Arbil attracted bemused attention inside and outside Iraq for only a few days before it was buried by news of the torrent of violence in the rest of Iraq. The U.S. understandably did not reveal the seniority of its real targets -- or that they had escaped. [complete article]
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Deal is offered for Wolfowitz's exit at World Bank
By Steven R. Weisman, New York Times, May 8, 2007

Leading governments of Europe, mounting a new campaign to push Paul D. Wolfowitz from his job as World Bank president, signaled Monday that they were willing to let the United States choose the bank's next chief, but only if Mr. Wolfowitz stepped down soon, European officials said.

European officials had previously indicated that they wanted to end the tradition of the United States picking the World Bank leader. But now the officials are hoping to enlist American help in persuading Mr. Wolfowitz to resign voluntarily, rather than be rebuked or ousted.

The goal, they said, is to avert a public rupture of the bank board over a vote, possibly later this week, to sanction Mr. Wolfowitz. Even if the vote is a reprimand, they said, it could effectively make it impossible for him to stay on. [complete article]

See also, Scandal may jeopardize World Bank funds (WP).

Comment -- It's worth recalling that, according to the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes, "Wolfowitz is said to have been instrumental" in getting Elliot Abrams his initial job at the National Security Council. There are indications that Abrams may currently see the World Bank playing a key role in boosting Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at the political expense of the Hamas-led government. Might this be among the reasons that Wolfowitz is so tenaciously clinging to his position?
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Sunni demand could unravel Iraqi government
By Nic Robertson, CNN, May 8, 2007

Iraq's top Sunni official has set a deadline of next week for pulling his entire bloc out of the government -- a potentially devastating blow to reconciliation efforts within Iraq. He also said he turned down an offer by President Bush to visit Washington until he can count more fully on U.S. help.

Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi made his comments in an interview with CNN. He said if key amendments to the Iraq Constitution are not made by May 15, he will step down and pull his 44 Sunni politicians out of the 275-member Iraqi parliament.

"If the constitution is not subject to major changes, definitely, I will tell my constituency frankly that I have made the mistake of my life when I put my endorsement to that national accord," he said. [complete article]
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Back to 'Saddam without a mustache'
By Pepe Escobar, Asia Times, May 9, 2007

From secular, well-educated Shi'ites to in-love-with-the-West Kurds, from Christians suffering ethnic cleansing to even some moderate Sunnis, Iraqis terrified by the current carnage are more and more inclined to turn to former premier Iyad Allawi as the only possible solution.

"We need a strongman," said Hamoodi, a young Kurd from Sulaymaniah who got his visa approved and will continue his medicine studies in the US state of Michigan; he does not plan on coming back. There's a virtual consensus among people in Baghdad that security under Allawi's interim premiership was relatively good, deteriorated under Ibrahim al-Jaafari and reached nightmarish levels under the present administration of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Allawi used to be referred to in Baghdad as "Saddam without a mustache". The ex-Ba'athist and former darling of US and British intelligence also became "the butcher of Fallujah" after ordering the massive assault on the Sunni resistance stronghold in November 2004. Not to mention his push against Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's followers in Najaf, also in 2004. But the civil war has enhanced his popular perception as non-sectarian. The true measure of the overwhelming Iraqi tragedy is that people in Baghdad are now yearning for an ersatz Saddam Hussein. [complete article]
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September could be key deadline in war
By Jonathan Weisman and Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post, May 8, 2007

Congressional leaders from both political parties are giving President Bush a matter of months to prove that the Iraq war effort has turned a corner, with September looking increasingly like a decisive deadline.

In that month, political pressures in Washington will dovetail with the military timeline in Baghdad. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commanding general in Iraq, has said that by then he will have a handle on whether the current troop increase is having any impact on political reconciliation between Iraq's warring factions. And fiscal 2008, which begins Oct. 1, will almost certainly begin with Congress placing tough new strings on war funding.

"Many of my Republican colleagues have been promised they will get a straight story on the surge by September," said Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.). "I won't be the only Republican, or one of two Republicans, demanding a change in our disposition of troops in Iraq at that point. That is very clear to me."

"September is the key," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds defense. "If we don't see a light at the end of the tunnel, September is going to be a very bleak month for this administration." [complete article]
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Beating an orderly retreat
By Francis Fukuyama, Los Angeles Times, May 5, 2007

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has promised to return to Washington in September to report on the outcome of his surge strategy. I hope he will say that sectarian killings, bombings and U.S. casualties are all down. But even if he does, I doubt he can offer a clear, plausible date by which the Iraqi army and police will be able to stand on their own without massive U.S. support. So regardless of what he concludes, we seem destined to enter the presidential election season with no credible date for a U.S. exit from Iraq.

In more than four years of war, there have been countless turning points at which we were led to expect decisive political progress in Iraq: the capture of Saddam Hussein (December 2003); the turnover of sovereignty (June 2004); elections for the constituent assembly (January 2005); elections to ratify the constitution (August 2005); and elections for the Iraqi parliament (December 2005).

The surge was the last military card we had to play, and now our bluff will soon be called. [complete article]
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The struggle over Iraqi oil
By Michael Schwartz, TomDispatch, May 7, 2007

The struggle over Iraqi oil has been going on for a long, long time. One could date it back to 1980 when President Jimmy Carter -- before his Habitat for Humanity days -- declared that Persian Gulf oil was "vital" to American national interests. So vital was it, he announced, that the U.S. would use "any means necessary, including military force" to sustain access to it. Soon afterwards, he announced the creation of a Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, a new military command structure that would eventually develop into United States Central Command (Centcom) and give future presidents the ability to intervene relatively quickly and massively in the region.

Or we could date it all the way back to World War II, when British officials declared Middle Eastern oil "a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination," and U.S. officials seconded the thought, calling it "a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history."

The date when the struggle for Iraqi oil began is less critical than our ability to trace the ever growing willingness to use "any means necessary" to control such a "vital prize" into the present. [complete article]

See also, Iraq's oil production falls short of goals (CSM).
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Damascus moves to center stage
By Sami Moubayed, Asia Times, May 8, 2007

Fifty years ago, alarmed that Syria was becoming dangerously close to the Soviet Union, US president Dwight Eisenhower authorized a series of operations aimed at isolating, weakening and eventually overthrowing the regime of president Shukri al-Quwatli.

The Central Intelligence Agency tried to pull off two coups in Damascus. Both of them failed. The US then pursued a policy of funding the Syrian opposition. US intelligence reports on Syria during the years 1956-58 are hauntingly similar to press reports coming out of Washington in 2005-07 - only the word "Soviet" is replaced by "Iranian".

When its efforts failed, the Eisenhower administration called on Syria's neighbors to isolate it and, if possible, change its government, claiming that they would support any anti-Syrian activity under the United Nations umbrella of "self-defense". Syria, as far as the US was concerned, was "threatening the stability" of the Arab neighborhood.

At the time, the man to obstruct the US campaign against Syria was King Saud of Saudi Arabia. The monarch went to Damascus, embraced president Quwatli (who was an old family friend of the House of Saud) and said that destabilizing Syria was an option that simply did not exist. [complete article]

Rice and Moualem meet: has Syria won?
By Joshua Landis, Syria Comment, May 5, 2007

"Has Syria won?" This is the question that a number of reporters have asked me on the heals of Rice's meeting with Walid Moualem at Sharm al-Sheikh.From al-Hayat

First, it is necessary to take the larger perspective. The meeting was not about Syria. It was about Iran. Michael Slackman of the NYTimes gets it right when he concludes: "Little changed in what many here saw as the crucial factor: relations between Iran and the United States."

Mottaki, Iran's F.M. walked out of the dinner, where Rice and he might have met, before Rice arrived. The Americans tried to spin this as Iranian prudery at work. Evidently, the excuse was that a Ukrainian violinist in a red dress had a plunging neckline. Mottaki couldn't abide the flesh and took Iranian leave. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack cracked, "I'm not sure what woman he was afraid of, the one in the red dress or the secretary of state."

Mottaki was more honest. He explained that the US needs Iran more than Iran needs the US. The US had not prepared for the meeting properly and was not willing to discuss the an agenda important to Iran, comsequently Iran passed up the chance to talk to the Americans at the ministerial level. [complete article]
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Why Iran spurned a U.S. handshake
By M K Bhadrakumar, Asia Times, May 8, 2007

"Unfortunately, the wounds of this world are too deep and can't be closed easily, and maybe only one meeting is not enough," former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami reportedly remarked last Friday in Rome as he headed for a meeting in the Vatican with Pope Benedict XVI.

Khatami could as well have meant another meeting the same day that almost took place (but didn't) in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheikh between Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and his American counterpart, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

According to senior US officials in Rice's entourage, the presence of a female Russian violinist in a red dress in the dining hall where the delegations gathered was too risque for Mottaki's Muslim sensibilities, so that he brusquely left as Rice arrived. So the opportunity of a close encounter between the two gladiators - one representing the lone superpower and the other from the notorious "axis of evil" - was derailed.

Other US officials offered the consoling explanation that Rice was better off that way, since Mottaki lacked personal stature or gravitas in Iran's secretive power structure. As for Rice, she simply chuckled, saying it was a good opportunity lost in Sharm al-Sheikh, but she wasn't used to chasing men. What else could the mirthful lady say about the Persian snub?

But the Iranians had a rational explanation for why Mottaki didn't like being seated across the dining table from Rice. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Tehran on Sunday, "Basically, a meeting between the two foreign ministers was not on our agenda." He explained that Tehran estimated that contrived setups like that at Sharm al-Sheikh didn't serve any purpose. [complete article]
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Jewish S. African minister slams critics of invitation to Hamas PM
Reuters, May 8, 2007

A South African cabinet minister, who is himself Jewish but also an outspoken critic of Israel, on Monday defended his invitation to Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to make his first visit outside the Muslim world, saying it was "myopic" to reject opportunities for dialogue.

Intelligence Minister Ronnie Kasrils provoked controversy last week when he extended the invitation during a visit to the Palestinian territories. He said South Africa's own experience showed the need to talk to all sides.

"Those who myopically object to such invitations merely show that they have learnt nothing from South Africa's transition," Kasrils said in a statement.

"Such logic as they espouse would not have allowed (apartheid era president) PW Botha to have met with the imprisoned (Nelson) Mandela nor his release by (former president) FW De Klerk as a partner in negotiations." [complete article]

Comment -- The lesson from South Africa is also the lesson from Northern Ireland. The Guardian today reports:
Ian Paisley, the Democratic Unionist party leader who spent decades denouncing republicans, and Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, joined together today to assume office as first and deputy first minister at the head of a new power-sharing government.

With two prime ministers and a host of US political dignitaries in the gallery watching the ceremonial opening, the Northern Ireland assembly elected a new speaker, three deputy speakers and an entire ministerial team without a voice of dissent.

The extraordinary display of cross-community unity at Stormont marked a symbolic end to the Troubles and opened an era of cooperation between former enemies.
This government could not have come into being, nor could apartheid have come to an end, had the Bush-Cheney ethos -- we don't talk to our enemies -- had been applied in either Northern Ireland or South Africa. The real choice is not between standing up to or giving in to terrorism; it is between the power of communication versus the power of violence.
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Escalating military spending: Income redistribution in disguise
By Ismael Hossein-zadeh, Middle East Online, May 7, 2007

Critics of the recent US wars of choice have long argued that they are all about oil. "No Blood for Oil" has been a rallying cry for most of the opponents of the war.

It can be demonstrated, however, that there is another (less obvious but perhaps more critical) factor behind the recent rise of US military aggressions abroad: war profiteering by the Pentagon contractors. Frequently invoking dubious "threats to our national security and/or interests," these beneficiaries of war dividends, the military–industrial complex and related businesses whose interests are vested in the Pentagon's appropriation of public money, have successfully used war and military spending to justify their lion's share of tax dollars and to disguise their strategy of redistributing national income in their favor.

This cynical strategy of disguised redistribution of national resources from the bottom to the top is carried out by a combination of (a) drastic hikes in the Pentagon budget, and (b) equally drastic tax cuts for the wealthy. As this combination creates large budget deficits, it then forces cuts in non-military public spending as a way to fill the gaps that are thus created. As a result, the rich are growing considerably richer at the expense of middle- and low-income classes. [complete article]

See also, Are Iraq war costs spinning out of control? (David R. Francis).
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Wariness, not hatred, keeps civil wars raging
By Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post, May 7, 2007

When you look at civil wars closely, [Barbara] Walter [a scholar at the University of California at San Diego] says, what you find is that the adversaries have actually spent the vast majority of their history not fighting one another. Violence is the exception, not the norm. This turns the puzzle on its head -- instead of asking why adversaries in civil wars do not reach peaceful settlements, it makes more sense to ask what makes them fight.

The reason civil wars end up being protracted, Walter found, is that unlike wars between nations, opponents in a civil war usually have to lay down arms before peace is reached. Once they do so, they both have to trust that the newly formed government will protect them. Since that government is likely to be under the control of the stronger side, however, the weaker side is left with no recourse if its erstwhile enemy breaks the peace agreement and decides to annihilate it.

Two nations at war, by contrast, can each pull their troops behind a border after a peace accord. Nations can break peace agreements, too, but that usually only means the conflict will resume where it left off. Being fooled in wars between nations, in other words, is unpleasant, but getting suckered in a civil war can be fatal.

"The payoffs are structured in such a way that there will be great gains for the stronger side to exploit your opponent and huge costs for the weaker side for being the sucker," Walter says about civil war antagonists.

Walter's research is discouraging to both supporters and critics of President Bush's plan to increase U.S. troops in Iraq. [complete article]

Comment -- Within the parochial mindset of American politics, the issue of the war in Iraq has been reduced to the question of whether or not American troops can be withdrawn on the basis of a timetable. In the debate on the war, Iraq itself is an afterthought. Democrats inevitably invite being accused of defeatism (setting a "surrender date") because ending the war is universally understood to mean nothing more than ending US involvement in the war.

The focus of the debate needs to be shifted.

If a Democratic leader (or any presidential candidate for that matter) wants to really seize the initiative, then one thing they could do is advocate American diplomatic, financial, and logistical support for a transfer of authority from US occupying forces to an OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries) international peacekeeping force that would enter Iraq after the agreement of all indigenous warring factions. (A Pakistani commentator, Dr Shireen Mazari, director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad, outlines the framework for OIC involvement.) Such a force would need to include several hundred thousand troops with the political support of all Iraq's neighbors. The reward that the U.S. would offer as an incentive to win support from all the required parties would be the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces, the handover of military facilities to the Iraqi government, along with the above-mentioned financial backing for a specified period. All in all, this should be a saleable package, both internationally and domestically. But U.S. taxpayers would have to be willing to foot the bill -- and unlike now, most of the money would not flow back into the pockets of American defense contractors.

We broke Iraq and have clearly demonstrated we don't have the skill to mend it. The issue now is not whether we can get out with our pride in tact, claim some form of victory, or simply cut our losses. The question now is what will it take to mend this fractured country and what does our role need to be in that process?
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Why Olmert is hanging on
By Andrew Lee Butters, Time, May 4, 2007

Once led by the giants of its founding generation, Israel is now run by a generation that rose through the ranks of backroom politics, and whose rise has been accompanied by the corruption scandals to prove it. Greater-good statesmanship has long ago given way to the petty power ambitions of career politicians, as their response to the current crisis seems to demonstrate. Not only is Olmert himself unwilling to do the honorable thing and resign, but his cabinet and the Knesset appears unwilling to risk their own jobs to force him out through a no-confidence vote that would bring new elections that put everyone at risk. [complete article]

As Olmert fights for his political life, Hamas waits
Khaled Meshal interviewed by Kevin Peraino, Newsweek, May 14, 2007

Newsweek: What's going through your mind as you watch Olmert try to cling to power?
Meshal: Israel is suffering from a leadership vacuum, particularly after [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon's absence from the theater. I believe this affirms [what] Olmert and those surrounding him have tried to run away from: the complete failure of [the Lebanon] war.

Israelis worry the outcome of the war has eroded their power to deter enemies like Hamas.
Nobody denies that Israel is militarily and technologically superior. But Israel is no longer capable of controlling the outcome of battles. There are other things like will power, morale, the fairness of the cause and perseverance. These are in our favor.

You recently predicted a new intifada in the Palestinian territories.
It is not a mere prediction; I estimate it will be a reality in the future -- if we base our analysis on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict during the past years, and consider the difficult and escalating conditions on the ground. What does the world expect from the Palestinian people if the current conditions continue, if the economic siege continues, even after we formed the national unity government? [complete article]
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Israel draws battle lines around nuclear monopoly
By Dan Williams, Reuters, May 6, 2007

When Egypt and Syria launched a surprise joint offensive in 1973, many Israelis braced for a fight to the finish.

But historians now agree that, for all their rhetoric about destroying the Jewish state, the attacking Arabs -- who were eventually repelled -- only intended to recapture the Sinai peninsula and Golan Heights, lands lost in a previous war. One reason posited for the restraint was belief in Cairo and Damascus that Israel could use atomic weapons if fighting spilled over from occupied territory and into home turf. For Israelis, it served as endorsement for preserving an exclusive, last-ditch nuclear defence. Today, this helps explain Israel's agitation over the prospect of arch-foe Iran busting up the monopoly with a nuclear programme of its own. Privately, Israeli officials acknowledge the immediate risk they see is not in an exchange of nuclear missiles with Iran, but in an increased chance of "classic" regional wars launched in the belief that Tehran has blunted Israel's strategic edge. [complete article]
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Israel routinely abuses Palestinian suspects - report
By Jeffrey Heller, Reuters, May 6, 2007

Israeli security interrogators routinely mistreat and sometimes torture Palestinian detainees, meting out abuse that includes beatings and contortion, Israeli human rights groups said in a new report on Sunday.

Israel's Justice Ministry said the findings by the B'Tselem and HaMoked organisations were "fraught with mistakes, groundless claims and inaccuracies".

In a report based on the testimonies of 73 Palestinians from the occupied West Bank detained between July 2005 and January 2006, the groups said the Shin Bet security service employs a seven-step "interrogation system".

The methods for trying to extract information include solitary confinement "in putrid, stifling cells", the painful binding of a detainee's hands and feet to a chair, sleep disturbance and cursing and humiliation, the report said.

Such practices, the groups said, constitute "ill-treatment" under international law and violate an Israeli Supreme Court ban against interrogation methods aimed at breaking a detainee's spirit.

In the cases of "ticking bombs", a reference to Palestinians suspected of having information about an imminent attack on Israelis, the Shin Bet also uses "special methods" that mostly involve direct physical violence, according to the findings.

The abuse includes beatings and forcing detainees into a "frog" crouch on their tiptoes or bending them backwards in a "banana position" while they were seated on a backless chair and sleep deprivation, the report said.

"These measures are defined as torture under international law," said the groups, which define their mission as protecting Palestinian human rights in Israeli-occupied territory. "Their use is not negligible, even if not routine." [complete article]
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Troops at odds with ethics standards
By Thomas E. Ricks and Ann Scott Tyson, Washington Post, May 5, 2007

More than one-third of U.S. soldiers in Iraq surveyed by the Army said they believe torture should be allowed if it helps gather important information about insurgents, the Pentagon disclosed yesterday. Four in 10 said they approve of such illegal abuse if it would save the life of a fellow soldier.

In addition, about two-thirds of Marines and half the Army troops surveyed said they would not report a team member for mistreating a civilian or for destroying civilian property unnecessarily. "Less than half of Soldiers and Marines believed that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect," the Army report stated.

About 10 percent of the 1,767 troops in the official survey -- conducted in Iraq last fall -- reported that they had mistreated civilians in Iraq, such as kicking them or needlessly damaging their possessions. [complete article]
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Qaeda's Zawahri says Iraq bill shows U.S. defeat
By Firouz Sedarat, Reuters, May 6, 2007

Al Qaeda's second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahri said a U.S. congressional bill calling for a troop withdrawal from Iraq was proof of Washington's defeat, according to a Web video posted on Saturday.

"This bill reflects American failure and frustration," Zawahri said. "But this bill will deprive us of the opportunity to destroy the American forces which we have caught in a historic trap."

A White House spokesman declined to comment on the video, which comes four days after U.S. President George W. Bush vetoed a $124 billion congressional war-spending measure that would have required a troop pullout from Iraq to begin by Oct. 1.

"We ask Allah that they only get out after losing 200,000 to 300,000 killed, so that we give the blood spillers in Washington and Europe an unforgettable lesson to motivate them to review their entire doctrinal and moral system," Zawahri said on the video, posted on Web sites used by Islamists.
Zawahri also called on African-American soldiers to refuse to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying America had only changed the "appearance of the shackles and chains" of their slave forefathers.

Zawahri repeatedly praised Black Muslim leader Malcolm X on the video which included footage of the American militant's speeches, interspersed with documentary scenes of police action against blacks in the 1960s and poor blacks in urban ghettos.

Zawahri's last public comments were on March 11, when he criticised the leadership of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas over its Saudi-brokered deal with the U.S.-backed Palestinian faction Fatah.

In the new video, the Egyptian cleric renewed his criticism of Hamas and other Islamist groups for adopting a more moderate "culture of compromise". [complete article]

In jihadist haven, a goal: to kill and die in Iraq
By Souad Mekhennett and Michael Moss, New York Times, May 6, 2007

Zarqa has been known as a cradle of Islamic militancy since the beginning of the war in Iraq. It was the home of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, who was killed last summer. Today it is a breeding ground for would-be jihadists like Abu Ibrahim and five of his friends who left about the same time last fall, bound for Iraq.

Interviews with Abu Ibrahim and relatives of the other men show that rather than having been individually recruited by an organization like Mr. Zarqawi's, they gradually radicalized one another, the more strident leading the way. Local imams led them further toward Iraq, citing verses from the Koran to justify killing civilians. The men watched videos depicting tortured and slain Muslims that are copied from Internet sites.

"The sheik, he was a hero," Abu Ibrahim said of Mr. Zarqawi. But, he added, "I decided to go when my friends went." For the final step, getting the phone number of a smuggler and address of a safe house in Iraq, the men used facilitators who act more like travel agents than militant leaders.

"Most of the young people here in Zarqa are very religious," an Islamist community leader said. "And when they see the news and what is going on in the Islamic countries, they themselves feel that they have to go to fight jihad. Today, you don’t need anyone to tell the young men that they should go to jihad. They themselves want to be martyrs."

The anger is palpable on the streets of Zarqa. "He's American? Let's kidnap and kill him," one Islamist activist said during an interview with a reporter before the host of the meeting dissuaded him.

The stories of the men from Zarqa help explain the seemingly endless supply of suicide bombers in Iraq, most of whom are believed to be foreigners. [complete article]
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On Iraq, Gates may not be following Bush's playbook
By Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes, Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2007

President Bush has mobilized his administration, including his top general in Iraq, in a major push to win more time and money for his war strategy. But one crucial voice has been missing from the chorus: Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates'.

In fact, Gates' recent comments seem to run counter to the message from the White House. During a recent trip to the Middle East, Gates told the Iraqi government that time was running out and praised Democratic efforts in the U.S. Congress to set a timetable for withdrawal, saying it would help prod the Iraqis. He reiterated that point during a meeting with reporters last week.

A spokesman for Gates insisted there was no distance between the Defense secretary's thinking on the timetable for Iraq and views held by the White House or Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.

But his warnings to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki are just the latest indications from Gates that he believes the window of opportunity for the administration to get Iraq right is closing sooner rather than later. [complete article]

Bush's Iraq policy confronted by big questions, little time
By Warren P. Strobel, McClatchy, May 6, 2007

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived at a hotel restaurant for dinner here Thursday evening with the world's leading diplomats, the man who was supposed to be seated across from her, Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki, had just left the building.

Mottaki blamed the non-encounter on the entertainment - a female Ukrainian violinist whose red dress, he told reporters, offended "Islamic standards." Rice blamed Mottaki. "I'm not given to chasing anyone," she told reporters.

But at a critical moment for Iraq's future, the failure to start serious talks with Iran on cooperation to contain the Iraq civil war could be a metaphor for the Bush administration's repeated attempts to rescue its policy from disaster.

The four years since President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished" have been a legacy of missed opportunities, ineffectual plans, surges and course corrections that have always been too late, too late or both, critics say. [complete article]

The trouble with benchmarks in Iraq
By Tony Karon, Time, May 4, 2007

Like most Iraqi leaders, Maliki is unlikely to believe that what his government does or does not do will prompt the U.S. to simply pack up and go home. The Iraqi leadership knows that the U.S. didn't invade their country out of concern for their well-being. It went to war in order to secure its own objectives — and that's exactly what the main Iraqi political factions are doing, too. (Indeed, it's hardly surprising that both the Shi'ite and Kurdish parties that dominate the current government are more inclined to pursue their own objectives than follow Washington's script, since each has bitter memories of being abandoned by the U.S. during their abortive uprisings against Saddam in 1991.) A U.S. withdrawal, after all, would mean abandoning many of its own objectives, fatally weakening the moderate Arab regimes it has vowed to protect, abandoning some of the world's largest oil reserves to be fought over by jihadists, Baathists and proxies of Iran, while Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds slug it out on the under-card of what could quickly become a regional war. Right now, the U.S. presence may be all that is holding Iraq together, but letting it fall apart would deeply damage a far wider range of Washington's interests. [complete article]
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Axis of Evil vs Great Satan: wrestling to normality
By Nasrin Alavi, Open Democracy, May 5, 2007

...inside Iran there is - notwithstanding the regime's routine double-talk - virtual open house on broaching the once-taboo subject of "normalising" relationships with the US. The visit to Damascus of the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, was followed by speculation that Tehran would be her next destination; the suggestion was met with enthusiastic words of "support" by the first deputy speaker of the majlis (parliament) and head of its main rightwing faction, Mohammad Reza Bahonar.

For ordinary Iranians, such dramatic U-turns are almost too bizarre for words - especially at a time when journalists have been prosecuted and their newspapers shut down merely for evaluating the state of US-Iran relations. In 2002 three separate Iranian polling institutes - including the National Institute for Research Studies and Opinion Polls (Nirsop) were closed and their researchers imprisoned for revealing that 64.5% of Iranians favoured resumption of talks between Iran and the United States.

Ali Abtahi, Iran's deputy president during the reformist era of Mohammad Khatami's presidency (1997-2005) comments on the current reversals of attitude in a short article titled "As always, if only". He says that "the taboo of dialogue with the US has broken... and everyone is openly racing for US talks, waiting to see what the other side has to say". Abtahi recalls that in 2000, a potential meeting between Khatami and Bill Clinton was choreographed on the fringe of the "millennium summit" of the United Nations; but that "the (Iranian) president did not have the option of talking with an American president, and to escape talks he had to resort to a game of hide-and-seek".

In 2000, the power of the conservatives opposed to Khatami blocked any progress; the Iranian media and conservative political circles were awash with condemnation of Khatami for as much as being present at the same venue as a US president. Today, by contrast, the public are being prepared by Iran's state-controlled media for the prospect of talks with the US. The official Islamic Republic News Agency even proclaims a "new US stance" towards Iran. [complete article]

See also, Iran restricts Al-Jazeera television network (AP).

Comment -- If the Iranians are ready, what will it take for the U.S. to move in the same direction?

The period of sabre-rattling already seems to have passed. A much anticipated convergence of aircraft carriers in the Gulf never took place.

A month after the White House said that Nancy Pelosi's visit to Syria was "a really bad idea", Condoleezza Rice sat down for talks with her Syrian counterpart.

At some point, if the U.S. really wants to show it's ready to do business with Iran, it needs to release it's hostages.

Above all, the White House needs to go through a paradigm shift in its attitude to diplomatic engagement.

Talking is a means to an end; not a reward for good behavior. The only precondition must be that each side is willing to listen to the other.
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Talking (or not) to the Iranians
By Scott McLeod, Time, May 6, 2007

When Mottaki told TIME in Sharm el Sheikh, "we are ready to talk," there are reasons to believe that he was both sincere and pragmatic. In 2003, Iranian diplomats floated a proposal for a "Grand Bargain" with the U.S. Despite its hard-line rhetoric on the nuclear issue, Iran remains committed to a negotiated solution and has not withdrawn, as North Korea did, from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If Iran wants to be taken seriously, however, it needs to avoid doing things that raise doubts, like seizing British sailors in the Gulf and walking out of diplomatic functions. [complete article]

Mottaki meets Kurdish regional prime minister
Press TV, May 5, 2007

Iran's FM has described US detention of five Iranian diplomats in Iraq as a detestable act which tarnished Iraqi government's world image.

During a meeting with Nechervan Barzani, the prime minister of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on Saturday, Manouchehr Mottaki called for new initiatives to strengthen two-way ties with KRG.

He warned Iraq's ethnic groups against plots by enemies to drive them further into violence and discord and noted that solidarity is the best way to overcome the current obstacles. [complete article]

Bush holds Iranian officials as bargaining chips
By Gareth Porter, IPS, May 3, 2007

When the George W. Bush administration announced in January that it was targeting Iranian officials in Iraq, it justified the policy as necessary to protect U.S. troops because of their alleged involvement in attacks on U.S. forces.

But recent developments have underlined the reality that those Iranian officials are serving as bargaining chips in the administration's effort to get Iran to use its influence with Iraqi Shiites to help stabilise the situation in Iraq.

The administration's decision to hold on to five Iranians seized by U.S. troops in the Kurdish city of Irbil last January, rather than release them to reciprocate Iran's unconditional release in early April of 15 British sailors and marines captured in the Persian Gulf in March, raises the question of what calculations administration officials have been making in regard to their Iranian prisoners. [complete article]
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U.S. and Syria are talking
By Louise Roug and Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met Thursday with Syria's foreign minister at a summit here, the first formal encounter between the two countries' top diplomats in more than three years.

American officials suggested that more meetings with Syria could follow, an indication that the Bush administration may be changing its policy of isolating a regime it considers a sponsor of terrorism.

However, Rice did not meet with Iran's foreign minister, who also was here for the international conference on Iraq. [complete article]

See also, Political freedoms shift in Syria (LAT).
[permanent link to this entry] [home]

In Turkey, a looming battle over Islam
By Claire Berlinski, Washington Post, May 4, 2007

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, imposed a particularly strict secularism on Turkish society, banning religion from the public sphere. In recent weeks, demonstrators have taken to the streets in massive numbers in support of Kemalist secularism. Westerners watching the footage may be tempted to sigh with approval, imagining this as an outpouring of sympathy with liberal Enlightenment values.

They would be mistaken.

The AKP's opponents say they don't want Turkey turned into another Iran. But it is not clear that the AKP has any intention of doing that. What is clear is that it poses a threat to the power, bureaucratic privileges and economic interests of the secular ruling class, of which a dismaying number are authoritarian ultra-nationalists. [complete article]

The threat is secular fundamentalism
By Mustafa Akyol, IHT, May 4, 2007

The AK party's evolution is an interesting story. Islamic circles in Turkey have long hoped for a return to the glorious Ottoman and Islamic past in order to rid themselves of the ruling autocracy, which they regarded as the West's evil gift.

However, since the 1980s, thanks to their growing interaction with the rest of the world, they have come to realize something significant: The West is better than the Westernizers.

Noting that Western democracies give their citizens the very religious freedoms Turkey has denied its own, Muslims of the AK party have rerouted their search for freedom. Rather than trying to Islamize the state, they have decided to liberalize it. That's why in today's Turkey the AK party is the main proponent of the effort to join the European Union, democratization, free markets and individual liberties.

For the same reason, there are many secular liberals (including some atheists and agnostics) who sympathize with the AK party government led by Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Interestingly, this has led the party's secularist opponents to embrace fierce anti-Westernism. Most ultra-secular pundits speculate about "the alliance between moderate Islam and American imperialism" - and they despise both. [complete article]

See also, A journey to defend Turkey's secular ideals (Anthony Shadid) and Why do many Muslims mistrust secularism? (Jorgen S. Nielsen).
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Give moderate Islamism a chance
By A.M. Spiegel, IHT, May 4, 2007

How Morocco, the most liberal of Arab states, responds to Al Qaeda's forays in the region might provide answers to one of the key questions of our day: Can Islamist extremism be countered with Islamist moderation?

The wider world began paying closer attention to Al Qaeda's presence in Morocco after an Algerian-based terrorist organization, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, announced in January that it would rename itself Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. At first, many observers dismissed the significance of the change, seeing it as a sign that the group was scrambling for new relevance in an Algeria tired of bloodshed.

But Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has now established ties with local groups in both Morocco and Tunisia. It also has managed to accomplish what the French colonial powers never could achieve - bridge the fates and policies of three historically distinctive and often sparring nations.

Morocco, a constitutional monarchy that grants the king strong executive powers - including control over the military and the authority to disband Parliament - has long been considered the model for reform in the region. The government also has offered a blueprint (at least on paper) for Arab counterterrorism measures that combine security and intelligence efforts with measures to preserve Islam from extremism.

Morocco's movement toward a moderate, Sufi-inspired Islam has included the establishment of Islamic Web sites, television and radio programs, the training of female clerics, and the redesign of old Koranic schools.

Yet much more is needed. It is time to encourage Morocco's other experiment - the political inclusion of a moderate Islamist party as an antidote to extremism. In elections scheduled for September, Morocco can provide a model of Islamic democracy by allowing the moderate Party of Justice and Development the opportunity to do what neighboring Algerian Islamists were never allowed to do: form an Islamist-led government. [complete article]
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A chillingly sunny picture of Mubarak's government
Editorial, New York Times/IHT, May 6, 2007

In recent weeks, Egypt's government has further trampled the rights of its citizens, closing several branches of the Center for Trade Union and Workers' Services, which provides much needed legal assistance to workers.

This comes at a time when a growing number of government critics - journalists as well as opposition figures - have been thrown in jail and on the heels of constitutional amendments that restrict rights and weaken standards for arrest and detention.

All of this somehow has escaped the Bush administration's ambassador to Egypt who, in a recent television interview in Cairo, painted a chillingly sunny picture of President Hosni Mubarak's government.

While the U.S. envoy acknowledged there were "some infringements and violations" of human rights, he declared himself "optimistic" about democratic progress in Egypt, adding that the judiciary and the government's "commitment to the opinion of the common Egyptian citizen" would carry the day.

That not only contradicts reality - freedom of expression and assembly is actually diminishing - it contradicts the U.S. State Department's latest human rights report, which says that Egypt's rights record remains poor. Egypt's jailed bloggers and beaten protesters can certainly attest to that. [complete article]
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Former warlord Mohamed Dheere takes control in Somali capital
By Mahad Elmi and Shashank Bengali, McClatchy, May 4, 2007

A former warlord who for a time had been on the CIA payroll was sworn in Friday as mayor of Mogadishu and announced a plan to pacify this turbulent African capital within three months by requiring residents to turn in their guns.

"Weapons will be in the hands of the government and no one else," Mohamed Dheere told a crowd at his inauguration.

But previous regimes have failed to disarm Mogadishu - the most dangerous city in Africa, where many families maintain AK-47s and other weapons for protection - and Dheere offered few details of his security plan.

Dheere's appointment as mayor, which was announced by the interim prime minister, Ali Mohamed Gedi, follows the installation of another former warlord, Abdi Hasan "Qaybdid" Awale, as the national police chief. According to U.S. officials, both were briefly on the CIA payroll in 2006 under a covert program to fight the rise of the Islamists, a plan that fell apart when the Islamists drove the warlords from power last June. [complete article]
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Noteworthy articles from the last seven days:

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

Who will stop the U.S. shadow army in Iraq?
By Jeremy Scahill, TomDispatch, April 29, 2007

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

The Muslim Brotherhood: Islamic democrats?
By James Traub, New York Times, April 29, 2007

Islamists and leftists - seeking a bridge to change in Egypt
By Ashraf Khalil, Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2007

The Winograd report mainly provokes Arab disdain
By Rami G. Khouri, Daily Star, May 3, 2007

We will not bow to permanent servitude in the land of our ancestors
By Azmi Bishara, Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2007

The Arab media paradox
By Marc Lynch, Bitter Lemons, May 3, 2007

Iranian tip-off may have led Americans to al-Qaeda leader
By Jason Burke, The Observer, April 29, 2007
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