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Iraqi cleric Sadr makes first appearance in months
By Saad Fakhrildeen and Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2007

Firebrand cleric Muqtada Sadr reappeared Friday after months in hiding, a move that appeared carefully staged to strengthen his hold over the Shiite Muslim street and to reassert his position as political kingmaker.

In a sermon delivered before thousands of supporters in this Shiite holy city, the cleric presented himself as the champion of all Iraqis — regardless of creed. He called for a U.S. pullout and instructed his militia to refrain from confrontations with Iraqi security forces, saying they should "resort to civilian means when they are attacked."

U.S. officials in Baghdad seemed surprised by Sadr's sudden return, which came at a key juncture in Iraq. Officials in Iraq and Washington expressed uncertainty about his motives, and a Bush administration spokesman was uncharacteristically charitable toward a figure who has often been depicted as a chief enemy of the United States. [complete article]

See also, Mahdi army vows revenge on British troops after Basra leader is killed (The Guardian) and U.S.: 'Cell leader' with Iran links nabbed in Sadr City (CNN).
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U.S .unit created to pressure Iran, Syria disbanded
By Farah Stockman, Boston Globe, May 26, 2007

The Bush administration has dismantled a special committee that was established last year to coordinate aggressive actions against Iran and Syria, State Department officials said this week.

The interagency group, known as the Iran Syria Policy and Operations Group, met weekly throughout much of 2006 to coordinate actions such as curtailing Iran's access to credit and banking institutions, organizing the sale of military equipment to Iran's neighbors, and supporting democratic forces that oppose the two regimes.

State Department and White House officials said the dissolution of the group was simply a bureaucratic reorganization, but many analysts saw it as evidence of a softening in the US strategy toward the two countries. It comes as the Bush administration has embarked on a significant new effort to hold high-level meetings with Iran and Syria.

The group had become the focus for administra tion critics who feared that it was plotting covert actions that could escalate into a military conflict with Iran or Syria. The air of secrecy surrounding the group when it was established in March 2006, coupled with the fact that it was modeled after a similar special committee on Iraq, contributed to those suspicions. [complete article]

Cheney attempting to constrain Bush's choices on Iran Conflict: staff engaged in insubordination against President Bush
By Steven Clemons, The Washington Note, May 24, 2007

Multiple sources have reported that a senior aide on Vice President Cheney's national security team has been meeting with policy hands of the American Enterprise Institute, one other think tank, and more than one national security consulting house and explicitly stating that Vice President Cheney does not support President Bush's tack towards Condoleezza Rice's diplomatic efforts and fears that the President is taking diplomacy with Iran too seriously.

This White House official has stated to several Washington insiders that Cheney is planning to deploy an "end run strategy" around the President if he and his team lose the policy argument.

The thinking on Cheney's team is to collude with Israel, nudging Israel at some key moment in the ongoing standoff between Iran's nuclear activities and international frustration over this to mount a small-scale conventional strike against Natanz using cruise missiles (i.e., not ballistic missiles). [complete article]

Arabs make plans for nuclear power
By Bob Drogin and Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times, May 26, 2007

As Iran races ahead with an illicit uranium enrichment effort, nearly a dozen other Middle East nations are moving forward on their own civilian nuclear programs. In the latest development, a team of eight U.N. experts on Friday ended a weeklong trip to Saudi Arabia to provide nuclear guidance to officials from six Persian Gulf countries.

Diplomats and analysts view the Saudi trip as the latest sign that Iran's suspected weapons program has helped spark a chain reaction of nuclear interest among its Arab rivals, which some fear will lead to a scramble for atomic weapons in the world's most volatile region. [complete article]
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Army given 'carte blanche' to enter camp, kill militants
By Mark MacKinnon, Globe and Mail, May 26, 2007

The Lebanese army has carte blanche to do whatever it deems necessary to end its bloody standoff with Islamic fundamentalists, a senior Lebanese cabinet minister said yesterday, including forcibly entering the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in violation of a decades-old agreement with the Palestinians.

Ahmad Fatfat, a close confidante of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and former interior minister, said the government has asked the mainstream Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, to do what they can to resolve the situation in Nahr al-Bared. If the Palestinians can't bring an end soon to the nearly week-old crisis, Mr. Fatfat said the Lebanese army will resume its assault on the camp, using all means at its disposal.

"If [the Palestinians] are capable of resolving the problem politically or militarily, ... we'd prefer that. If they can't, we're obliged, the Lebanese army is obliged, to continue the battle," Mr. Fatfat said in an interview at his apartment in the Lebanese capital. "The army has been given carte blanche to go in and finish Fatah al-Islam." [complete article]

Militants in Lebanon will fight to the death, spokesman says
By Hannah Allam and Miret el Naggar, McClatchy, May 25, 2007

An Islamist militant group holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon will fight to the death, a spokesman for the group said Friday, adding that newly arrived military aid to the Lebanese army from the United States and other countries didn't faze the fighters.

"The ball is now in the army's court and we are ready for confrontation," said Abu Salim, the spokesman for Fatah al-Islam, a militant Sunni Muslim group that's thought to have links to al-Qaida. "We didn't come here to surrender; we came here for a goal. ... If we are killed, then it is for God. This life is finite, and our guys are prepared to fight, even if the whole world's forces come." [complete article]

Hezbollah head warns against raid
BBC News, May 26, 2007

The leader of the Shia militant group Hezbollah has urged Lebanon's government not to storm a refugee camp to root out Sunni radicals. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said Lebanon should not become part of the American war against al-Qaeda. [complete article]

Lebanon gets U.S. aid for camp battle
Al Jazeera, May 25, 2007

"The fact the US is sending military aid will probably not go well with the oposition," Zeina Khodr, Al Jazeera's Lebanon correspondent, said.

She said the oposition accuses the Lebanese government of "working for the interests of the US and implementing a US-plan for what they are calling a 'new Middle East'". [complete article]

Blowback in Lebanon
By Charles Harb, The Guardian, May 24, 2007

The story of Lebanon's US-backed Siniora government and army battling an isolated al-Qaida-type terrorist group allegedly backed by Syria obscures a complex picture that has been years in the making, and which involves a peculiar social environment, Lebanese political manoeuvring, and the wider dynamics of an increasingly volatile region. [complete article]

See also Tony Karon.
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Iraq's Sadrists follow Hezbollah's path as Tehran's allies in Iran's 'great game'
By Mahan Abedin, Saudi Debate, May 23, 2007

From conversations with senior Iranian diplomats and other officials concerned with Iraq policy, four general conclusions keep recurring.

First, Iraq is heading towards "failed state" status. Second, a horrendous - but brief - civil war will erupt once a sizeable number of American troops depart the arena. Third, no matter how unstable or bloody Iraq becomes, this is unlikely to affect Iran in any significant way. Fourth, the Al-Qaeda presence in Iraq is likely to prove permanent. The so-called "Islamic State of Iraq" (a coalition of Salafi-Jihadi outfits led by the remnants of Zarqawi's network) is not as imaginary or elusive as it appears. Indeed, Salafi-Jihadis will likely seize and hold large chunks of territory in Western Iraq (once the Americans reduce their military presence) and will be able to use this as a base to plot against American and European interests in the Middle East and North Africa, and possibly beyond.

As this scenario unfolds, the Iranians will give more importance to their relationship with Muqtada Al-Sadr and the different components and factions of his movement. While Iran would prefer to exert influence in a unified and stable (albeit weak) Iraq, it can still manage an extensive network of patronage and influence in an unstable and bloody situation.

In the final analysis, the Sadr movement will likely play an important role in how Iran and the United States manage tensions and eventually reach some kind of broad understanding, without necessarily normalising relations. While tension is unlikely to escalate into a shooting war, the Mahdi Army still gives the Islamic Republic potent leverage in the increasingly aggressive positioning that is likely to precede any significant breakthrough in the Iranian-American Cold War. [complete article]

See also, "There's a difference between resistance and terror" (Interview with Grand Ayatollah Ahmed Alhasani Al-Baghdadi)
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Morgue data show increase in sectarian killings in Iraq
By Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post, May 24, 2007

More than three months into a U.S.-Iraqi security offensive designed to curtail sectarian violence in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, Health Ministry statistics show that such killings are rising again.

From the beginning of May until Tuesday, 321 unidentified corpses, many dumped and showing signs of torture and execution, have been found across the Iraqi capital, according to morgue data provided by a Health Ministry official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information. The data showed that the same number of bodies were found in all of January, the month before the launch of the Baghdad security plan.

Such killings are a signature practice of Shiite militias, although Sunni insurgents are also known to execute victims. The number of found bodies is a key indicator of the level of sectarian violence, but the statistics also include some who died from causes unrelated to the political situation. [complete article]

See also, In search of plan B (Fred Kaplan).

Comment -- What does the president need to do when the strategy is failing to work? Change the narrative.
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Anbar front meets with Sadrist leaders
IraqSlogger, May 22, 2007

In an unprecedented step, a top leader of the pro-US tribal alliance in Anbar Province traveled to Sadr City Tuesday to meet with leaders of the Sadrist current.

Sheikh Hamid al-Hayis, who leads the armed wing of the US-backed movement known as the Anbar Awakening, or the Anbar Salvation Council, held a rare meeting with Sadrist leaders in Baghdad's Sadr City, the bastion of support for the young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and stronghold of the Mahdi Army. [complete article]

See also, Sunni resistance receptive to Sadr alliance (IPS).
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Regional conflicts join together to destabilize Lebanon
By Rami G. Khouri, Daily Star, May 24, 2007

In recent years I and others have been warning that the growing number of conflicts in the Middle East is pushing the region toward new forms of radicalism and trouble. The clashes between the Lebanese Army and the Fatah al-Islam extremist militants that have rocked parts of North Lebanon since Sunday are the latest face of that phenomenon.

The fighting in and near Tripoli represents the local convergence of four separate conflicts that attest to the complex matrix of violence that plagues the Middle East today. The four are the uneasy legacy of tensions between various Lebanese forces and armed Palestinian refugee groups in the country, going back to the 1960s; the continued tensions between Syria and Lebanon since a popular uprising forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon two years ago; the regional spin-offs from the US-led war in Iraq; and, the expanding clashes as US President George W. Bush's "global war on terror" both battles and breeds assorted Islamist terror groups that pursue Al-Qaeda-like goals and tactics. [complete article]
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Israel's concrete dome
By Meirav Arlosoroff, Haaretz, May 24, 2007

"The only way to protect Israel against the short-range rockets," say those involved in this work, "is to build a concrete dome over the country." This statement is cynical, of course, but it illustrates just how impossible it is to fulfill the public's expectations for complete protection.

This means that the solution to the rocket threat does not lie in protection alone, and must also include military action, diplomatic developments or sophisticated devices that can intercept the rockets in midair. None of these solutions, however, are currently in the offing.

In the absence of a military or diplomatic solution, at least for now, the only solution at Israel's disposal is our determination, the willingness of the population to adapt to a life under rocket fire, based on the knowledge that just as Israelis survived the era of the suicide bombers in 2002-2003 and continue to drive even though 500 people meet their deaths in traffic accidents each year, the population can continue to function under rocket fire. For a limited period, at least.

This temporary solution, as hard as it sounds, also involves the economic situation. The stronger Israel's economy, and the easier earning a livelihood is, the better people can cope with the security threat. The harsh pictures from Sderot are worsened by the fact that Sderot is a poor city.

Try to imagine how Sderot would cope with the rocket attacks if the town thumbed its nose at Hamas and became an economic model city, if rehabilitation budgets were allocated to the town, or if businesses were promised grants or long-term exemptions from taxes to transfer their offices or factories to Sderot, if groups of young couples or new immigrants came to settle in the town or if politicians made demonstrative moves to live there.

None of these measures would prevent the rockets from falling on Sderot, but they would help the population cope with this phenomenon.

Determination is Israel's real concrete dome, and the strength of that dome rests with this country's economic might. [complete article]

Comment -- Nothing undergirds nationalistic spirit more reliably than an appeal to popular "determination." But the real foundation of Israel's confidence is the knowledge that it can still dish out more pain than it is forced to suffer. Last summer's war was a military failure for the Israelis, but even so, Israel suffered a fraction of the loss of life and material damage that it inflicted on the Lebanese.

To thumb ones nose at the enemy takes chutzpah, but the willingness to grind them under ones heal -- all that requires is brutality.
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Israelis don't want Gaza to be their next Lebanon
By Steven Erlanger, New York Times, May 24, 2007

For the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, badly battered by last summer's inconclusive war against the rockets of Hezbollah, launched from Lebanon, the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip seems a similarly intractable problem with no easy, popular response.

While the Hamas militants in Gaza seem to have taken a lesson from that war -- how to use rockets against Israeli civilians to eat away at Israeli self-confidence and frustrate the Israeli military -- Israel's own lesson is less clear, because its ground assault on southern Lebanon did not end in a clear victory, let alone destroy its adversary.

The Israeli government is feeling constrained by its own weakness and damaged credibility. If it goes into Gaza too hard, it will be criticized for trying to overcompensate for its failures last summer against Hezbollah. If it acts with too much restraint and caution, it will be criticized for being intimidated by its failures last summer against Hezbollah. [complete article]

Israel to let Presidential Guard train near West Bank city of Jericho
By Ze'ev Schiff, Haaretz, May 24, 2007

Israel agreed to extensive training of members of the Presidential Guard of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in areas near Jericho, in the Jordan Valley.

The Palestinian Presidential Guard is undergoing similar training in Egypt. The training of units can reach battalion size formations, even though during their operations in the territories - in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank - the Presidential Guard is unable to operate in such formations.

The request for Israel to permit such extensive training was made through the Americans. Prior to this, Israel agreed to the transfer of thousands of rifles and ammunition to Abbas' Presidential Guard. [complete article]

IDF recommends maintaining pressure on Hamas despite decline in Qassams
By Amos Harel, Haaretz, May 24, 2007

Despite the sharp decline in the number of Qassam rockets fired from the Gaza Strip in the past two days, defense officials have recommended that Israel maintain military pressure on Hamas.

Only 13 rockets have been fired at Israel from Gaza in the past two days. [complete article]

See also, Abbas, Haniyeh meet in Gaza in effort to restore cease-fire with Israel (Haaretz), Israel rounds up Hamas leaders in West Bank, presses airstrikes to stop rocket salvos (AP), and Israel arrests Hamas politicians, including Palestinian education minister, in the West Bank (AP).

Netanyahu calls for Palestinians to join Jordan in confederation
By Martin Wolf, Financial Times, May 24, 2007

Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party and favourite to be Israel's prime minister after the next elections, is arguing that "some kind of federation or confederation between Jordan and the Palestinians" would enhance the prospects for Middle East peace.

In an interview with the Financial Times in Jerusalem, Mr Netanyahu said that the broadening of peace talks with the Palestinians, to include Jordan and Egypt, would increase opportunities for a positive outcome.

One example "would be tackling a major problem the Palestinians have, which is instituting law and order in their own cities and streets and preventing the spillage of violence into their own homes and into ours".

But both Palestinians and Jordanians reject the idea of a confederation, dismissing it as an Israeli ploy to prevent the creation of an independent Palestinian state. [complete article]

Most Palestinians killed in Israeli raids were civilians, Amnesty says
By Donald Macintyre, The Independent, May 24, 2007

More than 320 civilians were among a threefold increase in the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces last year, according to Amnesty International. The human rights group's 2007 report says that over half of the more than 650 Palestinians killed in 2006 were civilians, 120 of them children and young people under 18. Amnesty defines civilians, "as people that are reasonably supposed never to have been involved in armed operations".

While Amnesty said that dozens of Palestinians were killed in the West Bank it pointed out that most of the increase resulted from aerial and artillery bombardments in Gaza after the abduction of the Israeli corporal Gilad Shalit in late June and in response to increased Qassam rocket fire on Israel. These included, for example, the shelling of a house in the northern town of Beit Hanoun which killed 17 members of the Athamneh family.

The report said 21 Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinians militants in the same year, the lowest figure since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000. [complete article]
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Lebanese military threatens to renew assault on camp
By Alia Ibrahim and Ellen Knickmeyer, Washington Post, May 24, 2007

Lebanese army and government officials pledged Wednesday to renew their assault on a Palestinian refugee camp unless an Islamic extremist group barricaded inside surrendered. Such an attack could cause more civilian deaths following what one international human rights agency called indiscriminate fire on the camp of more than 30,000 people in recent days.

An unofficial cease-fire that began Tuesday largely held Wednesday, allowing roughly half of the camp's residents to flee. Doctors inside the camp gave a preliminary estimate of 20 to 30 civilians killed during three days of fighting, in which army tanks and artillery fired scores of rounds into the camp against the heavily armed Fatah al-Islam group. At least 31 troops and an unknown number of Fatah al-Islam fighters have died in the Lebanese military's biggest engagement since the 1975-90 civil war.

Nadim Houry, a Lebanon-based official with Human Rights Watch, faulted the Lebanese army for what he called indiscriminate shelling of the camp and for failing to open a corridor for civilians to get out early on. The army's lack of field intelligence about the camp "cannot be an excuse for shelling indiscriminately," Houry said by telephone from Beirut. "The laws of war are pretty clear about that." [complete article]

See also, Radical Islamist groups thrive among displaced (FT), Fatah Islam leader is Palestinian nationalist, not terrorist, family says (AP), and Vice president denies Syrian hand in Fatah Islam militant group fighting in Lebanon (AP).
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New strategy for war stresses Iraqi politics
By Ann Scott Tyson, Washington Post, May 23, 2007

Top U.S. commanders and diplomats in Iraq are completing a far-reaching campaign plan for a new U.S. strategy, laying out military and political goals and endorsing the selective removal of hardened sectarian actors from Iraq's security forces and government.

The classified plan, scheduled to be finished by May 31, is a joint effort between Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior American general in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. More than half a dozen people with knowledge of the plan discussed its contents, although most asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about it to reporters.

The overarching aim of the plan, which sets goals for the end of this year and the end of 2008, is more political than military: to negotiate settlements between warring factions in Iraq from the national level down to the local level. In essence, it is as much about the political deals needed to defuse a civil war as about the military operations aimed at quelling a complex insurgency, said officials with knowledge of the plan. [complete article]

Comment -- Let's call this plan "C". Then there's plan "H" -- a plan to internationalise the Iraq crisis, as reported to the Guardian's Simon Tisdall by a "former official, who is familiar with administration thinking." Then there's plan "A" -- again, Tisdall was all ears (but none of the analysis he's generally good at, perhaps because what he was being told wouldn't hold up to analysis) when he listened to a US official tell him that "Iran is secretly forging ties with al-Qaida elements and Sunni Arab militias in Iraq in preparation for a summer showdown with coalition forces." Then there's plan "O" -- a covert "black" operation to destabilize the Iranian government whispered to ABC's Blotter. And to round everything off, we have plan "S" -- "the business of supporting the Sunnis anywhere we can against the Shia," according to Seymour Hersh. Put all these plans together and you get a unified approach to the Middle East: C-H-A-O-S.
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What's next in Iraq? Juan Cole interviews Ali A. Allawi
The Chronicle Review, May 25, 2007

Cole: Your book is titled The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace. Many Iraqi government figures have argued against referring to the U.S. presence as an occupation, but you accept this term. In your view, can the U.S. military still accomplish anything positive in Iraq, or is it time for the troops to leave the country? Will the addition of a division or so (25,000 soldiers) for six to nine months really change anything on the ground? What do you think is the attitude by now of Iraqis toward the U.S. troops on the ground?

Allawi: The coalition presence in Iraq is an occupation, even though the fiction is assiduously maintained that the Multi-National Force is there at the specific request of the Iraqi authorities and authorized by an enabling U.N. resolution. All elements of an occupation are there. They include the absence of a governing agreement between the MNF and Iraq, a so-called status of forces agreement; the absolute immunity and extraterritoriality enjoyed by the MNF from any Iraqi laws and directives; the subservience of the Iraqi military command to the MNF in matters of substance; and the existence of Iraqi security institutions, such as the intelligence services and a number of elite military formations, that report to the MNF only.

In addition, the Iraqi government, which is a dysfunctional organism, is dependent on policy initiatives and prescriptions that are generated by foreign advisers and consultants attached to the U.S. Embassy. The U.S. and U.K. ambassadors openly take part in domestic Iraqi politics and have overturned the selection of a democratically nominated prime-ministerial candidate, [Ibra[DisHy]him] Jaafari, when it did not suit their interests. The relationship between the Iraqi government and the U.S. is not between equals. The evidence of a dependency culture is embarrassingly evident. It is an unusual form of an occupation that masquerades as something else. [complete article]
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The six-day war is not over. Today, it brings the spectre of al-Qaida in Gaza
By Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian, May 23, 2007

The Palestinian Authority is in a desperate state, fighters nominally allied with the two main wings of its supposed "unity" government slaying each other on the streets of Gaza. The president's writ does not run; starved by an international embargo - maintained not just by Israel, but by the US and European Union - the society is grappling with deprivation. Those close to it warn that the PA is on the verge of collapse.

That could see Gaza fully transform into what it already resembles: a lawless, failed state, a Somalia on Israel's southern border. The kidnap of Alan Johnston and the Fatah-Hamas feud could be a harbinger of things to come, as warlords and militias slug it out ever more lethally. Some warn that into this vacuum could step those angels of death, al-Qaida, ready to mount a third intifada bloodier than anything Israelis have ever witnessed. "You're too late," says former EU mediator Alastair Crooke, "al-Qaida's already there."

Until now, Hamas has held the Islamist franchise in Gaza, fending off al-Qaida attempts to come on to its turf. But the latter is gradually acquiring a toehold, with the appearance of new groupings which give off the strong whiff of Bin Laden. The current violence in Lebanon, where a Palestinian group linked to al-Qaida is waging war from the refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared, is a warning of Gaza's future. [complete article]
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The seventh day
By David Remnick, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007

Nowhere has revisionist history played a more crucial role in the political and moral consciousness of a nation than in Israel. The state came into being in 1948, and, almost immediately, its prehistory –– the origins of Zionist ideology, the behavior of the British during the Mandate period, and, critically, the relationship with the Other, the Palestinian Arabs -- became matter for schoolbooks, journalism, military indoctrination, scholarship, and public rhetoric. The founding generation that had come to Palestine and then fought what it called its war of independence against Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and other hostile neighbors was now in charge of its own story. To the victor goes the narrative. As in any fledgling state, that narrative tended to be set down in the most glorious terms -- history as if written by a Hebrew-speaking Parson Weems. For a while, it was as if even the most basic facts could be wished out of existence. An entire group could be made invisible. "There was no such thing as Palestinians," Golda Meir said in 1969.

It was not until the nineteen-eighties, after the opening of various state archives and the coming of age of a generation more disillusioned and less beholden to the old myths than the founders, that Israeli scholars began to confront some inconvenient facts. The most important of the Israeli New Historians was Benny Morris, a leftist (at the time) who had taken part in the disastrous Lebanon war both as a soldier and as a reporter, and who then went to jail rather than complete reserve duty in the West Bank during the first Palestinian intifada. In 1987, the year the intifada erupted, Morris published "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949," in which he demolished a cherished Israeli notion: that the three-quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs who fled their villages during and after the war did so voluntarily and at the behest of their own leaders, who promised they could soon return. Instead, Morris made clear, a large number of the Palestinians were expelled by Israeli military leaders (including the young Yitzhak Rabin), and many others fled out of fear after hearing about the killings and the destruction of homes in nearby villages.

Most of the New Historians did their doctoral work abroad, which gave them a chance to question the narrative they had grown up with. And, though they were never a cohesive school, personally or ideologically, their work did come in a kind of wave that challenged traditional Israeli historiography. [complete article]
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U.S. foreign lobbying, terrorism influencing post-9/11 U.S. military aid and human rights
Center for Public Integrity, May 22, 2007

Lobbying by foreign governments and concerns over terrorism have dramatically shifted U.S. military assistance programs in the post-9/11 era, according to a year-long investigation by the Center for Public Integrity’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

The change in priorities often came at the cost of human rights and fiscal accountability, according to "Collateral Damage," which makes public for the first time a comprehensive accounting of the 50 percent increase in U.S. military aid since the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The Center investigation found that controversial U.S. allies recruited into the global war on terror, such as Pakistan, Indonesia and Djibouti, received billions in additional, new military aid, often times with little oversight by Congress. In some countries, human rights have suffered as authoritarian regimes are rewarded for their strategic and political importance. [complete article]
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The original sin
By Danny Rubinstein, Haaretz, May 22, 2007

In countless speeches, media interviews and street-corner conversations, Palestinians have been asking one another: How did we get to this low point? The headlines in Gaza that are on everyone's tongue say: "Israel is killing us from the air, and Hamas and Fatah are killing us on the ground."

And the question that goes along with the situation is why do we deserve this?

Without a doubt, a series of reasons - political, economic, social and others - have brought these troubles down on the Palestinians. However, the direct cause of what is happening now in the Gaza Strip is that the traditional Palestinian leadership (i.e. the top echelon of Fatah) was not prepared to transfer authority to the elected Hamas leadership.

Many helped the Fatah leadership persist in its refusal to share rule with Hamas; this applies to all those who imposed a boycott on the Hamas government and the national unity government, including Israel, most of the Arab regimes and nearly the entire international community. All of them, rightly or not, tried and are still trying to help Fatah while trying to suppress Hamas.

In the meantime, the result is bringing Gaza closer to Somalia. [complete article]
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Iraq: the slimiest benchmark
By Tony Karon, Rootless Cosmopolitan, May 20, 2007

The art of political hegemony is achieved when a narrow group of people is able to convince a wider society that the group's own, narrow interests, in fact, represent the general interest or the "greater good." Nowhere is there currently a more visible (if artless) example of such a pursuit of hegemony than in Washington's efforts to get Iraq’s politicians to pass the oil law drafted under U.S. tutelage.

For months, now, we've heard the Bush Administration -- and many leading Democrats -- scolding the Iraqis over their lack of progress towards national reconciliation. And the most concrete litmus test cited for establishing Iraqi bona fides appears to be the passing of the draft oil law, which is currently stalled in the legislature and facing growing opposition in Iraq. Washington is not hiding its belief that passing of the oil law a primary test for the viability of the Maliki government. But in the great Rove-ian tradition of Orwellian political communication, the Bush Administration is certainly camouflaging its significance: An oil law whose primary beneficiaries appear to be the major U.S. oil companies has become, in Rove-speak, the foundation-stone of national reconciliation in Iraq -- the U.S. media for the most part dutifully parrots the idea that the purpose of the law is to ensure an equitable distribution of oil revenues between Iraq's regions, defined as they are by ethnicity and sect. [complete article]
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After the surge
By David Ignatius, Washington Post, May 22, 2007

President Bush and his senior military and foreign policy advisers are beginning to discuss a "post-surge" strategy for Iraq that they hope could gain bipartisan political support. The new policy would focus on training and advising Iraqi troops rather than the broader goal of achieving a political reconciliation in Iraq, which senior officials recognize may be unachievable within the time available.

The revamped policy, as outlined by senior administration officials, would be premised on the idea that, as the current surge of U.S. troops succeeds in reducing sectarian violence, America's role will be increasingly to help prepare the Iraqi military to take greater responsibility for securing the country.

"Sectarian violence is not a problem we can fix," said one senior official. "The Iraqi government needs to show that it can take control of the capital." U.S. officials offer a somber evaluation of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: His Shiite-dominated government is weak and sectarian, but they have concluded that, going forward, there is no practical alternative.

The new policy would seek to anchor future Iraqi security in a regional structure that would be a continuation of the "neighbors" talks begun this month at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. To make that structure work, the administration is talking with Iran and Syria in what officials hope will become a serious dialogue about how to stabilize Iraq.

The post-surge policy would, in many ways, track the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report, which senior administration officials say the president now supports. It also reflects the administration's recognition that, given political realities in Washington, some policy adjustments must be made. The goal is an approach that would have sufficient bipartisan support so it could be sustained even after the Bush administration leaves office in early 2009. [complete article]
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Looking beyond the limits
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi, Asia Times, May 22, 2007

With the mounting troubles in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington's new realism, reflected in the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) report, is to defer any dream of regime change and, instead, engage Tehran's ruling clergy over stability in Iraq and the whole Persian Gulf region.

Six months later, the Bush administration is finally practicing the recommendations of the ISG, hoping to achieve tangible benefits by holding direct talks led by its seasoned, Farsi-speaking diplomat, Chester Crocker, who was once the US's consul in the southern Iranian city of Khoramshahr.

This is indeed good news for the Iraqi government, which has formally requested the meeting, confirming yet again Iran's influence in Iraq. "The US is a major player and so is Iran, and there will be room for some substantial discussions for the stability of Iraq," Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari stated. At an Iraq security summit in Egypt last month, Zebari warned against a premature withdrawal of US forces, cautioning that the question of a timetable depends on the preparedness of Iraqi forces to take on the responsibility of maintaining security for the whole country. [complete article]

See also, The U.S.-Iranian duel enters a new phase (Patrick Seale).
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Across the divide
By Anne Barnard, Boston Globe, May 20, 2007

Not only does Iran, as the world's largest majority-Shi'ite country, have an urgent interest in combating extremists and easing Sunni suspicions of resurgent Shi'ism in Iraq. Iran also sees an opportunity to reassert its leadership of the Muslim world. To edge out Sunni extremists, Iran wants to seize back the mantle of global jihad from Al Qaeda and the Sunni militant groups in Iraq who have attracted angry young Muslims from around the world, stealing the thunder of Khomeini's vow to export Iran's 1979 revolution.

Iran wants to dominate the Middle East in a more traditional political sense, too; it wants recognition as a burgeoning regional power, a power to be consulted on diplomatic and economic issues. And in a broader effort to increase its international power and prestige through public diplomacy, Iran aspires to win admirers as far away as Africa and Indonesia -- to emerge not only as a Muslim power but as a Third World leader.

"The reason Iranians are investing so much [in ecumenical outreach] is not religious; it's a key strategic interest," said Vali Nasr, a senior adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam will Shape the Future."

"Iran is making a new bid to be the hegemon of the region," Nasr said. "The more influence and support you have beyond your borders, the more legitimate your power is." [complete article]
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Lebanese Army and Islamists battle for 2nd day
By Hassan M. Fattah, New York Times, May 22, 2007

Lebanese tanks and artillery pounded a Palestinian refugee camp in this northern Lebanese city for the second straight day on Monday, battling members of a radical Islamist group and raising concerns for thousands trapped inside.

Government officials said at least 60 people had been killed -- 30 soldiers, 15 militants and 15 civilians — in the fighting that began when a police raid on bank robbers early Sunday escalated into one of Lebanon's most significant security crises since the end of the civil war in 1990.

The militant group, Fatah al Islam, which is thought to have links to Al Qaeda, fired antiaircraft guns and mortars and had night vision goggles and other sophisticated equipment. The Lebanese Army does not have such gear.

Lebanese television stations reported that among the dead militants were men from Bangladesh, Yemen and other Arab countries, although the reports could not be confirmed. Security officials said some of the men wore explosive belts used by suicide bombers. [complete article]

See also, Lebanon confronts a fierce adversary (WP).

New details emerge on shadowy Fatah Islam group underlining reach outside Lebanon
AP, May 21, 2007

The fugitive leader of the shadowy militant group Fatah Islam openly embraces Osama bin Laden and has recruited a group of Arab fighters to carry out attacks around the region.

The little that is known about Shaker al-Absi has raised concerns that he is building an al-Qaida-style branch in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr el-Bared — a potentially explosive new element in already volatile Lebanon.

But so far, he has not gained the reach or strength of militants like former al-Qaida in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Western intelligence and local officials say. [complete article]

Palestinian factions offer to help fight Fatah al-Islam
By Mirella Hodeib, Daily Star, May 22, 2007

Representatives of the main Palestinian factions in Lebanon held talks with Premier Fouad Siniora Monday, offering their help in fighting Islamic militants currently engaging the Lebanese Army in its harshest battle since the Civil War. "The decision to enter Palestinian refugee camps is a purely Lebanese concern, but doing so seems to be a difficult endeavor because the lives of innocent civilians will be put at risk," the representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon, Abbas Zaki, said following the meeting.

The government is debating whether to send the army into the Nahr al-Bared camp, where the militant Fatah al-Islam group is headquartered.

Zaki said Siniora informed the delegation "he was keen on having civilians inside of Nahr al-Bared saved from any harm." He said the Lebanese Army protected "not only the Lebanese but also the Palestinians."

Zaki added that "ordinary" Palestinians ought not to be drawn into the matter "because they, as much as the Lebanese, consider Fatah al-Islam a dangerous terrorist group that threatens their safety."

"It's important that both Lebanese and Palestinians try to overcome the memory of deadly conflicts of the past in order to build more healthy ties based on mutual respect," he said.

In a related development, Hamas political chief Khaled Meshaal called Siniora Monday to urge him to "protect Palestinian as well as Lebanese souls" inside the Nahr al-Bared camp. [complete article]

See also, Fatah commander vents fury at 'gang of criminals' with 'external agenda' (Daily Star).
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Lebanon's antiheroes
By Dahr Jamail, Truth Dig, May 21, 2007

"The history of liberty is a history of resistance." —Woodrow T. Wilson

"We rely on Hezbollah and these other countries which are helping us now because it’s all we have," Abu Khalil, an unemployed construction worker injured by bomb shrapnel during last summer's war in Lebanon, told me. As we stood talking in the warm spring sun outside his largely destroyed village of Aita Ech Chaab, a few hundred yards from Lebanon's southern border, he added, "And we rely on Hezbollah to protect us again from the next Israeli aggression, because our own government cannot and will not do that job."

In its savage 34-day assault on Lebanon, the Israeli government had hoped to knock down precisely that sentiment. One of the stated aims of the war, in which more than a thousand Lebanese and more than 40 Israelis were killed, was to turn the Lebanese against Hezbollah for having triggered the conflict. An ironic assumption considering that the creation of Hezbollah was a direct response to an earlier Israeli attack.

Formed in 1982 to resist the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, Hezbollah became a political entity in 1985. As a sworn enemy of staunch U.S. ally Israel, it has been labeled a "terrorist organization" by Washington. The sustained propaganda and bellicose posturing of the U.S. government regarding the outfit have kept most Americans ignorant of its true nature and of the fact that a large number of Lebanese are currently aligning with Hezbollah in a bid to thwart the policy of global hegemony being pushed by the Bush administration in Lebanon. [complete article]
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Palestine's human insecurity: a Gaza report
By Mient Jan Faber and Mary Kaldor, Open Democracy, May 21, 2007

To enter Gaza from Israel you have to cross at Eretz where the Israelis have erected a huge new terminal made of glass, steel and Jerusalem stone (it is actually 1.7 km inside Palestinian territory - even at the moment of withdrawal from Gaza in August 2005, the Israelis couldn't resist taking a little bit extra). To get inside the terminal compound, you show your passport at a barrier, then cross a big empty space and enter the terminal. In a glass booth, a pretty Israeli soldier sits high above you, asks severely what you plan to do, and checks your name in the computer.

Once through passport control, you follow arrows through several gates that close behind you before the one in front opens. There is nobody to be seen. You come to several turnstiles but only one has a green light. You pass through a corridor with high wire on each side and a steel corrugated roof, then through more turnstiles until you reach an enclosed room with walls on all sides. For a moment you think you must have followed the wrong arrow but all the turnstiles have closed behind you and you can't go back.

There is a not a soul to be seen. You feel all the walls but they seem completely impregnable. And then, mysteriously, one wall slides open. You are through to yet another wired corridor and through yet more turnstiles until, recognisably, you are in a Palestinian corridor with concrete walls and a canvas roof. Suddenly there are people talking very loudly. On the way, you pass two very dirty toilets - the squatting sort. At the end of the corridor there are two small booths - one for women and one for men - where your names are written down by hand in a big book.

Returning is even worse. But the point is made. This, moreover, is how it is experienced by a foreigner: it is far, far worse for Palestinians. The crossing is only one example of the daily harassment and humiliation, the fear and intimidation, which are the consequence of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Very few Palestinians actually succeed in crossing - the names of those who manage the journey each day can all be handwritten on half a page of the book. Among the names on the day we crossed were most of the new (post-Mecca agreement) Palestinian cabinet including the president, Mahmoud Abbas. Permission for cars to cross is almost impossible to obtain and so many Palestinians we saw were dragging bags and trolleys through the long corridors. The loss of dignity is etched on people's faces. [complete article]
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Secret U.S. plot to kill Al-Sadr
By Patrick Cockburn, The Independent, May 21, 2007

The US Army tried to kill or capture Muqtada al-Sadr, the widely revered Shia cleric, after luring him to peace negotiations at a house in the holy city of Najaf, which it then attacked, according to a senior Iraqi government official.

The revelation of this extraordinary plot, which would probably have provoked an uprising by outraged Shia if it had succeeded, has left a legacy of bitter distrust in the mind of Mr Sadr for which the US and its allies in Iraq may still be paying. "I believe that particular incident made Muqtada lose any confidence or trust in the [US-led] coalition and made him really wild," the Iraqi National Security Adviser Dr Mowaffaq Rubai'e told The Independent in an interview. It is not known who gave the orders for the attempt on Mr Sadr but it is one of a series of ill-considered and politically explosive US actions in Iraq since the invasion. [complete article]

See also, Mehdi Army forges fragile truce with rival Badr Organization

Edging their way into Sadr City
By Ann Scott Tyson, Washington Post, May 21, 2007

Commanders say they intend to use political negotiations to gain peaceful entry into the district, bringing with them Iraqi forces and reconstruction projects. U.S. officials hope "to take Sadr City without a shot fired," said Maj. Gen. Joseph F. Fil Jr., the senior U.S. general overseeing Baghdad.

But negotiations have had setbacks, with key players shot or intimidated. Farris, the lead American officer in the talks, was evacuated from Iraq and is recovering after being shot in the leg May 3 in a different part of Baghdad, his spokesman said last week.

If political avenues are exhausted, the U.S. military has formulated other options, including plans for a wholesale clearing operation in Sadr City that would require a much larger force, but commanders stress that this is a last resort.

"A second Fallujah plan exists, but we don't want to execute it," a military officer in Baghdad said, referring to the U.S. military offensive in November 2004 to retake the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah in Iraq's western Anbar province. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak with reporters. [complete article]
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Dozens slain as Lebanese Army fights Islamists
By Fattah M. Hassan and Nadi Bakri, New York Times, May 21, 2007

Fierce clashes erupted between Lebanese Army soldiers and Islamic militants in the vicinity of a Palestinian refugee camp here on Sunday, leaving 22 Lebanese soldiers and 17 militants dead and dozens injured in one of the most significant challenges to the army since the end of Lebanon's bloody civil war.

The confrontation with the Islamist group, Fatah al-Islam, raised fears of a wider battle to rout militants in the rest of Lebanon's 12 refugee camps, where radical Islam has been gaining in recent years. That, in turn, raised the possibility of a deadly conclusion to the crisis, placing strains on the embattled government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

While anxious not to seem weak in the face of the militant challenge, military experts say, the government and the military also want to avoid any scenes that might draw comparisons to the Israeli attacks on Palestinian camps in the West Bank and Gaza.

Many of the complex crosscurrents of Lebanon's politics were on display in the crisis. The army, under an agreement with the Palestinian leadership and Arab countries, was not allowed to enter the camp. Lebanese citizens, who hold the Palestinians responsible for sparking the civil war in 1975, cheered the army on the streets of Tripoli and outside the camp. [complete article]

Comment -- The timing of the clashes between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam, strongly suggests a connection with US-French-British push for a UN Security Council resolution calling for the establishment of a tribunal to try suspects in the 2005 murder of a former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri and 22 others. Even so, the claim by Lebanon's national police commander Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, that the Islamist group is an "imitation al-Qaida, a 'Made in Syria' one," is not really credible. In the only detailed account about the group that I've seen, the group's founder, Shakir al-Abssi, is described as having solid terror credentials as a former associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. And since an Al Qaeda affiliate is hardly likely to care whether or not a tribunal is established, the question remains, why would the clashes happen now?

It's worth remembering that back in March, Seymour Hersh reported that associates of the Siniora government itself were apparently offering support to Fatah al-Islam and similar groups:
American, European, and Arab officials I spoke to told me that the Siniora government and its allies had allowed some aid to end up in the hands of emerging Sunni radical groups in northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley, and around Palestinian refugee camps in the south. These groups, though small, are seen as a buffer to Hezbollah; at the same time, their ideological ties are with Al Qaeda.

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

Alastair Crooke, who spent nearly thirty years in MI6, the British intelligence service, and now works for Conflicts Forum, a think tank in Beirut, told me, "The Lebanese government is opening space for these people to come in. It could be very dangerous." Crooke said that one Sunni extremist group, Fatah al-Islam, had splintered from its pro-Syrian parent group, Fatah al-Intifada, in the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp, in northern Lebanon. Its membership at the time was less than two hundred. "I was told that within twenty-four hours they were being offered weapons and money by people presenting themselves as representatives of the Lebanese government's interests—presumably to take on Hezbollah," Crooke said.
Perhaps the most plausible explanation for the timing of the clashes is that the pro-tribunal factions want to link political opposition with terrorism. Instead of addressing the criticism that the tribunal undermines Lebanese sovereignty, the advocates of the tribunal would like to frame the issue as simply tribunal vs. terrorism.
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U.S. about-face gives Israel green light for Syria talks
By Ze'ev Schiff, Haaretz, May 21, 2007

The Bush administration has changed its position regarding a possible receptive Israeli response to the calls of Syria's President Bashar Assad for peace talks.

The American change of heart is accompanied by several preconditions. Washington emphasized that Israel is, of course, entitled to discuss the future of the Golan Heights, security arrangements and peace with Syria. But Israel should insist on not agreeing to any negotiations, not even indirectly, regarding the United States' positions, and also not about the future of Lebanon.

The new American message says that in possible talks with Syria, there are three "cards," or main issues. The first is the Golan Heights card, and this is a matter for Syria and Israel to decide.

The two other cards are Lebanon and the Washington's policies. Israel has been told that it is not in its interest to make promises to the Syrians regarding the way the U.S. will behave. This is a matter to be dealt with only by the U.S. and the Bush administration. Furthermore, Israel was told that the Lebanese question cannot be on the table of negotiations between Syria and Israel. [complete article]
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Israel decides to intensify attacks in Gaza as Palestinian factions reach truce
Daily Star, May 21, 2007

Rival Palestinian factions agreed on Sunday to end all hostilities, calling an end to about 10 days of intensive fighting in the Gaza Strip, the head of the Egyptian delegation of mediators announced.

The deal between Fatah and Hamas factions cements a ceasefire struck on Saturday that has largely held. "We have managed by the efforts of all honest people to restore matters to where they were" before the figting erupted this month, Burhan Hammad, the Egyptian delegation head, said.

The previous four ceasefires agreed on last week quickly fell apart as factional fighting erupted a few hours after the agreement had been reached. [complete article]

8 dead as IAF strikes Gaza home of Hamas lawmaker
By Avi Issacharoff, Amos Harel, and Barak Ravid, Haaretz, May 21, 2007

The Israel Air Force fired missiles at the Gaza home of a Hamas lawmaker Sunday evening, leaving at least eight Palestinians dead, hospital officials reported. At least four of the eight dead were civilians.

The home belonged to Khalil al-Haya, a Hamas representative in the Palestinian parliament. The IAF missile hit a room used as a meeting place for the extended family, relatives said. Al-Haya was lightly wounded in the attack.

Seven of those killed were members of al-Haya's family, ages 16 to 60. At least 13 people were hurt in the attack.

Following the attack, Israel Defense Forces sources said that the attack had not been an attempt to assassinate al-Haya. They said the IAF had fired at Hamas militants who had been outside the house. IDF sources maintain that only three of the eight Palestinians killed in the attack had been civilians, and the remaining five had been militants active in the Hamas military wing.

Among the dead were al-Haya's 60-year-old father, Nimer al-Haya, and his sixteen-year-old relative Mohammed al-Haya. [complete article]

Hamas, Fatah in the West Bank sat out this round of factional fighting
AP, May 20, 2007

The contrast between the two Palestinian territories, separated by Israel, couldn't have been starker in the past week: while Hamas and Fatah gunmen in Gaza waged ferocious street battles, not a single shot was fired in the West Bank.

The reasons for the calm in the West Bank? Fatah gunmen there decided to sit out this round, in part because of an internal rift in the movement, while Israel's military presence kept Hamas militants underground. [complete article]
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The six-day war, forty years on
By Hazem Saghieh, Open Democracy, May 18, 2007

In June 2007 the Arab world will mark a bitter anniversary in its modern history, namely the passing of forty years since the six-day war with Israel. For the Arabs, their decisive defeat in June 1967 occupies a very special, if not unique place in their region's post-independence era. Perhaps this is because the event was laden with significance - political, cultural, economic and of course military - in a way that was unprecedented at the time. Indeed, one might go so far as to call it the first defining moment of the modern Arab world.

By any standards the Arabs' defeat in the war of 1948 was a momentous event, leading as it did to the establishment of the state of Israel. But the effect of the 1967 defeat was to confirm what had begun in 1948, consolidating Israel's position in a way that has gone largely unchallenged ever since. Even the Yom Kippur/Ramadan war of October 1973, which Arab regimes sought to depict as a success which redressed the iniquity of their defeat six years earlier, did little of the kind.

The war of 1967 exposed the true nature of Arab governments whose legitimacy rested on their stated aim of liberating Palestine. This goal was in turn ostensibly part of a wider radical anti-colonialist agenda, which sought to sweep away so-called reactionary regimes and bring about a social transformation in the interests of the oppressed masses. Both Gamal Abdel Nasser's regime in Egypt and the Ba'athist government in Syria had such pretensions - and it is worth recalling that Nasser had carved out a place for himself in Arab hearts and minds unrivalled by anyone else either before or since. [complete article]
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Baghdad's theater of war
By Ernesto Londono, Washington Post, May 21, 2007

"The Intensive Care Unit," a one-act play, satirizes the country's ruined state. Cast members -- university students and recent graduates -- also portray a broken-hearted lover, a poet without a muse, an actor with no stage and a man hunched over from frantically searching for his lost ID. There's also a sweeper, a theater director, an Iraqi who wants to be a Westerner, a bully and The Authority, a stoic man in a long black coat to whom they all turn for guidance.

The cast includes Sunnis, Shiites and a Christian. The actors are unpaid and most are unemployed. Performances are held only during the day, because the city turns into a ghost town after dark. There is no entrance fee. Audience members, most of whom are fellow actors or friends of cast members, are frisked for weapons and explosives as they enter.

Despite the long odds and perils, the actors say, there's nowhere they'd rather be than onstage.

"What we have is love of theater," the play's director, Kahil Khalid, said one day, standing in the darkened and dusty lobby of the once-grand theater. "If we wanted money, we would go looting." [complete article]
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Check Quick WiC Picks

For the coming week (until May 26) be sure to check "Quick Wic Picks" -- the news digest on the right -- for regular updates. Other postings will be less frequent while my Internet access is limited during an overseas trip. -- PW
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Iraq's Sadr overhauls his tactics
By Sudarsan Raghavan, Washington Post, May 20, 2007

The movement of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has embarked on one of its most dramatic tactical shifts since the beginning of the war.

The 33-year-old populist is reaching out to a broad array of Sunni leaders, from politicians to insurgents, and purging extremist members of his Mahdi Army militia who target Sunnis. Sadr's political followers are distancing themselves from the fragile Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which is widely criticized as corrupt, inefficient and biased in favor of Iraq's majority Shiites. And moderates are taking up key roles in Sadr's movement, professing to be less anti-American and more nationalist as they seek to improve Sadr's image and position him in the middle of Iraq's ideological spectrum.

"We want to aim the guns against the occupation and al-Qaeda, not between Iraqis," Ahmed Shaibani, 37, a cleric who leads Sadr's newly formed reconciliation committee, said as he sat inside Sadr's heavily guarded compound here.

Sadr controls the second-biggest armed force in Iraq, after the U.S. military, and 30 parliamentary seats -- enough power to influence political decision-making and dash U.S. hopes for stability. The cleric withdrew his six ministers from Iraq's cabinet last month, leaving the movement more free to challenge the government.

"Our retreating from the government is one way to show we are trying to work for the welfare of Iraq and not only for the welfare of Shiites," said Salah al-Obaidi, a senior aide to Sadr. He said the time was "not mature yet" to form a bloc that could challenge Maliki, who came to power largely because of Sadr's support.

In recasting himself, the cleric is responding to popular frustration, a widening Sunni-Shiite rift and political inertia, conditions he helped create. The shift is as much a reaction to U.S. efforts to rein him in as it is an admission of unfulfilled visions. His strategy exposes the strengths and weaknesses of his movement as it pushes for U.S. troops to leave and competes with its Shiite rivals in the contest to shape a new Iraq. [complete article]

Comment -- Ever since Moqtada al-Sadr first gained Western media attention, he has been regarded in many quarters as a political upstart whose ambitions did not deserve to be taken completely seriously. But the fact that he seemed to come out of nowhere said a great deal more about America's ignorance of Iraq before the invasion than it said about Sadr's political significance. For important background on his emergence, see Maliki and Sadr, by Conflicts Forum's Baghdad correspondent.
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Influx of Al Qaeda, money into Pakistan is seen
By Greg Miller, Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2007

A major CIA effort launched last year to hunt down Osama bin Laden has produced no significant leads on his whereabouts, but has helped track an alarming increase in the movement of Al Qaeda operatives and money into Pakistan's tribal territories, according to senior U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the operation.

In one of the most troubling trends, U.S. officials said that Al Qaeda's command base in Pakistan is increasingly being funded by cash coming out of Iraq, where the terrorist network's operatives are raising substantial sums from donations to the anti-American insurgency as well as kidnappings of wealthy Iraqis and other criminal activity.

The influx of money has bolstered Al Qaeda's leadership ranks at a time when the core command is regrouping and reasserting influence over its far-flung network. The trend also signals a reversal in the traditional flow of Al Qaeda funds, with the network's leadership surviving to a large extent on money coming in from its most profitable franchise, rather than distributing funds from headquarters to distant cells.

Al Qaeda's efforts were aided, intelligence officials said, by Pakistan's withdrawal in September of tens of thousands of troops from the tribal areas along the Afghanistan border where Bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, are believed to be hiding. [complete article]
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U.S. pays Pakistan to fight terror, but patrols ebb
By David E. Sanger and David Rhode, New York Times, May 20, 2007

The United States is continuing to make large payments of roughly $1 billion a year to Pakistan for what it calls reimbursements to the country's military for conducting counterterrorism efforts along the border with Afghanistan, even though Pakistan's president decided eight months ago to slash patrols through the area where Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters are most active.

The monthly payments, called coalition support funds, are not widely advertised. Buried in public budget numbers, the payments are intended to reimburse Pakistan's military for the cost of the operations. So far, Pakistan has received more than $5.6 billion under the program over five years, more than half of the total aid the United States has sent to the country since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, not counting covert funds.

Some American military officials in the region have recommended that the money be tied to Pakistan's performance in pursuing Al Qaeda and keeping the Taliban from gaining a haven from which to attack the government of Afghanistan. American officials have been surprised by the speed at which both organizations have gained strength in the past year. [complete article]
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