Arab foreign ministers slowly convene for ‘urgent’ meeting on Gaza

AFP reports: Arab foreign ministers are to meet in Cairo on Monday to discuss the escalating conflict between Hamas militants in Gaza and Israel which has already killed more than 120 Palestinians, a diplomat said.

Kuwait, which holds the rotating leadership of the Arab League headquartered in the Egyptian capital, had demanded the “urgent” meeting, the diplomat told AFP on Saturday.

There has been no coordinated Arab response to the conflict which erupted on Tuesday when Israel launched waves of air strikes against Gaza aimed at halting rocket fire across the border.

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Assad expresses respect for the West and contempt for Arabs and Hamas

The Lebanese Al-Akhbar English interviewed Bashar al-Assad:

Assad is bitter. “Not one Arab official has contacted us with a plan for mediation or for an Arab solution,” he says. The Arabs, he says, were always only an echo of their Western “masters,” if not worse.

The Syrian president adds that the West, despite all its flaws, “Always dealt with us more honorably than some Arabs.” Kofi Annan was honest and resigned, he remarks, while his Arab aides were not.

The conversation moves to Hamas when the president is asked about the reports regarding Meshaal’s visit to Tehran, and whether Damascus, specifically the presidential palace, would be his next stop. But Assad is keen on clarifying everything in this regard, ending all equivocation.

First, Assad says that the Muslim Brotherhood, for 80 years, has been known for its opportunism and betrayal, but stresses that Damascus did not treat Hamas in the beginning as being part of the international Islamist organization. “The Europeans would come to us and ask what Hamas was doing here, and we would say that it was a resistance movement,” the Syrian president says, adding that only that capacity made Syria welcome and sponsor Hamas.

Assad says, “When the crisis began, [Hamas officials] claimed that they gave us advice. This is a lie. Who are they to give Syria advice? Then they said that we asked for their help, which is also not true. What business do they have in internal Syrian affairs?”

Later, the president of the World Federation of Muslim Scholars, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, made his insulting statements about Syria. Assad says, “Yes, we demanded that they take a stance. A while later, they came and said that they spoke with Qaradawi. We said that those who want to take a political stance should do so publicly. What value does a stance have if taken in closed rooms?”

Estrangement between Hamas and the Syrian regime ensued. Assad holds that Hamas ultimately decided to abandon resistance and to fully merge with the Muslim Brotherhood. He adds, “This was not the first time they had betrayed us. It happened before in 2007 and 2009. Their history is one of treachery and betrayal.” Assad then wished “someone would persuade them to return to being a resistance movement,” but says that he doubts this will happen. “Hamas has sided against Syria from day one. They have made their choice,” he adds.

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Video: Arab League meeting in Iraq shows deep divisions over Syria

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Syria’s Bashar Assad says he won’t step aside

Atlantic Wire: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delivered a defiant televised address on Tuesday saying that he will not step down and will not institute new democratic reforms, insisting that unrest in his country is the work of a foreign conspiracy. According to Al-Jazeera’s translations, Assad said that there are no real revolutionaries in his country, just terrorists carrying out a plan that was devised “tens of years ago” to divide Arab countries. Assad also claimed that he still had the support of Syrians and he will only leave office when it is “by the will of the people.”

During the rare 90 minute address, his first speech to the nation in more than six months, Assad also criticized other Arab League governments, which suspended Syria from the League and sent a team of monitors to attempt to oversee a peace plan. Assad says that Arab monarchies telling Syria how to institute democracy is “like a doctor who smokes and recommends to his patient to give up smoking while he, the doctor, has a cigarette in his mouth.”

Assad continued to insist that demonstrations taking place in Syria are merely the work of “terrorists” and “thieves” and that he will continue to hit them with “an iron fist.” However, he claims that “there are no orders for anyone to open fire on any citizen,” despite reports by the U.N. and opposition leaders that well over 5,000 Syrians have been killed by the military since the unrest began last March.

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Syria’s protesters are on their own

Brian Whitaker writes: The Arab League’s much-heralded meeting to review the “progress” of its monitoring operation in Syria came and went on Sunday with barely a whimper. A few more monitors will be sent but unless Syria agrees to an extension, which seems unlikely, the mission will end on 19 January with the presentation of a report.

It’s difficult to see where the league can go from there, except by admitting failure and passing its files to the United Nations.

When the Assad regime accepted the league’s peace plan last month, after weeks of prevarication, it agreed to end the violence against peaceful protests, withdraw the army from towns, release political prisoners and start a dialogue with the opposition. The ill-prepared monitors were then sent in to assess its compliance.

The regime’s insincerity about this was never in much doubt. Apart from some token gestures it has made no real effort to comply, and the killings and arrests have continued. At the same time, though, the presence of monitors does seem to have emboldened the protesters and helped to keep Syria in the headlines.

Despite all that, the failure of the Arab League’s initiative may be preferable to its success. Had there been more progress, the result would have been protracted talks about political “reform”.

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Inside Syria: Has the Arab League failed in Syria?

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In Syria, another Friday, another Damascus bomb

The Daily Telegraph reports: At least 25 people were reportedly killed or wounded after a suicide bomber blew himself up in central Damascus on Friday, the second such attack on the Syrian capital in a fortnight.

The bomb was detonated at a set of traffic lights in the historic district of al-Midan, just south of Damascus’s ancient walled city, state television reported.

Video footage indicated that a police bus had borne the brunt of the blast. Reduced to a shell, its seats were soaked in blood and covered in shards of glass.

The television station claimed that the majority of the casualties were civilians, saying that the attack took place “in a heavily populated working-class neighbourhood near a school”. More than 46 people were also wounded in the attack, it added.

There was no independent confirmation of the number of fatalities. The regime was quick to blame the attack on “terrorists”, which it says have been at the forefront of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that erupted last March.

The attack came exactly a fortnight after two booby-trapped cars, allegedly driven by suicide bombers, exploded in front of government intelligence buildings in Damascus on December 23rd, killing 44 people.

Friday’s attack, like the one before it, coincided with mass protests called to demand Mr Assad’s overthrow and opposition officials claimed the blast was planned by the government to distract attention from the demonstrations.

Protests after noon prayers on Fridays have traditionally drawn the largest turnouts of the uprising, and organisers said they expected hundreds of thousands to take to the streets.

Once again one needs to ask: whose interests appear to be getting served by these bombings?

The regime claims it is not being challenged by a popular uprising but by “terrorists” — low and behold we get a universally recognized demonstration of terrorists at work. Not only that, but both performances have occurred during the period in which the audience includes Arab League observers present in Syria.

And since Friday is the easiest day on which mass protests can be organized, how could bombings on that day possibly serve the interests of the protesters? The bombers seem to be more interested in providing protesters with an incentive to avoid the streets and stay at home.

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Inside Syria – Is the Arab League mission doomed to fail?

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Arab body says monitors should quit Syria promptly

Reuters reports: An Arab League advisory body called on Sunday for the immediate withdrawal of the organization’s monitoring mission in Syria, saying it was allowing Damascus to cover up continued violence and abuses.

The Arab League has sent a small team to Syria to check whether President Bashar al-Assad is keeping his promise to end a crackdown on a nine-month uprising against his rule.

The observer mission has already stirred controversy. Rights groups have reported continued deaths in clashes and tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to show the observers the extent of their anger.

The Sudanese head of the mission also infuriated some observers by suggesting he was reassured by first impressions of Homs, one of the main centers of unrest.

The Arab Parliament, an 88-member advisory committee of delegates from each of the League’s member states, on Sunday said the violence was continuing to claim many victims.

“For this to happen in the presence of Arab monitors has roused the anger of Arab people and negates the purpose of sending a fact-finding mission,” the organization’s chairman Ali al-Salem al-Dekbas said.

“This is giving the Syrian regime an Arab cover for continuing its inhumane actions under the eyes and ears of the Arab League,” he said.

The Arab Parliament was the first body to recommend freezing Syria’s membership in the organization in response to Assad’s crackdown.

An Arab League official, commenting on the parliament’s statement, told Reuters it was too early to judge the mission’s success, saying it was scheduled to remain in Syria for a month and that more monitors were on their way.

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Activists hold mass rallies across Syria

The New York Times reports: Tens, and possibly hundreds, of thousands of people defied a continuing government crackdown to fill the streets of several Syrian cities on Friday, intent on showing visiting monitors from the Arab League the extent of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad.

As thousands marched in Idlib, Homs, Hama and in the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, violence flared at several of the rallies. By day’s end, activist groups said that more than two dozen people had been killed by security forces. The large crowds, while not unprecedented, underscored the resilience of the protest movement despite United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 people have died since opposition to the government galvanized in March.

A protester in Dara’a, who reported huge demonstrations, said: “We want to show the Arabs and the world that we are peaceful protesters, not criminals or armed gangs. The coming days and weeks will prove our statements, not the regime’s story.”

The government’s supporters also held rallies, according to witnesses and the Syrian state news agency, SANA, which posted photographs of large gatherings in Aleppo and Damascus. The news agency said the protesters were “demanding the Arab League observer mission to be credible and professional in conveying the facts of what the terrorist groups are perpetrating.”

The arrival of the observers has been one of the most closely watched developments in the nine-month-old Syrian conflict. For days this week, their role was heavily criticized by opposition activists, who complained about the paltry number of observers and about the mission’s leader, a former Sudanese general. The military intelligence branch he oversaw has been accused of crimes by human rights groups.

Many feared the mission was another stalling tactic by the government. Even so, everyone seemed to want a minute of the observers’ time.

By week’s end, after four hectic days of visits, the observers seemed to have ushered in a new phase of the conflict, or at the very least, altered its dynamic.

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Arab League approves Syria sanctions

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Armed groups on the rise is Syria as fear of civil war grows

The New York Times reports: For the second day in a row, deserters from the Syrian Army carried out attacks on symbols of the Assad government’s centers of power, targeting the youth offices of the ruling Baath Party on Thursday after firing rocket-propelled grenades on a military intelligence base on Wednesday, activists said.

The attacks, along with fraying relations among Syria’s religious communities, growing international pressure and a relentless crackdown, prompted Russia, Syria’s closest ally, to say that the country was moving closer to a civil war.

The attacks may have been more symbolic than effective, but could mark the increased ability of a growing number of defectors to publicize their exploits. Attacks on government installations — in the southern town of Dara’a and the central city of Homs, for instance — have been reported since the start of the uprising.

The attacks themselves paled before the bloodiest episodes of Syria’s last uprising in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Then, insurgents stormed the office of the Aleppo Artillery School, killing 32 cadets. It was unclear whether anyone was killed or wounded in these attacks, but the constituency of armed strikes and the bold choice of targets has heightened the profile of Syria’s armed insurgency.

The Syrian government did not mention either attack, which activists reported, citing the accounts of local residents. But even without a firm picture of any damage, the attacks were, at a minimum, indicative of determination on the part of military defectors in the face of a crackdown that the United Nations says has killed more than 3,500 people.

Tony Karon writes: [While] the regime is unable to crush the uprising, the opposition still appears to lack the power to topple the regime. The core of Assad’s military remains intact, and willing to carry out the regime’s plan to shoot its way out of the crisis. In the major cities, much of the Sunni urban middle class has remained on the sidelines, while Assad maintains a substantial support base primarily among Syria’s Allawite and Christian minorities, many of whom accept the regime’s portrayal of the opposition as a sectarian Sunni lynch mob.

To the extent that Assad’s repression has pushed the opposition towards an increasingly militarized response, that actually reinforces the regime’s narrative that Syria is in the throes of a sectarian civil war, with Assad casting himself as the protector of Allawites and Christians. On that basis, the regime also appears to have divided the region, with Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen — countries with significant Shi’ite populations, and in the case of Iraq, substantial Iranian influence — having declined to back the original Arab League suspension of Syria. Also, many key leaders of Christian communities in other Arab countries appear to have come out in support of Assad.

Assad can also count on solid backing from Russia, for whom Assad’s Syria is a key geostrategic asset because it provides the Russian navy’s only Mediterranean port, and also from Iran, for which Syria has been the key Arab ally.

But other regional players are raising their pressure on Damascus. The Arab League, with Turkey in attendance, on Wednesday gave Syria three (more) days to act on a deal it claimed to have accepted two weeks ago — but ignored on the ground — to halt repression, withdraw its army from restive towns, and accept Arab monitors. The League suspended Syria’s membership, and sanctions should Damascus fail to comply. Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin reported that last-minute diplomacy by Russia and Iran averted harsher and more immediate measures by the League.

Turkey had a more menacing message ahead of the summit, with officials warning that Syria would “pay a heavy price” for continue killing of its “oppressed people”, and threatening to cut off electrical supplies following an attack on its embassy in Damascus by a pro-Assad mob. Officials in Ankara have begun to speak openly about creating a “buffer zone” inside Syria where it could protect refugees from the crackdown without having to admit them to Turkish territory. That, of course, would mean sending Turkish troops into Syria, and might presage a territorial breakup of Syria into rebel- and regime-controlled areas. But Turkey is waiting for international authorization to take such a step. “It seems out of the question for us to do that on our own,” said an adviser to President Abdullah Gul.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once counted Assad as a personal friend, is now sending a message that the Syrian leader can’t be trusted. “No one any longer expects [Assad's regime] to meet the expectations of the people and of the international community,” he said Tuesday. “Our wish is that the Assad regime, which is now on a knife edge, does not enter this road of no return, which leads to the edge of the abyss.”

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Syria: Arab League suspension threat illegal

Al Jazeera reports: Syria’s foreign minister has condemned the Arab League’s threat to suspend the country over its crackdown on protests, saying the move would be “illegal” and a “dangerous step”.

“The suspension of the Arab League membership is illegal,” Walid al-Muallem told a press conference in Damascus on Monday.

Al-Muallem also criticised the Cairo-based regional bloc’s relations with the United States, calling the US an “unofficial member” of the league.

“The Arab League said it worked for stopping the violence in Syria and said the US is not a member of the Arab League… but they are an unofficial member,” he said.

Al-Muallem added that he was confident Russia and China, who have rejected calls for tougher international action against Damascus, would not change their stance on Syria at the UN Security Council.

The foreign minister also apologised for attacks on foreign diplomatic missions over the weekend. Government supporters raided the Qatari and Saudi embassies in Damascus on Saturday night. On Sunday, the Turkish embassy and consulates were attacked.

The New York Times reports: Turkey sent planes to evacuate its diplomats’ families from Syria on Sunday after a night of attacks on foreign embassies in Damascus, the capital. The events seemed sure to deepen Syria’s most pronounced isolation of the four decades of Assad family rule.

Several thousand Syrians attacked the embassies and consulates of Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and France on Saturday evening, shortly after the Arab League announced its surprising decision to suspend Syria’s membership for failing to end the bloody crackdown on antigovernment protesters.

Turkey’s evacuation, and denunciations of the attacks by other countries, set the stage for a tumultuous week in the uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which began in March.

The Arab League has invited Syrian opposition figures to Cairo on Tuesday in what seems to be a bid to close the ranks of an unwieldy group. If Syria does not relent in its crackdown, which the United Nations says has killed more than 3,500 people, the suspension will take effect on Wednesday.

The Los Angeles Times notes the growing influence of Qatar which currently chairs the Arab League.

Little Qatar, far away in the Persian Gulf, doesn’t have the physical or military presence of Turkey. But it does have outsized ambitions, diplomatic dexterity, extreme wealth — and the populist force of its Al Jazeera network. Qatar stoked the early days of the Arab Spring and became a leading and sometimes controversial voice for government change in Libya, a role it has now assumed in Syria.

The emirate’s leaders have keenly understood — and certainly benefited from — the changing dynamics reshaping an Arab world unbound from autocrats and suppression.

Qatar is capitalizing on, and Assad is in danger of succumbing to, the most transformative moment in the region since the doomed specter of pan-Arabism of the 1960s. The powers that made up the core of that world have steadily diminished over the years while the oil nations of the Persian Gulf have assumed larger roles in diplomacy, finance and media.

In some respects, Qatar’s influence is eclipsing even that of traditional powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Riyadh has been accused of hypocrisy in its vociferous support for dissidents in Syria while simultaneously helping to crush protests in neighboring Bahrain. Egypt, meanwhile, is consumed with its own political turmoil in the wake of President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.

Qatar’s ambitions are often larger than regional conflicts and dalliances. To the envy of its neighbors, Doha won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup soccer championship, based partly on an audacious promise to install high-tech air conditioning to cool stadiums during the sweltering gulf summer.

The emirate is adroit at playing all sides: It is home to a U.S. military base, yet it keeps close to the passions of the Arab street through Al Jazeera and maintains cordial relations with Iran, the regional giant just across the gulf.

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Inside Story – Can the Arab League end bloodshed in Syria?

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Arab League votes to suspend Syria over crackdown

The New York Times reports: The Arab League moved to suspend Syria’s membership on Saturday, accusing the government of President Bashar al-Assad of defying an agreement to stop the violent repression of demonstrators, and it threatened economic and political sanctions if he did not comply.

In acting against Syria, a core member of the Arab League, the group took another bold step beyond what had been a long tradition of avoiding controversy. Alarmed by the region-spanning upheaval of the Arab Spring demonstrations, league delegates said they were trying to head off another factional war like Libya’s, in which the group took the unprecedented step of approving international intervention.

Syria’s formal suspension is to start in four days, offering what senior Arab League officials described as a last chance for Mr. Assad to carry out a peace agreement his government had accepted. The plan called for the Syrian government to halt the violence directed toward civilians, to withdraw all its security forces from civilian areas and to release tens of thousands of political prisoners.

Throughout the meeting, the Syrian ambassador, Youssef Ahmed, kept shouting that the move was illegal because such a decision had to be unanimous, participants said. He later repeated the claim on state television and accused the league of being “subordinate to American and Western agendas.” Nabil el-Araby, the Arab League’s secretary general, pushed the initiative to a vote, with 18 of the league’s 22 members supporting the action, Yemen and Lebanon opposing, Iraq abstaining and Syria not voting at all.

“We are hoping for a daring move from Syria to halt the violence and to begin a real dialogue toward real reform,” said Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani, the prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar, as well as the current league chairman.

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Arab League parliament urges Syria suspension

Al Jazeera reports:

An Arab parliamentary body has called for the suspension of the membership of Syria and Yemen in the Arab League in a bid to put pressure on the two countries to heed popular demands for reforms.

The call was put out on Tuesday following a committee meeting of the Arab Parliament, a body to which members of the Arab League send representatives.

The head of the committee, which met at the Arab League’s headquarters in Cairo, said that “mass slaughter” was taking place in Syria and Yemen and called on the league to deal with the countries in a similar way to how it dealt with Libya.

After a crackdown by the government of Muammar Gaddafi on pro-democracy protesters, the Arab League suspended Libya’s Arab League membership in February.

“We call on the Arab states to freeze the membership of Damascus in the Arab League and urge the Arab leaders to take more active stands in that regard if the Syrian leadership did not … stop violence and withdraw its security forces and army … and form a national unity government from all political powers,” said Tawfik Abdallah of the Arab Parliamentarians Political Affairs and National Security Committee.

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Top ten ways that Libya 2011 is not Iraq 2003

Juan Cole writes:

Here are the differences between George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the current United Nations action in Libya:

1. The action in Libya was authorized by the United Nations Security Council. That in Iraq was not. By the UN Charter, military action after 1945 should either come as self-defense or with UNSC authorization. Most countries in the world are signatories to the charter and bound by its provisions.

2. The Libyan people had risen up and thrown off the Qaddafi regime, with some 80-90 percent of the country having gone out of his hands before he started having tank commanders fire shells into peaceful crowds. It was this vast majority of the Libyan people that demanded the UN no-fly zone. In 2002-3 there was no similar popular movement against Saddam Hussein.

3. There was an ongoing massacre of civilians, and the threat of more such massacres in Benghazi, by the Qaddafi regime, which precipitated the UNSC resolution. Although the Saddam Hussein regime had massacred people in the 1980s and early 1990s, nothing was going on in 2002-2003 that would have required international intervention.

4. The Arab League urged the UNSC to take action against the Qaddafi regime, and in many ways precipitated Resolution 1973. The Arab League met in 2002 and expressed opposition to a war on Iraq. (Reports of Arab League backtracking on Sunday were incorrect, based on a remark of outgoing Secretary-General Amr Moussa that criticized the taking out of anti-aircraft batteries. The Arab League reaffirmed Sunday and Moussa agreed Monday that the No-Fly Zone is what it wants).

5. None of the United Nations allies envisages landing troops on the ground, nor does the UNSC authorize it. Iraq was invaded by land forces. [Continue reading...]

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The fight for Libya

The Guardian reports:

Britain, France and the United States have agreed that Nato will take over the military command of the no-fly zone over Libya in a move which represents a setback for Nicolas Sarkozy, who had hoped to diminish the role of the alliance.

Barack Obama agreed in separate phone calls with Sarkozy and David Cameron that political oversight would be handed to a separate body consisting of members of the coalition, including Arab countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates that are outside Nato.

The agreement, which will have to be put be to all 28 members of Nato, indicates that the alliance has resolved one of its most serious disagreements. Countries had been splintering as they tried to comply with Obama’s demand that Washington be relieved of command of the air campaign.

Sarkozy moved to portray the agreement as a Franco-American success. In a statement the Élysée Palace said: “The two presidents have come to an agreement on the way to use the command structures of Nato to support the coalition.”

But the agreement represents a blow for Sarkozy, who had tried to persuade Britain set up an Anglo-French command for all military operations in Libya. This was strongly resisted by Britain, who said Nato was best placed to run the military operations.

The New York Times reports:

With his brutal military assault on civilians, and his rantings about spiked Nescafé, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi handed many leaders across the Arab world what had otherwise eluded them: A chance to side with the people while deflecting attention from their own citizens’ call for democracy, political analysts around the region said. And they really do not like him.

Even Arab leaders most critical of the United States’ intervention in the Middle East have reluctantly united behind the military intervention in Libya. That has given a boost to Arab leaders in places like Saudi Arabia who are at the same moment working to silence political opposition in their backyards.

“The Arab street reaction to the Western attacks on Libya has been warm,” said Hilal Khasan, chairman of the department of political studies at American University of Beirut. “This is not Iraq.”

It is another disorienting twist in this season of upheaval in the Arab world. A fierce resentment about a legacy of Western intervention, fed by historical memories of colonialism and present-day anger at the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, has given way to a belief that the Libyan rebels desperately needed help that only the West could fully provide. The apparent hypocrisy of repressive Arab leaders endorsing military action against a repressive Qaddafi government did not escape many Arabs.

“I see hypocrisy in everything the Arab leaders do, and I’m talking as a person of the Arab world,” said Randa Habib, a political commentator in Jordan. “I wanted them to take such a decision. There were too many people being killed in Libya. That man is cuckoo.”

This new and unpredictable tone seemed to partly explain the flip-flopping of Amr Moussa, the longtime secretary general of the Arab League who plans to run for the Egyptian presidency. Last week, the Arab League asked the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone in Libya, largely on humanitarian grounds. On Sunday, Mr. Moussa said military action there had gone too far. But he repeated his contention that the no-fly zone could not have been imposed were it not for the Arab League.

“We respect the no-fly zone, and there is no conflict with it,” he said, in a clarification that was seen in Egypt, given his political ambitions, as an overt acknowledgment of the public support for the actions in Libya. A day earlier Mr. Moussa had appeared to back away from support for the military intervention.

“In a way, the Arab League is trying to follow the sentiment of the Arab street,” said Shafeeq Ghabra, a political science professor at Kuwait University. “The street is now more in control. If we ever had an Arab street, this is the moment.”

Simon Tisdall writes:

Little is known for certain about the make-up and political outlook of the rebels’ Transitional National Council, which controls Benghazi and other parts of “liberated” Libya. Even its name is in doubt. It also goes by the title of “revolutionary council” and other variations. Eleven members of the council have been named. The identity of 20 others has been withheld, ostensibly for security reasons.

Mustafa Abdul Jalil, a former Gaddafi justice minister who chairs the council, has been condemned as a traitor by his old boss, who put a $400,000 (£240,000) bounty on his head. In an interview with the Daily Beast, Jalil asked the international community “to recognise our council as the sole representative of the Libyan people”. Among the western powers, only France has done so. But Britain, the EU and the Arab League are supportive. And Hillary Clinton met a council representative in Paris last week to discuss how the US could help.

Jalil claimed the council has grassroot support. It derived its legitimacy, he said, from local councils that were organised by revolutionaries in every village and city. “We are striving for a new, democratic, civil Libya, led by democratic and civil government [and] a multi-party system,” he said. ” Members of the council were chosen with no regard to their political views or leaning.”

‘This is not wholly true,” said Venetia Rainey, writing in the First Post online magazine. “The key players of the council, at least those we know about, all hail from the north-eastern Harabi confederation of tribes,” she said. This included Jalil and Major General Abdul Fattah Younis, a former Gaddafi interior minister who also defected to the rebels.

“Although the tribes’ influence has waned … Libya’s tribal divides linger on. Their stance [the Harabi] is not necessarily representative of the wider Libyan attitude to Gaddafi,” Rainey said.

Western tribes loyal to Gaddafi, such as the Hasoony, had flourished at the expense of the Harabi and other easterners, the Wall Street Journal reported from Benghazi. “Early in his reign, Gaddafi targeted Libya’s powerful eastern tribes, redistributing their land to others and awarding them few influential posts … The weaker tribes’ empowerment [following the revolt] helps explain why Gaddafi’s supporters appear to be clinging to power more desperately” than counterparts in Egypt or Tunisia.

“These guys know they aren’t going to fare very well if the regime goes down,” Jason Pack, a Libya scholar at Oxford university, told the journal.

Eastern Libya also has a different religious tradition from the rest of the country and this was reflected in the rebels’ transitional council, argued Andy Stone, a columnist on the Nolan Chart website. “This is no Solidarnosc movement,” he said (referring to the Polish trade union-led anti-communist movement).

“The [Libyan] revolt was started on February 15-17 by the group called the National Conference of the Libyan Opposition [an umbrella organisation founded in London in 2005]. The protests had a clear fundamentalist religious motivation and were convened to commemorate the 2006 Danish cartoons protests which had been particularly violent in Benghazi.” (The 2006 protests had turned into an anti-Gaddafi demonstration).

Stone went on to claim that much of the eastern Libyan opposition to Gaddafi was rooted in the region’s strong Islamist tradition which resulted, for example, in a large numbers of eastern Libyan jihadis taking part in the Iraq war (second in number only to Saudis) and support for the al-Qaida-affiliated, anti-Gaddafi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, many of whose members had fought in Afghanistan.

“It is these same religiously and ideologically trained east Libyans who are now armed and arrayed against Gaddafi. Gaddafi’s claim that all his opponents are members of al-Qaida is overblown, but also not very far off in regard to their sympathies. Anyone claiming the eastern Libyans are standing for secular, liberal values needs to overcome a huge burden of proof,” Stone wrote.

A former British diplomat familiar with Libya said these and other claims that Islamists dominated the rebel movement in the east were exaggerated. Most of the population of Benghazi and other cities were political and religious moderates primarily motivated by opposition to Gaddafi, the diplomat said.

Chris McGreal witnesses the advance, retreat and panicked dispersal of young fighters on the outskirts of Ajdabiya:

The day’s events around Ajdabiya provided further evidence that the rebels stand little hope of defeating Gaddafi’s forces militarily on their own and are relying on coalition air strikes to destroy, or at least greatly weaken, the ability of the government’s army to fight.

Some of the rebels mistake the air strikes for their own victories. They dance on the burned out tanks, wave V for victory signs and declare that they are beating Gaddafi.

But the revolutionaries outside Ajdabiya only advanced because they expected to move into the town with little resistance.

The rebel leadership frankly admits that it cannot defeat the government militarily on its own and acknowledges that if it cannot take a relatively small town unaided, its forces are unlikely to be able to seize the better defended cities further west – leaving France, Britain and the US to decide if they are going to fight the insurgents’ war for them by clearing the way for the revolutionaries to advance.

Alongside the military campaign, the rebels’ political leadership says it intends to encourage fresh popular uprisings in cities still under Gaddafi’s control. But it may find it hard to persuade Libyans to take the risk unless they have the assurance that rebel forces are close enough to come to their rescue.

Members of the revolutionary council have already said they fear that the result of a limited air campaign will be military stalemate and a divided Libya. For that reason, they have called for an escalation of the air strikes to wipe out Gaddafi’s army as a fighting force.

The chaos outside Ajdabiya holds another concern for ordinary Libyans in areas now claimed as liberated territory by the revolutionary council.

There is growing alarm in Benghazi in particular at growing disorder by young men with guns who have claimed the authority for themselves to set up arbitrary road blocks, order people around and fire their weapons for the fun of it.

Even in combat situations, they do not obey orders, shooting at will and wasting ammunition. Rebels manning an anti-aircraft gun were probably responsible for shooting down the revolutionaries’ only fighter plane on Saturday.

Gen Abdul Fatteh Younis, who recently defected from Gaddafi’s military and now commands the rebel forces, was interviewed by the Irish Times:

“This man is stubborn. He will not leave the country or surrender easily . . . The situation is very complicated at the moment and I hope it will not continue for long but all the evidence suggests that Gadafy is trying to make it last even longer.” Younis talks of rumours that Gadafy has left the capital Tripoli and is now in southern Libya, and adds that there is “some evidence” that he has withdrawn money, gold and foreign currency from the central bank. He speculates that Gadafy might use this to establish himself in Chad or Niger, from where he would launch military operations in an attempt to return.

“I’m calling on the international community to realise that the sooner he is gone, the better it is for everybody, for the peace of the world,” he says.

Some opposition figures hope that the US and European coalition strikes against Gadafy’s air defences will trigger more senior defections and weaken Gadafy’s grip on power. Younis seems less certain.

“You cannot bet on something you do not have in your own hands,” he says.

“Gadafy’s strategy now is that he is effectively holding families of some of his cadre hostage in his compound so he can control their movements and make sure they will not defect or leave him. He is keeping them as human shields. He is a shrewd man in this way.”

Younis claims the rebel fighters are succeeding in pushing regime forces west, though eyewitness accounts from the front yesterday challenge this assertion.

“The no-fly zone is very helpful to allow the opposition forces come together and advance to the west . . to free those areas,” he says. He acknowledges that militarily his forces – a mix of fellow defectors and masses of untrained volunteers – are little match for the regime but argues that continuing air strikes on army installations will tip the balance in the rebels’ favour because, he insists, they are supported by the majority of Libyans.

“We are asking the international community to finish his security services because once they are gone then the rest will be done by the Libyan people.”

Younis talks of having between 15-20,000 fighters. “With that large number of revolutionaries, even with the light weapons they have, we can manage to achieve our goals, especially after air strikes help prepare the ground.”

Asked whether the rebels have been receiving foreign military assistance in the form of weapons, Younis replies: “So far we did not receive anything. A lot of countries promised to help us but they haven’t.”

Channel 4 News (UK) reports:

Six villagers in a field on the outskirts of Benghazi were shot and injured when a US helicopter landed to rescue a crew member from the crashed jet, reports Lindsey Hilsum.

Channel 4 News International Editor, Lindsey Hilsum, says that the villagers were shot when a US helicopter picked up the pilot who had ejected from the F-15E Eagle plane after it experienced a mechanical failure.

The US aircraft crashed on Monday night and was found in a field outside Benghazi and landed in rebel-held territory.

The local Libyans who were injured in the rescue mission are currently in hospital. They are the first confirmed casualities of allied operations, almost four days after operations began. At the time of writing, no one had died as a result of the gunfire.

Babak Dehghanpisheh reports on a second American pilot who ejected from the same F-15E jet:

One of the pilots was picked up by rebel forces near the site of the crash and brought by car to the Fadeel Hotel in Benghazi around 2 a.m., according to a handful of people who said they met with the pilot. It’s unclear why the opposition forces brought the pilot to that particular hotel. Dina Omar, 30, an Egyptian cardiologist who has been volunteering at the rebel frontlines was in the Internet café at the hotel at the time. She heard from the hotel staff that a pilot had been brought in and went to see him in a large suite in the hotel. She saw a man wearing a light brown pilot suit in his early 30s lying down on a couch. “He was feeling insecure and unsafe,” she said. “He did not talk much.”

Omar and two fellow Egyptian medical volunteers offered him coffee, which he refused, they said. He did allow the doctors to check out his right leg, which had a slight contusion. Omar, who speaks fluent English, also offered him some Panadol, which he initially refused, until he saw her take a couple of pills from the same pack. He was concerned that the medical staff were Gaddafi sympathizers and Omar tried to convince him of their real work by showing a phone video she had taken of civilian victims from Saturday’s military assault on Benghazi. The doctors stayed with him until he relaxed and opened up a bit, they said. “After two hours, he started to speak and started to smile,” said Omar. The pilot reportedly confirmed he was American and said he thought the plane had gone down for technical reasons. But he refused to give much personal information or confirm whether there was another pilot with him, the sources said.

Not long after the pilot’s arrival, rebel officials brought him a bouquet of flowers, they said. “He was a very nice guy,” said Ibrahim Ismail, 42, a Libyan businessman who said he met the pilot at the hotel. “He came to free the Libyan people.” As Ismail spoke, a fellow businessman said, “I thought we agreed not talk about this,” indicating that rebel officials were trying to keep the pilot’s stay in Benghazi under wraps. Even though the pilot had a radio with a large aerial, he wanted help communicating with his family. Omar, the doctor, took him up to the hotel’s Internet café and tried to help him arrange a Skype chat which didn’t go through. Someone eventually brought the pilot a Thuraya satellite phone which he used to call his family. The witnesses at the hotel say the pilot left in a civilian car in the early morning hours.

This video allegedly shows Gaddafi forces “bombarding eastern regions of Libya” (LibyaFeb17.com)

“A city held by any organized rioters will be attacked generally in the same manner as one held by enemy troops.”

This is not a direction on how to suppress the Libyan uprising handed down from Colonel Gaddafi to his field commanders. It comes from the newly declassified 1945 US military field manual.

The manual provides instructions on how the military should handle civil disturbances in the event that local law enforcement are unable to contain the unrest. Riots and protests are anticipated to be caused by “agitators, racial strife, controversies between employees and employers concerning wages or working conditions, unemployment, lack of housing or food, or other economic or social conditions.”

According to the manual, when necessary, live rounds should be fired directly into a mob (“a crowd whose members, under the stimulus of intense excitement, have lost their sense of reason and respect for law”), aiming low to avoid injuring innocent bystanders. The manual also says: “Bayonets are effective when used against rioters who are able to retreat, but they should not be used against men who are prevented by those behind them from retreating even if they wish to do so.”

(H/t Steven Aftergood)

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