Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Bush spokesman on Gaza:"Let's just take this one day at a time"?!

So sayeth Bush spokesman Gordon Johndroe as Israel's devastation of Gaza continues. Perhaps he's channeling a Condi Rice moment? After the miscarriage of Olmert's 2006 devastation of Lebanon, are these the "birth pangs of a new Middle East"?

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama remains silent while any hopes he might have had of ramping up a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians shrivel in the blaze of the IDF's munitions. Obama spokespeople praise the outgoing Bush administration for sharing with them important information on the ongoing situation. That's cute. As his minions cheerlead on the sidelines, Bush acquiesces in the atrocity of Gaza, and in the process he hands off to Obama a hot war that, along with a deepening recession, guarantees that a new Democratic administration will be launched under perhaps, all things considered, the darkest shadow under which any new administration has ever begun.

Meanwhile, anger toward Israel and the US seethes across the Middle East. Thousands have taken to the streets in Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. The Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, has called upon Muslims worldwide to respond to the ongoing massacre of Gaza's people.

The US hopes to draw down its forces in Iraq, and hopes that the situation there will improve, but suicide bombings and attacks continue apace, and US forces can hardly feel safer as an already angry Iraqi public hears the news of what the US's greatest ally in the Middle East is doing to fellow Arabs in Gaza. Meanwhile, more troops are heading into the bubbling cauldron of Afghanistan, where a resurgent, better organized, Taliban await, their numbers and motivation undoubtedly stoked by the news from Gaza.

A reckoning approaches.

December 31, 2008

On Fourth Day of the Gaza Battle, No End in Sight

JERUSALEM — Israel launched airstrikes against Hamas targets in Gaza for a fourth consecutive day on Tuesday as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called the bombardment “the first of several stages,” suggesting that the conflict was far from resolution.

Israeli aircraft bombed a government compound, buildings linked to the Islamic University and the home of a top Hamas commander in a continued onslaught on Tuesday that left Gaza without electric power, according to residents of the beleaguered enclave.

Gaza residents said Israeli warships in increasing numbers were visible from the enclave’s Mediterranean shoreline, while Israeli tanks and troops massed on its land border. But despite the encirclement, Hamas militants remained defiant, launching 10 rockets into southern Israel on Tuesday. One hit an apartment house in the town of Sderot, injuring one person, witnesses said.

So far in the offensive, more than 350 Palestinians — about 60 of them civilians — have been killed, according to the United Nations. Four Israelis — three civilians and a soldier — have died.

Israeli says its offensive, which began Saturday, is intended to neutralize the threat posed to southern Israel by Hamas rockets. As the airstrikes continued Tuesday, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit told Israel Radio, “There is no room for a cease-fire.”

“The government is determined to remove the threat of fire on the south,” he said, referring to rocket attacks on southern Israel by Hamas forces. “Therefore the Israeli Army must not stop the operation before breaking the will of Palestinians, of Hamas, to continue to fire at Israel.”

At a meeting with President Shimon Peres, Mr. Olmert said the air attacks that began on Saturday were “the first of several stages approved by the security cabinet,” according to Mr. Peres’s office.

“The government is giving the military its full backing and the room for maneuver to achieve the goal set out by the government,” Mr. Olmert said. But it remained uncertain whether Israel would follow the aerial attack with a ground offensive.

The military has created a two-mile war cordon along the Gaza border, with commanders saying that a ground force invasion was a distinct possibility but had not yet been decided upon.

The latest attacks came a day after Israeli jets struck Hamas’s civic institutions, including the Islamic University, the Interior Ministry and a presidential guesthouse. Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Parliament on Monday that his country was waging an “all-out war with Hamas.”

Israel has defined its aims relatively narrowly — the crippling of Hamas’s ability to send rockets into Israel — but has not made clear if it means to topple the leadership of Hamas, which Israel and the United States have branded a terrorist organization.

Hamas sought to cast its fighters as martyrs in a continuing battle against Israel, the lone resisters in a Palestinian population divided between Gaza, where Hamas rules, and the West Bank, which is governed by the rival Fatah organization.

On Monday, Hamas fired more than 70 rockets, including a long-range one into the booming city of Ashdod some 18 miles from Gaza, where it hit a bus stop, killing a woman and injuring two other people. Earlier, a rocket hit nearby Ashkelon, killing an Israeli-Arab construction worker and wounding three others. The other dead Israelis, The Associated Press reported, were a civilian in the Negev Desert and a soldier.

Thousands of Israelis huddled in shelters as the long-range rockets hit streets or open areas late in the night, the most serious display of Hamas’s arsenal since the Israeli assault began.

Residents of Gaza pulled relatives from the rubble of prominent institutions leveled by waves of Israeli F-16 attacks, as hospitals struggled to keep up with the wounded and the dead and doctors scrambled for supplies. Hamas gunmen publicly shot suspected collaborators with Israel; families huddled around battery-powered radios, desperate for news.

Despite the hostilities, around 100 trucks laden with emergency food and medical supplies donated by international bodies awaited permission to enter Gaza to deliver their cargo. At sea, an Israeli naval vessel collided with a small boat carrying Palestinian sympathizers and medical supplies, forcing it to divert to Lebanon.

In Crawford, Tex., a spokesman for President Bush renewed calls on Monday for the parties to reach a cease-fire but said Israel was justified in retaliating against Hamas’s attacks. “Let’s just take this one day at a time,” said the spokesman, Gordon D. Johndroe.

Israel sent in some 40 trucks of humanitarian relief, including blood from Jordan and medicine. Egypt opened its border with Gaza to some similar aid and to allow some of the wounded through.

At Shifa Hospital in Gaza, the director, Dr. Hussein Ashour, said Monday that keeping his patients alive was an enormous challenge. He said there were some 1,500 wounded people distributed among Gaza’s nine hospitals with far too few intensive care units, equipped ambulances and other vital equipment.

Armed Hamas militants in civilian clothes roamed the halls. Asked their function, they said it was to provide security. But there was internal bloodletting under way.

In the fourth-floor orthopedic section, a woman in her late 20s asked a militant to let her see Saleh Hajoj, her 32-year-old husband. She was turned away and left the hospital. Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Hajoj was carried out by young men pretending to transfer him to another ward. As he lay on the stretcher, he was shot in the left side of the head.

Mr. Hajoj, like five others killed at the hospital this way in 24 hours, was accused of collaboration with Israel. He had been in the central prison awaiting trial by Hamas judges; when Israel destroyed the prison on Sunday he and the others were transferred to the hospital. But their trials were short-circuited.

Sobhia Jomaa, a lawyer with the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights, said 115 accused collaborators were in the central prison. None had been executed by Hamas since it took office and their cases were monitored closely.

“The prison provided the sole protection to all of them,” she said. “But once it was bombed, many wanted to take revenge.”

Across the street from the hospital, a mosque where militants often took refuge has been destroyed by Israel, one of five mosques it has hit.

The Hamas television station was taken out by an Israeli missile on Monday and most local radio stations have closed out of fear of suffering the same fate.

Despite an apparent effort to limit the attacks to specific buildings, ordinary Gazans are constantly caught up in the bombing. On Saturday, when dozens of Israeli sorties were made simultaneously, a group of young people, ages 18 to 20, were hit when a missile was aimed at a group of Hamas policemen in the street. According to a statement by the United Nations’ special coordinator, Robert Serry, eight of the young people, emerging from a United Nations training center, were killed instantly and 19 were wounded. Eight of those hurt were in critical condition on Monday. One is awaiting emergency transfer to an Israeli hospital.

Mr. Serry sent Mr. Barak a letter of protest.

In the Jabalya refugee camp on Sunday, an attack on a mosque where militants were hiding also struck a nearby house, killing five girls under the age of 18, Health Ministry officials said.

Meanwhile in Israel, sirens wailed over mostly empty streets in the seaside city of Ashkelon. Storefronts were battered shut.

Families clustered inside the city’s stretches of towering white apartment blocks and single-family houses. Weary of venturing too far outside, they scurried into protected rooms when sirens sounded, listening for the sound of another rocket crashing somewhere in their city.

It is a city that is reluctantly getting used to its status as the front line. “It’s frightening, but what can we do?” asked Chen Hassan, 18, a high school senior. She woke up Monday morning, jolted by the sound of a missile hitting a public library under construction across the street.

The rocket killed the construction worker and wounded several others, Bedouins from the Negev Desert in Israel.

Ethan Bronner reported from Jerusalem, and Taghreed El-Khodary from Gaza; Alan Cowell contributed from London.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

As the IDF's onslaught on Gaza's people continues . . .

The pattern for the response to Israeli overkill such as this in Gaza (which continues into a second day, as the NYT report below shows) has been established firmly over recent years, but especially under Bush. The US will exhort Israel to avoid civilian casualties but will otherwise stand aside (and even cheerlead quietly from the background). The UN General Assembly will call for a halt to violence. The UN Security Council will take no significant action because the US will veto any resolution at all critical of Israel. International outcry will mount, and eventually the Israeli government will decide, "well, OK, that's enough . . . for now" . . . and in the wake of the carnage they may even allow some aid into Gaza and proclaim their reasons just and their spirit humanitarian.

Meanwhile, the American public will note the headlines in their papers or web sites, perhaps shake their heads . . . and then turn the page.

And Mr. Obama will say nothing . . . and in the months to come, will - I suspect, and fear - do next to nothing. And when the next suicide attack is launched by some angry young Muslims either overseas or within our borders, our media commentators will query "why do they hate us?" And some among them will say, "it's because of our freedoms."

December 29, 2008

Israeli Attacks in Gaza Strip Continue for Second Day

GAZA — Israeli airstrikes against Hamas facilities in Gaza continued for a second day on Sunday and the death toll rose to more than 280 as Israel retaliated for rocket fire from the area with its most severe campaign against Palestinian militants in decades.

The Palestinian groups again launched barrages of rockets and mortars into Israel on Sunday, extending their reach further than ever before, and the Israeli government approved the emergency call up of thousands of army reservists in preparation for a possible ground operation.

Speaking before the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the army “will deepen and broaden its actions as needed” and “will continue to act in Gaza.”

Among the 30 or more targets hit Saturday night and early Sunday was the main security compound and prison in Gaza City known as the Saraya; metal workshops throughout Gaza; Hamas military posts; and the house of a chemistry professor from Gaza’s Islamic University. The Hamas-owned Al-Aqsa television station was also struck, as was a mosque that the Israeli military said was housing armed men and was being used as a terrorist operation center.

Palestinian officials said that most of the dead in Gaza were security officers for Hamas, including two senior commanders, and that at least 600 people had been wounded in the attacks.

The prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, said on Sunday that “the patience, determination and stamina” of the residents of Israelis would, in the end, determine the success of the military and diplomatic campaign against Hamas.

Two rockets fell in the vicinity of the major Israeli port city of Ashdod, almost 25 miles north of Gaza, a military spokeswoman said. Others landed in the coastal city of Ashkelon. Several Israelis were lightly wounded by shrapnel. The hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens now within rocket range have been instructed by the authorities to stay close to protected spaces and an emergency has been declared.

Israeli military officials said that the airstrikes, which began on Saturday morning, were the start of what could be days or even months of an effort to force Hamas to end its rocket barrages into southern Israel.

After the initial airstrikes, dozens of rockets were fired into southern Israel sending thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters. One man was killed on Saturday in the town of Netivot, the first death from rocket fire since it intensified a week ago.

A number of governments and international officials, including leaders of Russia, Egypt, the European Union and the United Nations, condemned Israel’s use of force and also called on Hamas to end the rocket fire. But in strong terms, the Bush administration blamed Hamas for the violence and demanded that it stop firing rockets.

Early Sunday morning in New York, the United Nations Security Council issued a statement expressing concern about the escalation of the conflict and calling on both parties for an immediate end to all violence. The statement came after envoys of the 15-member council met for over four hours in a closed session, Reuters reported.

A military operation had been forecast and demanded by Israeli officials for weeks, ever since a rocky cease-fire between Israel and Hamas fully collapsed a week ago, leading again to rocket attacks in large numbers against Israel and isolated Israeli operations here.

Still, there was a shocking quality to Saturday’s attacks, which began in broad daylight as police cadets were graduating, women were shopping at the outdoor market, and children were emerging from school.

The center of Gaza City was a scene of chaotic horror, with rubble everywhere, sirens wailing, and women shrieking as dozens of mutilated bodies were laid out on the pavement and in the lobby of Shifa Hospital so that family members could identify them. The dead included civilians, including several construction workers and at least two children in school uniforms.

By afternoon, shops were shuttered, funerals began and mourning tents were visible on nearly every major street of this densely populated city.

The leader of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniya, said in a statement that “Palestine has never witnessed an uglier massacre.” Later, in a televised speech, he vowed to fight Israel. “We say in all confidence that even if we are hung on the gallows or they make our blood flow in the streets or they tear our bodies apart, we will bow only before God and we will not abandon Palestine,” he said.

In Damascus, Syria, Hamas’s supreme leader, Khaled Meshal, said in an interview with Al Jazeera television that he was calling for a new Palestinian intifada against Israel, including the resumption of suicide attacks within Israel for the first time since 2005. Hamas, he said, had accepted “all the peaceful options, but without results.”

“We wanted to attack military targets while the terrorists were inside the facilities and before Hamas was able to get its rockets out that were stored in some of the targets,” said a top Israeli security official, briefing a group of reporters by telephone on condition of anonymity.

“Right now, we have to hit Hamas hard to stop the launching,” he added. “I don’t see any other way for Hamas to change its behavior. Hamas is not just a terrorist organization. It actually rules Gaza and is well supported by Iran with some of its leadership in Syria.”

Hamas had in recent weeks let it be known that it doubted Israel would engage in a major military undertaking because of its coming elections. But in some ways the elections have made it impossible for officials like Mr. Barak not to react, because the public has grown anxious and angry over the rocket fire, which while causing no recent deaths and few injuries is deeply disturbing for those living near Gaza.

Israeli officials said that anyone linked to the Hamas security structure or government was fair game because Hamas was a terrorist group that sought Israel’s destruction. But with work here increasingly scarce because of an international embargo on Hamas, young men are tempted by the steady work of the police force without necessarily fully accepting the Hamas ideology. One of the biggest tolls on Saturday was at a police cadet graduation ceremony in which 15 people were killed.

Spokesmen for Hamas officials, who have mostly gone underground, called on militants to seek revenge and fight to the last drop of blood. Several compared what was happening to the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, when Israel reacted to the capture and killing of soldiers along its northern border with air raids, followed by a ground attack. Hezbollah is widely viewed as having withstood those assaults and emerged much stronger politically.

The Arab League initially called an emergency meeting for Sunday in Cairo with all the foreign ministers from the member states, but later postponed it to Wednesday to give ministers time to respond.

Governments that dislike Hamas, like Egypt’s, Jordan’s and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, are in a delicate position. They blame Hamas for having taken over Gaza by force 18 months ago in the aftermath of its election victory in the Palestinian Parliament, and they oppose its rocket fire on Israeli towns and communities.

But the sight of scores of Palestinians killed by Israeli warplanes outraged their citizens, and anti-Israel demonstrations broke out across the region.

President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority angrily condemned the Israeli airstrikes. Egypt, worried about possible efforts by Palestinians to enter the country, has set up machine guns along the Gaza border. But on Saturday it temporarily opened the Rafah border crossing in order to allow the wounded to be brought to Egyptian hospitals.

In the West Bank and in some Arab parts of Jerusalem and Israel, Palestinians threw stones, causing some injuries.

Hamas is officially committed to Israel’s destruction, and after it took over Gaza in 2007, it said it would not recognize Israel, honor previous Palestinian Authority commitments to it or end its violence against Israelis.

Israel, backed by the United States, Europe, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, has sought to isolate Hamas by squeezing Gaza economically, a policy that human rights groups condemn as collective punishment. Israel and Egypt, which control routes into and out of Gaza, have blocked nearly all but humanitarian aid from going in.

The result has been the near death of the Gazan economy. While enough food has gone in to avoid starvation, the level of suffering is very high and getting worse each week, especially in recent weeks as Israel closed the routes entirely for about 10 days in reaction to daily rocket fire.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Longish Epitaph for the Bush Presidency

The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin today publishes a broadly ranging piece on the legacy of George W. Bush, with links to many recent essays and reports. Highly recommended as a rather longish epitaph.

Dan Froomkin - Finding the Proper Epitaph

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Architect Of Abu Ghraib

The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan (December 15, 2008) - The Architect Of Abu Ghraib

The blogosphere as well as the MSM are alive with commentary on the US Senate's bipartisan report about the torture conducted under US auspices over the last seven years. There can no longer be reasonable doubt as to where the responsibility lies: in the Oval Office. And recall: this is the same President George W. Bush who repeatedly insisted, for the record, that the United States (for which he also repeatedly asked God's blessing) does not engage in torture. Now Karl Rove is orchestrating a Bush victory lap, planting little info-seedlings that, he must hope, will sprout quickly and thickly enough to provide enough cover for his man George to get out of Dodge with some shred of respectability.

Sorry, "turd blossom" - any chance of that went sailing over George's head along with Muntazir al-Zaydi's size 10's.

And as Andrew Sullivan points out, in contrast to Richard Nixon's felonies, there is no statute of limitations on war crimes. If I were George or one of his honchos, I'd restrict my lifetime travel plans to the lower 48.

A fitting send-off for a failed president

With his last visit to Baghdad, Bush exits, the laughing-stock of Iraq . . . and beyond. IMHO, a fitting end for a disastrous presidency. . . and if not for the hundreds of thousands that his ill-conceived war killed, it would be a suitably comical one as well. I suspect that the reporter - Muntazer al-Zaidi - will be remembered as a hero in Iraq for decades to come.


Iraqi shoe-throwing reporter becomes the talk of Iraq

By Waleed Ibrahim

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush in a supreme insult has suddenly become the talk of Iraq, hailed by marchers as a national hero but blasted by the government as a barbarian.

The little-known Shi'ite reporter, said to have harbored anger against Bush for the thousands of Iraqis who died after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, had previously made headlines only once, when he was briefly kidnapped by unknown gunmen in 2007.

TV reporter Muntazer al-Zaidi remained in detention on Monday, accused by the Iraqi government of a "barbaric act." He would be sent for trial on charges of insulting the Iraqi state, said the prime minister's media advisor, Yasin Majeed.

His employer, independent al-Baghdadiya television, demanded his release and demonstrators rallied for him in Baghdad's Sadr City, in the southern Shi'ite stronghold of Basra and in the holy city of Najaf, where some threw shoes at a U.S. convoy.

"Thanks be to God, Muntazer's act fills Iraqi hearts with pride," his brother, Udai al-Zaidi, told Reuters Television.

"I'm sure many Iraqis want to do what Muntazer did. Muntazer used to say all the orphans whose fathers were killed are because of Bush."

Zaidi shouted "this is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog," at Bush in a news conference he held with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki during a farewell visit to Baghdad on Sunday.

The journalist then flung one shoe at Bush, forcing him to duck, followed by another, which sailed over Bush's head and slammed into the wall behind him. Throwing shoes at someone is the worst possible insult in the Arab world.

Zaidi was dragged struggling and screaming from the room by security guards and could be heard shouting outside while the news conference continued after momentary mayhem.


The government said Zaidi had carried out "a barbaric and ignominious act" that was not fitting of the media's role and demanded an apology from his television station.

Al-Baghdadiya television played endless patriotic music, with Zaidi's face plastered across the screen.

A newscaster solemnly read out a statement calling for his release, "in accordance with the democratic era and the freedom of expression that Iraqis were promised by U.S. authorities."

It said that any harsh measures taken against the reporter would be reminders of the "dictatorial era" that Washington said its forces invaded Iraq to end.

At a university in Baghdad, students appeared to abandon routine classes to talk about Zaidi and his shoe-throwing.

"It was the throw of the century. I believe Bush deserves what happened to him because he has not kept his promises to Iraqis," said Baghdad resident Abu Hussein, 48.

Parliamentary reaction was mixed, with some saying Zaidi chose the wrong venue for his protest. Others cheered.

"Al-Zaidi's shoe is the most famous shoe in the whole world," said Fawzi Akram, a Turkman lawmaker loyal to anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

In Baghdad's Sadr City, a few thousand Sadr supporters staged an anti-Bush march and demanded his immediate release.

Sadrists also rallied in Basra, the southern city that controls Iraq's oil exports, and in Najaf.

In Najaf, demonstrators threw shoes at a passing American convoy and called Bush "cow."

Zaidi, now in his late 20s, spent more than two days blindfolded, after armed men forced him into a car as he walked to work in November 2007. He said at the time that the kidnappers had beaten him until he lost consciousness, and used his necktie to blindfold him.

He never learned the identity of the kidnappers, who questioned him about his work but did not demand a ransom.

Colleagues of Zaidi say he resented President Bush, blaming him for the bloodshed that ravaged Iraq after the invasion. It did not appear that he had lost any close family members during the sectarian killings and insurgency, which in recent months have finally begun to wane.

(Additional reporting by Haidar Kadhim and Wissam Mohammed; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Iraq: the beginning of the end?

Gary Kamiya in today's Salon makes an excellent case for what the US owes the Iraqis in the wake of the devastation we have wrought there, but also speaks of the "beginning of the end." The piece I post/paste below suggests to me that perhaps we ought to take a longer view and borrow a trope from Winston Churchill, who said in 1940, at the end of the Battle of Britain during World War II, that it was not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning. The US mainstream media have declared the Iraq war as all but won, Muqtada al-Sadr as in hiding and his influence waning. The "real war" will now be in Afghanistan.

But this piece provides a signal reminder that the Mahdi Army and their allies still control most of Sadr City, where the population largely support them and revere Muqtada and his family. They're not going anywhere. And as US troops continue to withdraw from Baghdad and Iraq's other cities, the impoverished urban Shiites whom Muqtada represents will likely reassert themselves against the Maliki government, whose ramped-up armed forces will be entrusted with keeping order, but without the levels of US boots-on-the-ground support they've been accustomed to. And, bear in mind, much of the rank-and-file of Maliki's army consists of members of the Badr Organization - the militia of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which not that long ago was fighting pitched battles with the Mahdi Army.

My point is that, despite the crowing in the media, Iraq is being held together right now with the political and military equivalent of duct tape and baling wire.

Baghdad Wall May Signal Trouble as U.S. Fights Iran Surrogates
By Daniel Williams

Dec. 9 (Bloomberg) -- American soldiers call it “Fighting with concrete.”

Unable to stop mortar fire from hostile forces in Baghdad’s Sadr City district, the U.S. last May erected a 15-foot high wall. The concrete slabs separate the U.S.-patrolled southern section from the northern sector, a stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada Al- Sadr.

While the wall has solidified the cease-fire that ended a two-month battle pitting U.S. and Iraqi forces against the Mahdi Army, it has also come to represent a military stalemate. Mahdi Army members, renegade factions and units of Iraqis trained and equipped by Iran continue trying to penetrate the wall to attack U.S. troops and allies, U.S. commanders say.

“The bad guys still try to get in and create problems,” said Capt. Andrew Slack, who commands a U.S. Army company that patrols the area south of the wall.

Sadr City, where 40 percent of the capital’s 5 million people live, remains one of many pieces of unfinished business in Iraq, underscoring the challenge facing President-elect Barack Obama as he seeks to redirect forces to the war in Afghanistan.

Under an agreement reached with the U.S. and approved by the Iraq parliament two weeks ago, U.S. troops, currently numbering 146,000, will pull back into bases next June. A full withdrawal from the country is scheduled no later than the end of 2011.

That may leave Sadr City as a continuing front in the proxy war between the U.S. and Iran.

Maintaining Influence

“The U.S. will still be a player, but Iran will try to maintain its influence, too, including through its allies,” said Matthew Sherman, a former State Department adviser to the Iraqi Interior Ministry and now head of Virginia-based Sherman Consulting International, in a telephone interview.

In the past two years, violence in Iraq has declined as a variety of U.S. enemies suffered setbacks.

Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden’s global terror network, ran afoul of its erstwhile allies, Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority. Sunnis, who earlier spearheaded resistance to the U.S.-led occupation, objected to al-Qaeda’s rampant car and suicide-bomb campaign. Many Sunnis now are more allied with U.S. forces after seeking protection from Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority.

Meanwhile, anti-U.S. Shiite factions came under sustained attack by U.S. and Iraqi Army troops loyal to the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Signs of Turbulence

Yet signs of potential turbulence are everywhere.

On Nov. 15, Al-Sadr called on his Shiite followers to “resist” any effort by the U.S. to remain in Iraq. In a Nov. 3 press conference in Baghdad, Iraq’s vice chief of staff, Gen. Nasier Abadi, said Sunni insurgents were resisting a yearlong U.S. offensive in and around northern town of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city. “This is the main area of military operations,” he said.

A suicide car bomber in Mosul killed eight civilians and wounded four U.S. soldiers in a Dec. 1 attack on a joint U.S.- Iraqi convoy.

Kurds, the other major Iraqi minority, are battling Sunnis and other Iraqi sectarian groups to control Kirkuk, an oil-rich northern city.

“Al-Qaeda in Iraq remains a significant threat, as do Iranian surrogates” and the Mahdi Army, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the U.N. Security Council on Nov. 14. “All retain the intent and capability of carrying out lethal attacks against the Iraqi people.”

Sadr City Weapons

About 80 percent of Sadr City residents live on the Mahdi Army side of the wall. U.S. troops occasionally raid the north side looking for weapons. Between Oct. 20 and Oct. 30, they found material for making roadside bombs in three warehouses. They have also made 11 arrests of Iraqis they suspected belonged to Iranian-trained units.

After the wall was built to put Mahdi Army mortars out of range of Baghdad’s Green Zone, site of al-Maliki’s residence and the U.S. Embassy, it became a barrier to militia members who had previously descended on Jamilla Market, a food wholesale and retail center, to shake down merchants for money, said Capt. Slack, 31.

American troops patrol south of the wall along with Iraqi soldiers, who also occupy posts north of the wall. The Iraqi National Police force was disbanded in Sadr City because it contained Mahdi Army infiltrators.

Army Search

Slack, who is from Cincinnati, said his forces are on the lookout for two new Mahdi Army offshoots, the Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Al-Haq, both containing Iraqis who fled to Iran during last spring’s fighting and then returned to Sadr City.

One night, Slack led a knock-and-search mission through part of Sadr City, going door-to-door in a four-block area just south of the wall.

Soldiers rousted inhabitants from bed and searched cabinets for rifles. “Open up!” soldiers called out in Arabic as they rushed into courtyards. “Hurry,” they added in English, hoping not to give the residents time to hide weapons.

The troops found 17 weapons, mostly AK-47s and old hunting rifles. A masked interpreter checked documents to see if the owners had permits. The presence of U.S. soldiers has given confidence to residents to inform on troublemakers, Slack said.

“That’s the real value of the wall. It helps people feel they can come forward with information, at least to us. They know we’re in charge here,” Slack said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Williams in Baghdad at dwilliams41@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: December 8, 2008 17:00 EST

Monday, December 1, 2008

Bombings continue in Iraq

Is this the shape of what the US will likely be touting as victory in Iraq? It's becoming harder to notice - the reports are increasingly back-paged - but bombings such as these continue, and are likely to do so.

Iraq: bombs kill more than 30 in Baghdad, Mosul

The Associated Press
Monday, December 1, 2008; 8:07 AM

BAGHDAD -- A series of bombs struck U.S. and Iraqi security forces in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul on Monday, killing at least 32 people and wounding dozens more, Iraqi officials said.

The bloody attacks were a grim reminder of the dangers facing Iraqis as they try to take over their own security. The Iraqi parliament last week approved a security pact with the United States that would let the Americans stay in Iraq for three more years to help maintain stability.

At least 16 people were killed and 46 wounded in a nearly simultaneous double bombing near a police academy in eastern Baghdad.

A suicide attacker detonated his explosives vest packed with ball bearings at the entrance to the academy, then a car bomb exploded about 150 yards away, apparently aimed at those responding to the initial blast, the U.S. military said.

The blasts occurred within minutes of each other on Palestine Street, according to police and witnesses.

Bloodied police uniforms and a military boot left by victims were scattered with the crumpled metal hulk of the car bomb on the charred street in the aftermath of the bombing, according to Associated Press Television News footage.

The attacker apparently was a teenage boy whose head was taken to a local hospital, a police officer said. An AP photographer saw the head and confirmed it appeared to be a teenage boy.

Those killed included five policemen and 11 recruits, while the wounded included 11 policemen and 35 recruits, according to police and hospital officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.

The U.S. military initially said the death toll appeared to be about 20 but later said reports indicated six people were killed and 20 wounded.

In Mosul, a suicide car bomber detonated his explosives as a joint U.S.-Iraqi convoy drove by in a crowded commercial area, a police officer said. The officer also declined to be identified for the same reason.

At least 15 people _ most civilians _ were killed and 30 wounded in that attack, the officer said. An official at the morgue where the bodies were taken confirmed the death toll.

The U.S. military said initial reports show eight Iraqi civilians were killed in Monday's attack. It says two U.S. soldiers and 30 Iraqis were wounded.

Conflicting casualty tolls are common in the chaotic aftermath of bombings in Iraq.

Earlier Monday, a senior Defense Ministry official was wounded in a roadside bomb attack that killed one of his bodyguards, Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said.

The blast occurred in the Sulaikh neighborhood, a mainly Sunni area in northern Baghdad.

The wounded official, Maj. Gen. Mudhir al-Mola, is in charge of affairs related to the Sunni guards known as the Sons of Iraq who have joined forces with U.S. troops against al-Qaida in Iraq, according to al-Moussawi.

The move is considered a key factor in the overall decline in Iraq violence.

The Shiite-led government assumed responsibility for the Sunnis in Baghdad this fall.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Israel's Blockade of Gaza continues

The WP reports on a horrifying situation in Gaza. More collective punishment; more anger stoked; more lives being ruined. No comment, of course, from any US representatives. At some point Mr. Obama will have to weigh in. And many across the Arab - and Muslim - world will be waiting and watching . . .

Blockade Forces Closure of U.N. Food Distribution Program in Gaza

By Linda Gradstein
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 14, 2008; 9:59 AM

JERUSALEM, Nov. 14 -- The United Nations has shut down a food distribution program that feeds 750,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip after U.N. officials said their warehouses were empty and could not be restocked because of an Israeli blockade.

On the tenth day of an Israeli closure of Gaza's borders, the area's main power plant also ran out of fuel, and U.N. and other aid officials warned of mounting problems.

"Tomorrow when 20,000 people show up to get their rations, they will be told they have to wait until we can resupply," John Ging, the senior U.N. official in Gaza, said in a telephone interview. "It is unprecedented that the UN is unable to get its supplies in to a population under such obvious distress."

Israeli officials said the closure is a response to ongoing Palestinian rocket and mortar fire from Gaza into Israel.

That continued today. The military wing of Hamas issued a statement that it had shot five longer-range Soviet-made Grad missiles at the Israeli city of Ashkelon. Israeli rescue workers said five rockets landed in Ashkelon but there were no casualties or damage. The Grad has a range of 15 miles. In the past Israel has seen rocket fire on Ashkelon, with its population of 100,000, as an escalation.

Overall at least ten rockets and mortar shells were fired at Israel. One scored a direct hit on a house in the southern town of Sderot and five others landed inside the southern city of Ashkelon. One Israeli was slightly wounded.

Israeli aircraft fired missiles at a target in the northern Gaza Strip, according to an army spokesman, wounding two gunmen.

Since November 4, Israeli troops have killed at least 10 Palestinian gunmen in a series of incidents and Palestinians have fired dozens of rockets and mortars at southern Israel. The back and forth has frayed an already fragile five month old cease-fire between Israel and the militant group Hamas.

The resulting Israeli blockade has disrupted a U.N. program that feeds about half of Gaza's population, said Ging. Food distributed through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency includes flour, oil, rice, sugar and canned meat, and is meant to provide 60 percent of daily caloric needs.

"Many of these families have been subsisting on this ration for years and they are living hand to mouth," Ging said angrily. "This is a disastrous situation and its getting worse and worse. Even during the cease-fire we were prohibited from building up our reserves which could have prevented the current crisis. This is shocking."

European Union External Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner called on Israel to reopen the crossings in keeping with international law which requires that civilians have access to all essential services such as electricity and clean water.

"I am profoundly concerned about the consequences for the Gazan population of the complete closure of all Gaza crossings for deliveries of fuel and basic humanitarian assistance," she told the Reuters news agency.

She said a group of 20 European parliamentarians were also denied entry into Gaza earlier this week.

Israeli defense ministry spokesman Peter Lerner said Israel had planned to open the border crossings yesterday to allow both fuel for the power plant and food aid to enter Gaza. But Israeli intelligence said Palestinian gunmen planned to attack the border crossing and it remained closed. Lerner also rejected Ging's criticism of Israel.

"Instead of blaming Israel, they should be blaming Hamas," he said. "We hope the Palestinains will stop firing rockets and we can get the crossings opened again."

Foreign journalists based in Israel have not been allowed to enter Gaza for the past ten days. The Foreign Press Association has complained to the Israeli government that coverage of Gaza is an essential part of covering the region, but Lerner said no change is expected in the next few days.

"There's no lack of media coverage and we've seen many stories coming out of Gaza in the last week," he said. "Hamas has full responsibility for what is going on in Gaza."

Most of Gaza City has been dark since last night when Gaza's main power plant, which supplies a third of the area's electricity, shut down after it ran out of fuel.

Awani Sawafiri, a 37-old-taxi driver and father of three young children, said the blackout began around 6 p.m. last night. The electricity went back on for a few hours in the middle of the night but went off again at 8 a.m. He said there is also no cooking gas available in Gaza.

"When I look around it looks as though people have gone back in time," he said. "With no electricity more and more people are burning wood to make a fire to cook. The situation is very bad."

What he does have is gas for his taxi, which is being smuggled in from the Egyptian border through underground tunnels. But with the economic situation so dismal, there are few customers and he's not making any money.

Hana Bardawi, who lives in the Shati refugee camp with her seven children, says she is completely dependent on the U.N. aid. Her husband, who is ill, does not work .

"If the U.N. assistance stops, I will have to take my two oldest sons out of university, because I won't be able to afford it," she said. "Now with winter coming we also need jackets and warm clothes for the children."

Palestinian parliament member Jamal Khodari said that 80 percent of Gazans live under the poverty line and the average annual income per capita is two dollars a day.

"This is an illegal collective punishment, he said. "There is a shortage of medicines in the hospitals and the cutting of electricity is further pushing the situation deeper toward a crisis."

Ahmed Abu Hamda, a Palestinian journalist in Gaza, said the Israeli closure was the main talk of Palestinians at Friday prayer in the mosques.

"People just feel hopeless, we don't see any solution to this situation," he said in a telephone interview. "They say, 'what the hell is going on here, I just want to live.'"

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Obama, Rahm Emanuel, and Arab Disillusionment

Time magazine's Middle East blog has published an excellent analysis of the impact of Obama's appointment of Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff (and Tony Karon's piece in The National is also a must-read). My impression is that Obama wanted for that post someone he knew, someone who'd been through the in-fighting wars in Congress and could be counted on to take care of his boss. OK, fine. But from the perspective of reassuring hopeful Arab leaders and citizenries across the Middle East that the new US president would be a "fair broker" in any ongoing peace process, I cannot imagine a worse choice. Emanuel hails from a family with direct involvement in ultra-violent right-wing Zionist movements, including both the Irgun (which perpetrated the terrorist bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1947 and the massacre of Palestinian Arabs at Deir Yassin) and LEHI - aka the Stern Gang, which assassinated the UN diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte around the same time.

For a man embarking on a new presidency that needs to redefine the US's relationship with the Middle East at a critical time, Obama's first major decision represents, not the "change we need," but disappointment and foreboding.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Iraq's non-Muslim minorities left out in the cold

Looks as if Iraq's Christians and other non-Muslim minorities are being left out in the cold. Other reports have noted that in some Christian communities, militias are being formed for self-protection. This new measure coming out of Iraq's parliament can only exacerbate the situation.

And meanwhile, even though the Surge "has worked" (?), violence that no one in the US would deem acceptable here continues in Iraq, with a car bombing that killed 8. It gets mention here at the very end of this story, in sort of the "and in other news from Iraq today . . ." tag-on section.

From the Los Angeles Times

Iraq approves limited minority quotas on provincial councils

Christians and three other religious minorities are to get a total of six seats across three councils, half the 12 seats proposed by the U.N.
By Tina Susman

November 9, 2008

Reporting from Baghdad — Iraqi leaders ratified a bill Saturday giving minorities a quota of seats on provincial governing councils, overriding protests by Christian lawmakers who said they had been cheated.

Christians had demanded that the country's three-member presidency council, which must ratify legislation passed by parliament, veto the bill.

Lawmakers on Monday approved the quota, which gives Christians and three other minorities a total of six seats split among the governing councils in Baghdad, Nineveh and Basra provinces. The United Nations' special representative in Iraq had recommended 12 minority seats, a number Christian legislators had supported.

The three provincial councils have a total of 129 members.

In a statement following Saturday's ratification, the chief of staff for the presidency council, Naseer Ani, said its members had consulted with Vatican representatives and held "extensive discussion" about the bill. They considered the U.N. recommendations but decided to ratify the legislation unchanged out of respect for the parliamentarians' choice, he said.

"This comes as a recognition and respect for the parliament judgment," Ani said.

The presidency council comprises the president, who is a Kurd, and two vice presidents, one a Shiite Muslim and the other a Sunni Arab.

Ani said another bill would be presented in the future to guarantee minority rights.

The new law only governs seats in provincial elections, which are scheduled to take place by Jan. 31. No date has been set for the vote, which is hoped will repair lopsided provincial power structures created by wide-scale boycotts of the 2005 elections.

Younadam Kanna, a leading Christian lawmaker, said Saturday that if the quota were not changed, the community would have "no choice but to boycott the elections." He expressed concerns that without greater representation for minorities on some councils, particularly in Nineveh, they would become caught in the middle of the Kurdish-Arab power struggle raging in that part of the country.

In October, more than 1,000 Christian families fled Mosul, capital of Nineveh, after Arab-Kurdish tensions fueled anti-Christian violence. Christian residents as well as their leaders variously accused Kurds and Arabs of targeting them.

Under the U.N. proposal rejected by the parliament, Christian parties would have been guaranteed three seats on Nineveh's 37-seat provincial council, three on Baghdad's and one on Basra's. Instead they got one seat on each of the three councils. The U.N. also proposed giving Yazidis, another sect, three seats on the Nineveh council, but they got only one. Of the two other groups, Shabaks got one seat in Nineveh, and Sabeans got one in Baghdad, as proposed.

Sunni Arabs are vying for power in the Nineveh region against Kurds, and they generally opposed the quota system on grounds that the minority groups could side with Kurds and bolster Kurdish goals to expand their influence and incorporate Mosul in their semiautonomous Kurdistan region.

In a sign that he wants to limit Kurdish aspirations, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki on Saturday spoke of the need for a "strong federal state" when the national constitution is revamped. A committee has been working for months on a number of amendments to the document, which Maliki said was drafted in haste in 2005.

In a televised speech, Maliki said the amended document, set to be completed by the end of the year, should put security in the central government's hands. "This doesn't mean that the governorates wouldn't have authority over criminal and citizen issues," he said.

This could signal new resistance by the central government to demands from Kurdistan leaders that a referendum be held on expanding the Kurdish region. Kurdish security forces have butted heads with Iraqi security forces over boundary lines separating the region from the rest of Iraq.

The most intense standoff occurred in August and September in the eastern region of Khanaqin, with Iraqi security forces facing down Kurdish trips during an offensive in the region.

Also Saturday, police in western Anbar province said a car bomb killed at least eight people and wounded seven at a checkpoint west of the city of Ramadi. A police official in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, said three of the dead were police manning the checkpoint and the rest were civilians. Seven other civilians were injured, including three who were hospitalized in critical condition.

Susman is a Times staff writer.


Time staff writer Saif Rasheed and special correspondents in Baghdad and Ramadi contributed to this report.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

America's Path to a Black Man as Likely President

Frank Rich has a marvelous essay in today's NYT (I paste it below). I remember very well the movie to which the title refers. Now, very dated; but for the time (1967), quite something. I am old enough to remember very well - from my own childhood and adolescence - when "Negroes" were in the minority in professional sports, and couldn't play at all in the Southeastern Conference, in any sport. (And "Negroes," by the way, was then the "proper" term to use, but I heard the term "nigger" used all the time, even by people of "good families," but certainly by the guys I worked with on construction crews back in high-school and college summer days when I was swinging a pick-axe or operating a jackhammer.) By the time I reached high school, "Afro-American" was becoming the respectable term to be used by forward-thinking whites. Referring to someone as "black" was unheard of, unless you meant to insult someone.

I remember watching Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech live, and the March on Washington . . . and a TV reporter turning to a white onlooker to ask him what he thought, and the onlooker saying (to a national TV audience), "I don't like it. They stink, they smell." (The reporter shrank back, a bit stunned by the obvious racial hostility.)

I could go on and on with the reminiscing . . . but my point is that as a nation the US has made some remarkable strides, and in a relatively short time. But there's still a long way to go, especially (as Rich notes) when it's so visibly obvious that the Republican party as a whole still relies upon its "whiteness" (whether it cares to admit it or not) as a badge of its identity.

November 2, 2008
Op-Ed Columnist

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

AND so: just how far have we come?

As a rough gauge last week, I watched a movie I hadn’t seen since it came out when I was a teenager in 1967. Back then “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was Hollywood’s idea of a stirring call for racial justice. The premise: A young white woman falls madly in love with a black man while visiting the University of Hawaii and brings him home to San Francisco to get her parents’ blessing. Dad, a crusading newspaper publisher, and Mom, a modern art dealer, are wealthy white liberals — Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, no less — so surely there can be no problem. Complications ensue before everyone does the right thing.

Though the film was a box-office smash and received 10 Oscar nominations, even four decades ago it was widely ridiculed as dated by liberal critics. The hero, played by the first black Hollywood superstar, Sidney Poitier, was seen as too perfect and too “white” — an impossibly handsome doctor with Johns Hopkins and Yale on his résumé and a Nobel-worthy career fighting tropical diseases in Africa for the World Health Organization. What couple would not want him as a son-in-law? “He’s so calm and sure of everything,” says his fiancée. “He doesn’t have any tensions in him.” She is confident that every single one of their biracial children will grow up to “be president of the United States and they’ll all have colorful administrations.”

What a strange movie to confront in 2008. As the world knows, Barack Obama’s own white mother and African father met at the University of Hawaii. In “Dreams From My Father,” he even imagines the awkward dinner where his mother introduced her liberal-ish parents to her intended in 1959. But what’s most startling about this archaic film is the sole element in it that proves inadvertently contemporary. Faced with a black man in the mold of the Poitier character — one who appears “so calm” and without “tensions” — white liberals can make utter fools of themselves. When Joe Biden spoke of Obama being “clean” and “articulate,” he might have been recycling Spencer Tracy’s lines of 41 years ago.

Biden’s gaffe, though particularly naked, prefigured a larger pattern in the extraordinary election campaign that has brought an African-American to the brink of the presidency. Our political and news media establishments — fixated for months on tracking down every unreconstructed bigot in blue-collar America — have their own conspicuous racial myopia, with its own set of stereotypes and clichés. They consistently underestimated Obama’s candidacy because they often saw him as a stand-in for the two-dimensional character Poitier had to shoulder in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It’s why so many got this election wrong so often.

There were countless ruminations, in print and on television, asking the same two rhetorical questions: “Is He Black Enough?” and “Is He Tough Enough?” The implied answer to both was usually, “No.” The brown-skinned child of biracial parents wasn’t really “black” and wouldn’t appeal to black voters who were overwhelmingly loyal to the wife of America’s first “black” president. And as a former constitutional law professor, Obama was undoubtedly too lofty an intellectual to be a political street fighter, too much of a wuss to land a punch in a debate, too ethereal to connect to “real” Americans. He was Adlai Stevenson, Michael Dukakis or Bill Bradley in dark face — no populist pugilist like John Edwards.

The list of mistaken prognostications that grew from these flawed premises is long. As primary season began, we were repeatedly told that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was the most battle-tested and disciplined, with an invincible organization and an unbeatable donors’ network. Poor Obama had to settle for the ineffectual passion of the starry-eyed, Internet-fixated college kids who failed to elect Howard Dean in 2004. When Clinton lost in Iowa, no matter; Obama could never breach the “firewalls” that would wrap up her nomination by Super Tuesday. Neither the Clinton campaign nor the many who bought its spin noticed the take-no-prisoners political insurgency that Obama had built throughout the caucus states and that serves him to this day.

Once Obama wrested the nomination from Clinton by surpassing her in organization, cash and black votes, he was still often seen as too wimpy to take on the Republicans. This prognosis was codified by Karl Rove, whose punditry for The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek has been second only to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert as a reliable source of laughs this year. Rove called Obama “lazy,” and over the summer he predicted that his fund-raising had peaked in February and that he’d have a “serious problem” winning over Hispanics. Well, Obama was lazy like a fox, and is leading John McCain among Hispanics by 2 to 1. Obama has also pulled ahead among white women despite the widespread predictions that he’d never bring furious Hillary supporters into the fold.

But certainly the single most revelatory moment of the campaign — about the political establishment, not Obama — arrived in June when he reversed his position on taking public financing. This was a huge flip-flop (if no bigger than McCain’s on the Bush tax cuts). But the reaction was priceless. Suddenly the political world discovered that far from being some exotic hothouse flower, Obama was a pol from Chicago. Up until then it rarely occurred to anyone that he had to be a ruthless competitor, not merely a sweet-talking orator, to reach the top of a political machine even rougher than the Clinton machine he had brought down. Whether that makes him more black or more white remains unresolved.

Early in the campaign, the black commentator Tavis Smiley took a lot of heat when he questioned all the rhetoric, much of it from white liberals, about Obama being “post-racial.” Smiley pointed out that there is “no such thing in America as race transcendence.” He is right of course. America can no sooner disown its racial legacy, starting with the original sin of slavery, than it can disown its flag; it’s built into our DNA. Obama acknowledged as much in his landmark speech on race in Philadelphia in March.

Yet much has changed for the better since the era of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” thanks to the epic battles of the civil-rights movement that have made the Obama phenomenon possible. As Mark Harris reminds us in his recent book about late 1960s Hollywood, “Pictures at a Revolution,” it was not until the year of the movie’s release that the Warren Court handed down the Loving decision overturning laws that forbade interracial marriage in 16 states; in the film’s final cut there’s still an outdated line referring to the possibility that the young couple’s nuptials could be illegal (as Obama’s parents’ marriage would have been in, say, Virginia). In that same year of 1967, L.B.J.’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, offered his resignation when his daughter, a Stanford student, announced her engagement to a black Georgetown grad working at NASA. (Johnson didn’t accept it.)

Obama’s message and genealogy alike embody what has changed in the decades since. When he speaks of red and blue America being seamlessly woven into the United States of America, it is always shorthand for the reconciliation of black and white and brown and yellow America as well. Demographically, that’s where America is heading in the new century, and that will be its destiny no matter who wins the election this year.

Still, the country isn’t there yet, and should Obama be elected, America will not be cleansed of its racial history or conflicts. It will still have a virtually all-white party as one of its two most powerful political organizations. There will still be white liberals who look at Obama and can’t quite figure out what to make of his complex mixture of idealism and hard-knuckled political cunning, of his twin identities of international sojourner and conventional middle-class overachiever.

After some 20 months, we’re all still getting used to Obama and still, for that matter, trying to read his sometimes ambiguous takes on both economic and foreign affairs. What we have learned definitively about him so far — and what may most account for his victory, should he achieve it — is that he had both the brains and the muscle to outsmart, outmaneuver and outlast some of the smartest people in the country, starting with the Clintons. We know that he ran a brilliant campaign that remained sane and kept to its initial plan even when his Republican opponent and his own allies were panicking all around him. We know that that plan was based on the premise that Americans actually are sick of the divisive wedge issues that have defined the past couple of decades, of which race is the most divisive of all.

Obama doesn’t transcend race. He isn’t post-race. He is the latest chapter in the ever-unfurling American racial saga. It is an astonishing chapter. For most Americans, it seems as if Obama first came to dinner only yesterday. Should he win the White House on Tuesday, many will cheer and more than a few will cry as history moves inexorably forward.

But we are a people as practical as we are dreamy. We’ll soon remember that the country is in a deep ditch, and that we turned to the black guy not only because we hoped he would lift us up but because he looked like the strongest leader to dig us out.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

McCain-Palin and the Slander of Rashid Khalidi

What McCain and Palin are doing here is disgusting; character assassination; and slander of one of this country's leading scholars of Palestinian history. I admire and respect immensely the work of Rashid Khalidi. He is a historian of the first rank, as well as a passionate advocate for the rights of Palestinians in the face of a long history of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That McCain and Palin would try to trash him as some kind of terrorist says more about them - and their need to grasp at straws as their hopes of election sink - than it says about Professor Khalidi, who will be researching, writing, teaching, and standing up for the rights and humanity of the Palestinian Arabs long after Sarah Palin becomes a footnote in the increasingly tawdry annals of the Republican Party's submergence in the wallow of its own mud.

McCain Again Points to Obama's Associates

Republican Cites Tape of Rival Praising Palestinian, Alleges Ayers Was Present

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 2008; A05

MIAMI, Oct. 29 -- Sen. John McCain compared the director of Columbia University's Middle East Institute to a "neo-Nazi" and called on the Los Angeles Times to release a video of a 2003 banquet at which Sen. Barack Obama talked about the professor, Rashid Khalidi, a leading Palestinian American scholar and friend of Obama's from Chicago.

"What if there was a tape with John McCain with a neo-Nazi outfit being held by some media outlet?" McCain asked in one of several interviews with Cuban American radio stations Wednesday morning. "I think the treatment of the issue would be slightly different."

McCain also alleged that Vietnam War-era radical William Ayers had been at the banquet -- something that has not been reported by the Times -- adding to a growing flap over the release of the videotape, which the Times said had been provided by a source on the condition that the paper not air it.

"We should know about their relationship," the Republican presidential candidate said, referring to Ayers. "Including, apparently, information that is held by the Los Angeles Times concerning an event that Mr. Ayers attended with a PLO spokesman. The Los Angeles Times refuses to make that videotape public."

McCain's advisers said the tape would reveal his opponent's reactions to banquet speeches mentioned in a Times article about the event that was published in April. The article said that "a young Palestinian American recited a poem accusing the Israeli government of terrorism" and that another "likened 'Zionist settlers on the West Bank' to Osama bin Laden, saying both had been 'blinded by ideology.' " A spokeswoman for McCain said the senator based his allegation about Ayers on another newspaper article -- a New York Sun report in 2005. The Sun, however, reported only that Ayers had contributed to a commemorative testimonial book for Khalidi.

By raising questions about the banquet, McCain's advisers are hoping to hit a trifecta: linking Obama to a person who might worry Jewish voters in Florida and elsewhere about his commitment to Israel, reintroducing Ayers into the discussion with only a week left, and once again challenging Obama's honesty when it comes to his personal associations.

Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for Obama, called the issue "just another recycled, manufactured controversy" and rejected the implication that Obama should be tarnished by his association with Khalidi.

"Barack Obama has been clear and consistent on his support for Israel, and has been clear that Rashid Khalidi is not an adviser to him or his campaign and that he does not share Khalidi's views," Sevugan said. He noted that a nonprofit group that McCain chaired once helped fund a polling organization founded by Khalidi.

The International Republican Institute, which McCain has chaired since 1993, awarded a grant of $448,873 in 1998 to the Center for Palestine Research and Studies, which was co-founded by Khalidi, according to IRI documents.

Reached by e-mail, Khalidi declined to comment.

In May, Obama acknowledged knowing Khalidi, with whom he taught at the University of Chicago. Obama called him a "respected scholar" but said that Khalidi does not reflect his views on Israel and that he is "not one of my advisers."

McCain has spent weeks trying to make Obama's relationship with Ayers an issue, saying that Obama has not been truthful with the American people about how close the two are. But in recent days, he and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, had stopped publicly questioning the Democrat's associations.

That changed Wednesday morning. In a second interview, McCain said: "Apparently, this is a tape with a dinner that Mr. Ayers, the former and now still unrepentant terrorist, was at and also one of the leading spokespersons for the PLO. Now, why that should not be made public is beyond me."

And campaigning in Ohio, Palin told a large crowd, "It seems that there's yet another radical professor from the neighborhood who spent a lot of time with Barack Obama going back several years."

Palin openly mocked the Los Angeles Times for what she said was pandering to Obama. "It must be nice for a candidate to have major news organizations looking out for their best interests like that," she said, as the audience cheered her on.

The Times wrote in April about the banquet as part of a broader story examining Obama's relationship with the Palestinian community in Chicago. The paper issued a statement yesterday saying that its source asked it not to release the video.

Jamie Gold, the newspaper's readers' representative, said in a statement: "More than six months ago the Los Angeles Times published a detailed account of the events shown on the videotape. The Times is not suppressing anything. Just the opposite -- the L.A. Times brought the matter to light."

The original story reported that Obama praised Khalidi at the dinner, saying that his many talks with him had been "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases."

In their comments Wednesday, McCain and Palin called Khalidi a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization, apparently an effort to portray Obama as anti-Israel. The New York-born Khalidi has denied being a spokesman for the PLO.

Since 1993, the PLO has been recognized by the United States and Israel as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meet regularly with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

As an Oxford-educated Middle East scholar who holds the Edward Said Chair in Arab Studies at Columbia, Khalidi has been highly critical of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but also of the dysfunction within the Palestinian national movement led for decades by Yasser Arafat.

Khalidi has questioned the plausibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the position favored by the Bush administration and McCain. But he has also described the more controversial bi-national solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- the creation of one state where Arabs and Jews would live together and all have the right to vote -- as problematic.

Staff writers Juliet Eilperin, traveling with Palin, and Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

On the US Raid into Syria

Mr. Levy has provided us a well-researched piece that pulls together many different threads of reasoning behind the US attack into Syria - and concludes that the Bush administration has once again undermined American standing in the world.

America’s Military Attack in Syria—Possible Reasons and Likely Costs

Details are finally emerging of the American military operation inside Syria in Abu Kamal on Sunday afternoon. While there still has been no official on-record briefing from the Pentagon, unnamed DoD sources have filled in some of the gaps and reports on the operation appear in today's press. The target was apparently "Abu al-Ghadiyah" (Badran al-Mazidi), described alternatively as a high-ranking AQI (al-Qaeda in Iraq) operative or facilitator of smugglings and infiltration networks from Syria into Iraq, and vice versa. While it appears that there have been instances of cross-border "hot pursuit" by U.S. forces across Syrian borders before, today's Washington Post makes the assertion that this is "the first acknowledged instance of U.S. ground forces operating in Syria." Syrian and Arab T.V. have been full of pictures of the area of the raid and its aftermath, interviews with the civilian wounded in hospitals, and now images of thousands attending the funerals of the 8 civilians who it is claimed also fell victim to this attack (there are claims that American forces nabbed two AQI operatives--these are as yet unconfirmed--there might still be a DoD briefing today).

Condemnations have been prevalent in the Arab media, with the headline of the UAE daily al-Khaleej being typical: "U.S. Aggression Against Syria". And criticism has not only come from the obvious places--Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world--but also from Russia, Europe and beyond. There have also been some interesting exceptions to this trend within the Arab world--notably Saudi Arabia, leading some to speculate that the Saudis encouraged or were even complicit in this operation. But even as the details are emerging many are still baffled as to why this raid took place, and especially why now. As ever when it comes to the Middle East, and especially where Syria is concerned, tantalizing and mischievous theories proliferate. Here is an attempt, then, to make sense of why this happened, and what the implications might be.

The most obvious explanation, the one seemingly offered by the Pentagon, and the least complicated, is of this being a target of opportunity that was simply too good to resist. Juan Cole is as usual the best source for the low-down on the apparent target, Badran al-Mazidi. Here's what Cole says on his blog:

"Abu al-Ghadiyah" (Badran al-Mazidi) of Mosul, a member of the fundamentalist vigilante group of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (originally called "Monotheism and Holy War" but more recently "The Islamic State of Iraq"). Al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006. US intelligence fingered al-Mazidi as a major facilitator for networks of fundamentalist vigilantes who were infiltrating into Iraq from Syria. The administration allegation is that it struck when it did because it got especially good information on al-Mazidi's exact whereabouts.

But Cole then goes on to assert that as with so many decapitation exercises that we are familiar with--whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Palestine, "Washington also tends to over-estimate the importance of individual leaders such as...al-Mazidi. Mostly they are fairly easily replaced." But even if al-Mazidi was a particularly cherished prize, it is hard to believe that this is the first time that America has had actionable intelligence regarding such a target's whereabouts inside Syria (after all, the Americans themselves have recognized that compared to the previous years of the Iraq War, there are less border infiltrations from Syria today--so there must have been more such targets in the past). Yet in the past, for the first five and a half years of the Iraq War, America did not carry out such missions inside of Syria. So it really begs the question of why now. In the less than 48 hours since the raid, there has been no shortage of attempts to answer that question, although none seem particularly authoritative.

The favorite for conspiracy theorists is to see this as the mini-version of the long awaited "October Surprise". The raid was designed at a minimum to push the American election agenda back to national security issues, thereby supposedly favoring McCain, or even better, it triggers a wider military escalation and a week of McCain looking commander-in-chief-like, towering over the inexperienced punk Obama (Ilan Goldenberg makes a great argument on Obama-McCain and who is more responsible on this Syria attack issue). I don't buy that for one moment. This is not a situation that looks likely to escalate, Obama justifiably has closed the gap on national security, and those characterizations never really gained traction and rightly so.

Human error is always a possibility, but that seems equally unlikely. As is the notion of this being a rogue operation that was not cleared at the highest decision-making levels (even if "going rogue" is the vogue phrase of this week).

It is hard not to see this as a huge going away present for the neoconservatives in the Bush Administration. They have had Syria in their crosshairs since day 1, or long before actually. Syria, for the neocons, was due to be next in line after the Iraq "cakewalk", and they have grown increasingly frustrated as the clock runs out on Bush-driven regime change in Damascus. Ian Black, writing in the Guardian, called it a "final vengeful lunge against a country that others are now wooing but which still attracts profound hostility in Washington." And today's Washington Post editorial page, so often a neocon echo chamber when it comes to the Middle East, appears to bemoan that this kind of attack on Syria did not happen sooner. Assuming that Syria would not respond given the Assad regime's expectations of better relations with the next U.S. Administration, this was something of a freebie whack at the Syrians--something that Josh Landis mentions on his informative blog, 'Syria Comment'.

This all has a nice internal logic to it and no doubt the neocons are clucking and delighted to have established this new precedent, and yet it suggests a last gasp reclaiming of neocon ownership on the Syria file for which there is little evidence. American policy has been drifting away from confrontation with Damascus, not towards it. Secretary Rice recently met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, which all suggests that there is probably more to this than a 9th inning neocon walk-off homerun.

Then there is the diametrically opposite explanation (there always is with Syria): namely, that the entire thing was preplanned and coordinated between America and Syria as part of an ongoing effort and shared interest to undermine al-Qaeda, and that was actually a prelude to warmer bilateral relations.

It is certainly the case that Syria has been plagued recently by the actions of Salafist Jihadi groups, some emanating from Lebanon, and some from Iraq. There is also evidence that Syria and the U.S. have cooperated in the past in pushing back al-Qaeda activities. Juan Cole speculated on this yesterday, and Israeli intelligence analyst at the leading Israeli daily, Yediot Aharonot, Ronen Bergman, takes the claim several steps further today, and states, sourcing two unnamed American officials, that "the American commando attack in Syrian territory on the Iraqi border was coordinated in advance with Syrian military intelligence (translated from the Hebrew-DL)." Bergman sites as evidence that no anti-aircraft guns were used on the American helicopters, nor did local Syrian military units engage, although this occurred in broad daylight and in a police state where the presence of security service personnel is ubiquitous. Bergman is a respected commentator in Israel. He also of course is reliant on sources that may be using him as a mouthpiece for their own psyche-ops and propaganda. In this scenario, the shrill response of Syrian officials to the raid, which Baath party number two Mohammed Saeed Bkheitan called an "act of piracy" and "state terrorism", becomes part of the game.

Some Syria analysts do see a struggle going on in Damascus right now within the Assad regime, in broad terms between a modernizing, open up to the West approach of Bashar Assad, and a 'hunker down, stick with our trusted allies, don't rock the boat' demand led by some in the military and intelligence community. The recent suicide bombing in Damascus which killed 17 is sometimes explained in this context. So might this be part of the reality of a split and shaky regime? Could Assad be using an American raid to send a signal to some of his own military? While nothing can be ruled out, this sounds to me like a serious stretch.

Perhaps the reality lies somewhere in between the two more extreme explanations of collision or collusion. Here are some things we do know. The Pentagon sees Syrian efforts to seal the border with Iraq as having been a mixed bag, and they would certainly want further improvements. General Petraeus has acknowledged these improvements and carries with him a PowerPoint presentation that includes a box entitled "Improved Relations and Coordination with Syria". The Pentagon would also have noted that shortly after an Israeli air raid against a suspected nascent Syrian nuclear program, the Israelis and Syrians were actually conducting peace talks via Turkish mediation (the Israeli press has made much of this analogy--the storm before the calm). So this might be a calculated American move that sends a message to Syria that "we are not bullshitting, we are ready to use force, but we would much prefer that you respond to our diplomatic asks and overtures."

And perhaps Syria was not the main intended recipient of the message sent by this operation at all. A number of other possible addresses come to mind. Most obviously there is Iran. If the U.S. can conduct cross border raids in Pakistan and in Syria with impunity, then surely Iran is not off the agenda, as Kaveh Afrasiabi discusses in this Asia Times online piece, 'U.S. Raid in Syria Spooks Iran'. Then there is Russia, which has been increasing its Syrian cooperation lately, is upping its sales of arms to Damascus and which hosted President Assad in Moscow just days after the Georgia crisis. This might in part be a shot across the Russian bow. Given the timing of the attack--it coincides with Syrian FM Moallem's high profile visit to London--one cannot exclude that America was sending a message of displeasure to the Europeans regarding their increasing openness to the Assad regime (although it seems to me that in this instance, the timing was coincidental and more a case of "who cares if we insult and embarrass our closest European allies").

So how do we pull this all together, and what are the implications? In U.S. terms, there may well have been a convergence of interests at work--a kind of internal U.S. win-win. The Administration hawks would always be happy to poke Assad in the eye, while the pro-engagement folks may have been convinced that this would do no harm and might even elicit a more positive Syrian response, with the Pentagon eager to further extend the principle of the violability of sovereign borders when it comes to pursuing those that harm Americans and hoping that Syria might be nudged toward greater cooperation. To take this last point a step further, a more general effort seems to be afoot, now extended from the Afghan-Pakistan border region to the Iraq-Syria border with regard to U.S. military freedom of action in cross border missions, with today's New York Times quoting several "senior administration officials" expressing hope that this rationale "would be embraced by the next President as well." That begins to sound like a problematic attempt to box-in a new Administration. Even if such an internal win-win might exist, it is far from certain that a similar calculation applies to the external consequences of this action.

Most immediate may be the effect on American efforts to negotiate the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) with Iraq, which already faces significant obstacles. One issue of contention has been the guarantee that American troops would not use Iraq as the staging point for attacks on neighbors. Iran, for one, is likely to push its Iraqi allies even further on this point after the Syria action. Kaveh Afrasiabi argues that "unintended consequences of the US's raid into Syria may turn out to be more ammunition not only in the hands of Iranians but also the forces of Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and others who have categorically opposed the security agreement as anti-Iraqi." Afrasiabi even suggests that the Pentagon may be intentionally sabotaging the SOFA, the terms of which are increasingly disliked.

Beyond the SOFA, the cooperation that America will need from Iraq's neighbors as it withdraws is unlikely to be well served by this latest development. Syria has made several constructive gestures over the last period, helping to broker a standoff to the Lebanese political crisis and finally establishing diplomatic relations with that country, resuming peace talks with Israel, opening an embassy in Baghdad, and drawing closer to Europe. Unless the attack was an elaborate U.S-Syrian collaboration, it endangers setting back this more constructive Syrian role, and the decision by Syria today to close an American school and cultural center in Damascus is hardly a good sign. In particular, the Israeli-Syrian peace talks are in need of American support to be both sustainable and make progress.

Another by-product would be to again fuel anger in the Arab world at a seeming indifference to the cost in civilian casualties of American military actions and disrespect for the sovereignty of Arab and Muslim countries. In that sense, Syria joins a long list, including not only Afghanistan and Iraq, but also of course Pakistan and even Somalia, Yemen, and other locales. And this is likely to just further fuel anti-Americanism. As if all that wasn't bad enough, it really is a head-scratcher that this is happening while the Syrian Foreign Minister is visiting London. A joint press conference with British FM David Miliband had to be called off to avoid embarrassing questions. French President Sarkozy, who has invested much in getting Syria to be more constructive via diplomatic engagement, must also feel slighted (he was quick to condemn the attack).

I doubt that this was an intentional snub to the Brits or Europeans, rather another example of the kind of indifference and condescension towards allies and their needs that has characterized the Bush Administration. As today's Guardian editorial suggested, the attack was another sign of a U.S. Administration which "shoots first and thinks later."

In this respect, the Bush Administration has probably managed to yet further complicate the work of its successor in the Middle East with this latest act. And at this stage that really takes some doing.



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