Thursday, March 27, 2008

Crisis unfolds in Iraq

I'm afraid that the people of Baghdad and Iraq's south, especially Basra, are in for a horrible time. Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army is rising to fend off the forces of the Iraq army (many of whom are also members of the rival ISCI militia - the Badr army - of al-Hakim) and the US forces supporting them. At least 100 people have died, and the fighting seems far from over. Meanwhile, Mr. Bush is reverting to his prep-school-cheerleader persona, touting the courage and leadership of Iraqi prime minister Maliki as well as the effectiveness of the "Surge" - which, he says, is a big part of the reason for the current "progress" (as if the poor Shia - and by that I mean impoverished as well as unfortunate Shia - are seeing the destruction of Basra as "progress").

Actually, Bush may be scared to death, deep down, because a lot is riding on the success of the Iraqi army in this battle and on the outcome of this conflict. The Iraqi army seem committed to eliminating the Mahdi army as a military threat, and unless Muqtada al-Sadr orders the Mahdi army to stand down (and it may be too late for that, nor may he even be able to get them to stand down if he so orders), the damage to Basra and Baghdad (where lies Sadr City, the teeming Shiite slum that is Muqtada's home-base) is going to be much more severe that it already is. Many more civilians are going to die. If the Iraqi forces are unable to have their way (and early reports had significant numbers of them running away), will Bush feel compelled to have Petraeus send in US troops in Sadr City to eliminate the Mahdi forces? Will the British be compelled (they're already being pressured by General Keane) to send troops back into Basra - or might Bush feel compelled to send US forces south? Bush is likely telling himself - and his commanders - that the Mahdi army cannot be allowed to win, because if it does, the Surge will have proven to be bogus, the "progress" that the Republicans have been touting will be proven likewise bogus, and McCain's chances will be toast.

And remember - the Iranians are deeply entangled in what's happening in Baghdad and Iraq's south. It would take very little for the US to point the "provocateur" finger at Iran as this mess heats up. If Cheney wants to push Bush into a military strike against the mullahs (and Bush may not need much pushing, and the Israelis will look on approvingly), this could be his chance.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Basra's turmoil

I very highly recommend that you visit the links I'm providing to the missing links website, which provides from-the-scene reports on the situation in Basra, where Iraqi forces (with US air cover and attacks) are taking on the Mahdi Army - and evidently having some setbacks. The death toll is rising, including among civilians, with some civilian neighborhoods being hit by US warplanes.

Monday, March 24, 2008

A new monkey-wrench in the works? (or stick in the spokes? Pick your metaphor)

Word today that Hamas and Fatah have signed what's being termed the Sanaa (Yemen) declaration, which looks toward reconciliation and common cause. This is a real smack in the puss to Cheney and Condi, who've just come from meetings with Palestinian Authority (=Fatah) prime minister Mahmud Abbas to push talks with the Olmert government - which, of course, will brook no talk of working with Hamas.

Meanwhile, the US has suffered its 4000th combat death in Iraq, the Sunni Awakening (upon which so much of the "success" of the "Surge" was predicated) seems to be turning out to be the short-sighted, but politically useful fix that many observers have thought it was indeed going to be, and the Mahdi Army seems to be raising its head again. Remember that the cease-fire that Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Shia leader who supposedly controls the Mahdi Army, declared (and recently extended) was one of the other legs upon which the Surge was able to rise up.

General Petraeus today says that Iran was behind yesterday's Green Zone shelling, which is a very serious allegation. Scary, actually, because it gives the Bush administration one more bullet in its magazine of alleged Iranian provocations to seize upon if it indeed decides, on its way out the White House door, to launch a military strike against Iran

Check out the Recommendations on this blog-page as well - especially the Washington Post piece on Fallujah.

And don't forget the PBS Frontline special - "Bush's War" - that begins this evening. Given the usual quality and incisiveness of Frontline's programs, this ought to be pretty special.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

In this season of peace . . .

First, season's greetings, everyone.

However, the world wends on . . . and Frank Rich has published a marvelous essay in today's NYT that pulls so much together in terms of where we stand as a nation right now, amidst an election season and ongoing occupation of Iraq. Speaking of which, the Times also has a reasonably detailed report on an incident yesterday when US forces killed 6 Sunni Iraqis who seem to have been members of the Awakening militias who've signed on to assist the US. Some of those groups have either decided to stop cooperating with the US forces or are threatening to do so, either because they're not getting paid on time or because they're beginning to feel a bit disrespected in general by those forces. Let's be honest here: many of them are in it for the money. In essence, the US has bought itself a bunch of local Sunni tribal militias to go after "al-Qaeda" (to which many members of those militias belonged till recently - or still do; they must be having a good laugh or two at the expense of their American "sucker" paymasters).

We're also buying ourselves, however, a larger civil war down the line. We've armed, in some cases helped train, and pledged support to a number of rival militias now: these "Sunni Awakening" forces, the rival Badr forces of the ISCI party led by Mr. al-Hakim (many of whom are also members of the largely Shia army and police that are supposedly under the control of Prime Minister al-Maliki's Green Zone government in Baghdad - which have been receiving arms and training from the US); and the Kurdish peshmerga, which are the outgrowth of the militias of the two dominant political parties - and families - that now comprise the leadership of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) as well as control the presidency of the current Iraqi government. The Badr force/Iraqi army and police have been lately (with backup from US troops and air power) going after the Mahdi Army militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, the fierce rival of the al-Hakim family, which controls ISCI - which, BTW, also receives support from Iran. It's all quite byzantine, isn't it?

If I may borrow from a metaphor used by Mr. Obama, who noted how Hillary Clinton's vote in favor of the 2003 invasion had driven the US "bus" into the ditch . . . Some are of the opinion that the now about to end "Surge" may have gotten that bus back onto the road. But, in fact, by supporting all these violently competing elements in the Iraqi socio-political framework, the US is likely assembling another mega-IED that may ultimately blow that bus off the road and even deeper into that ditch, where it - and the future of Iraq, if there even can be an "Iraq" anymore - may be mired, up to the hood, for a long, long time.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A must-read in today's Washington Post

A new book from a Chilean diplomat is creating quite a stir, in that it makes some pretty damning revelations about the US's ham-fisted diplomacy with Latin American countries in the run-up to the Iraq invasion of 2003.

Book Details U.S. Pressure On Allies Before War

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 22, 2008; A01

UNITED NATIONS -- In the months leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration threatened trade reprisals against friendly countries who withheld their support, spied on its allies, and pressed for the recall of U.N. envoys that resisted U.S. pressure to endorse the war, according to an upcoming book by a top Chilean diplomat.

The rough-and-tumble diplomatic strategy has generated lasting "bitterness" and "deep mistrust" in Washington's relations with allies in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere, wrote Heraldo Muñoz, Chile's ambassador to the United Nations, in his book "A Solitary War: A Diplomat's Chronicle of the Iraq War and Its Lessons," set for publication next month.

"In the aftermath of the invasion, allies loyal to the United States were rejected, mocked and even punished" for their refusal to back a U.N. resolution authorizing military action against Saddam Hussein's government, Muñoz wrote.

But the tough talk dissipated as the war effort worsened and President Bush came to reach out to many of the same allies that he had spurned. Muñoz's account suggests the U.S. strategy backfired in Latin America, damaging the administration's standing in a region that has long been dubious of U.S. military intervention.

Muñoz details key roles by Chile and Mexico, the Security Council's two Latin members at the time, in the run-up to the war. Then-U.N. ambassadors Juan Gabriel Valdés of Chile and Adolfo Aguilar Zínser of Mexico helped thwart U.S. and British efforts to rally support among the council's six undecided members for a resolution authorizing the U.S.-led invasion.

The book portrays Bush personally prodding the leaders of those six governments -- Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Guinea, Mexico and Pakistan -- to support the war resolution, a strategy aimed at demonstrating broad support for U.S. military plans, despite the looming French threat to veto the resolution.

In the weeks preceding the war, Bush made several appeals to Chilean President Ricardo Lagos and Mexican President Vicente Fox to rein in their diplomats and support U.S. war aims. "We have problems with your ambassador at the U.N.," Bush told Fox at a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Los Cabos, Mexico, in late 2002.

"It's time to bring up the vote, Ricardo. We've had this debate too long," Bush told the Chilean president on March 11, 2003.

"Bush had referred to Lagos by his first name, but as the conversation drew to a close and Lagos refused to support the resolution as it stood, Bush shifted to a cool and aloof 'Mr. President,' " Muñoz wrote. "Next Monday, time is up," Bush told Lagos.

Senior U.S. diplomats sought to thwart a last-minute attempt by Chile to broker a compromise that would delay military action for weeks, providing Iraq with a final shot at demonstrating that it had fully complied with its disarmament requirements.

On March 14, 2003, less than one week before the eventual invasion, Chile hosted a meeting of diplomats from the six undecided governments to discuss its proposal. But U.S. ambassador John D. Negroponte and then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell moved quickly to quash the initiative, warning their governments that the effort was viewed as "an unfriendly act" designed to isolate the United States. The diplomats received calls from their governments ordering them to "leave the meeting immediately," Muñoz writes.

Aguilar-Zínser, who died in 2005, was finally forced out of the Mexican government after publicly accusing the United States of treating Mexico like its "back yard" during the war negotiations. Valdés was transferred to Argentina, where he served as Chile's top envoy, and Muñoz, a Chilean minister and onetime classmate of Condoleezza Rice at the University of Denver, was sent to the United Nations in June 2003 to patch up relations with the United States.

In the days after the invasion, the National Security Council's top Latin American expert, John Maisto, invited Muñoz to the White House to convey the message to Lagos, that his country's position at the United Nations had jeopardized prospects for the speedy Senate ratification of a free-trade pact. "Chile has lost some influence," he said. "President Bush is truly disappointed with Lagos, but he is furious with Fox. With Mexico, the president feels betrayed; with Chile, frustrated and let down."

Muñoz said subsequent ties remained tense at the United Nations, where the United States sought support for resolutions authorizing the occupation of Iraq. He said that small countries met privately in a secure room at the German mission that was impervious to eavesdropping. "It reminded me of a submarine or a giant safe," Muñoz said in an interview.

The United States, he added, expressed "its displeasure" to the German government every time they held a meeting in the secure room. "They couldn't listen to what was going on."

Muñoz said that threats of reprisals were short-lived as Washington quickly found itself reaching out to Chile, Mexico and other countries to support Iraq's messy postwar rehabilitation. It also sought support from Chile on issues such as peacekeeping in Haiti and support for U.S. efforts to drive Syria out of Lebanon. The U.S.-Chilean free trade agreement, while delayed, was finally signed by then-U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick in June 2003.

Muñoz said that Rice, as secretary of state, called him to ask for help on a U.N. resolution that would press for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. The United States had secured eight of the nine votes required for adoption of a resolution in the Security Council. Muñoz had received instructions to abstain. "I talked to [Lagos], and he listened to my argument, and we gave them the ninth vote," he said.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Old hatreds - and "Deciders" - persist

In this holy season - and in the 21st century - it's very distressing (to put it mildly) to read that the medieval "blood libel" is alive and well (perhaps that's not the best way of expressing it) and that, just as they did in the 19th century, rival orders of monks are fighting it out for custodianship of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Lovely.

Mr. Bush, meanwhile, with his accustomed sense of nuance and conciliation, extends New Year's greetings to the people of Iran by ratcheting up the rhetoric - and the tension - over Iran's nuclear program. The picture of diplomacy, that man.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

And this guy wants to be president?!

And on top of that - or, actually, in pursuit of that - he claims to have great foreign policy expertise?! I'm talking, of course, about John McCain's mega-gaffe in Amman yesterday. It's truly embarrassing to watch the video. McCain's entitled to some jet-lag-induced fuzzyheadedness, but to stand there and publicly insist (and re-insist) that Iran was bringing in al-Qaeda terrorists and training them, and then sending them back into Iraq, was a truly boneheaded mistake, and one that his opponents - as well as media critics - must not let him get away with. (for what it's worth MSNBC's Keith Olbermann even bestowed on McCain his awarded-daily "worst person in the world" honor.)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

NY Times asks the "experts" for retrospectives on the Iraq war

For those of you who have the stomach for it . . . . .

New York Times asked several "experts" in military affairs for their comments on the 5th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. Among the luminaries are Richard Perle (neocon cheerleader who now has absolved himself of all blame), Paul Bremer (the US proconsul at the start of the occupation some of whose decisions - like disbanding the Iraqi army, without pay - at the start of his tenure will be permanently enshrined in the numbskull hall of fame), Kenneth Pollack (whose book The Threatening Storm: the Case for Invading Iraq provided "scholarly" cover for those who wanted the war), Danielle Pletka (another of the pro-invasion neocons who also has long been calling for military action against Iran), and Frederick Kagan (one of the godfathers of the "Surge"). At least the NYT editors had the sense to include a few of somewhat less ideological bent (e.g., Anthony Cordesman, an ultra-pragmatist). Nonetheless, I send this only as a heads-up. I may have some comments later, but I might suggest that all of us - myself included - find a comfortable chair and perhaps pour a calming beverage before linking in.

Fine review of a book that will draw notice

I've pasted below David Rieff's review (in today's NY Times) of a new book by Michael Scheuer. (You'll also find a link to this review - "The Wrong War" - under my shared articles, on the right of this page.) I was a fan of Scheuer's earlier book, Imperial Hubris, which IMHO was a very cogent analysis and critique of US policies in the Middle East, written by someone who had worked in the CIA and had access to its inner workings and debates. However, even in that book he showed a tendency to predicate his analysis purely on "national interest," in a fashion that often lacked any explicit recognition of moral, ethical, or humanitarian imperatives. If Rieff's view as expressed here is accurate, Scheuer may be going way over the edge in his new book. Nonetheless, his prescriptions (except for his advice that the US dump its support for Israel = the third rail of US policy-making) may well get some consideration in some policy-making circles, and will likely draw either encomiums or vilification from the pundits.

By the way, for those who might be interested, I tend to check my Google News Reader throughout the day, and will post new "shared articles" in the process. If you want to check out what I've been reading and have found noteworthy, you're always welcome to click into this blog and check out the new content under "Shared Articles."

March 16, 2008

The Wrong War

Skip to next paragraph


America and Islam After Iraq.

By Michael Scheuer.

364 pp. Free Press. $27.

Despite his many lapses and limitations — above all, his tendency to see any other viewpoint as a product of cowardice, stupidity, venality or insufficient loyalty to the United States — Michael Scheuer made significant contributions to the post-9/11 debate with his first two books. In “Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror,” which he wrote anonymously while still serving as a C.I.A. officer, Scheuer anatomized Al Qaeda and the threat it posed. His earlier book, “Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama bin Laden, Radical Islam, and the Future of America,” was more of a harangue. Nonetheless, it offered insights into bin Laden’s motivations as well as the context of the Islamic world in which he operated.

Above all, Scheuer argued — incontrovertibly though by no means as originally as he claimed — that successive American administrations had gravely underestimated the jihadist threat. Scheuer spoke with authority, having begun his career with the C.I.A.’s covert operation to arm the Afghan mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviet occupation; he ended it as the head of the agency’s unit charged with pursuing and eliminating Osama bin Laden. While his books are not by themselves sufficient to understand bin Laden — Scheuer has neither the evocative skills of Peter Bergen and Lawrence Wright, nor their calm ability to contextualize a narrative — they contributed greatly to that understanding.

Unfortunately, Scheuer’s new book, “Marching Toward Hell,” grandiloquently and somewhat misleadingly subtitled “America and Islam After Iraq,” has all the weaknesses of his earlier works with almost none of their strengths. Scheuer appears to be frustrated by the fact that his analysis was not adopted by the Bush administration. Instead of thinking that this was due to honest disagreements or to legitimate policy constraints, Scheuer believes that darker forces are at play — stupidity at best, but possibly even treason, a charge Scheuer stops just short of making against the neoconservatives on a number of occasions.

“I argued in both books,” he writes, “that there was no inherent reason why U.S. presidents and others in the American governing elite could honestly misunderstand the motivations of our Islamist enemies and the centrality of U.S. foreign policy to that motivation and to mobilizing support for the Islamists in the modern world.”

From that entirely defensible contention Scheuer makes the astonishing leap to the view that America was betrayed by virtually the entire American policy elite — from the neoconservatives (who, he believes, are more loyal to Israel than to the United States) to George Soros, from the Bush administration and Senator John McCain to the 9/11 Commission, not to mention the Rev. Franklin Graham and Hillary Clinton. And yet that is Scheuer’s claim — one he fails to back up, let alone demonstrate conclusively. At times, he seems apprehensive about the effect his jeremiad may have on his readers. “I am the first to admit,” he concedes, “that this book is eclectic, impressionistic and at times idiosyncratic.”

If only that were its only problems. But in his anger and scorn, Scheuer takes his readers on a breathless ride across what for him is an apocalyptic landscape peopled by venal bureaucrats, craven politicians (Bill Clinton the one-world pseudo-European; George W. Bush the inept conventional thinker), closet Zionists and liberal internationalists (Clinton again, but also Amnesty International and other humanitarian organizations). Only the courageous if routinely traduced men and women of the intelligence services and the military, and a few courageous, lonely voices like himself, are still carrying on the good fight. These frontline warriors may have scored tactical victories, but for Scheuer the result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a continuing strategic disaster.

The reason that America is losing and losing badly, Scheuer insists, is the internationalism, Wilsonianism, one-worldism — Scheuer uses all these terms as epithets — that have infected the policy elite. For him, the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were inspired by the missionary urge to undertake democracy-building, not the cold pursuit of American interests, which pursuit Scheuer, seemingly deaf to its historical echoes, calls in one of his concluding chapters “America First.”

This does not mean that Scheuer is for America standing down from the war against the jihadists. To the contrary, he believes that the United States must stop supporting Israel and Saudi Arabia but at the same time fight a far more savage war against bin Laden and his ilk. Here Scheuer really does surrender any claim to being taken seriously.

For his prescriptions are the stuff of fulminant talk radio. He would deploy the American military along the Mexican border and, failing that, encourage governors to deploy the National Guard. Meanwhile, the war against the jihadists must be ratcheted up. “The force we will have to employ,” Scheuer writes, “will be far in excess of anything most Americans have seen in their lifetimes, as will be the resulting casualties and physical damage.” Since many living Americans saw Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention the saturation bombing of North Vietnamese cities, in their lifetimes, one shudders to imagine what Scheuer may have in mind when he uses the words “far in excess.”

Of course, he never says exactly what he has in mind, but what can something far in excess of nuclear weapons, large-scale bombing and the dropping of toxic chemical defoliants consist of? And while Scheuer fancies his ruthlessness to be Machiavellian realism, his arguments — innocent as they are of any economic considerations other than America’s dependence on fossil fuels — are pure militarist utopianism. It is as if Scheuer could wish away the fact that the United States exists in a global economic system from which, for all the protectionist hysteria, the country remains a net beneficiary and that would be destroyed by the war he seems so fervently to desire.

Presumably, Scheuer would argue that in calling for the United States to jettison its commitments to Israel and to repressive Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia while pursuing a savage war against Al Qaeda, he has shown that he understands war is a continuation of politics by other means. But in fact, he has missed the point of Clausewitz’s famous dictum, which, in the context of the struggle against the jihadists, is that a war that destroys the world economy is not a war worth fighting. Perhaps if Scheuer had studied the cold war a little more carefully — rather than formulaically praising Ronald Reagan and denouncing all his successors for their complacency and lack of vision — he would have understood that often the best way to use the military is not to employ maximum force, and that to understand this is neither cowardice nor venality nor lack of imagination, but realism.

“Marching Toward Hell” is an enormously crude, reductionist account of the challenges posed by the jihadists, and as such, difficult to take seriously. Scheuer knows a great deal about Osama bin Laden, a fair bit about jihadism, something about Islam. But his view is extraordinarily narrow. Doubtless this was no impediment when he was running the bin Laden unit at the C.I.A., but it makes his large geostrategic assertions (let alone his bluff, complexity-free assertions about American history and the essential nature of the Republic) largely worthless. He flatters himself that he is a modern-day Patrick Henry. He’s mistaken.

David Rieff is the author, most recently, of “Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir.”

US launches deadly missile strike into Pakistan

The level and extent of anti-American feeling in Pakistan are already off the charts. The latest US missile strike there is not going to help. Nor will it do much to help pro-democracy movements there if the civilian political leadership comes to be seen as powerless to stop the Americans from launching attacks such as these, which violate Pakistan's sovereignty - which is not something that one supposedly does to an ally.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bush on serving in Afghanistan

There's an absolutely must-read comment by Fred Kaplan about a recent conference call between Fearless Leader and troops in Afghanistan. I believe that many of us thought that Boy George was a John Wayne-wannabe, but he's seldom made it so plain.

Among other picks for today, please take note of the piece on the impact of the US invasion on Iraq's women. Our State Dept, of course, touts their new freedom. Their daily realities are quite a bit different.

via Slate Magazine by Fred Kaplan on 3/14/08
If further proof were needed that President Bush resides in a dream world, he settled the issue on Thursday definitively.

[more ...]

Iraqi women say they are increasingly targeted for anything from their clothes to driving to attending school, as society shifts from Saddam Hussein's brutality to one facing violence in the streets and religious fundamentalism.

via Informed Comment by Juan Cole on 3/14/08

General David Petraeus is quoted in WaPo as saying that no one, American or Iraqi, thinks that there has been sufficient political progress in light of the reduction of civilian deaths since last fall. The US troop escalation, the strategy of paying Sunni guerrillas to join pro-US Awakening Councils, and the cease-fire with the Mahdi Army have brought down the grisly daily death toll from an average of 65 a day in the apocalypse that followed the February 2006 bombing of the Golden Dome in Samarra to between 20 and 40 a day more recently (it was 20 in January, 26 in February and 39 in the first half of March):

The first half of March has been disappointing with regard to casualties. There have been several big bombings in Baghdad, and over a dozen US troops have been killed in the past week. In fact a few weeks ago the Sunni Arab guerrillas blew up a meeting of the al-Anbar Awakening Council in Baghdad itself right under the nose of the US military. It is possible that the Sunni guerrillas had lain low during January, keeping their powder dry, with the intent of embarrassing Gen. Petraeus in his April congressional testimony. It is also possible that the various techniques the US military has deployed to reduce violence have reached their limit of effectiveness in the face of an ever-adapting enemy. And after all, the Sunni Arabs now have even more to avenge, since quite without meaning to the American surge somehow allowed a massive ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from Baghdad, with about a million of them now penniless and homeless in Damascus.

But despite these controversies about the military side, Gen. Petraeus has certainly had successes. And he is clearly frustrated that they have not been taken advantage of by the Iraqi political elite. And my strong suspicion is that the US officers in Iraq are also frustrated with the White House for not pushing the Iraqis harder on a political settlement. It is very hard to see what Bush's political strategy is in Iraq. The "surge" was never meant to be the objective but rather the means.

Gen. Petraeus isn't specific, but I can give some examples. The Sunni Arab Iraqi Accord Front withdrew from the al-Maliki 'national unity' government last summer. The IAF is a coalition of three parties. Two of them say they are uninterested in coming back into the government. The third, the Iraqi Islamic Party, led by vice president Tariq al-Hashimi, is said to be seriously considering returning. Nothing has happened so far. In other words, it is still the case that al-Maliki's government is less successful at reconciliation with the Sunnis now than it had been last year this time before the surge had made much of an impact.

Sunni Arab provinces such as Diyala, Salahuddin and Mosul are still violent, and even al-Anbar, which has settled down, is not paradise. The Awakening Council model does not seem to have been successful outside al-Anbar and some Baghdad neighborhoods, and there is always the danger that the US is creating a powerful Sunni militia that despises Prime Minister al-Maliki as Iran's cat's paw.

The Kurdish-Arab struggles in the north, the issue of Kirkuk, the terror activities of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK)-- based in Iraq but hitting NATO Turkish troops in eastern Turkey-- and the Turkish incursions into and bombings of Iraqi Kurdistan, signal that the north is a powder keg. The unresolved issue of oil-rich Kirkuk and whether it will accede to the Kurdistan Regional Government is the other shoe in the Iraq crisis, which has not yet dropped but could at any moment. I have been told that Gen. Petraeus deeply disagreed with Bush's decision to share real time intelligence on the PKK with the Turkish government and to allow a major Turkish incursion into and bombing of northern Iraq.

Likewise, the Islamic Virtue Party (Fadhila) withdrew from the al-Maliki government last year. It controls the provincial administration of Basra. Its rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, staged a 5000-strong demonstration against the provincial government last week. Having bad relations between the federal center and the province of Basra is not good for Iraq, because Basra is the country's biggest export route, including for petroleum, which generates 90% of government revenues.

So you could understand how Gen. Petraeus, having sacrificed so much to get some sort of social peace in Baghdad that would allow some major steps toward political reconciliation, is frustrated that no such major initiatives have been launched and that Iraqi politics just seems to be stuck.

It is worthwhile mentioning that what Gen. Petraeus said about the lack of political progress is the opposite of what John McCain has been saying. I am not saying that the contradiction is intended to be a political statement. But I am saying that Petraeus has just revealed himself again to be a straight shooter of a sort that has been all too rare in the Iraq misadventure.

On another topic, see Barnett Rubin on an integrated strategy for Afghanistan.

Prosecutor seeks to ban it, alleging it is anti-secularist.

Turkey's chief prosecutor asked its highest court Friday to disband the ruling party for allegedly attacking the country's secular traditions, including its ban on head scarves in universities, a court official said.

via Reuters: Top News on 3/15/08
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's deputy premier said on Saturday the Jewish State's delay in dismantling settler outposts in the occupied West Bank is hurting bilateral relations with the United States.

Pakistan President, Gen. Pervez Musharraf is see in this undated file photo in Islamabad, Pakistan,  Just months ago, the United States publicly championed Musharraf as an 'indispensable' ally. Now, officials barely mention the man the Bush administration once promoted as key to holding together a nuclear-armed country deemed crucial to the U.S.-led fight against extremists in South Asia.  (AP Photo/Mian Khursheed, File)AP - Just months ago, the United States publicly championed Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf as an "indispensable" ally.

Men arrested guarding a huge arms and ammunition cache squat blindfolded and tied near Youssifiyah, 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday, March 15, 2008. (AP Photo)AP - The influx of thousands of U.S. forces has driven down insurgent attacks in Baghdad, but violence elsewhere in Iraq raises questions about whether killings will continue to drop as American forces begin to leave, the United Nations said Saturday.

via NYT > International by NAZILA FATHI on 3/15/08
More than 30 reformers appear to have won seats in Parliament although most of their most prominent members had been barred from running.

via NYT > Home on 3/14/08
There are only about 20 World War I veterans left around the world, now that France's last one has died.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Iran elections; Iraq violence increasing; and prospects for Iran war

Major happenings throughout the region:
- violence in Iraq seems to be on the rise, as Gen. Petraeus prepares to testify before Congress about the "Surge" and whether the US ought now to proceed to the "Pause." Democrats will note (accurately) that the political reconciliation that the Surge was supposed to enhance is not on track. Republicans will call them defeatists, claim that we're "winning," and insist that we uphold the "honor" of our military by keeping them there until "victory" is secured. Right.

- Meanwhile, we continue to hail the Sunni Awakening, even as it becomes ever more apparent (and the US military seems to know it) that a significant portion of these Sunni "concerned citizens" are former (or current) resistance fighters ("insurgents" = "terrorists" = "bad guys") who are more concerned about the "Iranians" (i.e., Shiite Iraqi Arabs, who control the central government and police as well as the strongest militias) and are lying low and preparing for that battle, which will likely amp up as the US withdraws.

- There's continuing fallout from the Fallon resignation. The consensus seems to be that it need not portend an attack against Iraq. Perhaps not. I hope that's the case. But Fallon's removal also removes one very vocal and respected opponent of such an attack, at a time when a lame-duck president who might be intent on inscribing his name more boldly in the pages of history may feel emboldened to strike against the forces of "evil" and "terror" (i.e., Iran), especially if the Israelis decide to seize upon some "provocation" from Hamas or Hezbollah.

-Meanwhile, major elections in Iran today, and there seems to be hope that conservatives of a more pragmatic bent may be brought to the fore.

via openDemocracy - by on 3/13/08

The resignation of Admiral William Fannon, the commander of United States Central Command (Centcom) on 11 March 2008 brings the issue of a confrontation between the George W Bush administration and Iran suddenly back on the security agenda. Most analysts had thought that the risk of war had subsided with the publication on on 3 December 2007 of the US national-intelligence estimate (NIE), which concluded that Iran was probably not now developing nuclear weapons. There were various qualifications and provisos in that report - Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities - but it still appeared to limit the administration's war option by removing the main argument.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001

Fallon's resignation followed a magazine profile that made clear his differences with the president and Dick Cheney, principally his own robust view that war with Iran would be counterproductive to US security interests (see "The Man Between War and Peace", Esquire, 11 March 2008). Nevertheless, most opinion in European capitals and in the US state department, and even in many parts of the Pentagon, is that Fallon is broadly right. So has anything really changed?

The war scenario

An earlier column in this series summarised the dangers of war: they include the wide-ranging Iranian options for responding in Iraq and western Gulf states, the potential for a rapid rise in oil prices, the likelihood that Iran really would go all out for nuclear weapons - thus necessitating further US bombing campaigns (see "America and Iran: the spark of war", 20 September 2007). The conclusion was that the awareness of such concerns may well have a salutary effect on the more hawkish elements in Washington, but that other factors might still lead to a war. These could include a deliberate act of aggression by one of two groups: Revolutionary Guard radicals anxious to re-establish their standing within Iranian society, or attack by Israel on Iran's nuclear facilities (strongly supported as that would be the more militant backers of Israel within the Bush administration).

All of these issues are equally relevant six months after this analysis was presented. Admiral Fallon's precipitous disappearance from the scene now raises an old question in a new context: does it make war with Iran more likely during the closing months of the Bush administration? The answer is a guarded yes - with the qualification that Fallon's resignation is not itself the main factor in shaping the outcom, since it remains unlikely that the Bush administration would deliberately and openly start a war. Rather, war - if it occurs - would stem from other events (see "Iran and Pakistan: danger signals", 10 January 2008).

Any attack on Iran that occurred before November 2008 would have a considerable impact on the presidential election. A scenario of the following kind illustrates the point.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's most recent book is Why We're Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007) - an analysis of the strategic misjudgments of the post-9/11 and why a new security paradigm is needed.

A conflict develops in September or October and is raging in the run-up to the election on 4 November. At this stage, the main involvement will be by the United States air force supported by the US navy. The overstretched army and marine corps will have little initial involvement.

The war, it's important to emphasise, might not have been started by the Bush administration - it could been triggered in some other way. But whatever its origin, US tactics would quickly acquire a familiar aspect. In the war's opening few weeks, extensive US bombing raids would cripple Iranian nuclear facilities, air defences, command-and-control systems and key facilities of the navy and Revolutionary Guard. At this stage, US military power would be so massive that Washington would appear to be "winning". This was the situation in the first eight weeks of the Afghanistan war in late 2001, and in the first six weeks of the Iraq war up to Bush's "mission accomplished" speech on 1 May 2003 (see "The long war", 3 April 2003).

A US war against Iran, and especially one that is ostensibly not of its own choosing, will grab all the domestic as well as global headlines as the election reaches its peak. The crisis will reinforce the argument that an essential qualification of America's new president is an impeccable military background to guide the country safely through. Step forward the obvious choice: Senator John McCain (who plans to burnish his security credentials during a trip to Europe and the middle east in the coming week).

This scenario does not mean that a war will be manufactured by the US leadership - but it does imply that if a conflict does break out, the Republicans will be the likely political beneficiaries.

The uncertainties of the current situation do not exclude (for example) the orchestration of some kind of border incident to elicit an Iranian overreaction, thus leading to a major conflict; or a provocation by obliging elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Both are plausible, though neither is likely - another "Gulf of Tonkin" incident would be just too obvious, and a certain recovery of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's position might caution rather than incite the more intransigent forces among Revolutionary Guard supporters from seeking early confrontation with the United States. Whether the elections to the majlis (parliament) on 14 March 2008 affects Ahmadinejad's political room for manoeuvre, or the wider balance of power inside Iran, remains to be seen.

The Israeli factor

A vital component in this assessment of the military-strategic-political equation following Admiral Fallon's departure is Israel. What do its leaders want to do, think they can do, and seek to make happen with regard to Iran? Its extensive use of force in Gaza - in which over a a hundred Palestinians were killed in the five day to 3 March 2008 - may be part of a process of ratcheting up regional tensions (see Kaveh L Afrasiabi, "Israel raises the ante against Iran", Asia Times, 14 March 2008). Iran's increasing regional status, combined with a frank Israeli disbelief in the conclusions of the NIE assessment, means that there is real concern in the Ehud Olmert government that Iran cannot be stopped in its nuclear pursuits by diplomatic or economic means alone.

Israeli observers are as uncertain as any others about the outcome of the United States election. Of the three possible victors, John McCain and Hillary Clinton are broadly pro-Israel (though lacking the "end days" mentality of George W Bush and some of his key supporters, which can envisage a confrontation with Iran and other enemies of Israel as part of God's plan). Barack Obama has less of a known, reliable profile on Israel and its policies in the region, and there is for some the worry that if elected he might weaken the US's unstinting pro-Israel stance (though the Democrats' leading contender is covering his bases; see "Obama calls Livni, back's Israel's right for self-defense" [Ynet, 11 March 2008]).

Israel has not always had such conflictual relations with Iran as at present (see Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war", 28 October 2005). But the dangers of the current period are palpable, and calculable: for Israel, the time for a war with Iran ends in November 2008. Before then, any kind of Israeli air attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would result in Iranian action against US units in Iraq, especially by the Revolutionary Guard. This would be certain to invite a much greater US military assault that would cripple Iran to Israel's advantage. A unilateral Israeli move might not be hugely popular across the United States (and an opinion-poll in December 2007 found that two-thirds of Israelis would also oppose this course); but if it followed major Hamas or Hizbollah actions against Israel, then it could be represented as pre-empting a larger but linked threat.

What might cause such actions? More Israeli military operations as or more intensive than those seen in Gaza could well do it.

The moving finger

If - to continue the scenario planning - there is to be a war with Iran this year, instigated by Israel, two key factors are relevant:

* It would aid John McCain, the Republican candidate in the election
* It would need, in order to have this effect, to be started before the beginning of November.

None of this makes war a certainty or even highly probable. But it is worth noting here that US neo-conservatives - a reliable bellweather of political sentiment among those who will make the key decisions over whether to attack Iran - are deeply concerned about Iran's current diplomatic manoeuvres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's much-publicised welcome in Baghdad during his visit of 2-3 March was hard enough, as it underlined the developing links between Iran and Iraq (see "The war over there", 3 March 2008); equally tough for the neocons to witness has been the high-profile visit to Tehran by the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on 11-12 March. This followed Indonesia's abstention in the vote in the United Nations Security Council on the third tranche of sanctions against Iran (see "Islamic world can become a global power", Tehran Times, 12 March 2008); it has resulted in multiple agreements between the two countries, thus giving Iran another link to east Asia to complement its extensive relationship with China.

From a neo-conservative perspective, the prospect of George W Bush leaving office in circumstances where Iran is a rising power with nuclear potential is just not acceptable. Admiral Fallon's resignation does not make a huge difference, yet it removes one irritant from the scene. That alone makes a war with Iran marginally more likely. But the real determinant remains the Israeli government and what it chooses to do in the next six months.

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via TIME: Middle East Blog on 3/14/08
Millions of Iranians are out at the polls today, selecting a new parliament. It'll take awhile before the results are in and trends can be conclusively discerned. But I think it's likely that the outcome will somehow lead to a Third Way in Iranian politics. The last decade has been dominated by nasty battles between Iran's populist reformist movement and entrenched hard-line forces at the core of the Iranian regime. Neither of these sides has been able to achieve very much, and Iranians are getting fed up with both of them. President Mohammed Khatami's election in 1997 ushered the reformist movement into power. But his eight years in office left the reformist camp deeply disillusioned, partly because hard-liners successfully blocked most of Khatami's initiatives, and because reformists themselves became upset that Khatami and his allies didn't fight harder for their principles. Khatami's answer to that was that the hard-liners were too powerful and dangerous, and that pushing any harder risked plunging the country into a civil war of sorts. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election in 2005 was a turning of the tide in favor of Iranian hard-liners, ideologues who advocate a militant, nationalist foreign policy and intervention by the state in economic decisions to benefit the poor, religious classes of Iranian society--i.e., the bedrock of the regime's support. Ahmadinejad's policies haven't worked very well, either. His militant foreign policy has dangerously isolated Iran from the West, bringing economic sanctions and choking off badly needed foreign investment and partnership. His egalitarian domestic policies have driven up unemployment as well as inflation. A serious problem with this political stalemate is that it is turning off Iranian citizens. Hard-liners don't have vast popular support in Iran. Reformists have huge potential support, especially among the young. Yet, as long as hard-line bodies rig the elections by keeping reformist candidates off the ballot, this support stays at home on election day. Over time, that apathy will become the biggest threat to the future of the Islamic regime. Iran's traditional conservatives therefore may be the biggest winners in today's election. They are certain to win a substantial number of seats in the new parliament, and could therefore become the most important opposition to Ahmadinejad's policies. If they succeed, one of their own may then emerge as an effective challenger to Ahmadinejad in the 2009 presidential elections. That scenario could see an important turnaround in Iran's foreign policy, at a time when a new American president is getting settled in at the White House. Iran's traditional conservatives are pragmatic rather than strictly ideological in their outlook. Make no mistake: they are strong believers in the Islamic system, and they don't have much time for the democratic transformation of Iran that many reformists seek. But they seek a strong, vibrant Iran that is a leader in the world, and believe that one way to achieve that is through international cooperation and pragmatic policies. They would be more flexible about accommodating international concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions, and more amenable to addressing U.S. strategic interests. The next leader of Iran--perhaps Ali Larijani or Hassan Rowhani, both of whom are former nuclear negotiators, or Tehran Mayor Mohammed Qalibaf-- may well be somebody who the next President of the U.S. "could do business with," to borrow Thatcher's '80s phrase about Gorbachev. That could be one of the eventual results of today's election. That's all very hypothetical, of course, but worth keeping an eye on. --By Scott MacLeod/Cairo

via Iraq on 3/13/08
BAGHDAD — An explosion tore through a men's garment district Thursday afternoon in central Baghdad, killing at least nine people, wounding 50 more and adding to worries that the relative calm of recent months may not last.

via - Daily Analysis by Greg Bruno on 3/13/08
March 13, 2008

The Iraq war has confounded and surprised U.S. policymakers over five years, and is expected to remain a challenge for a new administration.

via by Kareem Zair, Azzaman on 3/13/08
First major breach of Moqtada al-Sadr's unilateral ceasefire.

A physician-journalist who fled Iraq with his wife and young daughters goes home after hearing that things have improved.

I left Baghdad on June 29, 2006. It was time to escape the abyss, to start over. I lived in the capital's safest neighborhood, but even there, people died.

U.S. forces acknowledge conducting a cross-border strike aimed at militants that reportedly left four dead in Pakistan. In Kabul, a suicide bomber kills six.

U.S. forces on Thursday acknowledged carrying out a cross-border missile strike that reportedly killed four civilians in Pakistan, and six Afghan civilians were killed by a suicide bomber targeting American troops.

via NYT > International by REUTERS on 3/13/08
A suicide car bomber killed eight Afghan civilians on Thursday in an attack on American soldiers near the airport here, a NATO spokesman said.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

12 March: the US loses a leader

Top U.S. Officer in Mideast Resigns
via - World by Thomas E. Ricks on 3/11/08

The top U.S. commander in the Middle East, whose views on strategy in the region have put him at odds with the Bush administration, abruptly announced his resignation yesterday, calling reports of such disagreements an untenable "distraction."

Mideast Commander Retires After Irking Bosses
via NYT > International by THOM SHANKER on 3/12/08
Adm. William J. Fallon’s public statements on Iran seemed to put him at odds with the Bush administration.

Citing Faith, Bush Defends War Actions
via NYT > International
President Bush told a group of Christian broadcasters that his policies in Iraq and Afghanistan are predicated on the beliefs that freedom is a God-given right.

Khatami: Hard-liners undermine democracy (AP)

AP - Former President Mohammad Khatami has sharply criticized Iran's hard-liners for barring many reformists from running in parliament elections, saying they were misusing Islam.

via NYT > International by JAMES GLANZ and ERIC SCHMITT on 3/11/08
Newly declassified statistics suggest that after security gains in the wake of an American troop increase the conflict has drifted into at least a temporary stalemate.

via NYT > International by ERICA GOODE and RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr. on 3/11/08
The attacks underscored how fragile security in Iraq remains despite a recent drop in violence.

BAGHDAD — Bombers unleashed a wave of explosions in Baghdad and north of the capital Monday, including two attacks that killed eight U.S. service members in the deadliest day for the military this year, American and Iraqi authorities said.

WASHINGTON — Sen. Hillary Clinton claims that her experience in dealing with foreign affairs qualifies her to handle a crisis call at 3 a.m. and be commander in chief.

via World news by Declan Walsh on 3/11/08
Suicide attacks are latest in string of attacks against military and police targets in Lahore

Monday, March 10, 2008

JR's recommended reading for Monday, 10 March

via Google News on 3/9/08
Iraq war cost estimates run into the trillions
Christian Science Monitor - 11 hours ago
By David R. Francis | columnist Next week, the Iraq war enters its sixth year. As casualties mount (about 4000 American soldiers killed since the start of the war in March 2003), so do the bills.
Wars to cost $12 billion a month, new book says Detroit Free Press
Last casualty of Iraq war will be US coffers San Francisco Chronicle
Washington Post - Daytona Beach News-Journal - The Associated Press - Workers World
all 276 news articles

via IPS Inter Press Service - Middle East by Mona Alami on 3/10/08
BEIRUT, Mar 10 (IPS) - Sporadic gunfire erupts, breaking the silence of the night. A few police cars speed up, heading east. Their lights flashing in the dark and their sirens echoing across the shanty neighbourhoods, they rapidly cross the run down metallic Basta bridge in the direction of the shootout.

A female suicide bomber killed a prominent Sunni Arab tribal chief who headed a neighbourhood security unit and three others in the volatile Iraqi province of Diyala today, police said.

via Asia Times Online on 3/10/08
Iran's young, urban and increasingly hip "fashionistas" have little time for the state-imposed dress code or its enforcers, the so-called morality police. They'd rather be shopping or grooming at one of Tehran's trendy boutiques catering to the image obsessed. The more authorities try to enforce the code, the more it seems Iranians want to push the boundaries of personal fashion. (Mar 10, '08)

via World news by Haroon Siddique on 3/10/08
Move comes in response to drop in rocket fire from the territory, but officials say no formal ceasefire agreement in place

via Salon by Matthew Cole on 3/10/08
In a secret meeting with a Taliban commander, I learned how Bush administration aid to Pakistan helps fund insurgents who kill U.S. troops.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

excellent essay by Gideon Levy, in Haaretz

An excellent essay by columnist Gideon Levy in tomorrow's Haaretz nails the connection of the religious settlement movement in Israel to the recent massacre of students at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Last update - 10:40 09/03/2008

Heads to the right

It is still unclear whether the terrorist who entered the Mercaz Harav yeshiva on Thursday night and killed eight of its students knew exactly what place he was entering. But the thousands of people who walked behind the coffins on Friday knew very well. "The flagship of religious Zionism" was the common expression used, the "holy of holies"; there was even a hyperbolic comparison to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in terms of sanctity. Some of the praise of the yeshiva is certainly well deserved, and nothing, of course, can justify the horrible killing of young boys in a library. Still, it would be appropriate to recall, even at this difficult hour, what this yeshiva has brought forth.

Mercaz Harav is the flagship of the last group in Israeli society still operating in the realm of ideas. Religious Zionists are the only group, aside from the ultra-Orthodox population, whose members are willing to lay down their lives for the collective and its worldview. It is a group that responds faithfully to its leaders - a group that even has leaders - and idolizes them. It is also a fairly homogenous group in terms of its thinking: Some 80 percent of its members define themselves as right-wingers. None of this is true of Israel's complacent, individualist secular public. And so we end up with a minority, 12 to 15 percent of the population, whose influence in certain areas is crucial and far exceeds its own relative size.

No one can explain in depth the magical powers of extortion this group has obtained. Nor can anyone ignore the damage it has caused the country. Without the settlement enterprise, peace might have reigned here already; without the Gush Emunim movement, supported by successive Israeli governments, there would be no settlements; and without the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, there would be no Gush Emunim. This institution, then, was the cradle of the settlement enterprise and its driving force. Most of the students killed in the terrorist attack were second-generation settlers. It should be said again, clearly and unequivocally: Their killing was a criminal act. (An unusual personal comment: On Friday I said in a radio interview, among other things, that the Mercaz Harav yeshiva was a fascist institution; right-wing circles spread a rumor on the Internet that I had said the slain students were fascists. This is not true. In any case, if my comment about the yeshiva offended people in their grief, I wish to express my sincere sorrow and apology).

From Mercaz Harav emerged the rabbis that led the vilest move in Zionist history. Most of the delusional right-wing perpetrators and the mongers of hate for Arabs came from this flagship. Religious leaders such as Rabbis Moshe Levinger, Haim Druckman, Avraham Shapira, Yaakov Ariel, Zefania Drori, Shlomo Aviner and Dov Lior, all idolized by their students, raised generations of nationalist youths within those walls.

Rabbi Lior, for example, head of the Council of Rabbis of Judea and Samaria, ruled in 2004 that the Israel Defense Forces was allowed to kill innocent people. How do these words sound now, after the attack in Jerusalem? Is the permission ours alone? Back then, Lior ruled that, "There should be no feeling of guilt at the morality of foreigners." He decreed that the Knesset could not decide to evacuate settlements, and that soldiers were allowed to refuse the order to evacuate settlers. Rabbi Druckman made a similar ruling.

In 2002, Rabbi Aviner, another graduate of the yeshiva, called for the execution of Israelis who refused to serve in the military. Back then the refusal came from left-wingers, of course. Aviner also ruled that war casualties are no cause for national grief, and he called for the abolition of Yom Hazikaron, the annual day of remembrance for fallen Israeli soldiers. He compared the road map peace plan to the appeasement of Hitler and considers the evacuation of settlements an "illegal crime."

The same yeshiva graduated Hanan Porat, one of the founders of Gush Emunim and one of those who returned to Gush Etzion. Another alumnus, Rabbi Levinger, beat him to it with the Jewish settlement at the Park Hotel in the heart of Hebron. These are the prominent figures that have emerged from this radical seminary and that is their legacy. From here they preached the application of different laws of morality and justice than the universal ones; yes, where the chosen people is concerned, there is such a thing.

With all the changes religious Zionism has undergone - from the time the Mizrahi movement joined the Zionist Congress, through its existence as a moderate stream that deftly managed to combine religion and modernity, to its transformation into the source of Israeli nationalism - the movement has managed to retain an exalted, inexplicable standing in Israel's largely secular society. There are still very many secular Israelis who view the religious Zionists, the students of the Mercaz Harav yeshiva and the West Bank's so-called "hilltop youths" as a group of pioneers committed to noble values, as the pillar of fire advancing before the camp. Even those who deeply detest the Haredi public reserve a warm spot in their hearts for religious Zionism, the very group that has inflicted more calamity on us than all the Haredim put together.

The killing at the yeshiva is heartrending. No one deserved it. The innocents in Gaza and the victims at Mercaz Harav in Jerusalem were all an unnecessary sacrifice. They have already paid the highest possible price. Their families and those around them will probably adopt even more radical positions now, and so we will be led into another round of endless bloodshed.


Israel approves West Bank construction

This would not be good news under any circumstances. Given recent developments and overall timing, this is an incredibly stupid thing for the Israelis to do. It completely pulls the rug out from under Mahmud Abbas, whom the Bush administration keeps pushing as the "legitimate" Palestinian "partner" for the post-Annapolis "peace process." Let's see, though, if Bush or Condi Rice have anything to say about this new development. Expect little to nothing, especially in a presidential election season. If Bush voices any protest, McCain will be made to answer for it in funding and at the polls.

Israel approves West Bank construction

By AMY TEIBEL, Associated Press Writer Sun Mar 9, 1:13 PM ET

JERUSALEM - Israel announced plans to build hundreds of homes in the West Bank and disputed east Jerusalem, drawing Palestinian condemnation just days before a visit by a U.S. general to monitor the troubled peace process.

Housing Minister Zeev Boim said the new housing would include 350 apartments in Givat Zeev, a West Bank settlement just outside of Jerusalem, and 750 homes in the Pisgat Zeev neighborhood of east Jerusalem.

Speaking to Israel Radio, Boim said the Givat Zeev construction initially began some eight years ago, but was suspended because of fighting with the Palestinians.

"When violence subsided, demand grew again and contractors renewed their permits to build there," he said. The Pisgat Zeev construction, he added, "is inside Jerusalem's city borders."

Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war. It immediately annexed east Jerusalem and considers all of the city its capital. The annexation has not been recognized internationally.

The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem as parts of a future independent state. But Israel has said it wants to keep large settlement blocs, along with Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem, under any final peace agreement.

The Givat Zeev construction "is consistent with our long-standing position that building within the large settlement blocs, which will stay a part of Israel in any final status agreement, will continue," said government spokesman Mark Regev said. Construction outside the settlement blocs has been frozen, he added.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat harshly condemned the new Israeli construction plans, saying it undermines already troubled peace efforts.

"Why do they insist on doing this and humiliating Abu Mazen in front of the Palestinian public?" he said, using the nickname of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Erekat said he had appealed to the U.S. to pressure Israel to halt the projects.

Palestinian attacks on Israel and Israeli retaliatory strikes, along with continued Israeli settlement construction, have upset U.S.-backed peace talks. The talks, resumed in November after a seven-year breakdown, aim to reach a final peace agreement by the end of the year.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week persuaded the Palestinians to resume talks, which they had suspended to protest an Israeli military operation against Gaza rocket squads. More than 120 Palestinians were killed in the offensive.

The talks suffered another blow when a Palestinian man killed eight Israelis at a religious seminary on Thursday.

Israeli officials said privately over the weekend that negotiations would proceed despite the attack on the seminary, which is the flagship for Israel's settlement movement.

The new construction plans announced Thursday may have been a gesture by Olmert toward the settlement movement, which opposes his talk of withdrawing from large parts of the West Bank and Palestinian neighborhoods in east Jerusalem as part of a final peace deal.

On Thursday, a U.S. envoy, Lt. Gen. William Fraser III, is scheduled to arrive in the region for his first joint meeting with Israelis and Palestinians.

President Bush appointed Fraser in January to monitor implementation of the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan — which among other measures calls on Israel to freeze all settlement activity. The plan also calls on the Palestinians to rein in militant groups — a step Israel says has not been fulfilled.

Givat Zeev is in one of the three major settlement blocs that Israel intends to retain in any peace agreement. Bush has signaled support for the Israeli position, and the Palestinians have expressed willingness to consider swapping land where settlement blocs stand for equal amounts of Israeli land.

An overwhelming majority of the 270,000 West Bank settlers live in the major blocs, and an additional 180,000 Israelis live in Jewish neighborhoods Israel built in Jerusalem after capturing and annexing it in 1967. Israel does not consider the east Jerusalem neighborhoods to be settlements, but the Palestinians and international community do.

Separately, an Israeli soldier wounded by Gaza militants in a border ambush on Thursday died Sunday of his wounds, the military said. He was the second soldier to die as a result of the attack, and the fourth soldier killed in Gaza violence this month.


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