Monday, March 30, 2009

Baghdad Awakening group disarmed

. . . so the NYT now reports. The "rebels" have stood down (some evidently are still being detained) after assurances were made that they'd be given jobs with the Iraq security forces - or so says General Odierno's top aide. Oddly, no statement to that effect from an Iraqi government official. And I have to wonder how eager the Maliki government truly is to bring these (Sunni) guys into the (predominantly Shiite) security forces. And will this signal to other discontented Sunni Awakening groups that if they too rise up, they can get promises of such jobs?

The end of the report is quite sad, both for the loss of life noted and because of the "and-in-other-news" wallpaper presentation of those losses:

Elsewhere in Iraq on Monday, the daily series of killings continued in Mosul, with 10 dead, and Diyala, with 3 dead.

In Mosul, a policeman was killed by a roadside bomb, the head of a local government district was killed by a group of gunmen outside city offices, another roadside bomb killed two Iraqi soldiers, an unidentified sniper shot and killed a policeman, a gunmen killed a civilian, and an insurgent and an Iraqi Army soldier were killed in a shootout at a checkpoint, according to police accounts. In addition, the medical examiner reported that two bodies were found in Mosul.

In Diyala Province, a bicycle packed with explosives detonated among a group of laborers outside the electricity department offices in the city of Baquba, killing 3 and wounding 14, three of them severely, a security official said, declining to be further identified because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. He also said that the Iraqi Army arrested two police officers just east of Baquba after finding bombs and detonators in their car.

Just another day, huh? . . .

A crucial test in Iraq: a must-read in today's WaPo

The WP's top two Iraq reporters outline an emerging crisis for not only the Iraqi government, but the nation of Iraq as a whole - and it has potentially huge impact on any proposed US withdrawal.

As I blogged yesterday, either the Maliki government walks this back (specifically, the arrest of a major Sunni Awakening leader in Baghdad, along with the detention of dozens of Awakening fighters) and makes appropriate apologies, or else Maliki commits himself (and US forces, who are committed to supporting the central government) to the probability of pitched battles and a showdown with armed Sunni militias throughout Baghdad and (probably) Anbar (western Iraq). US forces will be alongside in at least a support role, with US attack helicopters and other air support on the scene as well.

Again, these Sunni Awakening fighters are the same guys that the US military was acclaiming as patriots and heroes during the "Surge"; indeed, their success in taking on al-Qaeda in the Sunni regions of Iraq was a major reason (some say, the most important reason) why the "Surge worked" - and why security in Baghdad and eslewhere seemed to be improving. Now, as the WP report makes clear, these same heroes are feeling badly betrayed by their erstwhile patrons. ("The Americans brought us here, organized us, then abandoned us," said one of the Sunni fighters.) That gives them reason to come together as an anti-US as well as anti-Shia resistance. (Again, the Iraqi army and police are dominated by Shiites, many of them members of the militia known as the Badr Organization.)

I imagine that Fred Kagan and the usual suspects at the American Enterprise Institute are a little nervous right about now. As is Mr. Obama, because if the lid blows off Iraq, his plans for Afghanistan may be toast.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The "Surge"'s Feet of Clay?

McClatchy also reports on what could be a portentous development if the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government doesn't walk this back.

Troops Arrest an Iraqi Ally in Baghdad - NYTimes.com
This possibility has been building for months, ever since it was decided that these Sunni militias (variously termed Awakening Councils, sahwa, or Sons of Iraq) were to be taken off the US payroll. Remember, these are the Sunni fighters - many of them former resistance fighters against the US occupation - who decided to join with the US to fight al-Qaeda forces in Iraq, after the AQI began to overplay their hand with their erstwhile Iraqi Sunni allies. Much of the credit that US politicians have heaped upon the US military for "turning the tide" and "winning the war" in Iraq was in fact due to the Sons of Iraq turning against al-Qaeda.

But people aware of the facts on the ground knew months ago that if the Baghdad government failed to bring a significant number of these guys into the Iraqi military and security forces, and find acceptable jobs for the rest of them, they might turn against the government and even take up arms against Mr. Maliki (which is why the government has been trying to disarm and, in some cases, detain them). Arresting a prominent leader of the Sons of Iraq at a time when Maliki has been hoping to burnish his nationalist credentials may prove to be a major mistake.

And the fact that US soldiers took part in the arrest, and that the US military spokesman is standing behind it, may prove to be a set-back for US efforts to disengage from Iraq (although other recent reports indicate that that disengagement is not going to happen as soon, or as quickly, as the Obama administration wants us to believe.

Friday, March 27, 2009

More on what the US has stepped into in Afpak

The NYT's Carlotta Gall reports on how the Pakistan and Afghan Taliban have coalesced - and her report includes one of those pictures worth a 1000 words, of throngs milling at a funeral for a person killed by a US Predator attack.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan today, as the NYT also reports, a mosque located about 12 miles from the northwestern city of Peshawar, on the main road between Pakistan and Afghanistan (i.e., the main supply route for US and NATO forces in Afghanistan), was hit by a suicide bomber, with at least 48 killed. Once again, the US is served notice that the Pakistani army may not be up to the job of securing the region, or the route. And when you factor in the fact that elements of the ISI, Pakistan's military intelligence service, have long been in cahoots with the Taliban . . . .

Mr. Obama now has his own "long" war, and the goal that he has set is going to require long and large commitment that will be hideously expensive in lives and treasure. And I don't mean just US lives. A ramped-up military effort that entails continued - or expanded - use of drones and airstrikes is going to produce a lot more "collateral damage" - innocent villagers wasted by US munitions. That in turn produces angry people intent on avenging those deaths - on the persons of US soldiers and marines; and it also produces images (which can be flashed worldwide almost instantaneously) of more Muslims killed by Americans, at huge expense to whatever hopes Obama has of recultivating the US's image abroad, especially in Muslim countries.

Obama's Plan for Afghanistan

Obama's plan for Afghanistan gets a lot of coverage today; for example, in the WaPo and the NY Times - and in a nutshell, what we're talking about is more troops, more funds, an ambitious - I would say, well nigh impossible - goal (“We have a clear and focused goal to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”), no timetable, no end in sight, although he does at least say that the US commitment is not open-ended.

I'm sure that's what Kennedy and Johnson were thinking in the 1960s as the US blundered into Vietnam.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Violence continues in Baghdad

Anthony Shadid reports from Baghdad, and the news is not good.

Car Bomb Kills 16 in Crowded Baghdad Market

The US military is working mightily to project success: the number of attacks is down, US casualties are at their lowest since 2003. But if you're watching closely, you're noticing that there have been major attacks for several days now. Twenty dead, 15 dead - absolutely unacceptable in most of the world, but somehow, by our lights, minor in Iraq.

Shadid makes it plain: Iraqis are getting scared, and there's a sense that various aggrieved parties are starting to coalesce and lay plans for the time when the US troops depart. I fear Thomas Ricks may be right: the Iraq war may indeed be reaching only a halfway point. God forbid . . .

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Netanyahu has his fig-leaf

This complicates things for the US considerably. And it also closes the casket on the two-state solution.
Labor Party Votes to Join Coalition to Form Government Led by Netanyahu in Israel - NYTimes.com

With the narrow Right coalition that Netanyahu seemed to be building, there was a real sense of "what you see is what you get" = extremely pro-settlements, opposed to a real Palestinian state. But now the coalition will include the Labor party, the party of Yitzhak Rabin and the Oslo Accords, the party that under Ehud Barak's leadership in the late 1990s was thought to be working toward a real settlement with the Palestinians and a possible Palestinian state.

Barak says that he won't be a "fig leaf" for Netanyahu and Lieberman, but that's indeed exactly what he will be. He gives Netanyahu now the cover of "centrist-left" respectability, and a former prime minister who once was thought to be a progressive of sorts in terms of Palestinian autonomy. If he's smart, Netanyahu will push him out there, front and center, every chance he gets, in hopes of softening the image of what is still going to be a very rightist regime, even with Labor on board. And any time the Obama administration wants to talk a little tougher with the Netanyahu government, Netanyahu can point to Barak and say, "hey, we're not all so right-wing on the Palestinians. You can deal with us."

But let's remember that after he was bounced out of office by Ariel Sharon in the 2000 elections, Barak - stung by his defeat as well as by Hamas suicide bombings - had a major hardening of heart toward the Palestinians. Let's also not forget that he is the current Defense Minister, under whose direction the IDF went in Gaza last December and killed hundreds of people. The man is hardly a champion for a Palestinian state.

But he does give Netanyahu a nice smoke-screen while he bolsters the West Bank settlements.

And finally, let's not forget, Barak has been one of the loudest in calling for military action against Iran. On that score, Netanyahu and he are peas in a pod. Together, they will likely double-team Obama's people. All of which make the ousting of Chas Freeman even more fateful.


Monday, March 23, 2009

Roger Cohen on Obama's outreach to Iran

Roger Cohen with another brave piece. The people at WINEP and AIPAC cannot be happy with this guy. But he still hammers away at points that need to be hammered:

1. It does not serve US interests to be a lap-dog to what the Israeli government wants.
2. The Iranian leadership are not "mad mullahs." We may abhor some of their policies, but they also have legitimate grievances with the US and the West, and they make their decisions as much on the basis of pragmatism, rational calculation, and national interest as of Islamic ideology.

Cohen also makes it clear that the Israelis are keeping their own military option alive, at least in their public statements and on-the-record comments.

There is nothing - and I mean, absolutely nothing, more important on Mr. Obama's plate than to prevent Israel from launching a military strike against Iran.

March 23, 2009

From Tehran to Tel Aviv

With his bold message to Iran’s leaders, President Obama achieved four things essential to any rapprochement.

He abandoned regime change as an American goal. He shelved the so-called military option. He buried a carrot-and-sticks approach viewed with contempt by Iranians as fit only for donkeys. And he placed Iran’s nuclear program within “the full range of issues before us.”

By doing so, Obama made it almost inevitable that one of the defining strategic issues of his presidency will be a painful but necessary redefinition of America’s relations with Israel as differences over Iran sharpen. I will return to that below.

The innovations in the president’s Persian New Year, or Nowruz, overture to Tehran were remarkable. He referred twice to “the Islamic Republic of Iran,” a formulation long shunned, and said that republic, no other, should “take its rightful place in the community of nations.” Here was explicit American acceptance of Iran’s 30-year-old clerical revolution.

He said establishing constructive ties would “not be advanced by threats,” a retreat from his own campaign position that the military option must always remain on the table. Instead he offered “mutual respect.”

I was in Iran in January and February. The visit convinced me that confrontational American high-handedness has been a disaster; that facile analogies between the Iranian regime and the Nazis dishonor six million victims of the Holocaust; that the regime’s provocative rhetoric masks essential pragmatism; and that the best way to help a young, stability-favoring population toward the reform they seek is through engagement.

Obama has now taken all the steps I called for then. The policy changes emerged from an interagency review of the failed Iranian policy of recent years. The shift demanded courage.

One of the people involved in the review told me he had been bombarded by warnings from Israel and Sunni Arab states that engagement with Iran would lead nowhere. Of course they would say that; any Iran breakthrough will shake up current cozy U.S. relationships from Jerusalem to Riyadh.

Obama’s overture represented a victory not only over such lobbying but also over officials’ favoring tightened sanctions or delaying any American initiative until after Iran’s June presidential election.

The hard part has just begun.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, responded to Obama with a scathing speech at the country’s holiest shrine in Mashad, recalling every past U.S. misdeed, describing prerevolutionary Iran as “a field for the Americans to graze in,” and demanding concrete steps — like a lifting of sanctions — rather than words.

View all that as an opening gambit. Khamenei also quieted the crowd when it began its ritual “Death to America” chant and he said this: “We’re not emotional when it comes to our important matters. We make decisions by calculation.”

That’s right: the mullahs are anything but mad. Calculation will demand that Iran take Obama seriously.

The country’s oil revenue has plunged, its economy is in a mess, its oil and gas installations are aging. It has deepening interests in a stable Iraq and an Afghanistan free of Taliban rule. Its nuclear program involves a measure of brinkmanship that must be carefully managed. Khamenei’s essential role is conservative — the preservation of the revolution. He can only be radical up to a point.

Iran’s apparent inclination to take up a U.S. invitation to attend a conference on Afghanistan later this month may be more significant than Khamenei’s words. In any event, overcoming a 30-year impasse will take time and consistency.

The clock is ticking — and Obama’s will not be the same as that of Israel’s prime minister designate, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Already divergent U.S. and Israeli approaches to Iran were evident in Israeli President Shimon Peres’s coupling of his own Nowruz address to the Iranian people (not its leaders) with a statement predicting that they would rise up and topple “a handful of religious fanatics.”

A senior Israeli official told me Iran has 1,000 kilos of low-enriched uranium and will have 500 more within six months, enough to make a bomb. It could then opt for one of three courses.

Rush for a bomb by shredding the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, adapting its centrifuges and producing enough highly enriched uranium within a year.

Move the process to a secret site, in which case getting a bomb would take longer, perhaps two years.

Or continue making low-enriched uranium so that “it would have enough for 10 bombs if it decides to rush at a later stage.”

And where, I asked, is Israel’s red line? “Once they get to 1,500 kilos, nonproliferation is dead,” he said. And so? “It’s established that when a country that does not accept Israel’s existence has such a program, we will intervene.”

I think there’s some bluster in this. Israel does not want Obama to talk, talk, talk, so it’s suggesting military action could happen in 2009, within nine months.

Still, this much is clear to me: Obama’s new Middle Eastern diplomacy and engagement will involve reining in Israeli bellicosity and a probable cooling of U.S.-Israeli relations. It’s about time. America’s Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy has been disastrous, not least for Israel’s long-term security.

Jackson Diehl - Critical Mass in Afghanistan - washingtonpost.com

This report embodies a certain kind of embedded journalism, as well as stenography for the US military, but it does lay out some of the strategy that's going to be entailed in the US-led counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. And it also highlights how the US plans to bypass the central government and funnel aid to more cooperative (and competent? or pliable?) local authorities.

Again, it begs the question: What is Afghanistan supposed to be once this is all over? Or to borrow from Gen. Petraeus' famous comment about Iraq, "tell me how this ends."

Jackson Diehl - Critical Mass in Afghanistan - washingtonpost.com

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bad news from Israel

Shas is set to join Netanyahu's Likud-led coalition. Shas believes very adamantly in the West Bank settlement enterprise, which will therefore have now even less to fear from the Israeli government. In fact, as the report notes, a Shas member of the Knesset will be appointed housing minister in the new government.

Meanwhile, Ehud Barak is willing to try to negotiate his way into Netanyahu's government, even if many in his Labor Party's leadership are opposed. If Labor does join, the odds of Netanyahu's government surviving go up tremendously - and the situation becomes even more complicated for US diplomats.



Last update - 03:30 23/03/2009

Shas and Likud sign coalition agreement

By Mazal Mualem, Haaretz Correspondent, Reuters and Haaretz Service

The ultra-Orthodox Shas party signed a coalition agreement early Monday to join Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu's government, according to Israel Radio.

Shas lined up alongside Yisrael Beitenu as partners in Netanyahu's fledgling coalition. Likud secured a deal with the ultra-right-wing party earlier this month.

Under the agreement, Shas will receive four portfolios in the new government. Party chief Eli Yishai will become interior minister, MK Ariel Atias will become minister of housing, Shas will also receive the new government's religion portfolio and a minister-without-portfolio in the Prime Minister's Office.


"Israel is set to face many challenges, both social and economic and on the diplomatic and security front, as a result it is only right to combine forces and form a broad government," Shas leader Eli Yishai told journalists after the deal was signed.

Likud legislator Gideon Saar, a member of Netanyahu's negotiating team, said the party would strive to broaden the coalition further in the coming days.

"Now we have 53 lawmakers tied into coalition agreements headed by Benjamin Netanyahu and in the coming days we will work to broaden the parliamentary base for support for his government," Saar said.

Coalition talks are scheduled to continue on Monday with Labor, United Torah Judaism and Habayit Hayehudi.

Shas was also promised an increase of NIS 1.4 billion in child welfare payments.

Shas and Likud on Sunday said that they had reached a compromise on the ultra-Orthodox party's demand for the education portfolio and on the appointment of an exclusive minister for ultra-Orthodox education in the next government, sources familiar with the negotiations said.

United Torah Judaism was also said to have withdrawn its demand for the post of deputy education minister.

Netanyahu, who served as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, faces an April 3 deadline to complete the formation of a government after being given the task last month by President Shimon Peres.

Netanyahu is trying to recruit the center-left Labor party, which will conditionally open coalition talks later on Monday.

Labor leader Ehud Barak, the outgoing defense minister, said he would ask
his party's executive for a mandate to join Netanyahu's government when it meets on Tuesday.

Barak issued a statement late on Monday saying he had appointed three allies to negotiate on Labor's behalf.





Is the US going to re-fashion Afghanistan's government?

A story in The Guardian reports that the Obama administration is planning to install a prime-minister/CEO kind of figure alongside President Hamid Karzai, with whom both the US and European leaders have lost all patience. The guy they have in mind may be the interior minister, Mohammed Hanif Atmar, although let's not forget The Independent's report of several weeks ago about four other men, including at least two expatriates, that the US was priming for power. Karzai is adamantly opposed, of course. That his government is ineffective and riddled with corruption seems to be the consensus view in much of the international community, although given the general state of the country and the huge problems confronting it, one has to wonder if this kind of change will produce all that much improvement, or whether it will outweigh what is likely to be a significant downside: as The Guardian piece puts it,

The risk for the US is that the imposition of a technocrat alongside Karzai would be viewed as colonialism, even though that figure would be an Afghan.
Golly, ya think? Whoever the US installs is going to be seen as a puppet, the US's man, and will have zero credibility except as an errand boy with the power to dispense American dollars and aid.

Speaking of which, the report also states that the US plans to largely maneuver around the central government and funnel aid directly to local authorities (perhaps like some of those human-rights-loving local warlords of whom the US has been so fond?). As the report also notes - and as Mr. Obama said this evening on Sixty Minutes - the US mission in Afghanistan is from here on out going to focus on ensuring that al-Qaeda and its ilk can never use that country as a base from which to attack the US and "its interests." Perhaps we ought not be surprised, but despite all the talk of "real change," what's taking shape is another iteration of what's been US policy in the Middle East and Central Asia for decades: stability comes first, democracy and human rights come second. Of course, given the US's current economic predicament (which shows no real sign of turning around), this kind of fixing comes cheaper (although, I fear, it may not be especially cheap in the lives of American military, or civilians) and certainly reflects a well-considered pragmatism. But if it also entails deliberately undermining the authority of a central government and empowering at the local level some unsavory characters who hardly embody "American" values of democracy and humanity . . . well, the term "blowback" comes to mind, among others.

This, my friends, is going to be a very long and very bumpy ride.

Criticism of the IDF's Rampage in Gaza continues

The last couple of days have brought more critical commentary and reporting on both the IDF's atrocities in the December-January Gaza operation and the possibility that the Netanyahu coalition government will include anti-Arab racist, Avigdor Lieberman, as foreign secretary. I highly recommend Tony Karon's latest essay in The National, as well as reporting by Amira Hass in Haaretz on how IDF soldiers trashed the houses they occupied in Gaza during the hostilities, and finally, also in Haaretz, Gideon Levy, with an essay that declares that the IDF long ago stopped being the "most moral army in the world," which has long been its claim.

And I also encourage you to look into the ongoing, almost rapid-fire postings by Adam Horowitz and Phil Weiss at the Mondoweiss blog. Both men are extremely bright, thoughtful, eloquent writers who are also very well-informed about current issues and discussions in the US Jewish community - both neocons and liberals - in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead. They see a real sea-change in attitudes, especially within the liberal Jewish community, toward what they unabashedly refer to as the Israel Lobby, and toward Israel policy toward the Palestinians.

My newest op-ed is up at War in Context

And again I must thank Paul Woodward for his kindness in posting it. You'll find it here.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

What makes Iraq go 'round . . .

. . . is patronage, and influence (in Arabic, wasta). I don't know the corresponding word in Kurdish, but in today's WaPo Sudarsan Raghavan has a nice piece on how entrepreneurs in Iraqi Kurdistan can't expect to do business with the regional government there unless they can link themselves to the political powers/parties that be, and the families that control them: the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which has been the province of the powerful Barzani family, and/or the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the organ controlled by the other kingpin family of Kurdistan, the Talabani family (a member of whom is, of course, the current president of Iraq).

The Kurdistan Regional Government (which these two parties/families control) receives 17 percent of Iraq's annual budget (calculated to be about $6 billion for 2009) - and according to a source Raghavan quotes, from that each of these parties receives about $35 million a month. The Baghdad government has little idea of how that money is being spent. This completely goes against the grain of central-government dictates, but these kinds of relationships have long been part of doing business in Iraq (and, for that matter, elsewhere in the Arab world). The Kurds seem intent on more or less going their own way, even if they remain at least officially part of a "nation" called Iraq, but these practices are also well entrenched at the local and regional levels throughout the predominantly Arab part of Iraq, and those who are involved and have been profiting from it are going to be loathe to relinquish their prerogatives to a central bureaucracy operating out of the capital. Prime Minister al-Maliki seems intent on fashioning a strong central government, but he will have his hands full in dealing with this.


Friday, March 20, 2009

Iraq, Six Years after "Liberation"

Security is precarious, political alliances are forming and shifting, reconstruction is in fits and starts, and people seem not to trust either their government or their neighbors.

Meanwhile, the US troop drawdown is under way . . .

AlterNet: Tired of Living in Survival Mode, Iraqis Pessimistic Over New Local Leaders' Ability to Make Good on Promises

More Fun and Games with the World's Most Moral Army

The following story pasted from Haaretz needs little comment from me. And the picture, as the adage goes, is worth 1000 words. (Yes, that is indeed a pregnant Palestinian mother in the crosshairs.)




http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1072466.html




A T-shirt printed at the request of an IDF soldier in the sniper unit reading 'I shot two kills.'


w w w . h a a r e t z . c o m

Last update - 22:41 20/03/2009

Dead Palestinian babies and bombed mosques - IDF fashion 2009


The office at the Adiv fabric-printing shop in south Tel Aviv handles a constant stream of customers, many of them soldiers in uniform, who come to order custom clothing featuring their unit's insignia, usually accompanied by a slogan and drawing of their choosing. Elsewhere on the premises, the sketches are turned into plates used for imprinting the ordered items, mainly T-shirts and baseball caps, but also hoodies, fleece jackets and pants. A young Arab man from Jaffa supervises the workers who imprint the words and pictures, and afterward hands over the finished product.

Dead babies, mothers weeping on their children's graves, a gun aimed at a child and bombed-out mosques - these are a few examples of the images Israel Defense Forces soldiers design these days to print on shirts they order to mark the end of training, or of field duty. The slogans accompanying the drawings are not exactly anemic either: A T-shirt for infantry snipers bears the inscription "Better use Durex," next to a picture of a dead Palestinian baby, with his weeping mother and a teddy bear beside him. A sharpshooter's T-shirt from the Givati Brigade's Shaked battalion shows a pregnant Palestinian woman with a bull's-eye superimposed on her belly, with the slogan, in English, "1 shot, 2 kills." A "graduation" shirt for those who have completed another snipers course depicts a Palestinian baby, who grows into a combative boy and then an armed adult, with the inscription, "No matter how it begins, we'll put an end to it."

There are also plenty of shirts with blatant sexual messages. For example, the Lavi battalion produced a shirt featuring a drawing of a soldier next to a young woman with bruises, and the slogan, "Bet you got raped!" A few of the images underscore actions whose existence the army officially denies - such as "confirming the kill" (shooting a bullet into an enemy victim's head from close range, to ensure he is dead), or harming religious sites, or female or child non-combatants.

In many cases, the content is submitted for approval to one of the unit's commanders. The latter, however, do not always have control over what gets printed, because the artwork is a private initiative of soldiers that they never hear about. Drawings or slogans previously banned in certain units have been approved for distribution elsewhere. For example, shirts declaring, "We won't chill 'til we confirm the kill" were banned in the past (the IDF claims that the practice doesn't exist), yet the Haruv battalion printed some last year.

The slogan "Let every Arab mother know that her son's fate is in my hands!" had previously been banned for use on another infantry unit's shirt. A Givati soldier said this week, however, that at the end of last year, his platoon printed up dozens of shirts, fleece jackets and pants bearing this slogan.

"It has a drawing depicting a soldier as the Angel of Death, next to a gun and an Arab town," he explains. "The text was very powerful. The funniest part was that when our soldier came to get the shirts, the man who printed them was an Arab, and the soldier felt so bad that he told the girl at the counter to bring them to him."

Does the design go to the commanders for approval?

The Givati soldier: "Usually the shirts undergo a selection process by some officer, but in this case, they were approved at the level of platoon sergeant. We ordered shirts for 30 soldiers and they were really into it, and everyone wanted several items and paid NIS 200 on average."

What do you think of the slogan that was printed?

"I didn't like it so much, but most of the soldiers wanted it."

Many controversial shirts have been ordered by graduates of snipers courses, which bring together soldiers from various units. In 2006, soldiers from the "Carmon Team" course for elite-unit marksmen printed a shirt with a drawing of a knife-wielding Palestinian in the crosshairs of a gun sight, and the slogan, "You've got to run fast, run fast, run fast, before it's all over." Below is a drawing of Arab women weeping over a grave and the words: "And afterward they cry, and afterward they cry." [The inscriptions are riffs on a popular song.] Another sniper's shirt also features an Arab man in the crosshairs, and the announcement, "Everything is with the best of intentions."

G., a soldier in an elite unit who has done a snipers course, explained that, "it's a type of bonding process, and also it's well known that anyone who is a sniper is messed up in the head. Our shirts have a lot of double entendres, for example: 'Bad people with good aims.' Every group that finishes a course puts out stuff like that."

When are these shirts worn?

G. "These are shirts for around the house, for jogging, in the army. Not for going out. Sometimes people will ask you what it's about."

Of the shirt depicting a bull's-eye on a pregnant woman, he said: "There are people who think it's not right, and I think so as well, but it doesn't really mean anything. I mean it's not like someone is gonna go and shoot a pregnant woman."

What is the idea behind the shirt from July 2007, which has an image of a child with the slogan "Smaller - harder!"?

"It's a kid, so you've got a little more of a problem, morally, and also the target is smaller."

Do your superiors approve the shirts before printing?

"Yes, although one time they rejected some shirt that was too extreme. I don't remember what was on it."

These shirts also seem pretty extreme. Why draw crosshairs over a child - do you shoot kids?

'We came, we saw'

"As a sniper, you get a lot of extreme situations. You suddenly see a small boy who picks up a weapon and it's up to you to decide whether to shoot. These shirts are half-facetious, bordering on the truth, and they reflect the extreme situations you might encounter. The one who-honest-to-God sees the target with his own eyes - that's the sniper."

Have you encountered a situation like that?

"Fortunately, not involving a kid, but involving a woman - yes. There was someone who wasn't holding a weapon, but she was near a prohibited area and could have posed a threat."

What did you do?

"I didn't take it" (i.e., shoot).

You don't regret that, I imagine.

"No. Whomever I had to shoot, I shot."

A shirt printed up just this week for soldiers of the Lavi battalion, who spent three years in the West Bank, reads: "We came, we saw, we destroyed!" - alongside images of weapons, an angry soldier and a Palestinian village with a ruined mosque in the center.

A shirt printed after Operation Cast Lead in Gaza for Battalion 890 of the Paratroops depicts a King Kong-like soldier in a city under attack. The slogan is unambiguous: "If you believe it can be fixed, then believe it can be destroyed!"

Y., a soldier/yeshiva student, designed the shirt. "You take whoever [in the unit] knows how to draw and then you give it to the commanders before printing," he explained.

What is the soldier holding in his hand?

Y. "A mosque. Before I drew the shirt I had some misgivings, because I wanted it to be like King Kong, but not too monstrous. The one holding the mosque - I wanted him to have a more normal-looking face, so it wouldn't look like an anti-Semitic cartoon. Some of the people who saw it told me, 'Is that what you've got to show for the IDF? That it destroys homes?' I can understand people who look at this from outside and see it that way, but I was in Gaza and they kept emphasizing that the object of the operation was to wreak destruction on the infrastructure, so that the price the Palestinians and the leadership pay will make them realize that it isn't worth it for them to go on shooting. So that's the idea of 'we're coming to destroy' in the drawing."

According to Y., most of these shirts are worn strictly in an army context, not in civilian life. "And within the army people look at it differently," he added. "I don't think I would walk down the street in this shirt, because it would draw fire. Even at my yeshiva I don't think people would like it."

Y. also came up with a design for the shirt his unit printed at the end of basic training. It shows a clenched fist shattering the symbol of the Paratroops Corps.

Where does the fist come from?

"It's reminiscent of [Rabbi Meir] Kahane's symbol. I borrowed it from an emblem for something in Russia, but basically it's supposed to look like Kahane's symbol, the one from 'Kahane Was Right' - it's a sort of joke. Our company commander is kind of gung-ho."

Was the shirt printed?

"Yes. It was a company shirt. We printed about 100 like that."

This past January, the "Night Predators" demolitions platoon from Golani's Battalion 13 ordered a T-shirt showing a Golani devil detonating a charge that destroys a mosque. An inscription above it says, "Only God forgives."

One of the soldiers in the platoon downplays it: "It doesn't mean much, it's just a T-shirt from our platoon. It's not a big deal. A friend of mine drew a picture and we made it into a shirt."

What's the idea behind "Only God forgives"?

The soldier: "It's just a saying."

No one had a problem with the fact that a mosque gets blown up in the picture?

"I don't see what you're getting at. I don't like the way you're going with this. Don't take this somewhere you're not supposed to, as though we hate Arabs."

After Operation Cast Lead, soldiers from that battalion printed a T-shirt depicting a vulture sexually penetrating Hamas' prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, accompanied by a particularly graphic slogan. S., a soldier in the platoon that ordered the shirt, said the idea came from a similar shirt, printed after the Second Lebanon War, that featured Hassan Nasrallah instead of Haniyeh.

"They don't okay things like that at the company level. It's a shirt we put out just for the platoon," S. explained.

What's the problem with this shirt?

S.: "It bothers some people to see these things, from a religious standpoint ..."

How did people who saw it respond?

"We don't have that many Orthodox people in the platoon, so it wasn't a problem. It's just something the guys want to put out. It's more for wearing around the house, and not within the companies, because it bothers people. The Orthodox mainly. The officers tell us it's best not to wear shirts like this on the base."

The sketches printed in recent years at the Adiv factory, one of the largest of its kind in the country, are arranged in drawers according to the names of the units placing the orders: Paratroops, Golani, air force, sharpshooters and so on. Each drawer contains hundreds of drawings, filed by year. Many of the prints are cartoons and slogans relating to life in the unit, or inside jokes that outsiders wouldn't get (and might not care to, either), but a handful reflect particular aggressiveness, violence and vulgarity.

Print-shop manager Haim Yisrael, who has worked there since the early 1980s, said Adiv prints around 1,000 different patterns each month, with soldiers accounting for about half. Yisrael recalled that when he started out, there were hardly any orders from the army.

"The first ones to do it were from the Nahal brigade," he said. "Later on other infantry units started printing up shirts, and nowadays any course with 15 participants prints up shirts."

From time to time, officers complain. "Sometimes the soldiers do things that are inside jokes that only they get, and sometimes they do something foolish that they take to an extreme," Yisrael explained. "There have been a few times when commanding officers called and said, 'How can you print things like that for soldiers?' For example, with shirts that trashed the Arabs too much. I told them it's a private company, and I'm not interested in the content. I can print whatever I like. We're neutral. There have always been some more extreme and some less so. It's just that now more people are making shirts."

Race to be unique

Evyatar Ben-Tzedef, a research associate at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism and former editor of the IDF publication Maarachot, said the phenomenon of custom-made T-shirts is a product of "the infantry's insane race to be unique. I, for example, had only one shirt that I received after the Yom Kippur War. It said on it, 'The School for Officers,' and that was it. What happened since then is a product of the decision to assign every unit an emblem and a beret. After all, there used to be very few berets: black, red or green. This changed in the 1990s. [The shirts] developed because of the fact that for bonding purposes, each unit created something that was unique to it.

"These days the content on shirts is sometimes deplorable," Ben-Tzedef explained. "It stems from the fact that profanity is very acceptable and normative in Israel, and that there is a lack of respect for human beings and their environment, which includes racism aimed in every direction."

Yossi Kaufman, who moderates the army and defense forum on the Web site Fresh, served in the Armored Corps from 1996 to 1999. "I also drew shirts, and I remember the first one," he said. "It had a small emblem on the front and some inside joke, like, 'When we die, we'll go to heaven, because we've already been through hell.'"

Kaufman has also been exposed to T-shirts of the sort described here. "I know there are shirts like these," he says. "I've heard and also seen a little. These are not shirts that soldiers can wear in civilian life, because they would get stoned, nor at a battalion get-together, because the battalion commander would be pissed off. They wear them on very rare occasions. There's all sorts of black humor stuff, mainly from snipers, such as, 'Don't bother running because you'll die tired' - with a drawing of a Palestinian boy, not a terrorist. There's a Golani or Givati shirt of a soldier raping a girl, and underneath it says, 'No virgins, no terror attacks.' I laughed, but it was pretty awful. When I was asked once to draw things like that, I said it wasn't appropriate."

The IDF Spokesman's Office comments on the phenomenon: "Military regulations do not apply to civilian clothing, including shirts produced at the end of basic training and various courses. The designs are printed at the soldiers' private initiative, and on civilian shirts. The examples raised by Haaretz are not in keeping with the values of the IDF spirit, not representative of IDF life, and are in poor taste. Humor of this kind deserves every condemnation and excoriation. The IDF intends to take action for the immediate eradication of this phenomenon. To this end, it is emphasizing to commanding officers that it is appropriate, among other things, to take discretionary and disciplinary measures against those involved in acts of this sort."

Shlomo Tzipori, a lieutenant colonel in the reserves and a lawyer specializing in martial law, said the army does bring soldiers up on charges for offenses that occur outside the base and during their free time. According to Tzipori, slogans that constitute an "insult to the army or to those in uniform" are grounds for court-martial, on charges of "shameful conduct" or "disciplinary infraction," which are general clauses in judicial martial law.

Sociologist Dr. Orna Sasson-Levy, of Bar-Ilan University, author of "Identities in Uniform: Masculinities and Femininities in the Israeli Military," said that the phenomenon is "part of a radicalization process the entire country is undergoing, and the soldiers are at its forefront. I think that ever since the second intifada there has been a continual shift to the right. The pullout from Gaza and its outcome - the calm that never arrived - led to a further shift rightward.

"This tendency is most strikingly evident among soldiers who encounter various situations in the territories on a daily basis. There is less meticulousness than in the past, and increasing callousness. There is a perception that the Palestinian is not a person, a human being entitled to basic rights, and therefore anything may be done to him."

Could the printing of clothing be viewed also as a means of venting aggression?

Sasson-Levy: "No. I think it strengthens and stimulates aggression and legitimizes it. What disturbs me is that a shirt is something that has permanence. The soldiers later wear it in civilian life; their girlfriends wear it afterward. It is not a statement, but rather something physical that remains, that is out there in the world. Beyond that, I think the link made between sexist views and nationalist views, as in the 'Screw Haniyeh' shirt, is interesting. National chauvinism and gender chauvinism combine and strengthen one another. It establishes a masculinity shaped by violent aggression toward women and Arabs; a masculinity that considers it legitimate to speak in a crude and violent manner toward women and Arabs."

Col. (res.) Ron Levy began his military service in the Sayeret Matkal elite commando force before the Six-Day War. He was the IDF's chief psychologist, and headed the army's mental health department in the 1980s.

Levy: "I'm familiar with things of this sort going back 40, 50 years, and each time they take a different form. Psychologically speaking, this is one of the ways in which soldiers project their anger, frustration and violence. It is a certain expression of things, which I call 'below the belt.'"

Do you think this a good way to vent anger?

Levy: "It's safe. But there are also things here that deviate from the norm, and you could say that whoever is creating these things has reached some level of normality. He gives expression to the fact that what is considered abnormal today might no longer be so tomorrow."

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Obama Must Follow Through on Outreach to Iran

Mr. Obama's outreach to Iran is an important step that comes early in his administration, but was long, long overdue in terms of US-Iran relations - and you can be sure that diplomatic Neanderthals like John Bolton and Charles Krauthammer will be bellowing from their peculiar pulpits.

But having reached out, Mr. Obama must now follow through, and skillfully. Obama is preaching respect for Iran's civilization, etc., saying many of the right things, but the Iranians will be looking for actions that reflect the words, and that suggest that the US recogizes Iran as a regional power whom it ought to approach as a peer, not as a hegemon. And the timing here is crucial. As Haaretz has reported, Muhammad Khatami, the reformist ex-president of Iran, has exhorted all the reformist groups in Iran to unite behind this year's reformist candidate, Mr. Kossavi. At the end of his own presidency, Mr. Khatami's outreach to the US (which included significant cooperation with the US in the wake of 9-11) was undercut by Bush's idiotic State of the Union address that identified Iran as part of the "axis of evil." That stung terribly in Iran, and destroyed any credibility Khatami's policies still had at the time.

Iran's current president, the conservative Mahmud Ahmadinejad, is running again in the June elections, but is widely seen as vulnerable because of the failures of his economic policy and the stridency of his anti-US rhetoric. The reformists may have a real opening to make some gains, but a failure by Obama and his Iran team (of whom the Iranians are rightfully wary, as it's led by Dennis Ross, seen by many as attached at the hip to the Israel Lobby) to follow through, and soon, could undercut the reformists and cement another term for Mr. Ahmadinejad. If that were to happen, the chances of a US-supported Israeli attack on Iran, in my estimation, go up significantly - with consequences I can only shudder to imagine.


Los Angeles Times: Obama overture elicits cautious response from Iran

Iraq's Changing Political Map: Democracy or Dictatorship?

Anthony Shadid in today's WaPo has an important piece on the emergence of cross-sectarian political alliances in Iraq (I've pasted it below), with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (whose primary affiliation politically has been with the Shiite religious party al-Dawa) recreating himself as a centrist non-sectarian nationalist by allying himself with an important Sunni leader (Saleh al-Mutlak) and his party, as well as with Muqtada al-Sadr's movement. (Sadr is a "cleric," and his party is a Shiite "fundamentalist" one, but he has called all along for a non-federated Iraq with a strong central government.) Maliki is also reaching out to rank-and-file Baathists, saying that by and large they were not responsible for the harsh policies of the Saddam Hussein regime.

But reading Shadid's report, what also comes through is the extreme wariness with which the different parties are approaching each other. (One is almost compelled to ask, "Where's the love?") Trust levels are not high. People are trying to move ahead, and there seems to be a genuine desire to get on with the rebuilding of the country - but, again, it's difficult to move ahead when you're always compelled to watch your back. And a lot of the wariness is directed at Maliki himself, and with good reason.

First, he has assembled a large and rather potent security force (the army and the police) around himself, and has relatively recently made use of it to further his centralizing agenda (both at Basra against the Sadrist forces, and at Khanaqin in Diyala province against the Kurdish peshmerga who were there to try to keep Khanaqin in the Kurdish zone of control).

Second, Maliki and his Dawa party have been very closely linked to Iran, and the Maliki government has worked hard to garner economic assistance from Iran and to promote close ties with the Iranian government. Yet one of the central tenets of Sunni Iraqi nationalism has been Arab nationalism as well as secularism (the Baath party itself was founded during the heyday of Nasserist Arab nationalism during the late 1950s) - which means that many Sunni elements in this emerging cross-sectarian alliance are wary of Maliki's long-established ties to a Shiite religion-based regime of "Persians" in Iran (with which, let's not forget, Iraq fought a bitter and massively destructive war between 1980 and 1988 - and the memories remain, well entrenched, in both countries).

Maliki therefore has a lot to overcome in rebuilding a strong centralized Iraq. On the other hand, this will be an interesting test for what the respected analyst Reidar Visser has been arguing for a long time: that the US forced onto post-2003 Iraq an ethno-sectarian model very much at odds with what Visser sees as an Iraq that for centuries has been characterized by sectarian and ethnic accommodation. (Go here for his recent post on this topic, as well as a link to an important report by the Norwegian institute with which he's affiliated.)

New Alliances In Iraq Cross Sectarian Lines
Political Jockeying Suggests An Emerging Axis of Power

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 20, 2009; A01

BAGHDAD, March 19 -- Six weeks after provincial elections, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has allied himself with an outspoken Sunni leader in several provinces and broached a coalition with a militant, anti-American cleric, suggesting the emergence of a new axis of power in Iraq centered on a strong central government and nationalism.

Negotiations are still underway in most provinces, distrust remains entrenched among nearly all the players, and agreements could crumble. But the jockeying after the Jan. 31 elections indicates that politicians are assembling coalitions that cross the sectarian divide ahead of parliamentary elections later this year, a vote that will shape the country as the U.S. military withdraws.

"There is a new political map," said Anwar al-Luheibi, a Sunni adviser to Maliki, who is a Shiite. "And I anticipate this map will be far better than the one we had before."

The negotiations and dealmaking mark a departure from politics that have hewed almost exclusively to ethnic and sectarian lines, fomenting the discord that brought Iraq to the precipice of civil war in 2006 and 2007. They represent the first round of a great game that may resolve a question unanswered since Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003: What coalition of interests will find the formula to wield power in Iraq from Baghdad?

With his strong performance in the provincial elections, Maliki is the front-runner in forging such an alliance, a remarkable ascent for a lawmaker considered weak and pliable when he was put forward as a consensus candidate for prime minister three years ago.

Forgoing the slogans of his Islamist past for a platform of law and order, his party won a majority of seats on the council in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, and emerged as the single biggest bloc in Baghdad and four other provinces in the south, which has a Shiite Muslim majority. In most provinces, though, his party must make coalitions if it hopes to help determine who will fill the governorship and other key provincial positions.

Saleh al-Mutlak, a leading secular Sunni Arab politician known for his nationalism and strident opposition to the U.S. occupation, said his supporters will ally with Maliki in four provinces: Diyala, Salahuddin, Baghdad and Babil. Mutlak heads the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, but his supporters ran under different labels in provincial contests. Mutlak said Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister who led a secular list in the campaign, will also join the alliances.

The convergence of their interests is a stark contrast to the alliances that followed elections in 2005, which Sunni Arabs largely boycotted. Their refusal to vote gave religious Shiites and Kurds disproportionate power in provinces such as Baghdad, Diyala and Nineveh, all with substantial Sunni populations. In predominantly Shiite southern Iraq and Sunni western Iraq, power coalesced around ostensibly religious parties, whose members built their appeal on clandestine organizations in exile, underground networks under Hussein, support from Iran and other neighbors and, occasionally, the end of a militiaman's gun.

This time, some coalitions seem to be based on ideology: a strong central government that Maliki, along with secular candidates such as Allawi and Mutlak, have endorsed, as well as opposition to the kind of federalism espoused by Maliki's Shiite rivals, who favor a Shiite-ruled zone in the south, and Kurdish parties that control an autonomous region in the north. Both Maliki and Mutlak have rallied support among Arab and nationalist constituents by opposing Kurdish territorial claims, particularly around the contested city of Kirkuk.

Mutlak draws backing from among the still-numerous supporters of Hussein's Baath Party in Sunni regions, and he has long pushed for reconciliation with its members. Despite his reputation as a Shiite hard-liner when he came to power in 2006, Maliki echoed the call this month. In a speech, he urged Iraqis to reconcile with rank-and-file Baathists, those he described as "forced and obliged at one time to be on the side of the former regime."

He declared that it was time "to let go of what happened" in the past.

Mutlak said he told Maliki in a meeting two months ago that "there was a time when you stood against me on those issues. 'You should be happy I changed,' he told me." Smiling in the interview, Mutlak joked that first the prime minister "stole the government from us, and now he's trying to steal our political speech from us."

Mutlak said that Maliki had proposed an alliance for parliamentary elections, too. But, he said, "we're still studying the message."

Since the fall of Hussein, religious Shiites and Kurds had effectively served as the coalition at the heart of power in Iraq. Maliki's emergence has upset that formula, and virtually every component of the Shiite alliance has now gone its own way. The bloc that claimed to speak on behalf of long-reticent Sunnis has splintered, too, unable even to agree on a replacement for the speaker of parliament, who resigned in December.

Fayed al-Shamari, a leader of Maliki's Dawa party in Najaf who will serve on the provincial council there, said he foresees a grand coalition for the December parliamentary elections that would join Maliki with influential Sunni leaders, elements of the U.S.-backed Sunni movement that turned against the insurgency and perhaps even Moqtada al-Sadr, a militant Shiite cleric whose followers witnessed a political resurgence in the January vote. Strikingly, it would not include Maliki's other Shiite rivals or Kurds.

A hint of that alignment emerged in Wasit province, where Maliki's supporters were reported to have joined with Allawi's list and Sadr's followers.

"There's a great possibility for this," Shamari said, although even he questioned whether it could withstand the seismic conflicts over the very nature of the Iraqi state, namely its power in relation to the provinces. "With any coalition, you have an ambition for it to be permanent," he said. "But ambition doesn't always match reality."

Mutlak envisioned three main groups competing in the December vote: A list that he led, Maliki's group and an alliance of Kurds and religious parties -- both the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party. One example of the third grouping has emerged in Diyala province, where the Supreme Council agreed to an alliance with the Islamic Party, said Ridha Jawad Taqi, a lawmaker from the Supreme Council.

Mutlak, an agricultural engineer who grew wealthy under Hussein's government and is sometimes spoken of as a candidate for Iraq's presidency, said any future national alliance with Maliki would depend on cooperation in the provincial councils.

"We want to see what he's going to give," he said in the interview. "Is he going to behave as a real partner or is he going to try to isolate the others?"

He said he was still skeptical. "We don't think Maliki is going to act in a democratic way. We're worried that he's collecting power in a dictatorial way."

Mutlak said it was his understanding that Maliki had already reached provincial alliances with an electoral list supported by Sadr's followers, a deal that Shamari, of Maliki's Dawa party, called likely. But spokesmen for Sadr and the list of candidates he supported said negotiations are ongoing.

"We think they only want alliances in the provinces where they're facing difficulties. They reject us in the provinces where they feel comfortable," said Ameer al-Kinani, the head of the Trend of Free Independents, the list Sadr's followers supported.

Sadr's supporters did especially well in Dhi Qar and Maysan provinces in the south, where negotiations are underway to pick top officials.

To help win their backing, Sadr's officials have insisted Maliki play a role in freeing their supporters in prison. Hazem al-Araji, a Sadr spokesman, estimated that as many as 1,500 remained in U.S. custody and 2,500 in Iraqi custody. Like other Sadr officials, he complained that security forces are still arresting their followers in southern provinces.

"There has been a step toward each other," said Salah al-Obeidi, another Sadr spokesman in Kufa, near the sacred city of Najaf. "But until now, Maliki's coalition refuses to give any kind of guarantees and any kind of details of the map they will follow in representing the provinces. This arouses many fears with our friends."

Earlier in his tenure, when his position was far weaker, Maliki courted the Sadrists. Last year, though, he turned on them, dispatching the military against their militiamen in Baghdad and Basra. This time around, Sadr's supporters say, Maliki seems to be trying to negotiate from a position of strength.

"He's not in need of the Sadrists anymore?" Obeidi asked. "Maybe, maybe."

But like Mutlak, he said they will watch the behavior of Maliki's officials in the provincial councils to determine whether they could enter a broader alliance in the next election. "Until now we haven't decided," Obeidi said. "Yes, there are big obstacles between us. They can all be bridged. But until now, Maliki has not acted on any promises he made us."

Asked if he trusts Maliki, Obeidi shrugged. "I don't trust any political figure," he said.

Special correspondents Zaid Sabah and Qais Mizher contributed to this report.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Soldiers’ Accounts of Gaza Killings Raise Furor in Israel - NYTimes.com

Soldiers’ Accounts of Gaza Killings Raise Furor in Israel - NYTimes.com

More from the NYT on Gaza soldiers' testimony. It's a bit odd that the Times takes greater pains that does Haaretz to include some voices of justification for the IDF's behavior.

The Crimes of the IDF in Gaza

Haaretz reports today on testimony from some of the Israeli troops who took part in the Gaza invasion - and the paper plans to publish more of the testimony over the next few days. It's not pretty, and as the story notes, it surely calls into question the IDF's frequent claims at the time that it was holding its soldiers to a high ethical standard.

To quote one of the squad leaders:


"You do not get the impression from the officers that there is any logic to it, but they won't say anything. To write 'death to the Arabs' on the walls, to take family pictures and spit on them, just because you can. I think this is the main thing: To understand how much the IDF has fallen in the realm of ethics, really. It's what I'll remember the most."

Pakistani officials not happy with US's plans

So reports The Guardian. Perhaps we can expect some of the outrage to be for show, but the reality indeed seems to be that a majority of Pakistanis resent the violations of their sovereignty and the "collateral damage" to innocent locals. A number of commentators have tried to reassure us that the government will not fall, that things will somehow remain under control. I wonder, though, how far people can be bullied like this before there is indeed a major consequence.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

(The Iraq) War: What Is It Good For?

I attended the American Oriental Society meetings in Albuquerque last weekend, and one of the papers (dealing with Sumerian military expeditions ca. 2100 BCE) borrowed the title of the decades-old song referenced in this post. Those of you of a certain age will remember that the response in the song was, "Absolutely nuthin.'"

I give you now the US's war in Iraq, and I paste below today's report from the AP's Robert Reid - and I ask you to read and then pose the same question. (Reid sort of poses it himself.) Tens of thousands of US dead and wounded; probably hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed; as many as 4 million Iraqis displaced; hundreds of billions of dollars spent. The country's politics still badly fragmented, security still precarious . . . you all know the score.


Iraq better but future shaky

BAGHDAD (AP) — Six years after the U.S. invaded Iraq, the end of America's costly mission is in sight, but the future of this tortured country is much less clear.

With violence down sharply, most Iraqis feel more secure than at nearly any time since the war began March 20, 2003 — March 19 in the United States.

But violence still continues at levels that most other countries would find alarming. Last week, suicide bombers killed a total of 60 people in two separate attacks in the Baghdad area, and an American soldier was fatally injured Monday on a combat mission in the capital.

Fighting still rages in Mosul and other areas of the mostly Sunni north. Competition for power and resources among rival religious and ethnic groups is gearing up, even as the U.S. military's role winds down.

Both the Sunni and Shiite communities face internal power struggles that are likely to intensify ahead of national elections late this year. Sunni-Shiite slaughter has abated, but genuine reconciliation remains elusive.

"If Iraqi leaders don't reconcile and work together, the situation will deteriorate," veteran Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said. "There is no harmony among Iraqi leaders. Their work depends on their mood."

At the same time, U.S. combat troops are due to leave by September 2010, with all American soldiers gone by the end of the following year.

In the final stage of the war, America's challenge will be to prevent ethnic and sectarian competition from exploding into violence on the scale that plunged the nation to the brink of all-out civil war two years ago.

U.S. commanders successfully lobbied President Barack Obama to maintain a substantial combat force in Iraq through parliamentary elections at the end of the year in hopes of curbing violence as the country's religious and ethnically based parties compete for power in the national balloting.

Damage control is a far less ambitious goal than the Bush administration foresaw when the U.S. launched the invasion with an airstrike on Dora Farms in southern Baghdad in a failed attempt to kill Saddam Hussein.

Missing Saddam in the opening moments of the conflict set the tone for what became a war of missteps and disappointments before the tide turned in 2007.

The war was launched to deny Saddam weapons of mass destruction and when events proved he had none, the goal shifted — to establish a Western-style democracy in the heart of the Middle East. That goal was only partially achieved.

Now, the U.S. hopes that it can leave without the country disintegrating into chaos. The Americans hope Iraq will be strong enough to fend off interference by neighboring countries — notably Iran — and protect itself from a resurgent al-Qaida.

Prospects for a reasonably stable Iraq are certainly brighter than they were before the U.S. troop surge of 2007, when car bombs shook Baghdad daily and gangs of Sunni and Shiite gunmen ruled the streets.

Violence is down 90 percent since early 2007. In February, the U.S. military recorded 367 attacks nationwide, compared with 1,286 for the same month last year, according to Lt. Col. Brian Tribus, a U.S. spokesman.

As of Wednesday, there have been at least five deaths of U.S. servicemen so far in March — the lowest daily death toll since the war began.

Much of the country is quiet, including the three Kurdish provinces of the north, the Shiite south and the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, where local tribes turned against al-Qaida.

Baghdad's parks are jammed on weekends with families only now feeling safe enough to venture from their own neighborhoods.

A survey of 2,228 Iraqis questioned nationwide last month for ABC News, BBC and Japan's NHK, found that 85 percent believed the current situation was good or very good — up 23 percent from last year.

About 59 percent felt safe in their neighborhoods, up 22 percent from last year, the survey said.

"We feel there's been a significant security improvement during the past months," said Ahmed Mahmoud Hussein, a health ministry employee in east Baghdad. "If sectarianism is wiped out and the security forces are equipped in a proper way, I think the country will see stability within five years."

But stability is difficult to measure in a country with a long history of underground movements — including Saddam Hussein's Baath party — and a tradition of tribal and other groups switching sides.

Sheiks who once cheered Saddam later worked with extremist groups and now proclaim their loyalty to the U.S.-backed government, and no one can be sure where their loyalties may go tomorrow.

In Wasit province, a Shiite area south of Baghdad, officials estimate major crimes such as kidnappings, murders and robberies have soared by 50 percent in the past two months. Aziz al-Amarah, an Interior Ministry commander, blames the rise on power struggles among local political parties.

Against this backdrop is the absence of power-sharing agreements among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds that the U.S. has long believed were essential to ensuring lasting stability.

Legislation to manage the giant oil industry and distribute its wealth has been deadlocked in parliament for two years.

The central government and the Kurds have made little progress in resolving claims to a 300-mile swath of disputed territory in the north, including the oil-rich area around Kirkuk.

U.S. officials privately believe there is a very real chance of armed conflict between government troops and armed forces of the self-ruled Kurdish regional administration.

Many Iraqis fear that the relative calm simply means threat groups are laying low until the Americans leave.

"Iraq will face difficult economic situations for long time. ... The political process is still at a crossroads," Iraq's Shiite vice president, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, said last week. "The war is not over but it has just begun."

Obama may be planning to expand military activity in Pakistan

This quote from a NYT report today about possible plans to expand the US involvement in Pakistan says it well:

Any expansion of the war is bound to upset those in Mr. Obama’s party who worry that he is sinking further into a lengthy conflict in Afghanistan, even while reducing forces in Iraq. It is possible that the decisions about covert actions will never be publicly announced.


We're watching a new train wreck unfold - or perhaps, to seek a better metaphor, the fashioning of a new tar-baby. A lot of people are going to be killed, a lot of treasure expended, in a burgeoning project for which it will be extremely difficult to achieve - or even define - some final product that can be called "victory" - even if the chest-thumpers in Congress will be demanding it.

The Value of Knowing Arabic

The WaPo's Anthony Shadid has a gem in today's edition. Besides being one of the more intrepid of the journalists who have covered Iraq, he writes in a beautifully lyrical style. And, he speaks Arabic fluently, which allows him to actually mingle with and speak to people in the streets, as he did for this piece. As abu muqawama noted, "Most reporters in Iraq are hard-working professionals who hustle to keep track of the latest military and diplomatic maneuvers. But an Arabic-speaker like Shadid can spend two hours at a schwarma stand and proceed to tell us more about Iraq than 90% of other stuff out there."

Would that the Pentagon and the State Department had valued the ability to speak Arabic when the US invaded in 2003. (Actually, would that both organizations had had the sense to warn Bush off the enterprise in the first place.) It's common knowledge by now that both the military and the diplomatic corps had precious few Arabic speakers then; nor are they especially blessed with an abundance of them now (and I continue to tell my students that if they want to pursue a career in the foreign service, learning Arabic would let them practically write their own ticket).

But as Shadid's story suggests, Baghdad's people have begun to venture forth and try to reassert their lives in what remains a precarious environment. But I still fear that much of what seems to have been gained is reversible, at least for Iraq as a whole. Even if the central government's position becomes less stable, Baghdad's sectarian seams may hold, if only because so much of the Sunni population was either killed or forced out. Baghdad is now a predominantly Shiite city, and the Shiites call the shots in the current (and probably future) government.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Powerful testimony from an American eyewitness in Gaza

posted at the Mondoweiss site. It's easy for many of us in the US to think of the Israeli devastation of Gaza as yesterday's news. Let's all try to remember that it's not for the people there who now have to eak out an existence somehow - nor should it be for any of us.

March 16, 2009

US Eyewitness in Gaza: 'The reality of a very real bloodbath set in...'

The following was written by Rose Mishaan, a participant on the recent National Lawyer's Guild delegation to Gaza. Rose is a student at the University of California Hastings College of Law. I know Rose from when we were both members of Jews Against the Occupation in New York. She sent this out as an email to friends and has given us permission to reprint it here. All the photos below were taken by her. - Adam Horowitz

IMG_2780
(The rubble of Al-Zeytoun, on the southern outskirts of Gaza City. Photo: Rose Mishaan)

It took me a month to write this email. In that month, I've been through a whirlwind of emotions, trying to find away to process the things that I saw. I still haven't figured it out.

I went to Gaza with a group of lawyers to investigate violations of international law. We crossed into Gaza through the Egyptian border crossing at Rafah. At first we were fairly convinced we wouldn't get through. We had heard different stories of internationals trying to get through and then getting turned away -- they didn't have the proper credentials, they didn't have a letter from their embassy, etc. It made it all the more anti-climactic when we got through with no problem. just a minor 7-hour detainment at the border, which was really nothing at all. they said we were free to go. so we boarded a bus and drove the half-mile to the Palestinian side of the crossing. when we got there, we went through the world's one and only Palestinian Authority border crossing. we were the only ones there. they stamped all our passports and gave us a hero's welcome -- invited us to sit down for tea and have some desserts. they could not believe an American delegation was there, in Gaza. as far as we learned, we were only the second American delegation to enter Gaza since the offensive -- after a delegation of engineers. We were certainly the first and only delegation of American lawyers. while we were trying to avoid the mandatory Palestinian shmooze time with tea and snacks, waiting for our cabs to arrive to take us to our hotel, we felt a bomb explode. to our unexperienced senses, it felt like it was right under us. i got immediately anxious and decided we need to get out of there. our Palestinian hosts laughed at me kindly and said "don't worry this is normal here". somehow, not that comforting. we got in our two cabs and starting heading from the border to our hotel in Gaza City. the ride from Rafah to Gaza City was about 40 minutes. as soon as we left the border gates, we began to see the bombed out buildings. one of my companions yelled out "holy shit!" and we looked to where she was pointing and saw the giant crater in the building. then my other travel companion turned to her and said "you can't yell 'holy shit' every time you see a bombed out building. we'll all have heart attacks." and she was right. the entire 40-minute drive to Gaza City, our cab driver pointed out the sights around us. he explained what each bombed out building was, who was living there and what had been a big story in the news. all we saw was decimation. one building after another collapsed into rubble.

IMG_2737 When we got to our hotel in Gaza City, I was surprised. It was standing -- no bomb craters, no burnt out sections. and it was still in business. we checked in and we had running water and electricity -- both things that i was unsure about before coming to Gaza. that first night we arrived we met with two United Nations representatives: one with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human RIghts and one with the UN Refugee and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees. John Ging, the director of UNRWA in Gaza was clearly upset at the recent offensive. A well-spoken man with a strong commitment to human rights and international law, he told us about the UN schools that were hit during the onslaught. He kept saying that the "rule of law means you apply it to everyone equally". He badly wanted to see an end to Israeli impunity. We got a tour of the facility that was shelled during the offensive. We saw the hollowed out warehouse after it was shelled with white phosphorous and everything inside was destroyed -- medicines, food, spare automobile parts to keep their vehicles up and running (pictured above). John Ging told us about how the UN had called the Israelis after the first shell and told them not to target the UN compound, that there were gasoline tanks on the property. they received assurances that they would not be targeted. Moments later the Israelis shelled the exact area where the gas tanks were located with white phosphorous. the phosphorous hit the warehouses and UN staff risked their lives to move the gas tanks before the fire reached them, avoiding a massive explosion.

That first night in Gaza was almost surreal. It was so quiet, almost deafening. I was convinced that any moment a missile would come screeching through the air and shatter the night. there was a sense of waiting for something to happen. but nothing did. the night gave way to morning and I awoke in Gaza for the first time in my life.

The things we saw that morning would turn out to be the hardest. We went to Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. In the parking lot we saw bombed out, twisted skeletons of ambulances before we were hurried into the building to meet with doctors. Standing in the middle of a care unit, I saw a little boy, about 5 years old, hobble down the hallway, holding his mother's hand. He had a leg injury and looked in pain. The doctors wanted to show us the white phosphorous cases, since we had asked about that. The doctor pointed to two rooms with patients we could talk to. There were two women in the first one. The one closest to the door just stared at us blankly, not saying anything. It turns out she lost her whole family during the assault. A few of us went into the next room. There we found Mohammad lying in bed -- heavily bandaged, missing his left eye. He told us the story of how his whole family was burned to death when two white phosphorous shells hit their family car. He was lucky enough to have been knocked out of the car by the first shell. He lay unconscious and burning on the ground, while several neighbors pulled him away. He didn't see his family die -- both parents, his brother, and his sister. they were in their car driving to a relative's house to get away from the shelling in their neighborhood. it was during what was supposed to be a 3-hour ceasefire. Their car only made it 70 meters. He and his brother were both in college. His brother was going to graduate this year. As he told us that, a fellow delegate, Linda, who had been translating, suddenly burst into tears. Mohammad grabbed her hand and told her it was ok. Strange how people ended up comforting us. The doctor came in and told us they were changing a child's dressing if we wanted to come see. We walked into a room to see a baby -- about 2 years old -- lying on a table. She suddenly sat up and I saw that one whole side of her face and head were severely burnt. I had assumed she was hit with a weapon of some kind, but it turns it was a classic case of "collateral damage": she had run up to her mom when they started bombing near the house, while her mom was cooking. Then a bomb exploded nearby and the burning oil in her mother's pan spilled all over this young girl's face. While we stood there, she just cried and called for her mom. We all stood watching, feeling helpless and guilty.

IMG_2783 We left the hospital and went to Al-Zeytoun, a farming community on the southern outskirts of Gaza City. It was one of the hardest hit areas at the beginning of the ground invasion. The neighborhood was almost entirely inhabited by members of the extended Sammouni family. The town was in the news a lot after soldiers evacuated home after home of Sammounis into one house, that they then shelled, killing dozens of people. We walked up the dirt road and saw the rubble. Only one or two buildings left standing; the rest were completely decimated. Scattered tents served as makeshift shelters. We split up into teams of two and began interviewing survivors. We found two women sitting silently in front of the rubble that used to be someone's home. One of the women, Zahwa, described the night where she saw her husband executed in front of her with his hands above his head (Zahwa Sammouni is pictured above sitting in front of a tent. Her house was destroyed the night the soldiers came through the neighborhood). She then huddled with her children in a back room of the house as soldiers shot through the two windows above them. She showed us the bullet holes in the wall of the house, the heap of rubble that used to be her house, and the wounds in her back from being grazed with bullets while she hunched over her children. Her 10-year-old son showed us the shrapnel wounds in his leg and proudly displayed the large piece of shrapnel that he single-handedly pulled out of his chest that night. His cousins then gave us a tour of one of the few houses left standing -- one that the soldiers had used as a base, after they rounded up all those in the neighborhood and demolished all the other houses. The house was a mess. All the family's possessions were thrown around the outside perimeter. Bags of feces from the soldiers were strewn around outside. The inside was ransacked. The soldiers had covered nearly every surface with graffiti: "death to the Arabs", "if it weren't for Arabs, the world would be a better place", "kill Arabs". I feverishly took notes and photographs of the stories of Zeytoun, knowing I did not want to stop and think about what had happened here.

Throughout the day, we felt distant bomb blasts. I still gave a little jump when I heard the tremors and I can't say they didn't make me nervous. But the Palestinians we were meeting with didn't bat an eyelid. They knew when they were in danger and they knew when it didn't matter. "Oh, they're just bombing the tunnels" or "that's all the way in the north" people would say. Cold comfort.

We met with paramedics from the Palestine Red Crescent Society. They described how they were shot at, and sometimes hit, while trying to reach injured people. We met with human rights organizations who described the difficulties of trying to collect accurate information and trying to help everyone when there was such widespread devastation. We met with a psychiatrist in Gaza City who ran one of very few mental health centers there. He wondered how to treat a population of 1.5 million who were all suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. "Listen to the kids tell their stories" he told us. "They tell it like it happened to someone else". That's one of the symptoms of PTSD apparently. and we saw it again and again. Whether it was the little boy describing his father's execution in front of him, or kids showing us the shrapnel they pulled out of themselves and their dead relatives, or a little girl talking about how her house was destroyed -- none of them broke down, none of them cried, none of them seemed scared. There was complete detachment from the horror they were living and their identification with it. A scarred generation that will inherit this conflict.

I left Gaza by hitching a ride with a car full of BBC journalists. We headed in the Land Rover, with "TV" painted on the hood, down the coastal road that winds the length of Gaza. It was my first time seeing the Sea in Palestine, I remember thinking. what a strange feeling. To be in a country i knew so well, and yet be somewhere so completely unfamiliar. The privilege of having a chance to go there and the utter relief at being able to leave were competing in my head. The crossing back into Egypt was short and painless. But as soon as i saw the other side of Rafah again, i felt a deep ache of regret and guilt that didn't let up for weeks. Regret at having left before my work was done and guilt that I had wanted to get out of there.

Gaza was like nothing I'd ever seen. The reality of a very real bloodbath set in. I saw what this onslaught did to people -- real people. i looked into their eyes and heard their stories and saw their wounds. It made war realer than i ever wanted it to be. There still isn't yet a day that goes by that I don't think about what i saw and heard, and feel guilty about leaving, and sad that people are still living with such pain, fear, trauma and loss. I think the hardest part is knowing that as a world, we utterly failed the Palestinians of Gaza. We stood and watched them die and justified our own inaction. It is something that should bring a little shame to us all.

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

More good sense on Iran from Roger Cohen

I highly recommend Roger Cohen's latest essay, in today's IHT, in which he once again makes the case that too many in the West (and I include Israel under that umbrella) have bought into the trope of Iran as a society and state run by "mad mullahs" who'd be more than happy to see their own country incinerated if they could incinerate Israel (and inflict another Holocaust) on the Jewish people. Cohen penned several essays from and about Iran's Jewish communities, which he found to be tolerated and doing reasonably well during his visit; and his observations and conversations led him to conclude that the hype about Iran as an existential threat was being dangerously overplayed, much to the peril of Iranians, Israelis, Americans, and people throughout the region.

He also makes it clear that he has taken some nasty shots from Israel-firsters and Iranophobes of various stripes, and I can only admire his willingness to go out and meet some of his detractors and, if need be, be raked over the coals in public gatherings if it gives him an opportunity to promote good sense and less apocalyptic thinking. From such courage and forthrightness perhaps will come at least some baby steps in turning around some of the vicious and (given the potential to critically destabilize the Middle East) frightfully dangerous demonization both of Iran and of people (like Cohen) who would try to make the point that US diplomats do our nation's interests a huge disservice to the extent that they buy into the Holocaust-mongering of - among others - Benjamin Netanyahu, who has often tried to tell the world that Ahmadinejad = Hitler and Iran's Islamist regime = Nazi dictatorship. (And, of course, by associating Hamas with the mullahs in his rants, Netanyahu and his ilk provide themselves implicit justification for maintaining the strangling economic blockade of Gaza and launching military attacks against the "terrorists" there as it suits them.)

And any of you who've been looking into the Mondoweiss site will have noted the frequent contention there that debate in the US, especially within the liberal Jewish community, is turning away from Israel in the wake of the "Cast Lead" slaughter, and perhaps toward an attitude with greater balance, as well as toward a growing awareness that the calculation of the US's international interests ought not be done by Israeli fingers on the keys of the calculator. It was surely his persistence in promoting this awareness that cost Charles Freeman his spot as National Intelligence director (an incredibly unfortunate event that left me stupefied and angry over a period of several days when I had little internet access). Freeman had gone on the record on several occasions as a strong critic of Israel's hamhanded approach to its relationship with the Palestinian Authority (and he well and duly blasted what he openly termed the "Israel lobby" in his public statement taking himself out of the running for the intel position). People (like Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Steve Israel) who torched him downplayed, of course, the issue of Freeman's alleged lack of fealty to Israel's interests, instead raising the issue that the policy forum he heads - the Middle East Policy Council (which BTW publishes an excellent periodical, Middle East Policy, of which I am proud to be a subscriber, as is the library here on campus) is funded by the Saudi government. I invite any of you to examine the contents of a recent issue of that periodical. You'll find that they regularly include (besides high-quality, well-sourced articles by respected academic specialists in Middle Eastern history and international relations) the proceedings of MEPC-sponsored forums to which are invited academics, diplomats, and journalists of established reputation and different political perspectives. Yet, because the Saudi government (= let's be real here - the Saudi royal family) funds this organization, the conclusions reached in these forums and articles must be - by definition - suspect; indeed, were likely bought and shaped by Saudi money.

Anyone who regularly reads the journal knows that that's preposterous. And equally preposterous is the Saudi-phobic bloviating on the Freeman issue by Schumer, Israel, and their comrades. These are the same people who - as far as I can make out - had no major problem with the influence of Saudi royals in influencing discussion and policy-making under Republican administrations. I give you - to be very specific - Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, who for years served as the Saudi ambassador to the US and who (in that capacity and many others, official and not) worked so closely with George H.W. Bush, James Baker, and George W. Bush that W. bestowed upon him the nickname "Bandar Bush." All of this - and much more - was laid out in considerable detail in Craig Unger's book, House of Bush, House of Saud - and in his book Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward reported that George W. Bush informed Prince Bandar of his plan to invade Iraq even before he'd informed Colin Powell (who was, at that time - we all remember, don't we?) Secretary of State. George H.W. Bush, as you may also recall, was director of the CIA during the 1970s.

Yet, because the Saudis funded his think tank, Charles Freeman - a long-time public servant as a member of the State Department - should be disqualified from directing national intelligence?! That's the real reason? I think not. And it's at least a little comforting to note that many others also think not, and think instead that Chuck Schmer and his pals have deprived the US intelligence community - not to mention that little entity we call national security - of a formidable asset, all because some people of inordinate and undeserved influence are fearful that Freeman might have held Israel's leaders more accountable for the consequences of their ill-conceived, and arguably destructive, policies. Such an accountability is well - indeed, decades - overdue. Charles Freeman - and brave journalists like Roger Cohen - do us all a huge service in reminding us of that.

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