Friday, July 31, 2009

Stories from Gaza [from Mondoweiss site]

Stories from Gaza

by Antony Loewenstein on July 30, 2009

The Western view of Gaza is of a desperate and violent place. Terrorism, extremism, Jew-hatred and poverty merge to create a dangerous brew. The Hamas-controlled territory poses a supposedly existential threat to Israel (and Jews everywhere.) But this is only one side of the besieged Strip. And much of it is blatantly untrue.

This video is an attempt to paint an alternative Gaza. Hatred exists there – I saw and heard it and challenged the conflation of Israel with Judaism – but what I found was something else entirely. Entire neighbourhoods flattened by Israeli missiles. Destroyed buildings with families living inside them. Refugee camps caused by IDF incursions. Beautiful singing and poetry sung by eager men. A will to survive and thrive despite the belief that the world, including the Arab neighbours, have forgotten their plight. Rappers desperate to tell the Palestinian narrative to the world and reflect a Gazan sensibility.

Take my interview with Fatah-aligned militants. I was taken to an unfinished house on the outskirts of Gaza City. The room was nearly bare, with a bed and mattress and web-enabled computer. The militant, an 18-year-old, whose father sat near us proudly and explained why he supported his son’s actions, was circumspect. He said he fired rockets into Israel and monitored Israeli troop positions. I asked whether he regarded IDF and civilian targets in the same way. He did. “Every Israeli serves in the army”, he said. I told him that some Israelis opposed the occupation, the war against Palestinians and actively helped Palestinians protect their lands. Did he care, I wondered, that he might kill these Jews, as well? He paused and reflected and finally said that it would be a shame, but he was fighting occupation.

Desperate times cause desperate actions. I met countless generous individuals who wanted me to share their stories with the outside. I lectured at the Islamic University earlier this week to a group of English and journalism students. I explained my work, the realities and failures of the Western media and my own impressions of Gaza. They all wanted to know why Palestinians were dehumanised and how their image could be improved. Jamil Al Asmar, a professor of English at the university, reminded me that the Israelis bombed the facility during the recent war. “Anybody who bombs institutions are not human”, he said. “Tell the world that we are human, just like they [the Israelis] are human.” His voice quivered when he spoke.

I’ve written recently about the overwhelming issues in the Strip. The growing Islamisation causes concern. It’s both visible and worrying. Hamas is now distributing posters that warn of the dangers of smoking, internet usage, television and drugs. The group is circulating a list that urges parents not to allow children to wear t-shirts that contain words such as, “Madonna” and “Flirt”. Journalist Fares Akram told me that he worried many Gazans were too pre-occupied with their own problems that they wouldn’t complain that Hamas was demanding female mannequins be removed from shop windows. It is a slow but deliberate implementation of sharia.

But this film isn’t a political statement; it documents some of what I saw and experienced in July 2009. I carried a small camera to take pictures of those I interviewed but I was also able to capture some video. These are short vignettes that aim to paint a moment, a feeling of a state under siege. People were angry, resilient and despondent. I didn’t feel threatened during my visit and welcomed the warm embrace that nearly everybody showered in my direction. A friendly Western face that wants to listen is hard to find in Gaza.

Nafez Abu Shaban, head of the burns unit at Al Shifa Hospital, nearly choked on his own words when describing what his people went through in the December/January onslaught. “It was not a war, it was a Holocaust”, he said. Palestinian doctors were faced with burns and injuries they had never seen before, such as the use of white phosphorous, and had to rely on foreigners and the web to discover how to treat them. “We felt alone.”

US Military Interventions: What Do They Accomplish?

As I look around at the countries where the US military has been sent in (and, in Iraq, is preparing to leave), I'm not comforted by what they're leaving behind. (And let's not forget that as of today, the British military is officially out of Iraq, leaving behind a not exactly tidy situation in Basra.) And I don't necessarily blame the generals or the troops (although some of the troops dirtied the military's reputation - the name Stephen Green comes to mind, as well as the Marines who slaughtered the Iraqi children and elderly at Haditha a few years ago - and of course those fun-loving Abu Ghraib prison guards).

All over the news - and the blogosphere - is the report (written up by Michael Gordon of the NYT) of a highly respected U.S. military adviser’s blunt memo on Iraq: time ‘to go home’. Gen. Odierno's staff are rushing to counter ("This doesn't reflect official thinking" blah blah), but the adviser makes some cogent points: the US has done all it can, and our presence is only raising the level of Iraqi resentment. Agreed. But what's being left behind is going to come back to bite both the US and the region.

What's being left behind? Here's a sample from today's news:

At least 5 people were killed and 14 others wounded on Thursday when a pair of explosions ripped through the offices of a Sunni political party in Diyala Province while the party’s leaders met, the Iraqi police said.
It was the second time this year that the building housing the party, the Reform and Development Party, was bombed, the authorities said, even though the party is a relatively minor political force.

Bombs Outside Mosques in Baghdad Kill at Least 29. Five Shii mosques - all of them places where Muqtada al-Sadr has strong support - were targetted, pretty much simultaneously. In other words, a well-planned and well-coordinated attack. By whom? Sunni insurgents? Rival Shii? The point here is that Iraqi security forces weren't able to prevent it.

Meanwhile, fighting continues at Camp Ashraf, where the Iraqi army went in to "deal with" members of the Mujahedin e-Khalk (MEK), killing a number of them. Who are the MEK? they are an Iranian underground group that used to undertake terror attacks against the Iranian Islamist regime. Once upon a time the US regarded them as a terrorist group, but after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and as we began to look eastward (remember: Iran was supposed to be next on the US hit-list), the US gave them refuge at Camp Ashraf (and neocon geniuses like Richard Perle were suddenly touting them as useful allies to undercut the regime in Tehran). But now US troops are pulling out, which more or less has hung the MEK out to dry. So, Maliki has sent in his army, in a move that many see as his doing the bidding of the Ahmadinejad government. The US leaves, Iran moves in - that's the perception. Not exactly what Mr. Bush and his gang had in mind, is it? And how many people have died to achieve that result?

Another unhappy result of the US military intervention: the trashing of the site of ancient Babylon. (Not that Saddam hadn't made a mess there himself in the decades before the US showed up.) This is old news, but it bears remembering.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the UN reports that over the last year, civilian deaths are up by 24 percent. Most of them were caused by Taliban "insurgents," who the report states were responsible for 60 percent of the deaths. But the report also noted

increased efforts by international and American forces in Afghanistan to reduce the number of civilian casualties, such as by creating a special system to track such deaths, and said that the number of civilians inadvertently being shot at checkpoints had been reduced.

The high number of deaths caused by airstrikes, however, as well as reports of excessive force used by joint Afghan and international patrols in search-and-seizure raids, remain sources of concern, the report said.

Afghan civilians are increasingly finding themselves in the center of the deepening operations to rout the Taliban militants. More of the fighting is taking place in civilian areas as the government seeks to quell the insurgency, the report said.

The deaths caused by pro-government operations are leading to “a strong feeling of anger and disappointment among the Afghan general public,” the report warned, adding that they are “undermining support for the continued presence of the international military forces, and the international community generally.”
Finally, take note of the NYT op-ed from Abolhassan Bani Sadr, who was the first president of Iran after the 1979 revolution - and who has been in exile in recent decades. He believes that the current political crisis in Iran "offers parallels with the political unrest leading up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ended the rule of the shah." He further notes:
Historically, the Iranian government has enjoyed four sources of legitimacy: its competence in managing state affairs, its official religious authority, its commitment to Iran’s independence, and its ability to provide a stable base of social support. All of these have now been irretrievably undone.

The massive vote rigging on June 12 brought President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ability to run the state’s affairs under intense public scrutiny, and the spontaneous uprising in its wake removed the government’s political legitimacy.

Shortly afterwards, in a speech at Friday prayers, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, threatened a violent crackdown unless the official election results were accepted. This removed the last vestiges of the regime’s religious legitimacy as well.

That legitimacy had been waning for some time, even within the regime and among Islamic traditionalists. Ayatollah Ali Sistani (the most prominent Shiite clergyman in Iraq) was opposed to the principle of velayat-e faqih (the rule of the clergy), and Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri (Khomeini’s would-be successor who later became his critic) had argued that the doctrine was simply a proof of shirk , or false God-making. Moreover, the Constitution states unambiguously that the authority of the supreme leader, the president and the Parliament should emanate from the people’s vote, not from God.

Apart from this, the regime has lost a key power base that has historically made despotism possible in Iran — the economic rule of the bazaars and the large landowners. It has therefore bolstered itself with another tool of Iranian despotism: attempting to use the threat of foreign intervention to justify secret dealings and open crises with other states, primarily the United States.

George W. Bush’s presidency was a fruitful time for the Iranian regime, as the constant menace of military action and economic sanctions strengthened its control over the population. Barack Obama’s non-confrontational approach has placed the regime in a difficult position. It can no longer portray itself as the defender of sovereign independence against foreign intrusion.

Finally, the regime’s first and foremost base of support, the clergy, has been replaced by a military-financial mafia. The Revolutionary Guard now occupies the entire government and believes that the clergy’s task is not to run the country, but simply to lend its legitimacy to those who do.

Like the monarchy before it, the power of the present regime rests on both an internal and external foundation, which makes it vulnerable to public unrest. We can draw a comparison between Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976 and Mr. Obama’s in 2008. Iranians viewed Mr. Carter’s election as a threat to the monarchy’s main source of external power, U.S. support for the shah. In the same way, if Mr. Obama continues to abandon hawkish policies toward Iran and deprives the regime of the crisis factor, this uprising may follow a similar trajectory.

But the present movement differs from the unrest that led to the 1979 revolution in some important ways. While the first actions of dissent in 1979 came from outside the regime, the present opposition began within the regime itself, when the election was rigged against Mir Hussein Moussavi. While there are strong signs that the protest movement is growing, it still needs time to spread throughout the country.

Where might all this lead? In part, the future may depend on the outcome of a political deadlock created by Ayatollah Khamenei himself. The facts that the election was rigged and that Mr. Khamenei attempted to stage a “velvet coup d’état” have polarized both sides.

Changing position in either camp would be political suicide. Mr. Khamenei and Mr. Ahmadinejad cannot admit that they rigged the election, since doing so would strip them of whatever remains of their legal and political legitimacy. Former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani is now under severe attack by Mr. Khamenei’s supporters, and Mr. Moussavi and Mehdi Karoubi, another presidential candidate, know that they will lose popular support and be at the mercy of the unforgiving regime if they submit to Mr. Khamenei’s demands.

Several outcomes are possible. Historically, the regime’s top tactic for maintaining control has been to divide the country’s elites into two competing groups and eliminate one. Now, as this process has reached into the heart of the regime, that has become lethal. The regime’s own cadres oppose Mr. Ahmadinejad, and the deepening economic crisis has deprived the regime of resources and spurred further public discontent. This has provided an opening in which the Iranian people can determine the outcome of the struggle.

If the people cease resisting, times will become even harder; if they continue, their uprising will be transformed into a full-fledged revolution. This would make the establishment of democracy a real possibility. And all indications point to the determination of the Iranian people to see this uprising through.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Some Israeli Voices of Sanity

Several Israeli writers in the last day or two have chimed in with reasoned criticism of the entire settler movement in the West Bank: one essay in Yedioth Aharanoth. (Israel's biggest-selling paper) . . and one of them in the Jerusalem Post, a paper whose editorial stance trends very much to the hyper-Zionist, pro-settler right. The comments on both essays are running pretty much con-

Also, note the essay from Gershom Gorenberg in the on-line American Prospect about the flap over the housing construction in East Jerusalem at the site of the old Shepherd Hotel, bought by American bingo mogul (and settlements-funder extraordinaire) Irving Moskowitz.. . .

Mean-spirited Jerks of the Month Award Goes to . . .

the Weekly Standard blog for its diatribe on Obama's decision to award Ted Kennedy the Presidential Medal of Freedom (whom the whiz kid who wrote the piece called "Sir Dunksalot" - the reference being, of course, to the Mary Jo Kopechne/Chappaquidick Bridge incident). no, the incident should not be forgotten, but to epitomize Kennedy's career with it is IMO reprehensible.

Arabs losing hope in Obama's ability to broker Mideast peace

A CSM report that touches upon the issues I raised yesterday. It's distressing enough to read about the racism-tinged comments that some Israelis are making about Mr. Obama. But to also read that a feeling's abroad that Mr. Netanyahu is eating Obama's lunch on the settlement-freeze issue . . . . There was (and still is) so much hope attached to Obama's presidency, but if an impression grows to the effect that Netanyahu can out-tough the President of the US, it could undercut Obama's agenda in re issues well beyond the Israeli-Palestinian problems.

I'm not sure if Obama can afford to play the patient-and-steadfast card much longer. He need a big-gain play, seems to me.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Disaster Approaches Inexorably in Palestine

The issue of the West Bank settlements is not going to go away. The Ultra-Orthodox and young hilltop hoodlums are digging in, as Ethan Bronner's latest makes clear. The harder Obama pushes, the more they taunt him (including, evidently, with a Hebrew version of the n-word); the more the rabbis like Ovadia Yosef exhort their followers to stand against the US's demand for a settlement freeze; and the more Netanyahu can sit back and wait for the likes of Pastor Hagee to whittle away at Obama's public support among our Christian Zionist brethren. There is indeed some push-back from the Israeli left, with Peace Now putting up posters. as Phil Weiss picks up

The poster, that is certain to stir up controversy in the capital, reads: "Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three things – idolatry, incest and bloodshed. Why was the Second Temple destroyed? Because there was unfounded hatred. And what, heaven forbid, will lead to the destruction of the Third Temple? The settlements, fanaticism and occupation."

"For this I mourn," the poster continues," for the settlements that were built in the heart of Palestinian territory and that keep peace and quiet from our land. For the settlements that were built, with or without permit, and that turn us into the loathsome scum among the nations.

"For the outposts that were built by deception and by turning blind eyes. For Jerusalem, the joy of the land, that has been turned into a city of strife and quarrel. For the continued investment and construction in the settlements, that will ultimately lead to one state for two people – and thus put an end to the Zionist enterprise."

But when you have people actually creating new "facts on the ground," with the Israeli government making what are really only hit-or-miss dismantlings of these outposts, with no follow-through . . . I'm sorry, but I fear that all of the momentum is with the settlers, not with the poster-people.

(And as for the response of US officials to Netanyahu's reference to them as self-hating Jews, I recommend you check out Stephen Walt's take.)

These zealots are dug in, and digging in more. Their government claims to be opposed to what they're doing, but in actuality takes great pains to make sure they're protected. Their rabbis are telling them to oppose IDF soldiers who might come to dismantle their outposts, and are calling upon the soldiers themselves (more and more of whom are coming from the ranks of the hyper-religious) not to obey orders to remove Jews from the "land of Israel" (i.e., the West Bank).

Meanwhile, the Paletinians, the Saudis, and others across the Arab world are counting on Obama to not only stick to his guns, but to actually bring about real change, to force a real breakthrough that will give the Palestinians some legitimate shot at a viable state. But Netanyahu knows that the majority of Israelis now have his back on the settlements issue, and that Obama has issues in re domestic political support (especially in Congress, and not just among Christian Zionist/evangelical Republicans) and needing to keep as much support on-side as he can as campaigning season for 2010 elections approaches (it's not all that far off). Netanyahu also knows that forceful government action against the settlers will almost surely ignite violence by settlers (many of whom, of course, are armed, and tote their arms with them) against IDF soldiers. That's another trump card he can play with Obama.

All of which will put the load of leading any movement for a Palestinian state right back on the shoulders of the Palestinians themselves - and whatever allies they can still attract. Negotiations have been a dead end - and will continue to be a dead end - because no Israeli government to date has been willing to "concede" enough to make any proposed deal viable.

The remaining options - short of an honest-to-goodness binational state, which is by far the fairest one - are very poor.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

US in Pakistan - Good Intentions, Stymied by Poor Homework

A maddening piece in today's WaPo. Congress proposes legislation supposedly to promote economic growth in Pakistan (which, more than military might and drone attacks, would do more to undercut the Taliban's appeal) - but then attaches provisions that make the legislation almost worthless to the people it's supposed to help:

Pakistani businessmen said limits on what textiles are covered -- sought by U.S. business lobbyists -- render the bill, and its pending Senate version, largely worthless.

Many products eligible for duty-free status are not items that Pakistan produces in large quantity, according to an analysis by the Citizens Voice, a Peshawar-based think tank of business and civic leaders.

"This is ridiculous, this is not going to work, this is a non-starter," said Aleema Khan, chairman of Cotton Connection, a Lahore-based firm that buys textiles for large American companies. "Everybody's rejecting it. Major industry is rejecting it. Buyers are rejecting it. This bill should not go through. The fact that they haven't done their homework is what's so scary.". . . .

Muhammad Atif Hanif, a manager at Dubai Islamic Bank in Peshawar and a member of the Citizens Voice, said that Pakistani textile exports tend to fall into six categories -- including cotton pants, underwear, knit shirts and hosiery -- and all are excluded from the legislation. The current legislation would benefit only about $200 million of the export industry, he said.

Said Mohsin Aziz: "We are supposed to produce swimsuits, we are supposed to produce neckties, we are supposed to produce handkerchiefs, we are supposed to produce silk gowns, which we have never produced, which we do not have the raw material for, which we do not have the expertise for. It's just a game."

Is there something about the American entrepreneurial, can-do ("git 'er done") mentality that resists putting in the long hours of research time, of deep learning, that are needed when dealing with "overseas" cultures? This is surely reminiscent of the Bremer-era US takeover in Iraq, when the Bush people sent in ideologically correct, but woefully inexperienced can-do'ers to rebuild a country about whose history and culture they knew virtually nothing. We're all still living with results.

And meanwhile, Pakistan struggles on. As the WaPo report notes,

On the ground in Peshawar, debates over U.S. help that is potentially years away are overshadowed by the threats businessmen face each day. As many as 300 people a month, mostly businessmen, have been kidnapped for ransom in the province, said Muhammad Ishaq, vice president of the Frontier Chamber of Commerce. Two years ago, there were 2,254 industrial companies here. Today, 594 remain, the others driven out by war and power shortages, according to the chamber.

Earlier this year, anonymous letters believed to be from the Taliban, delivered to banks, insurance companies and other businesses, demanded that employees wear traditional Islamic baggy tunics and pants, known as a salwar-kameez.

Ilyas Bilour, a senator and owner of a vegetable oil business in Peshawar, said he has shed 10 to 20 percent of his workforce, and the factories now operate only half the month. He moved his children and grandchildren to Islamabad to keep them safe.

Nauman Wazir, who owns companies that produce rebar, marble and hunting weapons, has a simple strategy to weather these violent times. "I travel fully armed. AK-47s. Pistols can't save you. An AK-47 can save you. Fully loaded. I don't take chances," he said. He knows what he's up against. A decade ago, kidnappers held him for 60 days.

"Either I'm going to kill him or I'm going to get killed. I'm not having any of this kidnapping business."

Aluf Benn channels Glenn Close: We will not be ignored

Haaretz editor Aluf Benn says that Israelis are feeling ignored, left out, by Mr. Obama. "Gee, he's given a speech to the Arabs, Muslims, Iranians, Western Europeans, Eastern Europeans, Russians and Africans. But, what about us? Where's the love, Barack?" (although Benn notes that miffed Israelis are now given to calling him Hussein). So now Israelis are standing solidly with poor Mr. Netanyahu, who's taken such an awful, undeserved beating.

Pulleeez!

Says Mr. Benn:

This policy of ignoring Israel carries a price. Though Mr. Obama has succeeded in prodding Mr. Netanyahu to accept the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, he has failed to induce Israel to impose a freeze on settlements. In fact, he has failed even to stir debate about the merits of one: no Israeli political figure has stood up to Mr. Netanyahu and begged him to support Mr. Obama; not even the Israeli left, desperate for a new agenda, has adopted Mr. Obama as its icon.
It's Obama's fault that Israelis aren't debating the virtues of a freeze? This from a man whose own newspaper has been the leader in arguing that the entire settlement enterprise has pulled Israel down? I'd suggest that it's Benn and other enlightened Israelis who ought to shoulder the blame here, not Mr. Obama. Don't blame Obama for Israelis' willful blindness.
In Mr. Netanyahu’s narrative, the president has fallen under the influence of top aides — in this case Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod — whom the prime minister has called “self-hating Jews.”
Rahm Emanuel, a self-hating Jew? The Rahm Emanuel who once served with the Israeli army? Whose father fought in the Zionist underground?
What went wrong? Several explanations come to mind.

First, in the 16 rosy years of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Israelis became spoiled by unfettered presidential attention. Memories of State Department “Arabists” leading American policy in the Middle East were erased. The White House coordinated its policy with Jerusalem, and stayed out of the way when Israel embarked on controversial military offensives in Lebanon and Gaza. This approach infuriated America’s Arab and European allies, which blamed Washington for one-sidedness — something they were willing to forgive of Bill Clinton but not of George W. Bush.

Mr. Obama came to office determined to repair America’s broken alliances in Europe and the Middle East. One way to do this — to prove that he was the opposite of his predecessor — was to place some distance between Israel and himself.
Benn seems to forget Bill Clinton's complete for disdain for Netanyahu during his first stint as prime minister. Hardly a "rosy" era in US-Israel relations. And perhaps, as Mr. Obama said in his Cairo speech, it's high time that Israel and everyone else recognize the injustice done to the Palestinian Arabs in 1947-48 and the years following - something that the Israeli Left (including Benn's own newspaper) seems to have become aware of as well. And when you've been dealt a lousy hand - as Mr. Bush did for Mr. Obama - the options are to bluff, big-time (Obama's not that stupid) or to fold and get some new cards (which to some extent is what Obama's trying to do).
Second, Mr. Obama’s quest for diplomacy has appeared to Israelis as dangerous American naïveté. The president offered a hand to the Iranians, and got nothing, merely giving them more time to advance their nuclear program. In Israeli eyes, he was humiliated by North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. And he failed to move Arab governments to take steps to normalize relations with Israel. Conclusion: Mr. Obama is a softie, eager to please his listeners and avoid confrontation with anyone who is not Mr. Netanyahu.
Obama got nothing from the Iranians? Given the upheaval after the June elections fiasco, the Iranian government is hanging on by its fingernails. They're hardly in a position to be creative in foreign policy, and the nuclear program is a matter of national pride for almost all Iranians, not just the government. Or should Obama just buddy up with Netanyahu and bomb Iran (and, what the hell, North Korea, too) to smithereens?
Third, Mr. Obama seems to have confused American Jews with Israelis. We are close emotionally and politically, but we are different. We speak Hebrew and not English, we live in the Middle East and have separate historical narratives. Mr. Obama’s stop at Buchenwald and his strong rejection of Holocaust denial, immediately after his Cairo speech, appealed to American Jews but fell flat in Israel. Here we are taught that Zionist determination and struggle — not guilt over the Holocaust — brought Jews a homeland. Mr. Obama’s speech, which linked Israel’s existence to the Jewish tragedy, infuriated many Israelis who sensed its closeness to the narrative of enemies like Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.
As offensive and outlandish as Ahmadinejad's pronouncements can be, the idea that Holocaust-inspired guilt greased the skids for the world's acquiescence in (and Harry Truman's huge boost of) Israel's creation is hardly news, nor is it invalid - and Netanyahu has been playing the "new Holocaust" card shamelessly for years. And again, there's that little matter of massive Zionist ethnic cleansing that pushed the Palestinians out. Am I equating that with the Holocaust? Absolutely not. But it can't simply be dismissed because of the enormity of the Holocaust's horrors. I once heard Hanan Ashrawi comment on this issue: You cannot use your pain to invalidate my own. I'm with her.
Fourth, as far as most Israelis are concerned, Mr. Obama has made a mistake in focusing on a settlement freeze. For starters, mainstream Israelis rarely have anything to do with the settlements; many have no idea where they are, even when they’re a half-hour’s drive from Tel Aviv.
And whose fault is that, Mr. Benn, if Israelis are oblivious to the settlements? Two of your finest and most respected columnists - Gideon Levy and Amira Hass (the child of Holocaust survivors) - have persisted, and suffered, in reporting on the evils of Israeli occupation and West Bank settlements (and until 2005, Gaza settlements). Mr. Obama is now supposed to pay the price for your countrymen's racist ignoring of what their government is perpetrating?
More important: in the past decade, repeated peace negotiations and diplomatic statements have indicated that larger, closer-to-home settlements (the “settlement blocs”) will remain in Israeli hands under any two-state solution. Why, then, insist on a total freeze everywhere? And why deny with such force — as the administration did — the existence of previous understandings between the United States and Israel over limited settlement construction? There is simply too much evidence proving that such an understanding existed. To Israelis, the claim undermined Mr. Obama’s credibility — and strengthened Mr. Netanyahu’s position.
Why not insist? The settlements are illegal, and have always been illegal according to the dictates of international law and UN resolutions. (Perhaps Mr. Netanyahu hasn't seen the marvelous essay to that effect by Tony Judt? Ooops, never mind - self-hating Jew. Sorry.) Until George Bush's blunder with Sharon, it had been official US policy not to recognize them as legal. If anything, Obama is trying to bring the situation into line with what US policy had always been, and should have remained. Again, just because Bush dealt him some lousy cards doesn't mean Obama now has to play them out. There were no documents signed. Obama is breaking no treaties by insisting on a settlement freeze. But from the first settler's building a house in the first settlement in 1967, Israel has been in violation of the law.
But until the president talks to us, we won’t know. Next time you’re in the neighborhood, Mr. President, speak to us directly. We will surely listen.
I believe he has indeed been talking to Israelis, Mr. Benn. You just don't seem to care for what he's been saying.

UPDATE: Nice essay in the 29 July NYT by Celestine Bohlen touches on some of these points.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Under Our Radar: West Bank settlements grow, while Iraq unravels

From this morning's Haaretz, the unsettling report (which BTW went unnoted in either the Washington Post or NY Times) that the population of the West Bank settlements has now surpassed 300,000. The NYT does run an interesting piece by Ethan Bronner (whose impartiality has been questioned by Phil Weiss at Mondoweiss on several occasions) with the chirpy headline, "In 2 West Bank Settlements, Sign of Hope for a Deal." But the article itself is hardly reassuring. Bronner went to two haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) settlements and found those he interviewed to be largely "pragmatic," treasuring life above everything else - but the headline hints not at all at the harder line he also encountered, and which is featured front and center in what ought to be a must-read for US policy makers: the new report from the International Crisis Group, "Israel’s Religious Right and the Question of Settlements" . They mince no words:

The effort to settle in the occupied territories once was led by secular Zionists. No more. Today, the settlement issue is being quickly transformed by the shifting dynamics of the religious right. Tens of thousands of national-religious Jews populate the settlements; they enjoy political, logistical and other forms of support from hundreds of thousands inside Israel proper. In addition, an equal if not larger number of ultra-orthodox who initially shared little of the national-religious outlook, gradually have been gravitating toward their view; many among them are now settlers. Together, the national-religious and ultra-orthodox carry weight far in excess of their numbers. They occupy key positions in the military, the government and the education and legal sectors, as well as various layers of the bureaucracy. They help shape decision-making and provide a support base for religious militants, thereby strengthening the struggle against future territorial withdrawals from both within and without state institutions.

The religious right believes it has time on its side. Its two principal camps – the national-religious and ultra-orthodox – boast the country’s highest birth rates. They have doubled their population in West Bank settlements in a decade. They are rising up military ranks. Their political parties traditionally play important roles within ruling government coalitions. Many – in the leadership and among the grassroots – are preparing the ground for the next battle over settlements and territorial withdrawal, animated by a deeply rooted conviction in the rightness of their cause. Treating every confrontation – however insignificant the apparent stake – as a test of wills, religious militants have responded to the demolition of plyboard huts with revenge strikes on Palestinians, stoning their cars, burning their crops, cutting their trees and occasionally opening fire. Mainstream religious leaders for the most part appear powerless to condemn, let alone tamp down the violence.

In the run-up to the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, some analysts and even a few decision-makers predicted violent clashes and hard fought evacuations. They were mistaken. Disengagement proceeded remarkably peacefully and smoothly. But it would be wrong to veer to the other extreme and assume that what happened in Gaza will be replicated in the West Bank. There are differences in numbers, background and militancy of the respective settler populations. Plus, Gaza taught lessons to all sides, the government but also the militants. Since then, the latter have been preparing for the next round. They are banking on their support within state institutions to discourage the government from taking action and on their own rank and file to ensure that every attempt to evict an outpost or destroy a structure comes at a heavy price. For that reason, some security officials worry that unrest could spread, with violence not only between Israeli Jews and Palestinians but also among Jews; they also fear discord in military ranks that could complicate action.

Some steps are long overdue. Having long given succour to the settlement enterprise, the state needs to rein it in; while it at times has acted against the excesses of individual religious militants, it too often has shown excessive lenience toward anti-Palestinian violence or hateful incitement, especially with a religious content. Rabbis who call on soldiers to defy army orders to remove settlements or who justify violence in many cases continue to receive state salaries; religious colleges with a record of militancy continue to operate without oversight or regulation; inflammatory material finds its way on to army bases. All this should stop. Judicial and law enforcement agencies need to investigate and prosecute cases of anti-Palestinian violence and hate crimes. The army should show the same determination in protecting non-Jewish as it does Jewish civilians in the West Bank.

But Israel’s religious right has deep roots, and even its most militant expression cannot be dealt with exclusively through confrontation, however effective U.S. pressure might be. Along with necessary firmness, there are other ways to defuse the problem:

  • The government could help pass an early evacuation compensation law, providing for advantageous financial terms to those settlers who agree to move, thereby isolating their more hardline members.
  • Unlike what happened with the Gaza disengagement, the government could start early planning for settler relocation by building alternative homes inside Israel proper.
  • While some settlers will be determined no matter what to remain on what they consider their Biblical land, here, too, ideas are worth exploring. In negotiations with Palestinians, Israel could examine whether and how settlers choosing to remain might live under Palestinian rule.
  • Israel’s religious parties should be made to feel part of the diplomatic process, rather than as its mere spectators or even its targets; in this spirit, third parties such as the U.S. should be reaching out to them.

The current mix of neither strict law enforcement nor effective outreach is a recipe for greater difficulties ahead. To ignore the reality and weight of Israel’s religious right would hamper an already uncertain path to an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and, should an agreement be reached, toward a lasting and sustainable peace.

Not helpful in getting out both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian story, on the other hand, are your friendly administrators at Facebook, who (the UPI reports) have taken down a Facebook page (with 10,000 fans) dedicated to the Hamas leader in embattled Gaza, Ismail Haniya. When questioned, the administrators refused comment, but the report notes that they'd been coming under fire from pro-Israel types.

Meanwhile, in Iraq . . . Thomas Ricks adds another installment to his "Iraq: the Unraveling" series:

Over the weekend an Iraqi commander tried to detain U.S. troops after they chased into a neighborhood some people who shot at their convoy, The Washington Post reported. They reportedly killed three Iraqis and wounded another four in doing so. Prime Minister Maliki says the Iraq commander was "out of line." But then Saturday is probably one of his days to be nice to the evil American occupiers who protect him.

Maliki also is shocked -- shocked -- that the U.S. government talked secretly to insurgent leaders. Everyone, don't tell the prime minister about the Sons of Iraq program, either!

Also, more bad news in al Anbar -- a big bomb went off in Fallujah, as well as a smaller one near the headquarters of the Iraqi Islamic Party, and one at a funeral between Ramadi and Fallujah. [JR: see also the NYT report here.] And a bunch of police were shot up in Abu Ghraib. Is the Anbar Sawha going off the reservation? I still don't understand what is happening out there, and have been surprised by the lack of news coverage of it. It makes me wonder if in budget cutbacks, news bureaus let go their stringers in Anbar. If so, what a sad turn for the news business. Suppose they gave a war and nobody covered it.


Well, the Afghans are giving an election, and since the war there is now the media's flavor of the month, it's worth noting that the Karzai government has struck a truce with the Taliban in a remote part of the country. (The Taliban deny it.) No comments reported from General McChrystal about that, but when the Pakistan government struck a deal with the Pakistani Taliban a few months ago, the US came down pretty hard on the Zardari government.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Success - and a Test - for Democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan

The LA Times reports that the opposition party, Change, made a surprisingly strong showing in yesterday's elections for the Kurdistan Regional Government's elections - which suggests that the people do indeed have the possibility of opting for political change there. The possible down-side?

The outcome in Sulaimaniya is likely to strain relations between KDP and the PUK, who have jointly run Kurdistan for most of the last 18 years, most recently under a power-sharing agreement under which they split positions and jobs in the government on a 50-50 basis.

Now that the PUK seems to have lost much of its own support base, it will be regarded as a secondary in the alliance, said Hiwa Osman, Iraq director of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting.

"The KDP is not going to give them 50-50," he said. "They will see them as the junior partner."
Before the afore-mentioned power-sharing agreement, the two parties (which essentially are the personal political fiefdoms of the two most powerful families in the region - the Talabanis and the Barzanis ) were usually at each other's throat - and I don't mean metaphorically speaking. During the 1990s, Saddam was still able to play them off against each other. The PUK is not going to accept lower-tier political status easily. The potential for Kurdistan to become unstable is quite real.

Or, might Mr. Maliki find it now opportune to resort to Saddam's old tactic?


Rahm Emanuel channels Cheney

Dan Balz has an interesting analysis in today's WaPo about Obama's ambitious agenda, "He Promised Change, but Is This Too Much, Too Soon?" Perhaps so, but I couldn't help but be struck (well, floored, to be perfectly candid) by the advice offered him by his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, during the financial crisis:
"Never let a serious crisis go to waste."
I'm sure Dick Cheney had the very same advice for Bush and his people on 12 September 2001. It brought us the 2003 Iraq invasion and all that followed it, as well as the new tar baby called "Afpak."

Iraq's persisting divisions - and security contractors in Afghanistan?

The NYT's Rod Nordland has an excellent piece on the persistence and volatility of the ethnic divide in Kirkuk, where Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen are vying for control, with no real solution anywhere on the horizon without a proper census - and too many are trying to keep that from happening. Therefore . . . stalemate, and the real chance that some provocation will incite a civil war.

At least the Iraqi Kurds have had a relatively peaceable election, even if the same established, clan-based parties are likely to retain power, and even if there are already accusations of fraud.

No, Iraq ain't over.

And Afghanistan is far from over - and likely not "winnable." The US is facing a huge shortfall in manpower. One recent study noted that using a contemporary counter-insurgency model, more than 600,000 troops would be needed there. No way the US - with the Afghans and Brits - can pony up that many troops. One proposed solution (according to the WaPo's Walter Pincus) = hire lots of mercenaries (pardon me - I mean, "private security contractors") to guard the troops' bases, even the forward operating bases on the front lines. The always helpful Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution chimes in:

"We don't want to waste scarce Afghan army and police, so we must be creative," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a senior fellow and military expert at the Brookings Institution.

But O'Hanlon also said he is concerned that if contractors were to take over security at forward operating bases, they would be the first to see hostile fire, and they -- not soldiers -- would have to decide whether to employ weapons against an enemy.

Who is he kidding?! We're talking about bringing in the same kind of guys that we brought into Iraq from the get-go, who were prone to shoot first, ask later (if ever), and at time wasted Iraqis just for the fun of it. And the Pentagon knows it.

This, mes amis, speaks of desperation, already, from Obama's people. General Petraeus was brought in to head the Afghanistan operation as the patron saint of modern counter-insurgency tactics = protect the locals from the "bad guys." Bringing in the likes of Eric Prince and Blackwater/Xe is no way to do that. But I sense the Pentagon has decided that it has no better options.

Meanwhile, our Israeli "allies" are still upset with Mr. Obama's insistence that they stop building settlements. The latest to chime in? The Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party, a ultra-religious, pro-settlement group that belongs to Netanyahu's ruling coalition. You can put him right up there with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman as a great pal of the Arabs. As the AFP report notes,

Born in Iraq in 1920, Yosef is a former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel and a controversial figure who has in the past referred to Arabs and Palestinians as "snakes" and "vipers" who were "swarming like ants."

He called on God to strike down then prime minister Ariel Sharon over the 2005 withdrawal of settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip and during the Lebanon war in July-August 2006, implied that Israeli soldiers killed in battle died because they didn't follow Jewish commandments.

In 2000 he sparked outrage when he said that the six million Jewish victims of the Nazi Holocaust did "not die for nothing," but were the "reincarnation of Jews who had sinned" in previous generations.

Such are the kind souls who rail against Mr. Obama's insistence on a settlement freeze. Of course, the rabbi and Mr. Lieberman have some cover back here in the US, where our own Mr. Lieberman (Joe) and his pals at the CUFI convention (that's "Christians United for Israel," headed up by Pastor John Hagee) are sending warm fuzzies to those rascally hill-top youth at the West Bank outposts.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bush considered sending US troops into Buffalo, NY, in 2003

Big, big scoop from the NY Times. Again, Dick Cheney encouraged Bush to flout the Constitution. Again, John Yoo helped provide the legal cover (via a memorandum - this is, of course, the same John Yoo who provided memoranda to "legalize" torture by the CIA).

I don't have the link, but I also recall very distinctly that at one point during the Bush presidency, regular US Army troops were being trained to control domestic disturbances in the US. This is not something for which the US Army has been used since the Civil War.

Vigilance, mes amis. Sometimes our democracy (flawed as it is) can be hanging by the most slender of threads . . . and can be hung by the most slender of threats.

July 25, 2009
Bush Weighed Using Military in Arrests
By MARK MAZZETTI and DAVID JOHNSTON

WASHINGTON — Top Bush administration officials in 2002 debated testing the Constitution by sending American troops into the suburbs of Buffalo to arrest a group of men suspected of plotting with Al Qaeda, according to former administration officials.

Some of the advisers to President George W. Bush, including Vice President Dick Cheney, argued that a president had the power to use the military on domestic soil to sweep up the terrorism suspects, who came to be known as the Lackawanna Six, and declare them enemy combatants.

Mr. Bush ultimately decided against the proposal to use military force.

A decision to dispatch troops into the streets to make arrests has few precedents in American history, as both the Constitution and subsequent laws restrict the military from being used to conduct domestic raids and seize property.

The Fourth Amendment bans “unreasonable” searches and seizures without probable cause. And the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 generally prohibits the military from acting in a law enforcement capacity.

In the discussions, Mr. Cheney and others cited an Oct. 23, 2001, memorandum from the Justice Department that, using a broad interpretation of presidential authority, argued that the domestic use of the military against Al Qaeda would be legal because it served a national security, rather than a law enforcement, purpose.

“The president has ample constitutional and statutory authority to deploy the military against international or foreign terrorists operating within the United States,” the memorandum said.

The memorandum — written by the lawyers John C. Yoo and Robert J. Delahunty — was directed to Alberto R. Gonzales, then the White House counsel, who had asked the department about a president’s authority to use the military to combat terrorist activities in the United States.

The memorandum was declassified in March. But the White House debate about the Lackawanna group is the first evidence that top American officials, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, actually considered using the document to justify deploying the military into an American town to make arrests.

Most former officials interviewed for this article spoke only on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations about the case involved classified information. They agreed to talk about the internal discussions only after the memorandum was released earlier this year.

New information has recently emerged about the deliberations and divisions in the administration over some of the most controversial policies after the Sept. 11 attacks, like the decision to use brutal interrogation methods on Qaeda detainees.

Former officials in the administration said this debate was not as bitter as others during Mr. Bush’s first term. The discussions did not proceed far enough to put military units on alert.

Still, at least one high-level meeting was convened to debate the issue, at which several top Bush aides argued firmly against the proposal to use the military, advanced by Mr. Cheney, his legal adviser David S. Addington and some senior Defense Department officials.

Among those in opposition were Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser; John B. Bellinger III, the top lawyer at the National Security Council; Robert S. Mueller III, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and Michael Chertoff, then the head of the Justice Department’s criminal division.

“Frankly, it was a bit of a turf war,” said one former senior administration official. “For a number of people, crossing the line of having intelligence or military activities inside the United States was not worth the risk.”

Mr. Bush ended up ordering the F.B.I. to make the arrests in Lackawanna, near Buffalo, where the agency had been monitoring a group of Yemeni Americans with suspected Qaeda ties. The five men arrested there in September 2002, and a sixth arrested nearly simultaneously in Bahrain, pleaded guilty to terrorism-related charges.

Scott L. Silliman, a Duke University law professor specializing in national security law, said an American president had not deployed the active-duty military on domestic soil in a law enforcement capacity, without specific statutory authority, since the Civil War.

Senior military officials were never consulted, former officials said. Richard B. Myers, a retired general who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a recent interview that he was unaware of the discussion.

Former officials said the 2002 debate arose partly from Justice Department concerns that there might not be enough evidence to arrest and successfully prosecute the suspects in Lackawanna. Mr. Cheney, the officials said, had argued that the administration would need a lower threshold of evidence to declare them enemy combatants and keep them in military custody.

Earlier that summer, the administration designated Jose Padilla an enemy combatant and sent him to a military brig in South Carolina. Mr. Padilla was arrested by civilian agencies on suspicion of plotting an attack using a radioactive bomb.

Those who advocated using the military to arrest the Lackawanna group had legal ammunition: the memorandum by Mr. Yoo and Mr. Delahunty.

The lawyers, in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, wrote that the Constitution, the courts and Congress had recognized a president’s authority “to take military actions, domestic as well as foreign, if he determines such actions to be necessary to respond to the terrorist attacks upon the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and before.”

The document added that the neither the Posse Comitatus Act nor the Fourth Amendment tied a president’s hands.

Despite this guidance, some Bush aides bristled at the prospect of troops descending on an American suburb to arrest terrorism suspects.

“What would it look like to have the American military go into an American town and knock on people’s door?” said a second former official in the debate.

Chief James L. Michel of the Lackawanna police agreed. “If we had tanks rolling down the streets of our city,” Chief Michel said, “we would have had pandemonium down here.”

The Lackawanna case was the first after the Sept. 11 attacks in which American intelligence and law enforcement operatives believed they had dismantled a Qaeda cell in the United States.

In the months before the arrests, Mr. Bush was regularly briefed on the case by Mr. Mueller of the F.B.I. and George J. Tenet, the director of central intelligence. The C.I.A. had been tracking the overseas contacts of the Lackawanna group.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed article in March, Mr. Yoo defended his 2001 memorandum and its reasoning, saying that after Sept. 11 the Bush administration faced the real prospect of Qaeda cells undertaking attacks on American soil. “The possibility of such attacks raised difficult, fundamental questions of constitutional law,” he wrote, “because they might require domestic military operations against an enemy for the first time since the Civil War.”

Another deadly blast in Anbar

Fallujah (in mostly Sunni Anbar province) was hit today with a bombing that killed 4 and wounded/maimed many more. Al Jazeera English - Middle East - Iraq blast 'targets Sunni party' The target was the HQ of the Iraqi Islamic Party. Until the recent elections, the IIP had controlled much of the local government in the areas. Lately, though, it has been challenged by local, more secular Sunni groups that often represent the "tribal" militias that were so important in the Awakening movement that turned back "al-Qaeda" jihadists.

Who's doing this? Perhaps the jihadists? Or perhaps guys from the now-decommissioned Awakening? The US will likely blame it on "al-Qaeda terrorists" - unless there's a way to somehow pin it on Shii groups influenced by Iran = for the US, generally the flavor of the month, every month.

UPDATE: As if these disturbances weren't enough, now the US is trying to grease the skids for Sunni-Shii reconciliation in the Maliki government (with some help from Turkey) - but Maliki is screaming "busted!" and telling the US to keep its nose out of his country's business. Again, how much of this is for show? On the other hand, the whole thing might have stayed under the radar if Maliki hadn't spoken up.

Again, we forget at our peril just how deeply runs the Shii paranoia about Sunni intentions - and the desire among some Shii for payback. We also need to remember that the Shii who lead the government are the same people who were forced into exile under Saddam, who had to give up their homes and livelihoods and fortunes, and perhaps see members of their family killed. They are not likely to sit back and let the US - in moves designed to suit US policy needs (like cheap oil) - prop the door open for people who may have had a hand in that. Would you?


Friday, July 24, 2009

The Next Chapter in Iraq

My publisher's deadline for my submitting the manuscript of my book (it's a short history of Mesopotamia/Iraq - title TBD) is rushing at me, so I'm going to be hunkering down to finish before the new academic year starts, and probably posting less for awhile. But I shall try to send along updates and new, important pieces I come across. Here's one.

The Next Chapter in Iraq - Council on Foreign Relations

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Israel's Full-court Press vs. Obama; plus Maliki's Visit

The Israeli government is pressing the Obama administration on a number of fronts, basically throwing back in his face his out-reach to Middle Eastern and Muslim countries as well as his call for recognition of the injustices done to Palestinians during the creation of Israel.

The Israeli government has decreed that the word al-Nakba ("Catastrophe"), which Palestinian Arabs have used for decades to refer to the events of 1947-1948, be removed from school textbooks. A convenient re-shaping of history by Israel - and especially ironic in that it has been Israeli historians like Benny Morris, Tom Segev, and Avi Shlaim who've led the way in revealing the extent to which Palestinians were forced out of their cities and villages.

In its fight against the US demand that Israel undertake no more building in East Jerusalem (a demand that Netanyahu has rejected), the Israeli government has instructed its embassies and propaganda arms worldwide to make use of an old photo showing Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a leading Palestinian nationalist of the 1930s and 1940s, meeting with Adolf Hitler in Berlin. The man died in Lebanon in 1974.

Netanyahu has announced that Israel won't dismantle its "security fence" walling off the West Bank from Israel. And I do mean "walling off." Along with the still demolished houses that litter the landscape of Gaza, this wall remains the most visible and tangible symbol of Israeli apartheid policies against the Palestinians. And add to that the fact that the wall has created new "facts on the ground" by enclosing many acres of land beyond the 1967 boundary.

Israeli officials have decided that Turkish PM Erdogan is too extreme to moderate Syria talks . This, because of his angry denunciation - aimed at Israel's president, Shimon Peres, as they shared a stage - of Israel's killing of hundreds of Gazans in the military operations last December and January. Erdogan justifiably earned widespread accolades for his forthrightness.

Israeli rabbis, led by Israel's Chief Rabbi, have sent a letter to U.S. rabbis and the President's Conference, urging them to exert political leverage in Israel's favor. Say they:
"The American government pressures Israel to prevent Jews from building houses in extensive areas in the Land of Israel, which is very unfortunate. We ask you to make use of your political power to lobby the American authorities to reconsider this policy in the spirit of truly democratic justice, and give weight to halakhic considerations that are binding for the Jews."

US Sec of State Hillary Clinton has stated that the US will provide a security umbrella for Persian Gulf countries in the event of a nuclear Iran. Says she:
“We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment that if the U.S. extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the Gulf,” . . . . “it’s unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer, because they won’t be able to intimidate and dominate, as they apparently believe they can, once they have a nuclear weapon.”
Someone might care to remind her that any Iranian nuclear weapon (which, the Iranians still say, they have no intention of actually developing) would probably be intended more for deterrence than for intimidation. Iran is surrounded countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, plus US bases in the Persian Gulf) by US ground, air, and naval forces, in strength, and has a nuke-armed and hostile Israel close at hand. Could you blame them for seeking a deterrent?
Israel, however, is angry at the US, calling Clinton's statement a cave-in that opens the door to acquiescence to an Iranian nuclear capability.

And speaking of Iraq, Foreign Policy has a nice analysis of Nuri al-Maliki's tenure as Iraq's prime minister, and raises the question of whether the US has in fact created a new Iraqi strongman. The piece leads off: "The New Nuri al-Maliki - U.S. officials used to worry that Iraq's prime minister was too weak. That was then." Indeed. And now he's about to meet with Mr. Obama in DC. The FP piece notes:

Iraq is further down on President Barack Obama's list of priorities, coming after Afghanistan, Iran, the global economic crisis, and a range of domestic initiatives. Although Obama has wisely allowed the Iraq policy he inherited from Bush to continue for the near term, he lacks Bush's enthusiasm for the war and his belief in the strategic importance of the long-term U.S.-Iraq relationship. As for Maliki himself, Obama's advisors have made clear their belief that Bush was too close to the prime minister as an individual and that U.S. support is for Iraqi institutions rather than particular leaders.

This week, Maliki will meet a president whose support for a democratic Iraq is genuine, but not guaranteed. U.S. officials are annoyed at what they regard as Maliki's overconfidence, demonstrated in particular by his celebratory handling of the recent withdrawal and the strict implementation of new rules restraining U.S. forces. Obama and his administration want a strong alliance with Iraq, but also a more balanced one that involves responsibilities and obligations on both sides. For the new president, Iraq is important for U.S. interests but not critical, and he casts a more skeptical eye on the benefits the United States receives in return for its massive support. The burden is on Maliki to make his case that both he and the U.S.-Iraq relationship more generally are still worth the America' time and trouble.
For his own sake, Maliki needs to succeed. Without continued US back-up, he will be toast. But to the extent that Obama keeps furnishing that back-up, he has less wherewithal to deal with an Afghanistan war that will likely prove much more than he - or the guy that sent the US in to begin with, Mr. Bush - ever bargained for. And, given Pakistan's new objections to the US presence there, much more complicated.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Iraq bombings kill 19 in Sadr City and Ramadi

Iraq bombings kill 19, including 14 in the Sadr City section of Baghdad and another five in Ramadi (again, in supposedly pacified Anbar). Ramadi was hit yesterday as well. Dozens more were wounded across the country in a flurry of attacks three weeks after the U.S. military completed its withdrawal from Iraqi cities. A state of emergency was declared in Ramadi as well.

Reconciliation in Iraq seems many moons away. An analysis from WINEP offers some constructive suggestions on reconciliation in Iraq, but as Thomas Ricks notes, that seems many moons away.

Biden's Rhetoric and Iraq - Not a Way Forward

All in all, some very sound advising in today's WaPo from a former Bush-administration foreign-policy official.
Meghan L. O'Sullivan - Biden's Rhetoric Could Harm U.S. Prospects in Iraq - washingtonpost.com

By all means, I concur - Iraqi politicians need to be encouraged to think in terms of issues, not ethnicity, and Joe Biden's earlier support for a soft partitioning of Iraq has to some extent come back to haunt the Obama administration, at least in the eyes of Iraqis who hope to see a reasonably strongly centralized state.

But the big issue that Ms. O'Sullivan fails to address is one that Patrick Cockburn raised in an important essay several weeks ago: How can Iraqis get past their paranoias, their deeply ingrained resistance to trusting fellow Iraqis who happen to be of different sect or ethnicity?

But the attitudes of Iraqis are not determined solely or even primarily by monthly casualty figures or even the current security situation. Their individual psychology and collective political landscape is shaped rather by the memory of the mass killings of the recent past and fear that they might happen again. Iraq is a country so drenched in blood as to make it next to impossible to reach genuine political accommodation between Shia and Sunni, Arab and Kurd, Baathist and non-Baathist, supporters and opponents of the US occupation. "How do you expect people who are too frightened of each other to live in the same street to reach political agreements?"


We've all become familiar with the accounts about how Sunnis and Shii intermarried during the Saddam era and earlier, hardly giving a thought to such differences. But the fact of the matter is that such fault lines are there, and that when Iraq has been destabilized (often by outside intervention), it's been along those fault lines. But Saddam accentuated them as well, no more so than with his Anfal genocidal campaign against the Kurds in the last years of the 1980-1988 war with Iran or his brutal repression of the Shii intifada in 1991.

Can outsiders play a significant role in helping rebuild trust between Arabs and Kurds, Sunni and Shii, in Iraq? Or is this a matter better left to the people of Iraq themselves?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Roger Cohen on Iran's elections, and Iran's greatness

July 21, 2009
Globalist

Iran's Tragic Joke

NEW YORK — Allow me to quote the British novelist Martin Amis, writing about Persia in The Guardian: “Iran is one of the most venerable civilizations on earth: It makes China look like an adolescent, and America look like a stripling.”

Iranians, aware of that history, are a proud people. They do not take kindly to being played around with, nor to seeing their country turned into a laughing stock. They do not like the memory of an election campaign that now seems like pure theater, the expression of the sadistic whim of some puppeteer.

So the line I take away from the important Friday sermon of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the two-time former president who believes that the Islamic Republic’s future lies in compromise rather than endless confrontation, is this one: “We shouldn’t let our enemies laugh at us because we’ve imprisoned our own people.”

There’s been tragedy aplenty since June 12 — dozens of killings, thousands of arrests, countless beatings of the innocent — and I hope I belittle none of it when I say there’s also been something laughable.

What president would celebrate a “victory” by two-thirds of the vote with a clampdown resembling a putsch? What self-respecting nation would attribute the appearance in the streets of three million protesters convinced their votes were stolen to Zionists, “evil” media and British agents?

(The former British ambassador to Iran told me with a smile last January that Tehran was an interesting place to serve “because it’s one of the very few places left on earth where people still believe we have some influence!”)

What sort of country invites hundreds of journalists to witness an election only to throw them all out? What kind of revolutionary authority invokes “ethics” and “religious democracy” as it allows plain-clothes thugs to beat women?

What is to be thought of a supreme leader who calls an election result divine, then says there are some questions that need resolution by an oversight council, and then tells that council what the result of its recount is before it’s over?

Iran is not some banana republic. The events since the night of June 12 have been a shameful interlude. Iranians have not digested this grotesquery.

No, Iran is not a banana republic. It’s a sophisticated nation of 75 million people. It pretends to a significant role in the affairs of the world. It’s a land of poets who knew how to marry the sacred and the sensuous and always laughed at the idea of a truth so absolute it would not accommodate contradiction.

It’s an Islamic Republic and, as Rafsanjani said, “If the Islamic and Republican sides of the revolution are not preserved, it means that we have forgotten the principles of the revolution.”

Respecting that duality — the clerical and the republican — means that the price Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has to pay for his lifelong authority is the quadrennial holding of presidential elections that cannot remove him from office but must inform his actions.

Because Khamenei trampled on this principle, ignoring the will of the people, he created the “crisis” of which Rafsanjani spoke.

It will not abate quickly. Iranians believe the puppeteer must pay a price for such clumsy theater. Within the revolutionary establishment and within society, fissures have become chasms. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now the most divisive figure in the Islamic Republic’s 30-year history.

As Rafsanjani said: “We could have taken our best step in the history of the Islamic Revolution had the election not faced problems.”

The campaign was of an exemplary openness. Supporters of Ahmadinejad and Mir Hussein Moussavi, the reformist candidate, took to the streets without incident. Moussavi, with his impeccable revolutionary credentials, was the very emblem of unthreatening change.

But a hardline faction around Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and the Revolutionary Guards felt threatened — in their power, wealth and world view.

They do not believe, as Rafsanjani believes, in a China option for Iran: the possibility of normalizing relations with the U.S. and preserving the system.

While Rafsanjani spoke, Ahmadinejad was speaking in Mashad. “As soon as the new government is formed, it will enter the global sphere with a power that is 10 times greater than that of the West and overthrow the West from its hegemonic position,” he said.

I heard the president say the same thing, again and again and again, over the course of a three-hour press conference two days after the election. He is suffering from a pathology. Rafsanjani is not alone in believing it is dangerous.

A succession struggle of sorts has begun in Iran. Rafsanjani, 74, is challenging Khameinei, 70. So is Ayatollah Mohammad Khatami, the reformist former president who called Sunday for a referendum on the legitimacy of the election. They are saying Iran is a great and proud nation: open the prisons, free the press, allow debate, do not make a laughing stock of our institutions. That, they insist, is the only form of loyalty to the Revolution.

It’s also the only action worthy of a millennial nation. The joke has been too foul to stand.

Climate Change and Iraq

As if Iraqis didn't have enough to worry about . . . James Denselow: Climate Change and Iraq although the author here barely touches upon "climate change," as opposed to long-term degradation of Iraq's environment. However, the recent drought there is one of the worst on record. And virtually any model of global-warming-induced long-term climate change that I've seen leaves Iraq pretty much a wasteland, with low-lying areas devastated by rising sea-levels.

Terrible historical irony here, of course. The irrigated floodplain of Iraq was the original cradle of cities and civilization, as well as one of the two great bread-baskets (along with the Nile) of the ancient Middle Eastern world, and well into the 12th century.

Update: a related report from Iraq Oil Report :

Al-Tal district, located 24 km south-west of Mosul, has witnessed a devastating transformation. Sixty out of 150 villages have been abandoned because of drought, the encroaching desert and insufferable sand storms.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Netanyahu's Chutzpah

Netanyahu says - Israel Rejects U.S. Call on Development in East Jerusalem - NYTimes.com - that Israel's claim over all of Jerusalem, including therefore East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed illegally after conquering it in 1967 - "cannot be challenged." And note further,

The East Jerusalem development in question, to be made into a 20-unit complex, was bought by a Miami-based businessman, Irving Moskowitz, in 1985. He has long supported Israeli and Jewish housing in East Jerusalem. From 1987 to 2002, he rented the building to the paramilitary border police. Recently the municipality granted permission for the housing development to proceed.

The property is in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, a predominantly Palestinian area that also has foreign consulates and Israeli government buildings.

He's telling Obama that this is some kind of red line that he must not cross - International law, the Geneva conventions, and UN resolutions be damned.

Talk about chutzpah! I'm hoping that Obama and Clinton hand it right back to him.

More shades of Vietnam

This is scary. US troops push in, claim to have driven out the Taliban, but there are no Afghan troops to take over. As I've argued before, if they're not available now, they can't be for many months.

Only remedy? = inserting more US troops, or else hand back whatever "gains" have been made.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Iraq's and Afghanistan's Woes Continue, while Iran is dealt a China card to play

So far, the Shii pilgrimage in Baghdad seems to be coming off without huge problems (although I did see a report of at least one bomb targeting pilgrims) - and that's a relief - and the NYT reports that, in fact, the Shii pilgrims were welcomed along the route through a Sunni neighborhood by Sunni locals with cups of cold water. But trouble brews elsewhere. The NYT reports that in the south of Iraq, 3 US soldiers were killed in their base outside Basra (where things have been relatively peaceful) when "insurgents" fired mortar rounds into it; also, a Sunni Awakening leader and his daughter and niece were killed (and 11 others hurt) by a bombing in Falluja (again, Anbar).

And in the north, the strains between the Maliki government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government are highlighted in a WaPo piece by the always superb Tony Shadid. The report is subtitled, "Military Conflict a Possibility, One Says" - and Shadid notes uo front that "Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region and the Iraqi government are closer to war than at any time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the Kurdish prime minister said Thursday." This is not sensationalizing. The Kurdish and Arab troops have indeed come close to opening fire on one another on several occasions in the last couple of years:

In an incident June 28 that underscored the trouble, Kurdish residents and militiamen loyal to the Kurdish regional government faced off with an Arab-led Iraqi army unit approaching Makhmur, a predominantly Kurdish town between the troubled northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. Kurds believed the unit was trying to enter the town, and for 24 hours, Kurdish leaders, Iraqi officials in Baghdad and the U.S. military negotiated until the Arab-led Iraqi unit was diverted, the Kurdish prime minister said.

The Kurdish militiamen, who are nominally under the authority of the Iraqi army but give their loyalty to the Kurdish regional government, retained control.. . .

U.S. military officials confirmed the incident but offered differing accounts. Asked if the incident was essentially the Kurdish Iraqi army facing down the Arab Iraqi army, Maj. James Rawlinson, a military spokesman in Kirkuk, replied, "Basically.". . . .

The conflict between the government and the Kurdish region is so explosive because it intersects with the most critical disputes that still endanger the country's stability. They include debate over a hydrocarbon law to share revenue and manage Iraq's enormous oil reserves, some of which are located in areas claimed by the Kurdish government; talks to delineate the border between the Kurdish and Arab regions; and efforts to resolve the fate of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city shared by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens.

Complicating the landscape is the bad blood between two of the key players -- Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, and Maliki, whose stature has grown dramatically amid the restoration of a semblance of calm and his Dawa party's success in provincial elections in January. Although two delegations from Maliki's party have visited Irbil, the Kurdish capital, since the spring, the two men have not spoken in a year, Barzani said.. . .

Both have blamed the other side for provocations, often with justification. Kurdish officials see in Maliki's actions a recurrence of what they believe is arrogance from Baghdad stretching back generations. Maliki's allies accuse Kurdish leaders of overreaching in their territorial ambitions and stubbornness in talks.

"If things remain the way they are between the two parties, without solutions and without abiding by the constitution, then unfortunately everything is possible," said Ezzedine Dawla, a Sunni Arab lawmaker from Mosul, Iraq's most restive city.

Last month's standoff was at least the third that involved the Kurdish militia, known as the pesh merga, reaching into land that had been administered by Baghdad until the U.S.-led invasion. With U.S. approval after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, Kurdish leaders dispatched pesh merga past the frontier. In predominantly Kurdish regions, they sent administrative staff and their personnel, as well. Since last year, Maliki has pushed back, sending the Iraqi army to confront pesh merga in the border town of Khanaqin, which has a Kurdish majority, and deploying thousands more troops in Kirkuk. Fearing tension, the U.S. military has bolstered its presence in Kirkuk.

The Kurdish prime minister said the two sides narrowly avoided bloodshed in Makhmur.

He said the Iraqi army headed toward Makhmur, set in a wind-swept region of rolling wheat fields, with the intention of staying in the town. The troops were stopped by about 2,000 pesh merga in a standoff that lasted through the night. A flurry of phone calls continued into the next morning. The Kurdish prime minister said he stayed awake until 4 a.m. as the talks unfolded. "What does that tell you about the seriousness of the situation?" he asked.

American officials offered two accounts of what happened. Rawlinson, the spokesman in Kirkuk, said a battalion from Iraq's 7th Division was headed to station itself in Makhmur. At the nearby town of Debaga, it was stopped by soldiers of the 2nd Division, which is composed of pesh merga units. The U.S. military was alerted at 2:30 a.m., he said. "It was the middle of the night, and people got tense," Rawlinson said.

Maj. Derrick Cheng, a spokesman in Tikrit, said Iraq's 7th Division was headed to Nineveh province for an upcoming operation. "The movement fed fears and rumors," he said, and at least 30 vehicles and 100 people blocked the road. Calls were made, and the Iraqi army troops stopped on the road, then took another route, "bypassing Makhmur completely to avoid any potential conflict that might have resulted," he said. Rawlinson later said he would defer to Cheng's version.

Prime Minister Barzani saw the incident as more provocation than misunderstanding. He insisted that Iraqi army commanders were still imbued with a "military-style mentality of being the Big Brother to impose their will." He warned that the Iraqi army was biding its time until it became stronger, perhaps with tanks from the United States.

"Then what do you expect from us?" he asked. "We just sit down and wait to see it?" Asked whether the pesh merga had tanks, too, he replied, "Oh, yes. Yes, we do."


Shadid scores again with a major story focused on the Shii hierarchy in Najaf, and how its prestige has risen vis-a-vis that of the Ayatollah/Leader Khamenei in Iran (and the prestige of Iran's pre-eminent seminary city. Qom) in the wake of the latter's missteps after the recent elections fiasco. Most at issue here is the appropriate political role of Shii clergy in a modern state. Khamenei's Iran espouses the model implemented by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979-1980, in which the clergy actually have the ultimate political say-so. In Najaf - where the most esteemed cleric is the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - the prefered model leans toward less instrusive guidance. In the eyes of many experts, Sistani is still the most powerful political personage in Iraq because of his influence as a spiritual - ergo, political - guide for so many in Iraq's dominant Shii population (and many Iranians Shii look to him as well), but he has no official office in the Iraqi state. Shadid puts it wonderfully:

As one cleric put it, the difference between the two visions in Iraq and Iran is akin to different roles at a construction site. Under the wilayat al-faqih in Iran, the cleric might serve as the foreman, responsible for each aspect of the design and execution. In the quietist model in Iraq, Sistani would be considered the owner, but perhaps an absentee one.
As of now, Najaf is on the accendant - both in terms of its religious prestige, and in a more palpable sense. A lot of money is being poured into the city as a pilgrimage center (it's the location of the tomb-mosque shrine of Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law and the first Imam), with a new airport, hotels, etc.

Iran, on the other hand, is facing direr prospects, what with the US toughening its line and Israel sending part of it navy through the Suez Canal and acting as though it's ready to attack. But the Iranians have a new card to play in this confrontation: a deal with China whereby the Chinese will help build a gasoline refinery in southern Iran that will go far toward mitigating any US/UN sanctions or Israeli blockade to starve Iran of gasoline, which it cannot make enough of on its own. And the Time report notes further:

The Chinese deal would literally keep Iran's factories, homes and cars — in effect, a nation of 66 million people — running.

Iran's ties with China, which have steadily grown over the past decade, have accelerated rapidly in the past 18 months. In December 2007, the Chinese oil giant Sinopec Group signed a $70 billion deal to begin drilling in Iran's Yadavaran field, which has estimated reserves of about 17 billion bbl. In January of this year, China's biggest energy producer, CNPC, agreed to develop a medium-size oil field called North Azadegan — a deal worth about $2 billion. And last month, while demonstrators were fighting pitched battles with paramilitaries on Tehran's streets, Iranian oil officials flew to Beijing to negotiate a $5 billion deal with CNPC for the newest phase of Iran's huge South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf. Pummeled by the drop in world oil prices from $147 per bbl. last July to about $64 per bbl. this week, "Iranians are feeling more and more of an acute need for capital," Downs says.

And China is awash in cash. Furthermore, having invested tens of billions of dollars in Iran's energy sector, China — a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council — looks almost certain to veto any new tough sanctions against the country. In contrast, in the U.S. and Europe, there are growing anxieties over Iran's nuclear program as well as outrage over last month's violence.


And while the Chinese are spinning deals with Tehran, the US and other Western oil majors are sitting on their hands.

Finally, I highly recommend the latest by Tony Karon, "Obama, Foxman and Israel’s Purpose" - where he lambastes both Israel and American Jewish leaders like Abe Foxman for their cynical manipulation of the Holocaust, as well as the Old Testament. As Karon notes at the end of his piece,
having told the world and the majority of Jews who live in it that Israel was the answer to the Holocaust and the inheritor of the mantle of the survivors (a contestable claim, to be sure, but you only have to look at the fact that Germany paid most of its “reparations” not to the survivors themselves, but to Israel), Foxman et al are going to have a hard time pivoting to the narrative of Biblical redemption. For starters, most of the world’s Jews don’t buy such bubbemeis. And you’re going to have a hard time getting American Jews and most Western countries to accept the idea that the Palestinians’ epic suffering has been inflicted simply in the name of a distortion of Biblical fantasy. Essentially, the problem they face is that an ideological construct of their own making is no longer serving its purpose of ensuring a blank check for Israel’s endless dispossession of the Palestinians. The bad news, of course, is that justifying that dispossession on the basis of a Biblical narrative is going to get even fewer takers in America, of any persuasion.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

18 hurt by Baghdad bomb targeting Shiite pilgrims - Yahoo! News

18 hurt by Baghdad bomb targeting Shiite pilgrims - Yahoo! News

The Black Hole that is Bagram

Something else under the radar: indefinite detentions at the black home called Bagram. 620 prisoners with no access to lawyers. No Afghan officials are allowed in. And evidently we're now moving "bad guys" from Guantanamo to Bagram to keep all of them nicely in the dark.

Welcome to Amerika.

At Jail in Bagram, A Detainee Protest
Indefinite Incarceration by U.S. at Issue

By Greg Jaffe and Julie Tate
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 16, 2009

The prisoners at the largest U.S. detention facility in Afghanistan have refused to leave their cells for at least the past two weeks to protest their indefinite imprisonment, according to lawyers and the families of detainees.

The prison-wide protest, which has been going on since at least July 1, offers a rare glimpse inside a facility that is even more closed off to the public than the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Information about the protest came to light when the International Committee of the Red Cross informed the families of several detainees that scheduled video teleconferences and family visits were being canceled.

Representatives of the ICRC, which monitors the treatment of detainees and arranges the calls, last visited the Bagram prison on July 5, but inmates were unwilling to meet with them.

"We have suspended our video telephone conference and family visit programs because the detainees have informed us they do not wish to participate in the programs for the time being," said Bernard Barrett, a spokesman for the organization.

Although the prisoners are refusing to leave their cells to shower or exercise, they are not engaging in hunger strikes or violence. Ramzi Kassem, an attorney for Yemeni national Amin al-Bakri, said detainees are protesting being held indefinitely without trial or legal recourse.

"We don't want to hold detainees longer than necessary," said a U.S. military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We engage in regular releases and transfers when we feel a detainee's threat can be sufficiently mitigated to warrant being released or transferred. Of course, there will continue to be some detainees whose high threat level can only be successfully mitigated via detention, but we review their status regularly to assess whether other options are available."

Unlike at Guantanamo Bay, where detainees have access to lawyers, the 620 prisoners at Bagram are not permitted to visit with their attorneys. Afghan government representatives are generally not allowed to visit or inspect the Bagram facility.

President Obama signed an executive order in January to review detention policy options. The Justice Department is leading an interagency task force examining the issue and is set to deliver a report to the president on Tuesday.

In recent years, Bagram became the destination for many terrorism suspects as Guantanamo Bay came under more scrutiny through legal challenges. The last significant group transfer from the battlefield to the prison in Cuba occurred in September 2004, when 10 detainees were moved there; in September 2006, 14 high-value detainees were transferred to Guantanamo Bay from secret CIA prisons. Since then, six detainees have been moved there.

The Bagram prison population, meanwhile, has ballooned. U.S. officials are building a bigger facility there that will hold nearly 1,000.

The Bagram facility includes inmates from Afghanistan as well as those arrested by U.S. authorities in other countries as part of counterterrorism efforts. The prison now holds close to 40 detainees who are not Afghan citizens, many of whom were not captured in Afghanistan.

In April, a D.C. district judge ruled that the Supreme Court decision that extended habeas corpus rights to detainees at Guantanamo Bay also applied to a certain set of detainees held at Bagram -- those who were not arrested in Afghanistan and who are not Afghan citizens. The Justice Department has appealed the decision.

The indefinite detention of Afghan prisoners also has been a source of anger among Afghan citizens, human rights advocates say. "U.S. detention policy is destroying the trust and confidence that many Afghans had in U.S. forces when they first arrived in the country," said Jonathan Horowitz, a consultant at the Open Society Institute, which seeks to promote democracy around the world. Horowitz is in Afghanistan interviewing the relatives of Bagram detainees, as well as former Bagram prisoners.

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