Withdrawal symptoms
Sunday, March 6, 2005, 03:48
After what already seemed like weeks of watching, reading, thinking and talking about the current crisis in Lebanon and the pressures on Syria, the resignation of the Lebanese government on Monday opened new debates, even within a clearly surprised opposition which had expected Omar Karami’s government to easily win the vote of no confidence.

Five days later, as Lebanon still finds itself in political limbo, not yet finding a Sunni politician willing to risk his career as the head of an interim government, let alone one who would be acceptable to both the current parliamentary majority and the opposition. The Lebanese political system has its quirks, of course, somewhat stretching the concept of democracy with its provision that the president should be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim.

In the past few days, we have supposedly witnessed how people power has brought down a government, surely scenes about which Bush would be less enthusiastic if they were to take place in Riyadh, Cairo, Amman or Rabat. Without dismissing the effect of the demonstrations in Martyrs Square, which seem to consist mainly of young people (apparently from middle and higher social classes, judging by the scenes which led to the “Gucci revolution” label), the international pressure on Syria heralding Karami’s resignation would be a more accurate assessment of this unprecedented event.

Now, we are thrown into another cycle of analysis and commentary with Saturday’s speech by the Syrian president, and I have a feeling we’ll all be discussing its possible meanings and repercussions practically until the troops are out.

Obviously, this speech will not be satisfactory to the US, something even Assad jokingly said before ending his address. In it, Syria neither submitted completely to American demands of a timetable for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, nor defied these demands entirely by refusing to comply with international law. Therefore, the US (and other parties threatening Syria) can neither bask in self-satisfaction following an unconditional obedience of the accused, nor can the trigger-happy Bush administration consider it a challenge and jump on the occasion (for the time being at least) to spread some more of its freedom in the region.

If you watched the speech, in Arabic or translated, you would have clearly understood that Syria is committing itself to eventually comply fully with the obligations of both the Taef Accord and with Resolution 1559. You would have thus clearly understood that it’s not an if, but a when. Most probably, it will happen when the least-rushed solution will have been devised with concerned Arab countries, before the planned parliamentary elections in Lebanon.

Assad’s mention of thorny issues (including the May 17 accord, the legal status of Palestinian refugees, and the reminder of why Syria entered Lebanon) were not appreciated by a number of Lebanese who have already commented on them. Nor will the US and Israel be rushing to answer the questions Assad posed about the logic behind the Israeli refusal to discuss the Golan Heights (well, clearly they love to ski there and drink its wine), or behind the repeated (but unproven) accusations of Syrian trouble-making in Iraq.

But facts are facts, regardless of who is stating them. They may not like the messenger, but they can hardly refute the message. Syria is going to first redeploy to the Beqaa, and then withdraw (hopefully before being forced to do it), but that is not going to stop the pressure on the country, nor bring it the liberation of the Golan from Israeli occupation. On the contrary, the Israelis, who have repeatedly claimed that the Syrian track was not an option while they negotiated with the Palestinians, suddenly seemed able to do multi-tasking; after the Syrians withdraw, Israel would love nothing more than a peace treaty with Lebanon.

But this would be forgetting that even the opposition, which includes the warlords who fuelled the 15-year civil war, does not presently seem eager to pursue that track. And that would also be forgetting that approximately half the Lebanese population (mainly Shias) has yet to join in the opposition to Syrian presence in Lebanon.

The media does not seem to have reached a consensus on the issue of withdrawal either. If you read Reuters, for example, you would have gathered that Syria vows a complete and swift Lebanon pullout.

In contrast, the Associated Press concluded that Syria ignored demands to withdraw troops, while Britain's Telegraph qualifies the speech as defiance.

One of the most laughable comment trails I have heard in the past few hours is the idea that Assad, by mentioning the May 17 (1983) short-lived peace accord between Lebanon and Israel, was giving some kind of signal to factions in Lebanon to stir up trouble. Really now, there would have been many other ways to pass on the message, if this was indeed a secret message.

But the most laughable of all responses has been Israel’s reaction to the speech, a comment so ridiculously hypocritical and arrogant that it deserves an entry of its own.

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For whom the bombs toil
Monday, February 28, 2005, 03:09
While the vast majority of articles in the media take Syria’s complicity or responsibility in Hariri’s killing as a given, some have questioned the logic of this assumption (directly or indirectly) and have looked at other parties whose wider agendas are benefitting from the current situation. Here are a few I didn’t have the chance to post before.

The Guardian’s Jonathan Steele wonders about Bush’s assurances to Europe last week, saying that the heart of the matter remains the neocons’ agenda for the Arab world and their support for the most hardline elements in Israel, of which Europe needs to be highly wary. In particular, they need to remember that what Bush does in the Middle East is more important than what he says in Europe.

Steele argues that neocons have pressured Syria’s for years, noting the influence of the paper “A Clean Break” (discussed in this blog last week) and maintaining that the number one focus for regime change under Bush Two is Damascus, not Tehran.

Hassan Nafaa argues in Al Ahram that after Lebanon’s reconstruction, its resistance would be targetted. He reasons that “it would be naïve to imagine that Israel has forgotten the day when it had to run away in shame, abandoning its dearest allies in Lebanon. All those who helped bring about that shame -- the Lebanese resistance, the Syrian and Lebanese regimes -- are targets for revenge. Israel's path is now open. It will try to destroy Lebanon's national cohesion and the Iranian-Syrian-Lebanese alliance.

The margin of manoeuvre for the Syrians is narrow. Al-Hariri's murder harms Syrian interests more than it harms anyone else. But Syria cannot recapture the initiative unless it succeeds in disclosing the identity of the perpetrators of this crime. This must be Syria's first priority.”

Patrick Seale for his part recognizes that “Syria has made grave mistakes in Lebanon. Its military intelligence apparatus has interfered far too much in Lebanese affairs. A big mistake was to insist on changing the Lebanese constitution to extend the mandate of President Emile Lahoud - known for his absolute allegiance to Syria - for a further three years.”

But he believes that attributing responsibility for the murder to Syria is implausible, “as there is no shortage of potential candidates, including far-right Christians, anxious to rouse opinion against Syria and expel it from Lebanon; Islamist extremists who have not forgiven Syria its repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 80s; and, of course, Israel.”

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Picture-perfect protection
Sunday, February 27, 2005, 20:19
You don’t know whether to laugh or cry about when such stories surface. Thinking it is a good way to protect themselves from the anti-Syrian sentiments that have been taken to extremes by some Lebanese, several Syrian taxi drivers (many of whom make the Damascus-Beirut-Damascus several times a week) have begun to arm themselves with pictures of Rafik Hariri as soon as they cross the Lebanese border. As if we needed more pictures in the Middle East, even if they are of people who have become icons.

What is less funny is the violence that has targeted mostly helpless Syrian workers in Lebanon. This has been documented in The Daily Star, which also reports that all is quiet on the eastern front, especially in the town of Chtaura; the town which normally witnesses a steady level of traffic coming from and going to Syria on a daily basis is now turning into a ghost town.

Like most Syrians and Lebanese who do the trek between the two capitals, I have often stopped in Chtaura for a coffee and a breakfast of “manakeesh,” amidst a setting that is at the same time provincial and modern (many Lebanese banks have branches in Chtaura, to cater to a mostly Syrian clientele). If the situation doesn’t improve, many people may want to close shop there, but one hopes this is but a passing storm and that the customers will come back in a much better environment for all concerned.

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Only one cook spoiling so many broths?
Sunday, February 27, 2005, 00:54
To believe recent media reports, one would get the feeling that Syria has been very busy in the past few weeks. First, countless articles have decreed, practically beyond reasonable doubt, that Syria was responsible for the assassination of Rafik Hariri. The issue of Syrian presence in Lebanon is going to be a hot one for months to come, but other supposed Syrian misdeeds are surfacing, with alarming (but convenient) regularity now.

In a stroke of luck for its accusers, Syria has been “found guilty” of training terrorists to go to Iraq to kill people. An Iraqi television channel, funded by the US, aired interviews with Egyptians, Sudanese and Iraqis who claimed to have received training in Syria. One of them even claimed he was a lieutenant in the Syrian intelligence service, identifying himself as Lt. Anas Ahmed Al Essa. The aim of these terrorists? “To cause chaos in Iraq … to bar America from reaching Syria.”

While all gave details about their backgrounds, one Iraqi even said that Syrian intelligence had trained him on how to behead hostages! How about that … it turns out Syria was the only place they could learn how to do this? The authenticity of this tape will be a long time in coming; “confessions” of this type are not quite reliable evidence.

But that’s not all. Wouldn’t you just know it, Syria (apparently through its “tool” Hezbollah) has also been sabotaging the truce between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, as if it didn’t have enough on its plate already.

The Israeli government, according to a statement by Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, has accused Syria of being responsible for the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv last night. That comes right after Mahmoud Abbas and his lieutenants had first tried to mysteriously hint at “third party involvement” (namely Hezbollah) even though the actual bomber himself claimed to be from Islamic Jihad in the tape taking responsibility for the crime. On Al Jazeera tonight, Nabil Shaath even declared that Islamic Jihad uses a different style of talking and of responsibility claiming, but he did not really explain what those differences are.

News of this latest suicide bomb had immediately brought to my mind the Israeli strike of October 2003 on an alleged training camp for Islamic Jihad in Syria (which Syria said was not in use), which Israel claimed was retaliation for the suicide bombing in Haifa. Are the Palestinian Authority and Israeli declarations a heralding military action of some sort? Israel hasn’t waited for evidence before, but it now claims it will be lauching a diplomatic offensive (or rather, continuting on its persistent anti-Syrian drive) to present the case against Damascus, and perhaps to leave the honors of striking for someone else?

In any case, according to all these reports, Syria appears to be single-handedly wreaking havoc in Lebanon, Iraq and Israel. That’s quite a feat. The bigger feat would be actually coming up with some evidence of this Machiavellian capacity to disrupt so much.

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Looking for clues
Saturday, February 26, 2005, 22:37
Many journalists were somewhat confused by George Bush’s statements on Iran this week. Unfortunately, they tried to use logic to make sense of the following declarations:

1. “Iran is not Iraq.” (Most people already knew that.)
2. “This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is
simply ridiculous.” (Ridiculous, yes. Impossible, no.)
3. “Having said that, all options are on the table.” (Meaning?)

Tom Toles didn’t waste much time in trying to decifer Bush’s pearls of wisdom.

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Filmed killing is no witness to the prosecution
Friday, February 25, 2005, 15:47
Those who watched on their television screens as an American soldier shot and killed a wounded Iraqi in Fallujah, in November 2004, may have been eventually prepared for a light sentence to be given to the soldier, in view of the incredible leniency that has been exercised with US military personnel involved in various American adventures across the region.

But it is hard to believe that the soldier might not even be prosecuted, let alone sentenced (even symbolically). The Independent, referring to a CBS news reports today that “investigators concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge the marine, and that given the circumstances of the battlefield, it was possible that he felt his life was threatened.”

The US Marine Corps says that the investigation has not been completed, but CBS also says that at the very least, navy legal expects believe the situation is ambiguous enough that no prosecutor could get a conviction. If you’ve seen the footage, you may wonder about the ambiguity of this statement.

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Anger and fear across the borders
Wednesday, February 23, 2005, 04:09
Accusations are still flying about Syria’s alleged role in Rafik Hariri’s assassination, as are appeals for calm. George Bush and Jacques Chirac issued their ultimatum in Brussels on Monday, demanding that Syria withdraw its forces from Lebanon before May's parliamentary elections, albeit without pointing more fingers on Hariri. But while speaking to the press in Brussels, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said there was "a high level of suspicion of the potential involvement of Syria in the assassination".

That’s not the view of Saudi Arabia, however, a country from which Rafik Hariri was also a prominent citizen, and where the Hariri family is currently receiving condolences. Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal told journalists in London that countries should not hastily accuse Syria of involvement in Hariri’s killing, nor insist on an international inquiry which he thought should be left to Lebanon. “We cannot accuse one side before we know the facts. Those who accuse Syria without evidence will be open to criticism,” he said.

Monday’s massive demonstration in Beirut spoke volumes about the conclusions most Lebanese people have already reached; many feel that 30 years of Syrian presence (or 15, if one counts the period since the end of Lebanon’s brutal civil war) have given them more than enough reason to demand a pullout, Hariri’s murder being the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, no matter who was responsible.

The Daily Star, which in the past managed quite well to comment on deficiencies in Syrian-Lebanese relations in the most diplomatic manner, has in the past week been much more direct (and probably much more representative of popular sentiments). More and more, its editorials ask for action – rather than just reaction - from Syria; today, it asked Damascus to act wisely and fulfill its historical inevitability, and to read the writing on the wall saying that “Syria must leave Lebanon and grant to the Lebanese their right to determine their own affairs.”

Some Syrians have already begun to leave Lebanon in droves, forced not by international consensus, but sadly by sheer fear. Tents “housing” Syrian workers have been scorched, several Syrians are said to have been killed, and some Syrian cars have been stoned, leading to a peculiar sight of traffic going only one-way on the Lebanese-Syrian border post of Jdaideh, which is usually packed on both sides.

In particular, many of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian workers doing the menial jobs that few Lebanese want to do have quickly departed rather than face anti-Syrian violence, a phenomenon which could prove to be quite problematic for a number of Lebanese industries, according to The Daily Star:

“If Syrian workers do not return to Lebanon, it is feared that nearly every construction project across the country will be halted indefinitely.

‘This is a huge problem,’ said Abdo Sukaireh, board member of the Lebanese order of engineers. ‘I am executing three projects for the Council of Development and Reconstruction and all three have been stopped,’ he added, estimating Syrian labor accounted for some 70 percent of construction crews across the country.’ …

‘This is a real shock,’ he added, saying the use of Lebanese labor could boost construction costs by 50 percent. In addition, the number of available indigenous laborers would only cover some 20 percent of the loss, he said. …

Largely undocumented, Syrian laborers are often stripped of legal benefits and subjected to hazardous working conditions in Lebanon, where they are paid an average of $10 per day."

This is surely not what the people of both countries want. Syrians, increasingly worried about developments, are speaking out and pleading with their government to do what many believe is the right thing. A number of Syrian intellectuals, including leaders in the reformist movement and the so-called Damascus Spring, have signed a statement urging the government to withdraw its troops from Lebanon immediately, but also lamenting Lebanese insults and violence targeting Syrians.

Ammar Abdulhamid, for his part, has poured his heart out in a poignant op-ed beseeching Syria’s leaders to move towards reform, in a number of ways:

“The first reform step that needs to be taken at this stage is to implement an immediate Syrian military withdrawal from Lebanon, regardless of the economic fallout involved. For the political price of staying there is potentially much dearer and will have even greater economic repercussions.”

These are difficult times for the Lebanese, and worrying times for the Syrians. Both people undoubtedly want the same things for themselves and for each other, and it would truly be a tragedy if their relationship were to be damaged by current events out of their control. Hopefully, voices of reason on both sides will manage to bridge the divide and focus on what is important.

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Silencing the messengers who denounce the shooting of messengers
Monday, February 21, 2005, 02:07
Before Hariri’s assassination took us by storm, a number of interesting stories were simmering in the media, and would have merited more discussion. One of them is the “resignation” of Eason Jordan, who seems to have been pushed rather than to have jumped boat himself.

Although the story is not very clear, it seems that CNN’s chief news executive had implied during a debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month that American forces had deliberately targetted journalists in Iraq. His comments, as detailed by Jeremy Scahill in The Nation, “quickly ignited a firestorm on the Internet, fueled by right-wing bloggers, that led to Jordan’s recanting, apologizing and ultimately resigning after 23 years at the network.”

But Scahill rightly argues that “the real controversy here should not be over Jordan’s comments. The controversy should be over the unconscionable silence in the United States about the military’s repeated killing of journalists in Iraq.”

In fact, “Eason Jordan’s comment was hardly a radical declaration. He was expressing a common view among news organizations around the world.”

I agree, and had already prepared a list of journalists (whom Scahill mentions) killed – several of them very clearly deliberately – by American forces.

In full view of television cameras, on April 8 2003, US forces fired directly on Baghdad’s Hotel Palestine where many journalists had been staying, killing Reuters’s Taras Protsyuk and the Spanish Telecinco’s José Couso. That very same day, a U.S. missile struck Al Jazeera’s Baghdad bureau, instantly killing correspondent Tarek Ayoub.

On August 17 2003, Mazen Dana, a veteran conflict cameraman for Reuters news agency, was killed by machine gun fire from a U.S. tank (from a distance of only 50 meters) near Baghdad, struck in the torso while filming near Abu Ghraib Prison.

On April 19 2004, US forces killed Asaad Kadhim, a correspondent for Al Iraqiya TV, and his driver at a checkpoint near Samara.

On September 12 2004, Mazen al-Tumeizi, a reporter for Al-Arabiya television, was killed as he filmed a sequence as a U.S. helicopter fired missiles and machine guns to destroy a disabled American vehicle.

There are more, and they are all to be found on various websites detailing the abuses by occupation forces. But as reported in The Nation, the US military has yet to discipline a single soldier for the killing of a journalist in Iraq.

And for the record, speaking of occupation forces, journalists are not safe in Palestinian territories occupied by Israel either. On April 19 2003, Nazih Darwazeh, from the Associated Press Television News, was killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank city of Nablus as he filmed. On May 2 2003, British freelance journalist James Miller was fatally shot in the Gaza Strip by an Israeli tank, as he and his colleagues walked slowly, waving a white flag and pointing to the TV sign on their jackets, calling out their profession. The killing was captured on film.

On March 2 2004, Mohamed Abu Halima, a journalism student at Al-Najah University in Nablus and a correspondent for university-affiliated Al-Najah radio station, was shot by Israeli forces at the entrance of the Balata refugee camp, outside the city of Nablus.

Reporters Without Borders and The Committee to Protect Journalists are only two of the respected organizations which follow the status of journalists around the world; often, their reports make for very sobering reading.

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Media debates on Hariri
Monday, February 21, 2005, 00:53
The grief is understandable, and people’s devastation as they mourn the criminal loss of their most prominent compatriot is touching and a poignant indicator of the mood in Lebanon. Countless articles have described the scenes of anguish and anger in Beirut, although the extent of the confrontations is best assessed on Arabic television. There have also been articles in the media shedding more light on the issues which had stirred so much debate before Hariri’s assassination.

A Daily Star journalist recounts the discussion she had with Hariri on Sunday February 13, the day before he was killed. The meeting was off the record, but she has decided to make his comments public due to the extraordinary circumstances. We learn that Hariri was not in fear for his life, and that ”he expressed support for the privileged relations between Lebanon and Syria, arguing: ‘Syria represented the father, mother, sister and everything to Lebanon.’ However, Hariri objected to Syria's tutoring of Lebanon and to Lebanon's anti-Syrian policy.”

Most articles in the media have given the basics (with varying degrees of accuracy), but some have begun to delve deeper into the background of the late Hariri, and into the question of who could possibly be behind his murder. In a number of serious publications, the Syrian track has not been accepted by default.

A good piece explaining the major political issues in the weeks leading up to the murder is found in Middle East International which concludes with the following question:

”There is a party that has an obvious interest in such an assassination and the political consequences it would rain down on the Syrian and Lebanese leaderships in the wake of Resolution 1559, one that has historically shown itself ruthlessly proficient in pursuing realpolitik in Lebanon and would — in the world of rational choice — be indifferent to the financial and economic cataclysm that is likely to descend on Lebanon in the coming months. That party is Israel.

Those political actors who habitually blame Israel for every traffic violation in this country have so discredited themselves that today Lebanese are as unlikely to take such an idea seriously as Americans. That is striking in itself.”

The Observer today discusses why Mr. Lebanon had many enemies, quoting British officials’ doubts over US and Israeli-backed allegations that Syrian intelligence agents were behind his assassinations, describing that “a picture began to emerge of a deeply flawed billionaire with as many foes as friends.”

“While the shiny new Beirut looked good, by the late 1990s Hariri's political leadership was under attack. High unemployment, public disgust at the corruption and the biggest per capita debt in the developing world all took away the shine. Beneath the gloss, Mr Lebanon's economic problems and his enemies were multiplying.”

Re-reading the Taef Agreement of 1989 may also help those wishing to understand how the civil war was brought to an end, and what was expected of the different parties involved - both in the fighting and in the peace making.

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A clear trap for a clean break
Saturday, February 19, 2005, 04:45
Rafik Hariri hadn’t been declared dead a few minutes when most people, “analysts” included, had already concluded that no-one but Syria could have killed him, or could have even wanted to. So much for the notion of “innocent until proven guilty.”

Jumping to conclusions doesn’t solve the mystery of this horrific assassination and may even help the culprits get away with it, whoever they may be. After the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh and his accomplices were probably quite satisfied, for a while, to hear “experts” explain that only Arabs or Islamic fundamentalists could have committed that atrocity.

The rationale of the “Syria did it” theory is childishly simple: the Syrian regime, desperate to control the rising opposition to the presence of its troops in Lebanon, eliminated Hariri to scare other opponents into accepting its hegemony. Elementary. Too much so, in fact.

One should remember that even though the Lebanese opposition is now portraying Hariri as its patron saint, this was not exactly the case – something the opposition seems to acknowledge indirectly by claiming he was about to announce his alignment with them “soon.” But Hariri was never as careless or vitriolic as they have been in the past few weeks (attributes that the Lebanese government, with its recent irresponsible statements, shares with the opposition); he was a pragmatist who was unlikely to take Lebanon into an open confrontation with Syria, who had never publicly asked for the retreat of its troops from Lebanon (although even Syrian media suspected he had a hand in UNSC 1559), and who cultivated his relations with Arab and Western countries alike.

Hariri was not Syria’s staunchest opponent, nor was Syria Hariri’s harshest critic. Having been mainly opposed to Lahoud, after years of being allied with Syria, Hariri in power would have had little time for today’s chief opposition leaders. Many of those who claim Hariri as their leader today had spent his years in power criticizing him, and Lebanese media is witness to that, but that is not the point here. Hariri is being made into the biggest opponent to Syria’s continued presence in Lebanon; even supposing that he was, the jump from that to a Syrian assassination theory is far-fetched.

Wouldn’t it be terribly self-confident of the Syrians to have done this mere days after having been warned by Terje Roed Larsen that they would be held responsible for any harm done to Walid Jumblatt or Rafik Hariri (the latter being a very surprising name to mention in one sentence with Jumblatt)? And wouldn’t it be utterly crazy, if not suicidal, of the Syrians to have done this even when they surely imagined what the consequences would be?

After a UN Security Council resolution demanding their departure in a drastic reversal of public French policy towards Syria, and after repeated American and French warnings over their failure to comply, they still felt they could get away with this? Even after the strong warning in the State of the Union address and promises of more sanctions under the Syria Accountability Act?

It’s not impossible that the Syrians thought they had nothing to lose, but it’s highly unlikely. Syria is still hoping for the ratification of the EU Association Agreement, for France to rekindle a relationship that had been much warmer, and for everyone else (including Egypt and Turkey) to help in getting some process started for Israel’s withdrawal from Syria’s Golan Heights – after 38 years of occupation.

The Syrian regime may have been foolish in the past, but the repercussions of their extension to incumbent president Emile Lahoud’s term in office quickly showed them that they had gone too far. In recent weeks, they had begun to adopt a much more conciliatory tone with the international community (could that have worried the Lebanese opposition, amongst others?), and had even launched a semblance of a diplomatic channel with Lebanon, by dispatching the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister to the Foreign Ministry in Beirut – something that had never happened before. These are small, but very significant developments.

Syria’s position, in addition to having been hurt by unwise decisions, has not been helped by its catastrophically bad and archaic communication methods and rhetoric, and by the complete absence of official Syrian spokespeople able to explain (let alone convincingly) their position. In many ways, Syria has been its own worst enemy, not knowing how to present its perfectly legitimate demands and strategic interests, and how to argue its genuine concerns over the geopolitical situation. (The application of 1559, incidentally, is a lot more problematic than meets the eye and entails much more than a Syrian troop withdrawal.)

Communication deficiencies, however, do not indicate that Syrians are oblivious to the realities – both those in their favour and against it. If anyone apart from the Lebanese understands the intricacies of Lebanese politics, it is the Syrians; after all, they’ve had 30 years of first-hand experience. The withdrawal of their forces was deemed an inevitability for all the above reasons, and they needed to find a dignified exit that took into account the other factors of 1559, and of the Taef Agreement.

Their implication in Hariri’s murder is unlikely because they knew what the consequences would be, both on them and on Lebanon, a country whose stability is an obvious Syrian concern. What is also not impossible, but much more likely, is that the assassination was ordered by parties who had a lot more to gain by the repercussions of Hariri’s murder – namely an indictment of Syria by not only the US, but, conveniently, by the international community.

Hariri’s assassination will probably have been the catalyst (but not the cause) of Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. It may become the means by which Syria leaves it weakened and humiliated, possibly isolated from its neighbors and from the international community. And Hariri’s assassination provides the Bush administration with an opportune pretext to pump up the pressure on Syria, after months of sabre rattling and public threats.

Bush’s recall of his ambassador to Damascus was a rash and baseless decision. Increasingly called a “low hanging fruit” in Washington circles, Syria had nevertheless not been obliging enough to provide Bush with the “proof” he needed to confront it one way or another. In-depth cooperation on the “war on terror” since September 11, increased cooperation on the issue of Iraqi borders, extreme goodwill with the out-of-country Iraqi elections which were facilitated in Syria, repeated public discourse on the wish for peace with Israel, and even (to the angry frustration of most Syrians) a practical abandonment to Turkey of Syria’s historical right to Alexandretta … all these measures and gestures were not quite helpful to the Bush administration, which needs a really “bad” Syria to pursue its agenda.

And what agenda might that be? One can pick and choose. To “liberalize” the region (according to the nauseatingly phony American rhetoric) within the overall Iraq-regime change agenda, or perhaps to turn it into much less of a problem for Israel? Syria is a problem for Israel because it continues to support Palestinian resistance groups (all of which are designated as terrorists by the US and Israel), because of its support for Hizbullah (another terrorist for the Americans and Israelis, who have still not gotten over its role in Israel’s sudden departure from Lebanon in 2000), and because of its annoying repeated demands for the equitable application of international law – specifically UNSC Resolution 242, and the restitution of the Golan Heights to Syria.

Syria bothers Israel, and it bothers the US with its Arabist agenda. But with no proofs about WMDs (not that this tactic would work again, hopefully), and not enough evidence of other transgressions that could convince the international community, what better than the assassination of Lebanon’s most prominent political personality? It’s worked before: in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon a couple of days after the assassination attempt on its ambassador to London. Was Hariri’s elimination a spectacular trap for Syria?

In 1996, Richard Perle headed a study group (which included other hawks like Douglas Feith) which delivered a document to Benjamin Netanyahu, explaining to him how Israel should now make “A Clean Break” with past peace-making policies. The document explained that Israel should now secure its northern border and concentrate on weakening, containing and even rolling back Syria, stating that “it is both natural and moral that Israel abandon the slogan ‘comprehensive peace’ and move to contain Syria, drawing attention to its weapons of mass destruction program, and rejecting ‘land for peace’ deals on the Golan Heights.”

Recent events indicate that Israel has been doing exactly that – with US support - without even attempting to hide it. The Israeli media has been uncharacteristically quiet about Hariri’s assassination, and the developments in Lebanon in the past few days; has Israel been asked to lay low for the time being, while the US handles the problem? Or will it spring into action sooner or later?

And does this mean Israel, or the US, commissioned Hariri’s assassination just to get Syria into even more trouble? Nobody knows. But these possibilities are just as plausible as others, and given the repercussions, they are certainly more plausible than that of a Syrian hand in the crime.

The only people who know who killed Rafik Hariri are probably the perpetrators themselves, and possibly a more distant guiding hand. The rest of us, without a shred of evidence, can only analyze and speculate.

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Shooting the messengers, again
Thursday, February 10, 2005, 01:45
Two more journalists were savagely murdered on Wednesday. Al Hurra correspondent Abdul-Hussein Khazal and his 3-year old son were shot dead in Basra, and Kate Peyton, from the BBC, was shot in the back in Mogadishu.

In the meantime, Florence Aubenas, a journalist with the French daily Liberation, and her Iraqi interpreter Hussein Hanoun Al-Saadi, have been held hostage for 36 days. Giuliana Sgrena, from the Italian daily Il Manifesto, has been missing for 6. Hopefully, they will be released safe and sound.

What The Daily Star rightly says about Khazal’s murder also applies to the rest:

”For Islamists and nationalists and every other kind of political creed, ignoring the opinion of the civilized world and killing its messengers is scraping the bottom of the barrel. It does, indeed, tell us much about the universe these people inhabit - it is a small, claustrophobic universe constructed of ignorance, stupidity and short-sightedness. It is a universe that is more akin to a deep, dark dungeon of their own making, a dungeon in which they are their own prisoners.”

Terrorists, ruthless regimes and occupying armies are those most wary of the power of the media, and are those most violent with journalists. We have been sadly growing accustomed to hearing such tragic news, from various culprits. The freedom of the press is not even that sacred in democracies, conclude Reporters Without Borders. The US fares badly in the worldwide index of press freedom (number 22 in the US, but 108 in Iraq), not to mention the UK (28), and Israel (36 in Israel, but 115 in the Occupied Territories). As for the pathetic Arab regimes, they are amongst the worst offenders.

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Occupation, as lived by children
Thursday, February 10, 2005, 00:09
In both Palestine and Iraq, the occupation is the original terror, especially for children.

The terror in the eyes of a 3-year old child from Hebron, in the face of the Israeli occupier.

And the terror a small girl feels in Fallujah, in the face of the American occupier.

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The bloody hands that will remain unchained
Wednesday, February 9, 2005, 22:39
Sharon’s empty words yesterday about children and grandchildren ring empty, and Israeli promises to release Palestinian prisoners who “do not have blood on their hands” is even more hypocritical. Indeed, no Israeli (soldier or otherwise) will be held accountable for Palestinian blood.

What about the blood of Iman Al Hamas, asks Amira Hass in Haaretz? On whose hands is her blood? Certainly not on the hands of the Israeli officer who shot her repeatedly, “verifying the kill,” nor on anyone else’s hands in the Israeli army, apparently, because the 13-year old girl’s murderer has been set free.

Here are some excerpts from Hass’s truly poignant and pertinent piece today, especially for the benefit of readers in some Middle East countries whose governments idiotically prohibit them from accessing Israeli websites:

“Iman's name became famous because of the perjury of the soldiers. Her futile death was reported in the Israeli media, which very rarely reports on dead Palestinians. There is a long list of Palestinian civilians whose blood was spilled neither in battle nor because they endangered someone, and their blood has evaporated from our consciousness. …

Mahmoud Abbas was instructed yesterday at the summit not to ask whose hands were bloodied with the blood of the Arar family. Mohammad Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub are expected not to remember nor remind the Israeli commanders who gave the orders to shoot and blow up and shell and kill civilians, of all the orders that killed and wounded thousands of Palestinians civilians, in the last four years, in the first intifada, in Lebanon, in Qibiyeh. The Palestinian people are not allowed to ask their leaders why soldiers of the occupation who killed civilians, and their officers, are not arrested and put on trial.

That's the upside down method: occupy them, their land, their natural resources, take over their lives and judge them as criminals when they resist us - when they kill either civilians or soldiers. We admit we killed civilians, but the "war" apparently not only justifies our cruelty, it erases it. On the other hand, the war - in other words, the occupation, in other words, the war for the preservation of the loot from the 1967 war: the settlements - does not justify or even explain their cruelty in our eyes.

If the Palestinians had warplanes and tanks so their killing was sterile, they would prefer to use those. And then, even if they killed Jewish civilians, they would not be called murderers with blood on their hands but enemy soldiers. And when caught they would be considered prisoners of war. If the policy makers of the Olso Accords really were thinking about peace the way they are said to have been, they would have freed all those prisoners. But then, like now: those who speak about gestures and then only free Marwan Barghouti's son, even if it was at Abbas' request, continue to operate with the old diskette of the colonialist who throws candy to the natives.

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What’s new, copycat?
Wednesday, February 9, 2005, 00:54
Iran and Syria, that's what.

Remember (although it already seems like so long ago) when every American statement would be swiftly followed by a “spontaneous” and remarkably similar British declaration? Afghanistan, terror, hearts and minds, and all the rigmarole relating to why Iraq had to be invaded (WMDs, Saddam is evil, liberation, democracy, etc.) – you name it, all were a two-step affair. First Bush said it, then Blair, standing shoulder to shoulder with him across the Atlantic, repeated it.

Now we’re moving on to new fields: Iran and Syria. And sure enough, Blair was adamant in his assertion that Iran not only had to give up its search for weapons of mass destruction, but that it currently sponsors terrorism.

"It certainly does sponsor terrorism. There's no doubt about that at all," said Blair on Tuesday. I for one can’t wait to see the “intelligence” on this one, especially now that Alastair Campbell is back on the prime minister’s payroll (and already making a lot of noise about his declared arch-enemy, the BBC).

Blair is so sure, this time, of his "facts" that he did not even completely dismiss the possibility of a strike against Iran – something Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has nevertheless recently claimed was “inconceivable.”

Blair also warned Syria, surprise surprise, not to allow Iraqi insurgents to cross their borders, to bog down US forces and thus reduce the chance of invasion, as one question stated: “I think if they were to make that calculation, it would be a very severe miscalculation.” (Like Bush, Blair's forte is not English.)

And here we were thinking that the European Union, to which Britain seems to belong very randomly, was all for diplomacy. Perish the thought.

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Less-than-historic motions by the beautiful sea
Tuesday, February 8, 2005, 03:50
Forgive me for not joining in the general euphoria preceding yet another “historic” summit in the Middle East. To hear the exited comments, peace really is around the corner if we “grab the opportunity,” whatever that is.

The Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government are supposed to declare a cease-fire, a truce, an armistice, or some sort of end to the fighting at Sharm El Sheikh on Tuesday. Lovely. Not to dismiss the importance of halting violence, but then what?

So far, the only cease-fire that has been holding in the past few weeks has been from the Palestinian side. Since Abbas was elected president of the Palestinian Authority, 44 Palestinians have been killed by Israel; if we count the casualties since Yasser Arafat’s death in November, when Israel claimed it would help Palestinians make the transition, the number of fatal casualties comes up to 140. Let’s see how Israel keeps its side of the bargain; already, as usual, it is putting the onus on Palestinians.

Sharon’s advisor Raanan Gissin (the little chap who manages to be just as unpleasant as his boss) made sure the caveats were inserted: Israel would refrain from military action “to the extent that the Palestinians will fulfill their pledges and their commitments.”

Very importantly, will this cease-fire also mean that Israel will stop demolishing houses, building more settlements, and illegally grabbing Palestinian territories? How many of the 8,000 Palestinians being held prisoners in Israeli jails become free? Will Israel halt the illegal encirclement of East Jerusalem or the construction of the infamous wall which amounts to an illegal, creeping annexation of Palestinian land?

There’s very little being said about all these matters, about the essence of the conflict being the Israeli occupation, about the real terms of a peace agreement, about the status of Jerusalem, or about Palestinians’ right of return. Then again, all that was already covered in successive UN Security Council resolutions and in the Madrid Peace Conference (which was truly historic, and which Israel couldn’t wait to break up), to name but these.

Tuesday’s “historic” summit will not cover the basic issues. That’s because Bush and Sharon have managed to turn this conflict into one of Palestinian democracy (which will help solve the conflict, according to the Bush logic), and into one of security reform, as is evident by Bush’s sudden appointment of General William Ward as “security envoy.”

In other words, if the Palestinians “democratize” their institutions, and if they “reform” their security forces (i.e. control all militants, one way or another, as Arafat tried to do –violently – after Oslo), then “peace” is attainable, and never mind the Israeli occupation. How irritatingly repetitive, and futile.

Been there, done that. Then, it was “Gaza and Jericho first.” Now, it’s just Gaza (with borders controlled by Israel) and democratization (with institutions controlled by Fatah). Sharon has made no secret of his plans, like his chief of staff Dov Weisglass: the withdrawal from Gaza aims at handing the responsibility of the Palestinian resistance "problem" to the Palestinian Authority, while Israel is left free to concentrate on securing the West Bank for itself.

Surely even Bush knows enough about the region (in spite of calling Abbas “prime minister” today) to realize that buying time for Sharon and accepting his “facts on the ground” will have dangerous consequences. Perhaps that is why his secretary of state made a quick exit – no fried Rice for the time being – to avoid holding the US responsible to anything, should (as it most probably will) anything go wrong.

Therefore, don’t hold your breath for true progress, or wait for another grand ceremony in the Rose Garden, à la Oslo – that is, unless Abbas gives in more than he has the mandate to do.

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The logic of preemption
Tuesday, February 8, 2005, 00:55
Preemptive action, as seen by Ted Rall, has a simple logic: first you take over the countries that threaten you, then the adjacent countries to protect your new real estate (not forgetting to turn neighbors into buffer states), and all their neighbors successively until nobody hates you anymore.

Good thing it's not technically feasible in four years.

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Winning over violent jihadists with logic and facts
Monday, February 7, 2005, 00:26
This may be one of the unusual and interesting stories to have appeared in the media (American or other) for some time, and it is an excellent example of the merits of dialogue.

The Christian Science Monitor describes how a Yemeni judge has been re-educating Al Qaeda detainees by challenging them to theological contests, where one side has to convince the other. Judge Hamoud Al-Hitar explains that his system is simple: if the militants can convince the Islamic scholars that their ideas are justified by the Koran, the latter would join in their struggle; but if the scholars succeed in convincing the prisoners of the contrary, they would have to renounce violence.

Al Hitar ”invites militants to use the Koran to justify attacks on innocent civilians and when they cannot, he shows them numerous passages commanding Muslims not to attack civilians, to respect other religions, and fight only in self-defense.

For example, he quotes: "Whoever kills a soul, unless for a soul, or for corruption done in the land - it is as if he had slain all mankind entirely. And, whoever saves one, it is as if he had saved mankind entirely." He uses the passage to bolster his argument against bombing Western targets in Yemen - attacks he says defy the Koran. And, he says, the Koran says under no circumstances should women and children be killed.

If, after weeks of debate, the prisoners renounce violence they are released and offered vocational training courses and help to find jobs.

So far, 364 men have been rehabilitated in this way, simply because one courageous man decided that Guantanamo-style “justice” did nothing to help combat terror. “Name that verse,” in contrast, and – more seriously – a true interchange of ideas and interpretations can make a real difference.

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The state of the union continues to affect the state of the world
Thursday, February 3, 2005, 14:22
I’ve just spent three hours on CNN, commenting live (on and off) on the State of the Union address and had the chance to make a number of comments about Bush’s glossy sermon.

While watching Bush speak for any length of time is a feat in itself, it becomes even more difficult – even a heavy chore - when he is pontificating on international affairs. But since the state of the union concerns the whole world, this is an address that everyone should follow.

If only Americans knew how familiar (and how false) the setting, style, tone, and most of all the exaggerated reverence of these addresses seem to people in the Arab world, who are accustomed to their leaders’ empty speeches being “spontaneously” and consistently interrupted by loud applause and standing ovations.

In spite of all his ridiculous rhetoric on a “free and sovereign Iraq,” Bush diverted attention from the Middle East to internal matters such as social security, a subject likely to invade the front pages of US newspapers. While scare-mongering worked wonders for him in other fields, I thought it was clumsy of Bush to mention specific numbers:

“In the year 2027, the government will somehow have to come up with an extra 200 billion dollars to keep the system afloat - and by 2033, the annual shortfall would be more than 300 billion dollars.

How interesting, I said, that the $300 billion needed in 2033 are roughly the amount he managed to spend in less than two years, just to invade and occupy Iraq – with another $80 billion requested immediately. Americans don’t even need to do the math; Bush has obliged.

In comparison, the $350 million proposed for Palestinians is but a drop in the sea, especially when considering that Israel receives at least $3 billion of American taxpayers’ money on a yearly basis. Bush also seems to believe that democracy is a precursor to peace, and thus that Palestinian democracy (and not the end of Israeli occupation) is what will bring peace to the Middle East. However, he immediately contradicts himself and admits that peace can come before democracy, when he explains how “the great and proud nation of Egypt, which showed the way toward peace in the Middle East, can now show the way toward democracy” there.

Bush’s friendly advice to the government of Saudi Arabia to “demonstrate its leadership in the region by expanding the role of its people in determining their future” should not be mistaken as pressure on the House of Saud, with whom the Bush family (like successive American governments before it) entertains excellent and mutually beneficial relations. Rather, Bush is pre-empting the usual criticism on his double standards with Arab regimes, and using the planned local Saudi elections (pushed by internal factors) as “proof” of his success in democratizing the region. As if.

The American media’s fixation with getting a schedule for a withdrawal from Iraq, or even an exit strategy is puzzling. They won’t get it, and not only because Bush claims that he “will not set an artificial timetable for leaving Iraq, because that would embolden the terrorists and make them believe they can wait us out.” They won’t get it because the US is building 14 military bases in Iraq, and it has made no secret of its wish to “stabilize” the region where so much oil flows – and thus remain there for the time being.

Which makes one wonder how stability can possibly ensue from the extremely belligerent and irresponsible statements Bush made about Syria and Iran, practically calling on their people to rise against their government, and promising threateningly (and without much proof) to “confront the regimes that continue to harbor terrorists and pursue weapons of mass murder.”

We had the misfortune of hearing Bush speak again about “nucular” weapons, but the days of “weapons of mass destruction” are apparently over; with the spectacular failure of the Anglo-American coalition to produce a single WMD or WMD-program in Iraq, the word destruction has evolved to murder, and we have yet to see how the search for WMMs is going to be handled in the countries Bush is targeting with his confrontational rhetoric. Is the US really thinking of hitting Syria, or Iran, or both? Is the Bush administration remotely aware of the consequences of such acts of war? And hasn’t it learned a single lesson from Iraq yet?

The “democratic reformers from Damascus to Tehran” who Bush wants to inspire are certainly pushing for more freedom in their respective countries, and have been struggling for a long time without needing the encouragement or permission of the US. But what many Americans don’t realize is that full democracy in the region would only generate much more criticism on America’s interference in local affairs, especially with regards to the Palestinian question, the support of Israel, and the invasion of Iraq, making the current regimes a relative pleasure to deal with.

I disagree with Senate Minority leader Harry Reid, giving the Democrats’ response to Bush’s address: this is not at all like the movie Groundhog Day. While having more of the same is quite tedious in itself, albeit expected, having more of the same in more places and with more impetus is even more terrifying.

Who knows how the state of the union - and, consequently, that of the world - will have progressed this time next year? Indicators are certainly not reassuring.

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“The Vietnam turnout was good as well”
Tuesday, February 1, 2005, 22:44
In my comments about Iraq yesterday, and in my interviews overall, I was tempted several times to bring up the turnout in the elections in Vietnam under occupation, but repeatedly decided against shifting the conversation to that corner, and rather to concentrate on the many issues in Iraq.

But clearly, some of Iraq’s similarities with Vietnam have also been on others’ minds, and Sami Ramadani took the time to remind us of Vietnam, and to draw the obvious parallels between the two situations, quoting from a New York Times article of September 1967 regarding the Vietnamese elestions, and summarizing his assessment of the Iraqi election in The Guardian today:

“With the past few days' avalanche of spin, you could be forgiven for thinking that on January 30 2005 the US-led occupation of Iraq ended and the people won their freedom and democratic rights. This has been a multi-layered campaign, reminiscent of the pre-war WMD frenzy and fantasies about the flowers Iraqis were collecting to throw at the invasion forces. How you could square the words democracy, free and fair with the brutal reality of occupation, martial law, a US-appointed election commission and secret candidates has rarely been allowed to get in the way of the hype.”

This weekend, Sami Ramadani and I, meeting for the first time, were invited to speak about Iraq in the same television interview. We both commented afterwards on what a pleasant (and surprising) change it had been to appear, for once, with another guest who had a similar analysis, rather than facing a barrage of superficial, somewhat basic, cheerful, “this is the dawn of democracy in spite of the terror” type of analysis from occasional other guests, and often facing an interviewer posing questions of dubious intent and depth.

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A few comments on the Iraqi elections
Tuesday, February 1, 2005, 00:55
I’ve spent most of the past few days giving interviews on the elections in Iraq, having numerous conversations with journalists, analysts and media people I know, and I have still have not gotten over how simplistic, misleading and incredibly patronizing the whole coverage has been.

From comments on the “historic” fact that Iraqis were voting in a “free and fair” election for the first time in 50 years, to the overconfident announcements that turnout had been high (nothing we didn’t expect in the south and the north, and just as low as we expected in central Iraq – regardless of what Condoleezza Rice had the nerve to say about a high turnout in Fallujah, of all places!), and to the ridiculously crude accounts of what exactly is the issue between Sunnis and Shias, the whole reporting process was heavily skewed and unprofessional.

Granted, it was difficult not to find the scenes of jubilant Iraqis somewhat heart-warming, especially when considering the unbelievable hardships they have endured not only since the Anglo-American invasion of their country, but since the merciless American-led sanctions were imposed over a decade before the invasion. It was reassuring not to have seen more violence than usual on Sunday (although I nearly suspect that some in the media were disappointed that nothing spectacular could launch them into “breaking news” mode – they had to wait until late afternoon for that, with the “crash” of the British Hercules plane). And it was satisfying to see that people bravely defied the insurgents and the terrorists’ threats, and took extreme risks to do what they believed was right (or what their highest religious authority told them to do).

But nothing can change the “facts on the ground,” to borrow from Bush’s assessment of Israeli borders. These “elections” were held under a violent military occupation, under the control of a puppet regime installed by the Bush administration (which only agreed to these elections under severe pressure from Sistani – remember the huge demonstrations one year ago?), with a significant proportion of the Iraqi population having been deliberately sidelined and rendered unable to participate in any process, political or otherwise. Iraqis went to the polls not knowing for whom they were voting, not quite understanding how the process functioned, and probably not sure of what they would end up with.

Throughout Sunday, one silly vision kept playing in my head: I could visualize children’s books showing simple characters, simple words, simple steps. As in: This is Dick. See Dick play. See Dick run. And the media, very condescendingly I thought, as if Iraqis (or Arabs) couldn’t have understood the concept of one person, one vote without the Americans, made the whole coverage of the Iraqi elections a televised version of a See Ali (or Mohamed, or Tariq) series: see Ali vote, see Ali being democratic, see Ali being happy thanks to us.

How appropriate that the first official statements regarding the election in Iraq should have been made by those who had the most to fear, and the most to hide: the masters, Bush and Blair, had the impertinence to rush to congratulate the Iraqi people on the “success” of the elections, not even waiting for their appointed middlemen to do it first.

The success or failure of these elections has nothing to do with turnout. Even if setting aside the caveat that there is no such thing as a free election under occupation, and that it is the duty of the occupier to provide for the occupied’s safety and well-being, it is only over the next few weeks and months that we can observe whether these elections served the Iraqi people’s interests.

If the new assembly can reach out to the communities which were marginalized, if the “new government” can manage to establish security and a semblance of normalcy (in terms of basic infrastructure, at least, including water, electricity, power and gasoline to begin with), and if a withdrawal of the occupation troops can be achieved, we can then speak about success. Since I believe that the latter is not on the agenda, and that the US plans to stay in the region for a long time, the other two factors will probably not be achieved either.

The US seems to believe that only the Sunnis and the ex-Baathists are opposed to their presence. I hate to think how much worse the situation will get if all the Shias (and not just Moqtada Sadr's followers) also eventually turn on them.

Salim Lone has again written in The Guardian, summarizing with heartfelt indignation his views (and many others') about these elections, calling them “An election to anoint an occupation.” As always, he makes for good reading, of which this is an extract:

"The millions of Iraqis, as well as the UN electoral team and the Iraqi election commission staff, who did participate in the process despite the grave risk, deserve our respect. But it was a risk taken in vain. The election was illegitimate, and cannot resolve the rampant insecurity resulting from the occupation. The only way to stop the destruction of Iraq is to end the occupation and enfranchise the Sunnis, who are leading the resistance because they see the US as systematically excluding them from the role they deserve to play in Iraq.

Indeed, this so-called election, with its national rather than provincial voting rolls, was designed to reduce Sunni representation and to anoint US-supported groups who will allow this occupation to continue. A high turnout does not change the fact that this is an illegitimate, occupier's election."

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In his first report card, Abbas gets praise and a little gold star
Saturday, January 29, 2005, 00:38
While following the situation in Iraq, let us not forget about Palestine, where something is always happening – usually to the detriment of the Palestinian people.

The first Israeli appraisal of the Palestinian president’s performance has come in (no, not the verdict of the Palestinian people, but that of their occupier); Mahmoud Abbas still hasn’t passed with flying colors, and he can certainly do better if he applies himself, but he’s on the right track. Considering he’s only been in power for two weeks but that he’s already passed a number of Israeli tests, the praise from Sharon should be equivalent to at least a B-.

Sharon’s exact words on the progress of Abbas are as follows: “I am very satisfied with what I hear is happening on the Palestinian side, and I have a serious interest in advancing the process with him.”

Of course he should be satisfied! Abbas has already deployed 3,000 Palestinian troops around Gaza to ensure no attacks could possibly be carried out against the Israeli occupying army, and has banned Palestinian civilians from carrying weapons (lest it might occur to them to defend themselves). Furthermore, in a move eerily reminiscent of the Israeli army, Abbas has even sent his bulldozers to demolish cafés, shops and kiosks in Gaza.

With friends like Abbas, do Palestinians need enemies? No wonder Sharon now says that “conditions are ripe for a historic breakthrough.” In other words, this means that by stopping attacks on Israel (for the time being), Abbas has created the ideal situation for Sharon to withdraw as painlessly as possible from Gaza – which is the only withdrawal (a partial one at that) he was planning to make in the first place, and turn his attention on the permanent settlement of the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Abbas should be careful not to forget about the people whose approval really counts now, especially in Gaza. They have also spoken, and their verdict is clear: in the local elections held this week, with a voter participation of over 80%, Hamas has achieved a stunning victory, winning nearly three times as many seats as Fatah. That’s democracy for you (be careful what you ask for, Bush). Let’s wait for their report card now; and it's a safe bet to say they'll want a bit more than empty praise from Israel.

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Unusual elections, part II: vote by logo
Friday, January 28, 2005, 01:25
Who's who on Iraq's election platform?

Since most people in Iraq have no idea who the candidates are, or where they should vote, they can technically vote for the candle, the rose, the bridge, the hand, or any other logo or symbol representing the parties. That is how most Iraqis are recognizing the lists of candidates, in a place where the battle of strange posters has overtaken the streets, and where a candidate in public is a rare sight.

Or, to make matters much simpler, Iraqis are also being invited by some to go back to a constitutional monarchy and vote for a king.

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The rise and fall of a very nasty neocon
Friday, January 28, 2005, 00:35
Rejoice: Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense, is gone. He has resigned and will probably remain in Washington (perhaps to work directly for AIPAC?), I’m afraid, but will hopefully be unable to cause any further serious damage in the immediate future.

The number 3 man at the Pentagon, Feith was one of the architects of the invasion of Iraq when he ran the Office of Special Plans, that most Orwellian of set-ups which became the US’s main “policy” center – and in effect, its main propaganda machine (for example, infamously linking Iraq to the September 11 attacks).

That was after he had created the Office of Strategic Influence, through which he tried to plant news stories with foreign media to influence policymakers.

Many will remember Feith’s link to AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), when his aide Lawrence Franklin passed information to it and to an Israeli diplomat. The fact that Feith (or Rumsfeld, for that matter) weren’t forced to resign then says a lot about this administration.

Before we start celebrating Feith’s departure, however, let us remember that every previous administration official who resigned was replaced with someone even more hawkish. The new man may have a lower public profile, but he will be as neocon and pro-Israeli as Feith ever could be.

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Unusual elections, to say the least
Thursday, January 27, 2005, 00:53
It may be a long time before it becomes another land of the free, no matter how the Bush administration spins it. So far, most candidates for Iraq’s Sunday election are too afraid to campaign, or to even reveal their candicacy, which probably means that those who vote will choose a list based on the top few candidates they know.

With so much violence (and even more looming) making the whole exercise rather pointless, even Iraqi expatriates who were supposed to turn out in droves stayed away from the registration centers. Whether inside or outside Iraq, voters are staying home, somewhat disillusioned.

Not surprisingly, many people believe that the violence is too great for any elections (fair or not) to be held, despite everything the US says.

But Allawi seconds any motion made by the US, especially when he thinks it can keep his regime in power, and is insisting they should go ahead.

Because of the fear of such a low turnout, ironic comments are being made about America's attempt to limit killing Iraqis, at least until some of the votes are in.

More voters will of course mean more legitimacy, which the election monitors, from the safety of Jordan, will be willing to vouch for.

Still, it will be difficult to call this a free and fair election, no matter how it turns out. Is it any wonder Bush did not even mention Iraq in his inauguration speech, nor the “democracy” he was bringing there? After all, no need to mention unpleasant matters when he was in the mood to party.

As soon as the parties were over, however, Bush quickly turned to Congress to request another $80 billion (on top of over $300 billion already spent on his wars), seemingly confident that it will yet again grant his every wish and allow him to play soldier a while longer.

It’s going to be a strange election, and an even stranger and long, long four years. Doubly so for Iraqis.

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Not even UNWRA can criticize Israel
Tuesday, January 25, 2005, 01:22
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNWRA, was created in 1948 after the creation of the state of Israel, to deal specifically with the problems of Palestinians under occupation and in exile as refugees. Its sole raison d’être is the well-being of the millions of Palestinians suffering from nearly 60 years of dispossession, to provide them with food, shelter, schooling and medical aid.

Nevertheless, UNWRA is not allowed to criticize the occupier (Israel) or its main ally (the US), the two countries responsible for the suffering of Palestinians until today. Thus, Peter Hansen, UNWRA’s Danish Commissioner-General, has been forced to leave his post for daring to speak out against the abuses of Israel’s army.

In a recent conference held in East Jerusalem, Hansen did not fail to mention the suffering of Israelis: “Never forget there are two parties to the conflict and there are two peoples exercising violence against one another and it follows that there are victims on the either side too.”

Nothing Israel can really object to. But it is for stating other, indisputable facts, as he has done throughout his tenure, and as his position requires him to do, that he got the boot after Israel and American congressmen petitioned for his ousting.

“As you approach the southern end of Gaza - where Khan Yunis and Rafah have seen continued destruction, where the numbers of people who have been made homeless by bulldozers exceeds 25,000 - we have managed to re-house 8,000 of them but we are fighting a losing battle. We can not build as fast as the destruction takes place. So, Gaza is in a very, very poor state. Everybody there hopes that this conflict can end so not only their suffering can end but the deprivation of a dignified human life after decades.”

If UNWRA can't say this, who on earth can?

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So long, Bill
Tuesday, January 25, 2005, 00:39
According to a British scientist who apparently had nothing better to do, as reported in that very British tabloid The Daily Mail (which really has nothing better to do), today, January 24, was supposed to be the most depressing day of the year.

But there is one major flaw in this calculation, as it did not account for this being William Safire’s last day as an op-ed columnist in The New York Times. Still, we had to bear four of his columns today, one of which describes one of his “winner” columns on Israel's security as follows:

Some of us backed Ariel Sharon and Israeli realists for a generation, while State Department "evenhandedness" was all thumbs in failing to come to grips with Arafat's aim of conquest. In the future, if Palestinians confront their terrorist minority and get realistic about borders, Israel will relocate some of its settlers, forcibly if necessary, to secure the peace settlement.

If Safire gets realistic about facts and sticks to his language columns, which are quite good, sparing us his preaching about Middle East affairs and his accounts of one-on-ones with his buddy Ariel Sharon, I think this calls for a celebration.

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Bush is still sowing his seeds in Iraq
Monday, January 24, 2005, 02:29
Those who still don’t feel nauseated by George W. Bush’s use of the word “liberty” - which he mentioned 15 times during his inauguration speech (only second to “freedom” which he said 27 times) - will be pleased to know that in order to help bring “democracy” (mentioned only once) to Iraq (not mentioned at all), American forces are currently engaged in the largest military operation since the invasion of Iraq, codenamed (don’t laugh now, this is serious) “Operation Seeds of Liberty.”

Presumably, this operation is part of the “great efforts” John Negroponte, US “ambassador” to Iraq, said were being made as he acknowledged the serious problems ahead of next weekend’s elections.

But Condoleezza Rice is not worried: “The Iraqis will be just fine,” she said on Sunday. After all, as her boss explained to the world on January 20,

“America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains …

(these men were detained in Mosul by US forces)

… or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, …

(these women bow their heads as US forces search their home in Mosul)

… or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.”

(this girl in Tal Afar screams after her parents were shot dead by US soldiers, as she and her siblings were in the back seat of the car).

No Siree. As Bush said, “America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies.”

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Imperial ascendancy and ostrich diplomacy
Thursday, January 20, 2005, 02:46
Bush says he feels the weight of history, which is perhaps why his inauguration will be the most expensive in history, and which The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall describes as “a thoroughly imperial event, scripted down to the last detail.”

But while the emperor holds court in Washington, the real weight of history is being felt in Iraq, where the descent into hell keeps accelerating. I used to reserve the term of “ostrich diplomacy” for Arab regimes, which excel at sticking their heads in the sand, ignoring their surroundings and thinking others see exactly what they are seeing. But once more, Arab regimes and Bush find themselves with much in common.

Bush sees neither his critics nor the problems he has caused, but Steve Benson sure does.

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Help, Rice wants to seize the “opportunity” in the Middle East!
Thursday, January 20, 2005, 02:20
At her (un)official crowning as Bush’s queen of “diplomacy” (diplomacy being a very relative term in the Bush administration), Condoleezza Rice threatened to solve the Middle East conflict, although she made it clear that real peace was up to the parties themselves! God help us all.

If you haven’t been following the region’s history, please be informed that the real problem there, according to Rice, is the lack of democracy – not the Israeli occupation. Therefore, Palestinians have nothing to worry about now that they’ve decided to become democratic: “The establishment of a Palestinian democracy will help to bring an end to the conflict in the Holy Land,” said Rice.

Well whaddaya know, it turns out that was all there is to it. Of course, Mahmoud Abbas has been doing his best over the past couple of days to be as democratic as possible, having fired dozens of Arafat’s advisors and promising to deploy Palestinian security forces to prevent attacks on Israel, for which he was thanked by an Israeli promise not to invade Gaza for the time being.

How pleasant for Madam Secretary. But those who had been expecting a more conciliatory Rice – at least for appearance’s sake at the beginning of her mandate – may have been taken aback by her menacing attitude towards Syria when she said that "it is fair to say that the Syrian government is behaving in a way that could unfortunately lead to long-term bad relations with the United States."

So what else is new? At least, it didn’t make it to the new “outposts of tyranny” group, which is the most original term White House speechwriters could come up with since “axis of evil.”

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Pentagon: Ares or Eros?
Tuesday, January 18, 2005, 13:03
Ever wonder why the strangest and most unlikely conspiracy theories come out about America, especially in the Arab world? It’s because the initial rumours often take root from a real story, and then continue to take a life of their own. I wonder how the following story will develop – but it’s bad enough, and ridiculous enough, as it is: in 1994, the Pentagon actually toyed with the idea of developing a potent chemical affecting human conduct – namely a strong aphrodisiac to cause homosexual behavior within enemy units.

Granted, it may have affected their discipline, but one can’t help but ask, tongue-in-cheek perhaps, how an aphrodisiac (regardless of its intended victim) was going to lower their morale. If the Pentagon were a Greek god, it would certainly be Ares, the god of war. Could it now be turning into Eros, the god of love? It’s difficult to decide which scenario is the scariest.

Another brilliant idea, which was surprisingly rejected, involved using chemicals that could be sprayed on enemy positions to attract stinging and biting bugs, rodents and larger animals.

Last but not least, the Air Force Research Laboratory (courtesy of American tax dollars, folks) thought of creating “severe and lasting halitosis” (bad breath, in plain English) to help sniff out fighters trying to blend in with civilians. Who was going to be the unfortunate American soldier charged with enemy identification? And how would have non-combatants with bad breath of their own been able to protest their innocence?

Maybe we shouldn’t make too much fun of such American plans. After all, according to Captain Dan McSweeney of the Marine Corps, the US military is merely committed to developing less-than-lethal weapons which are consistent with international treaties, offering soldiers “a greater range of options in dealing with increasingly complex operational environments.” Well how very law-abiding of the US.

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