Thursday, March 31, 2011

Obama's Political Gamble

Zenga Zenga, Mr. Obama

Obama's selective intervention in Libya is tarnishing the American image even more in the Arab world.

Mark LeVine and Reza Aslan
Al Jazeera
30 Mar 2011 10:21

As President Obama took to the airwaves two nights ago to explain the reasons behind his launching of Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya, he might have mentioned that the mission began on the 8th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq.

And while that is a coincidence the United States would very much like to ignore, the long term consequences of the Iraq war have never been more relevant than now.

However noble and justified the United States' intentions may be in launching an attack on a dictator who has murdered his own people and supported international acts of terrorism, the hypocrisy and inconsistently with which the Obama administration has dealt with the so-called "Arab Awakening" risks generating as much ire in the region as did the invasion of Iraq, especially among the young people who have led the pro-democracy revolutions that have inspired the world.

If there is one thing that the Arab world's "Facebook Generation" does not suffer, it is hypocrisy, either by its own governments or by its foreign allies and patrons.

Yet it is impossible not to recognise the rank hypocrisy in supporting the rights of anti-government protesters in Libya, while turning a blind eye to the same in Bahrain, where government troops have massacred dozens of unarmed civilians; in Yemen, where the regime of president Ali Abdullah Saleh has been firing live ammunition into peaceful crowds; in Saudi Arabia, whose military has been sent into neighbouring countries to brutally suppress people's demand for the most basic rights and freedoms; in the Palestinian territories, where non-violent demonstrations for an end to Israeli settlements have been completely ignored by an American administration who, until recently, vowed that a settlement freeze would form the basis of its Middle East policy.

In announcing the military strikes against Colonel Gaddafi, Obama declared that the United States "cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy, and his forces step up its assault on innocent men and women [who] face brutality and death at the hands of their own government."

He reiterated this theme in his latest speech.

Does the president not recognise the irony of those words, which could be applied to any one of America's dictatorial allies in the Middle East?

Surely he must, and yet he refused to address this issue head on, even though it has come to define the way the people of the region view his credibility.

They may applaud his vow that "the dark forces of civil conflict and sectarian war will have to be averted, and difficult political and economic concerns addressed."

But they cannot help but question his continued support of dictatorial allies in the region whose leaders are actively fomenting the very same sectarian divisions.

Such inconsistency – what reporters and opinion writers alike are openly describing as "cynical realpolitik" – will inevitably cause permanent damage to the United States' standing in the new Middle East.

Mr. Obama's speech did nothing to address the inconsistencies in America's response to the so-called "Arab Spring".

And at the meeting of "allies" behind the no-fly zone in London, secretary of state Clinton's declaration that, "it is obvious to everyone that Gaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead" betrayed irony and hypocrisy in equal measure, since by any reasonable definition of "legitimate" few if any leaders in the Arab world have "legitimacy to lead".

At the same time, by refusing to become a party to the International Criminal Court, the United States undermines the legitimacy of the ICC as a venue for trying Gaddafi for crimes against his people, as allies like Britain have suggested.

Overall, it seems that the United States is still playing by a now outdated script, in which adversaries can be invaded for actions which friends are allowed to continue more or less with impunity. That is no way to run a 21st century foreign policy.

In our frequent travels across the region, we have heard repeatedly from activists and ordinary people alike that they cannot accept American military intervention in one country and acquiescence and perhaps tacit support for crackdowns in others.

Activists in Egypt wait in vain, as Clinton was pointedly told in Cairo in her recent trip, for the US to speak up about the continuation of arbitrary arrests, imprisonment, torture, and emergency rule.

The Shia (as well as their Sunni compatriots) who are struggling for democracy in Bahrain are waiting for some recognition from the United States of the legitimacy of their demands.

The people of Yemen are waiting for the US to stop supporting an unpopular authoritarian president in the name of national security, as are their neighbours to the north, in Saudi Arabia.

Even as those concerned about humanitarian suffering in Libya have cause to hope that the US-led intervention will continue to prevent a major bloodbath, time is quickly running out for US policy more broadly.

The legacy of the Obama administration, and the position of the United States in the world, depend in good measure on whether American foreign policy can align with the peoples of the region and their fundamental human and political rights, which are a far surer guarantor of America's long-term national security than military or petroleum alliances with venal and autocratic leaders.

And whatever his actions in Libya, it seems that Mr. Obama has yet to grasp this very basic fact.

Reza Aslan is founder of and author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House 2008) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

One Analysis of the Situation in Syria

Is Assad Capable of Reform?

By Volker Perthes
The New York Times
March 30, 2011

BERLIN — In a brief address before Syria’s Parliament on Wednesday, President Bashar al-Assad declared that he was still for reform, but insisted that the first priority was to combat a “conspiracy” that was responsible for the bloody protests in his country. The speech came the day after the president dismissed his cabinet.

The speech was bound to disappoint those who had expected Assad to at least lift the emergency status and announce a new law on political parties. Changing the ministers is a meaningless gesture unless it’s followed by real reform. Assad mentioned the emergency law and the party law but insisted that he would not act under pressure — “haste comes at the expense of the quality of reforms.”

It’s a refrain that Syrians have heard too often. The idea of a new party law in particular has come up whenever the regime was under pressure — for example in 2000, after Assad took power, or in 2005, after Syria’s forced withdrawal from Lebanon. But the time has never been right.

I remember a meeting I had five years ago with Faisal Kalthoum, a professor of law and at the time a confidant to Assad, who proudly told me about a draft party law he and other members of a special committee had just finalized. (Kalthoum, who regarded himself as a reformer, later became governor of Dara’a and was in that position until he was fired after the first bloody crackdown.)

The new law, he told me at that time, would allow parties of various tendencies to be established. But there was no intention, he added when I asked, to change the Constitution, particularly Article 8, which states that the Baath Party is the “leading party in the society and the state.” In other words, parties could be freely constituted so long as they did not challenge the Baath’s monopoly on power. It is hardly necessary to add that Assad did not enact the law. The situation, other officials told me in subsequent years, “wasn’t yet considered ripe” for such a reform.

I would be positively astonished if Assad was prepared today not only to enact that law, but also to lift the state of emergency and rescind Article 8. He could make history with such moves, probably setting the stage for a step-by-step political liberalization in Syria — for which, I assume, a small window of time still exists. But I doubt he will do it.

This is mainly because Assad, in contrast to the image of him that some Western leaders have developed, is not a reformer. He can better be described as a modernizer. When he inherited power from his father in 2000 he set out to modernize the system — the economic and technological foundation as well as the political, security and bureaucratic elite on which he bases his power.

He allowed archaic economic and trade regulations to be shelved, private banks to operate, foreign investments to come in, mobile-phone companies to operate. And, starting with regional party leaders and governors, then ministers, and finally the top echelons of the security apparatus, he managed within only a couple of years to remove his father’s old guard and replace it with people loyal to himself.

In doing so, he gave Syria a more modern face and made some things work more efficiently, but he also made sure that the basic system — which relies on the heavy hand of the security services, on personal ties, and on a form of tolerated corruption that allows loyalists to enrich themselves — remained intact.

Initially, after his assumption of power, Assad encouraged a somewhat freer political debate. But in 2001, after a short-lived “Damascus Spring,” the regime cracked down on many of the intellectuals who had thought that it was really the beginning of a political opening. Many have been arrested repeatedly over the past decade.

To be fair, Assad has not relied only on repression and cronies. Unlike Hosni Mubarak or Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the relatively young Syrian leader did gain some real popularity. The regional situation has helped him, as he quite frankly admitted in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. He was extremely critical of the U.S. invasion in Iraq, rightly warned of chaos after an externally enforced regime change there, and gained a reputation for saying no to the United States.

He was compelled to withdraw his forces from Lebanon, but managed to make the best of it by opening up the economy in Syria, thereby reducing the reliance of Syrian businessmen on Lebanon, and gradually rebuilding Syrian political influence in Lebanon.

He denounced American and Israeli policies toward the Palestinians, while making clear that Syria would not block a peace treaty with Israel. All this made him for a time one of the most popular heads of state in the Arab world, and, to the extent that it can be judged, at home.

This apparent popularity may have led him and his advisers to ignore the fact that even in Syria, many people were angry with a repressive regime, bad governance and blatant corruption.

In Syria, as in other Arab countries, there is a widely shared feeling, particularly among those between 20 and 30, that the regime denies them dignity and a fair chance to participate in politics and the economy. Offering cosmetic reforms now is likely to be too little too late.

Assad may find that while it was relatively easy to deal with intellectuals and activists, it is far harder to restrain an entire generation.

Volker Perthes is director of SWP, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, and author of several works on Syria and the Arab world.

Bahrain Continues to Crackdown

The United States and the international community have desperately failed the brave people of Bahrain. After weeks of peaceful demonstrations the protesters were violently forced off the streets by foreign troops while we did nothing. Human Rights Watch reports that doctors and activists have subsequently been targeted and the below wire suggests that all of the MPs from al-Wefaq party who successfully resigned in protest over the violence may be soon prosecuted. Furthermore not all of their resignations were technically accepted, a tactical move that postpones new elections. All of this means that Bahrain is now more autocratic than before the protests began. By failing to take any meaningful political action against the government in Bahrain, while militarily intervening in Libya, the United States and the internationally community are going to be viewed as complicit in this oppression.

Shiite ex-MPs Exposed to Prosecution in Bahrain

By Mohammed Fadhel
Agence France Presse
Wednesday, 30 March 2011

MANAMA — Bahrain's parliament on Tuesday accepted the resignation of 11 Shiite MPs, exposing them to possible legal action, after a news blackout on the arrests of top activists in a crackdown on anti-regime protests.

In a unanimous vote the house "accepted the resignations of 11 MPs of Al-Wefaq", which with 18 seats makes up the largest bloc in the 40-member parliament of the Shiite-majority state, official news agency BNA said.

It said parliament decided to postpone a vote on the other seven members of Al-Wefaq, which heads the opposition in the Gulf country ruled by a Sunni royal family.

Al-Wefaq members resigned en masse in protest at the use of deadly force against demonstrators.

Tuesday's vote cleared the way for the possible prosecution of the outspoken former MPs now stripped of parliamentary immunity, following calls for the opposition to face charges in court.

On March 16, Bahraini security forces drove the mostly Shiite protesters out of central Manama's Pearl Square and demolished their camp under a state of emergency, ending a month-long campaign on the streets.

Bahrain's interior minister told parliament on Tuesday that a total of 24 people were killed, including four policemen, in the month of unrest and linked the troubles to Lebanon's Shiite militant movement Hezbollah.

Sheikh Rashed bin Abdullah Al-Khalifa pointed to methods used by the protesters as well as statements of support from the Iranian-backed movement and from Tehran to corroborate his accusation.

Former Shiite MP Matar Matar, meanwhile, argued parliament's move on Tuesday was "illogical" in accepting some Wefaq resignations and ignoring the rest. Technically, Bahrain's parliament can operate in the absence of Al-Wefaq.

But Sunni MP Ali Ahmed said the remaining seven cases were left pending in order to avoid any need to hold partial elections in their constituencies at a time of tension, with Shiite villages under tight security.

Sunni Islamists and independent MPs pushed for the vote to accept the resignations, despite calls for a postponement to avoid an escalation.

Wefaq suspended its membership in parliament on February 15 in protest at the use of lethal force against demonstrators in Shiite villages, where two demonstrators were shot dead.

They stepped down at the end of February after the death toll in protests had risen to seven. At least 15 Shiites were killed in the clashes with security forces, according to an Al-Wefaq toll.

Bahrain's military prosecutor, meanwhile, has imposed a news blackout on a probe of several leading opposition activists arrested during the crackdown on anti-regime protests.

Colonel Yosuf Fulaifel said the defendants were being investigated under the emergency law announced last month by the king, according to a statement carried by BNA news agency.

The US State Department said earlier this month it was "deeply troubled" by the arrests, especially of Ibrahim Sharif, head of Wa'ad, a political society, and Ali Al-Ekri, a doctor detained after criticising hospital conditions.

A coalition of seven opposition groups, backed by lawyers, has written to Bahrain's public prosecutor protesting the handling of the probe by the military prosecutor.

They stressed that the king announced an "emergency law and not martial law," meaning that cases of detained civilians "remain within the jurisdiction of civil courts".

A deadlock between the government and the opposition has persisted despite reports of a Kuwait-sponsored mediation aimed at launching a national dialogue between the two sides as proposed by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad.

In a telephone call on Sunday, US Vice President Joe Biden urged Crown Prince Salman to open the long-mooted talks with opposition leaders.

Biden "recognised the important steps taken by the crown prince to reach out to the opposition and that law and order are necessary" for dialogue to go ahead, the White House said in a statement.

But he also "encouraged additional outreach and meaningful reform that is responsive to the aspirations of all Bahrainis", it said.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pro-Assad Syrians Take to the Streets

Mass Protests Support Syria's Hard-line Regime

Associated Press
Tuesday, 29 March 2011

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of supporters of Syria's hard-line regime poured into the streets Tuesday to counter a wave of popular dissent that has posed the most serious threat to President Bashar Assad's rule and forced him to promise a string of reforms, including lifting a nearly 50-year state of emergency.

At least 61 people have been killed since the protests exploded on March 18 and led to a swift crackdown by security forces, according to Human Rights Watch.

Assad, whose family has controlled Syria for four decades and has a history of brutally crushing dissent, is trying to calm the growing fury with a string of concessions in this nation of 23 million.

He is expected to address the nation in the next 24 hours to announce he is lifting the emergency law and moving to annul other harsh restrictions on civil liberties and political freedoms. Syria's independent Al-Watan newspaper said the Cabinet was expected to resign during its weekly meeting Tuesday, a move that would be viewed as another concession.

However, the resignations will not affect Assad, who holds the lion's share of power in the authoritarian regime.

The violence has brought sectarian tensions in Syria out in the open for the first time in decades, a taboo topic here because the country has a Sunni majority ruled by minority Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam. Assad has placed his fellow Alawites into most positions of power in Syria.

But he also has used increased economic freedom and prosperity to win the allegiance of the prosperous Sunni Muslim merchant classes, while punishing dissenters with arrest, imprisonment and physical abuse.

Many of the pro-regime demonstrators emphasized national unity Tuesday.

"Sectarianism was never an issue before, this is a conspiracy targeting Syria," said Jinane Adra, a 36-year-old Syrian who came from Saudi Arabia to express support for Assad.

"The Syrian people are one, there is no place for religious divisions between us," she said, flanked by her children, ages 3 and 5, carrying red roses and pictures of Assad.

Mohammed Ali, 40, said Assad was in touch with the Syrian people and aware of their need for reforms.

"This dirty conspiracy will be shortlived, we are all behind him," he said, cradling an Assad poster on his chest.

The president of 11 years, one of the most anti-Western leaders in the Middle East, is wavering between cracking down and compromising in the face of protests that began in a southern city on March 18 and spread to other areas.

The unrest in the strategically important country could have implications well beyond the country's borders given its role as Iran's top Arab ally and as a front line state against Israel.

Syria has long been viewed by the U.S. as a potentially destabilizing force in the Mideast. An ally of Iran and Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, it has also provided a home for some radical Palestinian groups.

But the country has been trying to emerge from years of international isolation. The U.S. recently has reached out to Syria in the hopes of drawing it away from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas — although the effort has not yielded much.

The government-sanctioned rallies Tuesday dubbed "loyalty to the nation march" brought hundreds of thousands into the streets in the Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Hasakeh in the north and the central cities of Hama and Homs. School children were given the day off and bank employees and other workers were given two hours off to attend the demonstrations.

Still, many in Syria who see Assad as a young, dynamic leader and credit him for opening up the economy were shocked by the violence and came to express genuine support.

"The people want Bashar Assad!" chanted protesters in a central Damascus square. Men, women and children gathered in front of a huge picture of Assad freshly put up on the Central Bank building.

"No to sectarianism and no to civil strife," read one placard.

When unrest roiling the Middle East hit Syria, it was a dramatic turn for Assad, a British-trained eye doctor who inherited power from his father in 2000 after three decades of iron-fisted rule. In January, he said his country is immune to such unrest because he is in tune with his people's needs.

President Obama's Omission

The following extract from President Obama’s speech yesterday about the United Nations sanctioned intervention in Libya caught my attention:
That's the kind of leadership [the United States] have shown in Libya. Of course, even when we act as part of a coalition, the risks of any military action will be high. Those risks were realized when one of our planes malfunctioned over Libya. Yet when one of our airmen parachuted to the ground, in a country whose leader has so often demonized the United States in a region that has such a difficult history with our country, this American did not find enemies. Instead, he was met by people who embraced him. One young Libyan who came to his aid said, “We are your friends. We are so grateful to these men who are protecting the skies.”
I deeply appreciate the President's effort to describe Arabs as human beings. But according to a recent article in The New York Times, what Obama failed to mention about this incident is deeply problematic. At the time the newspaper reported that:
A Marine Corps officer said that the grounded pilot, who was in contact with rescue crews in the air, asked for bombs to be dropped as a precaution before the crews landed to pick him up. “My understanding is he asked for the ordnance to be delivered between where he was located and where he saw people coming toward him,” the officer said, adding that the pilot evidently made the request “to keep what he thought was a force closing in on him from closing in on him.”

In response, two Harrier attack jets that were part of the rescue team dropped two 500-pound bombs before a Marine Osprey helicopter landed to pick up the pilot, at about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday local time. The Marine officer said he did not know if the people approaching the pilot were friendly or hostile or what damage the bombs had caused.
In a later interview with ABC News, the marines who were part of the rescue mission confirmed that they dropped the two bombs to prevent locals from approaching the downed pilots and as a warning to the villagers because the Americans did not know if they were pro-Qaddafi or pro-rebel. We still do not know if these bombs caused any damage. But the fact that they were dropped at all speaks volumes.

Israel Warns Palestine Diplomatic Effort May Lead to "Violence on the Ground"

Israel Threatens to Take Action if UN Recognizes Palestinian Statehood

Foreign Ministry instructs envoys in 30 countries to send 'diplomatic protest' to host nations over plan for September vote in Security Council.

By Barak Ravid
29 March 2011

Israel informed the 15 members of the United Nations Security Council last week, as well as several other prominent European Union countries, that if the Palestinian Authority persists in its efforts to gain recognition in September as a state within the 1967 borders, Israel would respond with a series of unilateral steps of its own.

Senior Foreign Ministry officials said the ministry's director general, Rafael Barak, sent a classified cable last week to more than 30 Israeli embassies, directing them to lodge a diplomatic protest at the highest possible level in response to the Palestinian efforts to gain international recognition for statehood at the UN General Assembly session in September.

The Israeli diplomatic corps conveyed the message that support for international recognition, particularly by most of the members of the European Union, encouraged the Palestinians to forgo negotiations with Israel and to move more quickly toward recognition at the UN of Palestinian statehood. Israeli diplomats stressed that such a move violates the Oslo Accords and will not lead to a Palestinian state even if the General Assembly grants recognition, but could lead to violence on the ground.

European diplomats have confirmed to Haaretz that such a message was conveyed several days ago. One diplomat said his country did not receive a serious response when asked what unilateral steps Israel might take. Another diplomat, from a European country, said in light of the current deadlock in negotiations, international recognition of Palestinian statehood appeared unavoidable in September.

Foreign Ministry sources said no decision has been taken at this stage over a possible Israeli response to UN recognition of Palestinian statehood, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not held any major discussion of such a response on a formal level among his cabinet colleagues. Ideas have been floated on the right wing of the political spectrum in recent weeks, suggesting, for example, that Israel might apply Israeli law to the West Bank or annex major settlement blocs to Israel.

September is expected to be pivotal for several reasons. Last September, U.S. President Barack Obama told the General Assembly that he wished to see a Palestinian state become a member of the UN within a year. In addition, Israel and the Palestinians had agreed that the talks they undertook last September 2 in Washington would last for about a year. Thirdly, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's program of establishing institutions for a future Palestinian state is due to be wrapped up this coming September.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met on Sunday in Ramallah with former Knesset member Yossi Beilin and told him that the Palestinian Authority would not engage in further negotiations with Israel after September. Senior Palestinian sources added, however, that if negotiations are resumed before September and make progress, the Palestinians would be prepared to defer efforts to gain UN recognition of statehood.

Abbas told Beilin that it would be possible to engage in three months of talks in an effort to achieve progress before September, but Netanyahu would have to suspend construction in the West Bank settlements during that period. The PA leader added that the Palestinians would not renew violence against Israel, but hinted at his possible resignation or the breakup of the PA, telling Beilin that there is no October 2011 on his schedule.

There are currently no contacts between representatives of Netanyahu and Abbas's advisers, and Netanyahu appears to have backtracked on his intention to deliver a major policy speech to jump-start the peace process.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Libyan Rebels Advance

One by One, the Milestones on the Road to Tripoli are Falling

As Gaddafi's forces melt away, rebel eyes turn to the Libyan capital.

By Kim Sengupta in Bin Jawad and Donald Macintyre in Sirte
The Independent
Monday, 28 March 2011

The last time the rebels made it as far west as Bin Jawad, it ended in disaster: their fighters ran into a murderous ambush, lost 70 men, and were forced into a terrifying retreat that nearly ended their campaign.

But yesterday, after a stunning sweep across the territory for which they have fought so hard and for so long, they were back.

This time, with Western air power destroying almost all that is left of the regime's armour and artillery, the mood was very different. The rebels' eyes were cast towards Sirte, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's birthplace and the centre of loyalist resistance.

After that, there is only one more goal: Tripoli. In Bin Jawad yesterday, the enemy was nowhere in sight. And an excursion towards Sirte from Bin Jawad did not reveal any obvious preparations to stop the rebel advance. The few local people who had stayed behind amid the strife described regime forces steadily heading away with the few remnants of their equipment. On the other side of the front line, military vehicles including two tanks, apparently in good condition, passed through the desert town of Beni Walid, heading west.

Nearer to Sirte itself, a pick-up truck and Land Rovers carried soldiers and a truck carried a mobile anti-aircraft emplacement in the same direction. Civilian cars with families apparently carrying their belongings could also be seen leaving the area.

The shift in momentum is palpable. Rebels are now back in possession of the two key oil complexes of Ras Lanuf and Brega which handle a sizeable proportion of the 1.5 million barrels a day the country used to export before the uprising. The opposition's provisional administration in Benghazi stated that Qatar, which had joined the Western coalition in sending warplanes to Libya, would be marketing the oil. However, restarting production will be extremely difficult until the return of the foreigners who ran the plants, but left after the uprising.

The rebels were poised to strike at Tripoli before, but then had to fall back rapidly because of their ineptitude and the superior organisation and discipline of their opponents. But the way the regime's soldiers were melting away yesterday appeared to show that they were unwilling to carry on against what are now, with the involvement of international forces, overwhelming odds.

That theory was compounded last night by reports that Muammar Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte had been targeted by airstrikes for the first time. A heavy bombardment of Tripoli also began after nightfall, with at least four loud explosions heard.

Within 24 hours, Gaddafi's troops had pulled out of Ajdabiya, Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, names which had induced shudders among the Shabaab fighters after the heavy losses they suffered there in relentless artillery and missile salvoes. Now they were back, albeit with little of the bravado of their first visit, and wary of falling into a trap.

But the reasons why the loyalists may no longer have the will to fight was only too evident. For the second weekend in succession, bodies lay strewn, burned and dismembered among smouldering tanks and trucks on scrubby fields. What was changed from last Sunday was the amount of ammunition and the numbers of artillery pieces which had been simply abandoned.

With Western jets attacking convoys heading towards the rebel-held east, the regime's scope for replenishing supplies is severely limited. In Washington, the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said: "There is no doubt that their ability to carry out movement has been severely degraded."

Meanwhile last night, after a week of heated negotiations, Nato finally agreed to take full command of all aspects of military operations in Libya.

Also for the second consecutive week, the rebel fighters had themselves photographed with the wreckage, when they should have been pressing forward, some bringing their families to walk through corpses. Dozens of rounds were fired into the air to celebrate a victory in which the Shabaab had been witnesses rather than participants.

A few leaders have begun to emerge since the uprising of 17 February, mainly from among members of the military who defected, and they insisted that there was a new realism about the campaign and lessons have been learned from past mistakes.

Major Amar Bashir took part in the first battle for Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad but then returned to his home in Tobruk disillusioned by what happened.

"It was very difficult to have any kind of planning, we had big communications and logistical problems. I felt there was nothing much I could do and I took a break," he said. "But then I felt bad because I was at home while others were fighting and dying for the revolution, so I came back to offer my experience.

"There were problems," he added. "The Shabaab are very enthusiastic, but they are not professional soldiers and some of them simply would not listen to orders. We saw that by what happened in Bin Jawad the first time. We cannot afford to have something like that happen again."

Three weeks ago, the Gaddafi forces pulled out of Bin Jawad. A few members of the media, including The Independent, found a group of local residents waiting anxiously at the town gate for the rebels to arrive. Having been told of this, a group went into the town, celebrated by firing into the air, but then decided that the food and accommodation on offer were not to their taste, and went back to Ras Lanuf which had better facilities. The next morning they returned to Bin Jawad to be met by a fierce and well-planned defence which forced their retreat.

Some of the Shabaab claimed their defeat in Bin Jawad, and then Brega afterwards, was due to collaboration by groups of locals with the regime. But it has been difficult to find proof of this. What has emerged, however, are repeated accounts of abuse by Colonel Gaddafi's forces.

Ali Saad Mohuf, a 23-year-old farmer, who is also the imam of his local mosque, was arrested at Brega and taken to Sirte. "I was kept there for seven days and beaten every day," he recalled. "They would hit me on the back with their rifle butts and sticks without mercy. All the time they kept asking if I knew where arms were being kept. They kept on saying we were al-Qa'ida."

Mr Mohuf was freed the day after the airport at Sirte was subjected to an air strike. "[They] became very nervous by the bombing," he said. "I want to thank France, America and England. They helped to free me and I think what they are doing will help to free Libya. We do not want foreigners to keep troops in our country, but for now we must have their help."

The Many Faces of Syrian Protests

You probably will not read anything about it in the Western media, but today hundreds of Syrians gathered in front of the Syrian embassy in Beirut to demonstrate their support for President Bashar al-Assad. I would not have even known about the event myself had I not gone to the bank across the street from the embassy after my Arabic class this morning. It was around noon and hundreds of men, many of whom are probably guest workers, were carrying pictures of Bashar and chanting pro-regime slogans like “our souls, our blood, we sacrifice for you”. The spirit of the protest was passionate at first, but more lighthearted as the demonstrators proceeded to march from the embassy up to Bliss Street and across to Ras Beirut. Young men were pouring out of honking cars, dancing and smiling as they sang praises for Bashar and Syria. Lebanese stood on the sidewalks watching the procession, either amused or angry. I subsequently read the sad news that one demonstrator was shot by a gunman as he approached the embassy. Since I did not have my camera with me I am borrowing the following two pictures taken by Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein.

Of course this demonstration of support for President Assad in Beirut does not mean that most Syrians love him, but it does show that he has some genuine fans. Many of the reports coming from the West forget that support when they are reporting on regimes that are not American allies, like Syria and Libya, as well as Iran. During the 2009 protests in Iran there were also hundreds of thousands of Iranians demonstrating for the Islamic Republic, not against it. Some reporters and scholars reply that these demonstrations of support are purchased, that regimes pay poor people who need the money to come out into the streets. This is a cynical reaction that may sometimes be true, but more often probably not. In any case it needs to be proven with evidence. Because making that assumption is not only unfair to the regime, but more importantly dismissive of the perspectives of people who otherwise may not have an outlet to voice their politics. Most reporters and scholars do not speak to the working classes, nor to those living in rural areas.

Politics everywhere is complicated and we always have to question what we read and what we say. A reporter or scholar can try as best as possible to be fair and balanced, but we are human beings not machines. We choose sides. I know that I do. Also important is the position that we occupy in the world, but which is not of our choosing. One of my dear American friends, who does not speak Arabic, recently suggested that all of the Syrian guest workers he knows in southern Beirut, and who do not speak very much English, are opposed to the regime. I pictured the exchanges that must have led him to this conclusion and laughed. It reminded of my first major field lesson. It also speaks to the contradictory reports about how people in the region are reacting to the United Nations intervention in Libya.

In summer 2006 I was researching the role of Islamic institutions in a neighborhood of Dakar, Senegal that was constructed in the 1970s and 1980s by the World Bank. I interviewed two local Imams for my research. The first Imam I interviewed without any outside help, just me and the Imam along with some of his colleagues. He was a charismatic young man who was extremely critical of the World Bank and other international aid institutions. The conversation was difficult to follow in Wolof, French, Arabic and even a little English, but he basically said that development organizations were instruments of Western imperialism. He complained that capitalism was hurting his culture not helping it, making Senegalese lose their blackness. Whereas my interview with the second Imam was totally different. The second interview was filmed by a colleague and included a translator and many onlookers. Although I was told that he shared the same political views as the first Imam, in front of the camera the second Imam appealed to the World Bank for more aid. Perhaps he thought the World Bank would be listening and that this was his chance to do something for his community. But I could not stop asking myself what might he have said without the camera? And which interview was closer to the truth?

Desperate Assad Tries to Blunt Uprising with New Promises of Reform

Syrian leader faces greatest challenge to his family's rule since his father took power 40 years ago. Patrick Cockburn reports.

The Independent
Monday, 28 March 2011

President Bashar al-Assad is facing the greatest challenge to his family's rule over Syria since his father took power 40 years ago, as protests sweep through the country.

Yesterday the government deployed the army for the first time, in the main port of Latakia. Authorities admitted that 12 people had been killed and 200 wounded over a two-day period in the north-western city, but said all who died had been members of the security forces or their attackers.

Speculation was growing last night that President Assad would announce widespread political reforms in a bid to bring the disturbances under control. His adviser, Bouthaina Shaaban, told Al Jazeera that the emergency law in existence since 1963 and hated by Syrian reformists for the far-reaching powers it gives to security services would be lifted, but did not give a timetable.

In another bid to placate protesters, authorities released political activist Diana Jawabra and 15 others. They had been arrested for taking part in a silent protest demanding the release of a dozen schoolchildren, detained for writing anti-regime graffiti.

While Mr Assad may offer concessions such ending emergency law, releasing prisoners, giving the press greater freedom and legalising political parties other than the ruling Baath party, such changes are unlikely to be seen as credible as long as the same people run the army and the security forces. And the ever-creeping death toll is increasing calls for an end to the regime.

The crisis that is threatening to overturn the Syrian government has erupted suddenly over the past week, initially provoked by the security forces in the southern city of Deraa arresting the graffiti-scrawling children. Their detention provoked demonstrations that were met with live fire, and the funerals of the dead turned into vast political rallies.

Human Rights Watch says 61 people have been killed in Deraa and surrounding towns and villages.

The threat to Mr Assad is the greatest the Baathist regime has ever experienced, and it has in the past always responded to dissent with repression. During the Muslim Brotherhood guerrilla war in 1976-82 Mr Assad's father, Hafez al-Assad, crushed the rebellion in the city of Hama by killing an estimated 10,000 people.

Baath party veterans may consider their best hope of staying in power at this time is to avoid making concessions, which, they believe, will only be interpreted as weakness and lead to additional demands.

Mr Assad, a British-educated eye doctor, is widely respected in Syria but his popularity is likely to slump as he fails to speak or respond adequately to the present crisis.

His spokesmen have made contradictory statements on the release of prisoners and other issues, putting in doubt the regime's seriousness in making reforms.

They have also released unlikely explanations of the killing of protesters, claiming that demonstrators opened fire first or were foreign infiltrators. These are often directly contradicted by videos taken by mobile phone and shown on YouTube or by satellite TV stations like al-Jazeera whose correspondents entered Deraa.

In the capital, Damascus, pro-government rallies, with supporter waving Syrian flags and posters of Mr Assad, have taken over main squares and threatened to storm the al-Jazeera offices.

The anti-government protests are fuelled by the demand for political and civil liberty but Syrians, who spend half their income on food according to UN figures, are also suffering from high prices, unemployment and corruption.

Some 30 per cent of the 22 million population are below the poverty line. The government is short of money because of declining oil revenues but has tried to reduce economic discontent by cutting duties and taxes on food and other staples.

The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, yesterday drew a clear distinction between Syria and Libya, ruling out involvement in Damascus' affairs.

"Each of these situations is unique," she told CBS News. "Certainly we deplore the violence in Syria... What's been happening there the last few weeks is deeply concerning, but there's a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities (as in Libya), than police actions which frankly have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see."

In Latakia, the state news agency said "armed elements roamed the streets, occupied the rooftops of some buildings and opened fire randomly, terrorising people". Troops have now moved into the city, which is majority Sunni Muslim but its hinterland is largely populated by Allawites, the Shia Muslim sect to which much of Syria's ruling elite belongs.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Four Beautiful Portraits of Iranian Artists

Iranian Artists Inspired by Adversity

Despite restrictions in Iran, a new crop of artists creates works that blend ancient and modern history and ideas, winning acclaim at home and abroad.

By Borzou Daragahi
Los Angeles Times
March 27, 2011

Reporting from Tehran — His pieces have been displayed at the British Museum in London and the World Bank headquarters in Washington, been fawned over at exhibits in Venice, Amsterdam and New York, and fetched tens of thousands of dollars in auctions held by Sotheby's and Christie's.

But artist Khosrow Hassanzadeh says he was never more delighted than when a barely literate carpenter arrived at his dingy former studio to make some repairs and stood, mouth agape, staring at one of his works. It was a garish, gigantic diorama of a famous Iranian professional wrestler, decorated with cheap trinkets, fake flowers and esoteric memorabilia comprehensible only to locals in the south Tehran neighborhood.

"I do art for my neighbor," says Hassanzadeh, whose perpetual smile softens a face of severe angles as eye-catching as his larger-than-life works, which incorporate the Islamic Republic's bombastic propaganda with street-level Iranian kitsch and the playful sensibilities of Andy Warhol.

Hassanzadeh, 46, is among the most successful of a new crop of artists in Iran who seamlessly meld East and West, even as they breezily blend Iran's traditions, both hokey and classical, religious and secular, and its recent history, especially the traumas of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, into the idioms of high art.

Although they've made a modest splash on the international circuit, they choose to remain in their homeland to feed off its ancient inspirations despite the challenges, including a new rule that requires artists to send photos of their works to the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance for clearance before sending them abroad. This work is being noticed; for instance, a show of new work by 30 Iranian artists recently opened at Los Angeles' Morono Kiang gallery and is running simultaneously with a show of the artists' work at Tehran's Aaran Gallery.

Unlike previous generations of contemporary artists, they don't hail from a specific Western-oriented elite.

They brush off the limitations, the censors, the glares of people who see their work as subversive.

"If you look at our history, at the poets, Rumi, Ferdowsi, Hafez, they were artists too," says Sadegh Tirafkan, 45, a photographer and videographer. "They were never given a chance to write about whatever they wanted. They had a lot of difficulties. Iranians just deal with that."


Hassanzadeh was a teenager when the revolution started. He dropped out of school and became a Basiji militiaman, joined the notorious neighborhood committees that searched for morality crimes, and when the war started against Iraq, he headed to the front.

But even his Basiji mentors quickly realized where his talents lay. Instead of carrying a gun, he was asked to paint giant primary-color portraits and posters around the country of the martyrs, the tens of thousands of young men and boys who lost their lives at the front, their sacrifices immortalized on the streets of Iran's cities.

After adjusting to normal life back home, he enrolled in art school. When he first walked into a classroom for formal art training, he was stunned to see male and female students mixed. And they were equally astonished by him. "The other students were shocked that a guy who looked like me had walked in," he said. "They thought I came to raid the place."

His rebellious instincts emerged immediately. The techniques and themes of his days as a martyr painter crept back into his work. His teachers told him to "draw small" so he could sell his works. He refused. He wanted to draw giant portraits that made people laugh out loud with delight. He eventually abandoned his studies, barely lasting a year at art school.

He's been described as a pop artist. He calls it "people's art." He finds inspiration in public events such as the Ashura ceremonies commemorating the 7th century martyrdom of the Imam Hussein or the colorful lights strung up around the city to commemorate the anniversary of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1979 return from exile. From Imam Hussein to the pop diva Googoosh, he took the basic elements of his south Tehran district and made them internationally known.

"I make the worthless valuable," he said. "I send the most worthless things to the museums."

Though the Islamic Republic creates hardships for artists, the revolution that forged it opened art up to people like him. "Based on my background," he said, "I should have been a bazaar merchant or a drug dealer."

Critics have placed him among a group of Middle Eastern artists who've made it abroad by deconstructing the dichotomies between the East and West. "They argue that terms like 'Islamic,' 'Middle East' or even 'Iran' are loaded with religious and political subtexts and that the use of such terms in exhibition concepts draws away attention from the artistic value of their work," critic Mirjam Shatanawi wrote in Dutch journal in 2006. "Ironically, it is precisely Hassanzadeh's raw commentary on Iranian society that prompted most curators to include his work in their exhibitions."


Not only was Golnaz Fathi recognized as one of the greatest calligraphers of her generation, she also was prized as a rare woman who had advanced so far in the ancient craft.

She had studied six or seven years at a calligraphic institute, practicing the same scripts over and over for hours a day. She worked with one of the greatest professors of calligraphy in Iran, who taught her inner peace and pure love for art. But Fathi found herself thinking unorthodox thoughts.

This was in the years after the Iran-Iraq war, when a country recovering from the trauma of a years-long conflict began questioning all of its presuppositions. Fathi began toying with the idea of incorporating elements of painting into her work. And that was the start, the beginning of the break.

"I'm trying to break all these barriers. At the moment of painting, I don't think about any of these rules," the 39-year-old says. "I know the structure. My hand is trained as a calligraphist. But at that moment of creation, I don't think about anything. It's the battle between the ink and my brush. I make my letters dance to the candlelight."

The Tehran gallery scene — located mostly in the capital's northern expanse — is surprisingly lively, despite risks and restrictions for gallery owners, including occasional harassment and the possibility of being blacklisted for showing works that are sexually or politically risqué. Exhibitions are often magnets for intellectuals as well as art lovers and artists. Fathi loves visiting the medieval city of Esfahan and once did an entire series inspired by its blue-tiled mosques and palaces.

"The whole city is a piece of art," she says. "You have the palace of the king and the bazaar and two mosques with the beautiful topaz dome. Imagine at that time the king was living in the most public place. In the morning the people who work at the bazaar would come and work. The king comes to the balcony and he can see what is going on in the city."

Iranian artists say the challenges they face are inspirations as well as impediments.

"Even the things that hurt me, even the things I don't have, this hunger, make me work," Fathi says. "What can I do? What choice do I have? I voice this emotion through my work. Daily life is my teacher."


The Iran-Iraq war shaped multimedia artist Sadegh Tirafkan's life as well as his work. He signed up to fight when he was 14, and spent three years on the front.

"I lost all my friends during that time," he says. "They were 15 or 16 years old. A friend of mine died and I buried him. At midnight I have dreams about that."

His early pieces reflected the conflict's sadness and despair. Many resembled photographs of funeral processions — commentaries on the Iranian obsessions with death and martyrdom as well as tributes to fallen comrades. They included portraits of himself, shrouded in fabrics decorated with symbols of Shiite Islam and ancient Iranian history, and videos of young men dressed in white walking like ghosts through bleak landscapes.

"People ask me, 'Why are your works sometimes so lonely, so depressed?' " he says. "It's because I was born here. I grew up here. I wasn't born in Switzerland. Here, life is not easy."

But in recent years, his work has undergone a transformation. His pieces include massive collages of Iranian faces, crowded together in mosaic-like patterns as part of his "Human Tapestry" series. They captured the vibrant civil society taking hold in Iran that captivated the world during the 2009 anti-government protests, which probably will serve as a source of inspiration for artists in the years to come.

"They're about the new generation," Tirafkan says. "Something changed in my life, and I wanted to have more contact with people. And get involved with them and know them more."

The New Colonialism?

The oppressors of recent revolutionary uprisings are adopting a discourse that is both fascinating and disturbing. Much of today's language is reminiscent of the post 9/11 Washington framework where the world is imagined as black and white and “you are either with us or against us”. This creates two imagined communities that are self-contained, both geographically and ideologically. Any governmental crackdown to maintain this false separation is done in the name of national security. Derek Gregory analyses the American response in his book The Colonial Present, adding yet another layer to Edward Said’s project by exploring how post 9/11 ideas about Muslims and the Middle East operate on an Orientalist logic that incorporates new conceptions of space, exclusion and visibility to reproduce ‘the other’ as other. Gregory suggests that “the capacities that inhere within the colonial past are routinely reaffirmed and reactivated in the colonial present.”

The American response included neither a critical self-reflection nor a historicization of the conflict at hand. Gregory suggests that 9/11 was a moment that captured the Western gaze, at first directed towards the horrific moment when the World Trade Center towers collapsed, and then immediately focused on Muslims and the Middle East. Americans asked, over and over, ‘why do they hate us?’ looking for an answer that lay outside of America’s borders, with ‘them’ and not with ‘us’. Of course our own national identity was linked to an uncritical support for the two wars being waged to defend American exceptionalism at the expense of democracy both at home and abroad. Gregory reasons that “it is this asymmetry—accepting the privilege of contemplating ‘the other’ without acknowledging the gaze in return… that marks this as a colonial gesture of extraordinary contemporary resonance.” Today the response of corrupt Arab leaders towards the wave of revolutionary unrest reflects their neocolonial outlook towards their own people.

The paternalistic attitude of Arab leaders is similar to the colonial lack of respect for the colonized. In both cases Arabs are being imagined as a backwards people characterized as unable to take care of themselves and in need of enlightenment. The current dictatorships in the Middle East reproduce this image on a daily basis. Thus we often hear ridiculous statements coming from royal families about how “Arabs are not ready for democracy” that are uncritically reproduced by Washington, when we ought to be seriously reflecting about what contributes to their circumstances of political and social oppression a.k.a. the truly backward behaviors of regimes being sponsored by an unenlightened West. But instead we close our eyes when regimes brutally crackdown on their people, attempting to self-contain the crisis by forcibly controlling the geography of public spaces, erasing any sign of dissent, and even declaring martial law as in the case of Yemen and Bahrain.

Similar to Washington's response to 9/11, Arab leaders are also looking outwards to frame the conflict as something foreign. Colonel Qaddafi of Libya and President Saleh of Yemen both blame al Qaeda for the recent unrest. King Hamad blames Iran and Hizbullah, despite the remarkable speech by Sayyed Nasrallah this week that emphasized Muslim co-existence. President Assad blames Israel. And of course Persian Iran blames America and Britain. But at least the latter two of these accusations are indeed historicized. The United States and Britain orchestrated the 1953 coup that ousted elected Prime Minister Mossadegh from power in Iran and the American government continues to finance Iranian dissidents. Indeed the 1953 was only one of the many heinous acts of injustice the CIA carried out, which the PBS documentary “The Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis” probes. And Israel has also carried out numerous extra-judicial killings and abductions of Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians to destabilize these governments, the latest in Ukraine only last month.

Nevertheless, this turn outwards by governments is yet another illustration of how the people in this region are not being taken seriously by their leaders or the international community. Bahrainis are in the streets because they are oppressed, not because of Tehran. There is no evidence that Iran is linked to the protests. Blaming the Islamic Republic for popular and peaceful demonstrations to request dignity, freedom, equality and justice is just another way of saying that Arabs are not ready for democracy. The regime in Bahrain is otherizing it own people by refusing to recognize their gaze. And while the tendency to blame external influences is rife throughout the Middle East, all of these charges speak just as much to the international community as to local populations. Blaming al Qaeda, Iran and Hizbullah helps to ensure that the hawks in Washington will be able to continue an American policy that is colonial, paternalistic and against freedom and democracy in the Middle East.

Friday March 25, 2011

GENEVA - A Bahraini minister accused demonstrators Friday of having a "foreign agenda," running over unarmed policemen in cars and beating up patients in a major hospital.

Fatima al Beloushi, minister for social development, said the demonstrators had links to a neighboring country and Hezbollah, but stopped short of naming non-Arab Shi'ite Iran as being behind the unrest in the Sunni Muslim-ruled kingdom.

Bahrain's government was investigating the violence, in which 19 had been killed and hundreds injured, she said.

Riots police dispersed protesters from a roundabout and took over a hospital in the tiny island kingdom last week after weeks of unrest.

"What we have discovered after the government took over the roundabout and took back the hospital, we found out that those people who were doing it were instigated by a foreign country and by Hezbollah," al Beloushi told a news conference in Geneva.

"We have direct proof. Hezbollah has provided training for their people. They were serving a foreign agenda and that is why it was not something for having a better livelihood. They were fulfilling an outside political agenda," she said.

Thousands of Bahrainis turned out for a sermon of a major Shi'ite cleric Friday ahead of "Day of Rage" protests planned across the Gulf Arab country despite a ban imposed under martial law.

Al Beloushi said the kingdom was investigating the violence and its causes but rejected allegations that its security forces had used excessive force, instead putting the blame on the protesters.

"The demonstrators occupied the (Salmaniyah) hospital, they were beating up the patients, they were attacking the ambulance," she said. "They used ambulances later on to transfer weapons, to transfer demonstrators just for their purposes."

"It is totally the opposite, they were running over police officers and killing them while the country tried to be as peaceful as it can with them.”

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Jon Hemming.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Contradictory Politics in Libya

To some in Libya, ‘Brother Leader’ Gaddafi still a Hero

By Liz Sly
Washington Post
Thursday, March 24 2011

TRIPOLI — To all outward appearances, this is a city deeply enamored of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. His portrait hangs from lampposts, adorns shopping centers and sprouts from the gleaming new office blocks rising from the seafront. Sayings from his Green Book, required reading for all schoolchildren, are posted in government buildings, including public restrooms.

And his supporters, draped in Gaddafi green and clutching pictures of their beloved leader, noisily and passionately assert their presence in near round-the-clock displays of devotion. Hurtling through the streets in pickups or gathering in Tripoli’s central Green Square, they bellow the rhythmic chant that encapsulates the omnipotence of Gaddafi’s self-ascribed role: “God, Moammar, Libya: Enough!”

How deep that support runs in a populace that has been governed by fear for decades is impossible to tell. But six days into the allied bombardment of Libyan military targets, it is clear that Gaddafi can count on the fierce loyalties of at least a significant segment of the population in the vast stretches that lie beyond the enclave of rebel-held territory in the east.

“We don’t want anyone except him,” gushed Fatima al-Mishai, 20, who joined the crowds assembled at Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziyah compound to offer their services as voluntary human shields against the bombs. “He gave us freedom and everything we need.”

Indeed, the Libyan government has kept average incomes relatively high, while doling out generous social benefits, including health care and education. Even Gaddafi’s opponents, who dare murmur their dissent only out of earshot of regime loyalists, concede that the man who has governed Libya for nearly 42 years does command genuine support.

“Seventy-five percent of the people are against him,” said one dissident, who was in the vanguard of the protest movement that was crushed in Tripoli last month and who agreed to a furtive meeting with journalists in a downtown cafe. “But there are some people who really do love him. They’ve known no one else all their lives. They think he’s in their blood.”

That a man who boasts he lives in a tent and whom Ronald Reagan once dubbed “the mad dog of the Middle East” still commands devotion four decades into his rule is one of the enduring mysteries of this idiosyncratic country.

To enter the world of the Gaddafi believers is to enter an “Alice in Wonderland” realm in which the regime’s supporters are the real revolutionaries, not the rebels seeking to topple the government, because Libya is in a state of perpetual revolution.

The Libyan people can’t overthrow their government because they are the government, in accordance with the country’s definition of itself as the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, which loosely translates as “state of the masses.”

Gaddafi can’t be toppled because he holds no formal position; he is the Brother Leader, a guide and a mentor, a patriarch and an uncle who advises his people but does not rule them.

“Brother Leader Moammar Gaddafi and his colleagues are out of the executive completely,” explained Col. Milad Hussein, who is in charge of ideological education for the Libyan military, in a news briefing. “The Libyan people are the ones who do the deciding and the executing... because the revolution is the starting point for everything.”

In reality, said Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya expert and associate professor at Dartmouth College, Gaddafi is the state, the wellspring from whom all decisions and policies spring. Gaddafi is backed by a network of police enforcers and so-called Revolutionary Committees, effectively local vigilantes who keep a close watch on citizens’ activities.

“The man on the street has no real conviction, but there are nefarious consequences if you don’t support Gaddafi,” Vandewalle said.

Yet some appear to believe fervently in the government’s pronouncements. In Green Square, small crowds of Gaddafi supporters sustain what is supposed to be a permanent vigil of chanting, dancing and singing in celebration of the so-called perpetual revolution. They are watched over by matronly female guards dressed in camouflage and armed with shiny new AK-47s.

“He made me feel like a free man. If I don’t hurt anyone, I’m free in my own environment,” said Majdi Daba, a 42-year-old dentist who was born the year Gaddafi wrested power from Libya’s monarchy. Majdi said he goes to the square every day. “Gaddafi gives us advice, that’s all, and when he dies, 7 million people will rule themselves.”

The regime’s opponents, he said, are interested only in making more money, while most Libyan people are satisfied that the government adequately supports their needs.

“It’s not complicated,” he said. “This place is different from Egypt. There, a lot of people are poor, a lot of people are hungry, but here there are no poor people, no hungry people.”

Libya’s role as a sparsely populated, oil-rich state may go some way toward explaining why Gaddafi has been able to retain the support he has. Libya is nearly twice as big as Egypt, yet contains less than one-tenth as many people. Per capita incomes are more than double those in Egypt, where a successful revolt last month inspired Libyans to take to the streets.

The government funds generous social welfare programs that include free education and health care, helping keep at bay the poverty that has fueled discontent elsewhere.

“He has done a lot for the country and no one can deny it,” said Mustafa Fetouri, director of the MBA program at the Academy of Graduate Studies in Tripoli. “He’s built hospitals, schools, roads, lots of things.”

Moreover, he said, the powerful tribal structure that forms the backbone of the government has remained behind Gaddafi, despite initial reports in the early days of the uprising that powerful tribal leaders had defected. Gaddafi has apparently been helped in this regard by making good on a pledge to distribute weapons.

“There are two kinds of people: those who believe in the regime itself and just don’t care too much about freedom, and then there is the tribal structure, which is behind him,” he said. “The support of the tribes goes beyond Gaddafi to his tribe, and to their relationship with his tribe, which predates Gaddafi. It’s nothing to do with Gaddafi.”

Thursday, March 24, 2011

From One Crisis to the Next in Libya

Fears Grow of Humanitarian Crisis in Besieged Libyan City

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Liz Sly
Washington Post
Wednesday, March 23 2011

Aid organizations scrambled Wednesday to prepare for large-scale relief operations in Libya, as fears grew of a potential humanitarian crisis in a key city besieged by government forces.

International military forces on Wednesday stepped up attacks on government troops in Misurata, 131 miles east of Tripoli. The airstrikes seemed to bring a temporary respite from the fighting that had raged for six days between forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi and rebels, as government tanks retreated from the city center.

But after nightfall, the tanks returned and resumed their attacks, according to a doctor at the city’s main hospital. “They are shelling everywhere,” he said by telephone.

Patients were being treated on the floor, medical supplies were falling short, fuel for the generator was running low, and water had been cut off, said the doctor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation by Libyan forces.

Humanitarian agencies and the U.S. government have been stockpiling supplies in eastern Libya and in nearby countries in case of emergency. “I am now worried about a humanitarian crisis in Misurata,” said Mark Ward, a top official with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Wednesday’s military action occurred as the Obama administration tried to shore up domestic backing for its role in the operation and to counter criticisms that the president had been either too cautious or too aggressive.

In a call with reporters, Democratic Sens. Carl Levin (Mich.), Jack Reed (R.I.) and Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) predicted strong bipartisan support for the U.S. role when Congress reconvenes next week. Durbin said that President Obama had chosen a “very wise course, reminiscent of President George H. W. Bush... who built international cooperation” before initiating military action against Iraqi forces in Kuwait in 1991.

But House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) sent a letter to Obama on Wednesday saying that he and other lawmakers were troubled that “U.S. military resources were committed to war without clearly defining for the American people, the Congress, and our troops what the mission in Libya is and what America’s role is in achieving that mission.”

Complex environment

The allied air attacks since Saturday have been credited with keeping Gaddafi’s forces from overrunning Benghazi and potentially carrying out a bloodbath in Libya’s second largest city. But they have deepened the stalemate elsewhere in the country.

U.S. and allied warplanes on Wednesday aimed their attacks on Gaddafi’s ground forces in Misurata and other key cities but were constrained by fears that strikes in heavily built-up areas could cause civilian deaths.

“It’s an extremely complex and difficult environment,” said U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Gerard Hueber, the chief of staff for the coalition.

U.S. military officials have repeatedly called on Gaddafi’s forces to pull back from populated areas so that food, water and fuel can flow in. “Humanitarian assistance must be allowed to reach the people of Libya,” Hueber said.

International aid organizations have been unable to deliver relief goods to Misurata and other contested towns. Asked whether the U.S. military might play a role in distributing emergency relief, one American official said, “All options are on the table.” He declined to comment further.

In recent days, the World Food Program and International Committee of the Red Cross have moved nearly 2,000 tons of food and other relief supplies into parts of eastern Libya that are under the control of rebel forces. The U.S. government has paid for some of that food and has provided nongovernmental groups in Libya with medical supplies sufficient to treat 40,000 people, officials said.

Abeer Etefa, a spokeswoman with the World Food Program, said the group was planning emergency operations to feed 600,000 Libyans in the next three months.

She said access to food “is becoming increasingly difficult” because of store closures in contested areas. Her agency said this week that in some areas, the price of flour had doubled, the cost of rice had risen 88 percent and the price of vegetable oil had jumped 58 percent.

“If the situation continues like that, it will be very worrisome, simply because this is a country that depends on food imports,” said Etefa, speaking from the Libyan-Egyptian border.

Aid agencies are able to bring supplies into eastern Libya by truck from Egypt or through the rebel-controlled port of Benghazi. But the Libyan government has not allowed aid workers to move freely in areas it controls, making it difficult to assess the extent of the crisis, officials said.

An Obama administration official said there were unconfirmed reports of about 80,000 people displaced inside Libya. “That number is likely higher,” said the official, who was not authorized to comment on the record.

In Brussels, NATO ambassadors continued to discuss a plan for the United States to relinquish command of the Libya mission to a broader coalition. The plan, agreed to by President Obama and his British and French counterparts, would turn military control of the operation over to NATO, with operational headquarters at the Naples-based Allied Joint Forces Command.

Political decision-making and oversight would be supplied by a larger group of partners, most likely made up of NATO’s North Atlantic Council and representatives from non-NATO countries participating in the military mission, including Arab states. U.S. and European officials said they hoped for agreement on the plan by the end of the week.

Meanwhile, Britain said it would host an international conference in London on Tuesday for all countries involved in the Libya situation, including those not contributing military assets. In addition to discussing implementation of United Nations resolutions on Libya, Foreign Secretary William Hague said the gathering would “consider the humanitarian needs of the Libyan people and identify ways to support the people of Libya in their aspirations for a better future.”

Sly reported from Tripoli, Libya. Staff writers Felicia Sonmez, Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

US Moves Quickly to Freeze Qaddafi's Assets

Sanctions in 72 Hours: How the U.S. Pulled off a Major Freeze of Libyan Assets

By Robert O’Harrow Jr., James V. Grimaldi and Brady Dennis
Washington Post
Wednesday, March 23 2011

The Treasury Department team had been working nonstop on a plan to freeze Libyan assets in U.S. banks, hoping they might snare $100 million or more and prevent Moammar Gaddafi from tapping it as he unleashed deadly attacks against protesters who wanted him gone.

Now, at 2:22 Friday afternoon, Feb. 25, an e-mail arrived from a Treasury official with startling news. Their $100 million estimate was off — orders of magnitude off.

The e-mail said there was in “excess of $29.7 Billion — yes, that’s a B.”

And most of the money was at one bank.

It was a piece of extraordinary good fortune for the Obama administration at a crucial moment in the efforts to address the bizarre and deadly events unfolding in Libya.

Never before had U.S. officials so quickly launched economic sanctions affecting so many assets of a targeted country.

The frenetic 72 hours leading up to the Executive Order 13566 illustrate how a process of identifying and freezing assets — something that customarily has taken weeks or months — has become one of the first tactical tools to employ in the midst of fast-breaking crises.

It also shows that government officials have learned from other recent economic sanction efforts, including against Iran and North Korea. Instead of being a secondary measure, as in the past, economic sanctions have become a centerpiece of national security policy.

The same global electronic networks that dictators use to move billions in state assets can also be turned against them, when government and financial industry officials summon the will. The successful Libyan sanctions effort relied on cooperation with a wide range of financial firms in the United States, including the bank holding the bulk of the Libyan assets, which Treasury officials have declined to identify.

Officials also would not provide detailed information breaking down the assets, which include holdings by individuals and Libya’s sovereign wealth fund. Investigators are expected to focus on whether any laws were broken in the handling of the money.

The $32 billion frozen so far by the United States represents a significant portion of the nation’s wealth. In 2009, Libya had a gross domestic product of $62 billion; its sovereign wealth fund is estimated at $40 billion and its central bank reserves at $110 billion.

The European Union has added the central bank, the wealth fund and three other Libyan institutions to its sanctions — two weeks after the U.S. action. So far, British officials have seized more than $19 billion in Libyan assets.

U.S. Treasury officials said they see their sanctions as one thrust in a broader campaign to isolate Gaddafi.

“Gaddafi is still there and is still brutalizing his people; there’s obviously still work to be done,” said David S. Cohen, acting undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence. “We never expected that this by itself was going to persuade Gaddafi to give up power.”

He said Gaddafi is still “paying mercenaries. He’s paying his troops. He’s in a cash-intensive business. And not having access to the Libyan Investment Authority assets, the Central Bank of Libya assets, other assets that he and his children have overseas, is going to be a problem for him.”

‘Incredibly intense, but in the best way’

The plan to find and freeze Libyan assets began taking shape Feb. 23, during an 8:30 a.m. meeting of senior officials in the White House Situation Room.

Libya was deteriorating quickly. The Libyan air force had bombed civilian protesters. In a rambling and incoherent speech on state television, Gaddafi had blamed “foreign rats” for the chaos. He also promised to fight “to the last drop of my blood.”

The possibility of a military response or imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya came up at the Situation Room meeting that morning. But those steps were considered politically untenable for the moment. Officials worried that any aggressive move might trigger a deadly backlash against American citizens who had been unable to leave the country.

“No one wanted to do anything and certainly the president didn’t want to do anything that would put those people at risk,” said Stuart Levey, the Treasury official who led the drafting of the executive order.

National Security Adviser Thomas E. Donilon asked Treasury to prepare options for economic sanctions, an undertaking usually weeks or months in the works. But Levey and the others at Treasury scrambled virtually nonstop over the next two days.

Some of the Treasury people involved had helped launch a prior economic sanction against Libya nearly a decade earlier.

They immediately reached out to their contacts in U.S. financial institutions — many of whom had become close allies in the effort to stop terrorism financing. The Treasury officials quietly asked the bankers to identify assets controlled by the Libyan government, Gaddafi, his family and their associates.

Some of them dusted off a list of more than 400 Libyan citizens and entities who had been included in U.S. economic sanctions that were lifted in 2004. Three officials with major banks who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of matter said their institutions helped Treasury officials identify targets for the list.

“Banks were already asking their compliance departments, ‘What do we have? What’s our exposure here?’ ” Adam Szubin, director of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in an interview.

Szubin said the effort was “incredibly intense, but in the best way.”

“This is what we’re here to do, is for moments like this when there is a crisis. I don’t know what more you could ask as a career civil servant than the White House turning to you and saying, ‘We need you. We need you to move incredibly fast. How quickly can you deliver?’”