Saturday, April 30, 2011

Qaddafi Addresses Nato

Muammar Gaddafi Calls for Ceasefire in Libyan TV Address

Muammar Gaddafi says he wants to negotiate with Nato powers, as air strikes hit government complex in Libyan capital.

By Harriet Sherwood in Tripoli,  Xan Rice in Misrata and Associated Press
Saturday 30 April 2011 

Muammar Gaddafi called for a mutual ceasefire and negotiations with Nato powers in a live speech on state TV early on Saturday, while Nato bombs struck a government complex in the Libyan capital.

The targeted compound included the state television building, which was not damaged. Gaddafi spoke from an undisclosed location.

In his rambling pre-dawn speech, the Libyan leader appeared subdued but defiant, repeatedly pausing as he flipped through handwritten notes.

"The door to peace is open," Gaddafi said, sitting behind a desk. "You are the aggressors. We will negotiate with you. Come France, Italy, UK, America, come, we will negotiate with you. Why are you attacking us?"

He said Libyans had the right to choose their own political system, but not under the threat of Nato bombings. "Why are you killing our children? Why are you destroying our infrastructure," he said.

Rebel leaders have said they will only lay down their arms and begin talks on Libya's future after Gaddafi and his sons step aside. Gaddafi has repeatedly refused to resign.

Reporters visiting the scene of the air strikes were told two damaged buildings housed a commission for women and children and offices of parliamentary staff.

One of at least three bombs or missiles knocked down a large part of a two-storey building. In another building, doors were blown out and ceiling tiles had dropped to the ground. One missile hit the street outside the attorney general's office. A policeman said three people were wounded, one seriously.

Hours earlier, government forces shelled the besieged rebel city of Misrata, killing 15 people, including a nine-year-old boy, hospital doctors said.

On Friday Libya's civil war briefly spilled into Tunisia as pro-Gaddafi troops made incursions over the border in a battle to retake a key crossing from rebel hands.

Libyan soldiers were captured by Tunisian forces after firing indiscriminately in clashes that lasted about 90 minutes, according to reports. Witnesses said three Tunisians were injured.

Any sign of the Libyan conflict stretching into Tunisa would have serious regional implications. "Given the gravity of what has happened … the Tunisian authorities have informed the Libyans of their extreme indignation and demand measures to put an immediate stop to these violations," the Tunisian foreign ministry said.

Rebels later claimed the Wazin-Dehiba crossing was back in their hands. "Gaddafi forces are no longer in Dehiba. They were defeated," a witness named as Akram told the Associated Press. Control of the crossing has changed several times in the past 10 days.

More than 30,000 refugees have flooded across the border since fighting intensified about three weeks ago, and it is a critical supply and escape route for the besieged opposition.

The area is dominated by Berbers, who have suffered systematic repression under the Gaddafi regime.

Nato said it was mounting air strikes against loyalist targets in two towns in the region, Zintan and Yafrin. It said its aircraft had destroyed a dozen tanks in the area this month.

Heavy fighting in Misrata centred on the area around the airport, the last position held by Gaddafi's forces. The Libyan army continued shelling the port, the city's lifeline, as Nato said its warships had caught government naval forces trying to lay mines in the harbour.

Brigadier Rob Weighill, the British director of Nato's Libyan operations, said his ships had intercepted small boats laying mines in the harbour, which is the only entry point for food and medical supplies into Misrata.

"It again shows [Gaddafi's] complete disregard for international law and his willingness to attack humanitarian delivery efforts," Weighill said in Naples.

Aid agencies have evacuated thousands of civilians and injured people from the port. Rebels have also brought in light weapons from eastern Libya by sea.

Interesting Analysis of the Crisis in Syria

The Syrian Chessboard

By Pepe Escobar
Asia Times Online
28 April 2011

Ironies in the Middle East come bathed in arsenic; the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria lifts a state of emergency in effect for 48 years just when Syria is in a real state of emergency. And then a regime newspaper, Tishrin, states "the most sublime form of freedom is the security of the homeland".

To "secure the homeland" of Assad's regime - a family-business-military oligarchy - de facto invaded the city of Daraa with columns of tanks. Assad had made a few concessions to calm the Syrian protests. It didn't work. Thus the regime decided to try to emulate the success of the House of Saud in establishing "democracy" in Bahrain.

When in doubt, clone the Pentagon; the assault on Dara is Syria's version of shock and awe. The problem is the regime may have created the conditions for a long, bloody Iraq-style civil war. And that's why all major players - regional and across the West - are running for cover.

What you see is not what you get

The crucial question in Syria - and not even the venerable stones of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus can provide a definite answer - is what's really in the hearts and minds of most Syrians.

The Syrian opposition is not cohesive or organized. In many aspects - as in Egypt - this may be a revolution of the poor. The Assad regime abolished fuel subsidies and let prices follow the free market; the price of diesel fuel tripled; the price of basic foodstuffs also went up; there was a drought; and the explosion in global food prices compounded popular misery.

The legitimate grievances of Syrians include a lot of rage directed towards an intolerably harsh police state; the decades-long Ba'ath party dictatorship; the excesses of a very small business elite contrasted with very high unemployment among the youth - all that with the middle classes and the poor fighting to survive low wages and high inflation.

If there's a popular revolution in Syria, the new political power players would be the rural poor - in contrast with the small Sunni business elite and the Alawite-controlled police state.

This means that the opposition's number one task for now is to seduce the middle and the upper middle classes in major cities, especially Damascus and Aleppo. But even if the protests in Syria do not reach Egypt's Tahrir Square proportions, they could slowly bleed the regime to death by paralyzing the economy.

The revolutionary drive in Syria seems to be much more hardcore than among the "Green" movement in Iran. Syrian protesters don't want a Ba'ath regime reform - which they consider out of the question anyway; they want regime change, the only way to bring down the Alawite-controlled security state and its key insider trading/corruption component.

Some protesters are pacifists. Some are already resorting to improvised light weapons. Confronted with ruthless, armed state repression, there seems to be only one way out: armed struggle.

Truckloads of weapons smuggled from Iraq have already been intercepted by the regime. Wealthy Sunni donors in the Gulf are bound to come up with financial support. And, crucially, the weaponizing necessarily will be Muslim Brotherhood-related - because regional governments such as Turkey and Lebanon don't want to see the fall of the regime. They see the ensuing chaos privileging only the Muslim Brotherhood and even more jihadi sects.

And forget about R2P ("responsibility to protect") leading to a United Nations resolution and a no-fly zone over Syria. Besides, unlike Libya, Syria has no oil and no lavishly endowed sovereign fund.

Enter the Saudis

The al-Khalifa Sunni dynasty in majority-Shi'ite Bahrain has blamed the pro-democracy protests in the Gulf island as an Iranian conspiracy. The Assad regime also blamed an external (and "known") conspiracy - but refused to name names. As much as Bashar al-Assad does not want to antagonize Saudi Arabia, the fact is the House of Saud is deeply involved in the destabilization of Syria, supporting Salafi networks.

Daraa is 120 kilometers south of Damascus, near the Jordanian border, in a sensitive security zone. It's a dreary, impoverished backwater. Not by accident Daraa is the birthplace of the Jordan chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Saudi Wahhabis, very influential over Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, have been instrumental in inciting the people of Daraa as well as Homs. Their grievances - the long drought, total neglect from Damascus - may be justified. But most of all they have been seriously instrumentalized.

Years ago, the House of Saud paid US$30 million to "get" former Syrian vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam. It helped that Khaddam is a relative of Saudi King Abdullah and former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri. He went into exile in France in 2005. Saudi Arabia has been using him and exiled leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood against the Assad regime for quite a while. Khaddam carries a Saudi passport. His sons, Jamal and Jihad, have invested over $3 billion in Saudi Arabia.

The House of Saud agenda is essentially to split the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah alliance - and thus progressively debilitate Hezbollah's resistance to US/Israel. Thus, in Syria, we find the US, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia once again sharing the same agenda. The stakes are extremely high. What you see is not necessarily what you get.

There is, apart from all these foreign interests, a legitimate, popular protest movement in Syria. The Communist Action Party, for instance - which opposed the regime for decades - has been very forceful among the opposition. The leftist component of the opposition, in fact, is wondering whether the Salafis are a minority or a majority. The ultra- sectarian agenda of many protesters is not an encouraging sign.

And the road ahead may be very bumpy; the progressive, secular current in the opposition - let's say, for the moment, a minority - may even be trapped in an Iran 1979-1981 scenario, as they may end up being crushed by the fundamentalists if the regime falls.

It's easy to understand how progressives squirm when they see themselves aligned with the Medieval House of Saud - which unleashed the counter-revolution against the great 2011 Arab revolt - in a drive to bring down the Assad regime. Progressives also have reasons to squirm when they see themselves aligned with Israel - who gives the impression of wanting Assad to remain in power because the alternative is the Muslim Brotherhood.

In this aspect, the Saudi-Israeli alliance may agree on the counter-revolution as applied to Bahrain and Libya, but not when it comes to Syria.

Hezbollah TV in Lebanon is spinning that the Syrian protests are part of an "American revolution". That may be so in part - as Washington has been investing in counter-regime types for decades. But as it stands, this is more like a House of Saud operation mixed with genuine rage against decades of Ba'athist police state.

For his part, King Abdullah of Jordan, in trying to debunk the Assad line, quoting Assad's "it's either me or the Muslim Brotherhood", he is predictably spinning this is all about containing Iran. Abdullah is inviting Arabs and Westerners to place their bets on a coalition of Kurds, Druze, Sunni tribes and the Sunni urban middle class (which is allied to the Saudis) as the post-Assad regime in Syria.

An Egyptian loss is a Syrian gain

A Syrian paper offers a very interesting take (see here). What the regime defines as a "conspiracy" against Syria would be a US plan to compensate for the "loss" of Egypt - and this while in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain "appeals to reform are ignored" and the repression is carried on "under silence".

The objectives would be to plunge Syria into chaos; slide it towards Saudi influence; reduce Iran's influence in the overall Arab-Israeli conflict; and torpedo the Turkey-Syria entente.

This makes perfect sense. The Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah axis is the only counterpunch in the Middle East against US/Israeli hegemony. A fragile Damascus weakens both Tehran and Hezbollah. It's not an accident that in Lebanon, former prime minister Saad Hariri - a Sunni, and basically a House of Saud lackey - has been amplifying his sectarian rhetoric.

Syrian Sunnis, as much as Saudi Wahhabis, deeply resent the Alawite sect - an offshoot of Shi'ism - controlling a great deal of the wealth of the country while representing only 12% of the population. It's no wonder the House of Saud and the Muslim Brotherhood - rabidly anti-Shi'ite - have been trying for decades to get rid of the Alawite-controlled Syrian regime.

The Ankara-Damascus alliance - which progressed as much as the Turkey-Israel entente regressed - is also in danger. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu have been very busy building up Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan as an economic bloc, fueled by a lot of Turkish investment and high-tech. No one knows what could happen with regime change in Damascus.

Syria matters on all fronts - from Iran to Iraq, from Turkey to Lebanon, from Palestine to Israel. But what the House of Saud intervention in Syria is inciting, above all, is tremendously destructive; a bloodthirsty sectarian epidemic spreading all across the Middle East (it started in Bahrain).

Washington would love a Syrian destabilization if it led to US/Israel restoring their regional hegemony, seriously threatened by the emergence of a new Egypt. But forget about the West dreaming of "democracy" in Syria. If history would pull a magic trick - like in Bashar al-Assad offering to sign a peace treaty with Israel next week - the US, the French and the British would not care if the regime shocked and awed whole Syrian towns and cities to the ground.

So it's up to Syrian progressives now to get their act together and prove Bashar al-Assad wrong. Because if it's not him, it will indeed be a horrendously regressive, House of Saud-supported Salafi new master.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Lives of Others in Syria

Life in Syria's Psychological Prison of Fear

My friendship with a young Syrian man, Yusuf, revealed the terrible realities of living under Bashar al-Assad's regime.

By Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff
Friday 29 April 2011

In late January I arrived in Aleppo, Syria, for a 16-week immersion course in Arabic. Staying in a university dormitory gave me the opportunity to live with Syrian students and practise the language. When I first met Yusuf (not his real name), he struck me as quiet and reserved. A master's degree student with a fondness for poetry who almost always wore a suit and tie, he would take the time to politely correct my Arabic grammar when we spoke together.

Of all the Syrian friends I made during my stay, Yusuf was the one with whom I developed a special bond. Friendship runs very deep in Syria and my friendship with Yusuf was unlike any other I have experienced. One day we were visiting ruins near Damascus and it was raining very hard. Yusuf was using my camera to take pictures and jokingly he said to me: "If I drop your camera into this puddle of water, what will you do?"

I joked back: "I will throw you in after that camera – it's expensive!" His face darkened somewhat and he said: "You would choose the camera over me? The camera can be replaced, our friendship cannot. I would do anything for my friends."

Being a true friend in Syria is the closest thing to being family. You are expected to act as if your friend was your brother or sister and, truly, as time went by, I felt that Yusuf was my Syrian brother. I knew he would do anything for me, as I would for him.

Maybe these relationships run so deep in Syria because of the way 50 years of Baathist rule has shaped its society. The pervasiveness of the state security apparatus has created suspicion and fear that floats just below the surface. While simple conversations regarding day-to-day things are easy to have, politics, religion, and especially any serious discussion of Syria's political system, are taboo. It was only after we had spent quite a bit of time together that more complicated and personal topics could be discussed.

As my relationship with Yusuf evolved, I realised he was an individual with many things on his mind. One of them was marriage. At 26 years, he was neither engaged nor married. Marriage is an important step in Syrian culture and an individual is not really considered a man until he is married, owns an apartment and has a job. But marriage is a tricky thing in Syrian society. Assuming the girl's family agrees to the marriage, Syrian men need to pay a dowry of roughly $4,000. Not only that, but the groom is expected to provide an apartment for the new couple. Housing in recent years has become very costly and between the dowry and the cost of housing, many young men do not have the means. Before the current wave of protests, the Syrian government was aware of this and was in the process of building thousands of new apartments to help bring down the price of housing.

Eventually my friend confided in me a story that illustrates how the arbitrariness and thoughtlessness of the Syrian regime combines with other social pressures. For a number of years, Yusuf was in love with a girl from his village. When he finally decided to ask her father for permission to marry, her father said no and proceeded to engage his daughter to another man. Yet my friend could not forget his love so easily and continued to see her even though he had been forbidden to do so. Unfortunately, her father was an important man in the internal security services. When he found out that Yusuf was still seeing his daughter, he wrote a false report that landed Yusuf in jail for several days, where he was beaten.

Even that was not enough. Yusuf was then sent to Damascus where he was held and tortured for another 11 days – until his father intervened and convinced high officials within the internal security services that my friend was a genuine supporter of President Bashar al-Assad and the regime. As proof, he showed them a poem my friend had written about the president. A general saw the poem and loved it so much that Yusuf was released.

This is not an unusual story, and the subsequent psychological pain it causes is great. My dear friend bears scars that are both physical and psychological. Unable to be with the girl he loved, and having just been through a terrible ordeal, he took a knife and proceeded to slash his arms and his chest.

Today we see many Syrians standing up and saying enough is enough. It is enough for so many who have been disappointed, abused and arbitrarily subjected to the vagaries of corrupt officials in the regime, both high and low. My friend, like many other Syrians, is tired of living in a psychological prison of fear that forces him to constantly look over his shoulder in public when having a discussion with a friend, or wondering if he may have offended someone who has the influence to send him to jail.

Syrian culture is rich with so many textures and flavours and the people themselves – strong and yet hospitable – deserve the right to choose their own future, be it political or personal. My friend takes part in protests wherever possible and one of his friends has already been killed. Yet I admit I have urged him more than once (guiltily) to leave the country rather then risk being killed or imprisoned – to which he has always responded: "Oh brother, this is my country and I will stay here and fight until we are free or until they kill me. Remember me and tell our story so the world knows what we did here."

Leading Article in The Independent

An Opportunity for Peace that must not be Squandered

The EU made a serious mistake five years ago when it refused to recognise Hamas.

The Independent
Friday, 29 April 2011

The Arab Spring has delivered yet another unexpected twist. Fatah and Hamas, the two warring factions of Palestinian politics, have agreed to a unity deal. The Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, claimed yesterday that the two leaderships were panicked into the deal by popular revolts across the Arab world, implying that Fatah and Hamas face the same sort of internal opposition as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. This is not very convincing. The unification is actually very popular among Palestinians. There were demonstrations in Gaza earlier this month calling for such a political reconciliation.

And it is the Israeli government that gives the greater impression of panic. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has responded to the deal by evoking the spectre of Hamas taking over the West Bank as well as Gaza. And Mr Lieberman has issued wild threats to withhold the delivery of tax revenues that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.

The consequences of this reconciliation for the peace process are, as yet, unclear. Theoretically, it should be a positive development. Palestinian political unification will undercut the familiar argument from the Israeli side that, with the Palestinians divided politically, there is no credible partner for peace. It could also supply extra momentum to the Palestinian bid to win recognition for a state (within the 1967 borders) in the United Nations General Assembly, planned for later this year.

Yet, in practice, the incorporation of Hamas ministers into the Palestinian government will also give the Israeli government a fresh reason to resist pressure to hold serious negotiations. While Mr Netanyahu had no good reason to refuse to deal with Fatah, Hamas's refusal to renounce violence gives him free rein to be obstructive. It is too difficult to say at this stage which force – the drive for unity, or the anti-Hamas reaction – will prove the stronger.

Much will depend on the question of how far Hamas is willing (or able) to moderate its official position with respect to Israel. Does this deal indicate that the group's leadership is prepared to sign up to the preconditions that have long been demanded of it by the international community, namely to renounce violence, to recognise Israel and to respect previous treaties?

The response of the international community will also be important. The United States and the European Union must decide whether to welcome the unification as a positive development, or to adopt the knee-jerk hostility of the Israeli government. The initial reaction from Democrat and Republican legislators in America, where both have echoed the Israeli response, has been disappointing. But the reaction from European capitals has, thus far, been less negative. That is an encouraging sign.

The EU made a serious mistake in the wake of the 2006 Palestinian elections, when it agreed, under Israeli and US pressure, to make ultra-strict demands of the victorious Hamas in exchange for recognition. Rather than working with the legitimately elected Hamas administration, the EU helped to push it on to the sidelines. After five years, it should be clear to all that freezing Hamas out of negotiations is not going to make the movement disappear. The history of all previous intractable conflicts demonstrates that peace comes through sitting down with enemies, not ostracising them.

The Middle East is in ferment. Regimes that looked rock-solid only months ago are tottering. Assumptions across the region are being challenged. This creates dangers, but also opportunities. Israel and the international community should seize the opportunity that they missed five years ago and attempt to lock Hamas into a peaceful negotiation process.

Death Sentences in Bahrain

Bahrain Sentences Four Protesters to Death, Deepening Anger among Shiites

A military court today sentenced four Shiite demonstrators to death, and handed life sentences to three more, for the deaths of two policemen. Rights activists say the detainees were tortured and denied legal rights.

By Kristen Chick
The Christian Science Monitor
April 28, 2011

The death sentences take the Sunni government’s crackdown against protesters and the Shiite population to a new level, deepening anger among the majority Shiite population and stoking sectarian divisions.

“This is a period of punishment and of purging that's intended to weaken the opposition, to intimidate the opposition, and probably to put so much pressure on the opposition that it will fragment and it will be consumed with infighting,” says Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London.

The trial was the first legal action the government has brought against protesters whose uprising began in February calling for democratic reform, but a government official said Wednesday that it would not be the last.

Trial stokes social divisions

Human rights activists say the two-week trial, held behind closed doors with lawyers and the press forbidden to speak or write about it, ignored international rights standards and that false confessions were likely forced by torture. Three other demonstrators, all from the majority Shiite population, were sentenced to life in prison, after the government said they confessed to using vehicles to run over the policemen.

Even as lawyers vowed to appeal and many Bahraini Shiites decried the verdict, Sunni government supporters applauded it as justice brought to bear on murderers, underscoring the social divisions that are deepening and widening as the government crackdown drags on.

“I think the government has to take a large share of the blame for stirring these divisions up, but the concern is once they stir these things up, it's not easy to control them, it's not easy to put them back in the box,” says Ms. Kinninmont. “It may be that they have created something that they can't control. And it's very unclear if there is any strategy beyond simply punishing people.”

The death penalty is rare in Bahrain, with only a handful of cases in the last decades. In 2006, another Shiite protester was executed after being convicted of killing a police officer.

Defendants allegedly tortured

The head of Bahrain’s Information Affairs Authority on Wednesday rebuffed criticism of the trial, saying it was attended by Arab and European human rights organizations and the ruling can be appealed, unlike in more restrictive countries.

"The defendants confessed that they deliberately targeted the security men in order to cause casualties, [take] lives, terrorize people, and exact revenge,” said Shaikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, according to the state news agency. “During the trials, the defendants had their full rights under the laws and international covenants."

Mohammed Al Maskati, head of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, says the government’s interrogations and investigations of the defendants took place without their lawyers present, and that they did not have access to their lawyers until the two-week trial began.

Mr. Maskati says he has talked to dozens of people released from detention in past weeks, and nearly all have said they were tortured, but are too afraid to speak publicly about it. At least four people have died in police custody in the last month with marks of abuse on their bodies.

The government says the use of military tribunals to try civilians is justified under the state of emergency, which was declared March 15 as Saudi troops and tanks rolled into the island-nation to help put down the uprising.

But a lawyer representing one of the defendants says that military tribunals are only legal under marshal law, not a state of emergency, although he unsuccessfully challenged the jurisdiction of the court.

“It’s difficult to say what we believe, frankly,” he says, requesting anonymity for his safety. "It’s very difficult to comment under these circumstances. But we believe the verdict is unfair and we are disappointed.”

'All of Bahrain is crying'

The pall of fear has fallen heavily on Bahrain in recent weeks, with many Bahrainis too afraid of retribution to talk to international media or give their names if they do. Rights groups say as many as 800 people have been detained since the protest movement began, and more than two dozen have been killed. One of those detained was Mohammed Al Tajer, a prominent defense lawyer who was representing one of the defendants.

Mr. Al Khalifa, the head of the Information Affairs Authority, said Wednesday that 312 detainees have been released since March 15, but that 62 crimes and 343 felonies were being transferred to courts. He said 23 doctors and 23 nurses would be charged with crimes next week. Healthcare professionals, particularly those who provided care to wounded protesters, have been targeted in the government crackdown.

The sister of one of the defendants told the Monitor that her young brother was a peaceful protester whose confession was fabricated and forced.

She says that in the few minutes her family was allowed to see him after each trial hearing, he told them that he was kept constantly blindfolded and did not know where he was being held. He refused to reveal more about his treatment because he did not want to worry them, says the sister, who asked to remain anonymous to protect both herself and her brother.

Today, after hearing his own death sentence, her brother tried to tell his mother not to worry, that he would appeal it. “But my mother was crying," she says. "I couldn’t stay because I didn’t want him to see me crying. All of Bahrain is crying.”

Such bitterness and resentment is building as the government persists in its campaign to crush all dissent. If the government does not relent, it could eventually push some Bahrainis into the arms of extremist groups who would use violence to overthrow the government, says Kinninmont.

“The greater worry is the resentment it's storing up for the future,” she says. “I think the opposition doesn't have a lot of options, but I think the anger that's being stored up will be expressed in some ways in the future.”

Washington Cannot Buy Legitimacy

The White House has once again been caught off guard by events in the Middle East, in this case the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. With each new development in the region, American foreign policy is increasingly outdated and irrelevant. It has long been obvious that Hamas is the legitimate representative of many Palestinian voices and must be a partner in any future negotiations. Anyway why doesn't Washington demand that Israel denounce violence as well? Oh, that may complicated the $8.2 million dollars of military aid that we give to the Zionist government each and every day. Recent events illustrate that if there is any hope for peace, it will happen despite Washington's best efforts.

Reconciliation Deal by Rival Factions Forces U.S. to Reconsider Aid to Palestinians

By Steven Lee Myers
The New York Times
April 27, 2011

WASHINGTON — The announced reconciliation on Wednesday between Fatah and Hamas, the estranged Palestinian movements, puts the Obama administration in the uncomfortable position of having to reconsider its financial support for the Palestinian Authority, including millions of dollars the United States has spent to train and equip Palestinian security forces, officials and members of Congress said.

The agreement, reached after secret talks brokered by Egypt, caught the Obama administration, like many others, by surprise. At a minimum it complicates the administration’s faltering hopes to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It also casts doubt on American efforts in recent years to build up the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, led by Fatah, as the legitimate leader of the Palestinians.

The White House, which has been debating how best to revive peace talks ahead of an address to Congress next month by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, all but dismissed the proposed reconciliation by reiterating the longstanding American designation of Hamas as a terrorist organization that has never expressed a willingness to recognize Israel, let alone negotiate with it.

“As we have said before, the United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace,” Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in the administration’s only public response. “Hamas, however, is a terrorist organization which targets civilians.”

He added that any Palestinian government had to accept certain principles announced by international negotiators known as the Quartet: the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia. They include renouncing violence, abiding by past agreements with the Israelis and recognizing Israel’s right to exist. Hamas has never agreed to those conditions.

Administration officials declined to discuss publicly the impact the reconciliation might have on American policy, saying they were still trying to learn more about how exactly the two rival organizations would be able to reunite years after violently splitting.

There were, however, immediate calls by pro-Israeli members of Congress to withhold American aid to the Palestinians if their leadership included Hamas. “It calls into question everything we have done,” Representative Gary L. Ackerman, Democrat of New York, said in a telephone interview. He later issued a statement saying the United States would be compelled by “both law and decency” to cut off all aid.

“I don’t think there is any will on the part of the administration or the Congress to provide funds to a government that is dominated by a dedicated terrorist organization,” he said.

The administration is already on record warning of that. Shortly after taking office, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton flatly ruled out cooperating with a Palestinian Authority that included Hamas as a partner.

“We will not deal with, nor in any way fund, a Palestinian government that includes Hamas unless and until Hamas has renounced violence, recognized Israel and agreed to follow the previous obligations of the Palestinian Authority,” she told Congress then.

Since 2005, under President George W. Bush, the United States has spent $542 million to train the Palestinian Authority’s National Security Force, provide it nonlethal equipment and refurbish its camps and buildings. That included $150 million in the current fiscal year. That training, while viewed with suspicion by some of Israel’s supporters, has been credited with improving the professionalism of the forces and security more broadly.

Similar military aid given to Lebanon since 2006 was blocked by Congress after suspicions that parts of the Lebanese Army had allied with members of Hezbollah, also designated a terrorist group.

A New Middle East Emerges

In Shift, Egypt Warms to Iran and Hamas, Israel’s Foes

By David D. Kirkpatrick
The New York Times
April 28, 2011

CAIRO — Egypt is charting a new course in its foreign policy that has already begun shaking up the established order in the Middle East, planning to open the blockaded border with Gaza and normalizing relations with two of Israel and the West’s Islamist foes, Hamas and Iran.

Egyptian officials, emboldened by the revolution and with an eye on coming elections, say that they are moving toward policies that more accurately reflect public opinion. In the process they are seeking to reclaim the influence over the region that waned as their country became a predictable ally of Washington and the Israelis in the years since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

The first major display of this new tack was the deal Egypt brokered Wednesday to reconcile the secular Palestinian party Fatah with its rival Hamas. “We are opening a new page,” said Ambassador Menha Bakhoum, spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry. “Egypt is resuming its role that was once abdicated.”

Egypt’s shifts are likely to alter the balance of power in the region, allowing Iran new access to a previously implacable foe and creating distance between itself and Israel, which has been watching the changes with some alarm. “We are troubled by some of the recent actions coming out of Egypt,” said one senior Israeli official, citing a “rapprochement between Iran and Egypt” as well as “an upgrading of the relationship between Egypt and Hamas.”

“These developments could have strategic implications on Israel’s security,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the issues were still under discussion in diplomatic channels. “In the past Hamas was able to rearm when Egypt was making efforts to prevent that. How much more can they build their terrorist machine in Gaza if Egypt were to stop?”

Israel had relied on Egypt’s help to police the border with Gaza, where arms and other contraband were smuggled to Hamas through tunnels.

Balancing its new independence against its old allegiances, Egypt is keeping all its commitments, including the peace treaty with Israel, Ambassador Bakhoum emphasized, and she said that it hoped to do a better job complying with some human rights protocols it had signed.

But she said that the blockade of the border with Gaza and Egypt’s previous enforcement of it were both “shameful,” and that Egypt intended soon to open up the border “completely.”

At the same time, she said, Egypt is also in the process of normalizing its relations with Iran, a regional power that the United States considers a dangerous pariah.

“All the world has diplomatic relations with Iran with the exception of the United States and Israel,” Ambassador Bakhoum said. “We look at Iran as a neighbor in the region that we should have normal relations with. Iran is not perceived as an enemy as it was under the previous regime, and it is not perceived as a friend.”

Several former diplomats and analysts said that by staking out a more independent path, Egypt would also regain a measure of power that came with the flexibility to bestow or withhold support.

If Egypt believes Israel’s refusal to halt settlements in the West Bank is the obstacle to peace, for example, then “cooperating with the Israelis by closing the border to Gaza did not make sense, as much as one may differ with what Hamas has done,” argued Nabil Fahmy, dean of the public affairs school at the American University in Cairo and a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States.

Many Egyptian analysts, including some former officials and diplomats who served under then-President Hosni Mubarak, say they are thrilled with the shift. “This is the new feeling in Egypt, that Egypt needs to be respected as a regional power,” said Emad Gad, a foreign policy expert on relations with Israel at the official Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Egypt is recognizing Hamas, he said, for the same reason the Egyptian prime minister recently had breakfast with his family at a public restaurant without heavily armed body guards: any official who wants to stay in government is thinking about elections. “This is a new thing in Egyptian history,” Mr. Gad said.

Mahmoud Shokry, a former Egyptian ambassador to Syria under Mr. Mubarak, said: “Mubarak was always taking sides with the U.S., but the new way of thinking is entirely different. We would like to make a model of democracy for the region, and we are ensuring that Egypt has its own influence.”

In the case of Iran, a competing regional power, Ms. Bakhoum noted that although Egypt broke off relations with the Islamist government after its 1979 revolution, the countries reopened limited relations in 1991 on the level of a chargé d’affaires, so normalizing relations was more of an elevation than a reopening.

The deal between the Palestinian factions capitalized on the forces unleashed around the region by Egypt’s revolution. In its aftermath, Hamas found its main sponsor, the Assad government of Syria, shaken by its own popular protest movement, while the Fatah government in the West Bank faced throngs of young people adapting the chants of the Egyptian uprising to the cause of Palestinian unity.

Egypt had laid out a proposal virtually identical to the current deal for both sides as early as 2009, several participants from all sides said. But the turning point came in late March, about six weeks after the revolution.

For the first time in years of talks the Hamas leaders were invited to the headquarters of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs instead of merely meeting at a hotel or the intelligence agency — a signal that Egypt was now prepared to treat Hamas as a diplomatic partner rather than a security risk.

They also met with Egypt’s interim head of state, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Mr. Mubarak’s longtime defense minister.

“When I was invited to the meeting in the Foreign Ministry, that was something different, and this is what the agreement grew out of,” said Taher Nounou of Hamas. “We definitely felt that there was more openness from the new Egyptian leadership.” Foreign Minister Nabil el-Araby told the Palestinians that “he doesn’t want to talk about the ‘peace process’ any more, he wants to talk about the peace,” Ambassador Bakhoum said.

She said the Egyptian government was still studying how to open the border with Gaza, to help the civilians who lived there, and to determine which goods might be permitted. But she said the government had decided to move ahead with the idea.

Mona El-Naggar contributed reporting.

Situation Deteriorates in Syria

Syria Sends more Troops to Rebel Town

By Khalid Ali in Damascus
The Independent
Thursday, 28 April 2011

The Syrian government dispatched more army reinforcements to the southern town of Deraa yesterday as its all-out assault with tanks and other heavy weaponry prompted the EU to say it would consider "all options" in its attempts to rein in the regime.

Five European nations also summoned Syrian ambassadors to condemn the deadly violence against protesters, and EU diplomats will meet tomorrow to decide whether to impose sanctions on Syria as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad continues its siege of the city at the heart of a month-long uprising. Witnesses also reported seeing tanks on the outskirts of the capital Damascus and in the coastal city of Baniyas yesterday.

Activists said food and water in Deraa were running short, while heavy gunfire continued to echo around the streets. Mosques were reportedly using loudspeakers to make appeals to the military to stop killing civilians. Schools in the city have been shelled by artillery, according to one Beirut-based activist, while there are also shortages of blood at hospitals in the area. Dozens of people have been killed over the past 48 hours, he said. One video posted on the internet purported to show tank reinforcements being ferried south to Deraa on a convoy of flatbed trucks, though it not possible to verify the footage.

Rights campaigners say security forces have killed at least 400 people since civil unrest began to sweep the country in March, with 25 dying during an army assault on Deraa on Monday alone. Military cordons are also in place around other cities throughout the country, including Homs, Hama and the restive north-western city of Baniyas, where residents have reported armed civilian gangs and security forces amassing in the surrounding hills.

Hundreds of people have also been detained after nationwide house-to-house raids.

In Douma, a suburb of Damascus, one activist told the Independent that security forces were positioned on rooftops and scores of plain-clothed secret police were prowling round the streets,

"People around here are very scared," said the middle-aged man, who did not want to be named. "They are afraid to go outside and are scared for their lives."

Another activist, from small town outside the capital, said that the atmosphere had changed considerably since the nationwide demonstrations demanding reform erupted on Friday. "Where ever you go in my town, a common feeling is that everybody is frustrated and afraid of being arrested," he said. "Most people have fled their houses and are sleeping in different places, including me."

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 500 people have been arrested during the sweeping security crackdown which followed last weekend's protests. One human rights researcher based in Damascus said that dozens of those seized during the raids had been tortured.

Officials from France, Britain, Germany and Portugal yesterday circulated a draft statement to the UN Security Council condemning the deadly violence against protesters. France, Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain have also summoned Syrian ambassadors over the crackdown.

Asked about the meeting tomorrow, a spokesman for the EU executive said "all options are on the table", although analysts say military action similar to the Nato assault on Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces in Libya is unlikely.

Amnesty International has called for the Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court. The organisation's leader, Salil Shetty, said: "The Security Council needs now to step up to the mark and show leadership on Syria as it did on Libya. A consistent policy of zero-tolerance for crimes against humanity will send a signal to all governments that impunity for crimes under international law is no longer acceptable."

The Syrian envoy to the UN said that his country had "nothing to hide". The regime of President Bashar al-Assad continues to say that the military is targeting only "armed groups".

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Military Seige of Dara'a

A Syrian Beacon Pays Price for Its Dissent

By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
April 27, 2011

BEIRUT, Lebanon — In the besieged city of Dara’a, which has become a symbol of Syria’s uprising, residents on Wednesday told of shortages of bread and even baby formula. Some stick a pole wrapped in a scarf out the door to see whether snipers are lurking. Doctors in a mosque have resorted to using sewing needles to stitch wounds, amid shortages of bandages and disinfectant.

Some spoke of moments of camaraderie in the three-day blockade, as Palestinians from nearby refugee camps ferried canned food and bread by foot to Dara’a, a poor border town in a drought-stricken region where protests last month galvanized nationwide demonstrations. Others spoke of a deepening fear of snipers by day, raids by night and people so scared they would not open their doors, even to neighbors.

“Dara’a and its hinterland are a ghost town,” one resident of the area said as he fled across the border to Jordan on Wednesday. “You can’t go in and you can’t go out.”

Dara’a has become the center stage of an uprising that has posed the greatest challenge to the Assad family’s four decades of rule. While other towns reel from a cycle of protests and funerals for the fallen that turn into more protests, Dara’a is the town the government has sought, through force of arms since Monday, to pummel back into loyalty. For weeks a symbol of people’s anger at arbitrary power, it has now become a test of whether the protests will weather a crackdown in full swing.

In the end, this town may determine whether the government — staggering but still entrenched, playing on fears of chaos in a county still deeply divided by its sects and ethnicities — can reinstill the fear that the protests broke.

“The regime may be able to stop the uprising in two or three weeks with a crackdown,” said Alaa Hourani, a Dara’a resident, “but they cannot finish it forever.”

Almost no foreign journalists are allowed in Syria, much less Dara’a, and an authoritative account of conditions in the town of 75,000 is impossible.

In past days, it has become a caldron of rumors and conflicting sentiments. Over the phone on Wednesday, a man shouted that 150 soldiers had defected to the opposition, but even some human rights activists remained skeptical of decisive splits in the military. Some residents denounced President Bashar al-Assad, while those fleeing across the border said that he still enjoyed their support and that anger was more pronounced against his family — his brother Maher, who leads the Fourth Armored Division, deployed in Dara’a, and his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, an intelligence chief and deputy chief of staff.

“These are Maher’s people,” said the resident fleeing to Jordan. “They’re barbaric. Nobody can control them except Maher, and Bashar cannot control Maher.”

Across Syria, the siege of Dara’a has become a rallying cry, demonstrating its resonance to an uprising still in search of leadership and coherence.

“‘The people of Dara’a are free!’ ” an activist abroad quoted dissidents shouting during protests in towns on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus. “‘Bashar, get out of Dara’a!’” others cried, the activist said.

The protests erupted in Dara’a in March after 15 students were arrested for writing antigovernment graffiti on school walls. “The people want to topple the regime,” the slogans said, in an echo of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Security in the town was run by Atef Najib, a relative of Mr. Assad, and, by most accounts, the youths were tortured.

In the protests that ensued, government buildings were burned, and for weeks, protesters spoke of Dara’a as liberated, or at least no longer under the government’s full control. That ended Monday when eight tanks, soldiers and 30 buses of security officers stormed the town, in what was the military’s most aggressive move against the dissent that has been reported in virtually every province.

The Syrian Army said Wednesday that its troops had deployed to Dara’a and nearby regions to root out “extremist terrorist groups” and that three of its officers had been killed in attacks near the Golan Heights. Syrian television showed images of what it said were machine guns, shotguns, grenades and ammunition confiscated in the town.

But residents described the onslaught as collective punishment, and activists cited witness accounts of more tanks and armor being sent south from Damascus. Reached by satellite phone, they said electricity and phone lines had been cut and had still not been restored. Soldiers fired at water tanks atop houses and apartment buildings, emptying them. Snipers took up positions across the town, and checkpoints were set up on many streets.

“No one’s allowed to walk more than 100 meters,” said another resident who fled across the border with his children.

The town’s sole hospital is closed, and residents said they were afraid to take the wounded there anyway because they would probably be arrested. Abdullah Abazid, one of the few residents to give his name, said that 39 people had been killed in the past two days, and that bodies were still strewn in the street.

Others spoke of shortages of bandages and disinfectant. Wissam Tarif, the executive director of Insan, a human rights group, said residents he spoke with told him that doctors were using clothes as bandages and sewing needles to suture wounds.

It was unclear what kind of resistance if any was being offered. On the first day, residents said protesters had tried to block the roads with concrete barricades and cars. Mr. Abazid said Wednesday that protesters had destroyed the stairs to two mosques to prevent snipers from taking positions in the minarets and that people were thrusting wrapped sticks out their front doors to determine whether others snipers were near.

Though he said soldiers had withdrawn from the Omari Mosque, a landmark in the town that has served as a headquarters for demonstrators, they still feared an attack. “People are protecting the mosque with their bare chests,” he said.

In some ways, the isolation of the town was replayed in the isolation of each neighborhood. Residents often knew nothing beyond what was happening on their street, offering accounts over the phone of what they could see from their windows.

“There is a huge element of fear inside the city,” Mr. Tarif said. “People are afraid for their lives, for their families. People are afraid of the night, when houses are raided.”

Reporting was contributed by Ranya Kadri from the Jordanian-Syrian border, Hwaida Saad from Beirut and employees of The New York Times from Beirut and Damascus, Syria.

The "Militarization of Intelligence" in America

Obama’s Pentagon and C.I.A. Picks Show Shift in How U.S. Fights

By Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt
The New York Times
April 28, 2011

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s decision to send an intelligence chief to the Pentagon and a four-star general to the Central Intelligence Agency is the latest evidence of a significant shift over the past decade in how the United States fights its battles — the blurring of lines between soldiers and spies in secret American missions abroad.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates is preparing to step down soon, setting in motion changes at the top in the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency.

On Thursday, Mr. Obama is expected to announce that Leon E. Panetta, the C.I.A. director, will become secretary of defense, replacing Robert M. Gates, and that Gen. David H. Petraeus will return from Afghanistan to take Mr. Panetta’s job at the C.I.A., a move that is likely to continue this trend.

As C.I.A. director, Mr. Panetta hastened the transformation of the spy agency into a paramilitary organization, overseeing a sharp escalation of the C.I.A.’s bombing campaign in Pakistan using armed drone aircraft, and an increase in the number of secret bases and covert operatives in remote parts of Afghanistan.

General Petraeus, meanwhile, has aggressively pushed the military deeper into the C.I.A.’s turf, using Special Operations troops and private security contractors to conduct secret intelligence missions. As commander of the United States Central Command in September 2009, he also signed a classified order authorizing American Special Operations troops to collect intelligence in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran and other places outside of traditional war zones.

The result is that American military and intelligence operatives are at times virtually indistinguishable from each other as they carry out classified operations in the Middle East and Central Asia. Some members of Congress have complained that this new way of war allows for scant debate about the scope and scale of military operations. In fact, the American spy and military agencies operate in such secrecy now that it is often hard to come by specific information about the American role in major missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Libya and Yemen.

The operations have also created tension with important allies like Pakistan, while raising fresh questions about whether spies and soldiers deserve the same legal protections.

Officials acknowledge that the lines between soldiering and spying have blurred. “It’s really irrelevant whether you call it a covert action or a military special operation,” said Dennis C. Blair, a retired four-star admiral and a former director of national intelligence. “I don’t really think there is any distinction.”

The phenomenon of the C.I.A. becoming more like the Pentagon, and vice versa, has critics inside both organizations. Some inside the C.I.A.’s clandestine service believe that its bombing campaign in Pakistan, which has become a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s counterterrorism strategy, has distorted the agency’s historic mission as a civilian espionage agency and turned it into an arm of the Defense Department.

Henry A. Crumpton, a career C.I.A. officer and formerly the State Department’s top counterterrorism official, praised General Petraeus as “one of the most sophisticated consumers of intelligence.” But Mr. Crumpton warned more broadly of the “militarization of intelligence” as current or former uniformed officers assume senior jobs in the sprawling American intelligence apparatus.

For example, James R. Clapper Jr., a retired Air Force general, is director of national intelligence, Mr. Obama’s top intelligence adviser. Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, formerly the senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, is soon expected to become one of Mr. Clapper’s top deputies.

“If the intelligence community is populated by military officers, they understandably are going to reflect their experiences,” Mr. Crumpton said.

At the Pentagon, the new roles raise legal concerns. The more that soldiers are used for espionage operations overseas, the more they are at risk of being thrown in jail and denied Geneva Convention protections if they are captured by hostile governments.

And yet few believe that the trend is likely to be reversed. A succession of wars has strained the ranks of both the Pentagon and the C.I.A., and the United States has come to believe that many of its current enemies are best fought with timely intelligence rather than overwhelming military firepower.

These factors have pushed military and intelligence operatives more closely together in the years since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“In the field, there is a blurring of the mission,” said Senator Jack Reed, a senior Rhode Island Democrat on the Armed Services Committee who served as an officer in the 82nd Airborne Division.

“Military operations can buy time to build up local security forces, but intelligence is the key to operations and for anticipating your adversary.”

American officials said that, for the most part, the tensions and resentments were greatly reduced from the days when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld expanded Pentagon intelligence-gathering operations to become less dependent on the C.I.A.

The secret “Execute Order” signed by General Petraeus in September 2009 authorized American Special Operations troops to carry out reconnaissance missions and build up intelligence networks throughout the Middle East and Central Asia in order to “penetrate, disrupt, defeat and destroy” militant groups and “prepare the environment” for future American military attacks.

But that order greatly expanding the role of the military in spying was drafted in consultation with the C.I.A., administration officials said.

General Petraeus has worked closely with the C.I.A. since the Bosnia mission in the 1990s, a relationship that grew during his command tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, some of the missions he has overseen seem to have been more like clandestine operations than traditional military missions.

Even before General Petraeus took over as the leader of the military’s Central Command overseeing Middle East operations nearly three years ago, he ordered a study of the threat posed by militants in a country few American policy makers had focused on — Yemen. Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen is now considered the most immediate threat to the United States.

The general’s relationship with Yemen’s mercurial president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was well documented in the diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks last year.

And the military’s operations there, beginning with airstrikes in December 2009, are shrouded in even more secrecy than the C.I.A.’s drone attacks in Pakistan.

Mr. Saleh, however, drew the line at General Petraeus’s request to send American advisers to accompany Yemeni troops on counterterrorism operations.

Now, with Mr. Saleh’s government teetering on the verge of collapse, General Petraeus is taking over at the C.I.A. — and will once again be part of America’s secret war in Yemen.

Hope for Palestinian Unity?

Palestinian Factions Seek Unity Government, Plan Elections

By Mariam Fam and Gwen Ackerman
April 28, 2011

Palestinian Fatah delegation chief Azzam al-Ahmad, right, shakes hands with Hamas deputy leader Musa Abu Marzouk after a joint press conference in Cairo. Photographer: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

The rival Palestinian Hamas and Fatah groups have reached a preliminary agreement to end their almost four-year divide and form a unity government.

The agreement also calls for legislative and presidential elections in a year, Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad said in an interview yesterday after a joint press conference with Hamas negotiators.

Egypt, which acted as mediator during the secret talks, will host a meeting of Palestinian factions next week for a formal signing ceremony, al-Ahmad said.

“Today, we open a new page of unity and agreement, of closing ranks and struggling together,” Hamas official Musa Abu Marzouk said. The formation of a unity government of technocrats will begin next week after the accord is signed, he said.

Israel said the deal would kill any chance for peace talks and the U.S. said Hamas can’t play a “constructive role” as long as it is unwilling to accept Israel’s right to exist. Hamas—considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Israel—rejects the peace negotiations and refuses to recognize the Jewish state.

The Palestinian move follows protests in March in which thousands of Palestinians, inspired by the popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, rallied in support of reconciliation between Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank.

Gazans celebrated in the streets yesterday, Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, said in a phone interview.

“This is a very significant for the Palestinian people,” Abusada said.

The announcement also comes as Palestinian Authority officials lobby Western countries to recognize a Palestinian state in September.

“If we think of the Palestinian Authority being serious about the declaration of statehood in September, it would have been absurd with two authorities,” said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, outside Tel Aviv. “We will see how far they get.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a unity agreement would put an end to any chance of peace talks, stalled since September, between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“The Palestinian Authority must choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas,” Netanyahu said in broadcast and e-mailed comments. “The very idea of reconciliations shows the weakness of the Palestinian Authority.”

U.S. Wary

The Obama administration sounded a wary note following the announcement. “As we have said before, the United States supports Palestinian reconciliation on terms which promote the cause of peace,” said National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.

“Hamas, however, is a terrorist organization which targets civilians,” he said in an e-mail statement. “To play a constructive role in achieving peace, any Palestinian government must accept the Quartet principles and renounce violence, abide by past agreements, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.”

Fatah and Hamas officials said the two sides would form a committee to address the issue of security under a unity government.

The split between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction and the Islamic Hamas movement dates to 2007, when Hamas ousted Abbas’s forces from the Gaza Strip a year after winning parliamentary elections. That ended a coalition government with Fatah and left Abbas in control of only the West Bank.


Abbas said on March 16 that he planned to visit Gaza in a bid to heal the divide that has forced repeated delays in plans to hold elections.

The Israeli army and Egypt both sealed off Gaza’s borders after Hamas took over, cutting off most civilian traffic and restricting trade with the territory. Israel has maintained a ground and sea blockade around Gaza ever since.

Palestinian Authority leaders have said they will seek United Nations recognition of a state in September if negotiations with Israel aren’t resumed.

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority broke down several weeks after they started in September 2010, when Netanyahu refused to extend a partial 10-month construction freeze in the West Bank and Abbas said he wouldn’t negotiate until all construction was halted.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Analysis of American Offense Spending

America's Costliest War

By William Hartung
Huffington Post
April 5 2011

Congress, the media, and the public are rightly asking whether America should be spending $1 billion or more on the intervention in Libya at a time of fiscal austerity. One member of Congress has even proposed that the mission be offset dollar for dollar by cuts in domestic programs (leaving the Pentagon and related security programs off limits).

While this newfound attention to the costs of U.S. global military operations is welcome, focusing on Libya alone misses the mark. The $1 billion in projected spending on Libya is just one tenth of one percent of the over $1 trillion the United States has spent so far on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Looked at another way, the likely costs of the Libyan mission are the equivalent of less than four days of spending on the war in Afghanistan.

And that's the point. Those genuinely concerned about war costs need to go where the money is—Afghanistan. The Pentagon has asked for $113 billion to fight the war there for this year, roughly two and one-half times what has been requested to support the United States' dwindling commitment in Iraq. That gap will only increase as troop numbers in Iraq continue to fall. To put this in some perspective, the entire Gross Domestic Product of Afghanistan is about $29 billion per year, which means that annual U.S. expenditures on the war are nearly four times the value of the entire Afghan economy. That number would obviously change if the drug economy were taken into account, but it is stunning nonetheless.

The tax dollars being spent on Afghanistan are enough to offset the $100 billion per year that House Republicans are seeking to cut from next year's budget, or enough to fill the projected budget gaps of the 44 states that expect to run deficits in 2012. In other words, if the Afghan war ended and the funds allocated for it were returned to the states, no state in America would run a deficit next year. This would save millions of jobs of teachers, police, firefighters and other public employees while holding the line on basic services like Medicaid and income support for families in poverty. This would in turn be good for the economy as a whole. Military spending creates fewer jobs than virtually any other form of expenditure, from education to housing to transportation. So shifting funds away from war spending will result in a net increase in jobs nationwide.

Human Costs

But the dollar costs of the war in Afghanistan are not the only—or even the most important—consequences of the war. More than 1,500 U.S. soldiers have died since the start of the war, with nearly one-third of those deaths—499—occurring in 2010 alone. Nearly 10,000 U.S. troops have been wounded, with more than half of that total occurring in 2010. The figures on wounded military personnel don't take full account of traumatic brain injuries, which have been sustained by roughly one in five veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. These injuries cover everything from mild concussions to seriously debilitating conditions requiring full-time care.

The rapid increase in deaths and injuries to U.S. military personnel caused by the Afghan war is primarily attributable to two factors: 1) the sharp increase in troops deployed, from 45,000 in May 2009 to 98,000 currently; and 2) the increase in incursions into Taliban-controlled areas where soldiers are more vulnerable to ambush and roadside bombs or improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

As tragic as the figures for U.S. casualties are, they lag behind the deaths suffered by Afghan civilians as a result of the war. The United Nations estimates that over 2,700 Afghan civilians were killed in 2010 alone, for a total of six or seven every day. Over two-thirds of these deaths are as a result of actions by the Taliban, with 440 the result of action by U.S.-led coalition forces. To put that in perspective, nearly as many civilians died as a result of coalition actions in 2010 as did U.S. military personnel involved in combat.

Finally, there is the issue of suicides by U.S. troops involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have more than doubled since 2001, with 817 occurring during the first eight years of the war. In some months more U.S. military personnel have died from suicides than have died on the battlefield. While not all of these suicides are necessarily directly attributable to the wars, it is fair to assume that the bulk of them are, with one factor being multiple deployments within short time periods. These deployments mean that soldiers suffer longer exposures to the horrors of war, and put more strain on their families. Again, these must be major factors in the rise in suicides, although not the only ones.

The Bottom Line

Although there are occasional reports on the economic and human costs of the Afghan war in major media outlets, they are not done on the kind of consistent and comprehensive basis that would drive home the costs to the average citizen. Public opinion is already turning against the war. If people knew its true costs the scale of the opposition would grow dramatically.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation Books, 2011).

The Surreal World of American Injustice

Detainees’ Lawyers Can’t Click on Leaked Documents

By Scott Shane
The New York Times
April 26, 2011

WASHINGTON — Anyone surfing the Internet this week is free to read leaked documents about the prisoners held by the American military at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to print them out or e-mail them to friends.

On Monday, hours after WikiLeaks, The New York Times and other news organizations began publishing the documents online, the Justice Department informed Guantánamo defense lawyers that the documents remained legally classified even after they were made public.

Because the lawyers have security clearances, they are obligated to treat the readily available files “in accordance with all relevant security precautions and safeguards” — handling them, for example, only in secure government facilities, said the notice from the department’s Court Security Office.

It is only the latest absurdist challenge posed by the flood of classified material obtained by WikiLeaks over the past year: field reports from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; State Department cables; and now the military’s risk assessments of 700 past or present Guantánamo prisoners.

Joseph Margulies, a Northwestern law professor who represents Abu Zubaydah, the detainee accused of being a terrorist facilitator who was waterboarded by the Central Intelligence Agency, said he could not comment on the newly disclosed assessment of his client, which is posted on The Times Web site.

“Everyone else can talk about it,” Mr. Margulies said. “I can’t talk about it.”

The ballooning category of public-but-classified documents has befuddled officials and led to a series of unusual pronouncements from government agencies and those who work with them.

In December, Columbia University warned international relations students that commenting on the documents disclosed by WikiLeaks online or linking to them might endanger their chances of getting a government job. The same month, the United States Agency for International Development told workers that viewing the documents on an unclassified computer at work or home could violate security rules that govern their employment. In February, an Air Force unit cautioned that employees and even their family members could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act for looking at the WikiLeaks documents at home.

Some of those warnings were quickly modified or withdrawn after attracting public ridicule. But the general principle that the leaked files remain classified remains in effect, with varying consequences.

Some foreigners applying for asylum in the United States have attached diplomatic cables printed from the Internet that describe repression in their native countries — requiring the Department of Homeland Security to store their applications in special safes and to apply cumbersome security rules.

State Department employees have confided that they read leaked cables on newspaper Web sites at home rather than risk trouble by viewing them at work. A Times reporter who appeared with a State Department official on a recent panel was advised not to show leaked cables as slides — the official was prohibited from looking at them.

But the prohibition for Guantánamo lawyers has serious implications, said Mr. Margulies, who wrote a book on Guantánamo and has represented five prisoners there. Decisions about who gets released have been influenced by politics and public pressure as much as by legal standards, he said.

“It’s important to be able to use these documents to shape and inform the discussion in the public square,” he said. If a leaked risk assessment contains clearly disproved accusations about a prisoner, a lawyer should be able to publicly refute it, he said.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told reporters that he considered the dissemination of the classified Guantánamo documents, prepared under the Bush administration, to be “deplorable.” And he said the Obama administration would not make public, even with redactions, its own assessments of the 240 prisoners who were still at Guantánamo when it took office in 2009.

The new files, Mr. Holder said, “involve a whole variety of information gleaned from a wide assortment of sources, some of which are classified.”

“That being the case,” he continued, “I would be concerned about putting out information that was incomplete.”

Meanwhile, Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, said the department was trying to answer questions posed by lawyers for Guantánamo prisoners about the restrictions on using the leaked documents.

“We’re working through these issues right now,” Mr. Boyd said. “We simply want to ensure that any information released by WikiLeaks is handled properly.”

At the Congressional Research Service, the branch of the Library of Congress that advises senators and representatives, employees were advised in December that they could not quote the classified documents obtained by WikiLeaks in their reports. Some analysts with the service grumbled privately that members of Congress were asking about diplomatic cables, but they were not permitted to quote the cables in reply.

Janine D’Addario, a spokeswoman for the research service, said she could not say whether the restrictions had hampered its work because its research was supposed to be confidential. But Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said there was no question that the researchers were handicapped as they reported on the wars, foreign relations or Guantánamo.

“It’s the definition of self-defeating,” Mr. Aftergood said. “It doesn’t serve the interest of Congress or the public.”

Mr. Aftergood said the problems had resulted from the unprecedented scale of the WikiLeaks disclosures, which the rules did not anticipate. Tens of thousands of military documents have been disclosed, and about 8,000, so far, of a cache of 250,000 diplomatic cables.

“The surge of classified documents into the public domain has tied the system up in knots,” he said. The rush to impose patently pointless restrictions “does demonstrate a disappointing lack of agility in the security system,” Mr. Aftergood said.

But Peter J. Spiro, who teaches international law at Temple University, said the government’s dilemma was real. The law is clear: only a document that is properly declassified loses its protections. And if the government ruled that classified documents disclosed to the public were automatically declassified, that would simply create a more powerful incentive for disgruntled government employees to leak.

“The trouble is, it makes the government look totally ham-handed,” Mr. Spiro said. “There are documents on the front page that everyone’s talking about, and it looks ridiculous to pretend they’re not there.”

Blaming Others

Washington continues to ridiculously blame Iran for the ongoing repression in Syria, even though United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice refuses to provide any evidence to back up this claim. Alas the American public will believe what it wants to believe, not what is true. But this immature tactic is not washing in the region. As Robert Fisk suggests, "Many Arabs [have been] appalled that Mr. Obama would apparently try to make cheap propaganda over the tragedy—there is, in fact, not the slightest evidence that Iran has been actively involved with the events in Syria—when he might have been dignified enough to have sent his sympathy to the mourners and told the protesters that America was with them."

Of course, the Syrian government is also foolishly blaming "outsiders" and "terrorists" for the democratic uprisings in selected cities. Last week state television even aired the "confessions" of several protesters who claim that a Lebanese politician aided the so-called armed insurrection. While the purported evidence of checks written by the Saudi Prince to the very same politician may or may not prove that he is a corrupt stooge, this should never be used as an excuse to silence the marginalized voices of those calling for justice in Syria and who have been brutally repressed.

And finally, the government of Bahrain is trying to blame both Hizbullah and Iran for encouraging the overthrow of the royal regime. The sad truth is that this piece of fabricated news will probably be reported more widely in the American media than the horrific abuses against Shi'is in Bahrain that are still being committed by the increasingly autocratic regime and our closest friend in the region Saudi Arabia. The protests in Bahrain were peaceful and the leaders of Hizbullah and Iran behaved respectfully, offering diplomatic statements of support for the protesters and nothing more. Let us not forget that this is exactly what the United States has been doing to demonstrate support for the protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and now Syria.

These days there are double standards all around.

Rights Abuses Continue in Bahrain

Shiites Decry 'Persecution in Bahrain'

Agence France Presse
April 27, 2011

Bahrain persists in persecuting members of its Shiite majority in "systematic" human rights violations, seven weeks after crushing a month-long pro-democracy protest, activists say.

Shiites face fast-tracked martial courts, continued detention of hundreds, demolition of mosques and arbitrary dismissal of employees in the Sunni-ruled kingdom, they say.

At least 567 people, including 38 women, remain in detention, former MP Matar Matar told AFP, out of around 1,000 people rounded up after security forces quelled the protest on March 16.
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"We are in touch with international organisations to highlight the systematic violations by the authorities," he said, claiming the government was taking advantage of "international silence" over the violations.

"This fast campaign shows that authorities are trying to use this time that is available as much as possible ... No one knows when the international silence about Bahrain will end," Matar said.

He also expressed fears that seven Shiite protesters may be sentenced to death by a military court on Thursday over charges they killed two policemen in clashes as the Shiite-dominated protest was crushed.

The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) put the number of detainees at 817, including 71 women in a clear breach of tradition in the conservative Muslim Gulf where women embody the honour of a family.

"This is a new phenomenon in Bahrain," said BCHR head Nabil Rajab.

One woman who spoke to AFP said she was threatened with rape if she did not confess to taking part in protests.

"You'd better confess. Otherwise, I'd take you to the other interrogation room where men would make you talk," she said, quoting an officer's threat.

The woman was dragged from her workplace along with other Shiite colleagues. In the bus to the police station, policewomen slapped their faces and made them chant pro-monarchy slogans, she said.

She asked AFP not to disclose details about her job because police warned them not to talk about their ordeal while in custody.

The woman said she eventually confessed to taking part in demonstrations at Pearl Square, epicentre of the anti-regime protests, and also to protesting at work.

She said she shared a cell with several doctors, nurses and teachers. While being released, she said she saw teenage female students being dragged into a police station and beaten by policewomen.

Bahraini authorities have been condemned by several international rights groups for clamping down on medical staff, mainly at Manama's Salmaniya Medical Complex, with medics punished for siding with protesters.

"They used to punish us psychologically by opening a door leading to the men's section of the police station so we could see them being beaten. We would hear their screams under torture," she said.

Although security forces showed restraint in driving protesters from Pearl Square, the authorities later unleashed police on Shiite dissidents nationwide.

"We can call this now a regime of sectarian separation that is working on a sectarian purge" of Shiites, Rajab charged, citing raids on schools and medical centres where Shiites were told to line up separately from Sunnis.

Matar, who quit parliament along with 17 other MPs in the Al-Wefaq Shiite opposition group in February in protest at violence against protesters, also spoke of Shiite employees being sacked if said to have taken part in demonstrations.

"Police raid medical centres and separate employees based on their sects, then order Shiites to stand by the wall and put their arms up... while masked informers point out" those who joined the protests, he said.

More than 1,000 Shiite employees had been fired, he said.

The government admits dismissing workers. On Tuesday, the health ministry said it had referred for prosecution 30 employees among those suspended because of "recent events", after a probe found that they committed acts that "appeared criminal".

Even sports professionals were targeted. An investigatory committee has suspended 150 players, coaches and staff over their alleged involvement in protests.

Meanwhile, the authorities have demolished many Shiite places of prayer and old mosques, saying they were built without authorisation.

Turkey Engages Syria

Turkish PM Advises Reform in Syria, Sending Envoy

Tuesday April 26, 2011

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan voiced concern on Tuesday over Syria's violent crackdown on demonstrators and said he was sending an envoy to meet President Bashar al-Assad and encourage him to move toward democracy.

Erdogan has friendly relations with Assad and has since the early days of the unrest urged him to show restraint and make reforms desired by the Syrian people, or risk the fate suffered by Arab leaders who have been toppled by uprisings this year.

Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters have been killed in Syria's revolt, and on Monday Assad sent tanks and artillery to try to crush the uprising in Deraa, the city where it started.

"I told Assad clearly our worries and anxiety because of current developments," Erdogan said. "The current process is a disturbing process."

He said Assad's decision last Thursday to lift 48-year-old emergency laws was a good start, but he needed to do more.

Many Syrians regard the reforms announced last week as an empty gesture.

"There are more steps to be taken in Syria," Erdogan told a joint news conference with the visiting premier of Kyrgyzstan.

"We absolutely do not expect or want an undemocratic implementation and certainly not an authoritarian, totalitarian, patronizing structure. Our desire is that ... a rapid democratization process takes place.

"Our representatives will present to him (Assad) some of our preparations."

He said the envoy might go to Damascus as soon as Thursday.

European governments urged Syria on Tuesday to end the violence. Washington said on Monday it was studying sanctions and Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal on Tuesday proposed the European Union suspend aid to Damascus and impose an arms embargo and sanctions against its leaders.

Turkey, a predominantly Muslim member of NATO with growing influence in the Middle East, has built good relations in the last few years with Muslim neighbors such as Syria.

U.S. President Barack Obama spoke with Erdogan on Monday about the crises in Syria and Libya.

Reporting by Simon Cameron-Moore and Seda Sezer; Editing by Kevin Liffey.