Sunday, January 29, 2012

Postcard from Damascus

Syrian Snapshot I: A View From the Capital

By Sharmine Narwani
Al-Akhbar English
Wednesday, January 25 2012

Crossing over the Lebanese border into Syria was anticlimactic. It was the second week of January and the lines of people waiting to have their papers checked did not look markedly shorter than during my two previous visits, both having taken place well before popular Arab revolts broke out across the Middle East.

Even security checks – looking into the trunk of our car and the kinds of questions asked by immigration personnel – appeared, if anything, less probing than my earlier experiences.

But two things caught my eye. The first was the posters vilifying certain media networks – Al Jazeera, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya, and the BBC – which dotted the walls of the border crossing. One to the right of the counter for “foreigners” hovered over the head of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) crew in line in front of me. Ah, I thought – the rumors that foreign journalists are now trickling into Syria may be true.

The second noteworthy detail was the whispers among border personnel that a busload of Syrian soldiers being transported from their barracks had been bombed by a roadside IED near Zabadani, a town now claimed by the armed opposition. I have no confirmation of this.

I was worried about my stay in Damascus in the Christian quarter of the Old City. Just four days earlier, on Friday January 6, a suicide bomber had detonated his explosives in a crowded area in Midan – inside the capital – apparently targeting a bus with policemen on board, although the casualties were mostly civilians.

I was keen to see if there were tangible ramifications of this act of terror in the heart of Damascus – ten months into the protests, the city is still largely viewed as being supportive of the government. Damascus counts. No uprising will be complete unless this city of 2.6 million shifts that balance. The capital will eventually have to be a battlefield for any revolt to succeed, even if only a political one.

Syria is icy cold this time of year, which may account for some of the empty streets that are normally bustling with humanity. But the Friday after the suicide bombing, the streets were noticeably devoid of people and the number of cars driving about were minimal. Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, is usually spent with family, so it wasn’t altogether clear if the stillness was due to the previous week’s violence.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s voice greeted us on the radio as my friend and I drove into the country a few days earlier. He was delivering his fifth speech since protests broke out in March last year. It was long-winded and my companion translated every so often. I waited impatiently for these tidbits which kept coming in until well after we were sipping tea in a Damascus hotel lobby where guests and conference attendees were crowding around the TV screens to pass their judgments.

Later that day I met with the first person on my list of regime opponents, most of whom had served prison terms at some point in their lives. I will write in more detail about these men and women later, but they varied from those who desired an overhaul of the regime while keeping Assad’s presidency intact, to those who would not consider dialogue with any part of the existing government. There were some commonalities. All rejected any foreign military intervention and the militarization of the protests. The majority were scathing about the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and external opposition groups like the Syrian National Council (SNC), so liberally quoted by the Western media as the definitive voice of the Syrian “opposition.”

“Their decisions are made in America and Turkey,” said one regime critic about the foreign-based Syrian opposition. “I want decisions made in Syria.”

Another one parried: “The external opposition are not an effective part of the opposition. They don’t participate in any political parties here. We want to change the system in a safe way – we don’t want to pay a higher price than necessary. We want national cohesion, we don’t want a collapse of the economy and we don’t want to lose our sovereignty.”

Most of these domestic-based opposition figures I met were disparaging about international sanctions too: “Life is very expensive for the Syrian people now and [the sanctions] will take the country into a vicious cycle of poverty and violence and harm the democratic transition,” says Louay Hussein, leader of the Building the Syrian State movement, who spent seven years in prison during his 20s.

“Sanctions will not affect the authorities, but will affect the people,” claims retired political economist Aref Dalila, an organizer of the 2000-1 Damascus Spring (a period of unusual political and social openness in Syria immediately following Hafez Assad’s death) who was released from a seven-year prison term in 2008. “People are already paying a high cost – prices have risen dramatically, factories have shut down, imports have decreased by around half and unemployment has risen, especially in the tourism sector.”

Too true. I was the only guest staying in the charming 17th century converted Damascene house nestled along narrow cobblestone streets in Damascus’ Old City. The famed boutique hotel with intricately painted ceilings and carved mother-of-pearl-encrusted wooden doors is usually impossible to book.

The only apparent benefit of sanctions was that I could sit in my pajamas for my morning tea and croissant in the hotel’s petite courtyard, unencumbered by chiding looks from other guests or staff. There was one woman manning the place during the day, replaced by a gentleman in the evening. My second night there, he called me at 3am when I had not yet returned to the hotel to check on my safety: “I was worried,” he said, “you know, because of what’s going on.”

Worried they may be, but that didn’t stop reportedly tens of thousands of Syrians flooding into Ummayyad Square – named after the Ummayyad Caliphate whose capital was Damascus – in support of their president earlier that day. A makeshift stage was erected in front of the imposing Assad Library, where supporters chanted pro-regime slogans and condemned the machinations of foreign leaders against the Syrian state. Qatar’s Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were particularly singled out for derision.

The masses were in for a surprise though. Assad himself, accompanied by his wife Asma and two of their children, swung by to speak to the jubilant crowd – and some said also to quell long-circulating rumors that his family had fled Syria.

I had heard about this rally the night before from the young pro-Assad son of an anti-regime woman who had seen notices on Facebook. That surprised me – Facebook was not available, except via proxy websites, during my last visit. It had been re-introduced to Syrians in February 2011, the year of the Arab revolts.

I went to the square with low expectations. News reports in the West rarely cover pro-regime gatherings, and almost always suggest that participants are forced to attend, are engaging out of fear, or are bused in by the government – sometimes even paid to join the throngs.

I only managed to reach the square after the president’s departure, when many had already departed, and some were still trickling out of the square. Still, crowds lingered to chant pro-Assad songs, dance the traditional “dabke” and wave flags – including Hezbollah ones to mark support for the Resistance. They were women and men, young and old, religious and secular, soldiers and civilians, well-heeled and not – certainly, none looked “forced” to participate in the gathering.

By comparison, take a look at this YouTube video of the same square ostensibly filmed during Assad’s speech. The square looks almost empty and it appears his voice has been added into the footage, suggesting a low turnout even at the rally’s peak. I didn’t get to the square until after Assad’s departure, but even then, you can see the stark difference in crowd size between the two video clips – a testament to the ferocity of the media battle for narratives over Syria these days.

The celebrations went on long after my frozen hands decided to seek refuge indoors. An earlier meeting had been postponed because of road blocks around the square that cut off access to many parts of the city, so I met up instead with Ammar Ismail, persona non grata in the Western hemisphere and an online activist in the cyberwar over Syrian narratives.

Ismail leads a frenzied online presence via his web-based Damascus News Network (DNN) available on Facebook. Through video footage, pictures and articles, the social media site offers counter-narratives to Western-dominated ones on Syria, but Ismail, a self-proclaimed nationalist, is often critical of the regime too.

He claims a news article referring to him as the “head of the Syrian Electronic Army” caught the eye of the European Union, which accuses Ismail of hacking websites on behalf of the Syrian government – allegedly because “its IP addresses indicates that it is collocated in facilities which belong to the Syrian government,” according to a CNN Article. He was one of a handful of Syrian nationals whose assets were frozen by the EU in November – no hackers or cyberwarriors on the opposition side received similar punishment. His recent venture to encourage cooperation between the Italian and Syrian textile industries suffered, and Ismail was forced to shutter the business.

In the past few days, Ismail has been forced to relocate his young family as a precaution against death threats. His son will have to be home-schooled for a while, he says, exclaiming: “how does my right to exercise freedom of speech become an issue for the EU?” Ismail plans to file legal proceedings against the European Union shortly.

Damascus is bizarrely open for a city that has been the target of opposition groups intent on splintering the regime by first swaying the capitol from its pro-regime bent. The internet is bustling with competing narratives, the airways open to the vilified foreign media networks accused by Assad’s government of fueling and propagandizing the protests.

Walk into a Damascene cafĂ© or business and you are likely to see television screens broadcasting the pro-regime Addounia network or state-sponsored Al Ekhbariya Soriyah alongside the much-maligned Al Jazeera or US-backed Al Hurra. It almost seems like the regime is saying “bring us your worst – we have little to fear.”

A world away, in Homs, Deraa, Idlib, Douma, Zabadani and other Syrian hot spots the battle for narratives is harder fought. These are the cities and towns where people are reportedly dying by the dozens each day. I had a trip planned to some of these places – one that did not materialize after France 2 cameraman Gilles Jacquier was killed by a projectile while on a government-accompanied tour of Homs. But although I felt as though I might actually be safer in the immediate aftermath of Jacquier’s death, some apparently thought otherwise.

This Syrian conflict has layers and layers that we have not yet peeled within the pages of our sanctified newspapers and online repartees. I have seen very little verifiable professional reportage from the main areas of conflict. Most of the “storyline” is taking place in capital cities where competing governments appear determined to decide Syria’s future. The Syrian people are just cannon fodder. I am not sure their lives are even considered, as long as their bodies, alive or dead, lying on streets or taking part in rallies/protests, provide these storylines a way to feed into their vying narratives.

Damascus is inexpensive. The food – even in hole-in-the-wall cafes – is better than in most cities out for a quick tourist buck. The people are hospitable, even chivalrous. You feel safe walking the streets and talking to strangers. Today, people discuss politics in the open – that is surely a step up for the authoritarian state. The mood though, is cautious, worried and even angry. But the rage swings both ways – there are those to the right of the regime who are threatening to take up their own arms if the Syrian government does not protect them against opposition gunmen. While there appears to be a domestic stalemate today, that could easily turn if sectarian battles escalate.

I have seen gruesome still photos of casualties that don’t inform me if the victim is Sunni, Christian, Kurd, Druze or Alawite, but the sheer volume of these photos and footage suggests to me that some in Syria now think nothing of making snuff films to further their narratives. Is the shooting soldier really a member of the regular armed forces or someone donning a uniform to make it appear so? Is the bearded guy with the weapon really a militarized gunman or is that a trick of the regime?

The answers may be a long time coming, but one thing is certain: there are efforts underway by both sides to sway public opinion, and that effort is not by any means limited to those inside Syria. What do the majority of Syrians want? That is still the million dollar question, and the answer appears to shift with each major development – sometimes with optimism, usually with pessimism. If I were to wager on the outcome of this crisis though, I would firmly place my bets on the Syrian people rejecting these interventions and reaching their own national consensus on a democratic transition that ensures sovereignty. If civil war is to be averted, there are only a few options out of this conflict after all – and the one that offers the least chaos is the one most likely to appeal to the Syrian majority.

Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

US Expanding Naval Warfare

Navy Wants Commando ‘Mothership’ in Middle East

By Craig Whitlock
The Washington Post
Saturday, January 28 2012

The Pentagon is rushing to send a large floating base for commando teams to the Middle East as tensions rise with Iran, al-Qaeda in Yemen and Somali pirates, among other threats.

In response to requests from U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, the Navy is converting an aging warship it had planned to decommission into a makeshift staging base for the commandos. Unofficially dubbed a “mothership,” the floating base could accommodate smaller high-speed boats and helicopters commonly used by Navy SEALs, procurement documents show.

Special Operations forces are a key part of the Obama administration’s strategy to make the military leaner and more agile as the Pentagon confronts at least $487 billion in spending cuts over the next decade.

Lt. Cmdr. Mike Kafka, a spokesman for the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command, declined to elaborate on the floating base’s purpose or to say where, exactly, it will be deployed in the Middle East. Other Navy officials acknowledged that they were moving with unusual haste to complete the conversion and send the mothership to the region by early summer.

Navy documents indicate that it could be headed to the Persian Gulf, where Iran has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial shipping route for much of the world’s oil supply. A market survey proposal from the Military Sealift Command, dated Dec. 22 and posted online, states that the floating base needed to be delivered to the Persian Gulf.

Other contract documents do not specify a location but say the mothership would be used to “support mine countermeasure” missions. Defense officials have said that if Iran did attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz, it would rely on mines to obstruct the waterway.

With a large naval base in Bahrain, and one or two aircraft carrier groups usually assigned to the region, the Navy has a substantial presence in the Persian Gulf and surrounding waters. Adding the mothership would do relatively little to bolster U.S. maritime power overall, but it could play an instrumental role in secretive commando missions offshore.

The deployment of the floating base could also mark a return to maritime missions for SEAL teams, which for the past decade have spent most of their time on land in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other details of the project became public Tuesday when the Military Sealift Command posted a bid request to retrofit the USS Ponce, an amphibious transport docking ship, on a rush-order basis.

Until December, the Navy had planned to retire the Ponce and decommission it in March after 41 years of service. Among other missions, it was deployed to the Mediterranean Sea last year in support of NATO’s air war over Libya.

Instead, the ship will be modified into what the military terms an Afloat Forward Staging Base. Kafka said it would be used to support mine-clearance ships, smaller patrol ships and aircraft.

The documents posted by the Military Sealift Command in December, however, specify that the mothership will be rebuilt so that it can also serve as a docking station for several small high-speed boats and helicopters commonly used by Navy SEAL teams.

Among the vessels listed are Mark 5 Zodiacs, inflatable boats that can carry up to 15 passengers and can roll up into bags, and seven-meter-long Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats, which can carry an entire SEAL squad.

SEAL teams also deploy from regular warships, but most vessels in the Navy’s fleet must patrol or move around on a regular basis. A mothership can stay in one spot for weeks or months, effectively serving as a floating base for commandos as they monitor coastal areas or prepare for amphibious operations.

The U.S. Special Operations Command has sought a transportable floating base for several years, saying that a mothership would expand the range of commando squads operating from small speedboats, particularly in remote coastal areas.

Defense officials said the Ponce will serve as a stopgap measure until the Navy can build a new Afloat Forward Staging Base from scratch. In budget documents released Thursday, the Pentagon said it would fund that project starting next year.

The floating base also could be suited to the coast of Somalia, a failed state that is home to an al-Qaeda affiliate and gangs of pirates. A mothership there would give SEALs or other commandos more flexibility in missions such as Wednesday’s rescue of a pair of American and Danish hostages who had been held for months by Somali pirates.

The term “mothership” is also commonly used to describe a vessel used by Somali pirates. After hijacking a large container or cargo vessel, pirate crews often turn it into a floating base to extend the range of their skiffs or speedboats far into the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and Persian Gulf.

U.S. military officials declined to say what prompted them to give the Ponce a sudden new lease on life. But contract and bidding documents underscore the urgency of the project.

One no-bid contract for engineering work states that the military was waiving normal procurement rules because any delay presented a “national security risk.” Other contract bids are due Feb. 3. The Navy wants the conversion work to begin 10 days later on the Ponce, which is docked in Virginia Beach.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Report Finds no Evidence that Iran is Building a Bomb

Iran won't Build Nuclear Weapon in 2012, Says Draft Isis Report

Analysis by Institute for Science and International Security says sanctions and threat of Israeli attack are having effect.

The Guardian
Thursday, 26 January 2012

Iran is unlikely to move towards building a nuclear weapon in 2012 because it cannot yet produce enough weapon-grade uranium and is being deterred by sanctions and the prospect of an Israeli attack, according to a draft report by the Institute for Science and International Security (Isis).

The report by the institute founded by nuclear expert David Albright offers a more temperate view of Iran's nuclear program than some of the heated rhetoric that has surfaced since the United States and its allies stepped up sanctions on Tehran.

The Isis analysis is revealed after a prediction that Israel will attack Iran in 2012 to try and stop any nuclear bomb programme.

"Iran is unlikely to decide to dash toward making nuclear weapons as long as its uranium enrichment capability remains as limited as it is today," the report said.

The US and Iran are engaged in a war of words over sanctions, with Tehran threatening to retaliate by blocking oil shipping traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. The United States has said it will not allow that to happen. There are concerns the situation might spiral into a military confrontation that neither side wants.

The Isis report, financed by a grant from the United States Institute of Peace, says Iran had not made a decision to build a nuclear bomb. USIP is an independent, non-partisan centre created by the US Congress in 1984 that receives federal government funding.

"Iran is unlikely to break out in 2012, in great part because it is deterred from doing so," says the Isis report, which has not yet been publicly released.

The report says sanctions and the fear of a military strike by Israel on Iran's nuclear facilities have worked as a deterrent.

The institute has advised US and foreign governments about Iran's nuclear capabilities and Albright is considered a respected expert on the issue. The report tracks closely with what is known of official US government assessments.

US officials say Iran's leaders have not made the decision to build a nuclear weapon.

Much of what the Iranians are doing with their nuclear program has civilian uses but they are keeping their options open, which significantly adds to the air of ambiguity, US officials have told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Some conservative and Israeli analysts in the past have challenged these types of assessments, asserting that Iranian nuclear efforts are sufficiently advanced that they could build a bomb in a year or less.

But according to the Isis report: "Although Iran is engaged in nuclear hedging, no evidence has emerged that the regime has decided to build nuclear weapons."

"Such a decision may be unlikely to occur until Iran is first able to augment its enrichment capability to a point where it would have the ability to make weapon-grade uranium quickly and secretly."

It added that despite a report last November by the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency alleging that Iran had made significant progress on nuclear weaponisation, "Iran's essential challenge remains developing a secure capability to make enough weapon-grade uranium, likely for at least several nuclear weapons".

Some European intelligence officials have disputed a US national intelligence Estimate published in 2003 that said Iran had stopped working on a programme it had launched earlier to design and build a bomb.

The Europeans maintain Iran never stopped research and scientific development efforts that could be bomb-related.

Tensions spiked after Iran announced this month that it had begun to enrich uranium deep inside an underground facility near the holy city of Qom. The secretly built facility was publicly revealed by the United States in 2009.

The Isis report says a military strike to stop Iran building a bomb would be unlikely to succeed.

Limited military options, such as air strikes against nuclear facilities, are "oversold as to their ability to end or even significantly delay Iran's nuclear program," the report says. Limited bombing campaigns would be "unlikely to destroy Iran's main capability" to produce weapons-grade uranium.
Iran has taken precautions by dispersing the centrifuges it uses for enrichment to multiple locations, has mastered the construction of centrifuges, and has probably stockpiled extra centrifuges, the institute says.

A bombing campaign that did not totally eliminate these capabilities would leave Iran "able to quickly rebuild" its nuclear program and even motivate it to set up a Manhattan Project-style crash program to build a bomb, which would only make the region more dangerous and unstable, Isis says.

The report says clandestine intelligence operations aimed at detecting secret Iranian nuclear activities, including the construction of new underground sites, are "vitally important". Known methods used by spy agencies include the recruitment of secret agents, cyber spying operations, overhead surveillance by satellites and drones, and bugging of equipment that Iran buys from foreign suppliers.

The report says another "well-known tactic" used by western spy agencies against Iran has been to infiltrate Iranian networks that smuggle nuclear-related equipment and supply them with plans or items that are faulty or sabotaged. The report says this tactic has helped the west uncover at least one of Iran's secret nuclear sites and, according to official statements by the Iranians, has caused enrichment centrifuges to break.

Other more violent covert operations strategies, particularly the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers, have "serious downsides and implications", such as a high risk of Iranian retaliation through militant attacks that could be directed against civilian targets. The US has emphatically denied any involvement in killings such as the car bombing in January of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, 32, a chemistry expert and a director of the Natanz uranium enrichment plant in central Iran.

The report says that since thousands of specialists are involved in the Iranian nuclear program, assassinations are unlikely to be effective in slowing it down. It warns that Iran could construe assassinations as acts of war and use them to justify retaliation.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Islamophobia, Zionism and the NYPD

In Police Training, a Dark Film on U.S. Muslims

By Michael Powell
The New York Times
January 23, 2012

Ominous music plays as images appear on the screen: Muslim terrorists shoot Christians in the head, car bombs explode, executed children lie covered by sheets and a doctored photograph shows an Islamic flag flying over the White House.

“This is the true agenda of much of Islam in America,” a narrator intones. “A strategy to infiltrate and dominate America. ... This is the war you don’t know about.”

This is the feature-length film titled “The Third Jihad,” paid for by a nonprofit group, which was shown to more than a thousand officers as part of training in the New York Police Department.

In January 2011, when news broke that the department had used the film in training, a top police official denied it, then said it had been mistakenly screened “a couple of times” for a few officers.

A year later, police documents obtained under the state’s Freedom of Information Law reveal a different reality: “The Third Jihad,” which includes an interview with Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, was shown, according to internal police reports, “on a continuous loop” for between three months and one year of training.

During that time, at least 1,489 police officers, from lieutenants to detectives to patrol officers, saw the film.

News that police trainers showed this film so extensively comes as the department wrestles with its relationship with the city’s large Muslim community. The Police Department offers no apology for aggressively spying on Muslim groups and says it has ferreted out terror plots.

But members of the City Council, civil rights advocates and Muslim leaders say the department, in its zeal, has trampled on civil rights, blurred lines between foreign and domestic spying and sown fear among Muslims.

“The department’s response was to deny it and to fight our request for information,” said Faiza Patel, a director at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, which obtained the release of the documents through a Freedom of Information request. “The police have shown an explosive documentary to its officers and simply stonewalled us.”

Tom Robbins, a former columnist with The Village Voice, first revealed that the police had screened the film. The Brennan Center then filed its request.

The 72-minute film was financed by the Clarion Fund, a nonprofit group whose board includes a former Central Intelligence Agency official and a deputy defense secretary for President Ronald Reagan. Its previous documentary attacking Muslims’ “war on the West” attracted support from the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a major supporter of Israel who has helped reshape the Republican presidential primary by pouring millions of dollars into a so-called super PAC that backs Newt Gingrich.

Commissioner Kelly is listed on the “Third Jihad” Web site as a “featured interviewee.” Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, wrote in an e-mail that filmmakers had lifted the clip from an old interview. The commissioner, Mr. Browne said, has not asked the filmmakers to remove him from its Web site, or to clarify that he had not cooperated with them.

None of the documents turned over to the Brennan Center make clear which police officials approved the showing of this film during training. Department lawyers blacked out large swaths of these internal memorandums.

Repeated calls over the past several days to the Clarion Fund, which is based in New York, were not answered. The nonprofit group shares officials with Aish HaTorah, an Israeli organization that opposes any territorial concessions on the West Bank. The producer of “The Third Jihad,” Raphael Shore, also works with Aish HaTorah.

Clarion’s financing is a puzzle. Its federal income tax forms show contributions, grants and revenues typically hover around $1 million annually — except in 2008, when it booked contributions of $18.3 million. That same year, Clarion produced “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.” The Clarion Fund used its surge in contributions to pay to distribute tens of millions of copies of this DVD in swing electoral states across the country in September 2008.

“The Third Jihad” is quite similar, in style and content, to that earlier film. Narrated by Zuhdi Jasser, a Muslim doctor and former American military officer in Arizona, “The Third Jihad” casts a broad shadow over American Muslims. Few Muslim leaders, it states, can be trusted.

“Americans are being told that many of the mainstream Muslim groups are also moderate,” Mr. Jasser states. “When in fact if you look a little closer, you’ll see a very different reality. One of their primary tactics is deception.”

The film posits that there were three jihads: One at the time of Muhammad, a second in the Middle Ages and a third that is under way covertly throughout the West today.

This is, the film claims, “the 1,400-year war.”

How the film came to be used in police training, and even for how long, was not clear. An undated memorandum from the department’s commanding officer for specialized training noted that an employee of the federal Department of Homeland Security handed the DVD to the New York police in January 2010. Since then, this officer said, the video was shown continuously “during the sign-in, medical and administrative orientation process.” A Department of Homeland Security spokesman said it was never used in its curriculum, and might have come from a contractor.

As it turned out, it was police officers who blew the whistle after watching the film. Late in 2010, Mr. Robbins contacted an officer who spoke of his unease with the film; another officer, said Zead Ramadan, the New York president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, talked of seeing it during a training session the previous summer. “The officer was completely offended by it as a Muslim,” Mr. Ramadan said. “It defiled our faith and misrepresented everything we stood for.”

When the news broke about the movie last year, Mr. Browne called it a “wacky film” that had been shown “only a couple of times when officers were filling out paperwork before the actual course work began.”

He made no more public comments. Privately, two days later, he asked the Police Academy to determine whether a terrorism awareness training program had used the video, according to the documents.

The academy’s commander reported back on March 23, 2011, that the film had been viewed by 68 lieutenants, 159 sergeants, 31 detectives and 1,231 patrol officers. The department never made those findings public.

And just one week later, the Brennan Center officially requested the same information, starting what turned out to be a nine-month legal battle to obtain it.

“It suggests a broader problem that they refuse to divulge this information much less to discuss it,” Ms. Patel of the Brennan Center said. “The training of the world’s largest city police force is an important question.”

Mr. Browne said he had been unaware of the higher viewership of the film until asked about it by The New York Times last week.

There is the question of the officers who viewed the movie during training. Mr. Browne said the Police Department had no plans to correct any false impressions the movie might have left behind.

“There’s no plan to contact officers who saw it,” he said, or to “add other programming as a result.”

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Egypt's Election Results Announced

Islamists Win 70% of Seats in the Egyptian Parliament

By David D. Kirkpatrick
The New York Times
January 21, 2012

CAIRO — Egyptian authorities confirmed Saturday that a political coalition dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the 84-year-old group that virtually invented political Islam, had won about 47 percent of the seats in the first Parliament elected since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. An alliance of ultraconservative Islamists won the next largest share of seats, about 25 percent.

The military council leading Egypt since Mr. Mubarak lost power last February has said it will keep Parliament in a subordinate role with little real power until the ratification of a constitution and the election of a president, both scheduled for completion by the end of June.

But the council has assigned Parliament the authority to choose the 100 members of a constitutional assembly, so it may shape Egypt for decades to come, although the military council has sometimes tried to influence that process.

The election results were expected because of preliminary tallies after each of the three phases of the vote, but the confirmation comes in time for the seating of Parliament on Monday.

The tally, with the two groups of Islamists together winning about 70 percent of the seats, indicates the deep cultural conservatism of the Egyptian public, which is expressing its will through free and fair elections for the first time in more than six decades.

But the two groups have described very different visions and appear to be rivals rather than collaborators. The Brotherhood has said it intends to respect personal liberties and will focus on economic and social issues, gradually nudging the culture toward its conservative values. By contrast, the ultraconservatives, known as Salafis, put a higher priority on legislation on Islamic moral issues, like the consumption of alcohol, women’s dress and the contents of popular culture.

Among the remaining roughly 30 percent of parliamentary seats, the next largest share was won by the Wafd Party, a liberal party recognized under Mr. Mubarak and with roots dating to Egypt’s colonial period.

It was trailed by a coalition known as the Egyptian Bloc. It included the Free Egyptians, a business-friendly liberal party founded by a Coptic Christian businessman, Naguib Sawiris, and favored by many members of the country’s Coptic Christian minority, about 10 percent of the public. The Egyptian Bloc also included the liberal Social Democratic Party, which leans further to the left on economic issues.

A coalition of parties founded by the young leaders of the revolt that unseated Mr. Mubarak won only a few percent of the seats, as did a handful of offshoots of the former governing party.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Beirut Meeting Focuses on Liberating Jerusalem

Yesterday we launched the second international planning meeting for the Global March to Jerusalem, see below. Our hope is to get a million or more people marching peacefully to Jerusalem for Palestinian rights on March 30 2012. This is a multi-faith international call to join in our non-violent, human effort to liberate Jerusalem and Palestine. The official press conference will be today, so more to come...

Committees set date for Jerusalem Global March

The Daily Star
January 18 2012

BEIRUT: The International Committees of the Global March to occupied Jerusalem held a conference Tuesday during which they announced the launch of the march on March 30, 2012, which marks the 36th anniversary of Palestinian Land Day, the National News Agency reported.

The conference took place under the patronage of former Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss who gave a speech in which he stressed that occupied Jerusalem is a symbol of the Arab cause in Palestine and must remain as one city.

According to the coordinator of the conference, Rebhi Halloum, the march will embody a global peaceful movement toward occupied Jerusalem or the nearest possible point to it.

Former British MP George Galloway also spoke, stressing the importance of Jerusalem and stating that it is now time to call for justice to the Palestinian people.

Confab Condemns Judaization of al-Quds

Press TV
January 17 2012

The International Executive Committee of the Global March to al-Quds (Jerusalem) has condemned Israel's efforts to judaize the city, Press TV reports.

The organization expressed solidarity with the Palestinian residents in al-Quds during a two-day international conference that began in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on Tuesday.

In December 2011, the organization held its first international conference, in which the participants agreed on forming an “international central committee,” representing all regions of the world regarding the issue of al-Quds.

Paul Larudee, one of the speakers of the conference, told Press TV that the meeting “expresses the will of not only the Palestinian people and the people of Lebanon, but the people of all the world to reclaim Jerusalem and to defend Jerusalem from the racist efforts that are being made to exclude everyone in the world from Jerusalem except one group; the Zionists want it all for themselves. This is not acceptable.”

“The world has decided that this will not happen and we are here today to make a peaceful march to Jerusalem, to plan this march and to execute it in such a way that the will of the people of the world is understood by everyone and that we will not be denied access to Jerusalem nor to the freedom of Jerusalem,” Larudee added.

The global march has been scheduled to be held on March 30, which marks the 36th anniversary of the Palestinian Land Day, in several countries including Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

On March 30, 1976, Israeli troops killed six Palestinians during a protest against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian lands.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A New Sovereign Iraq?

Flexing Muscle, Baghdad Detains U.S. Contractors

By Michael S. Schmidt and Eric Schmitt
The New York Times
January 15, 2012

BAGHDAD — Iraqi authorities have detained a few hundred foreign contractors in recent weeks, industry officials say, including many Americans who work for the United States Embassy, in one of the first major signs of the Iraqi government’s asserting its sovereignty after the American troop withdrawal last month.

The detentions have occurred largely at the airport in Baghdad and at checkpoints around the capital after the Iraqi authorities raised questions about the contractors’ documents, including visas, weapons permits and authorizations to drive certain routes. Although no formal charges have been filed, the detentions have lasted from a few hours to nearly three weeks.

The crackdown comes amid other moves by the Iraqi government to take over functions that had been performed by the United States military and to claim areas of the country it had controlled. In the final weeks of the military withdrawal, the son of Iraq’s prime minister began evicting Western companies and contractors from the heavily fortified Green Zone, which had been the heart of the United States military operation for much of the war.

Just after the last American troops left in December, the Iraqis stopped issuing and renewing many weapons licenses and other authorizations. The restrictions created a sequence of events in which contractors were being detained for having expired documents that the government would not renew.

The Iraqi authorities have also imposed new limitations on visas. In some recent cases, contractors have been told they have 10 days to leave Iraq or face arrest in what some industry officials call a form of controlled harassment.

Latif Rashid, a senior adviser to the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, and a former minister of water, said in an interview that the Iraqis’ deep mistrust of security contractors had led the government to strictly monitor them. “We have to apply our own rules now,” he said.

This month, Iraqi authorities kept scores of contractors penned up at Baghdad’s international airport for nearly a week until their visa disputes were resolved. Industry officials said more than 100 foreigners were detained; American officials acknowledged the detainments but would not put a number on them.

Private contractors are integral to postwar Iraq’s economic development and security, foreign businessmen and American officials say, but they remain a powerful symbol of American might, with some Iraqis accusing them of running roughshod over the country.

An image of contractors as trigger-happy mercenaries who were above the law was seared into the minds of Iraqis after several violent episodes involving private sector workers, chief among them the 2007 shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour Square when military contractors for Blackwater killed 17 civilians.

Iraq’s oil sector alone, which accounts for more than 90 percent of the government’s budget, relies heavily on tens of thousands of foreign employees. The United States Embassy employs 5,000 contractors to protect its 11,000 employees and to train the Iraqi military to operate tanks, helicopters and weapons systems that the United States has sold them.

The United States had been providing much of the accreditation for contractors to work in Iraq. But after the military withdrawal, contractors had to deal with a Iraqi bureaucracy at a time when the government was engulfed in a political crisis and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, fearing a coup, was moving tanks into the Green Zone.

The delays for visa approvals have disrupted the daily movement of supplies and personnel around Iraq, prompting formal protests from dozens of companies operating in Iraq. And they have raised deeper questions about how the Maliki government intends to treat foreign workers and how willing foreign companies will be to invest here.

“While private organizations are often able to resolve low-level disputes and irregularities, this issue is beyond our ability to resolve,” the International Stability Operations Association, a Washington-based group that represents more than 50 companies and aid organizations that work in conflict, post-conflict and disaster relief zones, said in a letter on Sunday to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Doug Brooks, president of the organization, said in a telephone interview that the number of civilian contractors who have been detained was in the “low hundreds.” He added in an e-mail on Sunday, “Everyone is impacted, but the roots have more to do with political infighting than any hostility to the U.S.”

As Iraqi and American officials were negotiating last summer to keep American troops in Iraq into 2012, the Iraqis refused to grant American troops immunity from Iraqi law, in large part because of violent episodes like the one in Nisour Square. Although the contractors working for the embassy are doing many of the same jobs American troops had, including training, logistics, maintenance and private security, they are not protected from Iraqi law.

Mr. Rashid, the adviser to Mr. Talabani, said Iraqis are fed up with foreign contractors. “The Iraqi public is not happy with security contractors. They caused a lot of pain,” he said. “There is a general bad feeling towards the security contractors among the Iraqis and that has created bad feelings towards them all.”

Mr. Rashid said that traveling to the United States to work was no different. “Every time I go to the airport in New York they open my suitcase three times,” he said. “How long does it take to get an American visa?”

An adviser to Mr. Maliki said that as part of the current agreement between the United States and Iraq, no Americans should be in the country without the permission of the Iraqi government.

“Iraq always welcomes foreigners into the country, but they have to come through legally and in a way that respects that Iraq now has sovereignty and control over its land,” said the adviser, Ali Moussawi.

Last month, two Americans, a Fijian and 12 Iraqis employed by Triple Canopy, a private security company, were detained for 18 days after their 10-vehicle convoy from Kalsu, south of Baghdad, to Taji, north of the capital, was stopped for what Iraqi officials said was improper paperwork.

One of the Americans, Alex Antiohos, 32, a former Army Green Beret medic from North Babylon, N.Y., who served in the Iraq war, said in a telephone interview Sunday that he and his colleagues were kept at an Iraqi army camp, fed insect-infested plates of rice and fish, forced to sleep in a former jail, and though not physically mistreated were verbally threatened by an Iraqi general who visited them periodically. “At times, I feared for my safety,” Mr. Antiohos said.

In a statement, Triple Canopy, which denied any problems with documents, said that during the detention period, company officials were in contact with employees by cellphone, and brought them food, blankets, clothing, medical supplies and cellphone batteries. All were released unharmed on Dec. 27.

The detention drew the ire of Representative Peter T. King, a New York Republican who heads the House Homeland Security Committee. His office was contacted by Mr. Antiohos’s wife on Dec. 19 seeking help to get the employees released. Mr. King criticized the United States Embassy in Baghdad for failing to help release the contractors caught in a drama that he said might have resulted in part from rival Iraqi ministries’ battling for political primacy.

“They could have been held as power plays by one Iraq department against another, but what adds to the problem is that it does not appear that the State Department is doing anything near what they could be doing,” Mr. King said in a telephone interview.

The United States Embassy in Baghdad, as well as senior State Department and military officials, say that no Americans are currently being detained, and they insist the detentions and visa delays are more the result of bureaucratic inexperience than malevolent intentions.

“The embassy has pushed for consistency and transparency in the government of Iraq’s immigration and customs procedures and urged American citizens to review their travel documents to ensure that they comply with Iraqi requirements to help avoid such incidents,” an Embassy spokesman said in a statement.

One senior American military official said that the current disconnect between the Iraqis and the contractors was “primarily an adjustment of our standard operating procedures as we adapt our people and they adapt their security forces to the new situation.”

Michael S. Schmidt reported from Baghdad, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Internal Conflicts in Syria Worsen

Fear of Civil War Mounts in Syria as Crisis Deepens

By Anthony Shadid
The New York Times
January 14, 2012

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The failure of an Arab League mission to stanch violence in Syria, an international community with little leverage and a government as defiant as its opposition is in disarray have left Syria descending into a protracted, chaotic and perhaps unnegotiable conflict.

The opposition speaks less of prospects for the fall of President Bashar al-Assad and more about a civil war that some argue has already begun, with the government losing control over some regions and its authority ebbing in the suburbs of the capital and parts of major cities like Homs and Hama. Even the capital, Damascus, which had remained calm for months, has been carved up with checkpoints and its residents have been frightened by the sounds of gunfire.

The deepening stalemate underlines the extent to which events are slipping out of control. In a town about a half-hour drive from Damascus, the police station was recently burned down and in retaliation electricity and water were cut off, diplomats say. For a time, residents drew water in buckets from a well. Some people are too afraid to drive major highways at night.

In Homs, a city that a Lebanese politician called “the Stalingrad of the Syrian revolution,” reports have grown of sectarian cleansing of once-mixed neighborhoods, where some roads have become borders too dangerous for taxis to cross. In a suggestion that reflected the sense of desperation, the emir of Qatar said in an interview with CBS, an excerpt of which was released Saturday, that Arab troops should intervene in Syria to “stop the killing.”

“There’s absolutely no sign of light,” said a Western diplomat in Damascus, a city once so calm it was called Syria’s Green Zone. “If anything, it’s darker than ever. And I don’t know where it’s going to end. I can’t tell you. I don’t think anyone can.”

The forbidding tableau painted by diplomats, residents, opposition figures and even some government supporters suggests a far more complicated picture than that offered by Mr. Assad, who delivered a 15,000-word speech on Tuesday, declaring, “We will defeat this conspiracy without any doubt.” The next day, he appeared in public for the first time since the uprising began in a Syrian backwater last March.

More telling, perhaps, was the arrival of a Russian ship last week, said to be carrying ammunition and seeming to signal the determination of the government to fight to the end.

“Day by day, Syrians are closer to fighting each other,” said a 30-year-old activist in Arabeen, near the capital, who gave his name as Abdel-Rahman and joined a protest of about 1,000 people there on Friday. “Bashar has divided Syrians into two groups — one with him, one against him — and the coming days will bring more blood into the streets.”

In the other Arab revolts, diplomacy and, in Libya’s case, armed intervention proved crucial in the unfolding of events. Even Bahrain had an international commission whose report on the uprising there was viewed by the United States and some parties in that gulf state as a basis for reform. Syria has emerged as the country where the stalemate inside is mirrored by deadlock abroad.

Syria still counts on the support of Russia and China in the United Nations Security Council. In the Arab world, Syria has allies in Iraq and Algeria, whose foreign minister said Wednesday that Syria “is in the process of making more of an effort.”

Another diplomat in Damascus was fatalistic. “There’s not much more that anyone, at the international level, can do,” he said. “There’s not much more the Arab League can, either.”

Syria’s agreement to allow 165 observers from the Arab League last month to monitor a deal that seemed stillborn even when it was announced — a government pledge to end violence, free prisoners and pull the military from cities — was viewed as one of the last diplomatic tools.

But last week, one of the monitors, an Algerian named Anwar Malek, resigned in disgust, saying the mission had only given Mr. Assad cover to continue the crackdown. Opposition activists say hundreds have died since the monitors arrived.

“Bashar was looking for a shield, and he found it with us,” Mr. Malek said in an interview. “The mission has failed until now. It hasn’t achieved anything.”

He said at least three other monitors were also quitting.

The mission’s leader, Lt. Gen. Muhammad Ahmed al-Dabi, who once ran Sudan’s notorious military intelligence agency, attacked Mr. Malek, saying he stayed in his hotel room rather than doing his job. But Nabil el-Araby, the Arab League’s secretary general, acknowledged where Syria might be headed, with or without the monitors.

“Yes, I fear a civil war, and the events that we see and hear about now could lead to a civil war,” he said in an interview with an Egyptian television station.

He echoed a growing sentiment in many capitals, the potential for Syria’s crisis to intersect with a combustible array of rivalries in the region.

Peter Harling, a Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group, said, “I’ve never seen something quite so ominous take shape in the region in 15 years.”

As with past speeches, Mr. Assad’s address on Tuesday was not meant for the protesters challenging his 11-year rule. His audience, analysts say, was his supporters, who were by many accounts buoyed by his projection of confidence and his suggestion of reform: a constitutional referendum and the prospect of a national unity government.

“They finally grasped it, and this is the first positive sign they’ve shown,” said a 28-year-old Damascus resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He tried to attend the rally on Wednesday but got stuck in traffic. “They’ve now moved from defense to offense.”

Mr. Assad still commands a largely loyal government. Unlike in Libya, defections from within the leadership, or even diplomatic service, have been few — so rare, in fact, that the departure of a mid-ranking cleric from the state’s religious establishment recently was hailed as a victory by the opposition.

For many, the calculus remains much as it did at the beginning of the uprising. Though some soldiers have defected from the military, the more essential security forces, dominated by Mr. Assad’s own Alawite clan, have remained cohesive. Their loyalty, along with support from nervous Christians — who with the Alawites make up more than a fifth of the country — means his fall is not imminent or even likely.

But residents and diplomats speak of the erosion of his authority, often framed as the diminishment of the prestige of the state. Embassies have drastically reduced their staffs, and residents in Damascus speak of a growing anxiety after twin bombings tore through a fortified part of the capital in December.

“There is nothing happening around us, but psychologically, the stress ... I don’t know, it’s hitting home now,” said a 29-year-old bank employee in Damascus who declined to give her name. “The last explosions were really close. It’s very stressful.”

In Homs, beleaguered but still famous for its humor, residents have poked fun at the grimness. A joke these days has a husband bringing home a chicken. He suggests his wife cook it in the oven. But there’s no gas, she tells him. The stove? No electricity, she says. Spared, the chicken declares, “God, Syria, Bashar and no one else!”

Activists admit to a growing vacuum in embattled streets, as the bitterly divided exiled opposition fails to connect with the domestic protest movement.

“They don’t understand the situation on the ground, and they have to be blamed for that,” said Wissam Tarif, an activist with Avaaz, a human rights and advocacy group. He warned about a growing armed presence in Syria, with no leadership. “It’s a very dangerous business. The vacuum will eventually be filled. By whom, we don’t know.”

Another resident in Damascus, where blackouts are becoming more frequent and longer, cast the future starkly.

“Each side is trying to eliminate or belittle the other,” he said. “They both refuse to acknowledge the other side. When you talk to them, they will convince you that, come on already, it’s a done deal, God is with them. God must be torn, I tell you.”

Hwaida Saad and an employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Beirut, and Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Global Solidarity Movement for Palestine

Press Release

World Civilian Coalition Gathers for Global March to Jerusalem

Beirut - The International Executive Committee of the Global March to Jerusalem announces the completion of the preparations for the Second International Conference where the representatives of the International Committees involved in the organization of the Global March to Jerusalem will meet. The conference will be held in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon on Tuesday and Wednesday 17th-18th January, 2012.

This meeting will be held to implement the decisions of the previous meeting, held in Amman last month, in which there was a consensus to form an International Central Committee representing all regions of the world and an International Advisory Board of eminent international figures for the march. The date for the onset of the March was agreed to be on the 30th of March, 2012, which marks the 36th anniversary of Palestinian Land Day, when peaceful protest against massive expropriation of Palestinian land was brutally met with deadly force by Zionist troops.  About 40 delegates representing the International Committees throughout the seven continents of the world will be attending the meeting in Beirut.

The conference will adopt a structural process for the March, and its committee structure will be filled with appointees. The general policies for the international actions will be mandated in Beirut to ensure their success. The conference will also discuss the national events and actions that will be launched in all countries starting from mid January, 2012 and until the date of the march towards Jerusalem or the nearest possible point to it, from inside Palestine and the neighbouring Arab countries, as well as the convoys from Asia, Africa and Europe that will converge on the march date. In addition to that it will coordinate international activities that will coincide with the March in different countries.

The committee would like to confirm that the Global March to Jerusalem and all the accompanying local events and actions aim to shed light on the issue of Jerusalem (the City of Peace) as the key to peace and war in the region and the world. The racist Judaisation policies of the occupation and its ethnic cleansing practices against Jerusalem, its people and holy sites threaten this peace. Such practices are internationally recognized not only as crimes against Palestinians but as crimes against the whole of humanity.

The International Executive Committee also emphasized that through this peaceful march they envisage to mobilize Arab and Muslim nations alongside all freedom loving peoples of the world to put an end to Israeli violations of international law through its continuous occupation of Jerusalem and the rest of Palestinian Land. Israel's persistence in continuing its racist and ethnic cleansing practices through the construction of the Apartheid wall, the expansion of settlements and the escalation of killing, destruction, displacement and Judaisation reveals the extent of its crime. This kind of behaviour demands an international rally to support the right of Palestinians to freedom, independence, self-determination and the right of return. This peaceful march is inspired by our belief and the belief of those who support our cause throughout the world that the massive participation of the people of the world is a practical, nonviolent way to achieve justice and preserve peace by ending the Israeli occupation in Palestine and its capital Jerusalem.

The International Executive Committee of the Global March to Jerusalem GMJ-ICC January 10th 2012
For more information, please contact: Zaher Birawi: +44 7850 896 057; OR Dr. Paul Larudee +1 510 224 3518.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sanctions Hurt Ordinary Iranians

Sanctions Begin Taking a Bigger Toll on Iran

The West's strategy has sent the currency, the rial, into a tailspin and pushed inflation higher. But the risks are high.

By Paul Richter and Ramin Mostaghim
Los Angeles Times
January 9, 2012

Reporting from Washington and Tehran—The West's campaign to punish Iran for its suspected nuclear weapons program has begun to inflict far more damage on Tehran's economy in recent weeks, spurring a new phase of a dispute that carries acute risks as well as opportunities for the United States and its allies.

Fear of potentially crippling new economic sanctions have helped send the Iranian currency into a tailspin, drive basic commodity and import prices sharply higher, and spark runs on Iranian banks.

As the United States and European Union prepare steps designed to cut the oil revenue that is the Islamic Republic's chief source of income, Iran has responded with threats of military retaliation, including warnings that it might close the Strait of Hormuz, a lifeline for oil and gas shipments from the Persian Gulf. Though Iran would suffer in a blockade of the strait, it appears to be gambling that the West has more to lose.

In the latest sign of mounting tensions, Iran's Revolutionary Guard announced Monday that it had sentenced Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine of Iranian descent, to death for allegedly spying for the CIA. The White House denied that Hekmati was a spy and demanded his release.

Vali Nasr, a former State Department official, described the string of developments as "the start of a more dangerous phase in the West's attempt to curtail Iran's nuclear program."

Iran has decided "it wants to push back on the pressure, to show there's a price to pay for pressuring Iran," agreed Michael Singh, a former national security advisor in the George W. Bush administration. "This could lead to inadvertent conflict."

But Iranian officials also floated the possibility that they will accede to the West's top goal: resuming negotiations over their nuclear program. Talks broke down a year ago, and Western officials believe Tehran isn't yet serious about returning to the table, but rather is holding out the prospect of talks in an effort to stave off tougher sanctions or a potential military attack.

For now, the West would like to see Iranian oil continue to flow in order to maintain stability in world supplies, but to limit sales to fewer and fewer buyers who could demand discounts that would further starve the Iranian treasury.

Analysts nonetheless worry that stopping Iran from selling oil to its traditional customers in Europe and Asia isn't a surefire scheme and could easily set off a dangerous spike in prices. That could cripple already fragile economies around the globe, alienate key allies who depend on Iranian oil, or even lead to an unintended military confrontation with Iran.

World oil markets remain tight and traders are extremely sensitive to talk about reductions or delays in supply. The price of oil, now about $100 a barrel, could jump $50 a barrel if actions by either Iran or the West suggested a possible interruption or delay in gulf traffic, analysts say.

"The markets would react extremely quickly if there were a hint of a closure, or even a delay," said Jamie Webster of the PFC Energy consulting group in Washington.

A senior European diplomat said that although Western allies "are feeling some new confidence" in the sanctions strategy, "there is also a wide appreciation that this is balanced very delicately."

Iran insists its nuclear development program is only for generating electricity, but Western powers worry that the country intends to build a bomb. At this point, United Nations nuclear inspectors have not found evidence suggesting Iran is capable of building an atomic bomb, or has enriched uranium to sufficient purity to fuel one.

The West has been imposing arms, trade and economic embargoes on Iran since Muslim clerics and students overthrew the country's U.S.-backed government in 1979 and created the Islamic Republic. The U.N. has approved four rounds of sanctions specifically aimed at Iran's nuclear program.

Over the years, the efforts have had limited impact, in part because many countries ignored them.

But Washington and its allies imposed or threatened far harsher punishments recently amid rising concerns that Iran is dangerously close to gaining the know-how to build a nuclear bomb. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said last month that Iranian scientists might attain the knowledge in a year or less.

The European Union, which buys almost 20% of Iran's exported oil, reached an agreement in principle last week for an embargo on Iranian oil. The member governments are expected to approve the deal at the end of January.

President Obama signed legislation on New Year's Eve that could cut off from the U.S. economy any foreign companies that buy oil through the Iranian central bank. If implemented on schedule in June, that would make it much more difficult for Iran to sell its oil.

U.S. and allied diplomats also are trying to convince Japan and South Korea, which together buy about 25% of Iran's oil exports, to shift to other suppliers. Several senior officials, including Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Kurt Campbell, the State Department's top Asia envoy, have headed to the region to discuss the sanctions, among other topics.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The New Monroe Doctrine

US Expels Venezuela Diplomat as Iran Leader Arrives in Caracas

Monsters and Critics
Jan 8, 2012

Washington- The United States Sunday said it would expel a Venezuelan diplomat, the very same day that Caracas prepared to receive a visit from Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Venezuela's consul in Miami, Livia Acosta Noguera, was declared 'persona non grata' and was expected to leave before Tuesday, according to an announcement by the US State Department.

The reason for expelling her was not clear. The Miami Herald reported there were allegations that she had discussed possible cyber attacks on US soil. The FBI had investigated the allegations that were contained in a documentary aired on Univision, a Spanish language broadcaster, about the 'Iranian threat.'

William Ostick, a spokesperson for the US Department of State, said the US had informed the Venezuelan embassy on Friday that Acosta Noguera had been declared persona non grata.

'We cannot comment on specific details behind he decision,' Ostick said.

On Friday, the US warned Latin American countries against strengthening ties with Iran as Ahmadinejad prepared to visit the region. He was to arrive Sunday in Caracas at the start of a five-day tour which will take him to Nicaragua Tuesday and then on to Cuba and Ecuador.

'We are making absolutely clear to countries around the world that now is not the time to be deepening ties, not security ties, not economic ties, with Iran,' she said.

Experts have noted that Iran is reaching out to Latin America, in particular the left-leaning countries within the region, in an effort to side-step economic sanctions against its refusal to comply with international demands about its nuclear programme.

In recent weeks, Tehran has threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, where some 35 per cent of the world's seaborne oil passes, if the West imposes new sanctions in reaction to Iran's disputed nuclear programme.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Muslim Brotherhood Advances Democracy

Egypt’s Islamists Could Soon Challenge Generals

By Leila Fadel
The Washington Post
January 5 2012

CAIRO — The dominant showing by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt’s first post-revolution elections puts the country on a collision course, analysts say, with emboldened Islamists and the entrenched military set to vie for power.

The Brotherhood, which was the leading opposition force under now-deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, has emerged as the country’s most viable political power. While votes are still being counted in the last of three stages of elections for parliament’s lower house, the Brotherhood expects to take more than 40 percent of seats and could claim an outright majority on Jan. 23, when the new parliament is scheduled to convene.

Until now, the relatively moderate Islamist group had an uneasy alliance with the council of generals who took control of the country after Mubarak’s ouster on Feb. 11. But with the military leaders intent on protecting their political and economic interests as Egypt lurches toward democracy, some analysts say a clash between the two centers of power is inevitable.

The long-term interests of the military leaders and the Brotherhood “do not converge,” said Shadi Hamid, an Egypt expert at the Brookings Doha Center. “The military wants to effectively stay in power behind the scenes. That certainly is not what the Brotherhood wants.”

The powers of the incoming parliament remain unclear and are to be laid out in the as-yet-unwritten constitution, a document that the ruling generals have said they want military-appointed bodies to influence. But the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is calling for real powers for the parliament, including the authority to appoint a prime minister and full control over the writing of the constitution.

A shift in U.S. policy

Under Mubarak, the Brotherhood was allowed to exist on a tight leash. Thousands of its members were arrested and tortured. Mubarak also pointed to the organization as the possible alternative to his autocratic rule and used that scenario to scare Western allies, who feared Islamist domination in the region and the unraveling of Egypt’s longtime peace treaty with Israel.

A senior legal adviser to the Freedom and Justice Party has said that elected officials from his party would reassess the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid to the Egyptian military.

In an interview on Egyptian television, the adviser, Ahmed Abu Bakar, said U.S. aid to Egypt, including to the military, does not help the economy or Egyptians and would be subject to debate by the new parliament. The statements come at a tense moment in U.S.-Egyptian relations, after security forces stormed the offices of 10 civil society organizations, including three American pro-democracy groups, over accusations of illicit foreign funding.

“Anything that affects Egyptian political decisions and anything that constitutes as intervention in internal Egyptian affairs is something we blatantly refuse,” Bakar said.

In recent months, U.S. diplomats and other officials have met with members of the Freedom and Justice Party. Those meetings mark a shift in policy for the United States, which has long regarded the Brotherhood as a threat to regional stability. But the willingness of Americans to engage the group is a nod to the reality that the Brotherhood will be a decision-maker in Egypt and a major player on the international stage.

As part of a continuum of official U.S. visits, Jeffrey D. Feltman, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, arrived in Cairo on Wednesday for talks with military and political leaders.

“We are going to judge these parties not by the names on their doors, the T-shirts they wear, but on their commitment to upholding universal democratic standards” and human rights, including for women and minorities, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. “Some of these parties have had quite moderate rhetoric,” she said, “but that rhetoric now has to be matched in the way they proceed.”

Short-term, uneasy alliance

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has inspired Islamist militant movements throughout the region, most notably the Palestinian group Hamas, which the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization.

Mohamed Beltagy, a leading member of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and a candidate for parliament, agreed with other members of his party that the peace treaty with Israel will be respected, at least during this rocky transitional period. But, he added, “the parliament has the right to revise whatever happened without the public’s consent.”

In the bloody run-up to the elections, which began in November, the Brotherhood faced a storm of criticism from more centrist and liberal revolutionary parties, which alleged that the group was too close to the ruling generals. The Brotherhood’s non-Islamist rivals have accused it of turning a blind eye to Mubarak-style human rights abuses at the hands of the military rulers and betraying the cause of the revolution for seats of power.

Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan only stoked the tension with a recent proposal to consider granting immunity to military leaders for crimes committed during the transition, which he said would prevent Egypt from further destabilizing. As many as 100 people have been killed in clashes in the past three months; in some cases, brute force was used against unarmed protesters in the capital and other urban centers.

But that reluctance to challenge the military rulers will change, analysts said, noting that the convergence of interest between the Brotherhood and the generals is only short-term.

Analysts say the Brotherhood is waiting to be part of a strong elected body, which the group sees as the only legitimate tool to push the generals out of power and to guarantee its own.

“They are purely political animals,” said Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University. “They think that the only way to unseat the [generals] is to create an alternative institution, a strong parliament with electoral legitimacy.”

Staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Labor Roots of Egypt's Revolution

An Act of Courage that Launched a Revolution

By Liz Sly
The Washington Post
December 30 2011

MAHALLA EL-KUBRA, EGYPT — Much was made of Facebook, Twitter and the role social media played in lending a sense of youth and modernity to the uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Then came the ascendancy of political Islam, which seems to be leading Egypt in a different direction entirely.

But the real roots of the revolution may lie here in this crumbling cotton mill town in the Nile Delta, Egypt’s industrial heartland, and with an old-fashioned labor dispute over pay that began five years ago.

And, according to one reading of the events that unfolded, it all began with a little-known act of courage on the part of a matronly, middle-aged millworker who wears a head scarf and was inspired to act because she couldn’t afford to buy meat for her family.

It was she who helped organize the initial strike by disgruntled workers in December 2006 that culminated in a nationwide call for a work stoppage on April 6, 2008. The date inspired the 6th of April Facebook group, which was used to rally the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in January.

When the men of the mill balked at joining the banned strike action, she seized the initiative and led her female co-workers out into the factory grounds. Chanting “Where are the men? Here are the women,” they marched around the mill until the men were shamed into joining them. After three days, the workers won.

Amid the upheaval of the past year, the part labor played in the birth of the revolution has been largely forgotten. But workers joined the revolutionaries in the square in February and have continued to stage strikes throughout the year, taking on a far greater role in Egypt, with its strong industrial base, than labor has in other countries where uprisings have taken place.

The strikes continue to this day, and although they have been eclipsed by the far-better-publicized demonstrations in Tahrir Square, future Egyptian governments will need to address at least some of the demands of an increasingly organized labor movement if the country’s unrest is to be tamed.

This is the story of Wedad Demerdash, 44, a mother of four and, perhaps, the original revolutionary.

‘Mahalla sets the tone’

The Misr Spinning and Weaving Co. in Mahalla is Egypt’s biggest industrial enterprise and one of the largest cotton mills in the world. Founded in 1927, it was once the flagship of Egyptian industry, churning out high-quality cotton that was sold around the globe.

In recent years, its workforce has dwindled to 21,000 from a peak of nearly 40,000, and it operates at a considerable loss to the state. But to Egyptians, the mill is legendary. Known simply as Mahalla, it has become synonymous over the years with the militancy of its workers.

“Whatever happens in Mahalla sets the tone for Egypt,” said Hossam el-Hamalawy, a labor activist and blogger. “If Mahalla goes on strike and wins, you can be assured the rest of the country will go on strike too.”

So it was in 2006. Demerdash had gone to work there in 1984 at age 16, paying little attention to politics as she married and raised four children while holding down her job as a garment stitcher. The militancy of Mahalla had been muted by the repression of the Mubarak era.

But by the middle of the past decade, change was coming to Mahalla. Cheaper Chinese and Indian cotton threatened the mill’s competitiveness. Inflation was eroding the already pitiful basic wage of 300 Egyptian pounds a month — about $60. Fears were rife that the mill would be privatized and sold, and that all would lose their jobs, as had happened to many other enterprises.

By the end of 2006, when the management had not fulfilled a government promise to pay a bonus of 100 pounds — about $20 — the workers of Mahalla stirred again.

The price of chicken

Demerdash cannot explain what it was that pushed her to take a leading role in the strike that would unleash a revolution, except that it had to do with the price of chicken, a basic wage that had not risen in years and a burning sense of injustice that the bonus had not been paid.

“God has given you the ability to confront others, and you should go ahead with it,” she recalls her husband telling her. She says she discovered in herself previously unrecognized abilities to organize and to persuade.

She printed leaflets and argued with co-workers who were reluctant to take action that could land them in jail. Soaring food prices had pushed meat beyond the means of most. Chicken was a once-a-month treat. Soon, the women were eager to join the strike.

“The women were more militant than the men,” said Joel Beinin, a professor at Stanford University who has written extensively on Egypt’s labor movements.

At the moment called for the strike to begin, Demerdash led the women out of the building where they worked onto the sprawling grounds of the mill complex. They found themselves alone. Through the windows of the other buildings she saw the hesitant men.

“We could see that they were just standing by their machines. We could see they were afraid,” says Demerdash, recalling the moment when she burst into her chant. “So we decided to incite them in any way we could. We wanted them to be ashamed.”

It worked. The men spilled out to join the strike. For three days, the workers occupied the factory grounds. On the fourth day, management caved, and the bonus was paid.

The victory triggered a wave of copycat strikes around the country throughout 2007. Egypt was plunged into the most intensive period of industrial unrest it had witnessed in decades. The Mahalla workers took the lead again in the spring of 2008, calling for a general strike on April 6 to demand a national minimum wage. A group of young Internet activists named its Facebook page after the date, and in January this year, the 6th of April group became renowned around the world for its role in galvanizing the uprising.

The baton had passed, to a new and very different generation of revolutionaries.

But, for Hamalawy, who closely chronicles Egypt’s labor movement, it was that first strike that started it all.

“December 2006 was definitely the turning point that will be engraved forever as the start of the liberation of Egypt,” he said. “If that strike had not taken place and had not been victorious, I don’t think we would have witnessed all the revolutionary transformations we have seen.”

A tireless campaigner

Demerdash’s role also has gone largely unnoticed outside this dusty, decrepit town where almost everyone either works at the mill or knows someone who does. Here she has become something of a celebrity and a source of advice on labor issues. At a tea garden beside one of the tributaries of the Nile, a janitor recognizes her and approaches to ask how to improve his working conditions. She whips out a dog-eared copy of Egypt’s labor law from her purse and quickly finds the clause relevant to his concerns.

She continues to campaign tirelessly for better working conditions, while holding down her 48-hour-a-week job at the mill. She has also acquired a partner and soul mate, Amal Ahmad Said, 44, who is equally garrulous and passionate about her cause. They have become regulars on the labor activist conference circuit and traveled to Tahrir to participate in labor demonstrations.

But theirs is not the militancy of Marx or Che Guevara, the icons of the leftist, secular crowd that dominates the Tahrir protests. A Koran is on display in Demerdash’s living room, along with an abundance of pink- and lemon-colored teddy bears and white fluffy dogs that speak to the innocence she brings to her quest for decent pay and working conditions.

She dismisses as irrelevant the Facebook revolutionaries who named their page for the strike she helped inspire. “I don’t acknowledge them,” she says. “April 6 was born in Mahalla. It was a miracle that this corrupt regime was toppled, and it was to the credit of the workers.”

She holds in even greater contempt the Islamist parties that have emerged in the first rounds of Egypt’s elections as the revolution’s biggest winners. Though a devout Muslim who covers her hair, she thinks politics and religion shouldn’t mix. The Islamists, she says, “have hijacked the revolution.”

“I hate them,” she says. “The real owners of the revolution are the workers.”

But although she, like many Egyptians, feels the revolution has lost its way, at the close of a tumultuous year that has transformed her country almost beyond recognition, she cannot say it was in vain. A mini-revolt at the mill at the time Mubarak fell brought in new managers, who have been more sympathetic to workers’ concerns.

No longer does she fear that the company will be privatized and sold. The industrial action of those earlier years saw her basic wage increased to 500 pounds a month — she takes home about 900, including incentives and bonuses — and there is a promise, not yet implemented, of a national minimum wage of 1,200.

Whether it will be paid is in doubt, given the rocky state of Egypt’s economy. But there are other improvements. “We do our jobs now with high spirits,” she says. “Workers are being treated with more mercy these days, which is right because all the worker wants is to work to feed his family.”

For Demerdash, that’s what it has always been about. About pay, to be sure, but also respect, and the future of the mill to which she has given a lifetime’s work. Her eyes gleam when she talks about it.

“I love my work. I love and fear for my company. I love the sounds of the machines when I get to work in the morning, and I love the sounds of the machines going home in the evening,” she says. “As long as the machines are running, it means we can provide for our families and for our homes.”