Primakov: Saddam had deal with US

The Agonist reports on an intriguing interview with the former Russian Foreign Minister, Yevgeni Primakov;
"There was an understanding with the Americans, as paradoxical as it may seem," Primakov told the Russian daily Gazeta in a lengthy interview.
"Why weren't the bridges of the Tigris blown up when the American tanks approached Baghdad? Why weren't Iraqi aviation and tanks used, and where are they now?" asked Primakov, a former head of the Russian secret service and a specialist in Arab affairs who was formerly on good terms with Saddam.
"Why was there an immediate ceasefire? Why was there practically no resistance a year ago?" he added.
Primakov, who now heads Russia's chamber of trade and industry, also cast doubt on the authenticity of footage of Saddam's reported capture that circled the world on December 14.
"They showed two soldiers with guns with palm trees in the background near the hole (where Saddam was reportedly hiding). At that time of year, date palms are never in bloom," he said.
"Finally, any man can tell you that such a long beard (as Saddam had when he was reportedly caught) could not grow in seven months," he said.
"All evidence suggests that Saddam surrendered earlier and the story of the hole was invented later," he said.
Primakov, who was also Russian foreign minister, made two secret trips to Iraq at the request of President Vladimir Putin, shortly before the invasion by US and British troops.
During the 1970s and 1980s Primakov was one of the most important Arab world hands in the KGB, and later was instrumental in securing oil deals for Russian companies in Iraq. According to reports in the Saudi press and some Arab television stations during the Iraq war, he had also taken part in a deal taking Saddam Hussein out of Baghdad in a Russian diplomatic convoy that was meant to be carrying Russian diplomats. At the time these reports suggested that Saddam had abandoned Iraq for Russia or one of the former Soviet republics in exchange for not putting up resistance to the US invasion.
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Egypt inspired by Abu Ghraib?

This story headlined "Abu Ghraib Tactics Inspire Torture in Neighbour Egypt" has been making the rounds. Frankly, it sounds ridiculous -- Egyptian police did not need Abu Ghraib to happen to start torturing people. They've been doing it by themselves for a while. There may be cases of officers boasting about imitating Abu Ghraib, but it really sounds like the human rights activist interviewed in this piece is just trying to milk the Abu Ghraib to get journalists' attention on the long-standing problem of torture in Egypt. Shame they wouldn't pay attention otherwise.
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BBC considering Arabic channel

The Times says the BBC is considering creating a 24-hour Arabic TV channel. Let's hope it does -- the BBC is the only Western institution that has the credibility and professionalism to add something meaningful to Arabic-language television. It's worth noting that the BBC had previously experimented with an Arabic language station, but it was closed when its Saudi backers withdrew funding after critical coverage of the kingdom. Most of the BBC Arabic folk who were working then went on to found Al Jazeera.

The World Service may take on al-Jazeera

By Ronan McGreevy

THE BBC World Service is to examine setting up an Arabic 24-hour television station which would broadcast in the Middle East, at the request of the Government.

The new station which would have news, documentaries and discussion programmes would broadcast in opposition to Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite station which currently has more than 40 million viewers in the Middle East.

The United States already has its own Arabic language news channel in the Middle East. Al Hurra was set up in February to counter a perceived anti-Western bias in much of the Arabic media, but has struggled to build an audience.

The Foreign Office funds the BBC World Service and has asked the BBC to examine the feasibility of another 24-hour station.

A BBC spokesman said that the proposal, which is noncommercial, is “under discussion as part of the Foreign Office and the Treasury’s spending review process”.

The station could be modelled on BBC World, the corporations’s 24-hour international news channel, and would have initial costs of £28 million a year.

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How sweet it is

One of the longest serving ministers in Egypt was kicked upstairs yesterday, marking one of the most important political changes to take place in Egypt in years. Minister of Information Safwat Al Sherif, a man who had held a key post for 22 years and has contributed immensely to destroying creativity and nurturing a culture of corruption in Egypt's television and radio networks, will now become the president of the maglis al shura, Egypt's upper house of parliament. Watching him last night on television putting on a brave face and presiding over an awards ceremony - probably one of his last major TV appearances -- was intensely satisfying.

Safwat Al Sherif has created many enemies during his reign as Egypt's information supremo, both inside and outside the regime. As the key official responsible for TV, radio and newspapers, he is reviled by many journalists who have suffered from his dictates. According to one rumor going around town, Al Sherif may have gotten too cocky for his own good: he banned TV editors from showing his longtime rival (and probable replacement) Mamdouh Al Beltagui, the minister of tourism. This does not make sense in any country, especially one trying to promote its tourist industry. There have also been a series of corruption scandals involving high-ranking TV officials, although they've stopped short of reaching Al Sherif.

A prominent Egyptian rights activist once joked that he should be called Safwat Goebbels. He may not have been as nasty as the Nazi propaganda chief, and certainly not as clever, but Al Sherif played his part in the decline of Egyptian media. He will not be missed.

In the meantime, Cairo is rampant with speculation not only about Mubarak's health and his possible successors, but also about a cabinet shuffle announced last week. It's not clear what will happen or when (probably early July or when Mubarak returns from Germany) but it looks like a few of the leading "reformists" in the National Democratic Party will be awarded ministries, with the education ministry being a prime candidate. There is also talk of giving a woman a prominent post, if only to stress that Egypt is committed to carrying out reform. (I don't think the gender of a minister really makes that much difference, but it's good publicity for the regime.) The upcoming cabinet shuffle will hopefully bring some fresh air into the Egyptian government, which sorely needs it. Never mind democratic reform, what the country most immediately needs is competent leadership.

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Dunne on Egyptian reform

A few days ago I wrote about last week's Congressional hearing on US policy towards Egypt. Although I gave links to three presentations, I omitted the most interesting one: a presentation by Michelle Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former US diplomat at the US embassy in Cairo, on Egypt's reform efforts and how it is linked to US policy. (It wasn't on the Congress site.) This is by far the most interesting presentation that was made.

The Egyptian government has shown a readiness to modernize certain institutions - for example, the judiciary - and is now allowing discussion of liberalizing aspects of political life. It has not, however, shown any intention to democratize, by which I mean giving the Egyptian people the right and ability to change their government. All of the U.S. democracy assistance programs so far, and most under contemplation, aim at modernization and liberalization, which can certainly improve people's lives but do not necessarily lead to democratic transformation. Such transformation could eventually happen when the governing elite decides that it can no longer resist strong internal pressure for change, or as a result of visionary leadership.

It's worth reading all of it, and while you're at it also take a look at her insightful article about the Crawford Bush-Mubarak meeting that took place a few months ago. Many, including myself, were surprised that Bush gave little weight to the topic of reform in the joint statement and press conference the two presidents held. I'm still not entirely convinced by her argument -- I think Bush took it easy on Mubarak because the latter was offering so much in terms of cooperation on Gaza and also hinted at helping out in Iraq.

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Reforming the Arab reform industry

Rami Khouri has a good point:
Arab governments and civil society activists have, in the past eight months, produced half a dozen declarations on the need for broad political, social and economic reforms. The most noteworthy have been the declarations at Alexandria and Sanaa, the Arab summit statement and the recent Doha statement. These were preceded by the two Arab Human Development Reports in 2002-03 that diagnosed basic ailments and distortions in our societies, the separate US and European proposals for Mideast reforms, and the G8 summit statement issued in the US this month after meetings with a few Arab heads of state. We will soon get further statements on Arab reform from the US-EU and NATO summits.
I hereby propose a reform initiative on Arab reform initiatives: We should declare a moratorium on new Arab reform plans, and instead work for practical implementation of reforms, rather than only advocating them. In the past month, during and since the World Economic Forum gathering in Jordan that brought together 1,000 reform-minded officials, businesspeople and civil society activists, I have spent many days speaking with Arab individuals deeply involved in the drive to reform the region's politics and economics. My aim has been to come down to earth from the haughty level of grand declarations and ambitious statements, and to understand the real-world, nuts and bolts practicalities of what happens when individuals set out to change the old ways of doing things.
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Cole on Sadr and Chalabi

Juan Cole offers insight into the fates of Muqtada Sadr and Ahmed Chalabi, Iraq's comeback kids:

National Congress Planned; Muqtada Invited
Chalabi mediates with Kurds

Al-Hayat: On Sunday, the preparatory board met to begin planning a national congress of 1000 notables, politicians, religious leaders and tribal sheikhs to be held in July. It will involve twenty members of the old Interim Governing Council, including Sheikh Abdul Karim al-Muhammadawi, against whom an arrest warrant has been issued in an alleged murder case. An invitation has also been issued to the Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, who observers thought might well be elected to the advisory council. Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi called on Muqtada to come to the congress.

Iyad Allawi had dispatched Ahmad Chalabi to mediate between him and the Kurdish leadership in the north. Despite Allawi's attempt to dissolve the militias, the Peshmerga or Kurdish militias are refusing to be put under central Baghdad control. Chalabi met with Jalal Talabani. Al-Hayat reports a rumor that the Coalition Provisional Authority had an arrest warrant issued for Chalabi.

The American attempt to destroy Chalabi politically, and to destroy Muqtada al-Sadr physically, has so far failed miserably. Allawi is clearly eager to do business with both, and to pull them into his orbit. Both are now poised to gain seats in the proto-parliament, the national advisory council, and they have made an improbable and wholly cynical alliance with one another, according to an informed Iraqi observer. The two of them could well show up in the government to be formed in January, 2005.

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Israel training Kurds

The indefatigable Seymour Hersh has yet another great story:
Israeli intelligence and military operatives ar now quietly at work in Kurdistan, providin training for Kurdish commando units and, mos important in Israel’s view, running cover operations inside Kurdish areas of Iran an Syria. Israel feels particularly threatened b Iran, whose position in the region has bee strengthened by the war. The Israeli operative include members of the Mossad, Israel’ clandestine foreign-intelligence service, wh work undercover in Kurdistan as businessme and, in some cases, do not carry Israel passports
Is this a recipe for disaster or what?
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The BBC's coverage of Israel

Beyond Northern Iraq compares views on the BBC. I definitely agree with his contention that "if both sides are accusing the BBC of bias then maybe someone's doing something right."

I present two contrasting viewpoints on the BBC's coverage of the Middle East with little comment -- as anything I say will be construed as proof either of vested interests or sour grapes.

Suffice to say that if both sides are accusing the BBC of bias then maybe someone's doing something right.

The italics are mine.

1) "The — in blatant breach of its own charter — virtually conducting its own anti-American and anti-Israeli foreign policy. Anyone who doesn't agree with its policies (Tony Blair, for example) finds himself at the mercy of BBC news coverage....

"...The culture that permeates the BBC, a habit of thought that has become engrained throughout the network, allows only one worldview, in which the U.S. and Israel are vilified well beyond any reasoned or justified criticism of anything these states have actually done.
(Tom Gross, National Review Online)

2) "...a research study by the Glasgow University media group entitled Bad News From Israel...confirm(s) what so many impartial observers already know.

"The main overall conclusion is that there is a clear bias in television news bulletins in favour of the Israelis. The researchers discovered that there is a "preponderance of official Israeli perspectives", particularly on BBC1, where Israelis were interviewed or reported more than twice as often as Palestinians.

"American politicians who support Israel appeared more often than politicians from any other country, and twice as often as those from Britain."
(Roy Greenslade, The Guardian)

I should add that in my experience, informed people in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world seem to trust BBC World -- especially programs that skewer guests like HardTalk -- more than any other TV network, including Al Jazeera amd Al Arabiya. It seems to have taken the place once held by Radio Montecarlo in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was the key source of information on the Lebanese civil war and much else in the region. It's a credit to the BBC that its reputation remains so solid (despite what right-wing commentators like Andrew Sullivan might say) when it is owned by a government that has an obvious stake in the region's affairs.
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Xenos on Strauss

Nicholas Xenos has the best article I've seen on the Straussians so far. Scary stuff, which explains a lot.
The Straussian network is really an amazing thing. Any political theorist or anyone who has been around political science departments has seen it at work. Long before attaining public attention, the Straussians were often ridiculed for their cult-like qualities: they speak and write the same way, they write the same books on the same themes over and over again, they dress alike, they are almost all men, they went to the same schools—those sorts of things. It thus comes as a shock to discover that Leo Strauss may turn out to be the most influential political theorist of the last fifty years in the United States with respect to the exercise of political power.
Read and ponder.
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Stratfor on the Saudi civil war

The Agonist has posted a Stratfor analysis of the current crisis in Saudi Arabia that is well worth reading in full. In this analysis, Stratfor argues that although control of Saudi Arabia might be the endgame of Al Qaeda it does not necessarily need to happen with a complete overthrow of the House of Saud;
Al Qaeda control of the kingdom does not necessarily mean either the overthrow of the House of Saud -- at least at this stage -- or the more immediate destruction of the country's oil infrastructure or disruption of oil exports. The kingdom is infinitely more valuable with its oil sector intact. Al Qaeda will concentrate on weakening the regime and driving Westerners from the Arabian Peninsula for the foreseeable future.
Al Qaeda does not want to trigger a U.S. invasion or any other serious political backlash like a full-scale revolution or a fracturing of the country that would restrict Riyadh's political reach. If it can find a cooperative branch or a support base within the royal family, then the "regime" could persist -- at least in name -- even as Riyadh's political orientation shifts.
There could be short-term reasons for not completely displacing the House of Saud. The most immediate is money. Al Qaeda has long relied on financing from the kingdom. There are persistent rumors that some members of the royal family back the militants financially and politically. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency reports that al Qaeda has spent around $30 million annually to finance operations. The U.S. commission looking into the events of Sept. 11 concluded that most of those funds came from "witting and unwitting donors, primarily in Persian Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia." Some of the money is believed to have passed through charities.
Plastic also has a recent post on Saudi Arabia full of links that might help put things in context.
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Israeli sentenced for incitement to racism

An Israeli soccer fan has been convicted for shouting "death to Arabs" at a soccer match:
"I said death to the Arabs because that's what I felt at the time," Cohen said in a statement to police.
He said in court "there was nothing to it, just like you shout `go Beitar' you shout `death to the Arabs.' There's no contradiction between the two."
The judge ruled yesterday that Cohen's words constituted incitement to racism since "a man who testifies that he shouted `death to the Arabs' as part of a crowd, because that's what he thought, in his own words, is saying that Arabs deserve to die because they are Arabs."
It's great that Israeli courts are taking racism seriously, although in light of the well-documented racism of Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank, this is also something of a joke.
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Congress debates US-Egypt relations

There was a meeting of the Congressional Committee on International Relations' subcommittee on the Middle and Central Asia on Wednesday in order to discuss Washington's Egypt policy. In her opening statement, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the head of the committee, brought up several issues, including Egypt's reported attempts to acquire North Koran missile technology, the Egypt-bound arms shipment that was recently intercepted in Turkey, smuggling in Gaza tunnels and the need for Egypt to carry out political and economic reform.
The U.S. must be more aggressive in engaging the Egyptians on these issues on an ongoing and consistent basis. It is time for reform commitments made by Egypt 5, 10, 15 years ago to be fulfilled, not only because they are linked to U.S. foreign assistance, but because they will help Egypt move forward toward political liberalization and economic prosperity.
Other speakers from the State and Defense Departments and USAID spoke respectively about Egyptian diplomacy in the region and internal reforms, military aid and US economic aid. Overall I must say the general tone was a lot less critical than one might have predicted considering the frustration with Egyptian reform expressed these days in politics and the media. It is important to note that a few days before the meeting Israeli officials appealed to US Jewish organizations to tone down their criticism of Egypt in light of the latter's help in providing security in Gaza (an appeal that reportedly came after an Egyptian request for Israeli help.) Incidentally the meeting took place the same day as CIA Director George Tenet was visiting Cairo and met with President Hosni Mubarak and his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman in order to discuss Egypt's role in Gaza.
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Settlements expanded

Ariel Sharon is building as many settlements as he can in the Palestinian Occupied Territories before the planned pull-out:
Sharon's plan of "unilateral disengagement" calls for a withdrawal from all of Gaza and four West Bank settlements by September 2005. Sharon has said that in exchange, he wants to keep and expand several large settlement blocs in the West Bank — a demand that has won the tacit support of US President George W. Bush. The Israeli daily Maariv reported Tuesday that Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz has asked the military to draw up plans within three months for building thousands of homes in three of the settlement blocs — Gush Etzion, Maale Adumim and Ariel. Mofaz met Monday with settler leaders in Gush Etzion, and security officials said he told them he would consider their request to authorise between 1,000 and 2,000 new homes in the area. Mofaz told settlers he would make a decision within three months, the officials said on condition of anonymity.
See also the Maariv article which refers to the West Bank as "Judea and Samaria."
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No future, no attention

Depressing words from the Israeli poet Yitzhak Laor:
Israeli families of dead soldiers or dead civilians get a follow-up, even on foreign TV, for they had a future ahead of them before they died. Did the Palestinian children who died in Rafah have any future? No. So they are dead, and it will be over in a few days. Palestinians don't get a follow-up, not even on foreign TV. Maybe there'll be a documentary movie, followed by some public discussion about whether to allow the movie to be publicly screened, or whether it's another sign of 'the new anti-semitism'. Nothing will be followed up. The Israeli army is secure. It calls itself the Israel Defence Force.
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Mubarak surgery drives rumor mill

As I've been collecting information on the announcement that Mubarak will be undergoing an operation in Germany for a "slipped disc" tomorrow, I thought I'd share what I've gathered. I may return to hyperlink it later today. - On Tuesday, an Islamist site said there was a rumor that Mubarak had been hospitalized on Monday and might have died. - Mubarak appeared on TV on Wednesday, his only appearance since he returned from a trip to Russia on May 29. On the same day he met with CIA Director George Tenet. - On Saturday night Egyptian TV announced that Mubarak will be undergoing a simple surgical procedure in Germany to treat a slipped disc. The Health Minister, a medical doctor, explained that the operation was necessary to remove cartilage and that Mubarak had chosen it over a non-surgical, but longer-term, treatment. The operation will take place on Monday. - Later on Saturday, Al Jazeera said that Mubarak may appoint a vice-president in his absence. The appointment would be temporary and last only until the president returned to Cairo. - This was denied by Al Arabiya, quoting Egyptian officials. The Prime Minister would replace Mubarak as he normally does. - No vice-president has been appointed since Mubarak became president in 1981, which some Egyptian activists say is against the country's constitution. - Both Mubarak and his predecessor Sadat became president after being vice-president. - Mubarak cancelled several meetings with foreign officials, including a 3 June meeting with Israeli foreign minister Silvan Shalom because of a "sprained ankle" and a 17 June meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei. - Al Ahram, Egypt's flagship daily, reported on Thursday that Mubarak would appoint a new cabinet by the end of June. - Egyptian television was reportedly ordered to show footage of Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi, also 76, on Wednesday. - Last November, Mubarak has a malaise during an address to parliament that he said was caused by a "severe flu." Egyptian TV, which was broadcasting the speech live, filmed an anxious parliament as Mubarak was treated behind the scenes. He returned to the podium briefly before leaving. - A Western diplomat said there was little risk of politcal instability if Mubarak dies: "The regime is solid, we feel confident that things are stable. The army would still be in control." On the rumor of appointing a vice-president, he said: "It's not his style -- I don't think he would appoint a vice president unless he is sure that there is a serious risk that he might not make it."
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Chadian rebels recruited in Darfur

The Head Heeb notes that Chadian Arabs with ties to Chad's rebel movements are being recruited in the ethnic cleansing campaign in Darfur:

This has the potential to disrupt an already-fragile cease-fire as well as further internationalizing the conflict and, in a worst-case scenario, turning it into a regional ethnic war. Allami expressed the fear that the conflict could "degenerat[e] into an inter-ethnic war between a coalition of Arabs and other ethnic groups in the region," which would bring in the Chadian army and rebel groups as full combatants. Chad has historically supported the Sudanese government in Darfur even while claiming a role as mediator, but is increasingly viewing Khartoum as an enemy; Chadian troops are mobilized along the border and politicians in Ndjamena are starting to talk openly about supporting the Darfur rebels. The situation may be one clash away from turning into a Chadian-Sudanese war or even one involving Libya, and if that happens, then the humanitarian catastrophe that has occurred to date may only be the beginning.

See the post for more links.

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Powell, inconsistent?

From the Whiskey Bar:
Watch What We Say, Not What We Do
Secretary of State Colin Powell says terrorists would earn a victory if American workers leave Saudi Arabia in response to a spate of terrorist attacks, including the murder of hostage Paul Johnson.

"If they leave, then the terrorists have won," Powell said, shortly after Islamic militants beheaded Johnson, who worked on Apache attack helicopter systems for Lockheed Martin.

Associated Press
Powell: U.S. Should Remain in Saudi Arabia
June 19, 2004

Private American citizens currently in Saudi Arabia are strongly urged to depart. On April 14, 2004, due to security concerns, the Department of State ordered the departure of family members and non-emergency employees of the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Saudi Arabia.

U.S. State Department
Travel Warning: Saudia Arabia
June 17, 2004

The really funny thing is, when they pulled U.S. troops out of Saudi Arabia, they said the terrorists would lose because it would neutralize one of their main demands. But now they say that if U.S. civilian workers pull out, the terrorists will win because it will satisfy one of their main demands.

This diplomacy stuff is just beyond me, I guess.

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Sudan-Egypt "Four Freedoms" agreement

Sudan and Egypt ease border controls
The Sudanese parliament has ratified an agreement with Egypt that allows citizens of the two countries to live and work in each other's territory.
The parliament approved the so-called Four Freedoms Agreement on Tuesday, which was concluded between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir in Cairo in January.
The agreement gives Egyptians and Sudanese freedom of movement, residence, work and ownership in either country.
Considering the precarious life that Sudanese refugees in Egypt live, this could mean a lot for them. But I don't see the Egyptians ratifying and putting into effect this agreement anytime soon, particularly as the issue of foreign workers in Egypt is becoming more controversial.
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