Last week, MEK officials allowed a pair of journalists to visit Camp Ashraf, the first such visit by Western reporters since shortly after the Iraq war. The visit left the impression that if there is a definable line between commune and cult, the MEK might just be straddling it.
MEK cadres wear olive green uniforms, with matching, identically tied head scarves for the women. In talking, certain phrases and themes pop up again and again — suggesting a high level of political indoctrination.
Tehran is the "mullah regime," and the movement fighting the Iranian government has suffered "120,000 martyrs." The more than 400 people who have defected from the group in recent years are "quitters" who were too weak or selfish to "pay the price." Explaining why they chose to come to Camp Ashraf, most offer some variation on the theme of feeling guilty living abroad in comfortable exile while their people suffered back home.
Pictures of Maryam and Massoud Rajavi are everywhere in the camp, and members refer to Maryam's sayings and ideas in a manner that evokes Maoist China. Camp leaders acknowledge that regular Shiite Muslim religious observance is basically mandatory.
Direct contact with the outside world, including families, is rare. Phone calls, letters and e-mails are all routed through the central leadership.
Although the cult charge clearly rankles, MEK members also seem insulated from much of the criticism directed their way by a sort of circular logic.
Any accusations, negative articles or outside criticism are dismissed as the product of an Iranian campaign to discredit and undermine them. The complaints of some defectors that they were tricked into coming to the camp and then held against their will are the lies of those trying to get into the good graces of the Iranian intelligence services.The LAT has had another few interesting Middle East stories for the past couple of days, following on the tradition of Anthony Shadid no doubt, including Megan Stack on Hizbullah and Monte Morin on insane levels of criminality in Iraq -- the latter is a must-read to understand the level of chaos there. Update: Speaking of the patron saint of Arab-American journalists, Praktike points to a great new Shadid piece here.
DOWN WITH MUBARAKSo much for all those Arab democrats that are thankful to George W. Bush...
DOWN WITH AMERICA
JOIN 20 MARCH DEMO SUNDAY, 1 O'CLOCK, IN TAHRIR
The UN's Irish, Egyptian and Moroccan investigation team has now been joined by three Swiss bomb experts following the discovery that many of the smashed vehicles in Hariri's convoy were moved from the scene of the massacre only hours afterwards - and before there was time for an independent investigation. Yesterday, frogmen were sent into the sea off the Beirut Corniche to recover the wreckage of the one car in the Hariri convoy that was not taken away by the authorities because it was blasted over a hotel wall into the Mediterranean by the force of the explosion. If they successfully recover parts of the vehicle, they may be able to discover the nature of the explosives. First reports that Hariri was killed by a car bomb are now being challenged by evidence that the explosives - estimated at 600kg - could have been buried beneath the seafront avenue.
A unique photograph handed to The Independent in Beirut - which is now also in the hands of the UN investigators - was taken on the afternoon of 12 February, about 36 hours before the bombing. It shows a drain cover in the road at the exact spot where the explosion was to tear a 30-foot crater in the highway, instantly killing Hariri and many of his bodyguards.
The section of roadway is marked off by "no parking" signs which have been left there innocently by staff of the nearby HSBC bank. But a mysterious object can be seen on the left edge of the drain cover. Both the metal cover and an extensive area of roadway around it were atomised by the bomb.
The picture also shows two buildings which the UN police officers are investigating as possible locations of the bomber who detonated the explosives: one is on top of the circular building in the centre of the photo - which houses a Beirut hotel as well as a Lebanese army retirement fund office - and the other is on top of the war-damaged Holiday Inn (far right) which has been empty for more than a decade. The balloon in the centre of the photograph regularly takes tourists on sightseeing tours of Beirut.
Some members of the Hariri family have been told that the report of the UN inquiry team will be so devastating that it will force a full international investigation of the murder of "Mr Lebanon" and his entourage, perhaps reaching to the higher echelons of the Syrian and Lebanese governments.
Hariri opposed the continued Syrian military presence in Lebanon and many Lebanese have blamed the Syrians for his murder. The UN investigators have become convinced that there was a cover-up of evidence at the very highest levels of the Lebanese and Syrian intelligence authorities.
In their search for information, at least one Irish police officer has now interviewed Brigadier General Rustum Ghazale, the senior Syrian army intelligence officer in Lebanon, at his headquarters in Aanjar. He is believed to have pointed out to the police that his job was only to safeguard Syrian forces in the country - an assertion which will require more than a few grains of Syrian salt to be believed.More details than I expected.
An explosion has hit the offices of an English-language newspaper in central Baghdad and casualties are feared, witnesses say.
Ambulances rushed to the scene, not far from Baghdad's national theatre and hotels housing foreign contractors.
It was not clear whether it was a mortar or car bomb that caused Wednesday's explosion. The house was engulfed by flames soon afterwards.
The Baghdad Mirror, edited by Iraqis, is Baghdad's only English-language weekly.I'd never heard of the Baghdad Mirror before. Two previous attempts at an English-language publication in Iraq failed (the Baghdad Bulletin and Iraq Today), this might have been another one. I wonder if it is the first time that journalists' offices are specifically targeted for bombing by the Iraqi insurgency.
The Defense Ministry is blaming an army dog for the death of an innocent Palestinian, who was shot by Israel Defense Forces troops 10 months ago.
According to Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim (Likud), the dog had mistaken the Palestinian's identity.
Boim wrote this in response to a parliamentary question submitted by MK Azmi Bishara (Balad) about the circumstances of the death of a Jenin University lecturer last year. Bishara presented the question in May 2004 and received the answer at the end of February 2005.
Haaretz learned from security sources that the inquest in the case was based on testimony from the soldiers only, and that no attempt had been made to question the widow of the deceased, who was near him when he was shot.
As a rule, the IDF does not question Palestinians while investigating cases in which civilians are killed by Israeli fire, the sources said.
Boim's answer is based on the IDF's investigation, which was reportedly carried out on April 28, 2004. On that same day, Haaretz published an article contrasting the IDF's version with the widow's testimony. The only dog she saw was with the soldiers, when they emerged from behind a large tree after shooting her husband, she said.
Yasser Abu-Laymoun, a lecturer on hospital management at the American-Arab university in Jenin, was shot and killed on Friday, April 23, 2004, in an open field outside his village Taluza, near Nablus. His wife and sister were nearby.What utter contempt for humanity.
In the long term, the Israeli premier hopes that the Palestinian state will meld with Jordan. His assumption is that unilateral disengagement from Gaza and parts of the West Bank, his plan for a carefully managed transition away from direct Israeli rule over the majority of the Palestinians, will set this process in motion. Over time, Sharon calculates, contiguity between “Palestine” and its neighbor to the east, as well as increased trade, cultural ties and the “democratization” championed by the Bush administration, will induce Palestinians on both the West and East Banks of the Jordan to agitate for Palestinian-Jordanian federation themselves. If one assumes that Sharon has quietly held on to his once openly expressed belief that “Jordan is Palestine,” his break with his old supporters among the settler movements and the right becomes easier to understand.The argument is quite complex and detailed, so it is worth reading the entire article. The article is illustrated by a recent map [PDF, 1.6MB] of Israel and the occupied territories that speaks a thousand words.
Since 1952, no Egyptian head of state has been targeted directly in this manner. A taboo has been broken, and there is no telling where these popular movements may lead.He concludes:
There is little doubt that Husni Mubarak will win even a relatively free election, assuming that he runs, because the political, media and educational infrastructure for a viable democratic political system does not exist and cannot be installed by September. A similar scenario would likely apply if the father contrived magnanimously to withdraw his name from the race in favor of the son. Consequently, the future of Egyptian politics will not be determined by the amendment of the constitution.
Rather, it will depend on whether these popular political initiatives are capable of building a social movement for change. While such a movement has not yet coalesced, challenges to the regime by human rights activists, workers and other marginalized strata show no sign of abating and are becoming increasingly sharp. Ahmad Sayf al-Islam, the director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, assisted Human Rights Watch in its investigation of the al-Arish detentions. At the HRW press conference he accused the government of breaking into his home and stealing his laptop computer for a second time two days earlier. Sayf al-Islam’s exceptionally bold public statement addressed itself to “tyrants, pharaohs of Egypt” and concluded, “the fish starts rotting from the head. Don’t you smell the rot of our fish?”The most interesting part, about the strikes and resistance to privatization, is an important reflection on how the Egyptian regime is adopting market globalization to ensure it meets approval from Washington and elsewhere, as always at the expense of local people.
Hariri, a pan-Arabist and Lebanese nationalist, was known to adamantly oppose the construction of a major U.S. air base in the north of Lebanon. The United States wants Syrian troops completely out of Lebanon before construction of the base is initiated. Hariri's meetings with Hezbollah shortly before his death also angered Washington and Jerusalem, according to the Lebanese intelligence sources.It sounds rather ridiculous considering that Lahoud and the other pro-Syria politicians would be just as against such an airbase. Why not kill them too? Also, I've never heard of plans for an airbase in Lebanon, especially with the Incirlik base in Turkey is quite close. Part of the problem with this "who benefits" analysis is that, as in any crime case, you can't just rely on motive. Opportunity and capability also have to come into it.
In his article, Fisk said the report of the United Nations inquiry team "will be so devastating that it will force a full international investigation of the murder of 'Mr. Lebanon' and his entourage, perhaps reaching to the higher echelons of the Syrian and Lebanese governments."
Speaking from New York, a UN spokesperson told The Daily Star that whatever President Bush would announce would not be based on the UN team's findings as the investigation is still ongoing.
He said: "We can neither confirm or deny anything until the team returns to New York and presents its findings to the secretary general."
According to The Independent, The UN team, made up of Irish, Egyptian and Moroccan investigators and recently joined by Swiss bomb experts, has discovered that many of the vehicles from Hariri's convoy "were moved from the scene of the massacre only hours afterward - and before there was time for an independent investigation."Now, one thing about Fisk is that among Middle East journalists he has a reputation for sometimes, er, making things up or at the very least exaggerating his case to get attention. It's slightly disturbing that he quotes no sources in his story. The Fisk report was brought up at the White House press briefing with Scott McClellan:
Q Scott, on another matter, there was a report out of The Independent from a Beirut reporter, Robert Fisk, who said that the President was expected to announce on Wednesday that Syrian and perhaps Lebanese military intelligence officers were involved in Hariri's death. Is that true, and do you have any update on the investigation?
MR. McCLELLAN: I have no idea where that report came from. The United Nations is continuing their investigation. It's important that the assassination of the former Prime Minister, Mr. Hariri, be fully investigated. And we look forward to seeing what the results of the investigation are. But the United Nations is continuing in their investigation, and we have not seen any update on that and any final results of that investigation.
Q Can I follow up on that?
MR. McCLELLAN: Sure.
Q On Wednesday, the President is going to meet with the Lebanese Maronite Christian Patriarch. Is the President expected to -- planning to persuade him to get involved in this whole issue of getting Syria out of Lebanon?
MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think he has been involved in the issue of supporting the Lebanese people, and letting -- and supporting their desires to chart their own course, free from outside intimidation and interference. That's one of the reasons the President invited him to come to the United States. His All Holiness is someone who has promoted the religious diversity and culture of the Lebanese people, and he is someone who has been a supporter of freedom and democracy in Lebanon.
And the President -- in terms of the issue of Syria, the President continues to call on Syria to completely withdraw all their military forces and all their intelligence services as soon as possible. It's important that elections proceed without outside intimidation or interference so that they can be free and fair and credible. And that's something we continue to emphasize. We've seen some positive developments, but ultimately it will depend on the action, and not the words, by Syrian officials.Will President Bush make a declaration with the Patriarch at his side on who killed Hariri tomorrow? I think that would discredit the report more than anything else, if the report is indeed saying that. Unrelated bonus: from the same briefing, Helen Thomas lives!
MR. McCLELLAN: And this President has been at the forefront of leading the efforts to achieve the two-state vision that he outlined of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. We are at the forefront of those efforts to support the aspirations of the Palestinian people. And we continue to urge all parties to move forward on the road map and meet their obligations.
The United States is continuing to work closely with other countries and continuing to work closely with the parties involved to support their efforts.
Go ahead, Helen.
Q Diplomacy depends on policy. You can't sell what is unsaleable. If the policy remains that we will engage further in preemptive war, you cannot sell it to the Middle East, I'm sure, or anywhere else. So are you going to change any policy?
MR. McCLELLAN: Our policy is to expand freedom and democracy and to support the aspirations of people --
Q By gunpoint?
MR. McCLELLAN: -- and support the aspirations of people in countries around the world that do not have the freedoms that we enjoy. And, no, Helen, the President made it very clear in his inaugural address that it is not primarily the use of arms. It is supporting the aspirations of the people in those countries and doing all we can to stand with those people as they seek greater freedoms. We are standing with the people of Lebanon. We are standing with the people of the Palestinian Territories. We are standing with --
Q> We also invaded Iraq.
MR. McCLELLAN: -- we are standing with the people of Iraq, and the people of Iraq have shown that freedom is a universal value. They stood up and defied the terrorists and went to the polls.
Q And we invaded the country.
MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Terry.
The size of the Hizbullah and opposition demos should also put paid to the theory that either side was manufactured ex nihilo by foreign interests. It simply isn't possible to mobilize crowds that size in a nation of four million without genuine popular support.The Hizbullah demo was not 1.5 million and today's was not 1.2 million (the highest number I've read for both.) Lebanon is a country of maybe 4 million so these numbers should be dismissed out of hand. But either side -- if they are entirely opposing sides, which I'm not convinced they are -- is definitely drawing around 20% of the population, which is unheard of anywhere in the world as far as I'm aware. A lot of it has to do with the geography and demography of Lebanon: it's a small country with decent roads (although the traffic jams on the already packed coastal highway must be insane these days) and several large population centers. And, perhaps most importantly, it is a country where people are highly politicized. This is why you see a fifth of the country on the streets at one time there but not, say, in Egypt. Mass media man Abu Aardvark zooms in. Clever. The Agonist has many links, including this one to a Robert Fisk story saying the UN is about to say the Lebanese and Syrian security services were behind Hariri's death. That link is pay-only, but you can read about it here. One more thought: I have no way of knowing this, but maybe some of the people on the streets at both the "pro-Syrian" and "anti-Syrian" demos were the same? It seems to me that there is a lot of common ground on both sides, despite everything.
This is the essence of my disgust: our leaders can’t tell the difference between mediocrity and strength.
Still, even a mediocre inquisitor has sufficient power to detain and torture. This is the essence of my fear. And my terror. My would-be torturer will be a mediocre figure, working for a mediocre President, in a mediocre country, going through mediocre crises, that could have been averted through the application of a mediocre amount of wisdom (they had none), still the torture will be no less painful.Syrian poet and activist Ammar Abdulhamid, founder of the Tharwa Project and Dar Emar, author of the novel The Whore with The Trillion Vulvas and blogger.
The Bush administration believes that bucking up the PA is critical if Abbas supporters are to prevail against Hamas in the July legislative elections (some observers say that right now Hamas would pull 45% of the vote, a result that could be disastrous for the US and Israel, not to mention the Palestinians).
To demonstrate his commitment – and his view that it is a new day – Bush has asked Congress to provide $200 million in aid to the Palestinian Authority. For Bush, that aid would constitute a US down payment toward implementation of his vision of “two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.” Too late in the fiscal year for a regular Congressional appropriation, he “requested” what is known as a “supplemental.” He said it was a top priority.
And what has been the Congressional response to that request?
We found out on Tuesday. The answer was “yes, but….” There were so many “buts” that they rendered the “yes” almost meaningless.
The House Appropriations Committee attached a host of conditions to the aid which, amazingly, are more onerous than those placed on Palestinian aid when Yasir Arafat was in charge. Not only does Congress rightfully demand an end to terrorism and incitement (which, is, of course, the Bush policy), it wants “schools, mosques and other institutions…to promote peace and coexistence with Israel.” It demands investigations into Yasir Arafat’s finances. It wants the internet monitored for hate speech. The list goes on and on.
There is nothing wrong with conditions although adding additional conditions after Arafat has been replaced by a democratically elected leader is, at best, peculiar. The President wants to show support for Abbas and what the Appropriations Committee did is send a mixed, even cold, message.
The most remarkable part of the legislation approved by the Appropriations Committee is that it eliminates the discretion Presidents traditionally have to provide aid when national security requires it. This “national security waiver” – the one President Clinton had when he was in charge -- would allow Bush to provide the Palestinian aid as he sees fit even if the Palestinians are unable to fulfill every single Congressional requirement. The “national security waiver” is standard operating procedure. A President, after all, cannot have his hands tied on matters vital to our security.
Except in this case. Following a full-court lobbying effort by opponents of aid – not including the Israeli government which supports aid -- the waiver was dropped from the bill.
It’s incredible.Why do so many powerful American backers of Israel hate the peace process much?
Syrian mismanagement of the Lebanese portfolio had been building up to a critical mass that only needed a detonator to explode. Neither the Iraqi elections nor Bush's phenomenal use of the word "freedom" led to the dramatic events in Lebanon. The assassination was not only the spark, but also the main motor behind the demonstrations. Current developments must be seen in the light of opportunistic exploitation by local, regional and international players rather than as a "democratic revolution".
Tuesday's powerful counter-demonstration by government loyalists, especially Hizbullah, should rein in international euphoria. Beirut had never seen a crowd so large. Hizbullah's charismatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, addressed a crowd of a million people, and reminded the world that "Lebanon is not Ukraine". Recent events do spur a glimmer of hope for positive, non-violent change. But if local and regional players want to see a Lebanon enjoying its "sovereignty, freedom and independence", then they need to take the complexity of social reality into account.(Harb is an AUB professor. He seems to think that the US doesn't really want regime change in Syria and that this is precursor to a confrontation with Iran -- hence dealing with Hizbullah first. Ya'nni...) Seumas Milne: It is not democracy that's on the march in the Middle East (The Guardian):
The claim that democracy is on the march in the Middle East is a fraud. It is not democracy, but the US military, that is on the march. The Palestinian elections in January took place because of the death of Yasser Arafat - they would have taken place earlier if the US and Israel hadn't known that Arafat was certain to win them - and followed a 1996 precedent. The Iraqi elections may have looked good on TV and allowed Kurdish and Shia parties to improve their bargaining power, but millions of Iraqis were unable or unwilling to vote, key political forces were excluded, candidates' names were secret, alleged fraud widespread, the entire system designed to maintain US control and Iraqis unable to vote to end the occupation. They have no more brought democracy to Iraq than US-orchestrated elections did to south Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s. As for the cosmetic adjustments by regimes such as Egypt's and Saudi Arabia's, there is not the slightest sign that they will lead to free elections, which would be expected to bring anti-western governments to power.(Also some interesting reflections on Syria's role in Lebanon and, at last, some denunciation of the sham election held in the Palestinian occupied territories. Rather over-the-top lefty, though.) Mary Wakefield: A revolution made for TV (The Spectator)
The truth is that the Cedar Revolution has been presented and planned in just the same way as Ukraine’s Orange revolution and, before it, the Rose revolution in Georgia. But just because it is in American interests doesn’t mean it’s an American production. ‘The Lebanese people were watching the Ukrainian revolution very closely,’ a Lebanese academic told me. ‘The reason the Cedar Revolution looks so similar to the scenes in Kiev is that they set out, quite deliberately, to copy it.’ The Financial Times reported that a 32-year-old Lebanese businessman called Khodor Makkaoui founded Independence ’05 after Hariri’s murder brought people on to the streets. ‘My friends and I saw that lots of political parties were waving their own flags, and we thought we needed to have one visual identity which would be more impressive,’ he said. ‘We raised money from people we know and started printing Lebanese flags.’ Presentation is everything. In 1990, thousands of Christians demonstrated for weeks on end, calling on Damascus to withdraw its troops from the country. But Makkaoui wasn’t around to print flags or claim a colour, so the cameras didn’t take much notice.
The truth is that, on the streets of Beirut, you could probably find a quote to support every attitude towards Syria’s presence in Lebanon. On Saturday night, in a hotel bar in the Muslim quarter, we met a Beiruti boy called Bashir. ‘How come you’re not at the revolution?’ Bashir shrugged, ‘Why would I be? That’s just for teenagers, to have fun.’ Don’t you want Syria out? ‘Don’t believe what you read in the papers,’ said Bashir. ‘The Syrians are OK. Anyway, the demonstration doesn’t matter. A thousand people won’t make a difference. America will make a difference.’(A very interesting reflection on the way major Western -- and regional -- television networks have bought the story fed to them by Washington and spun it accordingly, as well as the organization on the ground. Once again, see Nur Al Cubicle's thinking on this.) Also, this new Zogby poll of Lebanese attitudes is fascinating -- even if I don't give polls much credence generally. Take a look at the numbers:
Who is responsible for the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri?
The Syrian authorities
The Lebanese authorities
The Lebanese and Syrian
How will the assassination of former P.M. Hariri affect the security situation in Lebanon?
The security situation
Other assassinations will occur
The Syrians will withdraw
Note how the Druze seem the most anti-Syrian... I'm not very familiar with the Druze-Syrian relationship, anyone care to enlighten me?
What is the solution to the security situation in Lebanon?
Reinforcement and deployment of the Lebanese army and security forces all over Lebanon
Complete withdrawal of the Syrian forces from Lebanon
Disarmament of all armed forces in Lebanon
Brining in international forces to implement security