Shi'as protest to demand direct elections

As many as 30,000 Shi'as marched through the streets of Basra to demand direct elections of the new Iraqi government in June rather than the caucus system favored by the US and most of the Iraqi Governing Council. This marks an increase in the tension between Shi'as, notably Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and the Coalition Provisional Authority. An aide to Sistani is even threatening a fatwa is things don't go his way:
"If Bremer rejects Ayatollah Sistani's opinion, he would issue a fatwa depriving the US-appointed council of its legitimacy," Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Mohri told Abu Dhabi television. "After this, the Iraqi people will not obey this council. This US plan is not in line with Sistani's views." In Basra, huge crowds walked through the streets, some arm in arm, chanting "No to America" and carrying portraits of Ayatollah Sistani. The protest will come as another uncomfortable warning to the US that, for the second time since the war, it may need to rework its political programme for Iraq. Mr Bremer is flying to Washington for urgent consultations.
As always, Juan Cole has a lot more.
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Muslim Brotherhood elects new Supreme Guide

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest Islamist group in the world, has elected a new murshid, or Supreme Guide, after the death of previous leader Maamoun Al Hodeibi last Thursday. The new murshid is Muhammad Mahdi Akef, 75, a veteran of Nasser's political jails and a former MP. He said his focus would be convincing the regime to allow the Brotherhood to officially stand for elections. However, Akef will also be inheriting the generational divisions with the Brotherhood which have gone unresolved for more than a decade. Interestingly, the method for his election was different than on previosu occasions, notes IslamOnline.net:
Abdul Monem Abol Fotouh, a leading Muslim Brotherhood member, told IOL on Monday, January 12, the group would hold a secret vote for choosing the new guide-general in an unprecedented move against earlier decisions to fill the post through referendums.
A previous favorite for the post was Islamist superstar Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi (a major funder of IslamOnline.net), who reportedly turned down the post a few days ago. Qaradawi has a reputation as a modernizer in the Brotherhood, and recently made headlines by threatening to take legal action against France if it adopts a law banning the veil in public schools.
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Kuwait to build fence along Iraqi border

The Khaleej Times reports that Kuwait will build a "security barrier" along its 217km-long border with Iraq to prevent infiltrators from entering Kuwait and protect nearby oil facilities.
Following the 1991 Gulf War that liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, Kuwait installed an electrified fence, constructed a sand berm and a deep trench to hinder infiltrators from crossing the border into the emirate. Meanwhile Kuwait security forces have arrested two Iraqis living in Kuwait, one of whom was caught entering the country from Iraq with printed materials inviting Moslems to fight a holy war against U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait, al-Rai al-Aam newspaper reported Monday.
Curious that they don't mention infiltrators who want to get into Iraq from Kuwait...
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Lahoud: define terrorism

Lebanon's President Emile Lahoud is calling for an international definition of terrorism in what seems to be an attempt to defend Hizbullah:
"It is not enough to declare war on what one deems terrorism without giving a precise and exact definition," Lahoud said in a meeting with foreign diplomats on Monday. He also said it was unacceptable for states to offer their own definition in the absence of an international interpretation, alluding to the United States, which had accused Lebanon of harbouring terrorists.    "It is likewise unacceptable for the world's big powers to impose their concepts and definitions of this term on weaker countries," added the president.    US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has reportedly raised the possibility of sending special forces to the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon "to apprehend terrorists."
Although what motivated this is probably the threat against Hizbullah, which over the last decade has transformed from militia to conventional political force in Lebanese politics (as have all Lebanese factions since the Taif accords) but retains a guerrilla force in the south, it is also reminiscent of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak's call for international conference on terrorism.
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Algerian opposition calls for "interim government"

The BBC reports that Algerian opposition figures are calling for the creation of an interim government and an independent body to supervise the upcoming elections.
The statement was signed by 11 members of the opposition parties. It accuses the incumbent Prime Minister, Ahmed Ouyahyia, of supporting President Bouteflika and alleges that he cannot be trusted to be fair. It also calls for security guarantees for those who will support opposition candidates at the April elections. The BBC's Mohammed Areski Himuer in Algiers says that although a new law was recently passed to abolish the special vote for the armed forces, only a few people are taking their promise to remain neutral seriously.
One wonders if a boycott of the election is in the works, as during the last election...
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Saudi shows repentant militants on TV

In an apparent bid to showcase its own war on terror, Saudi TV is airing confessions of alleged Al Qaeda militants on state TV, Reuters reports.
It was not clear if any of the Islamic militants shown on Monday were directly involved in any attacks. They were not named and their faces were digitally obscured. "We say thank God we were caught before we carried out any crime and harmed Muslims," one of the men said. Others told how they were won over to the goal of a purist Islamic state and fulfilling religious demands to rid Arabia of non-Muslims, even declaring other Muslims who did not share their belief to be infidels. One said he was shown fatwas, or religious edicts, on the Internet, including rulings which warned against working for the Saudi government which had become a "false God." Another described how recruits went to a resthouse in Riyadh where they learned to handle and clean guns, and how they were taken out to the desert for "training." Some went to the holy city of Mecca where they spent three or four days in a camp learning to assemble and fire weapons with the militants. "I was one of them, until recently. Thank God I was jailed and God enlightened me," said one. Monday's broadcast included a government appeal to Saudi parents to "protect their sons from exploitation by terrorist groups who use them to fuel the fire of crime and aggression."
I also urge all readers to get hold of a copy on The New Yorker's January 5th edition to read Lawrence Wright's article on Saudi Arabia, "The Kingdom of Silence." He just spent three months living in Saudi teaching journalists at the Saudi Gazette and this is an account of his time there. I first met Larry in Egypt when he was researching an article Ayman Al Zawahri, which turned out to be fantastic -- a real primer on Egyptian political Islam. When I last spoke to him, he was also working on a book on 9/11.
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Blanford on Iraq's sectarian problem

MERIP recently published a piece by Beirut and Baghdad-based journalist Nicholas Blanford as part of its Middle East Report Online Series on Iraq's growing sectarian divisions:
Shiite political ambitions are on a collision course with Sunni Arab fears of being left out. If the Shiites fail to receive what they feel is their due and if the poor state of basic services is not drastically improved, there is a very real risk of a Shiite resistance emerging. That would effectively sound the death knell of the foreign military presence n Iraq. While the current insurgency may be fragmented and ad hoc, the well-organized Shiite groups -- some of which were trained by the Iranian military and have combat experience -- would make the occupation untenable. Yet an Iraq in which the Shiites have a greater say than the Sunnis will feed the latter's fears of isolation and possible persecution, undermining any motivation to cooperate with the new order.
The article is long and well-researched, and well worth reading in its entirety.
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Iraq WMD evidence reconsidered

It seems everybody these days is finally accepting that the intelligence on Iraq's WMD program was fundamentally flawed and influenced by politics. It may be that President Bush's recent decision to pull out the 400 WMD-finding team from Iraq that is sparking the debate, but others have been ruminating about this for a while. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has produced a new report looking at the intelligence gathering process and comes out with some interesting findings, namely that inspections were working, that Iraq was not an immediate threat, that "intelligence failed and was misrepresented," that the "terrorist connection was missing," and much more. In the meantime, Kenneth M. Pollack, a leading "liberal" pro-war intellectual and former expert on WMDs, just wrote this article for the Atlantic Monthly. Pollack of course wrote one of the most celebrated arguments for a war in 2002, Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq, which convinced many people that war was not just the loony hawks' option. Now he writes:
What we have learned about Iraq's WMD programs since the fall of Baghdad leads me to conclude that the case for war with Iraq was considerably weaker than I believed beforehand. Because of the consensus among American and foreign intelligence agencies, outside experts, and former UN weapons inspectors, I had been convinced that Iraq was only years away from having a nuclear weapon—probably only four or five years, as Robert Einhorn had testified. That estimate was clearly off, possibly by quite a bit. My reluctant conviction that war was our only option (although not at the time or in the manner in which the Bush Administration pursued it) was not entirely based on the nuclear threat, but that threat was the most important factor in it. The war was not all bad. I do not believe that it was a strategic mistake, although the appalling handling of postwar planning was. There is no question that Saddam Hussein was a force for real instability in the Persian Gulf, and that his removal from power was a tremendous improvement. There is also no question that he was pure evil, and that he headed one of the most despicable regimes of the past fifty years. I am grateful that the United States no longer has to contend with the malign influence of Saddam's Iraq in this economically irreplaceable and increasingly fragile part of the world; nor can I begrudge the Iraqi people one day of their freedom. What's more, we should not forget that containment was failing. The shameful performance of the United Nations Security Council members (particularly France and Germany) in 2002-2003 was final proof that containment would not have lasted much longer; Saddam would eventually have reconstituted his WMD programs, although further in the future than we had thought. That said, the case for war—and for war sooner rather than later—was certainly less compelling than it appeared at the time. At the very least we should recognize that the Administration's rush to war was reckless even on the basis of what we thought we knew in March of 2003. It appears even more reckless in light of what we know today.
This week, other liberal hawks -- Pollack again, Paul Berman, Thomas Friedman, Fred Kaplan, George Packer, Jacob Weisberg and Fareed Zakaria -- are arguing out and doing some navel-gazing on Slate -- so far we have Monday and Tuesday's debates. Christopher Hitchens' entry on Tuesday shows him at his provocative best -- or worst, depending on which side of the fence you're standing on. Kaplan's contribution on the same day is also interesting, if only because he seems to be the only one who has changed his mind about being pro-war.
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Shi'as arrested in Egypt

According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Shi'a Muslim are being harassed in Egypt. A bizarre case, although not at all unlikely -- similar harassment and imprisonment has happened in the past, notably with Ba'hais in Upper Egypt. Read their press release below.
Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Right to Privacy Program Press Release-5 January 2004 Arrests of Shi'a Muslims Violate Freedom of Belief   The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) today expressed its deep concern over the arrests of Shi'a Muslims in the Red Sea town of Ras Ghareb (300 km south ofCairo). The organization said those arrests were a violation of the constitutionally guaranteed and internationally recognized right to freedom of religion and belief. According to information received and verified by the EIPR, officers from the State Security Intelligence (SSI) Hurghada Branch have over the last month staged three raids of houses belonging to suspected Shi'a Muslims in Ras Ghareb. The first of these raids took place on 8 December and included the houses of Ahmed Gom'a, Kashif al-Hilbawi, 'Abdel Hadi Tammam, Isma'il al-Hag, 'Ali Khalil and Mohammed (Hamam) 'Omar. Some of them were arrested while the others were asked to report to the SSI office in Hurghada in the following morning. A week later, SSI arrested Sirag Rashwan, Mohammed 'Abdel Hafez and Yasser 'Abbas. The last raid took place on 27 December when 'Adel al-Sh! azli and Salah 'Abdel Salam were arrested. The SSI squads confiscated all the religious books they found in these houses. They did not show the arrestees or their families any warrants for search, confiscation or arrest. All of those arrested or summoned were released after different periods of time with the exception of Ahmed Gom'a, Mohammed (Hamam) 'Omar, 'Adel al-Shazly and Salah 'Abdel Salam who are still in incommunicado detention at the Hurghada headquarters of the SSI. The EIPR believes the arrestees who were released had been mistaken for Shi'a Muslims solely because of their belonging to the Ashraaf tribes that relate to the Prophet's family. According to interviews the EIPR conducted with released arrestees, interrogation by SSI was limited to questions concerning the religious beliefs of the arrestees, such as how they prayed or how they viewed certain Companions of the Prophet. The EIPR believe the SSI officers have no right to pose questions about the religious beliefs of citizens, let alone to conduct arrests based on them. Such behavior, the organization added, was a breach of Article 46 of the Constitution as well as Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which became part of domestic legislation upon its ratification by Egypt in 1982. Both articles oblige the State to strictly uphold freedom of religion and belief. While no information is available about torture or mistreatment that the current detainees were subjected to, the EIPR does not rule out this possibility given the widespread nature of torture in places of detention inEgypt, especially in SSI offices, and the impunity that SSI officers enjoy against accountability for torture incidents. The EIPR called on authorities to immediately release the four detainees who have been in detention for weeks against the law and without appearing before any judicial authorities. The organization also calls on the State to uphold its legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the right to freedom of religion and belief and to hold accountable those responsible for the illegal detention of citizens based on their religion. The EIPR plans to take all necessary legal measures to secure the release of the detainees and to report the incident to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief.
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WP on Middle Eastern studies

Michael Dobbs writes in the Washington Post today about the attack on Middle Eastern Studies by groups such as CampusWatch:
These are the best of times and the worst of times for the once-neglected field of Middle East studies. Enrollments in Arabic-language courses and area studies programs have boomed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Government funding is up. Universities and colleges are recruiting Middle East experts as fast as they can. At the same time, academics who specialize in the region complain that they are under siege from conservative think tanks and self-appointed campus watchdog organizations. They say these efforts have resulted in a flood of abusive e-mail and calls for tightening congressional control over the funding of Middle East studies programs, which, they contend, could undermine academic freedoms.
The article could have used a little more digging on the ways funding for Middle Eastern Studies programs has or will be been affected. Also, as Brian Ulrich points out, Dobbs mistakenly says that Edward Said's Orientalism criticized US policy.
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Free market Iraq?

The experiment with the Iraqi economy continues, with CPA officials enacting laws that free market fundamentalists in the US would only dream of, reports the New York Times' Daphne Eviatar:
In a stroke, L. Paul Bremer III, who heads the Coalition Provisional Authority, wiped out longstanding Iraqi laws that restricted foreigners' ability to own property and invest in Iraqi businesses. The rule, known as Order 39, allows foreign investors to own Iraqi companies fully with no requirements for reinvesting profits back into the country, something that had previously been restricted by the Iraqi constitution to citizens of Arab countries. In addition, the authority announced plans last fall to sell about 150 of the nearly 200 state-owned enterprises in Iraq, ranging from sulfur mining and pharmaceutical companies to the Iraqi national airline. But the wholesale changes are unexpectedly opening up a murky area of international law, prompting thorny new questions about what occupiers should and should not be permitted to do. While potential investors have applauded the new rules for helping rebuild the Iraqi economy, legal scholars are concerned that the United States may be violating longstanding international laws governing military occupation.
Surely this could wait for the future new government of Iraq to decide by itself?
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USS Liberty attack revisited

A panel organized by the State Department has concluded that the sinking of the USS Liberty in 1967 was the result of negligence on both the Israeli and American side.
The official said that though Israel should be held responsible for the attack, the United States was also negligent for failing to notify Israel the Liberty was in international waters and for failing to withdraw the ship from the war zone.
However, survivors and intelligence experts remain skeptical that there may have been cover-ups and that Israel knew what it was doing.
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The Middle East's water problem

Chris McGreal of the Guardian has written an interesting analysis of the water problem in the Middle East in light of a recent water deal between Israel and Turkey.
Last week, Turkey agreed an extraordinary plan to ship millions of tons of water in giant tankers to Israel in a deal linked to hi-tech weapons shipments to Ankara. A few years ago the plan was to pump fresh water between the two countries in an undersea pipe, but the project was deemed prohibitively expensive. The tankers will still cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate and yet provide less than 3% of Israel's rapidly growing needs, which has led the finance minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to rubbish the scheme as unworkable. Whether or not the deal goes ahead, Israel will continue to lie at the heart of growing competition for limited supplies of water - and disputes about ownership - that underpins the conflict with the Palestinians, afflicts negotiations with Syria and poses some of the hardest challenges to peace in the Middle East.
He also provides some interesting statistics about water usage in Israel/Palestine:
Under the Oslo peace agreement, Israel retained overall control of water from the West Bank. The Palestinians now regret the deal. "The defect is in the Oslo agreement," says Amjad Aleiwi, a hydrologist at the Palestinian Water Authority. "The fact is we can't even drill a well without approval from Israel, while they pump all the water they like into the settlements." More than 80% of water from the West Bank goes to Israel. The Palestinians are allot ted just 18% of the water that is extracted from their own land. Palestinian villages and farmers are monitored by meters fitted to pumps and punished for overuse. Jewish settlers are not so constrained, and permitted to use more advanced pumping equipment that means the settlers use 10 times as much water per capita as each Palestinian. "This has caused us huge problems," says Aleiwi. "Palestinians get less than 60 units a day when the international minimum is 150. The Israeli domestic use alone is 300 to 800 units. It's worse in Gaza. Much of the water is not potable. That's why they have a lot of health problems, a lot of diseases in knees and kidneys. How can it be that Jewish settlers get unlimited amounts of pure water and that just across a fence children have to drink polluted water?"
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