NYT: Iraqi agent denies ever meeting Muhammad Atta

It's incredible this story has been kept around for so long considering the lack of evidence, but it seems that there is a new nail in the coffin of the alleged Iraqi intelligence-Muhammad Atta Prague meeting. The New York Times' excellent intelligence correspondent, James Risen, reported today that the Iraqi agent who was supposed to have been at the meeting, Ahmed Khalil Al Ani (under US custody since July) has told his American interrogators that the meeting never happened, as had Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubayda beforehand. This also confirms the analysis given from the beginning by the CIA and the FBI, which was at odds with what other members of the intelligence community wanted to believe.
That put the intelligence agencies at odds with hard-liners at the Pentagon and the White House, who came to believe that C.I.A. analysts had ignored evidence that proved links between Iraq and Al Qaeda. Eventually, the Prague meeting became a central element in a battle between the C.I.A. and the administration's hawks over prewar intelligence. Since American forces toppled the Hussein government and the United States gained access to captured Iraqi officials and Iraqi files, the C.I.A. has not yet uncovered evidence that has altered its prewar assessment concerning the connections between Mr. Hussein and Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda, officials said. American intelligence officials say they believe there were contacts between Iraq and Al Qaeda in the 1990's, but there is no proof that they ever conducted joint operations. Senior operatives of Al Qaeda who have been captured by the United States since Sept. 11 have also denied any alliance between the organization and Mr. Hussein.
It's good that the NYT is giving this story its due. I remember buying a copy of the Times in May 2002 and being dismayed that a CIA denial that a meeting ever took place was buried in a 100-word article on page 14. The story reporting the administration's allegation of Saddam-Osama ties, and the Prague meeting, must have been front page news -- but they buried the denial. This new evidence will no doubt be ignored by those who continue to want to link Saddam's Iraq with Al Qaeda, as the Weekly Standard did recently with "Case Closed", a story essentially peddling a Douglas Feith memo that contained no new information. But that was quickly debunked here and here.
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Friedman on Olmert

Thomas Friedman's NYT editorial today has a rather unusual portrayal of Ehud Olmert,a figure on the far Israeli right who is a top Sharon advisor and a former mayor of Jerusalem.
Last week, an earthquake happened in Israel when a leading figure of the Israeli right split away and embraced the logic of the Israeli left and center. The Likud deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert, gave a gutsy interview to Israel's leading columnist, Nahum Barnea of Yediot, in which he indicated that Israel can't continue occupying the West Bank and Gaza, with all their Palestinians, without losing a Jewish majority and eventually having to argue in the world against the universal principle of one person, one vote. "I shudder to think that liberal Jewish organizations that shouldered the burden of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa will lead the struggle against us," Mr. Olmert said. But Mr. Olmert is dubious about negotiating with the Palestinians. So, he argued, Israel should consider unilaterally dismantling settlements and withdrawing from most of the territories, including parts of Arab East Jerusalem, to maximize the number of Jews under Israeli control and minimize the number of Arabs.
I'm very dubious about anything Olmert says -- he is responsible after all for a great deal of the "judaification" of Arab East Jerusalem -- but it is worth noting, in light of the previous post on the demographics of historic Palestine, that this seems to be an issue of rising importance for Israelis. Friedman thinks this is because of the Iraq war, but the facts in themselves are probably enough.
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More non-Jews than Jews in historical Palestine

Haaretz is running a story about a demographer who claims there are today more non-Jews than Jews in the area currently comprising of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. This is the kind of thing that extremist Jews in Israel often use to advocated ethnic cleansing, which they call "transfer." The demographer also claims that only 30,000 Palestinians are behind the wall currently being built by Israel, and not 400,000 as Palestinian officials are claiming to the International Court of Justice. Let's hope this is not a repeat of the embarassing exagerations that were made about the Jenin Massacre (which remains a massacre nonetheless.)
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State Dept. Arabist found dead

A story about the death of John Kokal, a State Department official working in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs (INR/NESA), is making the rounds on the alternative websites, but not the mainstream press. Many are reminded of the death of Dr. David Kelly, the British WMD expert:
In a case eerily reminiscent of the death of British Ministry of Defense bio-weapons expert, Dr. David Kelly, an official of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research Near East and South Asian division (INR/NESA), John J. Kokal, 58, was found dead in the late afternoon of November 7. Police indicated he may have jumped from the roof of the State Department. Kokal's body was found at the bottom of a 20 foot window well, 8 floors below the roof of the State Department headquarters near the 23rd and D Street location. Kokal's death was briefly mentioned in a FOX News website story on November 8 but has been virtually overlooked by the major media.
Kokal had reportedly worked on Iraq's WMD program and had been part of the State Dept. team that doubted the case put forward by the Defense Dept. on Iraq. A French news site suggests that Kokal may have been part of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, an organization of intelligence officials that have denounced in the press and in open letters the White House's manipulation of intelligence on Iraq.
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International justice, local injustices

The new issue of Middle East Report is out and looks at the impact of US and Israeli policy in the Middle East on principles of international law, Morocco's past, Jordan's opposition, 9/11 and culture, Edward Said and more:
In the 1990s, the arrest of Pinochet and the trial of Milosevic seemed to herald a new era of accountability for crimes committed by state actors, and the possibility of building a global order underwritten by international law and norms of human rights. The September 11 attacks dealt a tremendous blow to these hopes, as the US and other states reasserted the primacy of realpolitik. Meanwhile, particularly in the Middle East, attempts to hold state actors accountable for past abuses have been thwarted or coopted by power politics. The winter 2003 issue of Middle East Report, "International Justice, Local Injustices," tackles the problem that, generally peaking, international law has force equivalent to the political power pushing for its enforcement.
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Hersh on counter-insurgency

The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh returns to an old hunting ground when he asks whether new plan by US Special Forces to form an assassination squad to tackle the Baathist/nationalist insurgency in Iraq will be a repeat of Vietnam:
The Bush Administration has authorized a major escalation of the Special Forces covert war in Iraq. In interviews over the past month, American officials and former officials said that the main target was a hard-core group of Baathists who are believed to be behind much of the underground insurgency against the soldiers of the United States and its allies. A new Special Forces group, designated Task Force 121, has been assembled from Army Delta Force members, Navy seals, and C.I.A. paramilitary operatives, with many additional personnel ordered to report by January. Its highest priority is the neutralization of the Baathist insurgents, by capture or assassination.
This new policy is apparently a victory for Donald Rumsfeld, who is referring to the operations as "manhunts." The assassination squads will receive the help of elite Israeli troops that have experience from carrying out the same types of operations in the occupied territories. This seems to be yet another instance where Israeli expertise from the occupation of Palestine is being used in Iraq -- another example reported a few days ago is how US troops in Iraq are encircling Iraqi villages where they suspect guerrillas are operating with barbed wire. These operations will also rely on the expertise of former senior Baathist intelligence officers who will be trained to infiltrate the insurgency movement.
A former intelligence official said that getting inside the Baathist leadership could be compared to "fighting your way into a coconut--you bang away and bang away until you find a soft spot, and then you can clean it out." An American who has advised the civilian authority in Baghdad said, "The only way we can win is to go unconventional. We're going to have to play their game. Guerrilla versus guerrilla. Terrorism versus terrorism. We've got to scare the Iraqis into submission."
Read the whole unbelievable thing.
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Who's Republican in Iraq

The Washington Monthly has this great who's who of American officials in Iraq, which digs up quite a few Republican party fundraisers and other operatives. The list is quite impressive, running from long-time backers to the children of Reagan-era officials and former Carlyle Group executives.
It's also driven journalists on the ground, watching these operatives move in and out of Saddam's marble Republican Palace, which CPA commandeered as its headquarters, to joke: "They don't call it the Republican Palace for nothing."
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EU on anti-Semitism

The report that the European Commission prevented from being printed has been unofficially posted for download on an EU website. The report is said by Jewish organizations to have been held because it linked anti-Semitism with Muslim and Arab immigrant communities in Europe, although the EU itself gives different reasons:
In February this year, the Management Board of the EUMC, which consists of independent experts in the field of human rights, took a collective decision to continue its research on anti-Semitism with a view to publishing a comprehensive report at a later stage, rather than making public the final draft of the Synthesis Report by the Berlin Centre. This decision was based on the EUMC's mandate to provide reliable, objective and comparable data to the Community and its Member States. Year on year the EUMC strives to improve the reliability, objectivity and comparability of the information it delivers on all forms of racism. In this case the data set was considered too narrow to proceed with a publication.
. Read for yourselves and come up with your own conclusions.
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Protocols of Zion in Alexandria Library

This AP story is making the rounds:
The United Nations' culture agency plans to issue a public denunciation of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," dismissed by historians as a forgery to discredit Jews, amid criticism that the book had gone on display in Egypt and that an official there had made anti-Semitic remarks about it, The Associated Press has learned. UNESCO has inquired with Egypt's Alexandria Library about allegations of possible anti-Semitism in its display of the book and has asked the library to assure UNESCO that it hasn't left itself open to possible racism charges. "Protocols" tells of a Jewish plot to take over the world. Historians have long dismissed the work as a forgery concocted by Czar Nicholas II's secret police to blame Russia's troubles on Jews. UNESCO's director-general, Koichiro Matsuura planned to issue a public denunciation of the book this weekend at a seminar in Venice pegged to "Protocols"' 100th anniversary. The seminar was organized in part by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which combats anti-Semitism around the world.
This would be surprising considering that the museum's director, Ismail Serageldin, is a very worldly for Vice-President of the World Bank and the entire project is under the aegis of Egypt's First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak, but considering the high-profile of the Protocols in Egypt after last year's Ramadan TV serial scandal, anything is possible. It would be a great shame if it's true, as the Alexandria Library is a worthy project that doesn't need the bad publicity. It's rather odd however that the story does not interview anyone in Egypt or confirm that the book is indeed on display at the Library. Update: The Alexandria Library today said the book has been displayed "as a curiosity" and that it was removing it from the display. Al Jazeera has the complete story.
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The Baker-Saudi connection

Don't miss TPM's eye-opening post on President Bush's appointment of James Baker as a personal envoy to Iraq to deal with, among other things, with the Saddam regime's odious debt. Baker's law firm currently represents Saudi Arabia, which was a major creditor to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and also sits on the board of the Carlyle Group, which advises Iraq on financial matters. Just follow the links.
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Israel expands settlements, criticizes Powell

Israel announced that it would build 1720 more houses in the West Bank and Gaza this year, creating more facts on the ground. This Washington Post piece quotes Raanan Gissin, Israeli PM Ariel Sharon's spokesman, as saying this was approved by Colin Powell:
Israel has also agreed to freeze the number, but not the size, of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Gissin said. He said Israel has an "understanding" with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell that natural growth is permitted. "People have the right to live and multiply and give birth, and we are not going to throw them out," he said. U.S. officials have denied that Powell made any agreement permitting the natural growth of settlements.
Meanwhile, Israeli officials have criticized Powell for wanting to meet the architects of the recently signed Geneva "alternative" peace accords.
"I think he is making a mistake," Ehud Olmert, Israel's vice premier, said of Mr. Powell in an interview on Israel radio. "I think he is not helping the process. I think this is a wrong step by a representative of the American administration."
Olmert is a former hard-right mayor of Jerusalem who was a key architect of the policy containing growth of the city's Arab population and accelerating the encroachment of traditionally Arab neighborhoods by Jews.
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Brookings Institution on Iraq

The conservative Brookings Institution hosted an event on December 2 to discuss "First-Hand Views From Iraq." The Panel includes Martin Indyk, Charles Duelfer, Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack. Pollack in particular will be interesting as he was one of the main "moderate" voices in favor of the war, most notably through his best-selling book "The Theatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq." Like many Iraqi experts, Pollack was convinced that Iraq possessed an active WMD program. (See his two-part interview with TPM before the war, for instance.) Here is an excerpt of what he says:
There is a great deal of good going on inside of Iraq, but there's also a great deal of bad going on inside of Iraq. And I think that ultimately it really comes down to what the United States wants to do. If we are willing to stick this operation out and if we're also willing to make some changes in how we're doing things, I see no particular reason why Iraq cannot become a perfectly stable, prosperous, pluralist society. Because there is all kinds of good in Iraq, and there are all kinds of good building block that you could work with.
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Quota system for Iraqi women

In light of the recently announced elections, two female members of the Iraqi Governing Council have published this editorial in the New York Times arguing for a quota system to make sure women are represented in Iraqi politics and government. They model their idea on systems in existence in Scandinavia and Latin America, but warn that there might be much opposition in Iraq.
How can these sorts of innovations be adapted for Iraq? The United States could work with us to ensure that the Governing Council sets aside slots for women in all levels of government and in the constitutional drafting process in proportion to their percentage of the population; makes good on its previous pledge to appoint at least five women as deputy ministers of government agencies; increases the number of women on the Governing Council and its successor provisional government and ensures that these women have a leadership role in building a new government and appointing senior government officials; guarantees equal rights and opportunities for women in the constitution and all related laws; and creates a gender advisory council that reports to the head of state and has the authority and responsibility to make sure that women's concerns are represented.
It is worth noting that neighboring Iran has one of the highest proportions of women in parliament, although they are banned from running for senior posts such as president.
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Kimmerling on "Sacred Rage"

Leftist post-Zionist thinker and Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling review three books on terror for The Nation:
Since 9/11, terror has become one of the most fashionable issues on both the American and the international agenda, and almost every publisher has rushed to publish a book written by one of the instantly created "experts on terrorism." These "merchants of fear," together with other interested political actors--such as the current leaders of the United States and Israel--thus unwittingly play directly into the hands of the terrorists, whose main objective is less to kill than to sow anxiety and panic. Ironically, from this perspective, Al Qaeda and the US Administration, as well as the Israeli right and Hamas, have a common aim: namely, to increase fear in order to recruit and manipulate their own people against their respective "other."
Read the whole article for his interesting take on the problems with defining terrorism.
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NYT on Syria

Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times snatched a rare interview of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad on December 1, which Assad used to call for renewed US-brokered negotiations for peace between Israel and Syria in the context . The main feeling from the interview is that Assad is growing increasingly concerned with the US disrupting regional stability -- a status quo that the Assad regime has benefited from for over 30 years.
Recent events in the Middle East, like the Israeli attack on what it described as a terrorist training camp in Syria in October, have left the impression that Damascus has little leverage and a shrinking regional role. But Mr. Assad suggested that Syria could be an important component to solving both violent conflicts in the Middle East — in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories. There can be no peace in the region without Syria," he said. "And Syria is important for the future stability in Iraq due to its credibility and its being a neighbor to Iraq." In contrast to Syria's previous belligerent statements about the need for an immediate end to the American occupation of Iraq, however, Mr. Assad softened his country's position. Asked how he felt about having 100,000 American soldiers as his newest neighbors, he sounded almost resigned. "The problem is not whether you have one American soldier or a million American soldiers on your borders," he said. "And the problem is not whether they are going to stay one year or 10 years. The problem is whether the U.S. is going to become a power for achieving turbulence in the region instead of being an element of stability."
Also read the last few paragraphs where Assad makes a pathetic attempt to defend his reform program and the widespread corruption among his family. The NYT's editorial board commented on the interview two days later with a dismissive piece on "The Syrian Leader's Curious World."
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria understands that he no longer lives in his father's Middle East, where brutal repression at home, the refusal to deal with Israel and cozy relations with terrorist groups and rogue regimes were enough to ensure decades of unchallenged power. That much comes across in an interview with our colleague Neil MacFarquhar in The Times on Monday. What is less clear is whether Mr. Assad, the son and successor of Hafez al-Assad, fully grasps the magnitude of the challenge he has inherited, and so far failed to meet.
While the NYT is undoubtedly right to highlight Syria's long-standing hardline stance towards Israel and its own lack of democracy -- it has paved the way for the hereditary republics that seem to be looming in Egypt and Libya -- its argument about Assad's rejection of a peace deal with Israel brokered by Bill Clinton in 2000 is dubious at best, considering how little is known about the deal in question or the seriousness of negotiations taking place. Past and current Israeli governments, reluctant to give up the West Bank, do not seem any more eager to relinquish the Golan Heights.
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