Iraqi reality TV show defies odds in this violence plagued country By RAWYA RAGEH BAGHDAD, Iraq-- Clad in a beige suit, the TV news anchor fiddles with his glasses as he announces there's been an explosion: "The microwave blew up in Soha's face as she was preparing her trademark pizza," he says. Jon Stewart, step aside. Welcome Ali Fadhel, rising star of Iraqi spoof news _ or so he hopes. For now, the 24-year-old is a popular contestant on Iraq's new hit reality television show "Saya Wa Surmaya," or "Fame and Fortune."
The show features Iraqi men and women taking on challenges in hopes of winning a contract with Al-Sharqiya television, which airs the program. Fadhel tried his hand at a fake newscast. "Fame and Fortune" presents a different "reality" from every day life in Iraq _ no kidnappings, no killings, no explosions _ except for the odd cooking accident. "There's such little support given these days to the youth," said Mustafa Kadhem, head of programming at the station. "We figured we can help uncover some of the talented ones." Reality TV burst on the scene in the Arab world in 2003 with programs similar to "Big Brother," but adding elements of "American Idol"-style talent shows. The shows angered conservatives, who considered the spectacle of young men and women dancing and singing under one roof sacrilegious. Al-Sharqiya introduced Iraq's first reality TV show in 2004, but it was not geared toward pure entertainment. The program, "Construction Contract," revolved around the reconstruction of homes destroyed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of the country. "Fame And Fortune" kicked off this year with different themes every few months. One offered winners interest-free loans to start small businesses. The latest installment, "Youth Project," is a talent contest. "The idea was to help people realize their dreams and follow them as they do that," Kadhem said. "Youth Project" began after the network ran ads seeking young people who have an interest in visual arts. More than 70 people auditioned; eight were chosen, including four women. The show hit the air in July, featuring the eight finalists, aged 17 to 30, in a set that looks like a living room with an open kitchen. The contestants, in mostly unscripted situations, perform different artistic tasks _ photography, script writing, directing and acting _ that are evaluated by professional artists. Viewers decide who leaves the show by voting through the network's Web site. The winner gets $3,000 and will be hired as a director by the network. In a concession to Islamic tastes, the participants don't spend the night on the set, as they might in a Western reality show. But they eat together, socialize and sit close to one another on a narrow couch. So far, the show has avoided offending the religious establishment. When the top-rated, Lebanese show "Star Academy" appeared in 2003, it drew sharp criticism on many Islamic Web sites. Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti denounced the show as an open invitation to sin and instructed Muslims not to watch it. The Dubai-based MBC television pulled the plug on an Arabic version of "Big Brother" two years ago after similar criticism. The Iraqi producers of "Fame and Fortune" have avoided the problem by sending the participants home at night. Kadhem said sleeping over at the same house wouldn't have conformed to Iraqi traditions, "plus there was simply no need for that _ the tasks do not require it." When a participant is voted off, there's none of the passionate hugging and kissing common on "Star Academy." Instead, women shake hands with male contestants who survive the cut, offering a simple "mabrouk," or "congratulations." Nonetheless, slick Western production methods are evident in every aspect of the show _ from the trademark IKEA interiors, more reminiscent of a New York studio than traditional Iraqi tastes, to commercials advertising the show with Frank Sinatra's "My Way" in the background. In his spoof newscast, Fadhel pretended to talk to Aseel Essam, "the correspondent on scene." Her hair in pig tails, Essam sported tight Bermuda jeans and a baby blue, body-hugging top. That may seem simple. But producers say it's tough to produce a show like this in Iraq. Eighty percent of the shooting is indoors. The few outdoor scenes are shot in "working-class neighborhoods known to be safe," Kadhem said. He refused to identify them for security reasons. The soon-to-be-stars also take their own precautions. Soha Sadeq, 24, said she doesn't put on makeup until she arrives at the studio to avoid problems from Islamic zealots on the street. "It's better that way, to keep a low profile and not attract attention," she said. Fadhel, whose wife is expecting their first child in a month, said he once encountered four explosions on his way to the network's central Baghdad studio. "I have to practice my art," said Fadhel, whose idols are Stanley Kubrick, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Oliver Stone. "Two things could kill me _ a terrorist on the street, or not practicing my art."
Egypt seeks $1.5 bln to revamp railways after crash By Abdel Sattar Hatita CAIRO, Aug 23 (Reuters) - Egypt, reeling from its worst train disaster in four years, scrambled on Wednesday to find $1.5 billion to overhaul its antiquated rail network. Fifty eight people were killed and scores injured on Monday when two commuter trains collided in the Nile Delta town of Qalyoub. Egypt's state news agency said the accident happened after one of the drivers apparently failed to heed a signal. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif had ordered Transport Minister Mohamed Lutfi Mansour to report preliminary findings on the crash by Wednesday. But Mansour gave no hint of the cause in an address to a parliamentary committee convened for the accident. A cabinet spokesman said the preliminary results were now expected to be released later in the evening or on Thursday. Mansour told the committee he would dip into proceeds from the $2.9 billion sale of Egypt's third mobile phone license to help pay for the rail revamp. He said 5 billion Egyptian pounds ($871 million) would be drawn from the mobile proceeds, and the government would borrow the remainder of the total $1.5 billion that the overhaul is expected to cost. The money will pay to upgrade equipment, improve maintenance and revamp old engines or buy new ones, Mansour said. It would also go toward installing automated crossings and linking the rail networks by computer. Mansour said he had initially submitted to parliament in June a plan for upgrading the railways, but it had not been carried out. In a statement, the transport ministry said Mansour had previously warned of potential danger on the railways. The train crash in the town of Qalyoub, which prompted Mansour to fire the head of the state railway authority, was Egypt's worst rail accident since 2002, when a fire ripped through a crowded passenger train, killing about 360 people. Since Monday's crash, a string of accidents have hit Egypt's transport industry. Eleven Israeli Arab tourists were killed on Tuesday when their tour bus flipped on a dangerous curve in the Sinai Peninsula. Earlier that day, a sleeper train collided with a tractor south of Cairo, injuring two people. Security sources said on Wednesday a further 11 Egyptians were killed overnight and nine injured when a bus in a wedding convoy flipped into a waterway near the southern city of Aswan.
Paris Hilton is releasing her album Paris on Tuesday, though for the 25-year-old hotel heiress, socialite and star of The Simple Life, making music is nothing new, she reveals. "When I was little," she tells Blender magazine for its September issue, she was forced to practice piano, violin and guitar "every day ... since I was 11. My mom made me." All the practice seems to have paid off: Of her new album, she tells the magazine: "I, like, cry, when I listen to it, it's so good."It gets worse:
Paris Hilton is leaving her promiscuous past behind her and is trying to encourage women to join her on her “no sex for a year” pledge. Paris said recently: “It’s sexier when a girl is flirty but she doesn’t do anything.” “I think women should be confident and strong, and they often underestimate themselves and give in to men.”Paris Hilton is on a jihad against Western men, clearly. Against all their senses. For didn't Nostradamus write:
Quatrain 1.39 By night in bed the supreme one strangled, The elevated blonde, for too great an involvement: By three the empire is surrogated and enslaved, To death, neither letter nor packet read.Ah, Bernard... you're so lucky to be over 80. Paris Hilton makes the sign of the Beast. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Up to nine Israeli Arabs die in Egypt tour bus crash By Cynthia Johnston CAIRO, Aug 22 (Reuters) - Up to nine Israeli Arabs were killed on Tuesday and 39 injured when their tour bus overturned in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian officials said, the latest in a string of Egyptian transport accidents. Egypt's Interior Ministry said five people had died in the crash on a road near the holiday resort town of Nuweiba. Medical and security officials put the death toll at nine. Medical sources said seven of the injured were in a critical condition. The crash was the third in two days to hit Egypt's transport network. Also on Tuesday, a sleeper train collided with a tractor south of Cairo, injuring two people. On Monday, 58 people were killed in a collision between two commuter trains in Egypt's worst rail disaster in four years.AND ANOTHER TRAIN ACCIDENT!!!!! MESH MOMKEN!
Egyptian train collides with tractor: two injured By Summer Said CAIRO, Aug 22 (Reuters) - An Egyptian sleeper train collided with a tractor south of Cairo on Tuesday, injuring two people, a day after 58 people were killed in Egypt's worst rail disaster for four years, security sources said. Police arrested the train driver after the collision, one of the sources said. The collision, in the town of Beni Suef 100 km (60 miles) south of Cairo, derailed two carriages and caused panic among passengers. In Monday's crash in the Nile Delta town of Qalyoub, a driver apparently ignored a signal and a commuter train ploughed into the rear of another. Relatives have claimed the bodies of 55 of the dead but three remained unidentified, health officials said. Tuesday's collision occurred shortly after Egypt appointed a new head of the state railway authority. The previous head, Hanafi Abdel-Qawi, was fired on Monday and his deputy suspended pending an investigation into the accident. Transport Minister Mohamed Mansour is due to report the preliminary results of the investigation on Wedesday. Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif has pledged that anyone found to have been negligent will be held to account. The crash on Monday was the worst rail accident in Egypt since 360 people were killed in 2002 when fire ripped through seven carriages of a crowded passenger train.The only good "transportation" news I heard today, was that one of my friends made it from his bedroom to the bathroom safely, without any accidents. He decided to walk.
Nice one ya Rubi...
Texting, ring tones all the rage in Iraq By RAWYA RAGEH, Associated Press Writer Sun Aug 20, 2:45 PM ET Beep, beep, beep. Then the text comes: "President Bush calls for a timetable for the withdrawal of the Iraqi people from Iraq." It's not a news update. It's Omar Abdul Kareem's relentlessly beeping cell phone â€” and one of the 20 or so humorous text messages he gets every day from his friends. In a city bereft of entertainment, text messaging and swapping ringtones are all the rage for young Iraqis trying to lighten their lives. Most restaurants, cafes and movies have closed due to the country's security situation. The content of the text messages and ringtones speak volumes about the state of affairs here: jokes and songs about suicide bombings, sectarianism, power outages, gas prices, Saddam Hussein and George Bush. Cell phone shops, the only crowded stores these days, sell special CDs with ringtones at about $2 apiece. Collections of short jokes especially written for texters are best-sellers. Iraqis fiddling with their cell phones on the streets look like New Yorkers hooked on iPods. "It's not like there's much to do around here," Abdul Kareem said. "It's perhaps the only venue to express ourselves." The suave 22-year-old security guard carries a cutting-edge Nokia 3250 with a camera and twisting base. He used to buy $60 worth of prepaid phone cards a month to text with his girlfriend â€” until they broke up. After sending her a lot of "I miss you" texts, he's moved on. Now he sends his aunt dozens of jokes, most of them at the expense of ethnic Kurds. The daily reality of violence and explosions has influenced every aspect of Iraqi life â€” including love notes. "I send you the tanks of my love, bullets of my admiration and a rocket of my yearning," one popular message reads. A popular ringtone features the music from Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise." But the local version includes a voice similar to Saddam's rapping in English: "I'm Saddam, I don't have a bomb/Bush wants to kick me/I don't know why/smoking weed and getting high/I know the devil's by my side." The song concludes with: "My days are over and I'm gonna die/all I need is chili fries" as a crowd yells "Goodbye forever, may God curse you." Competing with Saddam for the most popular song in Iraq today is Iraqi pop star Hossam al-Rassam â€” "Ma, I've been stung by a scorpion." Its sensual lyrics challenge widespread conservatism in Iraq by talking about a girl's lips and perfume "that make you live longer." Rasha Tareq, 23, has al-Rassam's ringtone, as well as dozens of others by Lebanese singers. The most expensive ringtones include songs by Egyptian pop star Amr Diab. "Ah, well, Dad pays for all that," she said. Dad also paid for her Nokia 7660 as well as the eight other models she has bought since cell phones first hit the market after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Rasha says her only source of entertainment used to be trips to Baghdad's Mutanabi Street on Fridays to buy downloads and joke books for her cell phone. But since a Friday morning curfew was imposed a few months ago, she has had to limit herself to nearby stores. "Though not as good as the stuff on Mutanabi Street, there's at least three stores in every block," she said. "Texting my girlfriends is my only hobby." But cell phones in Iraq aren't just about being cool. Some Iraqis use their cell phones to make political statements, with ringtones like "Mawtini," or "My Land," â€” Iraq's pre-Saddam national anthem. Others favor jingles believed to be sung by members of the Shiite Mahdi Army militia. Because of the popularity of text messages, political parties used them as a way to campaign during parliamentary elections last year. Currently, an Iraqi non-governmental organization texts Iraqis, urging them to "confront violence with peace." The tech-savvy insurgents have also gotten in on the act, making threats through text messages sent from Web sites, which makes it hard to track down the source. Abdul Kareem, the security guard, says he texts his mother around the clock â€” "especially if I'm out late, you know, with all the bombs going off everywhere."
This widening ideological divide between ruling elites and oppositions will make it more difficult to adopt political reform measures, which require at least some consensus and flexibility on both sides. More troubling is that the positions of putatively democratic Arab opposition movements on the war in Lebanon have exposed their totalitarian and populist tendencies. There is a great difference between adopting a rational discourse that rightly condemns the Israeli military for its crimes against civilians and criticizes unconditional American acceptance of the war, and cheering the death of Israeli civilians as a step toward the destruction of the "Zionist entity." This goes beyond the tendency of Islamist and pan-Arab opposition movements to opportunistically capitalize on popular feelings to rally support. It shows that these movements lack a key characteristic of reformist political forces: a willingness to combat ideologies of hatred and extremism rather than using them for political advantage. Furthermore, although they call for democratic reform in Arab countries, Islamist and pan-Arab movements have failed to acknowledge the fundamentally non-democratic nature of the actions of Lebanon's Hizbullah. By unilaterally making a decision of war and peace on July 12, Hizbullah confiscated the right of Lebanon's government, of which it is part, to determine the country's fate. Israel's response , by targeting infrastructure and the civilian population, was surely extreme, legitimizing resistance; however, Hizbullah acted like a state within a state, taking advantage of the weakness of Lebanon's formal institutions and transgressing the principle of consensual decision-making. The regional shadows of the war in Lebanon will persist for many years. They may well be a long and painful reminder that the hope for any near-term democratic transformation of the Arab world was perhaps the greatest loser in a war that produced tremendous damage on all sides.Harsh words indeed. While I agree with him that Hizbullah acted irresponsibly on 12 July, it's quite a stretch to say that it took a decision of war and peace. It was Israel that took the decision to escalate the conflict into a full-scale war. As for the opposition being opportunistic in capitalizing on the Hizbullah-Lebanon war for local advantage, I don't really see that as a problem (they're politicians, after all) as much as some of the delusions about this war. But there is a real concern in that the opposition does not realize that cheering for Hizbullah is a dead-end street: there is no real support in Egypt (and I suspect in all other Arab countries) for going to war against Israel. The need for a rational discourse about the region is indeed great, and it would have been nice to see less grandstanding from certain parts of the Nasserist left (which does indeed have totalitarian impulses). But it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument: can you have a quality democratic debate in the absence of democracy and when the only avenue open to dissidents is populism? Rational debate lost out on all sides here: in both the Arab world and in Israel (actually, particularly in Israel), jingoism triumphed.
CAIRO -- A Saudi opposition group is set to breathe new life into the kingdom's dormant political reform movement. But in a sign of changing alliances, its founder hopes for a boost from public anger over government criticism of Hezbollah. Founded in Paris by the exiled son of the last ruler of part of present-day Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Democratic Opposition Front claims about 2,000 members, mostly in Saudi Arabia. It aims to provide an umbrella network for secular and Islamist activists both inside and outside the country who are campaigning for the overthrow of the al-Saud ruling family. "We have founded the Saudi Democratic Opposition Front to push for 100 percent democracy in the country," said Talal Mohammed Al-Rasheed, the son of the last ruler of the independent Rashidi emirate, which reigned in Saudi Arabia's northwestern region of Hail from 1835 to 1921. "If the al-Saud [family] introduce genuine democracy, we will support them. But if they do not, we will push by all peaceful means to make them give up their power," said Mr. Al-Rasheed, 72, who still likes to be addressed as Prince Talal.I don't know what to think of these people. I found this interesting though:
Earlier this month, Mr. Al-Rasheed gave an hourlong interview to the Paris bureau chief of the Pan-Arab, Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite news network. After announcing the formation of his party and advertising the forthcoming interview with Mr. Al-Rasheed on its news bar at the bottom of the screen, Al Jazeera suddenly removed the information and the interview was spiked. "My sources told me that after they saw the information on Al Jazeera's news ticker, the Saudi government called the station more than five times in one hour, pleading with them not to air it," Mr. Al-Rasheed said, adding that Al Jazeera had "obviously caved in to the pressure."Et tu, Jazeera?
Egyptian train crash kills dozens, injures many By Aziz El-Kaissouni QALYOUB, Egypt, Aug 21 (Reuters) - A train crash killed and injured dozens of people in a Nile Delta town north of Cairo on Monday in Egypt's worst rail disaster for four years. Casualty figures varied widely. Egypt's health minister put the toll at 58 dead and 143 injured. A security source had earlier said up to 80 had died. An investigation was under way. State news agency MENA said the accident happened early in the morning when a train driver apparently ignored a signal and one commuter train ploughed into the rear of another. The head of the state railway authority blamed "human error" for the crash, MENA reported. "The first train was stopped. We looked and saw the other train coming from behind, screeching," said Khalil Sheikh Khalil, who had disembarked from a minibus nearby moments before the crash. "We kept saying: 'Driver, driver, a train is coming.' So the (train) driver moved up 15 metres, and while he was moving, the two trains impacted," he told Reuters. Khalil said the engine of the rear train burst into flames on impact. A Reuters photographer at the scene said one of the trains had derailed and was lying on its side. It had split into four parts and appeared to have burned. The crash ripped seats from the train carriages, which were littered with clothes and shoes. The carriages had been crushed together like an accordion. "A loud crash awoke me. One of the trains had derailed and people were scattered on the floor. I called the authorities and they told me I was crazy," said Osama Abdul Haleem, who lives near the crash site. "I told them there are dead and dying there on the ground." APPEAL FOR BLOOD Rescue workers scrambled to evacuate the casualties, loading them onto some two dozen ambulances. Blood was spattered across the wreckage of both trains. By midday, rescuers were still recovering bodies, using a bulldozer to pull apart a metal side panel to reach a body lodged in one of the carriages. Rescuers found body parts in the rubble under one of the carriages. Hundred of bystanders and passengers' relatives anxious for news converged on the wreckage in a semi-rural area about 20 km (12 miles) north of Cairo. Security troops linked arms to keep the crowds at bay. Officials called on people over loudhailers to give blood, and a queue formed in response. Crowds also berated a government official at the scene, chanting "negligence" and scuffling with police who tried to disperse them. Health Minister Hatem el-Gabali said the government would pay 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($871) to families of the dead and 1,000 pounds for the wounded. It would also cover funeral costs. An opposition politician at the scene said government lenience over a string of previous transport accidents meant there was no motivation to maintain safety standards. More than 1,000 people died in February when a ferry sank in the Red Sea. Investigations primarily blamed the captain, who died, for not following safety procedures, but the public directed its rage at the ferry owner, a member of parliament. Monday's crash was the deadliest railway accident in Egypt since about 360 were killed in 2002 when fire ripped through seven carriages of a crowded passenger train. That accident was the worst in 150 years of Egyptian rail history and prompted the resignation of the transport minister and the head of the state railway system. ((Reporting by Cairo bureau; Writing by Mohammed Abbas and Cynthia Johnston))UPDATE: Transportation Minister Mohamed Mansour visited the scene, according to Nile News, and announced an investigation has already started into the accident. Prime Minister Ahmad Nazeef says the "priority should go now for rescuing the injured." UPDATE: Political Cartoonist and blogger Fathi Abul Ezz published a funny, but sad, crtical cartoon of Minister Mohamed Mansour. The caption says, "We are trying to help efforts for birth control by train accidents, following the president's orders." UPDATE: The Prosecutor General ordered the dead victims' bodies to be moved to the Zeinhom Morgue in Cairo for identification, says Nile News. UPDATE: This is going to be my last update for today. I've been flicking through the Egyptian TV channels since noon to get information about what's happening. The Sattelite Nile News has devoted a good chunk of time to cover the tragedy, with interviews with several govt officials, and footage of the wreckage. As for the local Egyptian TV channels, they are living in Lala land, focusing their coverage as always on president's news. Even when they reported on the trains accident, it was "president Mubarak extends his condolences to the victims of the tragic trains accident." I would like to take the opportunity to send a big THANK YOU to photographer Nasser Nouri who shared his photos with the Arabist. Nasser left Cairo and travelled as soon as he could to Qalyoubiya to take those pictures of the tragedy, and kept us updated. He even helped moving bodies from the trains. He emailed us the pix as soon as he arrived back in Cairo, and before he changed his work clothes that were stained in blood. Shokran ya Nasser. You are the man!
One detainee was judged a threat in part because he was a karate expert and had taught martial arts to Bosnian orphans, tribunal records show. He was also classified as potentially dangerous because he was familiar with computers. Another detainee was flagged because he had performed mandatory service in the Algerian army more than a decade ago, as a cook.As if we needed more evidence that Guantanamo is useless, farcical and cruel, there comes this article in today's Washington post that details how six Algerians were kidnapped from Bosnia in 2002 despite being completely exonerated by the Bosnian authorities for allegedly planning an attack on the US Embassy. Not a proud moment for the US government, which threatened Bosnia with the withdrawal of peacekeeping troops to have legally innocent men handed over to them.
QALYOUB, Egypt, Aug 21 (Reuters) - A collision between two trains killed 80 people and injured 131 on Monday in a Nile Delta town north of Cairo, a security source said, in Egypt's worst rail disaster since 2002. About 25 ambulances rushed to the crash site, along with hundreds of bystanders and relatives anxious for news of passengers who might have been killed or injured, a witness said, adding that damage to the trains was extensive. The accident took place at about 7.30 a.m. (0430 GMT) near the town of Qalyoub, about 20 km (12 miles) north of Cairo, official sources told the state news agency MENA. They said one of the drivers had apparently ignored railway traffic signals. A Reuters photographer at the scene said one of the trains had derailed and was on its side. It had split into four parts and there were signs of a fire, he said. MENA quoted official Egyptian sources as saying the death toll was at least 20. The crash happened when one train ran into the rear of another, causing one of them to derail and overturn.This will remind a lot of people of the Al Ayyat train disaster of 2002, the worst in Egypt's history, in which at least 360 people died, caused the resignation of the transport minister at the time and discredited the Atef Ebeid government. I wonder if there will be an investigation into what has been done since Al Ayyat to improve train safety. Update: Just saw a French AFP news report saying the accident occurred after a collision of two trains that were on the same track and had not respected signals.
Les deux trains circulaient sur la même voie en direction de la capitale, l'un en provenance de Mansoura (130 km au nord du Caire) et l'autre de Benha (50 kms au nord). Selon les premiers éléments de l'enquête, l'un des trains n'a pas respecté un feu de signalisation, percutant violemment l'arrière du second. Les deux trains ne sont plus qu'un enchevêtrement de ferraille, autour duquel des dizaines de secouristes s'affairent pour tenter de retrouver des survivants, selon une journaliste de l'AFP. Deux wagons ont basculé sur le bas-côté de la voie. Des ambulances passent sirènes hurlantes, pour transporter les victimes dans sept hôpitaux de la région. Parmi les passagers figuraient des paysans ainsi que des fonctionnaires, dont de nombreux policiers, qui se rendaient au Caire pour y travailler, a affirmé un policier, Mamdouh Amer. Le 1er mai, 45 Egyptiens avaient été blessés lors d'une collision entre deux trains dans le gouvernorat de Charquiya, au nord du Caire. Fin février, 20 personnes avaient également été blessées dans un accident similaire près d'Alexandrie (nord).
Things can become a little confusing when the same neocons who insist it is ipso facto anti-Semitic to ask what role Israel plays in their calculations instruct American Jews that they are paying too much attention to their own country's best interests and not enough to Israel's. Writing in--of all places--The Weekly Standard, David Gelernter attacks American Jews for their "self-destructive nihilism" in remaining "fervent supporters of an American left that is increasingly unable or unwilling to say why Israel must exist." (This is nonsense about the vast majority of the left, of course, but ignore that for a moment.) Gelernter argues that "grassroots Democrats are increasingly dangerous to the Jewish state (not to mention the American state)." Note that the question of the "American state" is literally a mere parenthetical to Gelernter's principal concern--the well-being of Israel. Over at National Review's "The Corner," Mona Charen can be found making the same sneering argument. She calls American Jews "stubborn and downright stupid" because they "despise George W. Bush and will donate time and money to any Democrat in 2008, while Bush is indisputably the most pro-Israel president in the history of the United States." Again, it's highly "disputable," but never mind that. More to the point is the fact that Bush's presidency--a complete and utter failure by virtually any empirical measurement--is also deemed irrelevant. It's Israel alone that matters, according to these anti-American conservatives. (And woe unto American Jews when Christian America starts paying attention to their unpatriotic perfidy.) What's most immediately worrisome about the neocons' long march through our institutions of government is the possibility that they may succeed a second time. According to Sidney Blumenthal's reporting in Salon, neocon staffers for Dick Cheney and the NSC's point man on the Middle East, Elliott Abrams (Norman Podhoretz's son-in-law), "have discussed Syrian and Iranian supply activities as a potential pretext for Israeli bombing of both countries." They are looking, according to this NSC source, "to widen the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah and Israel and Hamas into a four-front war." Four wars simultaneously? Led by this crew? After what we've seen in Iraq and Afghanistan? Is it me, or are the people who run this country dangerously out of their minds?Reminder to self: move to South America (but not too close to Castro or Chavez).
Hizbollah has redrawn the Middle East Published: August 17 2006 20:29 | Last updated: August 18 2006 01:49 The perceived victory of Hizbollah in Lebanon may be short term but has highlighted some new and important developments. For the first time, the Israel Defence Forces were unable to prevail in an all-out war. More significantly, the winner this time is a Shia Muslim, non-state, armed movement supported by Syria and Iran. In Israel’s previous wars, from 1948 to 1982, the challengers were Sunni Arabs.
In fact, Israel’s effort this time to eradicate Hizbollah was no remake of past Israeli-Arab wars. It signified several complex – and seemingly contradictory – trends in the Middle East. First is the revival of a radical Islamic front that rejects the Arab-Israeli peace process. Second is the growing divide between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the Gulf region. Finally there is the changed political dynamic after the recent entry by radical Islamist movements – such as Hizbollah and Hamas – to mainstream electoral politics. The alignment between Hizbollah, Syria and Iran in a radical front against a peace settlement with Israel promotes anti-US and Arab nationalist mottoes more than any Islamic ideology could do. The Sunni “Arab street” has embraced Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah’s leader, as the new Arab hero, the “Nasser of our time”. But Mr Nasrallah’s elevation also works partly to lessen the appeal of Osama bin Laden in the Arab Middle East. That this radical front is led by Shia or secular Shia (as in Syria) is also significant. Since the US military intervention in Iraq in 2003, Sunni Arab conservative regimes in the Gulf and Jordan have been concerned not with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but what they saw as a growing Shia “crescent”, bringing under Iranian patronage oil fields north of the Gulf (Iraq, Bahrain and the Saudi north-east). Saudi Wahabi clerics had issued fatwa, or religious edicts, condemning the Shia as heretics. But they and the Sunni clerics were forced to retreat after Hizbollah’s perceived victory. The same clerics who earlier condemned the Shia have issued new fatwa supporting Hizbollah in its fight with Israel. On the government level, the deafening silence from Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia after the Lebanon ceasefire is a clear sign of embarrassment after their earlier hostility to Hizbollah’s actions. On the other hand, Iran and Syria have been quick to claim victory for themselves, too. Syria wants to regain its influence in Lebanon and is quite happy to see Israel destroying an already weak central state – as long as Israel does not retaliate inside Syria. But, paradoxically, Damascus is protected by its own weakness: a collapse of the regime would sooner or later put the Muslim Brotherhood radical Islamist movement in charge and, even if it is more moderate than its Egyptian or Jordanian cousins, neither Israel nor the west wishes to give any more opportunities to Islamist parties. The Iranians are taking revenge for their defeat at Iraq’s hands back in 1988, when Arab Sunni nationalist and Islamist movements supported Iraq against Iran, and only part of the Shia population supported Iran (hence Tehran’s desire to help create Hizbollah as a client party from the Shia movement in Lebanon). Iran has never been able to unite the Shia under its patronage on a religious basis nor a purely political one. Now Tehran is playing the “Arab street” and undermining the legitimacy of the ruling Arab regimes by leading this new alliance of Islamism and Arab nationalism in the near east. In Iraq, however, the same alliance works against Iran. Hence Iran’s leadership of the new radical front will not necessarily help bridge the Shia-Sunni gap in Iraq. Besides settling their account with Arab regimes, the Iranians are managing a conflict by proxies against the west. Tehran wants to avoid a possible military strike on its nuclear facilities and in this respect welcomes western anxiety about the high costs of military intervention. Cleverly, Iran has adopted a low profile on its borders with Iraq and Afghanistan, knowing that time is working in its favour, while fuelling the crisis in the near east. To have European troops stuck in southern Lebanon, hostage to any escalation of tensions between Tehran and the United Nations Security Council on sanctions, suits Tehran well. Clearly the Iranians were the real winners of the Lebanon conflict and will maintain their upper hand as long as Hizbollah is seen as a legitimate champion of the Arab cause, and not as part of the Shia crescent. The key issue now is Hizbollah, which is positioning itself on three levels: first, it is signalling Shia solidarity with Iran. Second, it is appealing to Lebanese nationalism by presenting itself as a pivotal element in Lebanese domestic politics. Third, it is fomenting Arab militancy against Israel and the US. Hizbollah triggered the conflict with Israel as an internationalist movement eager to relieve pressure on Hamas. But Mr Nasrallah’s recent “victory speech” portrayed the organisation as the champion of Lebanese interests and nationalism. Hizbollah will not be disarmed or marginalised; the only way to deal with it is to push for a new Lebanese polity in which it plays a central role, as a Lebanese party. If the west wishes to counter the synergy between Arab nationalism, Sunni militancy and the Shia crescent, which will link battlefields from Afghanistan to Lebanon, it must draw Islamist movements such as Hamas and Hizbollah further into the mainstream. This means encouraging a proper settlement in Lebanon involving all Lebanese actors without interference from Syria or Iran; supporting democratisation of Syria and negotiating with Hamas. It also means Israel must renounce its policy of “bunkerisation”, withdrawing behind a fortified border and hammering at any perceived threat. The writer, a professor at Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, is author of Globalised Islam (Hurst 2004)