Here I go again

This is the lead of the New York Times' article on recent events in Palestine, on the day after Hamas says it wants a truce of up to 20 years and accepts the 2002 Beirut Initiative as a general framework for negotiations:
JERUSALEM, Dec. 18 — The call for early elections by Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate Palestinian Authority president, is part of a Western-backed effort to revive the Middle East peace process in hopes of driving the radical Hamas party, which favors Israel’s destruction, out of power.
I am not disputing that Hamas has advocated Israel's destruction in the past, Zio-trolls (but then again so has Fatah.) But can any reasonable person continue reading this article after that kind of opening? In one sentence it implies that Mahmoud Abbas is some kind of "moderate," event though that word has no meaning any longer since people like the al-Sauds are considered "moderate," creates the idea that there is a strong desire by the West to revive the peace process, even though the West abandoned it when the Bush administration came into power and never showed much interest in enforcing the Oslo process when Israel was flouting it, and finally finishes with the equivalent of "Hamas, which advocates the drowning of kittens and puppies." It's a real shame the article opens that way, because even if I don't agree with its conclusions (including the idea, implicit in the piece that Hamas is a mere Iranian-Syrian puppet) there's some interesting stuff in it, such as:
Mouin Rabbani, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, an independent research group on foreign policy, argues against supporting one Palestinian faction against another. He says that progress will be possible based only on political consensus, even if the West doesn’t love the result. “Palestinians will remain unable to take significant decisions, or implement them, unless they’re based on a broad consensus that includes at least Fatah and Hamas,” he said. “The international community may have preferences, but this practice of trying to make progress on the basis of divisions in the Palestinian national movement has backfired spectacularly.”
(Mouin Rabbani does fantastic work, by the way, and for an organization that is very much an establishment player while challenging establishment thinking -- you'll see very little of that in Washington, DC.)
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Haniyeh: truce, 1967 borders, the works

Palestinian PM (for now!) Ismail Haniyeh gave an eloquent and stirring speech in which, among many, many other things, he said (again) that he was generally in favor of the 2002 Beirut peace initiative (the one that Saudi Arabia backed and Ehud Olmert recently said he was interested in) with a 10-15 year truce with Israel pending a final settlement and the creation of Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. He also gave a long explanation of how Fatah and US at several turns tried to sabotage negotiations to form a national unity government. He spoke respectfully about all parties throughout, clearly going out of his way to be diplomatic and calm things down. In other words, he was extremely impressive. Perhaps he still doesn't want to recognize Israel, but frankly I can't blame him after what that country did to his. At the end of the day, he is offering peace and negotiations. Kudos to al-Jazeera English for showing it all (I happened upon it by chance, perhaps other channels did too.)
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That's it for now (23)

December 19, 2006

So that was it. The plane took off, we did the familiar stomach churning spin and I looked out and watched the airport dip in and out of view, watched Camp Victory go by, idly pointed out too myself the various Saddam palaces that have become military headquarters and tried to remember which ones I'd been in.

It was a sick and tawdry story and I didn't want to tell it anymore. I walked into a bad situation one year ago and actually watched it get worse, with the fairly certain belief that it will continue to do so.
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That's it for now

So that was it. The plane took off, we did the familiar stomach churning spin and I looked out and watched the airport dip in and out of view, watched Camp Victory go by, idly pointed out too myself the various Saddam palaces that have become military headquarters and tried to remember which ones I'd been in. It was a sick and tawdry story and I didn't want to tell it anymore. I walked into a bad situation one year ago and actually watched it get worse, with the fairly certain belief that it will continue to do so. One year ago, I left Cairo as the Arab League was holding a reconciliation conference to bring together Iraq's disparate factions, to get them to talk to each other, to resolve the ever growing crisis. The day before I left, my last journalistic endeavor in the country, I attended a reconciliation conference in the Green Zone between... I guess it must have been Iraq's disparate factions again. But the stakes were higher this time, the number of corpses even greater on the streets, because in between those two conferences what was once a disgruntled Sunni-fueled insurgency had turned into a full blown sectarian civil war. For months the Sunni insurgency, Al Qaeda, whoever, blew up Shiites, until they finally nailed that shrine and that was just a little bit too much and what had until then been some occasional sectarian skirmishing, a bit of police brutality taken to extremes, turned into a concerted effort to drive the Sunnis out of mixed areas, with the inevitable violent reaction. It wasn't just the Americans fault, though I almost don't want to read all the books coming out detailing just how badly the US forces screwed up in those extremely sensitive early days after the invasion when so much was possible and so little was done right. The Iraqi political class does have to take its responsibility for the situation as well. These are politicians who could only see everything in a zero sum game. For the Shiites it was just a matter of settling scores, of killing off old Baathists, and humiliating the once dominant Sunnis. And for the Sunnis? They were convinced that they would soon be back in power - hadn't they always run the place? Those idiot, Mahdi-mad Shiites would eventually screw up and they would take power back, so why cooperate now? Why work together when you can have it all one day? So everyone's taking it all, and not getting anything. Even the Kurds, for the most part happy in the northern provinces, were playing a zero sum game in Kirkuk, which, stunningly, hasn't totally burst into flame, but when the time comes, they will probably just as vicious there as all the others. This country has become a graveyard for so much, including the US neo-con ambitions for the Middle East, which would almost be cause for smugness and celebration if it hadn't come at such a high price. I sympathize with fellow journalists who covered this conflict from the beginning and truly wanted the whole Bush project in Iraq to work because it would have meant peace and prosperity for the people there. I mean really, who is against democracy, free market, prosperity and social justice for a country? Instead, the utterly flawed nature of the whole enterprise has become starkly obvious in the body counts, corruption and total dysfunctional nature of the whole country. Instead of becoming the beacon for democracy in the Middle East that the Bushie neo-cons envisioned to pressure the autocratic regimes of the region, it has become the warning to all. It justifies every warning given by every dictator in the region -- would you rather have autocracy and order or democracy and chaos? So what if Iraq has had two elections and a referendum, it is also the most dangerous place on earth. People are fleeing en masse to Syria, of all places, a country with a terrible economy and a stupid dictatorial regime, that nevertheless looks good from Iraq. It's almost like a case study of medieval Muslim political philosophy which recommended supporting the ruler, no matter how perfidious, because order was always better than chaos. As the guy at the Cairo airport said as I was haggling over my ride home, said, "here in Egypt... it is safe." Way to go George. The thing is, I know I will be back. As long as US troops are there, this will be one of the biggest stories in the world, and as soon as they leave, which they will over the next year because suddenly cut and run doesn't seem so bad, it is going to turn into the Middle East's version of the Congo, an ugly conflict that everyone meddles in but doesn't really attract many headlines. It is so much easier to let them work their own problems out when no one's paying all that much attention. I don't know how many people died in Iraq while I was there, probably thirty or forty thousand. I knew three, the office manager at our news agency, a cameraman for CBS who lived downstairs, and a US captain out in Ramadi. There will be more.
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The plot thickens...

Two must-reads if you're following the al-Turki / Obaid story, from the WSJ and the Washington Times. From the first:
Despite the continuing high oil prices, for once U.S. difficulties with Saudi Arabia do not appear to be dominated by immediate energy concerns. The main challenge appears to be to steer Riyadh between a near holy confrontation with Shia Iran and an equally destabilizing alliance with radical Sunnis. As an experienced and well-liked envoy, Prince Turki will be hard to replace. One early danger is that the kingdom is close to acquiring nuclear weapons rather than continuing to rely on the longstanding security guarantees and understanding of successive administrations in Washington. Last month a Saudi official privately warned the kingdom would not tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran. Pakistan (for bombs) and perhaps North Korea (for rockets) are potential allies. There are already credible reports of facilities in the desert that the Saudis claim are oil-related, although there are no pipelines in sight. Also, North Korean personnel have been spotted at military facilities.
And the second:
Of the 77,000 active members of the insurgency, the "jihadis" number about 17,000, of which some 5,000 are from North Africa, Sudan, Yemen, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The remaining 60,000 are members of the former military or Saddam's paramilitary Fedayeen forces. The officer corps of the insurgency has "command and control facilities in Syria as well as bases in strategic locations, where Sunnis constitute the majority of the urban population." Given the centuries-old tribal, familial and religious ties between Iraq's Sunnis and Saudi Arabia, the assessment concludes that "Saudi Arabia has a special responsibility to ensure the continued welfare and security of Sunnis in Iraq." Its recommendations to the Saudi government included a comprehensive strategy that would include overt and covert components to deal with the worst-case scenario of full-blown civil war. It also calls on the government to communicate the assessment to the United States; make it clear to Iran that if its covert activities did not stop the Saudi leadership would counter them; and extend an invitation to the highest Iraqi Shi'ite leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to reassure the Shi'ite community.
But it's really worth reading both fully -- there are some fun anecdotes in there too.
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Is the US/Israel arming Dahlan against Hamas?

From Debka File, so take it with a grain of salt because it might just be provocation:
DEBKAfile’s military sources reveal that last week, US and Israel transferred a quantity of automatic rifles to Abu Mazen’s Fatah forces December 17, 2006, 8:14 AM (GMT+02:00) The guns reached Fatah leader Mohammed Dahlan who handed them over to the faction’s suicide wing, al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, Abbas’ only reliable strike force. Dahlan is now in command of the armed campaign against Hamas from presidential headquarters in Ramallah. Israeli officials are turning a blind eye to transfer of the arms into the hands of the most badly-wanted masterminds of Fatah suicide killings, such as Jemal Tirawi from Nablus.
Wouldn't exactly be surprising, though.
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New info on rendition from Italian trial

If you've been following the renditions story at all, this is a must-read with tons of new details from testimony to an Italian court by intelligence officers. It combines the worst tradition of shadow government among Italian intelligence and security agencies with the worst you can expect from the CIA, as well as highlight the complicity of several EU governments in the rendition program, against their own citizens. Remember that there has already been at least one case of mistaken identity, not to mention that while I'm not surprised that Morocco or Egypt (or for that matter Italy) don't care about rule of law it'd be nice to see that at least some European countries do. And spare me the mock surprise, European politicians. Most frightening, though, is this:
Arman Ahmed al-Hissini, imam of the Viale Jenner mosque in Milan and an acquaintance of Menshawi and Nasr, said both have been silenced by the Egyptian security services. "The Arab secret services, they give names to the CIA of people who they want, people who are on the outside, such as Europe," said Hissini, an Egyptian native known locally as Abu Imad. "They give the names to the CIA, because the CIA can go to work in these countries."
I am quite willing to believe that some of the people targeted by the CIA rendition program are really nasty al-Qaeda types, although I still think it is the wrong way to go about neutralizing them, especially if there is little evidence that they are up to anything serious (indeed, surveillance might allow the uncovering of a bigger network.) But if the CIA just accepts a shopping list from the Egyptian and other services without questions -- what, are they trying to meet quotas? -- then we can all start worrying.
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Court denies Bahais legal recognition

Since there's been some interest in today's protest to give Egyptian Bahais full recognition under the law, I am pasting below a press release from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the NGOs that has campaigned on the case (they also campaign on behalf of Egyptian Shias as well as anyone else who is discriminated against because of personal belief or condition, as well as work on public health issues.) The Supreme Administrative Court has unfortunately refused to force the Ministry of Interior to recognize Bahais, echoing the opinion of the Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa that Bahais do not deserve recognition -- this from a supposedly more open-minded cleric. It's sad to see such a confluence of bigotry and gestapo mentality: the sheikhs cling on to some abstract idea of what's a religion or not while the security types are too attached to their system and too obsessed with religion to change the system. Just look how nervous this regime is about the whole Muslim-Coptic thing. (Update: Don't miss this story by the wonderful Jailan Zayan or this post by Hossam, who was at the demo had experience a bunch of nastiness first-hand.) I think it's worth highlighting that this is not the first time the issue goes to court. In 1924 an Egyptian appeals court recognized the Bahai faith as independent of Islam and therefore worthy of its own categorization:
"The Bahá'í Faith is a new religion entirely independent.... No Bahá'í therefore can be regarded as Muslim or vice versa, even as no Buddhist, Brahmin or Christian can be regarded as Muslim."
There's more info about that at the Bahai World News Service and this page in particular. The public debate about this is rather narrow-minded, unfortunately. I had noted a few months in my personal notes that an al-Gomhouriya columnist, Mohammed Abdel Hafez, had written:
According to the Constitution, the main source of legislation is Islamic law, which recognises only the religions of the book: Christianity and Judaism. If Bahaism is officially recognised, worshippers of cows, the sun and fire will want to jump on the bandwagon.
This is both an attempt to belittle Bahais and take a jab at "pagans" -- Hindus, Zoroastrians, Yazidis and others. Not very classy, Mr Abdel Hafez. I hope the rest of the discussion of this issue is a little bit more enlightened -- to be fair I may have happened upon an unusually obnoxious commentary. Incidentally Bahais are sometimes reproached in the region because they have a major presence at Mount Carmel, in Israel. Aside from their attachment to Jerusalem and its environs -- surely understandable to Egyptian Muslims and Christians -- it's hardly their fault if they are mistreated elsewhere in the region, is it? Anyway, here's the EIPR press release.
Government Must Find Solution for Baha'i Egyptians Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court today found the government may not recognize the Bahai'i faith in official identification documents, leaving Baha'i Egyptian citizens unable to obtain necessary documents that must include a citizen's religion, such as birth or death certificates and identity cards.
"Today's regrettable decision throws the ball in the government's court," said Hossam Bahgat, Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), which represented the Baha'is in the case. "The government must find a solution now for the hundreds of citizens who used to be able to obtain official documents recognizing their faith for more than five decades until the government decided recently to change its policy and force them to choose between Islam and Christianity." The EIPR said the press release issued by the Chief Judge of the Court today did not respond to any of the legal arguments and evidence submitted by the EIPR in the case. The press release only discussed the tenets of the Baha'i faith, which fell outside the scope of this lawsuit. The question before the court was about the legality of forcing Egyptian citizens to falsely adopt Islam or Christianity in order to obtain official documents that are necessary in their daily lives. Today's decision overturned an April 2004 ruling by the lower Administrative Justice Court in favor of Baha'i Egyptians. The decision also reversed the position of the Supreme Administrative Court whish had found in 1983 that Baha'is had the right to have their religious affiliation included in official documents even if the Baha'i faith was not "recognized" in Egypt as a religion. The EIPR will wait for the written decision to be issued in the coming days before determining its new legal strategy in the fight for Baha'i Egyptians citizenship rights.
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al-Yamama

The Guardian has an interesting backgrounder on the Saudi arms deal / Wafic Said / Maggie affair. Update: Blair tries to explain why he is blocking the UK government's inquiry into the BAE/Saudi scandal.
The prime minister, speaking to reporters in Brussels, said that allowing the inquiry to continue risked doing “immense damage” to UK interests. Britain has been accused of caving in to pressure from Saudi Arabia to stop the investigation into a multi-billion dollar defence deal with Riyadh. Shares in BAE have surged on the news. Mr Blair appeared to concede that the threat to thousands of jobs from losing a prospective Saudi jet fighter contract had played a part in his thinking. The prime minister’s official spokesman did not deny this was the case. However, he insisted that Lord Goldsmith, the attorney general, decided to end the inquiry on security grounds and because of uncertainty over whether the case would lead to a prosecution.
Call me a Saudi-basher if you will -- I'll gladly accept the title if you mean the al-Saud family -- but it's getting rather tiring seeing both Arab and Western governments being corrupted by Saudi Arabia's wasteful spending.
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"The big lie about the Middle East"

Lisa Beyer of Time magazine (possibly the worst magazine on earth? I find the Egyptian Gazette more edifying) really is an idiot. She says Arabs don't care about Palestinians and saying they do is A Bad Thing. Even if that were true, the bigger problem with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the threat to Palestinians that Israel represents, but the threat to its neighbors and the region it represents. In this article she does a hatchet job on Baker-Hamilton for the sake of extreme-right American supporters of Israel. Sickening.
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Hamas-Fatah skirmishes reach Rafah border

Utterly sordid:
RAFAH, Gaza Strip -- Hamas gunmen seized control of the Gaza Strip's border crossing with Egypt yesterday in a ferocious gunbattle with Fatah-allied border guards after Israel blocked the Hamas prime minister from crossing with tens of millions of dollars in aid. More than two dozen people were wounded in the fighting, deepening factional violence that has pushed the rivals closer to civil war. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh cut short a trip abroad to return to Gaza in a bid to quell the infighting between Hamas and Fatah. While he was finally allowed to cross into Gaza late yesterday, it was unclear whether he brought money for the cash-strapped Palestinian government. After he crossed, there was a new burst of gunfire and Haniyeh's convoy was forced to speed away. Officials said Haniyeh was unharmed. MILITANT ARRESTED Earlier, pro-Fatah Palestinian officers arrested a Hamas-linked militant in the killing of the three young sons of a Fatah security chief. The militant's allies retaliated by kidnapping a security officer.
Bringing the nascent Palestinian civil war onto Egypt's border -- great. And classic move from the Israelis, although they let through Hamas MPs carrying money before. Obviously they are rather unsettled by the recent Iranian announcement that they would donate $120m to Hamas to pay government salaries.
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Solidarity stand with Egyptian Bahaai's

Activists are holding a stand in front of the State Council in Dokki, Saturday 16 December, 10am, in solidarity with Egypt's Bahaai minority, who are suffering state descrimination against them, that includes refusing to issue any official documents to them, since Mubarak's "secular" government requires the religion of the citizen to be mentioned on his/her ID cards. However, the Interior Ministry's computer can only process three entries: Muslim, Christian, Jew. Bahaai's cannot issue birth and death certificates, ID cards, or any govt document, since the Interior Ministry does not recognize they exist.
وقÙ�Ø© اØتجاجية للتضامن مع الــبهائيين

اذا كنت تر�ض التمييز الديني، اذا كنت تؤمن بحقوق المواطنة، اذا كنت تنادي بالتغييــر الجذري ووطن عادل لجميع أبنائه شاركنا الوق�ة التضامنية ضد التمييز السبت 16 ديسمبر 2006 - العاشرة صباحا - مجلس الدولة ندعوكم لمساندة المواطن البهائي المصري حسام عزت محمد موسى مواليد 22 يناير 1965 المهنة مهندس الديانة بهائي بطاقة شخصية رقم 5120 الصادرة عام 1995 من حق الأستاذ حسام استخراج شهادات ميلاد لابنائه وبناته المصريين البهائيين For Background on the subjet, check EIPR's statement...

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Bad cops, good cops

The word of the air strike came around mid-morning. I was actually the one to take the call from our stringer in Samarra. He said 32 people had been killed in an American air strike somewhere to the south according to local government official Amr something-or-other and he was heading towards the site, then the line went dead. We tried to call him back later, because you can’t give a story based on the word of Amr something-or-other, certainly not an Americans-killed-dozens-of-people kind of story, but he’d either moved out of coverage area or the appalling Iraqi mobile networks were having another miserable day. Then the press release came. “20 Al-Qaeda terrorists killed� in a midnight airstrike about 80 kilometers north of Baghdad. The wording in these things are key. As US ground forces approached a target site, they were suddenly fired upon, forcing them to return fire – killing two “terrorists�. “Coalition Forces continued to be threatened by enemy fire, causing forces to call in close air support.� They really had no choice, it seems. Eighteen more armed terrorists were killed, and a subsequent search revealed that two of them were women. “Al-Qaeda in Iraq has both men and women supporting and facilitating their operations, unfortunately,� said the statement. So it was back to the telephones, talked to the official US military spokesman, “um, how did you know the women were terrorists?� Apparently in the post-air strike “battlefield assessment� done at 1 am in the rubble of the building revealed this fact. “If there is a weapon with or near to the person or they are holding it, they are a terrorist,� he replied.Of course in a normal place, in a normal situation, we would have jumped into a car right after the first phone call and been there an hour or two later and made our own determination about what occurred. But that wasn’t going to happen, and we weren’t going to send our Baghdad-based mostly Shiite reporters north into the angry Sunni heartland to a bunch of furious tribesmen who’d just been air-struck. So we rely on our stringers in the area, who probably can only function in that region because they are sympathetic to the insurgents. It’s no fun being a stringer, either the insurgents are going to kill you or the US military will arrest you. You have to take these allegiances in mind when evaluating their reports. Our stringer finally called, he’d arrived at the site and according to the mayor of the small town (Amr Alwan, as it turned out), who wasn’t there at the time, US forces showed up, dragged dozens of peace loving citizens out of their houses, executed them, then put them back into the house and blew it up to cover up their crime so it looked like an air strike. That version didn’t quite pass the plausibility test, either, so we went, roughly, with the US version, putting a lot of things in quotes to convey the skepticism. Then our photo stringer managed to send the pictures: the massive craters where the houses once were, the pancaked concrete and twisted rebar. And then among the bodies, the dead children. One of the first picture could have been of a young adolescent, but a later picture clearly showed a pair of young boys under 13 years of age with large chunks of them missing, covered in white cement dust. We also received a list of the dead (17 names) from the local police, and at least four of the names were female – and also everyone had the same last name. We sent the pics to the US military spokesman, and asked him if the children were among the “armed terrorists� as well. Were there weapons found next to them too? He wrote back and said, while pictures of dead children were an awful thing, how did he know these pictures came from the actual site? He said he checked back with the unit (which he wouldn’t reveal anything about suggesting they were “special�) and they stuck by their story, 20 adults killed, of which, two were women terrorists. So we wrote the next version of the article, which spent a little more time noting the evidence that seemed to indicate that a pair of houses containing two families may well have been on the receiving end of those 500 pound bombs. Were there “terrorists� in that house? It’s very possible, but there were also, quite clearly, a large number of women and children who, I am absolutely sure, were not bearing arms, and it is simply insulting and nasty to try to say so in the press release. Did they expect people not to find the bodies the next day? It was one of those, I really hate the military days. But of course it’s never totally simple. There are plenty of other US military people who, if you can find them, will give more of a straight story. During one trip out to Ramadi, I met a civil affairs officer, Capt. Travis Patriquin, who just seemed to get it. He seemed to have a clue about Iraq, actually liked the place and, even weirder, spoke good Arabic. I was a little skeptical about the last one until I checked out the books stacked on his desk. He spoke Pashto as well, apparently from his time in Afghanistan, where he had been in the special forces and worked closely with the Afghans. His leg had gotten pretty messed up in one of the big battles there, and he had nearly left the army, but instead, when he healed had volunteered to be the civil affairs person for the army unit stationed in Ramadi. He’d put on a layer or two of fat since his special forces days, and admitted that now that his leg was better he was hoping to slim down a bit. We had lunch and he enthusiastically told me about the work he was doing with the tribes around Ramadi. Apparently, a lot of them had become fed up with Al-Qaeda, the insurgency, the non stop violence and were willing to work with the central government and the Americans to drive the “terrorists� out (I heard a bribe of $5 million from the prime minister also helped, but that could just be a rumor). A lot of tribes that had once shot at the Americans were now willing to put their people into the police force in the hope that stability would eventually mean the Americans would leave. And Travis was in the middle of this whole process. I’ve never known someone to enjoy his work so much, he invited me to come back out to Ramadi when I had more time, to meet the tribal leaders, and see some of his work in action. I always meant to go out, but went to Kurdistan instead. We kept in touch mostly by email, I would send him queries to try to get behind the mass of propaganda and mystery that surrounded any event in Ramadi. There are no phone lines out there, and though an hour’s drive from Baghdad, it might as well be on another planet. The US military just says everything is great as one more insurgent is arrested, another weapons cache is found, and more “terrorists� are engaged without “reported� loss of civilian life. On the other hand, stringers out there, who tend to by controlled by the insurgents, send daily reports of insurgent victories and American atrocities that just don’t sound plausible either. In Ramadi, at least, Travis could sometimes help, sort a few things out, provide another perspective between the competing propagandas. He also had a sense of humor, which is not always common. Anyway, as is probably clear by now from the excessive use of the past tense, he’s dead, blown to pieces by a road side bomb a few days ago, driving through downtown Ramadi, probably on his way to another meeting with Iraqi tribesmen. I saw his obit in a home town newspaper, he had a wife and three children. So many people die every day from every side (11 US soldiers and marines died that day, incidentally, two others in his vehicle, more than 100 Iraqis), but I knew this one. He shouldn’t have died, he was a good one. And the public affairs guy who told me about armed women terrorists is still sending out press statements.
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ندوة: لبنــــــــان بين السياسة والطائ�ية

The Center for Socialist Studies is organizing a talk on "Lebanon: Between Politics and Sectarianism," Sunday 17 December, 7pm. Speakers include: Dr. Refa'at Seed Ahmad, Director of the Jaffa Center for Studies Engineer Wael Khalil, Socialist activist
لبنان بين السياسة والطائ�ية

ندعوكم لحضور ندوة �ي مركز الدراسات الاشتراكية بعنوان: لبنــــــــان بيـن السـياسة والطـائ�ية يتحدث �يها د. ر�عت سيد أحمد، مدير مركز يا�ا للدراسات والأبحاث وائل خليل، مركز الدراسات الاشتراكية وآخرين

وذلك يوم الأحد 17/12/2006 الساعة7:00 مساء مركز الدراسات الاشتراكية 7 شارع مراد- الجيزة

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The Brotherhood's kung-fu militia

Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Khairat al-Shatir, author of this surprising article about a year ago, has been arrested. (Update: better story from Reuters.) This just a few days after the release of Essam al-Erian and Muhammad Mursi from their six-months (or more) stint in jail. All of this is taking place with as backdrop the top story in a lot of the Egyptian papers this week, a martial arts demonstration held at al-Azhar University last weekend. According to newspaper reports, a group of 50 students wearing uniforms and black hoods held a martial arts show (karate and kung-fu, apparently) in front of the dean’s office. Security troops were present but did not intervene. The students claimed to represent a part of the “militia” of the new Free Students Union, a recently created parallel union not recognized by the university and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood at al-Azhar University (different universities have created different parallel student unions representing each campus' political map. Al-Azhar is traditionally conservative.) The anti-Islamist state press, such as Rose al-Youssef, is having a field day showing pictures of the event and comparing it with pictures of Hizbullah or Hamas militants.

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(The top three pics are of the martial art show, the ones in the middle are of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Geish al-Mahdi in Iraq. The bottom pics are of Deputy Guide Muhammad Habib and TV show host Amr Adib, who argued over the incident. The big headline on top says, "The Brothers' Army") For many commentators the event was reminiscent of the MB’s paramilitary wing, which was active between the 1940s and the 1950s and is alleged (although this is much disputed) to have taken part in political assassinations. The MB disbanded the group, called alternatively the tanzim al-khass or tanzim al-sirri (Special Organization or Secret Organization) and by the 1970s it officially renounced violence. Other interpretations say that the more violent wing of the MB split and eventually went on to form Egypt’s two main Islamist terrorist groups, the Gamaa Islamiya and Islamic Jihad. The former was crushed by the authorities in the early 1990s, while the latter was driven out of the country and now forms a core of al-Qaeda, most notably represented by Ayman al-Zawahri. Amr al-Choubaki, a leading Egyptian analyst of the Brotherhood, called the development “extremely worrying” in a recent interview, arguing it may point to a radicalization of parts of the Brotherhood. The MB’s Deputy Supreme Guide, Mohammed Habib, has denied that the organization has a secret paramilitary wing and said that an internal investigation had been opened into the events at al-Azhar University. He is hinting at an independent initiative of the al-Azhar student Brothers that did not receive approval from senior leaders, and has even suggested that the people who organized it will be punished. But the MB's leadership is now largely in damage control mode, with the regime getting its revenge for the Farouq Hosni/veil debacle in many ways. For the MB, which has spent much of the past year trying to reassure people about its ascendency, this incident is deeply embarrassing and only serves to confirm widespread, but hereto unjustified, claims that they continue to have a violent branch. It is almost tempting to think that agitators are behind this, judging by how uncharacteristic this seems, but that is probably not the case. After three months of demonstrations and clashes with university authorities -- especially at al-Azhar where the expulsion of Islamist students from university housing in September began mobilizing students even before October's student elections -- it is not surprising that exasperated students would engage in these kinds of displays, especially when the Hizbullah model is on everyone's mind at the moment. Not to mention of course the now year-long campaign against the MB, which has seen more than 800 members arrested this year. Although I have not really investigated this in any serious way, it reinforces my impression that the MB, as a "big tent" movement, has members who would like to take a much more aggressive stance towards the regime and impose itself on campus. This divide is probably across generational lines, with younger members disappointed that the MB leadership is not doing more political mobilization. Watch this space. Update 2: I forgot to mention that a common theme to Egyptian press commentary about the MB militia is a reference to Supreme Guide Mahdi Akef's offer last July to send 10,000 troops to Lebanon to fight alongside Hizbullah. A lot of anti-Islamist commentators, notably but not only in Rose al-Youssef, are saying that this "army" actually exists and has been trained for the last two years in Marsa Matrouh and Abou Kir. They gloomily write of an impending insurrection and call for the government to react swiftly ("as it reacted in the controversy over Farouq Hosni's comments on the veil," in the words of one writer.) They also insist that Egypt is at risk of having an armed opposition, as in Lebanon and Palestine, is this phenomenon is not fought more insistently.
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