John Burns does not know what the shahada is

From the Angry Arab:
An American correspondent in the Middle East sent me this: "Today the Iraqi government held a one time screening of the most recent execution video of barzan ibrahim and awad hamed al bandar, with no cameras allowed. Bandar was very scared and crying. He was saying the shahada. Journalists asked if Bandar said the shahada. New york times bureau chief and veteran middle east correspondent John Burns asked Basem Ridha, Nouri al Maliki's spokesman what the shahada was. Basem said that it was the Islamic creed. "whats that?" asked John Burns. Journalists explained that it was ""There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger."
Wow. At least four or five years in and out in the Middle East, including several as the NYT's bureau chief in Baghdad, and John Burns doesn't know what the shahada is. And this is arguably the NYT's top foreign correspondent. Do you see why I don't want to read their Middle East coverage? It's not just the bias, but the caliber of the reporters that's outrageous.
Read More

Secret Israeli-Syrian talks revealed

Haaretz has revealed that secret talks to end the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights have been taking place since 2004. See the story, the document drafted during the talks, and how the secret talks started, first with Turkish mediation and then through a mysterious European mediator. The deal has described seems fairly favorable to Israel, especially concerning the establishment of a large "park" accessible to both Israelis and Syrians, on military arrangements, and perhaps most importantly in granting a lot of water rights to Israelis. On the other hand, of course, Syria gets back land it would probably otherwise only get back by force. Haaretz outlines the main points:
The main points of the understandings are as follows: An agreement of principles will be signed between the two countries, and following the fulfillment of all commitments, a peace agreement will be signed. As part of the agreement on principles, Israel will withdraw from the Golan Heights to the lines of 4 June, 1967. The timetable for the withdrawal remained open: Syria demanded the pullout be carried out over a five-year period, while Israel asked for the withdrawal to be spread out over 15 years. At the buffer zone, along Lake Kinneret, a park will be set up for joint use by Israelis and Syrians. The park will cover a significant portion of the Golan Heights. Israelis will be free to access the park and their presence will not be dependent on Syrian approval. Israel will retain control over the use of the waters of the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret. The border area will be demilitarized along a 1:4 ratio (in terms of territory) in Israel's favor. According to the terms, Syria will also agree to end its support for Hezbollah and Hamas and will distance itself from Iran.
This, combined with economic aid and political guarantees, could be enough to draw the Syrians away from the Iranian camp -- which perhaps would make it worth it for Israel to face the domestic opposition to returning the Golan Heights.
Read More

Hamas leader has power to speak with punctuation

Do you think there's a problem with the story below:
GAZA (Reuters) - Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said on Monday the Islamist militant group Hamas would never recognize Israel. Haniyeh, a Hamas leader, said in an interview from Gaza with Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah's al-Manar television: "Hamas will never recognize the legitimacy of the occupation (Israel)." "Hamas will never show flexibility over the issue of recognizing the legitimacy of the occupation," he added.
Does Ismail Haniyeh have the power to speak in parentheses? Did he do a little sign with his hands and say "Israel" after he said "never recognize the legitimacy of the occupation"? I am quite willing to believe that Haniyeh would make contradictory statements about his position on Israel, but the above quote hardly seems to be as conclusive as the story's headline and lead.
Read More

natural bedfellows

It'll be interesting to see whether the IHT hits Cairo newstands (has hit the newsstands? when does the print edition come out?) with a Michael Slackman piece intact. The article is more than a little critical of the Egyptian regime and of Condi's support for it, and, while it is posted on the IHT and NYT websites, it will give the boys down at the Ministry of Info no great pleasure if they are told they have to let it through here.
Cairo: In the days before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with officials in Egypt, the news media here were filled with stories detailing charges of corruption, cronyism, torture and political repression.
And Slackman then fills out his lead: police torture on video, contaminated blood being distributed, journalists getting arrested. He gives Ibrahim Eissa space for a quote on regime duplicity and political tensions, lets Hafez Abou Saada say the usual, and runs through a short list of the kind of reforms instituted since 2005 (back when Condi was making those huffy puffy noises that sounded to some like criticism of beating protestors and fixing elections):
Since then, Egypt's government has piled up a long list of repressive actions, including ordering the police to block people from voting in parliamentary elections; delaying local elections by two years; imprisoning an opposition leader, Ayman Nour, on charges widely seen as politically motivated; battling with judges who have demanded oversight of elections; and imprisoning Talaat el-Sadat, a member of Parliament and the nephew of President Anwar el-Sadat, for a year in a military jail after he criticized the armed forces on television.
And he twists it closed nicely at the end, juxtaposing the experience of some Wafd members who tried to do something about sewage in their village (you guessed it, friendly visits from security) and Condi's latest public message to Egyptians:
"I especially want to thank President Mubarak for receiving me and for spending so much time with me to talk about the issues of common interest here in the Middle East," Ms. Rice said. "Obviously the relationship with Egypt is an important strategic relationship — one that we value greatly."
Thanks for clearing that up Condi. The depressing part, however, is the point that Slackman raises in the middle of his article. Shalit's still walled up in little cell under Gaza somewhere and Fatah and Hamas are going at it like a bunch of well-armed soccer hooligans. So what does Washington have to gain these days in exchange for its complicity in the very public human rights violations of the Mubarak regime? Are they anticipating an imminent need to outsource the questioning of Gitmo releasees to the Lazoughly Interrogation Company? Ultimately, Condi's stance looks at best like knee-jerk retrenchment in the face of the utter failure, and at worst like somebody taking comfort in the arms of like-minded friends. Politics doesn't always make strange bedfellows, it seems.
Read More

Saddam hanging a wedding gift from Maliki?

From IraqSlogger:
A United Nations source has confirmed what at first seemed like an impossible rumor, that Saddam's execution may have been a wedding present from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki to his daughter. Other sources maintain it was his son who was married on the day of Saddam's execution. It is also possible that this wedding would have been innocuous or coincidental as Shias cannot get married for the next two months because of their holiness, hence many marry on Eid.
I doubt this is true... and if it is it suggests Maliki has the same sense of the grotesque as Saddam did. More depressingly, posters lamenting the death of Saddam have been sighted across the Arab world, apparently, bearing the inscription "Saddam Hussein: the man died, the hero lives" or some such nonsense. Here's a pic I took in Attaba near Ezbekeya Gardens. Sorry for the lousy pic quality. 100 0352
Read More

Egyptian spy satellite

Egypt is about to launch a spy satellite:
Egypt will be able to spy on Israel from outer space if it successfully launches a new spy satellite Tuesday from Kazakhstan. The cameras on the EgyptSat 1 vehicle will be able to transmit photographs of objects four meters (13 feet) wide.
I guess they're trying to keep track of Rami Lakah. Updated since 15 Jan: Apparently the satellite will be used for remote sensing -- officially at least.
Read More

"We need to use the Americans to fight the Shia"

The Guardian has a fascinating article on the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, including this interview with an arms dealer:
Rami was no longer involved in fighting, he said, but made a tidy profit selling weapons and ammunition to men in his north Baghdad neighbourhood. Until the last few months, the insurgency got by with weapons and ammunition looted from former Iraqi army depots. But now that Sunnis were besieged in their neighbourhoods and fighting daily clashes with the better-equipped Shia ministry of interior forces, they needed new sources of weapons and money. He told me that one of his main suppliers had been an interpreter working for the US army in Baghdad. "He had a deal with an American officer. We bought brand new AKs and ammunition from them." He claimed the American officer, whom he had never met but he believed was a captain serving at Baghdad airport, had even helped to divert a truckload of weapons as soon as it was driven over the border from Jordan. These days Rami gets most of his supplies from the new American-equipped Iraqi army. "We buy ammunition from officers in charge of warehouses, a small box of AK-47 bullets is $450 (£230). If the guy sells a thousand boxes he can become rich and leave the country." But as the security situation deteriorates, Rami finds it increasingly difficult to travel across Baghdad. "Now I have to pay a Shia taxi driver to bring the ammo to me. He gets $50 for each shipment."
The box of 700 bullets that Rami buys for $450 today would have cost between $150 and $175 a year ago. The price of a Kalashnikov has risen from $300 to $400 in the same period. The inflation in arms prices reflects Iraq's plunge toward civil war but, largely unnoticed by the outside world, the Sunni insurgency has also changed. The conflict into which 20,000 more American troops will be catapulted over the next few weeks is very different to the one their comrades experienced even a year ago.
Most of the article is about the shift in the Sunni insurgency in their view towards US troops. Here's what one insurgent said:
He was more despondent than angry. "We Sunni are to blame," he said. "In my area some ignorant al-Qaida guys have been kidnapping poor Shia farmers, killing them and throwing their bodies in the river. I told them: 'This is not jihad. You can't kill all the Shia! This is wrong! The Shia militias are like rabid dogs - why provoke them?' " Then he said: "I am trying to talk to the Americans. I want to give them assurances that no one will attack them in our area if they stop the Shia militias from coming." This man who had spent the last three years fighting the Americans was now willing to talk to them, not because he wanted to make peace but because he saw the Americans as the lesser of two evils. He was wrestling with the same dilemma as many Sunni insurgent leaders, beginning to doubt the wisdom of their alliance with al-Qaida extremists.
Well they should have thought of that a long time ago... Do read the whole article, it's quite provocative. Update: Here is a related report from regular Arabist reader Andrew Exum that argues that the Iraqi civil war is a war of militias. He concludes:
It is by no means clear that the U.S. military has sufficient resources to accomplish the tasks outlined by civilian policymakers, namely the pacification of Iraq. In particular, although it may still be possible to constrain the Iraqi militias, the U.S. military does not have the resources on the ground necessary to fight a major battle in which militia elimination is the goal. It would be better instead to concentrate on training the Iraqi military, while keeping order on the streets as much as possible and working with the Iraqi government to provide jobs and security and to preempt the worst sectarian violence. Admittedly, these modest goals are not necessarily sufficient to achieve the ambitious victory articulated by President Bush this week, but are nevertheless as much as can realistically be expected from U.S. soldiers and Marines in the current environment.
I find that conclusion a rather tall order -- judging from past performance and the sheer amount of hatred involved (not to mention incitation from Iran and Saudi Arabia among others), even this outcome is not realistic. I hope I am wrong, since the alternative that will sooner or later prove tempting will be letting one side win to stop the war.
Read More

The Economist does its bit for Zion

The Economist, true to its (for the last few years at least) increasingly pro-Israel tilt (in the leaders, not the reporting), attempts at an analysis of Khaled Meshaal's recent remark that Israel exists:
Why, then, the stubborn refusal to just go the extra yard and recognise Israel now, especially as the result is the crushing sanctions regime? Many members of Hamas say that they will not recognise Israel's right to exist and may not do so even if Israel were to withdraw right back to the pre-1967 “green line”. The official ideology of Hamas is clear enough. It refuses in principle the idea of a Jewish state in any part of Palestine at all. Israel's position, on the other hand, is that it accepts the right of the Palestinians to a state in the West Bank and Gaza, but says that the final border should be set by negotiation. (Although Israel also says it wants to keep some of the West Bank’s land for existing settlements and security purposes.) There may be another reason for Hamas's intransigence that has nothing to do with Israel's stance: recognising Israel could lose it the support of its biggest foreign ally, Iran.
So if Hamas recognized an Israeli state, but was not willing to settle on borders, and perhaps had in mind just Tel Aviv, would that be ok? Accepting the Israelis' definition of what they recognize Palestine to be is ridiculous -- particularly as their "negotiated" plans have been unacceptable to Palestinians, or for that matter international law. You might even argue that Meshaal's statement is in fact a much more honest and generous one since he delineated Israel along the 1967 borders -- even though the Palestinian claim to 1948 Palestine is entirely legitimate. It is completely dishonest to label Hamas, which appears to be making efforts towards a 1967 borders compromise, as the unreasonable partner here. And the throwaway comment about Iran at the end is risible if not backed with some sort of evidence that Hamas is thinking this way. More pathetic even is the following:
In its attempts to regain control, Hamas is resorting to the same tactics of co-option and strong-arming that made Fatah despised. Even if it were to do an about-face and accept all the world’s conditions, it is doubtful that it could reassert the role it was meant to play as an elected government. The hair-splitting dispute over words is just another a depressing indication that neither side is yet ready to make a serious push for peace.
Basically, a position that benefits the status quo, and thus Israel. You're not likely to see the Economist pressing the Israelis anytime soon, it seems.
Read More

Interior Ministry's "videogate" takes a new turn

Egypt's torture scandal is getting increasing international coverage thanks to the fact that a) it was caught on video and b) it was blogged: FT, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and others are covering the scandal, which has taken a turn for the worse yesterday with al-Jazeera reporter Howeida Taha arrested as she was leaving the country with tapes for a documentary on torture. The tapes included some reconstruction of torture scenes -- a standard tool in documentary film-making -- but of course security is accusing her of fabricating lies about Egypt's sensitive, gentle police officers. So alarmed are some bloggers who covered the scandal from the beginning -- such as our own Hossam el-Hamalawy, who has his thoughts on these developments here -- that late last night I received an email from Wael Abbas, the one-man photo and video news agency of the Egyptian blogosphere, with the subject line "I might get arrested tomorrow!" We've been warned. In the meantime, we note the predictable petty vindictiveness of the regime in the way it has decided to reward the whistle-blower and victim of this affair, Emad al-Kebir, by sentencing him to three months of prison for "resisting the authorities" -- yes, the same authorities that beat and raped him in custody. HRW has the details. I sure am glad I live in a "moderate" Arab country, Ms. Rice.
Read More

Zbig vs. Shrub

Zbigniew Brzezinski angriest column yet? Looks like the realists might take their gloves off now that W. has made a fool out of their don, James Baker III.
"Its language was less Islamophobic than has been customary with President Bush's rhetoric since Sept. 11" "the president still could not resist the temptation to engage in a demagogic oversimplification" "The commitment of 21,500 more troops is a political gimmick of limited tactical significance and of no strategic benefit." "The speech did not explore even the possibility of developing a framework for an eventual political solution." "the administration's diplomatic style of relying on sloganeering as a substitute for strategizing." "America is acting like a colonial power in Iraq."
The patricians strike back... Update: While on the subject of patricians who suddenly become anti-imperialists, here's what Edward Luttwak has to say:
It was the hugely ambitious project of the Bush administration to transform the entire Middle East by remaking Iraq into an irresistible model of prosperous democracy. Having failed in that worthy purpose, another, more prosaic result has inadvertently been achieved: divide and rule, the classic formula for imperial power on the cheap.
The rest after the jump.
The ancient antipathy between Sunni and Shiite has become a dynamic conflict, not just within Iraq but across the Middle East, and key protagonists on each side seek the support of American power. Once the Bush administration realizes what it has wrought, it will cease to scramble for more troops that can be sent to Iraq, because it has become pointless to patrol and outpost a civil war, while a mere quarter or less of the troops already there are quite enough to control the outcome. And that is just the start of what can now be achieved across the region with very little force, and some competent diplomacy. President Bush and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim: 'Hardly a natural partner.' On Dec. 4, 2006, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of Iraq's largest political party, went to the White House to plead his case with President Bush. The son of an ayatollah, and himself a lifelong militant cleric, Mr. Hakim is hardly a natural partner for the U.S. -- while living in Iran for 23 years he must have declaimed "death to America" on many an occasion. But as the chief leader of Iraq's Arab Shiite population, he has no choice. Each day brings deadly Sunni attacks, and just as the Sunnis are strengthened by volunteers and money from outside Iraq, the Shiites, too, need all the help they can get, especially American military training for the Shiite-dominated army and police. For President Bush, the visiting Mr. Hakim brought welcome promises of cooperation against his aggressive Shiite rival Moqtada al-Sadr as well as the Sunni insurgents. It no longer even seems strange that the best ally of the U.S. in Iraq is Mr. Hakim's party, the Sciri: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose very title evokes the Iranian model of radically anti-Western theocracy. Just as the Sunni threat to majority rule in Iraq is forcing Sciri to cooperate with the U.S., the prospect of a Shiite-dominated Iraq is forcing Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Jordan, to seek American help against the rising power of the Shiites. Some Sunnis viewed Iran with suspicion even when it was still under the conservative rule of the shah, in part because its very existence as the only Shiite state could inspire unrest among the oppressed Shiite populations of Arabia. More recently, the nearby Sunni Arab states have been increasingly worried by the military alliance between Iran, Syria and the Hezbollah of Lebanon. But now that a Shiite-ruled Iraq could add territorial contiguity to the alliance, forming a "Shiite crescent" extending all the way from Pakistan to the Mediterranean, it is not only the Sunnis of nearby Arabia that feel very seriously threatened. The entire order of Muslim orthodoxy is challenged by the expansion of heterodox Shiite rule. Although it was the U.S. that was responsible for ending Sunni supremacy in Iraq along with Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, it remains the only possible patron for the Sunni Arab states resisting the Shiite alliance. Americans have no interest in the secular-sectarian quarrel, but there is a very real convergence of interests with the Sunni Arab states because Iran is the main enemy for both. At this moment, it is in Lebanon that the new Sunni-U.S. alliance has become active. With continuing mass demonstrations and threatening speeches, the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is trying to force the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora to give way to a new coalition which he can dominate. Syria and Iran are supporting Mr. Nasrallah, while the U.S. is backing Mr. Siniora. He has the support of the Druze and of most Christians as well, but it is also very much as a Sunni leader that Mr. Siniora is firmly resisting so far. That has gained him the financial backing of Saudi Arabia, which is funding Sunni counterdemonstrations and has even tried to co-opt Hezbollah, among other things. It was in their Arab identity that Hezbollah claimed heroic status because they were not routed by the Israelis in the recent fighting, but evidently many Sunni Arabs in and out of Lebanon view them instead as Shiite sectarians, far too obedient to non-Arab Iran. That suits the U.S., for Iran and Hezbollah are its enemies, too. The Sunni-U.S. alignment in Lebanon, which interestingly coexists with the U.S.-Shiite alliance in Iraq, may yet achieve results of strategic importance if Syria is successfully detached from its alliance with Iran. Originally it was a necessary alliance for both countries because Saddam's Iraq was waging war on Iran, and periodically tried to overthrow the Assad regime of Syria. Now that Iraq is no longer a threat to either country, Iran still needs Syria as a bridge to Hezbollah, but for Syria the alliance is strategically obsolete, as well as inconsistent with the country's Arab identity. True, Syria is ruled primarily by members of the Alawite sect that is usually classified as a Shiite offshoot. But that extremely heterodox faith (it has Christmas and the transmigration of souls) is far different from the Shiism of Iraq, Lebanon or Iran -- where it would be persecuted; and besides, at least 70% of Syrians are Sunnis. That may explain why the Syrian regime has not used its full influence to overthrow Mr. Siniora: His stand against the Shiite Hezbollah resonates with his fellow Sunnis of Syria. But another reason may be the promise of substantial aid and investment from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates for Syria's needy economy, if the regime diminishes its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah, or better, ends it altogether. The U.S., for its part, is no longer actively driving Syria into the arms of the Iranians by threatening a march on Damascus, while even the unofficial suggestions of negotiations by the Iraq Study Group made an impression, judging by some conciliatory Syrian statements. The U.S.-Sunni alliance, which is a plain fact in Lebanon, is still only tentative over Syria; but it would be greatly energized if Iran were successfully deprived of its only Arab ally. At the same time, the U.S.-Shiite alliance in Iraq has been strengthened in the wake of Mr. Hakim's visit. The Sunni insurgency is undiminished, but at least other Shiite groups are jointly weakening the only actively anti-American Shiite faction headed by Mr. Sadr. When the Bush administration came into office, only Egypt and Jordan were functioning allies of the U.S. Iran and Iraq were already declared enemies, Syria was hostile, and even its supposed friends in the Arabian peninsula were so disinclined to help that none did anything to oppose al Qaeda. Some actively helped it, while others knowingly allowed private funds to reach the terrorists whose declared aim was to kill Americans. The Iraq war has indeed brought into existence a New Middle East, in which Arab Sunnis can no longer gleefully disregard American interests because they need help against the looming threat of Shiite supremacy, while in Iraq at the core of the Arab world, the Shia are allied with the U.S. What past imperial statesmen strove to achieve with much cunning and cynicism, the Bush administration has brought about accidentally. But the result is exactly the same. Mr. Luttwak, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is the author of "Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace" (Belknap, 2002).
Read More

Cowboys and Indians, Iraq style

Very good WSJ story on Iraqi children who play sectarian war games:
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A year ago, a young gunman walked into Ali Hussein's living room and drew a weapon. The intruder's head was wrapped in a scarf, leaving a narrow slit for his eyes. His clothes were all black, the favorite attire of a powerful Shiite Muslim militia. He introduced himself as a commander, shouted the incantation "God is greater" and warned Sunni Muslims not to fight back. With that, he raised his plastic pistol. The gunman's name is Hassoni, and he was only 4 years old at the time. The scene unfolded in his father's house in Baghdad's Sadr City slum, a sprawling Shiite Muslim district stretching toward the eastern edge of the Iraqi capital. "I was happy to see him this way because it means he has courage," Mr. Hussein, 26, said of his son. Since then, Hassoni's favorite game has grown more elaborate, migrating from the living room onto the neighboring streets, drawing in other children and increasingly emulating the violent world of the adults.
The rest after the jump.
As Iraq careers toward full-scale civil war between its Shiite majority and Sunni minority, the culture of celebrating sectarian strife has taken root even among the very young in Sadr City. Home to more than two million people, the Baghdad district is the stronghold of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia blamed for abducting and killing Sunnis. But to Sadr City residents, the Mahdi Army is a revered self-defense force, the only group they see as capable of preventing wholesale slaughter of Shiites at the hands of Sunni extremists. Shiite politicians blame atrocities against Sunnis on rogue forces that falsely claim to represent the real Mahdi Army. The celebration of sectarian violence is widespread here. Some militia leaders have acquired almost mythical status, including Abu Dera, an elusive gangster alleged to be behind some of the worst sectarian killings of Sunnis. In the lore of the streets, Abu Dera and other fighters are Zorro-like figures who strike into the heart of Sunni neighborhoods, dispense swift revenge and return home unharmed. Hassoni, who is now 5, spends hours listening to such tales in his family's grocery store, where customers routinely trade stories -- real and imagined -- of Shiite militias fighting Sunni insurgents. Abu Dera became his hero, and his father has helped encourage the adulation by playing songs on his stereo extolling the valor of Shiite gunmen. "Abu Dera is trying to kill the bad guys," said Mr. Hussein, who works as a security guard at the Ministry of Education and sometimes helps patrol his neighborhood. A friendly boy with striking brown eyes and neatly combed hair falling over his forehead, Hassoni says he wants to grow up to be powerful enough to have a big car and armed guards surrounding him. When he plays with friends, the boys divide themselves into two groups -- one Shiite and the other Sunni -- and shoot at each other with pellet guns, lurking behind cars and in roadside ditches. "Kids always refuse to be Sunnis, but because they need to play, some of them have to pretend to be Sunnis," said Mr. Hussein, who often watches his son's hours-long battles. Using trash, the children erect their own barricades. Hassoni likes to pretend to be Abu Dera and calls himself the leader of the gang. Other members include a boy nicknamed Bush Senior for his foreign-looking red hair. Hassoni often returns home with torn clothes and pellet bruises. A few blocks away, Qassim Abdul-Ridha, a father of four, said his 6-year-old son, Karar, and his gang fight street battles against other children, often sending a girl to scout out the rivals' hiding places. Chanting "Muqtada" in homage to Muqtada al-Sadr, the powerful Shiite cleric who leads the Mahdi Army, the boys try to capture their opponents' toy guns as trophies. The real Mahdi Army is always nearby to provide inspiration. Sometimes, Hassoni hangs around grown-up gunmen manning the real roadblocks and runs errands for them, such as bringing them food and drink. He also gathers war stories and then breathlessly relays them to his parents. The latest tale Hassoni heard on the street involved a group of Shiite gunmen who mounted a rescue mission of Shiite hostages held by Sunni extremists. The gunmen ended up kidnapping the kidnappers and brought them to Sadr City. "He's very excited, always smiling, when he tells us these stories," his father said. One day, Hassoni brought home a steel pipe he found in a garbage dump and declared it to be a rocket launcher, which he was going to use to fire mortars at Sunni neighborhoods, much as real militiamen do. Asked recently what he thinks of Sunnis, he answered with one word: "terrorists." Together with other children, Hassoni fills empty bottles with sand, and sticks a twig in them to resemble a fuse. The bottles serve as make-believe bombs for use against imaginary Sunnis or American patrols. Hassoni's arsenal of toy guns has grown from one plastic pistol to include two AK-47 models and a sniper rifle with a scope, now his favorite weapon. Mr. Hussein gave him the rifle as a gift at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan when Iraqi families exchange presents. Hassoni was so excited, his father says, that he paid no attention to a toy train and a toy piano given to him by his mother and aunt. The black life-size rifle looks completely real. The line between the game and real life has grown increasingly blurry. In late November, suspected Sunni insurgents detonated five car bombs inside Sadr City, killing 240 Shiite civilians, the bloodiest attack since the U.S. invasion in 2003. The blasts occurred just over a mile from Mr. Hussein's house, and Hassoni saw the black plumes of smoke. Later that evening, Hassoni and other children patrolled their street looking for strangers. Hassoni started saying things like, "Sunnis hate us and don't want us to be anywhere near them," his father said. A few days later, Hassoni and his gang spotted a boy they didn't know. They stopped him and demanded to know what he was doing on their street. "I heard the Mahdi Army saying that if you see strangers, ask them where they come from and what they are doing here," he said. "And that kid was not from our area." When the boy tried to run away, Hassoni and his friends caught him and beat him up. Later, it turned out that the boy and his parents, all Shiites, were visiting relatives on Hassoni's street. "We had a lot of problems with our neighbors because of this fight," Mr. Hussein recalled. He said he sat his son down for a talk, telling him it is wrong to attack other boys. Hassoni promised to behave but said he will continue looking for strangers on his street. Write to Philip Shishkin at philip.shishkin@wsj.com
Read More

CIA, Saudis covertly plot support of Siniora

Rather obvious, of course:
The Central Intelligence Agency has been authorised to take covert action against Hizbollah as part of a secret plan by President George W. Bush to help the Lebanese government prevent the spread of Iranian influence. Senators and congressmen have been briefed on the classified "non-lethal presidential finding" that allows the CIA to provide financial and logistical support to the prime minister, Fouad Siniora. The finding was signed by Mr Bush before Christmas after discussions between his aides and Saudi Arabian officials. Details of its existence, known only to a small circle of White House officials, intelligence officials and members of Congress, have been passed to The Daily Telegraph. . . . A former US government official said: "Siniora's under siege there and we are always looking for ways to help allies. As Richard Armitage [a former deputy US secretary of state] said, Hizbollah is the A-team of terrorism and certainly Iran and Syria have not let up in their support of the group." Prince Bandar bin-Sultan, the former Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington, is understood to have been closely involved in the decision to prop up Mr Siniora's administration and the Israeli government, which views Iran as its chief enemy, has also been supportive. "There's a feeling both in Jerusalem and in Riyadh that the anti-Sunni tilt in the region has gone too far," said an intelligence source. "By removing Saddam, we've shifted things in favour of the Shia and this is a counter-balancing exercise.
Why don't they just redraw the maps while they're at it?
Read More

Hamas: Israel just fine and dandy

Remember next time you hear the lie that Hamas is committed to Israel's total destruction:
DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Hamas acknowledges the existence of Israel as a reality but formal recognition will only be considered when a Palestinian state has been created, the movement's exiled leader Khaled Meshaal said on Wednesday. Softening a previous refusal to accept the Jewish state's existence, Meshaal said Israel was a "matter of fact" and a reality that will persist. "There will remain a state called Israel," Meshaal said in an interview in the Syrian capital, in what appeared to be clearest statement yet by the Islamist group on its attitude toward the state it previously said had no right to exist. "The problem is not that there is an entity called Israel," said Meshaal, who survived an Israeli assassination attempt in 1997. "The problem is that the Palestinian state is non-existent."
This should not be that much of a surprise since Hamas has been saying very similar stuff since it was elected, if not before -- see this post at the Skeptic and the excellent paper he links to. Nice to see this coming from Khaled Meshaal, though.
Read More

Feudal family sues over embarrassing memoirs

I've been hearing about this story in the last few days:
The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRinfo) is highly concerned by the defamation claim filed by a feudal family against an academic, Dr. Sherin Abu El Naga, a political activist, Shahenda Mekled, and the owner of the Dar Merit Publishing House, Mohamed Hashem. HRinfo is also worried about the attempt to confiscate a historical document issued in the form of a book. Some of the employees of the feudal Aziz Al-Fiki family filed a defamation claim against the two writers and the publisher and demanded confiscation of the book titled "From the Papers of Shahenda Mekled" published by Dar Merit. Dr. Sherin Abu El Naga, the author of the book, recounted some of the feudal practices in Kamshich village, Menoufia Governorate, in the 1950s and 1960s. She documented the murder of Shahenda Mekled's husband and political activist Salah Hussein in 1966. The book is considered an important historical document about this era. However, the Aziz Al-Fiki family's members regarded the book as both defamatory and insulting because it discussed some of their violations against poor peasants at that time. Consequently, the Al-Fiki family filed a claim and called for the imprisonment of the two writers and the publisher in addition to confiscation of the book.
Egypt's patrician regression continues... It is telling that the al-Fiki family is doing this, much like its scion Mustafa al-Fiki, a foreign policy busybody close to the president, shamelessly stole his seat in the 2005 parliamentary elections. And that Merit publishing, one of the best new things on the cultural scene in the past decade, is getting attacked. Correction: I am told this is a different al-Fiqi family than that of the not-so-honorable MP from Damanhour.
Read More

Egyptian feminist blogs

Joseph Mayton writes about them in the Middle East Times:
Leading the charge is a young Egyptian female - preferring to remain anonymous due to the nature of the campaign - who has started an Arab-language feminist blog called Atralnada (morning dew). In a country where Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise, and the status of women a subject of much debate, this young activist has made her struggle public, and her blog is empowering Egyptian women to speak out in turn. "I wanted to post about my personal experiences of being harassed," she says simply, adding that the events of the last Eid celebration had sparked something inside her, compelling her to begin expressing herself in such a fashion. Particularly galling to her has been the apparent callousness by Egyptian men regarding the assaults. "I am asking women to speak up and tell their stories since most of the men have denied anything [of this nature ever] happens in this country," she points out. "[Males] write disgusting comments on blogs telling us that we are using the forum to become famous - even though [posters have to be] anonymous - and ... to attract men," she says incredulously. Despite the odds, the forum's popularity is catching on, having become the mouthpiece of a fledgling feminist movement, which, unlike the majority of other movements in Egypt, can lay claim to a truly grassroots base.
Does anyone have a link to the blog? Nevermind.
Read More

Rally to free Kareem

Kareemdc.Gif Hands Across the Middle East Support Alliance and the DC Coalition for Blog Freedom are organizing a rally in support on imprisoned Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman on Thursday Jan. 11 2007 at noon. Kudos to them! As many readers know Kareeem was arrested in November specifically because of his blogging and is one of several Egyptian bloggers arrested in 2006. So if you're in the DC area, lend your support.
Read More

Jumblatt and Nasrallah trade serious accusations

I missed this at the time, but this Le Monde article says that Hizbullah (via al-Manar) has accused close Walid Jumblatt collaborator Marwan Hamade of helping the US Ambassador in Lebanon to locate Hassan Nasrallah during the Summer 2006 war -- so the info could be passed on to Israel. Walid Jumblatt has replied by, for the first time, directly accusing Hizbullah of having a hand "one way or the other, in some of the assassinations, if not all the assassinations."
Read More