Department of Journalism, College of Communication, Boston University





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Hamas supporters on the streets of Gaza

A Palestinian Civil War?
Tension between the Hamas-led Palestinian government and the Fatah organization of President Mahmoud Abbas has escalated into a head-on confrontation, now that the former has fielded a new security force comprised of fighters from various militant groups. Firefights on the streets of Gaza had an air of inevitability about them once President Abbas had ordered the Fatah-dominated security forces under his control to assert its authority, and claim to a monopoly of force, on the streets of Gaza after warning Hamas that he deemed its new force illegal. But Hamas claims to be simply acting on the basis of the division of authority over security forces between the president and the elected government. The Bush Administration has come down firmly behind Abbas, insisting that he should have full control of all security forces -- a 180-degree reversal of the position it took when Yasser Arafat was president and Washington demanded that the security forces be put under the control of the elected government. Until now, both sides have avoided a direct confrontation, for fear that the resultant chaos will destroy all institutional authority in the Palestinian territory. But pressure from the rank and file may be propelling it, particularly from the Fatah side -- Abbas has limited control over his security forces, which are an economic base for many of the militants of his organization. Hamas claims that it wants its own security force precisely to prevent existing armed groups from using their weapons to protect and advance their own positions. But presumably the Hamas rank and file would like to break the Fatah monopoly on salaried security jobs.

Abbas is in a precarious position, goaded by Washington and by his own base to adopt a more confrontational strategy towards Hamas, yet aware that his own base -- the Fatah organization -- has been discredited in the eyes of the Palestinian electorate, and support from Washington, if anything, has negative value on the Palestinian street. Hamas is the more disciplined organization, yet it needs Abbas in place to cover for its own inability, or reluctance -- at this stage, at least -- to engage with Israel. But even if the Bush administration is inclined to greet the showdown as an opportunity to reverse the results of the Palestinian election, Abbas may be reluctant to go that far. And both sides will likely come under strong pressure from Arab countries in the days ahead to find a compromise. They will be aware that the only winner in a Palestinian civil war will be the Israeli leadership, whose inclination to unilaterally set borders benefits from political chaos on the Palestinian side -- even if the long-term security impact of that chaos may, nonetheless, imperil Israel. The logical outcome of the policies being pursued by all parties now is the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. The consequences for the Palestinians are obvious, but for Israel, too, it would force the resumption of direct administrative control over Palestinian cities that ended with Oslo. For the U.S., it would mean an end to any prospect of a two-state solution, with Washington now seen as indistinguishable from Israel in Arab eyes. And for the Arab regimes, it means intensified instability, perhaps even in their security forces, as their citizenry responds to the Palestinian debacle. Yet, there's a conspicuous absence on all sides of the political maturity necessary to avert a new catastrophe. (Haaretz, May 19, 2006)

  • Khaled Amayreh explains why Israel, the Arab countries and the U.S. all destined to suffer from the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, yet all apparently unable to take the steps necessary to prevent it from occurring. (Al-Ahram, May 18-24, 2006)
  • Anna Coote reports that the health infrastructure of the Palestinian territories is collapsing in the face of the financial blockade promoted by Israel and the U.S. to starve the Hamas-led government of funding. (Guardian, May 15, 2006)
  • Former President Jimmy Carter has denounced the U.S. response to the Hamas election by a vicious collective punishment that will be disastrous for U.S. interests in the Middle East. "Innocent Palestinian people are being treated like animals, with the presumption that they are guilty of some crime. Because they voted for candidates who are members of Hamas, the United States government has become the driving force behind an apparently effective scheme of depriving the general public of income, access to the outside world and the necessities of life." (International Herald Tribune, May 6, 2006)
  • Mohammed Yaghi warns that if the U.S. manages to topple Hamas, Fatah will not be restored to power -- instead, the Palestinian territories will begin to look more like Somalia. The big winner might be al-Qaeda. (Washington Institute for Near East Studies, May 16, 2006)
  • Al-Jazeera reports talks between Israel and Hamas have been conducted in Israeli prisons. At the same time, imprisoned Fatah militant Marwan Barghouti appears to have hammered out a principle agreement with Hamas over a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. Selling it to those on the outside may be another matter. (Al Jazeera, May 11, 2006)
  • Danny Rubinstein profiles the diplomatic skills of Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, and notes that he'll need all of those skills if he's to find a way out of the dilemmas of power. (Haaretz, May 15, 2006)
  • Previously on Israel and Palestine:
    --Blockade Will Destroy Palestinian Authority
    --The Politics of Terror
    --Reality of Hamas Power Forces Strategic Reassessments
    --Hamas Inherits a Policing Dilemma
    --Israel Hopes to Negotiate its Borders with U.S.
    --Jericho Raid Humiliates Abbas
    --Hamas and Israel: An Unspoken Peace?
    --Rice Fails to Secure Hamas Blockade
    -- Is the U.S. Trying to Reverse the Palestinian Election?
  • Oil Turns Geopolitical Tide Against U.S.
    The international headlines of the past month would have been unthinkable five years ago – for a start, the U.S. was forced to retreat on two major foreign policy positions in the space of a single week: First, the Middle East "Quartet" successfully pushed back against U.S. efforts to cut all funding to employees of the Palestinian Authority; and then Washington's European allies in the Security Council persuaded it to once again back off its drive for sanctions against Iran to await the outcome of yet another European attempt to offer Tehran new incentives for compliance. Elsewhere, Russia's President Vladimir Putin responded to a tongue-lashing on democracy from Vice President Dick Cheney by mostly ignoring Washington, although he did drolly remark that "to talk of an end to the arms race is premature." China, also, shrugged off such symbolic slights as its president being denied a state dinner in Washington and continued to expand its own diplomatic ties in a broad swathe of countries traditionally aligned with the U.S. while also making clear that its resistance to Washington's Iran agenda was based on a broader strategic perspective: Indeed, Beijing joined with Moscow in moving to induct Iran as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Central Asian security body created by Moscow and Beijing to counter U.S. efforts to expand its own influence in the region. Turkey, long a close U.S. ally, is cutting an increasingly distant stance, alarmed by Washington's failure to ensure an outcome in Iraq that protects its interests.

    Even in Latin America, once a mostly unchallenged U.S. sphere of influence, the political pendulum has swung largely against Washington, with the main political contest now being one between more European-like mainstream socialist ruling parties such as those in Brazil and Argentina, and the more nationalist-populist rulers of Venezuela and Bolivia (whose recent move to nationalize its energy reserves was a provocation made possible by the shifting strategic balance). Of even greater concern to Washington may be the fact that China is emerging not only as an increasingly important trading partner of many Latin American countries, but is also beginning to take a role in training some Latin American armies.

    A profound shift is occurring from the post-Cold War moment in which the sole surviving superpower – the "hyperpower" feared by the French – could dictate its terms in most corners of the globe, to one in which the "multipolarity" that seemed like a fantasy in the thinktanks of Paris and Beijing is fast becoming a reality. And the primary factor reigniting this newly competitive geopolitical environment may be oil. China has emerged as a growing power by virtue of its economic growth and its share of U.S. debt, but its growing inclination to challenge the U.S. may be based in part on securing its own, increasingly expansive national interests, particularly in respect of energy supplies. As oil prices have risen from the $17 a barrel to over $70 a barrel, Russia has risen from the penury and supplicant relationship with the West that characterized the Yeltsin era. President Putin has detached Russia from the West to pursue policies guided primarily by Russia's own national and regional interests. And some key U.S. allies in Europe, most notably Germany, are inclined for reasons of their own energy security to seek to balance their U.S. ties and a relations with Moscow.

    The negative impact of the current oil market on the U.S. strategic position has been exacerbated by Iraq, where U.S. failure to prevail in the occupation phase has not only signaled the limits of U.S. power, but also significantly tightened oil supplies. And both dimensions -- the U.S. military's troubles in Iraq, and the seller's market for oil -- have strengthened Iran's hand in the nuclear showdown.

    "In the space of 12 months," writes William Engdahl, "Russia and China have managed to move the pieces on the geopolitical chess board of Eurasia away from what had been an overwhelming U.S. strategic advantage, to the opposite, where the U.S. is increasingly isolated. It's potentially the greatest strategic defeat for the U.S. power projection of the post-World War II period." And that, he says, will accelerate the reemergence of the realists at the helm of U.S. foreign policy. (Asia Times, May 9, 2006)

  • M.K. Bahdrakumar writes that President Vladimir Putin has now made clear his nationalist vision, which stands in marked contrast to the foreign policy posture of his predecessor. Put, says Bahdrakumar, favors "a Russia that is free from the Yeltsin-era delusions regarding relations with the US. This stands comprehensively dismantled; its trammels in the political, economic, military or social spheres have been cast aside." He continues, "Russia has no need of the Yeltsin era's vacuous liberal rhetoric, either. Russia will set a course of fundamental revival, relying paramountly on its own resources, aimed at making the country capable of safeguarding its vital interests. This involves Russia consolidating its national strength -- Russia, in other words, must become a strong state within its natural habitat of the Eurasian space. Russia indeed is not required to render any apology to Washington while setting out its national priorities. Putin himself set the example by completely ignoring Cheney's warning to the Kremlin on good conduct." (Asia Times, May 11, 2006)
  • Carnegie's Andrew Kuchins, in conversation with Bernard Gwertzman, offers a thoughtful summary of the factors that have driven Russia to challenge the U.S.. Putin had set out to reverse the economic and geopolitical decline of the Yeltsin era, although that didn't necessarily require challenging Washington. But after the two sides had cooperated to destroy the Taliban, relations went sour starting with Washington's abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and the U.S. reaction to the Khodorkovsky affair, as well as to the democratic insurrections on Russia's borders. (Council on Foreign Relations, May 11, 2006)
  • Reuters reports that Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick has told Congress that the future of U.S.-China relations will be determined by Beijing's response to the Iran nuclear crisis. But his comments didn't seem to have any impact on China's opposition to a resolution threatening sanctions. Indeed, it's rather unlikely that Beijing sees the matter of Iran's nuclear program as a make-or-break issue in its relations with Washington, as much as an opportunity to signal the U.S. on the extent to which the geopolitical picture is changing. (Reuters via Washington Post, May 11, 2006)
  • The Daily Star reports that Turkey is increasingly dependent on energy supplies and a trade relationship with Iran, and the two sides have also identified a common interest in suppressing Kurdish independence in Iraq. As a result, while formally backing whatever the UN decides, Turkey is looking to China and Russia to ensure that no Security Council action is taken that threatens its relations with Tehran or leads to military action that Ankara deems a disastrous outcome. (Daily Star, May 11, 2006)
  • Nicole Stracke argues that the EU's interests are better served by working with China and Russia to resolve the Iran standoff than by following a U.S. strategy that precludes a diplomatic solution. "The position of the EU-3 was further complicated by having to consider the U.S. approach, which includes a rejection of direct talks with Tehran," she writes. "Washington has also pursued double standard, for example, by punishing Iran for its nuclear program while not advocating a similar policy vis-a-vis North Korea. Furthermore, it has been unwilling to give Iran the same security guarantees it gave North Korea in September 2005, when the Bush administration agreed 'that it has no intention of attacking North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons,' though North Korea and Iran were both members of the 'axis of evil'... In light of the current deadlock and the limitations on the EU's negotiation power, one should question the (EU)'s wisdom in sticking with the U.S. without looking at other options, especially through China and Russia." (Daily Star, May 11, 2006)
  • Christopher Dickey notes that events have had a strange habit of confirming conspiracy theories on the Bush Administration's watch particularly the fact that Halliburton's stock price has increased more than five-fold since it took office, while Exxon-Mobil's has doubled. (Newsweek, May 12, 2006)
  • NATO Braces for a Long, Hot Afghan Summer
    A pitched battle in the town of Mosa Qala in Helmand province is the latest signal that the Taliban is back. The Afghan insurgents marched into town to engage Afghan security forces, and held on overnight in a fierce firefight that saw the Afghan forces call in NATO support. And that's just the latest in a growing number of attacks in region where armed Taliban fighters move around in groups by daylight, asking locals to point out the location of government forces. Although President Hamid blamed unnamed Pakistani officials for backing cross-border raids, he is in fact confronting an indigenous insurgency being waged by the Taliban forces were dispersed, but not destroyed, by the U.S.-led operations in 2001. The Taliban have regrouped, and new alignments have taken shape as powerful local warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar made common cause with al-Qaeda, and they are intensifying their offensive in the hope of deterring the NATO forces that are assuming control of the area from the U.S. Taliban commanders believe the European and Canadian troops now being deployed in the south were not expecting to be plunged into a bloody counterinsurgency war, and that skepticism over such deployments in their home countries can be intensified by inflicting a steady stream of casualties. The Taliban already owns the night in much of southern Afghanistan, with locals in some areas turning to its courts rather than the government's own law enforcement system to settle disputes. If they can bloody the NATO forces, Taliban commanders believe, they can take effective control of the Pashtun heartland. (Asia Times, May 15, 2006)

  • Syed Saleem Shahzad has noted that Iraqi insurgent groups have shared their experience and methods with the Taliban, and have allegedly even sent as many as 500 men into the Afghan-Pakistan border region. Their presence and impact may be confirmed by the dramatic increase in the use of tactics honed in Iraq to target U.S. and allied personnel, specifically roadside bombings and suicide attacks. The Taliban strategy involves attacks on both sides of the border, and the belief that local warlords can be rallied to a general uprising against foreign troops in Afghanistan. (Asia Times, March 15, 2006)
  • Paul Rogers notes that the new instability in southern Afghanistan is fueled by an unprecedented expansion of opium production. Not only is poppy cultivation back to the highs of the pre-Taliban era, but – in what development economists might consider progress in respect of any other primary commodity – more of it than ever is being processed into finished heroin within Afghanistan's borders. (Open Democracy, May 5, 2006)
  • Declan Walsh reports that Britain's three-year strategy for turning around the security situation in Helmand involves ignoring the heroin trade, which has become a mainstay of the region's economy. That's because they're hoping to win over the 70 percent of the population they estimate swings between support for the government and support for the Taliban. But, he writes, skirting the drugs trade in which so many of the region's bad actors are involved may prove impossible. (Guardian, May 15, 2006)
  • Francis Reinheimer parses the challenge confronting the NATO mission in Afghanistan as it takes control of the south. NATO is to expand its troop presence from around 8,000 to around 17,000 by October, while the U.S. will draw down its own contingent of 19,000 by about 3,000 troops. But the scale of the mission looks likely to expand as the Taliban mounts its most ambitious offensive since its dispersal by U.S. led forces in 2001. Indeed, the Taliban is looking to preemptively raise the cost to NATO troops of entering the region. "Some U.S. military leaders have admitted that Stage III of ISAF's mission in Afghanistan will likely involve some of the fiercest fighting yet witnessed in Afghanistan, in part because insurgent forces have been allowed to grow in strength as well as numbers in the south. The security situation has generally deteriorated and there has been an upsurge in suicide bombings, attacks on schools, roadside bombings and other violent assaults on high-level figures and military targets." What may once have been a peacekeeping mission in Kabul has now turned into a challenging counter-insurgency deployment for NATO, as the U.S. seeks to reduce its commitment in Afghanistan in order to ease the burden created by the ongoing Iraq conflict. (Center for Defense Information, May 15, 2006)
  • Eben Kaplan explains that the "Taliban" that is wresting control of parts of Waziristan from the Pakistani authorities is not the same group as once ruled Afghanistan. Although they're similar in character and worldview, each is a domestically-based insurgency. (International Institute of Strategic Studies, April 27, 2006)
  • The International Crisis Group warns that the absence of political parties in Afghanistan's new legislature diminishes its chances of establishing a new order of democracy and stability. The government of President Hamid Karzai has done all in its power to prevent parties playing a role in Afghan democracy, but the result has been to leave him dependent on the goodwill of the Islamist conservatives and warlords who play the major organizing roles in a legislature without party organization. (International Crisis Group, May 15, 2006)
  • U.S. Thwarted in Iran Diplomacy
    According to the Bush Administration's script, the time for talking to Iran was over and the next step is for the UN Security Council to threaten action if Tehran does not stop enriching uranium. But the Security Council is plainly not reading from Washington's script: Instead, its key members agreed once again to postpone any further action that would escalate the confrontation in order to offer Iran new incentives for compliance. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice continues to talk tough and warn of no concessions -- and administration officials threaten China and Russia, apparently oblivious of their declining leverage over both countries -- but the Europeans plainly plan to offer Iran a package of economic and political incentives, including security guarantees, for cooperating on the nuclear issue. Rice and her administration remain adamantly opposed to security guarantees, because those take regime-change -- the preferred policy of the Bush Administration -- off the table. Unfortunately for the administration, however, it may have no choice in the matter since even France and Germany, two of its key allies in the process, favor offering such guarantees. Of course, security guarantees are meaningless if they're not endorsed by the U.S., but if Iran is willing to cut an acceptable deal on the nuclear issue in exchange for such guarantees, then refusing to offer them would isolate Washington rather than Tehran.

    The Administration's refusal to engage with Iran -- based on the regime-change preference -- has left Washington paralyzed in the face of a new diplomatic offensive by Iran. In its more cartoonish and grandstanding form, this involved a rambling 18-page letter from President Ahmedinajad that consisted of little more than ideological scolding. But sending that letter may have reflected his own power-politicking response to a more credible negotiating initiative emanating from Tehran's executive branch, which is headed not by Ahmedinajad but by unelected clerics. Hassan Rohani, the representative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the national security council, has written a proposal setting out Iran's terms, in which it would accept expanded monitoring, suspension of industrial scale enrichment and new arrangements on its fuel supplies but would hold out for continuing a research facility. The Iranians have recognized that Washington has failed to secure a consensus behind escalating the confrontation, and are moving into the vacuum left by the Administration's static diplomatic position, making offers that will engage the Europeans and other middle ground elements. And the outcome at the Security Council suggests the Europeans are inclined to engage with Iran's new efforts. Rice may continue to reject some of the terms being offered by Iran and by the Europeans, but it won't matter much if the likes of France and Germany are inclined to accept them. The Bush Administration may be about to learn that the hard line seldom wins the day in diplomacy. (Deutsche-Welle, May 10, 2006)

  • Abbas Maleki notes that for most Iranians, ranging from the leadership to the citizenry, the terms under which it produces nuclear energy are less important than the terms of reintegration into the international community. The priority of that reintegration, he says, is what is driving the Iranian diplomatic intiative. (Financial Times, May 9, 2006)
  • Mark Bowden analyzes the lessons of the 1979 hostage crisis for today's standoff. It was largely a domestic political stunt that spun out of control -- Ayatollah Khomeini had initially planned to eject the students, but the public enthusiasm for their action prompted him to change course and support them. "Today, as the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, presides over an increasingly restive, unhappy population, his pit bull, President Ahmadinejad, has picked a new fight with the United States of America," writes Bowden. "Even many Iranians who oppose the theocracy now favor joining the nuclear club; it adds to national prestige and arguably enhances Iran's security. In openly pursuing nuclear power and defying world opinion, the old revolutionaries are shoring up their stature at home by appealing to nationalism and to fears of foreign invasion or attack. And why shouldn't they? It worked before." (New York Times, May 6, 2006)
  • The Times reports that IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei has welcomed the return to negotiations by the Europeans, having warned that there was no imminent crisis currently threatened by Iran's nuclear program, and that an escalation of the confrontation would simply have caused Iran to take steps to end international monitoring of its activities. (The Times, May 10, 2006)
  • George Perkovich suggests that the best response by the U.S. would be to answer Ahmedinajad's letter by going over his head and addressing one to Iran's head of state, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in which U.S. principles for resolving the nuclear showdown could be articulated. "I would guess that the administration will be kind of aloof and contemptuous, which I think is a mistake... Liberal democracy actually has better arguments, and we should not be afraid to engage." (Council on Foreign Relations, May 9, 2006)
  • Fred Kaplan suggests one reason for the Bush Administration to consider replying to Ahmedinajad is the fact that his letter was well received in Arab capitals. (Slate, May 9, 2006)
  • Ambassador Edward Walker argues that if President Bush were serious about diplomacy in Iran, he wouldn't keep the military option on the table while ruling out direct talks. Instead, Walker warns, Bush is a true believer who sees the Iranian regime as evil and illegitimate, and obstacle to the U.S. drive to remake the Middle East. The U.S. tolerates nuclear proliferation among its allies, but he won't leave office while Ayatollah Khamenei possesses the means to assemble nuclear weapons. The Administration's goal, Walker warns, is regime change. (Middle East Institute, May 6, 2006)
  • The Washington Post reports that the Bush administration is under mounting pressure over its refusal to talk to Iran: Key European allies warn that no diplomatic solution will be found without U.S. participation. The U.S. risks becoming isolated by its current position. (Washington Post, May 10, 2006)
  • The Jerusalem Post reports that the the head of Israel's military criticized vice premier Shimon Peres for warning that Iran, too, could be wiped from the map. Brandishing Israel's own nuclear capability in this way is a PR gift to Tehran, and Lt. General Dan Halutz warned that Israel should refrain from taking an upfront role in the Iran crisis. (Jerusalem Post, May 10, 2006)
  • Martin Jacques notes that Washington appears to have missed the fact that China is not simply being a reluctant partner in pressuring Iran, it is actively resisting the U.S. agenda. That, says Jacques, is because China's booming economy has allowed it greater freedom of expression on the world stage, compared with its habit, even in the recent path, to studiously avoid upsetting Washington. (Guardian, May 10, 2006)
  • Background Material on Iran
  • Full text of President Ahmedinajad's letter to President Bush. (Council on Foreign Relations, May 9, 2006)
  • Hassan Rohani's proposals for resolving the crisis. (TIME.com, May 9, 2006)
  • The International Institute for Strategic Studies offers a detailed assessment of the challenges involved in using military strikes to prevent Iran having the means to acquire nuclear weapons. (Strategic Comments, Spring, 2006)
  • Zbigniew Brezinski offers a cogent summary of the reasons why attacking Iran would be a monumental act of strategic folly for the U.S. -- its consequences would be so calamitous, he argues, that they may even prematurely end the era of American dominance on the global stage. He also warns that such an act would be illegal both under U.S. and international law. Brezinski argues that negotiations with Iran remains the best way to achieve U.S. Goals, including liberalization of Iran's domestic politics. (LA Times, April 23, 2006)
  • Seymour Hersh reports on U.S. military planning for an attack on Iran and explains the reasons that advocates of such a course of action are winning teh debate inside the Bush administration. (The New Yorker, April 10, 2006)
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies offers a detailed technical assessment of Iran's nuclear program, and also parses the strategic options available to the U.S. if diplomacy fails. (Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 7, 2006)
  • The Center for Defense Information has posted extracts from the IAEA report on Iran which is to be discussed by the Security Council. (CDI, March 6, 2006)
  • Iran's UN ambassador Javad Sarif, in a New York Times op ed, sets out sets out Tehran's negotiating position on the nuclear issue. Iran has no intention of building nuclear weapons, he insists, and is willing to negotiate on the basis providing new guarantees to win Western confidence in this assertion, including expanded inspections and the creation of an international consortium to supply Iran's reactor fuel. (New York Times, April 7, 2006)
  • Christopher de Bellaigue offers a comprehensive analysis of the Iranian regime's nuclear intentions and its strategy for handling the standoff with the U.S. (New York Review of Books, April 27, 2006)
  • The Oxford Research Group assesses the effectiveness of military options against Iran, and concludes they are unlikely to restrain Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons but will promote chaos and instability. (Oxford Research Group, February, 2006)
  • Ray Tayekh explains the factional disputes at the heart of the Tehran regime, suggesting that the path of confrontation is preferred by a new generation of conservatives hardened during the Iran-Iraq war, and that the current atmosphere of crisis strengthens their hand domestically. (The National Interest, Spring, 2006)
  • Henry Sokolski suggests that the current debate over how to stop Iran going nuclear is fruitless. Instead, he offers a long-term strategy for managing Western rivalry with a nuclear-armed Iran. (Transatlantic Institute, March 16, 2006)
  • Previously on Iran:
    -- 04.26.06: Awaiting the Real Diplomacy

    -- 04.19.06: U.S. Fails to Prevail in Iran Diplomacy
    -- 04.12.06: March to War or Smoke and Mirrors?
    -- 04.05.06: Military Action Against Iran?
    -- 03.29.06: Bush Iran Strategy Hits a Wall
    -- 03.22.06: Has Britain Put U.S. on the Spot?
    -- 03.15.06: Regime Change or Normalization?

    Partitioning Iraq?

    The failure of the U.S.-authored transition in Iraq to create a stable post-Saddam polity, much less one capable of advancing U.S. objectives in the wider Middle East, periodically reopens discussion in Washington foreign policy circles of the idea of partitioning Iraq. Last Sunday, the Washington Post reported that top analysts within the military community now believe that Washington faces but two choices in Iraq: to allow a civil war to rage until the protagonists have exhausted their sectarian impulses; or to break Iraq into three separate ethnic political entities. Naturally, the first option seemed far too grim to contemplate for an American society not given to Machiavellian empire-management, but the second was given further elaboration by Senator Joseph Biden and Leslie Gelb in New York Times op ed arguing that the battle to reverse the centrifugal tendencies is lost, and that partition may be the only way to avoid a bloodbath. Juan Cole agrees with the principle that new political arrangement must accommodate the reality that the democratic political process has returned leaders far too sectarian in inclination to achieve a genuine national unity compact, although he argues that instead of three states, Iraq should be divided into five superprovinces, each enjoying a high degree of autonomy but bound to the central state through its control over the distribution of oil revenues among them. But Anthony Cordesman provides a succinct negation of the arguments for partition:

  • There are no neat geographic dividing lines between Iraq's major ethnic and religious groups -- its population is almost 40 percent urban, meaning that partition would necessarily set off a wave of brutal ethnic cleansing in Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk and other major population centers;
  • the Iraqi security forces would split on ethnic and confessional lines making the country even more dependent on a foreign military presence, and making the mission of foreign troops that much more complex and dangerous;
  • the distribution of Iran's oil reserves privileges the Shiite south and the Kurdish north, leaving the Sunni center -- and perhaps even the largely Baghdad-centered Shiite movement of Moqtada Sadr -- with an incentive to fight to overturn the new order;
  • the regional powers would have every incentive to expand into the new post-Iraq political entities, possibly setting off a regional war. Moreover, as Cole points out, dismembering Iraq in this way would be unforgivable in the eyes of Washington's Arab allies, and would likely result in a precipitous loss of U.S. influence throughout the region.

    Writes Cordesman: "The US has made serious mistakes in Iraq, and Iraq may well divide on its own. A strategy of dividing Iraq, however, is virtually certain to make things worse, not better, and confront the US with massive new problems in an area with some 60% of the world’s proven oil reserves and 37% of its gas. Even if one ignores the fact that the US effectively broke Iraq, and its responsibilities to some 28 million Iraqis, a violent power vacuum in an already dangerous region is not a strategy, it is simply an abdication of both moral responsibility and the national interest." (Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 1, 2006)

  • Asia Times reports that Turkey is increasingly angry at the U.S. for tolerating cross-border activity by Kurdish separatist guerillas operating out of Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey's government has not been placated by assurances from Secretary of State Condi Rice, and has moved tens of thousands of troops into border areas, and has even reportedly fired on positions of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgents inside Iraq. The discord between the U.S. and Turkey over events in Iraqi Kurdistan is also offering Iran an opportunity to make common cause with Ankara -- Iran has reportedly been shelling PKK positions inside Iraq, too. (Asia Times, April 29, 2006)
  • Der Spiegel reports that Iraq's oil industry is on the verge of collapse. And the engineers working its richest reserves, in the Shiite south, believe the only way to fix it is to give them the same autonomy to negotiate directly with foreign investors that the Kurds have in the north. But it's unlliekly that Baghdad would comply. (Der Spiegel, April 28, 2006)
  • Daniel McGrory reports that Iran's security forces are losing recruits to sectarian militias, but not because of sectarian passions -- the pay's better, and the risks are fewer. (The Times, April 29, 2006)
  • Previously on Iraq:
    -- New Government, Same Problems

    -- Political Paralysis in Iraq
    -- The Magnitude of Failure in Iraq
    -- A Generational American War?
    -- What's Left of Iraq?
    -- Civil War and the Region
    -- Is Sadr the Key to Avoiding Civil War?
    -- Mounting Anger at Coalition Forces in Iraq
  • Financial Blockade Will Destroy the Palestinian Authority, Not Hamas
    It was always something of a long-shot given the restrictive terms on which Israel's Gaza pullout worked, but former World Bank chief James Wolfensohn was appointed last year by the international Middle East Quartet (the U.S., EU, Russia and the UN) to oversee economic development in Gaza. His appointment was an optimistic attempt to use Sharon's unilateral withdrawal to build the socio-economic infrastructure of Palestinian statehood. Wolfensohn resigned last weekend, his job having become impossible once the U.S. and EU forbade him from working with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority. (And on current indications, it looks as if he wont' be replaced.) The U.S. if anything appears inclined to tighten the economic screws on the Palestinians: After the Palestinian government managed to secure funding from Arab states for emergency payment of salaries directly into the bank accounts of Palestinian Authority employees, the banks involved declined under pressure from the U.S. to handle such payments.

    But Wolfensohn issued a dire warning to the West and Israel over the likely consequences of their financial blockade of the Palestinian territories in the hope of forcing Hamas to recognize Israel and embrace existing peace agreements, or alternately of squeezing the Palestinian population to the point where they might vote Fatah back into power if President Mahmoud Abbas orchestrated a constitutional putsch. Western governments are deluding themselves, he warns, that Palestinian society can be sustained by beefing up NGOs and making other emergency financial infusions that bypass the government. Indeed, he notes, that even if Israel simply persists in withholding tax revenues owed to the Palestinian Authority and maintains its restriction on the movement of Palestinian goods and services, three quarters of the population of the West Bank and Gaza will be living in poverty within two years. The collapse of the government, he warns, will actually destroy the institutions created by the Oslo Accord, and turn back the clock by more than a decade. In fact, the collapse of the PA would essentially restore Israel's administrative responsibilities as the occupying power over all of the West Bank and Gaza.

    And if the Hamas government collapses under Western and Israeli financial strangulation, a number of regional analysts have warned, the political beneficiaries will not be Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah, but al-Qaeda and Iran. (The Times, May 2, 2006)

  • Geoffrey Aronson warns that the U.S. strategy of mounting a 'soft' coup in the Palestinian Authority using financial power rather than tanks is disastrously misguided, not only because it believes good can come of collective punishment of Palestinian citizens, but also because it clings to the illusion that Fatah can, in the near future, be restored to power with the consent of the Palestinian electorate: "The Bush administration, by embracing Palestinian insecurity and penury as policy objectives, is not alone in abandoning guidelines it once championed," he writes. "Israel, by withdrawing from Gaza and pursuing similar policies in the West Bank, and the Palestinians, by electing Hamas, have chosen paths inconsistent with past practice. Each in its own way is looking forward, however, while the U.S. alone assumes there is an advantage in looking backward. Washington is making a fool's bet that its interests can best be served by exacerbating the economic disaster wrought by the occupation, in the hope of restoring publicly discredited and unreformed Palestinian leaders to power." (Foundation for Middle East Peace, April 2006)
  • Ori Nir reports that despite their concern that a Hamas government collapse could destroy the PA, the governments of Egypt and Jordan are supporting the U.S.-led effort to topple Hamas from power. That's because even though they risk destroying prospect of a two-state solution for the foreseeable future, the leaders of Egypt and Jordan are more concerned about the example that a successful democratically elected Islamist government would send to those who live under their own authoritarian regimes. (Forward, April 28, 2006)
  • Zvi Barel suggests that the pressure on Hamas's PA government is forcing its Gaza and West Bank leadership to rein in the more militant Damascus-based wing. For example, when Damascus-based Khaled Meshal publicly accused President Mahmoud Abbas of treason, sparking off violent clashes between Fatah and Hamas activists on the ground, it was the threat to resign by Hamas leaders in government that forced him to retract. (Haaretz, April 30, 2006)
  • Hamas leaders are clearly feeling the pressure from the Arab League to move towards embracing its Beirut principles, i.e. recognizing Israel and negotiating peace on the basis of Israel agreeing to withdraw to its 1967 borders. Haaretz reports that Khaled Meshal now says Hamas will consider negotiations based on the Beirut principles if Israel is willing to accept them -- but that may simply be an elegant dodge, because he predict that Israel is unlikely to accept those terms. (Haaretz, May 2, 2006)
  • Israel, meanwhile, is moving rapidly towards completing the "security fence" that will essentially accomplish Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's aim of setting Israel's final borders in the next four years. Gershom Gorenburg argues that the reason for Olmert's haste is the hands-off policy of the Bush administration -- Israel's leader recognizes that the remainder of the Bush presidency is a window of opportunity to implement a unilateral redrawing of borders without any significant restraint from Washington. (Forward, April 21, 2006)
  • Previously on Israel and Palestine:
    --The Politics of Terror
    --Reality of Hamas Power Forces Strategic Reassessments
    --Hamas Inherits a Policing Dilemma
    --Israel Hopes to Negotiate its Borders with U.S.
    --Jericho Raid Humiliates Abbas
    --Hamas and Israel: An Unspoken Peace?
    --Rice Fails to Secure Hamas Blockade
    -- Is the U.S. Trying to Reverse the Palestinian Election?
  • Qaeda's Return to the Airwaves Shows Tension With Local Islamists
    Two video appearances by al-Qaeda icons this week may have been significant mostly for what they revealed about a growing rift between the "carpetbaggers" of the self-appointed leaders of the global jihad, and nationally-based Islamist groups such as Hamas. First, Osama bin Laden issued an audiotape that restated his movement's perspective of a protracted global insurgency against the U.S. that folds in all local struggles by Muslims. The implication was that al-Qaeda is the leader of this struggle, and he reiterated his movement's of-stated opposition to Islamist movements entering democratic politics -- as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood have done -- or engaging in dialogue with the West, for which he says there is no basis since the West refused his offer of a truce. He paid special attention to the plight of the Palestinians, noting that Western boycotting of Hamas illustrated that the West's agenda was inherently hostile to the Muslim ummah.

    Hamas lost no time in politely rebutting Bin Laden, just as it had done a couple of months earlier when Ayman Zawahiri had presumed to warn Hamas against compromise. The message, on both occasions, from Hamas was that the Palestinians have their own national interests and concerns, that al Qaeda does not speak for them, and nor do the Palestinians need advice from Bin Laden and company. The following day, when three bombs were detonated in the Sinai resort of Dahab (the authorship of these remains a mystery, although such mass casualty attacks on tourists has become a hallmark of the Qaeda franchise), Hamas quickly condemned the attacks -- all the more remarkable since when an Islamic Jihad bomber had struck in Tel Aviv the previous week, Hamas had expressed sympathy for the motivations of the attack.

    Then, on Wednesday, Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian Islamist responsible for some of the gruesome beheadings of Western hostages and mass-casualty bombings of Iraqi Shiites, appeared unmasked in an online video (upstaging Bin Laden, who had only issued an audio tape) exhorting his followers to fight on. But Zarqawi has reportedly seen his role in the Iraq insurgency downsized as other Islamist groups have sought to put an Iraqi face on the campaign, and also move away from tactics that alienate many Sunni Iraqis. And some of the key elements of the insurgency -- the neo-Baathist and nationalist groups -- have actually been holding talks with U.S. officials, on the premise that they share an antipathy to both Iranian and al-Qaeda influence in Iraq.

    Tension is now palpable between the global aims of those who have styled themselves leaders of the fight against "the far enemy" (the U.S.) and those engaged in a local politics where entry into democratic institutions offers real possibility for advancing their agenda. Al Qaeda leaders are devoting much of their increasingly precious air time to warning the likes of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood against the democratic road, and it's not hard to see why the Qaeda leaders would find that threatening: If there is, indeed, a democratic option available to Islamists on the ground, al-Qaeda becomes irrelevant. Which is exactly what Hamas is saying, in the Palestinian context. The danger, of course, is that if the doors are shut on the democratic option because Western powers don't like the outcome of Arab elections, al-Qaeda will have won this particular debate among the Islamists. (TIME.com, April 25, 2006)

  • Rami Khouri warns that winning the real war on terrorism requires a dramatic shift in Western responses to the Hamas election victory. "Throughout the Middle East and other Islamic lands, citizens who seek to become politically involved to change their world have ... three options," he writes. "Two of them - Al-Qaeda terror and Iranian-led defiance - are being fought fiercely by the West, and also by some in the region. The third option of democratic electoral politics is at a major crossroads now, following the Hamas victory, Hizbullah's strong governance role, and the recent solid performance by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

    "If the Hamas-led government is crushed by a combination of American, Israeli, Fatah and Arab pressures, and other Arab Islamists in government are squeezed further, this single largest, mostly Sunni, constituency in the world of "political Islam" will become disillusioned and probably give up on politics. Those who preach robust defiance against the West or who attack it with bombs are likely to gain new adherents, which will only intensify the cycle of violence, defiance, occupation and resistance that now defines and often plagues much of the Middle East. "Should mainstream, peaceful political Islamism be killed and buried, the subsequent landscape could very well see a coming together of five powerful forces that until now generally had been kept separate: Sunni Islamic religious militancy, Arab national sentiment, anti-occupation military resistance, Iranian-Persian nationalism, and regional Shiite empowerment among Arabs and Iranians. Anyone who thinks that we've seen the end of history should hold on to their pants and think again." (Daily Star, April 26, 2006)

  • Aluf Benn illustrates the same point in the converse, by pointing out that the U.S. response to the Hamas election and other Islamist gains has actually reinforced a status quo with which Washington had professed dissatisfaction. "With (Hamas's) Ismail Haniyeh in power, Israel can continue its unilateral policy in the territories," writes Benn. "The rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who groaned under American pressure for democratization, can relax: The 'Bush doctrine' for changing Arab regimes disintegrated with Hamas' election victory. Even Syrian President Bashar Assad, who was almost kicked out of his seat, was saved at the last moment. His secular and despotic regime, with all its shortcomings, suddenly looks preferable to Islamic democracy in Damascus" (Haaretz, April 27, 2006)
  • China's Interests Return Africa to the Strategic Spotlight
    The fact that the U.S. military command for Europe spends 70 percent of its time focused on issues in Africa should come as no surprise given the shifts in global trends that have seen Africa make an unlikely return to the geopolitical spotlight. In the wake of the Cold War in which each side backed its proxy forces in a classic "great game," the global focus shifted elsewhere and Africa was largely ignored as the continent was ravaged by AID, famine and the epic bloodbaths of Liberia-Sierra Leone and Rwanda-Congo, even as democracy took hold in some 40 percent of the continent's states and its healthier economies displayed impressive growth figures. But the twin crises of terrorism and energy security have compelled the U.S. to devote considerably more focus to African problems. West Africa has long been identified as a major source of oil imports for the U.S., but some of its Muslim nations have also been identified by al-Qaeda as theaters of operations. The big geopolitical shift, however, has been the emergence of Chinese influence. Although China is driven by its need to procure the extensive supplies of raw materials available in Africa, including oil and natural gas, it is approaching the continent in a manner quite different from Washington, offering African leaders a 'strategic partnership'. And in scale of economic investment, China may have the edge, too, with its emphasis on primary industries: Chinese imports from Africa, mostly raw materials, increased 81 percent in the past year. Chinese involvement in Africa also has clear political consequences, for example in the sluggishness with which the UN has responded to the crisis in Darfur, in part because of China's trade relations with the government of Sudan. (Wall Street Journal via Yale Global, April 28, 2006)

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    Bend it like Mahmoud? Ahmedinajad warms up with Iran's national team

    Iran Heading for World Cup Showdown?
    Unable to make much headway on the drive for sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, some Western politicians are looking for innovative ways to punish Tehran. And with Iran due to join 31 other countries at the sporting world's premier event next month -- soccer's World Cup -- some European politicians, backed by Israel, want the host nation, Germany, to ban President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad from attending. Ahmedinajad is known to be a soccer fan, and he also demonstrated a keen sense of the populist appeal of the sport when he recently challenged the Mullahs by attempting to reverse a decree banning women from attending matches. Some politicians even hoped to have the whole Iran team banned, but FIFA, soccer's governing body, has ruled out that option. Still, with German law making a crime of Holocaust denial, Israel and some European politicians are hoping that Germany will prevent the Iranian president from attending. German officials have also said they have no indication that Ahmedinajad plans to attend any of his country's matches and note that the fact that he would have to answer criticism for his stance on Israel and the Holocaust might deter him. Then again, his track record suggests that prospect may actually encourage him. His attendance would certainly put Germany on the spot, and if sensitive negotiations are underway between the West and Tehran, the abrasive President may see showing up at the World Cup as just the ticket to creating a new furor and sabotaging efforts at rapprochement. (Sunday Times, May 7, 2006)

    Different Paths: Brazil's Lula and Venezuela's Chavez

    Left vs. Left in Latin America
    It has long been self-evident that the Left has turned back the tide in Latin America since the triumph of U.S. geopolitical and economic perspectives at the end of the 1980s. A decade of neo-liberal economics has done little to lift much of the region out of poverty, and has only deepened the divide between rich and poor. And Latin American nations have seen countries such as Argentina prove that the sky does not fall in when even deeply troubled nations buck the IMF.

    "Starting with Hugo Chávez's victory in Venezuela eight years ago and poised to culminate in the possible election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico's July 2 presidential contest, a wave of leaders, parties, and movements generically labeled "leftist" have swept into power in one Latin American country after another," writes Jorge G. Castañeda. "After Chávez, it was Lula and the Workers' Party in Brazil, then Néstor Kirchner in Argentina and Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay, and then, earlier this year, Evo Morales in Bolivia. If the long shot Ollanta Humala wins the April presidential election in Peru and López Obrador wins in Mexico, it will seem as if a veritable left-wing tsunami has hit the region. Colombia and Central America are the only exceptions, but even in Nicaragua, the possibility of a win by Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega cannot be dismissed."

    Indeed, as the furor over the announcement by Bolivia's new populist leader Evo Morales that the country's hydrocarbons would be nationalized demonstrates, today the major political contest in Latin America is no longer between Left and Right, but between two contending outlooks on the Left. "One is modern, open-minded, reformist, and internationalist, and it springs, paradoxically, from the hard-core left of the past," he writes. "The other, born of the great tradition of Latin American populism, is nationalist, strident, and close-minded. The first is well aware of its past mistakes (as well as those of its erstwhile role models in Cuba and the Soviet Union) and has changed accordingly. The second, unfortunately, has not."

    He offers a thoughtful history of the Left in Latin America, establishing the factors that have driven the emergence of what he terms the "right Left" (as opposed to the "wrong Left" personified by Chavez). Much more European and Centrist in outlook, it remains the region's best hope for democratic development. Castañeda warns against a knee-jerk Cold War type response to the provocations of Chavez, suggesting that the more aggressive the response from Washington, the more damaging the outcome will be to both U.S. and Latin American interests. The more centrist Left of Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Brazil ultimately have the policies that negate the Venezuelan leader's posturing, but if he becomes the object of a renewed push into the region by the politically discredited administration in Washington, Chavez will emerge the winner. (Foreign Affairs, May-June 2006)

    Orla Guerin live from Jerusalem

    BBC Reviews Its Mideast Coverage
    Like any other news organization covering the Middle East, the BBC is consistently under pressure from partisans of both the Israelis and the Palestinians over its coverage. In response, the board of governors of the publicly-funded British broadcaster conducted an extensive internal review of its coverage, and reached some remarkable conclusions -- conclusions likely to irritate the pro-Israel lobby, although they will be welcomed teachers of journalism everywhere whose greatest fear is the loss of context in reporting a dramatic story, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. While it commended the BBC's excellent record under very trying circumstances, it faulted the network's coverage for failing to take adequate account of the disparity in power between the two sides, and the historical context that frames that disparity. Israelis and Palestinians clash not as equals across some national boundary, but as an occupying and occupied people. The BBC's governors warn that too often, the network is tempted to rely on the dramatic, available imagery to the exclusion of background and context that explains the events. And they accuse it of being too reactive and not doing enough to proactively set out the story that has shaped and driven the conflict. For partisans of the Web as the primary vehicle in the future of journalism, the report also has some reassuring news: the way to address the problem and provide the necessary background and context often missing from a dramatic news story, the governors conclude, is to make the additional material available in linked packages on its web site. And that's a prescription for doing in-depth journalism today that makes sense no matter what your point of view. (BBC Board of Governors, April 2006)

    Ahmedinajad: Scary, perhaps, but he's not in charge

    Iran's President Rattles Sabers, But He Doesn't Call the Shots
    Memo to the editors of America: Mahmoud Ahmedinajad does not, repeat NOT, rule Iran. Executive power in the Islamic Republic, and particularly control over foreign policy and security issues, is ultimately in the hands of unelected clerics -- and Ahmedinajad is not one of them. While the U.S. news media seemed well apprised of this fact during the presidency of the reformist Mohammed Khatami, for some reason it has been forgotten now that Iran is ruled by a conservative populist who loves making wild threats, particularly where Israel is concerned. That may be grist to the mill for those seeking to make the case that Iran represents a global menace -- and the Iranians have themselves to blame for not speaking with one voice -- but Ahmedinajad's rants do not represent Iran's positions. So, when the U.S. media reports that Iran has called off talks with the U.S. over Iraq because Ahmedinajad has said they're no longer necessary, it behooves editors to dig a little deeper, for the simple reason that Ahmedinajad does not make foreign policy.

    Executive authority over all matters of foreign policy and national security remains in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, who, incidentally, backed the candidacy of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani against Ahmedinajad's. The Supreme Leader, of course, tends to consult on these matters and follow the consensus on the National Security Council, a body of about a dozen figures, including representatives of the Expediency Council, chaired by Rafsanjani, and the heads of the security forces, as well as President Ahmedinajad. But his voice is simply one of many, and he has to lobby for his positions -- which is one reason he spends so much time making demagogic speeches designed to rally popular support for his uncompromising positions.

    The National Security Council is chaired by Ali Larijani, who also ran for president against Ahmedinajad. And Larijani, who is in charge of Iran's negotiations over the nuclear issue, as well as the proposed talks with Washington over Iraq, reports not to the president, but to the Supreme Leader. And the message projected by Larijani is quite different from that of Ahmedinajad. For example, the U.S. press reported Ahmedinajad's threat that Iran might withdraw from the Non Proliferation Treaty, but Larijani explains why this is not necessary. Still, Iran's ambiguous communication with the world works to the advantage of hard-liners in the West, while Iranian pragmatists are increasingly worried about the damage being wrought by Ahmedinajad's reckless rhetoric. Iran's nuclear policy is increasingly the focus of an escalating power struggle within the Tehran regime, but that in itself should alert Western journalists and editors to the fact that as juicy as his quotes may be, Ahmedinajad's bluster can hardly be construed as Iran's policy. (Time, April 20, 2006)

    Long time, no see

    What if They Gave a Global Jihad and Nobody Came?
    The most striking thing about Osama bin Laden's latest taped missive is how quickly the two entities he was claiming to "protect" against a Western "crusade" -- the Hamas-led Palestinian government and the government of Sudan -- distanced themselves from his attentions. Rather than play eternal victims in somebody else's ideology, the Palestinians and their elected leaders are taking their national fate into their own hands, and addressing their own, extensive domestic and international crises. And even a leadership committed to an Islamist world view and which has been ready in the past to use suicide-terror as a means of advancing its cause instantly recognizes that Bin Laden offers them nothing. Indeed, this is hardly the first such public spat: Hamas publicly slapped down Bin Laden's deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, last month after the Qaeda leader released a statement warning Hamas against compromise. And the Washington Post reports that Zawahiri has also tangled repeatedly with the leadership of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, further evidence of a split between al Qaeda's self-styled "Comintern" of global jihad and the nationally-based Islamist movements that are entering the political mainstream in the Arab world.

    The Poor Man's Air Force
    Mike Davis provides a fascinating history of the car-bomb and its evolution as a weapon in contemporary conflict, from its roots among anarchists in New York through its uses by both sides in Israel-Palestine in the mid 1940s, through internecine Mafia wars in Sicily in the early 1960s via Algeria, to more contemporary incarnations in Beirut, Ireland and Sri Lanka. Davis explores the emergence of the technology that levels the playing field in destructive power between conventional armies and terror outfits. Summarizing their advantages, he notes the following:

    "First, vehicle bombs are stealth weapons of surprising power and destructive efficiency. Trucks, vans, or even SUVs can easily transport the equivalent of several conventional 1,000-pound bombs to the doorstep of a prime target. Moreover, their destructive power is still evolving, thanks to the constant tinkering of ingenious bomb-makers. We have yet to face the full horror of semi-trailer-sized explosions with a lethal blast range of 200 yards or of dirty bombs sheathed in enough nuclear waste to render mid-Manhattan radioactive for generations.

    "Second, they are extraordinarily cheap: 40 or 50 people can be massacred with a stolen car and maybe $400 of fertilizer and bootlegged electronics. Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, bragged that his most expensive outlay was in long-distance phone calls. The explosive itself (one half ton of urea) cost $3,615 plus the $59 per day rental for a ten-foot-long Ryder van. In contrast, the cruise missiles that have become the classic American riposte to overseas terrorist attacks cost $1.1 million each.

    "Third, car bombings are operationally simple to organize. Although some still refuse to believe that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols didn't have secret assistance from a government or dark entity, two men in the proverbial phone booth -- a security-guard and a farmer -- successfully planned and executed the horrendous Oklahoma City bombing with instructional books and information acquired from the gun-show circuit.

    "Fourth, like even the 'smartest' of aerial bombs, car bombs are inherently indiscriminate: "Collateral damage" is virtually inevitable. If the logic of an attack is to slaughter innocents and sow panic in the widest circle, to operate a "strategy of tension," or just demoralize a society, car bombs are ideal. But they are equally effective at destroying the moral credibility of a cause and alienating its mass base of support, as both the IRA and the ETA in Spain have independently discovered. The car bomb is an inherently fascist weapon.

    "Fifth, car bombs are highly anonymous and leave minimal forensic evidence. Buda quietly went home to Italy, leaving William Burns, J. Edgar Hoover, and the Bureau of Investigation (later, to be renamed the FBI) to make fools of themselves as they chased one false lead after another for a decade. Most of Buda's descendants have also escaped identification and arrest. Anonymity, in addition, greatly recommends car bombs to those who like to disguise their handiwork, including the CIA, the Israeli Mossad, the Syrian GSD, the Iranian Pasdaran, and the Pakistani ISI -- all of whom have caused unspeakable carnage with such devices.

    In his followup piece, he examines the politics of some of the groups using car bombs and how the weapon interacts with those. He also notes that car bombing and IEDs in Iraq have forced an occupation authority to retreat into the tiny quadrant of the capital known at "The Green Zone." (TomDispatch, April , 2006)

    Beirut Takes a Time Out From the 'Clash of Cultures'
    In the not too distant past, the observation that Beirut "has a lot of secret stuff going on" would have referred to clandestine political and military operations of radical factions, espionage duels, kidnappings and the plotting of a bloody civil war. Today, it's the raison d'etre offered by the publishers of Time Out Beirut, the local edition of the London-based magazine franchise that showcase hedonistic delights of all the world's great metropolises for a weekly readership. The idea that Beirut will have its own edition, starting as a monthly, may be the surest sign that the city has put the scars of civil war behind it, and epitomizes a new optimism in the wake of the Syrian withdrawal. And it also blows something of a raspberry in the direction of those who insist that we're in the throes of a clash of cultures. (Daily Star, April 7, 2006)

    Hamas's cabinet is sworn in

    Should the West Engage With Radical Islamists?
    Mark Perry and Alastair Crooke are former Western intelligence officials who have, along with a number of their colleagues, been holding talks with officials from Hamas, Hezbollah and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. These officials, who worked at the highest levels of British and U.S. intelligence, have recognized that the political momentum in the Arab world is with the Islamists, but in the course of their discussions they have recognized a profoundly important distinction between the interests and agendas of nationally-based groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and the transnational jihadists of al-Qaeda. (Indeed, the same distinction was clearly on view recently when Hamas firmly rejected Al Qaeda's demand that it fight on and reject compromise -- the premise of the brusque rebuff by Prime Minister Ismail Haniya was that the Palestinians don't need Al-Qaeda's advice. Crooke and Perry believe that the West is making a tragic mistake if it continues to conflate these two groups, rather than recognizing the considerable basis for dialogue and even common interests (particularly in democracy) with some of the nationally-based Islamist groups. They sought to brief the U.S. government on their discussions but were rebuffed, on the grounds that such a briefing would be seen to be legitimizing talks with terrorists. They write:

    "The question of legitimacy is important because for democracies, legitimacy is not conferred, but earned at the ballot box. Hamas and Hezbollah would welcome a dialogue with the West not because it would confer 'legitimacy' - they already have that - but because such a dialogue would acknowledge the differences between Islamist movements that represent actual constituencies from those (such as al-Qaeda and its allied movements) that represent no one....

    "There is no question that two of the groups with whom we spoke - Hamas and Hezbollah - have adopted violent tactics to forward their political goals. They are not alone: Fatah (whose candidates for election the US supported with US$2 million in campaign funds) continues to use violence (and kidnap Westerners), so do the Tamil Tigers, so did the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the African National Congress. So too does the United States. America's insistence that Hamas and Hezbollah 'renounce violence' and 'disarm' is dismissed by these groups as not only an invitation to surrender but, in light of the continuing and increasingly indefensible use of alarmingly disproportionate US and British firepower in Iraq, the rankest hypocrisy.

    "The West's seeming abhorrence of violence is derived from its deeply rooted belief that political change is possible without it. But defending this proposition requires an extraordinary exercise in historical amnesia....

    "The leaders of major Islamist organizations view the issue of violence in the same way Americans do - as a legitimate option that is applied to establish deterrence and stability and to defend and promote their interests. For Hamas and Hezbollah, 'armed resistance' is a way of balancing the asymmetry of force available to Israel. Both groups place their use of violence in a political context.

    " 'Armed resistance is not simply a tool that we use to respond to Israeli aggression,' a Hamas leader averred. 'It gives our people confidence that they are being defended, that they have an identity, that someone is trying to balance the scales.

    "Hezbollah puts this idea in the same political context: 'It may be that some day we will have to sit down across from our enemies and talk to them about a political settlement. That could happen,' reflected Nawaf Mousawi, the chief of the Hezbollah's foreign relations department. 'But no political agreement will be possible until they respect us. I want them to know that when they're sitting there across from us that if they decide to get up and walk away, they'll have to pay a price.'

    "The West's insistence that opening a political dialogue be preceded by and conditioned on disarmament is simply unrealistic: it suggests that we believe that 'our' violence is benevolent while 'theirs' is unreasoning and random - that a 19-year-old rifle-toting American in Fallujah is somehow less dangerous than a 19-year-old Shi'ite in southern Lebanon.

    "In fact, political agreements have rarely been preceded by disarmament. United Nations demands for the disarmament of the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) in 1978 unraveled a conflict-ending political agreement (a situation put right when the rebels were allowed to keep their weapons), and Northern Ireland's 'Good Friday Agreement' allowed the IRA to keep its weapons until a political process (leading to 'decommissioning') reflecting their concerns was put in place.

    "The West often views Islamic violence as random and unreasoning, but Hamas and Hezbollah believe that violence can shift practical political considerations to create a psychology in which armed groups can use the tool of de-escalation as a way of forwarding a political process. That is to say, absent a political agreement, Hamas and Hezbollah will not voluntarily abandon what they view as their only defense against the overwhelming weight of Israeli military power.

    "Disarmament (or 'demilitarization') is possible: it worked in Northern Ireland and South Africa. When coupled with substantive political talks, the unification of armed elements into a single security or military force - demilitarization - provides the best hope for increased stability and security in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza."
    (Asia Times, March 30, 2006)

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