Department of Journalism, College of Communication, Boston University





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Iraqis line up to vote in January. The December 15 election marks their third opportunity to go to the polls in a single year.

Bargaining, Not Balloting, Will Decide Iraq's Future
The overwhelming majority of Iraq's Sunni Arab population boycotted last January's election, but on December 15, they turned out in huge numbers. The level of violence was low by comparison to the last election, as even the nationalist groups (as distinct from global-jihadists) who represent the bulk of the insurgents declared a moratorium on attacks to allow Sunnis to go to the polls. Drawing Sunnis into the political process has long been deemed the essential precondition for ending the insurgency, and the current election appears to mark the first major step by groups loosely aligned with the insurgency into the political mainstream. But most of the Sunni parties themselves insist that the only way to resolve the insurgency, indeed, to avoid a civil war, is for both the U.S. and the Iraqi government to negotiate directly with the insurgents. And that may not be as far-fetched as it might once have sounded: U.S. ambassador to Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad says exploratory talks with the insurgents have already begun.

Whatever its long term impact, there's little doubt that the arrival of the Sunnis at the polls will significantly alter Iraq's electoral arithmetic – although the outcome of the vote may not be known for several weeks. Observers question whether Sunnis were more inclined to chose sectarian lists, like the Shiite and Kurds had done in January, or would turn instead to secular leaders. A strengthening of secular representation is obviously the preferred outcome for U.S. officials, but they're not setting too much store by the result: They're expecting that the combination of dissatisfaction with the performance of the Shiite United Iraq Alliance after a year in power, the fact that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani did not directly endorsed that list this time around, and the addition of hundreds of thousands of Sunni voters to the tally will likely see no party emerge with a clear majority of seats in parliament – meaning that the election itself will be but a prelude, to a season of backroom deals that will choose the new government, politically weaker than even the current government, but more inclusive. (The Guardian, December 15, 2005)

  • The Project for Defense Alternatives warns that the electoral system is skewed in favor of the Kurds, at the expense of the Sunnis. That creates an opening for rejectionist elements to counteract efforts to bring the Sunnis into a new political consensus, it warns. (Project for Defense Alternatives, December 10, 2005)
  • Nathan Brown, in an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations, warns against making bold electoral predictions, recalling that most predictions in January were far off the mark. Iraqi political behavior has not yet established clear, readable patterns. (Council on Foreign Relations, December 10, 2005)
  • The CFR also offers a useful profile of all of the major lists competing in the Dec. 15 election. (Council on Foreign Relations, December 10, 2005)
  • Al Jazeera reports that many Sunnis remain undecided over how to vote, and also that many may still stay away. (Al Jazeera, December 11, 2005)
  • Jeffrey White and Brooke Neuman note that the insurgent backing of nationalist Sunni candidates suggests that the elections will function to bring the insurgents into government -- although not in ways intended by the U.S. (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, December 13, 2005)
  • Jeffrey White and Brooke Neuman note that the insurgent backing of nationalist Sunni candidates suggests that the elections will function to bring the insurgents into government -- although not in ways intended by the U.S. (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, December 13, 2005)
  • Winslow Wheeler suggests that the Kurdish areas of Iraq are likely to become more unstable amid political fragmentation there . (Project for Defense Information, December 11, 2005)
  • Rick Barton says that the new government's prospects depend on its ability to complete an ambitious agenda over a very brief period, including establishing a formula for ending the U.S. military presence, establishing a security model in which the population has confidence, and agreeing on a wealth-sharing mechanism that goes beyond simply allocating patronage power among politicians. (CSIS, December 8, 2005)
  • For a unique Iraqi take on the events surrounding the election, the Guardian reintroduces legendary Baghdad blogger Salam Pax. (The Guardian, December 15, 2005)
  • Iraq Drawdown to 'Begin Within Weeks'
    The installation of a permanent government in Iraq will be taken as a cue to begin a major drawdown of U.S. and allied forces, the Times reports, with some 30,000 U.S. troops expected to brought home by New Year and the U.S. force level to drop below 100,000 early next year. While Iraqi officials have expressed alarm at the news, the drawdown appears to be part of a strategic redeployment in which Coalition forces hand over policing duties in all the major cities to Iraqi forces, and base themselves as a reserve security force outside the major population centers. Such a shift would require a far smaller U.S. force that would make greater use of air power and rapid deployment of ground forces in support of Iraqi forces in combat situations. And it would accomplish a number of political goals, such as bringing large numbers of troops home to satisfy an increasingly restive public and reducing the "footprint" of the forces associated with occupation, while continuing to maintain forces that can back up Iraqi security and defend Iraq's borders. (The Times, December 13, 2005)

  • Dahr Jamail notes that the use of U.S. air power in Iraq is already on the increase, and notes that its implications have garnered very little international media coverage. (TomDispatch, December 13, 2005)
  • National Security expert Michael Vlahos, in an original commentary on War in Context, argues that the U.S. presence is postponing the emergence of a stable, legitimate government in Iraq. The civil war is already underway, he argues, and Iraq bears some similarity to the Confederate South in the last days of the civil war, with multiple armed forces claiming authority. A new equilibrium can be achieved only by taking the U.S. out of the equation, he argues. (War in Context, December 10, 2005)
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies offers a comprehensive 215-page audit on the state of the Iraqi insurgency, and counterinsurgency efforts. (CSIS, December 12, 2005)
  • Recently noted on the U.S. exit strategy:

  • Anthony Cordesman offered a cogent argument in support of the proposation that it's simply too early to finalize an Iraq strategy right now. (Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 1, 2005)
  • Middle East Institute scholar Wayne White warned that the sectarian identities still prevalent in the Iraqi security forces imperil the U.S. withdrawal strategy. (Middle East Institute, December 2, 2005)

  • W. Andrew Terrill and Conrad C. Crane suggest that the U.S. begin preparing for a withdrawal under less than optimal conditions. (Strategic Studies Institute, October, 2005)
  • David Isenberg provides a fascinating overview of the daunting logistics of withdrawing 16 combat brigades in less than optimal security and infrastructural conditions. (Asia Times, December 9, 2005).
  • Israel Planning Iran Strike?
    The Times quotes "military sources" warning that Israel has ordered its military forces to be ready to launch a strike to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities by next March. Sources tell the paper that by then, Iran would be in a technical position to begin refining uranium to weapons grade in secret locations, while Israeli – and U.S. – officials believe the diplomatic effort to stop Iran developing strategic nuclear capability is going nowhere. And, of course, the fact that Israeli voters go to the polls on March 28 is cited as an additional advantage to that deadline for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, because any such strike would likely produce a wave of patriotic fervor that would guarantee his return to power. (The Times, December 13, 2005)

  • The belief that Iran would have enrichment capability by March was stated publicly before the Israeli legislature by Israel's military chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz. (Voice of America, December 13, 2005)
  • Meanwhile, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad continues to goad Israel, most recently suggesting the Jewish State be relocated to Alaska. But, says Asia Times columnist Pepe Escobar, Ahmedinajad's comments are intended for a domestic consumption, promoting the idea of isolation against the integrationist inclinations of even the more moderate conservatives. (Asia Times, December 14, 2005)
  • Recently noted on the Iran nuclear showdown:

  • Rami Khouri explained why the U.S.-Iran conflict is the most dangerous in the Middle East.
  • A group of 50 experts marshaled by the British American Security Information Council warned that the current talks are doomed to failure, and that the only prospect for avoiding a crisis was for the West to accept limited nuclear fuel production inside Iran, while the Iranians would accept a greatly expanded inspection regime over such activity>.
  • Writing on the Wall for Mahmoud Abbas?
    U.S. policy in the Middle East is premised on the idea of Mahmoud Abbas delivering a peace deal more acceptable to Israel than what they tried to conclude with Yasser Arafat. Problem is, it looks increasingly likely that Abbas's already limited grip on power will continue to erode in the coming months. The latest blow came in the form of a breakaway from Abbas's ruling Fatah party, led by the imprisoned West Bank leader Marwan Barghouti – who also happens to be easily the party's most popular politician. Barghouti's new party, “Future,” has also been joined by Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan, the security chiefs on whom the U.S. and Abbas had pinned much of their hope. Barghouti supports a two-state peace with Israel, but supports “armed struggle” as a legitimate means of pursuing that end. Barghouti represents the restive younger generation of West Bank and Gaza leaders who were passed over when Arafat brought his leadership coterie (including Abbas) back from Tunis. He was dissuaded shortly after Arafat's death from running against Barghouti, although an authoritative Palestinian poll showed he would have beaten Abbas handily in a head-to-head presidential race. The breakaway appears to have been precipitated by Abbas once again appointing “old guard” figures over Barghouti's generation to Fatah's electoral list. The only way to lure them back into the fold, presumably, will be to offer them a controlling stake in the Fatah list. Either way, it's a relative certainty that under the twin challenges of Hamas and the Fatah rebels, Abbas's authority will be weakened by January's Palestinian election. (Al Jazeera, December 15, 2005)

  • In what may be an early indicator of things to come, Hamas has trounced Fatah in four municipal election contests on the West Bank. (Haaretz, December 15, 2005)
  • Danny Rubinstein suggests that Abbas's best prospects for political survival may lie in postponing the elections, once again. And terror strikes by Islamic Jihad inside Israel may prompt a downward spiral in the security situation that allows him to do just that. (Haaretz, December 15, 2005)
  • China Shooting Reveals an Authoritarian Regime in a Clumsy Transition
    The idea that Chinese security forces might fire on demonstrators is hardly a new one, but last week, after when a number of protestors (the number is contested) were killed by police while challenging the seizure of land for a power station in the village of Dongzhou, the authorities first tried a cover-up, then arrested the cop in charge. The episode appears to capture the regime in a moment of transition, on the one hand responding to protests with brute force, but on the other appearing sensitive to popular sentiment and the need for some form of official accountability. And new guidelines for dealing with popular dissent may be increasingly urgent, given the fact that official tally for the number of protests in the past year stands at 74,000. The losers in China's great economic expansion are becoming increasingly desperate, and willing to challenge authority. And the authorities appear to recognize that force alone can't guarantee their survival; securing some measure of consent from the governed has become essential. (LA Times, December 12, 2005)

  • The Economist notes that economic growth is likely to expand unrest in China rather than quiet dissent, creating an urgency for officials to find new means of responding that avoid traumas such as occurred at Dongzhou. (The Economist, December 13, 2005)
  • Bolivia Vote a Challenge for U.S. and Moderate Leftists
    When Bolivians go to the polls this weekend to elect a new president, the man they're most likely to elect is Evo Morales, a leftist champion of indigenous people, a farmer of the coca crop that the U.S. has been trying to eradicate, and a staunch enemy of Washington's foreign policy. The International Crisis Group, however counsels patience and engagement by both the United States and the more moderate leftist governments of the region such as Brazil and Argentina, in order to avoid driving Morales more deeply into alliance with the radical populist Hugo Chavez. The alternative might be a civil war, as natural gas-rich regions threaten to secede. (International Crisis Group, December 12, 2005)

    Spielberg shoots "Munich"

    Mideast on the Silver Screen
    Steven Spielberg, in his new film “Munich,” finally weighs in on a Middle Eastern theme, and draws the predictable firestorm of criticism. The movie depicts Israeli efforts to hunt down and kill the Palestinians responsible for the 1972 Munich terror attack on Israeli Olympic athletes, and the accidental killing of an innocent man in the course of that hunt. Israel was neither entertained nor impressed despite the director's insistence that the project was his “prayer for peace.” Israeli officials complaining that the movie established a moral equivalence between the actions of the Palestinian killers at Munich and the Israeli killers who went after them. And one commentator on an Israeli web site went even further: "If, as our enemies say, we own Hollywood, well, here's the plot twist - we have lost Hollywood, and we have lost Spielberg," wrote bestselling author Jack Engelhard "Spielberg is no friend of Israel. Spielberg is no friend of truth. His Munich may just as well have been scripted by George Galloway." Of course, the movie has yet to be screened, and there's no word yet of any response from the Palestinian side.

    But Spielberg's is hardly the only movie dealing with the region's bloody conflicts currently competing at the box office. George Clooney's portrayal of jaded CIA agent Bob Baer in "Syriana" appears to have wowed audiences if not critics -- the movie bumped Harry Potter off the top of the box office ratings for the weekend that it opened. But it, too, came under fire from conservative critics who accused it of distorting the reality of U.S. clandestine operations in the Middle East, and liberal critics who seemed to accuse it being at once simplistic and incomprehensible. While Hollywood is reportedly moving from the traditional format of movies simply depicting Middle East reality through the eyes of American security personnel – one movie in the works reportedly has Albert Brooks cast as a comedian dispatched by the State Department to find out what makes Muslims laugh (a role that unkind observers might say has lately been played by Karen Hughes in her public diplomacy trips) -- theater goers now also have the option of a film telling the terrorism story through Palestinian eyes: Hany Abu-Assad's "Paradise Now" tells the story of how two young Palestinian men find themselves accepting a mission as suicide bombers, and the decisions they make along the way. Abu-Assad's film has been nominated for a Gold Globe, suggesting that a foreign-language film Oscar nomination may be in the offing. And, of course, Spielberg's "Munich" is already been spoken about as a best-picture contender. In 1978, Vanessa Redgrave caused a commotion in Hollywood by bringing up the plight of the Palestinians in her acceptance speech for best supporting actress; at next year's ceremony the Palestinians may be all over the screens. (Guardian, December 12, 2005)

    A Journalist's Invitation to Don Rumsfeld
    As part of his personal contribution to the Bush administration's effort to reverse the tide of public opinion against the war in Iraq, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld this week accused the media for painting what he said was a distorted picture of the reality in Iraq. Things were going a lot better in Iraq than anyone could tell reading the media, he said. Offered a personal prime-time right of reply by virtue of his appearance on CNN later that night, TIME's Michael Ware who has spent two years in Baghdad reporting on the insurgency offered the following: “I'd personally like to invite Secretary Rumsfeld to come and spend some time here on the ground in Baghdad in what he would refer to as the Red Zone. Whenever Secretary Rumsfeld himself has visited Iraq, it's been well within the embrace of the U.S. military. He has been encased in the Green Zone. Let him come out and taste what life is like for the ordinary Iraqis. For the ordinary Iraqi, a few soccer balls, a painted school means nothing. When you cannot have confidence in sending your children to elementary school and that they won't be blown up, that government-sponsored death squads won't kick in your door at night, that you won't be caught in the crossfire of some awful battle. Let Secretary Rumsfeld come and live that life for a day and then let him talk about the positives that are being unreported. If -- it would be an insult to the Iraqi experience to have it any other way. (CNN transcript, December 5, 2005)

    Pakistan's military on patrol in Waziristan

    When the Pakistani authorities announced last week that an Egyptian Qaeda leader had been killed by his own bomb in a house in Waziristan, journalist Hayatullah Khan went up to get the story. In the village where the killing occurred, he photographed the remains of a U.S. missile, and got the locals' account of how a house had been blow up by the missile fired from a drone. Soon after his photographs appeared in the world's papers, Hayatullah Khan was abucted and has not been seen since. While it remains possible that he was seized by militants, Hayatullah himself had expressed the fear that the Pakistani intelligence authorities would be after him, because his story challenged their consistent denial that any U.S. military action occurs on Pakistan's soil. (LA Times, December 8, 2005)

  • For years, Pakistan has kept itself onside with the U.S. war on al Qaeda by delivering a steady stream of arrested “suspects,” many of them of no value. Now, writes Syed Saleem Shahzad the case of an innocent Canadian shows that the U.S. is no longer as easily suckered. (Asia Times, December 9, 2005)
  • The global jihadi community appears to be split on the question of holding hostage or murdering peace activists in Iraq. A former Guantanamo prisoner has added his voice to that of an imprisoned radical cleric calling on Islamist militants to have mercy on a group of British peace activists being held hostage in Iraq. (Guardian, December 8, 2005)
  • In a panel discussion at the Middle East Institute, Imperial Hubris author Michael Scheuer argues that the U.S. is now confronting a global Islamist insurgency, which can't be destroyed terrorist-by-terrorist. Instead, Washington should recognize the political sources of that insurgency, and construct a strategy for the defeat of al Qaeda that acknowledges its greatest source of strength, which is a growing global sense of Muslim grievance at the hands of the United States. (Middle East Institute, December 5, 2005)
  • Zbigniew Brezinski echoes this theme, critiquing President Bush's “Islamophobia” in his efforts to compare Islamist radicalism with communism. (Washington Post, December 4, 2005)
  • Steve Coll explores the emergence of this global anti-American outlook in the Muslim world by tracing the ideological trajectory of Osama bin Laden and the class of '76. (New Yorker, December 12, 2005)

  • U.S. Central Command's website and Newsletter
    Updating Info on Iraq, Afghanistan. the Middle East and the Horn of Africa