Department of Journalism, College of Communication, Boston University





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Smoke pours from Samarra's Golden Mosque moments after it was bombed by suspected insurgents, triggering a fierce sectarian backlash

Firebrand Sadr May Succeed Where U.S. Has Failed
The bomb blast that destroyed the Shia shrine at Samarra may have been the opening salvo of an Iraqi civil war, judging by the torrent of sectarian violence it unleashed across the country. For many Shiites, the attack on a symbol of their faith has been taken as the last straw in a mounting campaign of sectarian attacks. Even the restraining voice of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani sounded the call to protest, and warned that the Shiites may have to resort to militias to protect themselves. More than 150 Iraqis died in the two days following the blast as Sunni mosques came under attack from Shiites seeking vengeance, and that prompted a furious reaction from Sunni leaders negotiating political terms with the dominant Shiite parties.

This may be the moment of truth for Iraq’s leaders, in which they’re forced to either achieve a working Iraqi compromise or else repair to a battlefield that could engulf the region. And the role of the United States in achieving any such consensus will be necessarily marginal. Leaders on both sides of the sectarian divide hold the U.S. at least partly responsible for their plight, and the Shiites made clear the latest outrage will be used to push back against U.S. pressure to be more accommodating of Sunni interests. U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad had threatened this week that the U.S. would withdraw support for Iraqi institutions if these were run by “sectarian” groups, prompting a sharp reaction from Shiite leaders.

If Khalilzad has failed to cajole Iraq’s leaders into a new compact, the latest upsurge may well do the trick, by giving all of Iraq’s leaders a graphic lesson in the consequences of that failure. Still, any new consensus might well happen at the political expense of the U.S. The best bet for a unifying figure right now may well be Moqtada Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric whose Mehdi Army has twice launched insurrections against U.S. forces. Sadr has emerged as the leading power broker within the dominant Shiite coalition; his power base is largely in East Baghdad making his forces the frontline troops of any Sunni-Shiite civil war; and as a result of his tangling with the Americans – and his rejection of the proposed Shiite mini-state in the south favored by SCIRI – he is the Shiite politician most respected among nationalist Sunnis. And Sadr appears to be maneuvering adroitly, calling on his forces to defend Shiite holy sites at the same time as warning them against taking retribution against the Sunnis and falling prey to foreign schemes to promote a civil war. (Most Iraqi political leaders believe the blast at Samarra was the work of al-Qaeda aligned groups within the insurgency.) Sadr’s strength among the Shiites, and the respect he enjoys among Sunnis, may make him the ideal candidate for the role of unifier. But such unity will be based in part on the demand that the U.S. withdraw from Iraq in short order. (TIME.com, February 23, 2006)

  • Juan Cole warns that the sectarian upsurge could paralyze Iraq's political process, preventing the formation of a new government and forcing new elections, which would likely simply deepen the deadlock. (IPS, February 25, 2006)
  • Vali Nasr argues that by toppling Saddam Hussein, the U.S. unleashed the Shiite genie which will not now be tamed. Efforts to force the Shiites to do more to accommodate the Sunnis, who they see as their former oppressors and the base of the insurgency, are likely to simply drive the Shiites further away from Washington’s influence. (Council on Foreign Relations, February 23, 2006)
  • The Washington Post notes that Sadr has been burnishing his leadership credentials by touring Middle Eastern capitals and meeting political leaders, much to the chagrin of his main rival for leadership in the Shiite camp, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. (Washington Post, February 22, 2006)
  • Sami Ramadani suggests that most of the mass outpouring of Shiite anger over the blasts appears to be directed not at rival sects, but at the U.S. The most influential ayatollahs, he notes, are calling it a "sin" to attack Sunnis. But demands for U.S. withdrawal are mounting. (The Guardian, February 24, 2006)
  • Iran has somewhat bizarrely blamed the U.S. and Israel for the blast in Samarra. Syed Saleem Shahzad argues that the upsurge of sectarian violence in Iraq represents a major setback for the Iranian strategy of promoting pan-Islamic unity against the U.S. in order to head off international pressure over its nuclear program. (Asia Times, February 22, 2006)
  • Previously on Iraq: Mounting Anger at Coalition Forces in Iraq

    Rice Fails to Secure a Palestinian Funding Blockade
    Plainly shocked that Palestinian democracy produced a Hamas government, the Bush administration has been scrambling for a response, hastily reversing many of its own positions on Palestinian reform and institution building, and opening its democratic bona fides to further Arab skepticism. When Yasser Arafat was president, the Administration insisted that more power be transferred to an elected government and its prime minister, including control over finances and security forces. Now that the Palestinian voters have chosen Hamas to form that government, the U.S. is insisting on maximum authority for President Abbas, particularly over the security forces. It is even weighing whether it would be possible to keep on funding Abbas rather than the government. More immediately, however, Secretary of State Condi Rice was sent to the Middle East to demand that Arab governments support the U.S.-Israeli position that upon Hamas assuming office, all funding to the Palestinian Authority should be summarily cut. The U.S. has demanded the return of $50 million already disbursed to the PA, while Israel has ceased payment of customs and tax revenues on Palestinian imports owed to the PA. Rice's position was sharply rebuffed in Cairo and Riyadh, where moderate Arab regimes see her approach as dangerously misguided.

    The moderate Arab regimes don't see the assumption of power by Hamas as an act of aggression that demands punishment; they see it as an opportunity to reform Hamas, turning it away from terrorism and towards responsible governance. Their position appears to be that as long as Hamas is prepared to govern responsibly and refrain from ending the cease-fire with Israel it has largely maintained over the past year, funding to Palestinian institutions should continue. Of course, Hamas also skillfully outmaneuvered Rice, visiting many Arab capitals (as well as Ankara and later this year, Moscow) to assure leaders there of its responsible intentions -- and at the same time, visiting Tehran where it received assurances that Iran would help fill the void left by any funding cuts, thereby reminding Arab moderates of the consequences of preemptively cutting funds to the PA. Unable to enforce a financial blockade of the Hamas-led PA, the U.S. and Israeli governments are left to seek a new response to the Palestinian political earthquake. (Jerusalem Post, February 22, 2006)

  • In an interview with Lally Weymouth, Hamas Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniya says his movement will establish peace with Israel in stages if it withdraws to its 1967 borders and grants the Palestinians a state. Many of his formulations are ambiguously worded but seem to signify an attempt by the nascent Hamas government to make clear that it seeks coexistence with Israel. Haniya argues that Israel itself has walked away from the Oslo Accords, so that Hamas doesn't have to answer the question of whether they apply. Basing his formula for recognition of Israel and a suspension of hostilities on the 1967 borders is also politically shrewd: While the current Israeli government has little inclination to accept those terms, they are the consensus position of the Arab League, based on Saudi proposals, and therefore put Hamas in accord with the moderate Arab regimes. (Washington Post, February 25, 2006)
  • Graham Usher explores the U.S.-Israeli strategy of using financial dependency to destabilize the Palestinian government in the hope that Fatah could profit from the resulting impoverishment of the Palestinian electorate, and could be reelected within a year if President Abbas called new elections. He explains why Palestinian political dynamics make that outcome extremely unlikely, and notes that the Arab rejection of the strategy has rendered it stillborn. (Al Ahram, Feb 23- March 1, 2006)
  • The Israeli-American strategy has also been flatly rejected by Fatah, which has sharply criticized U.S. funding withdrawals and Israel's refusal to pay revenues owed to the PA, reports Khaled Amayreh. More importantly, Hamas is looking to build a national unity government, and Fatah may yet participate. (Al Ahram, Feb 23- March 1, 2006)
  • Rami Khouri explains why Condi Rice's diplomatic efforts of the past week were eclipsed by those of Hamas's Khaled Meshal and Iraqi radical cleric Moqtada Sadr. The short explanation, he says, is that their democratically-established legitimacy among their own people is far greater than that of the U.S. (Daily Star, February 24, 2006)
  • Al Jazeera reports on attempts by Hamas and the defeated Fatah party to find common ground in a unity government. (Al Jazeera, February 23, 2006)
  • Stuart Reigeluth, in a review article on the book Aid, Diplomacy and Facts on the Ground, offers an in-depth look at the politics of donor aid to the Palestinians. (Cairo Review of Books, February 2006)
  • Previously on the Hamas victory: Is the U.S. Trying to Reverse the Palestinian Election?
  • Iran: Dangers of a Military Option
    As Iran upped the ante in its confrontation with the West over its nuclear program, discussion in much of the U.S. media turned to the question of a military option for dealing with Tehran. Most of the discussion accepts as its starting point that a full-blown invasion and occupation of a country three times the size of Iraq is beyond the capabilities of the U.S. military, and that allies would be even fewer than the limited number that joined the U.S. in Iraq. Instead, the talk is of a "surgical strike" that uses air power to eliminate the facilities that would give Iran the ability to manufacture nuclear fuel. The model, in such discussion, is the 1991 Israeli air strike that eliminated Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak. But while the likes of Dick Cheney like to cite this action as having averted a major threat to the West, the countervailing view is that, in fact, the Osirak strike drove the Iraqi program underground, and the U.S. and its allies discovered after their 1991 Gulf War victory that Baghdad had been far closer than anyone had suspected to being able to manufacture nuclear weapons.

    Suffice to say that the Iranian program will have been premised on the expectation of an Osirak-type strike, which is why Iran's facilities are dispersed, hardened, and possibly include redundancies -- second facilities built for the contingency that the first facility performing a particular function is destroyed. Under those circumstances, argues Charles D. Ferguson II, the U.S. and allies would do better to learn the lessons of the 1998 Operation Desert Fox launched by the U.S. and Britain against Iraq after UN weapons inspectors were blocked: "An all-out military attack against Iran is out of the question because American forces are stretched too thin in Iraq and Afghanistan," Ferguson writes. "A limited US surgical strike against Iranian nuclear facilities would bring down international censure on the United States. While the Bush administration may be prepared to weather that storm, the far more dangerous consequence is that military action could stimulate a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tehran may not have crossed the nuclear Rubicon with a political decision to make nuclear weapons. But a US attack would undoubtedly convince Iran's leaders to take that momentous step and would prevent International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors from having access to Iran's nuclear program." (Council on Foreign Relations, February 14, 2006)

  • Military action against Iran may be tactically and strategically difficult, but politically it may be less so. Jim Lobe reports that opinion polls show that almost half of the U.S. population are ready to support military action against Iran should diplomacy fail to deter its nuclear ambitions. And that despite the fact that a majority of them are unhappy about continued engagement in Iraq. (Inter Press Service, February 9, 2006)
  • Most discussion on the question of a "surgical strike" assumes it would be Israel, rather than the U.S., that would mount such a strike. The option is certainly under discussion in Israel, and Vice President Cheney has previously indicated that such a scenario could be plausible. But the recent statement by President Bush in a Reuters interview that the U.S. would rise to Israel's defense in response to aggression from Iran raised many eyebrows, marking the first time the U.S. has included the Jewish State under a protective umbrella. The real import of that announcement, suggests Dan Williams, may have been to extend a guarantee that, at the same time, limits Israel's options for launching a preemptive assault on Iran. (International Institute for Strategic Studies, February 9, 2006)
  • The distinction drawn by President Bush between the people of Iran and their leaders on the nuclear issue is wishful thinking -- the government's defiance of the West has struck a chord with nationalist-minded Iranians across the political spectrum. Mehdi Khalaji warns that the West faces major obstacles in explaining to Iranian civil society why it has a problem with Iran pursuing uranium enrichment. (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, February 10, 2006)
  • Washington is nonetheless pressing ahead on a familiar track by asking Congress for $75 million in funding for anti-regime Iranian groups in the hope of promoting its overthrow. The proposal harkens to the $200 million allocated during the 1990s to Iraqi opposition groups. But the fact that such money is usually allocated largely to exile groups of dubious standing at home tends make them at best, ineffective, and at worst they actually play into the hands of the regime in a fiercely nationalist country. (San Jose Mercury News, February 16, 2006)
  • Ramin Jahanbegloo of the Department for Contemporary Studies at the Cultural Research Bureau in Tehran warns that no political leader in Iran is able to back down on the country's nuclear demands, and suggests that the regime believes the West's limited options make defiance a viable option. (Daily Star, February 15, 2006)
  • Dan Badger argues that the best way to stop Iran building nuclear weapons may be to help it build a civilian nuclear energy program, because that would keep Tehran's nuclear activities under Western scrutiny. (Foreign Policy, February 14, 2006)
  • Previously on Iran: Iran Raises the Stakes

    Pakistan: Myth of an Islamist Peril
    As many as five Pakistanis have been killed in a week of clashes sparked by various European newspapers publishing cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad, and those protests have quickly targeted a wider range of grievances, particularly with the U.S. Still, according to the argument of Frederic Grare, such events may play into the hands of Pakistan's military regime, which, he says, maintains the "myth" of the risk of an Islamist takeover to consolidate its own hold power. "Religious political parties and militant organizations are manipulated by the Pakistani Army to achieve its own objectives, domestically and abroad," he argues. "The army, not the Islamists, is the real source of insecurity on the subcontinent. Sustainable security and stability in the region will be achieved only through the restoration of democracy in Pakistan." (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February, 2006)

  • Syed Saleem Shahzad concurs that the free rein given to the protesters in Pakistan suggests that the protests are being stoked ahead of the visit of President George Bush next month, when they will be used to show the indispensability of military rule. The problem, says Shahzad, that having allowed these sentiments to be unleashed, the regime may not easily contain them. (Asia Times, February 15, 2006)
  • In an interview with Egypt's Al-Ahram, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen attributes the cartoon debacle to a cultural misunderstanding. "Danes are deeply saddened by the fact that an event in Denmark has caused this kind of distress among Muslims all over the world," he says, adding that the editor of the paper that originally published them would not have done so had he known the damage they would cause. The fact that he didn't was a sign of the cultural difference that created the furor in the first place. (Al Ahram February 10-15, 2006)
  • Baradan Kuppusamy reports from a conference in Malaysia that the cartoon anger is driven more by the U.S. war on terror than by satirical drawing of the Prophet Muhammad. (Inter Press Service, February 13, 2006)
  • Yassin Musharbash visits the campus of Al-Azhar university, often touted as the most influential Sunni Muslim center of learning in the world, and finds it surprisingly oblivious to the wave of outrage sparked by the Danish cartoons. (Der Spiegel, February 14, 2006)
  • Previously on the Cartoon Crisis: Caricature 'Clash of Civilizations'

  • Fatman and Little Boy launched a generation of weapons designed to ensure U.S. strategic primacy

    No Limit on U.S. Nukes
    Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press argue that the end of the Cold War has removed restraints on the U.S. pursuit of nuclear primacy, because the MAD (mutually assured destruction) principle that served as the foundation for arms control no longer serves as a brake on U.S. ambitions. The Bush administration is pursuing a revitalized nuclear program as part of its strategy to remain, in perpetuity, the single superpower and to prevent the emergence of a peer competitor to replace the Soviet Union on the strategic map. That requires substantially altering the rules of arms control and non proliferation.

    “During the Cold War, MAD rendered the debate about the wisdom of nuclear primacy little more than a theoretical exercise," they write. "Now that MAD and the awkward equilibrium it maintained are about to be upset, the argument has become deadly serious. Hawks will undoubtedly see the advent of U.S. nuclear primacy as a positive development. For them, MAD was regrettable because it left the United States vulnerable to nuclear attack. With the passing of MAD, they argue, Washington will have what strategists refer to as 'escalation dominance' -- the ability to win a war at any level of violence -- and will thus be better positioned to check the ambitions of dangerous states such as China, North Korea, and Iran. Doves, on the other hand, are fearful of a world in which the United States feels free to threaten -- and perhaps even use -- force in pursuit of its foreign policy goals. In their view, nuclear weapons can produce peace and stability only when all nuclear powers are equally vulnerable. Owls worry that nuclear primacy will cause destabilizing reactions on the part of other governments regardless of the United States' intentions. They assume that Russia and China will work furiously to reduce their vulnerability by building more missiles, submarines, and bombers; putting more warheads on each weapon; keeping their nuclear forces on higher peacetime levels of alert; and adopting hair-trigger retaliatory policies. If Russia and China take these steps, owls argue, the risk of accidental, unauthorized, or even intentional nuclear war -- especially during moments of crisis -- may climb to levels not seen for decades."
    (Foreign Affairs, April-May, 2006)

    Turkish U.S.-bashing movie 'Valley of the Wolves: Iraq' has drawn record crowds

    Where the Bad Guys are American
    It's not likely to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but the runaway success of the Turkish movie "Valley of the Wolves: Iraq" is a sign that local filmmakers have figured out a way to make pots of money out of the simultaneous loathing of American foreign policy and love of its action movies: Cast Americans as the bad guys in Rambo-style shoot-em-ups.

    On its website, which offers explanations, images and a trailer, the film is explained as a Rambo-style revenge fantasy in which a group of Turkish Special Forces soldiers head into Iraq to avenge some of their comrades who've fallen foul of U.S. forces and end up championing the stolen honor of the Iraqi people. The movie's popularity resonates with attitudes in the Turkish mainstream: The Prime Minister and his wife have seen the movie and recommended it to others, the first lady calling it "a beautiful film."

    And given the popularity of American action movies, the fact that the genre is now being turned against U.S. foreign policy represents a far more serious challenge than the droning video sermons of Bin Laden and Zawahiri.

    Nor does "Valley of the Wolves" have the genre all to itself. Over in Cairo, record crowds are turning out to see The Night Baghdad Fell, a vicious satire in which Egypt is conquered by an invading U.S. army. In the socially conservative Egyptian cultural landscape, the film's depiction of the fantasy of one of its main characters having sex with Secretary of State Condolleeza Rice, who is portrayed as a belly dancer, is no doubt contributing to its salacious appeal. (Knight-Ridder, February 14, 2006 and Al-Jazeera, January 10, 2006)

    The object of slander: Iran's national soccer team

    The Next Cartoon War?
    Even as people continue to die in protests sparked by the Prophet Muhammad caricatures, a German newspaper decided to open a second front by publishing a cartoon depicting Iran's national soccer team -- due to compete in Germany in the World Cup finals in June -- as suicide bombers. Iran immediately announced formal protests, and demanded an apology. Keep a watching brief on this one, which has the potential to merge the passions of the current cartoon war with the nationalist soccer passion of the Iranians in a volatile political cocktail. (The Guardian, February 15, 2006)

    Kim Jong Il visits China

    China and North Korea: Comrades Forever?
    U.S. strategy for dealing with the challenge of North Korea's nuclear weapons program is premised largely on the willingness and ability of China to hold Pyongyang's feet to the fire, using its status as North Korea's major trading partner to deliver good behavior. But, warns the International Crisis Group, China's position vis-a-vis North Korea is often misunderstood in Washington.

    "China's influence on North Korea is more than it is willing to admit but far less than outsiders tend to believe," the ICG writes. "Although it shares the international community's denuclearisation goal, it has its own concept of how to achieve it. It will not tolerate erratic and dangerous behaviour if it poses a risk of conflict but neither will it endorse or implement policies that it believes will create instability or threaten its influence in both Pyongyang and Seoul."

    China's priorities with regard to North Korea are not the same as Washington's. They include maintaining economic and social stability, preventing the U.S. from dominating a united Korea, and using its role in mediating the standoff to enhance its diplomatic prestige, while avoiding triggering a regional arms race. Although its almost $2 billion in trade and investment is the lifeblood of North Korea's economy, "there is virtually no circumstance under which China would use it to force North Korea's compliance on the nuclear issue." It fears that sanctions would do more harm than good, and also set a precedent that could prove uncomfortable for Beijing on other fronts. Its fear of a flood of refugees crossing the border also gives it a greater stake in maintaining the status quo on the Korean peninsula, or altering it very gradually through market reforms.

    "Although it cannot deliver a rapid end to Pyongyang's weapons program, China must still be an integral component of any strategy with a chance of reducing the threat of a nuclear North Korea," the ICG writes. "No other country has the interest and political position in North Korea to facilitate and mediate negotiations. It is also the key to preventing transfers of the North's nuclear materials and other illicit goods, although its ability to do this is limited by logistical and intelligence weaknesses, and unwillingness to curb border trade. Over the long-term, Chinese economic interaction with the North may be the best hope for sparking deeper systemic reform and liberalisation there." (International Crisis Group, January 31, 2006)

    Quadrennial Defense Review

    Reshaping the Military
    The Pentagon has released its Quadrennial Defense Review, which sets combating terrorism as a major long-term focus. The Project for Defense Alternatives offers an ongoing assessment of the discussion around the QDR, which appears to scale back Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's plans for overhauling the military, focusing instead on more familiar patterns of deployment and action that have proven effective in recent years. (Project for Defense Alternatives, February 2006)

  • Dr. Cindy Williams argues that America's best defense against the prospect of new terrorist attacks in the long run is to increase spending on conflict-avoidance strategies, including non-military foreign aid, focusing assistance on states in danger of failing, expanding the State Department's diplomatic corps and placing more emphasis on conflict prevention strategies than on war fighting.
  • Carl Conetta parses the QDR and finds that it leaves us mostly in the dark over the Pentagon's intentions, although it makes clear that they will cost $2.5 trillion.
  • Winslow Wheeler argues in a time of war and when certain critical elements of the defense budget require steadfast support and straightforward justification, today’s Pentagon leadership gives the nation mismatches between rhetoric and realities and a focus on budget gimmicks.
  • Larry Korb sees in the QDR a colossal failure to learn the lessons of the last four years.

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