Monthly Archives: August 2008

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Russia must get out now, adds Bush, for South Ossetia and Abkhazia belong to a sovereign Georgia. But when did Bush demand that Israel get off the Golan Heights or withdraw from the birthplace of Jesus, which Israelis have occupied for 41 years, as he demands that Russia get out of the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, which Russia has occupied for two weeks?

A year after taking power, in June 1934, Adolf Hitler made his first visit abroad — to his idol Benito Mussolini in Venice.

Babbling on incessantly about “Mein Kampf “and the Negroid strain in Mediterranean peoples, the Fuhrer made a dismal impression.

“What a clown this Hitler is,” Mussolini told an aide.

Two weeks later, Hitler executed the Roehm purge and murdered scores of old Stormtrooper comrades. In late July, Austrian Nazis, attempting a coup, assassinated Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, a friend of Mussolini whose wife and child were then his guests.

Il Duce ordered four divisions to the Brenner Pass and flew to Vienna to vent his rage and disgust with Hitler. He called a summit at Stresa with Britain and France to agree on military action should Hitler make any new move in violation of Versailles.

At the time, however, Il Duce was also plotting revenge on Abyssinia for a bloody border clash with Italian Somaliland.

Mussolini thought his Allies would understand if he invaded the Ogaden to add an African colony to his new Roman Empire, just as the British and French had so often done in previous decades.

Mussolini miscalculated. Morally outraged, Britain and France went before the League of Nations and had sanctions imposed on Italy that were too weak to defeat her but punitive enough to insult her.

Friendless, isolated and condemned as an aggressor by Europe, Italy and Mussolini had nowhere to turn now but Hitler’s Germany.

Thus, over the fate of an Abyssinian slave empire, Britain drove her faithful World War I ally into the arms of a Nazi dictator Mussolini loathed and had wished to confront beside Britain. And Abyssinia was overrun.

Are we making the same mistake in the Caucasus?

Mikheil Saakashvili started this war with his barrage attack and occupation of South Ossetia. Russia’s war of retribution was far less violent or excessive than the U.S. bombing of Serbia for 78 days over Kosovo, or our unprovoked war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which has brought death to scores of thousands, or Israel’s 35 days of bombing of Lebanon for a border skirmish with Hezbollah.

Yet, declared John McCain of Russia, “In the 21st century, nations don’t invade other nations.” Even Dick Cheney must have guffawed.

Russia must get out now, adds Bush, for South Ossetia and Abkhazia belong to a sovereign Georgia. But when did Bush demand that Israel get off the Golan Heights or withdraw from the birthplace of Jesus, which Israelis have occupied for 41 years, as he demands that Russia get out of the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, which Russia has occupied for two weeks?

As Israel was provoked in 1967, so, too, was Russia provoked.

Russians died in Saakashvili’s attack, as American died in Pancho Villa’s raid on New Mexico in 1916. We sent “Black Jack” Pershing, future Gen. George Patton and a U.S. army 300 miles into Mexico to kill Villa. Was this proportionate?

If we proceed on a course of isolating Russia from the West, keeping her out of the World Trade Organization, throwing her out of the G-8 and ending cooperation with NATO, where do we think Russia will go? Where did Il Duce go, when he was excommunicated from the West?

Condi Rice compares Vladimir Putin’s action in Georgia to Leonid Brezhnev’s crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. She raced to Warsaw to ink a deal to put 10 anti-missile missiles and U.S. Patriot missiles manned by Americans into Poland.

Does the Stanford provost have any idea where the end of this road lies, upon which she and Bush have started the United States?

What do we do if Russia responds to our Patriots in Poland with the Russian S-300 anti-aircraft system in Iran and Syria?

If the United States intends to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and arm them to fight Russia, why should Russia not dissolve the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe and move her tank armies into Belarus and up to the borders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania?

Would we send U.S. troops into the Baltic republics to signal that we will fight Russia to honor our NATO war guarantees? Which NATO allies would fight alongside us against a nuclear-armed Russia?

If we bring Ukraine into NATO, what do we do if Russified east Ukraine secedes and Russia sends troops to back the rebels? Do we send warships into Russia’s bathtub, the Black Sea, and commit to fight as long as it takes to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity?

In March 1939, Britain pledged to declare war and fight Germany to the death to guarantee the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Poland. How did that one turn out for Britain and Poland?

Before we start down the road of isolating and encircling Russia with weak NATO allies, let us think through Gen. Petraeus’ question in 2003 about Iraq, “Tell me, how does this thing end?”

But, then, these folks never seem to think anything through.

Copyright 2008, Creators Syndicate Inc.

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For many, John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin for presidential running mate came as a surprise. Political heavyweights such as Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty had to stand aside for the little-known Alaska governor with "telegenic" looks.

Sarah Palin strongly supports oil drilling in Alaska and off the US coastline.

For many, John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin for presidential running mate came as a surprise. Political heavyweights such as Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty had to stand aside for the little-known Alaska governor with “telegenic” looks.

McCain’s choice may not have been predictable but it shows him moving further towards the interests of the industry most concerned about a Republican victory this November – Oil.

US oil firms have given John McCain three times more declared campaign money than to Democratic nominee, Barack Obama. Big oil contributions to the Republican Party outweigh oil money to the Democrats by a similar ratio.

Sarah Palin hasn’t been in the game long enough to have shown all her political colors but on one key issue she has made herself abundantly clear. Oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

Palin describes it as “nonsensical” that the president should have to “ask the Saudis to ramp up production of crude oil” while “sister state” Alaska has the oil that “hungry markets” in America need.

“But these lands are locked up by Congress, and we are not allowed to drill to the degree America needs the development.”

Palin has also expressed support for a USD 30b gas pipeline project and called listing polar bears as an endangered species a “significant threat to development.”

Palin’s answer to America’s “hungry” markets? Bring more oil to the table.

McCain himself certainly opposed drilling in Alaska before he came out in favour of it. In the past he has expressed views more in line with Al Gore than George W. Bush.

In 2005, John McCain voted for a ban on oil-drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). He has even gone on record criticising America’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.

The Republican Party’s Big Oil backers must have been quaking in their cowboy boots when they heard McCain talk about devoting efforts to alternative energy – which he described as “the ultimate answer to our long-term energy needs.”

Even as late as May 2008, McCain was saying that tapping America’s coastline for the nation’s energy needs would be an inefficient waste of time.

But by June, McCain had put his energy policy into a very different gear and began to call for the federal government to lift restrictions on America’s own reserves.

“As a matter of fairness to the American people, and a matter of duty for our government, we must deal with the here and now, and assure affordable fuel for America by increasing domestic production.”

This, despite a recent study by the US Energy Information Administration which found that “access to the Pacific, Atlantic, and eastern Gulf regions would not have a significant impact on domestic crude oil and natural gas production or prices before 2030.”

So much for the “here and now”.

In the month that McCain made his Big Oil turnaround oil and gas industry executives donated USD 1.1m to his campaign – compared with just USD 116,000 in March, USD 283,000 in April and USD 208,000 in May.

Sarah Palin’s strong support for drilling in the ANWR is no great surprise considering her all-Alaska background. It is hard to win office in the “last frontier” state without backing increased exploitation of natural resources.

Palin’s husband is also an employee of British Petroleum – the British oil giant with significant interests in Alaska’s oil wealth. That said, Palin, like the new McCain, has come out in favor of reaching beyond Alaska to America’s coastlines.

“There are even bigger sources of crude than ANWR . . . such as offshore areas like the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea. Congress can help us with those areas right now, bringing even more energy than ANWR and bringing it quicker.”

Few would have been tempted to put money on Sarah Palin being chosen as John McCain’s running mate, but for US oil industry interests, she appears to be a safe bet.

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Biden, who has chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been a strong advocate of engagement with Iran and a vocal opponent of any military action against Iran as a result of the nuclear standoff. He has participated in a number of forums sponsored by Iranian expatriates in the US, and has denounced some anti-Iran measures, such as the US’s labeling of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist outfit.

Publication time: 28 August 2008, 10:21

Senator Barack Obama’s choice of Senator Joseph Biden as his running mate for the Democratic ticket for the US presidency is a good omen for troubled US-Iran relations and will likely translate into positive developments on that front in the event Obama moves into the White House.

Biden, who has chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been a strong advocate of engagement with Iran and a vocal opponent of any military action against Iran as a result of the nuclear standoff. He has participated in a number of forums sponsored by Iranian expatriates in the US, and has denounced some anti-Iran measures, such as the US’s labeling of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist outfit.

With Iran looming as one of the major foreign policy issues in the presidential elections, Biden brings a measure of legitimacy to Obama’s call for direct dialogue with Tehran, a position soundly rejected by his Republican rival, Senator John McCain.

The trouble with McCain’s position on Iran, however, is that it does not sit well even with the Iran policy of the George W Bush administration, in light of the recent meeting of Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, with US Under Secretary of State, William Burns, in Geneva. This meeting marked a clear turnaround from the previous US policy of setting stringent preconditions, such as the suspension of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program, for any direct contact.

At the same time, the downside of having a clearer position on Iran is that it is not particularly favored by the strong pro-Israel lobby in Washington that tilts in favor of McCain. It is therefore possible that Biden’s selection may cost Obama a share of the Jewish vote, particularly if between now and November hostilities between the US and Iran escalate. In the absence of any breakthrough in the Iran nuclear stalemate and the ongoing tensions in Iraq, that is not hard to imagine.

In turn, the chances are that, faced with the prospect of a Jewish backlash, the Obama-Biden ticket may harden its stance towards Iran, just as Obama did during his recent trip to Israel, when he stated categorically that he was in favor of keeping all options open (such as an attack on Iran) and that he would not tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapon.

The danger is that Biden might now sing the same tune and escalate his rhetoric against Iran, rather than remain consistent with his earlier positions that prioritized diplomacy almost to the exclusion of hard power.

This is an important issue that could be addressed in the near future, in light of a key article in the Washington Post by Michael Rubin, a staunch pro-Israel pundit at the American Enterprise Institute, indirectly criticizing Biden for his soft Iran positions, as well as his connections to Iran lobbyists.

It is almost a sure bet that Biden and Obama will show sensitivity to such subtle attacks on them and will try damage control by using more strident rhetoric against Iran. Equally possible is that Biden will resist pressure from Obama and his team and refrain from sounding bellicose against Iran, in which case we must anticipate a bifurcated Obama administration, should the Democrats win the presidential contest, with vice president Biden leaning more in the direction of soft power diplomacy toward Iran than the new president in the Oval Office.

However, should Iran respond well to the Democratic victory through a more flexible nuclear posture that would be amenable to reaching a compromise, then the Biden factor will definitely weigh in positively, both in the area of confidence-building as well as substantive progress in the divisive issues that remain between the US and Iran.

From Tehran’s point of view, the replacement of hawkish Vice President Dick Cheney with the dovish Biden would be welcome news reflecting the beginning of an overdue adjustment of US foreign policy toward Iran.

Already, in his television interview with Charlie Rose of Public Broadcast Service in the US last week, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad stated Iran’s willingness to engage with the US should the US government correct its coercive approach toward Tehran. In this interview, Ahmadinejad called on the US and other governments that are part of the “Iran Six” (consisting of the UN Security Council’s permanent five – the US, France, China, Britain and Russia – plus Germany) to consider seriously Iran’s recent package of proposals regarding cooperation on regional and global issues.

To date, the “Iran Six” have not officially responded to Iran’s package and instead have put their emphasis on the need for Iran to respond to their recent package of incentives, aimed at persuading Iran to suspend its nuclear fuel cycle.

Ahmadinejad plans another US trip to attend the annual United Nations gathering in September, close to the November presidential elections in the US. This visit could be of high value for both McCain and Obama who, in their own way, could benefit from the net impact of Ahmadinejad being in town.

But, if Ahmadinejad’s conciliatory interview with Rose is any indication, Iran’s fiery president will follow the same script once he steps foot in New York, in which case the Obama-Biden ticket will benefit from the impression of some melting ice in the glacier of hostilities between the US and Iran. It is all the more important then for Biden to stick to his guns and not overnight become yet another hawkish voice on Iran (as seen with Obama at his recent meeting with Jewish lobbyists in Washington).

Through his Iranian connections, Biden can certainly reach out to Iran ahead of the elections and perhaps solicit a more favorable reaction from Tehran on various policy issues than seen from Tehran so far. All this depends on the nature of the heat put on Biden and Obama by the Jewish and pro-Israel groups, who dread the thought of a thaw in Iran-US relations as long as Iran has not halted its controversial nuclear program.

As a seasoned politician and foreign policy expert, who is also on record for his more even-handed US policy in the Middle East, Biden is capable of steering Obama in the direction of a new realism in US foreign policy that recognizes the importance of Iran as a regional power and which has national security worries and concerns, such as terrorism, drug trafficking and conflict-spillover.

Obama has shown only a superficial understanding of the Middle East in general and Iran in particular and this is a weakness that can be remedied by giving Biden considerable room to maneuver. Should the Obama team put a tight leash on Biden when it comes to Iran, it would mean sacrificing the potential for a breakthrough with Iran that Biden brings to the ticket. This is not to underestimate the difficulties in coordinating a unified and homogenous Iran policy between Obama and Biden.

Simply put, the Democratic ticket has no better chance to provide a serious change in US foreign policy than by charting a less-bellicose and more-conciliatory approach toward Iran. This is likely to be reciprocated by Tehran’s leaders, including Ahmadinejad, who is still waiting for a response to his letters – one to Bush and the other to the American people.

Ahmadinejad’s missive to Bush is unlikely to draw a response, but the chances are good to excellent that such an overture toward the US’s first African-American president will elicit a productive response.

Should McCain be the next president, we should expect nothing more than business as usual in the troubled waters of the US’s ties with Iran.

By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Source: Atimes

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The United States has the capacity for and may be prepared to launch without warning a massive assault on Iranian uranium enrichment facilities, as well as government buildings and infrastructure, using long-range bombers and missiles, according to a new analysis.

The United States has the capacity for and may be prepared to launch without warning a massive assault on Iranian uranium enrichment facilities, as well as government buildings and infrastructure, using long-range bombers and missiles, according to a new analysis.

The paper, “Considering a war with Iran: A discussion paper on WMD in the Middle East” – written by well-respected British scholar and arms expert Dr. Dan Plesch, Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, and Martin Butcher, a former Director of the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) and former adviser to the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament – was exclusively provided to RAW STORY late Friday under embargo.

“We wrote the report partly as we were surprised that this sort of quite elementary analysis had not been produced by the many well resourced Institutes in the United States,” wrote Plesch in an email to Raw Story on Tuesday.

Plesch and Butcher examine “what the military option might involve if it were picked up off the table and put into action” and conclude that based on open source analysis and their own assessments, the US has prepared its military for a “massive” attack against Iran, requiring little contingency planning and without a ground invasion.

The study concludes that the US has made military preparations to destroy Iran’s WMD, nuclear energy, regime, armed forces, state apparatus and economic infrastructure within days if not hours of President George W. Bush giving the order. The US is not publicising the scale of these preparations to deter Iran, tending to make confrontation more likely. The US retains the option of avoiding war, but using its forces as part of an overall strategy of shaping Iran’s actions.

  • Any attack is likely to be on a massive multi-front scale but avoiding a ground invasion. Attacks focused on WMD facilities would leave Iran too many retaliatory options, leave President Bush open to the charge of using too little force and leave the regime intact.
  • US bombers and long range missiles are ready today to destroy 10,000 targets in Iran in a few hours.
  • US ground, air and marine forces already in the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan can devastate Iranian forces, the regime and the state at short notice.
  • Some form of low level US and possibly UK military action as well as armed popular resistance appear underway inside the Iranian provinces or ethnic areas of the Azeri, Balujistan, Kurdistan and Khuzestan. Iran was unable to prevent sabotage of its offshore-to-shore crude oil pipelines in 2005.
  • Nuclear weapons are ready, but most unlikely, to be used by the US, the UK and Israel. The human, political and environmental effects would be devastating, while their military value is limited.
  • Israel is determined to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons yet has the conventional military capability only to wound Iran’s WMD programmes.
  • The attitude of the UK is uncertain, with the Brown government and public opinion opposed psychologically to more war, yet, were Brown to support an attack he would probably carry a vote in Parliament. The UK is adamant that Iran must not acquire the bomb.
  • The US is not publicising the scale of these preparations to deter Iran, tending to make confrontation more likely. The US retains the option of avoiding war, but using its forces as part of an overall strategy of shaping Iran’s actions.

When asked why the paper seems to indicate a certainty of Iranian WMD, Plesch made clear that “our paper is not, repeat not, about what Iran actually has or not.” Yet, he added that “Iran certainly has missiles and probably some chemical capability.”

Most significantly, Plesch and Butcher dispute conventional wisdom that any US attack on Iran would be confined to its nuclear sites. Instead, they foresee a “full-spectrum approach,” designed to either instigate an overthrow of the government or reduce Iran to the status of “a weak or failed state.” Although they acknowledge potential risks and impediments that might deter the Bush administration from carrying out such a massive attack, they also emphasize that the administration’s National Security Strategy includes as a major goal the elimination of Iran as a regional power. They suggest, therefore, that:

This wider form of air attack would be the most likely to delay the Iranian nuclear program for a sufficiently long period of time to meet the administration’s current counterproliferation goals. It would also be consistent with the possible goal of employing military action is to overthrow the current Iranian government, since it would severely degrade the capability of the Iranian military (in particular revolutionary guards units and other ultra-loyalists) to keep armed opposition and separatist movements under control. It would also achieve the US objective of neutralizing Iran as a power in the region for many years to come.

However, it is the option that contains the greatest risk of increased global tension and hatred of the United States. The US would have few, if any allies for such a mission beyond Israel (and possibly the UK). Once undertaken, the imperatives for success would be enormous.

Butcher says he does not believe the US would use nuclear weapons, with some exceptions.

“My opinion is that [nuclear weapons] wouldn’t be used unless there was definite evidence that Iran has them too or is about to acquire them in a matter of days/weeks,” notes Butcher. “However, the Natanz facility has been so hardened that to destroy it MAY require nuclear weapons, and once an attack had started it may simply be a matter of following military logic and doctrine to full extent, which would call for the use of nukes if all other means failed.”

Military Strategy

The bulk of the paper is devoted to a detailed analysis of specific military strategies for such an attack, of ongoing attempts to destabilize Iran by inciting its ethnic minorities, and of the considerations surrounding the possible employment of nuclear weapons.

In particular, Plesch and Butcher examine what is known as Global Strike – the capability to project military power from the United States to anywhere in the world, which was announced by STRATCOM as having initial operational capability in December 2005. It is the that capacity that could provide strategic bombers and missiles to devastate Iran on just a few hours notice.

Iran has a weak air force and anti aircraft capability, almost all of it is 20-30 years old and it lacks modern integrated communications. Not only will these forces be rapidly destroyed by US air power, but Iranian ground and air forces will have to fight without protection from air attack.

British military sources stated on condition of anonymity, that “the US military switched its whole focus to Iran” from March 2003. It continued this focus even though it had infantry bogged down in fighting the insurgency in Iraq.

Global Strike could be combined with already-existing “regional operational plans for limited war with Iran, such as Oplan 1002-04, for an attack on the western province of Kuzhestan, or Oplan 1019 which deals with preventing Iran from closing the Straits of Hormuz, and therefore keeping open oil lanes vital to the US economy.”

The Marines are not all tied down fighting in Iraq. Several Marine forces are assembling in the Gulf, each with its own aircraft carrier. These carrier forces can each conduct a version of the D-Day landings. They come with landing craft, tanks, jump-jets, thousands of troops and hundreds more cruise missiles. Their task is to destroy Iranian forces able to attack oil tankers and to secure oilfields and installations. They have trained for this mission since the Iranian revolution of 1979 as is indicated in this battle map of Hormuz illustrating an advert for combat training software.

Special Forces units – which are believed to already be operating within Iran – would be available to carry out search-and-destroy missions and incite internal uprisings, while US Army units in both Iraq and Afghanistan could mount air and missile attacks on Iranian forces, which are heavily concentrated along the Iran-Iraq border, as well as protecting their own supply lines within Iraq:

A key assessment in any war with Iran concerns Basra province and the Kuwait border. It is likely that Iran and its sympathizers could take control of population centres and interrupt oil supplies, if it was in their interest to do so. However it is unlikely that they could make any sustained effort against Kuwait or interrupt supply lines north from Kuwait to central Iraq. US firepower is simply too great for any Iranian conventional force.

Experts question the report’s conclusions

Former CIA analyst and Deputy Director for Transportation Security, Antiterrorism Assistance Training, and Special Operations in the State Department’s Office of Counterterrorism, Larry Johnson, does not agree with the report’s findings.

“The report seems to accept without question that US air force and navy bombers could effectively destroy Iran and they seem to ignore the fact that US use of air power in Iraq has failed to destroy all major military, political, economic and transport capabilities,” said Johnson late Monday after the embargo on the study had been lifted.

“But at least in their conclusions they still acknowledge that Iran, if attacked, would be able to retaliate. Yet they are vague in terms of detailing the extent of the damage that the Iran is capable of inflicting on the US and fairly assessing what those risks are.”

There is also the situation of US soldiers in Iraq and the supply routes that would have to be protected to ensure that US forces had what they needed. Plesch explains that “”firepower is an effective means of securing supply routes during conventional war and in conventional war a higher loss rate is expected.”

“However as we say do not assume that the Iraqi Shiia will rally to Tehran – the quietist Shiia tradition favoured by Sistani may regard itself as justified if imploding Iranian power can be argued to reduce US problems in Iraq, not increase them.”

John Pike, Director of Global Security, a Washington-based military, intelligence, and security clearinghouse, says that the question of Iraq is the one issue at the center of any questions regarding Iran.

“The situation in Iraq is a wild card, though it may be presumed that Iran would mount attacks on the US at some remove, rather than upsetting the apple-cart in its own front yard,” wrote Pike in an email.

Political Considerations

Plesch and Butcher write with concern about the political context within the United States:

This debate is bleeding over into the 2008 Presidential election, with evidence mounting that despite the public unpopularity of the war in Iraq, Iran is emerging as an issue over which Presidential candidates in both major American parties can show their strong national security bona fides. …

The debate on how to deal with Iran is thus occurring in a political context in the US that is hard for those in Europe or the Middle East to understand. A context that may seem to some to be divorced from reality, but with the US ability to project military power across the globe, the reality of Washington DC is one that matters perhaps above all else. …

We should not underestimate the Bush administration’s ability to convince itself that an “Iran of the regions” will emerge from a post-rubble Iran. So, do not be in the least surprised if the United States attacks Iran. Timing is an open question, but it is hard to find convincing arguments that war will be avoided, or at least ones that are convincing in Washington.

Plesch and Butcher are also interested in the attitudes of the current UK government, which has carefully avoided revealing what its position might be in the case of an attack. They point out, however, “One key caution is that regardless of the realities of Iran’s programme, the British public and elite may simply refuse to participate – almost out of bloody minded revenge for the Iraq deceit.”

And they conclude that even “if the attack is ‘successful’ and the US reasserts its global military dominance and reduces Iran to the status of an oil-rich failed state, then the risks to humanity in general and to the states of the Middle East are grave indeed.”

Larisa Alexandrovna is managing editor of investigative news for Raw Story and regularly reports on intelligence and national security stories. Contact:

Muriel Kane is research director for Raw Story.

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Russia wants to sell $8 billion of Russian arms in 2008. The latest clash with Georgia has set it up to achieve that target. The Image shows an RPG-7V2 grenade launcher on display at the recent MVSB 2008 international exhibition of weapons and military equipment at ExpoCentre in Moscow.

Russia wants to sell $8 billion of Russian arms in 2008. The latest clash with Georgia has set it up to achieve that target. The Image shows an RPG-7V2 grenade launcher on display at the recent MVSB 2008 international exhibition of weapons and military equipment at ExpoCentre in Moscow. (ITAR-TASS via Newscom)

MOSCOW — Three events came together independently to produce an intrigue that is hooking politicians and media in the Middle East. This is what happened.

Moscow hosted MVSV-2008, an international show of weapons and military equipment. Then King Abdullah II of Jordan visited the show, met with designers and producers and had a discussion with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. A few days previously, President Bashar Assad of Syria flew in for talks with Medvedev.

The press and television in Amman, Damascus and Tel Aviv have made much of the events, especially the Syrian visit.

Israeli media claimed Assad had arrived on a purchasing spree, and his main aim was to buy the Iskander-E tactical missile system, in addition to Pantsyr-S1 and Buk-M2 ground-to-air missile systems and Su-30, MiG-29SMT and MiG-31E fighters.

The Iskander missile had been promised to Damascus in 2001, and only a personal request by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to former President Vladimir Putin put a stop to its sale to Syria.

But now that Israel has helped to train Georgian commandos and equip the Georgian army that attacked South Ossetia, Moscow thinks it is within its rights to “repay the debt” and provide Damascus with the system, the media in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv said.

Yet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters during Assad’s visit that Moscow “is ready to supply Syria only with defensive weapons, ones that do not upset the balance of strength in the region.”

This means that Syria — as Moscow promised to Tel Aviv — will not get the Iskander system. Regarding ground- and air-based air defense units, including interceptor fighters, they are not considered offensive armaments and are exempt from Russian-Israeli agreements.

Military technical cooperation between Moscow and Damascus needs re-evaluating. Syria owes Russia $3 billion for weapons supplied to it, and this on top of Damascus’ $10 billion debt for armaments sold in Soviet times which Moscow forgave, incidentally, for a pledge to spend another $2 billion on arms purchases from Russia.

Contracts currently being negotiated include Pantsyr and Buk missile systems, as well as Sukhoi and MiG fighters, but not Iskander missiles. The parties are also discussing the expansion of a Russian naval maintenance base at the Syrian port of Tartus.

Any movement of Black Sea Fleet forces from Sevastopol to Syria, as some Middle East publications suggest is, of course, out of the question. But a supply and maintenance center for warships on missions in the Mediterranean will come in handy for Moscow. In the Soviet era, the Soviet Navy’s Fifth Mediterranean Squadron made full use of this port.

King Abdullah’s visit to Moscow did not produce as much excitement as the trip by Assad to Sochi, perhaps because problems between Jordan and Israel are not as serious as between Tel Aviv and Damascus. In the king’s visit, discussions mainly focused on military-technical cooperation between Moscow and Amman, rather than on Middle East issues. This cooperation is now on the rise, Medvedev said during the meeting.

“Our relations are making good headway. This is our third meeting in six months and that points to the intensity of our contacts and good-neighbor relations,” the president said, adding, “Trade between our countries grows steadily, although both countries would like to see it develop more quickly.”

Jordan lives up to these words. In recent years it has bought from Russia two Il-76MF military transport planes worth a combined $100 million, and six light multi-role Ka-226 helicopters (at an estimated cost of $25 million), which will be assembled in Jordan under license. The two countries have even set up a joint venture, Oboronprom Middle East, to assemble 15 to 20 Ka helicopters a year.

Plans are also underway to set up a joint venture for the production of RPG-32 Hashim multi-caliber grenade launchers. The launcher was developed by the Bazalt Moscow State Research and Production Enterprise at the suggestion of the king himself. It is designed to engage armored vehicles and defended gun posts from a distance of up to 700 meters with 72mm and 105mm grenades.

It will be produced in quantity both in Russia and in Jordan. Trial specimens have already been sent to Amman and were highly praised. A manufacturing license contract is expected to be signed soon. Jordan has received a special $350 million credit from Russia for this purpose, although the sum is also supposed to cover repairs and upgrading of weapons previously supplied to Amman.

Other equipment includes armored personnel carriers, fighting infantry vehicles, Kornet anti-tank missile systems, Igla ground-to-air missiles, and weapons for special operations — reconnaissance, sabotage and protection of the royal palace.

King Abdullah is a former commando. He is an arms expert, and his buying of Russia’s VSS silent sniper rifles and PSS silent pistols is good publicity for Russian arms-makers. It is not impossible that after his visit to Moscow, Amman will take delivery of Pantsyr-S1 ground-to-air missile systems, which are considered today among the most effective close-range air defense systems.

Russian weapons appeal not only to buyers in the Middle East. On Aug. 23, the Russian president sent a message to President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, raising the matter of military-technical cooperation between the two countries.

“Russia is interested above all in trade and economic cooperation between security-related agencies,” the Russian leader told his Nicaraguan counterpart. “Military-technical cooperation between us offers a promising future.”

This means that the military equipment once supplied to Nicaragua by the Soviet Union and which needs repairing, upgrading or replacing could be replaced with more advanced weapons, if Managua is willing.

And Managua is willing, as is clear from the close ties that exist between Ortega and Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan leader is very pleased with Russian weapons.

The target mentioned at the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, of exporting $8 billion worth of Russian arms supplies in 2008, compared with $6.2 billion in 2007, does not seem too far-fetched.

Nikita Petrov is with RIA Novosti. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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Barack Obama’s choice of Joe Biden for his running mate presents a reassuring face to those concerned about Obama’s relative naivety. What is tragic for the antiwar movement is that Biden’s long years as a Washington foreign policy insider reflect deep-rooted support for US military intervention to achieve geopolitical aims.

Barack Obama’s choice of Joe Biden for his running mate presents a reassuring face to those concerned about Obama’s relative naivety. What is tragic for the antiwar movement is that Biden’s long years as a Washington foreign policy insider reflect deep-rooted support for US military intervention to achieve geopolitical aims.


Unlike Barack Obama, Biden supported Republicans in holding that Iraq posed both “a long term threat and a short term threat” to the United States. Biden was reminded of the statement in an interview last year, long after the disinformation on Iraqi WMD had come to light. He replied, “that’s right, and I was correct about that.”

Biden, along with most Democrats, also voted in favor of the war funding bill in May 2007. At the time, Biden was himself running for president and criticized Obama for voting against the bill. Biden tried to hedge his bets, saying he “didn’t like” the bill he had just voted for, effectively saying he had voted for a bill he didn’t agree with.

Since the botched invasion and the subsequent pains of occupation, Biden has been an advocate of the fatally flawed “three-state solution” which Iraqis have criticized as a recipe for wars over borders, resources and multicultural cities like Baghdad and Kirkuk.


Borrowing the terminology of the Bush administration, Biden advocates what he calls a “strategic surge” in Afghanistan. “We need more troops-but not many” and “the right kind of troops,” Biden said, echoing Barack Obama’s criticism of Iraq as a “dumb” war.

His military hardware want list for the Afghan project reads like a Lockheed Martin promotional catalogue. Biden believes that US forces need “more fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters for mobility, more surveillance drones, more satellite tasking, more [armored vehicles] for troop protection.”

Years on the CFR have not gone to waste in developing in Biden a high-handedness well suited to the US military-industrial complex, “the Afghans are patient people, but they’re not seeing an effort worthy of a superpower.”


On Iran, Biden is equivocal. In line with mainstream American opinion, he is opposed to Iran’s nuclear program but vague on the military option. Thoughrefusing to rule it out, Biden has called it a “bad option” – reminiscent of the Iraq war funding bill which Biden voted for but “didn’t like.”

In perhaps the only foreign policy issue which clearly differentiates him from the Republicans, Biden has said that talking about regime change has, “accelerated [Iran’s] efforts to get the bomb”.

But Biden’s foreign policy expertise didn’t extend to knowledge of Iran’s cultural make-up. “America needs to show the Arab world that we’re not bent on its destruction,” he declared in 2001. Iranians are Persians, not Arabs.


Just like Obama with his speeches to AIPAC and the Knesset, Joe Biden has passed the initiation rite into the highest reaches of US politics by giving his unequivocal support to Israel.

“I am a Zionist. You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist,” Biden told Israel’s Shalom TV in 2007. In the same interview, Biden gave a stark justification of supporting Israel in terms of economising on the US military presence in the Middle East.

“Imagine our circumstance in the world were there no Israel. How many battleships would there be? How many troops would be stationed?” he asked.

In other remarks, Biden has said Palestinians have to accept Israel’s refusal on the right of return for Palestinian refugees, saying that this would “destroy the Jewish nature of the [Israeli] state.” Balancing this, he also said that Israel would have to dismantle “most” of its settlements in the occupied territories.

Barack Obama’s Iraq war pullout smokescreen gave him a critical edge in his defeat of Hillary Clinton. The danger now is that Joe Biden’s long years serving the Senate Council on Foreign Relations blur the truth of his consistent support for US wars.


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Syrian President Bashar Assad became the first Arab leader to break his silence over the new conflict in the Caucasus by standing in clear support of Russia as Moscow faces mounting U.S.-led Western pressure for its military intervention in the Georgia crisis.

In response to a journalist’s question about whether the conflict in the Caucasus may spur the United States to place Russia on its list of “rogue states,” Syrian President Bashar Assad (shown here) said that with the crisis in Georgia, “Russia has only become stronger.” (Newscom)
AMMAN — Syrian President Bashar Assad became the first Arab leader to break his silence over the new conflict in the Caucasus by standing in clear support of Russia as Moscow faces mounting U.S.-led Western pressure for its military intervention in the Georgia crisis.

Declaring his position in a Russian newspaper on Wednesday, Assad expressed support for Russia’s pursuit of its “legitimate interests” and accused the West of distorting information to isolate the former Soviet power.

“On this issue, we fully support Russia,” Assad said in an interview with the Kommersant daily on Wednesday as he prepared to begin a two-day visit to Moscow.

“Georgia started this crisis, but the West is blaming Russia. Everywhere there is total disinformation, distortion of facts, and international attempts to isolate Russia,” he said.

Assad continued: “We oppose all these attempts, as we think that this is a continuation of U.S. Cold War-era policy. What Russia has done is to defend its legitimate interests,” in reference to its offensive into Georgia to stop an attack on the pro-Russian, breakaway South Ossetia region.

Syria is no stranger to Western isolation, and continues to be regarded as a “rogue” state by Washington. Damascus has only recently started to return from the cold with a rapprochement with France, the current president of the European Union, and by resuming peace negotiations with Israel, although indirectly through Turkish mediation.

Assad’s remarks came amid rising tension between Russia and the West following a NATO foreign ministers’ crisis meeting on Tuesday that decided the international organization can no longer conduct “business as usual” with Moscow in the wake of its military intervention in South Ossetia.

Tension was taken to a higher level on Wednesday when the United States and Poland signed an agreement to install a U.S. missile defense shield on Polish soil as part of a system to shoot down ballistic missiles that could be launched by Western-viewed “rogue states,” like Iran and North Korea, as well as “terrorist” groups.

Russia sees the defense shield in parts of central Europe that the former Soviet Union had controlled as a threat against Moscow, a fear exacerbated by the subsequent Russian political standoff with Washington, which backs Georgia.

While the U.S.-allied Arab regimes have been cautious not to express their views about the conflict in the Caucuses, the Syrian leader’s words of support for Russia are hardly a surprise, coming from a former Soviet ally about to meet the new president in Moscow for the first time.

Moscow and Damascus say that Assad’s visit, his third, was upon the invitation of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to bolster bilateral relations, which are expected to include discussions on speeding up military cooperation, especially in the wake of Israel’s role in equipping and training the Georgian army.

Assad told Kommersant: “I think that everyone in Russia and in the world is now aware of Israel’s role and its consultants in the Georgian crisis.”

Israel says it does not supply weapons or military training to other countries as a government but as private firms, with the approval of the defense ministry.

In any case, analysts expect that Israel’s support for Georgia and Assad’s decision to stand by Russia will boost Syria’s chances to acquire additional military assistance from Moscow.

The Syrian leader offered to cooperate with Russia “in any project that can strengthen its security,” stressing that Moscow “really has to think of the response it will make when it finds itself closed in a circle.”

Assad said his country was ready to discuss deploying Russian Iskander missile-defense systems on its territory, although it has yet to receive concrete proposals from Russia on the matter.

Israeli media reported this week that Russia was planning to install the system in Syria in response to the U.S. missile shield in central Europe and to U.S.-Israeli military aid to Georgia.

Syrian analysts privately say that this is a good time to boost Syria’s Russian-made advanced military capabilities, especially if Assad wins the bet that Russia is re-emerging as a superpower.

The Syrian leader, whose country is also allied with Iran, did not hide his hopes in his remarks to the Russian paper.

“It’s important that Russia takes the position of a superpower, and then all attempts to isolate it will fail,” he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday told CBS News on Tuesday that Russia was to blame for its diplomatic isolation in the West, saying that Russia’s refusal to withdraw from Georgia was making it “the outlaw in this conflict.”

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The Bush administration has made a regular practice of undermining democracy in places where local politics don’t play out to its liking, and in that, at least, Musharraf was a true partner. But stability derives not from a tyrannical brake on popular aspirations; it derives from the free play of the political process. Musharraf’s resignation from office, in fact, marks Pakistan’s first chance for a decent political future since 1977.

Despite Pervez Musharraf’s despotism and double-dealing with U.S. enemies, George W. Bush, John McCain and the GOP embraced him to the bitter end.

Reuters/Mian Khursheed

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf inspects guard of honor before leaving the presidential house after his resignation in Islamabad Aug. 18, 2008.

Aug. 19, 2008 | It is a measure of the Bush administration’s broken foreign policy that the departure of Pervez Musharraf, the corrupt, longtime military dictator of Pakistan, is provoking fears in Washington of “instability.” Despite Bush’s warm embrace, Musharraf gutted the rule of law in Pakistan over the previous year and a half, including sacking its Supreme Court. He attempted to do away with press freedom, failed to provide security for campaigning politicians and strove to postpone elections indefinitely.

The Bush administration has made a regular practice of undermining democracy in places where local politics don’t play out to its liking, and in that, at least, Musharraf was a true partner. But stability derives not from a tyrannical brake on popular aspirations; it derives from the free play of the political process. Musharraf’s resignation from office, in fact, marks Pakistan’s first chance for a decent political future since 1977.

Musharraf as a general had been known in the 1990s as a hawk, foolhardy in his provocation of India and deeply wedded to supporting the Taliban (and implicitly al-Qaida) in Afghanistan. Unlike some of his colleagues, there was nothing ideological about his belligerence. Brought up in part in secular Turkey as the son of a diplomat, he displayed no interest in fundamentalist Islam. His was the belligerence of opportunism and ambition.

Musharraf deposed then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October of 1999. As army chief of staff, he had earlier that year launched the disastrous Kargil War against India in the Himalayan area of Kashmir, and been forced to withdraw. The encroachment on Indian-held territory had not been cleared with the prime minister, who was all too happy to yield to American entreaties to withdraw. Musharraf might well have been brought up on charges over the catastrophe, but he decided to overthrow the civilian government instead.

George W. Bush has been a staunch supporter of Musharraf. When campaigning for president in the fall of 1999, Bush praised Musharraf’s coup as promising stability for Pakistan. Sen. John McCain also supported the coup, and has recently dismissed the civilian government of the 1990s as a “failed state.” It is true that Sharif had begun exhibiting dictatorial tendencies before his ouster, but that is not a failed state, it is tyranny. How civilian authoritarianism could have been cured by military dictatorship remains unclear.

Pakistan was founded in 1947 by Muhammad Ali Jinnah and other leaders of the Muslim League as a refuge for the Muslims of British India. Jinnah fulminated against theocracy and fully expected Hindus and Sikhs to constitute a plurality of the new state’s population. He thought of it as a state for Muslims, not as an Islamic state, and simply wanted to save South Asian Muslims from laboring under a Hindu majority in India.

But Pakistan did not become the enlightened, parliamentary democracy with guaranteed constitutional rights that its founder, a Shiite trained in British law in London, had envisaged. It constituted the most rural and least industrialized parts of British India. It never implemented proper land reform, ensuring the survival of a corrupt and imperious class of large landlords who are not exactly clamoring for their peasants to become literate and politically aware. Its social indicators, whether literacy, health or urbanization, remained disappointing. A small fundamentalist movement, the Jama’at-i Islami, came to have influence all out of proportion to its membership, despite its general inability to garner more than 3 percent of the vote in most elections.

The military was the most ambitious bureaucracy inherited from British India, and it made its first coup in 1958. After a return to civilian rule in 1971, the military under Gen. Zia ul-Haq struck again in 1977, hanging Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1979. Gen. Zia was viewed by the Reagan administration as indispensable to its covert war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Zia, isolated and without popular support inside Pakistan, made an alliance with the fundamentalist Jama’at-i Islami and began the “Islamization” of Pakistani law, which had earlier been a mixture of British legal principles with precedents derived from Muslim customary practice.

Zia’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the feared military intelligence branch, received some $5 billion from Reagan and a matching sum from King Fahd in Saudi Arabia to fight the Soviets, and the ISI funneled much of that money to the most hard-line fundamentalist guerrillas among the Afghans. The Reagan-backed jihad against Moscow attracted the enthusiasms of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and thousands of other Arab volunteers, leading to the creation of al-Qaida.

Zia died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988, allowing a partial return to civilian rule. Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, won the elections to become the country’s first female prime minister. But the military only let her take office after she pledged to cede Afghanistan policy to them, so that entire policy sectors remained under military control.

Gen. Zia had extensively and arbitrarily amended the constitution, giving the president enormous powers, including the authority to dismiss the prime minister. His successor dismissed Bhutto in 1990, allowing her rival, Nawaz Sharif, to come to power. In 1993, she swept back to power in that year’s parliamentary elections, but she was dismissed once more in 1996, again succeeded by Sharif, who was overthrown by the military in 1999. The military’s continued control of much of government policy during that decade and the repeated intervention of the president or the chief of staff to overturn the results of popular elections stunted the growth of political parties and institutions such as the courts. Contrary to McCain’s assertion, it was not the civilian parties that created a failed state but the generals who did it.

Musharraf ostensibly turned his back on his allies, the Taliban and their al-Qaida colleagues, after 9/11, acquiescing in Bush’s demand that he join Washington in a global war on terror. Musharraf, who had long backed not only the Taliban but also jihadi groups inside Pakistan that the Pakistani military sent to hit Indian Kashmir, was the least likely poster child for counterterrorism imaginable. But Bush’s propaganda machine painted him and the Pakistani military as anchors of stability — after they had spent decades destabilizing Pakistan and Afghanistan and cynically deploying the most virulent forms of Muslim fundamentalism to fight India and Indian influence.

Musharraf was an embarrassment to the Bush administration once Bush began using a rhetoric of democratization. So Musharraf conveniently turned himself from mere military dictator into a “president” by the expediency of a referendum on April 30, 2002.

For a dictator, a referendum has the advantages that it does not require one to run against a rival candidate, and virtually any vote tally can be declared a victory. Musharraf held crooked parliamentary elections in fall 2002, interfering in the free campaigning of the left-of-center, secular-leaning Pakistan People’s Party and the right-of-center, big landlord-dominated Muslim League (N), which had been led by Nawaz Sharif (hence the “N”). The party that did best was a pro-Musharraf, breakaway faction of the Muslim League, called “Q” for the “Great Leader,” Qa’id-i A’zam, the honorific of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the country’s founder. It was essentially what it would be like if an American general led a coup, suppressing the Democrats and Republicans, and ruling through something he called the “George Washington Party.”

After Musharraf rigged the elections against the popular parties, a coalition of fundamentalist parties saw unprecedented success, getting 17 percent of seats in the federal parliament and taking over two major provinces, the North-West Frontier Province and Baluchistan. Those provinces were preciscely where the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida who fled to Pakistan were hiding out. The Jama’at-i Islami and its partners in the Islamic Action Council (MMA) promptly denied that there was any such thing as al-Qaida. But some of the MMA leaders had trained, or even been Taliban.

So the man Bush had so eagerly enlisted for the war on terror, by his dictatorial tinkering with the electoral process, helped put pro-bin Laden Muslim fundamentalists in control of the very provinces where the fight against militancy and terrorism was most important. And in reality, Musharraf needed the jihadi militants too much for his struggle with India over Kashmir to thoroughly root them out.

Although the Pakistani security forces did capture more than 600 Arab al-Qaida fugitives in Pakistan, and did engage in sometimes hard fighting against tribal forces in the northwest allied to the Taliban or neo-Taliban groups, Washington’s depiction of Musharraf as a critical ally in the war on terror was blatant propaganda. Elements of the ISI even went on cultivating and using Taliban elements based in Pakistan to assert control of southern Pakistan, a policy that had, in part, led to 9/11 in the first place. Musharraf either was unable to purge ISI of fundamentalist elements, or cynically continued to use them in his rivalry with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, who deeply dislikes and distrusts the general.

Musharraf’s unwillingness or inability to root out fundamentalist extremism brought him into disrepute with middle-class Pakistanis, especially educated women, who feared the Talibanization of their own society. Musharraf’s economic policies helped grow a large, literate, urban middle class that grew attached to free access to independent and foreign media, and depended for business and professional purposes on a rule of law.

When Musharraf came into conflict with Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in spring of 2007, he highhandedly dismissed him. Pakistan’s middle classes, attorneys and other legal professionals staged continual protests and rallies. Musharraf was forced to reinstate Chaudhry in summer of 2007. But when he attempted to become an elected president that fall without resigning first as military chief of staff, the Supreme Court was set to rule against him. He therefore sacked the whole Supreme Court and packed it with yes men who allowed him to call himself president. He also imposed strict press censorship and excluded some independent channels from broadcasting over cable in Pakistan. This series of dictatorial actions, including interfering with free access to the media, caused Musharraf’s popularity to plummet.

Musharraf’s grip on power had clearly become too feeble for his main external backers, the Bush administration and the Saudi royal family, to trust him to continue to ride the tiger of popular discontent. He had to resign his military commission to remain believable as a civilian president. After Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on Dec. 27, 2007, while campaigning for prime minister, he was forced to hold credible parliamentary elections. The Pakistani public dealt a crushing rebuff to Musharraf last February, turning the country over to Benazir’s PPP and to Sharif’s Muslim League. The two major, long-standing parties made a political alliance and began planning for Musharraf’s impeachment, spurred on by the lawyers and popular activists. It was over for Musharraf by last February.

Pakistan’s middle classes have spoken. They want a return to civilian rule and a reestablishment of the rule of law. They are skeptical that the corrupt and imperious establishment political parties can deliver to them the better life to which they aspire for themselves and their children. Given the chance, they gave the biggest number of seats in parliament to a left of center, secular-tinged party, the PPP. The Pakistani people have given the lie to the stereotype often visited upon them, that a majority are religious fanatics and are incapable of participating in an open democracy.

The Pakistani military and its tacit alliance with militant fundamentalists has in fact caused most of the country’s problems. If the U.S. and Europe are wise, they will give the elected prime minister their full support and pump in aid to help ensure that democracy in Pakistan, still an embryo, actually has a fighting chance.

— By Juan Cole

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No matter. The real issue is what’s happening on the ground in Iraq. Lots of crises are ready to boil over, and none of them depend on the success of the US-Iraq accord.

There’s a lot less than meets the eye in the rumored US-Iraq accord.

On the surface, it would seem that the US and Iraqi negotiators have sought to cut the baby in half, splitting the difference between Barack Obama’s 16-month timetable that would remove US combat forces by 2010, and McCain’s sort-of timetable to have US combat troops out by 2013. If early reports are true, American combat forces would remain in until the end of 2011, roughly halfway between the “Obama plan” and the “McCain plan.” In addition, as envisioned in both the candidates’ plans, tens of thousands of additional US forces would remain in Iraq to train and equip the Iraqi armed forces, battle terrorists, protect the Rhode Island-sized US embassy, and help Iraq secure its borders.

Not much to get excited about. Here’s the way to read what’s going on
behind the scenes.

It’s tempting to see the US-Iraq talks as somehow related to the political imperative of the 2008 campaign, but that’s myopic. There’s a real American strategy at work here, and it’s one that most of Obama’s advisers and many of McCain’s can sign on to. The primary objective is to preserve the US alliance with the ruling Shiite-Kurdish bloc in Baghdad, a task that is becoming more and more difficult as time passes. Driven by the need to secure a legal basis for US forces to stay in Iraq beyond December 31, when the UN authority expires, the United States desperately needs an agreement.

But to get such an agreement, they have to craft language that Prime Minister Maliki can live with. Earlier this year, it appeared as if the United States was going to cram an agreement down the throat of the Iraqi government. Because that government is so heavily dependent on US military and political support, the Bush administration might have been able to do just that. Apparently, however, cooler heads in Washington — reinforced by insistent pleading from the Maliki regime — convinced Bush to accommodate Baghdad. Nationalist pressure on Maliki is so strong that any agreement that simply extends the US mandate in Iraq without a timetable, and without restrictions on the activities of private security companies,
would have fatally wounded the Maliki government. So negotiators are trying to craft an accord that Maliki can live with, but which preserves the independence of US forces.

The jury’s still out on whether either side can pull this off. Anti-occupation nationalists in Iraq will scrutinize the accord, and it may or may not win the approval of Iraq’s national assembly. Even so, given the slow-moving nature of the Iraqi political system, approval of the proposed pact might go right down to the wire, i.e., sometime in mid- to late December. And that’s assuming that the United States can swallow some of the proposed Iraqi amendments. It’s still possible that the entire edifice will collapse, and that the two sides will move to the fall-back position of an ad hoc accord that simply extend the mandate another six months. That would give the headache to the next president.

No matter. The real issue is what’s happening on the ground in Iraq. Lots
of crises are ready to boil over, and none of them depend on the success
of the US-Iraq accord.

First, there is the urgent issue of Kirkuk. No one has a solution for that one. The United Nations is trying to come up with a square-the-circle plan that would neutralize the Kurds’ overambitious scheme to absorb Kirkuk into Kurdistan. That problem scuttled the Iraqi parliament’s efforts to come up with an election law for provincial elections, It’s no closer to being solved than it was in 2003. An eruption in Kirkuk could instantly spark a three-sided civil war.

Second, there is the ongoing Shiite assault against the Sunni bloc. Earlier this week, what was reputed to be a “rogue” Shiite security force attacked the independent, mostly Sunni, political leadership of Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. More importantly, dozens of leaders of the so-called Awakening, or Sons of Iraq movement, are being assassinated or intimidated by Iraqi army and police units and Shiite death squads. In today’s Times, under the headline “Iraq Takes Aim at Leaders of US-Tied Sunni Groups,” a leader of the militantly sectarian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) — part of Maliki’s coalition and heavily supported by Shiite Iran — is quoted as saying: “The state cannot accept the Awakening. Their days are numbered.” He’s talking about 100,000 armed
men,  many former insurgents, who won’t go quietly.

Third, there is the uncertain, and mysterious, silence of the Mahdi Army. Since last August, nearly a year, they’ve been standing down, and their strongholds (in Basra, Amarah, and Baghdad) have been nominally taken over  by the Iraqi armed forces. But US military sources say that the Mahdi Army is keeping its powder dry, and that many of its fighters and commanders have retreated to Iran for training and re-supply. It isn’t at all clear that Maliki and ISCI have won the battle against the Mahdi Army and Muqtada al-Sadr.

It’s tempting, too, to see all the talk about a timetable for withdrawal,  “aspirational” or not, as a rebuke to McCain. And maybe it is. But as
long as Obama allows the debate to focus on whether or not the surge worked,
McCain will win.

The task for Obama is to hammer away at McCain’s original judgment about  the war, about his enthusiastic cheerleading for attacking Iraq from the late 1990s through March, 2003, and his connections to people like Randy Scheunemann, his top foreign policy adviser, who single-handedly led the charge for war — as head of the neocon-inspired Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. That’s a debate Obama can win.

Robert Dreyfuss is a contributing editor of The Nation magazine, and the  author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Metropolitan).

Copyright © 2008 The Nation — distributed by Agence Global

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Vladimir Putin took the opportunity to kick the Georgian army out of Abkhazia, as well, to bomb Tbilisi, and to seize Gori, birthplace of Stalin.

Mikheil Saakashvili’s decision to use the opening of the Olympic Games to cover Georgia’s invasion of its breakaway province of South Ossetia must rank in stupidity with Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s decision to close the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships.

Nasser’s blunder cost him the Sinai in the Six-Day War. Saakashvili’s blunder probably means permanent loss of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

After shelling and attacking what he claims is his own country, killing scores of his own Ossetian citizens and sending tens of thousands fleeing into Russia, Saakashvili’s army was whipped back into Georgia in 48 hours.

Vladimir Putin took the opportunity to kick the Georgian army out of Abkhazia, as well, to bomb Tbilisi, and to seize Gori, birthplace of Stalin.

Reveling in his status as an intimate of George Bush, Dick Cheney, and John McCain, and America’s lone democratic ally in the Caucasus, Saakashvili thought he could get away with a lightning coup and present the world with a fait accompli.

Mikheil did not reckon on the rage or resolve of the Bear.

American charges of Russian aggression ring hollow. Georgia started this fight – Russia finished it. People who start wars don’t get to decide how and when they end.

Russia’s response was “disproportionate” and “brutal,” wailed Bush.

True. But did we not authorize Israel to bomb Lebanon for 35 days in response to a border skirmish where several Israel soldiers were killed and two captured? Was that not many times more “disproportionate”?

Russia has invaded a sovereign country, railed Bush. But did not the United States bomb Serbia for 78 days and invade to force it to surrender a province, Kosovo, to which Serbia had a far greater historic claim than Georgia had to Abkhazia or South Ossetia, both of which prefer Moscow to Tbilisi?

Is not Western hypocrisy astonishing?

When the Soviet Union broke into 15 nations, we celebrated. When Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Kosovo broke from Serbia, we rejoiced. Why, then, the indignation when two provinces, whose peoples are ethnically separate from Georgians and who fought for their independence, should succeed in breaking away?

Are secessions and the dissolution of nations laudable only when they advance the agenda of the neocons, many of whom viscerally detest Russia?

That Putin took the occasion of Saakashvili’s provocative and stupid stunt to administer an extra dose of punishment is undeniable. But is not Russian anger understandable? For years the West has rubbed Russia’s nose in her Cold War defeat and treated her like Weimar Germany.

When Moscow pulled the Red Army out of Europe, closed its bases in Cuba, dissolved the evil empire, let the Soviet Union break up into 15 states, and sought friendship and alliance with the United States, what did we do?

American carpetbaggers colluded with Muscovite Scalawags to loot the Russian nation. Breaking a pledge to Mikhail Gorbachev, we moved our military alliance into Eastern Europe, then onto Russia’s doorstep. Six Warsaw Pact nations and three former republics of the Soviet Union are now NATO members.

Bush, Cheney, and McCain have pushed to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. This would require the United States to go to war with Russia over Stalin’s birthplace and who has sovereignty over the Crimean Peninsula and Sebastopol, traditional home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

When did these become U.S. vital interests, justifying war with Russia?

The United States unilaterally abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty because our technology was superior, then planned to site anti-missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic to defend against Iranian missiles, though Iran has no ICBMs and no atomic bombs. A Russian counter-offer to have us together put an antimissile system in Azerbaijan was rejected out of hand.

We built a Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey to cut Russia out. Then we helped dump over regimes friendly to Moscow with democratic “revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia, and tried to repeat it in Belarus.

Americans have many fine qualities. A capacity to see ourselves as others see us is not high among them.

Imagine a world that never knew Ronald Reagan, where Europe had opted out of the Cold War after Moscow installed those SS-20 missiles east of the Elbe. And Europe had abandoned NATO, told us to go home and become subservient to Moscow.

How would we have reacted if Moscow had brought Western Europe into the Warsaw Pact, established bases in Mexico and Panama, put missile defense radars and rockets in Cuba, and joined with China to build pipelines to transfer Mexican and Venezuelan oil to Pacific ports for shipment to Asia? And cut us out? If there were Russian and Chinese advisers training Latin American armies, the way we are in the former Soviet republics, how would we react? Would we look with bemusement on such Russian behavior?

For a decade, some of us have warned about the folly of getting into Russia’s space and getting into Russia’s face. The chickens of democratic imperialism have now come home to roost – in Tbilisi.

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The ongoing crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme, coupled with hostile comments last week from Iran’s deputy foreign minister Manouchehr Mohammadi, have reportedly prompted Kuwait’s acting Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al Mubarak Al Sabah to request various ministries to draw up emergency contingency plans in case of war in the region. The news also follows unconfirmed reports of a planned build-up of US naval forces in the Gulf.

Escalating tensions between the US and Iran are leading Kuwait to prepare
for the worst, according to local media reports.

The ongoing crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme, coupled with hostile
comments last week from Iran’s deputy foreign minister Manouchehr
Mohammadi, have reportedly prompted Kuwait’s acting Prime Minister Sheikh
Jaber Al Mubarak Al Sabah to request various ministries to draw up
emergency contingency plans in case of war in the region. The news also
follows unconfirmed reports of a planned build-up of US naval forces in
the Gulf.

According to the local press, Sheikh Jaber has asked several ministries,
including the Interior Ministry, the Health Ministry and the Ministry for
Electricity and Water (MEW), as well as the Kuwaiti Civil Defense, to
prepare contingency plans divided into three sections: security,
humanitarian and vital services. In related news, the government has also
begun drawing up a new military conscription law which, though reducing
the period of service and increasing exemptions for certain professions,
can nonetheless be interpreted as a sign of growing preparedness for a
deterioration in the regional situation. One government official commented
the new law was necessary to ensure that mobilisation plans were ready “in

case of any emergency in the country”.

The latest developments in Kuwait follow a speech last week by Mohammadi,
who was quoted as saying that the next crisis in the Middle East “will
centre on the legitimacy of the dirty traditional regimes, and would
include most of the Persian Gulf States.” In response, Gulf Cooperation
Council secretary Abdul Rahman Al Attiya called Mohammadi’s comments
“hostile and grave”, and demanded further clarification.

Mohammadi’s comments may be interpreted as little more than
sabre-rattling. Kuwait, however, is acutely conscious that it lies
geographically on the front line of any future escalation between the US,
its allies and Iran – a conflict that will likely be played out in the
Straits of Hormuz. A multi-nation naval exercise, Operation Brimstone,
took place in the Atlantic earlier this month involving predominately US,
UK and French forces. Among exercises conducted was the flying of joint
sorties from the US carrier Harry S Truman, involving the launch and
recovery of French Rafales fighter jets simultaneously with US fighters.
According to reports, exercises were conducted to simulate a potential
blockade of the Straits of Hormuz. The two US carriers involved are
scheduled to join the US Fifth Fleet in the Gulf this autumn.

Although clearly intended to send Iran a signal that the US/EU remains
serious in its attempts to force a climb down from Tehran, one direct
effect of the maneuvers is to place Kuwait and fellow Gulf nations on a
state of high alert.

In a sign that the Kuwaiti government expects tensions to remain high in
the Straits for years to come, oil industry sources and diplomats revealed
earlier this month that plans were currently under consideration to
develop oil storage facilities abroad. Currently, all of Kuwait’s crude
exports – totaling some 1.7m barrels a day – as well as an estimated
700,000 barrels a day of refined liquids, are exported through the
Straits. A blockade against Iran is therefore likely to result in the oil
facilities of the West’s Gulf allies being targeted by Iranian naval
installations, which currently line the northern banks of the Gulf. As
such, Kuwait is reportedly planning to develop strategic storage capacity
at locations such as China and Vietnam, where it is building new
refineries. Kuwait already signed a joint storage deal in 2005 for 2m
barrels of crude with South Korea; however, the lead time for new storage
capacity is likely to be several years, meaning that in the short-term,
Kuwait remains vulnerable to any blockade.

For this reason, and given the recent trauma caused by the oil price hike
at a record $147 a barrel, a blockade of Hormuz remains unlikely in the
current climate. The wild card however will be Israel, which has already
made clear it will not tolerate a nuclear Iran. In this scenario, the
presence of US naval forces in the Gulf will be as much to reassure Kuwait
and the GCC, as to threaten Iran.

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The guards, all former U.S. military personnel, were working as security contractors for the State Department, assigned to protect U.S. diplomats and other non-military officials in Iraq. The shooting occurred when their convoy arrived at a busy square in central Baghdad and guards tried to stop traffic

Federal prosecutors have sent target letters to six Blackwater Worldwide security guards involved in a September shooting that left 17 Iraqi civilians dead, indicating a high likelihood the Justice Department will seek to indict at least some of the men, according to three sources close to the case.

The guards, all former U.S. military personnel, were working as security contractors for the State Department, assigned to protect U.S. diplomats and other non-military officials in Iraq. The shooting occurred when their convoy arrived at a busy square in central Baghdad and guards tried to stop traffic.

An Iraqi government investigation concluded that the security contractors fired without provocation. Blackwater has said its personnel acted in self-defense.

The sources said that any charges against the guards would likely be brought under the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, which has previously been used to prosecute only the cases referred to the Justice Department by the Defense Department for crimes committed by military personnel and contractors overseas. Legal experts have questioned whether contractors working for the State Department can be prosecuted under its provisions.

The sources cautioned that prosecutors are still weighing evidence gathered in a 10-month investigation that began shortly after the shootings. A federal grand jury has heard testimony from about three dozen witnesses since November, including U.S. and Blackwater officials and Iraqis, according to two of the sources.

Target letters, often considered a prelude to indictment, offer suspects the opportunity to contest evidence brought before the grand jury and give their own version of events. The letters were sent this summer, although the sources, who agreed to discuss the case only on the condition of anonymity because of its sensitivity, said a final decision on whether to indict may not be made until October, about a year after the incident.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Washington and the Justice Department’s National Security Division are leading the investigation. Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, declined to comment, as did Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd. A spokeswoman for the FBI‘s Washington field office, which investigated the shooting on the ground in Iraq in the weeks after the incident, also declined to comment.

Anne E. Tyrell, a spokeswoman for North Carolina-based Blackwater, said that the company believes the guards fired their weapons “in response to a hostile threat” and is monitoring the investigation closely.

“If it is determined that an individual acted improperly, Blackwater would support holding that person accountable,” Tyrell said in a statement. “But at this stage, without being able to review evidence collected in an ongoing investigation, we will not prejudge the actions of any individual. The company is cooperating fully with ongoing investigations and believes that accountability is important.”

Earlier reports on the investigation indicated that the FBI had focused on three Blackwater guards among a larger but unknown number present at the time of the Sept. 16 incident in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square. None has been publicly identified, and authorities did not say which six received the target letters.

The shooting, and the perceived failure to hold anyone accountable for it, has fueled congressional dissatisfaction with the government’s use of private security contractors in a combat zone. Contractors working for the Defense Department are now explicitly liable for crimes under laws covering the military, but several efforts in Congress to extend that jurisdiction to State Department contractors have failed.

The incident also angered Iraqi political leaders. U.S. contractors have been exempt from Iraqi law under a decree imposed by the U.S. occupation administration in 2003.

Seeking to respond to widespread fury among Iraqis over the Nisoor Square incident, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki insisted in negotiations over a new bilateral security agreement with the United States that all contractors come under Iraqi legal jurisdiction. Facing pressure to finalize an agreement by the end of the year, the Bush administration agreed to meet the Iraqi demand, according to officials close to the discussions. But the administration continues to insist on immunity from Iraqi law for military and official Defense Department personnel, the officials said.

Blackwater is one of three U.S. security firms under contract with the State Department to provide personal security in Iraq. The State Department in May extended Blackwater’s contract for another year, saying that while the case was still under investigation it had no enforceable cause to cancel it.

Lawyers for the Blackwater guards have argued in ongoing discussions with prosecutors that the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, known as MEJA, can be applied only to contractors working for the Defense Department, two sources said. That position appeared to be buttressed by the Congressional Budget Office, which said in a report on contractors in Iraq released last week that MEJA “does not apply to civilians working . . . for federal departments or agencies other than DOD [the Department of Defense].”

Legislative proposals to extend MEJA’s provisions beyond the Defense Department — which have been repeatedly opposed by the White House — have made the same point.

But the question has never been tested in court. Some outside legal experts said that prosecutors would be able to make a compelling argument that MEJA covers Blackwater guards involved in the shooting under a 2005 amendment that expanded MEJA’s provisions to include contractors “supporting the mission of the Department of Defense.”

“You are dealing with a military environment,” said Scott Silliman, a law professor at Duke University who specializes in national security matters. “If the contractors were not there, those State Department folks would be guarded by the military. Prosecutors could argue to the judge that those facts fit within the definition of furthering the [Defense Department] mission in Iraq.”

Among other possible complications in potential legal action against the Blackwater contractors are interviews some of the guards gave to officials from the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security immediately after the incident. The interviews were conducted under legal protections against self-incrimination granted to government employees, and the guards were informed that they could not be used by FBI investigators or in a potential prosecution.

Several former prosecutors and defense attorneys said that the government would have a difficult time proving the case even if it overcame the jurisdictional question. They noted the hurdles facing prosecutors in domestic police shooting cases, adding that such cases are exceedingly hard to win.

Trying to convince jurors that guards committed a crime by opening fire in a war zone “makes it an exponentially tougher case to prove” than a bad police shooting, said George Parry, a former federal and state prosecutor in Pennsylvania who handled law enforcement shootings as a prosecutor and defense attorney. Parry does not represent anyone in the Blackwater matter.

The former prosecutors and defense attorneys said defense lawyers would work hard to put jurors inside the war zone and portray the guards as having to make split-second decisions in an environment where insurgents dress like civilians and attacks could occur anywhere, at any moment. Witnesses in such situations also often contradict each other, and evidence gathered in Baghdad may not meet the same forensic standards that jurors are used to seeing in the United States, the lawyers said.

The Nisoor Square incident took place on a Tuesday afternoon. A Blackwater team arrived in several vehicles at the intersection — accounts differ as to why they were there — and tried to stop traffic. Shooting erupted, leaving numerous Iraqis dead and wounded. Blackwater officials have said the guards came under fire; investigations by the U.S. military and the Iraqi government — and initial findings by the FBI — concluded that no one fired except the contractors.

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With inflation rising across the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia’s perennial problem of an unequal distribution of wealth has never been so obvious. While poor Saudis line up for hours to obtain water in Jidda, others are able to take advantage of America’s new-found disdain for gas-guzzling four-wheel-drives by snapping up imported cars.

RIYADH: With inflation rising across the Gulf region, Saudi Arabia’s perennial problem of an unequal distribution of wealth has never been so obvious.

While poor Saudis line up for hours to obtain water in Jidda, others are able to take advantage of America’s new-found disdain for gas-guzzling four-wheel-drives by snapping up imported cars.

Thousands of couples are cutting costs by forgoing individual weddings in favor of mass ceremonies carried out by a charity backed by Saudi princes. But the affluent are still going on vacation, albeit opting for more affordable visits to neighboring Arab countries rather than to Europe or Asia.

Surging oil prices have led to a turnaround in Saudi Arabia’s economic fortunes and a return to some of the big spending – by wealthy individuals and the monarchy – that characterized the 1970s and 1980s.

But the boom has also driven up the prices for food and fuel, creating discontent in a rapidly changing country where about two-thirds of the 17 million local resident are under 30, educated, outspoken and aware of events abroad.

This has put the royal Al Saud family under greater scrutiny.

In June, inflation in the country, the world’s top oil exporter, hit a 30-year high of 10.6 percent, mainly because of increases in food and housing costs.

“It hasn’t reached the point that it’s barred us from traveling,” said Ohoud, a bank manager from Riyadh who declined to give her family name. “We will still travel like we used to and maintain the same lifestyle.”

But she said that she had noticed that salaries were not keeping pace with prices.

John Sfakianakis, chief economist at SABB bank, a Saudi subsidiary of HSBC, said the government could not raise wages to match inflation if it wanted to avoid adding inflationary pressures, but it did so at the risk of angering workers.

“Public sector workers don’t understand why the government is not raising wages to match inflation; there is a disconnection between expectations and what the government delivers and so there is discontent,” he said.

A January wage increase of 5 percent for government employees disappointed those Saudis who earn less than 10,000 riyals, or $2,666, a month, especially after other Gulf countries moved more quickly to raise wages by larger amounts.

Saudis earning less than that figure would still expect to employ a driver and at least one maid. Saudis are not taxed and receive free health, education and other benefits.

“I don’t feel it has affected me too much because my family’s financial situation is good,” said Najla, 22, a bank intern in Riyadh, who also declined to give her family name. “But I’ve noticed we don’t buy as many things as we used to, like laptops. In every home, each person has to buy at least one a year, that’s the usual demand. But not for us this year.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Lulwah, 36, a mother of five who sells snacks on a mat in a Riyadh park. She recently had to take out a loan from a charity.

“This is the second time I have done it and I have used the money to chip in with six other women to start a catering business,” she said. “I have also taken to sewing clothes, some to sell and some to dress my children with, and it has helped me a lot. But things are still difficult for my husband and me.”

Saudis are careful about expressing public criticism lest it be taken for dissent. But in anonymous Web forums, and in private, those who suffer ask where the money has gone.

“Saudi Arabia is about to enter an era where there is no middle class, you will either find extremely rich people or extremely poor people, unfortunately,” read a comment on a popular business news portal,

Another contributor, who went by the name “subjugated Saudi,” said: “The Saudi people now know the extent of graft at the administration and the squandering of the budget.”

The question of how many people live in poverty remains taboo in a kingdom fabled for its tremendous wealth. But half the population rents its home, and 10 billion riyals has been set aside to provide low-cost housing.

As the wealth divide widens, the spotlight inevitably turns to the amount of money eaten up by the royal family, whose members run into the thousands.

Some, like Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, are on lists of the world’s richest people, compiled by magazines like Forbes.

In the late 1990s, when oil was about $10 a barrel, King Abdullah, then the crown prince, said publicly that state finances – generally understood to include living expenses for the royals – should be reined in.

Since taking the throne in 2005, he has been credited with a drive to reduce royal spending – visible in opulent palaces, yachts and extravagant lifestyles – as well as an effort to combat corruption in state agencies.

Riyadh faced international pressure for social and political reforms after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States, in which 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudi. Analysts noted that many of those men came from the poor southern areas of the desert nation.

The attacks came at the beginning of the six-fold jump in oil prices that has significantly changed the country’s fortunes. Now, some analysts say the need to change the way the kingdom is run is ever more pressing.

A Saudi economist, who has worked with the government, said there should be more transparency to allow Saudis to understand how the state allocated the revenue from oil.

“Nobody knows how much the government takes in from oil,” said the economist, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the subject.

“We know how much is in the budget, but not how much Aramco got in the first place.,” he said, referring to the state oil company. “The budget figure is a check Aramco gave to the government.”

“You can make some calculations; there is a 20 to 22 percent difference,” he said.

But as long as massive revenue flow continues, government spending and royal largesse can ensure that dissent stays muted.

“We are passing through a very critical stage. You are talking about a state with more than a billion dollars every 24 hours. They can buy anyone,” said a liberal reformer who was detained in 2004 and who also requested anonymity.

But there are signs that the rising cost of living may be having an affect.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that crime has risen in Saudi cities, with a sharp rise in the number of executions in 2007 to 143. The Saudi media has singled out alleged Bangladeshi mafias as the cause.

More than seven million foreigners work in Saudi Arabia, mostly blue-collar workers from Asia. They have been among the hardest hit by rising prices, although analysts say there is no major movement of labor out of the kingdom.

“Saudi Arabia is still considered a country where you can make larger savings than in the UAE or Qatar despite rising inflationary pressures,” Sfakianakis, of SAAB, said.

Prince’s holdings disclosed

Data from the Saudi stock exchange showed that Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was the largest private investor on the exchange with 53.47 billion riyals, or $14.3 billion, worth of direct and indirect shareholdings, Reuters reported Sunday from Riyadh.

Alwaleed – the world’s 19th richest person, with a fortune of $21 billion, according to Forbes – runs Kingdom Holding, which is the biggest shareholder in Citigroup.

On Saturday, the Saudi stock exchange began identifying investors holding corporate stakes of 5 percent or more in a bid to increase transparency and to encourage confidence in the Saudi market, the worst performing market in the Gulf region so far this year.

About 90 percent of Alwaleed’s holdings in Saudi shares are in Kingdom, in which he owns a 94 percent stake, the stock exchange said on its Web site.

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Officials and members of the Georgian elite feel badly let down by Israel’s failure to display solidarity with Georgia in its time of need, despite the support it extended Israel in the past. But beyond that, the results of the war in the Caucasus could affect the entire Middle East, not only Israel’s relations with Georgia.

One of the first telephone calls I received from overseas in the summer of 2006, while missiles were showering on Haifa and the north, was from a senior adviser in Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s bureau.

He said the president had instructed him to call me and say he was willing to fly over immediately to display solidarity with Israel in its hour of need. He said the president was willing to land his presidential plane in Haifa to underscore his support for the north. Haifa University preferred that he come after the academic year’s opening, and so he did. Misha, as he is called, did not fear or hesitate to come to Haifa when Israel needed help.

His country has provided a warm home to Jews for thousands of years, and Tbilisi is an unequivocal ally of the United States and Israel in the war against terror and some of the efforts to block Iran’s nuclear development.

Officials and members of the Georgian elite feel badly let down by Israel’s failure to display solidarity with Georgia in its time of need, despite the support it extended Israel in the past. But beyond that, the results of the war in the Caucasus could affect the entire Middle East, not only Israel’s relations with Georgia.

Unless the U.S. makes a significant move soon, it (and Israel) will lose credibility among numerous states in the post-Soviet region and beyond. In the past, changes in perception of the international power balance in the U.S.’s favor produced the Oslo process and led Arab states to join the American coalition against Iraq in the first Gulf War. They also brought about several changes in the area, which strengthened Israel.

The absence of an American response to a loyal ally like Georgia would make the leaderships of Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhtan an even Iraq and Afghanistan wonder how far they could trust the U.S.

The war in the Caucasus will have repercussions on the international efforts to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The relations between the U.S. and Russia have direct implications on Moscow’s policy toward Iran. If the crisis leads to a new arrangement in Russia-U.S. relations, Russia’s cooperation with the West would improve.

However, a continued deterioration in the relations between Russia and the U.S. could bring Russia and Iran closer. In addition, Tehran is learning from the crisis in the Caucasus. If the U.S. fails to help its ally in Tbilisi, Tehran’s power will increase. On the other hand, serious American activity in Moscow’s back yard would teach Tehran a completely different lesson.

Israel could – and still can do more – for its ally Georgia, even without affecting its relations with Moscow. Georgia needs massive humanitarian aid, airborne medical teams and declarations by President Shimon Peres.

Israel is always demanding that Europe “does the right thing” – give up large economic deals in the Middle East and expose itself to terror and the Iranian threat, in order to prevent harming Israel’s security. By sitting on the fence when Georgia is under attack, Israel is undermining the legitimacy of these requests.

To Jerusalem’s credit it must be said that at the beginning of the crisis it (together with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations) declared recognition of Georgia’s right to preserve its territorial integrity  this implies the separatist areas South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well. (See feature on Georgia in Weeks End page 1.)

Dr. Brenda Shaffer of the Department of Asian Studies at Haifa University is an expert on Central Asia and the Caucasus region.

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The American administration has rejected an Israeli request for military equipment and support that would improve Israel’s ability to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Iran’s nuclear facility at Natanz (AP)

The American administration has rejected an Israeli request for military equipment and support that would improve Israel’s ability to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

A report published last week by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) states that military strikes are unlikely to destroy Iran’s centrifuge program for enriching uranium.

The Americans viewed the request, which was transmitted (and rejected) at the highest level, as a sign that Israel is in the advanced stages of preparations to attack Iran. They therefore warned Israel against attacking, saying such a strike would undermine American interests. They also demanded that Israel give them prior notice if it nevertheless decided to strike Iran.

As compensation for the requests it rejected, Washington offered to improve Israel’s defenses against surface-to-surface missiles.

Israel responded by saying it reserves the right to take whatever action it deems necessary if diplomatic efforts to halt Iran’s nuclearization fail.

Senior Israeli officials had originally hoped that U.S. President George Bush would order an American strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities before leaving office, as America’s military is far better equipped to conduct such a strike successfully than is Israel’s.

Jerusalem also fears that an Israeli strike, even if it succeeded well enough to delay Iran’s nuclear development for a few years, would give Iran international legitimacy for its program, which it currently lacks. Israel, in contrast, would be portrayed as an aggressor, and would be forced to contend alone with Iran’s retaliation, which would probably include thousands of missile strikes by Iranian allies Hezbollah, Hamas and perhaps even Syria.

Recently, however, Israel has concluded that Bush is unlikely to attack, and will focus instead on ratcheting up diplomatic pressure on Tehran. It prefers to wait until this process has been exhausted, though without conceding the military option. Israel’s assumption is that Iran will continue to use delaying tactics, and may even agree to briefly suspend its uranium enrichment program in an effort to see out the rest of Bush’s term in peace.

The American-Israeli dispute over a military strike against Iran erupted during Bush’s visit to Jerusalem in May. At the time, Bush held a private meeting on the Iranian threat with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and the Israelis presented their request for certain specific items of military equipment, along with diplomatic and security backing.

Following Bush’s return to Washington, the administration studied Israel’s request, and this led it to suspect that Israel was planning to attack Iran within the next few months. The Americans therefore decided to send a strong message warning it not to do so.

U.S. National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen both visited here in June and, according to the Washington Post, told senior Israeli defense officials that Iran is still far from obtaining nuclear weapons, and that an attack on Iran would undermine American interests. Therefore, they said, the U.S. would not allow Israeli planes to overfly Iraq en route to Iran.

The Americans sent a similar message to Iraq, which had objected vociferously to the idea of its air space being used for an Israeli attack on Iran.

These private messages were accompanied by a series of leaks from the Pentagon that Israel interpreted as attempts to thwart any possibility of an attack on Iran. For instance, the Americans revealed details of a major Israel Air Force exercise in the Mediterranean; they also said they doubted Israel had adequate intelligence about Iran’s nuclear facilities. In addition, Mullen spoke out publicly against an attack on Iran.

Two weeks ago, Barak visited Washington for talks with his American counterpart, Robert Gates, and Vice President Richard Cheney. Both conversations focused on Iran, but the two Americans presented conflicting views: Gates vehemently opposes an attack on Iran, while Cheney is the administration’s leading hawk.

Barak presented Israel’s assessments of the Iranian situation and warned that Iran was liable to advance its nuclear program under cover of the endless deliberations about sanctions – which have thus far produced little in the way of action. He also acknowledged that effective sanctions would require cooperation from Russia, China and India, all of which currently oppose sanctions with real teeth.

Russia, however, is considered key to efforts to isolate Iran, and Israeli officials have therefore urged their American counterparts in recent months to tone down Washington’s other disputes with Moscow to focus all its efforts on obtaining Russia’s backing against Iran. For instance, they suggested that Washington offer to drop its plan to station a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic – a proposal Russia views as a threat, though Washington insists the system is aimed solely at Iran – in exchange for Russia agreeing to stiffer sanctions against Iran. However, the administration rejected this idea.

In an attempt to compensate Israel for having rejected all its proposals, Washington then offered to bolster Israel’s defenses against ballistic missiles. For instance, Gates proposed stationing an advanced radar system in Israel and linking Israel directly into America’s early warning satellite network; he also offered increased American funding for the development of two Israeli missile defense systems – the Arrow-3, an upgrade of Israel’s existing Arrow system for intercepting ballistic missiles, and Iron Dome, a system designed to intercept short-range rockets. In addition, Washington agreed to sell Israel nine Super Hercules long-range transport aircraft for $2 billion. However, it would not agree to supply Israel with any offensive systems.

Now, Israel is awaiting the outcome of the latest talks between the West and Iran, as well as a formal announcement of the opening of an American interests section in Tehran. Israel views the latter as sure proof that Washington is not planning a military strike.

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Let’s talk about evil. The evil I’m talking about is not just the $29 billion taxpayer-funded bailout of Bear Stearns, about which I have previously written. It’s not the billions of dollars that are now being lent from the Fed’s "discount window" to Wall Street’s broker-dealer community—those like Merrill Lynch, UBS, Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers—on a daily basis.

Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the free fall of the U.S. economy

This is the fourth of a multipart series on the state of the economy and how we got here.  

Let’s talk about evil. The evil I’m talking about is not just the $29 billion taxpayer-funded bailout of Bear Stearns, about which I have previously written. It’s not the billions of dollars that are now being lent from the Fed’s “discount window” to Wall Street’s broker-dealer community—those like Merrill Lynch, UBS, Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers—on a daily basis. It’s not even such banks as Citigroup, Bank of America, Wachovia and IndyMac that lent recklessly during the subprime era and are also borrowing heavily just to keep afloat during the current credit crisis. And really, it’s not the recent bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that the U.S. Budget Office conservatively estimates will cost taxpayers $25 billion to $30 billion.

No, the evil I’m talking about is the evil that lies buried in one paragraph of the 694-page housing bill that was passed by Congress and signed by President Bush last week. It is the evil of a monstrous national debt, some $10.615 trillion, authorized in Section 3083 of that bill called “Increase in Statutory Limit on the Public Debt.” The 10 zeroes found in $10.615 trillion represents an increase of $800 billion, and the first time the limit on the government’s credit card has grown to 14 digits.

But the real evil—an evil that underlies even the evil of our national debt—is the attitude of the Bush administration illustrated in what Dick Cheney said to former secretary of the treasury Paul O’Neill during a Cabinet meeting on Jan. 19, 2004. “Deficits,” he dismissed, “don’t matter.”

It is the evil of the fall of America, as we lose our leadership position in the global marketplace. It is the evil of the fall of a once great nation—under God, with liberty and justice for all—as the dollar collapses and our trading partners lose confidence in the United States to pay its bills and honor its agreements.

  Hoping to stretch a safety net under hundreds of thousands of families losing their homes to foreclosure is not such a bad thing, right? Trying to limit the shock waves in credit markets as they ripple from the housing sector all across the American economy and the world financial system is not such a bad thing, right?

Well, the answer is yes. And no. As usual, it kind of depends on with whom you speak. During the week of July 28, I attended six D. C. press conferences as politicos rolled out their plans for the housing bill.

“The bill will make a big difference not only in the housing market, but also in the entire economy,” said Sen. Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader. The White House agreed in a rare show of bipartisan agreement. “It’s good that the Democratic Congress has finally acted,” said Tony Fratto, the deputy White House press secretary.

This is all true.

As many as 400,000 Americans families will be saved from foreclosure in the near future. Up to $300 billion will be available in refinanced mortgages to help borrowers at risk of losing their homes by trading in “unaffordable” mortgages for mortgages backed by the government. Also, there will be grants of $4 billion to local governments to buy and refurbish properties that have already been foreclosed upon, and in many cases, also abandoned.

There will be loan limits on reverse mortgages, popular with many senior citizens, and the maximum fees that lenders can charge seniors on these mortgages will also be reduced. First-time buyers who purchase homes from April 9, 2008, to July 1, 2009, will be eligible for a tax credit of $7,500. There will be new housing tax benefits for veterans, too. And of course, there are also tax breaks for homebuilders and other large corporations.

For all consumers—not just past homebuyers—there will be new laws requiring fuller disclosure and clear language used in variable-rate mortgage contracts. And there will be stricter broker oversight. New minimum standards will be set for licensing mortgage brokers and bank loan officers. And the Feds will authorize state and local housing agencies to issue up to $11 billion in tax-exempt bonds to refinance bad mortgages not eligible in any other program.

Almost unnoticed in the bill is a small provision for creating a permanent affordable housing trust fund, with the long-term goal of building more rental housing for people too poor to buy homes. (Why didn’t anybody think of this first, before all the subprime borrowers were preyed upon and lent to?)

This all sounds good. So what’s the problem?

Here’s the problem. The housing bill just signed by the president is the latest in a series of extraordinary interventions by the Bush administration, Congress and the Federal Reserve to bail Wall Street out.  And it gives broad—and unprecedented— authority to the Treasury Department.

On the surface, the bill looks good. It safeguards two mortgage finance giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, by presumably spending only a few billion to prevent the collapse of the two companies which own or guarantee half of the nation’s $12 trillion in mortgages. Look more closely and you’ll see two corporations controlled by Wall Street’s robber barons, and used by them as their personal Speed Queen heavy-duty, industrial money-laundering machines.

Look even more closely and you’ll see the little-noticed Section 3083. You see a national debt ceiling raised by $800 billion, because we are blackmailed into thinking our economy will collapse if we don’t raise it. Imagine that $800 billion spent on our nation’s schools, healthcare or decaying infrastructure. Imagine an $800 billion investment in alternative energy and our nation’s energy independence.

Again, remember that this bailout insures up to $300 billion in refinanced mortgages. The remainder—$500 billion—could conceivably be spent on other bailouts that loom ahead.

Even Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson, the architect of the rescue plan, said he never expected to be given this much new authority. The only real limit on his spending is the new $10.615 trillion debt ceiling.

Critics in Congress who voted against the bill voiced concern that we were rewarding Wall Street’s greed. They argued that we, as a nation, were rewarding predatory lending practices. They argued that we were rewarding massive fraud. They specifically argued that the housing bill bails out the banks and broker-dealers that are joined at the hip with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac through the trillions and trillions of dollars of those bogus insurance policies against default called credit-default swaps.

Finally, critics in Congress were outraged we were rewarding lobbyists—lobbyists hired by the fat cat executives at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—at a cost to taxpayers of tens of millions of dollars. Yes, you, the taxpayer, paid for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s lobbyists for this bill. How’s that for adding insult to injury!

“This bill has fallen prey to the special interests on Wall Street and K Street at unjustifiable expenses to taxpayers and homeowners on Main Street,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who voted against the bill even though he had worked on many of its tax provisions in committee.

“The bill should have barred the mortgage companies from spending millions to lobby Congress to raise our national debt,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

A look at the history books shows that there is no precedent for this bailout. Not the 1989 response to the savings and loan crisis. Not even the creation of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in 1933 that was part of the New Deal. There’s also no precedent for this national debt. Yet no one seems worried.

During the week I spent in Washington reporting this story, I have concluded that we are a nation of disinterested and mostly happy bystanders. Polling data tells us this much: As long as our paychecks clear every two weeks, we are happy. As long as our beer is cold, we are happy. As long as we have a warm puppy to hold, we are happy. As long as we can fill up our Chevy Mastodons, we are happy. As long as we have HBO and Showtime, we are happy. As long as we are not foreclosed upon and homeless, we are happy.

A $10.615 trillion national debt is more than we want to think about. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are also more than we want to think about. We like to think of the United States as a participatory democracy It is—but only in theory. Participatory democracy is for the disgruntled and for kooks.

This is what we’re not told: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are not essential to the mortgage market. If they were phased out over five or 10 years, the market would absorb the business they left behind. That’s the way competitive markets work. Fannie and Freddie exist only to guarantee debt-backed securities, like CMOs, CDOs and SIVs.

These are securities that were underwritten by the robber barons of Wall Street and that were pushed by the new master race on Wall Street—the prime brokers working in the shadow banking system—and that are now held by chumps who were lied to: pension plans, insurance companies, mutual funds, hedge funds and other institutional holders.

Fannie and Freddie were only in the insurance business, a business now corrupted by credit-default swaps and other swaps and derivatives, things that didn’t exist 10 years ago. So why bail out Fannie and Freddie? And why give them special advantages that suppress competition?

Because Fannie and Freddie spent more than $170 million for lobbyists in the last decade, more than what our No. 1 defense contractor, General Electric, spent.

Because senior executives at Fannie and Freddie get annual pay packages that they don’t want to lose. In 2007, Freddie Mac paid chairman and CEO Richard Syron $19.8 million, even though the company’s stock lost half its value. Meanwhile, at Fannie Mae, president and CEO Daniel Mudd got a 7 percent raise. Total compensation: $13.4 million, including a $5.4 million stock award. Again, the mortgage company lost billions during 2007.

Other government agencies can’t hire lobbyists or award exorbitant CEO bonuses, so why Fannie and Freddie? Because Wall Street’s balance sheets are too inextricably linked to Fannie and Freddie. As the stock prices of Fannie and Freddie go, so does much of Wall Street.

But mainly because other federal bailouts are looming on the horizon. William Poole of the Cato Institute, a chief executive at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis from 1998 to 2008, said last week, “Congressional inaction and taxpayer indifference over the last 15 years has committed us to a generation of bailouts.”

With a debt ceiling of $10.615 trillion, our children, and our children’s children, will be paying the price. And this is evil. We have mortgaged their futures.

I am deeply ashamed of my generation’s apathy and willful ignorance. Here and now, I apologize to my children and any future grandchildren for blowing it.

It’s too late to get out of the bailout business. Too late. The stock and bond markets sank. Treasury securities sank. The dollar sank. The national economy sank. The world economy sank.

In my generation, everything sank.

We may be a nation of the stupidly happy, but at this time in our history I am reminded of Pablo Neruda’s “Song of Despair”: “You swallowed everything, like distance. / Like the sea, like time. In you, everything sank.”

At the Group of Seven (G7) conference in Tokyo this year, Gilles Moec, chief economist for Bank America London, said it all. “The problems are going through financial markets in all parts of the world, right now. There’s not much we can do about it—not the G7, not anybody. The danger is that a real depression will turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Peter Spencer, of Ernst & Young and a former top British Treasury official agreed. “The coming crash in the United States is something that will simply have to play itself out. To think it all could have been avoided is sad.”

Sad? Yes. Evil? That, too.

 John Sakowicz is a Sonoma County investor who was a cofounder of a multibillion-dollar offshore hedge fund, Battle Mountain Research Group. Ryan Morris assisted with research for this article.

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People who have given advice to the Obama campaign say they see little political advantage in the candidate discussing during a general election campaign how his administration might investigate or prosecute Bush administration officials for torture.

Obama’s brain trust wants to form a commission on torture and call Bush officials as witnesses.

Aug. 04, 2008 | On the campaign trail in April, Barack Obama was asked whether, if elected, he would prosecute Bush administration officials for establishing torture as American policy. The candidate demurred. “If crimes have been committed, they should be investigated,” he said. But he quickly added, “I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of the Republicans as a partisan witch hunt, because I think we’ve got too many problems to solve.”

People who have given advice to the Obama campaign say they see little political advantage in the candidate discussing during a general election campaign how his administration might investigate or prosecute Bush administration officials for torture. Other than the response above, prompted by a question from Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Daily News, he has said little about his plans. But behind the scenes, a slate of foreign policy and human rights experts with various degrees of connections to the Obama campaign, some of them likely to occupy positions of authority in an Obama administration, have begun to discuss that very issue, and in great detail. What they’re likely to recommend to Obama, should he become president, won’t fulfill the dreams of those who’ve hoped for immediate criminal accountability for Bush administration officials.

Members and advisors of the administration-in-waiting have formed largely informal working groups to take up a whole host of issues related to the Bush administration’s legacy, like what to do about the Guantánamo detainees. While they have not been asked to develop a formal recommendation for Obama on the question of criminal accountability for torture, those who are weighing the issue, a group that includes some of the 300 people the New York Times recently described as Obama’s “mini State Department,” are moving toward consensus on some key points. Specifically, don’t hold your breath waiting for Dick Cheney to be frog-marched into federal court. Prosecution of any officials, if it were to occur, would probably not occur during Obama’s first term. Instead, we may well see a congressionally empowered commission that would seek testimony from witnesses in search of the truth about what occurred. Though some witnesses might be offered immunity in exchange for testimony, the question of whether anybody would be prosecuted would be deferred to a later date — meaning Obama’s second term, if such is forthcoming.

While there are certainly participants in these discussions who believe that top-level administration officials deserve to be hauled before a judge, even the harshest critics of the current administration’s torture policies don’t think there will be an immediate effort by the next president to prosecute anyone from the Bush administration. “I don’t sense the political appetite for it,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, who is involved in the informal discussions about what Obama could do about investigating torture. “I don’t think the next president will do that no matter who he is.”

Attorneys say successful prosecutions would be tough anyway. The Justice Department approved the abuse and Congress changed the War Crimes Act in 2006 to make prosecutions more difficult. There is also speculation that any end-of-term presidential pardons by Bush might include some of the likely torture defendants.

But the avenues of investigation being discussed don’t necessarily rule out at least an attempt at prosecuting Bush officials at some later date. The nonpartisan presidential commission that Malinowski and other people involved in the discussions are advocating would have considerable power, granted by Congress, to force cooperation. The commission would ultimately deliver recommendations to the president that would include, among other things, whether or not Cheney deserves that walk up the courthouse steps.

The first order of business, however, would be learning the truth. “I think a lot of us feel that the American people are entitled to the whole truth,” said another person who knows about the discussions. “The American people are entitled to [an investigation] from an official body that has access to the classified documents that makes as much public as it can,” that person added.

The commission would focus strictly on detention, torture and extraordinary rendition, or the practice of spiriting detainees to a third country for abusive interrogations. The panel would focus strictly on these abuses, leaving out any other allegedly illegal activities during the Bush administration, such as domestic spying.

It would also try to confirm or debunk, once and for all, the claims of high-level Bush administration officials that the use of abusive interrogations worked and resulted in significant intelligence gains.

This might include claims made by the president. In a Sept. 6, 2006, White House address, Bush admitted to a network of secret CIA prisons and the use of “tough” interrogation techniques by the agency. He then ticked off a treasure trove of intelligence he said the CIA pried out of Abu Zubaydah, a suspected al-Qaida operative captured on March 28, 2002, by intelligence agents from the United States and Pakistan.

But FBI agents initially interrogated Zubaydah using tried and true, noncoercive techniques, reportedly with success. The CIA later took over and used coercive methods that included waterboarding. Controversy lingers over claims about the effectiveness of the CIA’s methods, particularly in comparison to the FBI’s approach.

Like the 9-11 Commission, Congress could grant this panel the authority to issue subpoenas to compel witnesses to cooperate and leverage the production of documents. The panel might also have the power to grant witnesses immunity from prosecution in exchange for cooperation.

Immunity, in fact, remains one of the thorniest issues in the ongoing discussions about how to investigate the Bush administration’s interrogation program. A recent Newsweek piece by Stuart Taylor Jr. suggested that Bush “pardon any official from cabinet secretary on down who might plausibly face prosecution” for torture during the Bush years. Taylor argued that this would encourage those individuals to testify freely in front of some sort of truth commission.

That indemnity arrangement is more reminiscent of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the 1990s-era investigation aimed at unearthing the sins of apartheid. But blanket indemnity would not be part of the commission under discussion. “A lot of people think that that is not something that goes over well with the American people,” said the person familiar with the discussions. “What we have much more of a tradition of is presidential fact-finding commissions.”

Instead of offering a blanket amnesty, the fact-finding commission would delay any decisions on whether or not to attempt to prosecute any Bush administration officials for their transgressions. Given the time it would take for a commission to do its work, any such decision would probably not take place till Obama’s second term. That would be in accord with what Obama said in April, in what seems to be his lone statement on the issue of accountability, about not wanting his first term to be taken up by what critics would try to characterize as political retribution.

“Something like this would be unprecedented in the American experience and I think it would be absolutely necessary,” Kenneth Kitts, author of “Presidential Commissions and National Security: The Politics of Damage Control,” said when informed of the rough plans for the commission. “We’ve had panels that have looked at scandals. We’ve had panels that have looked at intractable political problems,” said Kitts, a political science professor at South Carolina’s Francis Marion University. “But nothing in terms of looking at an issue that has this array of legal, moral and even spiritual questions attached to it.”

Ben Rhodes, a foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign, did not respond to Salon’s request for comment by press time.

— By Mark Benjamin

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The small oil-rich emirate of Kuwait – situated between Iraq, Iran and an un-enviable geographic hard place on the northern end of the Persian Gulf – has reportedly activated its "Emergency War Plan" as a massive U.S. and European armada is reported heading for the region.

Leading the U.S. and British naval battle groups, and a French hunter-killer submarine, headed for the Gulf is the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (shown here) with its 80-plus combat planes. (Photo by CVN 71 via Newscom).
The small oil-rich emirate of Kuwait – situated between Iraq, Iran and an un-enviable geographic hard place on the northern end of the Persian Gulf – has reportedly activated its “Emergency War Plan” as a massive U.S. and European armada is reported heading for the region.

Coming on the heels of Operation Brimstone just a week ago that saw U.S., British and French naval forces participate in war games in the Atlantic Ocean, the object of which was to practice enforcing an eventual blockade on Iran, the joint task force is now headed for the Gulf and what could easily turn into a major confrontation with Iran.

The naval force comprises a U.S. Navy super carrier battle group and is accompanied by an expeditionary carrier battle group, a British Royal Navy carrier battle group and a French nuclear hunter-killer submarine.

Leading the pack is the nuclear-powered carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt and its Carrier Strike Group Two; besides its 80-plus combat planes the Roosevelt normally transports, it is carrying an additional load of French Naval Rafale fighter jets from the French carrier Charles de Gaulle, currently in dry dock.

Also reported heading toward Iran is another nuclear-powered carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan and its Carrier Strike Group Seven; the USS Iwo Jima, the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and a number of French warships, including the nuclear hunter-killer submarine Amethyste.

Once the naval force arrives in the Gulf region it will be joining two other U.S. naval battle groups already on site: the USS Abraham Lincoln and the USS Peleliu; the Lincoln with its carrier strike group and the latter with an expeditionary strike group.

Telephone calls to the Pentagon were not returned by publication time.

This deployment is the largest naval task force from the United States and allied countries to assemble in the strategic waters of the Persian Gulf since the two Gulf wars.

The object of the naval deployment would be to enforce an eventual blockade on Iran, if as expected by many observers, current negotiations with the Islamic republic over its insistence to pursue enrichment of uranium, allowing it, eventually, to produce nuclear weapons yields no results.

Adding to the volatility is the presence of a major Russian navy deployment affected earlier this year to the eastern Mediterranean comprising the jewel of the Russian fleet, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov with approximately 50 Su-33 warplanes that have the capacity for mid-air refueling. This means the Russian warplanes could reach the Gulf from the Mediterranean, a distance of some 850 miles and would be forced to fly over Syria (not a problem) but Iraq as well, where the skies are controlled by the U.S. military, and the guided missile heavy cruiser Moskva. The Russian task force is believed to be composed of no less than a dozen warships as well as several submarines.

However, Russia is unlikely to get involved in a military showdown in the Persian Gulf, particularly at this time when it is engaged in a major confrontation with the Republic of Georgia in South Ossetia.

For Iran however, a naval blockade preventing it from importing refined oil would have devastating effects on its economy, virtually crippling the Islamic republic’s infrastructure. Although Iran is a major oil producer and exporter, the country lacks refining facilities having to re-import its own oil once refined.

Iran’s oil – both the exported crude as well as the returning refined product – passes through the strategic Straits of Hormuz, controlled by Iran on one side and the Sultanate of Oman – a U.S. ally – on the other. The strait is about 30 miles wide at its narrowest point, making it easy to control, but at the same time placing Western naval vessels within easy reach of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards fast moving light crafts that could be used by Iranian suicide bombers.

Although Kuwait is on the opposite end of the entrance to the Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz, Kuwait City is less than 60 miles from Iran – and with good reason to worry.

“Kuwait was caught by surprise last time, when Iraqi troops invaded the small emirate and routed the Kuwaiti army in just a few hours,” a former U.S. diplomat to Kuwait told the Middle East Times.