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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Break...


I'm off to al-Andalus until the new year, so I doubt that I'll be posting...

Happy holidays.

Setting Lebanon Free


I meant to mention this the other day, but it slipped my mind. Robert Grenier, former director of the CIA's counterintelligence center, thinks that if the US loves Lebanon, we should set it free.

ONCE more, Lebanon is in political crisis. This time, we are told, it pits "Syrian- and Iranian-backed" Shiite parties (Hezbollah and Amal) and the Christian faction led by Michel Aoun against the "Western-backed" Christian, Sunni and Druze groups that support the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

These very descriptions -- citing one external backer or another as a mark of political identification -- illustrate the fundamental problem Lebanon must overcome. Call it the Lebanese Disease: rather than sorting out their differences internally and addressing the fundamental injustices at the heart of their disputes, the Lebanese constantly look to outsiders to gain an advantage over their rivals.

Naturally, any advantages thus gained are short-lived, for both the Lebanese and their foreign backers. In the end, the only result is greater popular suffering and instability in Lebanon and the entire Middle East.

Only the Lebanese can cure themselves of this disease, but a bit of enlightened self-interest on the part of the "Western backers" -- primarily the United States and France ? would greatly help. It may seem counterintuitive, but the best hope for American interests in the Middle East is not to isolate and minimize Hezbollah, but to further integrate it politically, socially and militarily into the Lebanese state.

...It has long been obvious that the Shiites are under-represented in Lebanon's complicated power-sharing arrangements. In return for a greater measure of political representation for Shiites, Mr. Siniora could have insisted that Hezbollah's militia be brought under some sort of state control -- perhaps as a sort of home guard for the south, with its fighters under the command of senior officers drawn from the Lebanese armed forces.

...A far more genuine American commitment to Lebanon would focus on helping the parties to come up with a reasonable formula to redress the under-representation of Shiites in the power structure while getting greater government control over Hezbollah's war-making capacity.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Shouting across the divide


This American Life has an excellent piece on bridging the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims. The segment is about the statue of Mohammad in the Supreme Court, a Muslim-American family whose life is wrecked by a evangelizing fourth grade teacher, and an ad exec who tries to sell brand America. You can listen to the show or download it as an mp3 until later this week.

In the first story, the representative of CAIR tries to explain why Muslims don't appreciate the statue of Mohammad, even if it is supposed to be inclusive. In the second, a fourth-grade teacher reads her students a book on how Muslims hate America and Christians for the anniversary of 9/11 then explains to the only Muslim child how she and her family will go to hell if they don't accept the blood of Jesus. Finally, the third segment shows the difficulty of using the same formula to sell Coke to sell America might not work and explores a possible slogan about Muslim control of Islam's holy cities Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem: "Two outta three ain't bad!"

Monday, December 18, 2006

Petrodollars to petro-euros


Tehran has just announced that Iran will be converting all of its assets, holdings, reserves and accounting from US dollars to euros.

I remember there being talk during the run-up to the war in Iraq that one of the reasons for the invasion of Iraq was to reverse Saddam's decision to dump the dollar for the Euro. Whether or not Baghdad's decision to trade in euros, which incidentally made Iraq a lot of money, had anything to do with the invasion is unclear. To be honest, I don't understand enough about monetary policy to know exactly how OPEC countries' changing to Euros would affect the US economy, except for a vague sense that the results would be less than positive for America. I would, however, be willing to bet that Iraq now only trades in US dollars.

We'll see what effect Iran's decision will have, but if I had to guess, I'd say that it hasn't helped relations between Washington and Tehran.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

On civil war in Iraq


Safire is debating the usage "civil war" in describing Iraq. Personally, I took to calling a spade a spade almost a year and a half ago.

Safire makes a point of boasting about his easy access to president Talibani, who "definitively" does not call it a civil war, and he quotes Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times who makes the following point:

I bristle at the way a low-grade semantic argument has become -- at least among the partisan cud-chewers -- a substitute for serious discussion of what's happening in Iraq and what to do about it. ... Maybe this argument is a symptom of intellectual fatigue in the punditocracy.

So while I can agree that a lot of people are arguing about what to call it while not thinking enough about what to do there, I don't agree with Safire, who in the end, thinks that it's just a value judgement:

Call the fighting what you like, but the name you choose to give the hostilities, strife, violence or war not only reflects your view about the current state of affairs but is also an indication of where you stand on what our policy should be. Labels are the language's shorthand for judgments.

I disagree. Words have meaning. So although it's true that certain people push for the civil war in Iraq to be called one thing or another for ideological reasons, that does not mean that one label is more or less accurate than another. And when Safire's Kurdish friend argues that

There is a more complex dynamic to this than civil war... There is Shia versus Shia, Sunni versus Sunni, Shia versus Sunni and Shia and Sunni versus Al Qaeda, as well as militias against the authority of the elected government. Many act as the proxies of regional powers, so you can call it as much a proxy war as a civil war.

I have a hard time thinking that he's being anything but disingenuous, since, if anything, the Lebanese civil war was even more complex. There, we saw 18 confessional groups lining up with over half a dozen foreign powers (Israel, Syria, Iraq, US, France, Italy, etc.) and the Palestinians, who were somewhat in between a domestic and a foreign force. Does anyone call that anything other than a civil war? So why should Iraq be any different?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Underqualified


I read this IHT Op-Ed by Jeff Stein last October with a mixture of sad resignation and sighing wonderment, thinking to myself that it's no wonder American foreign policy in the Middle East is so often so wrongheaded and obviously stupid. After all, if US counterterrorism officials and congressmen don't know answers to such basic questions as the difference between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, or even to which sects Al-Qaeda, Iran and Hezbollah belong, how can they make informed decisions about issues that are based on underlying differences between the region's actors?

So I have to say that while I'm not surprised, I am certainly disappointed to see that the newly appointed Democratic intelligence chairman is equally uninformed (via Ezra):

...like a number of his colleagues and top counterterrorism officials that I've interviewed over the past several months, Reyes can't answer some fundamental questions about the powerful forces arrayed against us in the Middle East.

It begs the question, of course: How can the Intelligence Committee do effective oversight of U.S. spy agencies when its leaders don't know basics about the battlefield?

...Reyes stumbled when I asked him a simple question about al Qaeda at the end of a 40-minute interview in his office last week. Members of the Intelligence Committee, mind you, are paid $165,200 a year to know more than basic facts about our foes in the Middle East.

We warmed up with a long discussion about intelligence issues and Iraq. And then we veered into terrorism's major players.

To me, it's like asking about Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland: Who's on what side?

The dialogue went like this:

Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?

"Al Qaeda, they have both," Reyes said. "You're talking about predominately?"

"Sure," I said, not knowing what else to say.

"Predominantly -- probably Shiite," he ventured.

...And Hezbollah? I asked him. What are they?

"Hezbollah. Uh, Hezbollah..."

He laughed again, shifting in his seat.

"Why do you ask me these questions at five o'clock? Can I answer in Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?"

"Pocito," I said -- a little.

"Pocito?!" He laughed again.

"Go ahead," I said, talk to me about Sunnis and Shia in Spanish.

Reyes: "Well, I, uh...."

Stein goes on to tell us how the woeful ignorance of the region goes all the way from the top of the chain of command to those on the ground -- the employees of the embassy in Baghdad. It seems that of all the Americans at the embassy in Iraq, there are only six fluent Arabic speakers and two dozen who have some familiarity with the language. This is out of over a thousand employees.

There is definitely a dearth of specialists of the region and speakers of its languages. And those in charge don't seem very concerned about it, since according to the Department of Defense, between 1993 and 2003, 55 Arabic speakers and 9 Farsi speakers have been fired in accordance with the US military's policy of "Don't ask, Don't tell."

The 9/11 commission report decried the lack of Arabic speakers, a situation that has led to a huge backlog of untranslated documents in the government's counterterrorism efforts. It seems not only disheartening but disconcerting that ideological issues such as one's sexual orientation would trump national security concerns.

So while I'm glad to see that some of those who pushed the most ferociously for war in Iraq will no longer be in a position to decide foreign policy in the region, I'm afraid that their Democratic counterparts aren't any more qualified to make such important decisions.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Peace not apartheid in Palestine


Jimmy Carter, responding to the reaction his new book has received, has a sincere and thoughtful piece in the LA Times on speaking frankly about Israel and Palestine:

The many controversial issues concerning Palestine and the path to peace for Israel are intensely debated among Israelis and throughout other nations ? but not in the United States. For the last 30 years, I have witnessed and experienced the severe restraints on any free and balanced discussion of the facts. This reluctance to criticize any policies of the Israeli government is because of the extraordinary lobbying efforts of the American-Israel Political Action Committee and the absence of any significant contrary voices.

It would be almost politically suicidal for members of Congress to espouse a balanced position between Israel and Palestine, to suggest that Israel comply with international law or to speak in defense of justice or human rights for Palestinians. Very few would ever deign to visit the Palestinian cities of Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, Gaza City or even Bethlehem and talk to the beleaguered residents. What is even more difficult to comprehend is why the editorial pages of the major newspapers and magazines in the United States exercise similar self-restraint, quite contrary to private assessments expressed quite forcefully by their correspondents in the Holy Land.

While I disagree with Carter on the idea of a two-state solution (I believe the only tenable solution to the conflict is a single democratic state where one person has one vote), I agree wholeheartedly with the problems that arise in the US when one wants to have an honest discussion about Israel/Palestine.

Proving his point, we can see that this is the kind of reaction that genuine discourse, such as Carter's gets in the US. Of course this elder statesman handles himself with propriety and grace, neither of which such mean-spirited and asinine attacks really warrant.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Pulitzer and an Iranian execution


The Wall Street Journal has an excellent piece on photographs of executed Kurds during the Iranian revolution and the photographer who until now has remained anonymous.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

One reported dead in street violence in Beirut


According to Lebanese television, a group of Shia protesters were walking home from the protest to their neighborhood near the Shatilla refugee camp. Apparently, they were attacked by a group of March 14 supporters, but it is unsure if the attackers were Sunni or Christian.

The details are still coming out, but it seems a Shia youth of twenty years was shot and killed by the attackers. Another in the group may have been stabbed as well.

This is really disconcerting, not only for the obvious reason that someone was murdered in the street, but for the fact that up until now, clashes between opposition supporters and government supporters had stayed at a minimum. I can imagine that this sort of an act will not go without a reprisal from Shia groups.

Opposition supporters interviewed on television stated that the March 14 group had their protest last week without any attacks by opposition supporters and were dismayed that they were not left alone to protest peacefully.

Up till now, I've been fairly optimistic about a peaceful solution to the political tensions here, but now I'm not so sure. This is just the sort of senseless act of violence that could spark a civil war.


UPDATE: The AP has a wire story on the event, and apparently it was Sunnis who killed the Shia boy:

Violent clashes broke out Sunday between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the capital, leaving one man dead from gunshot wounds at a time when tensions throughout Lebanon threaten the country's fragile sectarian and political balance.

...The clash in Tarik Jdideh occurred as a group of Hezbollah supporters were returning from Beirut's downtown and passed through the Sunni neighborhood.

Police officials said the two sides threw stones at each other, then shots were fired, killing Ahmed Ali Mahmoud, a 20-year-old Shiite. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the press.

At least 10 other people were slightly injured elsewhere in West Beirut in similar clashes.

What's really happening in Beirut


I just got off the phone with my father in the US. He immediately started giving me a lecture on Lebanese politics, if you can call it that. Generally speaking, I can count on my father to represent the red-state everyman, whether the topic is foreign policy or domestic affairs. He's worried about me being in Beirut, which is normal, especially since the Arab world is a region that seems very foreign and even threating to him.

He brought up the protests and how the situation was getting dangerous in Lebanon. I told him that I had actually just come back from them and that the mood was festive, nonviolent and, ultimately, democratic. He told me that no, Hezbollah was just a bunch of terrorists and that they aren't democratic and that they're trying to take over the country.

Things always start deteriorating when I can't hold my tongue in these situations. I told him that if he was interested in knowing the specifics of the situation, I could explain them to him, but I was not interested in getting a lecture on Lebanese politics from someone who doesn't know anything about the subject.

However, as a representative of the American mindset, one of his sentences stuck in my mind: "Everyone knows the Hezbollah terrorists are trying to take over the government." Speaking from an American view point, he's probably right. Everyone knows what's happening. Of course they don't actually know what's going on here, but that doesn't make their certainty any less headstrong.

I went down to the protests again today. If you hadn't been following the situation here and didn't speak any Arabic, you might think that everyone had showed up in Beirut for a music festival, or maybe an independence day celebration or some other national holiday.

Downtown has turned into a souk, with people hawking political flags and shirts out of the trunk of their cars or on tables set up in the newly formed tent village. Vendors sell warm food, cigarettes and cold drinks. Shia clerics stand next to young women with abundant cleavage and bear shoulders. Supporters of Hezbollah and Amal mingle with Christian supporters of General Aoun and communists who hock Che scarves and Lebanese flags with a hammer and sickle on them.

Youth congregate together drawing into circles to dance and sing while drums are beaten loudly. Children have faces painted red, white and green to mirror the Lebanese flag, sometimes with a small flag on each cheek, other times with the a single taking up the entire face, the centered ceder formed by a small nose. The sound of two teacups click-clacking together calls those protesters who would like to sit down and warm up with a cup of hot tea. Barbecue grills are set up, some selling food while other sell hot coals for the myriad of water pipes everyone seems to be smoking between chanting slogans and waving flags. These are the "terrorists" my father was lecturing me about.

As dusk falls, some protesters gather into buses to make the trip back home while others start fires to keep themselves warm next to their tents. Downtown feels alive and vibrant, religiously and socially mixed -- somewhat like I imagine it being before the civil war and before it was revamped into an expensive simulacrum of its former self.


Protesters wave Lebanese flags downtown in hopes of pressuring PM Siniora to resign.


Downtown has turned into a festive tent city, with hundreds of thousands converging on the capital to show the government their discontent.


Opposition supporters come together to dance underneath the overpass, which houses many who are camping here until the government resigns or expands the opposition's representation in the cabinet.


Protesters get ready for the evening by lighting up camp fires.

More on the protests


I've been really disappointed with the coverage of these protests by the media. The language used to described them seems to be culled from the government's talking points, with talk of a coup d'état that implies that these protests are somehow illegitimate, whereas the March 14 protests were legitimate and righteous.

Another gripe of mine is the focus on the sectarian divide, even though the Christians, for example are very divided, with some following Aoun and the opposition and others following the ruling coalition. To my mind there has not been nearly enough focus on the social divide. Today, a friend of mine forwarded me a message that had been sent to her, telling people to go look at the animals at the zoo downtown. The message is clear: these people, especially the Shia and the poor, are not only not Lebanese, but they're not even human. This attitude, and its social and economic consequences, play a large part in the frustration felt by a large segment of Lebanese society.

At the end of the day, this is a question about Lebanese identity and the sharing of Lebanon's wealth. These differences are largely political and social, a fact that gets lost in the easy description of sectarian divide. This is not to say that that divide doesn't exist -- it does -- but it's not the only border, or even necessarily the most important one, dividing Lebanese society.

So with the lazy reporting that I've been seeing in the Western press, it's refreshing to see this report by Tony Shadid in the Post:

In a city of frontiers, Beirut built another border Saturday.

On one side of coiled barbed wire and metal barricades were armored personnel carriers manned by soldiers in red berets toting U.S.-made M-16 rifles and guarding the colonnaded, stone government headquarters where Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and other ministers have taken up residence. On the other were the fervent young men of Hezbollah and its allies, who have turned a downtown tailored for the rich into the site of an open-ended protest to force the government's fall.

"This is the point of confrontation between us and them," said Khodr Hassan, who walked 12 hours from his southern village to the protest with 30 other youths. He pointed at his friends at the barricade, some surging forward, others lolling about.

"This is the line of separation," said one of them, Ali Aitawi.

Long divided by the Christian east and largely Muslim west of its 15-year civil war, Beirut is a city snarled today by far more numerous boundaries of sect, perspective and ideology, intersecting and tangling across a capital and country wrestling with a question still unanswered since independence more than 60 years ago: What is Lebanon's identity?

In today's crisis, those fault lines tell the story of the struggle underway between the country's two camps, divided by past and present, with vastly different visions of Lebanon's future: on one side Hezbollah, supported by Iran and Syria, and on the other the government, backed by the United States and France. The fault lines tell, too, of an impasse that perhaps can't be broken.

The borders are drawn by color, flag, portrait and symbol, a claustrophobic contest to lay claim to identity never solely Lebanese. They are defined by ideology: the culture of resistance to Israel celebrated by the Shiite Muslim movement of Hezbollah, for instance, or the Christian separatism of civil war-era militias with fascist roots. They follow the contours of leaders who command loyalty through personality over politics. And they offer protection in a country where survival can feel precarious.

Read the rest of the article; it's well worth your time.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Opposition rally a success for Hezbollah and allies


Today's demonstration was a success for the opposition coalition, not least of all for its peaceful nature and family atmosphere. There were at least twice as many people as the funeral cum rally held by the anti-Syrian governing coalition. There was a festive mood today in Martyr's Square and its environs, with Muslims and Christians, supporters of Hezbollah, Aoun, Amal and Frangieh coming out in droves in an attempt to force the current government to resign.

What looked like hundreds of thousands of Lebanese came out, for the most part following Nasrallah's call to brandish Lebanese flags instead of those of sectarian political parties.

It seems that the opposition has learned from the visual rhetoric of the March 14 governing coalition, giving their opposition a multi-confessional, and finally Lebanese , air as Christians and Muslims came together to show the government their discontent.

One mixed group of youths sat together smoking shisha as they took turns chanting political slogans supporting various Lebanese political parties: first Hezbollah, then Christian politicians General Aoun and Sulieman Frangieh and then finally even Iran.

Here are some photos I took of the event:











Stepping into Iraq: Saudia Arabia


The Saudis are making it clear that if the US leaves Iraq, they will step in:

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal ... said in a speech last month that "since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited." If it does, one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.

...Options now include providing Sunni military leaders (primarily ex-Baathist members of the former Iraqi officer corps, who make up the backbone of the insurgency) with the same types of assistance -- funding, arms and logistical support -- that Iran has been giving to Shiite armed groups for years.

Another possibility includes the establishment of new Sunni brigades to combat the Iranian-backed militias. Finally, Abdullah may decide to strangle Iranian funding of the militias through oil policy. If Saudi Arabia boosted production and cut the price of oil in half, the kingdom could still finance its current spending. But it would be devastating to Iran, which is facing economic difficulties even with today's high prices. The result would be to limit Tehran's ability to continue funneling hundreds of millions each year to Shiite militias in Iraq and elsewhere.

Both the Sunni insurgents and the Shiite death squads are to blame for the current bloodshed in Iraq. But while both sides share responsibility, Iraqi Shiites don't run the risk of being exterminated in a civil war, which the Sunnis clearly do. Since approximately 65 percent of Iraq's population is Shiite, the Sunni Arabs, who make up a mere 15 to 20 percent, would have a hard time surviving any full-blown ethnic cleansing campaign.

In this case, remaining on the sidelines would be unacceptable to Saudi Arabia. To turn a blind eye to the massacre of Iraqi Sunnis would be to abandon the principles upon which the kingdom was founded. It would undermine Saudi Arabia's credibility in the Sunni world and would be a capitulation to Iran's militarist actions in the region.

To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks -- it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse.

Policy options in Iraq just seem to be getting worse and worse...

Today's big protest


Today there will be a protest led by the opposition downtown. There is a good chance that this will dwarf the protest held last week after the assassination of Pierre Gemayel. Some are predicting a million people. Nasrallah kept people guessing until yesterday about when the protest would be, but yesterday he called on his supporters to go into the street in order to "proceed in a peaceful, civil, democratic and political manner toward the main goal of a new government":

Lebanon, with its [sectarian] makeup, cannot be administered by one side amid difficult internal conditions. Let us call for a national unity government....

The opposition forces, on the basis of their constitutional rights, call on all Lebanese, whatever their religious confession, to demonstrate peacefully in an open-ended sit-in from 3 p.m. Friday for a national unity government. The opposition forces appeal to demonstrators to brandish only the Lebanese flag and authorized slogans and avoid any party or sectarian symbols.

If heeded, Nasrallah's call on supporters to avoid party flags and sectarian symbols will make this protest different from previous Hezbollah-sponsored opposition protests as well as those put on by the governing coalition. (Crosses and party flags were everywhere last week.)

The governing coalition's youth organizations have so far called on their supporters to stay at home, hopefully decreasing the chances of any clashes between the two groups.

The competing protests are part of the divide in visions of what kind of a country Lebanon should be, a division that is split somewhat across sectarian lines. There are, however, some players who seem more interested in political maneuvering than in ideological direction. But overall, the conflict is between those who feel Lebanon should seek financial gain and stability by looking to the West, a prospect that entails peace (perhaps even with Israel) and those who believe that the Israeli-Arab conflict is still strong and that finally, Lebanon is a part of that conflict, meaning that no peace should be made with the southern neighbor until a just settlement is found for the Arabs.

The first group, while officially against Israel, is aligned with Washington, and to a lesser extent, Paris, whereas the second group is allied first and foremost with Tehran, but also to varying degrees with Damascus and Ramallah.

I'll be downtown this afternoon to see how things play out today at the protest.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Our Walls Bear Witness: Darfur exhibition


The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is currently holding a photo exhibition on Darfur:

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will project wall-sized images of the escalating genocide in Darfur onto its façade during Thanksgiving week, marking the first time the national memorial's exterior will be used to highlight contemporary genocide. The program, "Darfur: Who Will Survive Today?" is a unique and highly symbolic Museum project produced in association with Darfur/Darfur to draw attention to the continuing crisis in Darfur.


Friday, November 24, 2006

Cable providers jailed in US


Since the television station Al-Manar is affiliated with Hezbollah, the predominantly Shia political party and militia in Lebanon, it seems that broadcasting the channel in the US is illegal.

Each of the two owners of a Brooklyn-based HDTV service provider is faced with a 110-year prison sentence if found guilty of providing material support to a terrorist organization.

Al-Manar was labeled a terrorist organization by the US Government last March, making it illegal to broadcast the channel or do business with it in any form. It's commonly labeled the propaganda arm of Hezbollah, and of course it is biased toward Hezbollah, just like Future TV is for Hariri and Orange TV is for General Aoun. But the truth be told, during the war, their news coverage was excellent, and they're only a bit more outlandish than Fox News, as far as partisan bias goes. You can see their website here, which has English-language news coverage.

Is broadcasting an unpopular television channel now illegal? One might argue that the resistance message stressed by Al-Manar is an incitement to violence, but I think that would be stretching it. And furthermore, if such messages were to actually be punished, then we'd have to start locking up people like Ann Coulter who called for the US to "should invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity" and Pat Robertson who called for the assassination of Venezuela's elected president, Hugo Chavez.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The protest


The protest downtown seemed more like a public fair or a carnival than an angry mob. People came from all over Beirut, and presumably all over Lebanon, to show their support to the March 14 coalition and the slain Pierre Gemayel.

Slogans ranged from "Syria, Iran, Israel Out of Lebanon" to "the Sunni are with you" to , literally, "Fuck your sister, Syria." I saw flags of almost every sort: Lebanese, Phalange, Armenian, Future movement, various other Christian parties, and even an American flag or two.

At 1 PM, Gemayel's funeral was broadcast over the loudspeakers. The sounds of ecclesiastical mourning seemed somehow out of place in the midst of people waving their flags with a smile while vendors sold bottled water and ka'ak (100% Lebanese according to the cardboard sign).

Overall, I'd say that it went fairly well and, most importantly, non-violently.

I'll post some pictures later today...

Lebanese Jujitsu


One last thing before I go out:

I just read this report from Le Monde, which is a pretty standard piece, with the exception of one detail. They have this quote from Walid Jumblatt, the head of the Druze party and part of the March 14 anti-Syrian coalition: "There will be neither security, nor peace, nor democracy [in Lebanon] so long as the Syrian regime is in place."

I had never thought before now that the March 14 coalition might be aiming higher than just keeping Syria out of Lebanon. Judging from Jumblatt's remarks, though, they might be aiming for some political jujitsu in which the obviously weaker Lebanese use Syria's own weight (or perceived weight) to overthrow the regime in Damascus. This would mean using Damascus' involvement in the assassination of Gemayel (real or apparent) against it.

The restless Lebanese


It has begun. Starting early this morning, at around 9, the Christian streets in my new neighborhood have been full of chanting, flag waving, horn honking and portrait brandishing. Now, the sound of sirens had added to the mix.

Last night, the Phalangists, along with some Armenians and some Hariri Futurists, marched through my neighborhood with fanfare and flags. Every once in a while, they would stop and salute a salute that, frankly, reminds one of the Nazi Sieg Heil.

The big protest is today, and everyone is making their way downtown. Text messages have been flying around with decrees like, "Enough is enough. Any Lebanese who doesn't go to the protest today is an accomplice to murder!"

I'll be making my way downtown shortly to see how it unfolds.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Muslim while flying


US Airways threw several Muslim clerics off a flight. Apparently they were guilty of being Muslim while flying.

The alert was raised after the men performed their normal evening prayers in the airport terminal before boarding Flight 300. (Watch how one of the men was treated at a US Airways desk Video)

A passenger who had seen them pray passed a note expressing concern to a flight attendant, US Airways spokeswoman Andrea Rader told The Associated Press.

The passenger thought the imams -- who were speaking in Arabic and English -- had made anti-U.S. statements before boarding and "made similar statements while boarding," said Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

...The clerics were returning from a conference in Minneapolis of the North American Imams Federation, Omar Shahin of Phoenix, president of the group, told the AP.

"They took us off the plane, humiliated us in a very disrespectful way," Shahin said.

Shahin said three members of the group prayed in the terminal before the six boarded the plane.

They entered individually, except for one member who is blind and needed to be guided, Shahin said. Once on the plane, the six did not sit together, he said.

"We did nothing" on the plane, Shahin said.

According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the clerics were handcuffed and questioned for several hours by authorities before being released.

...Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airports Commission, told the AP the airline asked airport police to remove the six men from the flight because some witnesses reported the men were making anti-American statements involving the Iraq war.

...[One of the clerics] told the AP that when he went back to the airport Tuesday morning, he was told by a ticketing agent his payment for the flight had been refunded. He said the agent told him that neither he nor the other imams could purchase tickets from US Airways.

Illegal Israeli settlements


Kevin Drum has an interesting, but not really surprising, post about illegal Israeli settlements. The information comes from a Peace Now report.

The long and short of it is that 39% of all land used by Israeli settlements in the West Bank is legally the private property of Palestinians. Like I said, this is not surprising, or even news for Palestinians. The newsworthy part is that this figure comes directly from Israel's Civil Administration.

There's also this first-hand account from the LA Times.

Lebanese views and sectarianism


The BBC has an article on Lebanese views on the assassination. They quote three different Lebanese, identifying them this way:

AMANI KALAAGI, LAWYER, SUNNI MUSLIM
TONI MAALOUF, TV EXECUTIVE, CATHOLIC
GEORGE BITAR, BUSINESSMAN, HEZBOLLAH SUPPORTER

First of all, I find it strange that they don't mention the religion of the Hezbollah supporter after mentioning the religion of the first two people. Judging from his first name, he's Christian, and it would be interesting to know if they neglected to put his religion because they didn't want to write that there are Christian supporters of Hezbollah (quite a few, now that General Michel Aoun is Hezbollah's opposition ally).

I'm also torn between thinking that the religious denominations of the people writing are relevant and thinking that this is exactly the sort of sectarian labeling that Lebanon does not need right now. It makes me think of an anti-sectarian campaign done by 05 Amam, an inter-confessional organization, whose advertisements poking fun at sectarian divide can be seen around town lately:



But finally to the content of what the Lebanese people are saying in the BBC article. The Hezbollah supporter thinks that the government is the group most likely to have the most to gain from the situation:

Who will benefit from this? The other side, of course, the 14 March grouping.

Tomorrow we [Hezbollah] were going to go on a peaceful demonstration against the government. But now we cannot, because it is too soon after this death.

So the 14 March group benefits from the reaction to the death.

I am not defending the people who did this.

If it was the Syrians, they would have killed someone more important. And they are not so stupid to kill him 24 hours before our people were due to go on a demonstration.

This is sad. Nobody knows tonight what will happen. The future is grey, uncertain.

Hezbollah wants calm, it just wants justice.

And the Sunni lawyer seems to think that Syria is obviously guilty, without saying so explicitly. He then despairs of the anti-Muslim sectarian comments he's overheard at a lawyer's conference.

To my mind, the most alarming comments are made by the Catholic television executive (it would be interesting to know for which station he works):

But the assassinations take place in Christian areas. The security is not effective enough in our areas; maybe we need our own security.

In the Hezbollah areas, they take care of their own security; and that works well for them.

I think we need a much stronger intelligence service and stronger security forces, which are independent of politics. We should all just stop talking about politics, maybe then we can all prosper.

So while on the one hand, he's calling for an end to sectarianism and stresses that he wants peace, his comment that "maybe we need our own security" seems dangerously close to a call for rebuilding a Christian militia. This would be a disaster for Lebanon; one armed militia is already too much, the last thing we need here is a replay of the 70s and 80s when religious sects were armed to kill.

Some thoughts on Gemayel's assassination


The Times has the only English-language account I've seen of the assassination to go into the specific logistics of the killing:

While other anti-Syria figures have been killed in the past two years, Mr. Gemayel was the first to be shot in the head and not blown up with a bomb.

Mr. Gemayel was in the passenger seat of his own silver Kia, driving through the Christian neighborhood of Jdeideh, which he represented in Parliament. About 4 p.m., a car rammed into Mr. Gemayel's and three gunmen rushed his car, spraying it with bullets from silencer-equipped automatic weapons, Lebanese security officials said. The driver, who was not injured, drove to St. Joseph's Hospital, where Mr. Gemayel was declared dead.

And here is what the car looks like:



Given the large number of bullet holes that either entered or exited through the passenger seat (it seems much more likely that these are entrance shots), it seems very strange to me that the driver should be able to walk away from this incident unhurt.

I've also been wondering about why Gemayel would be targeted. Although he has little to no actual political power, his family name still carries a lot of weight and his death can be counted to rally Christian supporters. Would Syria have anything to gain from killing someone like him? If the Syrians were going to assassinate someone, knowing full well that they would be the first to be blamed, wouldn't they aim higher?

This also comes at a time when Washington started looking like it was ready to engage Damascus, a prospect that seems highly unlikely now. And finally, there's the different MO. Why would the Syrians use gunmen instead of their usual car bombs?

It just doesn't make sense to me. If the Syrians are trying to stop the international tribunal, an assassination attempt like this seems the opposite of a viable strategy, since the Security Council immediately approved it after Gemayel's assassination. And if they wanted to stop the cabinet from approving it, I'm pretty sure that that would be redundant, since the absence of 7 cabinet ministers (5 from Hezbollah and Amal, 1 from Aoun's party and 1 who resigned last February), I think, although I'm not 100% sure of this, that the cabinet was already constitutionally powerless to pass the tribunal. Finally, why would Damascus bother trying to get negotiations together with Washington if they knew they were about to destroy and talks with the US by killing Gemayel?

Or perhaps living in Beirut has seen the Lebanese propensity for conspiracy theory rub off on me. And maybe it's best never to underestimate the stupidity of national regimes. So maybe I'm reading too much into this, and Damascus has just shot itself in the foot again. Time may or may not tell.


UPDATE: The details of the attack are somewhat different in this account by the Daily Star. They make no mention of whether or not the driver was hurt but report that one bodyguard has died and another's condition is unknown. The report also states that the current government can have up to 8 ministers absent before the cabinet is unable to achieve a quorum. I've had different information from other sites, including Al-Manar, but have so far been unable to confirm the actual law.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Hezbollah's reaction to assassination


Hezbollah has issued a statement about the assassination of Pierre Gemayel Jr. through its television station Al-Manar:

There is no doubt that those who committed this crime want to push Lebanon into chaos and civil war and want to cut the way for any peaceful, political and democratic solution to the crises in Lebanon. The nature of the targeting as well as the timing, place and style of execution raise lots of suspicions and need to be deeply looked in before taking any position or reaction that could harm the country and fulfill the goals of the killers. We offer our condolences to former President Amine Gemayel and his family.

Otherwise, everyone, including the Syrian government, has officially denounced the killing, while Amin Gemayel, the father of Pierre Jr. and former president of Lebanon urges calm:

I have one wish, that tonight be a night of prayer to contemplate the meaning of this martyrdom and how to protect this country.... I call on all those who appreciate Pierre's martyrdom to preserve his cause and for all of us to remain at the service of Lebanon. We don't want reactions and revenge.

Pierre Gemayel Jr. assassinated


The Minister of Industry, Pierre Gemayel Jr., was assassinated today, shot while in his car in a Christian suburb of Beirut.

As it turns out, I was in the same area, near Sin el-Fil, this morning, but I must have already been back home by the time he was assassinated. Otherwise, on the way to buy credit for my telephone, I saw Gemayel supporters driving by with flags and honking their horns. Farther up the street, a few trash cans had been burned, presumably by supporters, but by the time I saw the burned mess in the street, security forces (police and military) were already there.

No one knows who did it, but people are already speculating. Samir Geagea of the Christian Lebanese Forces made public statements warning about assassinations last week, and Saad Hariri (whose father Rafik was assassinated in 2005 setting off protests that led to the withdrawal of Syria) said that "the hands of Syria are all over the place."

In a second attack, in Ashrafiyeh, gunmen shot at the office of the state minister for parliamentary affairs, Michel Pharaon, a Christian MP from the ruling coalition.

For a timeline of political murders in Lebanon, click here.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Khoury's Gate of the Sun


The London Review has a review of the English translation of Elias Khoury's novel, Gate of the Sun. It touches briefly on some of his other works, the writing of Ghassan Kanafani, the politics of post-July Lebanon, and is worth a read.

Election results unclear...


There was a major election here in Beirut on Wednesday, and the results are about as unclear, and as contested, as the 2000 US presidential election (here, March 8 coalition is the opposition, including Hezbollah, Amal and Aoun's Christian Free Patriotic Movement and March 14 is the anti-Syrian ruling coalition, including Hariri's Future Movement and Geagea's Lebanese Forces):

Thursday saw a significant rise in tensions between the two camps in the build-up to the announcement of the results, with each side chanting political slogans and applauding their national political leaders, and booing those of the other side.

Security and riot police ... increased from the previous evening, this time prepared for potential clashes.

...The announcements came to an abrupt halt after a skirmish broke out between the two camps, and with the March 8 coalition slamming the results as illegitimate.

Immediately after the skirmish, Mohammad Hamadeh, leader of the Commoners Party and a March 8 coalition member, told The Daily Star that ballots had been tampered with.

"The results are wrong because there is a big problem with the number of votes placed," he explained. "Cheating has taken place. Our candidates inside [West Hall] confirmed that there were a lot more votes in the ballot boxes than there should be, meaning that the results are inaccurate."

"Even though we won, despite the cheating that occurred, we feel the obvious tampering that occurred needs to be investigated, as it does not make the elections just," he added.

Judging from the Daily Star's coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that these were city or even national elections. They're not. In fact, the elections were student elections at the American University in Beirut.

Political group violence is not unheard of in student elections, where college politics are a microcosm of Lebanese politics in general, with coalitions and parties mirroring their national counterparts. Last year, there was a serious bout of political/sectarian violence on the campus of the Lebanese American University. It is commonly believed that this is the reason why elections were suspended at that university.

These elections are a big deal, and political parties invest a fair amount of effort in winning them. On election day, it's impossible to get onto campus without an ID, and armed security details guard school entrances. And what results there are sound like announcements of which party took which state in the US:

Both sides agreed the March 14 coalition won the School of Business and a majority of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. It was also agreed the March 8 camp won the Faculty of Medicine and Nursing, and a majority of the Faculty of Engineering.

Who won this year at AUB? Your guess is as good as mine.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Khartoum accepts UN force


In a strange, and so for unexplained, turn of events, the Sudanese government has changed its mind, deciding to accept, "in principle," a joint United Nations and African Union peacekeeping force into Darfur.

Maybe it's cynicism, but I keep thinking to myself that there must be a catch somewhere, because up to now, Khartoum has successfully staved off an attempt led by the US to send peacekeepers to Darfur. Maybe China or Russia decided that to apply some pressure for some reason unknown to me. I can't imagine that either Moscow or Beijing have been too terribly concerned about how Khartoum's genocidal regime has reflected on them.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Danish intelligence saw no evidence of Iraqi WMD, journlalists on trial


The editor and two journalists from Berlingske Tidende are on trial for publishing Danish intelligence from before the invasion of Iraq that there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction:

In articles published in 2004 they quoted from analysis by a Danish intelligence agent, Frank Grevil.

His report, written before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, concluded that there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq.

The Berlingske Tidende journalists could go to jail if found guilty.

It is being viewed as a landmark case in Denmark, which is usually an ardent defender of freedom of expression.

An offence of publishing confidential Danish government documents is punishable by fines or up to two years in prison.

Berlingske Tidende's chief editor Niels Lunde went on trial along with reporters Michael Bjerre and Jesper Larsen on Monday. They pleaded not guilty.

Former intelligence officer Major Frank Soeholm Grevil was sentenced last year to four months in jail for leaking the documents to the reporters.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen supported the US-led invasion of Iraq and told parliament he was convinced former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was in possession of WMD.

The journalists' defence lawyer Henrik Dahl told the court his clients had done nothing wrong "because there was a huge public interest" in the information they published, the Associated Press reported.

Al Jazeera in English (but not in America)


Today Al Jazeera will launch its English-language cable channel. With over 80 million households ready to receive the channel, Al Jazeera English has more than doubled their goal of 40 million. Unfortunately, none of those households are American, since so far, zero cable providers have agreed to broadcast Al Jazeera English, and only one satellite dish company is offering the channel -- at an extra fee, at that. According to Comcast, these decisions are made on purely financial, and not political, grounds.

This is really disappointing, because the US market could use a different point of view and more international news. Of course, a less American-centric point of view would, in my view, be helpful for the US, but that would be second to what is, to my mind, the main offering of Al Jazeera: more international news.

In addition to the 42 bureaus of the Arabic version of Al Jazeera, the English channel will have 4 broadcast centers and 20 support bureaus:

Broadcast Centers:
London
Washington
Doha
Kuala Lumpur

Supporting Bureaus
Middle East: Cairo, Beirut, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza
Africa: Abidjan, Nairobi, Johannesburg and Harare
Asia and Australia: Beijing, Delhi, Islamabad, Jakarta, Manila and Sydney
Americas: Buenos Aires, Caracas and New York
Europe: Athens and Moscow

This amount of international coverage is colossal, and would benefit the American population immensely, particularly as far as African coverage is concerned. CNN, for example, has only 2 bureaus (Lagos and Nairobi) on the continent (excluding Cairo, which I've counted in the Middle East for both channels).

In addition to this meaty international coverage, Al Jazeera English will be featuring some familiar faces in the form of newscasters formerly from the BBC, CNN and CBS, among others. And they will even have a former US marine, Josh Rushing, as one of their commentators.

A Hezbollah-Somalia connection?


Reports of a UN report on arms embargo violations in Somalia say that Hezbollah has trained Somali militants and received Somali aid during the war this summer in the form of 720 Somali militants:

According to the Times, the report

states that in mid-July, Aden Hashi Farah, a leader of the Somali Islamist alliance, personally selected about 720 combat-hardened fighters to travel to Lebanon and fight alongside Hezbollah.

At least 100 Somalis had returned by early September -- with five Hezbollah members -- while others stayed on in Lebanon for advanced military training, the report says. It is not clear how many may have been killed, though the report says some were wounded and later treated after their return to Somalia.

The fighters were paid a minimum of $2,000 for their service, the report says, and as much as $30,000 was to be given to the families of those killed, with money donated by "a number of supporting countries."

In addition to training some Somali militants, Hezbollah "arranged for additional support to be given" by Iran and Syria, including weapons, the report found. On July 27, 200 Somali fighters also traveled to Syria to be trained in guerrilla warfare, the report says.

It also indicates that Iran appears to have sought help in its quest for uranium in Dusa Mareb, the hometown of Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, the leader of the Islamist alliance in Somalia, which is known as the Council of Islamic Courts.

"At the time of the writing of this report, there were two Iranians in Dusa Mareb engaged on matters linked to the exploration of uranium in exchange for arms" for the Council of Islamic Courts, says the report, which is dated Oct. 16.

It's hard to know what to make of this report, especially since I haven't been able to find an actual copy of it yet. It seems strange that there would be such a Sunni/Shia cooperation in Somalia and that the report writers would have access to such sensitive information from Iran and Hezbollah.

While it's common knowledge that Eritrea and Ethiopia have been backing the Islamic courts and government, respectively, in Somalia, I was unaware that Yemen, Uganda, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Djibouti, Libya and Hezbollah are allegedly involved. Hopefully more information will be available soon.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

American evangelicals for Israel


Here are a couple of extracts from the second part, on evangelicals for Israel, of the two-part series on America and Israel.

Many conservative Christians and their Jewish allies acknowledge a certain tension between the evangelical belief in a Biblical commission to convert non-Christians and their simultaneous desire to help the Jews of Israel.

"Despite all the spiritual shortcomings of the Jewish people," Dr. Dobson said, "according to scripture -- and those criticisms come not from Christians but from the Old Testament. Just look in Deuteronomy, where Jews are referred to as a stiff-necked and stubborn people -- despite all of that, God has chosen to bless them as his people. God chose to bless Abraham and his seed not because they were a perfect people any more than the rest of the human family."

...The Israeli government temporarily cut off ties with the Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson after he suggested that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke might have been God's punishment for withdrawing from territory that belonged to the Biblical Israel. But then Mr. Robertson flew to Israel during the fight with Hezbollah. In a gesture of reconciliation, the Israeli government recently worked with him to film a television commercial to attract Christian tourists.

"Israel -- to walk where Jesus walked, to pray where Jesus prayed, to stand where he stood -- there is no other place like it on earth," Mr. Robertson says in the commercial, according to the Jerusalem Post.

There are a couple of interesting quotes in the article, but as a whole it's kind of disappointing, because it doesn't get into how Israelis feel about the Christian attitude towards them or even exactly what sort of clout these evangelicals have in Washington.

Monday, November 13, 2006

US-Israel relations


The Times has an interesting piece on relations between Israel and the US (part one of a two-part series). The piece focuses on how Israel disagrees with the Bush adminstration's plans for a "new Middle East," instead, preferring to deal with autogratic but stable regimes like those of Egypt and Jordan. Israel is afraid of a democratic Middle East in which Hezbollah is part of the government in Lebanon, Hamas is elected in Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood is very popular in Egypt.

Other rifts include Washington's stance on Iran and fears that the US will engage Syria and Iran or ask Israel for conecessions towards Palestinians in order to get the support of China, Russia and Europe for sanctions against Iran:

Gidi Grinstein, a former Israeli negotiator who runs an independent policy center, the Reut Institute, says Israel and the United States share a larger goal on Iran but have "tension among their different objectives," as indicated by Mr. Zelikow.

The Iran debate in Washington is serious but unfinished, Mr. Grinstein said, noting the divisions between those who argue that a nuclear-armed Iran can be contained and those who believe that Iran must not get the technology to build a bomb, much less the weapon itself.

Mr. Alpher, the former Israeli negotiator, is concerned that if Mr. Bush ultimately negotiates with Iran, "we need to ensure that the United States doesn't sell us down the river." It is fine for Israel to say that Iran is the world's problem, he said. "But if the world solves it diplomatically," he added, "will it be at our expense?"

The world looks different to nearly all Israelis across the political spectrum than it does to people in most other countries. "Unlike Bush, an Israeli leader looks at Iran through the prism of the Holocaust and his responsibility to the ongoing existence of the Jewish people," Mr. Alpher said. "It may sound pompous, but at the end of the day it matters, and so we may be willing to do the strangest things."

Somehow, it seems healthy that both Israel and the US are acknowledging that they might have different goals and interests. After all, this is how all other allies interact. The myth that there is a mysterious perfect dovetailing of Israeli and American interests is a myth and probably does more harm than good, at least for the US.

The Israel lobby is quick to charge that any accusations of double allegience from the pro-Israel movement is just classical anti-semitism. However, the recent AIPAC spy case (see indictment here, would suggest that some of these fears are not entirely without merit.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Hizbollah and Amal quit government


Today saw the collapse of talks that started this week to bring together the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition, which controls the government, and the opposition (Hizbollah and its Shia ally, Amal, and its Christian ally Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement) on the issues of expanding the cabinet to give the opposition more say, accepting an international tribunal on Hariri's assassination and what to do about pro-Syrian President Lahoud, whose mandate was effectively extended by Damascus.

As a result, according to Hizbollah's television station, Al-Manar, Hizbollah and Amal have both quit the government. This does not mean that the government is disolved, it would take another three cabinet ministers to do that (five resigned today), but it is likely that there will be big pro-Hizbollah street demonstrations next week, and there is the possiblity that this will bring down the government.

Hopefully, this will result in new, peaceful, elections, although many people here are afraid that this is the spark that will ignite another civil war.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Sectarian divide in Lebanese politics


I was talking to my new landlord the other day about the political situation here in Lebanon, and he surprised me by saying that the Christians here only made up 27 percent of the population. "I know, because I'm a Christian," he told me. This number is significantly lower than numbers that I'd heard before, which ranged from 35 to 40 percent. An article in the Times today on Lebanon's Christians, however, gives an even lower number:

Generally speaking, Sunnis insist they are equal in number to Shiites. Shiites say they are a majority and Christians say they account for more than 20 percent. At the same time, all sides have said the state's convoluted election laws needed to be altered -- but, for now, without becoming so democratic as to undermine the distribution of power.

"A census will show the Christians are a clear minority," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at American University in Beirut. "Nobody wants to know they extent of their decline. Some think they don't even make up 25 percent of the population."

Since a census has not been done in Lebanon since the 1930s, it is impossible to know for sure, but I am shocked by, and have never once heard, the assertation that the Sunni are equal in number to the Shia.

In any and all cases, there are two serious problems in Lebanon: First, the current system does not represent the country's makeup, and second, Lebanese politics are confessional. I've thought a fair amount about how to make the electoral system more representative here without reinforcing sectarian divide and/or causing a civil war. I recently came across an article in Foreign Policy by Paul Salem, the director of the Beirut office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on the future of Lebanon. In order to solve the first problem, Salem suggests a good compromise in the form of a bicameral legislature, which would allow the current parliament to exist, complete with its confessional politics and non-representative allocation of seats, with a more representative chamber without confessional quotas.

[A] bicameral legislature must be established, with a lower house free of confessional quotas, which would allow the Shiites better representation. It will not do to argue that the Shiites cannot be trusted with power because they are too close to outside actors (as the Maronites argued of the Sunnis in the past). They will reduce their dependence on foreign powers largely to the extent that they feel like they have a secure stake in the government. The horse must be put in front, and the cart will follow. And every group in Lebanon has at some point committed the sin of relying on extensive outside support: the Maronites allied with Israel and the Sunnis with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and everyone used -- and was used by -- the Syrians.

Now this solution would not stop politics from being sectarian; it would only make the legislative branch more representative of sectarian realities. The problem of confessional voting in Lebanon is not one that can be solved by restructuring the electoral system.

I'm not really sure how such a fundamental shift could be made in Lebanon, but until people start voting for mixed parties based on their platforms instead of single confessional parties based primarily on one's religion, Lebanon will never be able to overcome the sectarian discord that has plagued this small Mediterranean country for so long.

Rumsfeld's replacement


I woke up yesterday morning to news that the Democrats had trounced the Republicans, and later that evening, I saw, with relief, that the first casualty of the "new direction" was Rumsfeld. I don't know much about Robert Gates, the former CIA director (the only one in its history to have worked his way up from an entry-level position). However, the fact that he has served in several different administrations, both Republican and Democrat, is a good sign.

While he is a Soviet analyst, he is a part of Baker's Iraq Study Group and has spoken out against Washington's self-defeating policy of not talking to Iran:

"It is not in our interest for Iran to have nuclear weapons," Gates said. "It is not in our interest for Iran to oppose the new governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. And if we can engage them and try and bring some progress in those areas, then our interests have been served. And that's what it's all about."

Gates also said that if the United States were to open lines of communication with Iran, that would not be sending a mixed message.

"Well, are we rewarding bad behavior by talking to the Libyans?" Gates said.

"Are we rewarding bad behavior by talking to the North Koreans? We're trying to figure out how to limit the national security risks to the United States from policies that Iran is following.

"We don't have much of a voice in that effort right now. We're basically sitting on the sidelines," Gates told NPR's Michele Kelemen in July 2004.

I think that Rumsfeld's departure is a good first step in the right direction, particularly on Middle East policy. Let's hope it's not the last.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

National unity talks and security


Talks have started about the possibility of a change in the government, and the level of security has been drastically increased downtown, where the meetings are being held.

Last night, I couldn't find a cab home, so I walked home, through downtown. I was stopped and searched five times during a ten-minute walk. I'm not sure if I'm reassured by the level of security or worried that it's necessary...

Cluster bombs in Lebanon


Saturday afternoon, I walked downtown and saw a event organized by groups like Handicap International against cluster bombs. There were pictures of cluster bomb casualties and actual cluster bombs, which ranged in citrus-fruit size (I think it's only apt to use the same family of fruits as we use to describe tumors) from small oranges to grapefruits. Since the war, on average, two people a day have died from unexploded cluster munitions. According to UN estimates, there remain up to a million unexploded bomblets in the south of Lebanon.

A fried of mine sent me an article by George Monbiot on how the UK and the US are doing their best to make sure that cluster munitions stay legal:

In Geneva today, at the new review of the conventional weapons treaty, the British government will be using the full force of its diplomacy to ensure that civilians continue to be killed, by blocking a ban on the use of cluster bombs. Sweden, supported by Austria, Mexico and New Zealand, has proposed a convention making their deployment illegal, like the Ottawa treaty banning anti-personnel landmines. But the UK, working with the US, China and Russia, has spent the past week trying to prevent negotiations from being opened. Perhaps this is unsurprising. Most of the cluster bombs dropped during the past 40 years have been delivered by Britain's two principal allies - the US and Israel - in the "war on terror". And the UK used hundreds of thousands of them during the two Gulf wars.

...A report published last week by the independent organisation Handicap International estimates that around 100,000 people have been killed or wounded by cluster bombs. Of the known casualties, 98% are civilians. Most of them are hit when farming, walking or clearing the rubble where their homes used to be. Many of the victims are children, partly because the bombs look like toys. Handicap's report tells terrible and heartbreaking stories of children finding these munitions and playing catch with them, or using them as boules or marbles. Those who survive are often blinded, lose limbs or suffer horrible abdominal injuries.

Handicap International's report can be found here.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

International Crisis Group releases paper on Lebanon/Hizbollah/Israel


The International Crisis Group has released a report on avoiding renewed conflict in the region. Here are their reccomendations:

RECOMMENDATIONS

To the United Nations Security Council:


1. Promote effective implementation of Resolution 1701 on Lebanon by passing a follow-up resolution calling for:

(a) comprehensive Lebanese security reform, with the assistance of outside parties, based on the need to effectively assert the state's sovereignty and defend its territorial integrity;

(b) sustained and substantial international financial assistance;

(c) intensive efforts to address outstanding Israeli-Lebanese issues, including a prisoner exchange, a halt to Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty and onset of a process to resolve the status of the contested Shebaa farms by transferring custody to the UN under UNIFIL supervision pending Israel-Syria and Israel-Lebanon peace agreements; and

(d) intensive and sustained efforts to reach a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

To the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL):

2. Accept that its task is essentially to assist the Lebanese Armed Forces, refraining from proactive searches for Hizbollah arms caches.

3. Investigate, publicly condemn and take appropriate action against flagrant violations of Resolution 1701, particularly attempts to resupply Hizbollah and Israeli over-flights or other violations of Lebanese sovereignty.

4. Quickly provide financial and technical support for the clearance of unexploded munitions (UXOs) and other lethal war debris, including cluster sub-munitions that are sinking below the surface due to the onset of winter.

5. Avoid assuming an assertive armed posture in patrolling southern Lebanon so as to minimise anti-UN sentiment among the local population.

6. Complete UN demarcation of the Shebaa farms area and propose to Israel, Lebanon and Syria placing it under temporary UN custody pending final peace agreements between them.

To the Government of Israel:

7. Halt hostile operations in Lebanon, including the capture or assassination of militants and civilians, as well as violations of Lebanese waters and air space.

8. Cooperate with UN efforts to address remaining Israeli-Lebanese issues, including a prisoner exchange, provision of digital records of cluster-rocket launching sequences and logbooks with target coordinates, and resolution of the status of Shebaa farms and Ghajar village.

To the Government of Syria:

9. Engage in an open dialogue with Lebanon aimed at clarifying and addressing both sides' legitimate interests, in particular by normalising bilateral relations on the basis of mutual respect and exchanging embassies.

10. Cooperate with UN efforts to demarcate the Shebaa farms area and reach agreement with Lebanon on its final status.

To Hizbollah:

11. End all visible armed presence south of the Litani River and avoid provocative actions vis-à-vis Israel or UNIFIL.

12. Work within the context of the national dialogue on a mutually acceptable process that would lead to the end of its status as an autonomous force, notably through enhancement of the LAF?s defence capabilities, reform of the political system and progress toward Arab-Israeli peace.

13. Limit territorial claims to those officially endorsed by the Lebanese government.

To the Government of Lebanon:

14. Undertake, in cooperation with international partners, a thorough security reform aimed at re-establishing and defending the state?s sovereignty over its territory, emphasising defensive capabilities and reinforcing the army as an instrument of national defence.

15. Ensure that such security reform is not used to further any international or partisan domestic agenda.

16. Encourage Hizbollah?s gradual demilitarisation by addressing outstanding Israeli-Lebanese issues (prisoner exchange, violations of Lebanese sovereignty and Shebaa farms); and reforming and democratising Lebanon?s political system.

17. Tighten controls along its border with Syria, using international technical assistance.

To the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF):

18. Confiscate visible weapons south of the Litani River and seek to prevent arms transfers.

To the European Union and its Member States:

19. Provide technical and material assistance to Lebanon?s security reform process, domestic security organs and the Lebanese Armed Forces.

To Arab States:

20. Support the building and equipping of the LAF.

21. Provide additional financial assistance to assist in reconstruction and reduce government indebtedness.

22. Cast off sectarian bias in dealing with Lebanon, ensuring that relations are established with the central government rather than particular communities.

To Members of the Quartet (U.S., Russia, UN and EU):

23. Conduct parallel discussions with Israel, Syria and Lebanon to re-launch Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese peace negotiations, making clear that the goal is a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

This touches on a lot of issues and I think ICG is right to advise caution and warn against using Resolution 1701 "as a blunt means of disarming Hizbollah." We'll see if any of the parties actually listen.

Hamas proposes a 10-year truce


Ahmed Yousef, a senior Hamas advisor, has proposed a 10-year hudna, or truce, to Israel.

A truce is referred to in Arabic as a "hudna." Typically covering 10 years, a hudna is recognized in Islamic jurisprudence as a legitimate and binding contract. A hudna extends beyond the Western concept of a cease-fire and obliges the parties to use the period to seek a permanent, nonviolent resolution to their differences. The Koran finds great merit in such efforts at promoting understanding among different people. Whereas war dehumanizes the enemy and makes it easier to kill, a hudna affords the opportunity to humanize one?s opponents and understand their position with the goal of resolving the intertribal or international dispute.

... We Palestinians are prepared to enter into a hudna to bring about an immediate end to the occupation and to initiate a period of peaceful coexistence during which both sides would refrain from any form of military aggression or provocation. During this period of calm and negotiation we can address the important issues like the right of return and the release of prisoners. If the negotiations fail to achieve a durable settlement, the next generation of Palestinians and Israelis will have to decide whether or not to renew the hudna and the search for a negotiated peace.

There can be no comprehensive solution of the conflict today, this week, this month, or even this year. A conflict that has festered for so long may, however, be resolved through a decade of peaceful coexistence and negotiations. This is the only sensible alternative to the current situation. A hudna will lead to an end to the occupation and create the space and the calm necessary to resolve all outstanding issues.

Few in Gaza dream. For most of the past six months it's been difficult to even sleep. Yet hope is not dead. And when we dare to hope, this is what we see: a 10-year hudna during which, inshallah (God willing), we will learn again to dream of peace.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

UN to send cartographer to the Shebaa Farms


The last major territorial dispute between Lebanon and Israel is the Shebaa Farms. Israel considers the land to be part of the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied after the 1967 war, taking the land from Syria. However, both Syria and Lebanon consider the land to be Lebanese, and this is one of Hizbollah's rationales for maintaining a militia. The is convenient for Damascus, which is afraid of the Lebanese signing a bilateral peace accord with Israel, leaving Syria to be the last remaining neighbor of Israel to not have signed an accord. As things stand, the Israelis -- and the UN, which includes the land under the UNDOF mandate (monitoring the disengagement of Israel and Syria) instead of under the UNIFIL mandate (monitoring the border between Israel and Lebanon) -- have assured that the Israel policies of both Beirut and Damascus are inextricably linked.

The Daily Star reports that the UN is sending a Balkan cartographer to "demarcate the precise location and area of the Shebaa Farms."

The confusion stems from poor French mandate maps, but reasearch by Israeli historian Asher Kaufman (see "Who owns the Shebaa Farms? Chronicle of a territorial dispute" in The Middle East Journal; Autumn 2002; 56, 4 - unfortunately not available online) shows that there is strong evidence for Lebanon's claims based on land ownership, which was registered in Lebanon, not in Syria.

It will be interesting to see what the cartographer comes up with, but it seems strange to me that concurrent official declarations by the two countries involved in the border dispute, Lebanon and Syria, would not be enough to settle the issue once and for all. We'll see if this leads to a Lebanese agreement with Israel, which may or may not be a good thing in the long run. While it seems obvious to me that a comprehensive peace agreement, which is what Damascus is pulling for, that involves Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinians is ideal, perhaps baby steps are in order.

Cole on partitioning Iraq


Juan Cole chimes in giving us his view of partitioning Iraq:

[A]side from the selfish interests of all the political actors inside and outside Iraq, as a practical policy, partitioning Iraq is too risky. It would probably not reduce ethnic infighting. It might produce more. The mini-states that emerge from a partition will have plenty of reason to fight wars with one another, as India did with Pakistan in the 1940s and has done virtually ever since. Worse, it is likely that if the Sunni Arab mini-state commits an atrocity against the Shiites, it might well bring in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. They in turn would be targeted by Saudi and Jordanian jihadi volunteers.

A break-up of Iraq might not stop at Iraq?s borders. The Sunni Arabs could be picked up by Syria, thus greatly increasing Syria?s fighting power. Or they could become a revolutionary force in Jordan. A wholesale renegotiation of national borders may ensue, according to some thinkers. Such profound changes in such a volatile part of the world cannot be depended on to occur without bloodshed. The region is already racked by the Arab-Israeli conflict and the struggle between secular and religious politics.

To my mind, the first problem with partition, which Cole doesn't mention at all, would be the status of highly mixed cities, and especially Baghdad. My second misgiving would be how the Turks, Saudis and Iranians would react to these news states in their backyard.

The end of Iraq?


Zaid Al-Ali, an Iraqi lawyer, reviews Peter Galbraith's book, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. The review focuses on Galbraith's idea that a federal division of Iraq (or even a confederation) is the only option that remains. But Al-Ali also take a look at Galbraith's role in advising the Kurds on the issue of the constitution:

"I realized that the Kurdish leaders had a conceptual problem in planning for a federal Iraq. They were thinking in terms of devolution of power - meaning that Baghdad grants them rights. I urged that the equation be reversed. In a memo I sent Barham (Salih) and Nechirvan (Barzani) in August (2003), I drew a distinction between the previous autonomy proposals and federalism: 'Federalism is a "bottom up" system. The basic organizing unit of the country is the province or state. [...] In a federal system residual power lies with the federal unit (i.e. state or province); under an autonomy system it rests with the central government. The central government has no ability to revoke a federal status or power: it can revoke an autonomy arrangement. [...] The Constitution should state that the Constitution of Kurdistan, and laws made pursuant to the Constitution, is the supreme law of Kurdistan. Any conflict between laws of Kurdistan and the laws of or Constitution of Iraq shall be decided in favor of the former.' These ideas eventually became the basis of Kurdistan's proposals for an Iraq constitution."

The question of what such a breakup of Iraq would mean for the country, not to speak of the region, is one that I'm fairly uncertain and ambivalent about, although Al-Ali argues that not only would it be a disaster, but that only the Kurds want such a weakening or even disolution of the state:

It is true that many western policymakers and commentators agree with his characterisation that Iraqis are being made to live together "against their will", but Galbraith, whose ties to Iraq run deeper than most, should know better than to make such a vague and inaccurate assertion.

By way of example, a survey was conducted a few months ago in Karbala, one of Shi'a Islam's most holy cities and main intellectual centres, on the issue of whether the city's residents support the territorial division of the state. Only around 5% of respondents supported the formation of regions, or states, based on ethnicity or religious identity, whereas 91.6% of respondents said that they either favored a centralised form of government or a decentralised system based on administrative divisions that were independent of factors such as religion and ethnicity. Even if Galbraith is right that a majority of Iraqi Kurds are in favour of independence, he fails to mention that their wish is not shared by a large majority of the remaining 82% of the Iraqi population.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Assad: "only America ... can be the main broker for peace in the Middle East"


The Times has reprinted and translated an excellent interview with Syrian president, Bashar Assad, by Der Spiegel. Assad has interesting things to say about the future of Iraq and the consequences of American foreign policy in the region:

SPIEGEL: You are very pessimistic when it comes to Iraq. What can the countries of the Middle East do for Iraq?

Assad: I was already very pessimistic before the war. I told the Americans: There is no doubt that you will win this war, but then you will sink into a quagmire. What has now happened is worse than I expected. The two main problems are, first, the constitution and the issue of federalism, which is at the center of the great dispute between Sunnis and Shiites and, second, Kirkuk and the civil war that is developing between Kurds and Arabs. These problems must be addressed. It doesn't help for the Americans to point to the elections they brought about or to the higher standard of living. Those are cosmetic issues.

SPIEGEL: What would be the consequences of partition into a Kurdish north, a Shiite south and a Sunni region in central Iraq?

Assad: It would be harmful, not just for Iraq, but for the entire region, from Syria across the Gulf and into Central Asia. Imagine snapping a necklace and all the pearls fall to the ground. Almost all countries have natural dividing lines, and when ethnic and religious partition occurs in one country, it'll soon happen elsewhere. It would be like the end of the Soviet Union -- only far worse. Major wars, minor wars, no one will be capable of keeping the consequences under control.

SPIEGEL: So you would be in favor of a strong man who could hold Iraq together?

Assad: Not necessarily one man, but certainly a strong central authority. It has to be left to the Iraqis to determine exactly what this would look like. A secular authority is certainly best-equipped for maintaining stability in this ethnic and religious mosaic -- but it should also be of a strong national character. Those who arrived on America's tanks are not credible in Iraq.

I've often wondered what would be so bad about splitting up Iraq, which since its inception after the First World War. Bashar's pearl necklace metaphor is not unconvincing. It's hard to say how the sectarian division of such a split would be felt in countries like Lebanon, Pakistan and Bahrain.

Suprisingly enough, he thinks that the US has a unique role to play in bringing a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict:

SPIEGEL: After the cease-fire between Israel and the Hezbollah militia, you gave a much-noted speech on the situation in the Middle East. In your speech, you mentioned a "critical stage of the history of Syria and the region." Wherein lies the opportunity?

Assad: First of all, it's clear to everyone that the status quo of war and conflict and instability is no longer acceptable. Now America enters the picture, because only America, because of its weight, can be the main broker for peace in the Middle East. But the Bush administration is under pressure. It's being accused of not having managed to bring about peace in six years. This pressure is good. Europe's foreign policy role is also growing. We specifically do not want a special role for the Europeans. We expect them to work together with America to achieve peace, and to do so on the basis of a vision America must develop.

SPIEGEL: What is Syria's role?

Assad: There can be no peace in the Middle East without Syria. The Lebanon and the Palestinian conflicts are inextricably linked with Syria. I have already mentioned the 500,000 Palestinian refugees. Were we to resolve our territorial dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights alone, we wouldn't achieve stability. We would only be taking away the Palestinians' hope and would be turning them from refugees into resistance fighters. This is why Syria is so determined to achieve a comprehensive peaceful solution.

The rest of the interview is well worth reading, not only because it is important for the US to hear what its enemies in the region have to say (instead of just talking to its friends), but because Asad has a very reasonable analysis about some of the most important issues facing the Middle East.


The Times also has an op-ed by Fromkin, whose excellent book A Peace to end all Peace I've just finished, on the anniversary of the Suez Canal fiasco.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Syria


I'm back in Beirut from Damascus, and all in all, it was a really interesting trip. I got to see the last days of Ramadan and the first days of al-Eid. I wasn't able to go to the Golan Heights, because the Ministry of the Interior was closed for the holidays, and I think it might be closed anyway because of the heightened tensions between Syria and Israel.

Everyone was extremely nice to me in Damascus, and poor families who ran shops in the old city insisted on sharing their meager rations with me while they broke their fast. Without asking who I was or where I was from or whether or not I was Muslim, one family stopped me in the street and refused to let me leave until I had eaten some of their food. They told me that I was welcome and thanked God that I was there to break the fast with them.

Otherwise, I noticed that the country that has been notorious for not having Coca-Cola has finally joined the Coca club. I was atop a mountain overlooking Damascus when I noticed that instead of Syrian Master Cola, I could actually buy a can of Coca-Cola. Apparently, a month and a half ago the Turkish distributor of Coke, who provides for the rest of the Middle East, finally managed to clear the importation of Coke with the Syrian government.

Here in Beirut, there was another explosion yesterday, but no one seems very concerned, despite the visible increase in Security Forces all over town.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Damascus


I arrived in Damascus last night at around 10 after spending almost 6 hours at the border. Officially, Americans have to get their visa in Washignton, but it's usually possible to get it at the Lebanese border, provied that you're willing to wait a while.

The only other time I've ever been here was on my way out of Lebanon to Jordan during the war this summer. The city seemed lively and teeming with energy, and I was disappointed that I wasn't able to look around. (I spent the night in a UNRWA Palestinian training camp then left the next morning for Amman.)

Damascus reminds me of a cross between Cairo and Beirut, which is a very good combination. These are the last days of Ramadan, so everyone is pretty lethargic during the day. I'm looking forward to celebrating Eid, although it would be nice to do it in a family setting rather than as a tourist. I've spent most of the day in the Souks looking at Iranian manuscripts, which may or may not be fakes, and key chains for my collection.

The last time I was in Syria, I was struck by Assad's cult of personality, with portraits of him all over the place, including in people's car windows. This time though, I've seen more pictures of Nasrallah than anyone else. The support for Hizbollah seems ubiquitous. There are posters, banners, glass etchings, t-shirts, and yes, key chains.

I'm going to try to get permission to take the Syrian tour of a village in the Golan Heights that was abandoned after the Israeli occupation. It should be interesting to see the place that could be the key to enflaming or defusing current tensions in the region.

I'll take pictures, but I won't be able to upload any until I get back to Beirut.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Former Janjaweed fighter tells his story


The BBC has exerpts of an account of a former Janjaweed fighter, who explains how things work in Darfur:

I tell you one fact. The Janjaweed don't make decisions. The orders come from the government...

One very well-known and regular visitor was Interior Minister Abdul Rahim Muhammad Hussein.

We will be split into two groups, one on horses, one on camels...

The aircraft went ahead of the Janjaweed. We saw the smoke, we saw the fire, then we went in...

Whenever we go into a village and find resistance we kill everyone. Sometimes they said wipe out an entire village...

We hear kill! Kill! Kill! And we shoot to kill...

Most were civilians - most were women...

Innocent people running out and being killed including children. And those who escape will die of thirst.

There are many rapes. But they don't do it in front of others. They take the victim away and rape them.

Eric Reeves, has gives us his two cents in the Guardian.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Break...


I'm off to al-Andalus until the new year, so I doubt that I'll be posting...

Happy holidays.

Setting Lebanon Free


I meant to mention this the other day, but it slipped my mind. Robert Grenier, former director of the CIA's counterintelligence center, thinks that if the US loves Lebanon, we should set it free.

ONCE more, Lebanon is in political crisis. This time, we are told, it pits "Syrian- and Iranian-backed" Shiite parties (Hezbollah and Amal) and the Christian faction led by Michel Aoun against the "Western-backed" Christian, Sunni and Druze groups that support the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

These very descriptions -- citing one external backer or another as a mark of political identification -- illustrate the fundamental problem Lebanon must overcome. Call it the Lebanese Disease: rather than sorting out their differences internally and addressing the fundamental injustices at the heart of their disputes, the Lebanese constantly look to outsiders to gain an advantage over their rivals.

Naturally, any advantages thus gained are short-lived, for both the Lebanese and their foreign backers. In the end, the only result is greater popular suffering and instability in Lebanon and the entire Middle East.

Only the Lebanese can cure themselves of this disease, but a bit of enlightened self-interest on the part of the "Western backers" -- primarily the United States and France ? would greatly help. It may seem counterintuitive, but the best hope for American interests in the Middle East is not to isolate and minimize Hezbollah, but to further integrate it politically, socially and militarily into the Lebanese state.

...It has long been obvious that the Shiites are under-represented in Lebanon's complicated power-sharing arrangements. In return for a greater measure of political representation for Shiites, Mr. Siniora could have insisted that Hezbollah's militia be brought under some sort of state control -- perhaps as a sort of home guard for the south, with its fighters under the command of senior officers drawn from the Lebanese armed forces.

...A far more genuine American commitment to Lebanon would focus on helping the parties to come up with a reasonable formula to redress the under-representation of Shiites in the power structure while getting greater government control over Hezbollah's war-making capacity.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Shouting across the divide


This American Life has an excellent piece on bridging the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims. The segment is about the statue of Mohammad in the Supreme Court, a Muslim-American family whose life is wrecked by a evangelizing fourth grade teacher, and an ad exec who tries to sell brand America. You can listen to the show or download it as an mp3 until later this week.

In the first story, the representative of CAIR tries to explain why Muslims don't appreciate the statue of Mohammad, even if it is supposed to be inclusive. In the second, a fourth-grade teacher reads her students a book on how Muslims hate America and Christians for the anniversary of 9/11 then explains to the only Muslim child how she and her family will go to hell if they don't accept the blood of Jesus. Finally, the third segment shows the difficulty of using the same formula to sell Coke to sell America might not work and explores a possible slogan about Muslim control of Islam's holy cities Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem: "Two outta three ain't bad!"

Monday, December 18, 2006

Petrodollars to petro-euros


Tehran has just announced that Iran will be converting all of its assets, holdings, reserves and accounting from US dollars to euros.

I remember there being talk during the run-up to the war in Iraq that one of the reasons for the invasion of Iraq was to reverse Saddam's decision to dump the dollar for the Euro. Whether or not Baghdad's decision to trade in euros, which incidentally made Iraq a lot of money, had anything to do with the invasion is unclear. To be honest, I don't understand enough about monetary policy to know exactly how OPEC countries' changing to Euros would affect the US economy, except for a vague sense that the results would be less than positive for America. I would, however, be willing to bet that Iraq now only trades in US dollars.

We'll see what effect Iran's decision will have, but if I had to guess, I'd say that it hasn't helped relations between Washington and Tehran.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

On civil war in Iraq


Safire is debating the usage "civil war" in describing Iraq. Personally, I took to calling a spade a spade almost a year and a half ago.

Safire makes a point of boasting about his easy access to president Talibani, who "definitively" does not call it a civil war, and he quotes Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times who makes the following point:

I bristle at the way a low-grade semantic argument has become -- at least among the partisan cud-chewers -- a substitute for serious discussion of what's happening in Iraq and what to do about it. ... Maybe this argument is a symptom of intellectual fatigue in the punditocracy.

So while I can agree that a lot of people are arguing about what to call it while not thinking enough about what to do there, I don't agree with Safire, who in the end, thinks that it's just a value judgement:

Call the fighting what you like, but the name you choose to give the hostilities, strife, violence or war not only reflects your view about the current state of affairs but is also an indication of where you stand on what our policy should be. Labels are the language's shorthand for judgments.

I disagree. Words have meaning. So although it's true that certain people push for the civil war in Iraq to be called one thing or another for ideological reasons, that does not mean that one label is more or less accurate than another. And when Safire's Kurdish friend argues that

There is a more complex dynamic to this than civil war... There is Shia versus Shia, Sunni versus Sunni, Shia versus Sunni and Shia and Sunni versus Al Qaeda, as well as militias against the authority of the elected government. Many act as the proxies of regional powers, so you can call it as much a proxy war as a civil war.

I have a hard time thinking that he's being anything but disingenuous, since, if anything, the Lebanese civil war was even more complex. There, we saw 18 confessional groups lining up with over half a dozen foreign powers (Israel, Syria, Iraq, US, France, Italy, etc.) and the Palestinians, who were somewhat in between a domestic and a foreign force. Does anyone call that anything other than a civil war? So why should Iraq be any different?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Underqualified


I read this IHT Op-Ed by Jeff Stein last October with a mixture of sad resignation and sighing wonderment, thinking to myself that it's no wonder American foreign policy in the Middle East is so often so wrongheaded and obviously stupid. After all, if US counterterrorism officials and congressmen don't know answers to such basic questions as the difference between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, or even to which sects Al-Qaeda, Iran and Hezbollah belong, how can they make informed decisions about issues that are based on underlying differences between the region's actors?

So I have to say that while I'm not surprised, I am certainly disappointed to see that the newly appointed Democratic intelligence chairman is equally uninformed (via Ezra):

...like a number of his colleagues and top counterterrorism officials that I've interviewed over the past several months, Reyes can't answer some fundamental questions about the powerful forces arrayed against us in the Middle East.

It begs the question, of course: How can the Intelligence Committee do effective oversight of U.S. spy agencies when its leaders don't know basics about the battlefield?

...Reyes stumbled when I asked him a simple question about al Qaeda at the end of a 40-minute interview in his office last week. Members of the Intelligence Committee, mind you, are paid $165,200 a year to know more than basic facts about our foes in the Middle East.

We warmed up with a long discussion about intelligence issues and Iraq. And then we veered into terrorism's major players.

To me, it's like asking about Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland: Who's on what side?

The dialogue went like this:

Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?

"Al Qaeda, they have both," Reyes said. "You're talking about predominately?"

"Sure," I said, not knowing what else to say.

"Predominantly -- probably Shiite," he ventured.

...And Hezbollah? I asked him. What are they?

"Hezbollah. Uh, Hezbollah..."

He laughed again, shifting in his seat.

"Why do you ask me these questions at five o'clock? Can I answer in Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?"

"Pocito," I said -- a little.

"Pocito?!" He laughed again.

"Go ahead," I said, talk to me about Sunnis and Shia in Spanish.

Reyes: "Well, I, uh...."

Stein goes on to tell us how the woeful ignorance of the region goes all the way from the top of the chain of command to those on the ground -- the employees of the embassy in Baghdad. It seems that of all the Americans at the embassy in Iraq, there are only six fluent Arabic speakers and two dozen who have some familiarity with the language. This is out of over a thousand employees.

There is definitely a dearth of specialists of the region and speakers of its languages. And those in charge don't seem very concerned about it, since according to the Department of Defense, between 1993 and 2003, 55 Arabic speakers and 9 Farsi speakers have been fired in accordance with the US military's policy of "Don't ask, Don't tell."

The 9/11 commission report decried the lack of Arabic speakers, a situation that has led to a huge backlog of untranslated documents in the government's counterterrorism efforts. It seems not only disheartening but disconcerting that ideological issues such as one's sexual orientation would trump national security concerns.

So while I'm glad to see that some of those who pushed the most ferociously for war in Iraq will no longer be in a position to decide foreign policy in the region, I'm afraid that their Democratic counterparts aren't any more qualified to make such important decisions.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Peace not apartheid in Palestine


Jimmy Carter, responding to the reaction his new book has received, has a sincere and thoughtful piece in the LA Times on speaking frankly about Israel and Palestine:

The many controversial issues concerning Palestine and the path to peace for Israel are intensely debated among Israelis and throughout other nations ? but not in the United States. For the last 30 years, I have witnessed and experienced the severe restraints on any free and balanced discussion of the facts. This reluctance to criticize any policies of the Israeli government is because of the extraordinary lobbying efforts of the American-Israel Political Action Committee and the absence of any significant contrary voices.

It would be almost politically suicidal for members of Congress to espouse a balanced position between Israel and Palestine, to suggest that Israel comply with international law or to speak in defense of justice or human rights for Palestinians. Very few would ever deign to visit the Palestinian cities of Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, Gaza City or even Bethlehem and talk to the beleaguered residents. What is even more difficult to comprehend is why the editorial pages of the major newspapers and magazines in the United States exercise similar self-restraint, quite contrary to private assessments expressed quite forcefully by their correspondents in the Holy Land.

While I disagree with Carter on the idea of a two-state solution (I believe the only tenable solution to the conflict is a single democratic state where one person has one vote), I agree wholeheartedly with the problems that arise in the US when one wants to have an honest discussion about Israel/Palestine.

Proving his point, we can see that this is the kind of reaction that genuine discourse, such as Carter's gets in the US. Of course this elder statesman handles himself with propriety and grace, neither of which such mean-spirited and asinine attacks really warrant.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Pulitzer and an Iranian execution


The Wall Street Journal has an excellent piece on photographs of executed Kurds during the Iranian revolution and the photographer who until now has remained anonymous.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

One reported dead in street violence in Beirut


According to Lebanese television, a group of Shia protesters were walking home from the protest to their neighborhood near the Shatilla refugee camp. Apparently, they were attacked by a group of March 14 supporters, but it is unsure if the attackers were Sunni or Christian.

The details are still coming out, but it seems a Shia youth of twenty years was shot and killed by the attackers. Another in the group may have been stabbed as well.

This is really disconcerting, not only for the obvious reason that someone was murdered in the street, but for the fact that up until now, clashes between opposition supporters and government supporters had stayed at a minimum. I can imagine that this sort of an act will not go without a reprisal from Shia groups.

Opposition supporters interviewed on television stated that the March 14 group had their protest last week without any attacks by opposition supporters and were dismayed that they were not left alone to protest peacefully.

Up till now, I've been fairly optimistic about a peaceful solution to the political tensions here, but now I'm not so sure. This is just the sort of senseless act of violence that could spark a civil war.


UPDATE: The AP has a wire story on the event, and apparently it was Sunnis who killed the Shia boy:

Violent clashes broke out Sunday between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the capital, leaving one man dead from gunshot wounds at a time when tensions throughout Lebanon threaten the country's fragile sectarian and political balance.

...The clash in Tarik Jdideh occurred as a group of Hezbollah supporters were returning from Beirut's downtown and passed through the Sunni neighborhood.

Police officials said the two sides threw stones at each other, then shots were fired, killing Ahmed Ali Mahmoud, a 20-year-old Shiite. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the press.

At least 10 other people were slightly injured elsewhere in West Beirut in similar clashes.

What's really happening in Beirut


I just got off the phone with my father in the US. He immediately started giving me a lecture on Lebanese politics, if you can call it that. Generally speaking, I can count on my father to represent the red-state everyman, whether the topic is foreign policy or domestic affairs. He's worried about me being in Beirut, which is normal, especially since the Arab world is a region that seems very foreign and even threating to him.

He brought up the protests and how the situation was getting dangerous in Lebanon. I told him that I had actually just come back from them and that the mood was festive, nonviolent and, ultimately, democratic. He told me that no, Hezbollah was just a bunch of terrorists and that they aren't democratic and that they're trying to take over the country.

Things always start deteriorating when I can't hold my tongue in these situations. I told him that if he was interested in knowing the specifics of the situation, I could explain them to him, but I was not interested in getting a lecture on Lebanese politics from someone who doesn't know anything about the subject.

However, as a representative of the American mindset, one of his sentences stuck in my mind: "Everyone knows the Hezbollah terrorists are trying to take over the government." Speaking from an American view point, he's probably right. Everyone knows what's happening. Of course they don't actually know what's going on here, but that doesn't make their certainty any less headstrong.

I went down to the protests again today. If you hadn't been following the situation here and didn't speak any Arabic, you might think that everyone had showed up in Beirut for a music festival, or maybe an independence day celebration or some other national holiday.

Downtown has turned into a souk, with people hawking political flags and shirts out of the trunk of their cars or on tables set up in the newly formed tent village. Vendors sell warm food, cigarettes and cold drinks. Shia clerics stand next to young women with abundant cleavage and bear shoulders. Supporters of Hezbollah and Amal mingle with Christian supporters of General Aoun and communists who hock Che scarves and Lebanese flags with a hammer and sickle on them.

Youth congregate together drawing into circles to dance and sing while drums are beaten loudly. Children have faces painted red, white and green to mirror the Lebanese flag, sometimes with a small flag on each cheek, other times with the a single taking up the entire face, the centered ceder formed by a small nose. The sound of two teacups click-clacking together calls those protesters who would like to sit down and warm up with a cup of hot tea. Barbecue grills are set up, some selling food while other sell hot coals for the myriad of water pipes everyone seems to be smoking between chanting slogans and waving flags. These are the "terrorists" my father was lecturing me about.

As dusk falls, some protesters gather into buses to make the trip back home while others start fires to keep themselves warm next to their tents. Downtown feels alive and vibrant, religiously and socially mixed -- somewhat like I imagine it being before the civil war and before it was revamped into an expensive simulacrum of its former self.


Protesters wave Lebanese flags downtown in hopes of pressuring PM Siniora to resign.


Downtown has turned into a festive tent city, with hundreds of thousands converging on the capital to show the government their discontent.


Opposition supporters come together to dance underneath the overpass, which houses many who are camping here until the government resigns or expands the opposition's representation in the cabinet.


Protesters get ready for the evening by lighting up camp fires.

More on the protests


I've been really disappointed with the coverage of these protests by the media. The language used to described them seems to be culled from the government's talking points, with talk of a coup d'état that implies that these protests are somehow illegitimate, whereas the March 14 protests were legitimate and righteous.

Another gripe of mine is the focus on the sectarian divide, even though the Christians, for example are very divided, with some following Aoun and the opposition and others following the ruling coalition. To my mind there has not been nearly enough focus on the social divide. Today, a friend of mine forwarded me a message that had been sent to her, telling people to go look at the animals at the zoo downtown. The message is clear: these people, especially the Shia and the poor, are not only not Lebanese, but they're not even human. This attitude, and its social and economic consequences, play a large part in the frustration felt by a large segment of Lebanese society.

At the end of the day, this is a question about Lebanese identity and the sharing of Lebanon's wealth. These differences are largely political and social, a fact that gets lost in the easy description of sectarian divide. This is not to say that that divide doesn't exist -- it does -- but it's not the only border, or even necessarily the most important one, dividing Lebanese society.

So with the lazy reporting that I've been seeing in the Western press, it's refreshing to see this report by Tony Shadid in the Post:

In a city of frontiers, Beirut built another border Saturday.

On one side of coiled barbed wire and metal barricades were armored personnel carriers manned by soldiers in red berets toting U.S.-made M-16 rifles and guarding the colonnaded, stone government headquarters where Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and other ministers have taken up residence. On the other were the fervent young men of Hezbollah and its allies, who have turned a downtown tailored for the rich into the site of an open-ended protest to force the government's fall.

"This is the point of confrontation between us and them," said Khodr Hassan, who walked 12 hours from his southern village to the protest with 30 other youths. He pointed at his friends at the barricade, some surging forward, others lolling about.

"This is the line of separation," said one of them, Ali Aitawi.

Long divided by the Christian east and largely Muslim west of its 15-year civil war, Beirut is a city snarled today by far more numerous boundaries of sect, perspective and ideology, intersecting and tangling across a capital and country wrestling with a question still unanswered since independence more than 60 years ago: What is Lebanon's identity?

In today's crisis, those fault lines tell the story of the struggle underway between the country's two camps, divided by past and present, with vastly different visions of Lebanon's future: on one side Hezbollah, supported by Iran and Syria, and on the other the government, backed by the United States and France. The fault lines tell, too, of an impasse that perhaps can't be broken.

The borders are drawn by color, flag, portrait and symbol, a claustrophobic contest to lay claim to identity never solely Lebanese. They are defined by ideology: the culture of resistance to Israel celebrated by the Shiite Muslim movement of Hezbollah, for instance, or the Christian separatism of civil war-era militias with fascist roots. They follow the contours of leaders who command loyalty through personality over politics. And they offer protection in a country where survival can feel precarious.

Read the rest of the article; it's well worth your time.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Opposition rally a success for Hezbollah and allies


Today's demonstration was a success for the opposition coalition, not least of all for its peaceful nature and family atmosphere. There were at least twice as many people as the funeral cum rally held by the anti-Syrian governing coalition. There was a festive mood today in Martyr's Square and its environs, with Muslims and Christians, supporters of Hezbollah, Aoun, Amal and Frangieh coming out in droves in an attempt to force the current government to resign.

What looked like hundreds of thousands of Lebanese came out, for the most part following Nasrallah's call to brandish Lebanese flags instead of those of sectarian political parties.

It seems that the opposition has learned from the visual rhetoric of the March 14 governing coalition, giving their opposition a multi-confessional, and finally Lebanese , air as Christians and Muslims came together to show the government their discontent.

One mixed group of youths sat together smoking shisha as they took turns chanting political slogans supporting various Lebanese political parties: first Hezbollah, then Christian politicians General Aoun and Sulieman Frangieh and then finally even Iran.

Here are some photos I took of the event:











Stepping into Iraq: Saudia Arabia


The Saudis are making it clear that if the US leaves Iraq, they will step in:

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal ... said in a speech last month that "since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited." If it does, one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.

...Options now include providing Sunni military leaders (primarily ex-Baathist members of the former Iraqi officer corps, who make up the backbone of the insurgency) with the same types of assistance -- funding, arms and logistical support -- that Iran has been giving to Shiite armed groups for years.

Another possibility includes the establishment of new Sunni brigades to combat the Iranian-backed militias. Finally, Abdullah may decide to strangle Iranian funding of the militias through oil policy. If Saudi Arabia boosted production and cut the price of oil in half, the kingdom could still finance its current spending. But it would be devastating to Iran, which is facing economic difficulties even with today's high prices. The result would be to limit Tehran's ability to continue funneling hundreds of millions each year to Shiite militias in Iraq and elsewhere.

Both the Sunni insurgents and the Shiite death squads are to blame for the current bloodshed in Iraq. But while both sides share responsibility, Iraqi Shiites don't run the risk of being exterminated in a civil war, which the Sunnis clearly do. Since approximately 65 percent of Iraq's population is Shiite, the Sunni Arabs, who make up a mere 15 to 20 percent, would have a hard time surviving any full-blown ethnic cleansing campaign.

In this case, remaining on the sidelines would be unacceptable to Saudi Arabia. To turn a blind eye to the massacre of Iraqi Sunnis would be to abandon the principles upon which the kingdom was founded. It would undermine Saudi Arabia's credibility in the Sunni world and would be a capitulation to Iran's militarist actions in the region.

To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks -- it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse.

Policy options in Iraq just seem to be getting worse and worse...

Today's big protest


Today there will be a protest led by the opposition downtown. There is a good chance that this will dwarf the protest held last week after the assassination of Pierre Gemayel. Some are predicting a million people. Nasrallah kept people guessing until yesterday about when the protest would be, but yesterday he called on his supporters to go into the street in order to "proceed in a peaceful, civil, democratic and political manner toward the main goal of a new government":

Lebanon, with its [sectarian] makeup, cannot be administered by one side amid difficult internal conditions. Let us call for a national unity government....

The opposition forces, on the basis of their constitutional rights, call on all Lebanese, whatever their religious confession, to demonstrate peacefully in an open-ended sit-in from 3 p.m. Friday for a national unity government. The opposition forces appeal to demonstrators to brandish only the Lebanese flag and authorized slogans and avoid any party or sectarian symbols.

If heeded, Nasrallah's call on supporters to avoid party flags and sectarian symbols will make this protest different from previous Hezbollah-sponsored opposition protests as well as those put on by the governing coalition. (Crosses and party flags were everywhere last week.)

The governing coalition's youth organizations have so far called on their supporters to stay at home, hopefully decreasing the chances of any clashes between the two groups.

The competing protests are part of the divide in visions of what kind of a country Lebanon should be, a division that is split somewhat across sectarian lines. There are, however, some players who seem more interested in political maneuvering than in ideological direction. But overall, the conflict is between those who feel Lebanon should seek financial gain and stability by looking to the West, a prospect that entails peace (perhaps even with Israel) and those who believe that the Israeli-Arab conflict is still strong and that finally, Lebanon is a part of that conflict, meaning that no peace should be made with the southern neighbor until a just settlement is found for the Arabs.

The first group, while officially against Israel, is aligned with Washington, and to a lesser extent, Paris, whereas the second group is allied first and foremost with Tehran, but also to varying degrees with Damascus and Ramallah.

I'll be downtown this afternoon to see how things play out today at the protest.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Our Walls Bear Witness: Darfur exhibition


The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is currently holding a photo exhibition on Darfur:

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will project wall-sized images of the escalating genocide in Darfur onto its façade during Thanksgiving week, marking the first time the national memorial's exterior will be used to highlight contemporary genocide. The program, "Darfur: Who Will Survive Today?" is a unique and highly symbolic Museum project produced in association with Darfur/Darfur to draw attention to the continuing crisis in Darfur.


Friday, November 24, 2006

Cable providers jailed in US


Since the television station Al-Manar is affiliated with Hezbollah, the predominantly Shia political party and militia in Lebanon, it seems that broadcasting the channel in the US is illegal.

Each of the two owners of a Brooklyn-based HDTV service provider is faced with a 110-year prison sentence if found guilty of providing material support to a terrorist organization.

Al-Manar was labeled a terrorist organization by the US Government last March, making it illegal to broadcast the channel or do business with it in any form. It's commonly labeled the propaganda arm of Hezbollah, and of course it is biased toward Hezbollah, just like Future TV is for Hariri and Orange TV is for General Aoun. But the truth be told, during the war, their news coverage was excellent, and they're only a bit more outlandish than Fox News, as far as partisan bias goes. You can see their website here, which has English-language news coverage.

Is broadcasting an unpopular television channel now illegal? One might argue that the resistance message stressed by Al-Manar is an incitement to violence, but I think that would be stretching it. And furthermore, if such messages were to actually be punished, then we'd have to start locking up people like Ann Coulter who called for the US to "should invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity" and Pat Robertson who called for the assassination of Venezuela's elected president, Hugo Chavez.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The protest


The protest downtown seemed more like a public fair or a carnival than an angry mob. People came from all over Beirut, and presumably all over Lebanon, to show their support to the March 14 coalition and the slain Pierre Gemayel.

Slogans ranged from "Syria, Iran, Israel Out of Lebanon" to "the Sunni are with you" to , literally, "Fuck your sister, Syria." I saw flags of almost every sort: Lebanese, Phalange, Armenian, Future movement, various other Christian parties, and even an American flag or two.

At 1 PM, Gemayel's funeral was broadcast over the loudspeakers. The sounds of ecclesiastical mourning seemed somehow out of place in the midst of people waving their flags with a smile while vendors sold bottled water and ka'ak (100% Lebanese according to the cardboard sign).

Overall, I'd say that it went fairly well and, most importantly, non-violently.

I'll post some pictures later today...

Lebanese Jujitsu


One last thing before I go out:

I just read this report from Le Monde, which is a pretty standard piece, with the exception of one detail. They have this quote from Walid Jumblatt, the head of the Druze party and part of the March 14 anti-Syrian coalition: "There will be neither security, nor peace, nor democracy [in Lebanon] so long as the Syrian regime is in place."

I had never thought before now that the March 14 coalition might be aiming higher than just keeping Syria out of Lebanon. Judging from Jumblatt's remarks, though, they might be aiming for some political jujitsu in which the obviously weaker Lebanese use Syria's own weight (or perceived weight) to overthrow the regime in Damascus. This would mean using Damascus' involvement in the assassination of Gemayel (real or apparent) against it.

The restless Lebanese


It has begun. Starting early this morning, at around 9, the Christian streets in my new neighborhood have been full of chanting, flag waving, horn honking and portrait brandishing. Now, the sound of sirens had added to the mix.

Last night, the Phalangists, along with some Armenians and some Hariri Futurists, marched through my neighborhood with fanfare and flags. Every once in a while, they would stop and salute a salute that, frankly, reminds one of the Nazi Sieg Heil.

The big protest is today, and everyone is making their way downtown. Text messages have been flying around with decrees like, "Enough is enough. Any Lebanese who doesn't go to the protest today is an accomplice to murder!"

I'll be making my way downtown shortly to see how it unfolds.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Muslim while flying


US Airways threw several Muslim clerics off a flight. Apparently they were guilty of being Muslim while flying.

The alert was raised after the men performed their normal evening prayers in the airport terminal before boarding Flight 300. (Watch how one of the men was treated at a US Airways desk Video)

A passenger who had seen them pray passed a note expressing concern to a flight attendant, US Airways spokeswoman Andrea Rader told The Associated Press.

The passenger thought the imams -- who were speaking in Arabic and English -- had made anti-U.S. statements before boarding and "made similar statements while boarding," said Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

...The clerics were returning from a conference in Minneapolis of the North American Imams Federation, Omar Shahin of Phoenix, president of the group, told the AP.

"They took us off the plane, humiliated us in a very disrespectful way," Shahin said.

Shahin said three members of the group prayed in the terminal before the six boarded the plane.

They entered individually, except for one member who is blind and needed to be guided, Shahin said. Once on the plane, the six did not sit together, he said.

"We did nothing" on the plane, Shahin said.

According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the clerics were handcuffed and questioned for several hours by authorities before being released.

...Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airports Commission, told the AP the airline asked airport police to remove the six men from the flight because some witnesses reported the men were making anti-American statements involving the Iraq war.

...[One of the clerics] told the AP that when he went back to the airport Tuesday morning, he was told by a ticketing agent his payment for the flight had been refunded. He said the agent told him that neither he nor the other imams could purchase tickets from US Airways.

Illegal Israeli settlements


Kevin Drum has an interesting, but not really surprising, post about illegal Israeli settlements. The information comes from a Peace Now report.

The long and short of it is that 39% of all land used by Israeli settlements in the West Bank is legally the private property of Palestinians. Like I said, this is not surprising, or even news for Palestinians. The newsworthy part is that this figure comes directly from Israel's Civil Administration.

There's also this first-hand account from the LA Times.

Lebanese views and sectarianism


The BBC has an article on Lebanese views on the assassination. They quote three different Lebanese, identifying them this way:

AMANI KALAAGI, LAWYER, SUNNI MUSLIM
TONI MAALOUF, TV EXECUTIVE, CATHOLIC
GEORGE BITAR, BUSINESSMAN, HEZBOLLAH SUPPORTER

First of all, I find it strange that they don't mention the religion of the Hezbollah supporter after mentioning the religion of the first two people. Judging from his first name, he's Christian, and it would be interesting to know if they neglected to put his religion because they didn't want to write that there are Christian supporters of Hezbollah (quite a few, now that General Michel Aoun is Hezbollah's opposition ally).

I'm also torn between thinking that the religious denominations of the people writing are relevant and thinking that this is exactly the sort of sectarian labeling that Lebanon does not need right now. It makes me think of an anti-sectarian campaign done by 05 Amam, an inter-confessional organization, whose advertisements poking fun at sectarian divide can be seen around town lately:



But finally to the content of what the Lebanese people are saying in the BBC article. The Hezbollah supporter thinks that the government is the group most likely to have the most to gain from the situation:

Who will benefit from this? The other side, of course, the 14 March grouping.

Tomorrow we [Hezbollah] were going to go on a peaceful demonstration against the government. But now we cannot, because it is too soon after this death.

So the 14 March group benefits from the reaction to the death.

I am not defending the people who did this.

If it was the Syrians, they would have killed someone more important. And they are not so stupid to kill him 24 hours before our people were due to go on a demonstration.

This is sad. Nobody knows tonight what will happen. The future is grey, uncertain.

Hezbollah wants calm, it just wants justice.

And the Sunni lawyer seems to think that Syria is obviously guilty, without saying so explicitly. He then despairs of the anti-Muslim sectarian comments he's overheard at a lawyer's conference.

To my mind, the most alarming comments are made by the Catholic television executive (it would be interesting to know for which station he works):

But the assassinations take place in Christian areas. The security is not effective enough in our areas; maybe we need our own security.

In the Hezbollah areas, they take care of their own security; and that works well for them.

I think we need a much stronger intelligence service and stronger security forces, which are independent of politics. We should all just stop talking about politics, maybe then we can all prosper.

So while on the one hand, he's calling for an end to sectarianism and stresses that he wants peace, his comment that "maybe we need our own security" seems dangerously close to a call for rebuilding a Christian militia. This would be a disaster for Lebanon; one armed militia is already too much, the last thing we need here is a replay of the 70s and 80s when religious sects were armed to kill.

Some thoughts on Gemayel's assassination


The Times has the only English-language account I've seen of the assassination to go into the specific logistics of the killing:

While other anti-Syria figures have been killed in the past two years, Mr. Gemayel was the first to be shot in the head and not blown up with a bomb.

Mr. Gemayel was in the passenger seat of his own silver Kia, driving through the Christian neighborhood of Jdeideh, which he represented in Parliament. About 4 p.m., a car rammed into Mr. Gemayel's and three gunmen rushed his car, spraying it with bullets from silencer-equipped automatic weapons, Lebanese security officials said. The driver, who was not injured, drove to St. Joseph's Hospital, where Mr. Gemayel was declared dead.

And here is what the car looks like:



Given the large number of bullet holes that either entered or exited through the passenger seat (it seems much more likely that these are entrance shots), it seems very strange to me that the driver should be able to walk away from this incident unhurt.

I've also been wondering about why Gemayel would be targeted. Although he has little to no actual political power, his family name still carries a lot of weight and his death can be counted to rally Christian supporters. Would Syria have anything to gain from killing someone like him? If the Syrians were going to assassinate someone, knowing full well that they would be the first to be blamed, wouldn't they aim higher?

This also comes at a time when Washington started looking like it was ready to engage Damascus, a prospect that seems highly unlikely now. And finally, there's the different MO. Why would the Syrians use gunmen instead of their usual car bombs?

It just doesn't make sense to me. If the Syrians are trying to stop the international tribunal, an assassination attempt like this seems the opposite of a viable strategy, since the Security Council immediately approved it after Gemayel's assassination. And if they wanted to stop the cabinet from approving it, I'm pretty sure that that would be redundant, since the absence of 7 cabinet ministers (5 from Hezbollah and Amal, 1 from Aoun's party and 1 who resigned last February), I think, although I'm not 100% sure of this, that the cabinet was already constitutionally powerless to pass the tribunal. Finally, why would Damascus bother trying to get negotiations together with Washington if they knew they were about to destroy and talks with the US by killing Gemayel?

Or perhaps living in Beirut has seen the Lebanese propensity for conspiracy theory rub off on me. And maybe it's best never to underestimate the stupidity of national regimes. So maybe I'm reading too much into this, and Damascus has just shot itself in the foot again. Time may or may not tell.


UPDATE: The details of the attack are somewhat different in this account by the Daily Star. They make no mention of whether or not the driver was hurt but report that one bodyguard has died and another's condition is unknown. The report also states that the current government can have up to 8 ministers absent before the cabinet is unable to achieve a quorum. I've had different information from other sites, including Al-Manar, but have so far been unable to confirm the actual law.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Hezbollah's reaction to assassination


Hezbollah has issued a statement about the assassination of Pierre Gemayel Jr. through its television station Al-Manar:

There is no doubt that those who committed this crime want to push Lebanon into chaos and civil war and want to cut the way for any peaceful, political and democratic solution to the crises in Lebanon. The nature of the targeting as well as the timing, place and style of execution raise lots of suspicions and need to be deeply looked in before taking any position or reaction that could harm the country and fulfill the goals of the killers. We offer our condolences to former President Amine Gemayel and his family.

Otherwise, everyone, including the Syrian government, has officially denounced the killing, while Amin Gemayel, the father of Pierre Jr. and former president of Lebanon urges calm:

I have one wish, that tonight be a night of prayer to contemplate the meaning of this martyrdom and how to protect this country.... I call on all those who appreciate Pierre's martyrdom to preserve his cause and for all of us to remain at the service of Lebanon. We don't want reactions and revenge.

Pierre Gemayel Jr. assassinated


The Minister of Industry, Pierre Gemayel Jr., was assassinated today, shot while in his car in a Christian suburb of Beirut.

As it turns out, I was in the same area, near Sin el-Fil, this morning, but I must have already been back home by the time he was assassinated. Otherwise, on the way to buy credit for my telephone, I saw Gemayel supporters driving by with flags and honking their horns. Farther up the street, a few trash cans had been burned, presumably by supporters, but by the time I saw the burned mess in the street, security forces (police and military) were already there.

No one knows who did it, but people are already speculating. Samir Geagea of the Christian Lebanese Forces made public statements warning about assassinations last week, and Saad Hariri (whose father Rafik was assassinated in 2005 setting off protests that led to the withdrawal of Syria) said that "the hands of Syria are all over the place."

In a second attack, in Ashrafiyeh, gunmen shot at the office of the state minister for parliamentary affairs, Michel Pharaon, a Christian MP from the ruling coalition.

For a timeline of political murders in Lebanon, click here.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Khoury's Gate of the Sun


The London Review has a review of the English translation of Elias Khoury's novel, Gate of the Sun. It touches briefly on some of his other works, the writing of Ghassan Kanafani, the politics of post-July Lebanon, and is worth a read.

Election results unclear...


There was a major election here in Beirut on Wednesday, and the results are about as unclear, and as contested, as the 2000 US presidential election (here, March 8 coalition is the opposition, including Hezbollah, Amal and Aoun's Christian Free Patriotic Movement and March 14 is the anti-Syrian ruling coalition, including Hariri's Future Movement and Geagea's Lebanese Forces):

Thursday saw a significant rise in tensions between the two camps in the build-up to the announcement of the results, with each side chanting political slogans and applauding their national political leaders, and booing those of the other side.

Security and riot police ... increased from the previous evening, this time prepared for potential clashes.

...The announcements came to an abrupt halt after a skirmish broke out between the two camps, and with the March 8 coalition slamming the results as illegitimate.

Immediately after the skirmish, Mohammad Hamadeh, leader of the Commoners Party and a March 8 coalition member, told The Daily Star that ballots had been tampered with.

"The results are wrong because there is a big problem with the number of votes placed," he explained. "Cheating has taken place. Our candidates inside [West Hall] confirmed that there were a lot more votes in the ballot boxes than there should be, meaning that the results are inaccurate."

"Even though we won, despite the cheating that occurred, we feel the obvious tampering that occurred needs to be investigated, as it does not make the elections just," he added.

Judging from the Daily Star's coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that these were city or even national elections. They're not. In fact, the elections were student elections at the American University in Beirut.

Political group violence is not unheard of in student elections, where college politics are a microcosm of Lebanese politics in general, with coalitions and parties mirroring their national counterparts. Last year, there was a serious bout of political/sectarian violence on the campus of the Lebanese American University. It is commonly believed that this is the reason why elections were suspended at that university.

These elections are a big deal, and political parties invest a fair amount of effort in winning them. On election day, it's impossible to get onto campus without an ID, and armed security details guard school entrances. And what results there are sound like announcements of which party took which state in the US:

Both sides agreed the March 14 coalition won the School of Business and a majority of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. It was also agreed the March 8 camp won the Faculty of Medicine and Nursing, and a majority of the Faculty of Engineering.

Who won this year at AUB? Your guess is as good as mine.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Khartoum accepts UN force


In a strange, and so for unexplained, turn of events, the Sudanese government has changed its mind, deciding to accept, "in principle," a joint United Nations and African Union peacekeeping force into Darfur.

Maybe it's cynicism, but I keep thinking to myself that there must be a catch somewhere, because up to now, Khartoum has successfully staved off an attempt led by the US to send peacekeepers to Darfur. Maybe China or Russia decided that to apply some pressure for some reason unknown to me. I can't imagine that either Moscow or Beijing have been too terribly concerned about how Khartoum's genocidal regime has reflected on them.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Danish intelligence saw no evidence of Iraqi WMD, journlalists on trial


The editor and two journalists from Berlingske Tidende are on trial for publishing Danish intelligence from before the invasion of Iraq that there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction:

In articles published in 2004 they quoted from analysis by a Danish intelligence agent, Frank Grevil.

His report, written before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, concluded that there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq.

The Berlingske Tidende journalists could go to jail if found guilty.

It is being viewed as a landmark case in Denmark, which is usually an ardent defender of freedom of expression.

An offence of publishing confidential Danish government documents is punishable by fines or up to two years in prison.

Berlingske Tidende's chief editor Niels Lunde went on trial along with reporters Michael Bjerre and Jesper Larsen on Monday. They pleaded not guilty.

Former intelligence officer Major Frank Soeholm Grevil was sentenced last year to four months in jail for leaking the documents to the reporters.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen supported the US-led invasion of Iraq and told parliament he was convinced former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was in possession of WMD.

The journalists' defence lawyer Henrik Dahl told the court his clients had done nothing wrong "because there was a huge public interest" in the information they published, the Associated Press reported.

Al Jazeera in English (but not in America)


Today Al Jazeera will launch its English-language cable channel. With over 80 million households ready to receive the channel, Al Jazeera English has more than doubled their goal of 40 million. Unfortunately, none of those households are American, since so far, zero cable providers have agreed to broadcast Al Jazeera English, and only one satellite dish company is offering the channel -- at an extra fee, at that. According to Comcast, these decisions are made on purely financial, and not political, grounds.

This is really disappointing, because the US market could use a different point of view and more international news. Of course, a less American-centric point of view would, in my view, be helpful for the US, but that would be second to what is, to my mind, the main offering of Al Jazeera: more international news.

In addition to the 42 bureaus of the Arabic version of Al Jazeera, the English channel will have 4 broadcast centers and 20 support bureaus:

Broadcast Centers:
London
Washington
Doha
Kuala Lumpur

Supporting Bureaus
Middle East: Cairo, Beirut, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza
Africa: Abidjan, Nairobi, Johannesburg and Harare
Asia and Australia: Beijing, Delhi, Islamabad, Jakarta, Manila and Sydney
Americas: Buenos Aires, Caracas and New York
Europe: Athens and Moscow

This amount of international coverage is colossal, and would benefit the American population immensely, particularly as far as African coverage is concerned. CNN, for example, has only 2 bureaus (Lagos and Nairobi) on the continent (excluding Cairo, which I've counted in the Middle East for both channels).

In addition to this meaty international coverage, Al Jazeera English will be featuring some familiar faces in the form of newscasters formerly from the BBC, CNN and CBS, among others. And they will even have a former US marine, Josh Rushing, as one of their commentators.

A Hezbollah-Somalia connection?


Reports of a UN report on arms embargo violations in Somalia say that Hezbollah has trained Somali militants and received Somali aid during the war this summer in the form of 720 Somali militants:

According to the Times, the report

states that in mid-July, Aden Hashi Farah, a leader of the Somali Islamist alliance, personally selected about 720 combat-hardened fighters to travel to Lebanon and fight alongside Hezbollah.

At least 100 Somalis had returned by early September -- with five Hezbollah members -- while others stayed on in Lebanon for advanced military training, the report says. It is not clear how many may have been killed, though the report says some were wounded and later treated after their return to Somalia.

The fighters were paid a minimum of $2,000 for their service, the report says, and as much as $30,000 was to be given to the families of those killed, with money donated by "a number of supporting countries."

In addition to training some Somali militants, Hezbollah "arranged for additional support to be given" by Iran and Syria, including weapons, the report found. On July 27, 200 Somali fighters also traveled to Syria to be trained in guerrilla warfare, the report says.

It also indicates that Iran appears to have sought help in its quest for uranium in Dusa Mareb, the hometown of Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, the leader of the Islamist alliance in Somalia, which is known as the Council of Islamic Courts.

"At the time of the writing of this report, there were two Iranians in Dusa Mareb engaged on matters linked to the exploration of uranium in exchange for arms" for the Council of Islamic Courts, says the report, which is dated Oct. 16.

It's hard to know what to make of this report, especially since I haven't been able to find an actual copy of it yet. It seems strange that there would be such a Sunni/Shia cooperation in Somalia and that the report writers would have access to such sensitive information from Iran and Hezbollah.

While it's common knowledge that Eritrea and Ethiopia have been backing the Islamic courts and government, respectively, in Somalia, I was unaware that Yemen, Uganda, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Djibouti, Libya and Hezbollah are allegedly involved. Hopefully more information will be available soon.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

American evangelicals for Israel


Here are a couple of extracts from the second part, on evangelicals for Israel, of the two-part series on America and Israel.

Many conservative Christians and their Jewish allies acknowledge a certain tension between the evangelical belief in a Biblical commission to convert non-Christians and their simultaneous desire to help the Jews of Israel.

"Despite all the spiritual shortcomings of the Jewish people," Dr. Dobson said, "according to scripture -- and those criticisms come not from Christians but from the Old Testament. Just look in Deuteronomy, where Jews are referred to as a stiff-necked and stubborn people -- despite all of that, God has chosen to bless them as his people. God chose to bless Abraham and his seed not because they were a perfect people any more than the rest of the human family."

...The Israeli government temporarily cut off ties with the Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson after he suggested that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke might have been God's punishment for withdrawing from territory that belonged to the Biblical Israel. But then Mr. Robertson flew to Israel during the fight with Hezbollah. In a gesture of reconciliation, the Israeli government recently worked with him to film a television commercial to attract Christian tourists.

"Israel -- to walk where Jesus walked, to pray where Jesus prayed, to stand where he stood -- there is no other place like it on earth," Mr. Robertson says in the commercial, according to the Jerusalem Post.

There are a couple of interesting quotes in the article, but as a whole it's kind of disappointing, because it doesn't get into how Israelis feel about the Christian attitude towards them or even exactly what sort of clout these evangelicals have in Washington.

Monday, November 13, 2006

US-Israel relations


The Times has an interesting piece on relations between Israel and the US (part one of a two-part series). The piece focuses on how Israel disagrees with the Bush adminstration's plans for a "new Middle East," instead, preferring to deal with autogratic but stable regimes like those of Egypt and Jordan. Israel is afraid of a democratic Middle East in which Hezbollah is part of the government in Lebanon, Hamas is elected in Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood is very popular in Egypt.

Other rifts include Washington's stance on Iran and fears that the US will engage Syria and Iran or ask Israel for conecessions towards Palestinians in order to get the support of China, Russia and Europe for sanctions against Iran:

Gidi Grinstein, a former Israeli negotiator who runs an independent policy center, the Reut Institute, says Israel and the United States share a larger goal on Iran but have "tension among their different objectives," as indicated by Mr. Zelikow.

The Iran debate in Washington is serious but unfinished, Mr. Grinstein said, noting the divisions between those who argue that a nuclear-armed Iran can be contained and those who believe that Iran must not get the technology to build a bomb, much less the weapon itself.

Mr. Alpher, the former Israeli negotiator, is concerned that if Mr. Bush ultimately negotiates with Iran, "we need to ensure that the United States doesn't sell us down the river." It is fine for Israel to say that Iran is the world's problem, he said. "But if the world solves it diplomatically," he added, "will it be at our expense?"

The world looks different to nearly all Israelis across the political spectrum than it does to people in most other countries. "Unlike Bush, an Israeli leader looks at Iran through the prism of the Holocaust and his responsibility to the ongoing existence of the Jewish people," Mr. Alpher said. "It may sound pompous, but at the end of the day it matters, and so we may be willing to do the strangest things."

Somehow, it seems healthy that both Israel and the US are acknowledging that they might have different goals and interests. After all, this is how all other allies interact. The myth that there is a mysterious perfect dovetailing of Israeli and American interests is a myth and probably does more harm than good, at least for the US.

The Israel lobby is quick to charge that any accusations of double allegience from the pro-Israel movement is just classical anti-semitism. However, the recent AIPAC spy case (see indictment here, would suggest that some of these fears are not entirely without merit.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Hizbollah and Amal quit government


Today saw the collapse of talks that started this week to bring together the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition, which controls the government, and the opposition (Hizbollah and its Shia ally, Amal, and its Christian ally Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement) on the issues of expanding the cabinet to give the opposition more say, accepting an international tribunal on Hariri's assassination and what to do about pro-Syrian President Lahoud, whose mandate was effectively extended by Damascus.

As a result, according to Hizbollah's television station, Al-Manar, Hizbollah and Amal have both quit the government. This does not mean that the government is disolved, it would take another three cabinet ministers to do that (five resigned today), but it is likely that there will be big pro-Hizbollah street demonstrations next week, and there is the possiblity that this will bring down the government.

Hopefully, this will result in new, peaceful, elections, although many people here are afraid that this is the spark that will ignite another civil war.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Sectarian divide in Lebanese politics


I was talking to my new landlord the other day about the political situation here in Lebanon, and he surprised me by saying that the Christians here only made up 27 percent of the population. "I know, because I'm a Christian," he told me. This number is significantly lower than numbers that I'd heard before, which ranged from 35 to 40 percent. An article in the Times today on Lebanon's Christians, however, gives an even lower number:

Generally speaking, Sunnis insist they are equal in number to Shiites. Shiites say they are a majority and Christians say they account for more than 20 percent. At the same time, all sides have said the state's convoluted election laws needed to be altered -- but, for now, without becoming so democratic as to undermine the distribution of power.

"A census will show the Christians are a clear minority," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at American University in Beirut. "Nobody wants to know they extent of their decline. Some think they don't even make up 25 percent of the population."

Since a census has not been done in Lebanon since the 1930s, it is impossible to know for sure, but I am shocked by, and have never once heard, the assertation that the Sunni are equal in number to the Shia.

In any and all cases, there are two serious problems in Lebanon: First, the current system does not represent the country's makeup, and second, Lebanese politics are confessional. I've thought a fair amount about how to make the electoral system more representative here without reinforcing sectarian divide and/or causing a civil war. I recently came across an article in Foreign Policy by Paul Salem, the director of the Beirut office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on the future of Lebanon. In order to solve the first problem, Salem suggests a good compromise in the form of a bicameral legislature, which would allow the current parliament to exist, complete with its confessional politics and non-representative allocation of seats, with a more representative chamber without confessional quotas.

[A] bicameral legislature must be established, with a lower house free of confessional quotas, which would allow the Shiites better representation. It will not do to argue that the Shiites cannot be trusted with power because they are too close to outside actors (as the Maronites argued of the Sunnis in the past). They will reduce their dependence on foreign powers largely to the extent that they feel like they have a secure stake in the government. The horse must be put in front, and the cart will follow. And every group in Lebanon has at some point committed the sin of relying on extensive outside support: the Maronites allied with Israel and the Sunnis with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and everyone used -- and was used by -- the Syrians.

Now this solution would not stop politics from being sectarian; it would only make the legislative branch more representative of sectarian realities. The problem of confessional voting in Lebanon is not one that can be solved by restructuring the electoral system.

I'm not really sure how such a fundamental shift could be made in Lebanon, but until people start voting for mixed parties based on their platforms instead of single confessional parties based primarily on one's religion, Lebanon will never be able to overcome the sectarian discord that has plagued this small Mediterranean country for so long.

Rumsfeld's replacement


I woke up yesterday morning to news that the Democrats had trounced the Republicans, and later that evening, I saw, with relief, that the first casualty of the "new direction" was Rumsfeld. I don't know much about Robert Gates, the former CIA director (the only one in its history to have worked his way up from an entry-level position). However, the fact that he has served in several different administrations, both Republican and Democrat, is a good sign.

While he is a Soviet analyst, he is a part of Baker's Iraq Study Group and has spoken out against Washington's self-defeating policy of not talking to Iran:

"It is not in our interest for Iran to have nuclear weapons," Gates said. "It is not in our interest for Iran to oppose the new governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. And if we can engage them and try and bring some progress in those areas, then our interests have been served. And that's what it's all about."

Gates also said that if the United States were to open lines of communication with Iran, that would not be sending a mixed message.

"Well, are we rewarding bad behavior by talking to the Libyans?" Gates said.

"Are we rewarding bad behavior by talking to the North Koreans? We're trying to figure out how to limit the national security risks to the United States from policies that Iran is following.

"We don't have much of a voice in that effort right now. We're basically sitting on the sidelines," Gates told NPR's Michele Kelemen in July 2004.

I think that Rumsfeld's departure is a good first step in the right direction, particularly on Middle East policy. Let's hope it's not the last.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

National unity talks and security


Talks have started about the possibility of a change in the government, and the level of security has been drastically increased downtown, where the meetings are being held.

Last night, I couldn't find a cab home, so I walked home, through downtown. I was stopped and searched five times during a ten-minute walk. I'm not sure if I'm reassured by the level of security or worried that it's necessary...

Cluster bombs in Lebanon


Saturday afternoon, I walked downtown and saw a event organized by groups like Handicap International against cluster bombs. There were pictures of cluster bomb casualties and actual cluster bombs, which ranged in citrus-fruit size (I think it's only apt to use the same family of fruits as we use to describe tumors) from small oranges to grapefruits. Since the war, on average, two people a day have died from unexploded cluster munitions. According to UN estimates, there remain up to a million unexploded bomblets in the south of Lebanon.

A fried of mine sent me an article by George Monbiot on how the UK and the US are doing their best to make sure that cluster munitions stay legal:

In Geneva today, at the new review of the conventional weapons treaty, the British government will be using the full force of its diplomacy to ensure that civilians continue to be killed, by blocking a ban on the use of cluster bombs. Sweden, supported by Austria, Mexico and New Zealand, has proposed a convention making their deployment illegal, like the Ottawa treaty banning anti-personnel landmines. But the UK, working with the US, China and Russia, has spent the past week trying to prevent negotiations from being opened. Perhaps this is unsurprising. Most of the cluster bombs dropped during the past 40 years have been delivered by Britain's two principal allies - the US and Israel - in the "war on terror". And the UK used hundreds of thousands of them during the two Gulf wars.

...A report published last week by the independent organisation Handicap International estimates that around 100,000 people have been killed or wounded by cluster bombs. Of the known casualties, 98% are civilians. Most of them are hit when farming, walking or clearing the rubble where their homes used to be. Many of the victims are children, partly because the bombs look like toys. Handicap's report tells terrible and heartbreaking stories of children finding these munitions and playing catch with them, or using them as boules or marbles. Those who survive are often blinded, lose limbs or suffer horrible abdominal injuries.

Handicap International's report can be found here.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

International Crisis Group releases paper on Lebanon/Hizbollah/Israel


The International Crisis Group has released a report on avoiding renewed conflict in the region. Here are their reccomendations:

RECOMMENDATIONS

To the United Nations Security Council:


1. Promote effective implementation of Resolution 1701 on Lebanon by passing a follow-up resolution calling for:

(a) comprehensive Lebanese security reform, with the assistance of outside parties, based on the need to effectively assert the state's sovereignty and defend its territorial integrity;

(b) sustained and substantial international financial assistance;

(c) intensive efforts to address outstanding Israeli-Lebanese issues, including a prisoner exchange, a halt to Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty and onset of a process to resolve the status of the contested Shebaa farms by transferring custody to the UN under UNIFIL supervision pending Israel-Syria and Israel-Lebanon peace agreements; and

(d) intensive and sustained efforts to reach a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

To the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL):

2. Accept that its task is essentially to assist the Lebanese Armed Forces, refraining from proactive searches for Hizbollah arms caches.

3. Investigate, publicly condemn and take appropriate action against flagrant violations of Resolution 1701, particularly attempts to resupply Hizbollah and Israeli over-flights or other violations of Lebanese sovereignty.

4. Quickly provide financial and technical support for the clearance of unexploded munitions (UXOs) and other lethal war debris, including cluster sub-munitions that are sinking below the surface due to the onset of winter.

5. Avoid assuming an assertive armed posture in patrolling southern Lebanon so as to minimise anti-UN sentiment among the local population.

6. Complete UN demarcation of the Shebaa farms area and propose to Israel, Lebanon and Syria placing it under temporary UN custody pending final peace agreements between them.

To the Government of Israel:

7. Halt hostile operations in Lebanon, including the capture or assassination of militants and civilians, as well as violations of Lebanese waters and air space.

8. Cooperate with UN efforts to address remaining Israeli-Lebanese issues, including a prisoner exchange, provision of digital records of cluster-rocket launching sequences and logbooks with target coordinates, and resolution of the status of Shebaa farms and Ghajar village.

To the Government of Syria:

9. Engage in an open dialogue with Lebanon aimed at clarifying and addressing both sides' legitimate interests, in particular by normalising bilateral relations on the basis of mutual respect and exchanging embassies.

10. Cooperate with UN efforts to demarcate the Shebaa farms area and reach agreement with Lebanon on its final status.

To Hizbollah:

11. End all visible armed presence south of the Litani River and avoid provocative actions vis-à-vis Israel or UNIFIL.

12. Work within the context of the national dialogue on a mutually acceptable process that would lead to the end of its status as an autonomous force, notably through enhancement of the LAF?s defence capabilities, reform of the political system and progress toward Arab-Israeli peace.

13. Limit territorial claims to those officially endorsed by the Lebanese government.

To the Government of Lebanon:

14. Undertake, in cooperation with international partners, a thorough security reform aimed at re-establishing and defending the state?s sovereignty over its territory, emphasising defensive capabilities and reinforcing the army as an instrument of national defence.

15. Ensure that such security reform is not used to further any international or partisan domestic agenda.

16. Encourage Hizbollah?s gradual demilitarisation by addressing outstanding Israeli-Lebanese issues (prisoner exchange, violations of Lebanese sovereignty and Shebaa farms); and reforming and democratising Lebanon?s political system.

17. Tighten controls along its border with Syria, using international technical assistance.

To the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF):

18. Confiscate visible weapons south of the Litani River and seek to prevent arms transfers.

To the European Union and its Member States:

19. Provide technical and material assistance to Lebanon?s security reform process, domestic security organs and the Lebanese Armed Forces.

To Arab States:

20. Support the building and equipping of the LAF.

21. Provide additional financial assistance to assist in reconstruction and reduce government indebtedness.

22. Cast off sectarian bias in dealing with Lebanon, ensuring that relations are established with the central government rather than particular communities.

To Members of the Quartet (U.S., Russia, UN and EU):

23. Conduct parallel discussions with Israel, Syria and Lebanon to re-launch Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese peace negotiations, making clear that the goal is a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

This touches on a lot of issues and I think ICG is right to advise caution and warn against using Resolution 1701 "as a blunt means of disarming Hizbollah." We'll see if any of the parties actually listen.

Hamas proposes a 10-year truce


Ahmed Yousef, a senior Hamas advisor, has proposed a 10-year hudna, or truce, to Israel.

A truce is referred to in Arabic as a "hudna." Typically covering 10 years, a hudna is recognized in Islamic jurisprudence as a legitimate and binding contract. A hudna extends beyond the Western concept of a cease-fire and obliges the parties to use the period to seek a permanent, nonviolent resolution to their differences. The Koran finds great merit in such efforts at promoting understanding among different people. Whereas war dehumanizes the enemy and makes it easier to kill, a hudna affords the opportunity to humanize one?s opponents and understand their position with the goal of resolving the intertribal or international dispute.

... We Palestinians are prepared to enter into a hudna to bring about an immediate end to the occupation and to initiate a period of peaceful coexistence during which both sides would refrain from any form of military aggression or provocation. During this period of calm and negotiation we can address the important issues like the right of return and the release of prisoners. If the negotiations fail to achieve a durable settlement, the next generation of Palestinians and Israelis will have to decide whether or not to renew the hudna and the search for a negotiated peace.

There can be no comprehensive solution of the conflict today, this week, this month, or even this year. A conflict that has festered for so long may, however, be resolved through a decade of peaceful coexistence and negotiations. This is the only sensible alternative to the current situation. A hudna will lead to an end to the occupation and create the space and the calm necessary to resolve all outstanding issues.

Few in Gaza dream. For most of the past six months it's been difficult to even sleep. Yet hope is not dead. And when we dare to hope, this is what we see: a 10-year hudna during which, inshallah (God willing), we will learn again to dream of peace.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

UN to send cartographer to the Shebaa Farms


The last major territorial dispute between Lebanon and Israel is the Shebaa Farms. Israel considers the land to be part of the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied after the 1967 war, taking the land from Syria. However, both Syria and Lebanon consider the land to be Lebanese, and this is one of Hizbollah's rationales for maintaining a militia. The is convenient for Damascus, which is afraid of the Lebanese signing a bilateral peace accord with Israel, leaving Syria to be the last remaining neighbor of Israel to not have signed an accord. As things stand, the Israelis -- and the UN, which includes the land under the UNDOF mandate (monitoring the disengagement of Israel and Syria) instead of under the UNIFIL mandate (monitoring the border between Israel and Lebanon) -- have assured that the Israel policies of both Beirut and Damascus are inextricably linked.

The Daily Star reports that the UN is sending a Balkan cartographer to "demarcate the precise location and area of the Shebaa Farms."

The confusion stems from poor French mandate maps, but reasearch by Israeli historian Asher Kaufman (see "Who owns the Shebaa Farms? Chronicle of a territorial dispute" in The Middle East Journal; Autumn 2002; 56, 4 - unfortunately not available online) shows that there is strong evidence for Lebanon's claims based on land ownership, which was registered in Lebanon, not in Syria.

It will be interesting to see what the cartographer comes up with, but it seems strange to me that concurrent official declarations by the two countries involved in the border dispute, Lebanon and Syria, would not be enough to settle the issue once and for all. We'll see if this leads to a Lebanese agreement with Israel, which may or may not be a good thing in the long run. While it seems obvious to me that a comprehensive peace agreement, which is what Damascus is pulling for, that involves Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinians is ideal, perhaps baby steps are in order.

Cole on partitioning Iraq


Juan Cole chimes in giving us his view of partitioning Iraq:

[A]side from the selfish interests of all the political actors inside and outside Iraq, as a practical policy, partitioning Iraq is too risky. It would probably not reduce ethnic infighting. It might produce more. The mini-states that emerge from a partition will have plenty of reason to fight wars with one another, as India did with Pakistan in the 1940s and has done virtually ever since. Worse, it is likely that if the Sunni Arab mini-state commits an atrocity against the Shiites, it might well bring in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. They in turn would be targeted by Saudi and Jordanian jihadi volunteers.

A break-up of Iraq might not stop at Iraq?s borders. The Sunni Arabs could be picked up by Syria, thus greatly increasing Syria?s fighting power. Or they could become a revolutionary force in Jordan. A wholesale renegotiation of national borders may ensue, according to some thinkers. Such profound changes in such a volatile part of the world cannot be depended on to occur without bloodshed. The region is already racked by the Arab-Israeli conflict and the struggle between secular and religious politics.

To my mind, the first problem with partition, which Cole doesn't mention at all, would be the status of highly mixed cities, and especially Baghdad. My second misgiving would be how the Turks, Saudis and Iranians would react to these news states in their backyard.

The end of Iraq?


Zaid Al-Ali, an Iraqi lawyer, reviews Peter Galbraith's book, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. The review focuses on Galbraith's idea that a federal division of Iraq (or even a confederation) is the only option that remains. But Al-Ali also take a look at Galbraith's role in advising the Kurds on the issue of the constitution:

"I realized that the Kurdish leaders had a conceptual problem in planning for a federal Iraq. They were thinking in terms of devolution of power - meaning that Baghdad grants them rights. I urged that the equation be reversed. In a memo I sent Barham (Salih) and Nechirvan (Barzani) in August (2003), I drew a distinction between the previous autonomy proposals and federalism: 'Federalism is a "bottom up" system. The basic organizing unit of the country is the province or state. [...] In a federal system residual power lies with the federal unit (i.e. state or province); under an autonomy system it rests with the central government. The central government has no ability to revoke a federal status or power: it can revoke an autonomy arrangement. [...] The Constitution should state that the Constitution of Kurdistan, and laws made pursuant to the Constitution, is the supreme law of Kurdistan. Any conflict between laws of Kurdistan and the laws of or Constitution of Iraq shall be decided in favor of the former.' These ideas eventually became the basis of Kurdistan's proposals for an Iraq constitution."

The question of what such a breakup of Iraq would mean for the country, not to speak of the region, is one that I'm fairly uncertain and ambivalent about, although Al-Ali argues that not only would it be a disaster, but that only the Kurds want such a weakening or even disolution of the state:

It is true that many western policymakers and commentators agree with his characterisation that Iraqis are being made to live together "against their will", but Galbraith, whose ties to Iraq run deeper than most, should know better than to make such a vague and inaccurate assertion.

By way of example, a survey was conducted a few months ago in Karbala, one of Shi'a Islam's most holy cities and main intellectual centres, on the issue of whether the city's residents support the territorial division of the state. Only around 5% of respondents supported the formation of regions, or states, based on ethnicity or religious identity, whereas 91.6% of respondents said that they either favored a centralised form of government or a decentralised system based on administrative divisions that were independent of factors such as religion and ethnicity. Even if Galbraith is right that a majority of Iraqi Kurds are in favour of independence, he fails to mention that their wish is not shared by a large majority of the remaining 82% of the Iraqi population.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Assad: "only America ... can be the main broker for peace in the Middle East"


The Times has reprinted and translated an excellent interview with Syrian president, Bashar Assad, by Der Spiegel. Assad has interesting things to say about the future of Iraq and the consequences of American foreign policy in the region:

SPIEGEL: You are very pessimistic when it comes to Iraq. What can the countries of the Middle East do for Iraq?

Assad: I was already very pessimistic before the war. I told the Americans: There is no doubt that you will win this war, but then you will sink into a quagmire. What has now happened is worse than I expected. The two main problems are, first, the constitution and the issue of federalism, which is at the center of the great dispute between Sunnis and Shiites and, second, Kirkuk and the civil war that is developing between Kurds and Arabs. These problems must be addressed. It doesn't help for the Americans to point to the elections they brought about or to the higher standard of living. Those are cosmetic issues.

SPIEGEL: What would be the consequences of partition into a Kurdish north, a Shiite south and a Sunni region in central Iraq?

Assad: It would be harmful, not just for Iraq, but for the entire region, from Syria across the Gulf and into Central Asia. Imagine snapping a necklace and all the pearls fall to the ground. Almost all countries have natural dividing lines, and when ethnic and religious partition occurs in one country, it'll soon happen elsewhere. It would be like the end of the Soviet Union -- only far worse. Major wars, minor wars, no one will be capable of keeping the consequences under control.

SPIEGEL: So you would be in favor of a strong man who could hold Iraq together?

Assad: Not necessarily one man, but certainly a strong central authority. It has to be left to the Iraqis to determine exactly what this would look like. A secular authority is certainly best-equipped for maintaining stability in this ethnic and religious mosaic -- but it should also be of a strong national character. Those who arrived on America's tanks are not credible in Iraq.

I've often wondered what would be so bad about splitting up Iraq, which since its inception after the First World War. Bashar's pearl necklace metaphor is not unconvincing. It's hard to say how the sectarian division of such a split would be felt in countries like Lebanon, Pakistan and Bahrain.

Suprisingly enough, he thinks that the US has a unique role to play in bringing a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict:

SPIEGEL: After the cease-fire between Israel and the Hezbollah militia, you gave a much-noted speech on the situation in the Middle East. In your speech, you mentioned a "critical stage of the history of Syria and the region." Wherein lies the opportunity?

Assad: First of all, it's clear to everyone that the status quo of war and conflict and instability is no longer acceptable. Now America enters the picture, because only America, because of its weight, can be the main broker for peace in the Middle East. But the Bush administration is under pressure. It's being accused of not having managed to bring about peace in six years. This pressure is good. Europe's foreign policy role is also growing. We specifically do not want a special role for the Europeans. We expect them to work together with America to achieve peace, and to do so on the basis of a vision America must develop.

SPIEGEL: What is Syria's role?

Assad: There can be no peace in the Middle East without Syria. The Lebanon and the Palestinian conflicts are inextricably linked with Syria. I have already mentioned the 500,000 Palestinian refugees. Were we to resolve our territorial dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights alone, we wouldn't achieve stability. We would only be taking away the Palestinians' hope and would be turning them from refugees into resistance fighters. This is why Syria is so determined to achieve a comprehensive peaceful solution.

The rest of the interview is well worth reading, not only because it is important for the US to hear what its enemies in the region have to say (instead of just talking to its friends), but because Asad has a very reasonable analysis about some of the most important issues facing the Middle East.


The Times also has an op-ed by Fromkin, whose excellent book A Peace to end all Peace I've just finished, on the anniversary of the Suez Canal fiasco.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Syria


I'm back in Beirut from Damascus, and all in all, it was a really interesting trip. I got to see the last days of Ramadan and the first days of al-Eid. I wasn't able to go to the Golan Heights, because the Ministry of the Interior was closed for the holidays, and I think it might be closed anyway because of the heightened tensions between Syria and Israel.

Everyone was extremely nice to me in Damascus, and poor families who ran shops in the old city insisted on sharing their meager rations with me while they broke their fast. Without asking who I was or where I was from or whether or not I was Muslim, one family stopped me in the street and refused to let me leave until I had eaten some of their food. They told me that I was welcome and thanked God that I was there to break the fast with them.

Otherwise, I noticed that the country that has been notorious for not having Coca-Cola has finally joined the Coca club. I was atop a mountain overlooking Damascus when I noticed that instead of Syrian Master Cola, I could actually buy a can of Coca-Cola. Apparently, a month and a half ago the Turkish distributor of Coke, who provides for the rest of the Middle East, finally managed to clear the importation of Coke with the Syrian government.

Here in Beirut, there was another explosion yesterday, but no one seems very concerned, despite the visible increase in Security Forces all over town.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Damascus


I arrived in Damascus last night at around 10 after spending almost 6 hours at the border. Officially, Americans have to get their visa in Washignton, but it's usually possible to get it at the Lebanese border, provied that you're willing to wait a while.

The only other time I've ever been here was on my way out of Lebanon to Jordan during the war this summer. The city seemed lively and teeming with energy, and I was disappointed that I wasn't able to look around. (I spent the night in a UNRWA Palestinian training camp then left the next morning for Amman.)

Damascus reminds me of a cross between Cairo and Beirut, which is a very good combination. These are the last days of Ramadan, so everyone is pretty lethargic during the day. I'm looking forward to celebrating Eid, although it would be nice to do it in a family setting rather than as a tourist. I've spent most of the day in the Souks looking at Iranian manuscripts, which may or may not be fakes, and key chains for my collection.

The last time I was in Syria, I was struck by Assad's cult of personality, with portraits of him all over the place, including in people's car windows. This time though, I've seen more pictures of Nasrallah than anyone else. The support for Hizbollah seems ubiquitous. There are posters, banners, glass etchings, t-shirts, and yes, key chains.

I'm going to try to get permission to take the Syrian tour of a village in the Golan Heights that was abandoned after the Israeli occupation. It should be interesting to see the place that could be the key to enflaming or defusing current tensions in the region.

I'll take pictures, but I won't be able to upload any until I get back to Beirut.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Former Janjaweed fighter tells his story


The BBC has exerpts of an account of a former Janjaweed fighter, who explains how things work in Darfur:

I tell you one fact. The Janjaweed don't make decisions. The orders come from the government...

One very well-known and regular visitor was Interior Minister Abdul Rahim Muhammad Hussein.

We will be split into two groups, one on horses, one on camels...

The aircraft went ahead of the Janjaweed. We saw the smoke, we saw the fire, then we went in...

Whenever we go into a village and find resistance we kill everyone. Sometimes they said wipe out an entire village...

We hear kill! Kill! Kill! And we shoot to kill...

Most were civilians - most were women...

Innocent people running out and being killed including children. And those who escape will die of thirst.

There are many rapes. But they don't do it in front of others. They take the victim away and rape them.

Eric Reeves, has gives us his two cents in the Guardian.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Break...


I'm off to al-Andalus until the new year, so I doubt that I'll be posting...

Happy holidays.

Setting Lebanon Free


I meant to mention this the other day, but it slipped my mind. Robert Grenier, former director of the CIA's counterintelligence center, thinks that if the US loves Lebanon, we should set it free.

ONCE more, Lebanon is in political crisis. This time, we are told, it pits "Syrian- and Iranian-backed" Shiite parties (Hezbollah and Amal) and the Christian faction led by Michel Aoun against the "Western-backed" Christian, Sunni and Druze groups that support the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

These very descriptions -- citing one external backer or another as a mark of political identification -- illustrate the fundamental problem Lebanon must overcome. Call it the Lebanese Disease: rather than sorting out their differences internally and addressing the fundamental injustices at the heart of their disputes, the Lebanese constantly look to outsiders to gain an advantage over their rivals.

Naturally, any advantages thus gained are short-lived, for both the Lebanese and their foreign backers. In the end, the only result is greater popular suffering and instability in Lebanon and the entire Middle East.

Only the Lebanese can cure themselves of this disease, but a bit of enlightened self-interest on the part of the "Western backers" -- primarily the United States and France ? would greatly help. It may seem counterintuitive, but the best hope for American interests in the Middle East is not to isolate and minimize Hezbollah, but to further integrate it politically, socially and militarily into the Lebanese state.

...It has long been obvious that the Shiites are under-represented in Lebanon's complicated power-sharing arrangements. In return for a greater measure of political representation for Shiites, Mr. Siniora could have insisted that Hezbollah's militia be brought under some sort of state control -- perhaps as a sort of home guard for the south, with its fighters under the command of senior officers drawn from the Lebanese armed forces.

...A far more genuine American commitment to Lebanon would focus on helping the parties to come up with a reasonable formula to redress the under-representation of Shiites in the power structure while getting greater government control over Hezbollah's war-making capacity.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Shouting across the divide


This American Life has an excellent piece on bridging the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims. The segment is about the statue of Mohammad in the Supreme Court, a Muslim-American family whose life is wrecked by a evangelizing fourth grade teacher, and an ad exec who tries to sell brand America. You can listen to the show or download it as an mp3 until later this week.

In the first story, the representative of CAIR tries to explain why Muslims don't appreciate the statue of Mohammad, even if it is supposed to be inclusive. In the second, a fourth-grade teacher reads her students a book on how Muslims hate America and Christians for the anniversary of 9/11 then explains to the only Muslim child how she and her family will go to hell if they don't accept the blood of Jesus. Finally, the third segment shows the difficulty of using the same formula to sell Coke to sell America might not work and explores a possible slogan about Muslim control of Islam's holy cities Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem: "Two outta three ain't bad!"

Monday, December 18, 2006

Petrodollars to petro-euros


Tehran has just announced that Iran will be converting all of its assets, holdings, reserves and accounting from US dollars to euros.

I remember there being talk during the run-up to the war in Iraq that one of the reasons for the invasion of Iraq was to reverse Saddam's decision to dump the dollar for the Euro. Whether or not Baghdad's decision to trade in euros, which incidentally made Iraq a lot of money, had anything to do with the invasion is unclear. To be honest, I don't understand enough about monetary policy to know exactly how OPEC countries' changing to Euros would affect the US economy, except for a vague sense that the results would be less than positive for America. I would, however, be willing to bet that Iraq now only trades in US dollars.

We'll see what effect Iran's decision will have, but if I had to guess, I'd say that it hasn't helped relations between Washington and Tehran.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

On civil war in Iraq


Safire is debating the usage "civil war" in describing Iraq. Personally, I took to calling a spade a spade almost a year and a half ago.

Safire makes a point of boasting about his easy access to president Talibani, who "definitively" does not call it a civil war, and he quotes Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times who makes the following point:

I bristle at the way a low-grade semantic argument has become -- at least among the partisan cud-chewers -- a substitute for serious discussion of what's happening in Iraq and what to do about it. ... Maybe this argument is a symptom of intellectual fatigue in the punditocracy.

So while I can agree that a lot of people are arguing about what to call it while not thinking enough about what to do there, I don't agree with Safire, who in the end, thinks that it's just a value judgement:

Call the fighting what you like, but the name you choose to give the hostilities, strife, violence or war not only reflects your view about the current state of affairs but is also an indication of where you stand on what our policy should be. Labels are the language's shorthand for judgments.

I disagree. Words have meaning. So although it's true that certain people push for the civil war in Iraq to be called one thing or another for ideological reasons, that does not mean that one label is more or less accurate than another. And when Safire's Kurdish friend argues that

There is a more complex dynamic to this than civil war... There is Shia versus Shia, Sunni versus Sunni, Shia versus Sunni and Shia and Sunni versus Al Qaeda, as well as militias against the authority of the elected government. Many act as the proxies of regional powers, so you can call it as much a proxy war as a civil war.

I have a hard time thinking that he's being anything but disingenuous, since, if anything, the Lebanese civil war was even more complex. There, we saw 18 confessional groups lining up with over half a dozen foreign powers (Israel, Syria, Iraq, US, France, Italy, etc.) and the Palestinians, who were somewhat in between a domestic and a foreign force. Does anyone call that anything other than a civil war? So why should Iraq be any different?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Underqualified


I read this IHT Op-Ed by Jeff Stein last October with a mixture of sad resignation and sighing wonderment, thinking to myself that it's no wonder American foreign policy in the Middle East is so often so wrongheaded and obviously stupid. After all, if US counterterrorism officials and congressmen don't know answers to such basic questions as the difference between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, or even to which sects Al-Qaeda, Iran and Hezbollah belong, how can they make informed decisions about issues that are based on underlying differences between the region's actors?

So I have to say that while I'm not surprised, I am certainly disappointed to see that the newly appointed Democratic intelligence chairman is equally uninformed (via Ezra):

...like a number of his colleagues and top counterterrorism officials that I've interviewed over the past several months, Reyes can't answer some fundamental questions about the powerful forces arrayed against us in the Middle East.

It begs the question, of course: How can the Intelligence Committee do effective oversight of U.S. spy agencies when its leaders don't know basics about the battlefield?

...Reyes stumbled when I asked him a simple question about al Qaeda at the end of a 40-minute interview in his office last week. Members of the Intelligence Committee, mind you, are paid $165,200 a year to know more than basic facts about our foes in the Middle East.

We warmed up with a long discussion about intelligence issues and Iraq. And then we veered into terrorism's major players.

To me, it's like asking about Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland: Who's on what side?

The dialogue went like this:

Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?

"Al Qaeda, they have both," Reyes said. "You're talking about predominately?"

"Sure," I said, not knowing what else to say.

"Predominantly -- probably Shiite," he ventured.

...And Hezbollah? I asked him. What are they?

"Hezbollah. Uh, Hezbollah..."

He laughed again, shifting in his seat.

"Why do you ask me these questions at five o'clock? Can I answer in Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?"

"Pocito," I said -- a little.

"Pocito?!" He laughed again.

"Go ahead," I said, talk to me about Sunnis and Shia in Spanish.

Reyes: "Well, I, uh...."

Stein goes on to tell us how the woeful ignorance of the region goes all the way from the top of the chain of command to those on the ground -- the employees of the embassy in Baghdad. It seems that of all the Americans at the embassy in Iraq, there are only six fluent Arabic speakers and two dozen who have some familiarity with the language. This is out of over a thousand employees.

There is definitely a dearth of specialists of the region and speakers of its languages. And those in charge don't seem very concerned about it, since according to the Department of Defense, between 1993 and 2003, 55 Arabic speakers and 9 Farsi speakers have been fired in accordance with the US military's policy of "Don't ask, Don't tell."

The 9/11 commission report decried the lack of Arabic speakers, a situation that has led to a huge backlog of untranslated documents in the government's counterterrorism efforts. It seems not only disheartening but disconcerting that ideological issues such as one's sexual orientation would trump national security concerns.

So while I'm glad to see that some of those who pushed the most ferociously for war in Iraq will no longer be in a position to decide foreign policy in the region, I'm afraid that their Democratic counterparts aren't any more qualified to make such important decisions.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Peace not apartheid in Palestine


Jimmy Carter, responding to the reaction his new book has received, has a sincere and thoughtful piece in the LA Times on speaking frankly about Israel and Palestine:

The many controversial issues concerning Palestine and the path to peace for Israel are intensely debated among Israelis and throughout other nations ? but not in the United States. For the last 30 years, I have witnessed and experienced the severe restraints on any free and balanced discussion of the facts. This reluctance to criticize any policies of the Israeli government is because of the extraordinary lobbying efforts of the American-Israel Political Action Committee and the absence of any significant contrary voices.

It would be almost politically suicidal for members of Congress to espouse a balanced position between Israel and Palestine, to suggest that Israel comply with international law or to speak in defense of justice or human rights for Palestinians. Very few would ever deign to visit the Palestinian cities of Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, Gaza City or even Bethlehem and talk to the beleaguered residents. What is even more difficult to comprehend is why the editorial pages of the major newspapers and magazines in the United States exercise similar self-restraint, quite contrary to private assessments expressed quite forcefully by their correspondents in the Holy Land.

While I disagree with Carter on the idea of a two-state solution (I believe the only tenable solution to the conflict is a single democratic state where one person has one vote), I agree wholeheartedly with the problems that arise in the US when one wants to have an honest discussion about Israel/Palestine.

Proving his point, we can see that this is the kind of reaction that genuine discourse, such as Carter's gets in the US. Of course this elder statesman handles himself with propriety and grace, neither of which such mean-spirited and asinine attacks really warrant.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Pulitzer and an Iranian execution


The Wall Street Journal has an excellent piece on photographs of executed Kurds during the Iranian revolution and the photographer who until now has remained anonymous.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

One reported dead in street violence in Beirut


According to Lebanese television, a group of Shia protesters were walking home from the protest to their neighborhood near the Shatilla refugee camp. Apparently, they were attacked by a group of March 14 supporters, but it is unsure if the attackers were Sunni or Christian.

The details are still coming out, but it seems a Shia youth of twenty years was shot and killed by the attackers. Another in the group may have been stabbed as well.

This is really disconcerting, not only for the obvious reason that someone was murdered in the street, but for the fact that up until now, clashes between opposition supporters and government supporters had stayed at a minimum. I can imagine that this sort of an act will not go without a reprisal from Shia groups.

Opposition supporters interviewed on television stated that the March 14 group had their protest last week without any attacks by opposition supporters and were dismayed that they were not left alone to protest peacefully.

Up till now, I've been fairly optimistic about a peaceful solution to the political tensions here, but now I'm not so sure. This is just the sort of senseless act of violence that could spark a civil war.


UPDATE: The AP has a wire story on the event, and apparently it was Sunnis who killed the Shia boy:

Violent clashes broke out Sunday between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the capital, leaving one man dead from gunshot wounds at a time when tensions throughout Lebanon threaten the country's fragile sectarian and political balance.

...The clash in Tarik Jdideh occurred as a group of Hezbollah supporters were returning from Beirut's downtown and passed through the Sunni neighborhood.

Police officials said the two sides threw stones at each other, then shots were fired, killing Ahmed Ali Mahmoud, a 20-year-old Shiite. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the press.

At least 10 other people were slightly injured elsewhere in West Beirut in similar clashes.

What's really happening in Beirut


I just got off the phone with my father in the US. He immediately started giving me a lecture on Lebanese politics, if you can call it that. Generally speaking, I can count on my father to represent the red-state everyman, whether the topic is foreign policy or domestic affairs. He's worried about me being in Beirut, which is normal, especially since the Arab world is a region that seems very foreign and even threating to him.

He brought up the protests and how the situation was getting dangerous in Lebanon. I told him that I had actually just come back from them and that the mood was festive, nonviolent and, ultimately, democratic. He told me that no, Hezbollah was just a bunch of terrorists and that they aren't democratic and that they're trying to take over the country.

Things always start deteriorating when I can't hold my tongue in these situations. I told him that if he was interested in knowing the specifics of the situation, I could explain them to him, but I was not interested in getting a lecture on Lebanese politics from someone who doesn't know anything about the subject.

However, as a representative of the American mindset, one of his sentences stuck in my mind: "Everyone knows the Hezbollah terrorists are trying to take over the government." Speaking from an American view point, he's probably right. Everyone knows what's happening. Of course they don't actually know what's going on here, but that doesn't make their certainty any less headstrong.

I went down to the protests again today. If you hadn't been following the situation here and didn't speak any Arabic, you might think that everyone had showed up in Beirut for a music festival, or maybe an independence day celebration or some other national holiday.

Downtown has turned into a souk, with people hawking political flags and shirts out of the trunk of their cars or on tables set up in the newly formed tent village. Vendors sell warm food, cigarettes and cold drinks. Shia clerics stand next to young women with abundant cleavage and bear shoulders. Supporters of Hezbollah and Amal mingle with Christian supporters of General Aoun and communists who hock Che scarves and Lebanese flags with a hammer and sickle on them.

Youth congregate together drawing into circles to dance and sing while drums are beaten loudly. Children have faces painted red, white and green to mirror the Lebanese flag, sometimes with a small flag on each cheek, other times with the a single taking up the entire face, the centered ceder formed by a small nose. The sound of two teacups click-clacking together calls those protesters who would like to sit down and warm up with a cup of hot tea. Barbecue grills are set up, some selling food while other sell hot coals for the myriad of water pipes everyone seems to be smoking between chanting slogans and waving flags. These are the "terrorists" my father was lecturing me about.

As dusk falls, some protesters gather into buses to make the trip back home while others start fires to keep themselves warm next to their tents. Downtown feels alive and vibrant, religiously and socially mixed -- somewhat like I imagine it being before the civil war and before it was revamped into an expensive simulacrum of its former self.


Protesters wave Lebanese flags downtown in hopes of pressuring PM Siniora to resign.


Downtown has turned into a festive tent city, with hundreds of thousands converging on the capital to show the government their discontent.


Opposition supporters come together to dance underneath the overpass, which houses many who are camping here until the government resigns or expands the opposition's representation in the cabinet.


Protesters get ready for the evening by lighting up camp fires.

More on the protests


I've been really disappointed with the coverage of these protests by the media. The language used to described them seems to be culled from the government's talking points, with talk of a coup d'état that implies that these protests are somehow illegitimate, whereas the March 14 protests were legitimate and righteous.

Another gripe of mine is the focus on the sectarian divide, even though the Christians, for example are very divided, with some following Aoun and the opposition and others following the ruling coalition. To my mind there has not been nearly enough focus on the social divide. Today, a friend of mine forwarded me a message that had been sent to her, telling people to go look at the animals at the zoo downtown. The message is clear: these people, especially the Shia and the poor, are not only not Lebanese, but they're not even human. This attitude, and its social and economic consequences, play a large part in the frustration felt by a large segment of Lebanese society.

At the end of the day, this is a question about Lebanese identity and the sharing of Lebanon's wealth. These differences are largely political and social, a fact that gets lost in the easy description of sectarian divide. This is not to say that that divide doesn't exist -- it does -- but it's not the only border, or even necessarily the most important one, dividing Lebanese society.

So with the lazy reporting that I've been seeing in the Western press, it's refreshing to see this report by Tony Shadid in the Post:

In a city of frontiers, Beirut built another border Saturday.

On one side of coiled barbed wire and metal barricades were armored personnel carriers manned by soldiers in red berets toting U.S.-made M-16 rifles and guarding the colonnaded, stone government headquarters where Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and other ministers have taken up residence. On the other were the fervent young men of Hezbollah and its allies, who have turned a downtown tailored for the rich into the site of an open-ended protest to force the government's fall.

"This is the point of confrontation between us and them," said Khodr Hassan, who walked 12 hours from his southern village to the protest with 30 other youths. He pointed at his friends at the barricade, some surging forward, others lolling about.

"This is the line of separation," said one of them, Ali Aitawi.

Long divided by the Christian east and largely Muslim west of its 15-year civil war, Beirut is a city snarled today by far more numerous boundaries of sect, perspective and ideology, intersecting and tangling across a capital and country wrestling with a question still unanswered since independence more than 60 years ago: What is Lebanon's identity?

In today's crisis, those fault lines tell the story of the struggle underway between the country's two camps, divided by past and present, with vastly different visions of Lebanon's future: on one side Hezbollah, supported by Iran and Syria, and on the other the government, backed by the United States and France. The fault lines tell, too, of an impasse that perhaps can't be broken.

The borders are drawn by color, flag, portrait and symbol, a claustrophobic contest to lay claim to identity never solely Lebanese. They are defined by ideology: the culture of resistance to Israel celebrated by the Shiite Muslim movement of Hezbollah, for instance, or the Christian separatism of civil war-era militias with fascist roots. They follow the contours of leaders who command loyalty through personality over politics. And they offer protection in a country where survival can feel precarious.

Read the rest of the article; it's well worth your time.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Opposition rally a success for Hezbollah and allies


Today's demonstration was a success for the opposition coalition, not least of all for its peaceful nature and family atmosphere. There were at least twice as many people as the funeral cum rally held by the anti-Syrian governing coalition. There was a festive mood today in Martyr's Square and its environs, with Muslims and Christians, supporters of Hezbollah, Aoun, Amal and Frangieh coming out in droves in an attempt to force the current government to resign.

What looked like hundreds of thousands of Lebanese came out, for the most part following Nasrallah's call to brandish Lebanese flags instead of those of sectarian political parties.

It seems that the opposition has learned from the visual rhetoric of the March 14 governing coalition, giving their opposition a multi-confessional, and finally Lebanese , air as Christians and Muslims came together to show the government their discontent.

One mixed group of youths sat together smoking shisha as they took turns chanting political slogans supporting various Lebanese political parties: first Hezbollah, then Christian politicians General Aoun and Sulieman Frangieh and then finally even Iran.

Here are some photos I took of the event:











Stepping into Iraq: Saudia Arabia


The Saudis are making it clear that if the US leaves Iraq, they will step in:

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal ... said in a speech last month that "since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited." If it does, one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.

...Options now include providing Sunni military leaders (primarily ex-Baathist members of the former Iraqi officer corps, who make up the backbone of the insurgency) with the same types of assistance -- funding, arms and logistical support -- that Iran has been giving to Shiite armed groups for years.

Another possibility includes the establishment of new Sunni brigades to combat the Iranian-backed militias. Finally, Abdullah may decide to strangle Iranian funding of the militias through oil policy. If Saudi Arabia boosted production and cut the price of oil in half, the kingdom could still finance its current spending. But it would be devastating to Iran, which is facing economic difficulties even with today's high prices. The result would be to limit Tehran's ability to continue funneling hundreds of millions each year to Shiite militias in Iraq and elsewhere.

Both the Sunni insurgents and the Shiite death squads are to blame for the current bloodshed in Iraq. But while both sides share responsibility, Iraqi Shiites don't run the risk of being exterminated in a civil war, which the Sunnis clearly do. Since approximately 65 percent of Iraq's population is Shiite, the Sunni Arabs, who make up a mere 15 to 20 percent, would have a hard time surviving any full-blown ethnic cleansing campaign.

In this case, remaining on the sidelines would be unacceptable to Saudi Arabia. To turn a blind eye to the massacre of Iraqi Sunnis would be to abandon the principles upon which the kingdom was founded. It would undermine Saudi Arabia's credibility in the Sunni world and would be a capitulation to Iran's militarist actions in the region.

To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks -- it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse.

Policy options in Iraq just seem to be getting worse and worse...

Today's big protest


Today there will be a protest led by the opposition downtown. There is a good chance that this will dwarf the protest held last week after the assassination of Pierre Gemayel. Some are predicting a million people. Nasrallah kept people guessing until yesterday about when the protest would be, but yesterday he called on his supporters to go into the street in order to "proceed in a peaceful, civil, democratic and political manner toward the main goal of a new government":

Lebanon, with its [sectarian] makeup, cannot be administered by one side amid difficult internal conditions. Let us call for a national unity government....

The opposition forces, on the basis of their constitutional rights, call on all Lebanese, whatever their religious confession, to demonstrate peacefully in an open-ended sit-in from 3 p.m. Friday for a national unity government. The opposition forces appeal to demonstrators to brandish only the Lebanese flag and authorized slogans and avoid any party or sectarian symbols.

If heeded, Nasrallah's call on supporters to avoid party flags and sectarian symbols will make this protest different from previous Hezbollah-sponsored opposition protests as well as those put on by the governing coalition. (Crosses and party flags were everywhere last week.)

The governing coalition's youth organizations have so far called on their supporters to stay at home, hopefully decreasing the chances of any clashes between the two groups.

The competing protests are part of the divide in visions of what kind of a country Lebanon should be, a division that is split somewhat across sectarian lines. There are, however, some players who seem more interested in political maneuvering than in ideological direction. But overall, the conflict is between those who feel Lebanon should seek financial gain and stability by looking to the West, a prospect that entails peace (perhaps even with Israel) and those who believe that the Israeli-Arab conflict is still strong and that finally, Lebanon is a part of that conflict, meaning that no peace should be made with the southern neighbor until a just settlement is found for the Arabs.

The first group, while officially against Israel, is aligned with Washington, and to a lesser extent, Paris, whereas the second group is allied first and foremost with Tehran, but also to varying degrees with Damascus and Ramallah.

I'll be downtown this afternoon to see how things play out today at the protest.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Our Walls Bear Witness: Darfur exhibition


The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is currently holding a photo exhibition on Darfur:

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will project wall-sized images of the escalating genocide in Darfur onto its façade during Thanksgiving week, marking the first time the national memorial's exterior will be used to highlight contemporary genocide. The program, "Darfur: Who Will Survive Today?" is a unique and highly symbolic Museum project produced in association with Darfur/Darfur to draw attention to the continuing crisis in Darfur.


Friday, November 24, 2006

Cable providers jailed in US


Since the television station Al-Manar is affiliated with Hezbollah, the predominantly Shia political party and militia in Lebanon, it seems that broadcasting the channel in the US is illegal.

Each of the two owners of a Brooklyn-based HDTV service provider is faced with a 110-year prison sentence if found guilty of providing material support to a terrorist organization.

Al-Manar was labeled a terrorist organization by the US Government last March, making it illegal to broadcast the channel or do business with it in any form. It's commonly labeled the propaganda arm of Hezbollah, and of course it is biased toward Hezbollah, just like Future TV is for Hariri and Orange TV is for General Aoun. But the truth be told, during the war, their news coverage was excellent, and they're only a bit more outlandish than Fox News, as far as partisan bias goes. You can see their website here, which has English-language news coverage.

Is broadcasting an unpopular television channel now illegal? One might argue that the resistance message stressed by Al-Manar is an incitement to violence, but I think that would be stretching it. And furthermore, if such messages were to actually be punished, then we'd have to start locking up people like Ann Coulter who called for the US to "should invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity" and Pat Robertson who called for the assassination of Venezuela's elected president, Hugo Chavez.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The protest


The protest downtown seemed more like a public fair or a carnival than an angry mob. People came from all over Beirut, and presumably all over Lebanon, to show their support to the March 14 coalition and the slain Pierre Gemayel.

Slogans ranged from "Syria, Iran, Israel Out of Lebanon" to "the Sunni are with you" to , literally, "Fuck your sister, Syria." I saw flags of almost every sort: Lebanese, Phalange, Armenian, Future movement, various other Christian parties, and even an American flag or two.

At 1 PM, Gemayel's funeral was broadcast over the loudspeakers. The sounds of ecclesiastical mourning seemed somehow out of place in the midst of people waving their flags with a smile while vendors sold bottled water and ka'ak (100% Lebanese according to the cardboard sign).

Overall, I'd say that it went fairly well and, most importantly, non-violently.

I'll post some pictures later today...

Lebanese Jujitsu


One last thing before I go out:

I just read this report from Le Monde, which is a pretty standard piece, with the exception of one detail. They have this quote from Walid Jumblatt, the head of the Druze party and part of the March 14 anti-Syrian coalition: "There will be neither security, nor peace, nor democracy [in Lebanon] so long as the Syrian regime is in place."

I had never thought before now that the March 14 coalition might be aiming higher than just keeping Syria out of Lebanon. Judging from Jumblatt's remarks, though, they might be aiming for some political jujitsu in which the obviously weaker Lebanese use Syria's own weight (or perceived weight) to overthrow the regime in Damascus. This would mean using Damascus' involvement in the assassination of Gemayel (real or apparent) against it.

The restless Lebanese


It has begun. Starting early this morning, at around 9, the Christian streets in my new neighborhood have been full of chanting, flag waving, horn honking and portrait brandishing. Now, the sound of sirens had added to the mix.

Last night, the Phalangists, along with some Armenians and some Hariri Futurists, marched through my neighborhood with fanfare and flags. Every once in a while, they would stop and salute a salute that, frankly, reminds one of the Nazi Sieg Heil.

The big protest is today, and everyone is making their way downtown. Text messages have been flying around with decrees like, "Enough is enough. Any Lebanese who doesn't go to the protest today is an accomplice to murder!"

I'll be making my way downtown shortly to see how it unfolds.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Muslim while flying


US Airways threw several Muslim clerics off a flight. Apparently they were guilty of being Muslim while flying.

The alert was raised after the men performed their normal evening prayers in the airport terminal before boarding Flight 300. (Watch how one of the men was treated at a US Airways desk Video)

A passenger who had seen them pray passed a note expressing concern to a flight attendant, US Airways spokeswoman Andrea Rader told The Associated Press.

The passenger thought the imams -- who were speaking in Arabic and English -- had made anti-U.S. statements before boarding and "made similar statements while boarding," said Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

...The clerics were returning from a conference in Minneapolis of the North American Imams Federation, Omar Shahin of Phoenix, president of the group, told the AP.

"They took us off the plane, humiliated us in a very disrespectful way," Shahin said.

Shahin said three members of the group prayed in the terminal before the six boarded the plane.

They entered individually, except for one member who is blind and needed to be guided, Shahin said. Once on the plane, the six did not sit together, he said.

"We did nothing" on the plane, Shahin said.

According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the clerics were handcuffed and questioned for several hours by authorities before being released.

...Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airports Commission, told the AP the airline asked airport police to remove the six men from the flight because some witnesses reported the men were making anti-American statements involving the Iraq war.

...[One of the clerics] told the AP that when he went back to the airport Tuesday morning, he was told by a ticketing agent his payment for the flight had been refunded. He said the agent told him that neither he nor the other imams could purchase tickets from US Airways.

Illegal Israeli settlements


Kevin Drum has an interesting, but not really surprising, post about illegal Israeli settlements. The information comes from a Peace Now report.

The long and short of it is that 39% of all land used by Israeli settlements in the West Bank is legally the private property of Palestinians. Like I said, this is not surprising, or even news for Palestinians. The newsworthy part is that this figure comes directly from Israel's Civil Administration.

There's also this first-hand account from the LA Times.

Lebanese views and sectarianism


The BBC has an article on Lebanese views on the assassination. They quote three different Lebanese, identifying them this way:

AMANI KALAAGI, LAWYER, SUNNI MUSLIM
TONI MAALOUF, TV EXECUTIVE, CATHOLIC
GEORGE BITAR, BUSINESSMAN, HEZBOLLAH SUPPORTER

First of all, I find it strange that they don't mention the religion of the Hezbollah supporter after mentioning the religion of the first two people. Judging from his first name, he's Christian, and it would be interesting to know if they neglected to put his religion because they didn't want to write that there are Christian supporters of Hezbollah (quite a few, now that General Michel Aoun is Hezbollah's opposition ally).

I'm also torn between thinking that the religious denominations of the people writing are relevant and thinking that this is exactly the sort of sectarian labeling that Lebanon does not need right now. It makes me think of an anti-sectarian campaign done by 05 Amam, an inter-confessional organization, whose advertisements poking fun at sectarian divide can be seen around town lately:



But finally to the content of what the Lebanese people are saying in the BBC article. The Hezbollah supporter thinks that the government is the group most likely to have the most to gain from the situation:

Who will benefit from this? The other side, of course, the 14 March grouping.

Tomorrow we [Hezbollah] were going to go on a peaceful demonstration against the government. But now we cannot, because it is too soon after this death.

So the 14 March group benefits from the reaction to the death.

I am not defending the people who did this.

If it was the Syrians, they would have killed someone more important. And they are not so stupid to kill him 24 hours before our people were due to go on a demonstration.

This is sad. Nobody knows tonight what will happen. The future is grey, uncertain.

Hezbollah wants calm, it just wants justice.

And the Sunni lawyer seems to think that Syria is obviously guilty, without saying so explicitly. He then despairs of the anti-Muslim sectarian comments he's overheard at a lawyer's conference.

To my mind, the most alarming comments are made by the Catholic television executive (it would be interesting to know for which station he works):

But the assassinations take place in Christian areas. The security is not effective enough in our areas; maybe we need our own security.

In the Hezbollah areas, they take care of their own security; and that works well for them.

I think we need a much stronger intelligence service and stronger security forces, which are independent of politics. We should all just stop talking about politics, maybe then we can all prosper.

So while on the one hand, he's calling for an end to sectarianism and stresses that he wants peace, his comment that "maybe we need our own security" seems dangerously close to a call for rebuilding a Christian militia. This would be a disaster for Lebanon; one armed militia is already too much, the last thing we need here is a replay of the 70s and 80s when religious sects were armed to kill.

Some thoughts on Gemayel's assassination


The Times has the only English-language account I've seen of the assassination to go into the specific logistics of the killing:

While other anti-Syria figures have been killed in the past two years, Mr. Gemayel was the first to be shot in the head and not blown up with a bomb.

Mr. Gemayel was in the passenger seat of his own silver Kia, driving through the Christian neighborhood of Jdeideh, which he represented in Parliament. About 4 p.m., a car rammed into Mr. Gemayel's and three gunmen rushed his car, spraying it with bullets from silencer-equipped automatic weapons, Lebanese security officials said. The driver, who was not injured, drove to St. Joseph's Hospital, where Mr. Gemayel was declared dead.

And here is what the car looks like:



Given the large number of bullet holes that either entered or exited through the passenger seat (it seems much more likely that these are entrance shots), it seems very strange to me that the driver should be able to walk away from this incident unhurt.

I've also been wondering about why Gemayel would be targeted. Although he has little to no actual political power, his family name still carries a lot of weight and his death can be counted to rally Christian supporters. Would Syria have anything to gain from killing someone like him? If the Syrians were going to assassinate someone, knowing full well that they would be the first to be blamed, wouldn't they aim higher?

This also comes at a time when Washington started looking like it was ready to engage Damascus, a prospect that seems highly unlikely now. And finally, there's the different MO. Why would the Syrians use gunmen instead of their usual car bombs?

It just doesn't make sense to me. If the Syrians are trying to stop the international tribunal, an assassination attempt like this seems the opposite of a viable strategy, since the Security Council immediately approved it after Gemayel's assassination. And if they wanted to stop the cabinet from approving it, I'm pretty sure that that would be redundant, since the absence of 7 cabinet ministers (5 from Hezbollah and Amal, 1 from Aoun's party and 1 who resigned last February), I think, although I'm not 100% sure of this, that the cabinet was already constitutionally powerless to pass the tribunal. Finally, why would Damascus bother trying to get negotiations together with Washington if they knew they were about to destroy and talks with the US by killing Gemayel?

Or perhaps living in Beirut has seen the Lebanese propensity for conspiracy theory rub off on me. And maybe it's best never to underestimate the stupidity of national regimes. So maybe I'm reading too much into this, and Damascus has just shot itself in the foot again. Time may or may not tell.


UPDATE: The details of the attack are somewhat different in this account by the Daily Star. They make no mention of whether or not the driver was hurt but report that one bodyguard has died and another's condition is unknown. The report also states that the current government can have up to 8 ministers absent before the cabinet is unable to achieve a quorum. I've had different information from other sites, including Al-Manar, but have so far been unable to confirm the actual law.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Hezbollah's reaction to assassination


Hezbollah has issued a statement about the assassination of Pierre Gemayel Jr. through its television station Al-Manar:

There is no doubt that those who committed this crime want to push Lebanon into chaos and civil war and want to cut the way for any peaceful, political and democratic solution to the crises in Lebanon. The nature of the targeting as well as the timing, place and style of execution raise lots of suspicions and need to be deeply looked in before taking any position or reaction that could harm the country and fulfill the goals of the killers. We offer our condolences to former President Amine Gemayel and his family.

Otherwise, everyone, including the Syrian government, has officially denounced the killing, while Amin Gemayel, the father of Pierre Jr. and former president of Lebanon urges calm:

I have one wish, that tonight be a night of prayer to contemplate the meaning of this martyrdom and how to protect this country.... I call on all those who appreciate Pierre's martyrdom to preserve his cause and for all of us to remain at the service of Lebanon. We don't want reactions and revenge.

Pierre Gemayel Jr. assassinated


The Minister of Industry, Pierre Gemayel Jr., was assassinated today, shot while in his car in a Christian suburb of Beirut.

As it turns out, I was in the same area, near Sin el-Fil, this morning, but I must have already been back home by the time he was assassinated. Otherwise, on the way to buy credit for my telephone, I saw Gemayel supporters driving by with flags and honking their horns. Farther up the street, a few trash cans had been burned, presumably by supporters, but by the time I saw the burned mess in the street, security forces (police and military) were already there.

No one knows who did it, but people are already speculating. Samir Geagea of the Christian Lebanese Forces made public statements warning about assassinations last week, and Saad Hariri (whose father Rafik was assassinated in 2005 setting off protests that led to the withdrawal of Syria) said that "the hands of Syria are all over the place."

In a second attack, in Ashrafiyeh, gunmen shot at the office of the state minister for parliamentary affairs, Michel Pharaon, a Christian MP from the ruling coalition.

For a timeline of political murders in Lebanon, click here.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Khoury's Gate of the Sun


The London Review has a review of the English translation of Elias Khoury's novel, Gate of the Sun. It touches briefly on some of his other works, the writing of Ghassan Kanafani, the politics of post-July Lebanon, and is worth a read.

Election results unclear...


There was a major election here in Beirut on Wednesday, and the results are about as unclear, and as contested, as the 2000 US presidential election (here, March 8 coalition is the opposition, including Hezbollah, Amal and Aoun's Christian Free Patriotic Movement and March 14 is the anti-Syrian ruling coalition, including Hariri's Future Movement and Geagea's Lebanese Forces):

Thursday saw a significant rise in tensions between the two camps in the build-up to the announcement of the results, with each side chanting political slogans and applauding their national political leaders, and booing those of the other side.

Security and riot police ... increased from the previous evening, this time prepared for potential clashes.

...The announcements came to an abrupt halt after a skirmish broke out between the two camps, and with the March 8 coalition slamming the results as illegitimate.

Immediately after the skirmish, Mohammad Hamadeh, leader of the Commoners Party and a March 8 coalition member, told The Daily Star that ballots had been tampered with.

"The results are wrong because there is a big problem with the number of votes placed," he explained. "Cheating has taken place. Our candidates inside [West Hall] confirmed that there were a lot more votes in the ballot boxes than there should be, meaning that the results are inaccurate."

"Even though we won, despite the cheating that occurred, we feel the obvious tampering that occurred needs to be investigated, as it does not make the elections just," he added.

Judging from the Daily Star's coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that these were city or even national elections. They're not. In fact, the elections were student elections at the American University in Beirut.

Political group violence is not unheard of in student elections, where college politics are a microcosm of Lebanese politics in general, with coalitions and parties mirroring their national counterparts. Last year, there was a serious bout of political/sectarian violence on the campus of the Lebanese American University. It is commonly believed that this is the reason why elections were suspended at that university.

These elections are a big deal, and political parties invest a fair amount of effort in winning them. On election day, it's impossible to get onto campus without an ID, and armed security details guard school entrances. And what results there are sound like announcements of which party took which state in the US:

Both sides agreed the March 14 coalition won the School of Business and a majority of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. It was also agreed the March 8 camp won the Faculty of Medicine and Nursing, and a majority of the Faculty of Engineering.

Who won this year at AUB? Your guess is as good as mine.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Khartoum accepts UN force


In a strange, and so for unexplained, turn of events, the Sudanese government has changed its mind, deciding to accept, "in principle," a joint United Nations and African Union peacekeeping force into Darfur.

Maybe it's cynicism, but I keep thinking to myself that there must be a catch somewhere, because up to now, Khartoum has successfully staved off an attempt led by the US to send peacekeepers to Darfur. Maybe China or Russia decided that to apply some pressure for some reason unknown to me. I can't imagine that either Moscow or Beijing have been too terribly concerned about how Khartoum's genocidal regime has reflected on them.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Danish intelligence saw no evidence of Iraqi WMD, journlalists on trial


The editor and two journalists from Berlingske Tidende are on trial for publishing Danish intelligence from before the invasion of Iraq that there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction:

In articles published in 2004 they quoted from analysis by a Danish intelligence agent, Frank Grevil.

His report, written before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, concluded that there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq.

The Berlingske Tidende journalists could go to jail if found guilty.

It is being viewed as a landmark case in Denmark, which is usually an ardent defender of freedom of expression.

An offence of publishing confidential Danish government documents is punishable by fines or up to two years in prison.

Berlingske Tidende's chief editor Niels Lunde went on trial along with reporters Michael Bjerre and Jesper Larsen on Monday. They pleaded not guilty.

Former intelligence officer Major Frank Soeholm Grevil was sentenced last year to four months in jail for leaking the documents to the reporters.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen supported the US-led invasion of Iraq and told parliament he was convinced former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was in possession of WMD.

The journalists' defence lawyer Henrik Dahl told the court his clients had done nothing wrong "because there was a huge public interest" in the information they published, the Associated Press reported.

Al Jazeera in English (but not in America)


Today Al Jazeera will launch its English-language cable channel. With over 80 million households ready to receive the channel, Al Jazeera English has more than doubled their goal of 40 million. Unfortunately, none of those households are American, since so far, zero cable providers have agreed to broadcast Al Jazeera English, and only one satellite dish company is offering the channel -- at an extra fee, at that. According to Comcast, these decisions are made on purely financial, and not political, grounds.

This is really disappointing, because the US market could use a different point of view and more international news. Of course, a less American-centric point of view would, in my view, be helpful for the US, but that would be second to what is, to my mind, the main offering of Al Jazeera: more international news.

In addition to the 42 bureaus of the Arabic version of Al Jazeera, the English channel will have 4 broadcast centers and 20 support bureaus:

Broadcast Centers:
London
Washington
Doha
Kuala Lumpur

Supporting Bureaus
Middle East: Cairo, Beirut, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza
Africa: Abidjan, Nairobi, Johannesburg and Harare
Asia and Australia: Beijing, Delhi, Islamabad, Jakarta, Manila and Sydney
Americas: Buenos Aires, Caracas and New York
Europe: Athens and Moscow

This amount of international coverage is colossal, and would benefit the American population immensely, particularly as far as African coverage is concerned. CNN, for example, has only 2 bureaus (Lagos and Nairobi) on the continent (excluding Cairo, which I've counted in the Middle East for both channels).

In addition to this meaty international coverage, Al Jazeera English will be featuring some familiar faces in the form of newscasters formerly from the BBC, CNN and CBS, among others. And they will even have a former US marine, Josh Rushing, as one of their commentators.

A Hezbollah-Somalia connection?


Reports of a UN report on arms embargo violations in Somalia say that Hezbollah has trained Somali militants and received Somali aid during the war this summer in the form of 720 Somali militants:

According to the Times, the report

states that in mid-July, Aden Hashi Farah, a leader of the Somali Islamist alliance, personally selected about 720 combat-hardened fighters to travel to Lebanon and fight alongside Hezbollah.

At least 100 Somalis had returned by early September -- with five Hezbollah members -- while others stayed on in Lebanon for advanced military training, the report says. It is not clear how many may have been killed, though the report says some were wounded and later treated after their return to Somalia.

The fighters were paid a minimum of $2,000 for their service, the report says, and as much as $30,000 was to be given to the families of those killed, with money donated by "a number of supporting countries."

In addition to training some Somali militants, Hezbollah "arranged for additional support to be given" by Iran and Syria, including weapons, the report found. On July 27, 200 Somali fighters also traveled to Syria to be trained in guerrilla warfare, the report says.

It also indicates that Iran appears to have sought help in its quest for uranium in Dusa Mareb, the hometown of Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, the leader of the Islamist alliance in Somalia, which is known as the Council of Islamic Courts.

"At the time of the writing of this report, there were two Iranians in Dusa Mareb engaged on matters linked to the exploration of uranium in exchange for arms" for the Council of Islamic Courts, says the report, which is dated Oct. 16.

It's hard to know what to make of this report, especially since I haven't been able to find an actual copy of it yet. It seems strange that there would be such a Sunni/Shia cooperation in Somalia and that the report writers would have access to such sensitive information from Iran and Hezbollah.

While it's common knowledge that Eritrea and Ethiopia have been backing the Islamic courts and government, respectively, in Somalia, I was unaware that Yemen, Uganda, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Djibouti, Libya and Hezbollah are allegedly involved. Hopefully more information will be available soon.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

American evangelicals for Israel


Here are a couple of extracts from the second part, on evangelicals for Israel, of the two-part series on America and Israel.

Many conservative Christians and their Jewish allies acknowledge a certain tension between the evangelical belief in a Biblical commission to convert non-Christians and their simultaneous desire to help the Jews of Israel.

"Despite all the spiritual shortcomings of the Jewish people," Dr. Dobson said, "according to scripture -- and those criticisms come not from Christians but from the Old Testament. Just look in Deuteronomy, where Jews are referred to as a stiff-necked and stubborn people -- despite all of that, God has chosen to bless them as his people. God chose to bless Abraham and his seed not because they were a perfect people any more than the rest of the human family."

...The Israeli government temporarily cut off ties with the Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson after he suggested that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke might have been God's punishment for withdrawing from territory that belonged to the Biblical Israel. But then Mr. Robertson flew to Israel during the fight with Hezbollah. In a gesture of reconciliation, the Israeli government recently worked with him to film a television commercial to attract Christian tourists.

"Israel -- to walk where Jesus walked, to pray where Jesus prayed, to stand where he stood -- there is no other place like it on earth," Mr. Robertson says in the commercial, according to the Jerusalem Post.

There are a couple of interesting quotes in the article, but as a whole it's kind of disappointing, because it doesn't get into how Israelis feel about the Christian attitude towards them or even exactly what sort of clout these evangelicals have in Washington.

Monday, November 13, 2006

US-Israel relations


The Times has an interesting piece on relations between Israel and the US (part one of a two-part series). The piece focuses on how Israel disagrees with the Bush adminstration's plans for a "new Middle East," instead, preferring to deal with autogratic but stable regimes like those of Egypt and Jordan. Israel is afraid of a democratic Middle East in which Hezbollah is part of the government in Lebanon, Hamas is elected in Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood is very popular in Egypt.

Other rifts include Washington's stance on Iran and fears that the US will engage Syria and Iran or ask Israel for conecessions towards Palestinians in order to get the support of China, Russia and Europe for sanctions against Iran:

Gidi Grinstein, a former Israeli negotiator who runs an independent policy center, the Reut Institute, says Israel and the United States share a larger goal on Iran but have "tension among their different objectives," as indicated by Mr. Zelikow.

The Iran debate in Washington is serious but unfinished, Mr. Grinstein said, noting the divisions between those who argue that a nuclear-armed Iran can be contained and those who believe that Iran must not get the technology to build a bomb, much less the weapon itself.

Mr. Alpher, the former Israeli negotiator, is concerned that if Mr. Bush ultimately negotiates with Iran, "we need to ensure that the United States doesn't sell us down the river." It is fine for Israel to say that Iran is the world's problem, he said. "But if the world solves it diplomatically," he added, "will it be at our expense?"

The world looks different to nearly all Israelis across the political spectrum than it does to people in most other countries. "Unlike Bush, an Israeli leader looks at Iran through the prism of the Holocaust and his responsibility to the ongoing existence of the Jewish people," Mr. Alpher said. "It may sound pompous, but at the end of the day it matters, and so we may be willing to do the strangest things."

Somehow, it seems healthy that both Israel and the US are acknowledging that they might have different goals and interests. After all, this is how all other allies interact. The myth that there is a mysterious perfect dovetailing of Israeli and American interests is a myth and probably does more harm than good, at least for the US.

The Israel lobby is quick to charge that any accusations of double allegience from the pro-Israel movement is just classical anti-semitism. However, the recent AIPAC spy case (see indictment here, would suggest that some of these fears are not entirely without merit.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Hizbollah and Amal quit government


Today saw the collapse of talks that started this week to bring together the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition, which controls the government, and the opposition (Hizbollah and its Shia ally, Amal, and its Christian ally Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement) on the issues of expanding the cabinet to give the opposition more say, accepting an international tribunal on Hariri's assassination and what to do about pro-Syrian President Lahoud, whose mandate was effectively extended by Damascus.

As a result, according to Hizbollah's television station, Al-Manar, Hizbollah and Amal have both quit the government. This does not mean that the government is disolved, it would take another three cabinet ministers to do that (five resigned today), but it is likely that there will be big pro-Hizbollah street demonstrations next week, and there is the possiblity that this will bring down the government.

Hopefully, this will result in new, peaceful, elections, although many people here are afraid that this is the spark that will ignite another civil war.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Sectarian divide in Lebanese politics


I was talking to my new landlord the other day about the political situation here in Lebanon, and he surprised me by saying that the Christians here only made up 27 percent of the population. "I know, because I'm a Christian," he told me. This number is significantly lower than numbers that I'd heard before, which ranged from 35 to 40 percent. An article in the Times today on Lebanon's Christians, however, gives an even lower number:

Generally speaking, Sunnis insist they are equal in number to Shiites. Shiites say they are a majority and Christians say they account for more than 20 percent. At the same time, all sides have said the state's convoluted election laws needed to be altered -- but, for now, without becoming so democratic as to undermine the distribution of power.

"A census will show the Christians are a clear minority," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at American University in Beirut. "Nobody wants to know they extent of their decline. Some think they don't even make up 25 percent of the population."

Since a census has not been done in Lebanon since the 1930s, it is impossible to know for sure, but I am shocked by, and have never once heard, the assertation that the Sunni are equal in number to the Shia.

In any and all cases, there are two serious problems in Lebanon: First, the current system does not represent the country's makeup, and second, Lebanese politics are confessional. I've thought a fair amount about how to make the electoral system more representative here without reinforcing sectarian divide and/or causing a civil war. I recently came across an article in Foreign Policy by Paul Salem, the director of the Beirut office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on the future of Lebanon. In order to solve the first problem, Salem suggests a good compromise in the form of a bicameral legislature, which would allow the current parliament to exist, complete with its confessional politics and non-representative allocation of seats, with a more representative chamber without confessional quotas.

[A] bicameral legislature must be established, with a lower house free of confessional quotas, which would allow the Shiites better representation. It will not do to argue that the Shiites cannot be trusted with power because they are too close to outside actors (as the Maronites argued of the Sunnis in the past). They will reduce their dependence on foreign powers largely to the extent that they feel like they have a secure stake in the government. The horse must be put in front, and the cart will follow. And every group in Lebanon has at some point committed the sin of relying on extensive outside support: the Maronites allied with Israel and the Sunnis with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and everyone used -- and was used by -- the Syrians.

Now this solution would not stop politics from being sectarian; it would only make the legislative branch more representative of sectarian realities. The problem of confessional voting in Lebanon is not one that can be solved by restructuring the electoral system.

I'm not really sure how such a fundamental shift could be made in Lebanon, but until people start voting for mixed parties based on their platforms instead of single confessional parties based primarily on one's religion, Lebanon will never be able to overcome the sectarian discord that has plagued this small Mediterranean country for so long.

Rumsfeld's replacement


I woke up yesterday morning to news that the Democrats had trounced the Republicans, and later that evening, I saw, with relief, that the first casualty of the "new direction" was Rumsfeld. I don't know much about Robert Gates, the former CIA director (the only one in its history to have worked his way up from an entry-level position). However, the fact that he has served in several different administrations, both Republican and Democrat, is a good sign.

While he is a Soviet analyst, he is a part of Baker's Iraq Study Group and has spoken out against Washington's self-defeating policy of not talking to Iran:

"It is not in our interest for Iran to have nuclear weapons," Gates said. "It is not in our interest for Iran to oppose the new governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. And if we can engage them and try and bring some progress in those areas, then our interests have been served. And that's what it's all about."

Gates also said that if the United States were to open lines of communication with Iran, that would not be sending a mixed message.

"Well, are we rewarding bad behavior by talking to the Libyans?" Gates said.

"Are we rewarding bad behavior by talking to the North Koreans? We're trying to figure out how to limit the national security risks to the United States from policies that Iran is following.

"We don't have much of a voice in that effort right now. We're basically sitting on the sidelines," Gates told NPR's Michele Kelemen in July 2004.

I think that Rumsfeld's departure is a good first step in the right direction, particularly on Middle East policy. Let's hope it's not the last.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

National unity talks and security


Talks have started about the possibility of a change in the government, and the level of security has been drastically increased downtown, where the meetings are being held.

Last night, I couldn't find a cab home, so I walked home, through downtown. I was stopped and searched five times during a ten-minute walk. I'm not sure if I'm reassured by the level of security or worried that it's necessary...

Cluster bombs in Lebanon


Saturday afternoon, I walked downtown and saw a event organized by groups like Handicap International against cluster bombs. There were pictures of cluster bomb casualties and actual cluster bombs, which ranged in citrus-fruit size (I think it's only apt to use the same family of fruits as we use to describe tumors) from small oranges to grapefruits. Since the war, on average, two people a day have died from unexploded cluster munitions. According to UN estimates, there remain up to a million unexploded bomblets in the south of Lebanon.

A fried of mine sent me an article by George Monbiot on how the UK and the US are doing their best to make sure that cluster munitions stay legal:

In Geneva today, at the new review of the conventional weapons treaty, the British government will be using the full force of its diplomacy to ensure that civilians continue to be killed, by blocking a ban on the use of cluster bombs. Sweden, supported by Austria, Mexico and New Zealand, has proposed a convention making their deployment illegal, like the Ottawa treaty banning anti-personnel landmines. But the UK, working with the US, China and Russia, has spent the past week trying to prevent negotiations from being opened. Perhaps this is unsurprising. Most of the cluster bombs dropped during the past 40 years have been delivered by Britain's two principal allies - the US and Israel - in the "war on terror". And the UK used hundreds of thousands of them during the two Gulf wars.

...A report published last week by the independent organisation Handicap International estimates that around 100,000 people have been killed or wounded by cluster bombs. Of the known casualties, 98% are civilians. Most of them are hit when farming, walking or clearing the rubble where their homes used to be. Many of the victims are children, partly because the bombs look like toys. Handicap's report tells terrible and heartbreaking stories of children finding these munitions and playing catch with them, or using them as boules or marbles. Those who survive are often blinded, lose limbs or suffer horrible abdominal injuries.

Handicap International's report can be found here.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

International Crisis Group releases paper on Lebanon/Hizbollah/Israel


The International Crisis Group has released a report on avoiding renewed conflict in the region. Here are their reccomendations:

RECOMMENDATIONS

To the United Nations Security Council:


1. Promote effective implementation of Resolution 1701 on Lebanon by passing a follow-up resolution calling for:

(a) comprehensive Lebanese security reform, with the assistance of outside parties, based on the need to effectively assert the state's sovereignty and defend its territorial integrity;

(b) sustained and substantial international financial assistance;

(c) intensive efforts to address outstanding Israeli-Lebanese issues, including a prisoner exchange, a halt to Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty and onset of a process to resolve the status of the contested Shebaa farms by transferring custody to the UN under UNIFIL supervision pending Israel-Syria and Israel-Lebanon peace agreements; and

(d) intensive and sustained efforts to reach a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

To the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL):

2. Accept that its task is essentially to assist the Lebanese Armed Forces, refraining from proactive searches for Hizbollah arms caches.

3. Investigate, publicly condemn and take appropriate action against flagrant violations of Resolution 1701, particularly attempts to resupply Hizbollah and Israeli over-flights or other violations of Lebanese sovereignty.

4. Quickly provide financial and technical support for the clearance of unexploded munitions (UXOs) and other lethal war debris, including cluster sub-munitions that are sinking below the surface due to the onset of winter.

5. Avoid assuming an assertive armed posture in patrolling southern Lebanon so as to minimise anti-UN sentiment among the local population.

6. Complete UN demarcation of the Shebaa farms area and propose to Israel, Lebanon and Syria placing it under temporary UN custody pending final peace agreements between them.

To the Government of Israel:

7. Halt hostile operations in Lebanon, including the capture or assassination of militants and civilians, as well as violations of Lebanese waters and air space.

8. Cooperate with UN efforts to address remaining Israeli-Lebanese issues, including a prisoner exchange, provision of digital records of cluster-rocket launching sequences and logbooks with target coordinates, and resolution of the status of Shebaa farms and Ghajar village.

To the Government of Syria:

9. Engage in an open dialogue with Lebanon aimed at clarifying and addressing both sides' legitimate interests, in particular by normalising bilateral relations on the basis of mutual respect and exchanging embassies.

10. Cooperate with UN efforts to demarcate the Shebaa farms area and reach agreement with Lebanon on its final status.

To Hizbollah:

11. End all visible armed presence south of the Litani River and avoid provocative actions vis-à-vis Israel or UNIFIL.

12. Work within the context of the national dialogue on a mutually acceptable process that would lead to the end of its status as an autonomous force, notably through enhancement of the LAF?s defence capabilities, reform of the political system and progress toward Arab-Israeli peace.

13. Limit territorial claims to those officially endorsed by the Lebanese government.

To the Government of Lebanon:

14. Undertake, in cooperation with international partners, a thorough security reform aimed at re-establishing and defending the state?s sovereignty over its territory, emphasising defensive capabilities and reinforcing the army as an instrument of national defence.

15. Ensure that such security reform is not used to further any international or partisan domestic agenda.

16. Encourage Hizbollah?s gradual demilitarisation by addressing outstanding Israeli-Lebanese issues (prisoner exchange, violations of Lebanese sovereignty and Shebaa farms); and reforming and democratising Lebanon?s political system.

17. Tighten controls along its border with Syria, using international technical assistance.

To the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF):

18. Confiscate visible weapons south of the Litani River and seek to prevent arms transfers.

To the European Union and its Member States:

19. Provide technical and material assistance to Lebanon?s security reform process, domestic security organs and the Lebanese Armed Forces.

To Arab States:

20. Support the building and equipping of the LAF.

21. Provide additional financial assistance to assist in reconstruction and reduce government indebtedness.

22. Cast off sectarian bias in dealing with Lebanon, ensuring that relations are established with the central government rather than particular communities.

To Members of the Quartet (U.S., Russia, UN and EU):

23. Conduct parallel discussions with Israel, Syria and Lebanon to re-launch Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese peace negotiations, making clear that the goal is a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

This touches on a lot of issues and I think ICG is right to advise caution and warn against using Resolution 1701 "as a blunt means of disarming Hizbollah." We'll see if any of the parties actually listen.

Hamas proposes a 10-year truce


Ahmed Yousef, a senior Hamas advisor, has proposed a 10-year hudna, or truce, to Israel.

A truce is referred to in Arabic as a "hudna." Typically covering 10 years, a hudna is recognized in Islamic jurisprudence as a legitimate and binding contract. A hudna extends beyond the Western concept of a cease-fire and obliges the parties to use the period to seek a permanent, nonviolent resolution to their differences. The Koran finds great merit in such efforts at promoting understanding among different people. Whereas war dehumanizes the enemy and makes it easier to kill, a hudna affords the opportunity to humanize one?s opponents and understand their position with the goal of resolving the intertribal or international dispute.

... We Palestinians are prepared to enter into a hudna to bring about an immediate end to the occupation and to initiate a period of peaceful coexistence during which both sides would refrain from any form of military aggression or provocation. During this period of calm and negotiation we can address the important issues like the right of return and the release of prisoners. If the negotiations fail to achieve a durable settlement, the next generation of Palestinians and Israelis will have to decide whether or not to renew the hudna and the search for a negotiated peace.

There can be no comprehensive solution of the conflict today, this week, this month, or even this year. A conflict that has festered for so long may, however, be resolved through a decade of peaceful coexistence and negotiations. This is the only sensible alternative to the current situation. A hudna will lead to an end to the occupation and create the space and the calm necessary to resolve all outstanding issues.

Few in Gaza dream. For most of the past six months it's been difficult to even sleep. Yet hope is not dead. And when we dare to hope, this is what we see: a 10-year hudna during which, inshallah (God willing), we will learn again to dream of peace.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

UN to send cartographer to the Shebaa Farms


The last major territorial dispute between Lebanon and Israel is the Shebaa Farms. Israel considers the land to be part of the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied after the 1967 war, taking the land from Syria. However, both Syria and Lebanon consider the land to be Lebanese, and this is one of Hizbollah's rationales for maintaining a militia. The is convenient for Damascus, which is afraid of the Lebanese signing a bilateral peace accord with Israel, leaving Syria to be the last remaining neighbor of Israel to not have signed an accord. As things stand, the Israelis -- and the UN, which includes the land under the UNDOF mandate (monitoring the disengagement of Israel and Syria) instead of under the UNIFIL mandate (monitoring the border between Israel and Lebanon) -- have assured that the Israel policies of both Beirut and Damascus are inextricably linked.

The Daily Star reports that the UN is sending a Balkan cartographer to "demarcate the precise location and area of the Shebaa Farms."

The confusion stems from poor French mandate maps, but reasearch by Israeli historian Asher Kaufman (see "Who owns the Shebaa Farms? Chronicle of a territorial dispute" in The Middle East Journal; Autumn 2002; 56, 4 - unfortunately not available online) shows that there is strong evidence for Lebanon's claims based on land ownership, which was registered in Lebanon, not in Syria.

It will be interesting to see what the cartographer comes up with, but it seems strange to me that concurrent official declarations by the two countries involved in the border dispute, Lebanon and Syria, would not be enough to settle the issue once and for all. We'll see if this leads to a Lebanese agreement with Israel, which may or may not be a good thing in the long run. While it seems obvious to me that a comprehensive peace agreement, which is what Damascus is pulling for, that involves Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinians is ideal, perhaps baby steps are in order.

Cole on partitioning Iraq


Juan Cole chimes in giving us his view of partitioning Iraq:

[A]side from the selfish interests of all the political actors inside and outside Iraq, as a practical policy, partitioning Iraq is too risky. It would probably not reduce ethnic infighting. It might produce more. The mini-states that emerge from a partition will have plenty of reason to fight wars with one another, as India did with Pakistan in the 1940s and has done virtually ever since. Worse, it is likely that if the Sunni Arab mini-state commits an atrocity against the Shiites, it might well bring in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. They in turn would be targeted by Saudi and Jordanian jihadi volunteers.

A break-up of Iraq might not stop at Iraq?s borders. The Sunni Arabs could be picked up by Syria, thus greatly increasing Syria?s fighting power. Or they could become a revolutionary force in Jordan. A wholesale renegotiation of national borders may ensue, according to some thinkers. Such profound changes in such a volatile part of the world cannot be depended on to occur without bloodshed. The region is already racked by the Arab-Israeli conflict and the struggle between secular and religious politics.

To my mind, the first problem with partition, which Cole doesn't mention at all, would be the status of highly mixed cities, and especially Baghdad. My second misgiving would be how the Turks, Saudis and Iranians would react to these news states in their backyard.

The end of Iraq?


Zaid Al-Ali, an Iraqi lawyer, reviews Peter Galbraith's book, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. The review focuses on Galbraith's idea that a federal division of Iraq (or even a confederation) is the only option that remains. But Al-Ali also take a look at Galbraith's role in advising the Kurds on the issue of the constitution:

"I realized that the Kurdish leaders had a conceptual problem in planning for a federal Iraq. They were thinking in terms of devolution of power - meaning that Baghdad grants them rights. I urged that the equation be reversed. In a memo I sent Barham (Salih) and Nechirvan (Barzani) in August (2003), I drew a distinction between the previous autonomy proposals and federalism: 'Federalism is a "bottom up" system. The basic organizing unit of the country is the province or state. [...] In a federal system residual power lies with the federal unit (i.e. state or province); under an autonomy system it rests with the central government. The central government has no ability to revoke a federal status or power: it can revoke an autonomy arrangement. [...] The Constitution should state that the Constitution of Kurdistan, and laws made pursuant to the Constitution, is the supreme law of Kurdistan. Any conflict between laws of Kurdistan and the laws of or Constitution of Iraq shall be decided in favor of the former.' These ideas eventually became the basis of Kurdistan's proposals for an Iraq constitution."

The question of what such a breakup of Iraq would mean for the country, not to speak of the region, is one that I'm fairly uncertain and ambivalent about, although Al-Ali argues that not only would it be a disaster, but that only the Kurds want such a weakening or even disolution of the state:

It is true that many western policymakers and commentators agree with his characterisation that Iraqis are being made to live together "against their will", but Galbraith, whose ties to Iraq run deeper than most, should know better than to make such a vague and inaccurate assertion.

By way of example, a survey was conducted a few months ago in Karbala, one of Shi'a Islam's most holy cities and main intellectual centres, on the issue of whether the city's residents support the territorial division of the state. Only around 5% of respondents supported the formation of regions, or states, based on ethnicity or religious identity, whereas 91.6% of respondents said that they either favored a centralised form of government or a decentralised system based on administrative divisions that were independent of factors such as religion and ethnicity. Even if Galbraith is right that a majority of Iraqi Kurds are in favour of independence, he fails to mention that their wish is not shared by a large majority of the remaining 82% of the Iraqi population.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Assad: "only America ... can be the main broker for peace in the Middle East"


The Times has reprinted and translated an excellent interview with Syrian president, Bashar Assad, by Der Spiegel. Assad has interesting things to say about the future of Iraq and the consequences of American foreign policy in the region:

SPIEGEL: You are very pessimistic when it comes to Iraq. What can the countries of the Middle East do for Iraq?

Assad: I was already very pessimistic before the war. I told the Americans: There is no doubt that you will win this war, but then you will sink into a quagmire. What has now happened is worse than I expected. The two main problems are, first, the constitution and the issue of federalism, which is at the center of the great dispute between Sunnis and Shiites and, second, Kirkuk and the civil war that is developing between Kurds and Arabs. These problems must be addressed. It doesn't help for the Americans to point to the elections they brought about or to the higher standard of living. Those are cosmetic issues.

SPIEGEL: What would be the consequences of partition into a Kurdish north, a Shiite south and a Sunni region in central Iraq?

Assad: It would be harmful, not just for Iraq, but for the entire region, from Syria across the Gulf and into Central Asia. Imagine snapping a necklace and all the pearls fall to the ground. Almost all countries have natural dividing lines, and when ethnic and religious partition occurs in one country, it'll soon happen elsewhere. It would be like the end of the Soviet Union -- only far worse. Major wars, minor wars, no one will be capable of keeping the consequences under control.

SPIEGEL: So you would be in favor of a strong man who could hold Iraq together?

Assad: Not necessarily one man, but certainly a strong central authority. It has to be left to the Iraqis to determine exactly what this would look like. A secular authority is certainly best-equipped for maintaining stability in this ethnic and religious mosaic -- but it should also be of a strong national character. Those who arrived on America's tanks are not credible in Iraq.

I've often wondered what would be so bad about splitting up Iraq, which since its inception after the First World War. Bashar's pearl necklace metaphor is not unconvincing. It's hard to say how the sectarian division of such a split would be felt in countries like Lebanon, Pakistan and Bahrain.

Suprisingly enough, he thinks that the US has a unique role to play in bringing a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict:

SPIEGEL: After the cease-fire between Israel and the Hezbollah militia, you gave a much-noted speech on the situation in the Middle East. In your speech, you mentioned a "critical stage of the history of Syria and the region." Wherein lies the opportunity?

Assad: First of all, it's clear to everyone that the status quo of war and conflict and instability is no longer acceptable. Now America enters the picture, because only America, because of its weight, can be the main broker for peace in the Middle East. But the Bush administration is under pressure. It's being accused of not having managed to bring about peace in six years. This pressure is good. Europe's foreign policy role is also growing. We specifically do not want a special role for the Europeans. We expect them to work together with America to achieve peace, and to do so on the basis of a vision America must develop.

SPIEGEL: What is Syria's role?

Assad: There can be no peace in the Middle East without Syria. The Lebanon and the Palestinian conflicts are inextricably linked with Syria. I have already mentioned the 500,000 Palestinian refugees. Were we to resolve our territorial dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights alone, we wouldn't achieve stability. We would only be taking away the Palestinians' hope and would be turning them from refugees into resistance fighters. This is why Syria is so determined to achieve a comprehensive peaceful solution.

The rest of the interview is well worth reading, not only because it is important for the US to hear what its enemies in the region have to say (instead of just talking to its friends), but because Asad has a very reasonable analysis about some of the most important issues facing the Middle East.


The Times also has an op-ed by Fromkin, whose excellent book A Peace to end all Peace I've just finished, on the anniversary of the Suez Canal fiasco.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Syria


I'm back in Beirut from Damascus, and all in all, it was a really interesting trip. I got to see the last days of Ramadan and the first days of al-Eid. I wasn't able to go to the Golan Heights, because the Ministry of the Interior was closed for the holidays, and I think it might be closed anyway because of the heightened tensions between Syria and Israel.

Everyone was extremely nice to me in Damascus, and poor families who ran shops in the old city insisted on sharing their meager rations with me while they broke their fast. Without asking who I was or where I was from or whether or not I was Muslim, one family stopped me in the street and refused to let me leave until I had eaten some of their food. They told me that I was welcome and thanked God that I was there to break the fast with them.

Otherwise, I noticed that the country that has been notorious for not having Coca-Cola has finally joined the Coca club. I was atop a mountain overlooking Damascus when I noticed that instead of Syrian Master Cola, I could actually buy a can of Coca-Cola. Apparently, a month and a half ago the Turkish distributor of Coke, who provides for the rest of the Middle East, finally managed to clear the importation of Coke with the Syrian government.

Here in Beirut, there was another explosion yesterday, but no one seems very concerned, despite the visible increase in Security Forces all over town.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Damascus


I arrived in Damascus last night at around 10 after spending almost 6 hours at the border. Officially, Americans have to get their visa in Washignton, but it's usually possible to get it at the Lebanese border, provied that you're willing to wait a while.

The only other time I've ever been here was on my way out of Lebanon to Jordan during the war this summer. The city seemed lively and teeming with energy, and I was disappointed that I wasn't able to look around. (I spent the night in a UNRWA Palestinian training camp then left the next morning for Amman.)

Damascus reminds me of a cross between Cairo and Beirut, which is a very good combination. These are the last days of Ramadan, so everyone is pretty lethargic during the day. I'm looking forward to celebrating Eid, although it would be nice to do it in a family setting rather than as a tourist. I've spent most of the day in the Souks looking at Iranian manuscripts, which may or may not be fakes, and key chains for my collection.

The last time I was in Syria, I was struck by Assad's cult of personality, with portraits of him all over the place, including in people's car windows. This time though, I've seen more pictures of Nasrallah than anyone else. The support for Hizbollah seems ubiquitous. There are posters, banners, glass etchings, t-shirts, and yes, key chains.

I'm going to try to get permission to take the Syrian tour of a village in the Golan Heights that was abandoned after the Israeli occupation. It should be interesting to see the place that could be the key to enflaming or defusing current tensions in the region.

I'll take pictures, but I won't be able to upload any until I get back to Beirut.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Former Janjaweed fighter tells his story


The BBC has exerpts of an account of a former Janjaweed fighter, who explains how things work in Darfur:

I tell you one fact. The Janjaweed don't make decisions. The orders come from the government...

One very well-known and regular visitor was Interior Minister Abdul Rahim Muhammad Hussein.

We will be split into two groups, one on horses, one on camels...

The aircraft went ahead of the Janjaweed. We saw the smoke, we saw the fire, then we went in...

Whenever we go into a village and find resistance we kill everyone. Sometimes they said wipe out an entire village...

We hear kill! Kill! Kill! And we shoot to kill...

Most were civilians - most were women...

Innocent people running out and being killed including children. And those who escape will die of thirst.

There are many rapes. But they don't do it in front of others. They take the victim away and rape them.

Eric Reeves, has gives us his two cents in the Guardian.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Break...


I'm off to al-Andalus until the new year, so I doubt that I'll be posting...

Happy holidays.

Setting Lebanon Free


I meant to mention this the other day, but it slipped my mind. Robert Grenier, former director of the CIA's counterintelligence center, thinks that if the US loves Lebanon, we should set it free.

ONCE more, Lebanon is in political crisis. This time, we are told, it pits "Syrian- and Iranian-backed" Shiite parties (Hezbollah and Amal) and the Christian faction led by Michel Aoun against the "Western-backed" Christian, Sunni and Druze groups that support the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

These very descriptions -- citing one external backer or another as a mark of political identification -- illustrate the fundamental problem Lebanon must overcome. Call it the Lebanese Disease: rather than sorting out their differences internally and addressing the fundamental injustices at the heart of their disputes, the Lebanese constantly look to outsiders to gain an advantage over their rivals.

Naturally, any advantages thus gained are short-lived, for both the Lebanese and their foreign backers. In the end, the only result is greater popular suffering and instability in Lebanon and the entire Middle East.

Only the Lebanese can cure themselves of this disease, but a bit of enlightened self-interest on the part of the "Western backers" -- primarily the United States and France ? would greatly help. It may seem counterintuitive, but the best hope for American interests in the Middle East is not to isolate and minimize Hezbollah, but to further integrate it politically, socially and militarily into the Lebanese state.

...It has long been obvious that the Shiites are under-represented in Lebanon's complicated power-sharing arrangements. In return for a greater measure of political representation for Shiites, Mr. Siniora could have insisted that Hezbollah's militia be brought under some sort of state control -- perhaps as a sort of home guard for the south, with its fighters under the command of senior officers drawn from the Lebanese armed forces.

...A far more genuine American commitment to Lebanon would focus on helping the parties to come up with a reasonable formula to redress the under-representation of Shiites in the power structure while getting greater government control over Hezbollah's war-making capacity.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Shouting across the divide


This American Life has an excellent piece on bridging the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims. The segment is about the statue of Mohammad in the Supreme Court, a Muslim-American family whose life is wrecked by a evangelizing fourth grade teacher, and an ad exec who tries to sell brand America. You can listen to the show or download it as an mp3 until later this week.

In the first story, the representative of CAIR tries to explain why Muslims don't appreciate the statue of Mohammad, even if it is supposed to be inclusive. In the second, a fourth-grade teacher reads her students a book on how Muslims hate America and Christians for the anniversary of 9/11 then explains to the only Muslim child how she and her family will go to hell if they don't accept the blood of Jesus. Finally, the third segment shows the difficulty of using the same formula to sell Coke to sell America might not work and explores a possible slogan about Muslim control of Islam's holy cities Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem: "Two outta three ain't bad!"

Monday, December 18, 2006

Petrodollars to petro-euros


Tehran has just announced that Iran will be converting all of its assets, holdings, reserves and accounting from US dollars to euros.

I remember there being talk during the run-up to the war in Iraq that one of the reasons for the invasion of Iraq was to reverse Saddam's decision to dump the dollar for the Euro. Whether or not Baghdad's decision to trade in euros, which incidentally made Iraq a lot of money, had anything to do with the invasion is unclear. To be honest, I don't understand enough about monetary policy to know exactly how OPEC countries' changing to Euros would affect the US economy, except for a vague sense that the results would be less than positive for America. I would, however, be willing to bet that Iraq now only trades in US dollars.

We'll see what effect Iran's decision will have, but if I had to guess, I'd say that it hasn't helped relations between Washington and Tehran.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

On civil war in Iraq


Safire is debating the usage "civil war" in describing Iraq. Personally, I took to calling a spade a spade almost a year and a half ago.

Safire makes a point of boasting about his easy access to president Talibani, who "definitively" does not call it a civil war, and he quotes Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times who makes the following point:

I bristle at the way a low-grade semantic argument has become -- at least among the partisan cud-chewers -- a substitute for serious discussion of what's happening in Iraq and what to do about it. ... Maybe this argument is a symptom of intellectual fatigue in the punditocracy.

So while I can agree that a lot of people are arguing about what to call it while not thinking enough about what to do there, I don't agree with Safire, who in the end, thinks that it's just a value judgement:

Call the fighting what you like, but the name you choose to give the hostilities, strife, violence or war not only reflects your view about the current state of affairs but is also an indication of where you stand on what our policy should be. Labels are the language's shorthand for judgments.

I disagree. Words have meaning. So although it's true that certain people push for the civil war in Iraq to be called one thing or another for ideological reasons, that does not mean that one label is more or less accurate than another. And when Safire's Kurdish friend argues that

There is a more complex dynamic to this than civil war... There is Shia versus Shia, Sunni versus Sunni, Shia versus Sunni and Shia and Sunni versus Al Qaeda, as well as militias against the authority of the elected government. Many act as the proxies of regional powers, so you can call it as much a proxy war as a civil war.

I have a hard time thinking that he's being anything but disingenuous, since, if anything, the Lebanese civil war was even more complex. There, we saw 18 confessional groups lining up with over half a dozen foreign powers (Israel, Syria, Iraq, US, France, Italy, etc.) and the Palestinians, who were somewhat in between a domestic and a foreign force. Does anyone call that anything other than a civil war? So why should Iraq be any different?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Underqualified


I read this IHT Op-Ed by Jeff Stein last October with a mixture of sad resignation and sighing wonderment, thinking to myself that it's no wonder American foreign policy in the Middle East is so often so wrongheaded and obviously stupid. After all, if US counterterrorism officials and congressmen don't know answers to such basic questions as the difference between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, or even to which sects Al-Qaeda, Iran and Hezbollah belong, how can they make informed decisions about issues that are based on underlying differences between the region's actors?

So I have to say that while I'm not surprised, I am certainly disappointed to see that the newly appointed Democratic intelligence chairman is equally uninformed (via Ezra):

...like a number of his colleagues and top counterterrorism officials that I've interviewed over the past several months, Reyes can't answer some fundamental questions about the powerful forces arrayed against us in the Middle East.

It begs the question, of course: How can the Intelligence Committee do effective oversight of U.S. spy agencies when its leaders don't know basics about the battlefield?

...Reyes stumbled when I asked him a simple question about al Qaeda at the end of a 40-minute interview in his office last week. Members of the Intelligence Committee, mind you, are paid $165,200 a year to know more than basic facts about our foes in the Middle East.

We warmed up with a long discussion about intelligence issues and Iraq. And then we veered into terrorism's major players.

To me, it's like asking about Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland: Who's on what side?

The dialogue went like this:

Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?

"Al Qaeda, they have both," Reyes said. "You're talking about predominately?"

"Sure," I said, not knowing what else to say.

"Predominantly -- probably Shiite," he ventured.

...And Hezbollah? I asked him. What are they?

"Hezbollah. Uh, Hezbollah..."

He laughed again, shifting in his seat.

"Why do you ask me these questions at five o'clock? Can I answer in Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?"

"Pocito," I said -- a little.

"Pocito?!" He laughed again.

"Go ahead," I said, talk to me about Sunnis and Shia in Spanish.

Reyes: "Well, I, uh...."

Stein goes on to tell us how the woeful ignorance of the region goes all the way from the top of the chain of command to those on the ground -- the employees of the embassy in Baghdad. It seems that of all the Americans at the embassy in Iraq, there are only six fluent Arabic speakers and two dozen who have some familiarity with the language. This is out of over a thousand employees.

There is definitely a dearth of specialists of the region and speakers of its languages. And those in charge don't seem very concerned about it, since according to the Department of Defense, between 1993 and 2003, 55 Arabic speakers and 9 Farsi speakers have been fired in accordance with the US military's policy of "Don't ask, Don't tell."

The 9/11 commission report decried the lack of Arabic speakers, a situation that has led to a huge backlog of untranslated documents in the government's counterterrorism efforts. It seems not only disheartening but disconcerting that ideological issues such as one's sexual orientation would trump national security concerns.

So while I'm glad to see that some of those who pushed the most ferociously for war in Iraq will no longer be in a position to decide foreign policy in the region, I'm afraid that their Democratic counterparts aren't any more qualified to make such important decisions.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Peace not apartheid in Palestine


Jimmy Carter, responding to the reaction his new book has received, has a sincere and thoughtful piece in the LA Times on speaking frankly about Israel and Palestine:

The many controversial issues concerning Palestine and the path to peace for Israel are intensely debated among Israelis and throughout other nations ? but not in the United States. For the last 30 years, I have witnessed and experienced the severe restraints on any free and balanced discussion of the facts. This reluctance to criticize any policies of the Israeli government is because of the extraordinary lobbying efforts of the American-Israel Political Action Committee and the absence of any significant contrary voices.

It would be almost politically suicidal for members of Congress to espouse a balanced position between Israel and Palestine, to suggest that Israel comply with international law or to speak in defense of justice or human rights for Palestinians. Very few would ever deign to visit the Palestinian cities of Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, Gaza City or even Bethlehem and talk to the beleaguered residents. What is even more difficult to comprehend is why the editorial pages of the major newspapers and magazines in the United States exercise similar self-restraint, quite contrary to private assessments expressed quite forcefully by their correspondents in the Holy Land.

While I disagree with Carter on the idea of a two-state solution (I believe the only tenable solution to the conflict is a single democratic state where one person has one vote), I agree wholeheartedly with the problems that arise in the US when one wants to have an honest discussion about Israel/Palestine.

Proving his point, we can see that this is the kind of reaction that genuine discourse, such as Carter's gets in the US. Of course this elder statesman handles himself with propriety and grace, neither of which such mean-spirited and asinine attacks really warrant.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Pulitzer and an Iranian execution


The Wall Street Journal has an excellent piece on photographs of executed Kurds during the Iranian revolution and the photographer who until now has remained anonymous.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

One reported dead in street violence in Beirut


According to Lebanese television, a group of Shia protesters were walking home from the protest to their neighborhood near the Shatilla refugee camp. Apparently, they were attacked by a group of March 14 supporters, but it is unsure if the attackers were Sunni or Christian.

The details are still coming out, but it seems a Shia youth of twenty years was shot and killed by the attackers. Another in the group may have been stabbed as well.

This is really disconcerting, not only for the obvious reason that someone was murdered in the street, but for the fact that up until now, clashes between opposition supporters and government supporters had stayed at a minimum. I can imagine that this sort of an act will not go without a reprisal from Shia groups.

Opposition supporters interviewed on television stated that the March 14 group had their protest last week without any attacks by opposition supporters and were dismayed that they were not left alone to protest peacefully.

Up till now, I've been fairly optimistic about a peaceful solution to the political tensions here, but now I'm not so sure. This is just the sort of senseless act of violence that could spark a civil war.


UPDATE: The AP has a wire story on the event, and apparently it was Sunnis who killed the Shia boy:

Violent clashes broke out Sunday between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the capital, leaving one man dead from gunshot wounds at a time when tensions throughout Lebanon threaten the country's fragile sectarian and political balance.

...The clash in Tarik Jdideh occurred as a group of Hezbollah supporters were returning from Beirut's downtown and passed through the Sunni neighborhood.

Police officials said the two sides threw stones at each other, then shots were fired, killing Ahmed Ali Mahmoud, a 20-year-old Shiite. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the press.

At least 10 other people were slightly injured elsewhere in West Beirut in similar clashes.

What's really happening in Beirut


I just got off the phone with my father in the US. He immediately started giving me a lecture on Lebanese politics, if you can call it that. Generally speaking, I can count on my father to represent the red-state everyman, whether the topic is foreign policy or domestic affairs. He's worried about me being in Beirut, which is normal, especially since the Arab world is a region that seems very foreign and even threating to him.

He brought up the protests and how the situation was getting dangerous in Lebanon. I told him that I had actually just come back from them and that the mood was festive, nonviolent and, ultimately, democratic. He told me that no, Hezbollah was just a bunch of terrorists and that they aren't democratic and that they're trying to take over the country.

Things always start deteriorating when I can't hold my tongue in these situations. I told him that if he was interested in knowing the specifics of the situation, I could explain them to him, but I was not interested in getting a lecture on Lebanese politics from someone who doesn't know anything about the subject.

However, as a representative of the American mindset, one of his sentences stuck in my mind: "Everyone knows the Hezbollah terrorists are trying to take over the government." Speaking from an American view point, he's probably right. Everyone knows what's happening. Of course they don't actually know what's going on here, but that doesn't make their certainty any less headstrong.

I went down to the protests again today. If you hadn't been following the situation here and didn't speak any Arabic, you might think that everyone had showed up in Beirut for a music festival, or maybe an independence day celebration or some other national holiday.

Downtown has turned into a souk, with people hawking political flags and shirts out of the trunk of their cars or on tables set up in the newly formed tent village. Vendors sell warm food, cigarettes and cold drinks. Shia clerics stand next to young women with abundant cleavage and bear shoulders. Supporters of Hezbollah and Amal mingle with Christian supporters of General Aoun and communists who hock Che scarves and Lebanese flags with a hammer and sickle on them.

Youth congregate together drawing into circles to dance and sing while drums are beaten loudly. Children have faces painted red, white and green to mirror the Lebanese flag, sometimes with a small flag on each cheek, other times with the a single taking up the entire face, the centered ceder formed by a small nose. The sound of two teacups click-clacking together calls those protesters who would like to sit down and warm up with a cup of hot tea. Barbecue grills are set up, some selling food while other sell hot coals for the myriad of water pipes everyone seems to be smoking between chanting slogans and waving flags. These are the "terrorists" my father was lecturing me about.

As dusk falls, some protesters gather into buses to make the trip back home while others start fires to keep themselves warm next to their tents. Downtown feels alive and vibrant, religiously and socially mixed -- somewhat like I imagine it being before the civil war and before it was revamped into an expensive simulacrum of its former self.


Protesters wave Lebanese flags downtown in hopes of pressuring PM Siniora to resign.


Downtown has turned into a festive tent city, with hundreds of thousands converging on the capital to show the government their discontent.


Opposition supporters come together to dance underneath the overpass, which houses many who are camping here until the government resigns or expands the opposition's representation in the cabinet.


Protesters get ready for the evening by lighting up camp fires.

More on the protests


I've been really disappointed with the coverage of these protests by the media. The language used to described them seems to be culled from the government's talking points, with talk of a coup d'état that implies that these protests are somehow illegitimate, whereas the March 14 protests were legitimate and righteous.

Another gripe of mine is the focus on the sectarian divide, even though the Christians, for example are very divided, with some following Aoun and the opposition and others following the ruling coalition. To my mind there has not been nearly enough focus on the social divide. Today, a friend of mine forwarded me a message that had been sent to her, telling people to go look at the animals at the zoo downtown. The message is clear: these people, especially the Shia and the poor, are not only not Lebanese, but they're not even human. This attitude, and its social and economic consequences, play a large part in the frustration felt by a large segment of Lebanese society.

At the end of the day, this is a question about Lebanese identity and the sharing of Lebanon's wealth. These differences are largely political and social, a fact that gets lost in the easy description of sectarian divide. This is not to say that that divide doesn't exist -- it does -- but it's not the only border, or even necessarily the most important one, dividing Lebanese society.

So with the lazy reporting that I've been seeing in the Western press, it's refreshing to see this report by Tony Shadid in the Post:

In a city of frontiers, Beirut built another border Saturday.

On one side of coiled barbed wire and metal barricades were armored personnel carriers manned by soldiers in red berets toting U.S.-made M-16 rifles and guarding the colonnaded, stone government headquarters where Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and other ministers have taken up residence. On the other were the fervent young men of Hezbollah and its allies, who have turned a downtown tailored for the rich into the site of an open-ended protest to force the government's fall.

"This is the point of confrontation between us and them," said Khodr Hassan, who walked 12 hours from his southern village to the protest with 30 other youths. He pointed at his friends at the barricade, some surging forward, others lolling about.

"This is the line of separation," said one of them, Ali Aitawi.

Long divided by the Christian east and largely Muslim west of its 15-year civil war, Beirut is a city snarled today by far more numerous boundaries of sect, perspective and ideology, intersecting and tangling across a capital and country wrestling with a question still unanswered since independence more than 60 years ago: What is Lebanon's identity?

In today's crisis, those fault lines tell the story of the struggle underway between the country's two camps, divided by past and present, with vastly different visions of Lebanon's future: on one side Hezbollah, supported by Iran and Syria, and on the other the government, backed by the United States and France. The fault lines tell, too, of an impasse that perhaps can't be broken.

The borders are drawn by color, flag, portrait and symbol, a claustrophobic contest to lay claim to identity never solely Lebanese. They are defined by ideology: the culture of resistance to Israel celebrated by the Shiite Muslim movement of Hezbollah, for instance, or the Christian separatism of civil war-era militias with fascist roots. They follow the contours of leaders who command loyalty through personality over politics. And they offer protection in a country where survival can feel precarious.

Read the rest of the article; it's well worth your time.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Opposition rally a success for Hezbollah and allies


Today's demonstration was a success for the opposition coalition, not least of all for its peaceful nature and family atmosphere. There were at least twice as many people as the funeral cum rally held by the anti-Syrian governing coalition. There was a festive mood today in Martyr's Square and its environs, with Muslims and Christians, supporters of Hezbollah, Aoun, Amal and Frangieh coming out in droves in an attempt to force the current government to resign.

What looked like hundreds of thousands of Lebanese came out, for the most part following Nasrallah's call to brandish Lebanese flags instead of those of sectarian political parties.

It seems that the opposition has learned from the visual rhetoric of the March 14 governing coalition, giving their opposition a multi-confessional, and finally Lebanese , air as Christians and Muslims came together to show the government their discontent.

One mixed group of youths sat together smoking shisha as they took turns chanting political slogans supporting various Lebanese political parties: first Hezbollah, then Christian politicians General Aoun and Sulieman Frangieh and then finally even Iran.

Here are some photos I took of the event:











Stepping into Iraq: Saudia Arabia


The Saudis are making it clear that if the US leaves Iraq, they will step in:

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal ... said in a speech last month that "since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited." If it does, one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.

...Options now include providing Sunni military leaders (primarily ex-Baathist members of the former Iraqi officer corps, who make up the backbone of the insurgency) with the same types of assistance -- funding, arms and logistical support -- that Iran has been giving to Shiite armed groups for years.

Another possibility includes the establishment of new Sunni brigades to combat the Iranian-backed militias. Finally, Abdullah may decide to strangle Iranian funding of the militias through oil policy. If Saudi Arabia boosted production and cut the price of oil in half, the kingdom could still finance its current spending. But it would be devastating to Iran, which is facing economic difficulties even with today's high prices. The result would be to limit Tehran's ability to continue funneling hundreds of millions each year to Shiite militias in Iraq and elsewhere.

Both the Sunni insurgents and the Shiite death squads are to blame for the current bloodshed in Iraq. But while both sides share responsibility, Iraqi Shiites don't run the risk of being exterminated in a civil war, which the Sunnis clearly do. Since approximately 65 percent of Iraq's population is Shiite, the Sunni Arabs, who make up a mere 15 to 20 percent, would have a hard time surviving any full-blown ethnic cleansing campaign.

In this case, remaining on the sidelines would be unacceptable to Saudi Arabia. To turn a blind eye to the massacre of Iraqi Sunnis would be to abandon the principles upon which the kingdom was founded. It would undermine Saudi Arabia's credibility in the Sunni world and would be a capitulation to Iran's militarist actions in the region.

To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks -- it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse.

Policy options in Iraq just seem to be getting worse and worse...

Today's big protest


Today there will be a protest led by the opposition downtown. There is a good chance that this will dwarf the protest held last week after the assassination of Pierre Gemayel. Some are predicting a million people. Nasrallah kept people guessing until yesterday about when the protest would be, but yesterday he called on his supporters to go into the street in order to "proceed in a peaceful, civil, democratic and political manner toward the main goal of a new government":

Lebanon, with its [sectarian] makeup, cannot be administered by one side amid difficult internal conditions. Let us call for a national unity government....

The opposition forces, on the basis of their constitutional rights, call on all Lebanese, whatever their religious confession, to demonstrate peacefully in an open-ended sit-in from 3 p.m. Friday for a national unity government. The opposition forces appeal to demonstrators to brandish only the Lebanese flag and authorized slogans and avoid any party or sectarian symbols.

If heeded, Nasrallah's call on supporters to avoid party flags and sectarian symbols will make this protest different from previous Hezbollah-sponsored opposition protests as well as those put on by the governing coalition. (Crosses and party flags were everywhere last week.)

The governing coalition's youth organizations have so far called on their supporters to stay at home, hopefully decreasing the chances of any clashes between the two groups.

The competing protests are part of the divide in visions of what kind of a country Lebanon should be, a division that is split somewhat across sectarian lines. There are, however, some players who seem more interested in political maneuvering than in ideological direction. But overall, the conflict is between those who feel Lebanon should seek financial gain and stability by looking to the West, a prospect that entails peace (perhaps even with Israel) and those who believe that the Israeli-Arab conflict is still strong and that finally, Lebanon is a part of that conflict, meaning that no peace should be made with the southern neighbor until a just settlement is found for the Arabs.

The first group, while officially against Israel, is aligned with Washington, and to a lesser extent, Paris, whereas the second group is allied first and foremost with Tehran, but also to varying degrees with Damascus and Ramallah.

I'll be downtown this afternoon to see how things play out today at the protest.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Our Walls Bear Witness: Darfur exhibition


The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is currently holding a photo exhibition on Darfur:

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will project wall-sized images of the escalating genocide in Darfur onto its façade during Thanksgiving week, marking the first time the national memorial's exterior will be used to highlight contemporary genocide. The program, "Darfur: Who Will Survive Today?" is a unique and highly symbolic Museum project produced in association with Darfur/Darfur to draw attention to the continuing crisis in Darfur.


Friday, November 24, 2006

Cable providers jailed in US


Since the television station Al-Manar is affiliated with Hezbollah, the predominantly Shia political party and militia in Lebanon, it seems that broadcasting the channel in the US is illegal.

Each of the two owners of a Brooklyn-based HDTV service provider is faced with a 110-year prison sentence if found guilty of providing material support to a terrorist organization.

Al-Manar was labeled a terrorist organization by the US Government last March, making it illegal to broadcast the channel or do business with it in any form. It's commonly labeled the propaganda arm of Hezbollah, and of course it is biased toward Hezbollah, just like Future TV is for Hariri and Orange TV is for General Aoun. But the truth be told, during the war, their news coverage was excellent, and they're only a bit more outlandish than Fox News, as far as partisan bias goes. You can see their website here, which has English-language news coverage.

Is broadcasting an unpopular television channel now illegal? One might argue that the resistance message stressed by Al-Manar is an incitement to violence, but I think that would be stretching it. And furthermore, if such messages were to actually be punished, then we'd have to start locking up people like Ann Coulter who called for the US to "should invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity" and Pat Robertson who called for the assassination of Venezuela's elected president, Hugo Chavez.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The protest


The protest downtown seemed more like a public fair or a carnival than an angry mob. People came from all over Beirut, and presumably all over Lebanon, to show their support to the March 14 coalition and the slain Pierre Gemayel.

Slogans ranged from "Syria, Iran, Israel Out of Lebanon" to "the Sunni are with you" to , literally, "Fuck your sister, Syria." I saw flags of almost every sort: Lebanese, Phalange, Armenian, Future movement, various other Christian parties, and even an American flag or two.

At 1 PM, Gemayel's funeral was broadcast over the loudspeakers. The sounds of ecclesiastical mourning seemed somehow out of place in the midst of people waving their flags with a smile while vendors sold bottled water and ka'ak (100% Lebanese according to the cardboard sign).

Overall, I'd say that it went fairly well and, most importantly, non-violently.

I'll post some pictures later today...

Lebanese Jujitsu


One last thing before I go out:

I just read this report from Le Monde, which is a pretty standard piece, with the exception of one detail. They have this quote from Walid Jumblatt, the head of the Druze party and part of the March 14 anti-Syrian coalition: "There will be neither security, nor peace, nor democracy [in Lebanon] so long as the Syrian regime is in place."

I had never thought before now that the March 14 coalition might be aiming higher than just keeping Syria out of Lebanon. Judging from Jumblatt's remarks, though, they might be aiming for some political jujitsu in which the obviously weaker Lebanese use Syria's own weight (or perceived weight) to overthrow the regime in Damascus. This would mean using Damascus' involvement in the assassination of Gemayel (real or apparent) against it.

The restless Lebanese


It has begun. Starting early this morning, at around 9, the Christian streets in my new neighborhood have been full of chanting, flag waving, horn honking and portrait brandishing. Now, the sound of sirens had added to the mix.

Last night, the Phalangists, along with some Armenians and some Hariri Futurists, marched through my neighborhood with fanfare and flags. Every once in a while, they would stop and salute a salute that, frankly, reminds one of the Nazi Sieg Heil.

The big protest is today, and everyone is making their way downtown. Text messages have been flying around with decrees like, "Enough is enough. Any Lebanese who doesn't go to the protest today is an accomplice to murder!"

I'll be making my way downtown shortly to see how it unfolds.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Muslim while flying


US Airways threw several Muslim clerics off a flight. Apparently they were guilty of being Muslim while flying.

The alert was raised after the men performed their normal evening prayers in the airport terminal before boarding Flight 300. (Watch how one of the men was treated at a US Airways desk Video)

A passenger who had seen them pray passed a note expressing concern to a flight attendant, US Airways spokeswoman Andrea Rader told The Associated Press.

The passenger thought the imams -- who were speaking in Arabic and English -- had made anti-U.S. statements before boarding and "made similar statements while boarding," said Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

...The clerics were returning from a conference in Minneapolis of the North American Imams Federation, Omar Shahin of Phoenix, president of the group, told the AP.

"They took us off the plane, humiliated us in a very disrespectful way," Shahin said.

Shahin said three members of the group prayed in the terminal before the six boarded the plane.

They entered individually, except for one member who is blind and needed to be guided, Shahin said. Once on the plane, the six did not sit together, he said.

"We did nothing" on the plane, Shahin said.

According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the clerics were handcuffed and questioned for several hours by authorities before being released.

...Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airports Commission, told the AP the airline asked airport police to remove the six men from the flight because some witnesses reported the men were making anti-American statements involving the Iraq war.

...[One of the clerics] told the AP that when he went back to the airport Tuesday morning, he was told by a ticketing agent his payment for the flight had been refunded. He said the agent told him that neither he nor the other imams could purchase tickets from US Airways.

Illegal Israeli settlements


Kevin Drum has an interesting, but not really surprising, post about illegal Israeli settlements. The information comes from a Peace Now report.

The long and short of it is that 39% of all land used by Israeli settlements in the West Bank is legally the private property of Palestinians. Like I said, this is not surprising, or even news for Palestinians. The newsworthy part is that this figure comes directly from Israel's Civil Administration.

There's also this first-hand account from the LA Times.

Lebanese views and sectarianism


The BBC has an article on Lebanese views on the assassination. They quote three different Lebanese, identifying them this way:

AMANI KALAAGI, LAWYER, SUNNI MUSLIM
TONI MAALOUF, TV EXECUTIVE, CATHOLIC
GEORGE BITAR, BUSINESSMAN, HEZBOLLAH SUPPORTER

First of all, I find it strange that they don't mention the religion of the Hezbollah supporter after mentioning the religion of the first two people. Judging from his first name, he's Christian, and it would be interesting to know if they neglected to put his religion because they didn't want to write that there are Christian supporters of Hezbollah (quite a few, now that General Michel Aoun is Hezbollah's opposition ally).

I'm also torn between thinking that the religious denominations of the people writing are relevant and thinking that this is exactly the sort of sectarian labeling that Lebanon does not need right now. It makes me think of an anti-sectarian campaign done by 05 Amam, an inter-confessional organization, whose advertisements poking fun at sectarian divide can be seen around town lately:



But finally to the content of what the Lebanese people are saying in the BBC article. The Hezbollah supporter thinks that the government is the group most likely to have the most to gain from the situation:

Who will benefit from this? The other side, of course, the 14 March grouping.

Tomorrow we [Hezbollah] were going to go on a peaceful demonstration against the government. But now we cannot, because it is too soon after this death.

So the 14 March group benefits from the reaction to the death.

I am not defending the people who did this.

If it was the Syrians, they would have killed someone more important. And they are not so stupid to kill him 24 hours before our people were due to go on a demonstration.

This is sad. Nobody knows tonight what will happen. The future is grey, uncertain.

Hezbollah wants calm, it just wants justice.

And the Sunni lawyer seems to think that Syria is obviously guilty, without saying so explicitly. He then despairs of the anti-Muslim sectarian comments he's overheard at a lawyer's conference.

To my mind, the most alarming comments are made by the Catholic television executive (it would be interesting to know for which station he works):

But the assassinations take place in Christian areas. The security is not effective enough in our areas; maybe we need our own security.

In the Hezbollah areas, they take care of their own security; and that works well for them.

I think we need a much stronger intelligence service and stronger security forces, which are independent of politics. We should all just stop talking about politics, maybe then we can all prosper.

So while on the one hand, he's calling for an end to sectarianism and stresses that he wants peace, his comment that "maybe we need our own security" seems dangerously close to a call for rebuilding a Christian militia. This would be a disaster for Lebanon; one armed militia is already too much, the last thing we need here is a replay of the 70s and 80s when religious sects were armed to kill.

Some thoughts on Gemayel's assassination


The Times has the only English-language account I've seen of the assassination to go into the specific logistics of the killing:

While other anti-Syria figures have been killed in the past two years, Mr. Gemayel was the first to be shot in the head and not blown up with a bomb.

Mr. Gemayel was in the passenger seat of his own silver Kia, driving through the Christian neighborhood of Jdeideh, which he represented in Parliament. About 4 p.m., a car rammed into Mr. Gemayel's and three gunmen rushed his car, spraying it with bullets from silencer-equipped automatic weapons, Lebanese security officials said. The driver, who was not injured, drove to St. Joseph's Hospital, where Mr. Gemayel was declared dead.

And here is what the car looks like:



Given the large number of bullet holes that either entered or exited through the passenger seat (it seems much more likely that these are entrance shots), it seems very strange to me that the driver should be able to walk away from this incident unhurt.

I've also been wondering about why Gemayel would be targeted. Although he has little to no actual political power, his family name still carries a lot of weight and his death can be counted to rally Christian supporters. Would Syria have anything to gain from killing someone like him? If the Syrians were going to assassinate someone, knowing full well that they would be the first to be blamed, wouldn't they aim higher?

This also comes at a time when Washington started looking like it was ready to engage Damascus, a prospect that seems highly unlikely now. And finally, there's the different MO. Why would the Syrians use gunmen instead of their usual car bombs?

It just doesn't make sense to me. If the Syrians are trying to stop the international tribunal, an assassination attempt like this seems the opposite of a viable strategy, since the Security Council immediately approved it after Gemayel's assassination. And if they wanted to stop the cabinet from approving it, I'm pretty sure that that would be redundant, since the absence of 7 cabinet ministers (5 from Hezbollah and Amal, 1 from Aoun's party and 1 who resigned last February), I think, although I'm not 100% sure of this, that the cabinet was already constitutionally powerless to pass the tribunal. Finally, why would Damascus bother trying to get negotiations together with Washington if they knew they were about to destroy and talks with the US by killing Gemayel?

Or perhaps living in Beirut has seen the Lebanese propensity for conspiracy theory rub off on me. And maybe it's best never to underestimate the stupidity of national regimes. So maybe I'm reading too much into this, and Damascus has just shot itself in the foot again. Time may or may not tell.


UPDATE: The details of the attack are somewhat different in this account by the Daily Star. They make no mention of whether or not the driver was hurt but report that one bodyguard has died and another's condition is unknown. The report also states that the current government can have up to 8 ministers absent before the cabinet is unable to achieve a quorum. I've had different information from other sites, including Al-Manar, but have so far been unable to confirm the actual law.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Hezbollah's reaction to assassination


Hezbollah has issued a statement about the assassination of Pierre Gemayel Jr. through its television station Al-Manar:

There is no doubt that those who committed this crime want to push Lebanon into chaos and civil war and want to cut the way for any peaceful, political and democratic solution to the crises in Lebanon. The nature of the targeting as well as the timing, place and style of execution raise lots of suspicions and need to be deeply looked in before taking any position or reaction that could harm the country and fulfill the goals of the killers. We offer our condolences to former President Amine Gemayel and his family.

Otherwise, everyone, including the Syrian government, has officially denounced the killing, while Amin Gemayel, the father of Pierre Jr. and former president of Lebanon urges calm:

I have one wish, that tonight be a night of prayer to contemplate the meaning of this martyrdom and how to protect this country.... I call on all those who appreciate Pierre's martyrdom to preserve his cause and for all of us to remain at the service of Lebanon. We don't want reactions and revenge.

Pierre Gemayel Jr. assassinated


The Minister of Industry, Pierre Gemayel Jr., was assassinated today, shot while in his car in a Christian suburb of Beirut.

As it turns out, I was in the same area, near Sin el-Fil, this morning, but I must have already been back home by the time he was assassinated. Otherwise, on the way to buy credit for my telephone, I saw Gemayel supporters driving by with flags and honking their horns. Farther up the street, a few trash cans had been burned, presumably by supporters, but by the time I saw the burned mess in the street, security forces (police and military) were already there.

No one knows who did it, but people are already speculating. Samir Geagea of the Christian Lebanese Forces made public statements warning about assassinations last week, and Saad Hariri (whose father Rafik was assassinated in 2005 setting off protests that led to the withdrawal of Syria) said that "the hands of Syria are all over the place."

In a second attack, in Ashrafiyeh, gunmen shot at the office of the state minister for parliamentary affairs, Michel Pharaon, a Christian MP from the ruling coalition.

For a timeline of political murders in Lebanon, click here.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Khoury's Gate of the Sun


The London Review has a review of the English translation of Elias Khoury's novel, Gate of the Sun. It touches briefly on some of his other works, the writing of Ghassan Kanafani, the politics of post-July Lebanon, and is worth a read.

Election results unclear...


There was a major election here in Beirut on Wednesday, and the results are about as unclear, and as contested, as the 2000 US presidential election (here, March 8 coalition is the opposition, including Hezbollah, Amal and Aoun's Christian Free Patriotic Movement and March 14 is the anti-Syrian ruling coalition, including Hariri's Future Movement and Geagea's Lebanese Forces):

Thursday saw a significant rise in tensions between the two camps in the build-up to the announcement of the results, with each side chanting political slogans and applauding their national political leaders, and booing those of the other side.

Security and riot police ... increased from the previous evening, this time prepared for potential clashes.

...The announcements came to an abrupt halt after a skirmish broke out between the two camps, and with the March 8 coalition slamming the results as illegitimate.

Immediately after the skirmish, Mohammad Hamadeh, leader of the Commoners Party and a March 8 coalition member, told The Daily Star that ballots had been tampered with.

"The results are wrong because there is a big problem with the number of votes placed," he explained. "Cheating has taken place. Our candidates inside [West Hall] confirmed that there were a lot more votes in the ballot boxes than there should be, meaning that the results are inaccurate."

"Even though we won, despite the cheating that occurred, we feel the obvious tampering that occurred needs to be investigated, as it does not make the elections just," he added.

Judging from the Daily Star's coverage, you could be forgiven for thinking that these were city or even national elections. They're not. In fact, the elections were student elections at the American University in Beirut.

Political group violence is not unheard of in student elections, where college politics are a microcosm of Lebanese politics in general, with coalitions and parties mirroring their national counterparts. Last year, there was a serious bout of political/sectarian violence on the campus of the Lebanese American University. It is commonly believed that this is the reason why elections were suspended at that university.

These elections are a big deal, and political parties invest a fair amount of effort in winning them. On election day, it's impossible to get onto campus without an ID, and armed security details guard school entrances. And what results there are sound like announcements of which party took which state in the US:

Both sides agreed the March 14 coalition won the School of Business and a majority of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. It was also agreed the March 8 camp won the Faculty of Medicine and Nursing, and a majority of the Faculty of Engineering.

Who won this year at AUB? Your guess is as good as mine.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Khartoum accepts UN force


In a strange, and so for unexplained, turn of events, the Sudanese government has changed its mind, deciding to accept, "in principle," a joint United Nations and African Union peacekeeping force into Darfur.

Maybe it's cynicism, but I keep thinking to myself that there must be a catch somewhere, because up to now, Khartoum has successfully staved off an attempt led by the US to send peacekeepers to Darfur. Maybe China or Russia decided that to apply some pressure for some reason unknown to me. I can't imagine that either Moscow or Beijing have been too terribly concerned about how Khartoum's genocidal regime has reflected on them.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Danish intelligence saw no evidence of Iraqi WMD, journlalists on trial


The editor and two journalists from Berlingske Tidende are on trial for publishing Danish intelligence from before the invasion of Iraq that there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction:

In articles published in 2004 they quoted from analysis by a Danish intelligence agent, Frank Grevil.

His report, written before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, concluded that there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq.

The Berlingske Tidende journalists could go to jail if found guilty.

It is being viewed as a landmark case in Denmark, which is usually an ardent defender of freedom of expression.

An offence of publishing confidential Danish government documents is punishable by fines or up to two years in prison.

Berlingske Tidende's chief editor Niels Lunde went on trial along with reporters Michael Bjerre and Jesper Larsen on Monday. They pleaded not guilty.

Former intelligence officer Major Frank Soeholm Grevil was sentenced last year to four months in jail for leaking the documents to the reporters.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen supported the US-led invasion of Iraq and told parliament he was convinced former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was in possession of WMD.

The journalists' defence lawyer Henrik Dahl told the court his clients had done nothing wrong "because there was a huge public interest" in the information they published, the Associated Press reported.

Al Jazeera in English (but not in America)


Today Al Jazeera will launch its English-language cable channel. With over 80 million households ready to receive the channel, Al Jazeera English has more than doubled their goal of 40 million. Unfortunately, none of those households are American, since so far, zero cable providers have agreed to broadcast Al Jazeera English, and only one satellite dish company is offering the channel -- at an extra fee, at that. According to Comcast, these decisions are made on purely financial, and not political, grounds.

This is really disappointing, because the US market could use a different point of view and more international news. Of course, a less American-centric point of view would, in my view, be helpful for the US, but that would be second to what is, to my mind, the main offering of Al Jazeera: more international news.

In addition to the 42 bureaus of the Arabic version of Al Jazeera, the English channel will have 4 broadcast centers and 20 support bureaus:

Broadcast Centers:
London
Washington
Doha
Kuala Lumpur

Supporting Bureaus
Middle East: Cairo, Beirut, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Gaza
Africa: Abidjan, Nairobi, Johannesburg and Harare
Asia and Australia: Beijing, Delhi, Islamabad, Jakarta, Manila and Sydney
Americas: Buenos Aires, Caracas and New York
Europe: Athens and Moscow

This amount of international coverage is colossal, and would benefit the American population immensely, particularly as far as African coverage is concerned. CNN, for example, has only 2 bureaus (Lagos and Nairobi) on the continent (excluding Cairo, which I've counted in the Middle East for both channels).

In addition to this meaty international coverage, Al Jazeera English will be featuring some familiar faces in the form of newscasters formerly from the BBC, CNN and CBS, among others. And they will even have a former US marine, Josh Rushing, as one of their commentators.

A Hezbollah-Somalia connection?


Reports of a UN report on arms embargo violations in Somalia say that Hezbollah has trained Somali militants and received Somali aid during the war this summer in the form of 720 Somali militants:

According to the Times, the report

states that in mid-July, Aden Hashi Farah, a leader of the Somali Islamist alliance, personally selected about 720 combat-hardened fighters to travel to Lebanon and fight alongside Hezbollah.

At least 100 Somalis had returned by early September -- with five Hezbollah members -- while others stayed on in Lebanon for advanced military training, the report says. It is not clear how many may have been killed, though the report says some were wounded and later treated after their return to Somalia.

The fighters were paid a minimum of $2,000 for their service, the report says, and as much as $30,000 was to be given to the families of those killed, with money donated by "a number of supporting countries."

In addition to training some Somali militants, Hezbollah "arranged for additional support to be given" by Iran and Syria, including weapons, the report found. On July 27, 200 Somali fighters also traveled to Syria to be trained in guerrilla warfare, the report says.

It also indicates that Iran appears to have sought help in its quest for uranium in Dusa Mareb, the hometown of Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, the leader of the Islamist alliance in Somalia, which is known as the Council of Islamic Courts.

"At the time of the writing of this report, there were two Iranians in Dusa Mareb engaged on matters linked to the exploration of uranium in exchange for arms" for the Council of Islamic Courts, says the report, which is dated Oct. 16.

It's hard to know what to make of this report, especially since I haven't been able to find an actual copy of it yet. It seems strange that there would be such a Sunni/Shia cooperation in Somalia and that the report writers would have access to such sensitive information from Iran and Hezbollah.

While it's common knowledge that Eritrea and Ethiopia have been backing the Islamic courts and government, respectively, in Somalia, I was unaware that Yemen, Uganda, Egypt, Syria, Iran, Djibouti, Libya and Hezbollah are allegedly involved. Hopefully more information will be available soon.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

American evangelicals for Israel


Here are a couple of extracts from the second part, on evangelicals for Israel, of the two-part series on America and Israel.

Many conservative Christians and their Jewish allies acknowledge a certain tension between the evangelical belief in a Biblical commission to convert non-Christians and their simultaneous desire to help the Jews of Israel.

"Despite all the spiritual shortcomings of the Jewish people," Dr. Dobson said, "according to scripture -- and those criticisms come not from Christians but from the Old Testament. Just look in Deuteronomy, where Jews are referred to as a stiff-necked and stubborn people -- despite all of that, God has chosen to bless them as his people. God chose to bless Abraham and his seed not because they were a perfect people any more than the rest of the human family."

...The Israeli government temporarily cut off ties with the Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson after he suggested that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke might have been God's punishment for withdrawing from territory that belonged to the Biblical Israel. But then Mr. Robertson flew to Israel during the fight with Hezbollah. In a gesture of reconciliation, the Israeli government recently worked with him to film a television commercial to attract Christian tourists.

"Israel -- to walk where Jesus walked, to pray where Jesus prayed, to stand where he stood -- there is no other place like it on earth," Mr. Robertson says in the commercial, according to the Jerusalem Post.

There are a couple of interesting quotes in the article, but as a whole it's kind of disappointing, because it doesn't get into how Israelis feel about the Christian attitude towards them or even exactly what sort of clout these evangelicals have in Washington.

Monday, November 13, 2006

US-Israel relations


The Times has an interesting piece on relations between Israel and the US (part one of a two-part series). The piece focuses on how Israel disagrees with the Bush adminstration's plans for a "new Middle East," instead, preferring to deal with autogratic but stable regimes like those of Egypt and Jordan. Israel is afraid of a democratic Middle East in which Hezbollah is part of the government in Lebanon, Hamas is elected in Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood is very popular in Egypt.

Other rifts include Washington's stance on Iran and fears that the US will engage Syria and Iran or ask Israel for conecessions towards Palestinians in order to get the support of China, Russia and Europe for sanctions against Iran:

Gidi Grinstein, a former Israeli negotiator who runs an independent policy center, the Reut Institute, says Israel and the United States share a larger goal on Iran but have "tension among their different objectives," as indicated by Mr. Zelikow.

The Iran debate in Washington is serious but unfinished, Mr. Grinstein said, noting the divisions between those who argue that a nuclear-armed Iran can be contained and those who believe that Iran must not get the technology to build a bomb, much less the weapon itself.

Mr. Alpher, the former Israeli negotiator, is concerned that if Mr. Bush ultimately negotiates with Iran, "we need to ensure that the United States doesn't sell us down the river." It is fine for Israel to say that Iran is the world's problem, he said. "But if the world solves it diplomatically," he added, "will it be at our expense?"

The world looks different to nearly all Israelis across the political spectrum than it does to people in most other countries. "Unlike Bush, an Israeli leader looks at Iran through the prism of the Holocaust and his responsibility to the ongoing existence of the Jewish people," Mr. Alpher said. "It may sound pompous, but at the end of the day it matters, and so we may be willing to do the strangest things."

Somehow, it seems healthy that both Israel and the US are acknowledging that they might have different goals and interests. After all, this is how all other allies interact. The myth that there is a mysterious perfect dovetailing of Israeli and American interests is a myth and probably does more harm than good, at least for the US.

The Israel lobby is quick to charge that any accusations of double allegience from the pro-Israel movement is just classical anti-semitism. However, the recent AIPAC spy case (see indictment here, would suggest that some of these fears are not entirely without merit.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Hizbollah and Amal quit government


Today saw the collapse of talks that started this week to bring together the anti-Syrian March 14 coalition, which controls the government, and the opposition (Hizbollah and its Shia ally, Amal, and its Christian ally Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement) on the issues of expanding the cabinet to give the opposition more say, accepting an international tribunal on Hariri's assassination and what to do about pro-Syrian President Lahoud, whose mandate was effectively extended by Damascus.

As a result, according to Hizbollah's television station, Al-Manar, Hizbollah and Amal have both quit the government. This does not mean that the government is disolved, it would take another three cabinet ministers to do that (five resigned today), but it is likely that there will be big pro-Hizbollah street demonstrations next week, and there is the possiblity that this will bring down the government.

Hopefully, this will result in new, peaceful, elections, although many people here are afraid that this is the spark that will ignite another civil war.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Sectarian divide in Lebanese politics


I was talking to my new landlord the other day about the political situation here in Lebanon, and he surprised me by saying that the Christians here only made up 27 percent of the population. "I know, because I'm a Christian," he told me. This number is significantly lower than numbers that I'd heard before, which ranged from 35 to 40 percent. An article in the Times today on Lebanon's Christians, however, gives an even lower number:

Generally speaking, Sunnis insist they are equal in number to Shiites. Shiites say they are a majority and Christians say they account for more than 20 percent. At the same time, all sides have said the state's convoluted election laws needed to be altered -- but, for now, without becoming so democratic as to undermine the distribution of power.

"A census will show the Christians are a clear minority," said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at American University in Beirut. "Nobody wants to know they extent of their decline. Some think they don't even make up 25 percent of the population."

Since a census has not been done in Lebanon since the 1930s, it is impossible to know for sure, but I am shocked by, and have never once heard, the assertation that the Sunni are equal in number to the Shia.

In any and all cases, there are two serious problems in Lebanon: First, the current system does not represent the country's makeup, and second, Lebanese politics are confessional. I've thought a fair amount about how to make the electoral system more representative here without reinforcing sectarian divide and/or causing a civil war. I recently came across an article in Foreign Policy by Paul Salem, the director of the Beirut office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on the future of Lebanon. In order to solve the first problem, Salem suggests a good compromise in the form of a bicameral legislature, which would allow the current parliament to exist, complete with its confessional politics and non-representative allocation of seats, with a more representative chamber without confessional quotas.

[A] bicameral legislature must be established, with a lower house free of confessional quotas, which would allow the Shiites better representation. It will not do to argue that the Shiites cannot be trusted with power because they are too close to outside actors (as the Maronites argued of the Sunnis in the past). They will reduce their dependence on foreign powers largely to the extent that they feel like they have a secure stake in the government. The horse must be put in front, and the cart will follow. And every group in Lebanon has at some point committed the sin of relying on extensive outside support: the Maronites allied with Israel and the Sunnis with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and everyone used -- and was used by -- the Syrians.

Now this solution would not stop politics from being sectarian; it would only make the legislative branch more representative of sectarian realities. The problem of confessional voting in Lebanon is not one that can be solved by restructuring the electoral system.

I'm not really sure how such a fundamental shift could be made in Lebanon, but until people start voting for mixed parties based on their platforms instead of single confessional parties based primarily on one's religion, Lebanon will never be able to overcome the sectarian discord that has plagued this small Mediterranean country for so long.

Rumsfeld's replacement


I woke up yesterday morning to news that the Democrats had trounced the Republicans, and later that evening, I saw, with relief, that the first casualty of the "new direction" was Rumsfeld. I don't know much about Robert Gates, the former CIA director (the only one in its history to have worked his way up from an entry-level position). However, the fact that he has served in several different administrations, both Republican and Democrat, is a good sign.

While he is a Soviet analyst, he is a part of Baker's Iraq Study Group and has spoken out against Washington's self-defeating policy of not talking to Iran:

"It is not in our interest for Iran to have nuclear weapons," Gates said. "It is not in our interest for Iran to oppose the new governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. And if we can engage them and try and bring some progress in those areas, then our interests have been served. And that's what it's all about."

Gates also said that if the United States were to open lines of communication with Iran, that would not be sending a mixed message.

"Well, are we rewarding bad behavior by talking to the Libyans?" Gates said.

"Are we rewarding bad behavior by talking to the North Koreans? We're trying to figure out how to limit the national security risks to the United States from policies that Iran is following.

"We don't have much of a voice in that effort right now. We're basically sitting on the sidelines," Gates told NPR's Michele Kelemen in July 2004.

I think that Rumsfeld's departure is a good first step in the right direction, particularly on Middle East policy. Let's hope it's not the last.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

National unity talks and security


Talks have started about the possibility of a change in the government, and the level of security has been drastically increased downtown, where the meetings are being held.

Last night, I couldn't find a cab home, so I walked home, through downtown. I was stopped and searched five times during a ten-minute walk. I'm not sure if I'm reassured by the level of security or worried that it's necessary...

Cluster bombs in Lebanon


Saturday afternoon, I walked downtown and saw a event organized by groups like Handicap International against cluster bombs. There were pictures of cluster bomb casualties and actual cluster bombs, which ranged in citrus-fruit size (I think it's only apt to use the same family of fruits as we use to describe tumors) from small oranges to grapefruits. Since the war, on average, two people a day have died from unexploded cluster munitions. According to UN estimates, there remain up to a million unexploded bomblets in the south of Lebanon.

A fried of mine sent me an article by George Monbiot on how the UK and the US are doing their best to make sure that cluster munitions stay legal:

In Geneva today, at the new review of the conventional weapons treaty, the British government will be using the full force of its diplomacy to ensure that civilians continue to be killed, by blocking a ban on the use of cluster bombs. Sweden, supported by Austria, Mexico and New Zealand, has proposed a convention making their deployment illegal, like the Ottawa treaty banning anti-personnel landmines. But the UK, working with the US, China and Russia, has spent the past week trying to prevent negotiations from being opened. Perhaps this is unsurprising. Most of the cluster bombs dropped during the past 40 years have been delivered by Britain's two principal allies - the US and Israel - in the "war on terror". And the UK used hundreds of thousands of them during the two Gulf wars.

...A report published last week by the independent organisation Handicap International estimates that around 100,000 people have been killed or wounded by cluster bombs. Of the known casualties, 98% are civilians. Most of them are hit when farming, walking or clearing the rubble where their homes used to be. Many of the victims are children, partly because the bombs look like toys. Handicap's report tells terrible and heartbreaking stories of children finding these munitions and playing catch with them, or using them as boules or marbles. Those who survive are often blinded, lose limbs or suffer horrible abdominal injuries.

Handicap International's report can be found here.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

International Crisis Group releases paper on Lebanon/Hizbollah/Israel


The International Crisis Group has released a report on avoiding renewed conflict in the region. Here are their reccomendations:

RECOMMENDATIONS

To the United Nations Security Council:


1. Promote effective implementation of Resolution 1701 on Lebanon by passing a follow-up resolution calling for:

(a) comprehensive Lebanese security reform, with the assistance of outside parties, based on the need to effectively assert the state's sovereignty and defend its territorial integrity;

(b) sustained and substantial international financial assistance;

(c) intensive efforts to address outstanding Israeli-Lebanese issues, including a prisoner exchange, a halt to Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty and onset of a process to resolve the status of the contested Shebaa farms by transferring custody to the UN under UNIFIL supervision pending Israel-Syria and Israel-Lebanon peace agreements; and

(d) intensive and sustained efforts to reach a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

To the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL):

2. Accept that its task is essentially to assist the Lebanese Armed Forces, refraining from proactive searches for Hizbollah arms caches.

3. Investigate, publicly condemn and take appropriate action against flagrant violations of Resolution 1701, particularly attempts to resupply Hizbollah and Israeli over-flights or other violations of Lebanese sovereignty.

4. Quickly provide financial and technical support for the clearance of unexploded munitions (UXOs) and other lethal war debris, including cluster sub-munitions that are sinking below the surface due to the onset of winter.

5. Avoid assuming an assertive armed posture in patrolling southern Lebanon so as to minimise anti-UN sentiment among the local population.

6. Complete UN demarcation of the Shebaa farms area and propose to Israel, Lebanon and Syria placing it under temporary UN custody pending final peace agreements between them.

To the Government of Israel:

7. Halt hostile operations in Lebanon, including the capture or assassination of militants and civilians, as well as violations of Lebanese waters and air space.

8. Cooperate with UN efforts to address remaining Israeli-Lebanese issues, including a prisoner exchange, provision of digital records of cluster-rocket launching sequences and logbooks with target coordinates, and resolution of the status of Shebaa farms and Ghajar village.

To the Government of Syria:

9. Engage in an open dialogue with Lebanon aimed at clarifying and addressing both sides' legitimate interests, in particular by normalising bilateral relations on the basis of mutual respect and exchanging embassies.

10. Cooperate with UN efforts to demarcate the Shebaa farms area and reach agreement with Lebanon on its final status.

To Hizbollah:

11. End all visible armed presence south of the Litani River and avoid provocative actions vis-à-vis Israel or UNIFIL.

12. Work within the context of the national dialogue on a mutually acceptable process that would lead to the end of its status as an autonomous force, notably through enhancement of the LAF?s defence capabilities, reform of the political system and progress toward Arab-Israeli peace.

13. Limit territorial claims to those officially endorsed by the Lebanese government.

To the Government of Lebanon:

14. Undertake, in cooperation with international partners, a thorough security reform aimed at re-establishing and defending the state?s sovereignty over its territory, emphasising defensive capabilities and reinforcing the army as an instrument of national defence.

15. Ensure that such security reform is not used to further any international or partisan domestic agenda.

16. Encourage Hizbollah?s gradual demilitarisation by addressing outstanding Israeli-Lebanese issues (prisoner exchange, violations of Lebanese sovereignty and Shebaa farms); and reforming and democratising Lebanon?s political system.

17. Tighten controls along its border with Syria, using international technical assistance.

To the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF):

18. Confiscate visible weapons south of the Litani River and seek to prevent arms transfers.

To the European Union and its Member States:

19. Provide technical and material assistance to Lebanon?s security reform process, domestic security organs and the Lebanese Armed Forces.

To Arab States:

20. Support the building and equipping of the LAF.

21. Provide additional financial assistance to assist in reconstruction and reduce government indebtedness.

22. Cast off sectarian bias in dealing with Lebanon, ensuring that relations are established with the central government rather than particular communities.

To Members of the Quartet (U.S., Russia, UN and EU):

23. Conduct parallel discussions with Israel, Syria and Lebanon to re-launch Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese peace negotiations, making clear that the goal is a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace.

This touches on a lot of issues and I think ICG is right to advise caution and warn against using Resolution 1701 "as a blunt means of disarming Hizbollah." We'll see if any of the parties actually listen.

Hamas proposes a 10-year truce


Ahmed Yousef, a senior Hamas advisor, has proposed a 10-year hudna, or truce, to Israel.

A truce is referred to in Arabic as a "hudna." Typically covering 10 years, a hudna is recognized in Islamic jurisprudence as a legitimate and binding contract. A hudna extends beyond the Western concept of a cease-fire and obliges the parties to use the period to seek a permanent, nonviolent resolution to their differences. The Koran finds great merit in such efforts at promoting understanding among different people. Whereas war dehumanizes the enemy and makes it easier to kill, a hudna affords the opportunity to humanize one?s opponents and understand their position with the goal of resolving the intertribal or international dispute.

... We Palestinians are prepared to enter into a hudna to bring about an immediate end to the occupation and to initiate a period of peaceful coexistence during which both sides would refrain from any form of military aggression or provocation. During this period of calm and negotiation we can address the important issues like the right of return and the release of prisoners. If the negotiations fail to achieve a durable settlement, the next generation of Palestinians and Israelis will have to decide whether or not to renew the hudna and the search for a negotiated peace.

There can be no comprehensive solution of the conflict today, this week, this month, or even this year. A conflict that has festered for so long may, however, be resolved through a decade of peaceful coexistence and negotiations. This is the only sensible alternative to the current situation. A hudna will lead to an end to the occupation and create the space and the calm necessary to resolve all outstanding issues.

Few in Gaza dream. For most of the past six months it's been difficult to even sleep. Yet hope is not dead. And when we dare to hope, this is what we see: a 10-year hudna during which, inshallah (God willing), we will learn again to dream of peace.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

UN to send cartographer to the Shebaa Farms


The last major territorial dispute between Lebanon and Israel is the Shebaa Farms. Israel considers the land to be part of the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied after the 1967 war, taking the land from Syria. However, both Syria and Lebanon consider the land to be Lebanese, and this is one of Hizbollah's rationales for maintaining a militia. The is convenient for Damascus, which is afraid of the Lebanese signing a bilateral peace accord with Israel, leaving Syria to be the last remaining neighbor of Israel to not have signed an accord. As things stand, the Israelis -- and the UN, which includes the land under the UNDOF mandate (monitoring the disengagement of Israel and Syria) instead of under the UNIFIL mandate (monitoring the border between Israel and Lebanon) -- have assured that the Israel policies of both Beirut and Damascus are inextricably linked.

The Daily Star reports that the UN is sending a Balkan cartographer to "demarcate the precise location and area of the Shebaa Farms."

The confusion stems from poor French mandate maps, but reasearch by Israeli historian Asher Kaufman (see "Who owns the Shebaa Farms? Chronicle of a territorial dispute" in The Middle East Journal; Autumn 2002; 56, 4 - unfortunately not available online) shows that there is strong evidence for Lebanon's claims based on land ownership, which was registered in Lebanon, not in Syria.

It will be interesting to see what the cartographer comes up with, but it seems strange to me that concurrent official declarations by the two countries involved in the border dispute, Lebanon and Syria, would not be enough to settle the issue once and for all. We'll see if this leads to a Lebanese agreement with Israel, which may or may not be a good thing in the long run. While it seems obvious to me that a comprehensive peace agreement, which is what Damascus is pulling for, that involves Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinians is ideal, perhaps baby steps are in order.

Cole on partitioning Iraq


Juan Cole chimes in giving us his view of partitioning Iraq:

[A]side from the selfish interests of all the political actors inside and outside Iraq, as a practical policy, partitioning Iraq is too risky. It would probably not reduce ethnic infighting. It might produce more. The mini-states that emerge from a partition will have plenty of reason to fight wars with one another, as India did with Pakistan in the 1940s and has done virtually ever since. Worse, it is likely that if the Sunni Arab mini-state commits an atrocity against the Shiites, it might well bring in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. They in turn would be targeted by Saudi and Jordanian jihadi volunteers.

A break-up of Iraq might not stop at Iraq?s borders. The Sunni Arabs could be picked up by Syria, thus greatly increasing Syria?s fighting power. Or they could become a revolutionary force in Jordan. A wholesale renegotiation of national borders may ensue, according to some thinkers. Such profound changes in such a volatile part of the world cannot be depended on to occur without bloodshed. The region is already racked by the Arab-Israeli conflict and the struggle between secular and religious politics.

To my mind, the first problem with partition, which Cole doesn't mention at all, would be the status of highly mixed cities, and especially Baghdad. My second misgiving would be how the Turks, Saudis and Iranians would react to these news states in their backyard.

The end of Iraq?


Zaid Al-Ali, an Iraqi lawyer, reviews Peter Galbraith's book, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. The review focuses on Galbraith's idea that a federal division of Iraq (or even a confederation) is the only option that remains. But Al-Ali also take a look at Galbraith's role in advising the Kurds on the issue of the constitution:

"I realized that the Kurdish leaders had a conceptual problem in planning for a federal Iraq. They were thinking in terms of devolution of power - meaning that Baghdad grants them rights. I urged that the equation be reversed. In a memo I sent Barham (Salih) and Nechirvan (Barzani) in August (2003), I drew a distinction between the previous autonomy proposals and federalism: 'Federalism is a "bottom up" system. The basic organizing unit of the country is the province or state. [...] In a federal system residual power lies with the federal unit (i.e. state or province); under an autonomy system it rests with the central government. The central government has no ability to revoke a federal status or power: it can revoke an autonomy arrangement. [...] The Constitution should state that the Constitution of Kurdistan, and laws made pursuant to the Constitution, is the supreme law of Kurdistan. Any conflict between laws of Kurdistan and the laws of or Constitution of Iraq shall be decided in favor of the former.' These ideas eventually became the basis of Kurdistan's proposals for an Iraq constitution."

The question of what such a breakup of Iraq would mean for the country, not to speak of the region, is one that I'm fairly uncertain and ambivalent about, although Al-Ali argues that not only would it be a disaster, but that only the Kurds want such a weakening or even disolution of the state:

It is true that many western policymakers and commentators agree with his characterisation that Iraqis are being made to live together "against their will", but Galbraith, whose ties to Iraq run deeper than most, should know better than to make such a vague and inaccurate assertion.

By way of example, a survey was conducted a few months ago in Karbala, one of Shi'a Islam's most holy cities and main intellectual centres, on the issue of whether the city's residents support the territorial division of the state. Only around 5% of respondents supported the formation of regions, or states, based on ethnicity or religious identity, whereas 91.6% of respondents said that they either favored a centralised form of government or a decentralised system based on administrative divisions that were independent of factors such as religion and ethnicity. Even if Galbraith is right that a majority of Iraqi Kurds are in favour of independence, he fails to mention that their wish is not shared by a large majority of the remaining 82% of the Iraqi population.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Assad: "only America ... can be the main broker for peace in the Middle East"


The Times has reprinted and translated an excellent interview with Syrian president, Bashar Assad, by Der Spiegel. Assad has interesting things to say about the future of Iraq and the consequences of American foreign policy in the region:

SPIEGEL: You are very pessimistic when it comes to Iraq. What can the countries of the Middle East do for Iraq?

Assad: I was already very pessimistic before the war. I told the Americans: There is no doubt that you will win this war, but then you will sink into a quagmire. What has now happened is worse than I expected. The two main problems are, first, the constitution and the issue of federalism, which is at the center of the great dispute between Sunnis and Shiites and, second, Kirkuk and the civil war that is developing between Kurds and Arabs. These problems must be addressed. It doesn't help for the Americans to point to the elections they brought about or to the higher standard of living. Those are cosmetic issues.

SPIEGEL: What would be the consequences of partition into a Kurdish north, a Shiite south and a Sunni region in central Iraq?

Assad: It would be harmful, not just for Iraq, but for the entire region, from Syria across the Gulf and into Central Asia. Imagine snapping a necklace and all the pearls fall to the ground. Almost all countries have natural dividing lines, and when ethnic and religious partition occurs in one country, it'll soon happen elsewhere. It would be like the end of the Soviet Union -- only far worse. Major wars, minor wars, no one will be capable of keeping the consequences under control.

SPIEGEL: So you would be in favor of a strong man who could hold Iraq together?

Assad: Not necessarily one man, but certainly a strong central authority. It has to be left to the Iraqis to determine exactly what this would look like. A secular authority is certainly best-equipped for maintaining stability in this ethnic and religious mosaic -- but it should also be of a strong national character. Those who arrived on America's tanks are not credible in Iraq.

I've often wondered what would be so bad about splitting up Iraq, which since its inception after the First World War. Bashar's pearl necklace metaphor is not unconvincing. It's hard to say how the sectarian division of such a split would be felt in countries like Lebanon, Pakistan and Bahrain.

Suprisingly enough, he thinks that the US has a unique role to play in bringing a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict:

SPIEGEL: After the cease-fire between Israel and the Hezbollah militia, you gave a much-noted speech on the situation in the Middle East. In your speech, you mentioned a "critical stage of the history of Syria and the region." Wherein lies the opportunity?

Assad: First of all, it's clear to everyone that the status quo of war and conflict and instability is no longer acceptable. Now America enters the picture, because only America, because of its weight, can be the main broker for peace in the Middle East. But the Bush administration is under pressure. It's being accused of not having managed to bring about peace in six years. This pressure is good. Europe's foreign policy role is also growing. We specifically do not want a special role for the Europeans. We expect them to work together with America to achieve peace, and to do so on the basis of a vision America must develop.

SPIEGEL: What is Syria's role?

Assad: There can be no peace in the Middle East without Syria. The Lebanon and the Palestinian conflicts are inextricably linked with Syria. I have already mentioned the 500,000 Palestinian refugees. Were we to resolve our territorial dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights alone, we wouldn't achieve stability. We would only be taking away the Palestinians' hope and would be turning them from refugees into resistance fighters. This is why Syria is so determined to achieve a comprehensive peaceful solution.

The rest of the interview is well worth reading, not only because it is important for the US to hear what its enemies in the region have to say (instead of just talking to its friends), but because Asad has a very reasonable analysis about some of the most important issues facing the Middle East.


The Times also has an op-ed by Fromkin, whose excellent book A Peace to end all Peace I've just finished, on the anniversary of the Suez Canal fiasco.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Syria


I'm back in Beirut from Damascus, and all in all, it was a really interesting trip. I got to see the last days of Ramadan and the first days of al-Eid. I wasn't able to go to the Golan Heights, because the Ministry of the Interior was closed for the holidays, and I think it might be closed anyway because of the heightened tensions between Syria and Israel.

Everyone was extremely nice to me in Damascus, and poor families who ran shops in the old city insisted on sharing their meager rations with me while they broke their fast. Without asking who I was or where I was from or whether or not I was Muslim, one family stopped me in the street and refused to let me leave until I had eaten some of their food. They told me that I was welcome and thanked God that I was there to break the fast with them.

Otherwise, I noticed that the country that has been notorious for not having Coca-Cola has finally joined the Coca club. I was atop a mountain overlooking Damascus when I noticed that instead of Syrian Master Cola, I could actually buy a can of Coca-Cola. Apparently, a month and a half ago the Turkish distributor of Coke, who provides for the rest of the Middle East, finally managed to clear the importation of Coke with the Syrian government.

Here in Beirut, there was another explosion yesterday, but no one seems very concerned, despite the visible increase in Security Forces all over town.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Damascus


I arrived in Damascus last night at around 10 after spending almost 6 hours at the border. Officially, Americans have to get their visa in Washignton, but it's usually possible to get it at the Lebanese border, provied that you're willing to wait a while.

The only other time I've ever been here was on my way out of Lebanon to Jordan during the war this summer. The city seemed lively and teeming with energy, and I was disappointed that I wasn't able to look around. (I spent the night in a UNRWA Palestinian training camp then left the next morning for Amman.)

Damascus reminds me of a cross between Cairo and Beirut, which is a very good combination. These are the last days of Ramadan, so everyone is pretty lethargic during the day. I'm looking forward to celebrating Eid, although it would be nice to do it in a family setting rather than as a tourist. I've spent most of the day in the Souks looking at Iranian manuscripts, which may or may not be fakes, and key chains for my collection.

The last time I was in Syria, I was struck by Assad's cult of personality, with portraits of him all over the place, including in people's car windows. This time though, I've seen more pictures of Nasrallah than anyone else. The support for Hizbollah seems ubiquitous. There are posters, banners, glass etchings, t-shirts, and yes, key chains.

I'm going to try to get permission to take the Syrian tour of a village in the Golan Heights that was abandoned after the Israeli occupation. It should be interesting to see the place that could be the key to enflaming or defusing current tensions in the region.

I'll take pictures, but I won't be able to upload any until I get back to Beirut.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Former Janjaweed fighter tells his story


The BBC has exerpts of an account of a former Janjaweed fighter, who explains how things work in Darfur:

I tell you one fact. The Janjaweed don't make decisions. The orders come from the government...

One very well-known and regular visitor was Interior Minister Abdul Rahim Muhammad Hussein.

We will be split into two groups, one on horses, one on camels...

The aircraft went ahead of the Janjaweed. We saw the smoke, we saw the fire, then we went in...

Whenever we go into a village and find resistance we kill everyone. Sometimes they said wipe out an entire village...

We hear kill! Kill! Kill! And we shoot to kill...

Most were civilians - most were women...

Innocent people running out and being killed including children. And those who escape will die of thirst.

There are many rapes. But they don't do it in front of others. They take the victim away and rape them.

Eric Reeves, has gives us his two cents in the Guardian.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Break...


I'm off to al-Andalus until the new year, so I doubt that I'll be posting...

Happy holidays.

Setting Lebanon Free


I meant to mention this the other day, but it slipped my mind. Robert Grenier, former director of the CIA's counterintelligence center, thinks that if the US loves Lebanon, we should set it free.

ONCE more, Lebanon is in political crisis. This time, we are told, it pits "Syrian- and Iranian-backed" Shiite parties (Hezbollah and Amal) and the Christian faction led by Michel Aoun against the "Western-backed" Christian, Sunni and Druze groups that support the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

These very descriptions -- citing one external backer or another as a mark of political identification -- illustrate the fundamental problem Lebanon must overcome. Call it the Lebanese Disease: rather than sorting out their differences internally and addressing the fundamental injustices at the heart of their disputes, the Lebanese constantly look to outsiders to gain an advantage over their rivals.

Naturally, any advantages thus gained are short-lived, for both the Lebanese and their foreign backers. In the end, the only result is greater popular suffering and instability in Lebanon and the entire Middle East.

Only the Lebanese can cure themselves of this disease, but a bit of enlightened self-interest on the part of the "Western backers" -- primarily the United States and France ? would greatly help. It may seem counterintuitive, but the best hope for American interests in the Middle East is not to isolate and minimize Hezbollah, but to further integrate it politically, socially and militarily into the Lebanese state.

...It has long been obvious that the Shiites are under-represented in Lebanon's complicated power-sharing arrangements. In return for a greater measure of political representation for Shiites, Mr. Siniora could have insisted that Hezbollah's militia be brought under some sort of state control -- perhaps as a sort of home guard for the south, with its fighters under the command of senior officers drawn from the Lebanese armed forces.

...A far more genuine American commitment to Lebanon would focus on helping the parties to come up with a reasonable formula to redress the under-representation of Shiites in the power structure while getting greater government control over Hezbollah's war-making capacity.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Shouting across the divide


This American Life has an excellent piece on bridging the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims. The segment is about the statue of Mohammad in the Supreme Court, a Muslim-American family whose life is wrecked by a evangelizing fourth grade teacher, and an ad exec who tries to sell brand America. You can listen to the show or download it as an mp3 until later this week.

In the first story, the representative of CAIR tries to explain why Muslims don't appreciate the statue of Mohammad, even if it is supposed to be inclusive. In the second, a fourth-grade teacher reads her students a book on how Muslims hate America and Christians for the anniversary of 9/11 then explains to the only Muslim child how she and her family will go to hell if they don't accept the blood of Jesus. Finally, the third segment shows the difficulty of using the same formula to sell Coke to sell America might not work and explores a possible slogan about Muslim control of Islam's holy cities Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem: "Two outta three ain't bad!"

Monday, December 18, 2006

Petrodollars to petro-euros


Tehran has just announced that Iran will be converting all of its assets, holdings, reserves and accounting from US dollars to euros.

I remember there being talk during the run-up to the war in Iraq that one of the reasons for the invasion of Iraq was to reverse Saddam's decision to dump the dollar for the Euro. Whether or not Baghdad's decision to trade in euros, which incidentally made Iraq a lot of money, had anything to do with the invasion is unclear. To be honest, I don't understand enough about monetary policy to know exactly how OPEC countries' changing to Euros would affect the US economy, except for a vague sense that the results would be less than positive for America. I would, however, be willing to bet that Iraq now only trades in US dollars.

We'll see what effect Iran's decision will have, but if I had to guess, I'd say that it hasn't helped relations between Washington and Tehran.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

On civil war in Iraq


Safire is debating the usage "civil war" in describing Iraq. Personally, I took to calling a spade a spade almost a year and a half ago.

Safire makes a point of boasting about his easy access to president Talibani, who "definitively" does not call it a civil war, and he quotes Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times who makes the following point:

I bristle at the way a low-grade semantic argument has become -- at least among the partisan cud-chewers -- a substitute for serious discussion of what's happening in Iraq and what to do about it. ... Maybe this argument is a symptom of intellectual fatigue in the punditocracy.

So while I can agree that a lot of people are arguing about what to call it while not thinking enough about what to do there, I don't agree with Safire, who in the end, thinks that it's just a value judgement:

Call the fighting what you like, but the name you choose to give the hostilities, strife, violence or war not only reflects your view about the current state of affairs but is also an indication of where you stand on what our policy should be. Labels are the language's shorthand for judgments.

I disagree. Words have meaning. So although it's true that certain people push for the civil war in Iraq to be called one thing or another for ideological reasons, that does not mean that one label is more or less accurate than another. And when Safire's Kurdish friend argues that

There is a more complex dynamic to this than civil war... There is Shia versus Shia, Sunni versus Sunni, Shia versus Sunni and Shia and Sunni versus Al Qaeda, as well as militias against the authority of the elected government. Many act as the proxies of regional powers, so you can call it as much a proxy war as a civil war.

I have a hard time thinking that he's being anything but disingenuous, since, if anything, the Lebanese civil war was even more complex. There, we saw 18 confessional groups lining up with over half a dozen foreign powers (Israel, Syria, Iraq, US, France, Italy, etc.) and the Palestinians, who were somewhat in between a domestic and a foreign force. Does anyone call that anything other than a civil war? So why should Iraq be any different?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Underqualified


I read this IHT Op-Ed by Jeff Stein last October with a mixture of sad resignation and sighing wonderment, thinking to myself that it's no wonder American foreign policy in the Middle East is so often so wrongheaded and obviously stupid. After all, if US counterterrorism officials and congressmen don't know answers to such basic questions as the difference between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims, or even to which sects Al-Qaeda, Iran and Hezbollah belong, how can they make informed decisions about issues that are based on underlying differences between the region's actors?

So I have to say that while I'm not surprised, I am certainly disappointed to see that the newly appointed Democratic intelligence chairman is equally uninformed (via Ezra):

...like a number of his colleagues and top counterterrorism officials that I've interviewed over the past several months, Reyes can't answer some fundamental questions about the powerful forces arrayed against us in the Middle East.

It begs the question, of course: How can the Intelligence Committee do effective oversight of U.S. spy agencies when its leaders don't know basics about the battlefield?

...Reyes stumbled when I asked him a simple question about al Qaeda at the end of a 40-minute interview in his office last week. Members of the Intelligence Committee, mind you, are paid $165,200 a year to know more than basic facts about our foes in the Middle East.

We warmed up with a long discussion about intelligence issues and Iraq. And then we veered into terrorism's major players.

To me, it's like asking about Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland: Who's on what side?

The dialogue went like this:

Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?

"Al Qaeda, they have both," Reyes said. "You're talking about predominately?"

"Sure," I said, not knowing what else to say.

"Predominantly -- probably Shiite," he ventured.

...And Hezbollah? I asked him. What are they?

"Hezbollah. Uh, Hezbollah..."

He laughed again, shifting in his seat.

"Why do you ask me these questions at five o'clock? Can I answer in Spanish? Do you speak Spanish?"

"Pocito," I said -- a little.

"Pocito?!" He laughed again.

"Go ahead," I said, talk to me about Sunnis and Shia in Spanish.

Reyes: "Well, I, uh...."

Stein goes on to tell us how the woeful ignorance of the region goes all the way from the top of the chain of command to those on the ground -- the employees of the embassy in Baghdad. It seems that of all the Americans at the embassy in Iraq, there are only six fluent Arabic speakers and two dozen who have some familiarity with the language. This is out of over a thousand employees.

There is definitely a dearth of specialists of the region and speakers of its languages. And those in charge don't seem very concerned about it, since according to the Department of Defense, between 1993 and 2003, 55 Arabic speakers and 9 Farsi speakers have been fired in accordance with the US military's policy of "Don't ask, Don't tell."

The 9/11 commission report decried the lack of Arabic speakers, a situation that has led to a huge backlog of untranslated documents in the government's counterterrorism efforts. It seems not only disheartening but disconcerting that ideological issues such as one's sexual orientation would trump national security concerns.

So while I'm glad to see that some of those who pushed the most ferociously for war in Iraq will no longer be in a position to decide foreign policy in the region, I'm afraid that their Democratic counterparts aren't any more qualified to make such important decisions.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Peace not apartheid in Palestine


Jimmy Carter, responding to the reaction his new book has received, has a sincere and thoughtful piece in the LA Times on speaking frankly about Israel and Palestine:

The many controversial issues concerning Palestine and the path to peace for Israel are intensely debated among Israelis and throughout other nations ? but not in the United States. For the last 30 years, I have witnessed and experienced the severe restraints on any free and balanced discussion of the facts. This reluctance to criticize any policies of the Israeli government is because of the extraordinary lobbying efforts of the American-Israel Political Action Committee and the absence of any significant contrary voices.

It would be almost politically suicidal for members of Congress to espouse a balanced position between Israel and Palestine, to suggest that Israel comply with international law or to speak in defense of justice or human rights for Palestinians. Very few would ever deign to visit the Palestinian cities of Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, Gaza City or even Bethlehem and talk to the beleaguered residents. What is even more difficult to comprehend is why the editorial pages of the major newspapers and magazines in the United States exercise similar self-restraint, quite contrary to private assessments expressed quite forcefully by their correspondents in the Holy Land.

While I disagree with Carter on the idea of a two-state solution (I believe the only tenable solution to the conflict is a single democratic state where one person has one vote), I agree wholeheartedly with the problems that arise in the US when one wants to have an honest discussion about Israel/Palestine.

Proving his point, we can see that this is the kind of reaction that genuine discourse, such as Carter's gets in the US. Of course this elder statesman handles himself with propriety and grace, neither of which such mean-spirited and asinine attacks really warrant.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Pulitzer and an Iranian execution


The Wall Street Journal has an excellent piece on photographs of executed Kurds during the Iranian revolution and the photographer who until now has remained anonymous.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

One reported dead in street violence in Beirut


According to Lebanese television, a group of Shia protesters were walking home from the protest to their neighborhood near the Shatilla refugee camp. Apparently, they were attacked by a group of March 14 supporters, but it is unsure if the attackers were Sunni or Christian.

The details are still coming out, but it seems a Shia youth of twenty years was shot and killed by the attackers. Another in the group may have been stabbed as well.

This is really disconcerting, not only for the obvious reason that someone was murdered in the street, but for the fact that up until now, clashes between opposition supporters and government supporters had stayed at a minimum. I can imagine that this sort of an act will not go without a reprisal from Shia groups.

Opposition supporters interviewed on television stated that the March 14 group had their protest last week without any attacks by opposition supporters and were dismayed that they were not left alone to protest peacefully.

Up till now, I've been fairly optimistic about a peaceful solution to the political tensions here, but now I'm not so sure. This is just the sort of senseless act of violence that could spark a civil war.


UPDATE: The AP has a wire story on the event, and apparently it was Sunnis who killed the Shia boy:

Violent clashes broke out Sunday between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the capital, leaving one man dead from gunshot wounds at a time when tensions throughout Lebanon threaten the country's fragile sectarian and political balance.

...The clash in Tarik Jdideh occurred as a group of Hezbollah supporters were returning from Beirut's downtown and passed through the Sunni neighborhood.

Police officials said the two sides threw stones at each other, then shots were fired, killing Ahmed Ali Mahmoud, a 20-year-old Shiite. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the press.

At least 10 other people were slightly injured elsewhere in West Beirut in similar clashes.

What's really happening in Beirut


I just got off the phone with my father in the US. He immediately started giving me a lecture on Lebanese politics, if you can call it that. Generally speaking, I can count on my father to represent the red-state everyman, whether the topic is foreign policy or domestic affairs. He's worried about me being in Beirut, which is normal, especially since the Arab world is a region that seems very foreign and even threating to him.

He brought up the protests and how the situation was getting dangerous in Lebanon. I told him that I had actually just come back from them and that the mood was festive, nonviolent and, ultimately, democratic. He told me that no, Hezbollah was just a bunch of terrorists and that they aren't democratic and that they're trying to take over the country.

Things always start deteriorating when I can't hold my tongue in these situations. I told him that if he was interested in knowing the specifics of the situation, I could explain them to him, but I was not interested in getting a lecture on Lebanese politics from someone who doesn't know anything about the subject.

However, as a representative of the American mindset, one of his sentences stuck in my mind: "Everyone knows the Hezbollah terrorists are trying to take over the government." Speaking from an American view point, he's probably right. Everyone knows what's happening. Of course they don't actually know what's going on here, but that doesn't make their certainty any less headstrong.

I went down to the protests again today. If you hadn't been following the situation here and didn't speak any Arabic, you might think that everyone had showed up in Beirut for a music festival, or maybe an independence day celebration or some other national holiday.

Downtown has turned into a souk, with people hawking political flags and shirts out of the trunk of their cars or on tables set up in the newly formed tent village. Vendors sell warm food, cigarettes and cold drinks. Shia clerics stand next to young women with abundant cleavage and bear shoulders. Supporters of Hezbollah and Amal mingle with Christian supporters of General Aoun and communists who hock Che scarves and Lebanese flags with a hammer and sickle on them.

Youth congregate together drawing into circles to dance and sing while drums are beaten loudly. Children have faces painted red, white and green to mirror the Lebanese flag, sometimes with a small flag on each cheek, other times with the a single taking up the entire face, the centered ceder formed by a small nose. The sound of two teacups click-clacking together calls those protesters who would like to sit down and warm up with a cup of hot tea. Barbecue grills are set up, some selling food while other sell hot coals for the myriad of water pipes everyone seems to be smoking between chanting slogans and waving flags. These are the "terrorists" my father was lecturing me about.

As dusk falls, some protesters gather into buses to make the trip back home while others start fires to keep themselves warm next to their tents. Downtown feels alive and vibrant, religiously and socially mixed -- somewhat like I imagine it being before the civil war and before it was revamped into an expensive simulacrum of its former self.


Protesters wave Lebanese flags downtown in hopes of pressuring PM Siniora to resign.


Downtown has turned into a festive tent city, with hundreds of thousands converging on the capital to show the government their discontent.


Opposition supporters come together to dance underneath the overpass, which houses many who are camping here until the government resigns or expands the opposition's representation in the cabinet.


Protesters get ready for the evening by lighting up camp fires.

More on the protests


I've been really disappointed with the coverage of these protests by the media. The language used to described them seems to be culled from the government's talking points, with talk of a coup d'état that implies that these protests are somehow illegitimate, whereas the March 14 protests were legitimate and righteous.

Another gripe of mine is the focus on the sectarian divide, even though the Christians, for example are very divided, with some following Aoun and the opposition and others following the ruling coalition. To my mind there has not been nearly enough focus on the social divide. Today, a friend of mine forwarded me a message that had been sent to her, telling people to go look at the animals at the zoo downtown. The message is clear: these people, especially the Shia and the poor, are not only not Lebanese, but they're not even human. This attitude, and its social and economic consequences, play a large part in the frustration felt by a large segment of Lebanese society.

At the end of the day, this is a question about Lebanese identity and the sharing of Lebanon's wealth. These differences are largely political and social, a fact that gets lost in the easy description of sectarian divide. This is not to say that that divide doesn't exist -- it does -- but it's not the only border, or even necessarily the most important one, dividing Lebanese society.

So with the lazy reporting that I've been seeing in the Western press, it's refreshing to see this report by Tony Shadid in the Post:

In a city of frontiers, Beirut built another border Saturday.

On one side of coiled barbed wire and metal barricades were armored personnel carriers manned by soldiers in red berets toting U.S.-made M-16 rifles and guarding the colonnaded, stone government headquarters where Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and other ministers have taken up residence. On the other were the fervent young men of Hezbollah and its allies, who have turned a downtown tailored for the rich into the site of an open-ended protest to force the government's fall.

"This is the point of confrontation between us and them," said Khodr Hassan, who walked 12 hours from his southern village to the protest with 30 other youths. He pointed at his friends at the barricade, some surging forward, others lolling about.

"This is the line of separation," said one of them, Ali Aitawi.

Long divided by the Christian east and largely Muslim west of its 15-year civil war, Beirut is a city snarled today by far more numerous boundaries of sect, perspective and ideology, intersecting and tangling across a capital and country wrestling with a question still unanswered since independence more than 60 years ago: What is Lebanon's identity?

In today's crisis, those fault lines tell the story of the struggle underway between the country's two camps, divided by past and present, with vastly different visions of Lebanon's future: on one side Hezbollah, supported by Iran and Syria, and on the other the government, backed by the United States and France. The fault lines tell, too, of an impasse that perhaps can't be broken.

The borders are drawn by color, flag, portrait and symbol, a claustrophobic contest to lay claim to identity never solely Lebanese. They are defined by ideology: the culture of resistance to Israel celebrated by the Shiite Muslim movement of Hezbollah, for instance, or the Christian separatism of civil war-era militias with fascist roots. They follow the contours of leaders who command loyalty through personality over politics. And they offer protection in a country where survival can feel precarious.

Read the rest of the article; it's well worth your time.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Opposition rally a success for Hezbollah and allies


Today's demonstration was a success for the opposition coalition, not least of all for its peaceful nature and family atmosphere. There were at least twice as many people as the funeral cum rally held by the anti-Syrian governing coalition. There was a festive mood today in Martyr's Square and its environs, with Muslims and Christians, supporters of Hezbollah, Aoun, Amal and Frangieh coming out in droves in an attempt to force the current government to resign.

What looked like hundreds of thousands of Lebanese came out, for the most part following Nasrallah's call to brandish Lebanese flags instead of those of sectarian political parties.

It seems that the opposition has learned from the visual rhetoric of the March 14 governing coalition, giving their opposition a multi-confessional, and finally Lebanese , air as Christians and Muslims came together to show the government their discontent.

One mixed group of youths sat together smoking shisha as they took turns chanting political slogans supporting various Lebanese political parties: first Hezbollah, then Christian politicians General Aoun and Sulieman Frangieh and then finally even Iran.

Here are some photos I took of the event:











Stepping into Iraq: Saudia Arabia


The Saudis are making it clear that if the US leaves Iraq, they will step in:

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki al-Faisal ... said in a speech last month that "since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited." If it does, one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.

...Options now include providing Sunni military leaders (primarily ex-Baathist members of the former Iraqi officer corps, who make up the backbone of the insurgency) with the same types of assistance -- funding, arms and logistical support -- that Iran has been giving to Shiite armed groups for years.

Another possibility includes the establishment of new Sunni brigades to combat the Iranian-backed militias. Finally, Abdullah may decide to strangle Iranian funding of the militias through oil policy. If Saudi Arabia boosted production and cut the price of oil in half, the kingdom could still finance its current spending. But it would be devastating to Iran, which is facing economic difficulties even with today's high prices. The result would be to limit Tehran's ability to continue funneling hundreds of millions each year to Shiite militias in Iraq and elsewhere.

Both the Sunni insurgents and the Shiite death squads are to blame for the current bloodshed in Iraq. But while both sides share responsibility, Iraqi Shiites don't run the risk of being exterminated in a civil war, which the Sunnis clearly do. Since approximately 65 percent of Iraq's population is Shiite, the Sunni Arabs, who make up a mere 15 to 20 percent, would have a hard time surviving any full-blown ethnic cleansing campaign.

In this case, remaining on the sidelines would be unacceptable to Saudi Arabia. To turn a blind eye to the massacre of Iraqi Sunnis would be to abandon the principles upon which the kingdom was founded. It would undermine Saudi Arabia's credibility in the Sunni world and would be a capitulation to Iran's militarist actions in the region.

To be sure, Saudi engagement in Iraq carries great risks -- it could spark a regional war. So be it: The consequences of inaction are far worse.

Policy options in Iraq just seem to be getting worse and worse...

Today's big protest


Today there will be a protest led by the opposition downtown. There is a good chance that this will dwarf the protest held last week after the assassination of Pierre Gemayel. Some are predicting a million people. Nasrallah kept people guessing until yesterday about when the protest would be, but yesterday he called on his supporters to go into the street in order to "proceed in a peaceful, civil, democratic and political manner toward the main goal of a new government":

Lebanon, with its [sectarian] makeup, cannot be administered by one side amid difficult internal conditions. Let us call for a national unity government....

The opposition forces, on the basis of their constitutional rights, call on all Lebanese, whatever their religious confession, to demonstrate peacefully in an open-ended sit-in from 3 p.m. Friday for a national unity government. The opposition forces appeal to demonstrators to brandish only the Lebanese flag and authorized slogans and avoid any party or sectarian symbols.

If heeded, Nasrallah's call on supporters to avoid party flags and sectarian symbols will make this protest different from previous Hezbollah-sponsored opposition protests as well as those put on by the governing coalition. (Crosses and party flags were everywhere last week.)

The governing coalition's youth organizations have so far called on their supporters to stay at home, hopefully decreasing the chances of any clashes between the two groups.

The competing protests are part of the divide in visions of what kind of a country Lebanon should be, a division that is split somewhat across sectarian lines. There are, however, some players who seem more interested in political maneuvering than in ideological direction. But overall, the conflict is between those who feel Lebanon should seek financial gain and stability by looking to the West, a prospect that entails peace (perhaps even with Israel) and those who believe that the Israeli-Arab conflict is still strong and that finally, Lebanon is a part of that conflict, meaning that no peace should be made with the southern neighbor until a just settlement is found for the Arabs.

The first group, while officially against Israel, is aligned with Washington, and to a lesser extent, Paris, whereas the second group is allied first and foremost with Tehran, but also to varying degrees with Damascus and Ramallah.

I'll be downtown this afternoon to see how things play out today at the protest.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Our Walls Bear Witness: Darfur exhibition


The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is currently holding a photo exhibition on Darfur:

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will project wall-sized images of the escalating genocide in Darfur onto its façade during Thanksgiving week, marking the first time the national memorial's exterior will be used to highlight contemporary genocide. The program, "Darfur: Who Will Survive Today?" is a unique and highly symbolic Museum project produced in association with Darfur/Darfur to draw attention to the continuing crisis in Darfur.


Friday, November 24, 2006

Cable providers jailed in US


Since the television station Al-Manar is affiliated with Hezbollah, the predominantly Shia political party and militia in Lebanon, it seems that broadcasting the channel in the US is illegal.

Each of the two owners of a Brooklyn-based HDTV service provider is faced with a 110-year prison sentence if found guilty of providing material support to a terrorist organization.

Al-Manar was labeled a terrorist organization by the US Government last March, making it illegal to broadcast the channel or do business with it in any form. It's commonly labeled the propaganda arm of Hezbollah, and of course it is biased toward Hezbollah, just like Future TV is for Hariri and Orange TV is for General Aoun. But the truth be told, during the war, their news coverage was excellent, and they're only a bit more outlandish than Fox News, as far as partisan bias goes. You can see their website here, which has English-language news coverage.

Is broadcasting an unpopular television channel now illegal? One might argue that the resistance message stressed by Al-Manar is an incitement to violence, but I think that would be stretching it. And furthermore, if such messages were to actually be punished, then we'd have to start locking up people like Ann Coulter who called for the US to "should invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity" and Pat Robertson who called for the assassination of Venezuela's elected president, Hugo Chavez.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

The protest


The protest downtown seemed more like a public fair or a carnival than an angry mob. People came from all over Beirut, and presumably all over Lebanon, to show their support to the March 14 coalition and the slain Pierre Gemayel.

Slogans ranged from "Syria, Iran, Israel Out of Lebanon" to "the Sunni are with you" to , literally, "Fuck your sister, Syria." I saw flags of almost every sort: Lebanese, Phalange, Armenian, Future movement, various other Christian parties, and e