Iran’s Cyber Battle

June 18, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Noah Shachtman, Wired

2009-06-15T185045Z_01_TEH202_RTRMDNP_3_IRAN-ELECTION More and more of Iran’s pro-government websites are under assault, as opposition forces launch web attacks on the Tehran regime’s online propaganda arms.

What started out as an attempt to overload a small set of official sites has now expanded, network security consultant Dancho Danchev notes. News outlets like Raja News are being attacked, too. The semi-official Fars News site is currently unavailable.

“We turned our collective power and outrage into a serious weapon that we could use at our will, without ever having to feel the consequences. We practiced distributed, citizen-based warfare,” writes Matthew Burton, a former U.S. intelligence analyst who joined in the online assaults, thanks to a “push-button tool that would, upon your click, immediately start bombarding 10 Web sites with requests.”

But the tactic of launching these distributed denial of service, or DDOS, attacks remains hugely controversial. The author of one-web based tool, “Page Rebooter,” used by opposition supporters to send massive amounts of traffic to Iranian government sites, temporarily shut the service down, citing his discomfort with using the tool “to attack other websites.” Then, a few hours later, he turned on the service again, after his employers agreed to cover the costs of the additional traffic. WhereIsMyVote.info is opening up 16 Page Reboot windows simultaneously, to flood an array of government pages at once.

Other online supporters of the so-called “Green Revolution” worry about the ethics of a democracy-promotion movement inhibitting their foes’ free speech. A third group is concerned that the DDOS strikes could eat up the limited amount of bandwidth available inside Iran — bandwidth being used by the opposition to spread its message by Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. “Quit with the DDOS attacks — they’re just slowing down Iranian traffic and making it more difficult for the protesters to Tweet,” says one online activist.

But Burton — who helped bring Web 2.0 tools to the American spy community — isn’t so sure. “Giving a citizenry the ability to turn the tables on its own government is, I think, what governance is all about. The public’s ability to strike back is something that every government should be reminded of from time to time.” Yet he admits to feeling “conflicted.” about participating in the strikes, he suddenly stopped. “I don’t know why, but it just felt…creepy. I was frightened by how easy it was to sow chaos from afar, safe and sound in my apartment, where I would never have to experience–or even know–the results of my actions.”

Meanwhile, San Francisco technologist Austin Heap has put together a set of instructions on how to set up “proxies”—intermediary internet protocol (IP) address—that allow activists to get through the government firewall. And the Networked Culture blog has assembled for pro-democracy sympathizers a “cyberwar guide for beginners.” Stop publicizing these proxies over Twitter, the site recommends. Instead, send direct messages to “@stopAhmadi or @iran09 and they will distributed them discretely [sic] to bloggers in Iran.”

11-26

Roxana Saberi’s Release Bodes Well for U.S.-Iran Relations

May 14, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By William O. Beeman, New America Media

2009-05-12T113428Z_01_TEH102_RTRMDNP_3_IRAN-USA-JOURNALIST Roxana Saberi, the 32-year-old Iranian-American journalist convicted of espionage in Iran has been released to her family, and will soon return to the United States.

While her international community of family, colleagues and friends can rejoice in her release, it was predictable from the moment of her arrest, based on the history of such events in Iran in the past.

Although no one will know for sure exactly how events proceeded against her, it is possible to speculate how Saberi’s arraignment and trial developed.

The espionage charges against Saberi were utterly unfounded. They were likely the result of an escalation within the Iranian judicial system as official after official tried to cover their tracks for a series of abortive attempts to charge her with a crime.

She was first detained for the relatively minor offense of having purchased a bottle of wine. Since religious minorities in Iran are allowed to manufacture, sell and consume alcohol, the country is awash in liquor. It is easily obtainable by everyone—even government officials. Most likely the arresting official did not know that Saberi was an American passport holder born in the United States, and was probably chagrined to discover that this case was likely to create international brouhaha.

A more serious charge was then sought to justify the first arrest. The discovery that her press credentials had expired some months earlier provided that opportunity. Saberi had continued to file stories for a number of American news outlets, reportedly because officials assured her that the expiration of her press pass was inconsequential. Since she could demonstrate that Iranian officials had allowed her to continue writing, this charge would also not hold water.

Finally, the serious charge of espionage was lodged. As foolish and unsubstantiated as this charge was, it was plausible in Iran. Rumors that American CIA operatives were active in Iran were widely promulgated in Iran. These suspicions were reinforced through extensive documentation found in New York Times reporter James Risen’s 2006 book “State of War.” Additionally, on April 4, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz confirmed an earlier rumor that an Iranian nuclear scientist had been assassinated by the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, inside Iran.

Iran experienced one horrendous situation involving a foreigner arrested for spying in Iran in 2003. Canadian-Iranian Zahra Kazemi was raped, beaten and tortured to death (although Iranian authorities claimed she died of a stroke) for allegedly having photographed prohibited parts of Evin Prison, where she was later incarcerated. Her death caused an international uproar. The Iranian government, clearly badly burned by the Kazemi case has since been careful to make sure that her situation is not repeated.

Foreigners — dual nationals — accused of espionage have been held for a time, usually in conspicuously humane circumstances, while the government wrings as much publicity out of the event as possible for a domestic and regional audience. The accused prisoners are then released in a show of clemency.

This was the case with Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Ms. Efandiari was visiting her 90-year-old mother in 2006 when she was arrested. It is likely that her connection to Lee Hamilton, director of the Wilson Center, made her an object of suspicion. Hamilton had long connections to the CIA and to groups promoting democratic revolutions in places like Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Kian Tajbakhsh was arrested at about the same time on the same charges. Tajbakhsh worked for George Soros’ Open Society Institute. Soros had also been active in the same “revolutions” in the region.

Both Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh were held under relatively humane circumstances and released some months later.

The Iranian presidential election next month was also a likely reason for a quick dispensation of Saberi’s case. Iran would like the world to focus on the election, and not on an ongoing saga of an international journalist in their prison system.

In the Saberi case, Iran actually did itself some good. It showed that it had a functioning judicial system—however imperfect—with an appeals process that eventually yielded the correct result.

The Obama administration, by engaging in diplomacy and sober statements of concern regarding Saberi, not only aided the process of her release, but likely set the stage for further improved relations between the United States and Iran. We now have a situation where Iran undertook an action of which the United States disapproved. The United States expressed itself in a non-hostile manner, and the Iranian government responded with a positive redress of that action. This bodes well for future U.S.-Iranian relations. It is only regrettable that this had to come at the price of Saberi’s unjust incarceration.

William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He is past president of the Middle East section of the American Anthropological Association. He has lived and worked in Iran for more than 30 years. His most recent book is The “’Great Satan’ vs. the ‘Mad Mullahs’: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other” (University of Chicago Press, 2008).

Attacks Commence

April 23, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Dahr Jamail, Truthout

2009-04-21T201436Z_01_BAG200_RTRMDNP_3_IRAQ Everyone knows the analogy of the beehive. When it is goaded, countless bees emerge, attacking the tormentor. Right now in Iraq, the formerly US-backed al-Sahwa (Sons of Iraq) Sunni militia, ripe with broken promises from both the occupiers of their country and the Iraqi government that they would be given respect and jobs, have gone into attack mode.

It is an easily predictable outcome. An occupying power (the US) sets up a 100,000-strong militia composed of former resistance fighters and even some members of al-Qaeda, pays them each $300 per month to not attack occupation forces, and attacks decrease dramatically. Then, stop paying most of them and tell them they will be incorporated into Iraqi government security forces. Proceed to leave them high and dry as the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki begins targeting them – assassinating leaders, detaining fighters and threatening their families. Allow this plan to continue for over six months, unabated.

Not surprisingly, the Sahwa are fighting back against US forces and those of the Iraqi government.

2009-04-23T110151Z_01_BAG400_RTRMDNP_3_IRAQ While not all of these attacks can be attributed to Sahwa forces, I believe it is safe to say the majority of them are. A brief overview of the last few days in Iraq is informative, as it shows many of these attacks, as well as some of the ongoing attacks by government forces against the Sahwa:

# April 20: Suicide bomber wounds eight US soldiers in Baquba, 40 miles northeast of Baghdad. Dubai-based satellite TV channel al-Arabiya reports that three of the US soldiers were killed. The US military does not confirm the deaths. Iraqi officials tell the media the bomber was wearing a police uniform. This method is becoming increasingly common now. Sahwa forces already have police and military uniforms, as they have been working as security personnel for months now. In another attack in the same city, a suicide bomber kills two US soldiers, their Iraqi interpreter and two bystanders, although the US military has not reported on the incident. Overall, 16 Iraqis killed, 11 wounded.

# April 19: Gunmen kill an off-duty lieutenant-colonel policeman in his car in Baghdad. Mortar round wounds two civilians when it hits a power generator in the Zayouna district in east Baghdad. Police find the bodies of two Sunni Arab militiamen with bullet wounds in the head and chest in Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad. Gunmen kill two Sahwa members in separate incidents around Mussayib. Gunmen kill an Interior Ministry official in Nu’ariyah and another in Ur. The Interior Ministry is responsible for targeting the Sahwa leadership. In total, 14 Iraqis are killed, 28 wounded.

2009-04-23T124809Z_01_BAG202_RTRMDNP_3_IRAQ-VIOLENCE # April 17: Mortar attacks across Shi’ite-majority districts of Baghdad kill eight and wound 19.

# April 16: A suicide bomber kills 16 Iraqi soldiers and wounds another 50 after infiltrating an army base in Habbaniyah, on the outskirts of Fallujah, and mingling with a queue of soldiers at a dining facility. The bomber is wearing a military uniform. A Sahwa leader is killed when a bomb planted on his car explodes in Baquba.
In addition to the aformentioned, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of bombings and roadside bombs across Iraq recently. On April 20, two young girls were killed in Fallujah when a sticky bomb targeting an army officer exploded outside their home as he left for work. The same day in Basra, a roadside bomb targeting a US patrol detonated, but the military reported no casualties. April 19 saw a roadside bomb targeting a police patrol that wounded five people, including two policemen in the Zaafaraniya district of southeast Baghdad. That same day, another roadside bomb wounded four people in the Doura district of southern Baghdad, and the so-called Green Zone was shelled. On April 17, a roadside bomb wounded a policeman in Baquba, and three bombs were defused in Amara in southern Iraq.

There is a new kind of war on in Iraq – and it is spreading. Tit-for-tat killings between the Sahwa and government forces are increasing. Roadside bomb attacks and suicide strikes against US forces are also increasing in recent days. Meanwhile, there is no sign of reconciliation between the Sahwa and the Iraqi government, and of course little if any of this is mentioned in most US corporate media.

While the current trend still pales in comparison to previous levels of resistance in Iraq, if left unchecked, it will certainly continue to increase.

»Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist, is the author of “Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq,” (Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from occupied Iraq for eight months as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Turkey over the last four years.

11-18

The Crimson Tide

March 26, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

Red%20Tide

It sounds like something out of a sci-fi blockbuster. A mysterious red blob suffocates and kills anything that gets in its way as it slithers along, leaving mayhem in its wake.

However, in the case of the current crimson tide washing up in the GCC, truth is stranger than fiction. Known as ‘red tide’, the phenomenon is caused by a thick growth of phytoplankton called dinoflagellates, and it occurs naturally.

However, scientists have discovered that some variants of the occurrence may also be a by-product of human activities, such as development programs to extend land borders by adding fillers to the sea, or the dumping of waste into the ocean. The red tide suffocates fish and other marine life to death. Areas of the coastline affected by the phenomenon are often littered with the carcasses of fish, crabs and other sea creatures.

Typically, the red tide rears its’ ugly head in the spring. However, this year the red tide arrived as early as this past October off the coast of the UAE where it still lingers and is spreading to other GCC States including Oman. This past January the Ministry of Environment and Water in Abu Dhabi appointed a specialized team to develop a national course of action to cope with the problem that has left many beaches in the kingdom empty as well as several dinner plates. The ministry has also launched an intense media blitz to inform the public how to stay safe during the peak of the red tides. While studies have shown that it is safe to swim in the tainted water, being in close contact with the algae can cause severe respiratory problems. As for eating the marine life that is veritably soaking up the contaminated water, it is safe to consume seafood as long as the catches are caught fresh and alive. Officials have warned the public from scavenging through the several tons of dead fish that have already washed up along the coast. A mass clean up effort is continuously underway in the affected regions to collect the decomposing corpses and incinerate them at a public facility.    The government of the UAE also plans to develop a system of satellites to serve as an early warning system for when the red tides begin to roll in.

This past week the State of Kuwait was put on alert as the red tide began looking for its next victim. The Environment Public Authority (EPA) in Kuwait has warned the government to give the phenomenon special attention for the sake of public health. The Kuwaiti government sent scientific expert, Dr. Mona Hussein, to the UAE this week to study the red tides first hand before they make landfall in Kuwait. Dr. Hussein will collect water and dead fish samples to bring back to Kuwait for further studies.

As a result of the red tides, the tourism industry in the GCC has taken a massive hit especially in Dubai where divers from all over the world come to enjoy the crystal blue waters and immaculate coral reefs. The murky waters are keeping tourists away and isolating the public from their own coastline.

11-14

Indian Muslims Demand Justice

February 5, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

2009-01-29T141712Z_01_DEL203_RTRMDNP_3_INDIA-MUSLIMS-PROTEST

A Muslim man says his evening prayers after a protest in New Delhi January 29, 2009. At least two thousand people rallied in New Delhi on Thursday to protest the killing of imprisonment of Muslims, saying innocent members of the community became targets after bomb attacks in India in recent years.

REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

NEW DELHI: With parliamentary elections likely to be held in two-three months, the Indian Muslims have started raising their voice with a new aggressiveness and force. The past week was witness to their protesting against being targeted in fake encounters as “terrorists” and also holding a daylong convention demanding reservation in jobs and education. The message is simple and the timing appropriate. With Indian politics no longer dominated by a single party or only two/three major parties, the Muslims are strongly aware of the significance that their vote holds for numerous parties in the fray. They do not want to be sidelined or ignored any more. This has prompted them to raise their voice as and when needed with a new force rather than remain only mute spectators to ongoing political developments.

Displaying their anger and protest against innocent Muslims being falsely labeled as terrorists, at least 3,000 Muslims gathered in the capital city last week (January 29). They arrived on a train called the “Ulema Express,” which started from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh on Wednesday (January 28), with number of demonstrators increasing during the 700-kilometer journey to New Delhi. They marched from the railway station to Jantar Mantar area, near Indian Parliament, the main spot where demonstrators gather. The protestors carried banners which said: “Let the truth prevail, bring the innocents out of jail,” and “Give us security, not tears and blood.”

They demanded a judicial inquiry into the Batla House encounter in the capital city in September, in which two Muslims were killed, following which two were arrested. Azamgarh hit the headlines then, with it being claimed as hideout of the suspect terrorists. Several men from Azamgarh were arrested as suspects. Questioning these moves targeting Muslims, Maulana Amir Rashadi, a leader of Ulema council, which organized the rally, said: “We want fake encounters like Batla House to end, We want innocent Muslim youth who have been arrested by the police to be let off in two weeks.”

“We will intensify our agitation if false arrests and harassment continues,” Rashadi said.

The protestors shouted slogans: “We will not let another Batla House happen.” They are also angry at the Inspector M.C. Sharma, who died during the Batla House encounter, being honored. The government has rubbed salt into their wounds, by doing so, but there is nothing surprising about it, according to Rashadi. “It is normal in Indian politics. The government has many faces,” he said. “After killing so many of our promising youths and dumping many more in jail, what kind of security can they provide us and what kind of trust do they expect from us,” he asked.

“We want a judicial enquiry on the Batla House encounter. Innocent Muslims are being harassed by the authorities and are seen with suspicion by everyone. Muslims are the most patriotic of all, and we have proved our loyalty time and again. We are tired of being used as a votebank, and then backstabbed by the political parties,” Rashadi said.

“The government has failed to give us relief. The police of every state are hanging around in Azamgarh. The Congress- led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has engineered a plot against us. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) government in Uttar Pradesh is competing with the UPA in killing Muslim youths,” Maulana Tahir Madani, also a leader of Ulema council, said.

Though initially several legislators, including Akbar Ahmed (BSP) from Azamgarh, Ilyas Azmi (BSP) and Abu Azmi (Samajwadi party) “promised to protect our boys and force the UPA to order a judicial probe in the encounter. But they did nothing,” Rashadi said. “All parties have played with our problems, but they have never tried to resolve them. We now intend to emerge as a political force to have our say in governance, and will put up candidates from Azamgarh and Lalganj in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections,” Madani said.

The council had chartered the train. On this, Rashadi said: “We paid Rs 1.4 million to the railway and chartered the train. We paid Rs 300,000 as security money at Azamgarh railway station. The entire money came through donations.”

At the “National Convention on Muslim Reservation,” organized by Joint Committee of Muslim Organizations for Empowerment (JCMOE), the participants raised demand for at least 10 percent reservation for their community in jobs and education (February 1). Describing Indian Muslims almost as backward as Scheduled Caste (SC)/Scheduled Tribe (ST) and more backward than non-Muslim Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the Muslim leaders expressed hope that their demand would be met. It is hoped that the “convention will serve to accelerate achievement of our cherished goals in order to make the Muslim community a real partner in the development process, particularly to the benefit of its backward sections so that the economic, educational and social disparities that exist are reduced and national unity transformed into national fraternity, through justice and equality,” Syed Shahabuddin, former legislator and convener of JCMOE said.

With it being a hard reality that “Muslims have been consistently and universally underrepresented in all legislatures since 1950, on an average to extent of 50 percent measured by population,” Shahabuddin said: “Both systematic and electoral reforms are needed not only to give the minorities their due but also to make our democracy more representative.”

“Muslims’ unilateral demand is reservation, reservation, reservation,” which they have been making for very long, Saiyid Hamid, Chancellor Jamia Hamdard said. “The demand cannot be ignored for too long” nor “remain confined to paper,” he said. Countering critics describing reservation as “crutches,” Hamid said: “They forget that without reservation, the gap of inequality would only increase.”

Drawing attention to repeated “assurances” being given by politicians having been forgotten, Justice (retired) A.M. Ahmadi said: “This has led to confidence minority held in the majority being shaken.” He expressed the hope that those in power will not turn a “Nelson’s eye” to Muslims demand for reservation.

Voicing strong support and commitment to Muslims’ demand for reservation, Minister of Chemicals & Fertilizers and Steel, Ram Vilas Paswan said: “There should also be reservation for Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims.” Paswan, who is also Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJSP) chief, drew attention to reservation accorded to Dalit Hindus being withdrawn following their conversion to either Christianity or Islam. Conversion does not spell any increase in their economic stature so there should be reservation for Dalit Muslims also, he said.

The left bloc leaders voiced support for Muslims’ demand for reservation, stating that India’s development was not possible by ignoring the Muslims. It was “unjust” to ignore Muslims’ demand for reservation, Debarata Biswas, general secretary, All India Forward Bloc (AIFB) said. The country will not progress without meeting their demand for reservation, Biswas said.  In a similar tone, A.B. Bardhan, general secretary, Communist Party of India (CPI) said that “development of the country” can never be complete by ignoring the concerns voiced by Muslims.

Several speakers pointed out that “creamy layers” within the Muslim community should not be granted reservation.

During its draft resolution, the JCMOE declared launching of the “National Movement for Muslim Reservation.” The resolution expressed “regret” at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s 15-point program for welfare of minorities having “not been implemented in letter and spirit.” The resolution appealed to the Muslim community and all Muslim organizations for their “wholehearted participation in the movement, unitedly” for “realization of their common long-cherished goals of progress and development of justice and equality for all.” The resolution also requested politically active Muslim organizations to “advise and guide the Muslim electorate” in coming elections to extend their support “unitedly and massively” only to secular parties committed to reservation for Muslims and “field adequate number of Muslim candidates, acceptable to the community in all Muslim-winnable constituencies.”

Though there is no denying that Muslims are playing their role by drawing attention of national forces to issues concerning them, only speculations can be voiced on the actual impact this will have. It can only be hoped that importance given to them now is not forgotten soon after the political frenzy linked with parliamentary elections is over!

11-7

It’s All Spelled Out in Unpublicized Agreement–Total Defeat for U.S. in Iraq

December 18, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

Courtesy Patrick Cockburn

2008-12-10T165648Z_01_BAG310_RTRMDNP_3_IRAQ-FEAST

On November 27 the Iraqi parliament voted by a large majority in favor of a security agreement with the US under which the 150,000 American troops in Iraq will withdraw from cities, towns and villages by June 30, 2009 and from all of Iraq by December 31, 2011. The Iraqi government will take over military responsibility for the Green Zone in Baghdad, the heart of American power in Iraq, in a few weeks time. Private security companies will lose their legal immunity. US military operations and the arrest of Iraqis will only be carried out with Iraqi consent. There will be no US military bases left behind when the last US troops leave in three years time and the US military is banned in the interim from carrying out attacks on other countries from Iraq.

The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), signed after eight months of rancorous negotiations, is categorical and unconditional. America’s bid to act as the world’s only super-power and to establish quasi-colonial control of Iraq, an attempt which began with the invasion of 2003, has ended in failure. There will be a national referendum on the new agreement next July, but the accord is to be implemented immediately so the poll will be largely irrelevant. Even Iran, which had furiously denounced the first drafts of the SOFA saying that they would establish a permanent US presence in Iraq, now says blithely that it will officially back the new security pact after the referendum. This is a sure sign that Iran, as America’s main rival in the Middle East, sees the pact as marking the final end of the US occupation and as a launching pad for military assaults on neighbours such as Iran.

Astonishingly, this momentous agreement has been greeted with little surprise or interest outside Iraq. On the same day that it was finally passed by the Iraqi parliament international attention was wholly focused on the murderous terrorist attack in Mumbai. For some months polls in the US showed that the economic crisis had replaced the Iraqi war as the main issue facing America in the eyes of voters. So many spurious milestones in Iraq have been declared by President Bush over the years that when a real turning point occurs people are naturally sceptical about its significance. The White House was so keen to limit understanding of what it had agreed in Iraq that it did not even to publish a copy of the SOFA in English. Some senior officials in the Pentagon are privately criticizing President Bush for conceding so much to the Iraqis, but the American media are fixated on the incoming Obama administration and no longer pays much attention to the doings of the expiring Bush administration.

The last minute delays to the accord were not really about the terms agreed with the Americans. It was rather that the leaders of the Sunni Arab minority, seeing the Shia-Kurdish government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki about to fill the vacuum created by the US departure, wanted to barter their support for the accord in return for as many last minute concessions as they could extract. Some three quarters of the 17,000 prisoners held by the Americans are Sunni and they wanted them released or at least not mistreated by the Iraqi security forces. They asked for an end to de-Baathication which is directed primarily at the Sunni community. Only the Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr held out against the accord to the end, declaring it a betrayal of independent Iraq. The ultra-patriotic opposition of the Sadrists to the accord has been important because it has made it difficult for the other Shia parties to agree to anything less than a complete American withdrawal. If they did so they risked being portrayed as US puppets in the upcoming provincial elections at the end of January 2009 or the parliamentary elections later in the year.

The SOFA finally agreed is almost the opposite of the one which US started to negotiate in March. This is why Iran, with its strong links to the Shia parties inside Iraq, ended its previous rejection of it. The first US draft was largely an attempt to continue the occupation without much change from the UN mandate which expired at the end of the year. Washington overplayed its hand. The Iraqi government was growing stronger as the Sunni Arabs ended their uprising against the occupation. The Iranians helped restrain the Mehdi Army, Muqtada’s powerful militia, so the government regained control of Basra, Iraq’s second biggest city, and Sadr City, almost half Baghdad, from the Shia militias. The prime minister Nouri al-Maliki became more confident, realizing his military enemies were dispersing and, in any case, the Americans had no real alternative but to support him. The US has always been politically weak in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein because it has few real friends in the country aside from the Kurds. The leaders of the Iraqi Shia, 60 per cent of the total population, might ally themselves to Washington to gain power, but they never intended to share power with the US in the long term.

The occupation has always been unpopular in Iraq. Foreign observers and some Iraqis are often misled by the hatred with which different Iraqi communities regard each other into underestimating the strength of Iraqi nationalism. Once Maliki came to believe that he could survive without US military support then he was able to spurn US proposals until an unconditional withdrawal was conceded. He could also see that Barack Obama, whose withdrawal timetable was not so different from his own, was going to be the next American president. Come the provincial and parliamentary elections of 2009, Maliki can present himself as the man who ended the occupation. Critics of the prime minister, notably the Kurds, think that success has gone to his head, but there is no doubt that the new security agreement has strengthened him politically.

It may be that, living in the heart of the Green Zone, that Maliki has an exaggerated idea of what his government has achieved. In the Zone there is access to clean water and electricity while in the rest of Baghdad people have been getting only three or four hours electricity a day. Security in Iraq is certainly better than it was during the sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia in 2006-7 but the improvement is wholly comparative. The monthly death toll has dropped from 3,000 a month at its worst to 360 Iraqi civilians and security personnel killed this November, though these figures may understate the casualty toll as not all the bodies are found. Iraq is still one of the most dangerous places in the world. On December 1, the day I started writing this article, two suicide bombers killed 33 people and wounded dozens more in Baghdad and Mosul. Iraqis in the street are cynical about the government’s claim to have restored order. “We are used to the government always saying that things have become good and the security situation improved,” says Salman Mohammed Jumah, a primary school teacher in Baghdad. “It is true security is a little better but the government leaders live behind concrete barriers and do not know what is happening on the ground. They only go out in their armoured convoys. We no longer have sectarian killings by ID cards [revealing that a person is Sunni or Shia by their name] but Sunni are still afraid to go to Shia areas and Shia to Sunni.”

Security has improved with police and military checkpoints everywhere but sectarian killers have also upgraded their tactics. There are less suicide bombings but there are many more small ‘sticky bombs’ placed underneath vehicles. Everybody checks underneath their car before they get into it. I try to keep away from notorious choke points in Baghdad, such as Tahrir Square or the entrances to the Green Zone, where a bomber for can wait for a target to get stuck in traffic before making an attack. The checkpoints and the walls, the measures taken to reduce the violence, bring Baghdad close to paralysis even when there are no bombs. It can take two or three hours to travel a few miles. The bridges over the Tigris are often blocked and this has got worse recently because soldiers and police have a new toy in the shape of a box which looks like a transistor radio with a short aerial sticking out horizontally. When pointed at the car this device is supposed to detect vapor from explosives and may well do so, but since it also responds to vapor from alcohol or perfume it is worse than useless as a security aid.

Iraqi state television and government backed newspapers make ceaseless claims that life in Iraq is improving by the day. To be convincing this should mean not just improving security but providing more electricity, clean water and jobs. “The economic situation is still very bad,” says Salman Mohammed Jumah, the teacher. “Unemployment affects everybody and you can’t get a job unless you pay a bribe. There is no electricity and nowadays we have cholera again so people have to buy expensive bottled water and only use the water that comes out of the tap for washing.” Not everybody has the same grim vision but life in Iraq is still extraordinarily hard. The best barometer for how far Iraq is ‘better’ is the willingness of the 4.7 million refugees, one in five Iraqis who have fled their homes and are now living inside or outside Iraq, to go home. By October only 150,000 had returned and some do so only to look at the situation and then go back to Damascus or Amman. One middle aged Sunni businessman who came back from Syria for two or three weeks, said: “I don’t like to be here. In Syria I can go out in the evening to meet friends in a coffe bar. It is safe. Here I am forced to stay in my home after 7pm.”

The degree of optimism or pessimism felt by Iraqis depends very much on whether they have a job, whether or not that job is with the government, which community they belong to, their social class and the area they live in. All these factors are interlinked. Most jobs are with the state that reputedly employs some two million people. The private sector is very feeble. Despite talk of reconstruction there are almost no cranes visible on the Baghdad skyline. Since the Shia and Kurds control of the government, it is difficult for a Sunni to get a job and probably impossible unless he has a letter recommending him from a political party in the government. Optimism is greater among the Shia. “There is progress in our life, says Jafar Sadiq, a Shia businessman married to a Sunni in the Shia-dominated Iskan area of Baghdad. “People are cooperating with the security forces. I am glad the army is fighting the Mehdi Army though they still are not finished. Four Sunni have reopened their shops in my area. It is safe for my wife’s Sunni relatives to come here. The only things we need badly are electricity, clean water and municipal services.” But his wife Jana admitted privately that she had warned her Sunni relatives from coming to Iskan “because the security situation is unstable.” She teaches at Mustansariyah University in central Baghdad which a year ago was controlled by the Mehdi Army and Sunni students had fled. “Now the Sunni students are coming back,” she says, “though they are still afraid.”

They have reason to fear. Baghdad is divided into Shia and Sunni enclaves defended by high concrete blast walls often with a single entrance and exit. The sectarian slaughter is much less than it was but it is still dangerous for returning refugees to try to reclaim their old house in an area in which they are a minority. In one case in a Sunni district in west Baghdad, as I reported here some weeks ago, a Shia husband and wife with their two daughters went back to their house to find it gutted, with furniture gone and electric sockets and water pipes torn out. They decided to sleep on the roof. A Sunni gang reached them from a neighboring building, cut off the husband’s head and threw it into the street. They said to his wife and daughters: “The same will happen to any other Shia who comes back.” But even without these recent atrocities Baghdad would still be divided because the memory of the mass killings of 2006-7 is too fresh and there is still an underlying fear that it could happen again.

Iraqis have a low opinion of their elected representatives, frequently denouncing them as an incompetent kleptocracy. The government administration is dysfunctional. “Despite the fact,” said independent member of parliament Qassim Daoud, “that the Labor and Social Affairs is meant to help the millions of poor Iraqis I discovered that they had spent only 10 per cent of their budget.” Not all of this is the government’s fault. Iraqi society, administration and economy have been shattered by 28 years of war and sanctions. Few other countries have been put under such intense and prolonged pressure. First there was the eight year Iran- Iraq war starting in 1980, then the disastrous Gulf war of `1991, thirteen years of sanctions and then the five-and-a-half years of conflict since the US invasion. Ten years ago UN officials were already saying they could not repair the faltering power stations because they were so old that spare parts were no longer made for them.

Iraq is full of signs of the gap between the rulers and the ruled. The few planes using Baghdad international airport are full foreign contractors and Iraqi government officials. Talking to people on the streets in Baghdad in October many of them brought up fear of cholera which had just started to spread from Hilla province south of Baghdad. Forty per cent of people in the capital do not have access to clean drinking water. The origin of the epidemic was the purchase of out of date chemicals for water purification from Iran by corrupt officials. Everybody talked about the cholera except in the Green Zone where people had scarcely heard of the epidemic. .

The Iraqi government will become stronger as the Americans depart. It will also be forced to take full responsibility for the failings of the Iraqi state. This will be happening at a bad moment since the price of oil, the state’s only source of revenue, has fallen to $50 a barrel when the budget assumed it would be $80. Many state salaries, such as those of teachers, were doubled on the strength of this, something the government may now regret. Communal differences are still largely unresolved. Friction between Sunni and Shia, bad though it is, is less than two years ago, though hostility between Arabs and Kurds is deepening. The departure of the US military frightens many Sunni on the grounds that they will be at the mercy of the majority Shia. But it is also an incentive for the three main communities in Iraq to agree about what their future relations should be when there are no Americans to stand between them. As for the US, its moment in Iraq is coming to an end as its troops depart, leaving a ruined country behind them.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq’, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006. His new book ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq’ is published by Scribner.

10-52, reprint

US Willing to Talk to Taliban

October 30, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Anwar Iqbal and Masood Haider

2008-10-28T144412Z_01_ISL12_RTRMDNP_3_PAKISTAN-AFGHAN

Head of the Afghan Jirga delegation Abdullah Abdullah (L) and Head of the Pakistan Jirga delegation Owais Ahmed Ghani talk during a news conference in Islamabad October 28, 2008. Pakistan and Afghanistan agreed on Tuesday to establish contacts jointly with Taliban militants through tribal leaders after two days of talks over how to end bloodshed in both countries.

REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood    (PAKISTAN)

Washington/New York, Oct 28: The US is willing to hold direct talks with elements of the Taliban in an effort to quell unrest in Afghanistan, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday, citing unidentified Bush administration officials.

The Washington Post reported that Taliban leader Mullah Omar had shown openness to the idea of repudiating Al Qaeda, which encouraged the Bush administration to explore the possibility of holding direct talks with the militia.

Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that the Taliban had conveyed this message to representatives of the Afghan government during a meeting in Saudi Arabia last month.

Amid these reports of a possible breakthrough in the search for a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict, Christian Science Monitor noted that on Monday the Taliban militia showed “a new potency” in the fight against coalition forces, bringing down a US military helicopter near Kabul, while a suicide bomber struck and killed two Americans in northern Afghanistan.

The Los Angeles Times on Tuesday highlighted the significance of the attack, noting that “choppers are a crucial mode of transport for troops and supplies” in Afghanistan.

Speculations about a possible breakthrough in the talks with the Taliban follow a series of meetings last month in Saudi Arabia between representatives of the Afghan government and the militia.

But even before the Saudis initiated the talks, the Karzai government had been putting out feelers to the Taliban for negotiating an end to its insurgency in exchange for some sort of power-sharing deal.

Though the US has so far been on the sidelines but at a recent news conference Gen David McKiernan, the commander of US troops in Afghanistan, grudgingly said he would support the Afghan government if it chose to go down the path of negotiations.

And now the Wall Street Journal is reporting that the US might get involved in those negotiations directly. “Senior White House and military officials believe that engaging some levels of the Taliban — while excluding top leaders — could help reverse a pronounced downward spiral in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan,” the report said.

Both countries have been destabilised by a recent wave of violence.

Senior Bush administration officials told the Journal that the outreach was a draft recommendation in a classified White House assessment of US strategy in Afghanistan. The officials said that the recommendation called for the talks to be led by the Afghan central government, but with the active participation of the US.

The US would be willing to pay moderate Taliban members to lay down their weapons and join the political process, the Journal cited an unidentified US official as saying. The Central Intelligence Agency has been mapping Afghanistan’s tribal areas in an attempt to understand the allegiances of clans and tribes, the report said.

WSJ noted that joining the talks would only be a first step as the Bush administration was still in the process of determining what substantial offer it could make to persuade the Taliban to abandon violence. “How much should (we) be willing to offer guys like this?” asked a senior Bush official while talking to the Journal.
Gen David Petraeus, who will assume responsibility this week for US military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan as head of the Central Command, supports the proposed direct talks between the Taliban and the US, the WSJ said.

Gen Petraeus used a similar approach in Iraq where a US push to enlist Sunni tribes in the fight against Al Qaeda helped sharply reduce the country’s violence. Gen Petraeus earlier this month publicly endorsed talks with less extreme Taliban elements.

Gen Petraeus also indicated that he believed insurgencies rarely ended with complete victory by one or the other side.

“You have to talk to enemies,” said Gen Petraeus while pointing to Kabul’s efforts to negotiate a deal with the Taliban that would potentially bring some Taliban members back to power, saying that if they were “willing to reconcile” it would be “a positive step”.

US Afghan experts outside the Bush administration have also been urging the White House to try to end violence “by co-optation, integration and appeasement”, as one of them said.

They urge the Bush administration to give the Taliban a positive reason to stop fighting. This, they argue, would allow Washington to separate hardcore militants from others within the Taliban and would also expose the extremists before the Afghan people.

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Muslims Lose Trust In Congress Party

October 23, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent

2008-10-17T080525Z_01_DEL35_RTRMDNP_3_INDIA

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (L) arrives with security personnel to attend the opening day of the second-leg of the monsoon session of the Indian Parliament in New Delhi October 17, 2008.

REUTERS/B Mathur

NEW DELHI: Ironically, the questions raised over the role of the government, media and the police in the so-called “Batla House encounter” has pushed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh into an unenviable position. Cutting across religious differences, while Muslims have questioned his “silence,” many Hindus have wondered at how the Prime Minister who had threatened to quit office over the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal has chosen to remain quiet over innocent Muslims being targeted as “suspect” terrorists. Alarmed at Muslims being disillusioned with him and his party, Singh tried assuring them last week that his government was looking into every possible way of restoring confidence of minorities (October 18). He said this in context of the Batla House encounter as well as the series of attacks on Christians in Orissa and Karnataka. Considering that he gave this assurance to a delegation of Muslim leaders from his own party, the move was apparently deliberately planned to try and convince the Muslim community at large that they should not lose hope in his government. With assembly elections due in six states in the coming weeks and less than a year left for national elections, political parties in the race are trying their best to prop up their image among the voters.

The delegation had earlier called on Congress chief, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chief Sonia Gandhi. Among others, the members included Salman Khurshid, K. Rahman Khan, Mohsina Kidwai, C.K. Jaffer Sharief, Imran Kidwai (Congress minority department chief) and Anees Durrani (minority department secretary).

“The Prime Minister expressed concern over the incidents and said that he would look seriously into every possible way to restore the confidence of the minorities and that he will take a decision soon on the issue,” Khurshid said. Singh, however, did not give any commitment on whether he would pursue the demand made by several other Muslim delegations for a judicial probe into the Batla House encounter.

Despite there being limited prospects of Singh’s “assurance” finding much favor among the Muslim voters, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders have not refrained from blaming his party and its allies from indulging in the game of vote-bank politics. While addressing a party rally in Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), senior BJP leader L.K. Advani said: “The Congress and its allies are engaged in the dirty game of vote bank politics. This has turned out to be a greater evil for the country than the issue of terrorism” (October 18). The BJP’s prime ministerial candidate also said that the UPA government had no right to continue in power as it had “failed miserably” in checking terrorism. Asserting that as it is possible only for BJP to combat this menace, the country needs a government headed by it. “The country has seen enough of terror attacks. Now, it needs a party that can not only combat this, but also root out the menace,” Advani said.

The Indian Muslims at large along with regional parties, with a secular bent, particularly the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP), as developments suggest, have no inclination to give either Congress or BJP a chance to assume power in 2009 polls. The Batla House encounter followed by failure of the Congress-led government to take any constructive action in response to appeals and memorandums submitted by several leaders appears to have completely disillusioned the Muslim community. While they have lost trust in the Congress, they cannot afford to turn to BJP – which has played anti-Muslim card time and again.  ”Our youngsters have been killed in the name of terrorism. We had been associated with the Congress for decades, but now the same party has ditched us,” Akram (34), a resident of Okhla (Delhi), said. “We don’t want the Congress, but we don’t want the BJP either,” is the common comment made by Muslims of the area.

Lashing at the government for targeting only minorities, in its anti-terrorism drive, at a meeting of Muslim leaders, clerics and heads of Muslim organizations, Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid, Maulana Syed Ahmed Bukhari said: “The government should proclaim the definition of terrorism. Is fake encounter not terrorism? Is it not an act of terrorism to burn alive Muslims in Gujarat,” he asked. “Is it not the act of terrorism to burn villages, mosques and churches in different parts of the country? And if it is the act of terrorism, then what is the meaning of alertness of the government and its security agencies only on bomb blasts whereas it overlooks other incidents of terrorism?” (October 14).

Not surprisingly, amid this backdrop, the SP and BSP members are trying their best to cash on the opportunity and turn the Muslims in their favor. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, BSP-chief, Mayawati called an all-India convention to discuss problems faced by Muslims (Lucknow, October 13). She blamed the Congress for having failed to combat terrorism and also for not taking sufficient steps for development of Muslims. “After independence, the Congress has ruled the country for nearly 48 years. During this long span, it never implemented any of the welfare schemes it announced for Muslims or other minority communities,” she said. At the gathering, Mayawati announced allocation of financial schemes to help raise educational standards of Muslims, from school to the university level. “An Arabic-Persian university will be set up in Lucknow. Several primary schools, junior high-schools and government secondary schools will be established in Muslim-dominated areas,” she said.

Not to be left behind, SP leaders have kept reiterating their demand for a judicial probe into the Batla House encounter. The SP plans to reserve as many as 40 percent of its seats for Muslim candidates for Delhi assembly elections. Since the Batla House encounter, SP leader Amar Singh has visited Okhla several times and addressed gatherings there to convince the Muslim populace that they should support his party. In his opinion, “The Muslim community is realizing how depending on any other party is a suicide. Congress has only used them to come to power and during Mayawati rule Muslim youth have been arrested from her state.” The latter point refers to police having made several arrests in Azamgarh, after the Batla House encounter.

10-44

What Now, Pakistan?

August 21, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

Courtesy Peter Symonds

2008-08-18T142847Z_01_ISL38_RTRMDNP_3_PAKISTAN-POLITICS-RESIGNATION

Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf salutes as he leaves the presidential house after his resignation in Islamabad August 18, 2008. Musharraf announced his resignation on Monday in the face of an impending impeachment motion by the ruling coalition government. 

REUTERS/Mian Khursheed

Effectively abandoned by his domestic allies and international backers, Pakistan’s military strongman Pervez Musharraf formally resigned yesterday as the country’s president rather than face impeachment proceedings that were due to commence this week.

Musharraf’s resignation followed more than a week of behind-the-scenes manoeuvres involving US, British and Saudi officials as well as the Pakistani army to pressure the government to grant the former dictator immunity from prosecution. While Musharraf denied that he had been given any favours in return for his resignation, there is little doubt that a deal has been reached to allow him a “dignified exit."

The writing has been on the wall since Musharraf’s Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) suffered a humiliating defeat in national elections in February at the hands of opposition parties—the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Musharraf is widely hated for his nine years of dictatorial rule and support for Washington’s “bogus war on terrorism” that has triggered what amounts to a civil war in Pakistan’s tribal border areas with Afghanistan.

For months, the Bush administration and its allies pressed the PPP-led coalition government to collaborate with Musharraf, which the PPP endeavoured to do. The PML-N and its leader Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted as prime minister by Musharraf in a military coup in 1999, sought to exploit popular opposition by demanding impeachment and the reinstatement of 57 supreme court judges sacked by Musharraf last year. Sharif pulled the PML-N ministers out of the cabinet in May and threatened to leave the coalition completely if agreement could not be reached on these issues.

Confronting a steady loss in support for the government, PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari finally announced plans on August 7 to impeach Musharraf. Opinion polls showed overwhelming popular support—some 75 percent of respondents—for ousting the president, which was reflected yesterday in spontaneous celebrations in the streets of Pakistani cities. While Zardari declared impeachment would commence, no formal charge sheet was presented to parliament, however, allowing time for a deal to be worked out behind the scenes.

Considerable international pressure was bought to bear to end the impasse without initiating impeachment proceedings. While reluctantly recognising that the president had to go, the last thing that Washington wanted was any public airing of Musharraf’s crimes and anti-democratic methods. Any such probe threatened to expose the extent of US involvement with the Pakistani security forces in the suppression of Islamist groups inside Pakistan and war being waged against armed militia in the Afghan-Pakistani border areas supportive of anti-occupation insurgents inside Afghanistan. The CIA and FBI may well be implicated in the hundreds of “disappearances” for which Musharraf and the army are allegedly responsible.

Having relied on Musharraf since the US occupation of Afghanistan in 2001, the Bush administration was also concerned that the fragile Pakistani government would fail to continue to back military operations against Islamist militias in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA). After winning the February election in part by branding Musharraf as a US stooge, the coalition government initially proposed to end the fighting by reaching peace deals with the various armed groups—a move that was sharply opposed in Washington.

Senior Bush administration and Pentagon officials have mounted an intense campaign to pressure the Pakistani government into taking military action in the border areas. There is every sign that Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was issued with an ultimatum during his trip to Washington in July—either take action against anti-US guerrillas, or the US military would. In response, Gilani declared that the US “war on terrorism” was “our war”.
Just one day before impeachment proceedings were announced, the Pakistani military launched a major offensive into Bajaur agency. Intense fighting is now taking place in areas from the Swat district, through the Peshawar districts, to the Bajaur and Kyber agencies. After 12 straight days of air and ground bombardment, it is estimated that up to 300,000 people have fled the border areas. The timing points to a tacit understanding with Washington to initiate extensive military action in return for US backing to remove Musharraf.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was fulsome in her praise of the former Pakistani dictator yesterday. Musharraf, she declared, had been “a friend of the United States and one of the world’s most committed partners in the war against terrorism and extremism”. It was precisely Musharraf’s decision to withdraw Pakistani support from the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and his backing for the ongoing US occupation that was one of the major factors in the collapse of his initial post-coup support.
British and Saudi officials have also been engaged in closed-door talks to secure a deal that would allow Musharraf to resign in return for immunity from prosecution and other assurances. Saudi Arabia’s powerful intelligence chief Prince Muqrin bin Abdul Aziz arrived in Islamabad over the weekend and was reported to have threatened to withdraw oil subsidies worth $5 billion a year unless Musharraf was allowed to leave gracefully.
Likewise the Pakistani military, while publicly insisting that it would stay above politics, nevertheless quietly made clear its opposition to impeachment proceedings—a point underscored yesterday by the decision to give Musharraf a final guard of honour.

If Musharraf were to be tried for breaches of the constitution and other crimes, then the army top brass on which he rested during his nine years in power also risked being implicated. As Najam Sethi, editor of Pakistan’s Daily Times, commented to the Guardian: “Nobody wants the Pandora’s box opened up. The issue of impeachment is really a non-starter.”

An unstable government

While Musharraf has now stepped down, the political crisis in Islamabad is certain to intensify. The two major coalition parties—the PPP and PML-N—are longstanding and bitter rivals. As a number of commentators have noted, opposition to Musharraf was the main glue holding their alliance together. Even on the immediate issue of Musharraf’s future, there is no agreement.

PPP officials have hinted that a deal was reached to give legal immunity to the former president as long as he agreed to go into exile. At this stage, spokesmen for Musharraf have indicated that he wants to remain in Pakistan and has plans to take up residence in a villa being constructed outside Islamabad. In his hour-long televised speech yesterday, Musharraf delivered a strident defence of his period in office, insisting that he had done nothing wrong and blaming the government for the deterioration of the country’s economy. The PPP certainly does not want Musharraf within striking distance as opposition grows to its rule.
The PML-N continues to insist, publicly at least, that Musharraf should be charged and prosecuted for his crimes. Last week Sharif told a meeting in Lahore: “How can safe passage be given to someone who has done this to Pakistan?” There are also differences between the two parties over the reinstatement of supreme court judges, in part because PPP leader Zardari fears that the judges may allow the revival of corruption convictions against him.

Another immediate bone of contention will be Musharraf’s replacement as president. He has been formally succeeded by the chairman of the Senate, Mohammed Mian Soomro, a close ally who was prime minister until the election in February. A new president will be elected via country’s electoral college—the national assembly and four provincial assemblies meeting together. Zardari is known to have ambitions to fill the post, but such a move will be forcefully opposed by Sharif. The constitution drawn up by Musharraf gives the president considerable power, such as to sack the government and to make key appointments, including the army commander.

More fundamentally, the government now faces the same dilemmas that confronted Musharraf. It is under intense pressure from Washington to intensify military operations in the border areas with Afghanistan where the army has largely lost control. Gilani faces the prospect of being branded a US puppet and rapidly losing support. Any retreat risks the prospect of unilateral US military action, which would also trigger a popular backlash against the government.

At the same time, the Pakistani economy is being hit by rising oil and food prices as well as weakening demand in the US and Europe for its exports. The annual inflation rate is running at a 30-year high of nearly 25 percent; the Pakistani rupee has fallen 22 percent against the declining US dollar this year; and in the past five weeks, the country’s foreign exchange reserves have dwindled by nearly $US1.1 billion to $10.15 billion, mainly as a result of the cost of imported oil. The trade deficit has ballooned by 53 percent to $20.7 billion for the 2007-08 fiscal year that ended in June. The share market has slumped by 30 percent since April.
Share values and the rupee rose yesterday on news of Musharraf’s resignation, but further political turmoil will rapidly reverse those gains. Rising prices will only fuel social unrest and opposition to the government. While Musharraf’s resignation is being presented in the Pakistani and international media as a step toward democracy in Pakistan, both the PPP and PML-N have a record of autocratic rule. Whatever its final makeup, the regime holding the reins of power in Islamabad will not hesitate to use anti-democratic methods to suppress any political opposition to its policies.

10-35

Malaysia’s Anwar to Be Prosecuted for Sodomy

August 7, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

2008-08-06T104220Z_01_BAZ04_RTRMDNP_3_MALAYSIA-ANWAR

Malaysia’s opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim and wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail pose after a news conference in Petaling Jaya outside Kuala Lumpur August 6, 2008. Anwar is to be charged Thursday and his lawyers said he would be prosecuted under the country’s sodomy laws, potentially derailing his return to parliament.

REUTERS/Stringer

By David Chance and Jalil Hamid

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia’s best known opposition politician Anwar Ibrahim is to be charged with sodomy on Thursday, potentially derailing his return to parliament and his plans to push the government out of office.

Anwar, who had hoped to win a parliamentary seat at a by-election on August 26, denies allegations he had sex with a male aide and says they are aimed at derailing his political comeback in which he has promised economic reforms.

Malaysian police said in a statement issued on Wednesday that prosecutors had decided to prosecute Anwar for “carnal intercourse against the order of nature.”

A 23-year-old man has said that Anwar, 60, had sex with him on several occasions, something which is illegal in Malaysia. If found guilty, Anwar could spend up to 20 years in jail, effectively ending his political ambitions.

“I will be charged with sodomy,” Anwar told Reuters.

“This is a lie,” he told a press conference after the summons was issued. “The government’s institutions are being used and clearly the decision was made under the personal directive of the prime minister.”

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, however, rejected Anwar’s accusations.

“How could I insist that he be charged. If there is no evidence, the police are not stupid to charge. It is up to them to decide,” he told reporters.

News of the court appearance came just an hour after Malaysia’s Election Commission set a date for a by-election in a parliamentary constituency vacated by Anwar’s wife.

Anwar, who was once deputy prime minister, has only been allowed to seek elected office since April after he was barred from parliament in 1999 following convictions for corruption and sodomy.

The latter conviction was overturned, but he served a jail term until 2004 on the corruption charge.

Anwar said that regardless of the prosecution he would stand in the by-election, which would be a step towards leading the opposition coalition in a parliamentary vote in which he is seeking to oust the UMNO-led government by Sept 16.

“Whether I am denied bail or not, the campaign will continue,” Anwar said.

Anwar won the seat, Permatang Pauh seat in the northern state of Penang, in 1995 with a 20,000 majority when he stood as a government candidate.

“At this moment, Anwar has the upper hand in the campaign as everyone expects him to win,” said James Chin, professor of political science at Monash University Malaysia Campus. “But the Barisan (ruling coalition) strategy is to throw as much dirt as possible during the campaign, so that even if he wins, he will win with some tainted allegations.”

In elections in March, the opposition alliance won power in five of Malaysia’s 13 states and deprived the government of its traditional two-thirds majority in parliament, due in part to popular anger over rising prices.

Anwar has said he is sure he can get 30 MPs from the ruling party to support his move to become prime minister in a confidence vote he wants to force next month.

“We believe that a transition of sorts has begun (in Malaysia), but it is unclear how quickly things will change, or even the degree of change that will take place,” said James McCormack of Fitch Ratings in an emailed response to a question.

10-33

US to Iraq: You Need Uncle Sam

July 31, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Gareth Porter, Interpress Service

2008-07-24T083933Z_01_DSI19_RTRMDNP_3_IRAQ

A U.S. soldier from the Second Stryker Cavalry Regiment holds his weapon next to a villager during a joint operation with Iraqi police near Muqtadiyah in Diyala province July 24, 2008.

REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

WASHINGTON – Instead of moving toward accommodating the demand of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for a timetable for United States military withdrawal, the George W Bush administration and the US military leadership are continuing to pressure their erstwhile client regime to bow to the US demand for a long-term military presence in the country.

The emergence of this defiant US posture toward the Iraqi withdrawal demand underlines just how important long-term access to military bases in Iraq has become to the US military and national security bureaucracy in general.

From the beginning, the Bush administration’s response to the Maliki withdrawal demand has been to treat it as a mere aspiration that the US need not accept.

The counter-message that has been conveyed to Iraq from a multiplicity of US sources, including former Central Command (CENTCOM) commander William Fallon, is that the security objectives of Iraq must include continued dependence on US troops for an indefinite period. The larger, implicit message, however, is that the US is still in control, and that it – not the Iraqi government – will make the final decision.

That point was made initially by State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos, who stated flatly on July 9 that any US decision on withdrawal “will be conditions-based."

In a sign that the US military is also mounting pressure on the Iraqi government to abandon its withdrawal demand, Fallon wrote an op-ed piece published in the New York Times on July 20 that called on Iraqi leaders to accept the US demand for long-term access to military bases.

Fallon, who became something of a folk hero among foes of the Bush administration’s policy in the Middle East for having been forced out of his CENTCOM position for his anti-aggression stance, takes an extremely aggressive line against the Iraqi withdrawal demand in the op-ed. The piece is remarkable not only for its condescending attitude toward the Iraqi government, but for its peremptory tone toward it.

Fallon is dismissive of the idea that Iraq can take care of itself without US troops to maintain ultimate control. “The government of Iraq is eager to exert its sovereignty,” Fallon writes, “but its leaders also recognize that it will be some time before Iraq can take full control of security.”

Fallon insists that “the government of Iraq must recognize its continued, if diminishing reliance on the American military." And in the penultimate paragraph he demands “political posturing in pursuit of short-term gains must cease”.

Fallon, now retired from the military, is obviously serving as a stand-in for US military chiefs for whom the public expression of such a hardline stance against the Iraqi withdrawal demand would have been considered inappropriate.

But the former US military proconsul in the Middle East, like his active-duty colleagues, appears to actually believe that the US can intimidate the Maliki government. The assumption implicit in his op-ed is that the US has both the right and power to preempt Iraq’s national interests to continue to build its military empire in the Middle East.

As CENTCOM chief, Fallon had been planning on the assumption that the US military would continue to have access to military bases in both Iraq and Afghanistan for many years to come. A July 14 story by Washington Post national security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus said that the army had requested US$184 million to build power plants at its five main bases in Iraq.

The five bases, Pincus reported, are among the “final bases and support locations where troops, aircraft and equipment will be consolidated as the US military presence is reduced."

Funding for the power plants, which would be necessary to support a large US force in Iraq within the five remaining bases, for a longer-term stay, was eliminated from the military construction bill for fiscal year 2008. Pincus quoted a congressional source as noting that the power plants would have taken up to two years to complete.

The plan to keep several major bases in Iraq is just part of a larger plan, on which Fallon himself was working, for permanent US land bases in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Fallon revealed in congressional testimony last year that Bagram air base in Afghanistan is regarded as “the centerpiece for the CENTCOM master plan for future access to and operations in Central Asia."

As Fallon was writing his op-ed, the Bush administration was planning for a video conference between Bush and Maliki, evidently hoping to move the obstreperous Maliki away from his position on withdrawal. Afterward, however, the White House found it necessary to cover up the fact that Maliki had refused to back down in the face of Bush’s pressure.

It issued a statement claiming that the two leaders had agreed to “a general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals” but that the goals would include turning over more control to Iraqi security forces and the “further reduction of US combat forces from Iraq” – but not a complete withdrawal.

But that was quickly revealed to be a blatant misrepresentation of Maliki’s position. As Maliki’s spokesman Ali Dabbagh confirmed, the “time horizon” on which Bush and Maliki had agreed not only covered the “full handover of security responsibility to the Iraqi forces in order to decrease American forces” but was to “allow for its [sic] withdrawal from Iraq."

An adviser to Maliki, Sadiq Rikabi, also told the Washington Post that Maliki was insisting on specific timelines for each stage of the US withdrawal, including the complete withdrawal of troops.

The Iraqi prime minister’s July 19 interview with the German magazine Der Speigel, in which he said that Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama’s 16-month timetable “would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes”, was the Iraqi government’s bombshell in response to the Bush administration’s efforts to pressure it on the bases issue.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack emphasized at his briefing on Tuesday that the issue would be determined by “a conclusion that’s mutually acceptable to sovereign nations."

That strongly implied that the Bush administration regarded itself as having a veto power over any demand for withdrawal and signals an intention to try to intimidate Maliki.

Both the Bush administration and the US military appear to harbor the illusion that the US troop presence in Iraq still confers effective political control over its clients in Baghdad.

However, the change in the Maliki regime’s behavior over the past six months, starting with the prime minister’s abrupt refusal to go along with General David Petraeus’ plan for a joint operation in the southern city of Basra in mid-March, strongly suggests that the era of Iraqi dependence on the US has ended.

Given the strong consensus on the issue among Shi’ite political forces of all stripes, as well as Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shi’ite spiritual leader, the Maliki administration could not back down to US pressure without igniting a political crisis.

[Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.]

10-32

Michiganders React to Turkey’s Kurdish Incursion

February 28, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Adil James, MMNS

Farmington—February 27—“Let it be over quickly”—that is the prayer of all concerned except perhaps the PKK themselves.

“This is the fourth day of this ground operation, and there have been some determined targets, and the operation is going as planned,” explained Mr. Fatih Yildiz of the Turkish Embassy in Washington. “Our sole target is the PKK terrorists—we are taking the utmost care so no civilians are hurt, we made it very sure from the very beginning.”

He explains the Turkish government’s perspective, that Turkey had made its will known very clearly but without results—“Had the Iraqi authorities taken the necessary measures against the PKK during the five years…[since the Iraq War began] there would be no need for these operations… We tried other ways, trilateral talks… Not only with the Americans, but bilaterally also.” Perhaps the Turkish government’s demands were beyond the willingness of the other parties to abide with—they demand, in Mr. Yildiz’s words, “the extradition of PKK leaders, whose names are on Interpol bulletins, the closure of PKK camps in the north of the country.”

In November of 2007, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan came to Washington, DC to meet with President Bush, and there was a general understanding that this was to lay the groundwork for a Turkish military response to PKK killings of many Turkish soldiers.

Turkey estimates that the PKK had about 3,000 fighters in northern Iraq at the beginning of the incursion. Turkish incursion forces, whose numbers are not published by the Turkish government, but are estimated at between 1,000 and 10,000 under air support, invaded the Kandil mountain range in northern Iraq, following five bombing campaigns. Since the incursion, the Turkish military has inflicted some losses on the PKK, which has in turn claimed to have killed Turkish soldiers as well.

The residents of Iraq, whether they be Arabs, Kurds, or Chaldeans, have grave concerns over the potential for disturbance of the peace that rested until now on the shoulders of the Kurds of northern Iraq. And this concern is reflected in the voices of those in Michigan who come from the affected areas.

The underlying grievances are long-standing, consisting of repression against Turkish Kurds and a long-standing military feud. “These people (the Kurds) asked for some freedom inside Turkey,” says Umid Gaff, an ethnic Kurd who now lives in Michigan. “They are not allowed to talk their own language,” and [the Turkish government] calls them ‘Mountain Turks’ rather than Kurds. You can’t speak your language, can’t do school by your language, can’t have a Kurdish [political] party.”

Mr. Yildiz, on the other hand, emphasizes that Kurds in Turkey do have rights, and are represented in the political process there, some of them reaching very high ranks in the government. “In fact Kurds can speak their language, first of all,” he says. And he explains that over the past half decade there have been a number of democratization programs aimed at gaining Turkish admission into the EU that have benefitted all Turks, including the Kurdish people of Turkey.

The view expressed by some Kurds is that an unwanted conflict between their wayward countrymen and the Turkish authorities is spinning out of control—and they fear the repercussions. Umid Gaff explains that “We are not responsible for what happens between [the Turks] and PKK. The PKK does not get approval. Inside Iraq they are without any power from us—we do not support them. The area they are in is mountains, not under Kurdish government control—between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, far from control.”

Mr. Gaff comes, as he explains, from the “Southeast of Kurdistan—Sulaymaniyya.” Sulaymaniyya is in a more developed region of Kurdistan than where the PKK is conducting its guerrilla war. Mr. Gaff’s perspective is perhaps more nuanced because of his experience of the Kandil Mountains—he explains that “Most of this area is mountains that don’t have any people—the problem to us,” he explains, is that the Turkish military is damaging the infrastructure by “attacking some villages and some bridges.”

“In 1993 we had a war with the PKK, supported by the Turkish government.” Despite looking in the Kandil mountains for the PKK, “we don’t do anything—lost a lot of peshmerga in Iraqi Kurdistan.”

“Tomorrow the PKK goes to a different place—can’t find him.”

Another perspective is that of Iraqi bystanders, who seem universally startled and outraged by the Turkish attack. This is summed up in the words of Kamal Yaldo, who describes himself as an Iraqi activist. “When the Turkish military crossed the border, it was a violation of the mutual interests of both countries. Everyone is seeing what’s happening in Iraq now, now on top of this an intervention, an invasion from a foreign military—I mean how much Iraq can take? How much?”

Mr. Yaldo is a Chaldean, born in Baghdad but who has lived in the United States for long enough that only a moderate echo of his original accent lingers in his voice. He explains, “There are 150,000 to 180,000 Chaldeans in the metro Detroit area.” This small community is perhaps equal to the number of Chaldeans left in Iraq, as he explains that perhaps half of the original 800,000 Iraqi Chaldeans left Iraq as refugees in the wake of the war and the following instability—during which they and other non-Muslims are often targeted by extremists.

He explains that there is from Iraq also “a small Arabic community living mostly in Dearborn—they are mostly Shi’a, conservatively 15,000 to 20,000.”

Also hailing from Baghdad is Michigander Nabil Roumayah—he is the president of the Iraqi Democratic Union. He explains in impassioned terms that the conflict “will lead to further destabilization of the region and Iraq and the whole area. What’s happening, it should be resolved by political means—military solutions as we have seen do not produce results, only short-term results.”

Says Mr. Roumayah, “There is a genuine problem for Kurds in Turkey. They are discriminated against—this has to be solved politically. The problem of a Kurdish minority in four countries—has to be solved politically… Nobody is asking for a state, but they need an economy, like everyone else in the world.”

The ghost of reconciliation is the silver lining in this cloud of war. Says Mr. Gaff, “We don’t like to fix the problem by the gun. We don’t like the gun—don’t like to shoot, don’t like to kill anyone. We don’t have any problem with the PKK, but don’t support them in that.”

“We want good relations with the Turkey government, they help us after 1991,” explains Mr. Gaff, referring to Turkish government support for the Iraqi Kurds who suffered reprisal attacks from Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War.

Gaff’s sincere appreciation of the support from Turkey for Iraqi Kurds is a reflection of Turkish feelings of support for the Kurds. “In the economic trade sense,” explains Mr. Yildiz, “Turkey is the primary counterpart of the recovery process in the north of the country. Most of the commodies transported there are from us. Turkish businessmen are quite active in the region in rebuilding that area. Any kind of instability in the region or in Iraq will not be in the interests of Turkey—it is fair to say that the presence of a terrorist organization in the north is a key element of instability.”

All of the voices of Iraq seem to resonate on one point, the desire for a quick end to the fighting. Fatih Yildiz, speaking for the Turkish Embassy in Washington, explained that “As soon as the planned objectives of the operation is achieved, our troops will be leaving northern Iraq.”

Mr. Gaff echoes in a few well-chosen words the underlying fear of all of the others—“That’s the point, we are scared, don’t want these people [the Turkish military] to stay a long time. We are scared they may pass these people [the PKK] and attack the villages.”

10-10

Fresh Wave of Militancy in Aftermath of Bloody Red Mosque Operation

July 19, 2007 by · Leave a Comment 

By Ashraf Ali, Special to Muslim Media News Service

Peshawar, Pakistan–The ‘operation silence’ at last broke the silence when 102 persons including Red Mosque deputy cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi, seventy two seminarians and ten soldiers were killed and over 130 injured as security forces stormed the Red Mosque-Jamia Hafsa complex–on July 10.

The operation, although it put an end to a six-month long stand off between the Red Mosque clerics and the government authorities, has given birth to many questions.

The foremost question asked is: why did President Musharraf chose this time for launching an operation against the mosque, and secondly, how come the heavy piles of arms and ammunition could make its way to the mosque and Jamia Hafsa in the capital right under the nose of intelligence agencies? The political observers believe that the launch of the operation at this times was aimed at diverting people’s attention from the on-going judicial crises which started with the suspension of the Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the governments’ failure in delivering to the flood-hit areas where the torrential rains during the current monsoon played havoc with thousands of people in parts of the country; and finally sabotaging the efforts made for making the All Parties Conference a success, which was due in a couple of days after the operation was launched.

According to a government spokesman, the assault was necessary to free hundreds of female hostages and young seminarians, but a week after the attack the despondent parents are still seeking their loved ones.

In an officially arranged visit to the Red Mosque and Jamia Hafsa, the security forces showed the media persons a huge cache of arms and ammunitions, which according to the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) was recovered from the mosque and the madrasa Hafsa. This included rockets, landmines, suicide bombing belts, light machine guns (LMGs), Klashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic guns, pistols, revolvers, night vision equipment, and over 50,000 live bullets of different calibers. Three crates of petrol bombs prepared from green soft drink bottles, gas masks, recoilless rifles, dozens of AK 47s, two way radios, large plastic buckets held tennis-ball size homemade bombs and knives were also put on display for the visiting media persons. While briefing the media persons, Director General ISPR, Major General Waheed Arshad said “we also recovered the head of a suicide bomber and his body parts.”

If the government is true in its claim, then the question posed is how come the huge dumps of arms and ammunitions could make its way to the Red Mosque and Jamia Hafsa and how it got radicalized itself within the breathing distance of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) headquarters in the capital, Islamabad.

And secondly, why did the government delay any action against the Red Mosque when it knew that the mosque’s administration have been challenging the writ of the government for the last six months when the Ghazi brothers started brandishing un-authorized weapons in public.

The Red Mosque administration became radicalized during the Afghan jihad against the USSR. Maulvi Abdullah, the father of the deceased Maulvi Abdul Rashid Ghazi, befriended Afghan jihadists including Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf and Jalaluddin Haqqani during the early nineties. Later, Abdullah developed friendly links with the Taliban when they emerged as victors of Kabul in 1996. General Zia ul Haq, the then President of Pakistan was more pivotal in radicalizing Pakistan, with the help of US funds and weapons. He encouraged Abdullah’s fraternizing with Afghan worriors. As a result of state encouragement, Maulvi Abdullah and the Red Mosque enterprise grew; Abdullah usurped state land in the prime E-7 sector of Islamabad to establish yet another seminary, Jamia-e-Fareedia and because of his links to the high ups in the establishment, the authorities did not prevent him from using state land.

The former Chairman of the Department of Political Science, University of Peshawar and political analyst, Professor Iqbal Tajik, said, “both the Ghazi brothers of the Red Mosque were pampered by the successive military regimes which lends credence to the widespread nexus between the mullahs and Army.” “How could they build up such a military compound right at the heart of the capital without the knowledge of the army and intelligence agencies?” asked Professor Tajik.

Intelligence agencies thought that by funding and creating radical groups they would be able to switch them off when a situation demanded. But it was a wrong assumption. The government did not take into account that once a radical organization is allowed to sprout and attains a certain level, it becomes autonomous in its management and policies. It is then only a matter of time before such an organization graduates first to a regional and then into an international terrorist network. The Red Mosque was no exception.

By 2001, it began to criticize US policies openly. In 2003, the Red Mosque organized violent protests against the murder of another leader of a jihadist outfit, Azam Tariq of a banned religious party, Sepah-e-Sahaba. Seminary students ransacked petrol stations, cinemas, restaurants and other property.

In 2004, Osama Bin Laden’s driver was arrested from the Red Mosque compound. But despite all this the government was unperturbed at the waywardness of its people. A legal expert cum political activist and former member of the national assembly, Abdul Latif Afridi, explained the logic behind the government’s silence on the issue in question, in these words: “The only explanation that comes to mind for this indifference is that government used periodic Red Mosque eruptions as justification for retaining the role of the military in Pakistani politics.”

The political pundits are of the view that at this juncture President Musharraf, exploiting the situation, wanted to show the American administration that the threat of religious extremism still exists in Pakistan and that he (General Musharraf–a man in the uniform) could be the best option for America to crush these extremist forces with full might.”

But Musharraf and his government had to pay a huge price. Immediately after the operation, a series of retaliatory attacks rocked various parts of the country, claiming hundreds of people including youths of the Pak-Army, police, levies and Frontier Constabulary (FC). During the weekend alone, seventy-one people have lost their lives and scores of others have been wounded as a result of suicide attacks in the North West Frontier Province of the country.

In North Waziristan, a troubled area in the tribal belt, the militants, while unilaterally scrapping their 10-month-old peace accord with the government, have threatened guerilla style attacks against the security forces in the area. Abdullah Farhad, a spokesman for the Taliban in the restive tribal areas while talking to The Muslim Observer on telephone from an undisclosed area, said that “their Amir (leader) has announced that the agreement with the government which reached on September 5thl, last year, stands terminated.”

He further maintained that the Amir had ordered the Taliban to start guerilla attacks against the security forces re-deployed in the area following attacks on the security forces. Leaflets announcing the scrapping of the accord were distributed in Miranshah, headquarters of North Waziristan, prompting scores of families to flee the troubled area. He later claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing on Sunday that killed 26 including 15 policemen and 11 candidates who had gathered for police recruitment, and injured more than 50 in police lines in Dera Ismail Khan, a southern district of North West Frontier Province.

Following a bloody suicide attack in the Swat valley which killed 13 persons including 11 soldiers, the government has already sent reinforcements to the troubled area where a local cleric, Maulana Fazlullah, has challenged the authority of the government. Maulana Fazlullah who has been running an illegal FM radio station is said to have the active support of thousands of armed men at his back in an area which is the stronghold of a banned religious outfit, Tahreek-e-Nifaz-e-Sharia-e-Muhammadi (TNSM)- a movement for the implementation of the Islamic Shari’ah. TNSM was founded by Maulana Sufi Muhammad in 1992 and since then the movement has been struggling for the implementation of a Taliban-style government in the Malakand region of the Swat Valley. After 9/11, Sufi Muhammad took more than ten thousand people to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban against US-led forces there. In 2002, President Musharraf banned TNSM along with some other religious outfits on charges of their being involved in terrorism-related activities.

It is clear that there will be more retaliatory killings to avenge the deaths of civilians in the Red Mosque. A solution to the problem of jihadism lies in a twin track approach, based on full political empowerment by the return of undiluted democracy and a clear official committement not to use jihadi proxies for political or military objectives–their nexus with the intelligence services can only turn Pakistan into a crippled state. Its is too high a price to be paid.

9-30

Thailand No Closer to Stability Post-Thaksin

April 27, 2006 by · Leave a Comment 

Thailand no Closer to Stability

By Farish A Noor,MMNS

Almost three weeks after the elections in Thailand, the country seems no closer to having a stable government of its own. The snap elections called by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, prompted by huge anti-Thaksin demonstrations in Bangkok and other major cities, led to the collapse of the Thaksin government. It also raised serious questions about the future economic development of Thailand that was seen as a model state in the post-1997 economic crisis era. But under the leadership of Thaksin the Thai economy was rapidly re-floated at a domestic political cost, thanks to the injection of large doses of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from other neighbouring countries like Singapore.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the reported plan to sell a large share of Shin Corporation, the Thai media and communications conglomerate, to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings. The deal was said to be worth several millions and would have added substantially to the wealth and power of the Thaksin family and its clique of compradores and clients, but was subsequently shot down by local Thai economists who claimed that it was tantamount to ‘selling’ Thailand to foreigners.

But local economic nationalism was not the main or only factor that contributed to the fall of the Thaksin government: The political unrest in the four southern provinces of Patani, Jala, Satun and Narathiwat has led to the loss of hundreds of lives and a state of military emergency in the South and the disruption of local economic life there. Local Southern Thai leaders who come from the Malay-Muslim minority communities claim that the brutal methods used by the Thai army and police have made things worse, and the insurgency is set to grow more bloody in the weeks and months to come.

The fallout of the recent elections however means that nobody in Bangkok knows how the ‘Muslim problem’ in the South will resolve itself, or even if it is capable of being resolved at all. One of the tactics used by the opposition parties to bring down the Thaksin government was to boycott the elections in toto, on both a district and national level. The net result is that Thaksins Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party managed to win a substantial number of seats but were denied an effective majority. Worse still, there is now no effective opposition in Parliament either. The recent by-elections held on 23 April managed to fill an added 40 seats that were left vacant, but there are still many of the 500 Parliamentary seats to be filled.

Here then lies the first dilemma: Thailands constitution has no provision whatsoever for a situation where seats in the Parliament are left empty. The continued boycott by the opposition parties of all elections at local level means that many of these seats will remain vacant till the 30 day post-election grace period is over. When the day comes, Thailand will – for the first time – be without an effective government.

The second dilemma is faced by the Muslim minority and other disenfranchised communities in the country. The Muslims of Southern Thailand have been supporters of the Democratic opposition party and were disappointed with the election results that brought Thaksin to power in the first place in 2002.

The result of the first victory of Thaksin was both the marginalisation of the democratic party and the intensification of violence in Patani and the neighbouring Muslim provinces. Now that Thaksin has been forced out of his seat, the question remains as to who will run the country and which Thai leader and party will return to address the problem of violence in the Muslim provinces. Thus far no single party has even begun to address this issue, and while the stalemate continues in Bangkok the violence in the south also continues unabated.

Next month will therefore be a crucial date in Thai history as it grapples to put together a new government without a democratically chosen head of state. Thai analysts argue that there is little choice but to call for yet another election, this time with the opposition parties encouraged to take part. This still leaves the question of Thailands domectic politics to be addressed however, and it remains unclear whether many of the Thai Muslims of the south still believe in the democratic process and will remain to support the Thai Democratic party.

It’s Not Just Me

April 24, 2006 by · Leave a Comment 

It’s Not Just Me
By Bob Wood
Any Bear will tell you it’s tough making a living on the short side of the markets, risking your hard-earned capital on the idea that markets are heading lower. And it’s just as hard for the Bear writing weekly columns about the markets’ shaky footing. Since, in both cases, “wrong” can be costly, never assume that a Bear takes his position just to be contrarian or different.
You can be sure of one thing about the Bears whose work I follow. Neither are they pessimistic or negative by nature. But to me, it seems only the Bears are doing any real analytical work, though few people prefer listening to or believing Bears over Bulls, so strong cases must be made for their side.
Several better-known Bears tend to agree about the near- and long-term future of stock and bond markets and now add information relating to real estate. To me, their analyses are much more compelling than those offered by TV’s Bulls. And to assure you that not only the guy writing on page 6 of TMO is bearish, I’m sharing thoughts from other financial writers, whose thinking I respect and follow.
On the stock market, I can hit two birds with one rock by citing a quote from one guy whom I wouldn’t have known except for the other. In his most recent work, the Mogambo Guru quotes Robert Prechter from the “Elliot Wave.”
And in talking about Newtonian physics and “big moves,” Robert Prechter, of Elliott Wave fame, says that the recent huge (>40%) losses in Middle-Eastern stock markets is just prolog. “This year the U.S. stock market is shaping up to drop at least as fast. Generally when stocks levitate into a market cycle, they make up for it by crashing.
In 1929, stocks rose for 2.5 years into the 2.7-year cycle. Then they lost 50 percent of their value in 2 months. In 1987, stocks rose for 3.1 years into the 3.3-year cycle. Then they lost 40 percent of their value in 7 weeks.” If you think you got the guts to weather a 40% drop in your portfolio, maybe you ought to re-think that optimistic assessment when he goes on to say “But given that the bear market is of Grand Supercycle degree, the largest in nearly 300 years, the coming drop should dwarf both of those crashes.”
And not only these two voice their concerns about today’s stock market. Richard Russell also chimed in this past week.
“But with the massive amount of debt built into the US economy, I don’t see how the Fed could tolerate a path of contracting liquidity—it would be too dangerous. The more probable path would be the Fed raising rates too high and setting off trouble in the housing market— remember, the effects of rate changes don’t usually appear until six months to even a year after the last rate change.
In the meantime, stock market action is erratic and suspect. While the Dow holds and even creeps higher, the majority of stocks are failing to follow. How about this surprising statistic—only 50% of the stocks in the S&P 500 are now holding above their 50-day exponential moving average (statistics from the great DecisionPoint site). In other words, we’re seeing persistent internal deterioration in the stock market, despite the better performance of the Dow.
What are the markets waiting for or looking at? One thing they’re looking at is the oil situation, and they’re wondering if there’s any way that it can be resolved—Nigeria, Iraq, Venezuela, Iran? Has the US lost control of the world’s oil markets? Well, there’s always Canada.
In response to all the uncertainty, the stock market seems to have adopted a “what, me worry?” attitude. Here we have an “Iran problem,” an expensive mess in Iraq, huge negative trade balances, China taking away our manufacturing base, rising interest rates, record high oil prices—and lots, lots more. And does Wall Street worry? Not at all. The only thing the boys on Wall Street are worried about is the size of next year’s bonus.
Jim Stack of Investech Research now allocates 39% of his model portfolio to cash. While his reading of technical tools like charts leads him to think that bull market trends will continue, his concerns center on the real estate market. Of particular concern: more than $2 trillion in mortgages are the adjustable rate variety. And with rates now rising, those debts will see rates “that will be reset at much higher levels in 2006-07.’’
Since the middle class seems to save little, the pain could be most intense there. And speaking of real estate, Bill Fleckenstein noticed this Wall Street Journal item.
“It is indeed the financial institutions that are most at risk in the real-estate market (which is not to say that consumers and speculators won’t get hurt). They will bear the brunt of the pain, because in many cases, they loaned the entire purchase price. As I have said often, the housing bubble has been more a lending bubble. It will be the impairment of the financial institutions that will stop the flow of credit to the real-estate market.
In turn, that will accelerate the collapse in house prices somewhere along the way.
The story closes with a description of how slow the market has recently become in Florida, demonstrated by an email sent last week by real-estate broker Mike Morgan read as follows: “We went three days this week with not a single showing.
That’s incredible. I have 35 listings. We usually get 2-6 showings a day. . . . I received more desperate calls from sellers than ever. One lady broke down into tears. Her husband bought two investment properties, and they are now going to lose their ‘life savings’ if they sell the homes in today’s market.”
Ladies and gentlemen, that is going to happen to a lot of people around the country.
And, after they have lost their life savings, the financial institutions that were the engine behind this folly will take their own hit. Easy Al tried to bail out one bubble with another bubble. While it bought some time, it will end in far-worse pain.’’
But the overall economy looks pretty good, doesn’t it? How many times have you heard that the economy is ‘’strong and getting stronger’’ and unemployment and inflation rates are nearly at record lows? But here’s another problem: whom do you believe when smart arguments come from both sides of an economics issue? We’ve all seen glorious statistics issued by government agencies and touted by those making fiscal policy!
I tend to listen to people who work for me—those whom I pay for access to their work, including some cited in this article. I don’t see much conflict in their thinking. One such source, Kurt Richebacher, notes in his latest letter how government statistics have changed over the past 40 years.
“We have pursued these and other changes in the U.S. statistics for years with great misgivings. There has been an unusual, concerted drive to produce better looking statistics. Obviously, these contributions have been decisive in creating the perception of the U.S. economy’s superior performance. The particular importance of the inflation rate arises from the fact that it has a large effect on real GDP and productivity growth, two aggregates of highest economic and political assessment’’.
So, if you understate inflation enough, the economy looks like it’s growing smartly when it is actually in recession—the thinking of some right now. John Williams of “Shadowstats.com” shows how using methodology of the 1980s to calculate today’s rate of inflation produces a result of 6.6%, while using a method from the 1970s yields a 7.4% inflation rate. And that would take GDP growth to about a negative 4%.
Speaking of government accountability and the veracity of its reports, Williams offers more interesting items this week. It seems that some have misgivings about reporting our country’s financial position, such as material weaknesses and “problems with fundamental record keeping and financial reporting, incomplete documentation and weak internal control.’’
He adds that auditors will not apply their signatures to attest accuracy of the nation’s financial accounting, with three reasons cited: “serious financial management problems at the Dept. of Defense, the federal government’s inability to account for billions of dollars of transactions between federal government entities, and the federal government’s ineffective process for preparing the consolidated financial statements.’’
Comforting? Here’s more. Deeper in his report is the writer’s opinion of the National Debt, “only $7 trillion,’’ at the time, which does not account for the federal government’s true liability total. Left out are items for projected Social Security and Medicare benefits at about four times that amount. And “the new prescription drug benefit, which is one of the largest unfunded commitments ever undertaken by the federal government, will serve to increase this financial and fiscal challenge.”
It seems the President has pushed through his prescription drug plan with no apparent thought about how to pay for it. This information comes from David Walker, Comptroller General of the United States, who should know! And since we borrow to pay our deficits — and more every year to pay interest costs on that debt, rapid money printing as seen during the Greenspan era seems like the easiest thing for government leaders to do. And so they continue the printing.
Williams concludes that “risks of the current circumstance evolving into a hyperinflationary depression remain extraordinarily high. An unfolding inflationary recession is the worst of all worlds for financial markets. Particularly hard hit will be the U.S. dollar, with downside implications for both equity and bond prices.’’ But the story does get better. He adds that “when the system re-stabilizes, post-crisis, there will be exceptional investment opportunities for those who have been able to preserve their wealth, capital and liquidity.’’ And Russell agrees.
So what do we do about this now? If you’ve been reading this column regularly, you’ve heard it all before. In his latest “Gloom, Boom and Doom Report” (wish I’d thought of that!), Marc Faber says, “In my opinion, the dollar will depreciate mostly against gold. In the long run, what you will see is the standard of living in America decline very significantly compared to the standard of living in Asia.
And the stock market capitalization of the U.S., which is now 52% of the world’s stock market capitalization, which will decline to somewhere between 20 and 30% and the Asian stock market capitalization will rise to between 20% and 30%, possibly 50% of the world’’.
And you thought I was gloomy, eh? To me, these sources make perfect sense. Remember, it is hard being the Bear when investors would much rather be hopeful. But there is hope! In economics, we always find winners and losers, just as in the markets. The outlook for gold, energy and Asian markets offer hope for positive returns. And of course, hedging with bear market mutual funds makes any bear market a lot less worrisome.
Have a great week…I mean it!
Bob

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