Journalist Shane Bauer Detained in Iran

August 6, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Aaron Glantz, NAM

shane bauer

New America Media correspondent Shane Bauer is among three Americans detained over the weekend along the Iranian-Iraq border, along with his girlfriend Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal.

Bauer, 27, who grew up in Onamia, Minn, had filed more than two dozen stories for NAM from Syria and was in Northern Iraq to cover the Kurdish elections, said NAM Executive Editor Sandy Close.

“We were awaiting his coverage when we learned that he and his girlfriend, and another friend, had been arrested by Iranian authorities,” she said.

A freelance journalist and fluent Arabic speaker, Bauer has contributed to numerous other publications including the Nation, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times.

“Shane’s dispatches have been enlightening,” Close said. “His fluency in Arabic and his writing and photography skills enabled him to provide a valuable lens into what ordinary people are thinking and saying in the Arab world. We consider Shane to be a gifted young correspondent who typifies the long tradition of journalism by the student-traveler learning the craft by doing.”

At Iran’s Mission to the United Nation’s in New York, spokesperson Mohammed Sahraei refused to elaborate on official state media reports which had referred to Bauer and his fellow travelers as “infiltrators.”

Iranian state television reported on Sunday that the head of the Iranian Parliament’s foreign policy committee Alaedddin Boroujerdi said, “This case is currently on its natural course.”

Their detention has quickly become international news.

On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appealed to Iran for information, saying U.S. the interests in Iran are asking officials from the Iranian Foreign Ministry for details but have not yet gotten official confirmation of the trio’s arrest. She asked that Iran determine the facts of the case and to “return them as quickly as possible.”

“As of a few hours ago, we did not yet have official confirmation that the Iranian government or an instrument of the Iranian government were holding the three missing Americans,” Clinton told reporters at the State Department. “We asked our Swiss partners … to please pursue our inquiries to determine the status of the three missing Americans.”

“Obviously, we are concerned,” Clinton said. “We want this matter brought to a resolution as soon as possible and we call on the Iranian government to help us determine the whereabouts of the three missing Americans and return them as quickly as possible.”

In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists said it appeared that the Americans were “targeted for being reporters” and that they were walking along the border because they were backpacking along the mountains that mark the border between Iran and Iraq, “for purely recreational purposes.”

“It’s possible that they walking back and forth the border numerous times without ever knowing it,” said CPJ’s Mohmmed Abdel Dayem. “We hope that it is a routine thing. We assume the best.”

11-33

Leading the Fight Against Human Trafficking

July 16, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS Middle East Correspondent

sexslaves2603_468x477 This past month the US State Department released it’s 9th annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which lambasted 4 Middle Eastern countries for their blatant human rights abuses. Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Syria have found themselves strange bedfellows on America’s ‘blacklist’, which means that unless these governments change their domestic policies to meet the minimum criteria for human rights they face a slew of sanctions.

According to the report, the global economic turndown has fueled the flames of an already exasperating situation. As a result, many traffickers in the Gulf region have moved underground to avoid detection and continue the slave trade. It’s no secret that the construction boom that has heralded many countries of the Middle East into a new modern age has been built with the blood, sweat and backbreaking work of poor migrant workers primarily from Southeast Asia. The sex industry is also flourishing in the Middle East, especially in Iran where ‘temporary’ marriages are legal and women are exploited by being denied the rights that a married woman possesses. Underground prostitution rings are present in all four of the blacklisted countries. Visa trading is also a major problem as migrant workers are lured to the Gulf with the promise of high salaries and a better life. However, once they arrive they soon learn that they are only paid a fraction of the salary that they were promised and are forced to live in deplorable conditions not fit for an animal let alone a human being.

This week the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia set itself apart from the other countries on the blacklist. The Saudi government has toughened its stance against human traffickers within its borders. New laws recently put into effect will punish traffickers with up to 15 years in prison and fine of more than one-quarter of a million dollars.

Saudi Arabia has long been fodder for critics accusing the kingdom of ignoring human rights abuses that are often well publicized in the media, but routinely ignored by the ruling government. The kingdom has also clearly defined, in writing, what constitutes human trafficking in the country. Sexual servitude and slavery, forced organ donations or forced medical experimenting and involuntary begging are all instances of trafficking under the new law, which metes out harsher punishments based on the victim of the crime. If the victim is disabled, a woman, child or elderly then the penalty is substantially increased. However, many critics still lament the fact that the definition does not better define the trafficking of children into the kingdom who are forced to work as sex slaves, beggars or street vendors. The new law also makes zero reference to women and children who are exploited or abused within their own family unit.

Following the cabinet meeting that signed the new law into action, the Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz was quoted as saying about the new law, “It embodies the principles of Islamic Sharia law which prohibit attacks on the rights of another human being to protect the rights of citizens and residents under Islamic law.”

The remaining three countries have done little to improve their human rights records since inclusion at the top of the list of human rights abuses. Kuwait, for example, does have a set of laws to defeat human trafficking within the tiny Gulf state. Unfortunately, the laws are difficult to enforce when so many citizens have influence to bend the laws in their favor. The phenomenon of ‘wasta’, or friends in high places, is too often the grease that moves the cogs of society no matter who gets hurt in the process.

11-30

After the Green Revolution Fails–Invasion Plans Anew

July 10, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Damian Lataan

With the failure of the Western powers to foment a popular uprising after the 12 June elections in Iran that they hoped would lead to regime change, the West has now had to return to the ‘Iran has nuclear weapons’ meme in order to pave the way for an attack against Iran in the hope that regime change can be affected that way.

In an interview on Sunday, Vice-President Joe Biden, when asked, “…if the Israelis decide Iran is an existential threat, they have to take out the nuclear program, militarily the United States will not stand in the way?” responded saying: “Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination that they’re existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.”

Biden was then asked: “You sa y we can’t dictate, but we can, if we choose to, deny over-flight rights here in Iraq. We can stand in the way of a military strike”, to which he responded, “I’m not going to speculate… on those issues, other than to say Israel has a right to determine what’s in its interests, and we have a right and we will determine what’s in our interests.”

Yesterday (5 July) ‘Timesonline’ reported that the Saudis had made it clear to Meir Dagan, Israel’s Mossad chief, that they would not object to Israeli overflights if they were on their way to targets in Iran. While a flight to Iran from Israel via Saudi Arabia would be much longer that a direct flight to Iran overflying Jordan and Iraq, a flight via Saudi Arabia would not require permission from any other country; not even the US to fly over Iraq. And if the Israelis can get permission from the Saudis to have support aircraft in the air in Saudi airspace to refuel the Israeli strike aircraft over, say, the Persian Gulf, then an Israeli strike against Iran is feasible.

It’s interesting that the report about the Saudi’s giving clearance for overflights to attack Iran were quickly denied by Netanyahu’s office. Clearly, the Israelis are anxious to bury this information though, one suspects, that it is now too late and the Iran ians will now have their spies in Saudi Arabia scanning the skies and radio bands for high flying aircraft heading west to east across Saudi Arabia toward the Persian Gulf.

It may well be that Israel could be keen to take advantage of the unrest that has recently unsettled Iran but now seems to have died down. A strike now, they may feel, might just reignite the embers of insurrection that still glow especially if there was also a strike against Iran’s security forces and it’s military.

Even if Israel did strike against Iran via Saudi skies, Israel would still need to rely on the US for support. The fuel required for the mission would need to be supplied by the US as would most of the munitions. US forces would also need to be on standby ready to prevent any Iranian retaliatory strikes against Israel and the US. Israel would also need to have its troops on standby at home in preparedness for retaliatory attacks from both Hezbollah and Hamas.

For Israel, a Hamas and Hezbollah strike against them would be what they want. It would provide the casus belli for Israel to invade both the Gaza Strip and south Lebanon – perhaps all of Lebanon – knowing that the Iranians would not be in a position to help them. And with Iran out of the equation, Syria would not dare move against Israel.

With the failure of the post-election Iranian revolution, Israel will now resort to its old rhetoric of ‘Iran has a nuclear weapons program’ to try again to get public opinion onside for when they launch their attack against Iran to effect regime change. With the US now clearly not standing in the way and the Saudis prepared to let the US off the hook with regard to being seen by the world as facilitating an Israeli attack by allowing the Israelis to overfly Iraq despite all the talk of pursuing a “diplomatic solution”, everything seems in place for the Israelis to feel free to attack Iran when ever they feel they are ready.

The prospect of a final confrontation between Israel and Iran is now off the back burner and back on to the front burner. The problem is, If and when it happens, it won’t be a simple make or break fight for Israel or Iran; the repercussions will reverberate around the world for years to come.

11-29

Unrest in Iran Inspires Pro-Democracy Activists in the Arab World

June 27, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

New America Media, Commentary, NAM Correspondent

NAM Editor’s Note: Arab regimes haven’t publicly criticized or even mentioned what is happening in neighboring Iran, triggering much speculation among Arab bloggers as to why that is. The author of this piece wished to remain anonymous due to safety concerns.

2009-06-22T144637Z_01_WAS302_RTRMDNP_3_IRAN-PAHLAVI
Former Iranian Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi pauses while he speaks about Iran at the National Press Club in Washington June 22, 2009.    REUTERS/Larry Downing 

DAMASCUS — Images of bloody protesters and crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands in the streets of Tehran have been broadcast into living rooms across the Arab world for five consecutive days, enchanting and inspiring pro-democracy activists in a region where pushes for democratic reforms tend to be met with an iron fist.

Meanwhile, Arab regimes have largely remained silent over the contested election. Leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan—the major Sunni powers in the region—haven’t mentioned the elections or allegations of fraud. In normal circumstances, this would be strange — these countries are the regional archenemies of President Ahmedinejad’s Iran.

Some say the reason behind their silence lies in their fear of bolstering pro-democracy movements in their own countries. “The unrest in Iran frightens dictators in the region because it makes it harder for them to justify their own absolute authority,” says Syrian blogger Yasir Sadiq. “If they see tyrannies come down around them, they’ll be afraid.”

Whether or not the Iranian elections were “stolen,” Iran is a long way ahead of most Arab countries when it comes to democracy — the country has a functioning electoral system. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf states don’t hold elections, and in Egypt and Syria, “elections” are so tightly controlled that the results are always known in advance.

The state controlled media in authoritarian Arab countries have mostly downplayed the events in Iran. Government controlled newspapers like Al-Thawra in Syria, Iran’s strongest regional ally, have kept Iran off the front pages and run headlines like, “The West needs to stop intervening in Iranian elections,” using age-old claims of conspiracies to deflect attention from actual popular desire for democratic reform.

“Governments all over the Arab world accuse pro-democracy movements of serving the west, or of being tools of the CIA or Mosad (Israeli intelligence),” says Syrian freelance journalist Khaled Al-Khetyari. “They are just trying to manipulate people by using this language because the people in power don’t want their populations to analyze what is actually happening in Iran.”

The Obama administration has been relatively silent on the unrest in Iran. On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton said it was up to Iranians to “resolve this internal protest.”

Al-Khatyari says the U.S. administration’s measured distance is a strategy the U.S. should stick to. “The last American administration latched onto any internal opposition to regimes it didn’t like. This always hurts local movements because it connects them to a country that most people here see as harmful to the region and it justifies repression by our governments.”

Syrian blogger Yasir Sadiq says he is encouraged by the Iranian opposition’s seven-point manifesto being circulated on the internet, which calls for the “Dissolution of all organizations — both secret and public — designed for the oppression of the Iranian people.”

“It’s inspiring to see people in the Middle East call for the end of secret services,” Sadiq says. “Organizations like this have oppressed people in the Arab world so much.”

Sadiq is reticent to believe that what he calls Iran’s pro-democracy “intifada” could be exported to Arab countries any time soon. “It’s difficult to hope for this kind of movement in the Arab world. We have a long way to go, but we hope that eventually, something like that will happen here.”

For now, he says, Arab activists will attempt to learn what they can from their counterparts in Iran. For days, Sadiq has been pegged to Twitter, the social networking tool that has allowed Iranians to organize demonstrations while the Iranian government institutes a near blackout of internet services.

“Arab bloggers’ main interest in what is happening in Iran is in figuring out how Twitter can be used to organize and bring our voices forward in our own countries,” he says.

The government in Syria may eventually try to ban it, like they have with other networking sites like Facebook, but Sadiq says he is not deterred. “The more they ban, the more ways we will find to get around their restrictions.”

11-27

Obama Administration Renews Sanctions on Syria

May 14, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sue Pleming

2009-05-07T125052Z_01_SYR06_RTRMDNP_3_SYRIA-US

Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem (R) meets Jeffrey Feltman, U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, in Damascus May 7, 2009. The portrait on the wall shows Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama said on Friday he had renewed sanctions against Syria because it posed a continuing threat to U.S. interests, despite sending two envoys to Damascus this week to try to improve ties.

In a letter notifying Congress of his decision, Obama accused Damascus of supporting terrorism, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining U.S. and international efforts in trying to stabilize Iraq.

“For these reasons I have determined that it is necessary to continue in effect the national emergency declared with respect to this threat and to maintain in force the sanctions,” Obama said in the letter to Congress.

The sanctions, imposed by former President George W. Bush and which are up for renewal annually, prohibit arms exports to Syria, block Syrian airlines from operating in the United States and deny Syrians suspected of being associated with terrorist groups access to the U.S. financial system.

While the United States has made clear it wants better ties with Syria, which appears on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, the renewal of the sanctions shows it is not yet ready for a dramatic improvement.

“We need to see concrete steps from the Syrian government to move in another direction,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters.

Obama signed the executive order extending the sanctions on Thursday, shortly after two U.S. envoys met Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Damascus.
The visit by senior State Department official Jeffrey Feltman and White House National Security Council official Daniel Shapiro was their second since Obama took office in January and started talking to Damascus.

Tough Words

The two officials discussed Syria’s role in Iraq, where Washington has accused Damascus of allowing fighters to cross into its neighbor, and Lebanon, where the United States says Syria plays a destabilizing role.

“Part of Feltman’s trip to the region was trying to get the Syrians to take some steps that will move us toward a better relationship,” Wood said. “But there is a lot that Syria needs to do.”

The United States wants a commitment from Syria that it will not interfere with a June election in neighboring Lebanon, which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited last month to show U.S. support.

The administration hopes direct talks with Syria, which will continue despite the sanctions, will weaken its ties to Iran.

Syria and Iran are the main backers of Hizbollah, a Shi’ite Muslim political and guerrilla group that fought a war against Israel in 2006 and has representatives in the Lebanese government and parliament.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad indicated this week he did not plan to change course. After meeting Iran’s president in Damascus, he said their strategic relationship contributed to Middle East stability.

The administration is reviewing whether to send back an ambassador to Damascus but a senior U.S. official said this week a decision had not yet been taken.

The U.S. ambassador was pulled out of Syria after the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Syria denies any involvement in the killing but the United States pointed fingers at Damascus.

11-21

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

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

Middle East Hit by U.S. Financial Crisis

October 16, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

Courtesy New America Media, Shane Bauer

Editor’s Note: Even oil-rich Arab countries, which until recently were smug about being insulated from the financial debacle on Wall Street, are starting to worry. Analysts are predicting that they are sure to increase regulations and start pulling their economies away from the United States. NAM contributor Shane Bauer is a journalist and photographer based in the Middle East.

Stock traders in the Middle East

SANA’A, Yemen–While Washington was hashing out the terms of its largest financial bailout in history, Arab bankers were saying everything in the Middle East was as good as ever.

A full-page ad in one Middle Eastern magazine advertised a proposed business park called Falcon City, another fantasy land to add to the skyscrapers and glitter of oil-rich Dubai. Office buildings were shaped to resemble the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids of Egypt, and the Taj Mahal.

“As a residential or business address, each wonder is a totally amazing investment,” the caption read.

A few days later, the same newsstands spelled dread. Images of fear-stricken men in white robes and kafiyyas, their eyes fixed on strings of red numbers, splashed the front pages. Headlines announced that the Middle East’s markets were crashing, and columnists spit fire, calling on the Arab world to free itself “from the shackles of American imperialism.”

The degree to which Arab investors, which have some $800 billion invested internationally, will rein in their international investments will likely depend on how heavily they are impacted by the crisis. But analysts say that at the very least, Arab countries are sure to increase regulations and start pulling their economies away from the United States.

“U.S. influence has long been waning, both in its capacity to inspire and to intimidate,” says David Levy, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Initiative at the Washington, D.C., think tank the New America Foundation. “The region has been increasingly looking elsewhere for investments and markets. The crisis on Wall Street will only hasten that process.”

2008-10-12T102958Z_01_DUB09_RTRMDNP_3_DFM-LIMITDOWN But Arab analysts say the United States was becoming increasingly unattractive for investment well before the financial crisis hit. Washington had rejected several investment attempts in recent years by Arab companies on the basis that they were, well, Arab.

The last rejection came when some Gulf companies showed interest in investing nearly $20 billion to help save Citi Group and Merrill Lynch when they were initially threatened with bankruptcy. The deal was stopped in Congress when opponents said an increase in Arab investment in the United States would present a national security problem.

As Arab stock markets fall for their third day since reopening after a one-week post-Ramadan holiday, one thing is clear: those with the most open markets and the strongest ties to the U.S. economy are being hit the hardest.

In the past three days alone, banks in the Persian Gulf have lost about $150 billion. On Tuesday, the Tadawul All-Shares Index, home to the Arab world’s biggest market, finished at its lowest close in four years.

Countries that last week were saying that their economies were “insulated” from international financial disasters are now bailing out their banks. The central bank of the United Arab Emirates pumped $17.5 billion into its banks this week and said it is ready to give more if needed.

Jan Randolph, an economic analyst at Global Insight, says that “Arab investors and banks are going to start looking locally for investments.”

The president of the Union of Arab Banks, Adnan Yusif, has announced that there needs to be an increase in regional investment, and economists have been calling for a meeting of financial ministers and policy makers to come up with a regionwide plan to deal with the crisis.

But inter-Arab economic cooperation might not be easy. The Middle East is home to some of the world’s most closed economies, like Syria, as well as countries whose names are virtually synonymous with unfettered growth, like the United Arab Emirates.

Antagonisms over competing economic ideologies run deep in the Arab world, and the current crisis seems to be reigniting debates about how much regional economies should be bound to the global economy.

“If this crisis does send real shockwaves through the region, and you start seeing that economies more closed to the world are more protected, people might start seeing open economies as a double-edged sword,” says David Levy.

Masa’ad al-Kurdi of the Saudi-owned Al-Majella magazine writes that neo-liberal globalization is to blame for the crisis. “The developing world’s economies are dependent on the U.S., the world’s largest importer, to buy their exports,” he argues. As the dollar weakens, “developing countries are going to pay the most,” writes Al-Kurdi, who concludes that “the United States of America is driving the world into the abyss.”

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Olmert: Israel Should Pull out of West Bank

October 9, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

By Ethan Bronner

2008-10-06T214005Z_01_BTRE4951O7000_RTROPTP_3_INTERNATIONAL-US-ISRAEL-IRAN

Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem October 5, 2008.

REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM—PM Olmert said in an interview published on Monday that Israel must withdraw from nearly all the West Bank as well as East Jerusalem to attain peace with the Palestinians and that any occupied land it held onto would have to be exchanged for the same quantity of Israeli territory.

He also dismissed as “megalomania” any thought that Israel would or should attack Iran on its own to stop it from developing nuclear weapons, saying the international community and not Israel alone was charged with handling the issue.

In an unusually frank and soul-searching interview granted after he resigned to fight corruption charges — he remains interim prime minister until a new government is sworn in — Mr. Olmert discarded longstanding Israeli defense doctrine and called for radical new thinking in words that are sure to stir controversy as his expected successor, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, tries to build a coalition.

“What I am saying to you now has not been said by any Israeli leader before me,” Mr. Olmert told Yediot Aharonot newspaper in the interview to mark the Jewish new year that runs from Monday night till Wednesday night. “The time has come to say these things.”

He said traditional Israeli defense strategists had learned nothing from past experiences and seemed stuck in the considerations of the 1948 Independence War.
“With them, it is all about tanks and land and controlling territories and controlled territories and this hilltop and that hilltop,” he said. “All these things are worthless.”

He added, “Who thinks seriously that if we sit on another hilltop, on another hundred meters, that this is what will make the difference for the State of Israel’s basic security?”

Over the last year, Mr. Olmert has publicly castigated himself for his earlier right-wing views and he did so again in this interview. On Jerusalem, for example, he said, “I am the first who wanted to enforce Israeli sovereignty on the entire city. I admit it. I am not trying to justify retroactively what I did for 35 years. For a large portion of these years, I was unwilling to look at reality in all its depth.”

He said that maintaining sovereignty over an undivided Jerusalem, Israel’s official policy, would involve bringing 270,000 Palestinians inside Israel’s security barrier. It would mean an ongoing risk of terrorist attacks against civilians like those carried out earlier this year by Jerusalem Palestinian residents with a bulldozer and earth mover.

“A decision has to be made,” he said. “This decision is difficult, terrible, a decision that contradicts our natural instincts, our innermost desires, our collective memories, the prayers of the Jewish people for 2,000 years.”

The government’s public stand on Jerusalem until now has been to assert that the status of the city was not under discussion. But Mr. Olmert made clear that the eastern, predominantly Arab, sector had to be yielded “with special solutions” for the holy sites.

On peace with the Palestinians, Mr. Olmert said in the interview: “We face the need to decide but are not willing to tell ourselves, yes, this is what we have to do. We have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the meaning of which is that in practice we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories. We will leave a percentage of these territories in our hands, but will have to give the Palestinians a similar percentage, because without that there will be no peace.”

Elsewhere in the interview, when discussing a land swap with the Palestinians, he said the exchange would have to be “more or less one to one.”

Mr. Olmert also addressed the question of Syria, saying that Israel had to be prepared to give up the Golan Heights but that in turn Damascus knew it had to change the nature of its relationship with Iran and its support for Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia.

On Iran, Mr. Olmert said Israel would act within the international system, adding, “Part of our megalomania and our loss of proportions is the things that are said here about Iran. We are a country that has lost a sense of proportion about itself.”

Reaction from the Israeli right was swift. Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the Yisrael Beiteinu party, said on the radio that Mr. Olmert was “endangering the existence of the State of Israel irresponsibly.”

He added that those who thought Israel’s problem was a lack of defined borders — as Mr. Olmert stated in the interview — “are ignoramuses who don’t understand anything and they invite war.”

Palestinian negotiators said it was satisfying to hear Mr. Olmert’s words but said the words did not match what he had offered them so far. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian official, told Palestinian Radio that it would have been better if Mr. Olmert had taken this position while in office rather than while leaving, and that Mr. Olmert had not yet presented a detailed plan for a border between Israel and a Palestinian state.

In theory, Mr. Olmert will continue peace negotiations while awaiting the new government. But most analysts believe that, having been forced to resign his post, he will not be able to close a deal.

10-42

Florida Stories Vol 8 Iss 18

April 30, 2006 by · Leave a Comment 

Local Muslims Gather for Annual Celebrations of Prophet’s birth and life

At locations throughout South Florida this April, traditional Milad-un-Nabi programs were held to celebrate the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad. The events coincided with the Prophet’s birthday on the 12th day of Rabbi-ul-Awwal, third month on the lunar Muslim calendar, which this year fell on April 12.

In Muslim countries, the event is marked by numerous festivities, including devotional song, poetry reading, religious devotion, lectures and get-togethers and feature large scale TV and media coverage. In the states, though overseas TV coverage is now present thanks to satellite TV channels, broadcasting Milad-un-Nabi coverage from back home, events here tend to be more subdued, owing in part to the views of some communities and community members that such celebrations are unlawful innovations, religiously speaking.

Despite the misgivings by some, though, many—perhaps the majority—continue the colorful and joyous observances of what all in the community agree was one of the pinnacle moments in human history, the prophet’s birth.

One such program was held at the Miami Gardens Masjid in Miami-Dade County on Saturday evening, April 8, which annually marks the occasion with either lectures, traditional Urdu-poetry in praise of the prophet, or dinners.

Open to men and women, the program featured a lecture by visiting speaker Faisal Abdur Razzaq of Toronto, Canada. Hundreds of families and community members were in attendance for the annual event which included dinner after the sunset prayer of Salat-ul-Maghrib.

Abdur Razzaq received his Islamic studies at the Umm-Al-Qurra University in Makkah, Saudi Arabia and at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah from 1977 to 1986. He is currently the President of the Islamic Forum of Canada, and the Vice-President of the Islamic Council of Imams of Canada. He served as Imam Khateeb of several mosques and Islamic Centers there including the Islamic society of Peel, the Islamic Centre of Brampton, and the Toronto and Region Islamic Center (TARIC).

Razzaq also conducted a workshop for Muslim Youth on Sunday April 9th at Miami Gardens entitled “Sacred Knowledge Training Program concentrating on Fiqh and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad.”

The mosque has been hosting a number of guest lecturers since the departure of its regular imam Abdul-Hamid Samra in March.

Zaid Shakir Speaks in South Florida

Tall and soft-spoken with a slow, deep, and rhythmic speaking style, Zaid Shakir is an African American Muslim community leader perfectly at ease amongst the immigrant origin segments of the community. Over the years, on his journey from an urban northern California youth to Muslim convert and toward the highest rung of Muslim community speaker and leader, Shakir has continually earned respect though humility, hard work and community efforts around the country.

But that doesn’t mean he can’t get loud and passionate when he needs to. Now at the head of one of the most well-known Muslim educational groups in the country—the Zaytuna Institute in his native northern Cali—this past month, Shakir visited South Florida for a number of events.

On Thursday, April 6th at 7 pm Shakir spoke on the subject of “Muslims in America: Challenges and Opportunities,” at the University of Miami’s Learning Center building, co-sponsored by the school’s Department of Religious Studies and the Islamic Society at UM.

Then on Friday, April 7, the Madinah Foundation presented ‘A Night of Reflection; The Ethical Standard of the Prophet Muhammad; Controlling Anger, Promoting Understanding Through Wisdom,’ a lecture by Shakir. The free event was that time held at the Darul Uloom Institute in Pembroke Pines.

Both events were well-attended with positive reaction from attendees.

At UM, Religion 101 students received extra credit for attending the Shakir lecture thanks to longtime ISUM supporter and head of the school’s Religious studies department, Dr. Stephen Sapp.

ISUM president Sarah Uddin greeted the Shakir visit with excitement and praised the turnout.

“We had an awesome turnout! I’m really happy with the program last night. Imam Zaid’s speech was super engaging. He was able to reach so many non-Muslim students and ISUM alumni, in addition to the rest of the ISUM gang, who all came out,” she said.

A mainstay at such prominent national Musilm community events as the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America—where he often speaks at the main stage in front of tens of thousands—Shakir was born in Berkeley, California. He accepted Islam in 1977 while serving in the United States Air Force and obtained a BA with honors in International Relations at the American University in Washington D.C. and an MA in Political Science from Rutgers University.

Spending time overseas in Egypt, Syria, and Morocco, Shakir studied Arabic as well as the traditional Islamic sciences including Islamic law, Quran, and Islamic spirituality. Upon returning, he co-founded Masjid al-Islam in Connecticut and taught Political Science at the Southern Connecticut State University. He has translated several books from Arabic into English including “The Heirs of the Prophet.”

Since 2003, he has acted as a professor and scholar-in-residence at the Zaytuna Institute & Academy, alongside fellow well-known Muslim community speaker, Hamza Yusuf Hanson, also from Northern California.

The Madinah Foundation, which was largely responsible for Shakir’s visit, is the local Zaytuna Affiliate in South Florida, staffed by former community youth and college activists who grew up attending Islamic studies programs around the country and listening to speakers such as Shakir and Hanson as role-models, and also organizes annual Islamic study retreats in Zaytuna’s “Deen Intensive Style”—part nature retreat/camp, part traditional Islamic educational experience trying to recreate pre-Colonial modes of Islamic education—throughout the state.

CAIR-FLORIDA: ‘Urge Legislators to Oppose Bill’
‘BILL WOULD CUT FUNDING FOR INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS’

CAIR-FL, along with groups such as Florida Immigration Advocacy Center (FIAC) and the Muslim Student Association (MSA) at the University of Southern Florida in Tampa called for the withdrawal of proposed legislation that would prohibit state funds from being used to provide financial aid to university and college students on visas. The statement came on April 24.
Florida House Bill 205 and Senate Bill 458 target students that hold visas and receive financial support from Florida to attend state schools. A similar bill 2003 HB 31, introduced by Rep. Dick Kravitz, R-Jacksonville three years ago targeting some Muslim countries was defeated during the senate hearing.
FAU Students hold Annual ‘Scholar’s Night’
The Muslim Student Organization at Florida Atlantic University held it’s seventh Annual Scholar’s Night on Saturday, April 22nd, at the Life Long Center Auditorium on the FAU Campus in Boca Raton. Entitled: “Believe it or not, you were born Muslim!” and featuring a lecture by local speaker Fadi Kablawi, the event was of a preaching nature, its flier posing the question: “What do you call a religion whose beliefs, practices and followers are being bashed and bad-mouthed in practically every sphere of activity, in almost every corner of the globe, yet it attracts ever-increasing number of people? A Miracle? A Paradox? or simply THE TRUTH: ISLAM.” Such straightforward, declarative and reactionary themes have become more rare in Islamic events in the post-9/11 environment. The lecture featured free admission and dinner and was open to all interested. The FAU MSO has seen a resurgent past semester of activity.

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