Sunday, February 4, 2007

U.S. hell-bent for Iran war

Editor's Note: I am moving over to the other blog.
February 4, 2007


TORONTO -- The Bush-Cheney administration seems hell-bent on provoking war with Iran, and the U.S.-Iran confrontation is getting very dangerous. The heaviest concentration of U.S. naval strike forces since the 2003 war against Iraq is concentrating off Iran.

In a disturbing replay of that conflict, CIA drones and U.S. Air Force recon aircraft - along with U.S. and British Special Forces - are overflying Iran and probing its nuclear and military installations. The CIA and Britain's MI6 are stirring unrest among Iran's Kurds and Azerbaijanis, and arming Iranian Marxist and royalist exiles.

A belligerent U.S. President George Bush ordered U.S. forces in Iraq to "kill" Iranian agents or diplomats who appear threatening.

U.S. troops in northern Iraq broke into an Iranian liaison office and arrested its military staff. Bush unblushingly warns Iran, not to "meddle" in neighbouring Iraq.

Pentagon sources accused Iran of smuggling weapons and explosives to "Iraqi insurgents" - though the "insurgents" are, in fact, Shia militiamen allied to the U.S.-installed Baghdad regime. Half of the 21,000 additional U.S. troops headed to Iraq are being positioned to cover the Iranian border and block an Iranian threat to the main U.S. Kuwait-Baghdad supply line.

New contingents of U.S. Air Force personnel and warplanes are arriving at key forward air bases in Bulgaria and Romania that link the U.S. to the Mideast and Central Asia. U.S. bases in Britain, Germany, Diego Garcia, the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, and Pakistan are reported on heightened alert. Turkey is being pressed to allow U.S. and Israeli strike aircraft to use its air space to attack northern Iran.

The Pentagon's latest strike plan against Iran includes over 2,300 "high value" targets such as its dispersed nuclear infrastructure and, worryingly, operating reactors, air and naval bases, ports, telecommunications, air defences, military factories, energy networks, and government buildings.

Iran's water and sewage systems, bridges, food storage, and bomb shelters could also be targeted, as Iraq's were in 2001.

The U.S. Treasury has mounted a highly effective campaign to strangle Iran financially, seriously hurting its foreign banking connections, retarding industrial growth and energy production, and impeding foreign investment.

The Bush administration and close ally Israel have sharply intensified their war of words against Iran, claiming, implausibly, Iran poses a nuclear threat to the entire world.

Politicians in Israel are in dangerous emotional overdrive and are making open threats to attack Iran. They claim Iran is a new Nazi Germany and Israel faces a second Holocaust - in spite of its powerful triad of nuclear forces that can survive any surprise attack.

Though UN inspectors find no evidence Iran is producing nuclear weapons, Tehran, like Saddam's Iraq, is being told to prove an impossible negative - that it has no nuclear weapons.

With disturbing deja vu, the U.S. Congress and media are swallowing the administration's torrent of unproven allegations against Iran precisely the way they lapped up its grotesque lies about Iraq.

Intelligence analysts would conclude either: Washington is trying to bluff Tehran to abandon its entirely legal but worrisome civilian nuclear power program and thus claim a major victory after so many defeats; or the cornered Bush-Cheney administration is trying to provoke an air and naval war against Iran as a last desperate, ideologically driven assault against the Muslim world, and divert attention from its Iraq debacle.

Amid growing war fever, last week France's President Jacques Chirac privately observed that even if Iran had a few nuclear weapons for self-defence, "it is not very dangerous."

Iran would be obliterated by U.S. and Israeli nuclear counterstrikes if it ever used its nukes against Israel, noted Chirac, and is unlikely to commit national suicide.

After his comments became public, Chirac retracted them when Washington's French-haters went apoplectic. But, as he did before Bush's 2003 war against Iraq, Chirac spoke with logic and good sense.

Educating Rice

Feb 3, 2007

By Adel Safty

US Secretary of State Condeleza Rice’s recent visit to the Middle East was billed as aimed at shoring up support for Mahmoud Abbas, the embattled President of the Palestinian Authority, and at reviving the moribund Middle East ‘peace process.’

This ‘peace process’ is, officially at least, driven by the plan endorsed by the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations and known as the ‘roadmap’. A fundamental obligation of the roadmap is that Israel stop all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territories.

It is a matter of documented evidence that the Israeli leaders have done precisely the opposite: multiplying settlement activities by expanding existing settlements and confiscating ever more Palestinian land for the construction of the separation wall. Instead of dismantling the 20 so-called ‘illegal posts’ in the West Bank as they had promised in 2001, Israeli leaders allowed more posts to be established, now estimated at around 100 ‘illegal posts’, in addition the already existing 150 settlements.

In July 2004, The International Court of Justice found that “the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (including East Jerusalem) have been established in breach of international law.” It also found that the construction of the separation wall was in breach of international law.

A few days before Rice arrived in Israel, and the timing could not have been coincidental, the Israeli government announced the establishment of a new settlement in the occupied West Bank.

Washington responded with the usual slap on the wrist, albeit with unusually strong language for the Bush administration. A spokesman for the State Department said:” “The establishment of a new settlement or the expansion of an existing settlement would violate Israel’s obligations under the road map.” The spokesman then added: ““The U.S. calls on Israel to meet its road map obligations and avoid taking steps that could be viewed as pre-determining the outcome of final-status negotiations,” (NYT. December 28, 07)

In the Middle East, Rice used Kissingerian speak to claim that the war against Hizbollah in Lebanon and the Iraq war had created a unique geopolitical alignment that finally made peace in the Palestine conflict possible. One would be excused to think that Rice came with a bold and courageous approach to finally and seriously tackle the Palestine question.

For example, you would think that if Rice was seriously interested in reviving the moribund Middle East ‘peace process’, the issue of Israel’s continued violations of the roadmap ban on settlement would be an important agenda item in her discussion with Israeli leaders.

One would think that if Rice wanted to bolster Abbas’ standing she would have pressed Israeli leaders to free the Palestinian government officials and legislators the Israeli forces kidnapped and illegally imprisoned. One would think she would ask Israeli leaders to hand over the US$500 million in Palestinian tax revenues they illegally withheld to punish the Palestinians for exercising their democratic right to elect a Hamas government.

Instead, according to the Israeli press, Rice and Olmert repeated the usual condescending platitudes about the need for the occupied, not the occupier, to meet the conditions set by the occupier: recognition of Israel, relinquishing violence, and acceptance of previous agreements with Israel.

As to the fiction of the roadmap, Rice and Olmert were in total agreement: “a Palestinian government would have to abide by the road map.” This is laughable considering that the Israeli leaders never hid their intention to use the roadmap as an excluse to delay and abort the peacee process.

Even the Israeli press recognised that the reference to the roadmap was “Olmert's way of foiling various recent attempts by Europeans and other elements to call for an international peace summit.” (Haarezt, January 16, 07)

President Mahmoud Abbas was aghast and felt betrayed. Instead of being bolstered by the Americans and by Rice’s visit, he felt weakened and more vulnerabl as Hamas’s predictions were being verified by Rice’s preposterous definition of the problem and its solution.

To ask the Palestinians to implement the dead roadmap while the Israelis are busy stealing their land and building settlements, is, as one Abbas’ aid put it, “ a joke.” (Time Magazine, January 14, 06).

Perhaps Abbas should have invested some effort in educating Rice, notoriously ignorant about the Middle East and given to oversimplifications, by giving her a copy the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem’s 2006 annual statistics report.

Rice would then have learned that during 2006, the Israelis killed 660 Palestninans including 141 children, as opposed to 17 Israelis, including one minor, killed by Palestinian actions. In addition, Israeli forces demolished, during the same year, 292 Palestinian houses in the occupied Palestinian territories, in addition to 42 houses in occupied East Jerusalem.

Rice would have learned that the Israelis maintain in the West Bank some 52 permanent checkpoints in addition to hundreds of physical obstacles such as concrete blocs to restrict access to Palestinian communities. At the same time the Jewish settlers enjoy access to some special 41 roadways, while the Palestinians are denied access to these Jews-only roads.

As a frequent praiser of Israel’s vibrant democracy, Rice would have been interested in learning that Israel holds some 9000 Palestninans, including 345 children, in prison, and that of these some 738, including 22 children, are held without trial and without knowing the charges against them.

Rice would also have learned that former President Jimmy Carter’s use of the term Apartheid to describe the Israeli occupation in his recent book Palestine: Peace or Apartheid- and for which he was criticised by the Washington establishment, was not gratuiteous.

The Israeli human rights group reached the same conclusion in the report cited above: “Israel has established in the Occupied Territories a… discrimination regime, in which it maintains two systems of laws, and a person’s rights are based on his or her national origin. This regime is the only one of its kind in the world, and brings to mind dark regimes of the past, such as the Apartheid regime in South Africa. “

President Carter has now concluded that “ Israel will never find peace until it is willing to withdraw from its neighboring occupied territories and permit the Palestinians to exercise their basic human and political rights.” (Washington Post. Jan 18.07)

Had Rice taken the trouble to learn any of these facts, conveniently sanitized from public debate in the United States, she might have learned the need to define the Israeli-Palestine conflict with more fairness and intellectual honesty.

She might have detected the fallacy underlying the usual Israeli strategy of confiscation, dispossession, dispersion and the systematic shattering of the Palestinian society, while blaming the victim for the absence of peace.

Prof. Adel Safty is Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia. His latest book, Leadership and Democracy, is published in New York.

The Whole Fish

Part I
by One Pissed Off Liberal
Sat Feb 03, 2007

The fish rots from the head down as the saying goes, but make no mistake; the whole damned fish is rotten. And yes, I'm talking about our government.


Fallout of Lebanese war roils Israel

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Ahmad Faruqui

Halutz’s departure, much as it reflects on the strategic myopia of his generalship, is a tribute to Israel’s polity. After his botched war effort, he ultimately took responsibility for his actions and stepped down from office, since he regarded it as a privilege bestowed upon him by the people and not his birthright

In the wake of the worst military blunder in Israel’s history since the Yom Kippur War, its Chief of General Staff, Lt-Gen Dan Halutz, has resigned. Gen. Halutz, a 40-year old veteran of the Israeli Air Force, had served in his post for only 20 months. Defence Minister Perez may follow suit, further weakening Prime Minister Olmert. And it does not help matters that President Katsav, for unrelated reasons, has gone on a leave of absence.

Halutz’s Lebanese campaign failed to achieve any of its stated objectives. These included the recovery of two Israeli soldiers, whose abduction last July by Hezbollah precipitated the conflict, and protecting Israel’s northern towns and settlements from Hezbollah rocket attacks. To this day, the soldiers remain in Hezbollah hands and the only hope for their recovery lies in a diplomatic solution. In addition, several military commentators have stated that northern Israel remains within the reach of Hezbollah rockets.

On a strategic level, Israel’s losses were even greater. The war plucked Syed Hassan Nasrullah, the head of Hezbollah, from the depths of obscurity and turned him into a household name. On the Arab street, posters carrying his smiling face emerged as a welcome alternative to the grim visage of effete and feckless monarchs, dictators and tyrants.

Israel also lost the war for global public opinion, as images of buildings being toppled by Israeli bombs continued to fill the TV screens. The only gain to Israel was that it gained new knowledge about Hezbollah’s military capabilities, strategy and tactics.

Senior Israeli generals welcomed Halutz’s resignation. Halutz is likely to be replaced by a retired army officer, Gabi Ashkenazi, 53, who fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur war and took part in the 1976 Entebbe raid. Maj-Gen Ashkenazi resigned from the army in 2005 when he was passed over for the military chief’s job. Now, it seems that that the political elite is returning to the well-established formula of relying on army officers to lead the military.

Soul searching about what went wrong in Lebanon has begun within the Israeli military establishment. Maj-Gen (reserves) Emmanual Sakal feels it was a mistake to appoint an air force commander as head of the General Staff. Sakal, formerly the head of Israel’s ground forces, told Israel Radio that it had been a mistake to think that a pilot, “no matter how talented,” could deal effectively with the problems faced by ground forces in war.

He and others fault Halutz for his excessive reliance on the Air Force to stop the Katyusha rocket fire and for lack of consistency in his orders. Halutz believed that combat planes and helicopters using guided weapons would annihilate the Hezbollah guerillas. Like many other air force commanders, he believed that modern wars could be won by air dominance on the battlefield. Air power is a necessary but not sufficient condition for winning a conventional ground war. In a guerilla war, it may be counter-productive since large-scale civilian casualties will strengthen the enemy.

The campaign in Lebanon confirmed this theory. Halutz began the war with a brilliant air strike but failed to exploit the opportunities it created on the ground. Indeed, it may have been impossible to win the war even if there had been sufficient ‘boots on the ground’.

Readers seeking amplification of this point can consult the remarkable new book by British General Sir Rupert Smith. He argues that today’s military institutions, which are focused on waging “industrial warfare”, need to retool their mindset for waging “war among the peoples”. The new frontier is not a line in the sand but a line in the mind.

After the Lebanese war, bereaved parents and politicians, along with retired and serving military officers, called on Halutz to resign. When GOC Northern Command, Udi Adam, and Galilee Division Commander, Brigadier General Gal Hirsch, submitted their resignations, the clock started to tick for Halutz. He was a proud man who had boasted that dropping one-ton bombs on Palestinians in Gaza had not bothered him in the least. To quote the British Daily Telegraph, he fell on his Uzi.

Given his long tenure in the Israeli military, it is inconceivable that Halutz would not have been aware of what happened to the military chief in Pakistan after his incursion into Kargil boomeranged in 1999. Halutz must have wished that after leading his forces on a fool’s errand, and after causing significant harm to his country’s global standing, in addition to causing the deaths of thousands on both sides and impairing the national security of his country, he too would have been able to use the device of a coup to hide his sins.

He would have relished the prospect that awaited Gen Musharraf after the withdrawal from Kargil. When the fiasco was plain for all to see, Gen Musharraf did not feel the weight of public opinion on his shoulders. Instead, he arrogated more power to himself by firing justices of the Supreme Court that did not support the coup, getting himself elected president by a misbegotten referendum, and amending the constitution to give himself unrivalled, absolute and indefinite power. By the stroke of a pen, a man who had caused incalculable harm to the country became the interpreter and guardian of the national interest.

Seven years later, he would write in glowing terms about Kargil, calling it one of the best campaigns in Pakistani history. By so doing, not only did he falsify facts. He also signaled that he felt no remorse. Musharraf also closed off the door for an honest inquiry, ensuring that his successors will fail to imbibe the true lessons of history and stumble once again into Kargilian follies.

However much one might disagree with Israel’s foreign policies, and however much one might deplore its treatment of the Palestinians, one has to admire the strength of its political institutions. Halutz’s departure, much as it reflects on the strategic myopia of his generalship, is a tribute to Israel’s polity. After his botched war effort, he ultimately took responsibility for his actions and stepped down from office, since he regarded it as a privilege bestowed upon him by the people and not his birthright.

In the mean time, the people of Pakistan await the dawn of the day when their military chief will take responsibility for his actions. Instead, he plans to get re-elected by the existing assemblies, hardly the actions of a man who believes he is more popular than all other politicians. He is a man who uses his uniform to hide from the electorate.

The writer, an economist based in San Francisco, has authored “Rethinking the national security of Pakistan,” Ashgate Publishing, 2003

US Consumers: Swimming in Debt and Hanging By A Thread

Feb 4, 2006

By Bonddad,

I have written a great deal about the US economy's over-reliance on debt at the Federal and household level. This over-reliance is one of the prime reasons why I have been and still am concerned about the health of the US economy. Instead of actually owning our growth, we have yet to actually pay for it. Most importantly, as the analysis below highlights, if the bill comes due suddenly we could be in for a very rude awakening.

The following analysis is from MacroMaven's Stephanie Pomboy. I will add further comment on her analysis.

First, we are going to measure US household's cash holdings as they relate to debt. The purpose of this analysis is to determine US household's ability to actually pay off their debt. Here is how they measure cash:

In the following charts we are looking at household liquidity or cash, as we term it. They are synonymous in terms of calculation. For this number we are adding together all household bank deposits, CD's, money funds, checking accounts, savings, and other bank-like products together with all household bond holdings inclusive of Treasuries, corporates, muni's, agencies, etc. Long time readers know we try to apply the most broad measure of liquidity to the household picture when examining these trends. Implicitly we are assuming bond investments could be converted to cash with ease. Not included is real estate, stock holdings and private business equity ownership, but that's about it. In other words, we are trying to give households the most broad benefit of the doubt when reviewing their liquidity circumstances. Here we go.

What we are looking for is quick cash -- cash that households can access quickly in case of financial emergency. Real estate can take a long time to sell, and taking out a home equity loan can not only take time, but is simply swapping one form of debt for another. Equity in a company can't be sold quickly and would have a large number of stipulations attached to it if the owner wanted to use it as loan collateral. Stocks are usually held in a retirement account, which means there is a substantial penalty for early withdrawal.

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The chart above is very telling. Simply put, if all the bills came due, households would not be able to pay them all off. Here's another way to look at the same idea -- total cash minus total liabilities. As the author notes:

A bit more dramatic is what lies below. It's the same concept as above just expressed in nominal dollar terms. This time we're looking back six decades. As we detail in the chart, never prior to 1997 was household liquidity less than total household liabilities. But as you know, also since that time the household savings rate has plunged and household liabilities have mushroomed. All part of greater credit cycle dynamics playing out before our eyes.

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Short version: there just isn't enough cash to pay the bills if they all come due. Now you should understand why the credit industry was so pushy about the changes to national bankruptcy law a few years back. The industry wanted to make sure they got paid in the event of default.

And households debt payment levels are at record levels:

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One of the main reasons for the increase is mortgage debt, which has ballooned over the last 6 years.

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The authoer makes a very interesting observation which is worth noting:

As we've mentioned many a time, what we are seeing in these charts is an intergenerational change in attitudes toward leverage. It's a change in comfort with leverage.

This is certainly one way to look at the whole picture -- that people are much more comfortable with going into debt, are more savvy about managing it and are simply more comfortable with all of debts ramifications. Or -- maybe the credit industry as a whole has used aggressive and possibly deceptive marketing techniques to sell debt without completely explaining the ramifications of debt to customers. The truth is probably in the middle of those two statements.


But we will be the first to admit, in nominal dollar terms, the magnitude of the change you see above is more than a bit striking. Much more, as a matter of fact.

This really hits the nail on the head. While using debt can be financially benficial in certain situations, the extent of the change over the last 10 years is striking.

For economic analysis and commentary, go to the Bonddad Blog

Poll: Bush Worse Than Satan

U.K.: Banks living on borrowed time

Banks living on borrowed time

As insolvencies climb, Heather Connon questions lenders' optimism on bad debts

Sunday February 4, 2007
The Observer

When the high-street banks report their results over the next month or so, virtually all are expected to announce a drop in bad debt provisions. Yet, according to last week's statistics, the number of people becoming insolvent rose by almost 60 per cent last year - and experts are predicting a further 20 per cent increase this year - while house repossessions are also rising sharply.

There is little doubt that a growing number of people (107,000 last year) are having difficulty repaying credit cards and other unsecured loans, but far more of us are still increasing our borrowings. However, instead of splurging on credit cards we are adding our debts to our mortgages. Mortgage borrowing rose by a fifth last year, to more than £360bn, and the Council of Mortgage Lenders expects a further rise this year; credit card borrowing, by contrast, fell 2 per cent to £120bn. Unsecured lending on cards and other personal loans represents just 17 per cent of the £1.3 trillion personal debt total.

Article continues
And that means rising house prices - up 9.3 per cent last year - continue to bail out most borrowers and their banks. While repossessions are high - 17,000 in 2006 - they are still less than a quarter of their 1991 peak, and the number of borrowers in arrears is actually falling. 'The UK consumer has been fairly sensible in what he is doing, looking at secured, not unsecured, lending,' says Ian Poulter, banking analyst at brokerage Teather & Greenwood. By remortgaging, consumers can transfer their credit card debts to secured loans, buying not only time but also lower interest rates.

Of course, that helps only if you own a house and can carry on paying the mortgage. For the minority not in that lucky position, the insolvency statistics suggest that life could well be getting tougher.

The increasingly acrimonious disputes between banks and the debt management companies that have sprung up to help us deal with our borrowings is already having an impact. Individual voluntary arrangements, under which borrowers agree to repay some of their debts over five years, all but stagnated in the last quarter of 2006. That reflects the fact that some lenders are taking an increasingly hard line on approving IVAs. Northern Rock and HSBC, for example, say they will not approve deals that give back less than 40p for every £1 they are owed (a substantially higher threshold than the industry norm of 25p); credit card company MBNA is taking a similarly hard line, while some lenders refuse to consider such arrangements.

Judging by statistics from The Insolvency Exchange (TIX), set up in November to advise lenders on negotiations with insolvency practitioners, there is good reason for banks to be suspicious. TIX has already signed up HBOS and HSBC, which means it sees about 70 per cent of all IVA proposals, and it found that fees vary from £1,500 to £15,000. TIX rejects a quarter of all proposals, and asks for modifications on a further 65 per cent of them. Chief executive Mark Onyett says he expects the firm to have an impact: 'It could weed out the good and the not so good - who is giving good advice to debtors and who is managing the IVA through the life cycle.'

TIX's research also highlights the perils of those seeking an IVA: the majority of people whose cases it sees have annual incomes of £12,000-£15,000, and, says Onyett, 'quite a lot have debts of more than three times their income'. That, says John Hall, chief executive of debt management company Invocas, underlines the fact that the banks have only themselves to blame. 'They brought on their own problems: the UK economy has been kept going on consumer spending.'

For the moment, they are being bailed out by a buoyant housing market and low unemployment. Even with the recent interest rate rises, few are expecting repossessions to reach the levels of the last housing downturn. But if the economic climate cools, banks could be stuck with a painful bad debt headache.

At debt's door

Two of the largest providers of IVAs, Debt Free Direct and Accuma, issued surprise profit warnings last month.

While Accuma said approval rates had climbed back from 78 to 85 per cent, its shares remain less than half their price two weeks ago. The problem is not just the hard line being taken by some banks; rather it is that the sector's rapid growth and generous fees have attracted too much competition. Some customers, too, may be deterred by recent bad press.

Iraqi Interior Ministry estimates 1,000 killed in one week

Story Highlights
• NEW: 4killed by car bomb near Baquba bus station; 14 killed in Baghdad
• U.S. says ground fire apparently downed four U.S. helicopters recently
• Iraqi Interior Ministry estimates 1,000 people killed in past week
• Massive truck bomb in Baghdad market Saturday killed at least 128

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The Iraqi Interior Ministry estimates that about 1,000 people have been killed throughout Iraq in the past week due to gunbattles, drive-by shootings and bomb attacks, a ministry official said Sunday.

The figure includes members of militia and terrorist groups, civilians and Iraqi security forces. The official said the data was gathered by Iraq's Interior, Health and Defense ministries.

The grim estimate came just a day after a bloody bomb attack on a crowded market in central Baghdad that killed 128 people and wounded 343 others Saturday, according to a Health Ministry official. (Watch chaos as dozens are rushed to hospitalsVideo)

The incident, which also destroyed cars and surrounding stores, occurred in Sedriya, a mixed district of Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds.

The Health Ministry official said he expected the death toll from that attack to rise. Already, it is the deadliest attack in Iraq since November 23, when Shiites were targeted by coordinated car bomb attacks in Sadr City. At least 200 civilians were killed in those attacks.

Jihad Jabri, head of the Interior Ministry's bomb squad, said a Mercedes truck used in Saturday's blast contained a ton of explosives.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki blamed the attack on Saddam Hussein loyalists and Sunni extremists.
18 killed in Sunday attacks across Iraq

Four people were killed and 20 wounded Sunday when a car bomb exploded near a bus station in the town of Khalis, about 12 miles (20 kilometers) north of Baquba, an official with Baquba police told CNN.

In Kanan, about 12 miles east of Baquba, five people were wounded when a motorcycle rigged with explosives detonated near an outdoor market, police said.

Baquba is about 37 miles (60 kilometers) north of Baghdad.

In Baghdad on Sunday, gunmen, bombs and mortar attacks killed 14 people and injured 46 more, Baghdad police officials said.

The deadliest attack was a roadside bomb that exploded near an Iraqi police patrol in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Kasra, killing four Iraqi police officers.

Other victims were killed or wounded by roadside and car bombs, attacks on their vehicles by gunmen, and mortar fire on a residential neighborhood, police said.

Iraqiya TV anchor Suhad Ibrahim was wounded when U.S. forces opened fire on her car while she was driving behind a U.S. military convoy near the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, Baghdad police said. The U.S. military did not immediately comment on the incident.
U.S.: Ground fire apparently brought down four helicopters

An ongoing U.S. military investigation has found that ground fire apparently brought down four U.S. helicopters in Iraq over the past few weeks, a Multi-National forces spokesman said Sunday.

The crashes killed 21 Americans.

"It does appear that they were all the result of some kind of Iraqi ground fire that did bring those helicopters down," U.S. Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said.

The downed helicopters -- which include two Apaches, a Black Hawk and a U.S. security contractor's helicopter -- pose a concern for the coalition in Iraq, where aircraft play a critical role. It could signal growing sophistication among insurgents determined to shoot down coalition aircraft.

Caldwell said the military is already making adjustments in tactics, techniques and procedures.

On Friday, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace said that ground fire has been "more effective against our helicopters" in recent weeks and the military is studying the development.

The most recent crash occurred Friday when an AH-64 Apache flying northwest of Baghdad near Taji was shot down. Two U.S. soldiers were killed.

The next day, an al Qaeda-linked group claimed responsibility for the downed helicopter, claiming that God has granted them "new ways" to confront aircraft.

Earlier downings of aircraft believed to be the result of hostile ground fire include a U.S. military helicopter that went down January 29 during a battle in Najaf, killing two soldiers aboard; a U.S. helicopter that crashed in eastern Baghdad January 23, killing five employees for the Blackwater private security company; and a Black Hawk helicopter that went down in Diyala province on January 20, killing 12 U.S. troops.
Other developments

* One man suspected of leading a car bomb cell was killed and five suspected cell members were arrested Sunday in Mosul by U.S. forces, the military announced. Coalition forces also detained two suspected terrorists during a raid in Baghdad, the military said.

* In Kirkuk, north of the capital, the casualty toll from a series of nine bomb attacks launched Saturday rose to three dead and 23 wounded, Iraqi police told CNN on Sunday. Seven of the bombs were car bombs and the other two were roadside bombs, occurring in different locations across the city. A suicide car bombing at the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party was among the attacks.

CNN's Mohammed Tawfeeq and Barbara Starr contributed to this report.

Captain America calls it friendly fire. We call it murder

Jasper Gerard
Sunday February 4, 2007
The Observer

You can see where America is coming from: having killed so many in Iraq - some innocent, some not - is it worth making a fuss about one more? The one more is Lance Corporal Matty Hull of Windsor. He died four years ago in a so-called 'blue on blue' killing, which has usurped that other laughably hollow euphemism: 'friendly fire'. A pair of circling American A-10 tankbuster planes opened fire on the Household Cavalry troop in 2003 and Hull died of multiple injuries in his blazing Scimitar armoured truck. So far, so Iraq.

But now it emerges there is a cockpit recording of the incident which America refuses to allow our - visibly furious - coroner to play in court. This despite the tape's crucial importance, as it is said to contain 'incriminating' information, including the line: 'Someone's going to jail for this.'

Susan, Hull's widow, is rather keen to hear it. Alas, our Ministry of Defence is complicit in a cover-up. Not merely because it will not let the Oxfordshire coroner flick the 'play' switch until America gives permission, but because, scandalously, for four years it has denied 'categorically' that any such recording exists, knowing this to be a lie. The MoD claims to be 'in discussions' with America, but that promises quite a phone bill. How many years can one conversation take?

Hitherto, Des Browne, bumbling Defence Secretary, has escaped parliamentary gunfire because even Mrs Browne would struggle to put a face to him. But if he can't ensure this tape is admissible when the inquest reconvenes later this month, shouldn't he be fired in a manner most unfriendly?

And what of America? It claims the right to try foreign nationals in foreign countries for 'crimes' defined by American law. It requires Britain to extradite suspects while failing to ratify a treaty that would let us try Americans, such as those who kill our citizens. So often, British ministers plead with this administration to show some slight consideration that would make our support for the Iraq war easier, but usually they are rebuffed.

And so, while George and Tony smile on deck suggesting a chipper Anglo-American relationship, below, the good ship Atlantic slowly sinks. Not only are their policies in Iraq diverging - Britain pulling out, America pushing in - but British hearts are hardening.

Proof came last week when William Hague called on Britain to be less slavish. Hague! If the American ambassador gives a damn about British domestic opinion, he must have choked on his pretzel.

Hague was the arch-Atlanticist who urged war in Iraq - not, primarily, because he gave much of a hoot about Iraq - but because he believed the world tends to be safer when Britain acts in consort with America.

The sadness is that with a Democrat Congress and - we hope - a less ideological President, American activism and interventionism could become a more consensual force for good in the world once again. But that might be too late for Britain. It certainly is for Lance Corporal Hull.

Dick Cheney Was Briefed by CIA on Niger

Saturday, 03 February 2007

by Larry C Johnson

One of the peripheral benefits from the Scooter LIbby trial (apart from the pleasure of watching the Bush Administration lies exposed) is the release of documents that provide concrete evidence of the events that produced Nigergate (or, if you prefer, Plamegate). Scooter may be claiming a foggy memory but if you read and compare the new documents with previous material, such as the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Iraq released in the summer of 2004, the fog will lift and you'll glean some new insights.

We have known all along that Dick Cheney asked the CIA to follow up on a DIA report about Iraq's effort to get uranium from Niger. Thanks to the latest document dump we now know that Dick Cheney received a preliminary brief from the CIA and the the Senate Intelligence Committee, in its 2004 report, covered up this fact.

On a chilly Tuesday morning almost five years ago,
February 12, 2002, Dick Cheney’s CIA briefer arrived with a piece of finished intelligence that set in motion a series of events that exposed the identity of a CIA undercover officer, destroyed a CIA front company and compromised its various assets, and sent Scooter Libby to trial for perjury and obstruction of justice.

Dick Cheney read an article written by an analyst at the Defence Intelligence Agency titled, "Niamey signed on agreement to sell 500 tons of uranium to Baghdad". This report was based on intelligence obtained by CIA field operatives and published as an intelligence report (i.e. TD) on 5 February 2002. The source, our buddies the Italians. Thanks to the CIA memo introduced during the first week of the Libby trial, the CIA reported that Iraq and Niger allegedly signed an agreement in July of 2000 to purchase uranium. This TD was a follow up to information the CIA obtained in October 2001, also from the Italian intelligence service, which claimed the negotiations had started in 1999 and came to fruition in 2000.

We know from the July 2004 Senate Intelligence Committee (SSCI) report that the CIA analysts viewed the October report as uncorroborated and noted that even if this was true Iraq had no capability to process the yellowcake (see p. 36 of the SSCI July 2004 report).

DIA was less skeptical than the CIA and left the impression that it was a done deal. As the Senate Intelligence Committee reported in 2004, Dick Cheney asked his briefer to find out what the CIA knew about this. When a Vice President or President asks a question or makes a substantive comment in response to the briefing material, the Briefer always goes back to CIA Headquarters and sits in on a morning meeting of Senior CIA officials. When the CIA briefer got back to Headquarters, he briefed the Director of Operations (or his Deputy) and the the Director of Intelligence (or his Deputy).

This led to two courses of action. First, the Director of Intelligence sent the rock rolling down the hill until it hit an analyst in WINPAC--the analytical shop in CIA tasked with monitoring Iraq's WMD program. According to the CIA memo released in the Libby trial, we now know that In response to this tasking the analyst produced a Senior Power Executive Intelligence Brief on 14 February 2002 that concluded:

information on the alleged uranium contract between Iraq and Niger comes exclusively from a foreign government service report that lacks crucial details, and we are working to clarify the information and to determine whether it can be corroborated.

Now here is the bullshit. The Republican led Senate Select Intelligence Committee claimed in July 2004 that:

The CIA sent a separate version of the assessment to the Vice President which differed only in that it named the foreign government service.

BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT, BULLSHIT!!! No. Unlike the DIA analyst, who accepted the report at face value, the CIA expressed skepticism and clearly conveyed that the information was suspect. Moreover, the CIA morning briefer gave this information to Vice President Cheney on Thursday morning, 14 February 2002.

Second, on Tuesday morning, 19 February 2002, the CIA's Counter Proliferation Division chaired an interagency meeting to discuss whether to send Ambassador Joe Wilson to Niger. As noted in a previous post (see Joe Wilson Vindicated), Joe even tried to talk them out of sending him but, as a good American, accepted the so-called boondoggle to Niger. And, when he returned, an intelligence report was generated.

Be sure of this, Dick Cheney was briefed on the results of Joe's trip. He may not have remembered the substance because the report--based on the debriefing of Joe Wilson--told a story that Dick Cheney did not want to hear. There is no way that a CIA Briefer, who knew of the Vice President's keen interest in the issue of Iraq, Niger, and uranium, would not present a piece of raw intelligence to the Vice President that addressed Cheney's question. In fact, the Vice President received the report on March 8, 2002 or March 9, 2002. Look for yourself. On page DX64.4 of the CIA memo, paragraph 6, we are informed that the CIA's Directorate of Operations widely disseminated the report and that the sensitive source, Joe Wilson, is highly reliable.

Cheney was given an intelligence report in response to his original query on 12 February, 2002. The report made clear that Niger was playing ball with the U.S. and was not about to even meet with Iraqis, much less sell them uranium. But Cheney and Bush had other plans. They were going to go to war with Iraq regardless of what the intelligence said. But we now have a clear picture that the intelligence community was trying to tell them uncomfortable truths that Bush and Cheney did not want to hear. Just remember that as the U.S. death toll in Iraq continues to soar.

Furore over Jewish critics' challenge to state of Israel

Ned Temko

The Observer

A major battle has erupted in Jewish communities on both sides of the Atlantic over accusations that left-wing Jews are fuelling anti-Semitism by challenging the existence of Israel.

On one side is an array of prominent Jewish community leaders and institutions saying that such criticism plays into the hands of Muslim radical groups and other extremists.

On the other side, left-wing Jewish writers and academics insist that basic freedom of expression is at stake. Some British Jewish voices have warned of an atmosphere of 'McCarthyism' reminiscent of the anti-Communist witchhunts in 1950s America.

The current dispute erupted earlier this year in the United States, home to the world's largest diaspora Jewish community, with an essay published by the American Jewish Committee. The AJC urged the community to 'confront' those Jews who had joined in the 'verbal onslaught against Zionism and the Jewish state'. The essay denounced some critics by name, including prominent historian Tony Judt and Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the play Angels in America.

The heated argument escalated further with a feature on the dispute in the New York Times. Judt, who was criticised in the article for having denounced Israel as 'arrogant, aggressive, anachronistic, infantile... [and] immoral,' told the New York Times he was convinced that leading Jewish voices simply wanted to stifle any harsh criticism of Israel.

But in a separate article, Boston-based sociologist Shulamit Reinharz - wife of the president of America's leading Jewish university, Brandeis - rejected the idea that Jewish left-wingers could question the very existence of Israel without imperilling Jews. 'Most would say they are simply anti-Zionists, not anti-Semites. But I disagree, because in a world where there is only one Jewish state, to oppose it vehemently is to endanger Jews.'

In London, a similar battle has erupted around academic Tony Lerman, head of think-tank the Institute of Jewish Policy Research (JPR). At issue are remarks he made before taking up the post in which he questioned the viability of Israel as a Jewish state. He suggested replacing it with a Jewish-Arab state that would also offer a home for Palestinian refugees. Four JPR directors, and one of its honorary patrons, the Tory peer Lord Kalms, have resigned in protest.

Against this background, a new British group calling itself Independent Jewish Voices is planning to launch tomorrow on Comment Is Free, the Guardian's and Observer's online comment site. The group - including more than 100 writers, academics, doctors, lawyers, actors and others - objects to what it terms the misconception that British Jews 'speak with one voice and that this voice supports the Israeli government's policies'.

Kalms has insisted that he has no problem with criticism of individual Israeli government policies, but has suggested that Lerman's questioning of the Jewish state's existence risks providing cover for extremists who want Israel destroyed. Writing in the Jewish Chronicle on Friday, he said he had been told that he should be 'tolerant of Mr Lerman's views'. But, he argued, 'that is difficult when he proposes the suicide of the state of Israel.'

Echoing Kalms's view, a former Australian Jewish community leader, Isi Leibler, also wrote in the Chronicle: 'How can a person publicly state that Israel should be displaced as a Jewish state... [and] still occupy the role of executive director of Anglo-Jewry's principal think-tank?'

But JPR chairman Peter Levy - who also chairs the Chronicle - voiced strong support for Lerman and denounced the 'deeply disturbing, orchestrated campaign' against him. 'The people responsible do not seem to value independent thinking, and wish to prevent discussion of matters that may be uncomfortable but are essential for us to address. Their campaign demeans our community... and should be brought to an end,' Levy said.

Vice President's Shadow Hangs Over Trial

Testimony Points Out Cheney's Role in Trying to Dampen Joseph Wilson's Criticism

By R. Jeffrey Smith and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 4, 2007; A05

Vice President Cheney's press officer, Cathie Martin, approached his chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, on Air Force Two on July 12, 2003, to ask how she should respond to journalists' questions about Joseph C. Wilson IV. Libby looked over one of the reporters' questions and told Martin: "Well, let me go talk to the boss and I'll be back."

On Libby's return, Martin testified in federal court last week, he brought a card with detailed replies dictated by Cheney, including a highly partisan, incomplete summary of Wilson's investigation into Iraq's suspected weapons of mass destruction program.

Libby subsequently called a reporter, read him the statement, and said -- according to the reporter -- he had "heard" that Wilson's investigation was instigated by his wife, an employee at the CIA, later identified as Valerie Plame. The reporter, Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, was one of five people with whom Libby discussed Plame's CIA status during those critical weeks that summer.

After seven days of such courtroom testimony, the unanswered question hanging over Libby's trial is, did the vice president's former chief of staff decide to leak that disparaging information on his own?

No evidence has emerged that Cheney told him to do it. But Cheney's dictated reply is one of many signs to emerge at the trial of the vice president's unusual attentiveness to the controversy and his desire to blunt it. His efforts included the extraordinary disclosure of classified information, including one-sided synopses of Wilson's report and a 2002 intelligence estimate on Iraq.

Under questioning from FBI agent Deborah S. Bond, Libby acknowledged that he and Cheney "may have talked" aboard the plane from Norfolk that day about whether to make public Plame's CIA employment, Bond testified Thursday.

Her testimony brought Cheney closer than ever to the heart of the controversy surrounding the Bush administration's efforts to discredit Wilson, who had accused the White House of twisting intelligence he had gathered as it sought to justify the invasion of Iraq.

White House officials testified that Cheney was irritated because he thought Wilson had alleged the vice president sent him on the fact-finding trip to Niger but rejected the investigation's conclusions. Time after time at the height of the controversy, they said, Cheney directed the administration's response to Wilson's criticism and Libby carried it out.

Cheney personally dictated other talking points for use by the White House press office; helped negotiate the wording of a key statement by then-CIA Director George J. Tenet; instructed Libby to deal directly with selected reporters; told Libby to disclose selected passages from the national intelligence estimate and other classified reports; and held a luncheon for conservative columnists to discuss the controversy.

Throughout this period, Cheney kept a news clipping of Wilson's criticisms on his desk, annotated with the question, "did his wife send him on a junket?" according to court statements. Libby told a grand jury that he and Cheney discussed it on multiple occasions each day.

Randall Eliason, a former chief of public corruption prosecutions for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington, said, "There has been significant evidence of how deeply the vice president was involved. If Cheney is personally, deeply involved in it, it's Libby's job to be personally, deeply involved."

Wilson was a former U.S. ambassador dispatched by the CIA the previous year -- at the suggestion of his wife but on a decision by other officials -- to determine whether Iraq had recently tried to acquire nuclear materials from Niger. The agency later said that it was responding to inquiries made by Cheney's office, the State Department and the Defense Department.

On July 6, 2003, 16 months after his return, Wilson publicly accused the administration of ignoring his report, which debunked the Iraq-Niger speculation, and of twisting his information to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Wilson's allegations provoked a political firestorm. Within days, the White House was forced to repudiate a key assertion President Bush had made in his State of the Union address, and Tenet issued an unusual public apology for failing to stop the president from making it. But rather than tamping down the controversy, the administration's backtracking only "made it flare up," as then-White House spokesman Ari Fleischer testified last week.

In its response, the White House wound up training its fire not only on the substance of Wilson's allegations but on him personally, trial testimony has shown.

Over the course of that week in July, bracketed by Wilson's published criticism and Cheney's flight back from Norfolk, three senior White House officials -- Libby, Fleischer and special presidential assistant Karl Rove -- inaccurately told or suggested to five reporters that Wilson had been dispatched to Niger by Plame, according to the testimony. Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage separately told columnist Robert D. Novak that Plame worked at the CIA, and Novak made that news public July 14.

The belittling implication of the disclosure, as Fleischer and others testified last week, was that nepotism, rather than Wilson's knowledge and experience, lay behind his involvement in the matter.

While Cheney and Libby have asserted that their sole intent in contacting journalists was to defend the credibility of their policy, prosecutors disclosed new evidence on Wednesday that the administration was focusing on Wilson himself. Cheney's then-communications director, Mary Matalin, advised Libby in a phone call July 10, prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg said.

Matalin, according to notes Libby made of the conversation, called Wilson "a snake" and warned that his "story has legs," Zeidenberg said. She laid out a plan: "We need to address the Wilson motivation. We need to be able to get the cable out. Declassified. The president should wave his wand."

While arguing unsuccessfully that the jury should see all of Libby's notes on the conversation, Zeidenberg said, "All we have heard from the defense all along is that Mr. Libby was only interested in responding on the merits." He said it was significant that Libby wrote down word for word "an extremely negative and ad hominem attack, if you will, about a critic."

Plame's employment at the CIA was classified, making it illegal for any official to knowingly and intentionally disclose it. Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald's 22-month investigation did not produce charges of that offense.

But Libby was indicted on charges of making false statements, obstruction of justice and perjury for denying that he was aware of Plame's employment and had disclosed it to journalists.

In courtroom testimony, witnesses have asserted that Cheney and two others told Libby about Plame in June, and that he told two journalists and Fleischer -- who in turn said he told two more journalists. It was, in short, a hot topic of gossip by the administration.

According to Martin's testimony, Cheney directed her early in the week of July 6 to keep track of daily news coverage of the controversy, including "who was continuing to comment." During a meeting on Capitol Hill, Martin said, Cheney "dictated to me what he wanted me to say" about it to reporters.

In a meeting July 8, Martin said, Cheney also decided that Libby would call NBC News reporters Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory to discuss the matter. Martin said she walked out during Libby's subsequent calls to the reporters.

After Mitchell suggested in a broadcast that the White House was "pushing blame" for the mess toward the CIA, Martin said, then-deputy national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley looked directly at Martin during a staff meeting and said such efforts were improper. At that moment, Martin said, Libby "looked down," in effect leaving her to absorb the blame.

Three months later, White House spokesman Scott McClellan publicly cleared Rove of leaking Plame's name -- inaccurately, as it turned out -- but provided no such statement about Libby.

According to Cheney's own notes, introduced at the trial last week, Cheney told McClellan that such a statement "has to happen today. Call out key press saying same thing about Scooter as Karl. Not going to protect one staffer and sacrifice the guy that was asked to stick his neck in the meat grinder because of the incompetence of others."

Staff writer Amy Goldstein contributed to this report.

Argentinian critics say an American campaigner is buying up vast wetlands for US strategic goals

Eco-millionaire's land grab prompts fury

Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires
Sunday February 4, 2007
The Observer

Douglas Tompkinscalls himself a 'deep ecologist'. He is a millionaire on a quest to preserve some of Argentina's last frontier lands from human encroachment by buying them and turning them into ecological reserves.

But Argentina may not permit him such philanthropy. Opponents are branding him a new-age 'imperialist gringo' and claim he has a secret aim: to help the US military gain control of the country's natural resources. Tompkins, who sold his Esprit clothing firm in 1989 for a reported $150m to devote his time and wealth to ecology, takes such attacks in his stride. 'Land ownership is a political act; it arouses passions,' he says.

Tompkins, 63, holds to a very severe brand of environmentalism and is fond of reminding listeners that, unless runaway consumerism is halted, 'we humans will be building ourselves a beautiful coffin in space called planet Earth'.

Yet such statements do not carry much weight with Argentinian nationalists. The heaviest fire has come from radicals in the ruling Peronist party. Left-wing legislator Araceli Mendez introduced draft legislation in Congress a few months ago to confiscate the American's vast holdings. At the centre of the storm is a 310,000-acre estate Tompkins owns in the Ibera wetlands, a labyrinth of marshes, lakes and floating islands of nearly 2 million acres. 'He says he's worried about the birds and the wildlife,' said Mendez. 'But his land is above the Guarani aquifer, one of the most important fresh water reserves in the world, only 700km from an airbase the United States plans to build in neighbouring Paraguay.'

The aquifer is soon to become an issue of strategic defence policy. Argentina's military planners are convinced the country's oil and fresh water deposits could become targets for world powers in an ecologically dark future, and are putting together 'Plan 2025', dividing the country into regions based on their resource potential.

The Argentinian press has suggested Tompkins might be a covert CIA operative securing US access to the aquifer. And even Argentinians who don't share such conspiracy theories are uncomfortable with Tompkins transforming his properties into environmentally pristine but unpopulated and economically unproductive areas.

Tompkins and his wife, Kristine McDivitt, a former CEO of the Patagonia clothing retail chain, first went to Ibera in the late 1990s. After being initially unimpressed - 'it's as flat as a billiard table' - they eventually succumbed to the challenge, putting the accent on restoring the original wildlife.

'Wetlands are not up there in the collective human mind, they get very poor conservation protection, but there is an enchantment in every ecosystem,' said Tompkins. 'The land has been environmentally degraded and many of the indigenous animals have disappeared,' he went on. 'We've started with the marsh deer. Eventually we'll be able to reintroduce the jaguar, the top of the food chain.'

Tompkins expects that in 15 to 20 years he could turn his Ibera estate into a national park. 'It can take that long to generate a change in attitude. Tourism has to become a national priority.'

Tompkins and his wife say they are not old-fashioned imperialists in a new guise. 'All the fears created by the fact that I am American buying land are ridiculous,' said Tompkins. 'My intention has always been to eventually turn over the land to the Argentinian government for a national park.' He has already done so, donating an estate in Patagonia to the National Parks administration in 2004. In the late Nineties he had bought the 155,000-acre Monte Leon sheep farm, including a 25-mile stretch of South Atlantic coast, home to one of the largest Magellan penguin rookeries in the world and also abundant in sea lions, pumas and birds.

But pressure to pass an anti-Tompkins bill in Congress could be strong. The presence of other high-profile foreigners fuels passions. The Italian clothing giant Benetton holds 2.2 million acres in sheep farms in Patagonia and has clashed with the indigenous Mapuche people over land ownership claims. And US media magnate Ted Turner likes to go trout fishing on his Patagonian estates.

For Tompkins, it has been a long road from fashion king to 'deep ecologist'. As the founder of North Face and Esprit, he sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of clothes worldwide every year. All that changed when he became involved in radical environmental projects, what he calls his 'restoration work', returning native animal and plant species to the nation-sized swaths of land he owns.

Tompkins and his wife have acquired properties encompassing Pacific coastal fjords, Patagonian virgin forest and tropical wetlands, a total area of some 2.2 million acres - about the size of Cyprus -in Argentina and neighbouring Chile.

Despite all the difficulties, Tompkins is optimistic about converting opponents to his way of thinking. 'I see an unstoppable wave of environmentalism. Environmental problems arise from the mistaken notion that humans come first. They have to come second. This has not sunk into the political and social leadership.'

Ex U.S. military commanders warn against Iran attack

February 4, 2007

LONDON (Reuters) - Three former senior U.S. military officials warn that any military action against Iran would have "disastrous consequences" and urged Washington to hold immediate and unconditional talks with Tehran.

The Bush administration has increased the regularity and vehemence of its accusations against Iran, prompting speculation it could be laying the ground for military attack against the Islamic state.

Washington has also sent a second aircraft carrier to the Gulf, a move seen as a warning to Iran which the United States accuses of seeking atomic arms and fuelling instability in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Iran denies the charges.

A technician checks valves at the uranium conversion facility in Isfahan, 450 km south of Tehran, February 3, 2007. Three former senior U.S. military officials warn that any military action against Iran would have "disastrous consequences" and urged Washington to hold immediate and unconditional talks with Tehran.

In a letter to London's Sunday Times newspaper, the three former U.S. military leaders said attacking Iran "would have disastrous consequences for security in the region, coalition forces in Iraq and would further exacerbate regional and global tensions," they wrote.

"The current crisis must be resolved through diplomacy," they said.

The letter was signed by retired army Lieutenant General Robert Gard, a former military assistant to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, retired U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Hoar, a former commander in chief of U.S. Central Command; and retired Navy Vice Admiral Jack Shanahan, a former director of the Center for Defense Information.

They urged the U.S. government to "engage immediately in direct talks with the government of Iran without preconditions.

"There is time available to talk, we must ensure that we use it," they said.

The three men have joined previous petitions calling on the Bush administration to change course in its policy on Iran.

Washington broke ties with Iran in 1980. It has offered to hold direct talks with Iran but only once Tehran halts its drive to produce nuclear fuel through uranium enrichment.

Iran, which says it wants to enrich uranium to make nuclear reactor fuel, not bombs, has refused.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Friday said Washington was not planning for war with Iran, but again accused Tehran of supplying bombs for deadly attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq.

Copyright © 2006 Reuters

Iranian nuclear scientist ‘assassinated by Mossad’

The Sunday Times February 04, 2007
Sarah Baxter, Washington

A PRIZE-WINNING Iranian nuclear scientist has died in mysterious circumstances, according to Radio Farda, which is funded by the US State Department and broadcasts to Iran.

An intelligence source suggested that Ardeshire Hassanpour, 44, a nuclear physicist, had been assassinated by Mossad, the Israeli security service.

Hassanpour worked at a plant in Isfahan where uranium hexafluoride gas is produced. The gas is needed to enrich uranium in another plant at Natanz which has become the focus of concerns that Iran may be developing nuclear weapons.

According to Radio Farda, Iranian reports of Hassanpour’s death emerged on January 21 after a delay of six days, giving the cause as “gas poisoning”. The Iranian reports did not say how or where Hassanpour was poisoned but his death was said to have been announced at a conference on nuclear safety.

Rheva Bhalla of Stratfor, the US intelligence company, claimed on Friday that Hassanpour had been targeted by Mossad and that there was “very strong intelligence” to suggest that he had been assassinated by the Israelis, who have repeatedly threatened to prevent Iran acquiring the bomb.

Hassanpour won Iran’s leading military research prize in 2004 and was awarded top prize at the Kharazmi international science festival in Iran last year.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to announce next Sunday — the 28th anniversary of the Islamic revolution — that 3,000 centrifuges have been installed at Natanz, enabling Iran to move closer to industrial scale uranium enrichment.

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency say that hundreds of technicians and labourers have been “working feverishly” to assemble equipment at the plant.

With Rumsfeld Gone, Critics of War Look to Rice

The neocons want Rice gone so they can get on with bombing Iran.
February 4, 2007
Washington Memo

WASHINGTON, Feb. 3 — For six years, first as national security adviser and then as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice worked under the cover of a very effective shield: Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who was the administration’s lightning rod for criticism over its handling of Iraq.

But in recent weeks, with Mr. Rumsfeld gone, Ms. Rice has faced increased, and somewhat unfamiliar, criticism. At a Senate hearing on Jan. 11, she confronted a wall of opposition from Republicans as well as Democrats. During hearings this week on Iraq, several of her predecessors were pointed in their disapproval of her job performance.

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III took issue with Ms. Rice’s refusal to engage Syria diplomatically. Back in his day, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “We practiced diplomacy full time, and it paid off.”

This week, Senators Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona, released three letters demanding that Ms. Rice make public the administration’s requirements for actions to be taken by the Iraqi government to earn continued American support. Along with the letters, and Ms. Rice’s reply — which indicated that the Iraqis had already missed most of the benchmarks — the senators also released an irate statement.

“Secretary Rice finally provided a response” to the senators’ repeated requests, the statement said. “What Secretary Rice’s letter makes abundantly clear is that the administration does not intend to attach meaningful consequences for the Iraqis continuing to fail to meet their commitments.”

And on Jan. 20, The Economist published an editorial titled “The Falling Star of Condoleezza Rice.”



In DC, Contractors Are the "Fourth Branch of Govt."

February 4, 2007

In Washington, Contractors Take on Biggest Role Ever

WASHINGTON, Feb. 3 — In June, short of people to process cases of incompetence and fraud by federal contractors, officials at the General Services Administration responded with what has become the government’s reflexive answer to almost every problem.

They hired another contractor.

It did not matter that the company they chose, CACI International, had itself recently avoided a suspension from federal contracting; or that the work, delving into investigative files on other contractors, appeared to pose a conflict of interest; or that each person supplied by the company would cost taxpayers $104 an hour. Six CACI workers soon joined hundreds of other private-sector workers at the G.S.A., the government’s management agency.

Without a public debate or formal policy decision, contractors have become a virtual fourth branch of government. On the rise for decades, spending on federal contracts has soared during the Bush administration, to about $400 billion last year from $207 billion in 2000, fueled by the war in Iraq, domestic security and Hurricane Katrina, but also by a philosophy that encourages outsourcing almost everything government does.



US military chiefs eye confrontation with Iran

By Philip Sherwell in Washington, Sunday Telegraph
Last Updated: 12:51am GMT 04/02/2007

America's military chiefs are at loggerheads with the country's diplomats and spies over tactics for confronting Iranian agents in Iraq over their role in lethal attacks on US forces.

Iran nuclear facilities
American drones are flying over Iran in search of intelligence about its nuclear facilities

The rift has spilled over into a dispute about how and when to publish alleged evidence of Iranian backing for Iraqi militias and Iran's provision of supplies and technology for roadside bombs, the biggest killer of American soldiers in Iraq, a White House adviser revealed.

It is fuelling fears among some US diplomats - shared by Britain and its European allies - that hawks within President George W Bush's administration are preparing the ground for military action against Teheran before he leaves office in 23 months.

Angered by the mounting toll of troops killed by ever-more sophisticated devices, US commanders insisted last month that the White House give them authority to target and kill Iranian operatives in Iraq as part of the new 21,500-troop "surge" strategy ordered by Mr Bush.

But the State Department, headed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and the CIA had argued against openly targeting Iranian agents, most of whom claim to be diplomats based at Teheran's network of consulates, liaison offices and cultural offices in Iraq.

They contended that this approach could escalate into direct armed conflict with Iran, which is under intense international pressure to give up its nuclear programme.

The State Department and the CIA, which both objected to the way the Bush administration used pre-war intelligence on Iraq, also wanted to publicise clear evidence of Iranian interference in Iraq as a way of justifying the US stance.

"The military's highest echelons really do not want the release of details of what Iran is up to as they don't want the Iranians to know what's working and what's not," the administration adviser said.

"The military and the State Department and CIA are coming at this from very different approaches. State and the CIA believe we should respect the supposed diplomatic immunity of these Iranians. But the military has had enough and they say 'to hell with their fake diplomatic immunity'."

The splits within the administration come as reports emerge of new variants of "explosively formed projectiles" allegedly made with Iranian help.

The Pentagon said the first soldier was killed by one of the devices on Jan 22, but it is refusing to give further details of their use because it wants to limit the information available to its enemies.

The US has also suggested that Iranian operatives may have been involved in the abduction and killing of five soldiers in Kerbala, a potentially explosive accusation. But Stephen Hadley, Mr Bush's national security adviser, acknowledged on Friday that the intelligence briefing on Iranian interference in Iraq - publication of which has been delayed twice - was still being refined.

The build-up of anti-Iran rhetoric and despatch of two US aircraft carriers to the region has echoes for some of the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, prompting suspicions about the intentions of the remaining hawks within the administration, led by the vice-president, Dick Cheney.

The defence secretary, Robert Gates, sought to play down these concerns on Friday, saying that the US was not planning for a war with Iran but was determined to stop Iranians supplying bombs for attacks on American troops in Iraq.

Dan Goure, a Pentagon consultant, said that targeting Iranian operatives in Iraq was crucial to Mr Bush's "surge" strategy. "You cannot try to deal with the militia if you're not dealing with the Iranians backing them," he said. "The message now is that the gloves are off. This is Bush's last chance in Iraq and he isn't going to hold back."

The US has also increased flights of unmanned spy planes over the border corridor between Iraq and Iran, to track movements across the frontier to back up its claims about Teheran's behaviour.

The drones were being flown into Iran from bases in Iraq to maintain a 24-hour check on a corridor running along "much" of the Iranian side of the border, an American intelligence officer told this newspaper.

The US is intent on not launching any attacks that could inadvertently hit Iranian soil. But once suspects were a few miles from the border inside Iraq, they would be "whacked", the officer said.

John Pike, director of the military think-tank, said there were 600 or 700 drones operating in Iraq and "the air is thick with them".

The Iranian military had upgraded gun and missile posts a few miles into its territory and was trying to bring down the drones, the intelligence officer said. The US is also believed to be flying drones above Iranian territory in search of intelligence about its nuclear facilities. The drones can use radar, video, still photography and air filters designed to pick up traces of nuclear activity to gather information that is not accessible by satellites.

Teheran claims it developed its secret atomic programme for civilian energy purposes, but Western governments believe it is pursuing a nuclear bomb.

•Mr Bush has asked Congress for an additional $245 billion (£125 billion) for Iraq and Afghanistan for the next two fiscal years. If approved, the overall cost of the "war on terror" since the Sept 11 2001 attacks will rise to nearly $750 billion (£381 billion) - more in real terms than was spent on the Vietnam war.

Iraq Plan's Authors Doubt It Will Work

Doubts Run Deep on Reforms Crucial to Bush's Iraq Strategy
Even Plan's Authors Say Political, Economic Changes May Fail

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 4, 2007; A16

The success of the Bush administration's new Iraq strategy depends on a series of rapid and dramatic political and economic reforms that even the plan's authors have little confidence will work.

In the current go-for-broke atmosphere, administration officials say they are aware that failure to achieve the reforms would result in a repeat of last year's unsuccessful Baghdad offensive, when efforts to consolidate military gains with lasting stability on the ground did not work. This time, they acknowledge, there will be no second chance.

Among many deep uncertainties are whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is up to the task and committed to spearheading what the administration foresees as a fundamental realignment of Iraqi politics; whether Maliki's Shiite-dominated government and its sluggish financial bureaucracy will part with $10 billion for rapid job creation and reconstruction, at least some of it directed to sectarian opponents; and whether the U.S. military and State Department can calibrate their own stepped-up reconstruction assistance to push for action without once again taking over.

A pessimistic new National Intelligence Estimate released Friday described the Iraqi government as "hard-pressed" to achieve sectarian reconciliation, even in the unlikely event that violence diminishes. Without directly mentioning Maliki, it noted that "the absence of unifying leaders among the Arab Sunni or Shia with the capacity to speak for or exert control over their confessional groups limits prospects."

Several senior officials involved in formulating the political and economic aspects of the administration's strategy, along with a number of informed outsiders, agreed to discuss its assumptions and risks on the condition that they not be identified by name. Other sources refused to be even anonymously quoted, describing the administration as standing on the brink of an intricate combination of maneuvers whose outcome is far from assured.

The foundation of the strategy is not new -- U.S. policy since the March 2003 invasion has been to use American military might, money and know-how to foster a peaceful Iraq with a unified government and a solid economy. The strategy incorporates major elements of last year's "clear, hold and build" plan, whose "hold and build" parts never got off the ground.

Several sources expressed concern that the administration, by publicly rejecting a "containment" option -- withdrawing U.S. troops to Iraqi borders to avoid sectarian fighting while preventing outside arms and personnel from entering the country -- has not left itself a fall-back plan in the event of failure.

Shift in Political Climate

The strategy's political component centers on replacing deepening Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish divides with a new delineation between "extremists" and "moderates." Moderates are defined as those of all religious and political persuasions who eschew violence in favor of safety and employment.

With the help of outside Iraq experts, the administration has compiled lists of active and still-untapped moderates around the country. "They wondered could I give them some [names] from the provinces or anywhere" from which to construct a new political base, recalled one think-tank expert called to the State Department in December. According to the intelligence estimate, however, Iraq's reservoir of such people, especially trained technocrats and entrepreneurs, has been drained as they have fled the country in droves.

As American and Iraqi combat forces focus on cooling the cauldron of violence in Baghdad, U.S. military commanders and State Department teams plan to funnel "bridge money" toward moderate designees in outer provinces and in the capital to create jobs, start businesses and revitalize moribund factories. Iraqi money would come in behind to make it all permanent.

Iraqis with physical and economic security, the thinking goes, will give their political support to the government that produces both. Closing the circle, the Iraqi government will see non-sectarian moderates as the central support for a new political coalition.

As they put the plan together, officials held heated internal debates over whether Maliki was the right man to head such an effort. Some argued in favor of engineering a new Iraqi government under Maliki's Shiite coalition partner, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and Hakim's political stalking horse, Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi.

They closely examined the makeup of Iraq's 275-seat parliament, where a no-confidence vote requires only a simple majority. Maliki's Dawa party is part of the Hakim-led United Iraqi Alliance, the largest Shiite group, with 130 seats. Making a strong case for SCIRI, some argued that the Iraqis themselves were so fed up with Maliki that a different governing coalition is possible with realigned Sunni and Kurdish elements. This view found proponents in the White House and Pentagon, and it extended into parts of the normally more cautious State Department.

Maliki, whose Dawa party holds 12 seats in the parliament, was seen as unwilling to separate voluntarily from his existing power base -- dominated by the violent and unruly Baghdad-based Jaish al-Mahdi militia, also known as the Mahdi Army, of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. With a new coalition, the Alliance would not need Sadr's 30 seats.

SCIRI's own militia, the Badr Organization, is seen as more cohesive, "an actual organization with command and control" that might be integrated into the Iraqi military, said one State Department official. The administration has charged that both the Sadr and Badr militias receive assistance from Iran. But officials regularly note that Badr forces have not attacked the U.S. military and that SCIRI has voiced equal opposition to Iranian and U.S. domination.

Other officials find that view naive, noting that evidence of Iran's involvement in Iraqi violence was found in a SCIRI compound during a raid last month.

Several officials said they believe that Hakim's backers in the Bush administration have been seduced by his forceful demeanor and Abdul Mahdi's fluent English. And while many emphasized the importance of a single, visible Iraqi leader, others have said it is a mistake to personalize the policy in one Shiite actor.

After extensive discussions last month with Maliki, Hakim and Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the most senior Sunni in the Iraqi government, policymakers decided to place their bets on Maliki. "We judge that Maliki does not wish to fail in his role," National Intelligence Council Chairman Thomas Fingar told Congress in a tepid endorsement recently. "He has some, but not all, of the obvious requirements for success."

In any case, replacing Maliki was determined to be "too hard," in the words of one analyst. A two-thirds parliamentary majority is required to install a new prime minister, and any attempt to remove Maliki by parliamentary maneuver, it was agreed, should remain a Plan B that Iraqis themselves would undertake if he failed to produce results.

So far, Maliki has said the right things about cracking down on the sectarian violence -- including by Sadr's militia -- that is tearing Baghdad apart. But there are worrisome signs. A parliamentary session late last month in which Maliki introduced the new plan was adjourned after it erupted in sectarian squabbling in which the prime minister gave as good as he got.

Many experts believe that the administration's effort to build a new political center, supported by "moderate" Sunni allies in the region that fear Shiite Iranian expansion, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, is hopelessly outdated. "Our struggle may be between moderates and extremists," Brookings Institution scholar Martin Indyk said last month. "Their struggle is between Sunnis and Shias."

New Economic Initiatives

On the economic front, where the United States has already invested more than $38 billion, the administration has asked for $538 million to keep current programs running and has proposed an additional $1.2 billion for new initiatives that it says will receive long-term Iraqi funding.

A combination of violent attacks on previous projects, sectarian favors, inefficient and overly cautious officials, and a complex bureaucracy -- much of it installed by the United States under the post-invasion Coalition Provisional Authority -- has left the Iraqi government with a significant capital surplus in each of the past several years.

Getting approval for reconstruction expenditures in the past, observed one U.S. official, has been like "pushing wet spaghetti." The surplus, which is kept in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, now totals $12.5 billion. Maliki has publicly agreed to spend $10 billion of it on reconstruction and jobs.

The State Department has sent new "tiger teams" to six Iraqi ministries to help clear away the wreckage of the past and speed financing for approved projects, and it plans to double to 20 the number of U.S.-staffed provisional reconstruction teams in Baghdad and around the country.

In addition to Foreign Service officers, experts including small-business advisers and camel veterinarians are being recruited from the U.S. Agriculture Department and elsewhere to staff the teams, the State Department's Iraq coordinator, David Satterfield, told Congress last week.

Former Foreign Service officer Timothy M. Carney, who worked in Iraq in 2003, has been appointed to coordinate the U.S. and Iraqi bureaucracies, to get the Iraqi government's money moving and to make sure that Iraqi funding priorities coincide with the administration's.

But some officials worry that the expanded U.S. presence will repeat the mistakes of the past -- when the United States oversaw virtually every part of the Iraqi government -- and undermine the goal of turning the country over to the Iraqis themselves.

"It's the same old problem as in 2003," cautioned one official. "The same impatience that if they can't do it we'll step in and do it. There is a bit of that creeping into this dialogue."

Staff writers Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.

Why Dick Cheney Cracked Up: FRANK RICH - Cover-Up Crumbles

The New York Times

Why Dick Cheney Cracked Up

Published: February 4, 2007

Thanks to the commotion caused by the White House leak case, damning evidence has slowly dribbled out.

IN the days since Dick Cheney lost it on CNN, our nation’s armchair shrinks have had a blast. The vice president who boasted of “enormous successes” in Iraq and barked “hogwash” at the congenitally mild Wolf Blitzer has been roundly judged delusional, pathologically dishonest or just plain nuts. But what else is new? We identified those diagnoses long ago. The more intriguing question is what ignited this particularly violent public flare-up.

The answer can be found in the timing of the CNN interview, which was conducted the day after the start of the perjury trial of Mr. Cheney’s former top aide, Scooter Libby. The vice president’s on-camera crackup reflected his understandable fear that a White House cover-up was crumbling. He knew that sworn testimony in a Washington courtroom would reveal still more sordid details about how the administration lied to take the country into war in Iraq. He knew that those revelations could cripple the White House’s current campaign to escalate that war and foment apocalyptic scenarios about Iran. Scariest of all, he knew that he might yet have to testify under oath himself.

Mr. Cheney, in other words, understands the danger this trial poses to the White House even as some of Washington remains oblivious. From the start, the capital has belittled the Joseph and Valerie Wilson affair as “a tempest in a teapot,” as David Broder of The Washington Post reiterated just five months ago. When “all of the facts come out in this case, it’s going to be laughable because the consequences are not that great,” Bob Woodward said in 2005. Or, as Robert Novak suggested in 2003 before he revealed Ms. Wilson’s identity as a C.I.A. officer in his column, “weapons of mass destruction or uranium from Niger” are “little elitist issues that don’t bother most of the people.” Those issues may not trouble Mr. Novak, but they do loom large to other people, especially those who sent their kids off to war over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and nonexistent uranium.

In terms of the big issues, the question of who first leaked Ms. Wilson’s identity (whether Mr. Libby, Richard Armitage, Ari Fleischer or Karl Rove) to which journalist (whether Mr. Woodward, Mr. Novak, Judith Miller or Matt Cooper) has always been a red herring.

The explanation for the hysteria has long been obvious. The White House was terrified about being found guilty of a far greater crime than outing a C.I.A. officer: lying to the nation to hype its case for war.