Saturday, September 4, 2010

US military chief seeks Turkish support over Iran

By Suzan Fraser, Associated Press
The United States' top military officer stressed today the need for Turkey to help enforce United Nations sanctions against Iran aimed at deterring it from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

Turkey voted against the US-backed sanctions against Iran in June, insisting that its neighbor's nuclear program is peaceful, despite fears that Tehran might be seeking to develop nuclear arms. Turkey has, however, stated that it will abide by the sanctions.

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in the Turkish capital he did not plan to "question or rebut" Turkey over the vote and welcomed Turkey's stated intention to abide by those sanctions.

The UN approved a fourth round of sanctions against Iran in early June over accusations that Tehran is seeking to develop atomic weapons. Iran denies its nuclear program is militaristic in nature and says it has a right to conduct uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes. Washington and other powers accuse Iran of seeking to build a nuclear weapon.

Mullen said that both countries agree that Iran should not achieve "a nuclear weapons capability," and need "to do all that we can to ensure that."

Mullen arrived in Ankara yesterday to meet with his new Turkish counterpart, Gen. Isik Kosaner, who took office on August 27. He also met with Turkey's prime minister and defense minister. No statements were released after those meetings.

Mullen praised Turkey - NATO's sole Muslim member state - for its role in Afghanistan and said the United States would welcome any additional help it can provide.

Turkey currently holds the rotating command of the international peacekeeping force guarding the Afghan capital, while Turkish instructors are training the Afghan army and police force.

"We would like Turkey to sustain all of those efforts," Mullen said. "Any additional capabilities that Turkey can provide against the training shortfall, that would certainly be of great help."

The US military chief said Washington has no plans to withdraw its weapons from Iraq through Turkey, though the US military has sought Turkish permission to transport some noncombat equipment from Iraq through its territory.

Turkey has said it looks favorably on the passage of such equipment and technical material, but not arms, which would require parliament's approval.

In 2003, Turkey refused to allow US forces to use its territory to invade Iraq.

Two dozen wounded in Kashmir clashes

Paramilitary soldiers and police fire teargas at stone-throwing protesters.Fresh violent clashes between protesters and government forces have left some two dozen people injured in the Indian-administered Kashmir.

On Friday, thousands of people defied a ban on protest marches, taking to the streets of Srinagar, Kashmir's main city and the neighboring district of Budgam as well as other major towns across the Muslim-majority valley.

At least five people have been wounded after police opened fire to disperse the protesters in the northern Baramulla town. Two of them were seriously wounded and therefore were rushed to a hospital in Srinagar.

In addition, 19 more people have been injured as Police fired teargas and used batons to end anti-government protests in several other cities of the region.

The region has been rocked by anti-government demonstrations for months -- despite rolling curfews. Government forces are struggling to contain the ongoing demonstrations in the region.

The region's influential separatist politicians Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik have led thousands in the disputed valley over the past weeks, after the police killed a teenage protester in early June.

They have threatened to continue the protests until India declares Kashmir an "international dispute" and releases all political prisoners.

About 65 Kashmiri protesters have been killed since June.

600,000 Muslims crowd into Mecca's Grand Mosque for last Friday of Ramadan

Some 600,000 Muslims crowded into the Grand Mosque in Islam's holiest city of Mecca for prayers on the last Friday of Ramadan.

In all more than a million worshippers were in the mosque and surrounding areas, Said al-Mansoori, a spokesman for the commission governing Mecca and Medina said.

The two cities have swollen with worshippers from Saudi Arabia and around the world undertaking the umrah, or minor pilgrimage, which peaks during Ramadan.

The Muslim fasting month ends on September 9 with the holiday of Eid ul Fitr. The month's last Friday, the Muslim holy day, is considered especially blessed.

Saudi King Abdullah was in Mecca as well Friday to inaugurate a 187-million-dollar (145-million-euro) expansion of the Zamzam waterworks which serves up to worshippers the celebrated holy water from a spring beneath the city.

The new system can filter up to five million litres (1.3 million gallons) of Zamzam water per day.

Many overseas pilgrims take large jugs of Zamzam water, which Muslims consider holy, back home from Mecca.

UN 'ignored Congo rape warnings'

Assistant secretary general to investigate after community leaders say they begged for help before villagers were raped

David Smith and agencies

Pressure grew on the UN over its peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo yesterday after claims that it ignored appeals for protection just days before more than 240 villagers were raped by rebel forces.

Human rights groups said the UN was still failing to safeguard civilians after 11 years in Congo and demanded an urgent review. A British MP said the best solution now lay in seeking military support from Congo's neighbour, Rwanda.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, has sent his assistant secretary general for peacekeeping, Atul Khare, to investigate the alleged lack of action from the Congo stabilisation mission, Monusco, the world's biggest peacekeeping mission, which costs $1.35bn (£865m) a year.

The attacks took place between 30 July and 4 August, and the number of reported victims is now 242, ranging from a month-old baby boy to a 110-year-old woman. Survivors have accused the FDLR rebel group - which is led by perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide who fled to Congo - along with Congolese Mai-Mai militia.

Charles Masudi Kisa said his Walikale Civil Association sounded the alarm on 25 July, telling local authorities that the withdrawal of soldiers from several outposts was putting people in danger of attacks from rebels. The military had abandoned every post from Luvungi to just outside Walikale for unclear reasons, he said.

On 29 July, acting on information from motorcycle taxis, he warned the UN civil affairs bureau in Walikale, the army and the local administration that rebels were moving in on Luvungi. "We told them these people were in danger," he said.

Lyn Lusi, programme manager of the Heal Africa hospital in Goma, which treated many of the rape victims, said appeals had gone unheeded. "There was a warning it was going to happen," she said. "They took it to the FARDC [Congolese army] and nothing was done."

Lusi said Khare had announced that the UN would clarify its rules of engagement so that peacekeepers could intervene more aggressively. The UN was unable to confirm this.

Monusco insists it was not told of the attacks for more than a week, despite having a base just 20 miles from Luvungi.

Roger Meece, the UN mission chief in Congo, said UN peacekeepers in the area did not learn about the rape and looting spree until 12 August. Two UN officials in Kinshasa told the Associated Press they heard it from media reports, even though the UN's small civil affairs office in Walikale is charged with protecting civilians.

Ellie Kemp, Oxfam policy head in Congo, said she understood there was no community liaison interpreter for the Monusco unit based near Walikale, making it difficult for villagers to convey warnings. She said one had since been assigned.

"There is a whole series of problems that the UN has been aware of for years," Kemp added. "Soldiers on the ground don't know what's needed of them."

She called for the UN to launch a public inquiry into the mission. "It shouldn't take this kind of incident to make the UN listen to its own advice. Why the hell hasn't it happened?"

Others joined the criticism. Sipho Mthathi, the South Africa director of Human Rights Watch, said: "Civilian protection has remained one of the biggest problems in the DRC and has been one of the biggest failures by the UN as well as the Congolese military. The UN lacks capacity to gather enough intelligence to act proactively. They often feel that if they come in they will be outnumbered by the FDLR. If the UN missions and Congolese army are not capable of protecting civilians then there has to be another way."

Erwin van der Borght, the Africa programme director at Amnesty International, said: "[We call] for an immediate review of the failures of the DRC government and the UN to protect civilians during the mass rape and other sexual violence committed in the Walikale region of North Kivu between 30 July and 2 August, specifically in light of media reports that the UN might have received information at an early stage that civilians were at risk of violence by armed groups."

Congo's army and Monusco have been unable to defeat the few thousand rebels responsible for the conflict in eastern Congo, fuelled by the vast mineral reserves. Monusco has been accused of supporting army units responsible for grave atrocities. The Congolese government wants it to withdraw next year.

Eric Joyce MP, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Great Lakes Region, said: "Monusco seem completely and utterly impotent," he said. "They do their best under constraints, but they are thinly spread and don't have fighting troops as Rwanda could provide. The international community needs Rwanda to do something about the FDLR."

Blair pelted with eggs in Dublin

Anti-war protesters in Dublin have thrown shoes, eggs and plastic bottles at Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, as he arrived at the first public signing of his memoirs.

About 200 people in the Irish capital shouted that Blair had "blood on his hands" over the 2003 Iraq war when he arrived at the bookshop on Saturday amid tight security. The projectiles did not strike Blair.

His book, entitled A Journey, contains his defence of Britiain's decision to go to invade Iraq under his leadership. It was launched earlier this week and has been an immediate top seller.

Some of the protesters scuffled with police and at least two people were arrested.

Blair spent about two hours in the store before emerging to more shouts and hurled eggs. He was quickly driven away.

Proceeds donated
He was paid a $7m advance for the memoirs, which outline the reasons for his policies during his decade as prime minister, including the invasion of Iraq, which he writes that he does not regret.

Blair has said that he will donate the advance and all of the proceeds from the book to a UK charity for wounded troops.

Several hundred people who were not involved in the demonstrations also queued at the bookshop to receive a signed copy of the book.

Killian Kiely, 21, was among those who met Blair.

"I wanted to see him, he is one of the most important leaders of his generation, though there is a lot I would disagree with about his policies," he said.

"I just wanted to see him in the flesh."

Blair is planning to hold another book signing in London on Wednesday, which anti-war activists have said that they will target.

Baria Alamuddin, the editor at large of al-Hayat newspaper, said that Blair can expect protests to follow him when promoting his book.

"This shows the strong feeling still among the populations around the world when it comes to him taking part in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

With Bertie Ahern, his Irish counterpart at the time, Blair negotiated the 1998 Good Friday Peace agreement which ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

Afghan leader announces peace talks with Taliban

KABUL (Agencies)
Afghan President Hamid Karzai Saturday announced that he had set up a council to pursue peace talks with the Taliban, who have been waging an insurgency in Afghanistan for almost nine years.

The formation of the High Peace Council was "a significant step towards peace talks," a statement from Karzai's office said.

The move is one of the most significant steps Karzai has taken in his oft-stated efforts to open a dialogue with the Taliban leadership aimed at speeding an end to the long war.

The establishment of such a panel was approved in June at a national peace conference in Kabul, a move welcomed by foreign governments working to stabilize the Afghan government and economy.

Although the Taliban leadership has shown no appetite for talks, Karzai hopes the reconciliation process will help split the movement between its hardcore members and those less committed to its strict Islamic ideology.

The council was mooted as a negotiating body, to be made up of representatives of a broad section of Afghan society, to talk peace with the Taliban, who have been waging war since their regime was toppled in late 2001.

" This council will... certainly be effective in decreasing the level of violence in Afghanistan "
Siamak Herawi, Afghan deputy spokespersonOfficials met Karzai at his palace on Saturday to finalize the list of members, who would include "jihadi leaders, influential figures and women," the statement said.

The complete list of members would be announced after the Eid holiday next week, it said.

Karzai's announcement had been expected some days ago, after he met last week with former mujahedeen leaders Burhanuddin Rabbani and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, as well as officials, to discuss the make up of the council.

His spokesman Simak Herawi said last week that it would include "some (former) Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami members," a reference to a minor militant group led by former prime minister and mujahedeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

"This council will... certainly be effective in decreasing the level of violence in Afghanistan," Herawi said.

Hekmatyar's Hizb-i-Islami is currently in a tenuous alliance with the Taliban, although both sides remain suspicious of each other.

Hekmatyar's power has waned over the years and he commands far fewer fighters than the Taliban. Nevertheless, the group is active across part of Afghanistan's northern and eastern provinces.

The Taliban have repeatedly spurned peace overtures, deriding Karzai's government as a puppet of the United States and saying they will not talk peace until all foreign forces have left the country.

The announcement comes as the insurgency escalates and the number of foreign troop casualties so far this year nears the 2009 toll, at 485 with the deaths on Tuesday of five US soldiers in two separate incidents.

The United States and NATO have almost 150,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban-led insurgency, most of them in the southern hotspots of Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

When Right-Wing Christians and Neocons Loved Islamic Jihadists

The anti-Muslim vitriol emanating from American cultural conservatives and right-wing Christians about the ground zero mosque is quite interesting when compared to the deep-seated love of Islamic jihad these same conservative groups once felt just decades ago.

Elizabeth Gould and Paul Fitzgerald outline the entire history of American conservative and Christian courtship of Islamist extremists in their book Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story. According to Gould and Fitzgerald, the pan-Islamic right emerged under British colonialism during the mid-1800s and was fostered by the U.K. as a tool to counter nationalism, modernism and the secular left after World War I. At the onset of the Cold War this ideological weapon was handed off to the United States who continued to nurture and to hone the movement's terrorist wings into anti-communist assets.

It's no huge secret that the C.I.A., via Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), funded and supported violent Islamic jihadist groups called the Mujahideen in the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, yet a number of Christian leaders in the U.S. found more in common with political Islam than the practical matter of defeating communism - there was a spiritual kinship as well. As Gould and Fitzgerald wrote about William Casey, the Director of the C.I.A. from 1981 to 1987:

Casey's passion for the Afghan jihad has sometimes been described as messianic. An ultra-conservative Catholic, Casey saw little difference in the antimodernist beliefs of the Wahabbist House of Saud and the antimodernist, anti-enlightenment views of the newly installed Polish Pope, John Paul II.

Pope Pius X had branded modernism as heretical in his 1910 "Oath Against Modernism", and although rescinded in 1967, many conservative Catholics still view modernism as diametrically opposed to the "true faith". Casey being one of them, who maintained ties with the Vatican as a member of the Knights of Malta - an 11th century order established to guard Christians on their voyages to the Holy Land.

The group donned robes with fancy ribbons and called each other "Prince" and "High Eminence", as Casey designed a holy war against the Soviets that would send Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. Afghanistan hadn't experienced destruction on such a level since the human atomic bomb known as Genghis Khan hit them in the 12th century.

How ironic then was General David Petraeus the other day when asked why the Afghan people should want the ISAF to stay in their country, the General responded: "They [Afghans] don't want to turn the clock back several centuries to the kinds of practices the Taliban inflicted on them." Yet the U.S. attempted to do just that for 40 years while in league with radical Muslims who tried their damndest to destroy any and all modern and pro-democratic movements within Afghanistan.

Reason being is that after World War II the United States had developed a Manichaean worldview that infected its foreign policy. Primarily driven by Red paranoia, it forced them to see the world in terms of black and white - as in things were either good or they were communist - which applied to both Democratic and Republican regimes.

U.S. foreign policymakers perceived movements such as secularism, socialism, nationalism and even progressive democratic reform as more akin to communism than America's good old fashioned brand of imperial democracy.

What is somewhat shocking is how the U.S. fetish for Islamic radical thought was spawned decades before the emergence of the Mujahideen. During the 1950s the C.I.A. covertly recruited a core of pan-Islamic extremists to undermine Soviet and secular influence and retard the modernization of Afghan society, funding their activities through a front group called the Asia Foundation which focused on grooming radical Muslims amongst students at Kabul University.

Thus, moving forward on a course set by the British a century prior, the U.S. resisted Afghanistan's advances towards a Western-style government and helped hinder democratic reforms including women's rights and separation of church and state.

In the mid-1950s, the C.I.A. and the British MI6 had developed a close relationship with an Islamic extremist group called the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and forged a partnership with Saudi Arabia to defeat the secular and nationalist policies of Egyptian President Gamal Abddul Nasser. The C.I.A. enabled the Muslim Brotherhood to return from banishment and infect Afghan society with a radical version of Islam that began to supplant the traditional and more moderate indigenous form. According to Gould and Fitzgerald:

The radical Islam of the Muslim Brothers returning to Afghanistan from exile in the late 1960s and early 1970s shared none of the "celebratory, personalized and ecstatic" traits of Afghan Islam - nor did it offer itself as a political or economic reform movement. Instead, what reentered Afghanstan following its exile was a violent, antimodernist hybrid (described by French expert Olivier Roy as more akin to the extremist Catholic sect Opus Dei than anything native in Afghanistan) which at first challenged the weakened boundaries of the old patriarchy, then in triumph broke free from traditional limits on violence and clan rivalries.

While Afghanistan's progressive King, Zahir Shah, tried to institute modern reform, how mind-boggling that the U.S. backed antimodernist fundamentalist Muslims whose goal was to overthrow the constitutional monarchy and establish an Islamic Caliphate.

Fast forward to the late 70s when a Pentecostal inhabited the White House while neoconservatives, led by hawkish National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, preyed on Carter's ingrained end times theology. Brzezinski pushed forward the agenda of what became known as "Team B" - a cabal of neocons such as Paul Wolfowitz, Paul Nitze, Seymour Weiss, Richard Pipes, Richard Perle, Daniel O. Graham and Leo Cherne, who exaggerated Soviet nuclear and military capabilities to force U.S. leaders to take a hard line against communism.

Well, Carter sided with the hardliners and moved the U.S. from a Nixonian détente to a more confrontational stance against the godless Russians and approved Brzezinski's plan to goad the Soviets into invading Afghanistan so that, as Brzezinski admittedly put it years later: "...we could give them their Vietnam".

In 1980, Brzezinski secured an agreement from King Khalid of Saudi Arabia to match U.S. contributions to the Afghan effort dollar for dollar. American imperialists and Christian zealots partnered with the Saudis to directly and indirectly fund the spread of extremist Deobandi and Wahhabist teachings throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan to combat communist ideology. Then came the Reagan era when the Soviets became the Evil Empire and the funding of the Freedom Fighter development project was expanded under Bill Casey.

Mr. Casey soon ran the biggest covert operation in U.S. history as Washington poured in over $3 billion dollars to train some of the most brutal religious fanatics on earth. The U.S. program made heroes of the likes of Islamic fundamentalist and cold-blooded murderer Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose group - Hezb-e Islami - is now a Taliban affiliate. More than 100,000 Islamic militants were trained in Pakistan overseen by the CIA and Britain's MI6, including future Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Gould and Fitzgerald point out that the Team-B neocons and the Casey Christians had led an effort to create a "bogeyman" by building up the myth of Soviet nuclear superiority. But, ironically, their holy war means to that end produced one of another type:

"... instead of it being a nuclear missile stored in some deep silo in the heart of the Urals, the bogeyman would emerge in human form in the mountains of Afghanistan and the nearby tribal areas of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province."

Michael Hughes writes similar articles as the Afghanistan Headlines Examiner and the Geopolitics Examiner for

Israeli soldier charged with looting Gaza aid flotilla ship

Israeli military says soldier is accused of stealing from the Mavi Marmara after it was towed to an Israeli port

Associated Press in Jerusalem
An Israeli soldier has been charged with looting the lead ship in a Gaza aid flotilla attacked by Israeli naval commandos at the end of May.

The Israeli military said in a statement that the soldier was accused of stealing equipment from the Mavi Marmara after it was towed to an Israeli port. The statement, released late yesterday, said the soldier's actions "directly contradict the Israeli military's moral standards".

Nine Turkish pro-Palestinian activists were killed when commandos opened fire on the ship. Both sides say they acted in self-defence.

The raid provoked an outcry and forced Israel to ease its blockade of Gaza, aimed at weakening Gaza's Hamas rulers and preventing the shipment of weapons.

Attack on Pakistan Quds day rally kills 25

Quetta, PAKISTAN (Al Arabiya, Reuters)

A blast ripped through a rally in the Pakistani city of Quetta on Friday, killing at least 25 people and wounding 80 others, the second major attack this week, piling pressure on the civilian government struggling with a flood crisis.

The attack on the Shiite rally called to express solidarity with the Palestinian people came as the United States said that Pakistan's devastating floods are likely to delay army offensives against Taliban insurgents.

" Unfortunately the flooding in Pakistan is probably going to delay any operations by the Pakistani army in North Waziristan for some period of time "

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates "Unfortunately the flooding in Pakistan is probably going to delay any operations by the Pakistani army in North Waziristan for some period of time," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Afghanistan where he is visiting U.S. troops.

The attack in Quetta was the second this week on Pakistani Shiites, who by some estimates comprise about 20 percent of the population in the mostly Sunni Muslim country, although figures are imprecise and disputed.

A triple suicide attack Wednesday night killed 35 people at a Shiite ceremony in the eastern city of Lahore.

That attack, and a host of other assaults on religious minorities, was claimed by the hardline Sunni Pakistani Taliban, which is seeking to overthrow a Western-backed government shaken most recently by flooding that has caused massive displacement, suffering and economic damage.

Military and law-enforcement officials also have been battered by militant violence, particularly along the border with Afghanistan. Officials said a roadside bomb attack in the capital of the northwest's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province Friday killed one police officer and wounded three others.

The renewed violence suggests the Taliban are trying to hit the government as it struggles to cope with the floods, which have made millions homeless, destroyed infrastructure and crops and hammered the economy.

Islamist charities, some of them linked to militant groups, have at the same time joined in the relief effort for the millions affected by the worst floods in the nation's history.

U.S. officials are concerned that the involvement of hardline groups in flood relief will undermine the fight against militancy in Pakistan as well Afghanistan.

HRW denounces alleged torture of Islamists in Morocco


NEW YORK - Human Rights Watch (HRW) has denounced the alleged torture by Moroccan police of seven prominent members of the country's leading Islamist association, the organisation said in a statement.

The members of Al Adl wal Ihssane (Justice and Spirituality) were arrested in dawn raids by armed police on their homes in Fes on June 28 and have been held in pretrial detention since, HRW said in its report published Wednesday.

"When the men first saw their lawyers on July 1, they told them that during the previous three days, police separated the men into individual cells - naked, blindfolded and without food - and beat them and threatened with rape. The police also allegedly (...) sodomised some of them with pens and shocked some of them with electricity," the report said.

All seven said they were forced on July 1 to sign statements they were not allowed to read.

"A warrantless search-and-arrest operation at dawn suggests that justice is not high on the agenda," HRW said, pointing out that Justice and Spirituality is the north African kingdom's largest religion-based movement and strongest opposition force.

The seven men were arrested after a Fes lawyer and former member of Justice and Spirituality, Mohamed El Ghazi, complained that they had abducted him on May 21, stripped him and forced him to confess to being an informant for the security services.

The seven have been accused of "membership in an unauthorised association," which HRW said was a charge that does not exist in Moroccan law but is used by prosecutors against members of Justice and Spirituality and other associations authorities seek to undermine.

HRW named the seven as: Bouali Mnaouer, a pharmacist; Hicham Sabbah, a civil servant; Azeddine Slimani, a high school teacher; Hicham Didi Houari, a civil servant; Abdellah Bella, a secondary school teacher; Tarik Mahla, a nursing school instructor; and Mohamed Ibn Abdelmaoula Slimani Tlemcani, a professor at a teachers' college.

"This case seems to fit the pattern of Moroccan authorities harassing Justice and Spirituality," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North African director at HRW.

"They need to dispel that impression by conducting an impartial investigation of the defendants' torture complaints and granting a fair trial," Whitson added.

Attack in Tajikistan Highlights Fears of Militancy


MOSCOW - A car rigged with explosives rammed into a police station in northern Tajikistan on Friday, wounding at least 25 people in an apparent suicide attack, Tajik police officials said.

Russian news agencies, citing unidentified Tajik government officials, reported that several police officers were missing and were feared dead, though there has been no official confirmation of any fatalities.

The attack occurred at the regional police headquarters of the organized-crime department around 8 a.m. local time in the city of Khujand, a police statement said. The attackers were possibly members of an Islamist militant group, police officials added.

The government has frequently voiced concern about Islamic militancy in Tajikistan, an impoverished former Soviet republic in Central Asia that shares a long border with Afghanistan.

The blast comes less than two weeks after at least 25 prisoners with suspected ties to Islamist extremists escaped from a detention center in Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe, killing five prison guards in the process.

Most of the men remain at large, although the authorities announced on Thursday that they had captured the suspected organizer of the prison break, a man identified as Ibrokhim Nasriddinov, who was reportedly extradited to Tajikistan several years ago from the United States detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The recent bloodshed appears to have put the country on edge. President Emomali Rakhmon fired his longtime security chief on Thursday in response to the prison break. The escape was an embarrassment to the government, which had been trumpeting what it said were recent successes in the fight against localized pockets of militancy.

Secular forces currently in power in Tajikistan fought a bloody civil war against a loose coalition of Islamic and nationalist groups in the 1990s. Although Tajikistan has been relatively calm for some time, the government has regularly raised the specter of Islamist extremism, often, government critics say, as an excuse to crack down on opponents of President Rakhmon.

The Battle for Turkey's Constitution

Haldun Gulalp

ISTANBUL - On September 12, Turks will vote on a set of constitutional amendments proposed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power for eight years. Since the vote falls on the 30th anniversary of the 1980 military coup, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is portraying the referendum as an opportunity to reject the military regime's legacy.

Turkey's constitution has been amended repeatedly since the coup. But its anti-democratic core remains intact - and, unfortunately, the current proposals do not dramatically alter that.

Most of the previous amendments relied on agreements between governing and opposition parties, and were not put to a popular vote. This time, the AKP acted on its own and was barely able to garner from its own ranks the requisite majority for a referendum. Far from being an occasion for popular condemnation of the coup on its anniversary, the referendum is a mark of the AKP's failure to gain widespread support for its project.

With another general election due next year, civil-society groups preferred that priority be given to lowering the 10% electoral threshold for parties to enter parliament, thus broadening political participation. The new parliament would then work on constitutional reform.

That, however, was out of the question: the AKP benefited from the rules put in place for the 2002 and 2007 general elections, in both cases converting pluralities of the popular vote into large parliamentary majorities.
In 2007, the AKP government briefly seemed interested in a new constitution, having weathered threats of a military coup just before the elections. A distinguished group of academics was assigned to produce a draft. But, before any public debate could occur, the AKP decided to amend only two articles of the constitution, in order to allow female university students to wear headscarves on campus.

The amendment won parliamentary approval, but was subsequently rejected by the Constitutional Court. Moreover, in a case brought to the Constitutional Court, the AKP's support for the amendment was used as evidence that the party was violating Turkey's secular constitution. In the end, the party was found guilty and subjected to a fine. From the AKP's point of view, the Constitutional Court - and the judiciary in general - had replaced the military as the last bastion of Turkey's secularist establishment.

The AKP then drafted a set of constitutional amendments that would change the composition of the Constitutional Court and of the Supreme Council of Judges and Public Prosecutors, the body that handles the nomination and promotion of judges and prosecutors. Other proposed changes were added for democratic window-dressing. Indeed, the AKP insisted on submitting the entire package to a single "yes/no" vote, despite repeated calls from civil-society groups and opposition parties to allow for votes on each amendment separately.

One new "democratic" amendment would create an ombudsman's office - long demanded by the European Union - but without a guarantee of autonomy. Likewise, an affirmative-action clause for women is little different from a provision in the current constitution. State employees would be granted the right to engage in collective bargaining, but would have no right to strike. The authority of military courts would be curtailed to some extent.

Most important among such amendments is the repeal of Provisional Article 15, which has provided immunity from prosecution to all actors of the military regime established by the 1980 coup. Whatever symbolic value this may have is overshadowed by the fact that the statute of limitations already precludes any legal action on this issue. Opposition proposals to sharpen this provision were rejected by AKP leaders.

So much for the fig leaf. The key amendments sought by the AKP would increase the number of seats on the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Council, but without changing significantly the way appointments to these bodies are made. The president - directly elected since another AKP-initiated amendment was approved by a referendum in 2007 - thus maintains the predominant role, which underscores the AKP's confidence that it will continue to control the presidency in the years ahead.

But Turkish voters care less about these amendments than about jobs, social security, and the continuing loss of lives in the never-ending war with the PKK Kurdish rebels. The AKP has largely squandered the goodwill that first brought it to power on a wave of voter revulsion at the old political elite's rampant corruption. It has now created its own elite and shares the same political culture. People will base their votes in the referendum not on the substance of the amendments, but on how they feel about the AKP's eight years in power.

Nationalist right-wing and statist left-of-center groups are campaigning against the amendments, Islamist-leaning groups support them, and Kurdish groups advocate a referendum boycott, wishing to support neither the secularist establishment nor the current government. Moreover, the socialist and the liberal left are divided over whether some progress is better than none, with opponents arguing that half-hearted changes to the constitution would preclude eventual real reform.

With the campaign dragging on for months, the referendum has thoroughly polarized Turkish politics. Win or lose, that is unlikely to change.

Haldun Gülalp is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Global Studies at Yildiz Technical University, Istanbul.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

Israel invades Gaza on 1st day of talks

Israel carries out an incursion into the Gaza Strip on the first day of the renewed reconciliation talks between Tel Aviv and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

"Few hours ago, Israeli tanks and bulldozers entered the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Hanoun..., where Israeli laborers were seen fixing the security fence in the so-called buffer zone," said Press TV's correspondent in the enclave, Ashraf Shannon, reporting on the Thursday incident.

"The buffer zone is an area of 300 meters along the Gaza Strip, declared by Israel, to prevent people from reaching there, especially farmers. But basically they are forcing a 1,000-meter no-go zone in that area. All the people were killed there, including civilians, women and children as well as farmers," he added.

The intrusion came as Israeli and PA officials are in Washington to resume the direct negotiations that broke off at the turn of 2009, when Israel launched a full-scale war on Gaza, killing more than 1,400 Palestinians.

Many Palestinian groups have already abandoned hope in the US-brokered revival of talks, citing the White House's partiality towards Tel Aviv and saying that the acting PA chief, Mahmoud Abbas, does not represent all the Palestinians.

The US authorities refuse to accept the Gaza-based Palestinian resistance movement, Hamas, as a negotiating partner.

The movement, which was chosen to rule the strip during democratic elections in 2006, headed off the Gaza War and has been defending the strip's residents against the Israeli military's regular forays.

Nearly1.5 million Gazans have also suffered more than three years under an all-out siege, which was imposed on them by Tel Aviv a year after Hamas acceded to power.

"Last night, when they spoke in Washington, they failed to mention anything about the Gaza Strip. And today Hamas and the Islamic Jihad denounced the negotiations in Washington. Hamas said that any agreement signed by...Abbas is not binding to the Palestinian people, while the Islamic Jihad movement in Palestine said that these negotiations are just a prelude to a possible new war against a country or countries in the Middle East," our correspondent said.

PA was reportedly railroaded into joining the talks after being threatened by Washington to lose American ties.

The organization had earlier insisted that it would resume the process only after the similarly American-mediated indirect talks bore fruit. Known as "proximity" talks, the negotiations failed due to Israel's regular defiance of the Palestinian condition of halting the construction of illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian lands.

In keeping with the defiance, Jewish settlers announced plans to launch new constructions, Reuters reported.

Tel Aviv has as well so far ignored the other Palestinian demands to fully withdraw from the borders of 1967, when it occupied the Palestinian territory of the West Bank. The PA has also called for the resumption of negotiations from the point they were left off following the Israeli attacks.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has, however, said that there would be no room for any conditions for the talks -- a point also favored by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Iranians, who have likewise condemned the talks, as well as Muslims across the world, are expected to express solidarity with the Palestinians during mass rallies on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, declared as the Quds Day by the late founder of the Islamic Revolution of Iran, Imam Khomeini.
"In Palestine in general and in Gaza in particular, the people have all their gratitude towards the Iranian people and especially late Ayatollah Khomeini for...Quds Day and every year Gazans march to commemorate this occasion and also commemorate it with different conferences and meetings and sometimes special prayers in some mosques in the Gaza Strip," our correspondent said.

Direct peace talks begin as Netanyahu says 'painful concessions' will have to be made

Benjamin Netanyahu said that "painful concessions" from both sides would have to be made as direct peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians began for the first time in two years.

One day after US President Barack Obama made a personal appeal for peace, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the Israeli prime minister and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, to the State Department to begin talks aimed at establishing an independent Palestinian state.

"This will not be easy," Mr Netanyahu said as talks began. "A true peace, a lasting peace, (would) be achieved only with mutual and painful concessions from both sides."

"The people of Israel, and I as their prime minister, are prepared to walk this road and to go a long way - a long way in a short time - to achieve a genuine peace that will bring our people security, prosperity and good neighbors," Netanyahu added.

Mr Abbas reiterated calls for Israel to end settlement activity and stop the blockade of the Gaza Strip, something Israel has refused to agree to so far.

The direct peace talks, which Mr Obama hopes can reach a deal within a year, come after a 20-month hiatus. Negotiators face deep divisions among both Israelis and Palestinians over the prospects for peace.

"By being here today, you each have taken an important step toward freeing your peoples from the shackles of a history we cannot change and moving toward a future of peace and dignity that only you can create," Mrs Clinton said.

The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas' Fatah party in 2007, denounced the talks and said it would keep on attacking Israelis.

Jewish settlers meanwhile vowed to launch new construction in their enclaves in the occupied West Bank, saying they could never accept a "phony peace" that curbs their right to live in what they consider Israel's biblical homeland.

Mr Obama, hosting the Washington talks ahead of the pivotal November US congressional elections, used separate meetings with Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas on Wednesday to urge them not to let the chance for peace slip away.

The issue of settlements looms large over the peace talks. Mr Abbas has warned he will walk out unless Israel extends its self-imposed moratorium before it expires on Sept. 26.

But Mr Netanyahu, who heads a coalition dominated by pro-settler parties, has resisted any formal extension of the partial construction freeze, meaning the fledgling negotiations will face a major challenge within weeks.

Four Israeli settlers were killed by Hamas in a shooting attack in the West Bank on Tuesday. Another two people were wounded in a similar attack by suspected Palestinian gunmen on Wednesday despite a crackdown by Palestinian police.

Anti-Islam hysteria

By Pankaj Mishra
In the New York Times last week, writing about the eruption of hatred for Muslims in the US, Frank Rich asked what seems an increasingly pertinent question: "How do you win Muslim hearts and minds in Kandahar when you are calling Muslims every filthy name in the book in New York?"

Americans who are shocked by what the columnist Maureen Dowd calls a "weird mass nervous breakdown" accuse the usual suspects - right-wingers whose "fear and disinformation" is "amplified by the poisonous echo chamber that is the modern media environment". But anti-Muslim toxins were injected into the mainstream well before August 2010, and not by right-wingers alone.

Bestselling authors like Ayaan Hirsi Ali may be the "new heroes", as the writer Peter Beinart puts it, of the Republican party's crusade against Muslims. But "professional" former Muslims have long provided respectable cover for the bigotry and, more often, plain ignorance of mainstream western commentators on Islam. On Monday Germany's Hirsi Ali, the Turkish writer Necla Kelek, stood shoulder to shoulder with the German central banker and Social Democratic party (SPD) member Thilo Sarrazin as he asserted that Muslims are out-breeding white, presumably "Aryan" Germans and that "all Jews share the same gene".

Most of these ex-Muslim "dissidents" lucratively raging against Islam in the West wouldn't be able to flourish without the imprimatur of influential institutions and individuals in the US and Europe.

Hirsi Ali, who wishes to be the Voltaire of Islam, commands rapturous endorsements from not only right-wing crazies like Pamela Geller and Glenn Beck but also Tina Brown.

Certainly, the story of Hirsi Ali's life attests powerfully to the degradations suffered by many women in patriarchal cultures. There is no question that she should feel free to say that some Muslims are programmed to kill infidels and mutilate female bodies, however much these opinions may offend some people. There is little reason, however, for most of her opinions to claim serious intellectual attention.

Yet the mildest criticism of Hirsi Ali's naivety triggers a tsunami of vitriol from her army of prominent supporters. In recent months columnists and critics such as Clive James and Melanie Phillips have rebuked Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash for not joining the chorus of praise for Hirsi Ali, a defender of the western Enlightenment.

As it turns out, millions of angry Americans have opened up an equally unedifying "debate" on Islam. "You look them [Muslims] in the eye and flex your muscles," Hirsi Ali exhorted the West recently, "there comes a moment when you crush your enemy."

Well, that much-awaited moment is here. Populist sentiment, which Democrats as well as Republicans clamour to represent, fully endorses the scapegoating of a religious minority for America's recent military and economic failures.

The writer is author of Temptations of the West

-The Guardian, London

A Kashmir Hospital Is Witness to Conflict

 NY Times

SRINAGAR, Kashmir — Bloodied and battered, the wounded arrive daily at the emergency room here, the casualties of weeks of protests against gun-toting Indian police and security forces that spill even into the hospital corridors. On a day in late August, three patients — Habibullah Tiploo; his teenage daughter, Sumaira; and his daughter-in-law, Fatima — were the first to arrive. The family said Mr. Tiploo was shot by security forces outside his home; as Fatima and Sumaira, 17, rushed to his aid, they were fired upon, too.

According to a police statement, protesters were lobbing stones at a nearby bunker and the three Tiploos were wounded when the police retaliated with bullets. The family denies being part of any protest.

Protesters swarmed into the emergency room with them, struggling with doctors in surgical aprons and masks to force their way into the operating room. Some slipped past, took over Fatima’s hospital bed and wheeled it to the X-ray room as they chanted the same slogans that have filled the streets, angry words echoing off the walls and drowning out the wails of grieving friends and relatives.

“The Kashmir which we have irrigated with our blood — that Kashmir is ours!” they chanted.

The melee was common enough at the hospital, the Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, where more than 500 patients have come in with bullet wounds, lacerations and bruises in the past three months.

They are often carried by scores of protesters, who take the turmoil of the streets into the hospital with them, making the emergency room a miniature of Kashmir’s conflict and a window on the ways it has overturned the lives of just about every Kashmiri, irrespective of class or professional status.

The staff members at the Srinagar hospital have been dealing with such scenes on a regular basis since June 11, when thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest the death of Tufail Mattoo, a teenager who was hit by a tear gas canister.

The mass protests and subsequent response by security forces have left 65 civilians dead and countless injured, a casualty toll that has escalated in the past month. In August alone, the hospital staff here received 345 patients as a result of the conflict, compared with roughly 150 during June and July combined.

The city is subjected to nearly continuous strikes by protesters agitating for independence for Kashmir, the prize of a tug of war between India and Pakistan, which have each held a part of the territory since their partition more than 60 years ago. The curfews called by the government to quell the demonstrations have effectively shut the city down.

For the hospital staff, the journey to work is a daily exercise in resourcefulness and courage. While the rest of the city sleeps, holes up in houses and stays away from windows that tend to be the targets of stones from protesters, the doctors and paramedical staffs of the Kashmir Valley’s hospitals must still report for duty.

Many doctors, who brave the gantlet either in their own cars or in hospital ambulances that serve as stealth commuter buses, complained of being caught in protesting mobs almost daily.

Some said they were not allowed to pass by protesters or security forces, even if they arrived in an ambulance, which the police had indicated should have kept them safe. The local news media have reported that some doctors on their way to work have been brutalized by police and security forces, or arrested.

Representatives for the police and other security forces deny ever obstructing any doctor or hospital staff member from arriving at work.

Dr. Shahida Mir, the principal of the Government Medical College in Srinagar and head of five associated hospitals, placed several of them under a state of emergency during the first week of August, meaning they would perform only emergency surgery because of the influx of trauma patients. She, too, complained that her doctors were delayed, harassed or turned back by security forces when trying to get to work.

“They put up such a stern face, the doctors get scared,” she said of the security forces, which still number in the hundreds of thousands in Kashmir after many arrived in the 1990s to fight an insurgency that has since been mostly vanquished.

On the surface, hospital staff members seem unfazed by the stresses of their jobs and the conflict. Dr. Zubair Khurshid, a post-graduate resident surgeon who was in the operation theater as the Tiploo family arrived, played down the chaos that ensued as he and others tried to save the life of Sumaira, the 17-year-old, while fending off the shouting mob.

Sumaira had a gunshot wound in the chest, as did her father, while Fatima was wounded in the thigh. Fatima and Habibullah Tiploo were discharged quickly, but Sumaira languished for weeks in the post-operative ward because of complications involving her diaphragm and liver.

Dr. Arshad Bashir, 26, a resident in hospital administration, shrugged off the sound of the gunshots on the streets, which can be heard even in the emergency room. “Since childhood we have been living with these gunshots,” he said. “We’re used to it.”

But probe more deeply, and the anxiety that pervades Kashmir quickly becomes evident.

Dr. Yusuf Ganie, a surgical resident, confessed that for the past two and a half months, he had lived on campus at the institute, too afraid even to try his usual weekend commute home. On a recent Saturday, he dared try it.

“They stopped me, and I showed them my ID card,” he said of the security forces. “I was so scared, I thought they would beat me, but they let me go.”

Dr. Abdul Maajid, a psychiatrist who witnessed the protests in the emergency room, explained that the younger generation of Kashmiris, those responsible for many of the protests, were the products of an environment with “acute chronic stressors.”

“They have not seen normal life,” he said.

His own upbringing in the valley, before the 1990s insurgency, was relatively peaceful. “I have seen what normal life means,” he said. “For the last 20 years, I have seen the kids around. They have not seen the playground. They have not seen the normal recreational activities you expect them to do at their age.”

In recent days, the situation at the hospitals has grown less urgent as the administration has adapted to the conditions, and casualty numbers dwindle, but tensions remain and the effects of the curfews have deepened.

Pharmacies are running low on many routine medications because of a transportation shutdown in the valley, according to residents. Many family members of hospital patients whose homes lie outside Srinagar are having trouble getting food, and are being helped by local people who have donated and organized meals for the month of Ramadan.

Then there is the fear shared by so many Kashmiris, but one that particularly affects the hospital’s nurses and paramedical staff, who are not allowed to live on campus and must brave the commute daily.

“It’s terrible to come here,” said Shazia Mohi-u-Din, a nurse. “It is stressful every day. When you leave the house, you don’t know if you’re coming back.”

Depositors Panic Over Bank Crisis in Afghanistan

NY Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — One of the principal owners of the Afghan bank at the center of an accelerating financial crisis here said depositors had withdrawn $180 million in the past two days. He predicted a “revolution” in the country’s financial system unless the Afghan government and the United States moved quickly to help stabilize the bank. Khalilullah Frozi, one of the two largest shareholders of Kabul Bank, said reports indicating that the institution had lost as much as $300 million were overstated. But he predicted that if Afghan depositors continued to withdraw their money at the current rate, Kabul Bank would almost certainly collapse, undermining confidence in the nascent financial system the Afghans have been trying to build with American help.

“If this goes on, we won’t survive,” Mr. Frozi said in an interview. “If people lose trust in the banks, there will be a revolution in the financial system.”

Afghan leaders promised to guarantee deposits in an attempt to arrest the panic, which began earlier this week when the country’s top banking officials demanded the resignations of Mr. Frozi, the bank’s chief executive, and the bank’s chairman, Sherkhan Farnood.

Afghan and American officials say the two men presided over the bank in a reckless and freewheeling manner, doling out millions to allies of President Hamid Karzai and pouring money into risky investments that crashed.

The bank’s troubles — and the corruption associated with them — are posing a direct challenge to the country’s fledgling financial system, which was built under American guidance after the collapse of the Taliban government in 2001. Kabul Bank, which counts a brother of President Karzai among its politically connected shareholders, illustrates the intertwining of political and economic interests in Afghanistan. Afghan and American regulators said the bank’s political connections had shielded it from scrutiny until now.

If the loss of confidence spreads beyond Kabul Bank, it seems almost certain to strain the resources of the Afghan government — and make it more likely that the United States will be forced to intervene. There were no indications yet that the panic was spreading, but American and Afghan officials said other Afghan banks might face similar troubles.

For now, American officials ruled out any financial assistance. They said they were providing technical assistance to the Afghan government, but nothing more.

“We are taking no steps to bail out Kabul Bank,” said a White House spokesman, Tommy Vietor. “We support the Afghan Central Bank’s efforts to uphold international standards on transparency and its decisive action in response to reports of fraud at the Kabul Bank.”

In a news conference, President Karzai promised that the Afghan government would guarantee all deposits at the threatened institution. The Afghan government had already given Kabul Bank more than $100 million to ensure that it could pay the salaries of about 250,000 public employees, other Afghan officials said. The bank administers the payments for the government.

“People don’t need to be worried,” Mr. Karzai said. “We’ve got enough cash to support the bank.

“Even if the whole financial system in Afghanistan collapses, we have enough money to support it,” he said.

Mr. Karzai, who appeared with Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, said the crisis had been invented by the Western press, which he said had raised baseless fears among Afghans.

“The Western press has been covering it in a negative and provocative way,” he said of Kabul Bank’s troubles.

Still, it was not clear that the Afghan government had the legal authority to guarantee Afghan deposits, or the financial wherewithal to shore up the banking system if confidence were to collapse. Mr. Frozi said Kabul Bank retained about $1.1 billion in deposits. That figure alone would equal about a quarter of Afghanistan’s foreign currency reserves, which Mr. Karzai said totaled $4.8 billion. Afghan officials said the bank had $2 billion in assets, and $120 million in capital.

Most Afghans do not keep their money in the banking system, and Kabul Bank is tiny by international standards. But creating a credible and stable banking system is an important goal of the American-led effort in the country, which is seeking to help Afghanistan develop a modern economy.

Kabul Bank, one of the biggest private financial institutions that sprang up after the fall of the Taliban, stands at the very center of Afghanistan’s political and economic elite. One of Mr. Karzai’s brothers, Mahmoud, is a major shareholder, as is Haseen Fahim, the brother of the Afghan first vice president. The bank lent Mr. Fahim, a prominent businessman, as much as $100 million, officials say.

The bank helped finance President Karzai’s re-election campaign last year, giving him as much as $14 million, according to a former senior Afghan official. Mr. Frozi denied that.

Mr. Karzai chose the bank to administer much of the government’s payroll, which Mr. Frozi described as one of the bank’s most lucrative fields of business.

In the interview, Mr. Frozi said he was mystified by the abrupt loss of confidence in his bank. He conceded that many of the bank’s investments had lost money, but he said that none of them were irrecoverable. The biggest mistake, he said, was the decision by his partner, Mr. Farnood, to buy $160 million worth of villas and office buildings in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, at the height of the real estate bubble in 2007.

The next year, the market collapsed. Many of the villas are occupied by prominent Afghans, like former Vice President Ahmed Zia Massoud and Mahmoud Karzai.

“Nobody could have predicted the crisis,” Mr. Frozi said.

Kabul Bank also lent $100 million to Haseen Fahim. His brother, Muhammad Fahim, the Afghan first vice president, has been calling bank officials repeatedly this week from Germany to try to save whatever he can of his family’s money, two Afghans close to the bank said.

The troubles at Kabul Bank, which tie the Fahim and Karzai families together, could strain the alliance between President Karzai and Vice President Fahim. Mr. Fahim, an ethnic Tajik who fought against the Taliban, provides crucial political support to Mr. Karzai’s government.

Mahmoud Karzai said that he thought the bank could weather the crisis, and that the collapse of confidence that unfolded over the past few days was unwarranted.

“This is nothing but a panic,” Mr. Karzai said. “People are under the impression that the bank is failing, and it’s not.”

After Years of War, Few Iraqis Have a Clear View of the Future

 NY Times

BAGHDAD — The invasion of Iraq, occupation and tumult that followed were called Operation Iraqi Freedom back then. It will be named New Dawn on Wednesday. But America’s attempt to bring closure to an unpopular war has collided with a disconnect familiar since 2003: the charts and trend lines offered by American officials never seem to capture the intangible that has so often shaped the pivots in the war in Iraq.

Call it the mood. And the country, seemingly forever unsettled and unhappy, is having a slew of bad days.

“Nothing’s changed, nothing!” Yusuf Sabah shouted in the voice of someone rarely listened to, as he waited for gas in a line of cars winding down a dirt road past a barricade of barbed wire, shards of concrete and trash turned uniformly brown. “From the fall of Saddam until now, nothing’s changed. The opposite. We keep going backwards.”

Down the road waited Haitham Ahmed, a taxi driver. “Frustrated, sick, worn out, pessimistic and angry,” he said, describing himself.

“What else should I add?”

The Iraq that American officials portray today — safer, more peaceful, with more of the trappings of a state — relies on 2006 as a baseline, when the country was on the verge of a nihilistic descent into carnage. For many here, though, the starting point is the statement President George W. Bush made on March 10, 2003, 10 days before the invasion, when he promised that “the life of the Iraqi citizen is going to dramatically improve.”

Iraq generates more electricity than it did then, but far greater demand has left many sweltering in the heat. Water is often filthy. Iraqi security forces are omnipresent, but drivers habitually deride them for their raggedy appearance and seeming unprofessionalism. That police checkpoints snarl traffic does not help.

What American officials portray as their greatest accomplishment — a nascent democracy, however flawed — often generates a rueful response. “People can’t live only on the air they breathe,” said Qassem Sebti, an artist.

In a conflict often defined by unintended consequences, the March election may prove a turning point in an unexpected way. To an unprecedented degree, people took part, regardless of sect and ethnicity.

But nearly six months later, politicians are still deadlocked over forming a government, and the glares at the sport-utility vehicles that ferry them and their gun-toting entourages from air-conditioned offices to air-conditioned homes, after meetings unfailingly described as “positive,” have become sharper.

Disenchantment runs rife not with one faction or another, but with an entire political class that the United States helped empower with its invasion.

“The people of Kadhimiya mourn for the government in the death of water and electricity,” a tongue-and-cheek banner read near a Shiite shrine in Baghdad.

The year 2003, when the Americans invaded, often echoes in 2010, as they prepare to leave. Little feels linear here these days; the sense of the recurrent is more familiar.

Lines at fuel stations returned this month, that testament to one the greatest of Iraq’s ironies: a country with the world’s third largest reserve of oil in which people must endure long waits for gas.

“Ghamidh” was the word heard often in those earliest years. It means obscure and ambiguous, and then, as now, it was typically the answer to any question.

“After seven years our destiny is still unknown,” Mr. Sabah said, waiting in a gas line. “When you look to the future, you have no idea what it holds.”

Complaints over shoddy services paraphrase the same grievances of those anarchic months after Saddam Hussein’s fall. The sense of the unknown persists, as frustration mounts, Iraqi leaders bicker and no one seems sure of American intentions, even as President Obama observes what the administration describes as a turning point in the conflict.

“I challenge anyone to say what has happened, what’s happening now and what will happen in the future,” Mohammed Hayawi, a bookseller whose girth matched his charm, said as sweat poured down his jowly face on a hot summer day in 2003.

Mr. Hayawi died in 2007, as a car bomb tore through his bookstore filled with tomes of ayatollahs, predictions by astrologers and poems of Communist intellectuals. This week, in the same shop, still owned by his family, Najah Hayawi reflected on his words, near a poster that denounced “the cowardly, wretched bombing” that had killed his brother.

“There is no one in Iraq who has any idea — not only about what’s happened or what’s happening — but about what will happen in the future,” he said. “Not just me, not just Mohammed, God rest his soul, but anyone you talk to. You won’t find anyone.”

Iraqis call the overthrow of Mr. Hussein’s government the “suqut.” It means the fall. Seven years later, no one has yet quite defined what replaced it, an interim as inconclusive as the invasion was climactic. “Theater,” Mr. Hayawi’s brother called it, and he said the populace still had no hand in writing a script that was in others’ hands.

“The best thing is that I have no children,” Shahla Atraqji, a 38-year-old doctor, said back in 2003, as she sipped coffee at Baghdad’s Hunting Club to the strains of Lebanese pop. “If I can’t offer my children a good life, I would never bring them into this world.”

This week, Thamer Aziz, a doctor who helps fit amputees with artificial limbs at the Medical Rehabilitation Center, stared at Musafa Hashem, a 6-year-old boy who lost his right leg in a car bomb in Kadhimiya in July. His father was paralyzed.

“I’ve believed this for a long time, and I still do,” he said. “I cannot get married and have a family because I may lose them any minute, by a bomb or bullet.”

“Just like him,” he said, gesturing toward the boy.

Even in the denouement of America’s experience here, old habits die hard.

On Monday, four American Humvees drove the wrong way down a street, turrets swinging at oncoming traffic. Cars stopped, giving them distance. The Humvees turned, plowed over a curb, dug a trench in the muddy median, then rumbled on their way.

“See! Did you see?” asked Mustafa Munaf, a storekeeper.

“It’s the same thing,” he said, shaking his head. “What’s changed?”

Obama’s Iraq move not as clear cut as it seems


Barack Obama fulfilled on Wednesday what had initially been his biggest campaign selling point to bring the US war in Iraq to a close – “to be as careful getting out, as we were careless going in”, as the president put it on the campaign trail. But the move, which exactly met Mr Obama’s pledge to end US combat operations within 16 months of taking office, is not as clear cut as it appears. In spite of formally switching on Wednesday from a military to a civilian-led US operation in Iraq, around 50,000 US troops will remain in place until the end of next year and possibly beyond. But Mr Obama’s declaration, which he explained in a low key and non-triumphal Oval Office address on Tuesday night, has intensified debate among US foreign policy analysts about the merits of pre-announcing deadlines for withdrawal.

Much like in Afghanistan, where Mr Obama has said he will start to withdraw US troops from July, the president argued that the deadline in Iraq would encourage Iraqis to hasten domestic political reform. But Wednesday’s ceremonies in Baghdad come amid uncertainty about the shape and composition of the next Iraqi government.

Almost six months after Iraq went to the polls, there is still no government in place and little prospect of an early resolution. The auguries for Afghanistan are clear.

“If you’re sitting in Afghanistan and wondering what “conditions-based” withdrawal means, then Iraq will not encourage you to think the Obama administration is flexible about its deadlines,” says Kenneth Pollack, a former Clinton administration official at the Brookings Institution. “What it looks like is the fulfilment of a US domestic electoral deadline, which is in a sense what it is.”

Mr Pollack, who fell out with many fellow Democrats over his robust support for the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 from George W. Bush, former US president, says roughly half of all civil wars revert to civil wars within five years of a ceasefire. Other foreign policy analysts worry that Mr Obama’s address, which was very carefully phrased to leave him some flexibility in Iraq over the next months, could be tempting fate.

In contrast to many of the leading US network and cable news channels, which bluntly proclaimed an end to the Iraq war – one even had a clock that counted the hours down – analysts are more wary. “Iraq is at as critical a stage as it has been since 2003,” says Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“The US may be announcing the “withdrawal” of its combat forces . . . the fact is, however, that the US withdrawal is far from over, the Iraq war is not over, it is not “won”, and any form of stable end state in Iraq is probably impossible before 2020.”

In his address, Mr Obama avoided any hint of repeating George W. Bush’s notorious “mission accomplished” pronouncement a few weeks after the 2003 invasion. But it will be up to historians, rather than political analysts, to decide whether he was technically correct.

“It is only through the rear-view mirror that you can tell when wars have ended,” says Mr Pollack. “In 1950, Harry S. Truman [then president] tried to sell the war in Korea as ‘police action’. But historians rightly define it a war. Events on the ground in Iraq will determine whether President Obama is right. As they say, ‘saying it don’t make it so’.”