Friday, April 30, 2004

Che's other legacy

BBC photo

I will have a lot of critical things to say about Cuba in this space, but this post will not be one of them. Yes, according to this BBC story, Che Guevara is credited with "sparking the keen interest in chess in the island" of Cuba.

The reason for this bit of trivia? Reports the BBC: "Cuba has broken its own world record for the most people playing chess at the same time. About 13,000 chess fans gathered in the central Cuba city of Santa Clara for the mass game."

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Gag this, too

"It is remarkable that a gag provision in the Patriot Act kept the public in the dark about the mere fact that a constitutional challenge had been filed in court."

--Ann Beeson, the ACLU's associate legal director, in a story in today's Washington Post. Reports the Post: The lawsuit was filed April 6 in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, but the case was kept under seal to avoid violating secrecy rules contained in the USA Patriot Act, the ACLU said. The group was allowed to release a redacted version of the lawsuit after weeks of negotiations with the government.

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Thursday, April 29, 2004

Dubya's El Salvador

I don't even know where to begin to dissect a piece that just came online at the National Review website about Iraq, entitled "Dubya's El Salvador: Success in Central America, not Vietnam failure, is the model for Iraq."

Now the concern is China, not the Soviet Union, which is aiding Iran and Syria. Well, it's not worth going into any detail, but in case you were wondering, "the only difference between El Salvador of the 1980s and the Iraq of today is the American military presence, but this makes taking action more imperative, not less."

Take a look, if only out of curiosity.

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Haitian Rebels--"Keystone Cops," not Washington stooges

Perhaps I missed something while on vacation, but on April 12th the St. Petersburg Times published a piece by David Adams (who won the Maria Moors Cabot Prize in 2002 from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism) on the origins of the Haitian rebel movement. Kevin Murray of Grassroots International alerted me to this article.

Read the whole story, and circulate to friends (especially those left-wing conspiracy theorists).

Here's the key argument:

A month after Aristide's whirlwind exit, questions still linger about Aristide's ouster. Was there U.S. complicity in his removal? And who was behind the seemingly all-powerful rebel army?

In recent days, the answers to those questions have become clearer. And the truth that is emerging contains some surprises.

More Keystone Kops than White House-orchestrated covert operations, the events of February were a largely home-grown affair, according to interviews with some of the rebel plotters and their allies, who included the septuagenarian representative of a Ponte Vedra Beach electrical company, and a 36-year-old Republican lawyer from Winter Park.

Far from being a well-equipped army with sophisticated lines of communication and logistics, like the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Contras of the 1980s, the Haitian rebels were a ragtag bunch of former soldiers and opportunists who begged and borrowed to raise the money for their guns.

With the backing of a small group of Haitian dissidents in the Dominican Republic, a few dozen weapons and a handful of cash, the rebels were extraordinarily successful. In less than a month they toppled the government and in the process forced Washington into a major shift in policy.

I'm sure there's more to this story, but it's a good start.

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Back in ES, still obsessed with Iraq

I am back in El Salvador, where STISS took over the cathedral yesterday, burned some vehicles downtown, and reminded Salvadorans of a past they'd rather leave behind; and where the FMLN is getting ready to expel or punish a few dissidents for speaking their mind (and, okay, for throwing around a few chairs at the San Salvador party headquarters a few weeks ago); and where there's still no word from Tony Saca as to who will comprise his new cabinet come June 1.

But Iraq is still on my mind. Here's a revealing couple of paragraphs from an interview published yesterday in the Chicago Tribune with Northeastern Illinois University accounting professor Yass Alkafaji, an Iraqi-American who was in Iraq from late January until very recently, serving the Coalition Provisional Authority as the director of finance for the Ministry of Higher Education.

Q. What is your take on the mood of the Iraqi people?

A. They are thankful to the U.S. for getting rid of Saddam Hussein, and they are content that the military needs to be there. But after that, they are divided between how long should the U.S. military stay and whether they are doing a good job or not. The U.S. military presence is very visible, and they [the soldiers] are really scared, so their posture is very offensive. They see Iraqis, and they put guns in your face. They move in convoys, and they tell people to get away from them. When the convoys are in a traffic jam in the middle of Baghdad, that is the most dangerous thing. So they shout at people to get out of the way, and they drive up on the sidewalk of some stores. That creates a lot of hard feelings for the Iraqis.

Q. What about the economic and employment situation with ordinary Iraqis?

A. Most of the people are not informed of what the U.S. is doing because they don't see the visible improvement of their livelihood, especially those who don't have a government job . . . I think there is still a lot of confusion about who is the good Iraqi and who is the bad Iraqi. I think [the U.S.] has shown to the rest of the world that we are really ignorant when it comes to dealing with other cultures. We have a great military power, but when it comes to building nations we have no idea. You can see the tension in the clashes between the British and Americans in the palace. The Americans will say `do this or do that' and the British will just be shaking their head. But the British have a much longer history in the Middle East, and they know how to deal with the Arab mentality. They feel very marginalized.

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Wednesday, April 28, 2004

The Washington March that I missed

AP Photo

I would have gone, really I would have--despite my belief that marches do more for those attending them than they do for actually changing policy. In fact, the Post yesterday quoted an academic scholar of Washington marches as saying pretty much the same thing.

"Is it going to change President Bush's mind? No. Is it going to bolster people who are already pro-choice? . . . I think yes," said Lynn G. Barber, a historian at the California State Archives in Sacramento and the author of a book on Washington marches.

However, the same story also notes that a pro-choice march 12 years ago may have, in fact, affected a Supreme Court decision:

The Supreme Court, in some ways the key institution of government on the abortion issue, has long been considered immune to the cries of protesters. Yet the antiabortion movement claims that one of its biggest marches succeeded in influencing that very institution.

Early in 1992, the Supreme Court voted to consider
Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, a case that, in a divided court, constituted a challenge to Roe v. Wade.

Roe, according to the recently released papers of former Supreme Court justice Harry A. Blackmun, was poised for defeat. But in a last-minute switch, Reagan-appointed Justice Anthony M. Kennedy changed his vote, and abortion rights survived, 5 to 4.

"I believe the march had an impact on their decision making," Smeal said. "What happens in the street brings [these issues] home. It impacts the temper of the times."

Then, in a very ambiguous quote, the story cites recently released oral history tapes of Justice Blackmun as saying that it was the protests both for and against the Roe decision that made him think the Court had made the right decision:

Despite dozens of demonstrations demanding abortion rights before the original Roe decision, Blackmun said he initially didn't consider the decision a monumental one. In an oral history tape, Blackmun said the demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns protesting the decision convinced him that Roe was a necessary step in the emancipation of women.

"As the furor developed and [Roe's] integrity was attacked and upheld, certainly I came to that conclusion," he said. "I think it was a step that had to be taken."

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Monday, April 26, 2004

Those ubiquitous Guanacos

On my recent trip to the U.S., I kept running into Salvadorans and other Central Americans--even in Maine, the most northeastern of any state. Salvadorans supplied the labor to rebuild the fallen wall on my friends' John and Sarah's neighbor's wall that had fallen in D.C.; Guatemalans manned the Starbucks at the Woodrow Wilson rest stop on the New Jersey turnpike; and generally speaking Latin Americans seem to staff nearly every fast-food place all up and down the East Coast.

There's a story in today's Portland Press Herald that starts off with an anecdote about the Salvadoran restaurant Tu Casa, which I visited on my trip. Run by a Salvadoran family from Chalatenango, I was told that migration to that area had picked up in the last five years.

Maine, by the way, in a three-way tie with Arkansas and Mississippi, is the state with the fastest growing poverty rate in the country, according to the 2000 Census.

In Maine, which has only a few thousand Latin Americans statewide, there's a new executive order from the Governor that prohibits state employees who provide public services from asking about a person's immigration status, except under limited circumstances. The order is similar to those created by cities around the country, including Portland. But it appears to be the first of its kind affecting an entire state.

That's a good thing, because after a recent immigration sweep, people appeared to be afraid to ask for even minimal services related to health, education and work issues. The action came after a controversial sweep by federal agents of a homeless shelter in January in Portland, and as a result of lobbying by social service agencies, advocacy groups and community action organizations.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Headline of the Month


from Latin America Data Base, shared by Bill Stanley

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Friday, April 16, 2004

Salvadorans "heroic" in Iraq; their families destitute at home

From a story in today's El Diario de Hoy, I was tipped off to a comment made last Friday (April 9) by an anonymous Coalition official who, in announcing that U.S. forces were moving towards Najaf, noted that Salvadoran soldiers had been the exception to the rule of otherwise reluctant international forces. Unlike other Coalition forces, they'd gone out and fought "heroically:"

"Signaling a strategic shift, the Pentagon has directed elements of the Army's 1st Armored Division, which has patrolled Baghdad since May and was scheduled to go home within weeks, to move south. Those seasoned troops are needed to help retake cities from Sadr's militia and to patrol parts of the country that had been occupied by multinational troops of varying combat readiness.

''We are waiting for American forces to come in and restore the peace,'' said a coalition official in the south who asked for anonymity because his comments were not in keeping with the coalition's upbeat public message. ``The multinational forces will not do this -- they refuse to leave their bases and do routine patrols. In some cases, they've withdrawn and refused to fight or hold their ground against minimal attacks.''

The official said that El Salvadoran soldiers were an exception, acting ''heroically'' in repulsing attacks in Najaf."

This was from a Knight-Ridder wire story published in the Miami Herald last Friday.

Meanwhile, La Prensa Gráfica reports that the wife and mother of one soldier in Iraq, René de Jesús Rivas, visited the Assembly and urged the legislators to bring the troops home, saying that they only received $60 a month from the Ministry of Defense, which was not enough to cover basic living expenses.

The FMLN and CDU introduced a motion in the plenary session yesterday to bring the troops home, saying that they hadn't participated in reconstruction activities, while a motion by the PCN to authorize greater social benefits to soldiers participating in international missions was also introduced. Both bills were sent to the Defense Committee for study. (I suppose I should mention a demonstration by some 50 Salvadorans outside the consulate in Los Angeles, but that seems depressingly too tiny to say much about.)

Far from indicating any selfless, humanitarian motives for sending troops to Iraq, ARENA deputy Renato Pérez was quite direct about why he thought troops should be there: "Since the U.S. is our principal commercial partner, we have to be in solidarity with them." The Minister of Defense, José Martínez Varela, on the other hand, said that retiring Salvadoran troops from Iraq "would be a bad signal to the terrorists, that could increment its attacks against the civilian population."

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Thursday, April 15, 2004

The Leave-No-President-Behind Act

Bush, in fact, does not read his President's Daily Briefs, but has them orally summarised every morning by the CIA director, George Tenet. President Clinton, by contrast, read them closely and alone, preventing any aides from interpreting what he wanted to know first-hand. He extensively marked up his PDBs, demanding action on this or that, which is almost certainly the likely reason the Bush administration withheld his memoranda from the 9/11 commission.

"I know he doesn't read," one former Bush national security council staffer told me. Several other former NSC staffers corroborated this.

--Sidney Blumenthal in a column entitled "Hear no evil, Read no evil, Speak drivel," in today's Guardian

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Quote of the Day

Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer and the State Department's counterterrorism chief from 1989-93, explained on MSNBC this afternoon, during a break in the hearings, why the PDB—let alone the Moussaoui finding—should have compelled everyone to rush back to Washington.

In his CIA days, Johnson wrote "about 40" PDBs. They're usually dispassionate in tone, a mere paragraph or two. The PDB of Aug. 6 was a page and a half. "That's the intelligence-community equivalent of writing War and Peace," Johnson said.

And the title—"Bin Laden Determined To Strike in US"—was clearly designed to set off alarm bells. Johnson told his interviewer that when he read the declassified document, "I said 'Holy smoke!' This is such a dead-on 'Mr. President, you've got to do something!' " (By the way, Johnson claimed he's a Republican who voted for Bush in 2000.)

--from an excellent piece on Bush's August 2001 vacation, by Fred Kaplan, entitled: "The Out-of-Towner -- While Bush vacationed, 9/11 warnings went unheard" in Slate.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Gems from the Style section

Commentary from the Style section of the Washington Post is often hard to beat. Here's a couple of examples from today's edition:

One of the striking revelations, as past and present officials of the FBI, CIA and Justice Department testified before the Sept. 11 commission, was just how many secrets those agencies possess without knowing it -- and how many secrets they don't know that they don't know.
--article by David Montgomery, entitled "Top Secret-Keepers: What They Don't Know Can Hurt You"

"When I say something, I mean it," George W. Bush said decisively near the end of last night's prime-time presidential news conference. Nobody called out, "When will you say something?" -- the White House press corps is too mannerly for that -- but some reporters, and some viewers, must have been thinking it.
--lead of the article by television critic Tom Shales

Or this, more worrying, also from Shales:

In contrast to the emotionless delivery of his prepared remarks, during the Q&A Bush appeared passionate at times, answering journalists' questions with an almost religious fervor. Bush said that freedom was given to Americans by "the Almighty" and encouraging freedom throughout the world is "what we have been called to do." Later he said, "It's a conviction that's deep in my soul."

Isn't the mixing of earthly political concerns with religious beliefs one of the things that thwarts and frustrates the United States and its allies in the Middle East?

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Tuesday, April 13, 2004

On the passions of war

A clever letter in today's New York Times:

David Brooks's April 10 column about the recent uprisings in Iraq exhorts us to "take a deep breath": "maybe it is time to pause, to let passions cool."

Here are some of the adjectives he uses to describe Moktada al-Sadr, the young radical Shiite cleric: "lowlife hoodlum," "ruthless," "putschist," "hotheaded murderer," "fascist thug," "vicious" and the "enemy of civilization."
Columnist, read thyself.

Troy, Mich., April 10, 2004

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Letter to the editor

This is a letter I sent last night to the New York Times...

"I respect John F. Burns' reporting, but why does he only comment on the number of American military dead last week (60), and then end his April 13 story by noting Iraqi casualties as 10 times higher?

Surely, Maj. Gen. Kimmitt (cited for the 10x figure) is NOT including civilian casualties here, because if that is the case, it shouldn't be juxtaposed against the number of American military dead.

So why not talk about all coalition deaths (Italian, Salvadoran, Ukranian, etc.), including private security forces like Blackwater, and WHY NOT talk about Iraqi civilian casualties--with at least some kind of rough estimate? Only this would give us an example of the full cost of the bloodiest week of the past year in Iraq."

San Salvador

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Monday, April 12, 2004

Quote of the Day

"My view and the view of the British chain of command is that the Americans' use of violence is not proportionate and is over-responsive to the threat they are facing. They don't see the Iraqi people the way we see them. They view them as untermenschen. They are not concerned about the Iraqi loss of life in the way the British are."

--British officer in Iraq, quoted by Sean Rayment of the Telegraph (and cited by Juan Cole) (Rayment notes: "The phrase untermenschen - literally 'under-people' - was brought to prominence by Adolf Hitler in his book Mein Kampf, published in 1925.")

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Sunday, April 11, 2004

The failed premises of empire

Bill Barnes pointed me to an article by Corey Robin in the recent Boston Review, entitled Endgame: Conservative after the Cold War. It's worth reading in its entirety, but here are a few good excerpts:

"The ideology of empire, premised as it is on the ability of the United States to control events, cannot accommodate failure, but by avoiding failure, the imperialists are forced to acknowledge that they cannot control events. As former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger has observed, in a discussion of the crisis in the Middle East, Bush realizes "that simply to insert himself into this mess without any possibility of achieving any success is, in and of itself, dangerous because it would demonstrate that, in fact, we don't have any ability right now to control or affect events." This Catch-22 is no mere problem of logic or consistency; it betrays the essential fragility of the imperial position itself.

That fragility also reflects the hollowness of the neocons' imperial vision. Though the neocons see imperialism as the cultural and political counterpart to the free market, they have not yet come to terms with how the conservative opposition to government spending renders the United States unlikely to make the necessary investments in nation-building that imperialism requires. It has been only two years since the United States promised the people of Afghanistan that it would never abandon them, and already it's clear that the Bush administration has done just that….

…Even within and around the military, the ethos of patriotism and shared destiny has given way to the logic of the market. The government's desire not to spend too much money and thereby raise taxes has forced American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq to spend their own money on such items as night-vision goggles, desert-camouflage boots, baby wipes, radios and communications equipment, and rucksacks. Military recruiters admit that they still entice enlistees not with the call of patriotism but with the promise of economic opportunity. As one recruiter puts it, "It's just business as usual. We don't push the ‘Help our country' routine." When patriots burst into a recruiting office and say, "I want to fight," another recruiter explains, "I've got to calm them down. We're not all about fighting and bombing. We're about jobs. We're about education." Recruiters confess that they continue to target immigrants and people of color, on the assumption that these constituencies' lack of opportunity will drive them to the military. The Pentagon publicly acknowledges that it hopes to increase the number of Latino recruits in the military from the current 10 percent to 22 percent. Recruiters in Southern California have even slipped across the border, promising instant citizenship to poor Mexicans willing to take up arms on behalf of the United States. According to one San Diego recruiter, "It's more or less common practice that some recruiters go to Tijuana to distribute pamphlets, or in some cases they look for someone to help distribute information on the Mexican side."

The fact that the war has not yet imposed the sort of sacrifices on the population that normally accompany national crusades has provoked occasional bouts of concern among politicians and cultural elites. "The danger, over the long term," writes the Times's R.W. Apple, "is loss of interest. With much of the war to be conducted out of plain sight by commandos, diplomats and intelligence agents, will a nation that has spent decades in easy self-indulgence stay focused?" A former aide to LBJ says, "People are going to have to get involved in this. So far it's a government effort, as it should be, but people aren't engaged." Without consecrating the cause in blood, Americans will not have their commitment tested, their resolve deepened...."

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Saturday, April 10, 2004

Bush: Home on the range

AP Photo--President Bush leads a tour of Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Texas with wildlife conversation leaders and sportsmen leaders, Thursday, April 8, 2004.

"This is Bush's 33rd visit to his ranch since becoming president. He has spent all or part of 233 days on his Texas ranch since taking office, according to a tally by CBS News. Adding his 78 visits to Camp David and his five visits to Kennebunkport, Maine, Bush has spent all or part of 500 days in office at one of his three retreats, or more than 40 percent of his presidency."

--from Friday's Washington Post

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Quote of the Day

"Milt Bearden, who retired after 30 years with the CIA's directorate of operations, notes that in the last 100 years any insurgency that has taken on a nationalist character -- for instance, a shared goal of getting rid of Americans -- has succeeded."
--from an AP story filed last Thursday

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New information about Salvadorans and rooftop seige

From the New York Times yesterday, we get yet another account of Salvadoran troops and their "humanitarian" mission in Iraq.

Note that this incident was nowhere reported in the Salvadoran press, although it was alluded to in the CPA's briefing last Monday in Baghdad by Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt. He was asked by reporters if he thought this was a crisis:

"I know on a rooftop yesterday in An Najaf, with a small group of American soldiers and coalition soldiers, Spanish soldiers and Salvadorian soldiers who had just been through about three-and-a-half hours of combat, I looked in their eyes, there was no crisis. They knew what they were here for. They'd lost three wounded. We were sitting there among the bullet shells -- the bullet casings, and frankly, the blood of their comrades, and they were absolutely confident."

From the Times report yesterday, however, we learned that it was the Blackwater commandos and their backup air support who saved the day:

Last weekend, eight Blackwater contractors assigned to protect a building in Najaf fought alongside four marines and three Salvadoran soldiers to defeat a determined attack by hundreds of Iraqi militia members. The men fired thousands of rounds, yet were very nearly overrun, Mr. Toohey said. "They were down to single digits of ammo, less than 10 rounds a man."

Desperate and unable to communicate directly with military commanders, the eight Blackwater contractors instead called in help from Blackwater employees, he said. With approval from Mr. Bremer's staff, three Blackwater helicopters — the same ones used to ferry Mr. Bremer around Iraq — were dispatched to the Najaf battle to drop ammunition and retrieve a wounded marine.

"It was O.K. with him if they went out and saved some American lives," Mr. Toohey said of Mr. Bremer.

In case you missed it, the Washington Post on Thursday said that Blackwater and other security outfits in Iraq numbered some 20,000, making it "what may effectively be the largest private army in the world, with its own rescue teams and pooled, sensitive intelligence."

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Another war supporter bites the dust

And now for another previous war-supporter's take on present-day Iraq. Tish Durkin of the New York Observer is depressingly hilarious:

"I’d still support the war—and so, I gather from months of putting the question, would most Iraqis. A year ago, when it invaded, the Bush administration did the right thing. But with astounding, relentless, marksman-like consistency, it has been doing the wrong thing ever since. Contrary to the cries of its critics, this long march of missteps has not occurred because the administration is full of flag-waving, U.N.-flouting, slogan-spouting cowboys. It is because the administration is, it is now painfully clear, utterly devoid of cowboys. A cowboy, after all, rides into hostile territory, fights the bad guys, helps the good guys, and protects the women and children. This administration rode in all right. Then they realized that the bad guys were really, really bad, that they did different kinds of bad things that required different kinds of responses, and that they were often hard to distinguish from the good guys.

So the administration of liberation kept right on riding. Soldiers were left behind to deal with street-level realities that properly involved the military and street-level realities that properly did not, and the administration formed a circle of wagons and called it the Green Zone. There, they met with and memo’d each other, bussed in for consultation Iraqis who were willing to be bussed in for consultation, and created Iraqi institutions that they endowed only with the power to paralyze the government. In short, for the purposes of Iraq after the war, this administration is the women and children.

If the Coalition Provisional Authority is not comprised of cowboys, neither is it comprised of missionaries or hawks. They are temps—and not temps in the sense of being temporarily in the country until such time as its rightful return to Iraqi authority. They are temps in the where’s-the-washroom, if-only-everybody-had-a-name-tag, who-is-my-go-to-Iraqi sense. To be sure, some of them are good, smart, well-meaning, hard-working temps. But in a proportion of cases that would worry the floor manager of any self-respecting J.C. Penney, they come in for six weeks or three months, at the start of which many know nothing about Iraq, past or present. (Some do know the future, and they agree—it’s democratic!) If they get to know something, it is out of the goodness of their hearts and the curiosity of their minds, not the requirements of their jobs. As for figuring out the situation more instinctively and immediately once they get on the ground, they have an all-purpose, fool-proof excuse for doing nothing of the kind: It’s too dangerous."

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Friday, April 09, 2004

How resolute will the Salvadorans be in Iraq?

I was just about to sit down and write my last post before taking off for a couple of weeks, feeling very pensive on this Good Friday. I wanted to predict how the worst was yet in store for Salvadorans stationed in Najaf, where the Americans seemed to be resolutely avoiding taking on al-Sadr's militia until after the weekend's religious holiday had ended. Just yesterday, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, head of the coalition forces, announced the beginning of Operation Resolute Sword to destroy al-Sadr´s militia, saying that they were committed to "powerful, deliberate, very robust military operations until the job is done."

But then I went to Juan Cole's site, and found the following report from a friend of his who'd managed to speak to someone in Najaf:

"I called my friend in Najaf today Thursday . . . Private internet doesn´t work. Messages bounce. There are though some institutional connections working, like hospitals and other.

He told me there is a lot of fighting going on, mainly between the Mahdi army and Salvadorans, all the time. 4-5 Salvadorans are said to be killed. My friend has been videotaping fighting, bullets and clashes close to him.

Four taxi cars with civilians were blown up with lots of dead and injured, women and children including. Americans blame Mehdi army for casualties but they reject responibility for the assaults. My friend says this had happened close to a place called Al Bahar. He also says . . . civilians, pedestrians, on their way to Karbala religious festivities were attacked and killed or injured.

American helicopters are circling above Najaf perpetually. The Mahdi army are said to have ca 200-400 fighters in Najaf central city. There has been 3 huge explosions, maybe SCUD he said (he remembered when Saddam hauled in a couple of SCUDs when oppressing the Shia uprising following Gulf War 1) and people say it might be missiles, which was denied by US military, blaming the Mahdi army."

There are no papers here today, and I couldn't find much about this fighting in a quick perusal of the usual internet news sources, but I'm sure that will soon change.

So when Salvadorans return to the daily grind on Monday, what kind of reaction can we expect?

Although we're getting into uncharted territory here --i.e., Salvadorans casualties in a foreign war-- I am quite sure that both the outgoing and incoming ARENA governments will "stay the course," as long as the U.S. does the same. Over the past 15 years, the ARENA government has been the most steadfast ally of the U.S. in the hemisphere. And now Tony Saca will have quite a bit of breathing room as he starts his presidency June 1 with an unprecedented electoral mandate.

I'm not even sure the Bush administration even needs to threaten this government with punitive measures, which we will recall they did wantonly to drum up international backing for the war. The ARENA leadership sees its fate as inextricably tied to that of the U.S. government, in both economic and political terms: whether it's the dollarized economy, subletting the Comalapa airport for regional drug interdiction efforts, or being the principal cheerleader of CAFTA in the region. Most importantly, ARENA's outdated anti-communist ideology fits well with the "you're with us, or you're against us" posturing of the Bush administration's war on terror.

But if last week's press coverage is any indication, and if soldiers continue to get shipped back to El Salvador in coffins, Salvador's participation in the Iraq war may provide yet another reason for citizens here to feel unduly martyred by the policies of the elite cabal running this country in its own self-interest.

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Quote of the Day

"These operations were a mass punishment for the people of Fallujah,. It was not right to punish all the people of Fallujah and we consider these operations by the Americans unacceptable and illegal."

-- Adnan Pachachi, a senior member of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, quoted by the Associated Press.

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Thursday, April 08, 2004

The grass is always greener....

Believe it or not, these signs are stuck in the dirt all over the Coalition Provisional Authority headquarters. (Is this why they call it the "Green Zone"?)

This picture and the following statements are taken from a blog, The View from Baghdad, written by a self-described Republican working for an international NGO in Baghdad, a person who's grown skeptical about just about everything there. I realize this is a long entry, but the thoughts expressed here are really quite compelling. I invite you to read them.

One entry earlier today was entitled, "I Reluctantly Join the Ranks of the Pessimists":

"The last email I received last night was one of my staff telling me he could no longer work for an American organization. The first phone call I received this morning was my good friend, Munqith Daghir, the top Iraqi pollster, telling me he has to cancel a meeting because of the security situation. He said that 25 of his relatives were killed in Fallujah overnight when a helicopter bombed their house.

I'm very afraid that the flood of images of Coalition killing Iraqis and the perceived neglect of Iraq's reconstruction, is going to combine to create a fundamental shift in public opinion, and convert the average Iraqi into an extremist - either political or religious."

This comment yesterday about the CPA is equally strong:

"I know lots of people at the CPA. 95% of them are well-meaning, and 75% of them are competent and 30% of them are pretty amazing people. Bremer, for instance, is one of the most hard-working, dedicated and smartest public figures I have met. I can say that for many of the top people I have encountered. However, CPA seems to be victim to an organizational inertia that overwhelms brilliance.

Part of it is completely out of the hands of anyone in Baghdad. There is a machine in Washington that spits out money, and nearly as I can tell it is completely arbitrary and sporadic in its functioning."

Finally, this entry from last Sunday, April 4th, under the title, "Disgusted:"

"If you have been reading, you know that I came over here because I thought that liberating the Iraqis and working to build the first democracy in the Middle East are the most important foriegn policy initiatives of a generation, and I wanted to be a part of it and make a difference.

I've been here since July of last year, and it has not all been a trip to Disneyland. One of the roughest points in my tenure here came about a month ago when my friend Fern Holland, her American colleague and her translator, Salwa Oumaishi were killed by renegade Iraqi cops. Salwa's sister worked for me, and I found myself thrust in the position of informing Salwa and her family, and subsequently acting as their advocate at the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Salwa and her family are the people we are here to help. Seven members of Salwa's family - sisters, uncles, cousins - work in some way for the Coalition Forces. They are proud to be working with us to liberate their people and build a democracy in Iraq.

For the past several weeks, I've been trying to figure out if Salwa's family is entitled to any benefits as a result of her death in the line of duty, aiding the Coalition Forces. Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), a large corporation heading up many of the logistical operations here, employed her in some fashion I was told (her family had no idea of her exact employment arrangements, as she spent all her days in a CPA office), and I was sent to KBR to talk to them about possible benefits.

The KBR official I was to meet didn't show for meetings on two different occassions. Yesterday, he finally decided to show up to talk to me.

I was told by him and his deputy that they had hired Salwa through a local Iraqi sub-contractor, and that organization would be responsible for any benefits. Then they told me that the head of that company had been arrested for an unknown reason, released and had probably skipped town.

They went on to tell me that KBR structures their hires to go through local sub-contractors so as to avoid liability in situations like this.

So KBR is actively structuring their organization to try to screw over Iraqis who risk, and in some cases give, their lives to help us in our efforts here.

If she was killed by Coalition Forces, my understanding is that she would be entitled to some $3000. But since she was killed working with the Coalition Forces, she gets nothing.

KBR, who has contracts in Iraq worth billions, is structuring their operations to save a few thousand dollars here and there by denying benefits to those Iraqis brave enough to work with us.

I left the meeting wanting to throw up."

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Electoral observations (5 & 6): Bill Barnes, Tom Long

The discussion continues:

Bill Barnes: The life-long history of courage and dedication of people like Schafik and Leonel will be recorded in the history books and the memories of many Salvadorans (not the memory of the Salvadoran people; no such entity exists) -- as will their repeated serious errors of political judgment. It is the latter which is relevant to the current discussion, not the former. The last thing the Salvadoran left needs now is foreigners engaging in uncritical cheer-leading and apologetics for the FMLN ortodoxos. Such was highly counterproductive in its impact on the FSLN in Nicaragua during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Such has been based on naiveté and ignorance regarding what has gone on within the FMLN and the FSLN over the last 20 years. And a naivete about politics in general. "The FMLN deserved a fair shake, and in my opinion, did not get it..." Does the Pope shit in the woods? The right (whether the U.S. Republican Party or ARENA) has never given a political opponent a "fair shake" if they could get away with avoiding it -- and neither has any Leninist. It is only the democratic left, and some centrists, that voluntarily make serious attempts to actually live by such norms.

A week or so after the March 1997 elections in which the FMLN for the first time ran a modern campaign and did well (under the campaign leadership of Facundo Guardado and Julio Hernández), the Mexican pollster Fernando Bazua presented a post-election analysis to the FMLN Political Commission emphasizing the need to continue in this new direction and to fully accept that "we're in a post-communist era." Schafik jumped on Bazua. Maria "Chichilco" Serrano, smiling that smile, responded: "Compañero Schafik, I know you know much more about these questions than I do, but it is true isn't it that the Soviet Union no longer exists?" Schafik had no (effective) reply.

Tom Long comments: Too right, sir. I recall being in Managua the day after elections in 1990, in a house full of foreigners (all Spaniards, except for me), and two Nicaraguans. The Spaniards were raving on and on about the CIA and the imperialists and blah, blah, blah. And then I noticed the two Nicaraguans sitting on the couch, earnestly discussing among themselves what had gone so wrong with the revolutionary project, that it had turned the majority of their own population so obviously against it. That kind of reflection is so necessary, and yet so rare among the camp-follower foreign cheerleaders, on their revolutionary summer vacations.

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Beyond the 9/11 Commission

Sidney Blumenthal writes in Salon and elsewhere on the untold story of Condi Rice's role in the destruction of the Middle East peace process, noting that "the pattern of her conduct and the president's on the Middle East is of a piece with the carefully arranged disregard of terrorism despite all warnings before 9/11."

He ends his piece with the following slamdunk:

"The story of the Middle East debacle, like that of the pre-9/11 terrorism fiasco, reveals the inner workings of Bush's White House: The president, aggressive and manipulated, ignorant of his own policies and their consequences, negligent; the secretary of state, prideful, a man of misplaced gratitude, constantly in retreat; the vice president as Richelieu, secretive, conniving, at the head of a neoconservative cabal, the power behind the throne; the national security advisor, seemingly open and even vulnerable, posing as the honest broker, but deceitful and derelict, an underhanded lightweight."

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More required reading: Center for American Progress

Anyone reading this blog should be interested in receiving daily emails from the Center for American Progress, an outfit run by John Podesta (Clinton's former Chief of Staff) and Mort Halperin. They do a blistering analysis of daily news, with a slant, of course.

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What have the Salvadorans gotten themselves into?

379 Salvadoran troops (one was killed last week) are stationed at a base in Najaf under the command of the Spanish-led Plus Ultra Brigade. Col. Hugo Omar Orellana Calidonio, the top Salvadoran commander in Iraq, told La Prensa Gráfica: "The information I have is that on the side of Kufa, there are still armed elements. On the side of Najaf, apparently the police are still carrying out their work."

Hmmm. He might want to get some better intelligence on the situation.

The New York Times reports today:

An official in the occupation authority said Wednesday that allied and Iraqi security forces had lost control of the key southern cities of Najaf and Kufa to the Shiite militia, conceding that months of effort to win over the population with civil projects and promises of jobs have failed with segments of the population.

"Six months of work is completely gone," the official said. "There is nothing to show for it."

He cited reports that government buildings, police stations, civil defense garrisons and other installations built up by the Americans had been overrun and then stripped bare, of files, furnishings and even toilet fixtures.

Meanwhile, back at the Defense Department press conference yesterday:

Question: Mr. Secretary, from what you understand, are there any areas of the country that are not under control of coalition forces?


Question: Could you tell us which areas those are?

SEC. RUMSFELD: Oh, An Najaf. I mean, clearly you've got what, how many -- I don't know how many millions -- I've heard all kinds of numbers of pilgrims that are in that general area. And we know that Sadr and his militia is in that general area. And we've made a conscious decision to -- at the request of Iraqis, to stand back during this pilgrimage period. And I in my opening statement pointed out that we think it's a dangerous place and a place that people who are considering engaging in the pilgrimage ought to very carefully calculate, because it's very clear we're not in a position to provide protection for them. And it's also very clear that Zarqawi has indicated he thought it was a good idea to go out and kill Shi'a.

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Quotes of the Day


"We're trying to explain how things are going, and they are going as they are going.... [this] is one moment, and there will be other moments. And there will be good moments and there will be less good moments."

"...And anyone who knows anything about history and looks back at the difficulties and the potholes in the road as you go through that, that series of difficult stages you have to go through, understands what's taking place and what has to take place and what has taken place in other countries."

Donald Rumseld, cited in Maureen Dowd's column today in the New York Times, and then Rumsfeld in yesterday's press briefing.

Aren't those Princeton boys so articulate?


"They have concluded he was so surrounded by sycophants he had no real idea of what was happening in his country."

No, not George W., but Saddam Hussein. This is the conclusion his FBI interrogators have reached. (TPM pointed this one out.)

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Reason from the right

"This is the wrong war, at the wrong place, against the wrong enemy. And America will pay a price. Those of us who are Republicans can only regret that the GOP — and its foreign policy — have been hijacked by a crew of neoconservatives who hold hegemonic and imperial ambitions for the United States. Their crusading zeal and reckless indifference to the prudent principles of foreign-policy realism have led the United States into a morass from which it will be difficult for us to extricate ourselves."

--Christopher Layne, formerly a visiting fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, in the L.A. Weekly.

Whoops, he said that over a year ago!

This is what he says today, in a column published down under (anti-war conservatives have to go far from the U.S., it appears, to get their voice heard):

"The time has come for the US to cut its losses and disengage from Iraq as quickly as it can. Staying on will not make things better. The resistance to the US-led occupation will grow and Iraq will become a magnet for Islamic fighters who want to take on the US.

If the US withdraws, will there be costs? Of course there will. Iraq could fracture, the Middle East – believe it or not – could become less stable than it is presently and some might question US resolve. The truth is, however, that sooner or later the US is going to have to pay these costs.

Once resistance to their rule reaches a threshold, colonial powers don't win wars of national resistance. If that threshold hasn't quite been reached in Iraq during the past few days, it soon will be."

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Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Electoral observations (4): Joe DeRaymond

Following up on a series of comments by people who were in El Salvador during the last elections, Joe DeRaymond --whose article in Counterpunch is here-- writes the following:

I just came upon a charge by Tommy-Sue Montgomery-Abrahams that I was factually wrong when I state the following:

"On March 24, three days after the election, the United States Ambassador to El Salvador, Douglas Barkley, came out with a statement that the US government would recognize any government chosen by the Salvadoran people, and that the remesas and immigration policy were not at risk at any time. What a bizarre, cowardly act, days after the election, after he had refused to state this during the campaign, and had even refused to allow a picture of him with the FMLN candidate to be published."

She states that the Ambassador had made it clear on "a couple of occasions" during the campaign period that he would work with any elected government. She cites a personal meeting with US residents during which he told these US citizens that he would honor the results of the election. This does no good in terms of defusing the campaign of fear directed at the Salvadoran people by US officials and ARENA. In my monitoring of the press in the weeks before the election, I only read of the Ambassador's refusal to allow distribution of his photo with Schafik Handal. I believe that a strong statement by the Ambassador, similar to what he said after the election, was in order before the election, in light of the heavy press emphasis given to people such as Fisk, Likens, Noriega, Reich and the US congressmen Tancredo, Burton and Diaz-Ballart.

Also, while there has been extensive criticism in the comments of this blog about the poor conduct of the election by Schafik and the FMLN "ortodoxos", and about the nightmare of Schafik as a candidate, I would like to honor the commitment of Schafik in the struggle for social justice. The FMLN has come a long way in a short time, has converted itself from a guerrilla army to a political force for a new El Salvador. They have made mistakes, but I look at my nation with Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and compare them to Schafik - an anti-war candidate, a socialist, a human being presented to the people without the PR makeup applied to the fresh faces of actors and sports announcers. He and the FMLN deserved a fair shake, and, in my opinion, did not get it....

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An honest conservative on Iraq

I'll take an honest conservative over a knee-jerk, ignore-any-inconvenient-facts type of liberal any day.

George Will is one example of the former (most of the time), and in today's Washington Post column he takes on some of the fundamental fallacies of current administration policy in Iraq. Will is a realistic supporter of imperialism, which he says is a "bloody business," and calls on Americans to "steel themselves for administering the violence necessary to disarm or defeat Iraq's urban militias, which replicate the problem of modern terrorism -- violence that has slipped the leash of states."

Although coming to different conclusions, I found myself agreeing with much of Will's analysis. Although I tend to think Juan Cole probably knows what he's talking about more than CPA spokespeople, who try to minimize the size and nature of the Shiite uprising, Will nevertheless makes a valid point (well-known to any student of revolutions) that "history usually is made not by majorities but by intense minorities." Will then goes on to authoritatively cite Richard Pipes, noting that "there may have been fewer Bolsheviks than there are members of Sadr's militia" when the Bolsheviks triumphed. (Harold Meyerson makes a similar analogy to Bolshevism in another column in the Post today.)

In Will's analysis, the only way out of this is for the U.S. to do more -- much, much more. But alternative scenarios of failure --which I find more likely-- also flow from his thinking: "U.S. forces in Iraq are insufficient for [the] mission; unless the civil war is quickly contained, no practicable U.S. deployment will suffice."

One only has to listen on CNN to the politicians stuck inside the "green zone" of Baghdad, as well as those inside the Beltway, to quickly realize that these guys are not strategic thinkers, they are mystics -- people who believe they can magically change reality in an ever-so-foreign country, by simply willing it to be so.

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Iraq: exit strategies and moral dilemmas

"One recent poll shows that near-plurality of Americans now favors our leaving Iraq. But precisely because this was not a war we had to fight, just up and leaving would be politically and morally duplicitous. We wrested control of Iraq when we did not have to, and leaving it to its own devices as sectarian violence grows worse would be a dismal end. The only unequivocally good policy option before the American people is to dump the president who got us into this mess, who had no trouble sending our young people to Iraq but who cannot steel himself to face the Sept. 11 commission alone."

--Harold Meyerson column in today's Washington Post

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Forging a failed state

"It seems inevitable to me that the US military will pursue a war to the death with the Army of the Mahdi, the Sadrist movement, and Muqtada al-Sadr himself. They will of course win this struggle on the surface and in the short term, because of their massive firepower. But the Sadrists will simply go underground and mount a longterm guerrilla insurgency similar to that in the Sunni areas.

The United States has managed to create a failed state, similar to Somalia and Haiti, in Iraq."

--Juan Cole

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Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Editorializing on Iraq

Today's editorials reflect on Salvador's involvement in Iraq, and range from ridiculous (EDH), to bland (LPG), to acutely critical (El Faro).

First, the ridiculous. After blaming Jimmy Carter for the rise of Islamic fundamentalism (remember Iran?), El Diario de Hoy compares the death of young Méndez Ramos to that of thousands of others who have fallen in their own country due to terrorism and insanity. "It's not the first, and it won't be the last: many experts on this kind of conflagrations anticipate that the war against terror might last fifty years." Then, in comparing Al-Sadr to Hitler, they say that "the internal situation in Iraq, which due to the circumstances does not have its own government, opens the door to these kind of demented minds. In other countries of the muslim world, dictatorships reign, impeding calls to war although not necessarily hate."

Dictatorship is the answer? And here I thought it was only us anti-war types who supposedly preferred dictatorships (like that of Saddam) to the tragic democracy-by-force experiment in Iraq!

La Prensa Gráfica avoids saying much of anything: the situation gets more complicated every day, and eventually some decisions will need to be made....

But it is the alternative online newspaper El Faro, which is run voluntarily by editors (one of whom, Carlos Dada, spent time in Iraq last year for La Prensa Gráfica) and young journalists, that provides the best analysis and commentary:

First, they ask why it was that only Salvadorans, and no Spanish, were killed or wounded in this attack. Part of the answer lies in the fact that Salvadorans have only ever functioned in a security role in Iraq. After noting the cynicism of President Flores for continuing to call Salvadoran involvement "humanitarian," they say that Salvadoran soldiers are "canon fodder in a foreign country."

"And they have been put there by a decision-- still not explained-- by their own president, and which has hardly been justified by the foreign minister, who insists in pretending, based on a sui generis interpretation of UN resolutions, that the troop presence follows a mandate of the United Nations. But the UN is no longer institutionally in Iraq, and no soldier has ever used the insignia of that body...

But the Salvadoran president happily accepted the U.S. request [to send troops], and with the pretext of aiding in reconstruction, and with the support of three political parties (ARENA, PCN and PDC), soldiers were sent to Iraq who only know how to fight, not rebuild anything. According to studies of IUDOP, some 61% of the Salvadoran population opposed this deployment of troops. It didn't matter....

The death of soldier Natividad Ramos Méndez isn't the reason for which we shouldn't be in Iraq, but rather a tragic invitation to reflect on what sense it makes to risk our fellow countrymen's lives in a war which more than 77% of Salvadorans opposed. A war that isn't our war, nor that of humanity; and which never was."

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New York Times on Salvadoran maquilas

"If they would just treat us like human beings, even without raising the minimum wage, my life would be better," says Marina del Carmen Leiva, a 32-year-old mother, who works in a maquila for $152 a month, and is the sole supporter of three children, in an article in today's New York Times.

"In a country with a 42 percent unemployment rate, these workers are considered lucky to have a job, even if it does pay the lowest of the country's three minimum wages," notes economics reporter Elizabeth Becker. The main thrust of the story is about labor rights and CAFTA, and notes that El Salvador "has a miserable record of upholding its labor laws."

The arch-conservative daily El Diario de Hoy is the local distributor of the Spanish-language summary of the New York Times every Sunday. I can't wait for this article to run--one that EDH would never dream of printing in its own pages (save for the weekly magazine Vértice).

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Quotes of the Day

"We can't leave. If it takes a million f---ing American lives, we have to stay."
--an officer with a major U.S. security firm in Iraq, on the difference between Mogadishu and Fallujah, cited in April 12th Newsweek.

"Demonstrations are an important part of democracy but blocking traffic will not be permitted."
--Calls from a loudspeaker while US tanks pointed at a crowd in Firdos Square, Baghdad, from Naomi Klein's editorial in today's Guardian. She also writes: "At the front of the square was the statue that the Americans put up in place of the toppled one of Saddam. Its faceless figures are supposed to represent the liberation of the Iraqi people. Today they are plastered with photographs of Moqtada al-Sadr."

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The Pulitzer prizewinner

Everyone has now heard that Anthony Shadid from the Washington Post has won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Iraq. I found this brief anecdote from a lecture -- which is worth reading in its entirety -- that he gave March 11 at Harvard.

The first paragraph below is an excerpt of an article he wrote last June (the actual article was edited), while the second is what happened afterwards:

"To Staff Sgt. Charles Pollard, the working-class neighborhood of Mashtal is 'a very, very, very, very bad neighborhood.' His frustration in training Iraqi police is matched only by his suspicion, and he has one desire. 'U.S. officials need to get our asses out of here,' said the 43-year-old reservist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 'I say that seriously. We have no business being here. We will not change the culture they have in Iraq and Baghdad. Baghdad is so corrupted. All we are here is potential people to be killed and sitting ducks.' "

...Sgt. Pollard? His story is a little more colorful. He never recanted his quote, and he was disciplined. He was removed from his command and sent back to base. He became a folk hero of sorts. People hung up the article on the walls of the base known as Mule Skinner. They asked him to sign their T-shirts. They said that, somehow, he was giving voice to what they had wanted to say out loud for quite a while. His family sent out e-mails to protest his circumstances. But in the end, he was still punished for speaking out by a military that doesn't tolerate dissent.

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Semana Santa in El Salvador

A very sober political cartoon from today's La Prensa Gráfica

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Press roundup: What exactly happened in Najaf?

It seems clear that, apart from the closing of the al-Hawza newspaper 10 days ago, Sunday's clashes were sparked by the arrest of a top al Sadr aide for alleged involvement in the assassination of a rival ayatollah last year. Now it appears that Kufa, a mere 8 kilometers from Najaf and now under the control of al Sadr's Mahdi Army, is "the first Iraqi city to spin entirely out of occupation control." Also, reports the Times today, US forces "appeared to have settled on a high-risk strategy, adopting a tougher stance instead of seeking, as they often have in the past, to avoid confrontation that might fan antagonism for the Americans."

But what really happened outside the Spanish garrison -- where a dozen Salvadoran troops were wounded and one killed, among other casualties -- is still far less clear. A review of different accounts yields wildly divergent reports.

Here, for example, is the official story from the U.S. Central Command:

U.S. Central Command Background Briefing
Presenter: Senior CENTCOM Official
Monday, April 5, 2004 2:01 p.m. EDT

"...This started in An Najaf with a large demonstration that got out of control. We don't think it was initially intended, at least by the demonstrators, to get out of control, but somewhere amidst the crowds that were out there, some snipers started firing at coalition members and it did get out of control.

Ultimately they went to our Joint Coordination Center that was established to work coordination between the police and the Civil Defense Corps and the coalition in preparation for the Arba'in activities that will be going on over the next week, and they also attacked a compound that housed the folks from the Spanish brigade there.

The El Salvador quick response team or force counterattacked, and we did lose one El Salvadoran during that effort. But they relieved the pressure on those facilities and ultimately -- I won't say brought calm, but ended the attacks there...."

This account makes it sound as though Salvadoran troops weren't attacked initially, but rather that they came to the defense of others who were. That could square with an NPR report that "witnesses reportedly said Spanish and Iraqi troops opened fire on the crowd after protesters threw stones at them" -- but "Spanish" here could mean "Spanish-speaking," which could include Salvadorans. Kind of hard to know since we don't know who "reportedly" said this.

Of course, how much should we believe the Central Command? They also report that the Mahdi Army has only about 3000 members. But a New York Times story yesterday says that it is "estimated to number in the tens of thousands, [and] also formed their own religious courts and prisons."

The Los Angeles Times attributed the reason for eventual calm not to Salvadoran bravery but to airpower: "the demonstration at the Spanish-run base in Najaf, about 80 miles south of Baghdad, ended only after coalition fighter jets and helicopters buzzed low over the crowds."

The Washington Post first reported Sunday night that "Sadr's supporters were marching on a Spanish-led garrison when the fighting broke out. A spokesman for the Spanish headquarters in nearby Diwaniyah, Commander Carlos Herradon, told the AP that the protesters opened fire first. But protesters who gathered at a Kufa mosque after the fighting subsided said they had returned fire after occupation soldiers took up firing positions on the roof of a nearby hospital and began shooting into the crowd." However, the next paragraph of the Post piece includes a long quote from a member of the Mahdi Army with essentially the same perspective.

Monday's edition carried a somewhat different version, including the sensational line that "witnesses said they saw militiamen capture a Salvadoran soldier and execute him by forcing a live grenade into his mouth." No one else reported this, as far as I can find. Specifically, the report said:

A lengthy firefight erupted in the city between Salvadoran troops and a crowd of thousands of Sadr followers. The clash occurred less than a mile from the mosque where two days earlier, Sadr, who has been at odds with occupation authorities for months, for the first time urged his followers to strike occupation forces "where you meet them."

Sadr issued new instructions after the firefight in Kufa, which continued for hours and eventually drew in Apache attack helicopters and U.S. warplanes. The statement advised followers to give up on demonstrations and "resort to other things." The Arabic instruction that followed could be interpreted as "intimidate your enemies" or "terrorize your enemies."

A Sadr spokesman said about 30 demonstrators were killed in Kufa. The Reuters news agency quoted a health official, however, as saying the death toll was 20. Protesters said the day began with a peaceful demonstration against the arrest of a Sadr aide on Saturday on charges of conspiring in the year-old killing of a senior Shiite cleric friendly to the United States.

So, are we talking about simple, peaceful "demonstrators" here, or organized and armed members of the Mahdi Army. If it's the latter, why give their version so much credibility and label them mere "demonstrators"?

In what almost appears to be written by an entirely different reporter, the same Post article goes on with further details. Now the peaceful demonstrators become "armed marchers" and "militiamen" replete with small arms, RPGs and mortars:

"The Kufa demonstration began with armed marchers taking over the city's courthouse and traffic police headquarters. Several thousand chanting marchers then proceeded toward the city's occupation military base.

Journalists at the scene said Salvadoran troops manning the post first fired noise charges to disperse the crowd, then followed with live fire. A senior U.S. officer in Baghdad denied that occupation forces fired first.

The militiamen fired small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. At one point, several dozen swarmed toward a military vehicle caught outside the base, capturing and killing the Salvadoran soldier after warning bystanders to stand aside. Two other badly beaten Spanish-speaking soldiers were seen being taken into Sadr's headquarters at the Kufa mosque, and though the military adjusted its initial report of fatalities from four to two in the hours after the conflict, Sadr officials denied holding any prisoners."

NPR's Phillip Reeves gave a report last night that dispelled any notions that these were simply peaceful demonstrators. Reeves spoke with a doctor, who said "the Al Sadr teaching hospital was trapped in the midst of a long firefight. On the one side, in the military base, Spanish and Salvadoran soldiers, and Iraqi guards, were firing; on the other, young men wearing the black uniform of the Al Mehdi Army. 'They were using Kalashnikovs and hand grenades, and by the way, when they first came, they took the weapons of the hospital guards.'"

On the other hand, Middle East expert Juan Cole suggested that Salvadoran inexpertise at "crowd control" might have been the problem, citing the Salvadoran military's "poor human rights record." Given the lack of any fighting in El Salvador over the past twelve years, and the youth of the troops sent to Iraq -- by the way, there was a sum total of three violations by the army denounced to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman last year-- this seems to me to be both uninformed and biased speculation. Cole backed away somewhat from this speculation, however, after I emailed him some comments.

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Juan Cole analysis of the uprising

Buried in Juan Cole's Informed Comment blog is an updated analysis that he initially posted on Sunday in which he describes the current moment as "Phase 2 of the Anti-Occupation Uprising." It's worth quoting at length here, as it's the most substantive analysis I've yet seen:

The always tense relationship between the Sadrist movement among Iraqi Shiites and the US and its Coalition partners has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Perhaps a third of Iraqi Shiites are sympathetic to the radical, Khomeini-like ideology of Sadrism, and some analysts with long experience in Iraq put it at 50%. Earlier Muqtada Al-Sadr, the movement leader, had called on his forces to avoid violence against Coalition forces. As of Saturday and Sunday, he appeared to have feared that the Coalition meant permanently to exclude his group from power, and had decided to launch an uprising. This uprising involved taking over police stations in Kufa, Najaf, Baghdad and possibly elsehwere

…So far, about 60% of clashes with Coalition troops had occurred in the Sunni heartland of Iraq. But the violent clashes in Najaf, Baghdad, Amara and Nasiriyah may signal the beginning of a second phase, in which the US faces a two-front war, against both Sunni radicals in the center-north and Shiite militias in the South. The clashes come at a pivotal moment, since on Friday April 9, the Shiite festival of Araba'in will take place, coinciding this year with the anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The protests on Saturday and Sunday were sparked by the Coalition arrest on Saturday of Sadrist cleric Mustafa Yaqubi, the head of the Najaf office of Muqtada al-Sadr. Initially the Spanish denied the arrest, which provoked large demonstrations in Baghdad on Saturday led by Muhammad al-Tabatabai, a key aide of Muqtada al-Sadr there. But AP now says that the Coalition Provisional Authority admits that it has indeed arrested Yaqubi. Sadrist spokesmen in Baghdad complained that no reason was given for the arrest, and promised to reply "with every means necessary," according to ash-Sharq al-Awsat.

…The problem began in some ways on Sunday March 28, when Paul Bremer decided to close the main Sadrist newspaper, al-Hawza, purportedly for publishing material that incited violence against Coalition troops. Many observers in Iraq said that move was a mistake, since no specific violence could be traced to the newspaper, and closing it was itself a provocation. As it turns out, it seems clear that the newspaper closing played into Muqtada al-Sadr's apocalyptic mindset. He became convinced that it meant the US planned to silence him and destroy his movement, leaving him no choice but to launch an uprising. The Coalition, which just closed a newspaper for 2 months, probably thought of it as a relatively mild response to Sadr's own provocations. But Muqtada saw his father and brothers cut down by Saddam and he is clearly a paranoid personality deeply traumatized by Baath terror against Shiites, and he views the Americans as little different from the Baathists. Saddam also sent warnings to Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, in January of 1999, which were a prelude to Sadiq's assassination in February of that year. Then the pursuit of the al-Khoei murder, which many in the CPA lay at Muqtada's doorstep, even raise the specter that he will be arrested and executed for it. In Muqtada's own mind, the Coalition 'warnings' were perceived as a prelude to removing him. The US army appears to have seriously threatened him with arrest or worse last October, so he has seen this phenomenon before. At that time he backed down.

Why did the CPA take this risk? The US is aware that since it is turning over sovereignty to an Iraqi government on June 30, indigenous Iraqi political forces have begun jockeying for position in the post-occupation phase. Closing Muqtada's newspaper and arresting a key aide in Najaf are probably actions aimed in part at attempting to curb the influence of the Sadrists, who otherwise might well sweep to power in an elected Iraqi parliament next January.

The outbreak of Shiite/Coalition violence is a dramatic challenge to US military control of Iraq. The US is cycling out its forces in the country, bringing in a lot of reserve and national guards units, but will go from 130,000 to only 110,000 troops. It is too small a number to really provide security in Iraq, but the country has not fallen into chaos in part because the main attacks have come in the Sunni heartland and because the Coalition has depended on Shiite militias to police many southern cities. If the Shiites actively turn against the US, the whole military and security situation could become untenable. The US is already losing its Spanish coalition partner. The Japanese and Korean contingents are explicitly not there to fight. The Thais may decamp. The coalition partners probably provide a division altogether, and if they pulled out, the US would have to find a division to replace them. It only has 10 itself, and nobody else is going to come in under these circumstances--certainly not the UN and probably not NATO.

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Iraqi police training effort crumbles

Yesterday's Washington Post piece significantly asserted that "much of Kufa's American-trained police force joined the side of the Sadr forces when the firefight started in late morning." In today's Post, it is noted that a similar kind of welcoming was given to Mahdi militiamen by Iraqi police in Sadr City, Baghdad.

Similarly, the New York Times' John F. Burns reported yesterday:

"Taking advantage of an American policy that has largely kept American and other occupation troops out of volatile Shiite population centers like Sadr City, Najaf and Kufa, the militiamen succeeded in taking control of checkpoints and police stations in all three cities that had been staffed by the new Iraqi-trained police and civil defense force. Residents in the three centers said the Iraqis had abandoned their posts almost as soon as the militiamen appeared with their weapons, leaving the militiamen in unchallenged control..."

Indeed, today's New York Times picks up on this point in writing about Sadr City:

The detritus of battle scattered about the streets called into question the success of the plan for American-backed Iraqi police to take control of the city. "Mahdi Army men took over the police station," said a young man named Mohammed, speaking of the militiamen. "The Iraqi police don't like problems. So they stepped aside and said, `Welcome.' "

And from Kufa, another Times article notes that "on Sunday, as part of the uprising orchestrated by Mr. Sadr, hundreds of militiamen took over Kufa, driving out Iraqi security forces. On Monday, blue-and-white Iraqi police trucks cruised the streets. But it was bearded, black-clad men loyal to Mr. Sadr who were driving them. The police stations and government offices are now occupied by Mr. Sadr's agents, who enforce an austere version of Islam and have even set up their own religious courts and prisons. The town is basically an occupation-free zone."

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Monday, April 05, 2004

War in Iraq hits home

Little news today as most of the country takes off for Semana Santa, but papers give prominent, multiple-page coverage to the attacks in Iraq, with the death of 20-year-old Natividad Méndez Ramos (the first combat death of a Salvadoran), and the wounding of twelve other of his compatriots. One colonel explained the initial confusion around the report of four soldiers killed as due to the fact that, after Méndez was picked off by a sharpshooter, several soldiers around him feigned death so that they would not be targets.

According to his mother, Méndez had joined the army at the age of 14, and was the main support for his mother and four other children, regularly giving her $170 of his $200 monthly salary. Méndez hails from cantón San Andrés, town of Guaymango, department of Ahuachapán in western El Salvador; oddly, four other soldiers currently in Iraq are also from that cantón (which translates into about 2% of the entire Salvadoran batallion). Not surprisingly, FMLN and CDU legislators quickly called for the return home of Salvadoran troops in Iraq.

About that salary.... it's worth noting that the Blackwater guys killed last week in Falluja were making up to $1000 a day; that's 150 times what this young Salvadoran was making.

Of course, all of that pales in comparison to the "secret $340,000 monthly stipend" still handed over to Ahmad Chalabi, "the Pentagon's heartthrob and the State Department's and CIA's heartbreak," according to Arnaud de Borchgrave of the Washington Times. (I suspect that this sum goes to the Iraqi National Congress, not Chalabi himself, but I wouldn't rule anything out given Chalabi's past shenanigans in Jordan, where he was sentenced in absentia to 22 years hard labor for massive bank fraud.)

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John F. Burns of the NYT: Must-read on Iraq

I've only recently started paying very close attention, but it seems as though there is really no other reporter in Iraq that can compare to the Times' John F. Burns. Take these snippets from Monday morning's story, which give an analytical and contextual perspective on events that no other journalists have provided thus far:

* Seven American soldiers were killed in Sadr City, one of the worst single losses for the American forces in any firefight since Baghdad was captured a year ago.

* Residents in the three centers said the Iraqis had abandoned their posts almost as soon as the militiamen appeared with their weapons, leaving the militiamen in unchallenged control — and punching a huge hole in American hopes that American-trained Iraqis can be relied on increasingly to take over from American troops in providing security in Iraq's major cities.

* Together, the events in Falluja and the other cities on Sunday appeared likely to shake the American hold on Iraq more than anything since the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's government last April 9.

* Privately, senior American officers have said for months that American prospects here would plummet if the insurgency spread into the Shiite population, leaving American and allied troops with no safe havens anywhere except possibly in the Kurdish areas of the north.

* Using the insistently understated language that the American command has used at every juncture of the war, he described the Najaf fighting as "a fairly significant event," but added, "At this point, it's pretty settled down."

* Ayatollah Sistani sent a message from his headquarters in Najaf in which he appeared eager not to distance himself from a cause that had attracted popular support ... [an aide] considered the militiamen's cause to be "legitimate" and condemned the "acts waged by the coalition forces."

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Sunday, April 04, 2004

Iraq Update: Salvadoran soldier killed

First photo: A Salvadorean soldier watches over the Iraqi village of Al Sahla, April 3, 2004, following a firefight with a little known Shi'ite militia the previous night. Picture taken April 3 REUTERS/Ali Jasim. Second photo: A wounded man is carried after crowds of protesters, including members of the Mehdi Army marched on a Spanish garrison near Kufa April 4, 2004. Photo by Ali Abu Shish/Reuters.

This just in, although the Salvadoran Ministry of Defense says only one soldier was killed and 12 wounded:

KUFA, Iraq (Reuters) - Spanish-led troops and Iraqi police fought a three-hour gun battle with Iraqi Shi'ite militiamen near Najaf Sunday, leaving at least 20 people dead and some 200 wounded, witnesses and medical officials said.

The shooting began after protesting militiamen marched on a Spanish-run military base in Kufa, near Najaf, to denounce the arrest of an aide to a radical Shi'ite cleric and last week's closure by U.S. authorities of a militant Baghdad newspaper.

In a statement from Madrid, Spain's Defense Ministry said four soldiers from El Salvador were killed in the fighting and nine wounded. Salvadoran and other soldiers from Spanish-speaking countries are headquartered in Najaf. The statement said Spanish troops also fought in the clashes. Dr. Falah al-Numhna, the director general for health in Najaf, told Reuters 20 people were killed and at least 200 were wounded in the firefight. He said he believed at least two Iraqi police were among the dead. A Reuters correspondent who saw many of the dead said most were wearing the black uniform of the Mehdi Army.

Witnesses said the demonstrators, many of them armed, threw stones at a military vehicle arriving at the base and shortly afterwards Spanish-led troops and Iraqi police at the base opened fire on the crowd from several directions.

Black-clad members of the Mehdi Army, a banned militia loyal to radical anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr returned fire at the heavily defended garrison. Fighting continued for around three hours before dying down....

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On nation-building in Iraq

Devastating critique and analysis by Anthony Cordesman, CSIS fellow and frequent military expert seen on ABC, in the Washington Post today. His conclusion is sober: we have to "accept the fact there will be many more horrifying images to come, that we face at least another year of war, and that we need bipartisan support for both continued conflict and nation-building." However, he neglects to mention any substantive suggestions as to how exactly the U.S. can succeed in nation-building. Bipartisan suport won't cut it; I suspect nothing will.

Here's a worthwhile excerpt:

"...Iraq affects vital American strategic interests. Regardless of whether the United States should have invaded Iraq, the fact is that it did. Its power and prestige are now on the line. It also has stakes in the future of allied leaders in Britain, Australia, Italy, Spain, Poland and many other countries. Its influence in the Persian Gulf -- with some 60 percent of the world's proven reserves of crude oil -- is at risk, as is its strategic position in the rest of the Middle East. If the United States abandons Iraq, it hands Islamic extremists all over the world a decisive victory, and effectively makes Osama bin Laden the victor -- regardless of what happens to him and al Qaeda.

Must the United States remain in Iraq until it succeeds there? No. If the Iraqis reject U.S. support through their own government or if they engage in civil war, no one will fault the United States for exiting. In every other scenario, however, withdrawal will be a serious defeat.

Much of the reason that the United States now faces a war after the war is that senior officials in the Bush administration indulged in a neoconservative fantasy that Saddam's regime would crumble in ways that allowed unknown and unpopular Iraqi exiles to govern. It did not plan to secure the country once the Iraqi armed forces were defeated. Its initial nation-building plans were little more than a sick joke that prepared for burning oil fields and a food crisis, but not for rebuilding a nation of 26 million devastated by 30 years of dictatorship, and more than 20 years of sanctions and war. The U.S. military had to change its scheme for a few months of relatively peaceful occupation into a plan for years of fighting a low-level conflict. The National Security Council and the interagency process failed to prepare for conflict termination in ways far more serious than any failures to defend the United States from the 9/11 attacks. Paul L. Bremer and the people appointed to the Coalition Provisional Authority inherited an intellectual and logistical vacuum, and have had to improvise ever since."

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Iraq analysis: worth checking out

Here's an excerpt from an article by Morton Abramowitz, former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in the Spring 2004 edition of The National Interest --the journal that most famously first published Francis Fukuyama's influential essay "The End of History?"-- posted on their website:

"Does Iraq Matter?"

The invasion of Iraq was in great part a role of the dice. The only certain consequence was an end to the Saddam Hussein regime--an unmitigated blessing--and to its potential military threats to its neighbors. But beyond that, there were no certainties and apparently little introspection and analysis in the top ranks of the executive branch. The future of Iraq was rather in the eyes of the beholder. Iraq policy is now increasingly a response to developments on the ground there and the vagaries of our domestic politics. Ending the Arab-Israel conflict would have far more influence on transforming the Arab world than creating a new Iraqi government.

Knowing what we now know about Iraq, one could make the argument that we would have been better off if we had spent only a fraction of the hundreds of billions our Iraq venture will end up costing us in bribing Arabs and Israelis into a settlement and enforcing it. Neither the United States nor any other democracy for that matter ever works that way. Hopefully, Iraq will turn out reasonably well. This is still certainly possible. Power, much money and better livelihood can contribute significantly. History, however, shows that short-term military occupations have rarely produced successful nation-building. "Staying the course" might just mean digging in. The best that can be said with some certainty is that to stay or leave Iraq is going to be messy, costly and engage our energies and public discussion for a long time to come.

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Saturday, April 03, 2004

El Salvador and the Iraqi Quagmire

It hasn’t been a good week for the U.S. in Iraq, and it might soon start turning ugly for Salvadoran troops stationed there as well.

On the heels of the Mogadishu-like slaying this weekof four American contractors (civilian, with security duties), on Thursday a patrol of the Salvadoran Cuscatlán Batallion in Iraq exchanged fire with some 10-15 men near the southern Iraqi town of Kufa; three Salvadorans were slightly injured. These are the first casualties of the second contingent of some 380 troops sent in February, which relieved the first contingent of 360 troops that had been in Najaf and Kufa since last August as part of the Spanish-led Plus Ultra Brigade. Not to worry, though, because the head of the Salvadoran Batallion told La Prensa Gráfica: “Here it is very peaceful, the biggest thing here is the religious problem.


This "religious problem," however, may have dire consequences for occupying forces. On Friday, according to a report in today’s Washington Post, Moqtada Sadr said in a sermon in Kufa: "I and my followers of the believers have come under attack from the occupiers, imperialism and the appointees. Be on the utmost readiness, and strike them where you meet them." Sadr is the 30-year-old radical Shiite and junior cleric whose newspaper, al-Hawza, was shut down this week by the US occupation force. He is important in this context because the Salvadorans suspect that it was his militia, known as the Mahdi Army, that clashed with their troops on patrol.

Sadr also said in his sermon: "From here, I declare my solidarity with the solidarity between Hezbollah and Hamas. May they consider me their striking hand in Iraq, whenever necessity requires it." And it is Islamic support for Hamas, in fact, according to University of Michigan historian and Middle East expert Juan Cole, which may have been behind the killing of four U.S. privatized military contractors this week. He writes in his blog, Informed Comment:

"There is increasing evidence that the brutal attack on the American security guards in Fallujah, and the desecration of their bodies, was the work of Islamists seeking vengeance for the Israeli murder of Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Leaflets found at the scene said the operation was in the name of Yassin. al-Hayat reports in its Friday edition that responsibility for the attack has been taken by a group called Phalanges of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. The group said the deaths were a "gift to the Palestinian people."

Meanwhile, Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald reports today that “thousands of supporters of a young Shiite cleric Friday staged the largest protest march since the fall of Baghdad nearly a year ago, gathering near the headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition to decry the closure last week of their newspaper. The huge turnout -- estimated at 20,000 -- was a disciplined flexing of muscle by the followers of Sheik Muqtada al Sadr and followed six straight days of growing protests against U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer's order shutting down the paper.”


So that tranquil little patch of Southern Iraq where Salvadorans are stationed may be in for a few surprises in future months.

As E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post noted, the attacks this week “suggest that the [June 30] deadline [for handing things over to the Iraqis] -- prompted more by the American electoral calendar than by circumstances in Iraq -- may be encouraging Iraqi insurgents to step up their efforts to create chaos.”

A more ominous analysis about Iraq’s future was offered by John F. Burns in the April 1 New York Times. He wrote: “Several Iraqis interviewed on Wednesday, including middle-class professionals, merchants and former members of Mr. Hussein's army, suggested that that the United States might be facing a war in which the common bonds of Iraqi nationalism and Arab sensibility have transcended other differences, fostering a war of national resistance that could pose still greater challenges to the Americans in the months, and perhaps years, ahead.”


Of course, look on the bright side. The Salvadoran contingent is largely made up of Special Forces—although they made sure to get a few drivers this time, since the only death thus far was the result of a driving accident—and who’s to say that these guys can’t join the outsourced forces of Blackwater and company after their stint in Iraq. Blackwater is one of many outfits known as Privatized Military Firms (PMFs), which is a $100 billion a dollar industry operating in over 50 countries worldwide.

After all, Blackwater has already hired 60 Chilean former commandos for security-related tasks in Iraq. According to a report in the Guardian, these guys make “up to $4,000 a month.” Hmmm. That’s funny, because the Washington Post article yesterday about Blackwater says their employees make up to $1000 a day.

What do you want to bet that Blackwater is billing at $1000 a day, and paying these Chilean footsoldiers… let's see, what would that be, 12% of their overall take?


Naomi Klein reports this week in The Nation about a visit with Hamid Jassim Khamis, the Baghdad Soft Drinks Company's managing director. As the local producers of Pepsi-Cola, she expected to find herself in an oasis of pro-Americanism. She was wrong:

"All the trouble in Iraq is because of Bremer," Khamis told me, flanked by a line-up of thirty Pepsi and 7-Up bottles. "He didn't listen to Iraqis. He doesn't know anything about Iraq. He destroyed the country and tried to rebuild it again, and now we are in chaos."

Klein notes that it is the profound sense of betrayal expressed by a pro-US businessman running a Pepsi plant that attests to the depths of the US-created disaster here. ‘I'm disappointed, not because I hate the Americans,’ Khamis tells me, ‘but because I like them. And when you love someone and they hurt you, it hurts even more.’”


On Privatized Military Firms (PMFs), of which Blackwater is one of many, see this story by Barry Yeoman, originally published in Mother Jones, May/June 2003

Also, this really amazing interview with P.W. Singer of the Brookings Institution, whose recent book, Corporate Warriors, examines the proliferation of (PMFs) and notes that the profit motive in warfare raises troubling questions for democracy, ethics, human rights, and national security.

And finally this article in yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor.

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