Inter Press Network

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Butler Report on WMD was watered down to protect Blair

By Melissa Kite and Patrick Hennessy

Downing Street secured vital changes to the Butler Report before its publication, watering down an explicit criticism of Tony Blair and the way he made the case for war in the House of Commons.

The Telegraph has established that the disagreement between No 10 and Lord Butler's inquiry team centred on a passage in an original draft of the report about Mr Blair's statement to MPs in September 2002. The original passage drew a much clearer contrast than the final version of the Butler Report between the strong case for war made by Mr Blair and the weakness of the intelligence the Prime Minister received about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

The changes secured by No 10 diluted the criticism of Mr Blair and helped Downing Street to mount its main defence - that the report showed that the Prime Minister was acting in good faith.

A member of Lord Butler's team has disclosed to The Telegraph that changes were made at the behest of No 10. However, the inquiry member also revealed that on the day he published his report, Lord Butler was preparing publicly to distance himself from Mr Blair if asked at his only press conference whether the PM should resign.

"It was not his job to bring down the Government," the inquiry member said. "But he was not going to back Blair either."

The deliberately equivocal answer Lord Butler had prepared - which in the end he did not have to deliver because the question was not asked - would have stood in conspicuous contrast to his explicit request in his report that John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, should not have to step down from his new post as head of MI6.

The attempts by the inquiry to make stronger criticism of Mr Blair in their report were hampered during an exchange of views between Lord Butler and Downing Street that began some 10 days before publication last Wednesday.

Under the rules governing inquiries, any individual who has been criticised or fears he may be criticised has the right to be shown sections of the draft in advance with a view to giving a response.

An inquiry member said: "This process was gone through. One or two things were changed. These were accepted by the committee."

In the original draft a passage on page 114 contained stronger criticism of Mr Blair's Commons statement of September 24, 2002. The report as published stated, in one of very few direct references to Mr Blair's conduct: "The language in the dossier may have left with readers the impression that there was fuller and firmer intelligence behind the judgments than was the case: our view . . . is that judgments in the dossier went to (although not beyond) the outer limits of the intelligence available.

"The Prime Minister's description, in his statement to the House of Commons on the day of publication of the dossier, of the picture painted by the intelligence services in the dossier as 'extensive, detailed and authoritative', may have reinforced this impression."

In the original draft this last sentence was much stronger, expressing the opinion that Mr Blair personally masterminded the misleading impression left by the dossier. The passage is important because Downing Street maintained last week that the report at no point questions Mr Blair's "good faith".

According to a member of the inquiry, however, the Prime Minister should not be regarded as in the clear. "The whole thing points straight to the man in charge . . . absolutely to where responsibility belongs, which is the Prime Minister, which is what we could not say."

The disclosures will put further pressure on Mr Blair following the revelation that the earlier Hutton inquiry was not told about the withdrawal of key intelligence which formed the basis for claims made by the dossier. Downing Street admitted that MI6 withdrew some elements of the intelligence supporting the Government's case for war because it was unreliable, but decided not to tell the Hutton inquiry.

Mr Blair's spokesman said that the intelligence service felt the withdrawal was "too sensitive" to be made public at that point. He said the Prime Minister had not been told and only became aware of the withdrawn intelligence because of Lord Butler's inquiry.

The disclosure is contained in the Butler Report with other nuggets of new information which are emerging piecemeal.

Members of the Butler inquiry have privately expressed frustration that the early reaction to the report included allegations of "whitewash", but they believe the evidence contained in it is damning.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "Lord Butler gave the final copy of the report to the Prime Minister on Tuesday last week. There is only one Butler Report."

Yesterday Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former foreign secretary, called on Mr Blair to resign because, he said, he had taken the country to war on a false premise.

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Published in the Telegraph,UK on 18/07/2004

Blair admits graves claim 'untrue'

by Peter Beaumont
Foreign affairs editor

Downing Street has admitted to The Observer that repeated claims by Tony Blair that '400,000 bodies had been found in Iraqi mass graves' is untrue, and only about 5,000 corpses have so far been uncovered.

The claims by Blair in November and December of last year, were given widespread credence, quoted by MPs and widely published, including in the introduction to a US government pamphlet on Iraq's mass graves.

In that publication - Iraq's Legacy of Terror: Mass Graves produced by USAID, the US government aid distribution agency, Blair is quoted from 20 November last year: 'We've already discovered, just so far, the remains of 400,000 people in mass graves.'

On 14 December Blair repeated the claim in a statement issued by Downing Street in response to the arrest of Saddam Hussein and posted on the Labour party website that: 'The remains of 400,000 human beings [have] already [been] found in mass graves.'

The admission that the figure has been hugely inflated follows a week in which Blair accepted responsibility for charges in the Butler report over the way in which Downing Street pushed intelligence reports 'to the outer limits' in the case for the threat posed by Iraq.

Downing Street's admission comes amid growing questions over precisely how many perished under Saddam's three decades of terror, and the location of the bodies of the dead.

The Baathist regime was responsible for massive human rights abuses and murder on a large scale - not least in well-documented campaigns including the gassing of Halabja, the al-Anfal campaign against Kurdish villages and the brutal repression of the Shia uprising - but serious questions are now emerging about the scale of Saddam Hussein's murders.

It comes amid inflation from an estimate by Human Rights Watch in May 2003 of 290,000 'missing' to the latest claims by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, that one million are missing.

At the heart of the questions are the numbers so far identified in Iraq's graves. Of 270 suspected grave sites identified in the last year, 55 have now been examined, revealing, according to the best estimates that The Observer has been able to obtain, around 5,000 bodies. Forensic examination of grave sites has been hampered by lack of security in Iraq, amid widespread complaints by human rights organisations that until recently the graves have not been secured and protected.

While some sites have contained hundreds of bodies - including a series around the town of Hilla and another near the Saudi border - others have contained no more than a dozen.

And while few have any doubts that Saddam's regime was responsible for serious crimes against humanity, the exact scale of those crimes has become increasingly politicised in both Washington and London as it has become clearer that the case against Iraq for retention of weapons of mass destruction has faded.

The USAID website, which quotes Blair's 400,000 assertion, states: 'If these numbers prove accurate, they represent a crime against humanity surpassed only by the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Pol Pot's Cambodian killing fields in the 1970s, and the Nazi Holocaust of World War II.'

It is an issue that Human Rights Watch was acutely aware of when it compiled its own pre-invasion research - admitting that it had to reduce estimates for the al-Anfal campaign produced by Kurds by over a third, as they believed the numbers they had been given were inflated.

Hania Mufti, one of the researchers that produced that estimate, said: 'Our estimates were based on estimates. The eventual figure was based in part on circumstantial information gathered over the years.'

A further difficulty, according to Inforce, a group of British forensic experts in mass grave sites based at Bournemouth University who visited Iraq last year, was in the constant over-estimation of site sizes by Iraqis they met. 'Witnesses were often likely to have unrealistic ideas of the numbers of people in grave areas that they knew about,' said Jonathan Forrest.

'Local people would tell us of 10,000s of people buried at single grave sites and when we would get there they would be in multiple hundreds.'

A Downing Street spokesman said: 'While experts may disagree on the exact figures, human rights groups, governments and politicians across the world have no doubt that Saddam killed hundreds of thousands of his own people and their remains are buried in sites throughout Iraq.'

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Published in:The Observer,UK on Sunday July 18, 2004,6903,1263830,00.html

Attorney General warned Blair on legality of war

By Severin Carrell and Andy McSmith

Tony Blair was warned before the Iraq war by the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, that a UN court could rule Britain's invasion unlawful, The Independent on Sunday has learnt.

The warning was in Lord Goldsmith's so far undisclosed legal opinion from 7 March last year, less than two weeks before the conflict began. Fearing that the International Court of Justice could rule it was illegal to go to war without the express authority of the UN Security Council, the Attorney General put senior barristers and international legal experts on standby to help to prepare the Government's defence if needed, legal sources said.

As Mr Blair prepares for Tuesday's parliamentary debate on the Butler inquiry, the revelation will intensify pressure on him to publish all Lord Goldsmith's legal advice leading up to the war.

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, is expected to join the chorus of those saying that John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, should be denied promotion to the job of the next head of MI6. But the Conservatives plan to concentrate their fire on Tony Blair.

Today, Mr Howard even suggested that if he had known then what the Butler report has since revealed about the preparations for war, he might have led his band of Tory MPs to vote against it. Interviewed by The Sunday Times he said: "It is difficult for someone, knowing everything that we know now, to have voted for that resolution."

Senior international legal experts have accused the Government of invading Iraq illegally, because it failed to get Security Council authority and there was no immediate threat to UK security. The former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a QC, said: "I think there's a case to answer. I think it's hugely difficult to argue that when the Security Council refuses to pass a resolution you can simply unilaterally use a previous resolution as a case for going to war."

Charles Kennedy, the Lib Dem leader, will press Mr Blair on why the Hutton inquiry was not told that intelligence on Iraq's chemical and biological weapons had been withdrawn by M16 prior to the decision to go to war, because it was unreliable.

An indication of the strength of public feeling came from the Leicester South by-election last week. The Lib Dems won what was previously a safe Labour seat, and a candidate for the anti-war fringe group Respect took more than 3,700 votes.

The Butler report's revelations about the discrediting of WMD intelligence have been seized upon by international legal experts, led by Professor Philippe Sands of University College, London. The report also showed for the first time that Mr Blair had ignored the fact that UN inspectors could find no evidence of an active weapons programme in Iraq - despite legal advice that "incontrovertible" evidence was needed before an invasion.

The Government insists that the Attorney General is bound by rules of lawyer-client confidentiality, and that publication would undermine his freedom to give frank opinions to ministers. However, the barrister Michael Mansfield said civil service rules clearly allowed ministers to publish legal advice.

Sir Menzies Campbell QC, Lib Dem foreign affairs spokesman, said Lord Goldsmith's opinions went "to the very heart of the decision to take military action. The rule that the Attorney General's advice should not be published was conceived in the public interest. On this issue, the public interest in disclosure over-rides any other consideration".

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Pblished in:
The Independent,UK on 18 July 2004

Iraqi Jews, cement trucks and Mideast citizenship rights

by Rami G. Khouri

ONE OF the more fascinating aspects of the evolving situation in Iraq relates to that country's past and future relationships with Jews and Israel, especially the repatriation and return of citizenship and property rights to tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews who left the country in the period 1930-1975. The repatriation issue surfaced in recent months when the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council debated whether to allow the return of Iraqi Jews who live abroad as citizens of other states, mainly Israel. The consensus in Iraq now seems to reject this option, because it raises the possibility of Israelis returning to live as Iraqi citizens. While that should be an unexceptional phenomenon in normal times, these are not normal times: most of the Arab world and Israel have been locked in a bloody confrontation for some three-quarters of a century. The core of the Arab-Israeli conflict — the creation of the state of Israel at the expense of the displacement and exile of the Palestinian Arab community — remains unresolved. Much of the suffering that Iraqis endured at the hands of their recent violent regimes was grotesquely rationalised by the former Iraqi police state on the basis of the struggle against Israel. And pro-Israeli American individuals and institutions in the neoconservative movement in Washington were key movers behind the war for regime change that has brought Iraq to its difficult situation today.

The issue is a live one, with the US government-run coalition authority in Baghdad and Iraqi Jewish groups in the US already discussing the possibility of repatriating former Iraqi Jews. The issue is complicated by conflicting narratives about why the Iraqi Jews left. Historical evidence supports both camps' arguments: that Iraqi officialdom harassed and killed Jews in order to make them flee, and that Zionist groups keen to attract Jews to the new state of Israel violently provoked Iraqi Jews to hasten their mass departure for Israel. Iraq's indigenous Jewish community numbered around 120,000 in 1948, but is virtually non-existent today. Natural growth over the years now sees Israelis of Iraqi origin numbering around 300,000-400,000.

The flip side to this question has all the subtlety of a cement truck: if Iraqi Jews have the right to repatriation to their ancestral land of origin, what does this mean for Palestinian refugees who also demand recognition of their right to return to their homes and land in Palestine, now the state of Israel? What is the most appropriate, legal, moral and decent way to handle this issue of the rights of Jews who left Iraq? Can it be decided in a manner that avoids charges of anti-Semitism against the Iraqis, and also charges of double standards and national or racial superiority complexes against Israelis and Jews?

Here are some thoughts on possible guidelines: pluralistic populations are powerful, productive and desirable, and deeply anchored in indigenous Middle Eastern traditions. Jewish citizens of Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Syria and other Middle Eastern lands enrich those societies, just as Christians and Muslims enrich Israel, Japan and China. We are better, stronger societies when we count assorted religions and ethnicities among our citizenry, provided that all enjoy equal individual liberties and privileges, and majority rule protects minority rights.

The issue of Iraqi Jews cannot and should not be considered in isolation. The specificity of uprooted and exiled Iraqi Jews, Palestinian Arabs, Kurds, Turkomens, Armenians, Christians, Druze or other displaced and violated minorities in the Middle East should be considered within a wider, comprehensive legal and moral framework. The resolution should offer universal principles that are evenly applied to all aggrieved parties, so that we avoid the ugly burdens of both pro-Jewish exceptionalism or anti-Jewish racism. This is not just a Jewish rights issue; it's a citizenship rights issue.

The universality and morality of the law should be the guiding principles for a resolution, rather than the force of political or military power at any moment in time. If Israel and the US feel particularly triumphant right now, and attempt to force Iraq to repatriate its Jewish sons and daughters without addressing equally valid repatriation claims by others in this region, the process will backfire, and lead to greater anti-American and anti-Israeli actions. You can bet that the Turkomens, Kurds and Armenians, among others, are watching this debate very closely.

A fair resolution should strike a realistic balance between absolute justice and relative, or attainable, justice — between what is perfectly right in the abstract and what is politically realistic today. This will require balancing the right of exiled people to return to their ancestral lands with other options — statehood, compensation, repatriation, restitution and others — that adequately redress their legitimate grievances. The key to success is that the exiled communities and individuals themselves must have the main say in defining this balance, once their rights are acknowledged in principle. The acknowledged rights and options must be offered to all claimant communities, if they are to have lasting meaning and validity to any of them.

History is a dynamic process that moves forward, not a static or a regressive one that moves backwards. The resolution of this issue — redressing the legitimate grievances, claims and pains of exiled, brutalised Middle Eastern minorities — should not aim to return to a glorious or mythical past. It should aim to acknowledge and heal the pains of the past and enforce rights grounded in law. This should happen ideally in a manner that allows all parties to transcend the hurt of history and move forward together on the basis of humane citizenship rights — above all, citizenship rights that treat all people in this region equally, not preferentially.(I do not agree, Iraqi Jews are the only Semitic Jews present today. They should go back to their homeland and be compensated in their homeland and not in Israel. Other Jews should go back to their homeland in New York - meso)

The people of the Arab world would do well to grasp this issue and address it quickly and forthrightly, in order to bring more law and morality to bear on resolving issues that plague us throughout this region.


First published in:
Jordan Times, Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Can Israel be saved?

Richard Ben Cramer talks about "How Israel Lost," his exploration of how the occupation of Palestinian land has corrupted the soul of the Jewish state he loves...

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By Gary Kamiya

July 19, 2004 | Richard Ben Cramer is not afraid of sacred cows. He bulldozed one of America's icons, Joe DiMaggio, in a bestselling biography, and peeped into the stinky hopper in which the sausage of democracy is ground in his classic study of the 1988 presidential campaign, "What It Takes." With "How Israel Lost: The Four Questions," Cramer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Middle East reporting in 1979, has taken on perhaps the most explosive, emotion-laden subject in America: Israel.

"How Israel Lost" is a mournful, passionate, hilarious lament for the endangered soul of a nation he loves. In a style that slips from the wisecracking cadences of a Miami Beach hondler to the dispassionate observations of a veteran journalist to the moral outrage of a world-weary humanist, Cramer argues that in the 20-plus years since he originally lived there, the Jewish state has suffered a cataclysmic sea-change, a blow to its spirit all the more tragic for being self-inflicted.

The cause of Israel's malaise, Cramer writes, is very simple: Its 37-year occupation of Palestinian land. The occupation, Cramer argues, is a gross and continuing injustice that has coarsened Israel's moral fiber, corrupted her politics and economy, and split Israeli Jews into bitterly opposed, self-interested tribes who have lost all sense of allegiance to anything beyond their own needs. The occupation has also had a deadly effect on Palestinians, stomping out the last embers of hope and creating a generation of sad, hardened children who know Israelis only as soldiers with guns.

"[T]here are no lives in Israel or Palestine that have not been heated or hardened," Cramer writes. "On the Palestinian side, there are so many lives and dreams on hold ('We are under occupation -- what can we do?') that the conflict has more or less replaced life -- or cooked it to a standstill. The only consolation is that everything can be (and is) blamed on Israel. Among the Jews, the effects are harder to pinpoint -- and, to me, more insidious -- because the whole point of Israel was to create a place where Jews could live the best life -- and liveliest -- according to their values."

Cramer acknowledges that many Israelis deny that the occupation is responsible for the woes that have befallen Israeli society, including domestic abuse, suspicion and school violence. But he says: "To me, it's an open-and-shut case: You can't ask two generations of your boys to act in the territories as the brutal kings of all they survey ('Break their bones,' was the order to his troops from the sainted Yitzhak Rabin, during the first Intifada -- six years before he became Israel's martyr to peace) -- and then expect those boys to come home, and live in lamblike gentleness as citizens, husbands, dads."

After the 1967 war, Cramer argues, Israelis were intoxicated by their success and by the epic transformation they had performed, turning the once-victimized Jew into "a fighter, a stoic, a Spartan ... Occupation -- they would make a new kind of occupation, too, the best the world had ever seen -- the Arabs would be grateful! ... And it never occurred to them that they -- their country, them, inside -- could be affected by being the occupiers. No, not these men of steel ..."

To support his thesis, Cramer tells endless stories -- poignant and powerful ones, narrated with verve and passion and controlled outrage. One is about an Israeli journalist of integrity, an editor for a big news show, forced to work around propagandistic demands from his superiors that he not interview Palestinian leaders and that all shows saying anything about Arabs take proper account of "their murderous nature." (He was fired.)

Another is about a Palestinian named Yusuf Abu Awad who "caught some bad luck at a checkpoint outside his village in the hills near Hebron." Awad was stopped by Israeli troops on the road, not even at a checkpoint, as Israeli troops have the right to do at any time. One of the soldiers, for no reason, started throwing rocks at his car. Yusuf complained. The soldier cursed him. The argument got intense.

Yusuf was ordered back into his car. But he couldn't let it drop. "There is no curfew. There's no demonstration. You're the only one throwing stones."

"Shut up, motherfucker, or I'll shoot you right now."

"You want to shoot, go ahead! You are the sonofabitch who's causing the trouble."

Cramer writes, "The soldier shot from a distance of about four feet. His gun had bullets that enter the target, then explode. Later, in the morgue, Yusuf's face was perfectly all right, but the top of his forehead, crown of his skull and his hair were simply gone. He was 31 years old. He left a wife, aged 25, a daughter of 6 and a son of 5."

An officer arrived, screaming, "What are you, crazy? Why'd you have to shoot him down? What could he do to you?" After the family filed a complaint (with the help of the Israeli human rights group B'tselem) the army investigated -- but "it emerged that Yusuf was accused of trying to take the soldier's weapon ... so, of course, the shooting was self-defense." Cramer does not reveal what happened to the soldier, but as B'tselem has revealed, the vast majority of such cases end with the soldiers receiving no more than a slap on the wrist, if that.

But if Cramer argues forcefully that Israel is ultimately at fault because it is the occupying power, he is at pains to show that neither side is blameless. One of his most powerful stories is about a decent, hardworking Palestinian who worked for Jewish Israelis for years, until a rival clan informed on him and the corrupt and thuggish Yasser Arafat machine decided he was a traitor and beat him, brutally, every day, for months. And Cramer makes sure to put human faces on the Israelis who have been killed in the latest bloody phase of the conflict.

Cramer is not a conventionally religious Jew. But his deepest belief is that the occupation, being unjust, represents a falling-away from what is highest and noblest in the Jewish tradition. He sees his work as being in the spirit of the Hebrew word l'hakshot, fearless questioning. "That argument, that questioning, even of the Commandments, of all supposed wisdom, is the essence of the religion," he said. "This was the first act of the first Jew. And the text of the argument is that you cannot kill the innocent with the guilty."

Not surprisingly, Cramer's assertion that the occupation has corroded Israel's moral legitimacy has led many critics to resurrect the venerable charge that he is a self-hating Jew, and provoked enraged or dismissive reviews in the American and Israeli press. But many of the reviews have also been positive. And Cramer thinks that the American Jewish community's monolithic support for Israel -- a support, he notes, that stands in embarrassing contrast to the range of acceptable views in Israel -- is beginning to crack.

I spoke to Cramer, who comes across as a combination of a charming raconteur, tough newspaperman and cigar-chomping Jewish uncle, at his San Francisco hotel during his national book tour -- a tour that he said he wanted to use to "go to every synagogue in America."

So what made you decide to jump into this hornet's nest? Anybody who writes about Israel knows that it's a no-win subject. And you knew you were going to get hammered.

Well, I grew up in this hornet's nest. I came of age as a reporter in this hornet's nest. So I wasn't unprepared. I thought I knew something about Israel. But I started reading news reports from Israel and from the territories that I just didn't recognize as coming from the place I knew. You know, I'd read a little squib, a one-paragraph story, "So-and-so, a photographer, was killed when an Israeli tank shot its cannon into a crowd in Gaza." And I'm thinking to myself, "Wait a minute. Who shot his cannon into a crowd of civilians in Gaza? On whose orders? And what happened to him?" And the short answer was, nothing happened to him. There were no more stories. And that didn't accord with what I remembered about Israel. So I knew something was changing. I didn't really know how much.

I also could see something was changing in the attitudes towards Israel. I'd look on the front page of the New York Times and I'd see two stories tombstoned -- you know, played equal, side by side. One would be about the latest suicide bomb and the other would be what the Israeli army did in the territories in response. And they were exactly equal. No judgment between them, no difference between them. And that never would have happened in my time as a foreign correspondent. Israel was presumed to have some moral standing. So I knew something big was moving there too. This is in the last couple of years, after the al-Aqsa Intifada.

I think when I got thoroughly disturbed by it was in spring 2001, when the Passover bombing happened, and then the Israelis went into the territories wholesale. I mean they took Jenin apart, they moved into all the territory they had ever ceded. Their tanks were rolling. I thought that this was the kind of story that no one was ever going to announce. You had to take it on yourself to go over there and find out what happened.

Tell me about your previous experience in the region.

I went to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1976. They sent me over to Egypt in December 1977 and with a couple of interruptions I stayed until I left the paper in 1984. So I had been absent from the Middle East for almost 20 years. I had gone back, but with no agenda -- I'd gone to a book fair over there. But I always followed the news like I would a story from my hometown. But I could see that it was changing, something big had happened, and nobody had told me what it was.

So what actually happened, my editor and I were sitting in a ratty delicatessen on 47th Street in New York, and there's this old kosher deli there and we're eating a couple of kosher hot dogs. And he says in his profane and immoral way, "You know, if the Arabs were smart they'd drop a bomb on 47th Street and kill a lot of Yids." [Laughs.] Being a Yid himself of course he can get away with it. And I said, "Yeah, they're so stupid they're winning every day." He said, "What do you mean by that?" And I started sketching out to him, not in any organized way, what I had been thinking about how the attitude to Israel had been changing, how Israel was losing her birthright of loyalty from the West. How the population of Israel seemed inured now to acts by her own soldiers that wouldn't have been stood for before. And being an American publisher he said, "Can you do that in six months?" [Laughs.] And I said no. We kept batting it back and forth, and within a couple of months I was in Israel. I got an apartment in Tel Aviv. One of the wonderful things about reporting in Israel is that any story is just a couple hours away. So I put about 30,000 or 40,000 miles on a rental car.

The main point of your book is the damage the occupation has done to many different aspects of Israeli society. You give a lot of different examples of that. Did you see this in a visceral way with Israelis that you had personally known from your first stint there?

Yes, I saw this on both sides of the divide. I had Palestinian friends who had now given up. The saddest thing I found was people who had not only high ideals before but the energy to pursue them, who now felt beaten down by years of this grinding cycle of violence. Who felt that they had lost the Israeli public when Barak's offer was refused in 2000. Israelis who felt that there was no choice but to vote for Sharon, because after all he was the only leader of standing on the left or the right that they could vote for. And that was shocking to me. People who hated Sharon. People who knew about Sharon from Lebanon, from Qibya! From the 1950s. And yet they ended up voting for Sharon because they simply didn't see what else they could do. The phrase that I heard more than any other was "There's no one else."

And that was another big change, a big loss for Israel. You know, in the old days -- I sound like a total codger, saying "in the old days" -- when I was there 20, 25 years ago, there was a kind of roster of statesmen-in-waiting, any one of whom could have been a prime minister and perhaps a good prime minister. That's not true anymore, either on the left or on the right. And in the Palestinian society there's such a dearth of leaders coming up under Arafat who could be tolerated by the current power structure that it gives you to wonder, "What the hell is going to happen when this generation passes?"

Going back to the notion that "there's no one else" -- you are very critical of the notion that all of the blame for the collapse of the Camp David talks should be laid at the feet of Yasser Arafat. An idea that is accepted, virtually unanimously it seems, in Israeli society. You argue that that is untrue. You blame all three sides, the Americans who rushed into it, Barak not approaching Arafat with any civility in negotiations, Arafat being totally unprepared. Why was the Israeli left so ready to put all the blame on Arafat?

Well, Barak convinced Israelis that he had offered Arafat the moon. And Clinton backed him up. Clinton in fact made Arafat come to that summit at Camp David in the year 2000. Because Clinton needed a deal right now. Clinton needed a legacy that did not involve the name Monica Lewinsky. And so the deal had to be made right now. Now, Barak also had a taste for that sort of instant solution. Arafat had no taste for it and had no expectation that he was going to get anything like a solution. So only when Clinton tells him, "Go ahead and come, if it doesn't work I won't blame you," did Arafat agree to come. And then immediately when it didn't work, Clinton blamed him. So the assurances from Barak and from Clinton were enough for the Israeli left. And they hated Arafat, like every other Israeli. So it was easy for them to believe that their own solution, the left solution, had been tried and had failed. And this was driven home with the force of a bullet by the new round of Palestinian attacks that immediately followed Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount.

Arafat came as usual with nothing in his hand. He didn't have a real lawyer, he didn't have any maps, he had nothing with which to negotiate. Nor had he had any preliminary discussions, either with neighboring states or with his own people. So he was in no position to begin to say, "Well, that doesn't work but what about this?" So he simply went home. Then Sharon went to the Temple Mount, the situation degenerated into a murderous rage on both sides and then Arafat was scrambling to get out in front of his own people and say "Brothers, I am leading you." [Laughs.]

But at that point the Israeli left could not say to the Israeli public, "Look, the proper course of action is to continue talking." The Israeli public recoiled from the entire prospect of negotiations because there's nothing to unite that country like the statement "This is war." So even former peaceniks were saying, "First we win this war, then we'll talk." At that point all the left's options were foreclosed and there was no plan B. When I got there, what I found was that nobody even had a dream of how this thing could be resolved. And that was the saddest change.

Complete disillusionment.

Disillusionment is a good word for it. We're in a situation now where any asshole on either side can either stuff his shirt with dynamite and get on an Israeli bus or strap on a couple of bandoliers of ammo and leave his settlement and go to a mosque somewhere and stop any nascent peace movement cold. It's veto by the nutcases.

In your book you say, "Any Jew who isn't an Israeli can figure out how to make peace in 10 minutes." In a nutshell, give back the land, and no right of return.

Right. The right of return is going to be dead. Everybody knows it. The Palestinians know it. The Israelis are going to give back the land. There are going to be two nations. It's just a matter of how many have to die in the meantime. How many buses get blown up, how many missiles into Palestinian neighborhoods, how many dead kids. It's one of those situations that eludes us not because of its complexity but by the intractable political forces against it.

You talk about the vital role the United States will have to play in making peace, as the only force with the power and connections with both sides to make this happen. Why has this proved to be so difficult for the Americans to do?

It always seems easier to go along with the Jewish organizations, which tend to follow whatever government is in power in Israel. You know, in all the administrations since Carter's, there hasn't been the kind of urgency that would bring change about. Actually, that isn't strictly true. George Bush the elder held up the loan guarantees to Israel, and a substantial amount of them. Jimmy Baker could not get elected dogcatcher over there. But Clinton could. He went along. Reagan could.

You attribute this to a combination of political expediency -- the power of an influential constituency -- coupled with a genuine commitment to the welfare and well-being of the state of Israel, as they perceive it.

And a disinclination to take on something they can't win. It goes back to your first question. We know that if you take this question up you get hammered. Certainly any president knows the same.

Look at John Kerry, who's moved practically to the right of Bush on Israel. And observers of the American political scene aren't surprised.

Because he's running. And somebody's always running. There's a fourth factor at work here, especially in the current administration, which is the Christian right. The Sharon administration has no stauncher support than the fundamentalist Christians of America. They believe, as the Bible tells them, that the Jews were promised this Holy Land. They believe that the Jews must be ingathered once again in Zion so Armageddon can occur and Christ can return. They believe that Israel is their partner in Judeo-Christian values in a sea of Islamic autocracies. And they will go along with anything Israel feels it has to do. And they are George Bush's base.

To return to the American Jewish community. American politicians run scared of the major Jewish organizations, such as AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee]. But that all hinges on the degree to which those organizations have the support of the rank and file of American Jews. Do you see any change there? Are ordinary American Jews still prepared to accept and support anything the Israeli government does?

I think that is changing. You can see this in a lot of small ways. My mom lives in an assisted living complex in Rochester, N.Y., which is in fact run by the Jewish Home of Rochester. It's a kosher establishment, mostly filled with Jews. And the ladies there are nice old Hadassah ladies, they've all done their part for the Jewish community and for Israel, but they say to me they can't even bear to pick up the paper anymore because it's so terrible what's going on over there. I was sitting on a plane next to a UJA [United Jewish Appeal] guy who told me that he got pitched out of nice Jewish homes, or he couldn't even get in the door. You see the Canadians take away the tax break for contributions to Zionist agencies, an ambulance for instance, because it might be used in the occupied territories. This sheer and solid wall of support has already crumbled in Europe. And now I think it's fraying here.

Have you seen evidence of that in the response to your book? Have you been hammered less than you thought you might be?

Well, you know, when you get hammered it never feels like less. [Laughs.] Among Jewish reviewers who purport to some expertise, they're often down-the-line Sharon supporters. But I find among regular, common American Jews a willingness to listen that I would not have found 10 years ago. I think they're disturbed by the situation. I think if there was some mechanism of plebiscite among American Jews for the leadership of Israel, Sharon would get nowhere near the prime minister's chair.

George Bush goes before the leadership of the major American Jewish organizations and gets a rapturous reception. This doesn't correspond to the reality that I see. Admittedly this is San Francisco, where many Jews are very liberal. But there seems to be a disconnect between the leadership and the ordinary people.

There are disconnects that you can see and disconnects that aren't seen. Let me tell you a story that didn't make the book. Every year, more or less, there's a big meeting between an umbrella group of Zionist organizations, I believe it's called the World Zionist Organization. It's a new, overarching construct that was created to get around the guarantee that organizations like the UJA had made that they would not support the settlements. Anyway, this umbrella organization, which consists of many potent nabobs, meets with the Jewish Agency, which is the foundation of Zionism in Israel, and is still the greatest source of support for Israel. They own a lot of the land, it was the mechanism for making Israel Jewish in the pre-state days. So while I was there in late 2002, there was such a meeting. The top brass of the Jewish Agency appears and tells of all the exigencies and emergencies which require an emergency contribution of so-and-so many millions. They have the PowerPoint presentation all ready and the emergencies all lined up, and they conclude as usual with a recommendation that the World Zionist Organization provide on an emergency basis a figure of several hundred million dollars.

And a leader of this umbrella group, a tough little businessman named Mendel Kaplan, slammed his fist down on the table and said, "You're not going to get a blankety-blank dime. If I could buy Israel today for what it's worth and sell it back for all the money we've put in over the last 20 years, I could give every Israeli $150,000." And that was the end of the meeting. Now that is a rift that makes a difference. The reporters had been cleared out of the room, this was never reported. But there's a profound unease within the establishment that has been Israel's lifeline.

You basically lay the blame for what has gone wrong in Israel on the occupation that began in 1967. Yet you point out that, paradoxically and ironically, 1967 also gave Israel the chance to solve 1948, when the state of Israel came into being. That is, Israel can in effect trade 1967 for 1948 -- give the Palestinians the land conquered in 1967, in exchange for which they will abandon their dream of somehow reversing 1948. But many Israelis and American Jews believe that the Palestinians aren't really concerned about 1967 -- they're really concerned about 1948, therefore, they'll never make peace. You can give them anything -- Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank -- and they're still going to want to eventually get all of Israel back.

Right, they're going to slice Israel away until there is no more Israel. Here's what I'd say. Let's forget who was against the partition and who was for the partition, who did what in 1967, who did what in '37, who did what in '39. You can do that forever but it doesn't get you anywhere. Let's look at the situation today. You have a land that could be described as lying between the Jordan River and the sea. In it you have 5 million Jews and you have 5 million Palestinians. The birthrate of Palestinians is much higher than the birthrate of Jews. It may be the case now, or it may be the case in a year, or it may be the case in five years or 10 years, that the Palestinians outnumber the Jews. Nobody can pinpoint the time, but nobody can argue that it is not happening. At that point, Israel has only two choices. They can try to expel or kill some millions of Palestinians, which seems a tad Nazi-ish. Or they can impose what amounts to apartheid, denying the majority a vote. But those are the only two choices. Either you can have a democracy, or you can have a Jewish state.

So if you are a supporter, as I am, of the idea of a Jewish state which is a democracy, something has to be done. And I would suggest that everybody knows there are going to be two countries. It seems to me that it's in Israel's national interest to make or to allow to be made a Palestinian nation now, while they can still kick the PLO into Jordan before lunch any day if they had to, than to wait 20 years. Because the Arabs never get any less numerous. They don't get poorer or stupider. They don't get less opposed to Israel -- they will in fact grow more opposed to Israel. Now, and maybe now at the last minute, there's a chance to make a Palestine that would not be Israel's mortal foe. It's the only long-term survival plan for Israel.

The critics of giving up the West Bank say, with Sharon, that Israel has to hold the strategic high ground in the Judaean hills, that its waist will be too narrow, and so on.

I've heard that since before 1967. But nobody can tell me that the Jews of Israel feel more secure today than they did when that waist was so narrow. Nobody can tell me that Israelis feel now that they are safer in their own land than when it was smaller. In fact, they're now scared to walk into their own bank, their own café. They're scared to put their kid on the bus. They're scared to send their kid to school. They don't want anybody to leave home. They don't go out themselves. So which situation is better?

One of the remarkable things people who follow this issue know is that Israelis have a far greater range of honesty, depth of analysis and ability to see this from the Palestinian side than Americans do. There is no American equivalent of Akiva Eldar, Doron Rosenblum, Tom Segev, Amira Hass or David Grossman -- this endless list. When I was in Israel I could say things far more easily about the political scene and the conflict to Israelis than I could to a group of American Jews I didn't know.

Right. I don't have as many problems among the Israelis as I do among the American Jews. Because we don't have to argue about what's happened. They know what's happened -- they're living what's happened. They know that the current situation is untenable. It's the American Jews, who are largely unburdened by fact, with whom one has to start at the beginning. And there is a range of opinion that is permitted and legitimate in Israel that is far broader than American Jewish organizations will permit. People in Israel say things that would have them drummed out of the American Zionist whatever in 10 minutes. And they say them routinely and in the papers every day.

This speaks to a theme in the book -- your praise of this country of people given to cacophonous argument and disputation. You feel that some of this has changed, but there's obviously an element that has not changed.

What's changed, and this is another reason why the book is called "How Israel Lost," is that this range of opinion, which still exists, is no longer an earnest attempt to change minds. Because if you're on the other side from me, if you're a hawk and I'm a dove, or if you're a lefty and I'm a righty, then you don't listen to anything I say. Anything. If I say the sky is blue you don't listen. It's not a fact if it comes from someone on the other side. And this is a big loss for a country that's built on the facts on the ground.

Yet one could argue that it's always been like this. In Amos Oz's "In the Land of Israel" [1983], for example, the vehement hatreds and arguments between the new Sephardic followers of Menachem Begin against the Ashkenazi elite -- this is brutal stuff. It seems to be as vehement as anything going on now.

It was certainly as strident as anything that's going on now. What's different now is that the ethnic and ideological tribes have all formed their own parties and in effect have walled themselves off from their foes within the society. They are all trying to grab for them and for their people alone. Here's the change in a nutshell. The ultra-religious in Israel used to be in the business of trying to make the whole rest of the state conform. Now they have given up on that. They have bought, instead, into the state's new religion, which is the conflict. And as far as what they are taking with their effort, it is for their own people, their own communities, their own buses, their own printing plants, their own schools and day-care centers and social services. They are watching out for their own.

The Russians [i.e., recent Russian Jewish immigrants] are very much the same way. The Russians are manipulators of the system without peer. If there's one thing you learn after 90 years under Communist rule, it is how to work the system. And these guys have worked Israel like a pump. The Sephardim have formed themselves into a new political party, which is not only very powerful but is very frankly and simply out for a bigger share of the pie for the Sephardim.

So what's changed is that the contention 20 years ago was about what direction the larger society should go in. And now the contention is, how do I get more for me and my people?

It's almost as if the only unifying theme for Israel was the original socialist dream of the Zionist founders, which was extraordinarily idealistic, almost unprecedented in the history of any nation-state that ever came into being. That unifying theme carried all these other unifying notions with it -- the "purity of arms," the "conquest of labor" -- and submerged all the differences. The overarching theme being Jewish identity. That raises a point you touch on when you ask rhetorically, "What's the difference between a Jewish state and an Islamic state?" This is the most explosive question of all, whether a Jewish state is needed. In your book, you say something like "Zionism actually has no reason to exist if there isn't fear."

Right. Without threats to Jews, without fear by Jews, without the prospect of Jews being killed or harmed or driven out, then Zionism needs a whole new rationale.

Well, does Israel need to exist in order to be a haven for persecuted Jews? There is a disturbing upward slope of anti-Semitism in the world, but some people argue that the cause is precisely the existence of the state of Israel. That is, it's no longer a primordial "Jews are evil, they're other, they're an alien body, we must destroy them," but a more political phenomenon -- which of course morphs into various horrible forms of bigotry.

I don't think Israel is causing anti-Semitism. But the people who adduce anti-Semitism as the explanation for this and for that want it both ways. They want to say that there's a terrible rise in anti-Semitism and that's why Israel is criticized. At the same time, they want to say that there was always anti-Semitism and always will be anti-Semitism and that's why Israel is needed. Now which is it? Well, my own view is that there's always anti-Semitism. I go with the people who say it is simply out there, in the ether, in the water.

Because any group of people that defines itself in some way autonomously from the mainstream of society is always going to be persecuted and seen as other?

"In some way autonomously"? Try the Chosen People! [Laughs.] That's bound to raise a few feathers. But let's say for the purposes of argument that there has always been anti-Semitism and there will always be anti-Semitism. Given that, then how do we explain the growing isolation of Israel and the growing disapproval of the world toward Israel? I explain it by saying that the policy of Israel looses the forces of anti-Semitism. When support for Israel began to crumble in Europe, the Israelis told me that this was merely traditional European anti-Semitism. When the rare American criticizes the policy of Israel, they tell me this is anti-Semitism. When the New York Times is seen to criticize the actions or policies of Israel, they tell me this is anti-Semitism. After a while, I'm not listening. The argument begins to lose its force.

You support the idea of a Jewish state.

Yes. I love the place, I love Jews and I think they need a state and should have a state. They needed a place where Jews could live in safety and by their own beliefs. Not as guests of some regime that would tolerate them until the next pogrom, but as proprietors of their own destiny.

If there had been no Hitler, you would still have believed in the existence of a Jewish state.

Yes. A Hitler can come at any time. I don't think the Germans provided the only garden in which this weed could grow.

We have good examples of that right here in our own country.

We have examples all over the world. I believe that Israel must exist and will exist. The reason I wrote the book is because I believe that. I mean, what I'm proposing is because I love the place. Not because I think it should be dismantled.

But I've got to add one thing. Israel would be stronger if she were able to stand up and announce that she was made at the cost of a great injustice to the Palestinian people. It would conform not only with the facts, but with 30 centuries of Jewish humanity and wisdom. It would make her not less Jewish, but more Jewish. It would resolve a terrible conflict in her past that hamstrings her present and perhaps her future. I think that would be a good start towards making peace, a peace that would last.

This recalls a powerful passage in your book in which you talk about the importance of honor for the Palestinians, for Arab culture. In fact what you're calling for is very humanistic. It takes a common-sense view of our shared humanity. You apologize. That's the way people begin to heal a situation, by acknowledging the faults on both sides. Did this sense of the humanity of the people in the region come from your long personal knowledge of people on both sides?

I guess that's where it came from. I'm accused of being irreligious, anti-religious, anti-Jewish, but I go back to the first Jew, and the first act of the first Jew. Which was to argue with his own God about Sodom and Gomorrah. And the text of his argument was as follows, and I'm mangling the text. But he said in essence, What if there are 100 good ones? Do you wipe out the whole town? And God said, all right, all right, if there's 100 good ones. And Abraham says, so what's the difference between 100 and 10? They're still good.

That argument, that questioning, even of the Commandments, of all supposed wisdom, is the essence of the religion. There's a verb in Hebrew called l'hakshot, and it means this kind of probing, relentless questioning. This was the first act of the first Jew. And the text of the argument is that you cannot kill the innocent with the guilty.

That's a lesson for Israel, and now for America.

You know, it's a total accident of publishing that this book came out just as America became an occupying power. And we have seen in just the few months that we have acted as occupiers -- American boys doing things that we never thought we'd see Americans do. That's what this story is about. It's what happens to the occupiers.

With Bush playing an increasingly Sharon-like role.

Well, Bush and Sharon see eye-to-eye on this. And the Americans have been learning, literally studying at the Israelis' knees. How to pull off a proper targeted killing. How to justify an occupation. How to justify an assassination. We have to be careful what we learn from Israel.

How did the Six-Day War affect American Jews' attitude towards Israel?

Most American Jews grew up with this tremendous admiration for the Israelis. It was a source of tremendous pride that this little, bitty state of Israel defeated the entire Arab world and in six days, no less. I was a teenager at the time and it was a miracle! As I say in the book, Israel was boffo. So there's no question there's that pride in the Jewish fighter and that this was a great and epochal step for the people.

But it changed. After the '67 war a book was published of oral histories of the Israeli soldiers who fought in that war. I can't translate the exact title for you, but it was something like "We Shoot and We Cry." And it was about the mixed feelings they had pursuing this kind of inhumane, brutal prosecution of their state's aims. Not trying to diminish the need for it or their triumph in it. But reinforcing the idea that these were humane and ethical people who were forced to do these things. You would not find such a book today.

I had a talk with a guy I liked very much named Yishai Shuster. It's not in the book. Yishai grew up on a commie kibbutz -- he's a real old lefty. But a good soldier he was -- he was a paratrooper, which in Israel is this big deal. Crème de la crème. Like every other soldier in Israel, he was in the reserves until a scandalously advanced age. I forget what the age is, they just raised it again. It's in the high 40s now. Anyway, he's about 44 years old or something, and they call him up for duty again. And he's got to go to Hebron to guard these settlers who live right in the middle of the Arab city because God told them to.

The settlements established by Levinger.

Right. And he thought of not going, but he couldn't let down the guys in his unit. If his unit had to go he was going to go because those were his guys. But he had to do something. So he had a friend who was a filmmaker, and the guy gave him a video camera. And Yishai went to his reserve duty, but while he was there he made a film about how it was, called "A Soldier's Story." It was a very powerful little documentary about these army guys and what they really think of the settlers they have to guard. And how the settlers treat them. And how the Arabs look at them, and how the soldiers look at the Arabs. It was heartbreaking. It was such a powerful little film by the end that the BBC picked it up and ran it, and it ran, of course, in Israel.

Well, then the shit hit the fan. The prime minister saw the damn film -- this was [Yitzhak] Shamir, in 1991 -- and wrote a note to the chief of staff of the army saying, "Find this Shuster Yishai and deal with him to the full extent of the regulations." So the chief of staff kicks this down to the commander of Yishai's unit. This is how the army of Israel used to be. The commander of Yishai's unit immediately kicks it back upstairs and says "You may have problems with Shuster but I got no problems with Shuster. He's a good soldier and I'm not doing anything." So then the chief of staff office kicks it down to the head of the paratroopers. It's a letter from the damn prime minister, after all -- something has to be done!

So the head of the paratroops calls Shuster at his home on the commie kibbutz. And the first thing is his secretary says to Yishai, "When would it be convenient for you to come in?" [Laughs.] So Shuster, being a commie, says "Well, Friday sounds good to me -- how about you?" So they say fine. So he comes in on the appointed Friday, and it's all how do you like your coffee, how many sugars and everything like this, and he sits down across the table from the general who runs the paratroops. And the guy says, "You caused me a lot of problems. Look at this." And he throws the prime minister's letter across the desk. And Yishai reads it and says "I see." And the general says, "What the hell am I supposed to do about this?" So Yishai says, "Look, I couldn't not go, my unit was going, I just felt I had to say something." He told him the whole story. So the guy says, "OK. Don't do it again." [Laughs.] "Now let me take care of this." So he writes down "Severely reprimanded." Then he throws that form away and says, "Now listen. I want to talk to you. Why don't you sign up for another hitch? I hear you're a good soldier."

Yishai says, "Look, General" -- actually they call each other by first names, it's Israel, so whatever his name is, Avi -- he says, "Look, Avi, I'm 44, next year I'm out. Not only is the film not going to happen again, nothing's going to happen again. It's not good for me, I'm old, it's not good for the unit." So the guy says, "Well, look, you could sign up for another hitch and we'll put you in the filmmaking unit. You could make films for us." So Shuster says "Look Avi, you don't have to sign me up again. If you want a film, call me up. I'll make it for you for free." So they shake hands and he goes home. And he does get out of the service next year. And the guy does call him up and he makes a film about the paratroopers that becomes the official training film for the paratroopers.

But something else happened that was very Israeli. They took his offending film and they also put that in the training course for the army. To show them the ethical problems they were going to have to face. Thatwas a good army. Then the guy from the National Religious Party got to be the head of training for the army and Yishai's film disappeared. That's what I'm talking about. That's what happened.

That story shows how much your book is written out of love for Israel.

Well, I wanted it to be like a guy in the next chair saying, "You want to know what's happening? I'll tell you what's happening."

I wonder if that perspective and the tone the book is written in explains some of the outrage that's greeted the book in some quarters. I've read a lot of books on Israel, and yours may be the first to be written in this style -- wise-guy, very informal, very much in the Jewish American vernacular. So you're speaking from within the church. But it's like that saying, what is it, "Tell it not in Gath, publicize it not in Ashkelon" -- this notion that this is stuff that we can talk about, but we're not going to put it out in front of the goyim.


And we're certainly not going to do it in a voice with ellipses, and dashes, and slang, and jokes. That must be pushing some buttons.

I think it has bothered people. You know, Israel is supposed to be talked about in such reverential terms that it's almost a catechism. And a catechism has a kind of elevated language which reserves its mystery and majesty. And I wanted to militate against that.

It certainly stays much truer to what it feels like in Israel.

In Israel, there's no such elevated language. I've got to tell you another story. It won't help you but it's just such a great goddamn story. There's a book by a guy named Zev Chafets called "Heroes and Hustlers, Hard Hats and Holy Men." It's a kind of inventory of Israel at the time [1986]. He was a young American kid who went over there and he went in the Army and he became an Israeli and he believed in the dream. And he went into politics and he thought that Israeli statecraft was about the great issues of war and peace and the survival of the Jewish people. A very elevated topic indeed.

So he got into his first campaign when his party, the Reform Party, joined up with [Menachem] Begin and all of a sudden they were running in this steamroller Likud coalition. And he's going to the office early in the campaign in a cab. And they're stopped at a stoplight when who pulls up next to them but Ezer Weizman, the former chief of the Air Force, who is now the chairman of the Likud campaign.

And Weizman rolls down the window of the Mercedes and says to the cabbie, "How old are you?" And the cabbie says, "Fifty-one." And Weizman says, "Can you still get a hard-on?" [Laughs.] And the cabbie says, "Of course I can get a hard-on." And Weizman says, "Then get a hard-on Tuesday and use it to fuck the Marach [the Labor coalition]!"

That's great. Let me ask you about the American presidential campaign and policy towards Israel and the Middle East. If Bush is re-elected, do you see him continuing the same policy? Or, since it's his second term, do you think he might turn up the heat on Israel?

That never seems to happen. I think Bush listens to the guys he can listen to and he gets his information from the guys he can sit down and have a real talk with. And Sharon is one of those guys. So I think his policy towards Israel will continue.

What about Kerry?

I don't know enough about him. I don't know about his track record in the Senate. Certainly he was not one of those branded by the Zionist organizations as another Hitler. I think it's possible that under Kerry U.S. policy would shift to its former position regarding the territories as occupied land, and the road map. But I don't expect any real pressure on Israel. Certainly from their campaign rhetoric you cannot predict such.

What about the electorate? Americans have tended to see the Israeli situation -- fighting against an enemy that is increasingly religious, increasingly Islamist -- and, insofar as they subscribe to the Bush war on terror, see us as fighting the same fight. But there's been a seismic shift in the American electorate about how we're prosecuting the war on terror. If Americans continue to turn away from Bush, they might begin to question our complete, unswerving allegiance to anything Sharon might dream up.

It might happen that way. You know, it could go either way. The funny thing is, attitudes towards Israel and the Palestinians don't seem to follow in lockstep with attitudes toward American politics. Democrats can be the greatest hawks on Israel, and Republicans can be extremely sympathetic to an argument like mine.

Traditionally, they were more so. Bush the elder, the Texas oil man, tilted towards the Arabs.

You could see it going the other way, too. People becoming increasingly distrustful of the Saudis and the other Gulf states. If we perceive ourselves as having no friends in the Islamic world, we could get closer to Sharon's view of the Islamic opposition.

But I think Americans should know that our actions in Israel are the single greatest emblem of anti-Arabism, anti-Islamicism. They, are for the entire Muslim world, a red flag. And then Americans sit back and say, "Why don't they seem to like us?"

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About the writer-
Gary Kamiya is Salon's executive editor.

How we got it so wrong in Iraq


Earlier this year, I testified before two investigative bodies -- the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Butler Commission -- responsible for probing the massive failure of, respectively, the American and British intelligence services to properly assess the status of Iraq's ethereal weapons of mass destruction programs. The alleged existence of those programs was the foundation of the justification for the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The Senate committee issued its report July 9; the Butler Commission did the same on Wednesday. Both are harshly critical, with the primary focus of blame falling on the analytical arms of both nations' intelligence services, which are accused of grossly exaggerating and misrepresenting available data on Iraq's WMD capability. This lapse was real, and the negative impact on the integrity of the free world's most prominent intelligence services -- the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency in the United States, and Great Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, or MI-6, and Defense Intelligence Staff -- will take years to ascertain, and even more time to repair.

Both the Senate committee and the Butler Commission appear to take pains to underscore their shared findings that the failures of intelligence regarding Iraq's missing WMD rest largely with the analysts and intelligence collection managers, on both sides of the Atlantic, who forgot that their job as intelligence professionals was not to tell their bosses what they wanted to hear, but rather what the facts were, regardless of the political consequences.

Pointing a critical finger at these analysts and managers is fair; limiting the scope of criticism to these failures is not. Both President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair seem to be given a free pass by these investigations, which purport to have found no direct evidence of efforts by either the White House or 10 Downing Street to "cook" the intelligence on Iraq's WMD.

As I testified before both panels, looking for such a direct link was likely to prove futile. The issue, I noted, was much more complicated, involving years of advocacy in both the United States and Great Britain for regime change in Baghdad that had permeated all levels of government, corrupting formulation of sound policy with a "group think" conclusion that Saddam Hussein was a threat. Anything that could facilitate his removal became accepted, regardless of its veracity.

This "group think" approach can be traced to early 1995, when MI-6, working with the CIA's London station, put forward Iyad Allawi, now Iraq's prime minister, but then the head of an expatriate opposition movement known as the Iraqi National Alliance, as a viable vehicle for overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

Throughout 1995 and into the early summer of 1996, the CIA and MI-6 worked with Allawi's alliance to cobble together a coup d'etat from within Saddam's inner circle. Saddam's security services uncovered the plot and liquidated those involved.

At the same time the coup attempt was being planned, United Nations weapons inspectors were making remarkable progress in accounting for Iraq's weapons programs. In July 1995, about the same time the CIA and MI-6 embraced Allawi's alliance, the Iraqi government, under pressure from the U.N. inspectors, finally disclosed its biological weapons program.

In August 1995, Saddam's son-in-law, Hussein Kamal, defected to Jordan, and told the U.N., CIA and MI-6 that all of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction had been destroyed in the summer of 1991 under his direct orders. The Iraqi government, in response to Hussein Kamal's defection, turned over hundreds of thousands of hitherto undisclosed documents about their proscribed WMD programs, confirming data already known to the U.N. inspectors, and filling in many gaps.

While the U.N. was not in a position to verify total compliance by Iraq regarding its obligation to disarm, these dramatic events, combined with Iraq's cooperation in establishing the most intrusive, technologically advanced on-site inspection regime in the history of arms control, gave the U.N. confidence that 90 to 95 percent of Iraq's WMD could be verifiably accounted for, and that in the face of effective monitoring inspections, the likelihood of the unaccounted-for WMD remaining in viable form was slim.

The effort to disarm Iraq was shifting from a search for hidden capability to a less threatening accounting problem. For advocates of regime change who needed the specter of a defiant (and dangerous) Saddam, this was not acceptable.

The attempted 1996 coup, and subsequent regime change activities, were not undertaken by renegade intelligence operatives, but rather as an extension of official (albeit secret) policy objectives approved by then-President Clinton and Blair, and made known to their respective legislative oversight bodies.

Both the Senate committee and the Butler Commission are heavily populated by personnel who were party to implementation of the regime change policy. Both are aware of efforts undertaken by their respective intelligence services to use the U.N. weapons inspection process not as a vehicle of disarmament, but as a tool for intelligence collection supportive of regime change. Those activities were not mandated by the Security Council and destroyed the integrity of the inspection-led disarmament effort.

The unwillingness of the American and British governments to capitalize on the dramatic breakthroughs regarding the disarmament of Iraq between July 1995 and July 1996 only underscores the reality that, when it came to the fate of Saddam's government, the outcome had been preordained. There was never an intention to allow a finding of Iraqi compliance concerning its disarmament obligation, even if one was warranted. Saddam was to be removed from power, and WMD were always viewed by the policymakers as the excuse for doing so.

The failure of either the Senate committee or the Butler Commission to recognize the role that the policy of regime change had in corrupting the analytical efforts of U.S. and British intelligence services means that not only will it be more difficult to achieve meaningful reform in these services, but more importantly, the general public will continue to remain largely ignorant of the true scope of failure regarding Iraq policy.

For representative democracies like the United States and Great Britain, with service members currently operating in harm's way inside Iraq, this is unacceptable


First published: Sunday, July 18, 2004

America's criminal occupation

By Roger Normand, Electronic Iraq, 10 July 2004

There has been much speculation as to whether Washington's neoconservative rulers actually believe the nonsense about freedom and human rights or whether they are driven solely by power and profit. It makes little difference to the people of Iraq. After 30 years of Western-sponsored domestic tyranny, they must now suffer the brutal depredations of foreign occupation. As the popular Iraqi saying goes, "the student is gone; the master has come."

The American script portrays all Iraqi opposition — not just attacks against civilians — as terrorism, even though international law recognises the right to resist occupation through armed struggle. The same script dismisses U.S. abuses as isolated excesses. But the dehumanisation of Iraqis evident in the photos from Abu Ghraib prison is not the handiwork of a few "bad apples." It is part and parcel of an American policy that seeks to justify imperialism in an explicitly post-imperial world order. In this respect, torture is only the visible tip of a vast iceberg of lawless behaviour. In the routine grind of maintaining occupation, U.S. forces are committing war crimes and human rights violations on a daily basis.

The laws of occupation — derived primarily from the Hague and Geneva Conventions and the International Bill of Human Rights — impose two fundamental obligations on Occupying Powers. First and foremost is to withdraw military forces and end the occupation as soon as possible. Second is to safeguard the rights of the occupied population during the temporary period before the occupation is ended. The occupier gains no sovereign rights and is prohibited from manipulating the country's future, plundering its resources, and repressing its people.

As documented in a recent report by the Center for Economic and Social Rights, U.S. occupation policy stands in contradiction to these basic legal principles. The report's major findings can be summarised as follows:

Failure to Allow Self-Determination

The U.S. is appointing Iraqi leaders without elections or popular participation (the handpicked Prime Minister is a known CIA asset), retaining control over security matters, building an extensive network of military bases throughout the country, and transforming the economy along free market lines. Under these conditions, the purported "transfer of sovereignty" on June 30 is a form of political theatre without legal effect, regardless of the fig leaf of legitimacy provided by the United Nations Security Council. Genuine self-determination requires the free exercise of political choice, actual control over military and security affairs, and authority over social and economic policy. Until this happens, Iraq will remain an occupied country, and the U.S. will remain accountable as an occupying power.

Failure to Ensure Public Safety

The U.S. created a climate of unchecked lawlessness by eliminating the entire army and police forces without a back-up plan to maintain public safety — predictably resulting in a dramatic increase in violent crime throughout the country, especially directed against women. The U.S. also violated international law and caused untold damage to the people and heritage of Iraq by allowing the wholesale looting of cultural institutions, private businesses and governmental offices — with the notable exception of the Oil Ministry. This occurred in plain view, and at times with the active encouragement, of American troops.

Detention and Torture

The Red Cross estimates that up to 90 per cent of Iraqis in detention are innocent civilians swept up in illegal mass arrests and held incommunicado from family members without charge or due process. U.S. forces also hold family members of wanted suspects as hostages. Once detained, prisoners may be subject to a range of abuses, including physical and sexual torture, rape, and murder. The Bush Administration continues to cover up command responsibility and deny that these abuses meet the legal definition of torture, even though a number of secret government reports have surfaced explicitly authorising the use of torture against alleged "terrorists".

Collective Punishment

Taking lessons from Israeli war crimes in occupied Palestine, the U.S. has imposed collective punishment on Iraqi civilians. Tactics include demolishing civilian homes, ordering curfews in populated areas, preventing free movement through checkpoints and road closures, sealing off entire towns and villages, and using indiscriminate force in crowded urban areas, causing widespread and unnecessary civilian casualties. Moreover, ambulances, medical staff and facilities, and journalists — given special protections under the Geneva Conventions — have been frequently targeted.

Failure to Protect Economic and Social Rights

Already damaged by war and 12 years of sanctions, essential public services such as electricity, water, and sanitation have only deteriorated under the American occupation, leading to increased poverty and widespread violations of the rights to life, work, health, food, and education. The U.S. exacerbated joblessness by summarily dismissing workers with any association to the former Baath regime, including civil servants, teachers, engineers, and other professionals; 60 per cent of Iraqis are now unemployed. The health infrastructure is a shambles, drugs and medical supplies are in short supply, and medical staff report disease outbreaks and increased mortality throughout the country. Over 70 per cent of the population depends on a monthly food ration and 11 million Iraqis are classified as food insecure. The education system has broken down, with two-thirds of school-age children in Baghdad skipping school because of dilapidated conditions, lack of teachers, and fears of crime.

Fundamentally Changing the Economy

The U.S. is violating the prohibition against changing Iraq's economic structure by imposing drastic free market "reforms" through executive fiat. These orders permit privatisation of state enterprises, 100 per cent foreign ownership of Iraqi firms, tax-free repatriation of all investment profits, 40-year leases on contracts, a flat tax rate of 15 per cent, and the abolition of all tariffs and protective trade measures. In effect, the entire reconstruction process has been run as a form of thinly disguised plunder, with politically-connected American (and some British) corporations pocketing billions of dollars in bloated contracts while Iraq slides into chaos and poverty.

To top it off, the U.S. has granted its occupation forces blanket immunity under local law for any and all crimes committed in Iraq, no matter how egregious. This is the modern version of legal extraterritoriality formerly enjoyed by the British in their colonial holdings.

The pervasive and systematic lawlessness underpinning the occupation of Iraq is no accident. The neoconservatives in Washington understand that the rule of law stands as an obstacle to unleashing the full force of the U.S. war machine. They understand that the "New American Century" requires new rules of engagement, that the endless war against evil and terror requires dividing the world into "us and them" according to the dictates of American power rather than universal standards of legality. So George Bush repackages unilateral aggression — defined as "the supreme international crime" by the Nuremberg Tribunal — as preventive war, while his top lawyer derides the Geneva Conventions as "quaint and outdated."

This appears to mark a radical break from past American policy. But it is more accurately understood as an extension and intensification of the longstanding tradition of "U.S. exceptionalism" — the doctrine whereby every country in the world except the U.S. (and favoured allies like Israel) is bound by international law. The invasion and occupation of Iraq is merely the gold standard of U.S. exceptionalism, an attempt to elevate double standards to the status of law itself rather than a privileged exception to the law. In a sense, the Bush Administration has attacked not only Iraq but the entire United Nations system of post-colonial sovereignty.

The manipulation of legal language to serve unlawful ends is, of course, not a uniquely American position. Throughout history, powerful nations have stood above the law and claimed the right to liberate "less civilised" peoples through the use of military violence disguised as humanitarian intervention. The rhetoric of freedom masks the reality of conquest, subjugation, pillage, and torture. Occupied peoples have resisted such unwelcome liberation by all means at their disposal, from non-violent mass action to guerilla war, until either the invader is thrown out or the population is conquered and subdued.

The occupation of Iraq is proving to be no exception to this time-tested paradigm. The American empire, which appeared invincible only a year ago, is floundering in the sands of Mesopotamia. The only question remains how many people will have to die before Iraqis are allowed to exercise genuine self-determination.


Roger Normand is Director of the Center for Economic and Social Rights, a human rights organisation based in New York. He has led fact-finding missions to Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan in recent years


Iraq, a living wound for Muslims, still presages disaster

By Salim Lone

Before Iraq had unraveled, Tony Blair last November delivered one of his most impassioned defences of the war at the Lord Mayor's banquet, hoping to undercut domestic critics before President Bush's state visit. Iraq, he said, was "the battle of seminal importance for the early 21st century. It will define relations between the Muslim world and the West. It will influence profoundly the development of Arab States and the Middle East."

The Prime Minister had it exactly right, except he was a decade late in understanding the centrality of Iraq in the current world order - yet another reflection of how little those who decided to wage war in 2003 understood the region. It was in fact the first Gulf war in 1991, waged ironically with the strong urging of then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which was "the battle of seminal importance" and which directly gave rise to the age of global terror as we now know it, beginning with the first World Trade Centre bombing in 1993.

To say this is in no way to underestimate the impact of the current Iraq war and occupation, which have made the US a reviled power in the Arab and Muslim world, created powerful new hatreds globally and driven thousands of new terrorist recruits to the anti-US battle. It was the fear of precisely this outcome which had led most of the world to clamorously oppose this war, but everyone now feels powerless to influence the US in the face of its determination to "stay the course."

But blaming President Bush for this sorry mess is an unfair, and ultimately short-sighted, view if we are to ever set about healing the ever-deepening cleavages between Muslims and the west. The groundwork for the current crisis was in fact laid by the first President Bush and his European and Arab partners who in 1990 had gone along with his decision to mete out severe punishment to Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait. Many had warned there would be unprecedented Muslim fury and violence if Iraq was attacked, since the United Nations had never before approved the use of force to counter an invasion. More importantly, Israel had for years been allowed to occupy Palestine and parts of Syria and Lebanon with impunity. The UN's approval for the war generated intense Arab hostility towards the UN, which Boutros-Ghalis's selection as Secretary General partly but temporarily alleviated.

But the US, wanting to send the message that as the now sole superpower it would not hesitate to use force in the Middle East to advance its interests, was not to be deterred, and prosecuted the war ruthlessly. Then UN Under-Secretary-General and later Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari told the General Assembly after visiting Iraq that "nothing we had seen or read had quite prepared us for this particular form of devastation. The conflict has wrought near-apocalyptic results and most means of modern life have been destroyed." Worse was to follow, with the most punitive sanctions in modern history ravaging Iraqi society, and claiming the lives of at least half a million children, the latter carnage immortalized in Clinton administration cabinet member Madeline Albright's telling Leslie Stahl in a 60 Minutes interview that US strategic interests could possibly justify that price. And the American troop presence in Saudi Arabia was unleashing fatwas describing them as desecrating holy soil.

There was glee in the nascent neoconservative movement when predicted upheavals in Arab countries failed to materialize, but no one cared to see the more seminally destructive phenomenon unfolding: the profound alienation developing among Muslims world-wide, which would facilitate the establishment of a vast terrorist network.

In a reprise, the US again seems to be focused on its ideological and force-driven agenda with no discussions on how to arrest the exponential growth of anti-western sentiment, confident in the ability of its raw power to prevent what could be an even more cataclysmic replay of the 9/11 scenario.

There is no graver challenge the world faces than stemming the growth of terrorism practiced by aggrieved Muslims. The rise of such militancy is driven by specific US policies and cannot be glossed over with incendiary, self-righteous assertions that "they" hate western freedoms and are inherently barbaric and uncivilized. Beheading the innocent is indeed so, but so is the killing of over 600 innocent Fallujans in a week of aerial bombing and the death of 500,000 children through sanctions.

The depth of this anti-US animus is recent. Muslims and Arabs gravitated towards the US for decades until the 1980s, and the mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan sought American support. But with even the most moderate Muslims now seeing the US as bent on crushing them, the reforms the Islamic world is aching for will remain a mirage.

Terrorism will only be curbed when Muslims themselves forcefully challenge it. But that will not happen unless the US addresses the many legitimate grievances that drive young men to terror. Merely rolling back the excessively aggressive Bush administration policies will not be sufficient to win Muslim trust; many more far-reaching changes than are part of current American, and indeed western, political discourse are needed.

In the quest for winning Muslim support, justice for the long-serving Palestinians remains a vital priority, but it is Iraq which has for millions replaced Palestine as the touchstone of Muslim pain over the last 14 years. Despite the current western demonization of its entire Ba'athist history, Iraq was the pride of Muslims not only for its storied past in providing a civilizing model for the world and for its many holy sites but also for having achieved levels of development, secularism and equality (including for women) still unknown in any Middle East nation. Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, his brutality against the Kurds and other opponents, and the unprovoked invasion of Iran posed no problems for the west, until he invaded Kuwait.

The unprecedented devastations visited upon Iraq's people twice in 12 years have made it a compelling, living wound for Muslims. Unless there is peace there, world instability will grow. But there is seemingly no end to the trauma in sight as the US-appointed government seems determined to intensify the occupation's heavy reliance on the use of force. Prime Minister Allawi now has the right to declare emergency rule and he has already indicated a possible delay in elections, while his defence minister astonishingly threatens "to cut off their [insurgents'] hands and behead them." So this is what the glorious drive to bring democracy to Iraq was all about: the installation of a new Iraqi dictatorship -but one that it is "ours."

All of us will pay the price.

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Salim Lone writes on Muslim relations with the West. His last assignment with the United Nations was as Director of Communications for the UN mission in Iraq headed by the late Sergio Vieira de Mello last year. A shorter version of this piece, titled "Iraq is now another Palestine", appeared in UK's Guardian newspaper on 7 July 2004

Courtesy -

Hospital in Najaf remains closed

Report, IRIN, 15 July 2004

NAJAF -- Sadr Teaching Hospital in the southern city of Najaf has been closed since early April, a victim of the fighting between Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Sadr's Mehdi militia and US-led Coalition forces, according to local people.

During a visit to the area, IRIN managed to look inside the hospital to find a magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, diagnostic machine sitting damaged in one wing, apparently too big for looters to steal. In the room next door, wires and boxes of test kits lay tangled and strewn about.

Outside, hundreds of rubbish bags filled with boxes of prescription medicines are piled waist-deep on the asphalt. In one bag are hundreds of pink antibiotic tablets from Jordan. In another are vials of what look like vaccination ampoules from Germany.

While many of the medicines seem to be undamaged, hospital guards say the bags were taken out of the hospital after raw sewage flooded a basement storage area and made the drugs unusable.

"Most of the equipment was looted after the US troops left," Fadhel Karim, 26, told IRIN as he stood outside the hospital waiting for the bus. "I feel very sad about it. Any good citizen will refuse to allow this, since this hospital serves patients from all of southern Iraq [an estimated 6 million people]."

"We are very concerned about access to health care in the southern region as 16 operating theatres have been closed in this hospital. It was a highly equipped hospital and this is having a devastating effect," Dr Naeema Al-Gasseer, head of the World Health Organization (WHO) Iraq office, told IRIN in the Jordanian capital, Amman. She added that there was also the threat of morbidity rates increasing due to a lack of access to emergency facilities. "People are having to travel long distances to be treated and sometimes they cannot get help in time," she stressed.

While there is disagreement over why the hospital has been closed for so long, US troops, a Red Cross representative, hospital guards and administrators agree on at least one point about the closure. The Mehdi militia forces took over the hospital in April, using its upper floors to launch attacks against US-led troops and hold the main road.

Following fighting on 9 April, US forces and others took over the hospital and locked doctors into patients' rooms, according to Mohammed Juad, 27, a medical student on the second year of his two-year programme. Six Mehdi militia fighters died that day at the hospital, he said. The next morning, when they were let out, the doctors and patients were told to leave, Juad said. "They treated us like prisoners because they thought we were with Sadr, but we were not," Juad told IRIN. "After we left, we couldn't go back for three months."

Another public hospital took in patients, as did two private clinics, Juad said. But closing the 600-bed teaching hospital put a strain on health care services in the region, he added, gesturing around the room at the smaller hospital where he now works. A spokesman for US troops in Najaf agreed that the hospital was still closed, saying workers were trying to get it ready in time for the new school year in September.

But there, agreement ends.

Hospital guards said US and El Salvadoran troops wrecked the medical facility and stole all of the equipment when they took it over. Major Rick Heyward, a US military spokesman who works for a unit attached to the 1st Infantry Division, told IRIN that US troops, or any other Coalition troops for that matter, had no reason to steal from the Iraqis.

"I don't have the exact details of what happened, but people realise the importance of our mission here," Heyward told IRIN. "We wouldn't jeopardise that by taking medical equipment."

The US military recently gave US $10,000 worth of medical supplies to the hospital that were donated from hospitals in the United States, said Capt Chip Payne, who works in the same unit as Heyward. Those supplies are currently in a warehouse for safe-keeping until the hospital re-opens.

Ahmed Khalid al-Rawi, a spokesman for the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) in Iraq, said that the hospital's air-conditioning units, some beds and medical equipment were all taken in looting immediately after troops left. ICRC previously supplied some equipment to the hospital, he said.

Guards showed a reporter piles of broken glass, papers strewn about and tree stumps they said were all that was left of the former leafy entrance area following fighting. Troops pulled out the ceiling tiles, looking for weapons, Nabeel Ohahad, 32, a security guard, told IRIN, pointing up at the destroyed ceiling and noting a bullet hole in a glass door.

Heyward said US Marines and troops from El Salvador and Spain took the hospital back from the Mehdi Army, but left around 1 July, handing it over to the guards. "When the hospital was occupied by US troops, equipment was damaged and machines were stolen," said Saad Hadi, 30, a hospital guard who started his job 15 days ago. "Now, we're cleaning it up with many workers."

Money from the US Congress will pay for the hospital's long-term clean-up and renovation, said Capt Lance O'Bryan, information officer with the same unit as Heyward and Payne.

The US Project Management Office, now called the Projects and Contracts Office, has allocated $27 million to repair the hospital, O'Bryan said. The money will go to the hospital through Iraq's Ministry of Health, he explained.

Iraq's new health minister, Ala'adin Alwan, said the ministry was doing an assessment at the hospital to decide how to spend the money. The health directorate took over the hospital when troops moved out at the beginning of July, Alwan said. "It's closed now because it was involved in the fighting, but you can go to another hospital in Najaf," he told IRIN.

US-led troops, including soldiers from El Salvador and Honduras in southern Iraq, are now in an uneasy stand-off with the Mehdi militia, Heyward said. The Shi'ite forces started fighting after US officials closed Sadr's office in Baghdad, started to arrest his followers and announced they would kill or capture him in connection with the assassination of rival religious leader Sheikh Abdul Majid al-Khoe.


U.S. Faces a Crossroads on Iran Policy

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer

The Bush administration is under mounting pressure to take action to deal with Iran -- and end the drift that has characterized U.S. policy for more than three years.

The final report of the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, due Thursday, may further intensify the policy debate, as it says Iran let eight of the 19 hijackers transit through Iran from neighboring Afghanistan -- a claim Tehran does not deny. The issue is whether it happened with Iran's compliance or because of porous borders.

Acting CIA Director John E. McLaughlin said yesterday that the United States has known for "some time" about the al Qaeda passage through Iran, although he said there is "no evidence" of a connection between Iran and the Sept. 11 attacks.

In response, Iran's Foreign Ministry said yesterday that preventing illegal passage was difficult because of the long frontier, adding that it has since tried to tighten control. "Even more people may [illegally] cross the border between Mexico and the United States," spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters in Tehran.

The dispute -- and uncertainty -- over al Qaeda's use of Iran comes as the White House is being pulled in distinctly different directions on Tehran.

Since May, Congress has been moving -- with little notice -- toward a joint resolution calling for punitive action against Iran if it does not fully reveal details of its nuclear arms program. In language similar to the prewar resolution on Iraq, a recent House resolution authorized the use of "all appropriate means" to deter, dissuade and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weaponry -- terminology often used to approve preemptive military force. Reflecting the growing anxiety on Capitol Hill about Iran, it passed 376 to 3.

In contrast, two of the most prominent foreign policy groups in Washington are calling for the United States to end a quarter-century of hostile relations and begin new diplomatic overtures to Iran, despite disagreements on a vast range of issues. Because the "solidly entrenched" government provides the only "authoritative" interlocutors, Washington should "deal with the current regime rather than wait for it to fall," says a Council on Foreign Relations report released today.

The disparate range of proposals underscores the near void in U.S. policy toward Iran -- in stark contrast to the two other countries in what President Bush calls the "axis of evil." The administration launched a war to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq and is now engaged in delicate talks over nuclear issues with North Korea. But six months before its first term ends, the administration has still not formally signed off on a strategy for Iran since a review of U.S. policy was begun in 2001, U.S. officials say.

Pressed to define U.S. policy on Iran, one frustrated senior U.S. official cracked, "Oh, do we have one?"

Bush administration policy has generally been piecemeal and reactive to broader or tangential issues, rather than to Iran itself, U.S. officials say. "What we have is a summation of various pieces -- one piece on nuclear weapons, one on human rights, another on terrorism, other pieces on drugs, Iraq and Afghanistan," a senior State Department official said.

White House officials point to a three-paragraph presidential statement two years ago this month as the core policy. It notes local and national elections when voters supported reformers; it then calls on Tehran to "listen to their hopes."

"As Iran's people move towards a future defined by greater freedom, greater tolerance, they will have no better friend than the United States," the statement reads. But it offers no policy specifics or prescriptions. It instead reached out beyond Tehran in hopes that Iranians would be able to change their government or its positions.

Since then, the Bush administration has warned Tehran about meddling in Iraq and lashed out at the Islamic republic for not fulfilling its promise to provide all information to the U.N. watchdog agency on its nuclear energy program, which Washington suspects is being diverted to build a nuclear weapon.

"The Iranians need to feel the pressure from the world that any nuclear weapons program will be uniformly condemned," Bush told newspaper editors in April. "The development of a nuclear weapon in Iran is intolerable."

But in a split reminiscent of the deep prewar divisions over Iraq, the administration has been at odds over how to accomplish its goals -- engagement, containment or confrontation. Once again, the State Department has been willing to explore areas of potential cooperation -- notably narcotics interdiction, Afghanistan and Iraq -- to see whether discussions under international auspices might lead to wider discussions.

In contrast, the Pentagon and Vice President Cheney's office have resisted making overtures, U.S. officials say. After the heady victory in Afghanistan and before Iraq, a few voices urged a toughened stance against Tehran next. Yet in one of many mixed signals, the White House also offered to send Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) and a member of the Bush family to Iran with humanitarian relief after an earthquake destroyed the ancient city of Bam and killed tens of thousands in December. It was rebuffed.

Iran's even deeper political divisions -- a complex spectrum of reformers and hardliners -- have not helped Washington determine the most effective course to adopt. Further complicating U.S. policy, Tehran also appears to be in transition, as hardliners swept parliamentary elections this year and are poised to win the presidency next year.

"It's difficult in that landscape to take policy risks -- or even to develop policy," said the senior State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In the vacuum, Congress and top officials of former administrations are increasingly weighing in. The region's changing dynamics over the past two years, with new governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, provide the pretext for new cooperation since Washington and Tehran share an interest in fostering stability, some argue. But Iran's suspected nuclear program also spurs deeper fears of Tehran's intentions than at any time since the 1979 Iranian revolution unleashed Islamic extremism, foreign policy experts and congressional officials say.

Increasingly alarmed over Iran's failure to come clean on its arms programs, Congress is becoming tougher. Since House Resolution 398 passed on May 6, a similar Senate resolution calling for punitive action, mainly through broad new U.N. sanctions, is expected to be put to a vote -- and win overwhelming support -- when Congress returns after Labor Day, congressional sources say.

In an even more dramatic move, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) plans to introduce an Iran liberation act this fall, modeled on the Iraq Liberation Act that mandated government change in Baghdad and provided more than $90 million to the Iraqi opposition. The goals would be the same for Iran, including regime change, congressional officials said.

By contrast, top foreign policy officials from the past six Republican and Democratic administrations are calling for diverse efforts at diplomatic rapprochement. The Council on Foreign Relations report calls for "systematic and pragmatic engagement" with Tehran, saying current U.S. policy and expectations that the government will be ousted are unrealistic.

"The United States should not defer a political dialogue with Iran until deep differences over its nuclear ambitions and involvement in regional conflicts have been resolved. Just as the United States has a constructive relationship with China (and earlier did so with the Soviet Union) while strongly opposing certain aspects of its internal and international policies, Washington should approach Iran with a readiness to explore areas of common interests while continuing to contest objectionable policy," it says.

Although acknowledging that a "grand bargain" covering all issues is also unrealistic now, the report urges Washington to offer a "direct dialogue" on regional stability; broaden cultural and economic links; and press for Iran to hand over al Qaeda detainees in exchange for the United States disbanding the Iraq-based Mujaheddin-e Khalq, the most militant Iran opposition force that is also on the U.S. terrorism list.

The council's bipartisan panel was chaired by Robert M. Gates, CIA director during the first Bush administration, and Carter administration national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. A second policy paper, due in August, will be published by the Atlantic Council. Its co-chairs are first Bush administration national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, Nixon administration defense secretary James R. Schlesinger, and former chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Lee H. Hamilton, vice chairman of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

Given the impending election, however, both congressional officials and foreign policy analysts say the Bush administration is unlikely to give formal shape to Iran policy, except to press for Tehran's full cooperation with the United Nations on its nuclear program.

Published in- The Washington Post on
Monday, July 19, 2004; Page A09