Saturday, June 26, 2004

The shame of Darfur 

Your conscience can rest easy - the crisis in the Sudanese province of Darfur is only a step away from a positive resolution:

"With thousands of children in western Sudan facing starvation and millions left homeless in a crisis of ethnic cleansing, the world's wealthy nations pledged yesterday to intervene - not with aid or armed forces, but with planeloads of politicians."
The government-backed irregular ethnic cleansers will be bombarded into submission with Colin Powell, Kofi Annan and the foreign ministers of France, Italy and Switzerland. In case the diplomatic heavy guns would prove insufficient, you can always try more aid. In fact, as Fox reports, "Powell to Ask Sudan's Leaders to Allow Aid". It would only be a slight exaggeration to compare the current scenario to the Allies asking the Nazis to allow food parcels into Auschwitz.

The Fox report goes on to say that Powell, Annan and other luminaries "are headed to the Sudanese capital next week to try to bring attention to the humanitarian crisis... [Powell] also plans to tell Sudanese leaders to 'let the aid flow freely'." Three quick thoughts: 1) the crisis doesn't need more attention, it needs action; 2) it's not a humanitarian but a political crisis, in so far as the human catastrophe unfolding in Darfur is a result of the military actions of Arab militias supported by the government in Khartoum, and not of any natural disaster - the humanitarian tragedy is the symptom of the political crisis; 3) flowing from the previous point, it would make more sense for Colin Powell, instead of telling the Sudanese leaders to "let the aid flow freely", to tell them to stop the war on the people of Darfur.

As Nicholas Kristof, who for months now has almost single-handedly been trying to awaken the Western conscience to the crisis in Darfur, writes in his "New York Times" column:

"Hats off to Colin Powell and Kofi Annan, who are both traveling in the next few days to Darfur. But the world has dithered for months already."
Sadly, some have already found the culprit for the international community's prevarication. Writes Anthony Bennett of Open Democracy:

"[T]he discussion over 'humanitarian intervention' is now deeply marked by the Iraq experience. It can be argued - it was indeed predicted - that by intervening in Iraq in a reckless, mendacious and unilateral way, Washington and its supporters have made it more difficult to build 'coalitions of the willing' for intervention even when (as in Sudan) most agree that it may be essential and that American reach and might may be the best means to achieve it."
Don't be fooled by the talk of an "Iraqi fatigue" and its chilling effect on international intervention. I have three words for you: Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo - three great examples of the so-called international community's well attested willingness to intervene and stop genocide. What's that you say? They all pre-date Iraq? Funny that. But for Bennett and company it's always easier to blame America.

Besides, as Kristof writes, "[t]he U.S. is not going to invade Sudan. That's not a plausible option. But we can pass a tough U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing troops, as well as more support for African peacekeepers. If Germany, France and Spain don't want to send troops to Iraq, then let them deploy in Darfur." But that would require all the usual critics to actually do something constructive. If the sum-total of your foreign policy consists of trying to do whatever it takes to sabotage whatever the United States is doing at the moment, it makes it pretty difficult to suddenly get into a positive and pro-active mode. And so, at least for the time being, Darfur joins Rwanda, Vukovar, Srebrenica and Kosovo on the long list of the UN's shame.


Voting for Nader - unsafe in any state 

Ralph Nader doesn't want you to waste your vote in November - on him. He has told NPR's Robert Siegel that he's

"running for the office as a way to steer the Democratic Party toward an agenda he advocates. The longtime consumer advocate wants would-be supporters to attend his rallies, but he says he wants them to feel free to cast their votes for Sen. John Kerry once they enter the voting booth -- especially in swing states where their vote might help defeat President Bush."
Others agree with Nader's strategy - both Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, charmingly described as "liberal icons" (JFK is a liberal icon, Zinn and Chomsky are communists), both Massachusetts residents, also plan to cast their votes for Nader. But that's alright: "Voting for Nader in a safe state is not a vote for Bush."

But what if that way Kerry get elected President, yet Bush overall gets more votes? That would make Kerry an illegitimate president, wouldn't it?


Enter stage left 

For the sheer amusement value you can't go past this report from the "New York Times":

"It could have been Oscar night, what with Billy Crystal cracking wise about movies and politics, money and baseball — just like the old days when the Academy Awards ceremony was held across the street at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But when Mr. Crystal tried a joke about former President Clinton's forthcoming children's book - 'It's called the Little Engine That Could Because It Could' - it fell flat."
Ah, the perils of the bi-partisan humour at a major Democratic fundraiser (Bush, unlike the Democrats, is at least able to have a laugh at his own expense from time to time).

2000 Hollywoodians have paid between $2,000 and $25,000 to attend the dinner, helping the raise $5 million for John Kerry.

More from Billy Crystal:

"[H]e recalled having met President Bush at Yankee Stadium during the third game of the World Series in 2001 and realizing, '9-1-1 is also his SAT scores.' Or when he described him as 'charming in that NASCAR-pull-my-finger-kind-of-way' and, invoking the 'Godfather' trilogy, mused, 'I get the feeling he is the Fredo of the Bush family'."
It got worse:

"The much-heralded highlight was the reunion duet of Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond, 'You Don't Bring Me Flowers,' which they had not performed together since Jimmy Carter was in the White House."
For good reason, I would have thought. Ms Streisand (who, you will be surprised to learn "entered and exited from stage left")further enchanted the guests with her new rendition of the classic "People":

"Now Rumsfeld / We must get rid of Rumsfeld / He's the spookiest person in the world / ...Let's discuss this war we're lost in / Don't ask what it's costin' / What's a trillion or two to rule the world?"
And then this:

"Ben Affleck, who grew up in Massachusetts, Mr. Kerry's home state, declared, 'I know the man.' Leonardo DiCaprio called him 'a lifelong champion of the environment.' And Mr. Crystal, invoking the Vietnam War, said, 'John Kerry was an actual action hero'."
Who needs a parody when the real thing is so funny.

In other entertainment news, a right-wing film festival is being planned for September 11 this year in Dallas. The American Film Renaissance promises to screen anti-Michael Moore documentaries as well as "other movies well to the right of Moore's films."


Friday, June 25, 2004

It's not about the victims, it's about the perpetrators 

"Recently I went to a launch event for the Arabic edition of a book called 'Crimes of War' at a club for journalists here in London. Had a Martian attended the talks, he would have taken away the impression that the only 'crimes of war' on earth are committed by Americans and Israelis."
Robert Lane Greene rips into the "international community" over its all-victims-are-equal-but-some-victims-are-more-equal-than-others approach to human rights. A few choice quotes, but really, read the whole piece:

"Dark-skinned victims count for less than whites, yes, but they count for less still if they are the victims of other dark-skinned people. It is often said that the reason we bombed Serbia but not Rwanda was because the victims in the Balkans were white, while the victims in Rwanda were black. But it is important to remember that the main perpetrators in the Balkans were also white (and, unlike their victims, Christian) and that the perpetrators in Rwanda were also black. You can be sure that if the Belgians or the Australians, or certainly the Americans or Israelis, were murdering, mutilating, and mass-raping tens of thousands of Africans, you wouldn't have the non-response we hear now over Darfur. Call it the 'soft bigotry of low expectations'...

"Abu Ghraib is a perfect storm for the media: Powerful Western soldiers abused and humiliated poor non-Westerners after invading their country for supposedly high-minded reasons. But when both the victims and the perpetrators are black or brown, you get the opposite: perfect calm. Thirty-four peasant farmers were massacred by left-wing guerrillas in Colombia last week. (In the distance, a cricket chirps.) And the quiet is never more deafening than when the violence is in Africa. Our low expectations of African perpetrators permits the world's worst horrors--a genocide in Rwanda (800,000 dead); a decade-long war in Congo (3 million dead); and genocide in Darfur (many thousands dead and the death toll climbing fast)."
Neither the left nor the right are spared in Greene's piece. It's fair enough to the extent that I'm not aware of any one person or institution or media outlet that gives equal airing to all human rights causes (God knows, I don't, but then again I'm just a small blogger and not the "New York Times"). It's not completely fair, though, seeing that it's mainly the left which uses the whole concept of "human rights" as a blunt instrument to bash the right with.

When you strip away all the ideological anti-Western, anti-American and anti-right biases that blind much of the commentariat when human rights abuses are concerned, it all boils down to two excuses:

1) the US (and the West) hold themselves to such high standards of morality that their every transgression, real or imagined, no matter how big or small needs, to be highlighted (like this). I would call it the anti-hypocrisy approach.

2) Western countries are liberal democracies with highly responsive public opinion; this makes it easier to stop human rights abuses perpetrated by Western governments. By contrast, try to affect a positive change in Syria, China or Zimbabwe. So it's all about allocating resources to where they can achieve the most - in other words, getting the biggest bang for your indignation. This is the economic efficiency argument.

Both arguments are in the end cop-outs. The first one, because by putting the Good Book observation on its head ("you see a speck of sawdust in your own eye and pay no attention to the plank in your brother's") it skews the perspective and in the end make the mockery of the claim about universality of human rights. And the second, because it takes the easiest way out. Both undervalue the suffering of the forgotten victims.


Dispatches from the unholy war 

As South Korea deals with the aftermath of beheading of Kim Sun-Il, keep checking out the news and views from our man in Korea, John Kennett.

Meanwhile, as "insurgents" set off more and more bombs outside Iraqi police stations, I'm awaiting more learned commentary from the West that the violence is really aimed against the Coalition forces and will stop once the Coalition leaves Iraq. As the "Independent" report:

"Many of the fighters in Baquba were Islamic militants wearing yellow headbands saying they belonged to the Battalions of Unification and Holy War. They handed out leaflets warning Iraqis not to collaborate with Americans. 'The flesh of collaborators is tastier than that of Americans,' the leaflets said."
The Battalions of Unification and Holy War are, of course, an al Qaeda/al Zarqawi vehicle. For those people any government of Iraq, Sunni or Shia dominated, popularly elected or not, will be seen as "collaborators" unless it resembles the Taliban.

Update: As you can gather from John Kennett's blog, the South Korean government is blocking access for its people to any internet sites that mention the recently beheaded South Korean hostage. John now informs that this means that while he can keep updating his blog, he can't actually read it, and now that I've mentioned Kim Sun-Il on my blog, he can't read it either. Thank God that most of my traffic doesn't come from South Korea.


Blumenthal strikes again 

The delusional ex-Clinton groupie Sid Blumenthal is at it again (for the earlier discussion click here). In his new opinion piece in the "Guardian" titled "Reality is unravelling for Bush" Sid writes these words of wisdom:

"The majority of the people had supported the war in Iraq because they believed that Saddam was involved in the terrorist attacks of September 11."
Really Sid? Prove it. It's one thing for the media to be rewriting history by misrepresenting the words of one man (Bush never argued that Saddam was connected to S11), but for Blumenthal to be rewriting history by misrepresenting the sentiments and opinions of the whole nation shows delusion of truly grandiose proportions.

Update: A reader, Marc from the USS Neverdock blog, suggests that Blumenthal might have been referring to a 2003 "Washington Post" opinion poll alluded to in this story. The actual poll is republished here. It's true that 69% of respondents believed that Saddam was involved in September 11 attacks. But 82% believed that he generally provided assistance to al Qaeda, 84% believed that he was trying to develop WMDs, and 78% that he has already done so. Now that covers a lot of potential justifications for the war - I'm glad that Blumenthal was able to zero in on the one that was convenient for his argument and decide that for the majority of Americans it was the clinching factor.


Thursday, June 24, 2004

Shias - dreaming the empire 

Three interesting pieces about what the Shias are up to (thanks to Real Clear Politics). In the "New York Time", Youssef M. Ibrahim reminds us to look at the Shias as a de facto virtual transnational empire:

"It is vital that Washington understand that it cannot consider the Shiites of Iraq to be an independent, national body. Shiism, forged during more than 1,500 years of persecution at the hands of the Islamic world's Sunnis, is a phenomenon that transcends borders and domestic politics.

"Iran, with its 65 million Shiites, its powerful army and its ancient civilization, is the de facto master of the Persian Gulf. Tehran is clearly pleased that Iraq's 15 million Shiites will more or less control their country eventually. In Lebanon, with one million Shiites, the well-armed Hezbollah militia has proved itself a most effective military-social-political group, which even forced both American and Israeli armed forces from the country. There are 400,000 Shiites in Bahrain and several million more in pockets from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia. Just as important, there are communities of sophisticated and shrewd Shiite merchants spread all over the Persian Gulf region, commanding billions of dollars in wealth and a fierce sense of solidarity with their brethren."
While in the "Daily Telegraph" John Keegan writes that "Iran has always dreamt of dominating the Middle East", as both he and Ralph Peters in the "New York Post" discuss the recent hostage taking incident in the Shatt el Arab. Says Peters:

"Those eight hostages are pawns in a great strategic game for stakes far beyond the minor scale of the incident itself. Iran's hardliners are gambling. If the West — with London in the lead this time — fails to call their bluff, our weakness will virtually guarantee future conflict in the Persian Gulf."
At the same time as Iran flexes its nuclear muscle.

It's difficult to discern with any degree of certainty what the mullahs in Tehran are thinking; not just because our intelligence from inside Iran is scarce, but also because we don't have a very good track record at interpreting the fundamentalists' thoughts and actions. In the shorter term at least, the Greater Shia Empire is likely to encompass Iran's co-religionists (or co-sectarians to be more precise). This in itself would involve breaking up several Arab states, chiefly Iraq and Saudi Arabia, and would most likely lead to a major regional conflict. To use the jargon of professional diplomacy, "it wouldn't be pretty at all." For all we know, however, the mullahs might be more ambitious, seeking to extend their domination to some predominantly Sunni areas - if you're going to have a major regional war you might as well aim big. The Sunni Arabs are more numerous, but they are also weak and disunited. The mullahs are well armed, determined and maybe just desperate enough for the last throw of the dice before Iran's demographics overtake them. If you thought that the Coalition invasion of Iraq was bad, just wait until Muslims start fighting other Muslims. Might make you look back with some nostalgia at the days of those crazy neo-cons and their zany nation-building schemes in Mesopotamia.


Just like the Holocaust but without any Jews or killing 

If you read just one opinion piece today, do yourself a favour and read Bret Stephens' "Just like Stalingrad." Asks Stephens: "If Bush is another Hitler, what words are left to describe Hitler?" Another, earlier Bush, of course.

"According to Sidney Blumenthal, a onetime adviser to president Bill Clinton who now writes a column for Britain's Guardian newspaper, President Bush today runs 'what is in effect a gulag,' stretching 'from prisons in Afghanistan to Iraq, from Guantanamo to secret CIA prisons around the world.' Mr. Blumenthal says 'there has been nothing like this system since the fall of the Soviet Union.'

"In another column, Mr. Blumenthal compares the April death toll for American soldiers in Iraq to the Eastern Front in the Second World War. Mr. Bush's 'splendid little war,' he writes, 'has entered a Stalingrad-like phase of urban siege and house-to-house combat'."
But as Stephens reminds us

"The factual bases for these claims are, first, that the U.S. holds some 10,000 'enemy combatants' prisoner; and second, that 122 U.S. soldiers were killed in action in April.

"As I write, I have before me a copy of 'The Black Book of Communism,' which relates that on '1 January 1940 some 1,670,000 prisoners were being held in the 53 groups of corrective work camps and 425 collective work colonies. In addition, the prisons held 200,000 people awaiting trial or a transfer to camp. Finally, the NKVD komandatury were in charge of approximately 1.2 million 'specially displaced people.'

"As for Stalingrad, German deaths between Jan. 10 and Feb. 2, 1943, numbered 100,000, according to British historian John Keegan. And those were just the final agonizing days of a battle that had raged since the previous August."
This forces Stephens to ponder the problem:

"There are two explanations for all this. One is that Mr. Bush really is as bad as Sid [Blumenthal], Al [Gore] and Paul [Krugman] say: the dumbest, most feckless, most fanatical, most incompetent and most calamitous president the nation has ever known. A second is that Sid, Al and Paul are insane."
The third explanation is that all three, and numerous others like them, are spoiled, sanctimonious, pampered and precious members of Western upper-middle class, whose golden fishbowl lifestyle and life-long isolation from what for almost 6 billion other human beings passes for everyday reality have to an obscene extent twisted their judgment, perspective and moral compass.

Neither Sid, nor Al nor Paul have ever experienced in their lives any real hardship or struggle. None of them have any experience of life where freedom of speech, or conscience, or association or academic freedom are non-existent. Their worst encounter with the oppressive power of the state is most likely getting a parking ticket. There's no persecution, flight for one's life, hunger, or war. There's only rhetoric.

No one who has experienced the real Gulag would ever compare Guantanamo Bay to Kolymya. No one who has gone through World War Two, or any other war for that matter, would ever compare Fallujah to Stalingrad. No one who has lived in Europe through the 1930s and 1940s would ever compare Bush to Hitler.

But all this should hardly matter - one shouldn't have to experience all these tribulations first-hand to have enough sense not to practice outrageous hyperbole. Stephens concludes:

"The absence of proportion stems, in turn, from a problem of perspective. If you have no idea where you stand in relation to certain objects, then an elephant may seem as small as a fly and a fly may seem as large as an elephant. Similarly, Mr. Blumenthal can compare the American detention infrastructure to the Gulag archipelago only if he has no concept of the actual size of things. And he can have no concept of the size of things because he neither knows enough about them nor where he stands in relation to them. What is the vantage point from which Mr. Blumenthal observes the world? It is one where Fallujah is 'Stalingrad-like.' How does one manage to see the world this way? By standing too close to Fallujah and too far from Stalingrad. By being consumed by the present. By losing not just the sense, but the possibility, of judgment."
Our enlightened elites like to joke about the common man's ignorance of history, geography and current affairs (you know, all those hicks who can't point out Great Britain on the globe, or school kids who don't know which century the American Civil War took place). To be ignorant of history is sad, but to know enough history to twist it for a political point is obscene. Unlike Blumenthal, a farmer in Kentucky might not know what Stalingrad was, but he also has enough sense to realise that the dog turd in his backyard is not a Pyramid of Cheops and enough decency not to turn it into a tourist attraction.


Bias? What bias? 

Lots of good discussion regarding media bias lately; some of it generated by the fourth part of my "Good news from Iraq" segment (see the comments section). Andrew Sullivan points to an interesting recent study by Tim Groseclose of the UCLA and Jeff Milyo of the University of Chicago. The study compared the number of times media outlets cited various think tanks with a number of time members of Congress cited the same think tanks. The result:

"Although we expected to find that most media lean left, we were astounded by the degree. A norm among journalists is to present "both sides of the issue": Consequently, while we expected members of Congress to cite primarily think tanks that are on the same side of the ideological spectrum as they are, we expected journalists to practice a much more balanced citation practice, even if the journalist's own ideology opposed the think tanks that he or she is sometimes citing. This was not always the case. Most of the mainstream media outlets that we examined (ie all those besides Drudge Report and Fox News' Special Report) were closer to the average Democrat in Congress than they were to the median member of the House."
I think I speak for most of us when I say that, again, this won't come as a surprise to us. This is most likely the reason why you're visiting my blog in the first place, or for that matter why you were visiting Instapundit, Andrew Sullivan, Real Clear Politics or any number of other political blogs and political sites. This is also why so many of you listen to talk radio and watch Fox. Apologies if I offended anyone by stereotyping and generalising.

As far as Iraq is concerned, I see two main reasons why the bad news overwhelms the good:

There is no doubt that a certain proportion of the media (both Iraq-based and back home) - a sizeable minority? a majority? - prefers to focus on the bad news. Because they hate Bush, or hate the Republican administration, or hate the United States, or at least some aspects of it; or because they are pacifists and oppose the use of force internationally, particularly by the United States, or particularly by the Republican administration. This is the political bias aspect.

By the same token it's true that media generally likes bad news (and violent news) whether it's Iraq or Ireland or Idaho. This is the bad news bias. Death, violence, mayhem, injury, disease, disaster, scandal, and corruption always trump good news, because the media think it makes for more exciting stories, with greater "public interest" element, and - let's face it - better visuals. A bleeding soldier led away from the site of a car bomb explosion is so much more dramatic and stimulating than the same soldier cutting the ribbon on a recently renovated preschool in Basra. The bad news bias also plays to the crusader inside a journalist, while reporting good news seems more like PR or marketing then what "real" journalism should be "about."

The bad news bias, while absolutely valid, explains the preponderance of bad (and violent) news, but it doesn't explain the sheer quantity and the sheer negativity of reporting - that's where the political bias hits with a double whammy. Unfortunately I can't see the situation changing any time soon, which means I'll have to keep going with my "Good news from Iraq" segment.

And while I believe that the assumptions behind free market are generally correct, the media and the entertainment industry are a case where at least one such assumption - the economic man - doesn't quite work. It's true that human beings are in large part rational and calculating individuals who because of self-interest seek to maximise benefits for the selves. But it's clear that in the mainstream media and in Hollywood ideological commitment trumps economic benefit. That's why the movie industry keeps churning out R-rated movies that shit from a great height on middle class values and sensibilities, despite the fact that it's the G-rated entertainment that provides the best return on investment. And it's also the reason why the media stays liberal even if it means loss of audience to other news and commentary outlets. At least you have to give it to the media/entertainment homo politicus - he (in a gender-neutral way) is always willing to put the investors' money where his mouth is.


Wednesday, June 23, 2004

We have fun and we live longer 

Brisbane "Courier Mail" reports on the conclusions of the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's 2004 report on the state of the nation's health:

"Australians are lazy and fat and too many are smoking or drinking to excess, but most are living longer than ever before."
In fact, Australia's life expectancy is now the fourth best in the world – behind Japan, Iceland and Sweden. And no offence to my Scandinavian and Japanese friends, but where would you rather live?


Good news from Iraq, Part 4 

Welcome to the fourth instalment of "Good news from Iraq". If you want to check out the previous parts, you can find the links on the top of the side-bar.

Overall, the news from Iraq hasn't been too bad lately, with the transition to sovereignty well under way and decrease in fighting. However, we still hear a lot more about terrorism, prisoner abuse saga, sabotage, unvafourable opinion polls, and then some more about terrorism. Read this commentary first, on how "Media Bias Keeps 'Good' Iraq News From U.S. Public." Then read on.

IRAQI SOCIETY: The preparations for the democratic transition are on the way:

"Iraqi officials organizing elections as the U.S.-led occupation hands over power have turned to Mexico, a country with its own history of cleaning up a bad electoral system. Authorities from Mexico and five other countries are sharing their experiences with nine members of the newly appointed Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq."
"They are willing to risk anything to bring a democratic process to their country," says Carlos Valenzuela, an advisory member of Iraq's commission, about the Iraqi electoral officials. The foundations of democracy are already there at the grass-roots and at the top:

"With only days to go until Iraqi authorities assume sovereignty in their country, nearly sixty percent of the government has already been transferred to Iraqi control. The Coalition Provisional Authority reports that fifteen of Iraq's twenty-six ministries are now under Iraqi leadership. All of Iraq's provincial governments are operating independently, and about ninety percent of Iraq's municipalities have functioning city or town councils."
The democratic bug is definitely spreading around Iraq, with the news that even the Shia upriser-in-chief, Muqtada al-Sadr, will be forming a political party to contest the elections next year.

Meanwhile, some areas of Iraq are simply more fortunate than others. Take Kurdistan, for instance:

"Imagine an Iraq where GIs are greeted with cheers rather than roadside explosives, where traffic flows in orderly processions, where the calm is undisturbed by car bombs or assassinations. Such an Iraq already exists in the northern third of the country, where the local Kurdish population has governed itself for the past 13 years, tranquillity reigns and the exuberant graffiti proclaims 'we like USA'."
The whole long report is well worth reading. Elsewhere in Kurdistan, a good news/bad news situation:

"Thousands of ethnic Kurds are pushing into lands formerly held by Iraqi Arabs, forcing tens of thousands of them to flee to ramshackle refugee camps and transforming the demographic and political map of northern Iraq. The Kurds are returning to lands from which they were expelled by the armies of Saddam Hussein and his predecessors in the Baath Party, who ordered thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed and sent waves of Iraqi Arabs north to fill the area with supporters."
Down south, law and order is returning to the streets of Baghdad, literally:

"The many motorists who try to beat the traffic jams by driving the wrong way down streets, stopping in the middle of the highway or hurtling over pavements could be in for a shock. Traffic police are cracking down on the reckless driving that has thrived on the chaos and congestion that followed last year's U.S.-led invasion with new fines, car confiscations and a media campaign to restore a degree of order. 'We'll return the rule of law to the streets'," said traffic police Director-General Brigadier Jasim Tahi.
Another good news/bad news scenario, this time from the world of media:

"The BBC World Service has become the largest international radio news broadcaster in Iraq and Afghanistan following the US-led invasions of both countries, according to new figures compiled by the corporation. Radio audience figures, due to be published today, show the government-funded World Service has 3.3m listeners in Iraq including one-in-four in Baghdad, and 60 per cent of the audience in Kabul, the Afghan capital."
I guess it's better than al Jazeera. Meanwhile, the rumours of Amal al-Mudarris' demise were premature. The distinguished female broadcaster who was said to have been "tortured, hanged and had her tongue cut out and sent to her family - all for the crime of criticising Sadija Hussein, Saddam's wife" is back with her talk show on Studio Ten in Baghdad (even in this good news story, the "Guardian" can't help itself but to make a point that "[al-Mudarris'] 'death' inspired news and comment pieces and a leading article in the Times - many citing it as an example of the most egregious cruelty of Saddam", as if that was the extent on Saddam's wrong-doings). And in other radio news: "Iraq's first independent talk radio station has begun transmissions in Baghdad, bringing Iraqis a lively mix of music and the uncensored opinions of ordinary people. Radio Dijla, or Radio Tigris, was founded by Dr Ahmad Al-Rikabi, a former London bureau chief of the US-funded Radio Free Iraq."

Switching to a different medium, the producers on Iraqi TV think they have a hit in the making: "A morality play with a heavy dose of carjackings, kidnappings and murder, the series has been shooting throughout Baghdad since midspring. Weekly instalments will begin airing in August. [The producers] see the production as an artful and ultimately uplifting story. 'We will show them that evil is always punished, and that law must be observed. It is a reassuring message; it is about faith'," says one of the show's producers. And in real life, the "Washington Times" reports: "In Baghdad, life is violent, minds are frayed and Viagra sales reportedly have doubled since the war ended." In other film news, "[t]wo young film-makers are travelling the length of the great twin rivers running through Iraq, the Tigris and Euphrates, to document daily life in the country ahead of the return of sovereignty on June 30. The pair set out this week on the arduous journey which will take them through 1,000 kilometers of some of the most dangerous terrain on earth without cars or much idea how they will reach their destination near the Gulf."

Rebuilding of the education system continues. Seven British colleges are playing host to 13 Iraqi education managers for a month-long management development programme in order to equip Iraqi higher education providers with the skills needed to rebuild a vocational education base at home, and thus help rebuild the infrastructure. And on the ground in Iraq, Leslye Arsht from a non-profit education consultancy, "has spent the past nine months helping Iraqis rebuild their school system - a mammoth task that started with removing the propaganda Saddam Hussein required children to learn. There's still a long way to go, but teachers are being retrained, new standards and goals are being adopted and deteriorated schools are being repaired getting fixed up for fall classes."

And the First Lady Laura Bush had jumped the gun on the authorities and announced that Baghdad will be Denver's new sister city.

ECONOMY AND INFRASTRUCTURE: The Iraqi Oil Ministry is developing plans to fully exploit its oil reserves - "Iraq has the largest number of undeveloped oil fields in the world. Together they are estimated to hold up to 60 billion barrels of proven reserves. 'Iraq is the only country among oil exporting and producing countries to posses a great number of fields which have not yet entered production'," says Minister Ghadhban. The oil sales since the liberation, by the way, have now reached $10.8 billion. For the future expansion, the project to construct a 700 km, $450 million pipeline to Jordan is back on the drawing board.

The Oil and the Electricity Ministries are joining forces to fight sabotage and ensure continuing supplies of power in the country. To that effect they will re-utilise the Middle East's largest fleet of truck tankers to keep power stations supplied with oil. In other plans: "Iraq's war-ravaged refineries and power plants are in need of massive repairs and the interim authorities say they want to spend $3 billion on their rehabilitation in 2005. Some $2 billion are expected to be spent on the country's ailing national grid, almost double this year's allocations." And how's this for a novel solution to electricity shortages: stop constant sabotage of electricity infrastructure.

Meanwhile, to help with continuing shortages, "the electrical connection projects between Jordan and Iraq, which will start from the Jordanian Al Risha transformer to the Iraqi station of Al Qaem over a length of 275 km with a capacity of 400 k/v, for supplying Iraq with electricity from the Egyptian grid through the Jordanian grid."

And in other energy news, this result of cooperation between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Iraqi engineers: "With the completion of new transmission projects and the rehabilitation of a turbine unit at Haditha Dam in Haditha, Iraq last week, for the first time since 1990 all six turbines were in full operation and the clean hydropower plant operated at full capacity, generating 660 megawatts."

In communications, Asiacell and Orascom, the two main telecommunication providers in Iraq have agreed to join their networks to enable both cell phone and land-line phone users to communicate through northern and central Iraq. And in transport, the administration of the Baghdad airport is now fully in the hands of Iraqi authorities, including the air traffic controllers who received training in Jordan and Singapore. In other airport news "one of three main terminals has been restored, improvements to the main runway and the radars are underway and Iraqi air traffic controllers... are handling most of the roughly 50 cargo charter flights a day. There also is a daily charter passenger flight from Jordan."

On the economic front, this, from an Iraqi blogger:

"After I got out of Tahreer Sq. and avoided traffic jam I passed the building of Baghdad Stock Exchange which we (my partners and I) spent a long time in as stock brokers (my basic profession) and I remembered what my partner said last Friday about it 'it's going to be opened this month and they practiced a test exchange last Saturday, and there was a great job done by the coalition helping the Iraqis old team to reopen as soon as possible'. Laws was changed, a new board of directors without government representatives, a new place, a new techniques of exchange, and of course many more job opportunities for the market staff and for brokers companies and for the investors. For us as a stock brokers firm, it’s a dream to reopen and establish stock exchange, especially when the American experts who helped to reopen the market are saying 'we are trying to develop new, modern exchange facilities'."
You can check out what's going up and what's going down at the Baghdad Stock Exchange here.

50 Iraqi bank managers, mostly from the private sector, have participated in a three-day training seminar in Amman, Jordan, organised by the Private Enterprise Partnership for the Middle-East, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group. The aim "to introduce state-of-the-art banking practices in Iraq, where access has been highly constrained by its recent legacy of successive wars and international economic sanctions."

And in agricultural news, the Iraqi date palm industry is staging a come-back:

"Ali Jawad from the region of Dijail had his date palms uprooted in the 1980s by the former regime, as part of a campaign of collective punishment after some locals tried to assassinate Saddam Hussein. Iraq's once-flourishing date palm groves have been decimated by war, unrest and the collapse of infrastructure under United Nations' sanctions, according to officials and farmers.

"But the government's new program seeks to change all that. Indeed, Iraq's Agriculture Ministry is pursuing a policy of trying to restore what was once the world's leading date industry. According to a May 28 press release from the Coalition Provisional Authority, the ministry has already established 18 date palm orchards in 13 provinces. In one year, the nurseries will provide enough offshoots for 2,800 hectares of trees."
SOLDIERS AND IRAQIS: "After a couple of weeks of watching the news, I realized why the bleak attitude exists. The news we hear concentrates on the tragic setbacks and perceived shortfalls of our efforts, while minimizing our successes," says Maj. Rich Doyle, of Texas. For all the Coalition soldiers, frustrated that they only get in the news when shot at or blown up, let's publicise these stories:

The 203rd Engineer Battalion, originally from Missouri, is helping reconstruct Iraqi schools: "As well as overseeing the contractors, the battalion's own engineers supported the effort by performing electrical, carpentry, and plumbing work," the soldiers instituted a quality control system on local contractors, resulting in great improvement in quality of work. Meanwhile, Yash Sinha, a first lieutenant in a New Jersey-based Army Reserve civil affairs unit had learned that "[t]he way to Iraqi hearts is through their sewer pipes." Says Sinha of his experiences: "The people were very friendly. They'd invite me for lunch, offer me tea. They were always courteous. They wanted to hear a lot of things that were going on in the outside world." Major Danny Hassig, of the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion stationed on the Tigris River in Baghdad has been restoring "essential services such as waste management, medical services, food distribution, education and transportation systems, to the area." "Sometimes it seems like the good news just doesn't get out. There is so much good news," says Hassig.

And the 1st Naval Construction Division and Naval Construction Forces Command is "building camps for border patrols and other security forces, while also trying to co-opt young Iraqi men into the labor force." Says the commander Rear Adm. Charles R. Kubic of the challenges of reversing the legacy of dictatorship:

"There are a lot of good people here. In many cases they are keeping their heads down, keeping quiet and staying in the background because they and their families have been traumatized for decades. They've learned to be survivors, and it's very difficult for them to speak up because they don't have the natural alliances, don't have political parties or government structures, don't have natural ways to bond together."
Meanwhile in the capital, "U.S. troops battling guerrillas in Iraq's capital will pour half a billion dollars into infrastructure projects here over the next three months in a bid to win over residents and undercut insurgent support." That's, by the way, the 1st Cavalry:

"The money will be distributed through 100 different projects to build sewers, ensure potable water and rebuild electricity infrastructure. Iraqis will be contracted to implement the projects. In Sadr City, many power lines are thin, jerry-rigged cables strung so low across roads that U.S. Army vehicles have inadvertently ripped them down. The 1st Cavalry will replace many of them with strong, high-voltage cables."
Lastly, make sure that you read this story of Army Chief Warrant Officer Jared Kimber who drops toys to Iraqi children from his Black Hawk helicopter in the 82nd Medical Company, after noticing how many of them had nothing to play with. And about a retired military Guy Lassen, now a teacher who, inspired by the actor Gary Sinise's and author Laura Hillenbrand's Operation Iraqi Children, collects school supplies among his students to send them to Iraq.

SECURITY SITUATION: Overall, less fighting. Read about the new tactics being implemented on the ground:

"Lt. Col. Tim Ryan tried the carrot, and he tried the stick to put down insurgents fighting U.S. troops in his region west of Baghdad. In the end, he found what worked best is a little respect. He reached out to the tribal and religious leaders in the town of Abu Ghraib and offered a new beginning - in which they would be partners, not adversaries. So far, the deal has worked, and is being looked at as a potential model for when Iraqis regain sovereignty June 30."
Security of their country gradually passes into Iraqi hands:

"The interim Iraqi prime minister announced a reorganization of the country's fledgling security forces... and declared that all of Iraq's military resources, including the army, will be used to combat anti-U.S. insurgents, whom he denounced as 'enemies of God and the people'."
And "[t]he interim government is putting the finishing touches to a plan to set up special forces units. [The interim Prime Minister] Allawi... is discussing the plan with military commanders and has ordered the formation of at least three brigades and as soon as possible." The training of Iraqi security forces continues around the country:

"The United States military is preparing to train Iraqi police from the holy city of Najaf in urban warfare. Lieutenant General David Petraeus, the head of the US military's program to train and arm Iraq's new security forces, says the urban warfare training will be crucial to the future success of policing in Najaf. The local police chief wants weapons to match those used by the insurgents and General Petraeus has pledged to provide rocket-propelled grenades and flack-jackets."
And the US is training Iraqi women in the use of firearms in the hope that some of them will join the official Iraqi security forces: "The first time the women at the paramilitary training camp here went for shooting practice most were nervous, some started crying and others did not want to pick up the guns. Nearly four weeks later, Shemaa Jasem, 22, held up her paper target showing three small holes near the bull's-eye, and was disgusted. 'Bad shooting today,' she said."

Meanwhile, a second batch of Iraqi officers graduated from an 11-week training course at the King Abdullah I Infantry School in Zarqa, north of Amman, Jordan. "You are carrying the flags of your country and army, keeping in mind the security of your home and people with a sole slogan: no territoriality, no tribalism," in the words of the Jordanian director of the training program to the 843 graduates.

There's also more success with the local involvement in counter-terror ops:

"[T]he darkness of an early morning in Iraq, a convoy of 70-ton tanks and armored Humvees rumbles around Baghdad and beyond. Iraqi spies, supplied with digital cameras, global-positioning systems (search) and laptop computers, have identified enemy suspects believed to be selling improvised explosive devices. Paid informants sometimes 'talk' to their U.S. military handlers through Yahoo! chat rooms on the Internet, relaying critical information that targets alleged bomb makers."
It's not just Western contractors who are attracted to work in Iraq - in the area of security it's also people with some valuable regional experience: "Lebanese are sought after because of the military and security experience they have gained in our many wars, their relatively low salary demands compared to their Western counterparts, and their knowledge of the Arabic language which allows them to get by in an environment hostile to Westerners."

And there's other presence is Iraq, allegedly:

"Israeli military and intelligence operatives are active in Kurdish areas of Iran, Syria and Iraq, providing training for commando units and running covert operations that could further destabilise the entire region, according to a report in the New Yorker magazine. The article was written by Seymour Hersh, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who exposed the abuse scandal in Abu Ghraib. It is sourced primarily to unnamed former and current intelligence officials in Israel, the United States and Turkey. Israel's aims, according to Hersh, are to build up the Kurdish military strength in order to offset the strength of the Shia militias and to create a base in Iran from which they can spy on Iran's suspected nuclear-making facilities."
For Hersh and the "Guardian" all this is probably bad news, but I'll include it in this round-up anyway.

While I'm wary of children snitching on their parents (echoes of communism), in some cases one has to applaud such actions:

"One day in December, a smooth-chinned 14-year-old approached American soldiers at a checkpoint here and asked surreptitiously to be arrested. He told the soldiers that his father, an Iraqi Army officer under Saddam Hussein, led a 40-man cell of insurgents, and he agreed to show the troops where to find the men and their weapons.

"The soldiers put a sack over the teen's head, loosely cuffed his hands and led him away to a new life as an informant. U.S. officials say he has provided a wealth of military intelligence, allowing them to capture numerous insurgents in Iraq over the past six months.

"But the teenager's decision to turn on his father, who he says beat him, has cost him his family and his freedom. Since he began cooperating with the Americans, he has lived among U.S. troops, knowing that losing their protection would mean almost certain death at the hands of those he betrayed."
If the US is able to protect mafia informers, then it surely can protect this boy. Then there is this story:

"Portions of Iraqi Private Imad Abid Zeid Jassim's citation for bravery reads: '...[A]s the firefight ensued, under a hail of enemy fire that was accurately targeted on the wounded [U.S.] Marine, and without regard for his own safety, Private Imad Jassim moved forward into the enemy fire and came to the aid of the wounded Marine. He dragged the wounded Marine out of the line of fire to a covered and concealed position...reengaged the enemy...aggressively pushed forward...dislodged the enemy fighters.... His efforts clearly saved the life of the Marine...'."
Thanks for once again joining me for the good news round-up. I hope you'll visit in the future for more good news from Iraq - the next instalment post-June 30.


Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Elsewhere in the blogsphere 

Tim Blair dissects Kevin Rudd, the Labor opposition's "appeasement spokesman". Meanwhile, Evil Pundit considers alternatives to peacekeeping - like war. And Gnu Hunter has an Arabic Word of the Day: Taqiyya.

Right Wing News has got the full picture of Clinton's official portrait. I guess it had to happen. At Silent Running, they query the Associated Press' choice of words in headlines. Clayton Crammer's son rented the video copy of "Fight Club", thus provoking Clayton into a very long musing on materialism, violence and the cult of death.

Bad Hair Blog looks at Germany and Arkansas. And for Gleeful Extremist it's the US versus Sweden.

At Dean's World, guest blogger Joe Gandelman asks the question "Should Blogs Post Pictures Of The Bodies Of Terrorist-Killed Americans?" This blog links to other sites which do - you make the choice. I can only note that the English-language press is far more squeamish about publishing grisly images than their continental European cousins.

The excellent military blogger Blackfive ("the paratrooper of love") is celebrating his first anniversary in the blogsphere - wish him all the best. The quote that rings true:

"My wife still wants to know when I'll make money at blogging. I think that, if that would happen, I would have to change how my 'voice' is delivered. When you are paid to do something, then it becomes work. This is more like a mission for me. Maybe it will change, but right now it's both fun and satisfying."
Or as Mrs Chrenkoff says: "If only you'd spend as much time getting a career as you spend on your blog, then you would have a career."

And welcome to some new blog-faces: Boils My Blood from Australia, Prairie Fire from the other side of the Pacific.

Lastly, not a blog, but a great op-piece by Niall Ferguson:

"The prospect of an apolar world should frighten us a great deal more than it frightened the heirs of Charlemagne. If the U.S. is to retreat from the role of global hegemon--its fragile self-belief dented by minor reversals--its critics must not pretend that they are ushering in a new era of multipolar harmony. The alternative to unpolarity may not be multipolarity at all. It may be a global vacuum of power. Be careful what you wish for."


Shoes for Afghanistan 

A good and wortwhile cause, from Sgt Hook:

"Just about every flight engineer and crew chief has noticed over the course of flying across this place called Afghanistan these past months that a large percentage of the children have no shoes to wear and of course, almost all of the girls are shoeless.

"So my esteemed friends of the blogosphere, in the spirit of Chief Wiggles and minding the words of the infamous Steve Miller Band, I announce the beginning of Operation Shoe Fly in an effort to shoe the children, with no shoes on their feet. If you can collect the shoes, used or new, boys' and girls' (age 14 and under), and send them to me, my crewdogs and I will fly them out to the Afghani kids who so desperately need them.

"Please send your shoes to:

"Operation Shoe Fly
B Co, 214th Aviation Regiment
Bagram, Afghanistan
APO AE 09354-9998

"Another way to help is of course by getting the word out on Operation Shoe Fly. I would be most appreciative for any and all help in spreading the word on our endeavor, including anyone who might be willing to make a button or banner to post around the blogosphere. Thanks.

"In addition to protecting the feet of these young innocent children, we might even win some hearts and minds among their parents and who knows where the shoes might take these kids. This place is on the dawn of a future, determining how bright it will be rests on the shoulders of these kids with no shoes on their feet. What say you? Sgt Hook out."


No logo, no occupation, no clue 

The words of wisdom from Neil Clark, tutor in history and politics at Oxford Tutorial College in England:

"The connection between the widespread Iraqi opposition to the US-led occupation, the recent European election results and the presidential elections in Serbia and Montenegro might not at first sight be apparent. There is surely a world of difference between the attacks on coalition forces, the upsurge in votes for avowedly Euro-sceptic political parties across the continent and the first-round success of the Serbian Radical Party's Tomislav Nikolic. However, despite the contrasting nature of the events in question, all three can be seen as part of the same phenomenon -- protests from a despairing populace aimed at reclaiming the right of self-government from forces that, in different ways, have sought to destroy their national sovereignty."
Sometimes it happens that the "connection... might not at first sight be apparent" because it's so tenuous and tendentious that only an academic could come up with it. I fear that both Eurosceptics and suicide bombers and hostage beheaders might be somewhat insulted at being lumped together so that Clark might have a catchy opening paragraph in an otherwise non-controversial opinion piece. It might also benefit Clark to realise that in the case of Iraq:

1) the "despairing populace" which sets off road-side bombs and murders hostages includes many non-populace members from outside Iraq;

2) "reclaiming the right of self-government" is at best a misleading formulation, considering that Iraqi people did not enjoy such right under Saddam to start with;

3) describing the Coalition as "forces... that have sought to destroy [Iraq's] national sovereignty" might also ring a bit hollow. June 30, anyone? Provisional government? Democratic elections in 2005?

4) lastly, Clark should bear in mind that many among the supposed anti-globalisation forces he sees in Iraq in reality are fighting for their own version of globalisation - it's called the Caliphate, and to the best of my knowledge it pays scant regard to the concept of national sovereignty, or for that matter, nations.

On the positive side, read the rest of Clark's piece; he does go on to make some good points about sovereignty, nationalism and democracy.


The Saddam torture video 

Remember the peaceful old days at the Abu Ghraib prison before those sadistic, perverted Americans came in with their rubber gloves, dogs and digital cameras?

Here's another video of torture and abuse, except from the late-1990s, so it somewhat predates the American "occupation". If you have extremely strong stomach see how Saddam and his jolly fedayeen did it - fingers hacked off, hands hacked off, arms broken, bashing with iron bars. Naked pyramid anyone?

Warning: extremely graphic (courtesy of the AEI).


Monday, June 21, 2004

Chrenk's Monday good reading guide 

Ralph Peters on the rules of engagement for the Coalition troops in Iraq after June 30:

"A century ago, then-Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood wrote simply, 'The purpose of an Army is to fight.' If the Iraqis don't want our soldiers to fight our mutual enemies, we shouldn't let our troops become the prisoners of a doomed effort."
David Frum: a neo-conservative in an open letter to Swedish readers.

Mark Steyn on the return of Clinton:

"[U]nlike the Bush administration with the scandal of Abu Ghraib and torture, in the Clinton administration the biggest scandal was about oral sex. Say what you like, but, in the Clinton era, the only naked guy with women's panties on his head and a dog leash round his neck would have been the President breaking in the new intern pool.

"This comparison is valid in the narrow sense that Bill Clinton, like Abu Ghraib, has been blown out of all proportion. But Clinton is what you wind up with when you have Reagan's communication skills but nothing to communicate..."
Theodore Dalrymple on American and British social myths.

Robinder Sachdev on winning the hearts and minds the non-governmental way: "Privatizing Foreign Policy."

Chritian Lowe - while everyone's attention is occupied by the Mid East, China stirs.

Radek Sikorski, director of the New Atlantic Initiative at the American Enterprise Institute, writes about why the Eastern and Central Europeans stayed away from the European Parliament elections. Yours truly discussed these matters before and came to similar conclusions.


All in the same EU-Boat, Part II 

Welcome to another Euro update, where we parachute behind the enemy lines and check out again what our stylish, cultured, and morally superior betters have been up to recently (for the previous installment click here).

Dear Europe, face it, you're just like the rest of us, only older.

As you're probably aware by now, the elections to the European Parliament were held recently (for my other commentary see here and here) and the result is pretty clear: "Apathy wins in EU polls." It's not certain as yet whether Apathy will be able to form the government in its own right or whether it will have to rely for majority on one of the smaller parties. It is understood, however, that in exchange for its support, Appeasement is quite keen on the position of the Euro Foreign Minister.

The turnout for the elections was pretty low despite the fact that many Europeans discovered they could vote twice: in their country of origin and their country of residence. And in case you were wondering how our favourite Euro candidate had fared, the Czech pornstar Dolly Buster was turned away from the polls having failed to register to vote in time. Her party received only 0.7% of the vote.

Not satisfied with being a world economic superpower, some in Europe are now planning the next step: "European UFO fans have devised a currency to show extraterrestrials that trade between earthlings and ETs is possible." According the group's spokesperson, Kiril Kanew, the Galacto, as the new currency is called, will help bridge the inter-galactic gap:

"Just imagine you're an extraterrestrial civilisation and you want to contact a country on earth. That would be unimaginable, because all countries have opposing interests, and there are so many conflicts. The Galactos should give them a common currency to trade in."
And watch the invaders from space get bogged down in EU red tape. Speaking of EU red tape, prepare to be shocked by the revelation that "Brussels will miss its target of cutting the body of EU legislation by 25% before the end of this year."

But in other areas Europe can breathe easier; its very own prisoner abuse and torture scandal has been declared not as bad as previously thought:

"The Vatican has published a new study on the abuses committed by the medieval Inquisition and come to a rather surprising conclusion - that in fact the much feared judges of heresy were not as brutal as previously believed. According to the 800-page report, the Inquisition that spread fear throughout Europe throughout the Middle Ages did not use execution or torture to anything like the extent history would have us believe. In fact the book's editor, Professor Agostino Borromeo, claims that in Spain only 1.8% of those investigated by the notorious Spanish Inquisition were killed."
Expecting the official American report on Abu Ghraib out in 2521. Meanwhile, just to prove that it's only "ghoulish" and "insensitive" if the Americans do it, enterprising Bosnians are now organising war tours for curious foreign tourists. According to one of the tour operators, some of the attractions include "the market place where the infamous mortar attack took place in February, 1994 ('Sixty-eight were killed, 200 wounded')" as well as "the town of Srebrenica ('the scene of the worst atrocity of the war') and... Radovan Karadzic's house in Pale." And speaking of that Euro poster boy for war crimes, Radovan Karadzic

"Nato-led forces in Bosnia hunting the indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic have placed adverts showing a one-way ticket to The Hague in local papers. The adverts, timed to mark the Bosnian Serb fugitive's 59th birthday, remind readers that he is wanted by the international war crimes tribunal."
Why didn't the Americans think of this tactic to get Saddam instead of engaging in their senseless war? With a few strategically placed ads Saddam might have been in jail by now.

Speaking of the war on terror (not that there is any connection between Saddam and al Qaeda): in a better late than never victory in the war on terror, the governments of Germany and France have just signed an agreement "to boost their cooperation in combating terrorism, chiefly in exchanging intelligence about terrorist groups." "We must become aware at the earliest possible point about groupings and their plans for attacks," said the German Interior Minister, Otto Schily. The German authorities also passed onto their American counterparts information about Mohammad Atta, former resident of Hamburg, now believed to be planning attacks on American soil.

Alas it's not just the Germans and the French who are getting a reputation for misallocating their security resources, as in Great Britain "[a] group of Gurkhas who are veterans of Bosnia and Iraq are helping to tackle another of Britain's problems - a shortage of bus drivers. The 21 Army veterans have been recruited by a bus company in Llanelli, Carmarthenshire, because it struggled to find British drivers for its fleet of 108 vehicles." Unlike their Ukrainian counterparts, however, the Gurkha bus drivers won't face the prospect of the sack for playing Russian pop music while driving. Perhaps they should.

Returning to Germany, the country, alas, still suffers from an image problem:

"A study about Germany's image in Russia and the U.S. has found that 60 years after the end of the Nazi era, Adolf Hitler still remains the best-known German in those countries. He is followed by current Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and former chancellor Helmut Kohl in the U.S., while Russians named Johann Wolfgang Goethe as the next most well-known German after Hitler."
The problem is surely exacerbated by constant German flag-waving:

"A German flag that once flew atop the Reichstag building in Berlin and was auctioned on the website of the German Customs Administration has been bought by a bordello-owner in the state of Saxony-Anhalt. The giant black, red and gold flag, which fetched a price of [Euro] 3,350, will now adorn a brothel in Halle on 'special occasions' according to the bordello owner."
The story explains that "Flags on top of the Reichstag are changed every three months depending on their condition. The auctioned German tricolor was described as 'showing signs of wear and tear like frayed edges and stains'." Hopefully unlike its new venue's employees.

Reichstag flags are not the only cut-price items on sale in Germany: so is German weather. Weather people there have recently come up with a new and exciting way to get around budget cuts. According to Thomas Dummel of the Meteorological Institute at Berlin's Free University: "Just as people pay to adopt a highway or a dolphin, buy a plot on the moon or name a star, why not allow Germans to buy the right to name a high or low pressure system?" The question remains: why the hell would anyone want to have their name associated with German weather?

Moving from the low pressure systems over Saxony and towards the sunny Mediterranean, Greece, meanwhile, does its bit for religious freedom and tolerance. According to Mr Kakkavas of the Greek Society of the Friends of the Ancient and Followers of the Religion of the 12 Gods (GSFAFR12G for short), "Greece makes so much money out of our gods, but we are not allowed to pray to them even for free." Mr Kakkavas and his fellow pagans have been waging a (holy?) war for the past eight years to have their religious worship legalised in this 98% nominally Christian Orthodox country. In Great Britain, on the other hand, a new report launched in the House of Lords says that "[t]he British state education system is failing to meet the needs of Muslim pupils and parents" and calls for "special classes in Islamic subjects, more single-sex education and prayer rooms in secondary schools." Where's the British version of the ACLU?

In case you were wondering why Germany (yes, we're back in Germany again) remains on the cutting edge of Research and Development, sociologist Werner Habermehl of the University of Hamburg, in conjunction with GEWIS institute, has conducted research which clearly demonstrates that "regular sex can help university students pass exams and get better grades. [Habermehl] found that regular sexual activity significantly increased mental capability, but... celibate students found it harder to make the grade. As well as decreasing the length of time needed to complete a course, students with a healthy sex life also received better marks." Hopefully not by sleeping with their lecturers?

The Europeans are proving to be quite resistant to change - and yes, there is a connection between this and the above story. In the previous installment you would have read about a German village of Kotzen (Puke) which voted against changing its name. This week it was the turn of an Austrian village picturesquely named Fucking to vote against a name change:

"Spokesman Siegfried Hoeppl, said: 'Everyone here knows what it means in English, but for us Fucking is Fucking - and it's going to stay Fucking - even though the signs keep getting stolen.' He said the name came from Mr Fuck and his family who settled in the area 100 years ago, and added 'ing', meaning village or settlement. The villagers didn't find out about the English meaning of the word until Allied soldiers stationed in the region in 1945 pointed out the alternative meaning."
Those Americans, they just come over to Europe and the first thing they do (after liberating the locals) is to teach them to swear.

Belgium, meanwhile, is cracking down on alternative lifestyles: under the new set of rules to come into effect in September,

"tattoos would be banned for anyone under 18 as would pierced nipples or genitals. Sixteen to 18 year olds could have other parts of their bodies pierced provided they had clearly verifiable permission from a parent or guardian. Children under 16 would be banned from having any sort of piercing."
Seeing that the Belgian 16 year olds can otherwise legally use their nipples and genitals, it seems rather discriminatory to ban them from piercing the said body parts. Arguably, the Belgian health authorities should be more concerned about faeces found in domestic water supply in the town of Theux. "Tests are underway to discover the source of the faecal matter." I'm not holding my breath for that one.

In other Euro health and safety news, "Britain's health minister [John Reid] has come under fire for saying that smoking is one of the last pleasures left for the poor." Or as he put it: "What enjoyment does a 21-year-old single mother-of-three living in a council sink estate get? The only enjoyment sometimes they have is to have a cigarette." We've moved a long way from "let them eat cakes." And Italy, mindful of the 15,000 carnage of last year's "brutal Gallic summer", has a new plan on how to save the elderly from the heat: "Supermarkets and other air-conditioned spaces such as cinemas may be forced to offer refuge if temperatures soar." What about likely ill-effects of having to watch "Fahrenheit 911" over and over again?

Back among the weasels, "[p]olice chiefs in the Belgian city of Charleroi have tried to shrug of reports that up to 200 officers in the city are being investigated for fraud by saying that they are simply looking into allegations of sloppy management in their service." Meanwhile over the border, Germany's central bank finds itself having to explain "why the bank bought and built some 4,700 flats and houses for its staff." The story adds hopefully that "Germany's Government is on an austerity drive, and wants to avoid accusations of wasting taxpayers' money."

And in France, where the striking electricity workers have previously turned off the power to French government buildings, a new tactic to bring the system down: "French power workers who cut off the electricity at the Eiffel Tower for a few minutes overnight continued to wage a commando-style battle against privatization on Thursday by restoring supplies to homes with unpaid bills."

Elsewhere in France, "30 000 out of France's 575 000-strong Jewish community were considering immigrating to Israel" following the upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents. And that newest Old European, Spain, maintains its friendly attitude towards all things American, as "[t]wo would-be thieves tried to steal the mobile phone of President George W Bush's daughter Jenna as she sat having a coffee in a town near Cadiz." Yeah, show it to them Yankees.

In the previous installment you would have read about a Dutch magazine giving away to its readers cut-out voodoo dolls of German soccer players. I'm happy to report that this trend in building regional friendship and good-will through sport is spreading: a Swiss newspaper is now offering its readers a cut-out David Beckham look-alike with instructions to "rip this page out, pin it on the wall and stick in nails, needles and staples. If we believe it will work, then it will." Who says that the magic is gone from Europe? Meanwhile in London, a woman is divorcing her husband because he's too preoccupied with the European soccer championships. "The 56-year-old pipe-fitter has taken two weeks off work to go to the pub to watch the Euro 2004 championships with his friends." And we definitely don't want to read headlines like "Germans must attack better against Latvia." Even if it's not 1941 again.

Over and out for now. Thank you for joining us and see you next time.


How the UN deals with problems 

The world outrage mounts (not):

"The United Nation's anti-corruption department has been rocked by accusations that the office itself is corrupt.

"The head of the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services, Undersecretary-General Dileep Nair, has been accused of promoting and recruiting people in ways that are not consistent with U.N. rules and regulations. Also, a senior investigator has been suspended and there have been accusations of financial and sexual misconduct...

"Nair has been accused of covering up abuses of the oil-for-food program. So far, his office has carried out 55 internal audits of the process that before the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein's regime allowed Iraqi oil to be sold so food could be purchased for Iraqis.

"Other allegations of impropriety include charges that some inside the OIOS received financial kickbacks in return for promoting people and that some people were promoted in exchange for sexual favors."
Meanwhile, "World waits as Sudan becomes second Rwanda." And the United Nations plans to implement the crisis-solving strategy that worked so well not just in Central Africa but in Bosnia and Kosovo too.


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