Middle East Online

Basra Voters Hope Elections Will Revive Iraqi Economy

Voters in southern Iraq's oil-rich Basra province are pinning their hopes on elections to revive the ruined economy.

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Shoe-Throwing Journalist Faces Trial on Dec 31

The Iraqi journalist thrust to instant fame when he threw his shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush will go on trial this month on charges that risk up to 15 years in jail, a judge said on Monday.

"The investigation phase is over and the case has been transferred to the Central Criminal Court," investigating judge Dhiya al-Kenani said. "The trial will start on Wednesday, December 31."

Muntazer al-Zaidi stands accused of "aggression against a foreign head of state during an official visit," an offense that carries a prison term of between five and 15 years under Iraqi law.

But the court could convict him of the lesser charge of an "attempted aggression" which carries a prison term of one to five years.

Zaidi, 29, became a hero to many when he threw his shoes at Bush during the U.S. president's surprise visit to Iraq on December 14, an action considered a grave insult in the Arab world.

His lawyer had asked that the case against Zaidi was transferred from the central criminal court, which handles terrorism cases, to an ordinary tribunal but the judge refused.

"The fact he did not strike his target could serve in his favor," Kenani said last week, alluding to the fact that Bush succeeded in ducking the shoes.

Zaidi's actions were hailed by many in the Arab world who considered it an ideal parting gift to a deeply unpopular Bush, who ordered the 2003 invasion of Iraq that triggered years of deadly insurgency and sectarian conflict.

The journalist for private Iraqi television station Al-Baghdadia was wrestled to the ground by security guards after his actions and is now planning to sue over injuries caused, his lawyer Dhiya al-Saadi said on Sunday.

"There are bruises on his body. He has lost a tooth in his upper jaw, and his left eye is bloodshot," the lawyer said, adding that the list of injuries is backed up by medical checks.

Kenani on Monday confirmed that a complaint had been lodged against the security guards and that a letter would be sent to the office of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in order to bring them to justice.

"Neither Muntazer, nor us, know their names but we may be able to recognise some of them from the television pictures," he said.

According to Maliki's press aide Yassin Majid, Zaidi wrote a note to the prime minister last week seeking his pardon over the incident.

For the first time on Sunday, one of Zaidi's brothers Uday, was able to see his detained sibling.

His family has been demonstrating in a park near the Green Zone in central Baghdad to demand his release from custody but Uday al-Zaidi said they had been told to leave by security forces because they were in a sensitive area.

"We were forced by the Iraqi military to leave the area and they threatened to arrest us if we do not leave," he said.

Suicide Bomb Kills 55 at Packed Iraq Restaurant

At least 55 people were killed and 95 were wounded in a suicide bomb attack in a restaurant near the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk on the final day of the annual Feast of the Sacrifice holiday.

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Iraqi Parliament Approves Status of Forces Agreement

The Iraqi parliament on Thursday approved by a vast majority a landmark military pact that will have all U.S. troops withdraw from the country by 2011, during a televised session.

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Controversial Status of Forces Agreement Facing Iraqi Opposition

Iraq's top leaders met late Sunday to review a controversial security pact with the U.S. that will determine American troop deployments beyond this year, a parliamentary official said.

The official who spoke on condition of anonymity said members of the Political Council for National Security met for about two hours at the Baghdad home of President Jalal Talabani.

The council, which comprises Talabani, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other senior government officials, discussed the draft in detail. They are now expected to refer it to the cabinet, the official said, giving no further details.

Should the cabinet give the go-ahead, the agreement would then be submitted to parliament for final approval.

The deal is fiercely opposed by many key Iraqi role players, including Shiite radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who brought thousands of his supporters onto the streets of Baghdad on Saturday to demand the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Sadr on Saturday urged parliament not to vet the accord while on Sunday senior leaders of Maliki's own ruling alliance also came out against it, saying further changes are necessary.

"There are positive points and others need more time to be discussed, and others need modification," the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) said in a statement.

Meanwhile, due to the ongoing negotiations with Washington over the pact, Maliki has decided to postpone his visit to Australia scheduled for next week, his office said in a statement Sunday.

The agreement was due to be concluded by the end of July but became embroiled in squabbles over whether U.S. soldiers in Iraq who commit crimes would continue to enjoy the immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts they were granted at the time of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The latest draft stipulates that Iraq has the right to prosecute U.S. soldiers and civilians for crimes committed outside their bases and when off duty.

It further says that the U.S. will have the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over its soldiers and civilians if they commit a crime inside their facilities or when on missions.

But the arrangement gives Iraqi courts the right to prosecute U.S. soldiers and civilians if they commit "grave and premeditated felonies outside their facilities and when not on missions."

The decision is seen as a hard-won concession for Maliki who has taken a tough stand on protecting his country's sovereignty in the pact.

The so-called Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) will provide the legal basis for a U.S. troop presence in Iraq after the present UN mandate expires on December 31.

A failure to agree on the terms would force Baghdad and Washington to find another legal framework.

If the agreement is signed by the two sides and approved by the Iraqi parliament, it will become effective from January 1 and last for three years, during which a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces is outlined.

According to the draft agreement, U.S. combat forces will withdraw from Iraqi towns and villages by June 2009 and pull out of Iraq completely by December 2011.

The two sides have also agreed that all military operations in Iraq will be carried out with the approval of Baghdad under the supervision of a Joint Military Operation Coordination Committee (JMOCC) to be formed under the pact.

The agreement also restricts U.S. military powers by permitting troops to detain Iraqis only through an Iraqi order.

"In case they detain, the detainee must be handed over to Iraqi authorities within 24 hours," the document says.

Maliki said on Sunday that Iraq was keen to negotiate a similar security pact with Britain to provide for a British military presence beyond this year.

"If the SOFA with the U.S. is approved by parliament, it will help signing an agreement with British for their military presence in Iraq," he said in a statement after talks with visiting British Defense Secretary John Hutton.

Hutton, 53, who took over the defense portfolio from Des Browne just over two weeks ago, said that he had brought his team to discuss the Status of Forces Agreement between Baghdad and London.

Iraqi Doctors to Carry Guns for Self-Defense

BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi government on Monday said it will allow doctors to carry guns in self-defense, pledging that they will not be detained during security operations.

The cabinet agreed to grant weapons permits to doctors in the light of the killing by insurgents of a large number of professional people since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

"The cabinet decided to allow each doctor to carry one weapon to defend himself," the statement said. Doctors will not be detained during security operations unless the health ministry has been informed.

In a move seen as an attempt to prevent the emigration of skilled people, the government is also offering better housing for doctors and a review of taxes imposed on professionals, the statement said.

In July, Iraqi doctors in the southern oil city of Basra staged demonstrations demanding better protection for them after a colleague was kidnapped in the region.

Petraeus to Hand Over Iraq Command Sept 16

Baghdad -- U.S. General David Petraeus will hand the command of U.S.-led forces in Iraq to General Raymond Odierno on September 16, his spokesman said Sunday.

"He will hand over the command on September 16 in Baghdad," Colonel Steven Boylan said.

Petraeus will take over as the new chief of Central Command in late October, with responsibility for U.S. troops from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia, including live conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Boylan said.

The expected shift will come at a time when pressure is growing to beef up the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, where the level of violence is now said to be higher than in Iraq.

In July, Petraeus was approved by the U.S. Senate to head Central Command after Admiral William Fallon abruptly stepped down from the post in March, saying that reports describing him as at odds with the White House over how to deal with Iran had become "a distraction."

About 144,000 U.S. soldiers are currently on the ground in Iraq, but that number could decrease in coming months.

Before leaving Iraq, Petraeus will offer to U.S. President George W. Bush his recommendations on troop cuts in Iraq amid a reported drop in violence which is currently at a four-year low.

Petraeus, the architect of the troop surge strategy, arrived here in February last year with the launch of a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops.

Aside from having more troops at his disposal, Petraeus also embarked on a counter-insurgency strategy that underscored the importance of winning Iraqi hearts and minds.

His strategy demanded that U.S. soldiers engage with and respect citizens while relentlessly pursuing Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.

Washington withdrew five combat brigades that were deployed as part of the surge.

On Thursday, in an interview with the Financial Times, Petraeus said U.S. combat troops could be out of Baghdad by July 2009 "conditions permitting."

"The number of attacks in Baghdad lately has been, gosh, I think it's probably less than five (a day) on average, and that's a city of seven million people," he said.

He told the London-based business daily that Iraq was a "dramatically changed country" since he took over in February 2007, pointing to a "degree of hope that was not present 19 months ago."

Petraeus insisted, however, that "innumerable challenges" still remain.

German Firms Eye Iraq Market

BERLIN -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and German bosses have a dinner date Tuesday following a visit this month by Economy Minister Michael Glos to Baghdad, signifying that German-Iraqi trade is back in business.

Iraq was historically a strong partner for Germany, and in the 1980s bilateral trade reached four billion euros (6.4 billion dollars) a year.

But by last year, Germany only exported goods worth a total of 319 million euros to the war-ravaged country.

German companies have always been eager to work with a country that has ample oil reserves and where reconstruction programs offer major contracts for makers of machine tools and industrial facilities, two German specialties.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was to receive Maliki on Tuesday, has expressed strong interest in developing economic and business ties and German companies are chomping at the bit.

Eckart von Unger, director of the Africa and Middle East department at the German industrial federation BDI, told the business daily Handelsblatt: "In the near future, we hope Iraq will again hit four billion euros, like in the good old days."

For now however, while many German companies have expressed interest in working in Iraq, few have taken the next steps.

Wintershall, a unit of the chemical giant BASF, is one of the few to actively seek contracts, in its case a license for oil drilling.

A BDI spokesman acknowledged that "we cannot say how many German companies are currently active in Iraq."

Insecurity, corruption and poor infrastructure are obstacles to many.

"The risks to Germans working there is still very high," said Axel Nitschke, head of the German chamber of commerce DIHK's external trade department, in comments to the Neue Passauer Presse newspaper.

But both countries are working on improving the situation.

In June, a German-Iraqi economic commission was resuscitated and met here for the first time since 1987, under the oversight of Glos and Iraqi Industry Minister Fawzi al-Hariri.

Six weeks later, Glos flew to Iraq along with a sizeable German business delegation.

He was the first member of the government to make the trip since 2003.

On Tuesday, the Arab-German chamber of commerce and industry Ghorfa is organizing the dinner with Maliki and "around 100 business leaders, particularly heads of small- and medium-sized enterprises," the group said.

In Iraq as well, interest in bigger contacts with Germany is keen.

Baghdad has pressed Berlin to abandon its official warning against travel in the still volatile Middle Eastern nation.

"It handicaps economic development, the German government should allow German companies to decide for themselves if they want to go to Iraq," Hariri said last month during a visit to the German capital.

"In the end, it only results in Germans losing contracts, while Iraq, where German products have a good reputation, buys machines from China, Korea or eastern Europe," he added.

Eckhart von Klaeden, foreign affairs spokesman for the conservative Christian Democratic parliamentary group, said German firms should begin getting back to Iraq step-by-step.

"We need to begin by going where it is relatively safe," such as in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq.

"As more regions become prosperous, they will set an example for the most dangerous ones and a virtuous circle will take over," he forecast.

Israeli Soldier Filmed Shooting at Blindfolded Palestinian

A human rights group has released a video that shows an Israeli soldier firing a rubber-coated bullet from close range toward the feet of a bound, blindfolded Palestinian man.

The Israeli military said Monday it was investigating the video, taken two weeks ago, and described the shooting as a "stark violation" of army rules.

The Palestinian, Ashraf Abu Rahmeh, said Monday he was shot in one of his left toes and treated at the scene. During an interview, Abu Rahmeh, 27, took off his shoe and showed a large blister on his toe, with bruising underneath. He said for several days after the shooting, the toe was swollen.

The shooting took place on July 7, on the outskirts of the West Bank village of Naalin, said Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, a relative of the injured man. At the time, several dozen Palestinians including Abu Rahmeh participated in a protest against Israel's separation barrier, which is under construction near Naalin and will eventually cut off the village from hundreds of acres of its land.

In recent weeks, Naalin has been the site of frequent clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli troops. In the incident two weeks ago, soldiers imposed a curfew and then fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber-coated steel pellets to disperse protesters marching toward the village, said Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, who was at the scene.

Toward the end of the clashes, Ashraf and another Palestinian man were detained by Israeli troops, Abdullah Abu Rahmeh said. Ashraf was led to an army jeep, blindfolded and handcuffed, said Abdullah Abu Rahmeh. Ashraf was held in this way for about three hours, his relative said. Abu Rahmeh said he was then shot.

A Palestinian girl filmed the scene from her home near the jeep, according to the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, which obtained the footage.

The video shows Ashraf standing with the back to the camera, facing the jeep, while an Israeli army officer holds his arm. Another soldier slowly takes aim from a yard away and shoots toward Ashraf's feet. With the sound of the shot, the camera loses focus, and the next clear frames show Ashraf lying on the ground as Israeli soldiers lean over him.

"They shot me in the foot, in the toe," Abu Rahmeh said.

B'Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli demanded that the military take steps against both soldiers, the shooter and the one seen holding Abu Rahmeh's arm.

The army said military police are investigating.

The incident "is atypical and unacceptable and does not represent the Israel Defense Forces or its values," Barak told lawmakers from his Labor Party on Monday, according to a statement released by his office.

However, Palestinians have long complained of excessive force by Israeli troops in quelling Palestinian protests.

Israel has been building the separation barrier since 2002, saying it's a temporary defense against Palestinian attackers. However, the barrier extends into the Palestinian West Bank (illegally occupied by the Israeli military), incorporating illegal Jewish settlement blocs and seizing land from Palestinian villages, which suggests it's a land grab and an attempt by Israeli to draw its border unilaterally.

Is the Global Oil Crunch a Myth?

The popular perception of the recently skyrocketing oil price is that there is an oil shortage in global energy markets. The perceived shortage is generally blamed on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting countries (OPEC) for "insufficient" production, or on countries like China and India for their increased demand for energy, or on both.

This perception is reinforced--indeed, largely shaped--by the Bush administration and its neoconservative handlers who are eager to deflect attention away from war and geopolitical turbulence as driving forces behind the skyrocketing energy prices.

Impressions of an oil shortage are further bolstered by Wall Street and its financial giants that are taking advantage of the insecurity created by war and geopolitical turmoil in oil markets and are making fortunes through manipulative speculation in commodity futures markets.

Perceptions of insufficient oil supply are also heightened by the recently resuscitated theory of the so-called Peak Oil, which maintains that world production of conventional oil will soon reach--if it has not already reached--a maximum, or peak, and decline thereafter, with grave socio-economic consequences.

However, claims of an oil shortage are not supported by facts. Evidence shows that, in reality, there is no discrepancy between production and consumption of oil on a global level. Citing statistical evidence of parity between production and consumption of oil, OPEC President Chakib Khelil recently emphasized that there was no shortage of oil: "As far as fundamentals are concerned I think we have equilibrium between supply and demand. . . . In fact right now we have more supply than demand."

Facts of abundant oil supplies in global markets are now also being acknowledged and reported by mainstream media. For example, Ed Wallace of Business Week recently reported that "that worldwide production of oil has risen 2.5% in the first quarter, while worldwide demand has grown by only 2%. Production is expected to increase by 3.3% in the second quarter, and by as much as 4.1% by the third quarter. The net result is that the US daily buffer for oil production against demand, which was a paltry 1.5 million barrels as recently as 2005, is now up to 3 million barrels in excess capacity today."

Wallace then asks, "So what is going on here? Why would our Energy Secretary say there's a supply and demand problem when none exists? Why would he say that speculators have little or nothing to do with the incredibly high price of oil and gasoline, when it's clear they do? President Bush--a former oilman--gives the ever-growing demand for gasoline as the primary reason prices are so high, yet that notion can be dispelled with one minute of research."

So, if indeed there is no imbalance between production and consumption of oil in global markets, how do we then explain the skyrocketing oil prices?

The answer, in a nutshell, is: war and geopolitical instability in oil markets. Contrary to the claims of the champions of war and militarism, of the Wall Street speculators in energy markets, and of the proponents of Peak Oil, the current oil price shocks are caused largely by the destabilizing wars and political turbulences in the Middle East. These include not only the raging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the danger of a looming war against Iran that would threaten the flow of oil out of Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz.

Close scrutiny of the soaring oil prices shows that anytime there is a renewed US or Israeli military threat against Iran, fuel prices move up several notches. For example, Agence France-Press (AFP) recently reported, "Crude oil prices went on a record-setting surge Friday as fears of a new Middle East conflict were fanned by comments from a top Israeli official about Iran. New York's main oil futures contract...leapt 10.75 dollars a barrel--its biggest one-day jump ever."

War and political chaos in the Middle East tend to increase energy prices in a number of ways. For one thing, as war plunges the US deep into debt, it depreciates the dollar--thereby appreciating, or inflating, the price of dollar-denominated commodities, especially oil.

Depreciated dollar tends to raise the price of oil (and other commodities) in two major ways. First, since oil is priced in US dollars, oil exporting countries would demand more of the cheaper dollars for the same barrel of oil in order to maintain the purchasing power of their oil. Second, when the dollar falls, oil prices rise because investors are more likely to use their money to buy tangible assets or commodities such as oil and gold that won't lose value.

According to a number of energy experts, between 30- and 40-percent of the recent increases in the price of oil can be attributed to dollar depreciation. One of the simplest ways to calculate this is to compare the price per barrel of oil in dollars and euros over the last five years. "The widening gap between the two [dollar price vs. euro price] indicates that 35 percent of the increase in the price of oil could be attributed to currency [dollar] devaluation."

Stronger than the impact of dollar depreciation on the price of oil has been the impact of manipulative speculation: war and political instability have served as breeding grounds for hoarding and speculation in energy futures markets. According to F. William Engdahl, a top expert on energy and financial markets, "As much as 60% of today's crude oil price is pure speculation driven by large trader banks and hedge funds. It has nothing to do with the convenient myths of Peak Oil. It has to do with control of oil and its price. . . . Since the advent of oil futures trading and the two major London and New York oil futures contracts, control of oil prices has left OPEC and gone to Wall Street. It is a classic case of the tail that wags the dog."

US Representative Bart T. Stupak, Democrat - Michigan, chairman of the subcommittee investigating commodity market speculation, attributes even a higher percentage of the oil price hike to market manipulation: "Speculations now account for about 70% of all benchmark crude trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange, up from 37% in 200."

Wall Street financial giants that created the Third World debt crisis in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the tech bubble in the 1990s, and the housing bubble in the 2000s are now hard at work creating the oil bubble. By purchasing large numbers of futures contracts, and thereby pushing up futures prices to even higher levels than current prices, speculators have provided a financial incentive for giant futures traders to buy even more oil and place it in storage.

Unrestrained by an appalling lack of regulation, this has led to a steady rise in crude oil inventories over the last two years, "resulting in US crude oil inventories that are now higher than at any time in the previous eight years. The large influx of speculative investment into oil futures has led to a situation where we have both high supplies of crude oil and high crude oil prices. . . . In fact, during this period global supplies have exceeded demand, according to the US Department of Energy."

The fact that the skyrocketing oil prices of late have been accompanied by a surplus in global oil markets was also brought to the attention of President George W. Bush by Saudi officials when he asked them during a recent trip to the kingdom to increase production in order to stem the rising prices. Saudi officials reminded the President that "there is plenty of oil on the market. Iran has put some 30 million barrels of oil that it can't sell into floating storage. 'If we produced more oil, it wouldn't find buyers,' says the Saudi source. It wouldn't affect the price at all."

And why producing more oil "wouldn't affect the price at all"? Well, because what is driving the soaring oil prices is not shortage but speculation: "with so much investment money sloshing around in the commodities markets, the Saudis calculate they have no hope of controlling short-term price fluctuations. They blame the recent price run-ups on speculation and fear of shortages [not real shortages], factors they say are beyond their control."

To sum up, manipulative speculation and dollar depreciation account for most of the recent increases in the price of oil--speculation accounts for nearly 60 percent, dollar depreciation for almost 40 percent. This is no longer a secret. What remains largely a secret, and needs to be exposed, however, is the relationship between speculation and dollar depreciation, on the one hand, and war and geopolitical instability, on the other.

While it is important to point out the impacts of dollar depreciation and commodity speculation on the price of oil, it is even more important to show that both of these factors are byproducts of war and militarism. Not only has the war played a critical role in the weakening of the dollar (through plunging the US deep into debt), it has also created favorable grounds for manipulative speculation in commodity markets, especially energy markets.

Therefore, while efforts to curb speculation in energy markets (through regulation of the largely unregulated futures markets) or buttress the dollar from further declining may sound comforting, such efforts will remain illusive and ineffectual unless the devastating wars and military adventures in the oil-rich Middle East are terminated; that is, unless the root causes of currency depreciation and commodity speculation are exposed and cut out.

Iraqis Angered After a Marine is Seen Handing Out Pro-Christian Coins in Fallujah

BAGHDAD -- A U.S. Marine handed out coins promoting Christianity to Muslims in the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah outraged Iraqis, officials said Friday.

The U.S. military responded quickly, removing a trooper from duty pending an investigation.

The distribution of the coins was the second perceived insult to Islam by American service members this month.

A U.S. sniper was sent out of the country after using a Koran, Islam's holy book, for target practice.

Photographs of the coins, which were inscribed with phrases in Arabic, were widely distributed via cell phones in Fallujah and were seen by an AP employee.

One side asked: "Where will you spend eternity?"

The other contained a verse from the New Testament: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. John 3:16."

Such actions by American service members threaten to alienate Sunni Arabs who have become key allies in the fight against insurgents, a movement that started in Anbar province, which includes Fallujah.

Distribution of the coins in Fallujah was particularly sensitive because the city, 40 miles west of Baghdad, is known for its large number of mosques. It was the center of the Sunni-led insurgency before a massive U.S. offensive in November 2004.

Sheik Abdul-Rahman al-Zubaie, an influential tribal leader in the city, spoke of his outrage over perceived proselytizing by American forces and warned patience was running thin.

"This event did not happen by chance, but it was planned and done intentionally," al-Zubaie said. "The Sunni population cannot accept and endure such a thing. I might not be able to control people's reactions if such incidents keep happening."

Sunni officials and residents said a Marine distributed about 10 coins at a checkpoint controlling access to the city, the scene of one of the fiercest battles of the war.

Al-Zubaie said a man brought one of the coins to a mosque on Wednesday to show it to him and other Sunni leaders.

He accused the Marines of trying to do missionary work in Fallujah and said Sunni leaders had met with U.S. military officials and demanded "the harshest punishment" for those responsible to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Mohammed Hassan Abdullah said he witnessed the coins being handed out on Tuesday as he was waiting at the Halabsa checkpoint, although he didn't receive one himself.

The U.S. military -- still smarting from the Koran shooting -- said a Marine was removed from duty Friday "amid concerns from Fallujah's citizens regarding reports of inappropriate conduct."

A statement said the reports about the coin's distribution were being investigated and promised "appropriate action" if the allegations are confirmed.

Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, a spokesman for U.S. forces in western Iraq, said it didn't appear to be a widespread problem, stressing that the military forbids "proselytizing any religion, faith or practices."

"Indications are this was an isolated incident -- an individual Marine acting on his own accord passing out coins," Hughes said in an e-mailed statement.

Col. James L. Welsh, chief of staff for American forces in western Iraq, also said the matter has their "full attention."

Al-Zubaie said U.S. military officials met with tribal leaders on Thursday and expressed "astonishment about (the) behavior of this Marine, saying that they have already settled the matter of the violation of the Koran and suddenly a new problem has emerged."

Dr. Muhsin al-Jumaili, a professor of law and religious studies in Fallujah, said the act was especially provocative in Fallujah and risked alienating residents who recently have joined forces with the Americans against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"As Muslims, we cannot accept this," he said. "The Americans should concentrate on maintaining security and not doing missionary work."

"Such deeds will not make Muslims trust American troops any more and might create a feeling of hatred among Muslims and Christians" at a time when they're finally living in peace, he added.

The revelation that an American sniper had used a Koran for target practice earlier this month prompted similar outrage and drew apologies from President Bush and senior U.S. commanders.

U.S. troops also have struggled to overcome the accusations that they are insensitive to Islamic traditions after several missteps in the early stages of the war in Iraq.

Trial of CIA Kidnappers May Have Italian Star Power

MILAN, Italy - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his predecessor Romano Prodi may testify in the Milan trial of 26 CIA agents accused of kidnapping an Egyptian imam, a judge decided Wednesday.

Judge Oscar Magi accepted defense lawyers' arguments that Prodi and Berlusconi should be called in the trial of the agents being judged in absentia.

Seven Italians, including the former head of military intelligence General Nicolo Pollari, are also on trial in the case.

Secret service heads and ministers of defense under Prodi, who was premier between 2006 and 2008, and in Berlusconi's previous government from 2001-2006 may testify, the judge ruled.

The defendants are on trial in the northern city for the February 2003 kidnapping of Osama Mustafa Hassan, better known as Abu Omar.

The trial is the first in Europe over the CIA's so-called "extraordinary rendition" program under which it has secretly transferred terror suspects to third countries known to practice torture.

Abu Omar was snatched from a Milan street in an operation believed coordinated by the CIA and Italian military intelligence, then transferred to a high-security prison outside Cairo, where he was held for four years.

After his release in February 2007, he told of torture and humiliation during his incarceration.

Pollari, who was forced to resign over the affair, has said he is innocent but unable to defend himself because he cannot discuss state secrets.

His lawyers have called for testimony from Berlusconi and Prodi since the start of the trial in June 2007 in hopes of showing that their client was not aware of the kidnapping.

The judge had held off on reaching a decision on the matter while the Constitutional Court deliberated whether Milan investigators had violated state secrecy laws by wiretapping military intelligence agents.

The trial was suspended in June 2007, shortly after it opened, while awaiting a decision from the Constitutional Court.

Magi decided to resume the trial in March after the government and Milan prosecutors agreed in January to try to settle the issue without recourse to Italy's highest court.

Among the Americans are the former CIA Milan station chief Robert Seldon Lady, the Rome CIA station chief Jeffrey Castelli and U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Romano, who was stationed at the Aviano air base in northeastern Italy at the time.

The Italian government has refused to seek the extradition of the 26 Americans requested by the Milan prosecutors.

The Ever-Shifting Rationale for the Occupation of Iraq

The rationale for war in Iraq has morphed from ousting strongman Saddam Hussein to countering Al-Qaeda militants to its latest incarnation -- facing down what officials in the administration of President George W. Bush call the Iranian "threat."

"Iraq is the convergence point for two of the greatest threats to America in this new century: Al-Qaeda and Iran," Bush said last week, renewing accusations that the Islamic republic is backing Iraqi militias hostile to U.S. forces and covertly seeking nuclear weapons.

"If we succeed in Iraq after all that Al-Qaeda and Iran have invested there, it would be a historic blow to the global terrorist movement and a severe setback for Iran," he said.

With Saddam dead and Al-Qaeda weakened, according to Bush, Iranian-financed extremists, which top U.S. commander in Iraq David Petraeus has called "special groups," have emerged as a key reason for maintaining U.S. troop levels in Iraq.

"Unchecked, the 'special groups' pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq," Petraeus said last week as he told U.S. lawmakers of military strategy in Iraq for the coming months.

However, exactly what steps the United States may take to counter this "threat" remain unclear, and depend largely on Bush's decisions in his remaining nine months in the White House.

Bush told ABC News that he had no intention of attacking Iran, but vowed to protect U.S. interests and refused to rule out the use of force altogether.

"The message to the Iranians is: we will bring you to justice if you continue to try to infiltrate, send your agents or send surrogates to bring harm to our troops and/or the Iraqi citizens," Bush said.

Asked to elaborate on this "justice," Bush replied: "It means capture or kill, is what that means."

Bush repeated that "all options need to be on the table, but my first effort is to solve this issue diplomatically," and added that he was amused by unfounded rumors of an impending attack.

"I'm chuckling, because, you know, from my perch, my perspective, these rumors happen all the time ... I wouldn't say they're amusing. It's part of the job, I guess."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday confirmed U.S. concern with Iranian actions but said the chances of the United States "stumbling" into a confrontation with Iran through skirmishes in Iraq "are very low."

"We are concerned about their activities in the south. We are concerned about the weapons that they are sending in -- that they continue to send in to Iraq," Gates told CBS.

The defense secretary noted that a recent government offensive against Shiite militias in the southern Iraqi city of Basra had revealed "the level of Iranian malign influence in the south and on their economic heart line through Basra."

In London, The Independent newspaper reported Monday that the United States and Iran have been conducting secret back-channel discussions on Tehran's nuclear program and frozen relations between the two countries.

The paper quoted former U.S. under secretary of state Thomas Pickering as saying that a group of former U.S. diplomats and foreign policy experts had been meeting with Iranian academics and policy advisers "in a lot of different places, although not in the U.S. or Iran" for the past five years.

Still, speculation has been rife over a potential U.S. conflict with Iran, which is pressing on with its nuclear activities despite three sets of U.N. sanctions over Iran's failure to heed repeated ultimatums to suspend uranium enrichment.

U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has framed Iranian activities in Iraq as a "proxy war" with the Americans, even as administration officials have hailed the retreat of Al-Qaeda due to increasing involvement by Sunni tribal chiefs.

Crocker on Friday foresaw a similar reaction in Iraq, saying that Iran's support for militias fighting the Iraqi government may cause a Shiite "backlash."

Yet the Bush administration has launched "an interagency assessment of what is known about Iranian activities and intentions, how to combat them and how to capitalize on them," the Washington Post reported Saturday.

Brookings Institution expert Suzanne Maloney said that "disastrous Bush policies fostered a sectarian Iraq that has helped empower Iranian hardliners.

"Rather than serving as an anchor for a new era of stability and American preeminence in the Persian Gulf, the new Iraq represents a strategic black hole, bleeding Washington of military resources and political influence while extending Iran's primacy among its neighbors."

Blackwater Iraq Contract Renewed

The US State Department said Friday it is extending its diplomat protection contract for private security firm Blackwater USA, despite the incident last September in which Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians.

"I have requested and received approval to have Task Order 6, which Blackwater has to provide personal protective services in Baghdad, renewed for one year," said Gregory Starr at the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

Blackwater is the most controversial of several private security firms tasked with protecting high-profile US officials and foreign dignitaries visiting Iraq.

Blackwater guards fatally shot 17 Iraqi civilians while escorting a US diplomat through Baghdad in a September 16, 2007 incident that the Iraqi government considers a crime. Blackwater claims its guards reacted in self-defense.

The company's contract was set to expire on May 7. It was renewed because Federal Bureau of Investigation agents have not yet concluded their inquiry into the September shooting, Starr said.

The US government, and especially US Ambassador Ryan Crocker, "will take a very close look at the FBI reports and then we will decide whether it is consistent with the US government goals and policies to continue the contract of Blackwater," said Starr.

Foreign security companies at present are not subject to Iraq law, but at the same time are not governed by US military tribunals, allowing them to operate without any repercussions for their actions.

Maliki to Launch More Attacks in South as Sadr Calls for Massive Protests

BASRA, Iraq -- A US military air strike on a house in the southern Iraq city of Basra killed three members of a family and wounded three more, a teenage survivor said on Thursday.

The attack at around 6:00 pm (1500 GMT) on Wednesday in the Al-Qibla neighbourhood of the southern oil hub flattened the family home, Ayad Jailan said.

The 16-year-old said that his father, Awad Jailan, his mother and a brother were all killed and two sisters and another brother were wounded.

An AFP photographer on the scene said he saw three bodies.

"I went out just before six o'clock to buy goods from the shop. When I was there I heard the air strike. I rushed back home to find the house collapsed," Jailan said.

"I started removing rubble with my hands to reach my family," he said, adding that emergency workers eventually recovered three siblings alive along with the bodies of his parents and brother.

The US military confirmed its aircraft carried out a strike but said it had targeted "enemy forces."

"In support of the Iraqi security forces, coalition forces directed aerial fire against enemy forces April 2 near Al-Qibla, killing one enemy and destroying a house," a US military statement said.

Al-Qibla is among a string of Basra neighborhoods controlled by the Mahdi Army militia of powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Iraqi PM to launch more assaults against militiamen

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Thursday said he planned to launch more crackdowns on militiamen as cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for a massive anti-US protest next week.

Maliki said future assaults by government forces could not be ruled out after last week's crackdown in the southern city of Basra, which mostly targeted fighters of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.

"I expect more crackdowns like this. We do not negotiate with outlaws," the premier told a news conference at his office in the capital's heavily fortified Green Zone.

"The coming days will witness more assaults as people are still in the control of gangs," he said, naming areas such as Shuala, Sadr City and Ameriyah in Baghdad as possible targets of new assaults.

Shuala and Sadr City are bastions of Sadr loyalists while Ameriyah used to be a stronghold of Sunni insurgents.

The Basra crackdown quickly fueled clashes in other Shiite regions of Iraq, including in the capital, and left at least 461 people killed and more than 1,100 wounded.

The assaults were welcomed by US President George W. Bush, who called the violence unleashed at the time a "defining moment" in new Iraq.

On Thursday he also insisted that he did not sign any deal with any militant group to end the clashes that erupted after the Basra crackdown, although he acknowledged negotiations between Sadr's group and some parliamentarians.

Sadr, meanwhile, called for a massive nationwide protest on April 9, the day of the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad.

Five years ago on that day, US marines entered Baghdad and pulled down a giant statue of Saddam in central Firdoos Square.

Since then Sadr and his followers have been demanding an end to the "tyrant occupation" by US-led forces in Iraq.

On Thursday a statement from Sadr's office in the central holy city of Najaf said all Iraqis, "Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Arabs, must express their rejection and raise their voice against the tyrant occupier" in protests on April 9.

It urged the participation of "millions" of Iraqis.

"Express your rejection by participating in this demonstration. Carry Iraqi flags that show the unity of Iraq. Do not ignore this protest," the statement said.

Boeing Cuts Deal to Sell Jets to Iraq

BAGHDAD - Iraq said on Monday it has signed a contract worth 5.5 billion dollars with Boeing to buy 40 new aircraft, with an option to purchase 15 more.

Baghdad had also signed a 400-million-dollar contract with Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier to purchase 10 passenger planes, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in a statement.

He said delivery of the aircraft would start this year, with final delivery expected by the end of 2019.

The Boeing contract was for the 737 and 787 "Dreamliner" planes, the statement said, without giving a breakdown of the numbers of each.

Dabbagh said the deals "will strengthen the Iraqi civil aviation capacity and enable it to respond to the increasing demand for air transportation to and from Iraq."

Iraqi Airways, one of the oldest airlines in the Middle East, currently owns just two aircraft and leases others.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 sparked UN economic sanctions which grounded the airline.

The national carrier resumed international flights in September 2004 with a Baghdad-Amman service. It now operates also to Cairo, Damascus, Beirut and Dubai.

The Children of Palestine and Israel are Cannon Fodder for the Rapture

Robert Weitzel says that since the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000, over 1,000 Palestinian and Israeli children have been killed by bullets and bombs. According to Pastor John Hagee and his evangelical organization, Christians United For Israel, this is an acceptable -- if not desirable since a majority of the children were Muslim -- price to pay to bring about Armageddon and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Hagee endorsed McCain's presidential bid, and McCain "was very proud to have Pastor John Hagee's support."


Safa Abu Saif, a 12-year-old Palestinian girl, was visiting a friend's apartment when the bullet fired from an Israeli rifle slammed into her chest, punching a gaping exit wound in her back. No ambulance could reach her because of the fighting. Safa died in her father's arms three hours after being shot.

Danielle Shafi, a 5-year-old Israeli girl, was killed by the bullet fired from a Palestinian rifle as her mother combed her hair in the child's upstairs bedroom. Drenched in the blood of her wound, Danielle slowly stopped breathing and died in her mother's arms minutes after being shot.

According to a United Nation's report, 971 Palestinian and Israeli children were killed between September 2000 -- the beginning of the second intifada -- and July 2007. Of those destroyed children, 854 were Palestinian. The intifada and the dying continue.

Safa and Danielle are two of the children whose lives the evangelical political action committee, Christians United for Israel, are willing to sacrifice on the alter of their fundamentalist eschatology in the hope of bringing about Armageddon and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Pastor John Hagee, televangelist to 99 million viewers and pastor of the 18,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, established the CUFI in 2005 following the publication of his book, The Jerusalem Countdown: A Warning to the World. Hagee envisions CUFI as the Christian version the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby whose political clout has a significant influence on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

The late Molly Ivins, a Texas political commentator and author, described Hagee as a "pre-millennial dispensationalist, whose theology focuses on selected apocalyptic passages of the Book of Revelation." In 1998, Hagee teamed up with Christian filmmakers to produce, Vanished in the Twinkling of an Eye, a docudrama about the tribulations following the Rapture.

Despite Pastor Hagee's obvious interest in eschatology, he insists that CUFI's support for Israel has nothing to do with end time prophecy. But in an unguarded moment in the intimate confines of his 50,000 sq. ft. multimedia chapel, Hagee set the truth free, "The judgment of the nations is going to happen as soon as Christ returns to earth. As soon as he sets up his throne on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, he's going to rule the world with a rod of iron. That means he's going to make the ACLU do what he wants them to ... We will live by the law of god, and no other law."

The problem with Hagee's version of the truth is the fact that the Temple Mount is Islam's third most sacred site, upon which sits the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, the oldest extant Islamic structure in the world.

According to Judaism, the Mount is where the final Third Temple will be rebuilt before the coming of the Jewish Messiah. Unfortunately for CUFI, the Second Coming of Jesus is on hold until the temple's completion, and that cannot happen until Islam is destroyed -- Hagee's holy grail.

Predictably then, the good pastor opposes any peace plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, supports Israel's persecution and "imprisonment" of 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and advocates pre-emptive nuclear strikes against Iran. John Hagee lives, and CUFI exists, to light the fires of the Apocalypse using Israel as the match.

To get a candid look at CUFI and its members, journalist Max Blumenthal took his cameras to the CUFI's Washington-Israel Summit held last July in the nation's capital.

His video, "Rapture Ready: The Unauthorized Christians United for Israel Tour" opens with Blumenthal cornering disgraced former Republican House Majority Leader Tom Delay and asking him how important the Second Coming is in his support of Israel. The "Hammer" replied, "Obviously, it is what I live for. Really, I hope it comes tomorrow. Obviously, we need to be connected to Israel to enjoy the Second Coming of Christ."

Blumenthal mingled with the 4,500 CUFI rank and file attending the Summit and asked their opinion on Armageddon and the identity of the Antichrist:

Q. "Are you looking forward to Armageddon?"

A. "I'm looking forward to Armageddon and the cleansing of the earth."

Q. "Who is the Antichrist?"

A. "He will be a man of peace. So he will be one who has promoted peace for many years. The one who forces Israel into a peace treaty with the Arabs is the Beast."

A. "Another reason that we support Israel is that we have a common enemy, the Muslims. We are fighting what is behind the Muslim people, which is Satan. Satan is actually the one who is trying to destroy the human race."

After asking Pastor Hagee the "wrong" question during a Summit news conference, Blumenthal and his crew were escorted out of the building by off-duty police officers.

John Hagee is not without fawning friends in Washington. Presidential hopeful John McCain made a campaign stop at the Summit and admitted to the audience that, "It's very hard trying to do the Lord's work in the city of Satan ... " House Minority Whip Roy Blunt followed McCain to the podium and assured the faithful that "This is a mission, this is a vision that I believe is a vision for God's time." Senator Joe Lieberman was there and described Pastor Hagee as an "Ish Elokim," a man of God.

Never one to be left out of a well-attended Christian Right convocation, President Bush sent his best wishes, "I appreciate CUFI members ... for your passion and dedication to enhancing the relationship between the United States and Israel. Your efforts set a shining example for others ... "

Cultivating his friendship with the man who believes the U.S. will be in Iraq for the next one hundred years, Pastor Hagee endorsed -- and hugged -- John McCain for president at a news conference held at the Cornerstone Church. Senator McCain graciously accepted, saying, "I'm very honored by Pastor John Hagee's endorsement today," When asked about Hagee's extensive writings on Armageddon, McCain responded that "all I can tell you is that I am very proud to have Pastor John Hagee's support.''

Considering the above, the following should not need to be said. Pastor Hagee's right-wing Jewish allies will do well to consider that after Islam is destroyed and the Temple rebuilt and Jesus comes and raptures all "true believers," all non-believers -- including Jews -- will be hunted down and converted or destroyed ... that is, those few who survived the nuclear holocaust that was prayed for and schemed for by the "Ish Elokim" and the CUFI.

In the meanwhile, Palestinian and Israeli children will continue to die singularly or in small groups by the bullets and the bombs and the fire send their way on the wings of CUFI's prayerful machinations.

Baghdad to Block Oil Contracts Signed by Kurds

ANKARA - Baghdad will block any contracts signed by foreign oil companies with Iraqi Kurdish regional authorities, Iraq's Oil Minister Hussein Chahristani said on Saturday.

"All contracts will be handled by the central government," he told a joint press conference in Ankara with his Turkish counterpart Hilmi Guler.

"No contracts signed by any regions in Iraq will be recognized by the government of Iraq. Companies will not be allowed to work on Iraqi territory unless their contract is approved by the central government in Baghdad."

The government in Baghdad and authorities in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq have been at loggerheads over the issue for months.

In November the minister announced he had canceled around 15 oil contracts signed by the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In response, Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzan insisted the contracts would be honored, saying "nobody can cancel contracts signed by Kurdistan," as his government approved the signature of seven more oil contracts.

The autonomous Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq has signed 15 exploration and export contracts with 20 international companies since it passed its own oil law last August, infuriating the Baghdad government.

Chahristani has repeatedly said he considers the contracts "illegal."

He has threatened the companies concerned that they would not in future have the chance to work with the Iraqi government, threats which have so far have not been carried out.

Academic Freedom? Not for Israeli Arabs

For many of Israel's 1.2 million Palestinian citizens, who are nearly a fifth of the country's population, Nizar Hassan's treatment confirms their fears that decades of discrimination, especially in higher education, are far from over, says Jonathan Cook.

In the strange world of Israeli academia, an Arab college lecturer is being dismissed from his job because he refused to declare his "respect for the uniform of the Israeli army." The bizarre demand was made of Nizar Hassan, director of several award-winning films, after he criticized a Jewish student who arrived in his film studies class at Sapir College in the Negev for wearing his uniform and carrying a gun.

The incident raises disturbing questions about the freedom of Israeli academics, sheds light on the veneration of the military in Israeli public life, and exposes the close, verging on incestuous, ties between the army and Israeli academia.

Meanwhile, for many of Israel's 1.2 million Palestinian citizens, who are nearly a fifth of the country's population, Hassan's treatment confirms their fears that decades of discrimination, especially in higher education, are far from over.

Hassan has faced a storm of criticism, including claims that he is anti-Semitic, since the Israeli media mistakenly reported back in November that he had thrown out of class one of his students, Eyal Cohen, over the way he was dressed. Hassan and most of the students present say Cohen was simply warned not to attend class in future wearing his uniform.

The story soon gained a life of its own, becoming the subject of incensed talk shows and newspaper columns. A group of rightwing college staff and students lobbied for Hassan, the only Arab lecturer in the film school, to be dismissed, and the Knesset's Education Committee denounced him.

Critics claim, apparently without irony, that Hassan humiliated the student, abused the concept of academic freedom and impugned the reputation of the Israeli army.

Condemnation has come from surprising quarters, including the journalist Gideon Levy, better known for his articles attacking the the army's treatment of the Palestinians under occupation.

But more predictable has been outrage from the right. Last month two leaders of extremist Jewish settlers in Hebron, Baruch Marzel and Itimar Ben Gvir, announced that they had enrolled on Hassan's course. "I would love for him to ask me about my army service," said Marzel. "I can only assure you that he will be the one walking out of the classroom."

The army added its voice too, with senior officers, including the Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, putting pressure on Sapir College to publicly rebuke the film-maker and punish him.

A letter from the head of army personnel, General Elazar Stern, accused the college of failing to act with "proper determination" and urged that Hassan face "sharp, public, official condemnation." Stern added that Hassan must be made to apologize or be sacked, otherwise the army would end its funding of places for hundreds of soldiers who attend courses at Sapir.

Most academic institutions in Israel not only depend on such funding but receive special grants and endowments for research in security-related subjects. The Israeli revisionist historian Ilan Pappe, who was forced out of Haifa University last year, estimates that half of lecturers in Israeli universities have ties to the security services.

In Sapir College's case, links to the army have been reinforced by its location in Sderot, a poor development town close to Gaza that is the target of most of the Qassam rockets fired into Israel.

Under growing pressure, the college's Academic Council suspended Hassan without offering him a hearing. It also appointed for the first time in the college's history an academic committee to investigate the incident and report on what disciplinary action should be taken.

The committee published its report late last month, conceding that he is an "outstanding teacher" but offering only a cursory examination the events at the center of the controversy. Instead the members harshly criticized Hassan's behavior and personality and recommended that he apologize to Cohen or face dismissal.

The college's president, Zeev Tzahor, intervened by contributing his own condition. He wrote to Hassan telling him that in his apology "you must refer to your obligation to be respectful to the IDF uniform and the full right of every student to enter your classroom in uniform."

Hassan refused and, according to reports last week, the college has begun proceedings to dismiss him.

"The whole reaction has been hysterical," Hassan, who lives in Nazareth, said. "It really surprised me, as did the lies that were told about what had happened."

His students say the issue has been blown out proportion and that Hassan has never hidden his opposition to militarism, wherever it exists.

Enass Masri, one of two Arab students in Hassan's film class, said: "When he saw Cohen wearing his uniform, he explained that all military uniforms -- of the Israeli army, of Fatah or of Hamas -- are symbols of violence and that he does not allow them into his classroom.

"His concerns about the blurring in Israeli society of the boundaries between the civil and military are well known."

She added that the mistaken reports about Cohen being thrown out of class may have been part of a long-standing campaign to oust Hassan from his job. He had made himself unpopular with some staff and students by speaking his mind, she said. "Some people at the college are not prepared to accept the kind of things he says from an Arab."

Sapir College calls itself "a lighthouse in the Negev," and its film school once had a reputation for encouraging dissenting social and political opinions.

In other Israeli colleges, discussion of "politics" -- a euphemism for views not officially sanctioned -- is rarely allowed.

For example, at Haifa University, which has the largest Arab student body in the country, all protests on campus are banned unless licensed by the vice-chancellor. Unofficial demonstrations, however peaceful, are broken up and usually filmed by security staff. Video evidence is used as grounds for suspending or expelling students.

Sapir's president, Tzahor, recently told the Haaretz newspaper that his motto is: "Politics -- only as far as the classroom door."

However, the college's definition of "politics" appears selective. In another recent incident at Sapir, lecturer Shlomit Tamari told a Bedouin student to remove her head-covering, telling her it was a sign of her oppression. No disciplinary action was taken against Tamari, who is unrepentant: "I told the college that I have academic freedom, and I can talk about that subject and I am continuing to do so."

Enass Masri said she was also shocked that the college committee did not question the students in Hassan's class about what took place. "We thought we would be able to put the record straight, but we were never invited to testify.

"Almost all of the students are on Hassan's side, and we wrote a letter to the college authorities in protest at his treatment."

Instead, she says, the committee interpreted the "meaning" of what happened, according to their own view of Hassan. "They looked at him not as a human being but as an Arab, and Arabs are not allowed to have an opinion on Israeli militarism."

Hassan takes a slightly different view. Describing his questioning by the committee, he said: "They wanted me to be the Palestinian in the room, and I refused to oblige. They wanted to believe that I object to the army uniform because I am Palestinian. But I reject the uniform because it is opposed to my universal and human values. I acted as I did because I am a teacher and a human being.

"What shocked me was that the committee refused to believe that could be my motivation."

Certainly the committee's report dismisses Hassan's arguments, claiming: "Nizar abused his status and his authority as a teacher to flaunt his opinions, feelings and frustrations as a member of the Arab national minority in Israel, cloaking himself in a 'humane' and 'universal' garb, whereas in fact he demonstrated a stance of brute force bearing a distinctly nationalist character."

Haim Bresheeth, an Israeli film-maker who was dean of Sapir's film school between 1996 and 2002, until he was hounded out over his anti-Zionist views, wrote to Tzahor, the college president, arguing that he was making an "irrational and immoral demand" in expecting Hassan to respect the army's uniform.

Bresheeth, referring to the reserve duty that most Israeli Jewish men perform well into their forties, added: "You are a soldier first, and only then an academic … I call on the historian Zeev Tzahor to refuse the orders of Major Zeev Tzahor."

As in most other areas of Israeli life, the country's Palestinian minority faces systematic discrimination in higher education. No public university is located in an Arab community or teaches in Arabic, and, though the minority is a fifth of the population, fewer than 1 per cent of lecturers are Arab.

In addition, the number of Arab students is third of their proportion in the population -- an under-representation that is apparently intentional. In 2003, psychometric tests biased towards Western culture were scrapped in an effort to help "weaker sections" of society gain acceptance to university. However, when the Committee of University Heads learned that the number of Arabs entering university had risen sharply as a result, the tests were immediately reinstated.

Several leading Israeli academics are outspoken racists, including David Bukay and Arnon Sofer at Haifa University and Raphael Israeli at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The latter was called as an "expert" witness by the state at a trial in 2004 in which he stated that the Arab mentality was composed of "a sense of victimization," "pathological anti-Semitism" and "a tendency to live in a world of illusions."

Chinese Take-Out Returns to Baghdad

The sign, written in both Arabic and Chinese characters and hoisted above a bland yellow shopfront in Baghdad's popular Karrada neighborhood, is hard to miss -- "Chinese Restaurant."

A young woman wearing skintight jeans, her hair blowing in the slight breeze, is sweeping the entrance. "Welcome!" she says in halting English.

Yan returns inside and joins the three others involved in the venture -- all Chinese: her husband Tsao, who owns the restaurant, Lo and Wo. Tsao attends to customers, Lo and Wo do the cooking and Yan handles the cleaning.

Tsao, who has been in Baghdad for two years, is the veteran of the team. "I used to work in a store that sold Chinese products," says the smiling patron in his 40s who, like the others, declined to give more than his first name.

Caught up in the violence which swept Baghdad, the shop closed its doors. Out of work, Tsao returned home to China's southern Yunnan province where he persuaded his wife and two friends to join him in his unlikely Iraqi dream.

They opened their new business just a week ago.

"This is the only Chinese restaurant in Baghdad," boasts Tsao in the few Arabic words he knows.

The furnishings are simple -- plastic tables and chairs, with small Chinese red paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Two posters on the pink walls show film stars Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee in fighting poses.

The cooking is done on a small raised platform in front of customers, who can either eat in or order a takeaway.

Wo, a black woolen hat on his head, prepares dumplings and spinach on a gas cooker. The impressive chef expertly dips a fritter in a pan of sizzling oil.

The dishes of the day are displayed along a plastic rack on cheap crockery. On the menu: "Dumplings, fried chicken legs, Chinese breads, and sweet pepper and chicken salad," recites Tsao.

Under the rack, two bowls of salad are arranged beside a pile of dried sardines. On a stool is the inevitable rice pressure-cooker.

Cooking pots are piled up in the corners between mounds of plates, cleaning cloths and boxes of paper napkins.

Wearing sneakers with built-up heels, Yan washes the dishes in an imposing art deco washbasin that stands out amid the scruffy decor.

The wife of the patron has the hardened hands of a country woman, and she scours the pots and pans with vigor.

"The menu is limited for the moment but it will improve," says Tsao reassuringly. "Like security in Baghdad, it will get better."

In Karrada, the historic heart and most lively sector of the Iraqi capital, the last Asian restaurant closed its doors two years ago when the country began to descend into chaos.

Karrada is known as one of Baghdad's most liberal neighborhoods, but the presence of foreigners still causes amazement among residents.

"Bombs? I have already seen many," says Tsao with a big smile. "But one does not think about it. That prevents us from becoming afraid."

Israeli Right-Wingers Flood Bush with Anti-Peace Messages

Defying draconian security measures, Jewish right-wing activists have found one way of trying to grab the attention of visiting US President George W. Bush -- by flooding his hotel with faxes.

Hundreds of letters protesting against the US-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians are swamping the reception desk of Jerusalem's ritzy King David hotel where Bush is staying during his three-day visit to the region.

"I can confirm that the King David hotel reception desk has been flooded by faxes from right-wing activists," a hotel spokeswoman said on Thursday.

Bush is in the region in a bid to boost the Middle East peace talks that were relaunched after a seven-year hiatus at an international conference in Annapolis near Washington last November.

Israeli right-wingers oppose the peace process that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, which Israel occupied in 1967 and where hundreds of thousands of Jews today live illegally in settlements.

Using an intricate network of emails and text messages, different right-wing groups have been spreading the word -- and the hotel fax number -- both inside Israel and all over the world.

"Please fax him your protest about Annapolis, the Palestinian state notion, division of Jerusalem, Pollard, etc…" read the message. Jonathan Pollard is an American Jew who was sentenced to life in prison for spying on Israel.

"Best to act NOW -- Your fax must arrive as soon as possible… You can fax at any time of the day or night," the message said.

Clear instructions were attached: "Write 'For US President George Bush' on top so the clerks will put it right into the box for his entourage.

"We hope that with your help that box will be OVERFLOWING. Remember that each family member can write their own fax."

Iraqi Kurds Defy Baghdad on Oil Deals

The autonomous Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq defied Baghdad on Monday, vowing to sign more contracts with international oil firms despite the national government's opposition.

"The (regional) government will continue with the contracts and they will be implemented," its prime minister Nechirvan Barzani said.

"No one can cancel any contract of the KRG (Kurdistan regional government) signed with foreign companies," a defiant Barzani told reporters in the regional capital Arbil.

Iraqi Oil Minister Hussain Shahristani has declared all oil contracts between the Kurdish administration and foreign companies null and void, saying they have been signed illegally in the absence of a national oil law.

Barzani insisted the contracts are legal and fall within the provisions of the region's constitution.

The Kurdish government has inked 15 exploration and export contracts with 20 international companies since it passed its own oil law in August, infuriating the Baghdad government.

The regional government says the contracts will benefit all Iraqis as 85 percent of the returns from the deals will be for Iraq and the rest will go to the contractor.

Iraq's oil and gas bill is stalled in the national parliament amid bitter differences between rival factions.

When approved, the new law will open up Iraq's long state-dominated oil and gas sector to foreign investment.

It will also stipulate that receipts be shared equally between Iraq's 18 provinces, a key concern for the Sunni Arab minority that Washington says has fuelled the anti-American insurgency.

Iraq's oil reserves -- the world's third largest -- lie mainly in the Kurdish north and Shiite south and the Sunnis fear the two communities could monopolise future income.

Former Top British Commanders Tear Into Gordon Brown

Five former heads of the British armed forces have fiercely criticized Prime Minister Gordon Brown's treatment of the military, with one suggesting he treated them "with contempt" Friday.

The five former chiefs of the defense staff -- Michael Boyce, Charles Guthrie, David Craig, Edwin Bramall and Peter Inge -- launched the unusually personal attack during a debate in the House of Lords Thursday.

As lords, all five have the right to speak in Britain's upper parliamentary chamber.

Boyce, who held the job between 2001 and 2003, said he was concerned that defense funding was not high enough to cope with current deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"If you go to the Ministry of defense today, you will find blood on the floor as the defense program is slashed to meet the desperate funding situation," he said.

He renewed his attack early Friday, criticizing Brown for failing to appoint a full-time defense secretary. The current incumbent, Des Browne, is also Scottish Secretary.

"When you have got people who have been killed and maimed in the service of their government and you put someone at the head of the shop, someone who is part-time, that sends a very bad message," he told BBC television.

"And that is the message I get back from our soldiers, our sailors and our airmen. They feel insulted, they feel that he is treating them with contempt."

Guthrie said Thursday that Brown "must take much of the blame for the very serious situation in which we find the services today."

He accused him of being unsympathetic to the forces in his former job as finance minister.

And Radley asked if it was not "immoral to commit forces that are underprepared and ill-equipped for their task."

Browne defended the government's position on BBC radio Friday, saying Britain had the second-highest defense budget in the world "in real terms."

He said that the five were "not involved in these day-to-day issues, as I am" and, on his two jobs, added: "This is not an issue that has ever been raised with me by a serving soldier."

Britain currently has more than 6,000 troops in Afghanistan -- a figure that will rise to around 7,700 by the end of the year -- and around 5,500 in Iraq.

Prime minister Brown announced last month that Iraq troop numbers would be cut by more than half to 2,500 by early next year as Iraqis assumed control of Basra province in the south.

Thousands of Iraqi Kurds Take to the Streets to Protest Anticipated Turkish Incursion

Thousands of Iraqi Kurds rallied in two Kurdish cities on Thursday, holding aloft red, white and green flags of Kurdistan that are banned in Turkey and calling for international support.

Kurds in the regional capital Arbil and the border city of Dohuk were fearful that a Turkish parliamentary decision to authorise a military incursion meant troops imminently crossing the border to hunt down rebels.

"No, no to the Turkish threat, yes yes to peace," chanted one protestor in Arbil. "Violation of the Kurdistan border is a violation of the people of Kurdistan," read a banner held by another.

Several thousand students, government workers and union representatives massed outside the UN building in Arbil, the seat of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish regional government, to denounce the developments in Ankara.

The Turkish parliament gave permission to the military on Wednesday to launch an incursion into northern Iraq to crack down on rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) on Iraqi territory.

Carrying Kurdish flags and banners written in Arabic, Kurdish and English, protestors called for help to stop the Turks from launching any military action.

"We demand that the Iraqi government and international community stand together against the Turkish threat," one protestor said.

Tight security surrounded the protest which saw traffic stopped in the center of Arbil as demonstrators handed over a letter to the UN representative in the city.

"The best way to treat the PKK issue is to hold a dialogue between the Turkish leadership and the Kurdish leadership," said Karim Ali, a 21-year old student draped in a Kurdish flag.

"Why are they threatening us, we are not a part of the PKK issue?" he asked.

Another protestor accused the Turks of having a hidden agenda targeting Iraqi Kurdistan, not just the PKK rebels.

"As big as this demonstration is, I think it will not be any use because the Turkish have decided to destroy the Kurdistan experiment," said Ahmed Salim, 19. "I don't think we can stop the Turkish threat."

In Dohuk, the main city on the border with Turkey, some 5,000 demonstrators gathered holding banners saying, "We condemn the Turkish threat," and calling for support from the international community.

They brandished Kurdish flags and pictures of the late Mustafa Barzani, the father of modern Kurdish nationalism whose son Massoud is president of the autonomous Kurdish region.

The rebel PKK has waged a bloody campaign for Kurdish self-rule in southeastern Turkey since 1984. The conflict has claimed more than 37,000 lives.

Turkey says the PKK enjoys free movement in northern Iraq and is tolerated or even actively supported by Iraqi Kurdish leaders, something they strongly deny.

A Turkish government bill seeking a one-year authorisation for military intervention in Iraq was approved by a landslide on Wednesday.

The law leaves it up to the government to determine the timing and scope of any incursion and the number of troops to be sent.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stressed that parliamentary approval will not mean immediate military action, signaling that there could still be room for diplomacy.

Iraq PM to Charge Anti-Corruption Judge Over Testimony Before Congress

Editor's Note: After Radhi al-Radhi testified to Congress that rampant corruption was fueling a significant amount of the civil conflict in Iraq, war-supporters here in the U.S. attacked him mercilessly (See David Corn's "Iraq's Top Coruption Judge Testifies; GOPers Attack"). Now it appears that the other shoe is dropping.

Iraq's government announced Sunday it will take legal action against the former head of an anti-corruption committee who told US lawmakers this week that rampant graft is blocking progress in Iraq.

"The government will sue the former head of the Commission on Public Integrity (Judge Radhi al-Radhi), for smuggling official documents and for defaming the prime minister," the premier's office said in a statement.

"We will work on getting him back to Iraq to submit him to the judiciary to investigate administrative and financial corruption charges against him," Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office said.

Radhi and a group of colleagues headed to Washington in August to undergo training with the US Justice Department.

Maliki at the time accused him of fleeing the country to avoid being tried on graft charges and replaced him as head of the Commission on Public Integrity (CPI), a position he had held since 2004, by Moussa Faraj.

Radhi denies the graft allegations or that he has fled, saying he intends returning to Iraq once his training course is over and still regards himself as head of the CPI.

He told the US Congress on Thursday that corruption was affecting virtually every government ministry and that some of the most powerful officials in Iraq are implicated.

He estimated that corruption has cost Iraq as much as 18 billion dollars and has helped spawn sectarian militias, hampered political reconciliation and affected Iraq's oil industry.

The statement from Maliki's office said Radhi's testimony to Congress "is no more than fake allegations… aimed at defaming the reputation of the prime minister.

"Radhi al-Radhi sought asylum in the United States after entering that country with a diplomatic passport," it said.

It accused the judge of "chasing minor corruption issues while overlooking large corruption problems involving political parties and figures."

"The head of the CPI escaped Iraq to avoid legal proceedings relating to the the financial corruption he is himself involved in," it said.

Majority of Americans Oppose Full Funding of Occupation

A majority of Americans do not want to give President George W. Bush the 190-billion-dollar he has requested for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll out Tuesday.

While 27 percent said they would give a green light to the funding, a hefty 43 percent of those surveyed said they wanted the budget for those conflicts reduced sharply; and another 23 percent said they wanted the funding lowered somewhat. Three percent said no funding should be approved and three percent had no opinion, the poll found.

The survey also shed light on US voters' discontent with Bush and Congress.

"Bush's approval rating stands at 33 percent, equal to his career low in Post-ABC polls.

"And just 29 percent approve of the job Congress is doing, its lowest approval rating in this poll since November 1995, when Republicans controlled both the House and Senate. It also represents a 14-point drop since Democrats took control in January," the Post added.

The US Senate Monday passed a mammoth $648 billion defense policy bill, shorn of attempts by disappointed anti-war Democrats to dictate Bush's Iraq strategy.

The bill included around 128 billion dollars for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate.

The legislation passed by 92 votes to three after Democrats lost several attempts to dictate US troop levels in Iraq.

While the Department of Defense Authorization bill for fiscal year 2008 sets the size of programs, funds can only be disbursed after the passage of a Senate defense spending bill due to be taken up by the chamber this week.

The most significant Iraq related portion of the bill was an amendment backed by Democratic Senator Joseph Biden which passed last week, calling for a federalization of Iraq, with large amounts of power ceded to the provinces.

But the amendment was non-binding and will not force Bush to change strategy in the unpopular war.

Democrats failed by only four votes to include an amendment which would require troops who served in Iraq or Afghanistan to be granted as much time at home as they spent on combat deployments.

The bill would have effectively limited the number of troops available for deployment, and cut the size of the 160,000 strong US force in Iraq more quickly than the gradual reductions which Bush has promised.

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