Robert Dreyfuss

Tea Party Pentagon? How a Rick Perry Win Could Sweep Neo-cons Back to Power

The following article first appeared on the Web site of The Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for its e-mail newsletters here. 

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What You Need to Know About the Muslim Brotherhood

As the revolutionary upsurge in Egypt builds toward its conclusion, some of the key questions involve the role of the Muslim Brotherhood—the Islamic movement that has been characterized as anything from a benign prodemocracy force to a terrorist-inclined radical group with designs on establishing a global Caliphate.

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Are We Secretly Fighting a Cyberwar Against Iran?

For several years now, there have been reports that the United States has been waging what amounts to technological warfare against Iran, using sophisticated industrial sabotage measures to weaken and undermine Iran’s nuclear industry -- and, according to the New York Times, these efforts began during the Bush administration but accelerated under President Obama. And, for the past several years, there have been widespread reports that Iran’s nuclear program has been slowed or crippled by some unexplained malfunctions that have, among other things, caused Iran to spin far fewer centrifuges at Natanz, its enrichment plant, than earlier.

Now, it appears, there is a serious computer worm affecting Iran’s nuclear industry, along with other Iranian industrial facilities. Called Stuxnet, the worm appears to be a case of outright industrial sabotage or cyber warfare, created and unleashed not by rogue hackers but by a state. According to the Seattle Times, the time stamp on the Stuxnet virus reveals that it was created in January, 2010, meaning that if the United States is behind it, it’s Obama’s doing, not Bush’s.

If so, and if the United States is behind it, then Obama is already at war with Iran. Cyber warfare is no less war than bombs and paratroopers. Besides the United States, of course, Israel is high on the list of countries with both motive and capability. Iran’s PressTV, a government-owned news outlet, quotes various Western technology and cybersecurity experts saying that either the United States or Israel is behind Stuxnet.

The Seattle Times reports that Stuxnet is highly specific, aimed “solely at equipment made by Siemens that controls oil pipelines, electric utilities, nuclear facilities, and other large industrial sites.”

The Stuxnet infection was detected by VirusBlokAda, a Belarusian computer security company, in July. Like other forms of warfare, the Stuxnet attack is causing collateral damage, spreading to computer networks outside Iran.

The Seattle Times notes, somewhat obliquely, that while President Obama talks often about spending huge sums to protect the United States from computer warfare, it also spends a lot of money to develop an offensive capability against other countries:  “President Obama has talked extensively about developing better cyberdefenses for the United States, to protect banks, power plants, telecommunications systems and other critical infrastructure. He has said almost nothing about the other side of the cybereffort: billions of dollars spent on offensive capability, much of it based inside the National Security Agency.”

The Stuxnet virus has also affected Iran’s nuclear power plant at Bushehr, constructed by the Russians. According to the Tehran Times, Iranian officials have admitted the attack and they’re working to contain it. “Iranian information technology officials have confirmed that some Iranian industrial systems have been targeted by a cyber attack, but added that Iranian engineers are capable of rooting out the problem,” reported the Tehran Times. The paper also quoted a top Iranian official saying: “An electronic war has been launched against Iran.” The same official, Mahmoud Liaii of the Industries and Mines Ministry’s tech office, added that the virus “is designed to transfer data about production lines from our industrial plants to (locations) outside of the country.”

Haaretz, the Israeli daily, quoted the European firm Kaspersky Labs thus: “Stuxnet is a working and fearsome prototype of a cyber-weapon that will lead to the creation of a new arms race in the world.”

Make no mistake: This is serious stuff. I'm not one of those naive, Pollyannish types who believe that Iran is merely interested in peaceful uses of nuclear power. (For one thing, it doesn't have a nuclear power industry that needs fuel, and it won't have one for at least 15 years.) 

Iran would never suffer the painful sanctions and international isolation that it faces merely to defend a theoretical right to develop a civilian nuclear industry. Perhaps its leaders see the nuclear program as a giant bargaining chip or as a way to gain attention for itself. No one wants to see Iran get the bomb, including Russia, China -- and, yes, the author of this article. However, Iran is not very close to having that capability: So far it hasn't even tried to enrich uranium to the highly enriched state needed to build a bomb. If and when it does, the world will know. And, if bombing Iran's nuclear facilities is not the answer, neither is launching war by other means.

Is Iraq On the Brink of Civil War?

Seven years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein's government and pulverized the Iraqi state, voters will go to the polls on March 7 in an election that most Iraqis hope will continue their country's uneven progress toward political stability. But a new crisis, provoked by an anti-Baathist purge in mid-January by Tehran's allies in Iraq, has threatened to unravel Iraq's fledgling democracy. At best, a backroom deal at the last minute could restore some semblance of normalcy to the election, but the purge has poisoned the atmosphere, perhaps fatally. At worst, the crisis could reignite the sectarian conflict that brought Iraq to the brink of all-out civil war in 2006.

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Obama Readies Afghan Escalation

Don't look for surprises from President Obama on Afghanistan. During the two year campaign, and since taking office, he's been consistent. For Obama, Afghanistan is the right war, and he's staked his presidency on winning it. In order to placate the liberal-left and its allies in Congress, Obama is putting out the word (from the National Security Council) that he's willing to listen to all points of view, including those who believe that it's time to cut and run. Listen, he will. Cut and run, he won't.

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Iraq Explodes

The news from the war capitals isn't good. In Kabul, the Taliban is carrying out attacks at the very center of Afghanistan's capital, rocketing the grounds of the presidential palace, launching suicide bombs at Kabul convoys, and last week setting off huge bombs on the heavily guarded road between the US embassy and the presidential palace.

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Talking to Ahmadinejad

President Obama has gone about as far as he should go in condemning the government of Iran for its crackdown and repression of a popular movement for change in Iran. Since the election on June 12, his rhetoric has become harsher by the day. Yesterday, he said:

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Is This Last Gasp for the Israel Lobby and the Neocons?

Is the Israel lobby in Washington an all-powerful force? Or is it, perhaps, running scared?

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Are Key Obama Advisors in Tune with Neocon Hawks Who Want to Attack Iran?

A familiar coalition of hawks, hardliners, and neoconservatives expects Barack Obama's proposed talks with Iran to fail -- and they're already proposing an escalating set of measures instead. Some are meant to occur alongside any future talks. These include steps to enhance coordination with Israel, tougher sanctions against Iran, and a region-wide military buildup of U.S. strike forces, including the prepositioning of military supplies within striking distance of that country.

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Did the Raid Into Syria Signal the Death of International Law?

A parallel new Bush doctrine is emerging, in the last days of the soon-to-be-ancient regime, and it needs to be strangled in its crib. Like the original Bush doctrine -- the one that Sarah Palin couldn't name, which called for preventive military action against emerging threats -- this one also casts international law aside by insisting that the United States has an inherent right to cross international borders in "hot pursuit" of anyone it doesn't like.

They're already applying it to Pakistan, and this week Syria was the target. Is Iran next?

Let's take Pakistan first. Though a nominal ally, Pakistan has been the subject of at least nineteen aerial attacks by CIA-controlled drone aircraft, killing scores of Pakistanis and some Afghans in tribal areas controlled by pro-Taliban forces. The New York Times listed, and mapped, all 19 such attacks in a recent piece describing Predator attacks across the Afghan border, all since August. The Times notes that inside the government, the U.S. Special Operations command and other advocates are pushing for a more aggressive use of such units, including efforts to kidnap and interrogate suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders. Though President Bush signed an order in July allowing U.S. commando teams to move into Pakistan itself, with or without Islamabad's permission, such raids have occurred only once, on September 3.

The U.S. raid into Syria on October 26 similarly trampled on Syria's sovereignty without so much as a fare-thee-well. Though the Pentagon initially denied that the raid involved helicopters and on-the-ground commando presence, that's exactly what happened. The attack reportedly killed Badran Turki Hishan al-Mazidih, an Iraqi facilitator who smuggled foreign fighters into Iraq through Syria. The Washington Post was ecstatic, writing in an editorial:

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Iraq is About to Explode

While everyone's looking at Iraq's effect on American politics -- and whether or not John McCain and Barack Obama are converging on a policy that combines a flexible timetable with a vague, and long-lasting, residual force -- let's take a look instead at Iraqi politics. The picture isn't pretty.

Despite the Optimism of the Neocons, which has pushed mainstream media coverage to be increasingly flowery about Iraq's political progress, in fact the country is poised to explode. Even before the November election. And for McCain and Obama, the problem is that Iran has many of the cards in its hands. Depending on its choosing, between now and November Iran can help stabilize the war in Iraq -- mostly by urging the Iraqi Shiites to behave themselves -- or it can make things a lot more violent.

There are at least three flashpoints for an explosion, any or all of which could blow up over the next couple of months. (Way to go, Surgin' Generals!) The first is the brewing crisis over Kirkuk, where the pushy Kurds are demanding control and Iraq's Arabs are resisting. The second is in the west, and Anbar, where the U.S.-backed Sons of Iraq sahwa ("Awakening") movement is moving to take power against the Iraqi Islamic Party, a fundamentalist Sunni bloc. And third is the restive Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, which is chafing at gains made by its Iranian-backed rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).

Perhaps the issue of Kirkuk and the Kurds is most dangerous. Last week, the Kurds walked out of parliament to protest a law passed by parliament to govern the provincial elections. The law passed 127-13, but it was vetoed by President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. Juan Cole, the astute observer, says: "The conflict between Kurds and Arabs over Kirkuk is a crisis waiting to happen." He cites Al-Hayat, an Iraqi newspaper, as claiming that not only do the Kurds want to control Kirkuk, an oil-rich province in Iraq's north, but they plan to annex three other provinces where Kurds live: Diyala, Salahuddin, and Ninewa. That's not likely, but they do want Kirkuk, and the vetoed election law would have limited the Kurds' ability to press their gains there.

The election law was supported by Sadr's bloc and backed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his Iraq National List. Another nationalist party, the National Dialogue Council, has demanded the ouster of President Talabani over his veto of the law. Other Iraqi parties are backing the now-vetoed law, too, which also restricts the use of Islamic religious symbols by political parties seeking to corral illiterate, religious voters.

Because of all this, it now looks like there won't be provincial elections this year at all. The ruling bloc of Shiite religious parties and Kurdish warlords is split over the crisis, weakening Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and members of the ruling coalition are trying to patch things up. I don't think they'll succeed. Many Shiites in the ruling bloc, including ISCI, have criticized the law as divisive, but as Arabs it's hard for them to endorse a Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk. ISCI and the Badr Brigade, its armed wing, are holding parlays to decide what to do. Interestingly, all three members of the ruling presidential council, including Talabani, the IIP's Hashemi, and ISCI's Adel Abdel Mahdi, voted to veto the law, putting ISCI and the IIP on record as supporting the Kurds. Bad for them politically.

The IIP says that it wants to mediate the crisis. But the IIP is in a very, very weak position. Having just rejoined the Maliki government, it is under siege at home in its base in Anbar province, where the Awakening is flexing its muscle. This could be the second explosion. The Sunni Arabs are still seething over the divisive Iraqi Constitution and their continuing exclusion from political power, and the Awakening movement sees the IIP (correctly) as wildly unrepresentative. So the Awakening, representing Sunni tribal powers and former resistance fighters, wants in, at the expense of the IIP. That time bomb is ticking, too.

The final crisis-to-be is the Sadr vs. Badr one. The Times today suggests that Sadr is weakening:

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The Mess in Sudan and Zimbabwe

There's no defense for the ugliness in Sudan and Zimbabwe. But US policy in connection with those two problematic nations is running into a buzzsaw. In both cases, the United States is acting clumsily, and it is facing stiff opposition from Russia, China, and many African nations.

Two obvious conclusions: the Bush Administration's muddled pursuit of democracy-by-force has made the entire world suspicious of America's motives in world crises, especially when they're tied to possible armed intervention. And confronting nations' real-world strategic interests, such as China's interest in Sudan, under the guise of humanitarian concerns won't fly, after Iraq.

First, there's the indictment of Sudan's President Bashir by the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Hague-based body that was rejected by the Bush Administration but is now embraced by Washington over Sudan. The indictment, not a surprise, was widely feared by world diplomats, who concluded that the consequences of indicting the Sudanese president were unpredictable and probably both dangerous and counterproductive.

It's the first indictment of a sitting head of state since the ICC was founded in 2002. But Bashir will resist the charges, and no one is going to charge into Sudan to arrest him. Meanwhile, UN diplomats and peacekeepers worry that Sudan will react forcefully, making the situation in Darfur in southwestern Sudan worse. The African Union issued a statement over the weekend warning against "the misuse of indictments against African leaders" -- perhaps thinking, too, of Zimbabwe. Both Russia and China (which has close economic ties to Sudan and its oil) were against the indictments, too.

Australia is already reconsidering its planned deployment of peacekeepers to Sudan, fearing greater violence. The Arab League is having an emergency meeting over the crisis.

Then, Zimbabwe. Over the weekend, Russia and China cast a double veto against proposed economic sanctions against Robert Mugabe's government. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilizad, the one-man wrecking ball and neocon strategist who represents the United States at the UN, blasted Russia for its veto. "The U-turn in the Russian position is particularly surprising and disturbing," said Zal-Khal. "They decided to make a point on this issue, to say nyet. Something happened in Moscow." Zal-Khal also accused South Africa's President Mbeki of trying to start fake negotiations to bring about a coalition government in Zimbabwe. Fake or not, the talks are stalemated, but continuing.

Russia has flatly denied making any "U-turn." And Russia's top diplomats are blistering Khalilzad. Not a good omen.

Obama Advisors Present Conflicting Plans on Iraq

The battle for Barack Obama's mind on the issue of getting out of Iraq unfolded in public (last week), as two members of his Iraq advisory task force presented conflicting versions of what to do about the Bush Administration's nation-wrecking program in that country.

The scene was the second annual meeting of the Center for a New American Security, a center-right Democratic think tank whose luminaries include Madeleine Albright and William Perry, secretaries of state and defense under Bill Clinton, and a host of other foreign policy wonks.

The two speakers were Colin Kahl, who chairs the task force and who works at CNAS, and Brian Katulis, a member of Obama's task force and a thinker-in-residence at the Center for American Progress. Neither Kahl nor Katulis was speaking for Obama, but the stark conflict in their views says something important about the differing opinions Obama may be getting from inside his team.

Kahl is one of the authors of CNAS' new report, "Shaping the Iraq Inheritance," which proposes a policy called "conditional engagement" for Iraq that would leave a large contingent of American forces in Iraq for several years, and which would make America's presence in Iraq contingent on political progress in Iraq toward reconciliation among the country's ethnic and sectarian groups and parties. Katulis is an author of CAP's Iraq plan, "Strategic Reset," and other studies that propose to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq, except for a small force to protect the American embassy. Katulis' CAP plan also suggests a halt in the U.S. training of Iraqi government forces, while Kahl and CNAS want to continue to train the Iraqi security forces long after U.S. combat forces are withdrawn.

Appearing together on a panel at CNAS yesterday, Kahl and Katulis presented a stark contrast.

Kahl criticized Katulis' plan, implicitly, by putting it in a category he calls "unconditional disengagement." In his paper, Kahl describes that as a "pledge to unconditionally disengage from Iraq by withdrawing all troops on a fixed, unilateral timetable." His plan, "conditional engagement," would "negotiate a time horizon for U.S. redeployment as a means of pushing Iraqi leaders toward accommodation and galvanizing regional efforts to stabilize Iraq." In its reports, CNAS has proposed leaving several tens of thousands of American forces in Iraq. In (last week)'s presentation, Kahl showed a slide that defines the U.S. military mission in Iraq, after combat forces are withdrawn, to include "counter-terrorism, force protection, train, advise and provide critical enablers for the [Iraqi security forces]." The withdrawal of these forces is "to be determined, based on conditions."

Katulis, responding to Kahl, said that what CNAS is proposing "sounds very close to what the Bush Administration is doing," adding that there was "not a real strong difference" between Kahl's plan and the White House's plan.

Also on the panel was General (ret.) Jack Keane, a crusty old military man who seemed oblivious to the unfolding catastrophe in Iraq. "We can talk about winning in Iraq," said Keane. "I am convinced we will win in Iraq."

Keane cavalierly dismissed the military importance of the two biggest armed movements in Iraq that might oppose both the United States and Maliki's regime: the Mahdi Army and the Sons of Iraq.

He said that Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebel cleric whose Mahdi Army is a powerful force in Baghdad and Iraq's south, is weakening. "Sadr has been marginalized politically by [Prime Minister] Maliki," he said, even though few Iraq experts would be winning to dismiss Sadr as a player -- especially since Sadr is leading the nationalist opposition to the Bush Administration's plan to establish a treaty formalizing the U.S. occupation of Iraq this summer.

And Keane pooh-poohed the U.S.-funded Awakening or "Sons of Iraq" movement, which is eighty percent Sunni. "We're not going to bring 90,000 of those hoods into the Iraqi security forces," he said. Many analysts are lambasting Maliki for refusing to incorporate the Sunni-led forces into the government army and police, but Keane dismissed those who are "wringing their hands about what to do" with the Sons of Iraq. "It's not a big deal," he shrugged. To those who say that many of those militiamen would go back into armed opposition to the Maliki government if a deal isn't struck, Keane said flatly: "They're not going to go back and organize themselves into insurgent groups."

Is Iran Winning the War in Iraq?

In October, as part of its ongoing effort to isolate and sanction Iran, the Bush Administration announced sanctions against several Iranian banks, companies and individuals linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its special operations unit, the Quds (Jerusalem) Force, for their "support for terrorism." The White House launched a worldwide effort to persuade other countries not to do business with the designees, including Iran's Bank Melli. "Bank Melli provides banking services to the IRGC and the Qods Force," said the Treasury Department. "Entities owned or controlled by the IRGC or the Qods Force use Bank Melli for a variety of financial services."

Buried deep in the State and Treasury Department documents compiled in support of the sanctions -- unnoticed by the media -- is the address of a Bank Melli branch in a country occupied by US troops: "Location: No. 111-27, Alley 929 District, Arasat Street, Baghdad, Iraq."

That a bank described by the United States as an Iranian facilitator of terrorism operates freely in the heart of Iraq's capital is ironic, to say the least, given the Bush Administration's near-declaration of war against Iran's involvement in Iraq. Citing evidence that Iran supplies arms, money, logistical help and training to Shiite militias and insurgents, hawks in the Administration, including Vice President Cheney, have suggested that US forces in Iraq may strike supply lines, training camps and weapons depots across the Iranian border, even at the risk of igniting all-out war.

Despite its very public saber-rattling against Iran, however, the United States has spent most of the past five years in a de facto alliance with Iran in support of the Shiite-led (and US-installed) regime in Baghdad. The most powerful component of that regime, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and its disciplined Badr Corps militia, is also Iran's closest Iraqi ally. Taking advantage of the political vacuum created by the US destruction of Saddam Hussein's government, Tehran has established a vast presence, both overt and covert, in Iraq, with enormous influence among nearly all of its western neighbor's Shiite and Kurdish parties. "The American military occupation of Iraq has facilitated an Iranian political occupation of Iraq," says Chas Freeman, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

As a result, the Iraq of 2008 is a tale of two paradoxes.

The first paradox, at once startling and ironic, is that Washington's decision to topple Saddam's government has put in place a ruling elite that is far closer to Iran than it is to the United States. As a result, the ayatollahs in Tehran have adroitly checkmated (a word derived from the Persian shah mat, "the king is dead") US efforts to install a compliant, pro-American regime in Baghdad as the anchor of Washington's interests in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Now a proxy conflict between the United States and Iran is playing out on Iraq's complex chessboard. Depending on the course that US-Iranian relations take over the rest of Bush's tenure and the start of the next administration in Washington, Tehran has two options. If US-Iran ties improve, Tehran may try, at least in the short term, to broker a deal to stabilize Iraq, albeit one that fortifies the Shiite-led government in a way that accommodates Iran's regional interests. Or, if relations with the United States worsen, Iran can use its allies and agents in Iraq to end the relative calm and send the country tumbling back into all-out civil war.

The second paradox is that despite Iran's enormous influence in Iraq, most Iraqis -- even most Iraqi Shiites -- are not pro-Iran. On the contrary, underneath the ruling alliance in Baghdad, there is a fierce undercurrent of Arab nationalism in Iraq that opposes both the US occupation and Iran's support for religious parties in Iraq. In recent months, this nationalism has begun to express itself in many ways, from the national outpouring of support for the country's victorious soccer team last summer to the potent anger provoked by efforts to privatize Iraq's oil industry, by the Blackwater security firm's shooting of civilians in a Baghdad traffic circle and by suggestions in Washington that Iraq ought to be partitioned into three ministates. In addition, many Iraqi Shiites, like Iraqi Sunnis, harbor bitter feelings against their Persian neighbor left over from the bloody 1980-88 war, which left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead. "There is such a thing as Iraqi nationalism, and the default position tends to be one of hostility toward Iran," says Freeman. "Removing the US occupation as the focus of nationalism will almost certainly lead to a renewal of that nationalism's focus on Iran."

Meanwhile, as Iran competes with the United States for influence in Iraq, Tehran is hedging its bets beyond ISCI, building up an impressive portfolio of political, economic, religious and military holdings in its western neighbor. There is a steadily increasing trade, including a black market, across the Iran-Iraq border, and the Iranian government and its state-owned entities have made significant investments in and loans to Iraqi businesses and the rebuilding of Shiite holy cities. There are longstanding clerical ties between Qom, Iran, and Najaf, Iraq, and tens of thousands of religious pilgrims -- no doubt including more than a few Iranian intelligence officers -- cross the border every month. In March Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plans to make the first state visit by an Iranian leader to Baghdad.

"The Iranians are investing in virtually every faction there is, just to be sure that once the dust settles, whoever is in control of Iraq is beholden to Iran to a certain extent," says Trita Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S. Adds Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, "Iran is putting money on every number of the roulette wheel."

Whose Man in Baghdad?

Iran's influence in Iraq begins with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, which changed its name last year) and its armed wing, the paramilitary Badr Corps. Today ISCI operates a well-oiled political and military machine: it is the cornerstone of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki's government, dominates much of the army and the police, controls the holy city of Najaf and holds the governorships and the provincial councils in most of Iraq's southern provinces.

Before, during and after the US invasion of Iraq, SCIRI's ties to Iran were well-known to US officials. But the Bush Administration -- relying on the advice of exiled leader of the Iraqi National Congress and neocon poster boy Ahmad Chalabi that postinvasion Iraq would be a secular democracy that would welcome US forces -- chose to ignore the Iranian connection. Created in 1982 by Iranian intelligence at the start of the Iran-Iraq war, SCIRI was led by two brothers, Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim and Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim; the latter is now ISCI's chief. The construction of SCIRI under the Hakims was overseen by Ali Khamenei, then Iran's president and now its supreme leader. The Hakims forcibly recruited Iraqi POWs at camps in Iran to create the Badr Corps, which was controlled by Iranian military and intelligence services. It was known as the IRGC's Ninth Badr Corps.

After the 2003 US invasion, amid the chaos and looting that followed the collapse of Saddam's regime, SCIRI and Badr forces flooded across the Iranian border into Iraq. "Border control was nonexistent," says Wayne White, who in 2003 headed the Iraq team at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. "The Iranians could just drive across…. They would come in convoys, ten trucks at a time." Ali Allawi, a postwar Iraqi defense minister and author of The Occupation of Iraq, wrote, "About 10,000 trained and disciplined Badr fighters entered Iraq, either unarmed or armed only with light weapons, and reassembled in various towns and cities as the fighting arm of SCIRI." (Other estimates involve significantly higher numbers.) Lavishly financed by Iran, SCIRI and Badr installed their leaders within days in ad hoc posts in Baquba, Kut and other key junctions in the south. Wary of Iran, but seeing little alternative to the turban-wearing clerics of SCIRI and Badr, US and British occupation authorities put the party's officials into top positions. From the early, US-selected Iraqi Governing Council in 2003 onward, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim was named to a succession of key leadership posts, and top SCIRI officials were installed in various ministries, the police and the army. In the Shiite-dominated south SCIRI officials were named to run provincial authorities, cities and towns. They were viewed by the United States and Britain as natural allies in the struggle against remnants of the Baath Party and the burgeoning Sunni resistance -- precisely the forces that Iran, too, saw as its deadliest foes.

Virtually en masse, Badr officers were recruited to the fledgling Iraqi police and army that were being assembled by the United States. According to Raed Jarrar, the Iraq consultant for the American Friends Service Committee, Badr officers maintained their same ranks when they were inducted into the Iraqi security forces. A particularly nasty part of Badr's work in Iraq from 2003 to the present has been the operation of death squads. Often, such units were run directly by Iraq's Interior Ministry, whose Badr-controlled police were blamed for assassinating hundreds of former government officials, ex-military and intelligence officers, and civilian professionals, according to widespread media reports. "I was told in the summer of 2003 in Tehran that the change in regime in Baghdad had allowed Iranian intelligence to identify every single individual who had worked in the Iran section of the Iraqi intelligence service," says Mahan Abedin, director of research at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism in London. "They were able to get as much detail as possible about their person, their movement, their connections, their mobile number. All that information was collected." They were eradicated, Abedin says, in a "hidden war."

"Right after the fall of Saddam, [the United States] went looking for the Iraqi intelligence operatives whose target was Iran," says Judith Yaphe, a former CIA Iraq specialist. "If you're Iran, or very pro-Iranian, you're not going to like those guys, are you? We wanted to use them, and Iran wanted to get rid of them. And there's only one way to get rid of them." Anxious not to allow the United States to make common cause with these operatives, Tehran used its muscle to wipe them out.

Evidence of direct Iranian involvement in ISCI-linked death squads is hard to come by. Certainly, ties between ISCI and Iran's Revolutionary Guard are ongoing. As recently as December 2006, two leaders of the secret Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard were seized by US forces inside the Baghdad compound of Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, in the home of Hadi al-Ameri, the ISCI official who is the commander of the Badr Corps. And US military leaders in Iraq recognize ISCI's Iranian connections. "I think we're all pretty well aware of the potential ties there," says a senior US military officer in Baghdad. But, he says, as long as the Badr militia isn't shooting at Americans, the party's ties to Iran will be tolerated.

The United States has also shown its willingness to tolerate ISCI's record of horrific abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture and illegal prisons. "The U.S. reportedly has evidence implicating SCIRI members in death squad activity, but has been reluctant to use it," says a November 2007 report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), citing US military sources.

The Internal Shiite War

Especially over the past three years, a great deal of ISCI's lethality has been directed toward Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc and his powerful militia, the Mahdi Army, or Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM). From the suburbs of Baghdad, to Najaf and Karbala, to Diwaniya, Amarah and Basra, ISCI has been engaged in a bloody confrontation with the JAM, its chief rival among Iraq's Shiite population. And in the Badr versus Sadr fight, the United States has unequivocally supported ISCI. "The real struggle in the long term is between SCIRI and the Sadrists," says Joost Hiltermann of the ICG. "And the Americans have in fact chosen the SCIRI side in this." In so doing, they've chosen to side with a pro-Iran party against a movement that is, despite some ties to Iran, far more independent-minded than ISCI. Paradoxically, that's pushed Sadr closer to Iran.

The Sadr-Badr rivalry is intensified by the fact that both Sadr and Hakim are scions of legendary Iraqi clerical families. When the Hakims fled Iraq, taking up residence in Iran during the era of Saddam, the Sadrs stayed in Iraq. Because it was sponsored by Tehran, Hakim's ISCI is viewed suspiciously by most Iraqis, while Sadr's less organized movement -- built mosque by mosque, underground, before, during and after the US invasion -- has much deeper roots in Iraq. Their constituencies are different, too, breaking down clearly along class lines. Hakim represents the urban elite and Shiite Iraq's business and commercial class, and his party's leadership has much in common with the merchants, traders and bazaaris who are the backbone of the ruling elite in Iran. Sadr, on the other hand, has the undying loyalty of Iraq's Shiite underclass and urban poor, and he has gained the support of many former Shiite Baathists and Arab nationalists who felt they had nowhere else to go after the overthrow of Saddam.

Although the US tactical alliance with ISCI has been in place since 2003, the joint US-ISCI campaign against Sadr escalated dramatically only last year, after President Bush announced the US troop surge. In that January 2007 speech, Bush explicitly warned Iran that it was the target. "We will disrupt the attacks on our forces," he said. "We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran…. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq." But when the United States started talking about "Iranian-backed" forces in Iraq, it didn't mean ISCI; it meant Sadr and the JAM, especially so-called JAM Special Groups, or what the US military started calling "bad JAM." According to the Pentagon, the JAM, or elements of it, were attacking US forces in Iraq with Iranian-made armor-piercing explosives and training JAM militiamen to use precisely targeted mortars and rockets to attack the fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad.

Sadr, a wily nationalist, tried to hold both the United States and Iran at arm's length in the first years of the occupation, but the past eighteen months of unrelenting American-ISCI military pressure has left him little choice other than to seek help from Iran. Sensing that the surge would lead to an onslaught against his forces, last February Sadr ordered the JAM to stand down, and he himself went into hiding. According to David Satterfield, the State Department's senior adviser on Iraq, Sadr has spent most of the past fifteen months in Iran. A February 2008 ICG report described a significant shift in Sadr's rhetoric on Iran, which had been stridently anti-Iranian until recently. "Muqtada al-Sadr used to stick to a nationalist line. Now, one could describe his rhetoric as almost pro-Iranian," a Sadrist leader told the ICG. "Even the Mahdi Army has shifted its tone. Last year's anti-Iranian discourse has given way to something quite different."

Across the south, despite Sadr's intent to lie low, a Badr-Sadr battle raged. The Badr forces, often in the form of Iraqi army and police units, mercilessly suppressed the JAM. American and Badr forces fought side by side against Sadr's less well-armed ragtag militias. Dozens of JAM cells were broken up and hundreds of people were killed or arrested. In Baghdad and provincial capitals like Diwaniya -- where a series of large-scale raids on the JAM occurred -- US forces as often as not found themselves being used by ISCI to hammer Sadr. "When Sadrists are arrested, they claim that pro-ISCI people are behind arrests," says Reidar Visser of the Norwegian Institute for International Affairs, who has written extensively on the political struggles in Iraq's south.

"The Badrists are basically using the United States as a tool to weaken the Sadrists," says Peter Harling of the ICG. "We hear reports across the board of Badrists in neighborhoods denouncing whoever is related to the Sadrist movement to the United States. A number of people, including people who are hostile to the Sadrist movement, say that the Badrists are out in the field, doing the intelligence work and pointing the United States in what they say is the right direction -- that is, against Sadrist elements. And the United States is not very discriminating in sorting out its enemies."

"The United States is being played," agrees Kenneth Katzman, Middle East specialist for the Congressional Research Service. "The US military is being played by the Hakims in this internecine struggle."

Tehran Weighs Its Options

Iran is constantly evaluating its options in this intra-Shiite struggle. Although Iran is closest to ISCI, Tehran's leaders may be worried about the party's long-term viability. Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim has lung cancer -- last year he spent many weeks in Iran for treatment -- and his son and likely successor, Amar al-Hakim, is young and inexperienced. In addition, Iran is well aware that many Iraqi Shiites, who fought against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, despise ISCI as traitors. "They're hated," says Hiltermann, who has studied ISCI closely. So despite Sadr's nationalist inclinations and his apparent distaste for the Iranian leadership, Iran has sought to build ties to the upstart cleric.

Iran's efforts to cultivate ties with Sadr, and vice versa, operate on two levels: first, directly with Sadr and his top lieutenants; and second, by reaching deep into Sadr's JAM militia. With an estimated 60,000 men under arms, the JAM is not a disciplined fighting force but a loosely organized, franchise-like network of armed gangs in towns and neighborhoods. Sensing an opportunity to take advantage of this lack of discipline, Iran launched a systematic effort to win the allegiance of local and regional JAM commanders, according to a wide range of analysts. Iran's goal may have been to turn the JAM into a version of Lebanon's Hezbollah, dependent on Iran for arms and money.

The so-called Special Groups emerged, according to the Pentagon, as a catch-all rubric for Sadrist fighters who, starting about a year ago, emerged as the deadliest foes of US occupation forces. After tens of thousands of former Sunni resistance fighters joined the Anbar Province Sahwa ("Awakening") militia under the command of Iraqi tribal chiefs -- part of a pronounced US tilt toward the Sunnis in Iraq in 2006 -- the United States began to battle a wave of attacks in Shiite areas south and east of Baghdad by hard-line Shiites who opposed the US-Sunni accord. By mid-2007 these insurgents were responsible for three-fourths of the casualties inflicted on American troops, according to the US military. The Pentagon called the attackers "Iranian-backed JAM Special Groups" and accused them of using highly effective armor-piercing bombs manufactured in Iran called "explosively formed penetrators."

Nearly all analysts interviewed for this story believe that Iran has supplied at least some of the weapons being used by Shiite insurgents, although the physical evidence presented by the Pentagon was less than overwhelming. "I don't think we've got a lot of intelligence about what Iran is really doing," says David Mack of the Middle East Institute, who twice served as a diplomat in Iraq during his career. "We see the effects of certain kinds of weapons that arguably were made in Iran." The Pentagon admits that so far it has failed to intercept any shipments crossing the Iranian border into Iraq. But the military insists that Iran is involved, and it says that US and Iraqi forces have captured numerous fighters trained in Iran and at least one top Hezbollah commander from Lebanon. Some skeptics of the Pentagon's claims suggest that Iranian weapons that find their way into Iraq are being smuggled by independent or rogue elements of the IRGC Quds Force without Supreme Leader Khamenei's knowledge, but that seems unlikely. Mahan Abedin calls the idea "ludicrous," adding, "If the IRGC is doing anything in Iraq, that would be officially sanctioned. When it comes to matters of such importance, there is no scope for behaving outside well-established parameters. Make no mistake about that. The IRGC is a highly disciplined organization. It's an ideological force, and a lot of thinking and planning has gone into its hierarchy. It is a highly surveilled organization, controlled very tightly."

Though willing to blame Iran and elements of the JAM, the US command in Iraq is careful not to blame Sadr himself. According to Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, the communications division chief of the multinational forces in Iraq, Iraqi agents of Iran tapped small groups of Iraqis, twenty to forty at a time, to be sent across the border into Iran. "They were trained and then sent back in these quote-unquote 'Special Groups,'" he says. "They were sent back as small cells…. They would wind up a lot of little toy monsters. They sent them across the border and started turning them loose." Although many of these cells, scattered through Baghdad, Diyala and the south, called themselves followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the precise degree of their loyalty to Sadr's organization is impossible to measure. The US military, at least, considers them distinct. "What happened was, eventually, they completely separated from Muqtada al-Sadr's JAM and they are operating as a rogue element outside of JAM and outside of Sadr's control," says Smith.

By late summer, Sadr's movement had suffered great losses and seemed to be in deep trouble. Whether rogue or not, the Special Groups were under heavy attack by a joint US-Iraqi offensive. Clashes with the more disciplined and better-armed Badr Corps were also taking a toll among Sadr's forces. In late August a climactic battle between JAM and Badr forces in Karbala, Iraq's second-holiest shrine city, left scores dead, and as many as 500 Sadrists were arrested. Within days, Sadr declared a unilateral six-month cease-fire.

The cease-fire came at an opportune moment for Sadr. In contrast to Badr-linked death squads, which were blamed for precisely targeted killings, at least some of Sadr's deputies and commanders had been tied to horrific violence against Sunnis in ethnic cleansing campaigns, especially in Baghdad, often behaving more like gangsters than a political army. The cease-fire gave Sadr the opportunity to reign in the most undisciplined elements.

It's unclear exactly what motivated Sadr to declare the cease-fire, but its effect was electric. Not only did Sadr's forces lay down their arms but violence linked to the Special Groups fell off dramatically, too. Casualties among Americans, which had reached near zero in Sunni Anbar Province because of the Awakening movement, fell precipitously in the capital and southern Iraq. A few weeks later, in October, Sadr and Hakim signed a shaky peace agreement, one that was reportedly brokered by Iran. "According to [the pan-Arab daily] Al Hayat, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei was present when the accord between Sadr and Hakim in October was reached," says Sam Parker, an Iraq expert at the US Institute of Peace. (By mid-February the agreement had apparently collapsed.)

The fact that both the JAM and the Special Groups simultaneously observed the cease-fire announced by Sadr could mean that the supposedly rogue units in the JAM are not so rogue at all. "It tells me that [Sadr] has more control than we think," says Wayne White. Another possibility is that, quietly and behind the scenes, Iran used its influence -- including a cutoff in the supply of arms and money -- to restrain Shiite fighters. "I think there is a robust relationship now between Sadr and the Iranians," says White. "Both Iran and Sadr read the surge the same way. Thousands…fled south from Baghdad to Shia sanctuaries or to Iran…. They just decamped. Why confront the Americans at peak strength? They can just wait for the American surge forces to leave." Indeed, an extensive recent report in the Christian Science Monitor suggested that Sadr is using the lull to consolidate his militia. And he has created a special force, the so-called Golden Ones, to enforce JAM discipline.

US-Iran Détente?

By last fall, top US officials had begun cautiously praising Sadrists for their forbearance. The Pentagon, which had spent most of last year blaming "JAM Special Groups," dropped all references to the JAM and lavished praise on Sadr's cease-fire. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US forces in Iraq, lauded Sadr personally for "working to rid his movement of criminal elements" and for making a "pledge of honor" to uphold the cease-fire announced in August. "The Sadr trend stands for service to the people," said Petraeus. And despite the fact that Sadr won't meet directly with US officials, a senior US officer in Baghdad told The Nation that the United States is in direct dialogue with leading Sadrists. "We've got ways in which we have opportunities to have discussion about overall, well, I don't want to say strategy, but -- intent," he said.

Even more surprising, perhaps, top US officials also began to praise Iran. Beginning late last summer, according to American officials, Iran began restricting the flow of weapons across the Iraqi border, following a pledge by Supreme Leader Khamenei to Maliki during the Iraqi prime minister's trip to Tehran. The State Department's Satterfield said last December, "We have seen such a consistent and sustained diminution in certain kinds of violence by certain kinds of folks that we can't explain it solely [by internal factors in Iraq]…. We are confident that decisions involving the strategy pursued by the IRGC are made at the most senior levels of the Iranian government." In February Satterfield tempered his comments a bit, suggesting that Iran might be behind an uptick in rocket and mortar attacks in Basra.

There were other straws in the wind indicating the possibility of US-Iranian détente in Iraq. Ambassador Ryan Crocker announced in Baghdad that he would soon resume his dialogue with Iran's Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, a top officer in the IRGC who'd helped organize the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. There are rumors of stepped-up clandestine contacts between US and Iranian officials in various locations. And the US intelligence community's National Intelligence Estimate, released late last year, eased US pressure on Iran by revealing that Tehran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. None other than Ali Khamenei responded by saying, for the first time, that he could envision "having relations with America."

When The Nation asked US officers in Iraq about Iran's growing role there, the response was decidedly mild. "Obviously Iran has legitimate economic, political and diplomatic interests in Iraq that they ought to pursue, whether it's helping to generate power in the south or building up an Iraq here that they're comfortable with," said a senior US officer in Baghdad. "But what we're not going to tolerate is the direct militant-aligned activity that Iran has been responsible for." He went on: "They are going to be neighbors forever. They share a huge common border. Economic life across that border is pretty significant. And if all that takes place in an open and transparent way, there's no downside to it."

Can the United States make a deal with Iran to stabilize Iraq, with both Washington and Tehran ignoring their differences to support Maliki's government? Possibly. One scenario would have Washington, backed by Saudi Arabia, using its influence among the Sunnis, particularly in the burgeoning Awakening movement, to bring them to the table, while Iran would use its clout among the Shiites to convince Maliki and Hakim to make the concessions necessary to bridge the sectarian divide. That idea lay at the heart of the Iraq Study Group plan, the 2006 advisory panel chaired by James Baker and Lee Hamilton that Bush dismissed when he adopted the surge. The Baker-Hamilton plan called for negotiations with Iran (and Syria) to help stabilize Iraq.

But enormous obstacles remain.

First, Iran is very unhappy about America's efforts to build up the 100,000-strong Sunni Awakening militia. In an interview last fall with CNN, Ambassador Kazemi-Qomi explicitly warned against the US policy of arming the Sunnis, accusing Washington of "bringing back to power former killers and murderers." Instead, Kazemi-Qomi demanded that the United States continue to support the Badr-linked Iraqi security forces. "The United States should arm and help the government, the army and the police." Soon afterward, a wave of assassinations began to hit the leadership of the Awakening militia and, according to the New York Times, although Al Qaeda in Iraq is to blame for some of the killings, many of the assassins were drawn from the Badr Corps.

Second, recent Al Qaeda-style terrorist activity in and around Baghdad and continuing pressure on the JAM from Badr-linked Iraqi army and police units have prompted Sadr to warn that he might lift the cease-fire when it expires at the end of February. That could end the current relative calm in Iraq, just as surge-linked US brigades begin withdrawing.

Perhaps most important, Iraqi nationalists are already expressing their disdain for the idea of a US-Iran pact in Iraq. Iraqi nationalists -- among them secular parties, Baathists, many Sunni parties, the Awakening movement and key Shiite blocs, including the Sadrists, despite their recent tilt toward Iran -- are starting to coalesce around a program built on opposition to both the US military occupation and the Iranian political occupation. In addition, they are opposed to Al Qaeda and to separatists, especially the Kurds, who want an independent Kurdish region in the north, and to ISCI, which has called for a quasi-independent Shiite region in the south. If the United States were to begin a rapid drawdown of its forces in Iraq, chances are good that Iraqi nationalism would begin to reassert itself. In the end, many analysts say, the Iraqis will limit Iran's influence in Iraq -- but only if the United States gets out of the way.

Anti-Occupation Politicos Gain Clout in Iraq

On January 13 an emerging Sunni-Shiite nationalist bloc in Iraq signed a groundbreaking agreement aimed at ending Iraq's civil war, blocking the privatization of Iraq's oil industry and checkmating the breakaway Kurdish state. It's a big step forward, and it could change the face of Iraqi politics in 2008.

For the past two years, Iraqi nationalists--opposed to the US occupation, opposed to Al Qaeda and opposed to Iran's heavyhanded influence in Iraqi affairs--have struggled to assert themselves. The nascent coalition contains the seeds of true national reconciliation in Iraq, but it has emerged independently of the United States. Unrelated to the constant American pressure on the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to meet various reconciliation "benchmarks," the new coalition is designed either to sweep Maliki out of office or force him to join it.

Enormous obstacles stand in the way of the Sunni-Shiite coalition, and Iraq is just as likely to descend into a new round of intense civil war as it is to stabilize under a new ruling bloc. Still, it could work, but there's a big if--if the United States steps back and gets out of the way.

Since the rigged Iraqi elections of 2005, the United States has supported a shaky and now utterly discredited four-party coalition in Iraq. Two of those parties are the ultra-religious Shiite parties, the Islamic Dawa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), both strongly supported by Iran. The other two are the Kurdish warlord parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). During that time, Iraq's two prime ministers, Ibrahim Jaafari (2005-06) and Maliki (2006-2008)--both from Dawa--have staunchly refused to open the door to increased Sunni Arab participation in the government. But now that coalition is falling apart, and its partners are increasingly at odds with one another.

The potential collapse of the Shiite-Kurdish pact that has ruled Iraq under the American occupation has created a freewheeling search for competing alliances among the myriad political factions that have emerged since Saddam Hussein's overthrow.

Partners in the new, twelve-party alliance include nearly all of the Sunni Arab parties, including the Sunni religious parties and the secular National Dialogue Front; the secular Iraqi National List of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite; two big Shiite parties, including Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc and the Fadhila (Virtue) Party; a faction of the Dawa Party; and assorted smaller groups, including independents in Iraq's Parliament. Among its goals, say its leaders, are to ensure that Iraq's "oil, natural gas, and other treasures [remain the] property of all the Iraqi people," opposing both the proposed new oil law that would open the door to privatization of the oil industry and the illegal oil deals signed by the Kurdish regional government. Another goal, they say, is to block the Kurdish takeover of the oil-rich region around Kirkuk in Iraq's north. And, they say, the new coalition will "overcome the narrow circle of sectarianism" by uniting Sunnis and Shiites.

What's more, there are reports of talks involving the remaining Sunni resistance groups--those that have not joined the American-sponsored Awakening movement and the so-called Concerned Local Citizens groups--in a broad-based national reconciliation effort. According to the Arab press, six Sunni resistance factions have been meeting in England in preparation for a proposed conference in Cairo with representatives of the Iraqi government and political parties. A parallel effort is under way at meetings in Beirut. And French President Nicolas Sarkozy, currently touring the Middle East, has renewed his country's offer to bring Iraq's warring political factions together. Sarkozy suggested "hosting in France, far from the heat of passions and on neutral ground, inter-Iraqi roundtable talks that are as large as possible." It's unclear whether Sarkozy's proposed conference would include representatives of the armed resistance, but it's possible. (An earlier offer by France to host similar talks got the cold shoulder from Maliki and no encouragement from the United States.)

The fact that Sadr's bloc opted to join the opposition bloc is critical. Not only does Sadr command thirty-two seats in Iraq's Parliament but on the ground in Baghdad and in the south his Mahdi Army militia is a formidable force. The Fadhila Party, too, has great power in and around Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, which controls the bulk of the oil industry and Iraq's exports.

A wild card in any political realignment in Iraq is the attitude of the powerful new Sahwa (Awakening) movement, the 100,000-strong paramilitary force whose backbone is Iraq's tribal leaders. Currently, the Sahwa movement is strong in Anbar, Diyala, Salahuddin and Nineveh provinces to the west and north of the capital, as well as in Baghdad itself and in the suburban belt south of Baghdad. Though Sahwa is not a party (and thus has no seats in Parliament), it is a power to be reckoned with, and it is being courted assiduously both by the new nationalist coalition and by Dawa and ISCI. If forced to choose, the Sahwa movement would be far more likely to align with nationalists than with Shiite sectarian parties, since the tribal leaders regard ISCI, in particular, as an agent of Iran.

So far, the United States has continued to prop up Maliki's shaky regime, despite its growing unpopularity. US officials fear that if Maliki were to fall, the results would be unpredictable--especially in an election year. Besides, the nationalists would be far less likely than Maliki to sign the proposed long-term extension of the American presence in Iraq that Maliki and President Bush intend to ink by July.

A hint of how entrenched the American presence in Iraq might be came this week, when Iraq's defense minister, Abdul Qader Mohammed Jassim, came to the United States for an extended visit, during which he met with long-range planning staff at the Pentagon. During his visit, Jasim declared that a significant number of troops would have to remain in Iraq for another ten years, until 2018.

The passage, on Saturday, of the so-called Accountability and Justice Act by Parliament was widely hailed by US officials, including President Bush, as a sign that at least one of the benchmarks laid out at the start of the surge a year ago had been met. That act was supposed to have eased the draconian anti-Baath party rules that excluded hundreds of thousands of Iraqis from government service and jobs.

The act was passed by a half-empty Parliament, with only 140 of the 275 elected members of the body in attendance. It was widely condemned by the very people it was designed to help, including several Sunni and secular parties and former Baathists, and it appears that the new law could trigger a purge of Iraq's defense ministry, interior ministry, army and police, forcing many thousands of former Baathists out of the security services--in other words, precisely the opposite of its ostensible purpose. Indeed, because Sadr's bloc is so bitterly anti-Baathist, it is possible that Maliki chose this moment to force passage of the law in an attempt to use the divisive issue as a wedge to split Sadr away from potential partners in the new alliance.

In the end, Iraq is still a shattered nation. Its economy is a shambles. The sectarian civil war has eased, but violence is everywhere. In the past week, two major US military actions--a sweeping offensive just north of Baghdad and one of the heaviest aerial bombardments of an area south of the capital--killed scores. The situation around Kirkuk is explosive. And intra-Shiite violence in Basra and other cities in the south simmers just below civil war levels. Even without US interference, it might still take a miracle for a stable Iraqi coalition to take root.

Who Exactly Is the Enemy in Iraq?

Who is the enemy? Who, exactly, are we fighting in Iraq? Why are we there? And what's our objective?

Nearly five years into the war, the answers to basic questions like these ought to be obvious. In the Alice in Wonderland-like wilderness of mirrors that is Iraq, though, they're anything but.

We aren't fighting the Sunnis. Not any more, anyway. Virtually the entire Sunni establishment, from the moderate Muslim Brotherhood-linked Iraqi Islamic Party (which has been part of every Iraqi government since 2003) to the Anbar tribal alliance (which has been begging for U.S. support since 2004 and only recently got it) is either actively cooperating with the American military or sullenly tolerating what it hopes will be a receding occupation. Across Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq, the United States is helping to build army and police units as well as neighborhood patrols -- the Pentagon calls them "concerned citizens" -- out of former resistance fighters, with the blessing of tribal leaders in Anbar, Diyala, and Salahuddin provinces, parts of Baghdad, and areas to the south of the capital. We have met the enemy, and -- surprise! -- they are friends or, if not that, at least not active enemies. Attacks on U.S. forces in Sunni-dominated areas, including the once-violent hot-bed city of Ramadi, Anbar's capital, have fallen dramatically.

Among the hard-core Sunni resistance, there is also significant movement toward a political accord -- if the United States were willing to accept it. Twenty-two Iraqi insurgent groups announced the creation of a united front, under the leadership of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former top Baath party official of the Saddam era, and they have opened talks with Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia who was Iraq's first post-Saddam prime minister.

We aren't fighting the Shia. The Shia merchant class and elite, organized into the mostly pro-Iranian Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and the Islamic Dawa party, are part of the Iraqi government that the United States created and supports -- and whose army and police are armed and trained by the United States. The far more popular forces of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army aren't the enemy either. In late August, Sadr declared a ceasefire, ordering his militia to stand down; and, since then, attacks on U.S. forces in Shia-dominated areas of Iraq have fallen off very sharply, too. Though recent, provocative attacks by U.S. troops, in conjunction with Iraqi forces, on Sadr strongholds in Baghdad, Diwaniya, and Karbala have caused Sadr to threaten to cancel the ceasefire order, and though intra-Shia fighting is still occurring in many parts of southern Iraq, there is no Shia enemy that justifies a continued American presence in Iraq, either.

And we certainly aren't fighting the Kurds. For decades, the Kurds have been America's (and Israel's) closest allies in Iraq. Since 2003, the three Kurdish-dominated provinces have been relatively peaceful.

We're not exactly fighting Al Qaeda any more either. Despite President Bush's near-frantic efforts to portray the war in Iraq as a last-ditch, Alamo-like stand against Osama bin Laden's army, U.S. commanders on the ground in Iraq are having a hard time finding pockets of Al Qaeda to attack these days, though the group still has the power to conduct deadly attacks now and then. In recent weeks, General David Petraeus, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and other authorities have pretty much declared Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) dead and buried. That happy funeral is the result not of brilliant U.S. counterinsurgency efforts, but of the determination of our newfound Sunni allies to exterminate the group. No lesser authority than General Petraeus himself now admits that Al Qaeda has been expelled from every single one of its strongholds in Baghdad. In Anbar Province, according to Crocker, "People do feel the weight's off. Al Qaeda is simply gone."

And, nearly a year after President Bush proclaimed Iran to be Public Enemy No. 1 in Iraq, blaming Tehran for supporting both Al Qaeda and Shia militias, things are even getting better on that front. Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared that Iran had quietly promised to halt the smuggling of weapons and advanced roadside bombs into Iraq. "I don't know whether to believe them. I'll wait and see," he said, in what was a rather dramatic downgrading of the White House's warnings about Iran.

Confirming Gates' comments, General Ray Odierno, the commanding general of the multinational forces in Iraq, noted a sharp decline in the use of EFP's (explosively formed penetrators), the sort of IED that the United States blames Iran for supplying. In July, Odierno said, there were 99 EFP's used against U.S. forces; in August, 78; in September, 52; and in October, 53. Partly as a result, Crocker announced that he is resuming a dialogue with his Iranian counterpart, Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, soon. At the same time, the United States announced its intention to release a number of Iranians detained in Iraq, a move seen as a good-will gesture toward Tehran.

Surge or Not, Things Are Getting Better

All in all, violence in Iraq has dropped precipitously since late summer. With Al Qaeda declared dead, former Sunni resistance fighters wearing American-supplied uniforms, and the Mahdi Army lying low, killings in Iraq are way down. The security situation in Iraq is far better than it's been at any time since 2005. Many American antiwar critics, who are invested in the notion that no good news can come out of Iraq and who (secretly or openly) revel in the Bush administration's Iraqi failures, are reluctant to admit that things are getting better.

Perhaps they worry that, if the situation in Iraq improves, the prospect of Democratic gains at the polls next November will diminish. Perhaps they've convinced themselves that Iraq's ethnic and sectarian divide is so enormous that partition is the only solution, and that Iraq doesn't deserve to be a country anyway. Perhaps their distaste for President Bush (which I share) is so all-consuming that they fear any improvement in the situation will be credited to the President -- something they can't tolerate.

If so, that's perverse. The fact is: There is a critical window of opportunity opening for the United States to withdraw and for Iraq to hold itself together and rebuild. To the extent that things are getting better, that's good news. The majority of Americans -- from the left to conservative realists -- who want the United States to get out of Iraq quickly ought to seize this news and push for an acceleration of the momentum for withdrawal. Certainly, as the polls all indicate, this is the course Americans generally want their politicians to follow.

There's really no disputing the improvement since August. According to the careful compilers at the website, both U.S. and Iraqi deaths have fallen dramatically. In May, June, and July, more than a hundred Americans were killed each month; for August, September, and October the totals were 84, 65, and 38. For Iraqis, the numbers have been even more dramatic, with Iraqi military and civilian deaths falling from 3,000 per month earlier this year to 848 and 679 in September and October. There are, of course, other counts, and reliable statistics are hard to come by in Iraq, but there's no doubt that the numbers represent something real, that the violence is down in Baghdad and most of the rest of the country.

There is other, anecdotal news to support the notion that security is better these days. Last week, Iraqi officials announced that, since the summer, 46,000 Iraqis have returned to the war-torn capital. Hundreds of shops are reopening; taxi drivers say the streets are far safer; and Christian Berthelsen and Said Rifai the Los Angeles Times report that "the booze business has rebounded" after years of puritanical suppression by Islamists, another sign that Al Qaeda has been driven from the premises. On November 3, the Associated Press reported that an entire day passed in Baghdad without a single bombing or shooting. That same day, according to Agence France Press, the U.S. Air Force, for the first time in memory, declared that it had carried out not a single bombing raid or combat mission anywhere in Iraq, due to an "improved security situation."

In Anbar Province, including its capital, Ramadi, the news is rather remarkable. In January, attacks on U.S. forces in Ramadi came at the rate of 30 per day; today, there is less than one a day. During the recent month-long Ramadan holiday, there were only four attacks on U.S. forces; during Ramadan 2006, there were 442.

None of this means that Iraq has become Sweden. It's still a violent place. There is no real government; the economy is in shambles; basic services --- electricity, water, trash collection -- are nonexistent; and most areas of the country are ruled by militias, gangs, criminal elements, or local warlords. But for the first time since the invasion in March 2003, there is a real opportunity for the two main blocs of Iraqi Arabs, the Sunni and Shia communities, to strike a deal. If such a deal were indeed struck, the Kurds would have little choice but to buy into it. Problem is, the United States cannot broker the deal. Having spent five years boosting sectarianism in Iraq, killing innocent Iraqis, busting down doors in small villages, and trying to turn Iraq into an American colony, the United States simply has no credibility left.

Any deal we broker, any leader we promote, any government we sponsor has just gotten the kiss of death. What unites Iraqi Arabs, from the Sunni resistance to the Mahdi Army, is opposition to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, as well as opposition to Al Qaeda and to Iran's heavy-handed interference in Iraqi affairs.

Next Step: A New Iraqi Accord?

A new, nationalist Iraq is emerging underneath the presence of 160,000 U.S. troops. That nationalism extends from the current and former Sunni resistance fighters to Sadr's Mahdi Army to a range of moderate, secular Sunni and Shia politicians, all of whom -- albeit under exceedingly difficult circumstances -- are talking to each other about a new political framework for a new Iraqi government.

Two urgent steps are needed in order capitalize on the reemergence of Iraqi nationalism. First, the broad-based majorities among Sunni and Shia Arabs must be reconciled under a new Iraqi constitution, with new Iraqi elections creating a new Iraqi government untainted by American oversight. Second, Iraq's neighbors -- all of them, including Iran and Syria -- have to underwrite the new Iraqi nationalism. With its track record, the Bush administration is utterly incapable of accomplishing either of these tasks. It's a job for the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and other parties. And all of this, in turn, depends on the United States announcing a timetable for withdrawing its forces from Iraq.

As noted by countless observers, including official ones, the United States has so far been unable to translate the decline in violence into political gains. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) made exactly that point, accusing the administration of failing to take advantage of the improved security situation. With a great deal of understatement, the GAO said: "U.S. efforts lack strategies with clear purpose, scope, roles, and performance measures." (In other words, the United States doesn't know what it's doing.)

Similarly, the Center for American Progress, a thinktank that has truly distinguished itself from other establishment bodies by unequivocally calling for the total and rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, picks up on this in an astute memorandum called "Strategic Drift in Iraq." It notes (accurately in my reading): "The United States' current Iraq debate has three key dynamics: a lame duck president looking to hand Iraq off to his successor, a conservative movement promoting fear over reason for perceived political gain, and a progressive movement frustrated by a lack of change in Iraq policy and vague positions about what to do."

In fact, the "strategic drift" that the Center for American Progress refers to is beginning to look more and more like a Washington establishment with every intention to stay put in Iraq for decades to come. Even if the more rabid neoconservative calls for escalating the war into Iran and Syria are left aside, it's still clear that many centrist Republicans and moderate Democrats expect a long occupation followed by an even longer period in which the presence of U.S. forces will remain significant. Former Centcom Commander General John Abizaid, a realist-minded, anti-neocon officer, recently predicted that U.S. forces would have to stay in the Middle East "for the next 25 to 50 years," and he was pretty blunt about the importance of oil. "I'm not saying this is a war for oil, but I am saying that oil fuels an awful lot of geopolitical moves that political powers may take there." Notably, it was recently reported that U.S. legal advisers to the Iraqi Ministry of Oil helped Iraq to cancel an enormous Russian oil deal with Iraq to develop its West Qurna oil field, which the New York Times called "one of a dozen or so supergiant oil fields in the world." Not that the war had anything to do with oil, mind you.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), in a glum forecast, put forth two scenarios for Iraqi war costs. The first -- envisioning 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq through 2017 -- would cost an additional $570 billion over 10 years. The second -- involving a slow decline to 75,000 U.S. troops by 2013 and then the maintenance of that force through 2017 -- would cost an additional $1,055 billion, bringing the war's cost to a conservatively estimated $1.7 trillion. CBO didn't project beyond 2017, so feel free to take out your calculator.

Sabotaging Peace in Iraq

The events in Iraq during the past week make it clear, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that neither the Bush administration nor its puppet Shiite theocrats in Iraq want peace.

Ten days ago, the U.S.-installed government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made a grand show of offering "national reconciliation" with the Iraqi insurgency. In what seemed at first to be an olive branch to the insurgents, Maliki began dropping hints that the regime in Baghdad might offer a package deal to the resistance, including a broad amnesty for armed, anti-occupation fighters and an outreach to the deposed Iraqi Baath party. It was, according to Maliki and to Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, a sincere effort to strike a deal that could end the fighting in Iraq and which conceivably could lead to the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Last week, I wrote skeptically about the thin possibility that Maliki might strike a deal with the resistance. By now, it is obvious that the Maliki-Khalilzad supposed reconciliation plan was no such thing. Khalilzad, President Jalal Talabani and Maliki have been conducting on-again, off-again talks with parts of the Iraqi resistance for at least a year but appear to have no intention of offering the insurgent groups a deal they can accept. Instead, Khalilzad and the leaders of the Iraq government are engaged in a cynical, divide-and-conquer maneuver that can only guarantee the war in Iraq will grind on for years.

Last Sunday, when Maliki released his much-anticipated reconciliation plan, it was vague and insubstantial. Maliki mentioned "amnesty," but the amnesty he offered did not extend to those doing the fighting. He included no outreach to the Baathists -- who are at the heart of the resistance -- and not a hint that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is on the table. Instead, Maliki simply asked the fighters to lay down their arms, and he called on Sunni tribal and clan leaders and Sunni Arab political blocs to join the Baghdad regime. It was a warmed over, but still very stale version of repeated calls by the U.S. occupation authorities and their Iraqi allies for an unconditional surrender by the resistance.

According to reports in the media, the fact that the reconciliation plan didn't include anything new was the result of pressure on the Iraqi government by the U.S. embassy and the American military command. For a few days, hope fluttered in some quarters, sparked by reports that as many as seven Iraqi insurgent groups had responded positively to Maliki's plan. Perhaps for the first time in three years, it seemed possible that an end to the war was in sight.

But as details of the plan became clear, the idea of national reconciliation was rejected virtually unanimously by the Iraqi resistance. By the end of the week, the Sunni leaders in Iraq closest to the insurgency were all reporting that the Maliki plan was dead. Hareth al-Dari, a leader of the Association of Muslim Scholars, said bluntly: "The main resistance factions have rejected [the plan]," and he called it "nothing but a public relations plan to brighten the image of the government." Added Hussein Falluji, a Sunni member of parliament: "The major factions have refused this initiative … This reconciliation plan is only in the prime minister's mind. It was born dead."

More bluntly, Maliki's plan was denounced by resistance leaders on the internet -- and the resistance answered Maliki with a devastating wave of violence, car bombs, and intensified attacks on U.S. forces. Not only that, but for the very first time a Shiite resistance group made itself known. The new Shiite force, called the "Islamic Army in Iraq: Abbas Brigades," is apparently not linked to any of the ruling Shiite religious parties, including the often independent-minded forces allied with Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, and its call to arms echoed the line of the mostly Sunni-led resistance. Iraq, said the Abbas Brigades, is occupied by an American force that is "building bases [and] sowing sectarian sedition between Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds." It pledged attacks on U.S. troops.

Khalilzad and Maliki didn't bother disguising their ploy. Ambassador Khalilzad chose David Ignatius of the Washington Post to deliver his cynical message that the entire Maliki reconciliation plan is only an effort to co-opt malleable -- or gullible -- parts of the resistance. In a phone call to Ignatius, Khalilzad announced that he -- and Maliki -- were pushing for "conditional amnesty for Iraqi insurgents as part of a broader reconciliation effort, and negotiations with insurgent groups about terms and conditions for ending the fighting." But he also made clear that he was not talking about a blanket peace accord but merely "outreach to elements of the Sunni insurgency that (in theory) can be co-opted." Even more stark was Charles Krauthammer, the militantly pro-war neoconservative, who authored a Post op-ed entitled "Amnesty for Insurgents? Yes." In it, he wrote:

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The Other Cheney Behind the Scenes

At the very heart of U.S. Middle East policy, from the war in Iraq to pressure for regime change in Iran and Syria to the spread of free-market democracy in the region, sits the 39-year-old daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney. Elizabeth "Liz" Cheney, appointed to her post in February 2005, has a tongue-twisting title: principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs and coordinator for broader Middle East and North Africa initiatives. By all accounts, it is an enormously powerful post, and one for which she is uniquely unqualified.

During the past 15 months, Elizabeth Cheney has met with and bolstered a gaggle of Syrian exiles, often in tandem with John Hannah and David Wurmser, top officials in the Office of the Vice President (OVP); has pressed hard for money to accelerate the administration's ever more overt campaign for forced regime change in both Damascus and Teheran; and has overseen an increasingly discredited push for American-inspired democratic reform from Morocco to Iran.

With the unspoken support of her father, Cheney has kept a hawk's eye on Iraq policy within the department, intimidating opponents of the neoconservative axis within the administration. And, less visibly, according to former officials who've worked with her, she has made her influence felt in choosing officials, selecting (or blocking) the appointment of ambassadors and other foreign service officers, and weighing in on other bureaucratic battles at the department.

Now, according to the Financial Times of London, Cheney is coordinating the work of a new entity called the Iran-Syria Operations Group. The unit was established "to plot a more aggressive democracy promotion strategy for those two 'rogue' states," reported the Times. In February, the State Department announced that Cheney would oversee a $5 million program to "accelerate the work of reformers in Syria," providing grants of up to $1 million each to Syrian dissidents.

And in the current fiscal year, she will oversee a similar, $7 million regime-change grant program for Iran, though funding for that effort is expected to grow to at least $85 million soon, to include both a propaganda program and support to Iranian opposition groups. "She came in knowing very little about the Middle East," says Marina S. Ottaway, senior associate and co-director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has worked with Liz Cheney on democratic reform issues. "She had a mandate to do democracy promotion, but she had very little familiarity with the subject. ... They deliberately picked a person who was not a Middle East specialist, so that the conventional wisdom, well, let me rephrase, so that real, actual knowledge of the issues in the region wouldn't interfere with policy."

Liz Cheney catapulted into her current job after a rather undistinguished career that leapfrogged from public to private life and back again. In her early 20s, she did a stint at the State Department while her father was secretary of defense in the first Bush administration, and then headed to law school at the University of Chicago and worked for Armitage Associates, a firm run by Richard Armitage. As an attorney, she worked for the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank, and served briefly as a U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) officer in Hungary and Poland. Her Middle East experience was, well, limited.

Asked about Liz's familiarity with the Middle East, a former staffer at the Middle East Institute, a Washington D.C., think tank, says that she dabbled in the Institute's Arabic language classes. "And she'd come to our annual conference," she said. That's it. That was, however, apparently enough to get her named deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) in 2002.

A quick climb up the ranks

In an administration in which policy toward Iraq and the Middle East was mostly guided by know-nothings and the inexperienced, perhaps it isn't surprising that Liz Cheney got herself named to a top position at Near Eastern Affairs. How, exactly, she ended up at NEA in the first place is something of a mystery, although no one interviewed doubted that it was at the behest of the vice president.

One former deputy assistant secretary at NEA said that the bureau was offered the choice of either Liz Cheney or Danielle Pletka, a neoconservative hard-liner who is the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Pletka, a sharp-elbowed insider who helped write the Iraq Liberation Act in the 1990s, was reportedly seen by Secretary of State Colin Powell and NEA as the greater of two evils, and so Cheney got the job.

During the preparations for the Iraq War, Cheney had a back seat at NEA, with a portfolio covering Middle East economic issues, including oil. However, according to insiders, her real importance was to serve as an ace-in-the-hole at the State Department for the vice president's office. Her presence had a sobering effect on many of the department's Arabists, most of whom were known as opponents of the war and were considered suspect by neoconservatives. "All during that year, you had the vice president's daughter sitting there at State Department meetings," says Chas Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Says another former U.S. ambassador to several key Middle East countries otherwise known for his tough-minded ability to stand up to Arab strong-men: "I would find it confining, if not intimidating."

In 2003, she left the State Department to take a role in the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign and to give birth to her fourth child. (Her husband is Philip Perry, general counsel for the Department of Homeland Security.) But after the election, in 2005, she was back -- this time with an important, and telling, promotion to the far more senior post of principal deputy assistant secretary, making her the No. 2 official on Middle East policy. Known by its acronym, PDAS (pronounced "pee-dass"), it is a bureaucratic post known for its power inside NEA. It was an appointment that certainly got the attention of the State Department's Middle East hands.

"There has always been a political appointee in every bureau at State," says Ambassador Philip Wilcox, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs. But usually the political appointee, who serves as a sort of commissar, would be placed in a low rank within NEA, he says. "The idea that the PDAS would be that political appointee is just unprecedented, since she serves as the alter ego of the assistant secretary."

Wayne White, who served as deputy director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and who headed that unit's Iraq team during the war, left the State Department in 2005. "The thing we all said among us, in chit chat, when she moved up to be PDAS after being the deputy assistant secretary, was, 'Ah, now we see the plan,'" he says. "First, she gets her training wheels as deputy assistant secretary ... where she'd get softer assignments, sort of training, which happens to people in that position who don't have a Middle East background, and she doesn't -- and then boom! right up to PDAS. She is in a position to stop anything from going forward -- as in the form of a memo, a recommendation -- that she pretty much wants."

In her job as PDAS, Cheney is responsible for nearly all of the management and administration of the bureau, says White. "In one way, the PDAS is like Stalin in the early 1920s communist party, controlling personnel, able to promote, not promote, put people in key positions. This is an extremely powerful position."

David Welch, the assistant secretary of state for NEA, is nominally Liz Cheney's boss. But her connection to her father, plus her pipelines directly up to more senior State Department officials such as Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, make it easy for her to eclipse Welch. (Like Armitage, who also served as a top State Department official for George W. Bush, Zoellick is a signatory to the statements of the Project for a New American Century in the 1990s, which charted the administration's bellicose course.) "David Welch is in an impossible position on anything she takes an interest in," says a former top NEA official. "And she takes an interest in the big issues -- Iraq, Iran, and so on. They have to be very careful, if they want to do anything that protects the national interest, because it has to coincide with what Liz Cheney thinks is in the national interest."

One of the few reporters in Washington to look into Liz Cheney's role at the State Department, Timothy Phelps of Long Island's Newsday, reported in April that she operates what is essentially a "shadow Middle East policy" against the more mainstream policy promoted by Welch, typical of the neoconservative versus realist divisions that have plagued the Bush administration since 2001.

Cheney has not shied away from throwing her weight around. During her frequent trips to the Middle East, she often operates independently of the department and of the U.S. ambassador in whatever country she is visiting. She has been known to insist on seeing a head of state without inviting the American ambassador to accompany her, in violation of protocol, often threatening the ambassador with the power of her contacts.

On at least one occasion, however, an ambassador called her bluff. "Liz Cheney comes out to this country, and she tells the ambassador -- and she doesn't outrank him -- she tells the ambassador, 'You're not going in the meeting with me,'" recalls Larry Wilkerson, who served as Colin Powell's assistant during his tenure as secretary of state. "And he says, 'I'm sorry, I'm going in the meeting with you. You're not going into a meeting with the head of state without me.' And she says, 'Nope -- would you like a telephone call?'"

In this case, says Wilkerson, the department's bosses backed up their ambassador, who accompanied a chastened Cheney into the meeting. But that has not always been the case. "It's not just that she is imperious in dealing with our ambassadors," notes a corporate lobbyist who is deeply involved in Middle East policy. "She's got her own foreign policy, her own agenda, and so of course she wouldn't want the ambassador to know what she is talking about when she meets a head of state."

Hobnobbing with the new Chalabi

Soon after her return to the state department in March 2005, Liz Cheney made news when she convened a controversial meeting with a handful of exiled Syrian activists to talk about regime change in Damascus. Leading the pack at the time was Farid al-Ghadry, a paradoxically pro-Israeli Syrian who's maintained ties to neoconservatives in Washington and who is close to Wurmser and his wife, Meyrav Wurmser, the director of Middle East affairs for the Hudson Institute. According to Arab sources, it was Meyrav Wurmser who helped to arrange al-Ghadry's tête-à-tête with Liz Cheney, Hannah, and other Bush administration officials.

Al-Ghadry, a Virginia businessman who founded the Reform Party of Syria, is widely seen in Arab circles as a lightweight with no credibility inside Syria. Mourhaf Jouejati, a professor of political science at George Washington University and an expert on Syrian politics, calls al-Ghadry a "mini-me of Ahmed Chalabi," adding that Liz Cheney, Hannah, and the Wurmsers "are the backbone for Farid Ghadry's movement. The question is, are they just seeking leverage with Syria, or is it a serious option? If it is the latter, I would be scared, because that means that they don't know what they are doing."

One of the Syrians who took part in the meeting with Cheney and Hannah is Najib Ghadbian, an activist, author, and professor at the University of Arkansas. "Ghadry doesn't have much following inside Syria," Ghadbian admits. "Why are they behind him so much? Maybe they are following the Iraqi model, but al-Ghadry doesn't even have the clout of Chalabi."

Perhaps another reason that al-Ghadry had the inside track with Cheney, Hannah, and Wurmser is that he is a member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who has spoken at meetings of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a think tank whose board of advisers includes Richard Perle, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and James Woolsey. (Since the meeting with Cheney a year ago, al-Ghadry has lost favor even in Syrian exile circles. A new group, calling itself the Syrian National Council, has emerged, elbowing al-Ghadry out of a leading role.)

Since then, and with the emergence of the reported Iran-Syria Operations Group, Liz Cheney has taken a leading role in the Bush administration's campaign for regime change in both countries. While continuing to press Syria, the State Department has launched a campaign against Iran, separately from any military confrontation being worked on at the Pentagon.

"It looks so déjà vu," says Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, who compares the effort to America's actions before war in Iraq. In addition to pressing the United Nations to impose tough new sanctions against Iran, Liz Cheney is coordinating an effort to rouse Iranian exiles to spark revolution inside the country. Besides seeking $75 million in additional funds for anti-Tehran activities, the State Department has created a brand new Office of Iranian Affairs, which sounds suspiciously like the Defense Department's Offce of Special Plans that was set up to coordinate pre-war planning for Iraq.

And, according to a recent State Department planning document, the United States is setting up anti-Iranian intelligence and mobilization centers in Dubai, Istanbul, Ankara, Adana, Tel Aviv, Frankfurt, London, and Baku to work with "Iranian expatriate communities." Having set into motion much of this activity, Liz Cheney's role in once again up in the air. Many at the State Department may breathe a sigh of relief this summer, when Cheney will once again likely take a leave of absence for the birth of her fifth child, expected in July. Even so, she will remain part of her father's inner circle.

And as the United States lurches toward a confrontation with Iran -- October Surprise anyone? -- Liz and Dick will be hand in hand.

Copyright © 2006 by The American Prospect, Inc. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

Cutting and Running In Baghdad

Too late, the urgency of the crisis in Iraq, and the sheer ugliness of its civil war, seems finally to be dawning on the Bush administration. As usual, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and their stalwart secretaries of state and defense, are johnnies-come-lately in their ability to understand how far gone Iraq is.

Perhaps, as has been the case in the past, that is because they continue flagrantly to disregard what they are told by analysts in the U.S. intelligence community. Before, during, and after the invasion of Iraq, with a rising sense of alarm, the CIA, the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), and other agencies warned the Bush-Cheney team that the destruction of Iraq's central government could tumble the country into a civil war. In 2004, of course, the president famously dismissed such CIA warnings as "just a guess." Well, guess what, Mr. President? It's civil war. And it isn't pretty.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a leading know-nothing on Iraq -- it was her utter ignorance of the Middle East as national security adviser through 2004 that allowed the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal to get away with so much -- jetted to Baghdad in a hurry over the weekend. She dragged along Jack Straw, Britain's foreign secretary, gallantly sleeping on the floor of her own plane while giving him her bed.

No doubt, the Rice-Straw voyage to Britain's old colonial stomping grounds in Baghdad was the result of a panicky summons from the U.S. ambassador-cum-proconsul in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who seems to be at his wit's end in trying to solve the Rubik's Cube of Iraq's sectarian and ethnic political puzzle. Ambassador Khalilzad spent most of 2005 cozying up to the religious Shiites of Iraq while thundering about the threat of the Sunni-led insurgency.

Late last year, however, he began -- imperceptibly at first, then with some speed -- maneuvering to switch sides: first pledging to talk to the former Baathists and to Sunni resistance groups, then ordering U.S. troops to attack the most heinous outcroppings of the Shiite fundamentalists' terror-torture-and-militias apparatus.

Finally, in advance of summoning Rice, the ambassador threw down the gauntlet once and for all. Led by Khalilzad, the United States has definitively broken with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the hopelessly incompetent religious fanatic that Washington helped bring back to Iraq in the first place, installing him as puppet prime minister of the interim government created (after months of back-stabbing and deal-making) in the aftermath of the January 2005 elections. Khalilzad seems to have discovered what just about everyone else in Iraq already knew: that Jaafari is closely allied to the Iranians.

In a recent interview in the Washington Post, Khalilzad slammed Iran and its Shiite allies, accusing the Iranian military and secret service of sponsoring the militias, paramilitary forces, and death squads wreaking havoc in Baghdad and across southern Iraq. "Our judgment is that training and supplying, direct or indirect, takes place, and that there is also provision of financial resources to people, to militias, and that there is a presence of people associated with [Iran's] Revolutionary Guard and with the MOIS," he said, using the initials for Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security.

Khalilzad spent much of last week busily delivering letters from President Bush -- letters, no doubt, that he wrote himself, and persuaded the less-than-knowledge-based President then to sign -- to various Iraqi political figures, in which Bush declared that the American Empire no longer has any use for Jaafari's services as prime minister. (Delivered to Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the guiding power behind Iraq's Shiite religious party, the letter was officiously left unopened, and an aide to Sistani told reporters that the ayatollah was most unhappy with U.S. "meddling" in Iraqi politics. As if occupying the country with 130,000 troops isn't meddling.)

Humpty Dumpty in Baghdad

There are three points to make about the current American scramble to put Humpty Dumpty back together again in Baghdad.

First, it is by no means certain that the United States can force the corrupt politicians of Iraq's various parties -- Shiite, Sunni and Kurd -- to paper over their differences and announce the government of national unity that Khalilzad wants. The full-court press by the Americans is showing signs of having an effect, and Jaafari will eventually probably accede to U.S. pressure and step down.

But whoever takes over, the government of Iraq will remain weak, divided, and isolated inside Baghdad's well-fortified Green Zone. It is and, until the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, will remain a collection of charlatans and quislings, leavened with separatist warlords such as the Barzanis and Talabanis of Kurdistan and Abdel Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

What still holds them all together and remains the only glue preventing Iraq from splitting into three separate states, is the self-interested greed of the warlords who have been installed by the American forces. None of them want to kill the golden goose that allows them to cash in on billions of dollars in Iraqi oil revenues and U.S. aid.

Increasingly, however, that glue is losing its adhesive power. Iraq is succumbing to centrifugal pressures as more and more Iraqis identify with sectarian and ethnic affiliations. Under these circumstances, it is highly unlikely that even a new Iraqi government including Sunnis could put a halt to the Iraqi civil war.

Second, the imperial treatment of Jaafari by the ambassador has shocked and stunned Iraqis, opponents and supporters alike. His public humiliation has been a blatant exercise of sheer American muscle, and it happened on the front pages of Iraq's newspapers. It makes a mockery of President Bush's alleged commitment to democracy.

Paradoxically, since Jaafari -- whose alliance with rebel cleric and warlord Muqtada al-Sadr remains strong -- can now claim to have resisted American pressure, it will ultimately strengthen his political standing, since any Iraqi politician who opposes the United States becomes instantly popular. By the same token, whoever might now accept the job of prime minister, as Jaafari's replacement, will take office under the shadow of the U.S. occupation that installed him, giving that new leader zero credibility. Power in Iraq comes not from acquiescing to American might, but from resisting it.

Third, there is virtually no one in the ranks of the Shiite religious bloc who is any better than Jaafari. The leading replacement candidate from the Shiite alliance is Adel Abdel Mahdi, a chieftain of SCIRI with close ties to Iran's intelligence service, who is an apologist for the Shiite militias and their death squads. During a recent visit to Washington, when I asked him about reports of Shiite killings, he justified death-squad activities as merely a response to killings by Sunni "terrorists." He has also repeatedly demanded that Iraq's Shiite-led police units be unleashed against the Sunnis, and of course the very center of the Shiite death-squad operations is the Interior Ministry, led by a SCIRI colleague.

For reasons that are unclear, the United States seems to support Abdel Mahdi over Jaafari, perhaps because SCIRI is seen as an opponent of Sadr's Mahdi Army. Rather hilariously, the New York Times reports that Bush administration officials prefer to overlook Abdel Mahdi's many years in Iran and instead view him as a "Western-educated proponent of free market economics."

In fact, the United States is now facing two robust insurgencies in Iraq: a Sunni-led resistance of Baathists and army veterans and a growing Shiite-led, Iranian-linked resistance. The former is not weakening, blowing up and shooting down Americans at a steady pace, with 13 U.S. troops killed in the first three days of April. The latter, however, is potentially more deadly, because it has the ability to mobilize so many among the country's 60 percent Shiite majority, and because it has the support of Iran. Parts of the Shiite majority have already gravitated into outright resistance to the American occupation, including Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army.'

By its assault in late March on a fortified building in Baghdad held by Muqtada's forces, in what may or may not have been a mosque, the United States formally launched its fight against the incipient second insurgency, the Shiite one. If things spin further out of control, as it's likely they will, U.S. forces may soon find themselves fighting a Sunni insurgency to the north and west of Baghdad and an urban Shiite paramilitary army in the south.


That, however, rather oversimplifies the contours of the spreading civil war in Iraq. To understand what Iraq will look like, recall the civil war in Lebanon from 1975-1990, a brutal struggle that left perhaps 200,000 people dead in a far smaller country. That war dragged on for fifteen years, during which Lebanon's many-sided political culture constantly realigned itself like a reshaken kaleidoscope.

The main parties to that conflict were several Christian blocs, several factions of Palestinians, Shiite militias, Sunni armies, and the Druze mountain men. Alliances among them constantly shifted. Israel and Syria invaded Lebanon -- twice each -- and left residual forces there. The Lebanese capital, Beirut, was split down the middle, and its suburbs and nearby cities were turned into war zones, ethnically cleansed and fortified.

Horrific massacres occurred, and political assassinations and car bombs were routine. Through it all, Lebanon maintained the fiction that it had a central government, held elections, and even regularly staffed embassies abroad. On the ground, however, power was with the various militias, and the toll in human life was crushing. The Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, and Palestinians each maintained their own armed enclaves, battling over the carcass of Beirut.

That is precisely what the civil war in Iraq is beginning to look like today. Baghdad, like Beirut, is fast being transformed into a carcass to be fought over (as are cities like Kirkuk and Mosul). The Kurdish north, the Shiite south, and the Sunni triangle are becoming fortified hinterlands for the struggle to control Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk. Iraq has become a Mad Max world in which angry youths wheel around in jeeps and pickups, don ragtag militia uniforms, and set up checkpoints and roadblocks guns drawn.

The Shiite forces eye each other suspiciously and enviously, and their rivalries may yet turn to open warfare and violence. The two big Kurdish parties, the KDP and the PUK, despise each other, and in the past have warred each against the other. The Sunnis too are thoroughly divided. Any of these factions might ally with just about any of the others, then break that alliance only to ally for a period with a former enemy and attack the former ally. There are no rules, only guns. Is it possible to imagine the U.S. armed forces in the midst of this chaos? No.

The chaos of the present moment will certainly get worse, new Iraqi government or not. Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times reports that gun sales in Iraq are booming, with proliferating weapons bazaars that sell "machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers." He adds: "Militia ranks are swelling, too, with growing swarms of young, religious, mostly uneducated young men taking to the streets with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders."

The Sunnis, in particular, are fast building private armies to compete with the 20,000-strong Shiite Badr Brigade, the Mahdi Army, and other Shiite militias, as well as with the Kurdish pesh merga. The Los Angeles Times reports that Sunnis are "stashing guns in their mosques and knitting themselves into militias of their own."

It quotes a young Sunni militant: "One little signal and you'll see us all in the streets." Day after day, scores of Iraqis -- mostly Sunni victims of Shiite gangs -- turn up bound and gagged, with electric drill holes in their bones, and bullets in their brains. They are found in mass graves, in vans stuffed with bodies, in ditches. Tens of thousands of Iraqis are fleeing cities and neighborhoods in which they are a minority or feel unsafe, becoming refugees in their own land.

It is precisely this phenomenon that marks the formal start of civil war in Iraq, and it can be traced back to the late summer of 2005, when a steady stream of Sunni murder victims began to turn up in hospital morgues around the country. Since last fall, according to reports from human rights observers, hundreds of dead Sunnis have been piling up in mortuaries each month. In the past month, according to various Iraqi officials, more than 1,700 Sunnis have been kidnapped, tortured, and executed, and fifty or so new bodies are turning up on a typical day.

Since last fall, the number of those killed by Shiite death squads has surpassed those killed by the Baathist-led resistance and by the terrorists linked to Al Qaeda's suicide bombers -- as good a marker as any with which to pinpoint the moment when Iraq passed from one stage of political existences to another: Iraq has now gone from a country with a shaky, U.S.-backed regime fighting a resistance movement to a country in which sectarian killings and ethnic cleansing predominates.

Defeat or a Widening War -- or Both?

Rational observers can only conclude that the U.S. occupation army in Iraq has no place in the midst of a civil war. But for the Bush administration, withdrawal is not an option. But in the midst of such an escalating mess, how could Bush withdraw?

The Bush administration is like the proverbial kid with a hand stuck in the cookie jar, grabbing a fistful of goodies. In order to get out of Iraq, Bush would have to let go of Iraq's goodies. In this case, that means letting go of Iraq's oil, and letting go of the dream that Iraq can become the anchor for a long-term U.S. military and economic presence in the Persian Gulf.

To do so would mean a humiliating public admission of defeat -- defeat for the idea of Americanizing Iraq, defeat for America's hope of establishing hegemony in the Gulf, and defeat for the neoconservatives' determination to use military "shock and awe" tactics to intimidate potential regional rivals and opponents around the world. All of that would be gone -- and in the most public way possible.

Which brings us to former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht, currently a fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute. In 2002-2003, Gerecht was among the loudest proponents of giving the Arabs the old shock-and-awe treatment, arguing that Iraqis, Arabs, and Middle Easterners in general only understand the language of force. Writing in the Wall Street Journal on April 3, Gerecht warned bluntly that for the United States to succeed in Iraq might require far more bloody-minded tactics than have been utilized thus far. First, Gerecht notes with satisfaction that many Sunnis have been frightened and intimidated by Shiite militias, adding: "Sunni and Kurdish fear of Shiite power … is politically overdue and healthy for all concerned." And then he gets to the heart of the matter:

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Inside the Iraqi Abyss

The civil war that war opponents warned about, the one that Middle East experts said might be coming, the one that Bush administration officials say isn't likely to happen has already started. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the neoconservative strategist who served the United States in two failed occupations -- Afghanistan and Iraq -- still doesn't get it. In an interview with Al Hayat, a London-based Arabic newspaper, Khalilzad warned that Iraq "is bleeding and headed for civil war." But he's wrong. Iraq is no longer headed for civil war. It's there.

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, looking grim at a Pentagon news conference on Monday, remains in denial. "Do I think we're in a civil war at the present time? No," he said. The Department of Defense is war-gaming a civil war, he told reporters. What would a civil war in Iraq look like? Well, said Rumsfeld, "I will say, I don't think it'll look like the United States Civil War."

Rumsfeld is right about that. It won't. But it will look a lot like the civil war that is being waged in Iraq today. And that one looks very much like the Lebanese civil war, the grinding, 1975-1990 conflict that left hundreds of thousands dead. To understand what the Iraqi civil war is, think Lebanon.

For a long time after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it made sense to argue that the fighting in Iraq was not a civil war, but a Sunni-led insurgency against the U.S. occupation forces and the series of transitional, interim and "permanent" puppet governments supported by those U.S. forces. For a long while, the majority of those killed in Iraq were either combatants on one side of these battle lines or another, or they were civilian "collateral damage" killed by the United States or who died in spectacular car bombings and other terrorist acts carried out by Abu Musab Al Zarqawi's religious right. That is no longer the case.

Sometime over the past 12 months -- long before the demolition of the Golden Dome in Samarra -- that balance shifted dramatically. It might truly be said that the Iraq War became the Iraqi Civil War when the number of those killed in sectarian and ethnic clashes, in death squad activity and in assassinations, torture and executions surpassed the number killed in the war between the United States and the resistance. It's hard to say exactly when this happened, but it took place last summer, at least, and it has continued to this day.

John Pace, the former United Nations human rights chief in Iraq, might have been announcing the start of the Iraqi Civil War when he declared that as many as 1,000 dead Iraqis per month were turning up in morgues with obvious signs that they had been bound and gagged, tortured and executed. Pace, whose forthright declarations have not gotten the attention they deserve, said:

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Bush is to Blame for Destroying Iraq

With Iraq perched at the very precipice of an ethnic and sectarian holocaust, the utter failure of the Bush administration's policy is revealed with starkest clarity. Iraq may or may not fall into the abyss in the next few days and weeks, but what is no longer in doubt is who is to blame: If Iraq is engulfed in civil war then Americans, Iraqis and the international community must hold President Bush and Vice President Cheney responsible for the destruction of Iraq.

The CIA, the State Department, members of Congress and countless Middle East experts warned Bush and Cheney -- to no avail -- that toppling Saddam could unleash the demons of civil war. They said so before, during and in the aftermath of the war, and each time the warnings were dismissed. Those warnings came from people like Paul Pillar, the CIA veteran who served as the U.S. intelligence community's chief Middle East analyst; from Wayne White, the State Department's chief intelligence analyst on Iraq; and from two CIA Baghdad station chiefs who were purged for their analysis. Pillar, who wrote this month in Foreign Affairs that prewar intelligence on Iraq was distorted by the Bush-Cheney team, is being excoriated by the right.

For the most radical-right neoconservative Jacobins amongst the Bush-Cheney team, the possibility that Iraq might fall apart wasn't even alarming: They just didn't care, and in their obsessive zeal to overthrow Saddam Hussein they were more than willing to take the risk. David Wurmser, who migrated from the Israeli-connected Washington Institute on Near East Policy to the American Enterprise Institute to the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans to John Bolton's arms control shop at the State Department to Dick Cheney's shadow National Security Council in the office of the vice president from 2001 to 2006, wrote during the 1990s that Iraq after Saddam was likely to descend into violent tribal, ethnic and sectarian war.

In a paper for an Israeli think tank, the same think tank for which Wurmser, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith prepared the famous "Clean Break" paper in 1996, Wurmser wrote in 1997: "The residual unity of the nation is an illusion projected by the extreme repression of the state." After Saddam, Iraq would "be ripped apart by the politics of warlords, tribes, clans, sects and key families," he wrote. "Underneath facades of unity enforced by state repression, [Iraq's] politics is defined primarily by tribalism, sectarianism and gang/clan-like competition." Yet Wurmser explicitly urged the United States and Israel to "expedite" such a collapse. "The issue here is whether the West and Israel can construct a strategy for limiting and expediting the chaotic collapse that will ensue in order to move on to the task of creating a better circumstance."

Such black neoconservative fantasies -- which view the Middle East as a chessboard on which they can move the pieces at will -- have now come home to roost. For the many hundreds of thousands who might die in an Iraqi civil war, the consequences are all too real.

The bankruptcy of the Bush-Cheney Iraq policy is revealed in the fact that the United States has succeeded in pitting itself now against two major "resistance" groups in Iraq. The first is the Sunni-led, mostly Baathist and military resistance, which has battled U.S. forces in Baghdad and the so-called Sunni triangle to the north and west. The second, which is growing in the ferocity of its anti-Americanism, is the Shiite religious force led by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Moqtada Al Sadr's Mahdi Army and their allies, who have begun routinely to denounce the United States for its opposition to their plans to create a Shiite-dominated, Iranian-allied Islamic Republic of Iraq. Abdel Aziz Al Hakim, SCIRI's chieftain and former commander of its Badr Brigade paramilitary force, has all but declared war on the United States, blaming Ambassador Khalilzad for giving a "green light" to the bombers by insisting that Shiite militias be disarmed. Proclaimed Hakim:

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End Of The Road Map

Hamas' shocking, but not surprising, victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections on Jan. 25 is a disaster -- for the peace process, and for the Palestinians.

It is indeed a shock. But it is not a surprise, because the strength of political Islam in the region is growing nearly everywhere -- from Iraq, whose government is controlled by three Shiite fundamentalist parties, to Egypt, where the fanatical Muslim Brotherhood made huge gains in elections in 2005 -- and because Hamas was able to capitalize on anger, bitterness and frustration among Palestinians disenchanted with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

But it's a disaster, above all, for the Palestinians themselves. It's the equivalent of an election in the United States in which voters went to the polls and elected the Rev. Pat Robertson president. If the Christian right is bad for America -- not because they are terrorists, but because their anti-abortion, anti-evolution, anti-gay, prayer-in-schools philosophy is so abhorrent -- then the Islamic right is bad for Palestine. This is not because Hamas is a terrorist movement, which it is. The Islamic right is bad because its slogans -- "the Koran is our constitution" and "Islam is the solution" -- are incompatible with a complex, 21st-century society, and because Hamas' vision for society is a benighted, medieval one.

The most obvious effect of the Hamas win will be its aftershock in Israel, which goes to the polls in March. The victory by Hamas will strengthen the Israeli far-right, weaken pro-peace centrists and put the Israeli left and the Labour Party on the defensive. The most likely beneficiary in Israel will be Richard Perle's favorite Israeli politician, Bibi Netanyahu, whose Likud bloc is likely to gain. The Ariel Sharon-founded centrist bloc will be pulled to the right, and most Israeli voters will react to Hamas' victory by seeking the protection of strongmen, not peaceniks. So polarization will intensify dramatically between Israel and the PA. The consequences are incalculable. And they will be regional, not confined to Palestine and Israel. Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and beyond will feel the effects of the Hamas earthquake.

Does the Hamas vote indicate that Palestinian voters have suddenly become religious extremists? Certainly not. Like the Christian right in the United States, the Islamic right in Palestine has a core support bloc -- but it is far smaller than the 58 percent of the total seats secured by Hamas. Many Palestinians voted for Hamas because they believed that the PA had failed to deliver social and economic benefits or to make progress toward peace. Or because Fatah, since the death of Yasser Arafat, seemed divided and rudderless. Or because the Palestinian old guard was hopelessly corrupt. Whatever the reasons, however, the vote for Hamas empowers a dangerously radical movement.

It's important to note, as detailed in my book, Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam , that Israel has only itself to blame for the emergence of Hamas. After 1967, when Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank, the Israeli authorities encouraged the growth of Islamism as a counter to Palestinian nationalism and the PLO. In 1967, Israel freed Ahmed Yassin, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who founded Hamas in 1978-88, and they encouraged the Islamic right and the Brotherhood to take control of mosques and student groups. In 1977-78, the Israeli government of Menachem Begin's Likud officially licensed Yassin's Islamic movement and gave it official Israeli blessing. Throughout the 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood fought pitched battles against the PLO. In an interview not long before he died, Arafat said: "Hamas is a creature of Israel," and he quoted slain Israeli Prime Minister Rabin as having told him that Israeli support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood was a "fatal error." Several U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials told me about Israel's support for Yassin and the Brotherhood, and Chas Freeman, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told me bluntly: "Israel started Hamas."

In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood had always been an enemy of Arab and Palestinian nationalism. Twice, Brotherhood assassins tried to kill Egypt's President Nasser, and in 1970 the Muslim Brotherhood sided with King Hussein in the civil war against the PLO that came to be known as "Black September."

For the Bush administration, Hamas' victory ought to be a cautionary tale about the dangers inherent in a too-rapid push for democracy. Already, the effects of instant, U.S.-imposed democracy in Iraq are daunting. True democracy requires a set of political institutions, nongovernmental organizations, media and universities dedicated toward supporting a democratic form of government. Overnight elections can't do the trick. The authoritarian military regimes in Egypt and Syria and the monarchies in Jordan and Saudi Arabia could easily fall to Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamist forces if pushed too far, too fast toward elections.

Having started Hamas in the first place, various Israeli governments since the late 1980s, through two intifadas, have been struggling to cope with their deformed offspring. Yet through the dozens of suicide bombings targeting civilians perpetrated by Hamas, and through all the Israeli assassinations of Hamas leaders (including Yassin), both Israeli and Palestinian extremists and revanchist demagogues have fed off each other. Each now strengthens the other.

In the aftermath of the election, many voices have been raised suggesting that Hamas may opt for a pragmatic policy rather than seek confrontation with Israel -- if, indeed, Israel gives it that chance. There is no guarantee that Hamas will do so. Its leaders are as fanatical and as dangerously unpredictable as their counterparts on the Israeli far right. Although it is true that the PLO under Arafat migrated from demanding the elimination of Israel to accepting a two-state solution, the PLO was ultimately a nationalist group for whom a state, even a smaller one on the West Bank and in Gaza, satisfied one of its principal political goals. But Hamas has never had nationalist goals. Its goal is not the creation of Palestine, but the establishment of a caliphate and the restoration of pure, 7th-century Islam throughout the Muslim world. Its struggle with Israel is only a stepping stone toward that larger goal.

President Bush must tread carefully. After initial bluster about never meeting or dealing with Hamas, both the United States and Israel will have to deal with the unsettling new reality on the ground. Just as most Arabs eventually came to grips with the notion that Israel exists, the Israelis (and the United States) have no choice other than to recognize the reality of Hamas. It is in the American interests, the Israeli interest, and the interests of the Palestinians themselves that Hamas be weakened. Yet that can only come not via confrontation but by lowering the political temperature and choosing dialogue over war.

Is A Civil War in Iraq Inevitable?

There's no one left to put Humpty Dumpty together again in Baghdad. Zalmay Khalilzad, America's feckless ambassador in Iraq, is trying. But, unwilling or unable to reach out to the Iraqi resistance, Khalilzad instead finds himself immersed instead in gooey egg mass. The Iraqi body politic is shattered, with little hope now of avoiding an all-out civil war. That's the only conclusion that can be reached by looking at the results of the Dec. 15 elections in Iraq, whose official returns were announced on Friday.

Those results gave the Shiite religious bloc 128 seats out of 275. Their junior partners, the two Kurdish warlord parties, got 53. The religious Sunnis got 44, the secular Sunni parties got 11, and Iyad Allawi's non-ethnic, secular alliance got 25. So the coalition of Shiite fundamentalists and Kurdish warlords controls 181 seats, at least, just a few votes shy of the two-thirds majority needed to form a government. Let's look at the bad news, item by item.

First, the Arab League's peace initiative for Iraq is dead. It was, I've written, perhaps the last best hope for holding Iraq together and avoiding an ethnic-sectarian war. The effort began last fall, when Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan organized an initiative to hold talks between Iraq's Shiite-Kurdish government, the Sunni-led opposition, and the resistance. Scheduled for Cairo last November, the first meeting failed when the two fundamentalist Shiite parties, Al Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said that they would not talk to the insurgents, whom they describe as "terrorists." (That word, in fact, is increasingly used by SCIRI and Al Dawa to refer to all Sunnis in Iraq, not just to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi's Al Qaeda or even to the Baathist-military resistance.)

In December, I wrote for that the Arab League effort would collapse if the SCIRI-Dawa forces, augmented by the fanatical Mahdi Army of Muqtada Sadr, won big in the elections. They did, winning nearly half of the seats in the new parliament. So, no surprise: on Saturday, Iraq's foreign minister, a Kurd, announced that the scheduled Arab League follow up meeting in February, which had been dubbed a National Accord Conference, would not be held.

Second, the notion that Iraq can form a "national unity government" now, led by the SCIRI-Dawa-Mahdi Army coalition, is beyond absurd. Khalilzad, described by The New York Times, as the "unabashedly hands-on U.S. ambassador," is pushing hard for the inclusion of some docile Sunnis in the new government. "The advice of Zal, as he is known here, will not be subtle," says the Times , hopefully. And listen to the pathetically naïve musings of a "senior U.S. official" in Iraq, quoted by Reuters:

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The Path To Peace

Something is stirring in Iraq in the wake of the historic meeting last weekend in Cairo, sponsored by the League of Arab States, in which virtually all of Iraq's political factions sat down to talk at a reconciliation conference. Three important things took place at that meeting. First, primarily at the insistence of the Sunni delegates, all participants called for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, putting virtually the entire Iraqi establishment behind a call for the United States to leave Iraq; second, all participants declared in the official statement that "resistance is a legitimate right of all peoples," thus conferring near-recognition to the armed Iraqi opposition inside Iraq; and third, the meeting set a date in February to convene a second, much larger, conference that could help settle the war in Iraq diplomatically.

That is, if the Bush administration steps up to the opportunity created by the Cairo initiative. That initiative, incidentally, was supported not only by the Arab League but by Iran, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

The main task for the United States after Cairo, besides getting its force ready to pack up and leave, is to sit down face to face and talk peace with the Iraqi Baath party. Not with the malleable, quisling-like Sunnis that it has previously enticed into previous Iraqi interim governments. Not with a handful of Sunni tribal chieftains who can be bribed, cajoled, or blackmailed into joining the regime of the Shiite-religious parties. Rather the United States has to talk directly with the leaders of the Iraqi resistance. And that means the Baath.

Why is it so important to talk to the Baathists? Simply because, like it or not, the remnants of the millions-strong Baath in Iraq are the backbone of the Iraqi insurgency. That insurgency is not, chiefly, a force led either by foreigners or by radical-right Islamists like those of the Zarqawi-led Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Baath provides the generals, the officers, the platoon commanders, the intelligence experts, the makers of roadside bombs, the spies who infiltrate Iraq's government and even the U.S. occupation army (via translators, cooks and drivers). It is the Baath with the network of outside support that stretches into Syria, Jordan, the Gulf states and Yemen, and which maintains a web of ties to senior Arab government officials -- including the Arab League. During the Cairo meeting, at the insistence of the Shiite leaders, Baathists were excluded from the meeting room itself. But they were in the corridors, conducting talks with critical Iraqis who want to settle the war and get U.S. troops out.

Since the Cairo meeting, key Iraqis, including President Talabani and his security adviser, have said repeatedly that they are making contacts with resistance groups. It isn't, yet, exactly clear who these groups are, and whether or not they represent anything important. According to The New York Times, Talabani's security adviser, a general and former intelligence officer, said: "I received phone calls from different movements, different groups, some claiming they represent the resistance. They said they're ready to participate in the political process."

In his blog Informed Comment , Juan Cole reports (in far more detail than the U.S. media, naturally) that the CIA, various Arab intelligence services, some Iraqi government officials, and key segments of the Iraqi resistance -- which Cole suspects are "mostly neo-Baathist" -- met in the environment of the Cairo conference. They discussed how to isolate the Zarqawi-linked terrorists, and they put forward (as Cole reports, in translation from an Arab newspaper) four requirements:

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Death Squads and Diplomacy

A flurry of Arab diplomacy over the last few days is unfolding in a rear-guard effort to prevent the crisis in Iraq from exploding into what Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal warned last month could be a regional civil war involving not only Iraq, but all of its neighbors.

The main, and well-deserved, target of Saud's ire was the increasingly authoritarian and brutal rule of the main Iraqi Shiite parties, especially the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), whose Badr Brigade militia are terrorizing Iraq's secular, urban Shiite population and carrying out death-squad attacks against Sunnis. The attacks against the Sunnis are aimed not only at the Iraqi armed resistance but at secular, nationalist Sunni leaders and activists.

Last week, I reported on the fear of Shiite militias and death squads as reported by Aiham Al Sammarae, an Iraqi oppositionist and former minister under the interim government in 2004 who is trying to broker a deal with the Iraqi resistance. Since then, other reports have surfaced concerning the extensive violence carried out by paramilitary forces tied to SCIRI and to Al Dawa, SCIRI's partner in the Shiite religious bloc in Iraq. By now it is clear that if Tony Soprano lived in Iraq, he'd be a member of the Shiite militia. Consider the following report from CBS News:

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Reaching the Tipping Point

September 2005 could go down in history as the month in which Iraq policy finally turned around. By all indications, members of Congress returning to Capitol Hill this week will come back having heard, loud and clear, from their constituents that it's time to end the war in Iraq, victory or no. And it's not just Democrats.

"I've been hearing from a lot of folks on the Hill, from Republicans, who are worried about Iraq," says a former senior state department official. "They're calling me to ask: How long can this go on?" And when members of Congress ask, "how long," they mean: "Can it go on like this until November 2006?"

Public opinion, which began shifting decisively against the Bush administration's Iraq police one year ago, now overwhelmingly favors getting out, and clear majorities now say that the war in Iraq wasn't worth fighting in the first place.

A stunning poll from CNN and USA Today released last week asked voters: "If you could talk with President George W. Bush for 15 minutes about the situation in Iraq, what would you, personally, advise him to do?" Far and away, the answer was: Out now. Forty-one percent picked: "Pull the troops out and come home. End it." Others picked more subtle variations on the same theme: "Come up with and execute a well-thought-out exit strategy" (6 percent); "Join in and work with the United Nations" (3 percent); and "Admit to past mistakes. Apologize" (3 percent), making a total of 53 percent opposed to Bush's stubborn, stick-it-out policy. Only 18 percent picked "Finish what we started," with scattered support for other stay-the-course options.

The mainstream media, while exhibiting a fascination with Cindy Sheehan's brave posture as an outspoken anti-war activist, has not yet caught up with public opinion, either. A Sept. 1 action alert from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) took ABC News to task for its misleading interpretation of poll numbers, which it called "typical" for most media.

But the turn in public opinion is occurring not because the big media has turned against the war (they haven't), but because one by one, town by town, even in the red states, Americans are deciding that staying the course in Iraq is no longer worth the candle. And the most significant factor in the ongoing shift in opinion is the steady drumbeat of obituaries in middle America, as National Guard and reserve troops die fighting in Iraq.

John Warner, R.-Va., one of the Senate's old bulls is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and no neoconservative. As first order of business, Warned has announced plans to drag Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld onto the carpet for hearings on the mess in Iraq. Significantly, Warner warned that public opinion on Iraq is approaching the "tipping point," after which support for the war in Iraq would no longer be sustainable. "The level of concern is, I think, gradually rising," he told The New York Times. "I don't see that the Congress is going to suddenly pull back like in the days of Vietnam. It is the desire of the Congress to continue to work with and support the administration. But there is always a tipping point."

With the last shreds of Bush's credibility as president blown away by Katrina, expect momentum against the president to grow with each further U.S. casualty in Iraq and with piece of bad news about the faltering political process there. During September, the newly muscled anti-war movement will stage rallies, lobby days, and demonstrations in Washington, and Representative Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., plans to join with many other members of Congress to convene independent hearings on exiting Iraq on September 15. From September 24-26, United for Peace and Justice and other groups plan a Vietnam-style mobilization to demand U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. More than 60 members of Congress, including several Republicans, have signed on to the "Out of Iraq Caucus," which calls for the immediate development of an exit strategy.

It is, of course, still remarkable that so many Democratic politicians have yet to jump on the get-out-of-Iraq bandwagon that the public is driving down the highway. As former Sen. Gary Hart has noted, it is a sad commentary on the utter lack of conviction and sheer moral cowardice that has seized much of the Democratic Party.

My guess is that the Democrats are afraid to call for getting out of Iraq in case Iraq should magically stabilize or turn the corner sometime later this year or in 2006. Putting aside the fact that leaving Iraq is the right thing to do, it is far more likely that Iraq will get worse, moving closer to outright civil war, than it will get better.

In any case, Democratic politicians are, by and large, miles behind their constituents on the futility of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Yet with more and more Republicans starting to question the most basic assumptions about the war, with well-publicized anti-war events planned for September, and with several dozen more American body bags likely to be shipped home to small cities and towns across the United States this month, even the most thick-headed Democrat is likely to get the message.

The Scandal is Bigger Than AIPAC

Important new details of the U.S.-Israeli espionage case involving Larry Franklin, the alleged Pentagon spy, two officials of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, and an intelligence official at the Embassy of Israel emerged last week. Two AIPAC officials -- who have left the organization -- were indicted along with Franklin on charges of "communicat[ing] national defense information to persons not entitled to receive it." In plain English, if not legal-speak, that means spying.

But as the full text of the indictment makes clear, the conspiracy involved not just Franklin and the AIPAC officials, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, but at least several other Pentagon officials who played intermediary roles, at least two other Israeli officials, and one official at a "Washington, D.C. think tank." It's an old-fashioned spy story involving the passing of secret documents, hush-hush meetings and outright espionage, along with good-old-boy networking.

But the network tied to the "Franklin case" which ought to be called the "AIPAC case," since it was AIPAC that was really under investigation by the FBI -- provides an important window into a shadowy world. It is clear that by probing the details of the case, the FBI has got hold of a dangerous loose end of much larger story. By pulling on that string hard enough, the FBI and the Justice Department might just unravel that larger story, which is beginning to look more and more like it involves the same nexus of Pentagon civilians, White House functionaries, and American Enterprise Institute officials who thumped the drums for war in Iraq in 2001-2003 and who are now trying to whip up an anti-Iranian frenzy as well.

Needless to say, all of this got short shrift from the mainstream media when it was revealed last week.

The basic facts of the case have been known for a while. Lawrence Anthony Franklin, a Department of Defense official, was caught red-handed giving highly classified papers to two officials, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, of AIPAC -- in part, concerning U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iraq and the war on terrorism. But from the carefully worded indictment, it is clear that a lot more may have been going on. All in all, along with revealing tantalizing new information, the indictment raises more questions than it answers. To wit:

First, the indictment says that from "about April 1999 and continuing until on or about August 27, 2004" Franklin, Rosen and Weissman "did unlawfully, knowingly and willfully conspire" in criminal activity against the United States. So far, no one has explained what triggered an investigation that began more than six years ago. But it reveals how long the three indicted conspirators and "others, known and unknown to the Grand Jury," engaged in such criminal activity. In any case, what appeared at first to be a brief dalliance between Franklin and the two AIPAC officials now -- according to the latest indictment, at least -- spans more than five years and involves at least several other individuals, at least some of whom are known to the investigation. What triggered the investigation in 1999, and how much information has FBI surveillance, wiretaps and other investigative efforts collected?

Second, the indictment makes it absolutely clear that the investigation was aimed at AIPAC, not at Franklin. The document charges that Rosen and Weissman met repeatedly with officials from a foreign government (Israel, though not named in the indictment) beginning in 1999, to provide them with classified information. In other words, the FBI was looking into the Israel lobby, not Franklin and the Defense Department, at the start, and Franklin was simply caught up in the net when he made contact with the AIPACers. Rosen and Weissman were observed making illicit contact with several other U.S. officials between 1999 and 2004, although those officials are left unnamed (and unindicted). Might there be more to come? Who are these officials, cited merely as United States Government Official 1, USGO 2, etc.?

Third, Franklin was introduced to Rosen-Weissman when the two AIPACers "called a Department of Defense employee (DOD employee A) at the Pentagon and asked for the name of someone in OSD ISA [Office of the Secretary of Defense, International Security Affairs] with an expertise on Iran" and got Franklin's name. Who was "DOD employee A"? Was it Douglas Feith, the undersecretary for policy? Harold Rhode, the ghost-like neocon official who helped Feith assemble the secretive Office of Special Plans, where Franklin worked? The indictment doesn't say. But this reporter observed Franklin, Rhode and Michael Rubin, a former AEI official who served in the Pentagon during this period and then returned to AEI, sitting together side by side, often in the front row, at American Enterprise Institute meetings during 2002-2003. Later in the indictment, we learn that Franklin, Rosen and Weissman hobnobbed with "DOD employee B," too.

Fourth, Rosen and Weissman told Franklin that they would try to get him a job at the White House, on the National Security Council staff. Who did they talk to at the White House, if they followed through? What happened?

Fifth, the charging document refers to "Foreign Official 1," also known as FO-1, obviously referring to an Israeli embassy official or an Israeli intelligence officer. It also refers later to FO-2, FO-3, etc., meaning that other Israeli officials were involved as well. How many Israeli officials are implicated in this, and who are they?

Sixth, was AEI itself involved? The indictment says that "on or about March 13, 2003, Rosen disclosed to a senior fellow at a Washington, D.C., think tank the information relating to the classified draft internal policy document" about Iran. The indictment says that the think tank official agreed "to follow up and see what he could do." Which think tank, and who was involved?

The indictment is rich with other detail, including specific instances in which the indicted parties lied to the FBI about their activities. It describes how Franklin eventually set up a regular liaison with an Israeli official ("FO-3") and met him in Virginia "and elsewhere" to communicate U.S. secrets.

It is an important story, arguably one that has greater implications for national security than the scandal involving the churlish outing of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame. So far, at least, the media frenzy attending to the Plame affair is matched by nearly total silence about the Franklin-AIPAC affair? Can it be true that reporters are more courageous about pursuing a story that involves the White House than they are about plunging into a scandal that involves Israel, our No. 1 Middle East ally?

What Smoking Gun? Where?

We've all seen enough CSI to know that you can't ignore a smoking gun. But the media has so far pretty much ignored the so-called Downing Street memo, which implicated the Bush administration in falsifying intelligence in connection with the plan for war in Iraq. Let's try to understand why.

On the left, it's part of the catechism now that President Bush and his administration lied about the reasons for going to war against Iraq in 2003, and that they "cooked" the intelligence used to inflate the Iraqi threat. The over-baked intelligence was then used, wittingly, to justify claims that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program, vast stockpiles of chemical and biological arms, SCUD missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver them, and, of course, ties to Al Qaeda that implicated Saddam Hussein in the events of 9/11.

On the right, the catechism says the opposite: that the Bush administration went to war in good faith, that U.S. intelligence functioned without political pressure to come up with its way-off-the-mark conclusions, and that not only did the weapons exist but that we might still find them if we keep looking--in Syria, perhaps?

Only one of these catechisms has the imprimatur of truth--which is why, 26 months after the war with Iraq began, it seems more important than ever to get to the bottom of it. Unfortunately, just as the United States has given up looking for Iraqi WMD, official Washington and the media have given up trying to see which one of these catechisms is phony. The proof is the utterly blasé reaction to what seems to be a true "smoking gun": the so-called Downing Street memo, based on verbatim U.S.-British talks in 2002, in which the British calmly reported that the United States had already decided to make war on Iraq and that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

You'd think that such an important piece of evidence--which emerged in the context of the recent British elections--would explode like a thunderclap here. Yet it took 17 days, from the publication on May 1 in the London Sunday Times, before the existence of the memo was mentioned on the front page of an American newspaper--the Chicago Tribune. A few other papers, including the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, have buried stories on the inside about it--and the Post's ombudsman provided a too-little, too-late criticism of his paper's less-than-excited (and less-than-timely) coverage of the memo. And the paper of record, the New York Times, has mostly ignored it, giving it short shrift on May 20. That story, by Douglas Jehl, focused on the memo's implication that Bush had decided to go to war by early in 2002, but it nearly skipped over the most explosive part of the story--namely, that the intelligence on Iraq was being rigged.

What accounts for the media's refusal to hammer away at this story, to demand that Bush administration officials explain it, to dig deep into much more detailed British accounts surrounding it and to get British officials to comment, to ask Pentagon and CIA officials to explain it, and to put it in context? (In this case, the context is that in early 2002, the Bush administration was well on the way toward assembling a secretive team inside the Pentagon, supervised by outgoing Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, to cherry-pick facts and rumors that were used to promote war.)

First, most distressingly, the media is following the lead of the Democrats. True, John Conyers and 88 other members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a letter asking the White House about the memo, but by and large the Democrats took a pass. That's in keeping with the party's decision in 2004, during the election campaign, not to raise the issue of the Pentagon's Feith-based Office of Special Plans and the widespread reports that the intelligence on Iraq was falsified. During the campaign, John Kerry barely touched on the issue, and in the Senate, West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller--the ranking Dem on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence--decided not to make a fuss over it. Rockefeller agreed to postpone an investigation into the political use of Iraq intelligence--a code word for an inquiry into whether it was faked--until after the election in November 2004. Then, inexplicably, Rocky let Sen. Pat Roberts get away with a decision to renege on the promised investigation. So the Senate plans to do nothing.

Second, my impression is that the media have collectively gotten fatigued with the whole issue. Always sensitive to conventional wisdom, the media seems to have concluded the story of fake intelligence on Iraq is "old news." It's as if they've concluded they they've done their job, and that those Americans who choose to believe the first catechism have all the ammunition they really need, and that those who choose to believe the second don't want to hear anything more. It's a slam-dunk story: We went to war, there weren't any WMD to be found, and so let the public draw its own conclusions, the media seems to think. Not only that, but it's exhausting to dig into an old story like that, they must believe. The fact that no WMD were found in Iraq is widely known, and Americans pretty much know that the WMD rationale for war was a cover story, so why bother with the details? Why bother with trying to sort all that out? Who has the time or the energy to rehash all that now?

Third, the media have pretty much allowed their investigative skills to atrophy. The Bush administration has stone-walled inquires on the WMD fakery, the seemingly endless parade of Iraq- and 9/11-linked commissions have all avoided the topic, and the Senate Republicans have blocked any inquiry. So the media doesn't know where to go: it's as if they've forgotten how to investigate something--as if they've forgotten how to find second- and third-level folks to help assemble the story, how to background key players in the OSP and the U.S. intelligence community. And doing that gets the administration mad at you. You get snubbed by "sources." Access dries up. The administration closes ranks against you. Do we really want all that grief?

The clearest proof that this is all true is the stunning lack of editorial comment on the Downing Street memo. Where are the thundering editorials demanding that the White House explain itself? That Congress investigate? That a team of senators flies to London to look into this?

It isn't like this scandal involves something small, as if it were one more peccadillo to be added to the list of Tom DeLay's complicated transgressions. This is a basic issue of life and death, of war and peace. Upwards of 100,000 people have died because George W. Bush decided to go to war in Iraq, and $200 billion has been funneled down that black hole. Yet with each passing day, the story of how the Bush administration manipulated, falsified and lied its way to war is getting harder and harder to tell. Pretty soon, it won't be a story for CSI at all. It will be something for the "Cold Case" squad.

Bringing the War Home

Just a year after the attacks of September 11, the Pentagon finally achieved a goal it had been seeking for years: the establishment of a military command for the domestic United States. The supposed rationale for creating the US Northern Command (Northcom, in Pentagon parlance) is primarily an antiterrorist one: to use the armed forces in response to a September 11-style or even more severe attack. "It's a recognition by the Department of Defense that the world has in fact changed," says Pete Verga, a retired US Army officer who served as the first head of the Pentagon's Homeland Security Task Force. "The idea that the homeland is not a combat zone turned out not to be true."

In fact, Northcom is in some respects just an extension of a trend that has been going on for some time: the weakening of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the use of the military to enforce US laws. This trend accelerated with the passage of the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Official Act in the early 1980s, along with other laws assigning domestic tasks to the armed forces as part of the War on Drugs. Many Bush Administration officials were early Northcom supporters, among them Lewis Libby, a key player in Vice President Cheney's office, who was a member of a working group that created a study called "Defending the U.S. Homeland," published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 1999. That study suggested that the Defense Department be given responsibility for domestic antiterrorism as well as "monitoring crossings of the US border" and "protecting the perimeter of key cities."

But where supporters see the establishment of Northcom as an important part of the "war on terror," the American Civil Liberties Union calls it dangerous. "It is a major departure from the tradition of keeping the military out of law enforcement that will reverberate for decades to come," says Timothy Edgar, legislative counsel for the ACLU's Washington office. And indeed, except for the most unlikely, extreme cases, it's difficult to envision a scenario in which the military could play an effective antiterrorist role within the United States. "Last Thanksgiving [2001], outside Miami International Airport, there were National Guardsmen in a tank, as if Al Qaeda was going to roll up in a military-style assault," scoffs Gene Healy of the libertarian Cato Institute, which has monitored the increasing involvement of the military in domestic law enforcement. "It does weird things to our political culture when we start getting used to armed troops on the streets, that we find that comforting," he says. "It makes the United States start looking like we're not a democracy."

At Northcom headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, officials are busily getting things up to speed, with a first-year budget of $70 million. Its staff will soon have its full complement of 500. Agencies with permanent liaison personnel at Northcom include the FBI, CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which operates spy satellites. Northcom also has a Washington office, which provides liaison with the Justice Department and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. More than 200 people will be engaged in gathering domestic intelligence, receiving information from local and state police as well as US intelligence agencies -- reviving critics' memories of how Army intelligence units spied on civilians during the cold war.

The commander of the Northern Command is US Air Force four-star Gen. Ralph Eberhart. Tall, slender and silver-haired, with a chestful of medals, Eberhart looks like someone straight out of Central Casting. Last fall, he addressed a conference at the National Defense University in Washington, where he noted that before September 11 the idea of something like the Northern Command was a nonstarter. "It was too hard to get our minds around how to establish a regional command for North America," he said. Now that Northcom is up and running, Eberhart is resolute. "We will," he said, "do what's necessary to protect or to mitigate the situation, if something's gone down."

When I asked him about what kind of support his command could provide for US law enforcement, he cited recent experiences at the Super Bowl, the Olympics and air patrols over US cities, and he promised to try actively to engage the military in future events. "Day in and day out, we're going to be working with the [Department] of Homeland Security," he said. "If it's inside the United States, and we think we have capabilities that we think are applicable, then we will offer those." Making it clear that his unit is not just designed to bring in blankets, tents and medical supplies, he said that his command's engagement will depend on what he called "probability of kill," referring to the armed forces' ability to neutralize terrorists.

Last year, near the height of the post-September 11 homeland security frenzy, armed National Guard units took up positions at border crossings in Maine, Vermont, New York, North Dakota, Minnesota and Montana, and uniformed (but unarmed) National Guard units stood watch at other spots along the borders with Mexico and Canada. Against the advice of the National Guard Bureau itself, state leaders and members of Congress, the Defense Department placed the troops under its command, making them part of the US armed forces rather than allowing them to serve in their usual role as state-controlled militia. "We're making a presence here," Jacob Pierce, a specialist in the Army National Guard serving in Sandy Bay Township, Maine, told the Associated Press. "People look a little more intimidated when they see me."

Also last year, during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, nearly 5,000 soldiers -- including 3,100 from the Guard and 1,800 members of the regular armed forces -- surrounded the arenas, flew air patrols above the city and deployed high-tech surveillance equipment. At the time, 4,000 US soldiers were occupying Afghanistan after ousting its Taliban regime, leading Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to tell war-whooping troops in Utah: "We have more people in Utah participating in this Joint Task Force-Olympics...than we do in Afghanistan." Besides the highly visible combat air patrols, flown round the clock out of nearby Hill Air Force Base, the Pentagon put armored vehicles, snipers, military police and antiterrorism specialists on the ground, and a dozen Black Hawk helicopters in the air. "We had everything from Marines on hilltops with radar units to troops on the ground with magnetometers running security checkpoints," says a Defense Department official.

The Olympics, a high-profile public event, was blanketed with military protection because it was designated a "national security special event." But in fact, so riddled with loopholes is the Posse Comitatus tradition and law that the President can decide to deploy the armed forces and the National Guard on his own authority. "The consistent DoD view has been that the President has sufficient legal authority to use the military in the US when he determines that doing so is appropriate," says Pentagon spokesman Maj. Ted Wadsworth. That's exactly what happened after September 11, when troops took over airports and downtown intersections and flew combat air patrols over major US cities. Federalization of National Guard troops is not a new phenomenon (it was used sporadically in the civil rights era), but in the current climate it is something that could come to be regarded as routine. Pentagon officials cite the precedent of the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles after the not-guilty verdict in the trial of police officers charged with beating Rodney King. Then, nearly 10,000 members of the California National Guard were federalized on orders from President Bush, who sent an additional 4,000 Army soldiers and Marines to Los Angeles to serve as a virtual occupying army.

Verga, the former Homeland Security official, says that the Pentagon does not feel at all constrained with regard to deploying forces within the United States. "We've not come across situations where we're restricted by Posse Comitatus," he says, adding that the military's usefulness can come in many shapes and sizes. It could mean providing high-tech equipment, such as night-vision goggles, to the police, or it could mean providing local authorities with a helicopter. It could also mean simply providing additional manpower to local or state police. "Or," he says, "it could mean suppressing a riot, the kinds of things that happened in the 1960s or more recently in Los Angeles."

The specter of the military patrolling streets, making arrests and conducting house-to-house searches is exactly what civil libertarians fear. Edgar of the ACLU cites the case of José Padilla, an alleged would-be terrorist who is an American citizen, who was seized by the military and held incommunicado. "The notion that the US military could march into your home and cart you off to the brig is a frightening one," Edgar says. "Before the incarceration of Padilla, it was inconceivable." According to the ACLU, the Posse Comitatus law is so weakened now that there is very little to prevent the armed forces from carrying out arrests, setting up roadblocks and performing search-and-seizure sweeps. And the Pentagon agrees. "Whether military personnel will have the authority to detain individuals or be given arrest authority depends upon the specific facts of each case," says Wadsworth.

Still, both state officials and the Defense Department have often preferred, so far, to err on the side of caution. During the Olympics, Utah state officials fought to have the state's National Guard kept under state control. Bob Flowers, Utah's commissioner of public safety and thus responsible for the state's homeland security, who oversaw Olympic security, says that the Defense Department itself was reluctant to deploy the regular armed forces to Utah, until prodded by the White House. The issue, he says, "goes to the essence of our Constitution." The National Governors Association agrees; reflecting widespread uneasiness among state officials over the federalization of the National Guard for border duty last year, it has issued a policy paper stating its preference that the Guard be kept under state control.

Some members of Congress also question whether the involvement of the military domestically may be going too far. "We're certainly concerned about keeping a clear line between military and civilian authority," says a key Senate staffer, who adds that both Republicans and Democrats were startled by the Pentagon's decision to deploy federalized National Guard forces along the borders. Later this year, Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, plans to convene hearings to support his view that legislation may be needed to explicitly overrule the Posse Comitatus Act.

It's early in the governmentwide reorganization of homeland security, and the ultimate role of the US military is still in play. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is still taking shape, there's talk about the creation of a National Intelligence Agency and the whole alphabet soup of law enforcement and intelligence agencies is being stirred vigorously. How the domestic antiterrorism effort ultimately makes use of the armed forces, and Northcom's relationship to the FBI, the CIA and the DHS, is not yet determined. Liberals and libertarians alike can be expected to fiercely resist an expansion of the armed forces' role in domestic law enforcement, and -- just as they resisted greater involvement in the war on drugs -- the military brass hasn't shown much enthusiasm for a law enforcement role. But in the climate of fear that has gripped the country since September 2001, and particularly if (or when) there is another terrorist incident, the beachhead that American troops have set up domestically could easily become the base for a significant expansion of the military's role at home.

Robert Dreyfuss is a contributing editor of The Nation.

Apocalypse Still

Thirty-five years ago, Le Cao Dai, a Hanoi surgeon and veteran of Vietnam's post-World War II struggle against French colonialism, left his country's capital for a journey along the Ho Chi Minh trail far into what was then South Vietnam. There, under camouflage, Dai oversaw the creation of an underground field hospital for wounded and dying soldiers in the Central Highlands area around Pleiku and Kontum. From 1966 to 1974, amid some of the heaviest fighting of the war, Dai's makeshift unit was forced to relocate whenever American planes billowed clouds of Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals to defoliate forests that hid the communist insurgents. "I saw the planes spraying over the trees," he says. "We didn't know then what it was, but we knew it was some kind of chemical. When the leaves would turn yellow and disappear, we'd be forced to move to another place."Like his fellow medics and their patients, along with villagers who lived in the area, Dai had little or no protection from the spray, and even less understanding of the horrific nature of the poison wafting over them. "We used pieces of plastic to shield ourselves, and I used it to cover myself and my hammock," he says. "We could smell the chemical everywhere. After the spraying some fish were killed, and -- what did we know? -- the soldiers simply caught the fish and ate them."By the early 1970s, Dai and other Vietnamese doctors began noticing soldiers suffering from unusual illnesses: liver and other cancers, immune-deficiency diseases, severe diarrhea, and persistent malaria that resisted drug treatment. They also noticed numerous miscarriages, premature births, and birth defects -- including gross malformations -- among soldiers' children. Alarm grew in Hanoi, and Dr. Ton That Tung, who pioneered Vietnam's study of Agent Orange and its consequences, desperately tried to get Dai to send samples of diseased liver tissues to him in the capital, more than 500 miles away, for testing. "He proposed that we organize a line of runners to carry blood and tissue samples from the forest to Hanoi," Dai recalls with a rueful smile. "But he didn't know our conditions. It was not possible." To get a sample to Hanoi, says Dai, would have taken more than two months, rendering it useless.In the years since the war's end, however, the reality of America's chemical warfare in Vietnam's forests and rice paddies has slowly begun to unfold. Though thousands of American veterans of the war now receive government compensation for illnesses linked to Agent Orange, the United States has yet to accept responsibility for the devastating effects of its campaign on Vietnam. Millions, perhaps tens of millions of Vietnamese, combatants and civilians alike, were showered with Agent Orange, and then lived, worked, and breathed amid the residue of an especially virulent form of dioxin, a byproduct of one of the defoliant's chemical components. This poison, a carcinogen once described as "the most toxic molecule ever synthesized by man," infiltrated the country's water and soil, entering the food chain and accumulating in people's tissues, even passing from mother to child through breast milk. According to Vietnamese estimates, the millions of gallons of Agent Orange that soaked the southern half of Vietnam during the 1960s eventually killed or injured 400,000 people and reportedly contributed to birth defects in 500,000 children. Chillingly, its effects are still being felt, not only among older Vietnamese, whose cancers and other illnesses are often linked to Agent Orange, but among second- and third-generation children of the war, whose twisted bodies and crippled minds bear silent witness to the scourge. Indeed, new research shows that in at least one hard-hit region of southern-central Vietnam, dioxin residues are still present in the environment, in fish, and in humans -- including young Vietnamese born long after the war.Still ravaged after nearly five decades of war and strapped by a fragile economy, Vietnam has barely begun to weigh the effects of Agent Orange on its land and people. A nationwide, province-by-province census of those affected is under way, and with limited international assistance Hanoi is struggling to conduct research on wartime chemicals and to care for victims. Without making demands, Vietnam is also encouraging the United States to assume some of the burden for the legacy of Agent Orange by funding research and humanitarian aid. So far, though, Washington seems coldly indifferent to the havoc it unleashed on Vietnam, intent on ignoring it or making it go away.Today, Dai, 71, is executive director of the Agent Orange Victims Fund of the Vietnam Red Cross, which delivers medical care to Vietnamese veterans, farmers, and their affected children, provides vocational training to the disabled, and sometimes makes small loans to get people back on their feet. In addition to such practical steps, one of Dai's most poignant missions is to explain to victims that their suffering is not their fault. "There is a cycle of life, our people believe," says Dai. "Some think that what they suffer now is the result of some crime committed in the past. A former soldier may think that because he fought in the war and killed too many people, this is revenge." in quang tri province, just below the old wartime Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that marked the border between the two halves of divided Vietnam until 1975, the monsoon rains have deluged the countryside -- a pounding waterfall that washes out roads and soaks fields, filling lakes and rivers to near overflowing. Beyond a neatly tended garden, past a modest, wooden altar containing sticks of incense, is the home of Nguyen Huu Thanh, 64, a farmer who grows rice and peppers in a nearby field. A former soldier in Vietnam's revolutionary forces, Thanh served in combat from 1965 to 1976, stationed along Highway 9, a bitterly contested route running west through Quang Tri to the Laos border.Dressed in blue-and-white pajamas, his bare feet resting on the concrete floor of his small home, Thanh rises with great difficulty to greet visitors, trembling and barely able to stand. Plagued with severe and constant headaches and a debilitating disease of the nervous system, Thanh is also the father of a 22-year-old son suffering from Down's syndrome and cataracts. As baby chicks strut in and out of his home, Thanh describes seeing Agent Orange descend over his unit during the war. "It smelled like a perfume," he says. "I saw the U.S. Army scatter-spray these toxic chemicals from planes. We saw these yellow clouds, and the trees died." Like many, Thanh drank contaminated water and ate vegetables that had been coated with the herbicide. Later, doctors told him that his illness, along with his son's problems, might have been caused by his exposure to Agent Orange.In Quang Tri and throughout much of South Vietnam, from the far south and the Mekong Delta region through the Central Highlands to the DMZ, the United States sprayed nearly 20 million gallons of herbicides, including 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange, on hardwood forests, dense mangrove jungles, and vast expanses of cropland to deny cover and food to enemy forces. From 1962 to 1970, U.S. Air Force C-123s pumped out the deadly clouds, with one plane spreading up to three gallons per acre in 240-foot-wide swaths, killing all vegetation beneath. American soldiers sprayed riverbanks from boats and used handheld sprayers and trucks to treat areas surrounding hundreds of U.S. bases. Throughout it all, the Pentagon kept meticulous records of spray missions, which, when mapped now, create crisscrossed patterns of thousands of intersecting lines that blacken province after province.Agent Orange -- so called because it was shipped to Vietnam in 55-gallon drums marked with an orange stripe -- was the principal defoliant used in what the Pentagon called Operation Ranch Hand. It was a potent witches' brew that contained equal measures of two powerful chemicals, whose effectiveness had been tested at the Pentagon's War Research Service at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and field-tested first in the Florida Everglades and Puerto Rico, and later in Thailand and Vietnam. Though scientists, including 17 Nobel laureates, and organizations like the Federation of American Scientists and the American Association for the Advancement of Science had been calling for a halt to Operation Ranch Hand for years during the Vietnam conflict -- branding it "barbarous" and a dangerous precedent for biological and chemical warfare -- the U.S. military repeatedly dismissed concerns about possible health and environmental effects. Then, in 1969, scientists discovered that one of the components of Agent Orange, known by the shorthand notation 2,4,5-T, caused birth defects in laboratory animals. In December 1970, President Richard Nixon announced a halt to the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam.The following year, another study revealed that 2,4,5-T was contaminated with an unavoidable byproduct called 2,3,7,8-TCDD, an especially dangerous form of dioxin. Research began to accumulate showing that dioxins are a clear and present danger to human health, and linking them to a wide range of diseases, including cancers and birth defects. What's more, many of the 2.6 million U.S. veterans who served in Vietnam began to complain of illnesses that they traced to exposure to Agent Orange during the war. What followed in the United States is well chronicled: years of litigation against companies such as Dow Chemical and Monsanto, which manufactured Agent Orange; dozens of congressional hearings; more than $200 million in scientific research; and a class-action legal settlement that provided $180 million to more than 20,000 U.S. veterans. In the end, the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs) agreed to compensate Vietnam vets for a growing list of ailments, including Hodgkin's disease, respiratory cancers, soft tissue sarcoma, prostate cancer, and skin diseases like chloracne. More than 270,000 Vietnam veterans eventually registered with the VA's Agent Orange program. By 1998, nearly 6,000 had qualified for Agent Orange-related compensation, which provides up to $1,989 per month for affected vets and more than $5,000 per month for those severely disabled and homebound.That far exceeds the support available to former Vietnamese soldiers. Though respected by their countrymen, they get only modest help from the government, which provides up to $7 per month to disabled vets. Thanh, the ailing Quang Tri veteran, sits erect and with great pride dons his wartime uniform, watching as his wife pins on his chest a series of medals earned during the fighting. Asked about his attitude toward the United States now, Thanh says, "The war is over. Peace is here. But I want to tell the American people that our lives are very difficult, and we need help to work, to live."Though Vietnam believes that hundreds of thousands of its citizens are victims of Agent Orange, remarkably little has been proved with scientific certainty about the consequences of America's chemical warfare in the 1960s. Unable to devote sufficient resources to research, and lacking laboratory technology required to study minute levels of dioxin contamination, Vietnam is well aware of its inability to quantify the problem with precision.The landscape itself indicates the extent of the danger. Large areas of Vietnam were stripped bare of vegetation, and as much as half of the country's mangrove forests were wiped out. In the hills west of Quang Tri and its provincial capital, Dong Ha, only scrub brush grows today where thriving, triple-canopy rainforests once stood. Thousands of American servicemen were harmed after remaining in these dioxin-drenched hills for only a year, even though they ate processed foods and drank purified water. Millions of Vietnamese have been trapped for decades in an environment thoroughly polluted with the poisons. "It's the largest contamination of dioxin in the world," says Dr. Arnold Schecter, a University of Texas researcher who has made 16 visits to Vietnam since 1984. "In the last 10 years, evidence keeps building each year that the dioxin from Agent Orange has caused a large number of health effects."Still, finding the resources to prove cause and effect has proved impossible for Vietnam. No one knows more about the limitations of research into Agent Orange than professor Hoang Dinh Cau. As chairman of the National Committee for Investigation of the Consequences of Chemicals Used in the Vietnam War, Cau admits that in the immediate aftermath of the war, the country was preoccupied with survival. "We had a lot to do, so this issue did not get much attention," he says. "We did not have a budget for this research, and there was very little international help." The 10-80 Committee, as Cau's group was dubbed after its founding in October 1980, organized two major international conferences on Agent Orange. Cau defends Vietnam against critics -- including the U.S. State Department -- who disparage how his country has handled the issue. "We are trying to conduct research in the most adequate and honest way we can," he says.Vietnam's health care system is chaotic, and recordkeeping has been almost nonexistent, especially during the 1970s and '80s. "We have not had a system to register people with particular diseases," says Dr. Pham Hoang Phiet, an immunology specialist at Ho Chi Minh City's medical school who has studied Agent Orange for two decades. "We know the effects of Agent Orange, but how to prove them is very, very difficult."Time is also working against researchers. The chemicals are disappearing little by little, washed out to sea by monsoons and tides -- making it increasingly difficult to document the effects of spraying that occurred decades before. Given the lack of data and the vanishing traces of Agent Orange in blood and tissue samples, Phiet says, it may be too late to develop convincing scientific evidence to link diseases to Operation Ranch Hand. "At this point, I think it may be impossible," he sighs.Schecter, who knows more than perhaps any other Western scientist about the problem of Agent Orange in Vietnam, has conducted numerous studies, often under trying circumstances. He has battled Vietnam's bureaucracy, fought to win foundation and other funding for his work, and struggled under field conditions -- from undependable transportation systems to failing electricity to a lack of dry ice for storing frozen specimens -- that make research next to impossible. "The Vietnamese are to be commended for doing some very clever studies," says Schecter. "But not at a level that could be published in scientific journals."Five years ago, Schecter, Le Cao Dai of the Red Cross, and others published a landmark study in the American Journal of Public Health showing conclusively that high levels of dioxin contamination persist in the blood, tissue, and breast milk of Vietnamese living in sprayed areas. The study, wrote the researchers, "clearly document[s] elevated levels of 2,3,7,8-TCDD, the only dioxin contaminant of Agent Orange, at much higher levels in persons living in areas sprayed in southern Vietnam." Levels of TCDD found in fatty tissues, the study found, ranged from a mean of 14.7 parts per trillion (ppt) to a high of 103 ppt among southern Vietnamese, compared to a minuscule 0.6 ppt among those in unsprayed areas of the north."There's no doubt that TCDD is a known carcinogen," says Schecter. He adds that the compound has also been linked to immune deficiency, birth defects, nervous-system disorders, disruption of the endocrine system, liver damage, blood diseases, and skin problems.But it was a study produced last year by a Canadian environmental firm, Hatfield Consultants, and the Vietnamese government that focused international attention on the extent of the contamination. Going deep into the area around the Ho Chi Minh trail south of Quang Tri province, in the A Luoi valley, Hatfield took extensive samples from soil, water, animals, and people, and tested for minute concentrations of TCDD. The researchers found "a consistent pattern of food-chain contamination by Agent Orange the air base area, which included soils, fishpond sediment, cultured fish, ducks, and humans." They also found relatively high concentrations not only among older people, who might have been exposed to Agent Orange during the war, but among the young. "People living in this isolated region who were born after the war also possessed high dioxin levels...indicating a continuing process of dioxin uptake caused by contamination of the food chain," Hatfield reported."Concentrations of dioxin are high particularly around the perimeter of a former U.S. base we studied," says David Levy, a Hatfield ecologist who was part of the team that conducted the research. "And if you disturb the soil, you create a mechanism where those contaminants could reenter the food chain."Like the Vietnamese, Hatfield ran up against one of the major factors limiting serious research into dioxin contamination: its enormous expense. Testing a single soil or tissue sample for tiny traces of Agent Orange dioxin can cost between $600 and $1,000, and to perform a single study might require hundreds or even thousands of such samples. "Our constraint is purely financial, measuring ultratraces of contamination in parts per trillion," says Levy. "For Vietnam, to do a nationwide assessment would cost millions of dollars."If tracing the illnesses of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians to Agent Orange is difficult, linking the chemical to the thousands of children born with defects after their parents were subjected to TCDD has proved even more daunting. Nevertheless, the most reliable evidence strongly suggests that the children of the war are suffering from secondhand exposure to the toxin. The United States has acknowledged such a link among the children of American veterans; in 1996, the VA added the birth defect spina bifida to its list of health problems eligible for government compensation. In the United States, intensive research is continuing over a lengthy list of other birth defects that may have been caused by Agent Orange.Even with the limitations on research in Vietnam, there are strong indications that exposure to dioxin led to a significant increase in serious birth defects. According to data provided by Le Cao Dai of the Red Cross, surveys of Vietnamese soldiers show that more than five percent of the children fathered by veterans who were heavily exposed to Agent Orange were born with birth defects, compared to only one percent for soldiers who remained in North Vietnam and avoided exposure. Many Western scientists question the methodology of such studies, but for the Vietnamese they are good enough. "Myself, I have no doubt," says Dai.Nowhere are the practical problems associated with the high cost of such tests more evident than in a suburb of Hanoi, where Nguyen Quang Que, 52, sits quietly with his family in a tiny home. Outside, ducks and water buffalo roam free. On a small bamboo cot in the middle of the family's living quarters, Que's daughter, 20, a victim of cerebral palsy, writhes painfully, uttering incoherent cries, her limbs and fingers bent and tangled at odd angles, unable to perform even the most basic bodily functions on her own. Que, a nine-year veteran of the war, was repeatedly exposed to Agent Orange while passing through heavily sprayed zones during the fighting. Afterward, beginning in 1974, three of Que's children died at birth, and the fourth developed her catastrophic disabilities."She now has a vegetative life," says Dai. When I ask whether Que and his wife, Thien, have ever been tested for dioxin residues, Dai gazes softly at me for a moment. "To test this family would cost $1,000 each," he says quietly. "If we had that money, wouldn't it be better to give it to the family?"For the State Department, the question of how to respond to Vietnam's concerns over Agent Orange is an explosive one -- especially for the U.S. embassy in Hanoi, which handles Agent Orange inquiries as if they were poison. "It's a very, very sensitive issue," says Scott Weinhold, spokesman for U.S. ambassador Pete Peterson. The embassy refused to set up an interview with its science and technology officer, Mike Eiland, insisting that all inquiries be submitted in writing and all statements be approved by Washington. When Mother Jones submitted eight detailed questions, the embassy issued a terse, two-sentence response saying merely that the United States "believes the Agent Orange issue should be addressed on a scientific basis."Reached earlier by telephone, Eiland downplayed the issue rather than addressing it. "I don't want to say that it's a distraction, but Agent Orange is not at the top of our list," he said. He suggested that Mother Jones drop the story in favor of reporting about U.S. soldiers still missing in action in Vietnam or about the ongoing U.S.-Vietnam trade talks.In Washington, a State Department official speaking on background was far more frank. Asked whether Vietnam has raised the issue of compensation for Agent Orange victims in private talks with the United States, the official sighed audibly before adding, "Ohhhh, yes. They have. But for us there is real concern that if we start down the road of research, what does that portend for liability-type issues further on?" So far, no U.S. agency, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, has launched any program to deal with Agent Orange in Vietnam. Even the Environmental Protection Agency is steering clear of the issue. "We're not involved with Agent Orange," says Sarita Hoyt, who led an EPA mission to Vietnam last year. "It's a very controversial issue."The United States also appears to be encouraging its allies not to support Vietnam on Agent Orange. John Geoghegan, who heads the Hanoi office of the International Federation of the Red Cross, recalls a fundraising swing that he made to European embassies in Vietnam recently, asking for help to start a program for victims of Agent Orange. "I've knocked on the doors of so many embassies here," he says, "but everyone says that they can't help because they don't want to offend the United States."Chuck Searcy, who represents the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF) in Hanoi, has followed the Agent Orange controversy for years. "I am absolutely convinced that the United States will hunker down for a hundred years before they admit any guilt or liability over Agent Orange," he says. Searcy has also heard reports of spills of Agent Orange at former U.S. bases where as many as 7,500 gallons simply disappeared into the ground.According to Searcy, U.S. ambassador Pete Peterson is highly attuned to the sensitivity of the Agent Orange issue. Not long ago, Searcy says, a U.S. official from Washington toured Quang Tri and met with some of the people believed to be victims of Agent Orange. But when Searcy mentioned the official's visit, Peterson expressed a concern for the messenger that indicated the danger of the message. Searcy recalls the ambassador responding, "That guy better watch what he says, or he will be out of a job."Vietnam certainly has its own reasons to avoid pushing the issue too aggressively. Given the decades of war and mutual suspicion between Washington and Hanoi, it's not surprising that many Vietnamese don't trust the United States, and those feelings are complicated by Vietnam's worries that tourism and food exports could suffer if the world perceives that Vietnam is widely contaminated with TCDD. For that reason, Vietnamese officials are at pains to emphasize that the dioxin contamination has largely dissipated in most areas of the country. Hanoi also deals gingerly with the Agent Orange issue because it places a high priority on commercial ties with the United States and on advancing trade talks.In fact, the chemicals are gradually disappearing, making it harder to pinpoint the extent of the catastrophe. U.S. veterans groups urgently want the United States to fund research in Vietnam before it's too late, in the hope that findings there might shed light on diseases suffered by Americans who served in the war. To that end, several members of Congress, led by Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.), are pressing the federal government to allocate $1.5 million for research in Vietnam.Yet even if tens of millions of dollars were devoted to studying the issue, research represents a double-edged sword for Vietnam. For an American government intent on avoiding responsibility for the damage it caused, additional studies -- which could take years to complete -- would enable Washington to do nothing while awaiting the results. For Vietnam, the dire need is not for research, but for financial help for those affected.Outside Hanoi, at the Vietnam Veterans Association Friendship Village, one of approximately a dozen facilities the country has set up to care for veterans and children injured by Agent Orange, aid workers have no doubts about America's responsibility. "We've gotten suggestions that maybe we should file a lawsuit about Agent Orange, but our perception is different," says Nguyen Khai Hung, director of the village. "We do not blame the companies, because they produced Agent Orange under the orders of the U.S. government. It was the government that gave the order to spray the chemical, and it is the government that has to be responsible."In a small room at Friendship Village, perhaps three dozen children are gathered. Their disabilities range from mild retardation to severe physical deformity, but they smile and clap as they sing a song before dispersing for a lunch of rice, vegetables, and meat. With a staff of 21 people, including doctors, nurses, teachers, physical therapists, and support staff, the village cares for some 70 children and 30 veterans at a time. This year, Hung says, the village will spend 500 million Vietnamese dong -- about $36,000 -- for everything: salaries, food, upkeep.If there is any silver lining to the Agent Orange disaster, it starts with the clouds that bring monsoon rains to Vietnam.Water, in Vietnam, is everywhere. Viewed from the air over Hue, the former imperial capital that is now in ruins, thousands of bomb craters filled with water dot the beaches and tidal flats along the coast, appearing like countless, perfectly circular mirrors reflecting Vietnam's violent past. Two thousand Vietnamese rivers carry nearly a trillion cubic meters of water to the sea every year, fed by rains that in some parts of the country total an astonishing 10 feet a year. For 30 seasons, great cleansing rainfalls have deluged Vietnam's green-lit, inland mountains and coastal plains, washing more and more of the war's poisons from the scarred battlefields of Khe Sanh and Pleiku and flushing them into the vast South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean beyond."The tides in Vietnam are very powerful," says Dai of the Red Cross, "sometimes filling rivers up to 40 to 60 kilometers inland and then pulling waste matter out to sea." All of this, over time, has helped the country purge itself of Agent Orange dioxin.Yet all the water in the world can't cleanse the bodies of Vietnamese already sickened by the toxin. For them, Vietnam's burden begins with medical care and rehabilitation. Next comes educating people in dioxin-contaminated areas about steps they can take to protect themselves. In some areas, that means fencing off hot spots or cleaning them up. Cleanup, however, may be next to impossible if it is found that large areas of southern Vietnam are still dangerous to humans. "You can't dig up and steam clean a hundred billion tons of dirt," says Searcy of the VVAF."The United States must help," insists Dai. "The children being born now with birth defects did not fight the United States. But they are suffering."

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