The Independent UK

Lifting the Driving Ban: Saudi Arabia's Glitzy Stunt

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a media-savvy man, and he has just pressed the button he knew would make headlines: Saudi women will be able to drive for the first time in the history of the kingdom. And the act begat the headlines and the headlines begat a tweet from the President of the United States who himself begat a $110bn arms contract with the Saudis three months ago. And so it came to pass. For 24 hours, the world was told about the lifting of the driving ban rather than the chopping-off of heads, the arrest of human rights activists and the horrific war in Yemen.

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Flint Water Crisis: More Than 8,000 Residents at Risk of Losing Homes After Refusing to Pay for Poisoned Water

More than 8,000 people in Flint have been told they could lose both their water supply and even their homes, if they continue to refuse to pay bills for polluted water provided by the Michigan city.

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I'm on the Kill List: What It Feels Like to Be Hunted by Drones

I am in the strange position of knowing that I am on the ‘Kill List’. I know this because I have been told, and I know because I have been targeted for death over and over again. Four times missiles have been fired at me. I am extraordinarily fortunate to be alive.

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Five Myths About What You Should and Shouldn't Eat

Packets emblazoned with fruit and vegetables, promising foodthat is low in fat or free from the latest diet enemy can make their contents seem like the healthiest choice, but that isnot always the case.

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Saudi Arabia Bombing Civilian Targets in Yemen Is Helping Grow BAE Systems Sales, Says Amnesty International

Saudi Arabia’s potentially illegal bombing of civilian targets in Yemen, currently being investigated by the United Nations, is helping to grow sales of fighter aircraft made by BAE Systems, according to Amnesty International. 

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Science Determines Men Don't Like Women Who Are Smarter Than They Are

Men are attracted to the idea of dating intelligent women—but they don't actually like the reality of it.

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2015 Will Be the Hottest Year on Record

Climate scientists are predicting that 2015 will be the hottest year on record “by a mile”, with the increase in worldwide average temperatures dramatically undermining the idea that global warming has stopped — as some climate-change sceptics claim.

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Stop Counting Calories and Take on This High Fat Diet, Say Experts

People should stop counting calories and instead focus on the kind of food they are eating to improve their health and cut risk of heart attack, stroke and other health problems, a group of experts have said, advocating a high-fat Mediterranean-style diet.

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The Two Questions That Could Determine If You Have an Alcohol Problem

‘How often do you have six or more drinks on one occasion?’ and ‘as a result of your drinking or drug use, did anything happen in the last year that you wish didn’t happen?’ are the two enquiries a GP could make to detect hidden alcohol abuse, it claims.

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Evidence of Chemical Attack Seems Compelling - But Remember There's a Propaganda War Going On

Pictures showing that the Syrian army used chemical weapons against rebel-held Eastern Ghouta just east of Damascus are graphic and moving. But they are likely to be viewed sceptically because the claims so much resemble those made about Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) before the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nevertheless, the present claim differs from previous ones in the number of dead, variously put at between 213 and 1,360 and the quantity of YouTube evidence of the dead and dying supported by interviews with local activists.

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How Israel Takes Its Revenge on Children Suspected of Throwing Stones

The boy, small and frail, is struggling to stay awake. His head lolls to the side, at one point slumping on to his chest. "Lift up your head! Lift it up!" shouts one of his interrogators, slapping him. But the boy by now is past caring, for he has been awake for at least 12 hours since he was separated at gunpoint from his parents at two that morning. "I wish you'd let me go," the boy whimpers, "just so I can get some sleep."

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The Turning Point We Miss at Our Own Peril

Sometimes there are turning-points in history – moments when we have to choose between an exuberant descent into lunacy, and a still, sober voice offering us a sane way out.

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How Crying Can Make You Healthier

It makes nine out of 10 people feel better, reduces stress, and may help to keep the body healthy. It's also free, available to almost everyone, and has no known side effects, other than wet tissues, red eyes and runny makeup. Crying may not be a blockbuster drug, but the latest research suggests it's highly effective at healing, and that it improves the mood of 88.8 per cent of weepers, with only 8.4 per cent feeling worse. So beneficial is it that the researchers suggest there may be a case for inducing crying in those who find it difficult to let go.

But while almost all of us shed emotional tears at some time -- at least 47 times a year for women, and seven for men -- exactly why we cry, and much about what happens when we do, remains a mystery. For crying, a uniquely human form of emotional expression, to have survived evolution, it should have a practical purpose and give some kind of survival advantage. Laughter and anger are both well known to have advantages. Laughter, for example, has been shown to promote healing, increase blood flow, reduce levels of stress hormones, boost the immune system and produce more disease-fighting compounds.

But what of crying? Emotional tears come from the same tear glands that produce the fluid that forms a protective film over the eyeballs to keep them free of irritants, and which also releases extra fluid when the eye becomes irritated, or is invaded by a foreign body.

A clue to the purpose of crying may lie in the experimental finding that emotional tears contain different compounds from regular eye watering, such as that triggered by chopping onions.

The phenomenon supports the so-called recovery theory, that emotional tears, and their contents, may be a way of getting the body back in balance after a stressful event. "I have suggested that we may feel better after crying because we are literally crying it out. Chemicals that build up during emotional stress may be removed in our tears when we cry,'' says William Frey, professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Minnesota. "Because unalleviated stress can increase our risk for heart attack and damage certain areas of our brain, the human ability to cry has survival value.''

Other evidence backs up the theory. It's been shown that tears associated with emotion have higher levels of some proteins, and of manganese and potassium, and hormones, including prolactin than mere eye watering. Manganese is an essential nutrient, and too little can lead to slowed blood clotting, skin problems, and lowered cholesterol levels. Too much can also cause health problems. Potassium is involved in nerve working, muscle control and blood pressure.

Prolactin is a hormone involved in stress and plays a role in the immune system and other body functions. Its involvement in tears may help to explain why women cry more than men. Women have more prolactin than men, and levels rise during pregnancy, when the frequency of crying among women also increases.

There have also been some claims that crying can reduce pain, although there has been little research into this area. The phenomenon, if verified, may be an indirect effect -- in that crying may trigger physical contact with another individual and touch has been linked to improved wellbeing.

A counter theory is that crying doesn't so much help the body recover from whatever triggered the tears, but that it increases arousal to encourage behaviours to see off the threat. In support of this theory, some research shows that skin sensitivity increases during and after crying, and that breathing deepens. Some argue that crying could perform both these functions: "It is possible that crying is both an arousing distress signal and a means to restore psychological and physiological balance," say researchers at the University of South Florida. Others suggest that emotional tears signal distress and encourage group behaviour, as well as improve social support and inhibit aggression.

A study at Tilburg University in The Netherlands shows that both men and women would give more emotional support to someone who was crying, although they judged less positively someone who wept. Another study showed men were liked best when they cried and women when they did not. "Overall, results support the theory that crying is an attachment behaviour designed to elicit help from others,'' say the Dutch researchers.

In the latest study, at the University of South Florida, researchers found that almost everyone feels better after a cry and that personality has a big effect on how often we cry. Neurotics were more frequent criers and were more easily and quickly moved to tears. The American researchers suggest that the beneficial effects of crying may make induced weeping a useful therapy for some people. In, particular, they propose that it may be suitable for people who have difficulty expressing their emotions.

"The overwhelming majority of our participants reported mood improvement after crying,'' they say. "Our results may have also implications for clinical interventions. Currently there is only anecdotal evidence that learning how to cry and how to derive positive effects from it could help people who are having difficulty expressing sadness or crying.

"Our findings support the idea that people with alexithymic [a deficiency in feeling emotions] or anhedonic [the inability to derive pleasure from pleasurable experiences] tenden-cies may profit from therapeutic interventions that encourage crying.''

Like other researchers, the Florida psychologists suggest more work is needed to understand the origins, nature, and function of crying. New research is under way, including teams of brain mappers using scans to locate the areas of the brain involved in crying. Some of it supports the recovery theory, while other work backs up the arousal idea. More support has also been shown for the social role of crying.

Some studies are giving intriguing new insights into shedding tears. When researchers at Bunka Women's University and Nagano College in Japan, set out to investigate what they call the passive facial feedback hypothesis, they produced a surprise finding. In an experiment, they simulated the experience of tears by dropping 0.2 ml of water on to the tear duct of both eyes. They report that 53.8 per cent of the 100 or so men and women felt sad when the water ran down their cheek, compared with 28.6 per cent who were cheerful.

The increasing research into crying and its beneficial health effects may also make shedding tears less of a taboo behaviour. As Professor Frey, author of Crying: the Mystery of tears, points out, it is no accident that crying has survived evolutionary pressures. Humans are the only animals to evolve this ability to shed tears in response to emotional stress, and it is likely that crying survived the pressures of natural selection because it has some survival value,'' he says. "It is one of the things that makes us human.''

Not a dry eye: Weeping by numbers

20% of bouts of crying last longer than 30 minutes

8% go on for longer than one hour

70% of criers make no attempt to hide their crying

77% of crying takes place at home

15% at work or in the car

40% of people weep alone

39% of crying occurs in the evening, the most popular time compared with morning, afternoon, and night (16, 29 and 17 per cent respectively)

6-8pm is the most common time for crying

88.8% feel better after a cry

47: average number of times a woman cries each year

7: annual number of crying episodes for a man

Sob story: The science of tears

Three types of tear are produced by the lachrymal gland above the eye.

Continuous or basal tears, produced to keep the eye surface permanently moist and protected contain water, lipids or fats and proteins. They also contain compounds that protect against infections. Each blink of the eyelid spreads tears.

Reflex tears have a similar make-up and are a reaction to irritants or foreign objects.

Emotional tears have a different make-up including enkephalin, an endorphin and natural painkiller.

"Emotional tears contain higher concentrations of proteins, manganese, and the hormone prolactin which is produced during stress-induced danger or arousal,'' says Dr Carrie Lane of the University of Texas .

A question of sex: Why big boys boo hoo

* While women cry more than men, tearful males are becoming increasingly acceptable in society.

* A moist eye, perhaps a tear or two, at the right time, and in the right place, are now viewed more kindly, say researchers.

* Until relatively recently, crying was associated with sensitive, weak men, while now it is linked to strong, powerful men. One theory is that a driving force behind the change has been powerful and emotional events such as 9/11.

* Norms for men and crying are changing. Certain types of expressions that were proscribed for men are now becoming more acceptable. "It may be that certain types of tears are no longer associated with powerlessness, and thus no longer conflict with assertions of masculinity,'' says Professor Stephanie Shields of Pennsylvania State University.

* In the research, Professor Shields and colleagues quizzed men and women about reactions to crying by men and women. The results showed that crying at serious events by both men and women was rated positively.

* The results also show that men were rated more highly when they cried out of sadness than anger. The reverse was the case for women. Men who cried in sadness were more positively rated than women who cried because they were sad. The results also show that men who have a wet eye and a tear or two are rated more highly than men who weep.

Why Do Women Often Feel Colder Than Men?

Let the battle of the thermostat begin. Now that the evenings have grown dark and chilly, most people have switched on their central heating. But many are keeping the temperature low to save on fuel bills, which are expected to rise by 42 per cent this year. Home heating can spark fierce disagreement in couples. Some people sneakily crank up the thermostat when their partners aren't looking; others wear woolly hats and gloves indoors as an ostentatious protest at the temperature of the room.

Some people, it seems, feel the cold more than others. But why is this and is there anything we can do about it?

Research is emerging to suggest that our biological thermostats are set to slightly different levels. We all feel the cold to different degrees, depending on our gender, fitness, age, diet, how much sleep we have, and even the company we keep.

Tropical past is cause of cold feet

At the core of the problem of keeping warm lies the fact that we're simply not built for the cold, says Mike Tipton, Professor of Human Physiology at the University of Portsmouth.

"Man is a tropical animal. We evolved on the Equator and have since migrated to all parts of the planet. The only way we've kept warm is by modifying our behaviour: we've learnt to wear clothes, build buildings, make fire. The oldest man-made building has been identified as a 3-million-year-old windbreak, so one of the first things we built was to protect against the effects of windchill," he says.

Professor Tipton adds that we're only 25 per cent efficient, with 75 per cent of the energy we produce being released as heat>. Although we feel hot and cold throughout the day, our core body temperature - that of our vital organs - is always kept at about 37C. Maintaining this temperature is vital to survival: a 2Cdrop can cause hypothermia, a 12C drop results in death.

Our extremities dictate how hot or cold we feel; the temperature in our hands and feet varies widely compared with that of our organs. If our hands or feet are chilly, we'll feel cold. Most of our biological temperature sensors are located in the skin, and we have four times as many cold sensors as hot sensors. Our heightened sensitivity to cold makes a chilly draught invariably feel more uncomfortable than a warm breeze.

And women really do feel the cold more than men, but this is because they are better at conserving heat than men. Mark Newton, a scientist at W.L. Gore, the company that makes Gore-Tex, and a researcher at the University of Portsmouth, explains: "Women have a more evenly distributed fat layer and can pull all their blood back to their core organs."

However, this female heating system means that less blood flows to their hands and feet, and as a result they feel cold. So there is literal truth in the old saying cold hands, warm heart. One theory as to why women have evolved this system, says Newton, is to enable them to survive freezing temperatures. Women carry less fat and muscle mass than men, and so need a more efficient technique of protecting their core body temperature.

Research also indicates that women's perception of cold varies during their menstrual cycle, says Newton, with the core body temperature often changing by more than 1C. A study in 2001 found that women's core temperature rises in the luteal phase (the post-ovulation phase) of the cycle. The researchers also found that women on the Pill have a slightly elevated core body temperature.

But it's not only hormones that can muck around with our biological thermostats; sleep can also affect how chilly or hot we feel. When we are tired we're more sensitive to changes in temperature, says Newton. Our body temperature falls at night, with women reaching their minimum body temperature quicker than men.

But what else determines our temperatures, apart from gender? Diet can make a difference, as can a host of other factors, says Professor Tipton.

"People who are fatter tend to have cooler extremities because their skin is insulated from their body heat by a layer of fat. People who are physically active tend to have higher peripheral temperature because they have better blood flow to extremities. Those people who smoke may have lower extremity temperatures, because they may have poor circulation."

Moreover, how hot or cold we feel also depends on the temperature we're used to living in, Professor Tipton adds. If you spend a lot of time in a cold house, going to a warm house will be a shock to the system, even if others insist that the temperature is normal.

In fact, the people around us, and how comfortable we feel with them, can also influence our perception of temperature.

Feel warm, be warmer

Feel warm and you'll be more generous and trusting, or so a recent study by researchers at Yale University suggests. They gave volunteers a hot cup of coffee or a cold drink and asked them to rate how trustworthy a person looked. Those holding the hot drink rated people as more trusting.

This shows that psychological warmth and physical warmth have close connections in our brain, says John Bargh, a professor of psychology, who conducted the study. "It seems that the same part of the brain, the insular, which is the size of a walnut right in the middle of the brain, handles both sensations of physical temperature and trust in someone else," he says.

Professor Bargh adds that giving a person a hot cup of coffee is a way of gaining their trust. "What if someone gives me a cup of coffee when I'm buying a car? Maybe it's best to have a cold drink when making a big decision."

In addition to this study, researchers in Canada found recently that mood can influence how hot or cold we feel. The study revealed that people who are lonely or socially excluded are more aware of the cold. So if you're looking to warm up this year, get social, get active, and get enough sleep.

How to keep warm

Clothing Ditch the big woolly jumper in favour of multiple thin layers. Remember, the more skin on show, the colder you'll feel. Keep warm at night by wearing pyjamas and bed socks.

Food Eating regular meals makes a big difference if you're trying to keep warm, but be sure to include carbohydrates. Amanda Ursell, the Times nutritionist, suggests dishing up stews and casseroles with meat, vegetables and potatoes. Soup is a great winter warmer: try bean and vegetable, lentil and tomato or pea and ham. Porridge makes a cheap, warming breakfast.

Thermostat 21C-24C is the optimum setting for central heating.

Alcohol and caffeine Avoid drinking too much of either if you're trying to stay warm. Both increase blood flow to the skin, and while you will feel warmer, your body is losing heat.

Visualise hot places According to research at the University of Portsmouth, imagining a hot place can make you feel warm.Move around even if it's just to make a hot drink, keeping mobile is essential to maintaining body heat. A quick jig will not only warm you up but will also release endorphins, those feel-good chemicals in the brain.

Pollution Can Make You Fat

Pollution can make children fat, startling new research shows. A groundbreaking Spanish study indicates that exposure to a range of common chemicals before birth sets up a baby to grow up stout, thus helping to drive the worldwide obesity epidemic.

The results of the study, just published -- the first to link chemical contamination in the womb with one of the developing world's greatest and fastest-growing health crises -- carry huge potential implications for public policy around the globe. They undermine recent strictures from the Conservative leader, David Cameron, that blame solely the obese for their own condition.

A quarter of all British adults and a fifth of children are obese -- four times as many as 30 years ago. And so are at least 300 million people worldwide. The main explanation is that they are consuming more calories than they burn. But there is growing evidence that diet and lack of exercise, though critical, cannot alone explain the rapid growth of the epidemic.

It has long been known that genetics give people different metabolisms, making some gain weight more easily than others. But the new study by scientists at Barcelona's Municipal Institute of Medical Research suggests that pollution may similarly predispose people to get fat.

The research, published in the current issue of the journal Acta Paediatrica, measured levels of hexachlorobenzene (HCB), a pesticide, in the umbilical cords of 403 children born on the Spanish island of Menorca, from before birth. It found that those with the highest levels were twice as likely to be obese when they reached the age of six and a half.

HCB, which was mainly used to treat seeds, has been banned internationally since the children were born, but its persistence ensures that it remains in the environment and gets into food.

The importance of the study is not so much in identifying one chemical, as in showing what is likely to be happening as a result of contact with many of them. Its authors call for exposures to similar pesticides to be "minimised".

Experiments have shown that many chemicals fed to pregnant animals cause their offspring to grow up obese. These include organotins, long employed in antifouling paints on ships and now widely found in fish; bisphenol A (BPA), used in baby bottles and to line cans of food, among countless other applications; and phthalates, found in cosmetics, shampoos, plastics to wrap food, and in a host of other everyday products.

These pollutants -- dubbed "obesogens" as a result of these findings -- are so ubiquitous that almost everyone now has them in their bodies. Ninety-five per cent of Americans excrete BPA in their urine; 90 per cent of babies have been found to be exposed to phthalates in the womb; and every umbilical cord analysed in the new Spanish study was found to contain organchlorine pesticides such as HCB.

Two American studies have implicated phthalates in obesity in adult men, but the new research is much more conclusive, and is the first to show the effects of exposure in the womb, where humans are most vulnerable.

Dr Pete Myers, one of the world's leading experts on obesogens, told The Independent on Sunday last night: "This is very important. It is the first good study of the effects on the foetus. Its conclusions are not surprising, given what we know from the animal experiments, but it firmly links such chemicals to the biggest challenge facing public health today."

No one knows how HCB causes obesity. The Spanish scientists speculate that it may have made the mothers diabetic, which would increase the chances of their children becoming obese (see graphic, above).

Dr Myers, who is chief scientist at the US-based Environmental Health Sciences, which helps to increase public understanding of emerging scientific links, says this is "plausible", but adds that the animal experiments point elsewhere. These have shown that obesogens "switch genes on and off" in the womb, causing stem cells to be turned into fat cells. The children then grow up with a much greater disposition to store and accumulate fat.

Whatever the explanation, the research goes some way to undermining David Cameron's assertion in a speech this summer that obesity is purely a matter of "personal responsibility", a view echoed by his health spokesman, Andrew Lansley 10 days ago. The Tory leader said that the obese are "people who eat too much and take too little exercise".

Dr Myers calls that "wishful ideological thinking which does not accord with biological reality", adding: "We need to discover ways to reduce exposures to these chemicals so that changing diet and lifestyle has a chance to work."

Factors that may pile on the pounds

Why is the world getting so fat? Everyone agrees that people gain weight by taking in more calories in their food than they burn off through everyday activities and exercise. But many scientists are coming to believe that changes in diet and exercise do not sufficiently explain the rapid growth of the epidemic. As 'The Independent on Sunday' reported last week, there has been no reduction in physical activity in Britain since 1980, while obesity rates have quadrupled.

The genetic make-up of a population does not change rapidly enough to provide an explanation. So the hunt is on for other factors that might show why more people are gaining weight more easily.

Life before birth. Both overweight and underweight babies are more likely to grow up fat. So are those born to smokers. Evidence suggests pollution is also predisposing the unborn to obesity. The introduction and increase in the use of such chemicals coincides with the epidemic taking off.

Age of mothers. The chances of becoming obese increase with maternal age. And the average age of first giving birth has gone up by 2.6 years in Britain since 1970.

Less sleep. Both children and adults are more likely to get fat if they get too little sleep, partly because they become hungrier. Average daily sleep has fallen from nine to seven hours over recent decades.

Temperature. People burn up more calories when they are cold. Central heating has ensured that they spend most of their time in comfortable temperatures.

Prescription drugs. Some drugs -- including anti-psychotics, antidepressants and treatments for diabetes -- cause people to gain weight.

Stopping smoking. Though mothers who smoke may make their children fat, they -- and all smokers -- are themselves less likely to put on weight. As the habit has decreased, obesity has soared.

Dieting Makes You Fat

The weight-loss industry is swelling as quickly as our waistlines at the moment, which seems something of a paradox. If body-conscious consumers are so happy to buy dieting products, why are we facing an obesity crisis? The truth is, no calorie-controlled diet works; if it did, dieting professionals could kiss repeat business goodbye. Even worse: Restricting what you eat will make you fat. Worse still: Yo-yo dieting can cause depression, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. Frequent dieters are 60 percent more likely to die from heart disease than people who don't starve themselves.

The weight-loss successes trumpeted on the front of slimming magazines contradict this. They tell the stories of women (it usually is women) who have lost a lot of weight by following a diet that restricts calorie intake. As the pictures show, these women have clearly not been made fat by following such regimes. This, though, is only part of the complex dieting jigsaw, as Geoffrey Cannon explains in his book Dieting Makes You Fat. Yes, if you consume less energy than your body burns off in a day, your weight will drop. But Cannon, a public health adviser and nutrition expert, looks longer-term and says that nearly all dieters are forced to turn to drugs, surgery, further dieting or exercise to maintain that initial weight loss.

If the title of the book rings a bell, it is possible you read Cannon's earlier book of the same name, which he wrote 25 years ago. Conclusive new scientific evidence to support the claims in the first book, a global public health crisis caused by obesity and its attendant illnesses, and a booming diet industry prompted Cannon to completely rewrite this text.

Dieting Makes You Fat was groundbreaking a quarter of a century ago, but its message is perhaps even more urgent today. As people are getting fatter (a government report from 2007 predicted that by 2050 most British adults will be obese), the market for weight-loss products is growing. The dieting industry in the United States is worth $46 billion a year; in Europe it is worth €93 billion. Clearly, our appetite for losing weight is not matched by our capacity to actually shed fat.

Why did we not take Cannon's advice the first time round? "When people are skeptical of dieting regimes, they will say that diets don't work," he explains. "But they always stop short of saying that dieting makes you fat, which is a concept with explosive implications." He points to scientific studies that illustrate how the dieting trap leads to weight gain. A 2007 UCLA review concluded: "We found that the majority of people regained all the weight, plus more. ... Most of them would have been better off not going on the diet at all."

Further evidence came from an experiment in a closed-off ecosystem in Arizona in the early '90s. Eight scientists had agreed to live inside the man-made biosphere for two years. Once inside, they discovered they were unable to grow enough food but agreed to diet for the two years and continue with the experiment. They all dropped about 9 kilograms before their weights stabilized. Within six months of leaving the biosphere, they had piled the weight back on, and -- crucially -- almost of all of it was fat, not the lean tissue they had started out with. Not only does dieting make you fat, it makes you flabby, too.

"Throughout history, humans have evolved and adapted to survive famine and starvation," explains Cannon. "The people who survived were the people who were best able to, those who had their larders inside themselves, in the form of body fat. A dieting regime will fail because you're training your body to survive famine and starvation better."

Cannon takes pains to dilute the science in Dieting Makes You Fat and includes just one table in the whole book, which looks at the difference between the energy our bodies burn at different weights and with different body compositions -- whether lean (physically fit but not necessarily light) or fat (not necessarily heavy, but with a high proportion of body fat to lean tissue). A lean woman who weighs 70 kilograms (154 pounds) burns 600 calories more at rest per day than a woman who weighs the same but has a lot of body fat.

What, then, is the answer to losing weight, if diets are out? Cannon, without subscribing to the misconception that a thin person is, by definition, a healthy person and fat people are likewise unhealthy, says there are a lot of people out there who need to lose a lot of weight. He writes from experience, having jumped on the dieting wagon at a young age himself. When he realized that the diets he tried were ineffective, he set about proving why.

Dieting Makes You Fat proposes seven golden rules for losing weight, the most salient being to get a lot of exercise and eat plenty of fresh, whole foods. Cannon admits that his approach takes six or seven months before positive results are seen, but he insists that it is what's needed for people to dig their bodies out of the dieting trap.

The Protest that Turned the Tide of Global Green Opinion

In a remote corner of south-west Tasmania lies the Franklin river, wild and beautiful, in the same pristine state as when the first British convicts arrived on the island 200 years ago. Sea eagles soar above canyons and ravines fringed with ancient rainforest; platypuses swim in the calm pools that punctuate the waterfalls and rapids.

Yet the Franklin could have been obliterated 25 years ago. The plan, if the government of the day had had its way, was to build a hydro-electric dam that would have flooded the river and swallowed up large swathes of bushland. Only the efforts of a determined band of protesters -- combined with a change in the political landscape -- saved this unique wilderness area.

The dam project galvanised public opinion in Australia and beyond, inspiring one of the greatest conservation battles of all time. On 1 July 1983, the High Court threw out a final challenge by the Tasmanian authorities. It was a spectacular victory, and a defining moment for the global environmental movement -- proving, possibly for the first time, that direct action could defeat the massed forces of government and big business.

Among those who celebrated the 25th anniversary at a dinner in Hobart last night was David Bellamy, the British naturalist, one of 1,400 people arrested during a summer-long "blockade" of the river. Dr Bellamy, who spent his 50th birthday in Hobart's Risdon Prison, later described the protest action as "the most uplifting thing I have ever been part of."

But the scrapping of the hydro-electric scheme was not universally welcomed, particularly in Tasmania, where many locals equated it with new jobs. And while the dam was stopped and the river given World Heritage protection, the logging of old-growth native forests continues apace and there are plans to build a pulp mill in a scenic valley, an issue that David Bellamy says he would go to prison over again.

In the early 1980s, the environmental movement was still relatively young, and Tasmania was a fitting backdrop for its coming of age. The state had already given birth to the world's first Green party -- founded in 1972, after protesters failed to prevent another of the island's outstanding attractions, Lake Pedder, from being dammed. When the Franklin came under threat, they knew they had to change their tactics. They had to take the campaign into the living rooms of middle Australia.

Television pictures of the Franklin in all its majestic beauty -- and of the machinery poised to destroy it -- shocked mainland Australians. Thousands converged on Tasmania's west coast, where they threw themselves in front of bulldozers and dived into the path of barges transporting equipment to the dam site.

While the blockade made international headlines, it was not until a federal Labor government, led by Bob Hawke, came to power in March 1983 that real progress was made. Mr Hawke, whose pledge to save the Franklin helped get him elected, overruled the Tasmanian premier, Robin Gray, who dismissed the river as a leech-ridden "brown ditch". Mr Hawke's wife at the time, Hazel, wore earrings adorned with the words "No Dams" -- the campaign slogan -- on election night.

Mr Hawke was among the guests at last night's anniversary dinner; Mr Gray, who now sits on the board of Gunns, Tasmania's biggest logging company, declined his invitation.

The Franklin Blockade was led by Bob Brown, who had recently arrived in Tasmania to work as a doctor. He founded the Wilderness Society, and was one of more than 500 protesters jailed during the blockade; the day after his release, he was elected to the state parliament -- Australia's first Green MP.

One of Tasmania's Supreme Court judges, Pierre Slicer, also went to jail for three weeks. "I'm the only judge in Australia that I know of who's been refused bail by his own Chief Justice," he said.

Dr Brown, now leader of the Australian Greens, recalled yesterday how the campaign strategy was formed. "We knew we had to directly confront the seemingly unbeatable power of the Hydro Electric Commission, and do it in the wilderness itself. We had to let the wilderness speak to people throughout Australia."

In the fishing village of Strahan, the campaign headquarters and access point for the Franklin, Dr Brown and others were threatened and attacked. Stones were hurled through the window of the Wilderness Society's information centre. Hostile locals gathered at the wharf every day to shout abuse. Every evening police would bring boatloads of arrested protesters back to Strahan.

Twenty-five years on, Dr Brown believes that the Franklin victory remains "a source of optimism to environmentalists around the world fighting against seemingly impossible odds".

The blockade certainly sent ripples far afield. Demonstrators against a dam planned for the Danube in Austria adopted similar tactics, with success. In the forests of Oregon, in North America, opponents of the chainsaws sat in trees and sang songs penned by the Franklin activists. The "No Dams" slogan was adopted by campaigners in India, in their struggle to prevent a river from being flooded.

The events of 1982-83 put Strahan on the map, and south-west Tasmania has since grown prosperous thanks to tourism. More than 150,000 people visited the area last year, a major attraction being the wilderness of which the Franklin is the centrepiece.

But the bitterness has been slow to evaporate. Richard Flanagan, an internationally acclaimed Tasmanian novelist, said yesterday that the Franklin victory led to a "cold civil war that went on for a quarter of a century."

Mr Flanagan, who kayaked the Franklin as a teenager, and whose first novel, Death of a River Guide, was based on his experiences working on the river, said: "We are left with ongoing destruction of our forests, and with the proposed pulp mill, which often seemed like the spiteful vengeance of the old men who lost the Franklin battle and continued to run the island in an image of hate."

Nevertheless, he said, the blockade was "a great symbol and story for the times we find ourselves in ... It was the first significant national movement that came about, moved by something other than power and money, by the belief that there were things that mattered more. It gave environmental politics a prominence and a position that it enjoyed in no other country other than Germany."

The dam was based on the premise that, with more power capacity, Tasmania would attract heavy industry. Mr Flanagan said: "It just seemed inconceivable that the dam could be stopped, because you had the full resources of this state bearing down, determined to have its way. I would have left the island if the Franklin had been dammed."

Gunns, which wants to build the pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, has just been given another six months to finalise private finance for the project. The mill will be heavily subsidised by the Tasmanian government. Bob Brown described it yesterday as "every bit as ugly as the dam."

Big Oil Returns to Iraq

Nearly four decades after the four biggest Western oil companies were expelled from Iraq by Saddam Hussein, they are negotiating their return. By the end of the month, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Exxon Mobil and Total will sign agreements with the Baghdad government, Iraq's first with big Western oil firms since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The deals are for repair and technical support in some of the country's largest oilfields, the Oil Ministry in Baghdad said yesterday. The return of "Big Oil" will add to the suspicions of those in the Middle East who claimed that the overthrow of Saddam was secretly driven by the West's desire to gain control of Iraq's oil. It will also be greeted with dismay by many Iraqis who fear losing control of their vast oil reserves.

Iraq's reserves are believed to be second only to Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, but their exploitation has long been hampered by U.N. sanctions, imposed on Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990.

The major oil companies have been eager to go back to Iraq but are concerned about their own security and the long-term stability of the country. The two-year no-bid agreements are service agreements that should add another 500,000 barrels of crude a day of output to Iraq's present production of 2.5 million barrels a day (b/d).

The companies have the option of being paid in cash or crude oil for the deals, each of which will reportedly be worth $500 million (£250million). For Iraq, the agreements are a way of accessing foreign expertise immediately, before the Iraqi parliament passes a controversial new hydrocarbons law.

But they mean that the four oil companies, which originally formed the Iraq Petroleum Co. to exploit Iraqi oil from the 1920s until the industry's nationalization in 1972, will be well-placed to bid for contracts for the long-term development of these fields. The oilfields affected are some of the largest in Iraq, from Kirkuk in the north to Rumaila, on the border with Kuwait. Although there is oil in northern Iraq, most of the reserves are close to Basra, in the far south.

Since the U.S. invasion, Iraqis have been wary of foreign involvement in their oil industry. Many are convinced that the hidden purpose of the U.S. invasion was to take over Iraqi oil, but the Iraqi oil minister, Hussein Shahristani, has said that Iraq will hold on to its natural resources. "If Iraq needs help from international oil companies, they will be invited to cooperate with the Iraqi National Oil Co. [Inoc], on terms and conditions acceptable to Iraq, to generate the highest revenue for Iraq."

Inoc's technical expertise has deteriorated sharply during the long years of sanctions. Iraq is currently exporting 2.1 million b/d and is expecting to have oil revenues of $70 billion this year, but its government administration is too dysfunctional and corrupt to rebuild the electricity or water supply systems. The government has $50 billion in the Federal Bank of New York.

Shahristani has been highly critical of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for auctioning off oil concessions in Iraqi Kurdistan without reference to the oil ministry in Baghdad. In an interview with the Independent last year, he said Inoc would never do business with any oil company that signed up with the KRG and he also doubted if the oil could be exported without pipelines. "Are they going to carry it out in buckets?" he asked.

Several of the small oil companies who have signed contracts in Kurdistan are hoping that in the long term there will be an agreement between the Kurds and the central government and they will then sell out to the majors at a large profit.

The technical support agreements, as the service agreements are known, may open the door to Iraq for the majors. Shahristani has said that Iraq will open up the same fields for bidding for long-term development projects soon. "We're going to announce the first licensing round by the end of this month or early next month," he said.

The high price of oil means that Iraq is not under immediate pressure to maximize its oil revenues. The Iraqi parliament has suspected anything that looks like giving foreign companies ownership of Iraq's oil through a production sharing agreement.

The nationalization of Iraq's oil is one the few acts of Saddam Hussein's long years in power that is still highly popular, and Iraqi members of parliament are fearful of anything that looks like back-door privatization in the interests of foreigners.

Big four have history of control

For the four oil giants, the new agreements will bring them back to a country where they have a long history. BP, Exxon Mobil, Total and Shell were co-owners of a British, American and French consortium that kept Iraq's oil reserves in foreign control for more than 40 years.

The Iraq Petroleum Co. (once the Turkish Petroleum Co.) was formed in 1912 by oil companies eager to grab the resources in parts of the Ottoman Empire.

The company was formalized in 1928, and each of the four shareholders had a 23.75 percent share of all the oil produced. The final 5 percent went to Calouste Gulbenkian, an Armenian businessman.

In 1931, an agreement was signed with Iraq, giving the company complete control over the oil fields of Mosul in return for annual royalties. After Saddam's coup in 1958, nationalization came in 1972.

A Miracle Drug for Malaria

The lives of more than a million children who die each year from malaria could be saved by a new technique for making a drug based on an ancient Chinese herbal remedy first used more than 2,000 years ago.

Scientists said yesterday that the drug will be the first product of a new approach to making pharmaceuticals using "synthetic biology", where genetically engineered microbes with implanted artificial chromosomes, or gene "cassettes", are grown in giant fermenting vats.

The plan is to be able to make enough quantities of the drug in a single fermenter, or bioreactor, within two years to supply the needs of everyone in the world suffering from malaria -- up to 500 million people -- at a 10th of the cost of existing drugs.

The drug, artemisinin, is based on extracts from the Chinese plant Artemesia annua, or sweet wormwood, which is known to have been used in China as a remedy for malaria fever since at least the second century BC.

Artemisinin is already produced by laboriously extracting it from the dried leaves and flowers of the sweet wormwood, but at more than $2 (£1) for a course of treatment it is too expensive for the majority of people in the developing world who contract malaria from mosquito bites.

Between one and three million people die of malaria every year, 90 per cent of them children under five. The people who survive suffer bouts of severe pain and fever from what has been called one of the biggest sources of misery in the world.

The new way of producing artemisinin involves inserting about a dozen synthetic genes into yeast cells, which are then grown by fermenting them with sugar. The added gene cassettes control the biochemical reactions, or pathway, leading to a precursor chemical, artemisinic acid, which is then converted chemically into the final active ingredient, artemisinin.

By making artemisinin in living yeast cells it is possible to change its biological structure to keep ahead of any future artemisinin-resistant strains of malaria that develop.

Scientists hope that by producing a semi-synthetic form of artemisinin on an industrial scale using a single bioreactor as big as a three-story town house, they will be able to bring down the price of treatment to less than 20 cents a course, making it the cheapest and most effective anti-malarial drug on the market.

Professor Jay Keasling of the University of California, Berkeley, said that the low price and widespread availability of the semi-synthetic drug will directly help millions of sufferers, as well as undermining the counterfeit market in artemisinin, which increases the risk of drug resistance as well as doing little to help malaria patients. "We want it to be affordable to people who need it, to be available to people who need it, and we don't want it to be abused," Professor Keasling said during a two-day conference on synthetic biology at the Royal Society in London.

"The process is very similar to brewing beer ... but we're talking about turning on 12 genes simultaneously in the genetically engineered yeast cells and controlling their outputs to balance the metabolic pathway leading to artemisinin," said Professor Keasling. The research pioneered by the professor was funded with the help of a $42.6 million research grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and is being taken into industrial production with the help of the French company sanofi aventis, which will build a bioreactor in Europe by 2010.

The bioreactor will be between 50,000 and 100,000 liters in size and will produce continuous amounts of the drug in sufficient quantities to treat the 500 million people a year who develop malaria, he said.

Producing semi-synthetic artemisinin on an industrial scale will also undermine speculators who have hoarded stockpiles of the wild plant, raising prices fourfold, since artemisinin was endorsed as the most effective malaria treatment by the WHO in 2004. "We can drive down costs, hitting the market price at its launch and significantly reducing costs further over time," Professor Keasling said.

Taken with other anti-malarial drugs, treatment with artemisinin is said to be almost 100 per cent effective in blocking the life cycle of the malaria parasite within the human body.

The Healing Power of Pets

As she makes her way through the hospital wards, Billie-Jean keeps up an impressive pace. She has to if she is going to see all the patients who are waiting for her. Wearing her official uniform, she looks neat and trim, and despite how busy she is, she always has time to stop if someone wants to say hello or slip her a Bonio. You see, Billie-Jean isn't a ward sister doing the rounds or a doctor bringing vital medicine, she's an Irish terrier. But despite the fact she's a canine, not human, carer, her medical value is second-to-none because she is a Pets As Therapy dog.

Pets As Therapy is a charity that takes pet dogs and cats to hospitals, hospices, residential care homes, day centres and special-needs schools. It was formed in 1983, explains chief executive Maureen Hennis, by a group of pet owners who were convinced that their animals could help other people. "At that time, people were moving into residential accommodation and nursing homes, and they had to give up their own pets," she says. "This wasn't only making them sad and depressed, sometimes it was actually making them ill."

The importance of regular contact with domestic animals has been highlighted by recent research conducted by the University of Minnesota. According to the study, having a cat around the house can cut the risk of having a heart attack or a stroke by almost half. After studying nearly 4,500 adults aged between 30 and 75 for 10 years, it was found that cat owners had a 40 per cent lower risk of suffering a fatal heart attack.

"For years we have known that psychological stress and anxiety are related to cardiovascular events, particularly heart attacks," says Dr Adnan Qureshi, executive director of the Minnesota Stroke Institute at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. According to Qureshi, the research shows that "essentially there is a benefit in relieving those inciting factors from pets". And in a study published last year, Dr Deborah Wells of Queen's University Belfast found that dog owners tend to suffer less from ill health, have lower cholesterol, and lower blood pressure. "It is possible that dogs can directly promote our well-being by buffering us from stress," says Dr Wells.

Today, Billie-Jean, along with her owner, Emma Charlton, is on her weekly visit to the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in Putney, south London. The hospital is just one of the thousands of places that PAT animals visit every year. "When we first started, we used to have to look around for establishments for registered PAT dogs to visit. Now we have more than 900 establishments waiting for PAT dogs to visit in," says Hennis. "Currently, we have 3,600 dogs and 92 cats working in the community and they are benefiting more than 100,000 patients every single week in the UK." As Billie-Jean makes her way through the hospital, clad in a bright PAT vest and fresh from the grooming parlour, it's clear that she is a real favourite with the patients.

When Billie-Jean bumps into Scott Robertson in one of the hospital's corridors, his face is wreathed in smiles at the sight of her. Charlton slips him a dog biscuit, which he hands to Billie-Jean as she enthusiastically licks his hands.

Not all of the patients here can articulate their likes and dislikes as clearly, so Charlton always checks with the ward staff who will welcome some time with Billie-Jean. Tina Loughney, Charlton tells me, loves to see her. Loughney usually communicates through facial movements and her expressive hands but today she has a surprise for everyone. Loughney has dogs at home and Emma asks how they are. "All right," she says. Charlton is gobsmacked -- and thrilled. "That's the first time I've heard Tina speak." The staff agree. "It's moments like this that make it worthwhile," says Charlton, who has been visiting the hospital with Billie-Jean for the past two years.

For over an hour, Billie-Jean pads through the hospital, shaking paws with and licking anyone who says hello. She is wonderfully behaved -- she seems to know instinctively when to be gentle and when she can be a little more boisterous. This is no accident -- every PAT animal is assessed to ensure that only the best-behaved pets come into contact with patients. Billie-Jean and her ilk are a hard-working part of the healthcare system. "PAT animals are being used for desensitisation in phobia patients, as part of stroke rehabilitation, helping to get people to use their limbs again and to talk," says Hennis. "Very often people go into a world of their own and they stop communicating with anyone. But if you go in with a dog, it's amazing how a dog can get through barriers that humans can't."

When speaking to a doctor friend about PAT, he waxes lyrical about his experiences of the animals and tells me about a patient on a stroke ward who had not spoken since she arrived in hospital. During an encounter with one of the charity's volunteer canines, she stroked the dog and uttered her first word -- "soft".

Hennis, herself a regular visitor to a number of establishments, tells me about how she realised the importance of what the charity was doing. "There was a lady that I visited who used to sit by the door every Saturday morning, and when she saw my dog she always used to say, 'Here's my ray of sunshine, she's my reason for staying alive'." One thing's for sure -- it's hard to imagine the average GP getting such a warm welcome.

Animal magic: how pets prevent illness

Dog owners tend to have lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure, as dogs can reduce the risk of spikes in blood pressure due to stress or tension.

In some cases, the emotional support offered by an animal is greater than that offered by a human. For older people in particular, an animal can fulfil "the need to be needed".

Owning a pet can improve a person's chances of survival after a life-threatening illness, by helping to lower blood pressure. Pets can also help speed up rehabilitation following a stroke.

Children with pets have higher levels of self-esteem and function better emotionally than those without, studies have shown. Some teachers have introduced pets into the classroom and children with learning disabilities and behavioural disorders such as autism, for example, show immediate benefits from animal-assisted therapy.

Children who live with a cat or dog in their first years have a lower incidence of hay fever and asthma and are less likely to develop animal-related allergies, or to suffer a bout of gastroenteritis.

By George Bull

Where Have All the Strong Women Gone?

Precisely a century ago, in a suburb of Boston, a child called Bette Davis erupted into the world. She was not only a woman; she was an electrical storm with skin. With nothing but raw talent and raw determination, she became the most famous woman in the world, taking on the Hollywood studio system, the FBI and the Catholic Church.

For a while, this not-especially-beautiful woman in her forties ruled Hollywood, playing tough women who chose their careers and their own desires over sacrificing for men or children or a picket fence. She never pretended to be dumb, or a little girl. She didn't do soft, or simpering. She had a voice like sour cream, and eyes like a raven. Humphrey Bogart said about her: "Unless you're very big she can knock you down." And she was one of the great events of her time.

She was popular with the mostly-female movie audience -- women like my grandmother, who gave me my first glimpse of Bette Davis movies from her lap -- in part because her characters will not accept 'their place.' They want more, more, more. It was not easy to be a strong woman then; she said, "When a man gives his opinion he's a man. When a woman gives her opinion she's a bitch." But she fought, and women responded to it. She was only the most shimmering example of a generation of tough Hollywood women whose characters saw the world as a place not to cower from or simper at, but to conquer: Mae West (who made her first film at 40), Lauren Bacall, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Barbra Stanwyck, Rosalind Russell, Marlene Dietrich, and more.

Bette was self-confident enough to demand to look bad on camera. On the cast of 'Bordertown', she had a four-hour screaming row with the director because she thought it was ridiculous to show her character wake up in bed with a wig and full make-up; she wanted curlers and cold cream all over her face. In' Marked Woman', she was shown with black eyes and a broken face. In Elizabeth and Essex, she wanted to be shown with a completely bald head -- sending the studio into a panic. And she was self-confident enough to be unsympathetic on screen.

But something odd has happened since the reign of Queen Bette: women in cinema have become weaker. If the symbol of 1930s Hollywood was Bette Davis in 'Jezebel', defiantly wearing red to her virgin-white ball, today it is Cameron Diaz in 'There's Something About Mary', rubbing semen into her hair because she is too dumb to realize it's not hair gel.

As women have progressed, the women we idolize -- in the movies, on television -- have dramatically regressed. Who are our female icons now? Nicole Kidman, whose career is empitomized by her role in 'Moulin Rouge', where she plays a limp, passive prostitute, waiting to be saved. Julia Roberts, whose only iconic role is as a screwed-up prostitute, waiting to be saved. The women of 'Desperate Housewives' -- chaotic ditzes, who are either jobless, or have jobs where they merely spread chaos. The women of 'Sex and the City', who are obsessed with shoes and -- in the end -- have to compromise their careers for men. The popular women are numb blondes or bony little girls with submissive smiles. If a female star becomes too 'tough', she becomes box-office poison: Demi Moore was seen after G.I. Jane as too hard, too 'male.' Even Thelma and Louise had to drive into the Grand Canyon in the end.

The closest we have to Bette Davis-style characters today are found in the films and TV shows of Aaron Sorkin. His dream-girl is a woman talking very fast about foreign policy while putting on her make-up. In West Wing, he found two glorious stars who would have held their own with the 1930s generation: Alison Janney, and Stockard Channing. But what happens to their characters? C.J. has to be given a sick father to humanise her -- unlike any of the men -- and in the end has to choose between Washington and love. Abigail Bartlett is stripped of her job entirely. Janney and Channing are now reduced to bit-parts in films about teenage girls.

The biggest female stars have contracted in every sense. As they are reduced emotionally to hollow male fantasies, they are reduced physically to skin and bone too. If Bette Davis has screen presence, skeletons like Keira Knightley have screen absence; you stop seeing her even when she is the only thing in the frame. Almost all of the great Hollywood starlets would be considered uncastably 'fat' now: who can forget Liz Hurley's statement, "If I was as fat as Marilyn Monroe, I'd kill myself too"?

The few strong women in Hollywood movies and TV are safely located in an unreal world: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: Warrior Princess. The closest to an unapologetic feminist is Lisa Simpson -- and she is eight years old, and a cartoon. This isn't because Hollywood is especially sexist. Hollywood largely gives us what we want -- and we don't want to idolize strong, powerful women today.

My female friends need to disguise or soften their ambition and intellect, in a way my male friends don't have to. A while ago, after writing a column about feminism, I received an e-mail from a reader who said: "I think it's great that you, as a man, write about these issues. But imagine a situation where you were exactly the person you are now, but female. Imagine you were comparably overweight, took comparably little care over your appearance, were comparably aggressive in your opinions, admitted to a history of depression, and were a lesbian. You would not be writing for a national newspaper at all." I think that is undeniably true.

The fear of strong women isn't confined to anecdotes; there's reams of evidence for it. A study by Oxford University psychologists in 2006 found that having a high IQ is a boon for men in finding a partner -- and for women, it is an obstacle. For each 16-point rise in IQ, a man is 35 percent more likely to find a partner -- while for women, the same IQ bump reduces their odds by 40 per cent. This is why so many clever women mask their intellects, in pubs and offices across the country.

This dynamic spreads to politics too. There's a famous experiment called 'the Goldberg paradigm', where a group is given a speech and asked to rate how effective, intelligent and persuasive. Every time this is run, if they are told it is by a man, they invariably rate it ten to twenty points higher than if they are told it is by a woman.

(There are a thousand-and-one good reasons to oppose Hillary Clinton, but one bad one too: her gender. She fits into this Hollywood pattern. What were the two moments when Hillary -- for a flickering second -- was actually liked? It was when we found out her husband was cheating on her, and in New Hampshire, when she cried. When Hillary is strong, we loathe her. When she is weak, we warm).

This rubbing-out of strong, clever women from the popular imagination is part of a subtle backlash against feminism. Women are unimaginably better off than in Bette Davis' hey-day: while she was ruling Hollywood, both my grandmothers were leaving school at the age of 13, told there was nothing for them but the farm, the factory or the altar.

Today, a majority of graduates are female. Yet the culture says -- yes, you can have your success, up to a point -- but you will have to feel guilty about it. You will have to disguise your skills behind a carapace of self-deprecation and self-abnegation. You will be encouraged to idolise empty shells like Jordan or Victoria Beckham. You will be paid seventy pence to the man's pound for the same work. You will be prompted to inject poison into your face, or have your breasts cut open, to conform to a warped vision of beauty that makes you dislike your own body. Updating Bette's old dictum, the writer Arianna Huffington says, "For a man to be called aggressive, he has to be Joe McCarthy. For a woman to be called aggressive, she has to put you on hold."

The fight against all this need to recapture something of the prehensile spirit of Bette Davis. She faced down these boring old prejudices with a perfectly-modulated snarl. As her biographer Ed Sikov says, "Bette Davis didn't give a goddam. She dares us to hate her, and we often do. Which is why we love her."

Does Listening to Mozart Really Have Health Benefits?

Every treatment had been tried for the patient's severe epilepsy. Seven epileptic drugs, and brain surgery, had failed to have any effect on the seizures and fits he had suffered daily for much of his 46 years. With no sign of any improvement, and with tests confirming a deterioration in learning skills and memory over a nine-year period, surgeons decided that he should be assessed for further brain surgery.

But, shortly before the patient was scheduled for tests, there was a remarkable improvement. The gelastic (or laughing) fits he had suffered up to six times day subsided. Instead of uncontrollable laughing fits, they became six- to nine-second-long involuntary smiles that he was able to control. He had also been having about seven generalized seizures a month, but he had had none in three months.

When doctors investigated, they found that the transformation was down to a lifestyle change. He had started to listen to Mozart for 45 minutes a day.

The case of the 46-year-old man, being reported by doctors at the Institute of Neurology in London, is the latest success put down to the "Mozart effect", which has been linked to benefits as diverse as improved mathematical skills, enhanced fetal brain development, reduced stress, improved learning and IQ, less arthritis pain, and improved performance on eye tests. Rats exposed to the music also perform better in maze tests, while fish appeared to be happier and healthier.

The original Mozart-effect research looked at the effects of the K448 piano sonata on the performance of spatial IQ tests. Volunteers had to visualize correctly the unfolded shape of a piece of paper that had been folded several times. The performance of those who listened to the Mozart was quantified as being equivalent to a temporary increase in IQ of eight to nine points.

One theory put forward to explain this performance is that areas of the brain involved in processing music overlap those concerned with spatial perception, which become stimulated, or warmed up. But, while some researchers found similar effects, others found none or proposed countertheories, including the suggestion that the increased performance is simply due to people becoming more aroused when exposed to music. As a result, the concept of a Mozart effect has become mired in controversy.

A Mozart effect has also been linked to behavioral and other changes, including stress, depression, arthritis pain, fetal development and performance on eye-test charts. And it is now attracting attention as a potential treatment for epilepsy.

Some research offers clues as to just why this composer's music seems to have such an effect. It suggests also that the music does not have to be appreciated, or consciously listened to, to have an effect. Only a small number of studies have been carried out on the Mozart effect and epilepsy, but most of them show a beneficial effect. Neurologists at the University of Illinois found that a child with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy, had fewer seizures while exposed to K448 for 10 minutes every hour. A second study at the center found changes in brain activity in 23 out of 29 cases when Mozart was played. In some cases the changes occurred during coma, suggesting that any effect is not conditional on the music being appreciated; it appears to have some kind of direct effect.

But what could it be? According to Dr John Hughes of the University of Illinois, it may be that Mozart's complex music has an effect similar to pulsating electrical stimulation, bringing order to malfunctioning nerve cells in the brain. "The architecture of Mozart's music is brilliantly complex, but also highly organized. The organization of the cerebral cortex would seem to resonate with the architecture of Mozart's music to normalize any sub-optimal functioning of the cortex," he says.

"Part of his genius is to repeat themes in a way that was not boring, but instead is engaging to the listener. A theme would be repeated, not necessarily with the same notes but with different notes and the same interval. Repetition and periodic changes are found in all aspects of our brain function and also of our bodily functions."

It's suggested that the same effect isn't seen with other composers because this technique of musical construction is unique to Mozart, who repeats melodic lines much more often than composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Wagner and Chopin do. According to epilepsy researchers, it is this repetition, acting rather like repetitive electrical stimulation, which may be responsible for the effects being seen.

And some research does suggest that electrical stimulation can work in epilepsy. In a study of nine patients implanted with electrodes, four had a 95 per cent reduction in seizures, and four a 50 to 70 per cent drop. "Electrical stimulation provides improved seizure outcome," say researchers from Hospital General de Mexico. Epilepsy researchers believe it's time for more research: "We report a remarkable improvement in seizure control in one patient with refractory gelastic epilepsy and suggest that it is now time to study further the Mozart effect," say the team from the Institute of Neurology in London.

Increasing research into epilepsy may also trigger more study on other aspects of the Mozart effect. Could the same repetitive stimulation in much of Mozart's work account for the reported changes in behavior and intellectual performance? The final verdict on the Mozart effect may soon be given, but whether it will be a prelude or a requiem remains to be seen.

Medical notes: the healing power of the Mozart effect


Research is showing that Mozart may reduce brain activity involved in epilepsy. A study in Chicago found that 23 of 29 patients had a significant drop in the kind of brain activity that is followed by a seizure. In one case, this activity dropped by more than 60 per cent while the patient was in a coma. One theory is that the effects may be due to the repetitiveness of melody and periodicity -- wave forms that are repeated regularly.


The first Mozart-effect study showed that spatial reasoning and intelligence increased temporarily after listening to the K448 piano sonata, compared to relaxation tapes or silence. The results of the California University study show that 10 minutes of Mozart's music improved performance on paper-cutting and folding tests. Spatial IQ went up by eight to nine points. The same team found that rats negotiated a maze faster after hearing K448. Other researchers found that children taught a keyboard instrument for six months performed better on spatial tests. The kind of effect found by the California researchers has been shown by some teams, but others have found no effect.

Eye tests

Eye tests are performed more accurately when carried out with Mozart playing in the background. Results were significantly better, with fewer false positive or negative results and greater concentration and accuracy. In the research, 60 men and women either listened to music for 10 minutes, or sat in silence before carrying out the tests. The music was Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D major. One theory is that the music helps to speed up the processing and interpretation of information coming from the eye to the brain. "Listening to Mozart seems to improve performance," say the researchers from the School of Medical Sciences in Sao Paulo.

Heart rate

Mozart soothes the beating heart. A study at Oberwalliser Hospital in Switzerland on the effects of music on heart-rate variability in 23 adolescents showed that listening to music may be helpful in heart disease. The study showed that listening to Mozart or Bach resulted in reductions of heart rate and variability.


Anecdotal evidence has suggested that listening to Mozart may ease stress in newborn babies. Newborns at the Kosice-Saca hospital in Slovakia are played his music to help them get over the trauma of birth. Now, doctors at Weill Medical College of Cornell University are running a clinical trial to see whether Mozart's music can reduce stress, heart rate and motor activity in premature babies. Mozart is played through a small speaker in the baby's incubator; a monitoring device will record movement, while a video camera will capture the infants' reactions to the music.


The latest Mozart research is not on humans, but on carp. Researchers at the Agricultural University of Athens played Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik to carp to test its relaxing and antidepressant effects. The music was played underwater to carp for 30 minutes at time. The results show that the fish exposed to music grew more and, in some cases, had less stress.

Basra on Fire

The Iraqi army is fighting the Mehdi Army Shia militia in the streets of Basra after the government launched its most serious offensive to gain control of the southern oil city.

Clouds of dark smoke rose over Basra 340 miles south of Baghdad as Iraqi soldiers tried to take control of the main roads while black-clad militiamen fought back from the alleyways. "There are clashes in the streets," said Jamil, a resident of the city. "Bullets are coming from everywhere and we can hear the sound of rocket explosions."

The fighting was spreading across Shia areas of Iraq as the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mehdi Army, called for a campaign of civil disobedience in which shops, businesses, schools and universities would close down.

In the Sadrist stronghold of Sadr City, home to two million people in Baghdad, police and army checkpoints were simply abandoned and militiamen took over. In a statement read out by a senior aide yesterday, Mr Sadr called on Iraqis to stage sit-ins all over the country and added that he would declare "a civil revolt" if attacks by US and Iraqi security forces continued. Civil disobedience is different in Iraq from most countries, since most protesters are armed or have weapons available.

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has moved to Basra, where he is said to be supervising the operation, in which 22 people have been killed and over 100 wounded so far. It is unlikely, however, that the Iraqi army assault would have been launched without the support of the American military, whose jets and helicopters are providing air support.

The Sadrist headquarters in the Shia holy city of Najaf has ordered the Mehdi Army field commanders to be on maximum alert and prepare "to strike the occupiers", which means attacking US forces. If they do so it would mean the end of the ceasefire declared by Mr Sadr on 29 August last year and renewed in February.

It is this truce which US commanders have said contributed significantly to the fall in violence in Iraq over the past six months. Rockets fired from Shia areas of Baghdad pounded the American-protected Green Zone yesterday.

Basra has been increasingly controlled by Shia militias since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. British forces were never able to establish their authority over the city and finally handed over security control to Iraq on 16 December last year, saying that the British presence was provoking rather than reducing violence.

Mr Maliki has declared that the government is intending to restore law and order in Basra but the Sadrist movement, the most powerful Shia mass movement, will see the offensive as an attempt by its Shia rivals in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq to displace them. If there is an all-out confrontation, the Iraqi army might well look to support from the United States and Britain, initially through air strikes. So far British forces have not been involved in the fighting.

The US has been eager for the central government to regain control of Basra, which sits on top of Iraq's oil reserves and is also close to the American army's main supply line that runs west of the city up the main highway from Kuwait to Baghdad. Basra has hitherto been run by competing local warlords, each of whom has been seeking to gain control of valuable local concessions and rackets such as fuel and the ports of Basra and Umm Qasr. One Iraqi businessman who dispatched a container from Umm Qasr port to Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan says he paid $500 (£250) in transport costs and $3,000 in bribes to ensure safe passage.

Mr Sadr has been keen to avoid an all-out military confrontation with the US army or Iraqi units backed by the Americans ever since he fought the US Marines in Najaf in 2004. Although his Mehdi Army militiamen suffered heavy losses because of the American force's superior arms, they showed that they were prepared to fight to the end. In the warren of slums in Basra, they could do the same and they could also spread the fighting across the overwhelmingly Shia south of Iraq.

Five Years of Suicide Bombings in Iraq

Khaled looked at me with a broad smile. He was almost laughing. At one point, when I told him that he should abandon all thoughts of being a suicide bomber -- that he could influence more people in this world by becoming a journalist -- he put his head back and shot me a grin, world-weary for a man in his teens. "You have your mission," he said. "And I have mine." His sisters looked at him in awe. He was their hero, their amanuensis and their teacher, their representative and their soon-to-be-martyred brother. Yes, he was handsome, young -- just 18 -- he was dressed in a black Giorgio Armani T-shirt, a small, carefully trimmed Spanish conquistador's beard, gelled hair. And he was ready to immolate himself.

A sinister surprise. I had traveled to Khaled's home to speak to his mother. I had already written about his brother Hassan and wanted to introduce a Canadian journalist colleague, Nelofer Pazira, to the family. When Khaled walked on to the porch of the house, Nelofer and I both realized -- at the same moment -- that he was next, the next to die, the next "martyr". It was his smile. I've come across these young men before, but never one who so obviously declared his calling.

His family sat around us on the porch of their home above the Lebanese city of Sidon, the sitting room adorned with colored photographs of Hassan, already gone to the paradise -- so they assured me -- for which Khaled clearly thought he was destined. Hassan had driven his explosives-laden car into an American military convoy at Tal Afar in north-western Iraq, his body (or what was left of it) buried "in situ" -- or so his mother was informed.

It's easy to find the families of the newly dead in Lebanon. Their names are read from the minarets of Sidon's mosques (most are Palestinian) and in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, the Sunni "Tawhid" movement boasts "hundreds" of suiciders among its supporters. Every night, the population of Lebanon watches the brutal war in Iraq on television. "It's difficult to reach 'Palestine' these days," Khaled's uncle informed me. "Iraq is easier."

Too true. No one doubts that the road to Baghdad -- or Tal Afar or Fallujah or Mosul -- lies through Syria, and that the movement of suicide bombers from the Mediterranean coasts to the deserts of Iraq is a planned if not particularly sophisticated affair. What is astonishing -- what is not mentioned by the Americans or the Iraqi "government" or the British authorities or indeed by many journalists -- is the sheer scale of the suicide campaign, the vast numbers of young men (only occasionally women), who willfully destroy themselves amid the American convoys, outside the Iraqi police stations, in markets and around mosques and in shopping streets and on lonely roads beside remote checkpoints across the huge cities and vast deserts of Iraq. Never have the true figures for this astonishing and unprecedented campaign of self-liquidation been calculated.

But a month-long investigation by The Independent, culling four Arabic-language newspapers, official Iraqi statistics, two Beirut news agencies and Western reports, shows that an incredible 1,121 Muslim suicide bombers have blown themselves up in Iraq. This is a very conservative figure and -- given the propensity of the authorities (and of journalists) to report only those suicide bombings that kill dozens of people -- the true estimate may be double this number. On several days, six -- even nine -- suicide bombers have exploded themselves in Iraq in a display of almost Wal-Mart availability. If life in Iraq is cheap, death is cheaper.

This is perhaps the most frightening and ghoulish legacy of George Bush's invasion of Iraq five years ago. Suicide bombers in Iraq have killed at least 13,000 men, women and children -- our most conservative estimate gives a total figure of 13,132 -- and wounded a minimum of 16,112 people. If we include the dead and wounded in the mass stampede at the Baghdad Tigris river bridge in the summer of 2005 -- caused by fear of suicide bombers -- the figures rise to 14,132 and 16,612 respectively. Again, it must be emphasized that these statistics are minimums. For 529 of the suicide bombings in Iraq, no figures for wounded are available. Where wounded have been listed in news reports as "several", we have made no addition to the figures. And the number of critically injured who later died remains unknown. Set against a possible death toll of half a million Iraqis since the March 2003 invasion, the suicide bombers' victims may appear insignificant; but the killers' ability to terrorize civilians, militiamen and Western troops and mercenaries is incalculable.

Never before has the Arab world witnessed a phenomenon of suicide-death on this scale. During Israel's occupation of Lebanon after 1982, one Hizbollah suicide-bombing a month was considered remarkable. During the Palestinian intifadas of the 1980s and 1990s, four per month was regarded as unprecedented. But suicide bombers in Iraq have been attacking at the average rate of two every three days since the 2003 Anglo-American invasion.

And, although neither the Iraqi government nor their American mentors will admit this, scarcely 10 out of more than a thousand suicide killers have been identified. We know from their families that Palestinians, Saudis, Syrians and Algerians have been among the bombers. In a few cases, we have names. But in most attacks, the authorities in Iraq -- if they can still be called "authorities" after five years of catastrophe -- have no idea to whom the bloodied limbs and headless torsos of the bombers belong.

Even more profoundly disturbing is that the "cult" of the suicide bomber has seeped across national frontiers. Within a year of the Iraqi invasion, Afghan Taliban bombers were blowing themselves up alongside Western troops or bases in Helmand province and in the capital Kabul. The practice leached into Pakistan, striking down thousands of troops and civilians, killing even the principal opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto. The London Tube and bus bombings -- despite the denials of Tony Blair -- were obviously deeply influenced by events in Iraq.

Academics and politicians have long debated the motives of the bombers, the psychological make-up of the men and women who cold-bloodedly decide to undertake the role of suicide executioners; for they are executioners, killers who see their victims -- be they soldiers or civilians -- before they flick the switch that destroys them. The Israelis long ago decided that there was no "perfect" profile for a suicide bomber, and my own experience in Lebanon bears this out. The suicider might have spent years fighting the Israelis in the south of the country. Often, they would have been imprisoned or tortured by Israel or its proxy Lebanese militia. Sometimes, brothers or other family members would have been killed. On other occasions, the example of their own relatives would have drawn them into the vortex of suicide-by-example.

Khaled is -- or was, for I no longer know if he is alive, since I met him a few weeks ago -- influenced by his brother Hassan, whose journey to Iraq was organized by an unknown group, presumably Palestinian, and whose weapons training beside the Tigris river was videotaped by his comrades. Hassan's mother has shown me this tape -- which ends with Hassan cheerfully waving goodbye from the driver's window of a battered car, presumably the vehicle he was about to ram into the American convoy at Tal Afar.

None of this addresses the issue of religious belief. While there is evidence aplenty that the Japanese suicide pilots of the Second World War were sometimes coerced and intimidated into their final flights against U.S. warships in the Pacific, many also believed that they were dying for their emperor. For them, the fall of cherry blossom and the divine wind -- the "kamikaze" -- blessed their souls as they aimed their bombers at American aircraft carriers. But even an industrialized dictatorship like Japan -- facing the imminent collapse of its entire society at the hands of a superpower -- could only mobilize 4,615 "kamikazes". The Iraq suicide bombers may already have reached half that number.

But the Japanese authorities encouraged their pilots to think of themselves as a collective suicide unit whose insignia of imminent death -- white Rising Sun headbands and white scarves -- prefigured the yellow headbands imprinted with Koranic script that Hizbollah guerrillas wore when they set out to attack Israeli soldiers in the occupied zone of southern Lebanon. In Iraq, however, those who direct the growing army of suiciders do not lack inventiveness. Their bombers have arrived at the scene of their self-destruction dressed as car mechanics, soldiers, police officers, middle-aged housewives, children's sweet-sellers, worshipers and -- on one occasion -- a "harmless" shepherd. They have carried their bombs in Oldsmobiles, fuel trucks, garbage trucks, flat-bed trucks, on donkeys and bicycles, motor-bikes and mopeds and carts, minibuses, date-vendors' vans, mobile recruitment centers and lorries packed with chlorine. Incredibly, there appears to be no individual central "brain" behind the bombings -- although "groupuscules" of bombers obviously exist. Inspiration, imitation and the globalized influence of the internet appear sufficient to empower the bombers of Iraq.

On an individual level, it is possible to see the friction and psychological trauma of families. Khaled's mother, for instance, constantly expressed her pride in her dead son Hassan and, in front of me, she looked with almost equal love at his still-living brother. But when my companion urged Khaled to remain alive for his mother's sake -- reminding him that the Prophet himself spoke of the primary obligation of a Muslim man to protect his mother -- the woman was close to tears. She was torn apart by her love as a mother and her religious-political duty as the woman who had brought another would-be martyr into the world. When my friend again urged Khaled to remain alive, to stay in Sidon and marry -- eerily, the muezzin's call to prayer had begun during our conversation -- he shook his head.

Not even a disparaging remark about those who would send him on his death mission -- that they were prepared to live in this world while sending others like Khaled to their fate -- could discourage him. "I am not going to become a 'shahed' [martyr] for people," he replied. "I am doing it for God."

It was the same old argument. We could produce a hundred good ways -- peaceful ways -- for him to resolve the injustices of this world; but the moment Khaled invoked the name of God, our suggestions became irrelevant. Rationality -- humanism, if you like -- simply withered away. If a Western president could invoke a war of "good against evil", his antagonists could do the same.

But is there a rational pattern to the suicide bombings in Iraq? The first incidents of their kind took place as American troops were actually advancing towards Baghdad. Near the Shia town of Nasiriyah, an off-duty Iraqi policeman, Sergeant Ali Jaffar Moussa Hamadi al-Nomani, drove a car bomb into an American Marine roadblock. Married, with five children, he had been a soldier in Iraq's 1980-88 war with Iran and had volunteered to fight the Americans after Saddam's occupation of Kuwait. Shortly afterwards, two Shia Muslim women did the same.

In its dying days, even Saddam Hussein's own government was shocked. "The U.S. administration is going to turn the whole world into people prepared to die for their nations," Saddam's vice-president, Taha Yassin Ramadan, warned. "All they can do now is turn themselves into bombs. If the B-52 bombs can now kill 500 or more in our war, then I'm sure that some operations by our freedom fighters will be able to kill 5,000." Ramadan even referred to "the martyr's moment of sublimity" -- an al-Qa'ida-like phrase that ill befitted a secular Baathist -- and it was clear that the vice-president was almost as surprised as the Americans. But only two days after the U.S. occupation of Baghdad, a woman killed herself while trying to explode a grenade among a group of American troops outside the capital.

Throughout the five years of war, suicide bombers have focused on Iraq's own American-trained security forces rather than U.S. troops. At least 365 attacks have been staged against Iraqi police or paramilitary forces. Their targets included at least 147 police stations (1,577 deaths), 43 army and police recruitment centers (939 deaths), 91 checkpoints (with a minimum of 564 fatalities), 92 security patrols (465 deaths) and numerous other police targets (escorts, convoys accompanying government ministers, etc). One of the recruitment centers -- in the center of Baghdad -- was assaulted by suicide bombers on eight separate occasions.

By contrast, suicide bombers have attacked only 24 U.S. bases at a cost of 100 American dead and 15 Iraqis, and 43 American patrols and checkpoints, during which 116 U.S. personnel were killed along with at least 56 civilians, 15 of whom appear to have been shot by American soldiers in response to the attacks, and another 26 of whom were children standing next to a U.S. patrol. Most of the Americans were killed west or north of Baghdad. Suicide attacks on the police concentrated on Baghdad and Mosul and the Sunni towns to the immediate north and south of Baghdad.

The trajectory of the suicide bombers shows a clear preference for military targets throughout the insurgency, with attacks on Americans gradually decreasing from 2006 and individual attacks on Iraqi police patrols and police recruits increasing over the past two years, especially in the 100 miles north of Baghdad. Just as the Islamist murderers of Algeria -- and their military opponents -- favored the fasting month of Ramadan for their bloodiest assaults in the 1990s, so the suicide bombers of Iraq mobilize on the eve of religious festivals. There was a pronounced drop in suicide assaults during the period of sectarian liquidations after 2005, either because the bombers feared interception by the throat-cutters of tribal gangs working their way across Baghdad, or because -- a grim possibility -- they were themselves being used in the sectarian murder campaign.

The most politically powerful attacks occurred inside military bases -- including the Green Zone in Baghdad (two in one day in October 2004) -- and against the U.N. headquarters (in which the U.N. envoy Sergio de Mello was killed) and the International Red Cross offices in Baghdad in 2003. By December 2003, British officials were warning that there were more "spectacular" suicide bombings to come, and the first suicide assault on a mosque took place in January of the following year when a bomber on a bicycle blew himself up in a Shia mosque in Baquba, killing four worshipers and wounding another 39.

Scarcely a year later, another suicider attacked a second Shia mosque, killing 14 worshippers and wounding 40. In February 2004, a man blew himself up on a bus outside the Shia mosque at Khadamiyah in Baghdad, killing 17 more Shia Muslims. Only a few days earlier, a man wearing an explosives belt killed four at yet another Shia mosque in the Doura district of Baghdad. The suicide campaign against Shia places of worship continued with an attack on a Mosul mosque in March 2005, killing at least 50, two more attacks in April that killed 26, and another in May in Baghdad.

While Shia mosques were being targeted in a deliberate campaign of provocation by al-Qa'ida-type suiciders, markets and hospitals frequented by Shia Muslims were also attacked. Almost all the 600 Iraqis killed by suicide bombs in May 2005 were Shias. After the partial demolition of the Shia mosque at Samarra on 22 February 2006, the "war of the mosques" began in earnest for the suicide bombers of Iraq. A Sunni mosque was blown up, with nine dead and "dozens" of wounded, and two Shia mosques were the target of suicide bombers in the same week. In early July 2006, seven suicide killers blew themselves up in Sunni and Shia mosques, leaving a total of 51 civilians dead. During the same period, a suicide bomber launched the first attack of its kind on Shia pilgrims arriving from Iran.

Bombers were to attack the funerals of those Shia they had killed, and even wedding parties. Schools, university campuses and shopping precincts were also now included on the target lists, most of the victims yet again being Shia. Over the past year, however, an increasing number of tribal leaders loyal to the Americans -- including Sattar Abu Risha, who publicly met President Bush on 13 September 2007, and former insurgents who have now joined the American-paid anti-al-Qa'ida militias -- have been blown apart by Sunni bombers.

Only about 10 of the suicide bombers have been identified. One of them, who attacked an Iraqi police unit in June 2005, turned out to be a former police commando called Abu Mohamed al-Dulaimi, but the Americans and the Iraqi authorities appear to have little intelligence on the provenance of these killers. On at least 27 occasions, Iraqi officials have claimed to know the identity of the killers -- saying that they had recovered passports and identity papers that proved their "foreign" origin -- but they have never produced these documents for public inspection. There is even doubt that the two suicide bombers who blew themselves up in a bird market earlier this year were in fact mentally retarded young women, as the government was to allege.

Indeed, nothing could better illustrate the lack of knowledge of the authorities than the two contradictory statements made by the Americans and their Iraqi protégés in March of last year. Just as David Satterfield, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's adviser on Iraq, was claiming that "90 per cent" of suicide bombers were crossing the border from Syria, Iraq's Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, was announcing that "most" of the suiciders came from Saudi Arabia -- which shares a long, common border with Iraq. Saudis would hardly waste their time traveling to Damascus to cross a border that their own country shared with Iraq. Many in Baghdad, including some government ministers, believe that the nationality of the bombers is much closer to home -- that they are, in fact, Iraqis.

It will be many years before we have a clearer idea of the number of bombers who have killed themselves in the Iraq war -- and of their origin. Long before The Independent's total figure reached 500, al-Qa'ida's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was boasting of "800 martyrs" among his supporters. And since al-Zarqawi's death brought not the slightest reduction in bombings, we must assume that there are many other "manipulators" in charge of Iraq's suicide squads.

Nor can we assume the motives for every mass murder. Who now remembers that the greatest individual number of victims of any suicide bombing died in two remote villages of the Kahtaniya region of Iraq, all Yazidis -- 516 of them slaughtered, another 525 wounded. A Yazidi girl, it seems, had fallen in love with a Sunni man and had been punished by her own people for this "honor crime": she had been stoned to death. The killers presumably came from the Sunni community.

One of George Bush's most insidious legacies in Iraq thus remains its most mysterious; the marriage of nationalism and spiritual ferocity, the birth of an unprecedentedly huge army of Muslims inspired by the idea of death.

Is There a Dark Side in All of Us?

On 28 April 2004, Philip Zimbardo was in Washington for a conference. The TV was on in his hotel room and photographs of the abuses carried out in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq by U.S. servicemen and women flashed across the screen. The images are ingrained in our psyche now, but then they were new. Naked men stacked in a pyramid with soldiers grinning alongside. A female soldier leading a prisoner around on a dog leash. Prisoners forced to simulate sexual acts on each other. A prisoner in a hood balancing precariously on a box in the belief he would be electrocuted if he moved. Like millions of others, Zimbardo was deeply shocked by what he saw, but for the professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, California, there was a disturbing element of familiarity.

"I had taken similar images myself 30 years earlier," he says. "And by similar, I mean prisoners with bags over their heads, prisoners stripped naked, prisoners made to do sexually degrading activities. It was very disturbing. [The scenes at Abu Ghraib] recreated emotionally the horrible things I not only saw but that I allowed to continue to happen." The images he is referring to came from one of the most infamous episodes in American academic history, the Stanford Prison Experiment -- a study Zimbardo led in 1971 into the psychological and behavioral effects of imprisonment that swiftly descended into scenes of cruelty and degradation.

Zimbardo hoped he would never see Americans behave so abominably again. The shock of the Abu Ghraib scandal three years ago dashed that hope -- and prompted the then-71-year-old to come to the defense of one of those accused of the terrible crimes committed in the Iraqi prison.

What took place on a peaceful Californian university campus nearly four decades ago still has the power to disturb. Eager to explore the way that "situation" can impact on behavior, the young psychologist enrolled students to spend two weeks in a simulated jail environment, where they would randomly be assigned roles as either prisoners or guards.

Zimbardo's volunteers were bright, liberal young men of good character, brimming with opposition to the Vietnam war and authority in general. All expressed a preference to be prisoners, a role they could relate to better. Yet within days the strong, rebellious "prisoners" had become depressed and hopeless. Two broke down emotionally, crushed by the behavior of the "guards", who had embraced their authoritarian roles in full, some becoming ever-more sadistic, others passively accepting the abuses taking place in front of them.

Transcripts of the experiment, published in Zimbardo's book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, record in terrifying detail the way reality slipped away from the participants. On the first day -- Sunday -- it is all self-conscious play-acting between college buddies. On Monday the prisoners start a rebellion, and the guards clamp down, using solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and intimidation. One refers to "these dangerous prisoners". They have to be prevented from using physical force.

Control techniques become more creative and sadistic. The prisoners are forced to repeat their numbers over and over at roll call, and to sing them. They are woken repeatedly in the night. Their blankets are rolled in dirt and they are ordered painstakingly to pick them clean of burrs. They are harangued and pitted against one another, forced to humiliate each other, pulled in and out of solitary confinement.

On day four, a priest visits. Prisoner 819 is in tears, his hands shaking. Rather than question the experiment, the priest tells him, "You're going to have to get less emotional." Later, a guard leads the inmates in chanting "Prisoner 819 did a bad thing!" and blaming him for their poor conditions.

Zimbardo finds 819 covering his ears, "a quivering mess, hysterical", and says it is time to go home. But 819 refuses to leave until he has proved to his fellow prisoners that he isn't "bad". "Listen carefully to me, you're not 819," says Zimbardo. "You are Stewart and my name is Dr Zimbardo. I am a psychologist not a prison superintendent, and this is not a real prison."819 stops sobbing "and looks like a small child awakening from a nightmare", according to Zimbardo. But it doesn't seem to occur to him that things are going too far.

Guard Hellmann, leader of the night shift, plumbs new depths. He wakes up the prisoners to shout abuse in their faces. He forces them to play leapfrog dressed only in smocks, their genitals exposed. A new prisoner, 416, replaces 819, and brings fresh perspective. "I was terrified by each new shift of guards," he says. "I knew by the first evening that I had done something foolish to volunteer for this study."

The study is scheduled to run for two weeks. On the evening of Thursday, the fifth day, Zimbardo's girlfriend, Christina Maslach, also a psychologist, comes to meet him for dinner. She is confronted by a line of prisoners en route to the lavatory, bags over their heads, chained together by the ankles. "What you're doing to these boys is a terrible thing," she tells Zimbardo. "Don't you understand this is a crucible of human behavior?" he asks. "We are seeing things no one has witnessed before in such a situation." She tells him this has made her question their relationship, and the person he is.

Downstairs, Guard Hellmann is yelling at the prisoners. "See that hole in the ground? Now do 25 push-ups, fucking that hole. You hear me?" Three prisoners are forced to be "female camels", bent over, their naked bottoms exposed. Others are told to "hump" them and they simulate sodomy. Zimbardo ends the experiment the following morning.

To read the transcripts or watch the footage is to follow a rapid and dramatic collapse of human decency, resilience and perspective. And so it should be, says Zimbardo. "Evil is a slippery slope," he says. "Each day is a platform for the abuses of the next day. Each day is only slightly worse than the previous day. Once you don't object to those first steps it is easy to say, 'Well, it's only a little worse then yesterday.' And you become morally acclimatised to this kind of evil."

The parallels to atrocities of this and the last century -- atrocities we believe we are distanced from -- are glaring. The behavior of ordinary Germans under the Nazis. The slaughter of Tutsis by their neighbors, the Hutus, in Rwanda. How vulnerable are we to emulating such murderous behavior in similarly extreme circumstances? Very, says Zimbardo. "We are unaware of how much our behavior is influenced by situations, as the situations we are in are usually benign. The Stanford experiment looks at what happens when you put people in a totally new situation, where they don't have habitual coping mechanisms. So they look around. What are other people doing? What is the appropriate way to behave in this new place? If you are a guard, the appropriate way to behave is to demonstrate that the prisoners are powerless and you are powerful."

The seeds of Zimbardo's research were planted in his childhood. Born in 1933 in the Bronx, he lived there until he was 23. "It was and is one of the worst ghettos in America," he says. "I knew good kids who went bad, who ran drugs and got in trouble, went to jail and got killed. And there were other kids who didn't. So I wondered, what makes good people go bad?"

The Stanford experiment caused a media storm and Zimbardo became a star, of sorts. He wrote about it and lectured on it, and life moved on. He married Christina Maslach and the couple had two daughters. His professional gaze turned to other themes, inspired by Stanford. He researched shyness -- "a psychological prison" -- and set up a clinic to treat it. He worked on time perspective ("a day in the experiment began to feel like several days"). And in 2002 he was elected president of the American Psychological Association. Stanford had long been "laid to rest." But when he saw the Abu Ghraib pictures, the past was stirred up again.

"When the American military and Bush administration immediately distanced themselves by saying Abu Ghraib was the work of a few bad apples, I was suspicious," he says. "I knew that in the Stanford experiment, I began with good apples and that it was the place that corrupted them, so my hypothesis was that maybe these soldiers were good apples and it was the barrel at Abu Ghraib that corrupted them."

His response was twofold. First, he went back to the 12 hours of videotape he had from the Stanford Prison Experiment, reviewed it with his students, and made full transcripts. "I decided I really had to present it in great detail because the evil was in the words. It was in how the guards created a psychological system that crushed the prisoners."

Second, he agreed to appear as an expert witness for one of the defendants in the Abu Ghraib trial, Staff Sergeant ' Ivan "Chip" Frederick II. Frederick was the military policeman in charge of the night shift on tiers 1A and 1B, the site of the abuses, and features in some of the pictures.

Zimbardo threw himself into the case, counseling Frederick and his wife. He sought out and examined Frederick's records (unstinting dedication in the service of his country and family). He had Frederick undergo psychological tests (good man vulnerable to isolation, strong desire for approval). He investigated Abu Ghraib, and the conditions there. He made presentations to Frederick's military trial -- but to little or no effect: Frederick was convicted of five charges of abusing Iraqi detainees and received an eight-year sentence.

"There was a real injustice," says Zimbardo. "Colonel Larry James, a psychologist sent to Abu Ghraib to fix it, said that 50 times he was within 100 yards of being blown up or shot. It was 130 degrees. There was feces everywhere; rats running around; 1,000 prisoners, many naked; people screaming. It was hell." Frederick, he explains, worked 12-hour shifts in these conditions without a night off in 40 days. When he finished his shift he would sleep in a cell, "so he was always in prison". Not once in three months did a senior officer come down to his area, says Zimbardo.

In Level 1A, the interrogation center run by the CIA, military intelligence and civilian contractors were looking for information on the insurgency and getting nowhere. They put pressure on Frederick's team to "take the gloves off and soften the prisoners up", says Zimbardo. There is some evidence, he adds, "that the early pictures were staged" so they could show them to other detainees before their interrogation. "Once they got permission to break those prisoners and take those pictures, you have unleashed the dogs."

The sexual abuse was the next stage. "When you have a unit of men and women soldiers, and hundreds of prisoners running around naked, there is a sexual dynamic. Some of those soldiers are having sex with each other, and some of the people arrested were prostitutes. It was a lawless hell.

"When you ask Chip why he did these terrible things, he says 'I don't know what came over me.' He had lost his reason, perspective and judgment. If you had any sense of reason, you would never put yourself in the picture. You are making yourself accused. What were they thinking to do that? The answer is that they weren't thinking."

With Abu Ghraib, Zimbardo extended his theories beyond the "situation" to the "system" that created it. "I would point the finger as high as [President] Bush. With his excessive focus on fear of terrorism, with the lawyers who legalize the definition of torture, he creates the system."

In both situations -- and in others where abuse escalates -- Zimbardo isolates common factors. The first is "deindividuation": the perpetrators become anonymous and stop acting as individuals. The guards in Abu Ghraib were in the habit of removing identifying details on their uniforms; the Stanford experiment guards wore mirrored sunglasses that hid their eyes. The second factor is dehumanization: the prisoners in both situations were seen as hostile and "other". Their physical condition was poor, they smelt, and they were often naked -- like animals. Third, such abuse requires bystander apathy -- the failure of the majority who may not be actively involved to do anything to stop it.

The pressure to go along with the escalation of abuse is huge, says Zimbardo, and would claim most of us. "We all have this egocentric bias to say, 'I would be the hero, I would blow the whistle,'" he says. "But other things being equal, you would do what they did. Though there are always a few who resist. And that is the hope of humankind."

Usually the whistleblower is an outsider, who views the situation with fresh eyes. In his experiment it was Christina. At Abu Ghraib it was 24-year-old reservist Joe Darby, who was shown images of the abuses by a fellow soldier.

At first he thought they were "pretty funny", but found he "could not stop thinking about it". He said that what was happening "violated everything I believed personally". After three agonizing days of feeling torn between loyalty to his friends and to his moral conscience, Darby blew the whistle.

Zimbardo is now researching heroes such as Darby, "ordinary people who do extraordinary things when other people are doing bad or doing nothing". His findings so far indicate that there is nothing in background, belief or personality that would predict who these people will be. The only certain thing, he says, is that "heroes are always deviants": they always question authority. "We just did a study in Italy, where we put people in a situation when authority makes you do something bad, to see who defied. Nothing we measured before would have predicted the outcome. All the people who defied could say is that they were more concerned about this other person than about the experiment or the authority. They showed an ability to empathize."

Most of us live in happy denial; we are never tested. I wonder how it must feel to have been tested as Zimbardo was, and to have been found wanting. He got caught up in the Stanford experiment; enmeshed in the values of the false system he had created, manipulative in protecting it, seemingly impervious to the suffering in front of him.

As a teenager Zimbardo read J.M. Barrie's Admiral Crichton -- the tale of the silent, honorable butler transformed into a leader when the family he works for are marooned on a desert island, had a big effect. "It was one of the early awarenesses I had of the power of the situation." But this awareness did little to affect his own behavior. "Did [Stanford] change my sense of myself? Absolutely. I grew up with the police as the enemy, they're never for you. And I become that thing that all my life I am against.

"At the time, you are not shocked, you are embedded in the situation. There's no guilt, no remorse, because there's no perspective. Afterwards, of course, I was ashamed. I had changed within five days. That is the more powerful lesson of the experiment than how the guards got into it: they were kids, I was a grown-up."

The Stanford Prison Experiment is one of very few academic studies to have made it into the public consciousness. I ask Dr Peter Banister, head of psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University and an expert in prisons, how it is regarded within the discipline. He says it is seen as important, but not necessarily for its findings. "In hindsight it is viewed as being ethically dubious; it is regularly used now in exercises concerning ethical problems in psychology."

"At the time there was no criticism," says Zimbardo. "It was a different era. If I had done the study right now, there is no question that I would be sued by every guard and every prisoner. These studies are in ethical time capsules. They cannot be done in a legitimate way now. In fact, the pendulum has gone so far in the other direction, you can't even ask questions that might be stressful. So my feelings are mixed. Do I want to be part of an infamous study? No."

Zimbardo and his wife live in a four-story house overlooking San Francisco Bay, on the famous Lombard Street. Tourists flock outside, and it is all brightness and light, a long way from evil. The lighthouse beam from Alcatraz Prison, out in the bay, shines into his living-room. "[Stanford] was a little week-long study," he says, "but it has affected my whole life."

'The Lucifer Effect' by Philip Zimbardo (Rider, £8.99) is published in paperback on Thursday

Our dark materials: When the Lucifer Effect strikes

The Milgram Experiment

In the 1960s, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram explored people's willingness to inflict pain on others when ordered to do so. A subject was ordered by a "teacher" in a lab coat to administer increasingly powerful electric shocks to a "learner" whenever the learner answered a question incorrectly (teacher and learner were role-playing and no shocks were administered). When the learner started screaming from pain, many subjects questioned whether to carry on, but most continued after being assured they would not be held accountable. Milgram carried out his first experiment three months after the start of the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. As Milgram put it, "Could it be that Eichmann and his million accomplices in the Holocaust were just following orders? Could we call them all accomplices?"

Deepcut barracks deaths

Between 1995 and 2002, four young army recruits -- Sean Benton, Cheryl James, Geoff Gray and James Collinson -- were found dead as a result of bullet wounds at Princess Royal Barracks in Deepcut, Surrey. The army said the wounds that caused their deaths were self-inflicted while on sentry duty. A BBC Panorama documentary in 2002 then put forward what it claimed was evidence of systematic beatings and abuse at the barracks, alleging that the camp was "dominated by fear, violence and sexual harassment". The possibility of a public inquiry was ruled out. An independent review in 2006 criticised the mistreatment of trainees at Deepcut, but concluded that the deaths were self-inflicted.

Russian Army brutalities

In 2006, Sergeant Alexander Sivyakov of the Russian Army was convicted of beating an 18-year-old private in his care so badly that his legs and genitals had to be removed. The case outraged Russian society, leading to calls for the government to end its policy of national service. In 2004, the Human Rights Watch published a lengthy report about abuses in the army, in which it is alleged that senior NCOs brutally "initiate" new recruits by dedovshchina ("The rule of the grandfathers"). According to The New York Times, at least 292 Russian soldiers were killed by dedovshchina in 2005 and there were 3,500 reports of abuse. The Russian military concedes that 16 of the recruits were murdered, but says the remainder committed suicide. The office of Russia's chief military prosecutor claimed the army was working hard to stamp out abuse.

Welsh children's homes abuse scandal

In February 2000, the North Wales children's homes inquiry, headed by Ronald Waterhouse QC, led to the publication of "The Waterhouse Report", which uncovered one of the 20th century's biggest British child-abuse scandals. It alleged that at least 650 children had been abused in homes in Clwyd and Gwynedd in the 1970s and 1980s. The report also suggested the Welsh Social Services Inspectorate had carried out checks on only five homes over seven years, and noted that complaints were generally dismissed, police investigations poorly carried out and appeals to government ministers ignored. In the wake of the report, it was estimated that 100 people were prosecuted for abusing children in their care, and around 50 more were investigated. At least 12 of the abused children committed suicide, while many more lived troubled lives. Victims included Steven Messham, who claimed to have been abused by over 40 people at the Bryn Estyn children's home in Wrexham. He has since spent much of his life in psychiatric hospitals.

The New Invasion of Iraq

Up to 10,000 Turkish troops launch an incursion which threatens to destabilize the country's only peaceful region.

A new crisis has exploded in Iraq after Turkish troops, supported by attack planes and Cobra helicopters, yesterday launched a major ground offensive into Iraqi Kurdistan.

The invading Turkish soldiers are in pursuit of Kurdish guerrillas hiding in the mountains. They are seeking to destroy the camps of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) along the border between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. "Thousands of troops have crossed the border and thousands more are waiting at the border to join them if necessary," said a Turkish military source.

"There are severe clashes," said Ahmed Danees, the head of foreign relations for the PKK. "Two Turkish soldiers have been killed and eight wounded. There are no PKK casualties." Turkish television said that the number of Turkish troops involved was between 3,000 and 10,000, and they had moved 16 miles inside Iraq.

But the escalating Turkish attacks are destabilizing the Kurdish region of Iraq which is the one peaceful part of the country and has visibly benefited from the US invasion.

The Iraqi Kurds are America's closest allies in Iraq and the only Iraqi community to support fully the US occupation. The president of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, said recently he felt let down by the failure of the Iraqi government in Baghdad to stop Turkish bombing raids on Iraqi territory.

The incursion is embarrassing for the US, which tried to avert it, because the American military provides intelligence to the Turkish armed forces about the location of the camps of Turkish Kurd fighters. Immediately before the operation began, the Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, called President George Bush to warn him.

The US and the Iraqi government are eager to play down the extent of the invasion. Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, a US spokesman for Iraq, said: "We understand [it] is an operation of limited duration to specifically target PKK terrorists in that region." The Iraqi Foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, claimed that only a few hundred Turkish troops were in Iraq.

But since last year Turkey has succeeded, by making limited incursions into Kurdistan, in establishing a de facto right to intervene militarily in Kurdistan whenever it feels like it.

Many Iraqi Kurdish leaders are convinced that a hidden aim of the Turkish attack is to undermine the Kurdish region, which enjoys autonomous rights close to statehood. Ankara has always seen the semi-independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Kurds' claim to the oil city of Kirkuk, as providing a dangerous example for Kurds in Turkey who are also demanding autonomy.

Many Turkish companies carrying out construction contracts in the region have already left. And businesses that remain are frightened that Ankara will close Iraqi Kurdistan's lifeline over the Harbour Bridge into Turkey.

During the 1990s the Turkish army carried out repeated attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan with the tacit permission of Saddam Hussein, but this is the first significant offensive since the US invasion of 2003. "A land operation is a whole new level," said the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, adding that the incursion was "not the greatest news."

The Turkish army is unlikely to do much damage to the PKK, which has some 2,500 fighters hidden in a mountainous area that has few roads, with snow drifts making tracks impassable.

The Turkish ground offensive was preceded by bombing. "We were certain yesterday after this bombing that a military operation would take place and we got ready for it," said Mr Danees, adding that bombing and artillery had destroyed three bridges on the Iraq-Turkish border as well as a PKK cemetery.

Another reason why Turkey has launched its offensive now has as much to do with Turkish internal politics as it does with any threat posed by the PKK. The PKK launched a military struggle on behalf of the Kurdish minority in eastern Turkey in 1984 which lasted until the PKK's leader Abdullah Ocalan was seized in Kenya in 1999 and later put on trial in Turkey. The PKK has been losing support ever since among the Turkish Kurds, but at the end of last year it escalated guerrilla attacks, killing some 40 Turkish soldiers.

Limited though the PKK's military activity has been, the Turkish army has used it to bolster its waning political strength. For its part, the mildly Islamic government of Mr Erdogan is frightened of being outflanked by jingoistic nationalists supporting the military. Mr Erdogan has pointed out that previous Turkish army incursions into Kurdistan in the 1990s all failed to dislodge the PKK.

The area which the Turkish army has entered in Iraqi Kurdistan is mostly desolate, with broken terrain in which bands of guerrillas can take refuge. The PKK says it has left its former bases and broken up into small units. The main bases of the PKK are along Iraq's border with Iran, notably in the Kandil mountains, to the south of where the Turkish troops entered. At this time of year the villagers, many of them herders and shepherds, leave their houses and live in the towns in the plain below the mountains until the snow melts.

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How the Spooks Took over the News

Editor's note: This is an edited excerpt from Nick Davies' book, Flat Earth News: An Award-Winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media (Chatto & Windus). Davies' book has created enormous controversy in the UK, where many of the newsmakers Davies discusses in the book have fired back with op-eds accusing Davies of relying on the same anonymous sourcing that he condemns the commercial press for using in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.

It’s not surprising that the book strikes a tender spot in many a news-maker. It is the deepest examination of the links between the "public diplomacy" -- sometimes known as propaganda -- pushed by the Bush administration and its allies, and the media’s uncritical repetition of the claims made to justify the invasion.

It's easy to forget just how easy it was to sell an unprovoked attack on a sovereign state. It was the media, after all, that promulgated the novel idea that if Saddam Hussein possessed "weapons of mass destruction," that was in and of itself a justification to go to war. How did the issue of "WMD" become a proxy for the more important question of whether Iraq was a credible threat to the United States and its allies. At the time of the invasion, there were close to 40 countries suspected of having an illicit weapons program. Twelve of them were considered "hostile" to the United States and its allies. Yet, the administration claimed that possession of old chemical or biological munitions was a de facto justification for attacking the only country among the twelve that was well-contained; a country whose air-space and imports and exports were under international control. The media embraced the idea uncritically, never mind that Saddam Hussein had not been rattling his saber or threatening any offensive action against another state.

Hussein was in a great position for a tin-pot dictator -- he and his cronies had extracted over $10 billion in corporate kick-backs and bribes which the Right spun as a UN scandal rather that what it was: the largest corporate bribery scandal in history -- and he was able to blame all of his country’s domestic woes on the U.S./British sanctions program that strangled the country.

It’s always been a curiosity that public opinion could be manipulated so comprehensively, and Davies provides one more piece of the puzzle explaining where our media culture is today.

How the Spooks Took Over the News
by Nick Davies
On the morning of 9 February 2004, The New York Times carried an exclusive and alarming story. The paper's Baghdad correspondent, Dexter Filkins, reported that US officials had obtained a 17-page letter, believed to have been written by the notorious terrorist Abu Musab al Zarqawi to the "inner circle" of al-Qa'ida's leadership, urging them to accept that the best way to beat US forces in Iraq was effectively to start a civil war.

The letter argued that al-Qa'ida, which is a Sunni network, should attack the Shia population of Iraq: "It is the only way to prolong the duration of the fight between the infidels and us. If we succeed in dragging them into a sectarian war, this will awaken the sleepy Sunnis."

Later that day, at a regular US press briefing in Baghdad, US General Mark Kimmitt dealt with a string of questions about the New York Times report: "We believe the report and the document is credible, and we take the report seriously… It is clearly a plan on the part of outsiders to come in to this country and spark civil war, create sectarian violence, try to expose fissures in this society." The story went on to news agency wires and, within 24 hours, it was running around the world.

There is very good reason to believe that that letter was a fake -- and a significant one because there is equally good reason to believe that it was one product among many from a new machinery of propaganda which has been created by the United States and its allies since the terrorist attacks of September 2001.

For the first time in human history, there is a concerted strategy to manipulate global perception. And the mass media are operating as its compliant assistants, failing both to resist it and to expose it.

The sheer ease with which this machinery has been able to do its work reflects a creeping structural weakness which now afflicts the production of our news. I've spent the last two years researching a book about falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media.

The "Zarqawi letter" which made it on to the front page of the New York Times in February 2004 was one of a sequence of highly suspect documents which were said to have been written either by or to Zarqawi and which were fed into news media.

This material is being generated, in part, by intelligence agencies who continue to work without effective oversight; and also by a new and essentially benign structure of "strategic communications" which was originally designed by doves in the Pentagon and Nato who wanted to use subtle and non-violent tactics to deal with Islamist terrorism but whose efforts are poorly regulated and badly supervised with the result that some of its practitioners are breaking loose and engaging in the black arts of propaganda.

Like the new propaganda machine as a whole, the Zarqawi story was born in the high tension after the attacks of September 2001. At that time, he was a painful thorn in the side of the Jordanian authorities, an Islamist radical who was determined to overthrow the royal family. But he was nothing to do with al-Q'aida. Indeed, he had specifically rejected attempts by Bin Laden to recruit him, because he was not interested in targeting the West.

Nevertheless, when US intelligence battered on the doors of allied governments in search of information about al-Q'aida, the Jordanian authorities -- anxious to please the Americans and perhaps keen to make life more difficult for their native enemy -- threw up his name along with other suspects. Soon he started to show up as a minor figure in US news stories -- stories which were factually weak, often contradictory and already using the Jordanians as a tool of political convenience.

Then, on October 7, 2002, for the first time, somebody referred to him on the record. In a nationally televised speech in Cincinnati, President George Bush spoke of "high-level contacts" between al-Q'aida and Iraq and said: "Some al-Q'aida leaders who fled Afghanistan, went to Iraq. These include one very senior al-Q'aida leader who received medical treatment in Baghdad this year, and who has been associated with planning for chemical and biological attacks."

This coincided with a crucial vote in Congress in which the president was seeking authority to use military force against Iraq. Bush never named the man he was referring to but, as the Los Angeles Times among many others soon reported: "In a speech [on] Monday, Bush referred to a senior member of al-Q'aida who received medical treatment in Iraq. US officials said yesterday that was Abu al Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian, who lost a leg during the US war in Afghanistan."

Even now, Zarqawi was a footnote, not a headline, but the flow of stories about him finally broke through and flooded the global media on 5 February 2003, when the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, addressed the UN Security Council, arguing that Iraq must be invaded: first, to stop its development of weapons of mass destruction; and second, to break its ties with al-Q'aida.

Powell claimed that "Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al Zarqawi"; that Zarqawi's base in Iraq was a camp for "poison and explosive training"; that he was "an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al-Q'aida lieutenants"; that he "fought in the Afghan war more than a decade ago"; that "Zarqawi and his network have plotted terrorist actions against countries, including France, Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany and Russia."

Courtesy of post-war Senate intelligence inquiries; evidence disclosed in several European trials; and the courageous work of a handful of journalists who broke away from the pack, we now know that every single one of those statements was entirely false. But that didn't matter: it was a big story. News organizations sucked it in and regurgitated it for their trusting consumers.

So, who exactly is producing fiction for the media? Who wrote the Zarqawi letters? Who created the fantasy story about Osama bin Laden using a network of subterranean bases in Afghanistan, complete with offices, dormitories, arms depots, electricity and ventilation systems? Who fed the media with tales of the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, suffering brain seizures and sitting in stationery cars turning the wheel and making a noise like an engine? Who came up with the idea that Iranian ayatollahs have been encouraging sex with animals and girls of only nine?

Some of this comes from freelance political agitators. It was an Iranian opposition group, for example, which was behind the story that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was jailing people for texting each other jokes about him. And notoriously it was Iraqi exiles who supplied the global media with a dirty stream of disinformation about Saddam Hussein.

But clearly a great deal of this carries the fingerprints of officialdom. The Pentagon has now designated "information operations" as its fifth "core competency" alongside land, sea, air and special forces. Since October 2006, every brigade, division and corps in the US military has had its own "psyop" element producing output for local media. This military activity is linked to the State Department's campaign of "public diplomacy" which includes funding radio stations and news websites. In Britain, the Directorate of Targeting and Information Operations in the Ministry of Defense works with specialists from 15 UK psyops, based at the defense Intelligence and Security School at Chicksands in Bedfordshire.

In the case of British intelligence, you can see this combination of reckless propaganda and failure of oversight at work in the case of Operation Mass Appeal. This was exposed by the former UN arms inspector Scott Ritter, who describes in his book, Iraq Confidential, how, in London in June 1998, he was introduced to two "black propaganda specialists" from MI6 who wanted him to give them material which they could spread through "editors and writers who work with us from time to time."

In interviews for Flat Earth News, Ritter described how, between December 1997 and June 1998, he had three meetings with MI6 officers who wanted him to give them raw intelligence reports on Iraqi arms procurement. The significance of these reports was that they were all unconfirmed and so none was being used in assessing Iraqi activity. Yet MI6 was happy to use them to plant stories in the media. Beyond that, there is worrying evidence that, when Lord Butler asked MI6 about this during his inquiry into intelligence around the invasion of Iraq, MI6 lied to him.

Ultimately, the US has run into trouble with its propaganda in Iraq, particularly with its use of the Zarqawi story. In May 2006, when yet another of his alleged letters was handed out to reporters in the Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad, finally it was widely regarded as suspect and ignored by just about every single media outlet.

Arguably, even worse than this loss of credibility, according to British defense sources, the US campaign on Zarqawi eventually succeeded in creating its own reality. By elevating him from his position as one fighter among a mass of conflicting groups, the US campaign to "villainise Zarqawi" glamorised him with its enemy audience, making it easier for him to raise funds, to attract "unsponsored" foreign fighters, to make alliances with Sunni Iraqis and to score huge impact with his own media maneuvers. Finally, in December 2004, Osama bin Laden gave in to this constructed reality, buried his differences with the Jordanian and declared him the leader of al-Q'aida's resistance to the American occupation.

Afghan Journalist Jailed for Translating Koran

In the Soviet-occupied Kabul of the late 1980s, Ahmed Ghous Zalmai was a charismatic television and radio host, the people's favorite enemy of the state. He survived the Soviet tyranny -- but would not be so fortunate under the Western-backed "democracy" of President Hamid Karzai. Since October 2007, he has been in prison for helping to distribute translated copies of the Koran.

Afghanistan in the 1980s was a police state and a generation of intellectuals and educated or influential people was already decaying inside the notorious Puli Charkhi prison.

Mr. Zalmai started the first Afghan open talk radio called "Voice of the People." Callers didn't have to identify themselves and Mr. Zalmai took their complaints to the relevant authorities, demanding a response. The program was eventually brought under control, but the precedent was set; Mr. Zalmai was already hosting other programs.

He found a way of turning the rhetoric of the Communist state on its head -- using the language of propaganda to point out the government's failures, challenging the authorities to answer the people they claimed to serve.

After the fall of the Communist regime in 1992, Mr. Zalmai became a cultural attaché to the mujahedin government at the Afghan embassy in Tajikistan.

Eventually he moved to the Netherlands as a refugee, until he received a formal invitation from the new Afghan government, asking him to return to take up an important post with the official Afghan TV and Radio. Mr. Zalmai moved back to Kabul with his family to return to his profession. He became the president of the Association of Afghan Journalists and spokesman for the Attorney General's department (Saranwal) of the Afghan government.

When, as a teenager, I got the job of co-hosting a youth radio show with him, I was envied by peers and strangers alike. What people loved and feared about him was not just his good looks, dress style and the fact that he spoke French, but his ability to encourage criticism at a time when other media personalities were either fleeing the country, or too frightened to risk their positions.

Mr. Zalmai's journalist colleagues claim that the Attorney General himself, Zabar Sabit, an overly religious man, played a significant role in Mr. Zalmai's arrest. Mr. Sabit is widely regarded as sympathetic towards the Taliban; some say he is proving his credentials because he is waiting for the Taliban's return to power. Mr. Zalmai and his friend are accused of distributing a Koran which consists of "mistakes" and "misconceptions".

The Farsi (Persian) edition of the Koran -- Dari, the Afghan version of Persian, is one of Afghanistan's two official languages -- had been published in the United States but appeared in Afghanistan without its original Arabic text alongside. Mr. Zalmai had two other collaborators from the Saranwal with religious credentials to help him with the project, one of whom was also arrested. Small groups of students demonstrated against Mr. Zalmai even though he had no role in the translation.

He has been imprisoned without any formal charges and has been given no access to a lawyer. Whether belonging to the wrong ethnic class -- being a member of a well-known Sufi order -- or because he was regarded as a liberal, Western-thinking intellectual, Mr. Zalmai is paying for a crime he has not committed.

He has five children, and his family has been allowed to see him only once since his arrest. Despite an outcry among Afghans in the West, there has been no interest in his case expressed by Western governments, least of all the United States.

The Koran was translated and published in Farsi decades ago. But in Afghanistan these days, the Taliban's growing influence and the sensitivity of the increasingly delegitimized Karzai government towards anything religious, are reason enough to teach others a lesson in servitude.

Plastic Is Killing our Oceans

One cigarette lighter, a toothbrush, a toy robot and a tampon applicator. The list of plastic items recovered from the stomach of a Laysan albatross chick that died on a remote Pacific island reads like a random assortment of everyday household objects.

It is now clear this chick is among many thousands of seabirds that have died from ingesting plastic debris, and nowhere in the world seems to be too isolated for this deadly form of marine pollution.

Dutch scientists have found that more than nine out of 10 European fulmars -- seabirds that eat at sea -- die with plastic rubbish in their stomachs. A study of 560 fulmars from eight countries revealed they had ingested an average of 44 plastic items. The stomach of one fulmar that died in Belgium contained 1,603 separate scraps of plastic.

Birds are not the only ones to suffer. Turtles, whales, seals and sea lions have all eaten plastic. But the most sinister problem may be a hidden one at the other end of the food chain.

Small sand-hoppers, barnacles and lugworms have also been found to have ingested tiny fragments of plastic, some of which are thinner than a human hair. Apart from the physical damage these particles cause, they may also transfer toxic chemicals to creatures at the base of the marine food web.

It is fairly well established that certain toxins in the ocean, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), the pesticide DDT and other potentially dangerous substances, can become concentrated on the surface of plastic debris.

The reason why plastic is so ubiquitous in our homes and offices, of course, is for the same reason why it builds up in the wider environment: it is resilient and takes years to break down into its constituent molecules.

This is even more so in the marine environment, where the sea tends to protect plastic from the ultraviolet light that helps to break it down.

In fact, it is estimated that much of the plastic rubbish that fell into the sea 50 years ago is still there today, either floating in the huge circulating "gyres" of the Pacific or sitting on the seabed waiting to be gobbled up by a passing sea creature.

It is estimated that the amount of plastic we are consuming will continue to grow substantially, by as much as a third in the space of a single decade in the case of each American consumer.

The only way to deal with the growing threat plastic poses to wildlife and the environment is to curb our consumption and to no longer treat plastic as an innocuous disposable commodity. Indeed, there is now a case for it to be treated as a potentially toxic waste product with the stiffest sanctions for its desultory disposal.

Is a Small Island in the Indian Ocean Holding Prisoners in the War on Terror?

MPs and human rights groups have accused ministers of a coverup over government knowledge of rendition flights and the use of British military bases to hold suspects after the United States launched its war on terror more than six years ago.

Now ministers have blocked an attempt by an influential parliamentary committee to secure the release of secret military papers that they believe will reveal whether the British island territory of Diego Garcia was used as a detention center for rendition prisoners.

MPs from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition used powers under the Freedom of Information Act to request minutes of U.S./U.K. political military talks held in Washington in September last year.

But the government has refused to release the papers claiming that to do so "would prejudice the defense" of territory by "exposing plans to counter possible terrorist attacks." They also say it could damage diplomatic relations between Britain and America.

The Parliamentary Group chairman, Andrew Tyrie MP, says this is another example of government obfuscation in his committee's attempt to get to the truth about the use of state-sanctioned kidnapping on the British island. He has launched an appeal against the Foreign Office decision not to release the Diego Garcia documents.

"Coverup and obfuscation by the U.K. government have hampered efforts to discover the truth about British involvement in the U.S. rendition program from day one," he says. "There have been repeated allegations that the U.S. … has used the British territory of Diego Garcia in its rendition program. Yet the government has done next to nothing to investigate them, and continues to rely on U.S. assurances which have been called into question by the Intelligence and Security Committee."

The government has been careful to say as little as possible about what it does or doesn't know about U.S. "ghost flights" in which suspects are flown from secret prisons to third-party state detention centers. In the past it has relied on U.S. assurances that no British territory loaned to the Americans has or is being used to facilitate this illegal activity.

But the U.K. human rights charity Reprieve has uncovered credible evidence that it believes casts doubt on these assurances. In its report on rendition published last year it says that Diego Garcia has been the subject of repeated, credible and concurrent claims that the island has played a major role in the U.S. system of renditions and secret detention.

Reprieve submits that the United Kingdom's failure to conduct a prompt, independent and effective inquiry into these claims is a further clear breach of its duties under international and domestic law.

"Unlike the treatment of our clients who were apparently held there without charges or trial, we are very glad for the U.K. government to have a fair hearing before standing condemned of complicity in kidnapping and abuse of prisoners," says Clive Stafford Smith, director of Reprieve. "But they cannot simply refuse to hold a public hearing at all and expect us to believe their denials, when senior U.S. officials have more than once admitted that Diego Garcia has been used in the illegal rendition program."

"It is the policy of extraordinary rendition which damages the public interest, not allowing the truth to be told about it," says Tyrie. "That is why I am appealing against this decision and will continue to do what I can to uncover the truth about rendition and Diego Garcia."

In a separate move, the MPs have written to an American general asking him to give evidence about rendition on the Indian Ocean island. Gen. Barry McCaffrey has twice claimed in interviews with the media that detainees are being held by the U.S. military on the island.

Curing and Destigmatizing Incontinence

Victory! Finishing the annual charity fun-run was great, but it wasn't just a sporting triumph. For me, jogging for six miles with dry shorts was a very precious personal best. For the last two years I had been strenuously fighting stress incontinence -- sudden leaks of urine -- so perhaps I was a bit of a masochist to keep on taking part. But I knew that if I could do this run it would prove how much I had achieved -- and I had won.

Incontinence whiffs (excuse the pun) of old age, loss of control and nappy pads, yet sufferers range from young yummy mummies to 40 percent of women over 40, according to a U.K. urinary study carried out in 2000 by the Medical Research Council. The Incontinence Foundation confirms that there are six million weak bladders in the U.K., and one in three women leak when they laugh, cough, sneeze or lift heavy objects. In fact, the statistics are probably much higher, as many people, not surprisingly, won't admit they have a problem. I was one of those statistics, and my problem was kept strictly within the family.

Why don't we uncross our legs and rush for help? Quite simply, we cope and hope the problem will disappear. This was what I did. While I loved the idea of doing a fun-run, trying to hide the wetness wasn't so hilarious. Two extra-strength pantyliners couldn't contain the flow, which, despite squeezing tight (quite difficult while you are running), was like a constantly dripping tap. At the finish, I'd race to the loo with fresh knickers and talc before meeting friends in the pub. Already I'd given up aerobics, and tennis was inhibiting. Dancing and playing active games with the children caused problems, and increasingly I was dripping daily just from carrying heavy shopping or picking up children. Stress incontinence was blighting my life.

Stress incontinence is usually caused by the weakening of the pelvic-floor muscles (PFM) throughout pregnancy and childbirth, during which they take quite a beating. Stretching from front to back passage, these muscles act like a hammock supporting our waterworks, as well as the growing baby. It's interesting to note that while women's awareness of body care during the ante-natal period can verge on the obsessive, postnatally, it's a different story, where taking care of your body takes a low priority compared to embracing breastfeeding and a new routine. Most mothers recall leaving the maternity ward with a sheet of pelvic-floor exercises, following a brief chat with the physiotherapist. Breastfeeding aids the recovery of stomach and PFM elasticity, but some women never completely regain good tone. As menopause approaches, hormonal changes can further weaken the area.

It's a shame that more women don't seek help, because there are treatments out there. The first stop should be PFM physiotherapy, which brings about improvement in 85 percent of women.

These days, a higher priority is given to this area of women's health, confirms Katie Jeitz, senior physiotherapist at the Whittington Hospital in London. "Pelvic-floor health is promoted from early pregnancy. On discharge, women are given a health pack and we run one-to-one appointments and classes in specific cases. Often, it's five or 10 years later, when incontinence starts to interfere with lifestyle, that women seek help. A GP can refer women to physiotherapy, and the earlier the better. Women still don't know enough about their pelvic floors. We have to get over the taboo, talk about it with our girlfriends"

Katie Jeitz estimates that around 20-30 percent of her cases are young women, rising to 50 percent of women approaching or in menopause.

Feeling guilty that I hadn't done my PFM exercises religiously, and worrying that I might be thought vain and that it was all too late, I put off wasting my GP's time. Yet as an active person, and with menopause looming, the fact of losing it "down there" was my spur, and I was referred to a private women's health physiotherapist, Mrs. Ola Lawal. Before this, I'd been ignorant of the existence of such specialist physios, as I suspect most women are. She swept away my nervousness and explained the importance of re-educating my bladder.

"Stress incontinence is partly due to weakness of the pelvic-floor muscles. These support the pelvic organs, bladder, uterus and rectum, and there is a high chance of developing vagina prolapse, when any or all could start to down, because the muscles become too weak. People can suffer for years, due to embarrassment or assuming they have to live with it."

Determination strengthened, if not yet my pelvic floor, I first learnt to locate the muscles -- by squeezing tightly as if trying to stop peeing and passing wind at the same time. An internal examination decided that I was not prolapse material but my pelvic floor was weak. Next was the insertion of a periform probe linked to an EMG (electromyographic) bio-feedback machine, which measures and monitors muscle tone by emitting tingling electro pulses that wake up the muscles. Ola Lawal explains: "Apart from weakness, the reason people can't exercise the PFM well is because they have reduced sensation. If you can't feel what you are doing, you can't do it, and if you feel you can't do something, it becomes a chore and motivation lessens."

During the first of many weeks of treatment, I went home with an exercise regime to perform, complete with attached "stick", which would wave up and down between my legs (causing hilarity in the bedroom) as muscle tone increased. It was really no chore: I wove PF exercises into my daily routine, from sitting at traffic lights in the car to standing in supermarket queues. And there's an added bonus to achieving a toned PF with increased sensation: the sexual plus that comes with it.

Months later, my leaks had reduced dramatically and I felt fitter. My year-later check with Ola Lawal showed further improved muscle tone, but I was disappointed that, after many months of work, I could not stay completely dry during high-impact exercise. Although many women would be content with the success I had achieved, I was expecting more. I did not want to compromise my sport and I wanted to avoid degeneration during menopause. Ola suggested a last option: an operation to insert a TVT (tension-free vaginal tape). This improves the bladder neck angle, one of the things we need for continence.

Back to the GP for another referral, this time to consultant obstetrician and clinical director of Women's Health at the Whittington, Mr. Clive Spence-Jones. A specialist in urogynaecology (NHS and private), he is passionate on the subject of leaky waterworks.

The TVT was developed in Scandinavia. The operation involves making a small cut above the vagina and threading in a mesh underneath to support the urethra. The needle's exit and entry is via the lower abdomen. Having performed over 300 TVT operations, Spence-Jones explained the reasons for surgery.

The first step, and it was not a comfortable one, was to pass the indignities of a 30-minute plus urodynamic test, during which small tubes (catheters) are -- gently -- threaded up your front and back passages. These are slowly filled with fluid while a computer, attached to a specially adapted lavatory, measures how much your bladder can hold and whether you are able successfully to pee it all out again. Worse was jumping up and down with a full bladder and tubes attached to check the workings of bladder and sphincter. But I ticked all the correct boxes to progress on to the operation itself.

Thankfully, a general anaesthetic was agreed for that -- though the operation can be done under epidural. An overnight stay was needed post-op, and apart from a little weakness and delicate wobbliness around the lower abdomen, I was to take it easy for a few weeks, then gradually ease back into driving and sports.

The operation has been a total success, and one year later I'm still drip-free and feel like I have a new lease of life. I'm unaware of the tape and there are no visible scars, but what everyone has noticed is my new-found confidence. My only regret is not finding help sooner, and I urge any woman who feels the slightest pelvic weakness to stop suffering in silence, get control and get strong.

Even after the TVT, it's important to exercise, and for most women, exercise is the key to total pelvic success. Once you're toned down there, you'll find it easy to squeeze-hold at any time of the day. Better still, step your pelvic strength up a level with Pilates, and your body will feel and look better both inside and out.

Tighten up your muscles

Whether you suffer or not, it's vital to keep your bladder and pelvic-floor muscles strong and healthy. If you think you have a problem, have it checked at your GP or women's health clinic.

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