Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Be Prepared

Yet more violence in Iraq today. Today's Washington Post makes grim reading.
Grisly attacks and other sectarian violence unleashed by last week's bombing of a Shiite Muslim shrine have killed more than 1,300 Iraqis [update on this below], making the past few days the deadliest of the war outside of major U.S. offensives, according to Baghdad's main morgue. The toll was more than three times higher than the figure previously reported by the U.S. military and the news media.
Claiming the dead has become automated. Morgue workers directed families to a barred window in the narrow courtyard outside the main entrance. A computer screen angled to face the window flashed the contorted, staring faces of the dead: men shot in the mouth, men shot in the head, men covered with blood, men with bindings twisted around their necks.

Men and a few women in black abayas pressed up to the window's black bars as the reek of the bodies inside spilled out.
Is is impossible for a pampered westerner like myself to fully grasp the horrors of it. This merely offers a tiny glimpse into the sheer inhumanity of the situation. News reports today, even from Sky News, are reporting that Iraq is on the brink of civil war (Tim Marshall for Sky reported that the "country teeters on the brink" and that this is "the most dangerous period for four years".) In an interview with James Rubin on Sky, Sharif Ali bin al-Hussein, the man who would be king, said that historians will judge that the civil war started in 2005, not 2006. His view was that the media had failed to accurately report the scale of the tit-for-tat sectarian killings which have been going on for months. It may be an exaggeration to say that civil war has already started but the seriousness of the crisis is not in question.

The ICG report on Iraq says that the crisis could yet be controlled but warns that:
[R]egrettable though it is that this is necessary, the international community, including neighbouring states, should start planning for the contingency that Iraq will fall apart, so as to contain the inevitable fall-out on regional stability and security. Such an effort has been a taboo, but failure to anticipate such a possibility may lead to further disasters in the future.
Over the course of the last three years, many Iraqi leaders, political and religious, have made enormous efforts to try to prevent the break up of Iraq. And, genuinely, there are some truly heroic people in Iraq trying to maintain peace and stability. The many honest Iraqi election officials, working for democracy despite the death threats, are an insperation to us all.

The sectarian tensions, however, are not going away. On the contrary, every attack puts further pressure on already strained relationships. The bombing of the al-Askari shrine, and the reaction to it, will have a lasting impact on Shi'ites and Sunnis.

Yesterday, I noted that the clerics and religious Shi'ites of the UIA are the key to defusing the crisis. These Shi'ites are continually being attacked and sometimes killed by Sunni extremists and those extremists have suspected links to the Sunni political groups. To illustrate the difficulties the Shi'ites would have in compromising, here's a not perfect analogy. How likely is it that the Ulster Unionists would agree to a powersharing arrangment with Sinn Fein at a time when the IRA was still actively conducting it's "armed struggle" against unionists in Northern Ireland? This is obviously not a straight comparison but it does give some idea of the scale of the problem.

Like the IGC, I don't think all-out civil war is inevitable. (Unlike them, I have my doubts as to whether the continuing presence of US and UK troops is going to make any difference one way or the other though. More on that another time.) But civil war is an ever growing possibility. We are relying on the Shi'ites to compromise at at time when we, faced with a similar situation, almost certainly would not.

It is hard to know whether the coalition has contingencies in place to deal with the disintegration of Iraq if it does happen. They certainly should have but, at the moment, it'd obviously not be helpful for them to reveal any such plans. Realpolitik, and indeed just plain old politics, means that any planning for this contingency must be conducted in secret. We, the public, must trust that our elected representatives are acting in a competant and professional manner and have prepared for this eventuality.

That's a problem, of course. For those who opposed the war, the idea that we should trust our governments to act in this way is a joke which has long since ceased being funny. Even among those who support the war, there seems to be a growing acceptance that both the planning and the implementation of the policy has been very badly handled. Do you trust them to be able to plan for and implement an effective strategy against this scenario?

Any attempt to suggest that the incompetence and mismanagement of the UK and US governments is partly responsible for creating this situation will be met with howls of indignation in some quarters. The howls are, I presume, meant to drown out an uncomfortable truth. Iraq is today, after almost three years of inept coalition occupation*, very close to civil war.

We must hope that it doesn't some to that. For many Iraqis, it already has.

The 1,300 deaths reported by the WaPo may be questionable. Aljazeera report that Baghdad's main morgue has received 309 bodies since Wednesday. The BBC report that the Iraqi government, apparently in response to the WaPo claim, has announced an official death toll of around 400. Not a pleasant topic of conversation.

* It appears that some people dispute that the current situation is an occupation. Technically that may be true. To most Iraqis, I suspect it would also be considered to be sophistry of the highest order.

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Health of the Nation

Auntie makes me laugh sometimes. I'd just watched a BBC news report on the continuing problem of child obesity in the UK and logged on to blog about it. Right, start at the BBC homepage. Mmm... pancakes.

Totally disrupted by chain of thought actually. They do look awfully tasty.

Anyway, fat kids. Parents obviously have a responsibility. And government should not have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into agreeing to do something about improving the nutritional value of school dinners (in England. The Scottish Executive did something like this a wee while back). And they should obviously do more to promote physical exercise in schools. And the media...

Ach, it's no use. I'm off to the kitchen. I think there's some ice cream in the freezer.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

Crunch Time

The International Crisis Group (ICG) has released a report on the situation in Iraq*.
Iraqi political actors and the international community must act urgently to prevent a low-intensity conflict from escalating into an all-out civil war that could lead to Iraq's disintegration and destabilize the entire region.
The report argues that there is still the possibility that all-out civil war can be prevented. It offers policy recommendations designed to prevent the disintegration of the country. As listed by CNN and Reuters, the report:
  1. Calls for changes to the constitution Iraqi voters adopted in October that would foster the inclusion of Sunni Arabs.
  2. Warns against provisions that allow for the creation of a Shiite autonomous region in southern Iraq and calls for "establishing administrative federalism on the basis of provincial boundaries"
  3. Calls for a fair distribution of Iraq's oil wealth and the creation of an independent agency to prevent corruption.
  4. Urges the United States to continue to push for national unity, promote a constitution that ensures inclusiveness to all and help build up Iraq's security forces.
  5. Recommends that U.S. troop withdrawals should be "gradual" and must take into account the country's progress in politics and developing indigenous troops.
  6. Urged Iraqi leaders to disband militias and crack down on security forces who commit human rights abuses.
In short, the religious Shi'ite leaders have got to give concessions.

Most Shi'ite politicians favour the federal constitution, and the associated distribution of oil wealth, for obvious reasons. They maintain that it has been approved by referendum and that only minor alterations will be considered. (Al-Sadr, interestingly, does not like it. I suspect that's got a lot to do with his pretentions of grandeur. He reckons he could be the leader of unified Iraqi. No-one in the coalition will be claiming a victory if that ever happens though.) The Shi'ite politicians won the most seat in the election and, quite understandably, expect to be the dominant power in the new government.

What carrots can be offered to the Shi'ites to persuade them to give ground on these issues? There is, it seems to me, only one. If they make concessions, it might prevent civil war and the disintegration of Iraq. That's really all that can be offered and it is, it appears, in the balance.

Do the religious Shi'ite leaders want to keep Iraq together? At this juncture, it is worth pointing out that, for all that factions of the UIA have links to Iran, most Iraqis do have a strong sense of an Iraqi identity. The religious Shi'ites don't want to be part of Greater Iran; what they want is to be an independent country with friendly relations with their Persian Shi'ite neighbours. It is this Iraqi nationalism, in large part, which has kept the conflict in check.

But that nationalism is being damaged by the long steady rise of (already existing) sectarian tensions since the fall of Saddam. Will the religious Shi'ites be content to play but one part in a unified Iraq? Will they cede powers which they believe are rightfully theirs to Sunni groups in the hope that this will provide stability? Or will they now prefer to keep the powers they have gained, even if that means civil war? In crude terms, that is the decision they must make.

As for disbanding the militias, the ministry of defence is talking a good game.
Director of operations Maj Gen Abdul Aziz Jasim said anyone carrying weapons who was not in the legitimate security forces would be treated as a terrorist.
But that, it should be obvious, is bluster, not a sustainable position. Iraq is chock full of armed militias (and indeed just people with AK 47's). If these militias resist disarmament, the situation would descend into chaos in short order. The only way to disband the militias is to persuade those who belong to them and those who control them that it is in their best interest. As above, this is primarily a decision for religious Shi'ite leaders. Will they agree to disband the militias in the current security environment?

The country, and possibly the stability of the region, is very much in their hands.

* I'd normally have a look for the report on the IGC website but as I write this, it's broken. Visitor overload, most likely.

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Politics of Crisis

Here's a taste of how al-Sadr is looking to unite the Iraqi people and calm sectarian tensions after the bloodshed of recent days (translated by Juan Cole and worth reading in full):
Do not forget the plotting of the Occupation, for if we forget its plots, it will kill us all without exception. Sometimes they curse the Messenger of God [Muhammad] and defame him [with their cartoons], and sometimes they blow up our Imams. This series of attacks is not the first and it will not be the last. The attacks will continue. Beware, and be responsible. Religion is your responsibility, mosques are your responsibility, the Muslim people is your responsibility, so do not attack the secure houses of God. Love one another and be brethren of one another so that our Iraq will be secure and stable and independent. We want the expulsion of the Occupier and not the American ambassador.
Great stuff. We may yet unite Iraqi Sunnis and Shi'ites.

Unfortunately, our troops might be the enemy they unite against. Al-Sadr, in the style of Bush's mythical Saddam/Osama/Sep 11th connection, has decided that he's going to insinuate that the US attacked the shrine. When an enemy uses fictional allegations to further his own political agenda, can you still say that's wrong if you've done it yourself? I'm not sure.

By the way, he's not defending the US ambassador if you're wondering. Some Iraqis are calling for Khalilzad to leave. Al-Sadr wants all "occupiers" to leave with him.

Some other stuff about the clerics.

New York Times (via): Younger Clerics Showing Power in Iraq's Unrest
American officials have been repeatedly stunned and frequently thwarted in the past three years by the extraordinary power of Muslim clerics over Iraqi society. But in the sectarian violence of the past few days, that power has taken an ominous turn, as rival hard-line Shiite clerical factions have pushed each other toward more militant and anti-American stances, Iraqi and Western officials say.
Houston Cronicle: Crisis puts al-Sadr at Forefront
The message was clear: al-Sadr controls the streets in much of the country, and no agreement to restore order has a chance of success unless he signs off on it. No major Shiite figure, including the country's top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani himself, would at this point challenge al-Sadr openly.
Reuters: Iraqi Sunni, Shi'ite groups meet on violence
Sharaa [al-Sadr spokescleric] blamed the U.S. occupation for acts designed to spread sectarian tensions and called for American troops to leave Iraq or set a timetable for withdrawal.
The Detroit News: Clerics wield the real power
Rarely since the U.S.-led invasion have Iraq's politicians appeared so insignificant and its religious clergy loomed so large as in the aftermath of the bombing of the Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra.

Few Iraqis paid attention to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and other leaders of political parties who called for calm. But many winced or smiled as the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the paramount Shiite leader here, issued an unusually bellicose statement suggesting it was time for "the faithful" to protect religious sites -- an apparent endorsement of militias.

Others listened to every word uttered and watched every gesture made by Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric, as he rushed from Lebanon back to Iraq after the explosion.

The political dominance of clerics on both sides of the Shiite-Sunni divide marks a dramatic reversal of 85 years of secular rule in Iraq.
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Kiss of Death

The PMOS has said that the PM fully supports Tessa Jowell. He said that "Peter Mandleson, Peter Mandleson, Geoffrey Robinson, Keith Vaz, Stephen Byers, David Blunkett, David Blunkett, Tessa Jowell has said that she believes that she hasn't done anything that conflicts with her interests as secretary of state and she's kept within the ministerial code".

Do you think she screamed "NOOOOOO!" when she heard that?

I truth, I haven't the faintest idea whether she's on her way out. Here's the Sunday Times article. If the allegations are true, it's hard to see how she could survive. In fact, if they are true, my understanding is that she may have committed a criminal offence. I think, under money laundering legislation, you have a responsibility to ensure that you do not handle illegal money. The "I didn't know" defence wouldn't be available because the law explicitly states that you have a duty to make sure you do know. I think. But that is all just speculation at this stage.

Potential scandals aside, is it just me or is it just plain wrong for a Labour minister to be married to an "expert in off-shore tax avoidance vehicles"? I seem to vaguely remember that politicians used to have these things called principles. It's been so long now, and I can't remember exactly what they were for, but I have a feeling that at some point in the past they might have been relevant to this. It just doesn't seem right somehow.

On the other hand, this feeling of "wrongness" might just be another symptom of my refusal to understand the modern world. Who can tell?

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Liberty Central is up and running and looking good. Top work, that man!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Bare Bones

Oh look everyone. A nice juicy bone. Now wag your tails like the obedient little dogs you are.

Looking on the bright side, perhaps this shows that they are listening. They might actually introduce some useful Lords reforms. Given their track record, you'll forgive me if I don't start celebrating just yet though. And Lords reform is only a small part of the problem.

On the wider issue, here's a test for any die hard Labour people who doesn't understand why people are so concerned with the government's attitude towards civil liberties. Let's look at the last election campaign. Remember this?

If Michael Howard wanted to hold suspects for 90 days without charge, what would you say? If Michael Howard wanted to construct an enormous national register to store the personal information of everyone in the country, what would you say? If Michael Howard insisted that you must apply to the powers that be for permission (at least a week in advance) if you want to hold a demonstration outside parliament, what would you say?

Worse still, what if it was Thatcher? (I'm pretty much in agreement with Pete, but this is for those who are not.) Would it be a good idea to have given Thatcher these powers?

The essential point is that legislation outlasts government. No-one knows exactly what sort of Prime Minister we might elect in the future. One of the essential duties of any parliament is to legislate with this in mind. It can be summed up a couple of questions.

Could this legislation, which we are passing into law today, make it easier for a future wannabe dictator to subvert the democratic process? Have we made sure that there are suitable safeguards in this bill to combat this possibility to the best of our ability?

All too often, this government has failed to ask these questions when legislating away key freedoms and protections. They display not even a hint of understanding of the law of unintended consequence.

And this leaves very many people asking that same question: ignorance or mendacity? At the moment, I've got them at around 8/3 on the ignorance/mendacity ratio. I suspect there are many others who would not be so generous.

And talking of other people, Tim Neale has a good look at Blair's nonsense. MatGB has collected a few more. And Tim Worstall goes for a broad view.

As rightly pointed out by Bloggers4Labour in the comments, I did them an injustice by using their site for the "Labour" link above in the way that I have. I offer my apologies.

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Protector of Civil Liberty

Try to stay calm when you read these pearls of wisdom from our prime minister. It will not, I fear, be easy.
There is a charge, crafted by parts of the right wing and now taken up by parts of the left, that New Labour is authoritarian, in particular, that I am. We are intent on savaging British liberties, locking up those who dissent and we abhor parliamentary or other accountability.
Right wing conspiracy? Try here. Or here. Accepting that you've go a problem is the first step towards dealing with it. Blair is clearly in denial.

An interlude about personality politics. It is clear that Blair has decided on a strategy to try to deal with the many criticisms of him personally. In short, the strategy is to claim that these criticisms come from people who are obsessed with personality politics and do not care about real politics and policy issues. The implication is that their criticisms are petty and irrelevant. This is classic Blair.

Rather than dealing with the issues, he deflects attention by misrepresenting the criticisms which come his way. Let me spell it out. Blair has centralised keys powers to an enormous degree. To take one example, Blair's twelve point plan to tackle terrorism was launched when the Home Secretary was on holiday. It is abundantly clear that, despite Clarke's feeble protestations, this twelve point plan came primarily from Downing Street, not the Home Office. It was even announced by the PM rather than the Home Secretary.

If the twelve point plan had been a good one, Blair would have received only limited criticism for stepping on the toes of the Home Secretary. But, to be blunt, it was a shit plan. The criticisms have come from left, right and centre. They are motivated, in very many cases, by extreme concerns over real policy issues. And they are often directed at Blair. Because we all know that it was his plan. Not the Home Office's plan and certainly not the government's plan. It was Tony's shit plan.

Blair has intentionally sought to impose his will on every aspect of the proposals which have come from his government and he has succeeded to a large degree. Almost every government policy produced over the last eight years has been a reflection of the inner workings of the mind of Anthony Charles Linton Blair. For him to then claim that criticisms of him personally are an irrelevance is just typical his lack of regard for the realities of a situation.

But back to Blair's, yes Blair's, systematic destruction of civil liberties and his defence of that destruction. The key line is this one:
The question is not one of individual liberty vs the state but of which approach best guarantees most liberty for the largest number of people.
It is another classic Blair strategy. The question *is* one of individual liberty vs the state. If you read the article you'll see that at no point does he address concerns regarding the dangers involved in granting too much power to the state. Just pretending that this isn't a problem doesn't really add much to a grown up debate.

Instead, Blair relies on his old fall back, the fear factor - "Do as I say unless you want the the country overrun by antisocial Islamic mafia extremist criminals." Not good enough, not by a long shot. A perfect illustration of authoritarianism, in fact.

What's possibly more worrying is that, while I'm almost certain that Blair doesn't realise it, there are distinct facist undertones here. The state will guarantee your liberty to live your life in the way that the state demands. For the good of the nation.

Blair isn't a facist. He is, I suspect, ignorant as to exactly what facism is. He certainly doesn't understand that a government official with unrestricted power poses a greater danger to our society than a disaffected youth in a hoodie or a terrorist.

Btw, I did notice that the word "civil" appears only once in this article. Hence title of this post. The debate is being moved on focus onthe liberties which the government choose to grant us out of the goodness of their hearts. Gee, thanks. And here we was me thinking I had certain inalienable civil liberties. Like the right to be assumed innocent until proven guilty. Turns out I only get that if the government generously allows it. Who would have thought?

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Here's Alan with the Sport


We don't win that many. This made me happy.


From Hero to Zero

Friday has always been the Bush administration's favourite day for releasing news they'd rather people didn't pay any attention to. Here's the perfect demonstration of this in practice, via CNN.
The only Iraqi battalion capable of fighting without U.S. support has been downgraded to a level requiring them to fight with American troops backing them up, the Pentagon said Friday.

The battalion, made up of 700 to 800 Iraqi Army soldiers, has repeatedly been offered by the U.S. as an example of the growing independence of the Iraqi military.
So, just to get this straight, nearly three years after the invasion, there is today not one single Iraqi battalion which the US military believes can operate without it's assistance. That's what I call progess. It's like Dubya said; as Iraqi forces stand up, we will stand down.

There are those who would believe that I'm happy to relate news like this, that "stoppers" love to see bad news from Iraq. I can't speak for anyone else but I can speak for myself. For me, far from being happy at news like this, the incompetance of the coalition's handling of post-invasion Iraq makes me exceedingly angry. The UK and US government's now, after the event, claim that the welfare of the Iraqi people is the main goal of the invasion and occupation. But the mistakes made by the coalition, and there have been many, have made the situation far more difficult for Iraqis than might have been the case. The post-invasion years have been riven with coalition incompetence, scandal and abuse, corruption, poor military tactics, and just plain stupidity.

One of the reasons I opposed the invasion was because I thought neither Bush nor Blair understood how difficult the post-war period would be. Mission Accomplished? Idiocy. And this incompetance continues. It is not us in the West, with our secure neighbourhoods, and our 24 hours of constant electricity, who are paying for this incompetance; it is the people of Iraq. Those who claim to support the Iraqi people would do well to remember that they do them a disservice when they ignore the coalition failures which are ruining their lives and their future.

Whatever happens in Iraq from now on, and I genuinely hope that things improve dramatically, the leaders who took us to war without having anything like a workable plan to build the peace must, in my view, be held to account.

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Friday, February 24, 2006

Broad Strokes

Reading the views of those who defend the invasion of Iraq, it seems to me that many (but not all) subscribe to the view that every criticism of any aspect of the invasion or occupation can be attributed to some bizarre caricature of a "stopper". This caricature appears to have been arrived at by the concentrating of attention on the most outlandish anti-war opinions to be found.

I was thinking about this when I was reading the comments at Harry's Place yesterday. I fully agree with Marcus that Ahmadinejad's suggestion that Zionists and occupiers bombed the shrine in Samarra is ridiculous moonbattery. There are, of course, rational domestic political reasons for his claim, and I personally doubt whether he actually believes it himself (but that is, I admit, speculation) but his allegations are clearly a nonsense. I'd put good money on this being the work of Wahhabi extremists.

Anyway, reading the comments to the post, a Lynne said:
"So, while this may be A-Q's last desparate gasp at igniting a civil war, maybe this is the dirty work of Iranian agents looking to stir up trouble...
This, I found quite amusing, and left a comment to that effect. In short, the Iranian hardliners are very religious Shias and the al-Askari shrine is one of the most sacred in Shia Islam. The idea that they would desecrate this holy shrine is one which rivals Ahmadinejad's in the moonbattery stakes. I tried to point this out.

The thing is, I don't think Lynne is likely to be representative of the entire "monger" community. Most sensible people, from both sides of the debate, agree that this was the work of al Qaeda Salafis. As such, I'm unlikely to fire off a post like this:
Mongers are Fools (again)
The mongers, never rational at the best of times, have descended to a new idiotic low. Look at this comment on H'P. They now believe that Ahmedinejad, the deeply religious Shi'ite Iranian president, has desecrated one the Shia Islams most holy sites. Unbelievable.

This shrine honours Muhammad al-Mahdi, the "ultimate saviour of mankind" for Shias and Sunni Muslims. Shi'ite, unlike Sunnis, believe that the Shrine occupies the place of his birth, that he did not die but was hidden by God, and that his return to earth will "bring peace and justice on this Earth". Shias believe that the reappearance of the Madhi will occur at the shrine at Samarra.

Ahmadinejad is a fervent believer in this and he also believes that the day of reappearance of the Mahdi is imminent.

And yet the mongers would have us believe that he ordered the desecration and destruction of this most holy shrine? I should be immune to the stupidity of these people but they still retain the capacity to astonish on occasion. They really will say anything to justify their thirst for yet more blood. And after Iran, where next?
I wouldn't seriously write a post like this because, well, it would be dishonest*. I doubt any of the contributors at H's P agree with Lynne for a start. To pretend that they do, while having no evidence to support that, in order to build and sustain a bizarre caricature of all mongers which can then be held up to ridicule whenever the war is discussed, just isn't my thing. It would, I think, tickle my conscience in a rather irritating manner.

What others do, of course, is up to them. (And before anyone points it out, yes, I am aware that some stoppers do it too.)

Post two in this series, "Debunking the myth of the stopper", might get written at some point too.

* I do it to politicians of course. But then I do it based on the opinions that they themselves have publically expressed.

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Stranger than Fiction

Implausible deniability. Every Labour councillor who remains silent will thoroughly deserve the hiding they're about to get in the local elections.

Here's a play in two acts.

Act 1
(Tony and George are strolling through a leafy glade near a ranch in Crawford Texas.)

George: Gee Tony, it's time we took the gloves off on these terrrists.
Tony: I agree with you George. Make no mistake, the rules of the game are changing.
George: I'm glad to have you on my side Tony. You're a good ally.
Tony: Gosh, you know, I mean, thanks.

George: So Tony, would it be alright if we transported a few of the terrrrists through your airports? We'd sure like to get them somewhere where the gloves can really come off.
Tony: Actually George, that would be a bit difficult for me. Those bloody human rights people think they run the country. They might kick up a bit of a stink.
George: Sorry to hear that Tony. That's really put me in a bind. But I understand. These human rights people can be a real pain in the butt. So, you can't help?
( Pause.)

Tony: Well, George, let me see. If you asked me (wink) if you could transport terrorists through my airports to take them somewhere like that, I would have to say no. If you asked me (wink).
George: That's too bad...
Tony: No, George, listen. If you ask me (exaggerated wink) I'll have to say no.
George: Oh, I get it. I should just go ahead and d....
Tony: Sh, sh, sh, sh. If you ask me, I'll have to say no.
George. Thanks Tony. (winks) You're a good friend.

Act 2
(Tony is at his monthly press conference. A reporter has just asked him to comment on the use of his airports for "rendition flights".)

Tony: There is no evidence that I know of that any of these 200 flights have been used for rendition.


Further Reading

Washington Post: Anatomy of a CIA mistake

Wikipedia: Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr

BBC: MPs urge 'terror flights' probe

We have an arrangement with the US where they have to seek permission from us if there is rendition. We have disclosed to parliament the occasion, some years ago I may say, in which that permission has been sought and the circumstances of it. And it is not the case that the Americans say they are deliberately returning people for torture in countries, on the contrary they say they do not return them unless they get assurances about the treatment of those individuals.
So in respect of rendition, as I say, before people print yet again that we have had these 200 flights and they are all rendition flights, as far as I am aware there is no evidence to suggest any of them fit into that category, and as I say there is a process and a procedure in place where the Americans ask our permission if they want to rendite. And I am not prepared simply to assume that they are breaching that undertaking, I think it would be very strange if they did.
Blair choses his words very carefully when he discusses this issue. It is important to note that no-one is asking him to assume anything. When a police officer decides to mount an investigation into evidence which suggests that a crime may have taken place, an open mind is essential. A blind eye, on the other hand, suggests either incompetance or complicity.

We want a proper investigation. The Commons foreign affairs committee put it like this:
We conclude that the government has a duty to enquire into the allegations of extraordinary rendition and black sites under the Convention against Torture, and to make clear to the USA that any extraordinary rendition to states where suspects may be tortured is completely unacceptable.
It is a duty this government seems determined to avoid.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Little Lies

Tony Blair comments on the attack on the al-Askari shrine in Samarra.
[T]he very purpose of those who desecrated the shrine is to stop the will of the Iraqi people, expressed in an election in which over 10 million of them voted for the country to come together in a unity government.
Little lies, oft repeated. Blair apparently believes that this makes them true.

The reality is that the alliance which campaigned primarily on the need for a unity government, the Iraqi National List, received 8% of the votes cast. 977,325 people to be exact. Blair is about ten times over the mark.

The other main alliances are sectarian and these sectarian alliances received the overwhelming majority of the votes cast. They may, some indeed do, express a desire to form a unity government but, significantly, there are enormous disagreements concerning the shape and powers of such a government. Blair talks as if 10 million people voted for the unified secular Iraqi government he appears to have expected them to. They most certainly did not.

But Blair is not a man to let the facts get in the way of his Iraq policy. The whole thing was built on a lie. It should come as no surprise that more lies are needed to sustain it.

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The PMs monthly press conference is one of those rare ocassions when King Tony very generously grants journalists the right to ask him direct questions about the issues of the day. In some ways, it's the nearest thing we've got to executive accountability.

Journalists, in practice, cannot push the Prime Minister too far; if a journalist asks too many difficult questions, there will be consequences. Number 10 might remind the relevant editor that ministers are very busy and that decisions have to made regarding media appearances. In other words, make sure your guys play friendly or we'll give all the exclusive interviews to those who do. This is obviously why the Blair cabal appears so frequently in the Scum (and increasingly on Sky News it seems to me) and why serious TV News journalists (Channel 4 News and Newsnight being the obvious examples) so often have to say that "no minister was available for comment".

In extreme cases, the journalist can be "blacklisted" by the Downing Street spin machine and they will then be unable to gain access to any government minister. This can end a promising career in political journalism.

These unwritten rules existed before Blair, but Blair, along with Alastair Campbell, have taken them to a whole new level. If you're really concerned about the dangers posed to a free society by media self-consorship, this is where you should start.

The good news is that Blair's control system is not perfect and there are still a few journalists prepared to stick their necks out in pursuit of the truth. As such, the monthly press conference is worth paying attention to.

The transcript for today's showdown isn't available yet but I managed to catch a part of it at lunchtime on BBC News 24. Jon Snow, I think, asked a good question on Guantanamo Bay and extraordinary rendition. Blair weaselled (more on that later). Someone else asked about his education reforms. Proper questions, they were.

And then Blair called someone from Sky News. And he wanted to know what the PM thought about calls for metrification of road signs in the UK? That's what he asked. It's an interesting question, I'll grant you, but it's hardly one of the pressing issues of the day. In fact, it reminded me very much of the loyal careerist Labour backbencher at PMQs. A little light relief to give the PM a break from having to avoid answering any difficult questions which might come his way.

Except, it all went horribly wrong. The Sky toady, in his jovial effort to get the PM off the hook lighten the mood, asked the PM if he knew how many kilometres there were in 50 miles. Cue the tumbleweed.

Blair, astonishingly, didn't know. The Prime Minister. Didn't know.

Anyone who's travelled in Europe will know that 5m = 8km. Anyone who's got an eleven year old's grasp of arithmetic will know that 10 x 5 = 50 and that 10 x 8 = 80.

But the most power centralising, "we know best" PM in living memory? The most arrogant, most patronising, most dangerously self-assured man in British politics? He doesn't know how many kilometres there are in 50 miles.

Am I alone in finding this a very worrying state of affairs?

The transcript is up. Here's the Q&A, just in case you think I made this up.
Sky News lickspittle: Prime Minister, what is your view on the campaign, backed by Neil Kinnock, to get rid of miles and replace them with kilometres in this country. And if I may test you, do you know how many kilometres there are in 50 miles?

Prime Minister: I suppose they told you that before you came in here. It was never my strong point anyway, that type of thing, and I think Alistair Darling has already given the answer to that, which is no, that we are not in favour of that. OK, what is the answer, come on?
It's 80km, you git. How could you possibly not know that?

Blair's desperate pauses, and the slightly embarrased, slightly incredulous laughter of the Press corp have, alas, not made the transcript.

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This is what you want. And indeed this.

It takes a certain kind of person to be able to say
The relevant select committees of the House of Commons will have a veto on every single proposal.
and believe that he is offering a reassuring safeguard against excessive executive power. Idiot.

That was Jim "I'll say anything if it gets me promoted" Murphy and that was the first I'd ever heard of him. He now holds the new record for fastest ever inclusion in my idiot gallery. Well done sir.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Shared Ideologies

Those who believe that Islamic extremism is a single cohesive movement will no doubt be baffled by today's events in Iraq. Actually, strike that. Those who believe that Islamic extremism is a single cohesive movement will no doubt ignore today's event's in Iraq.

Sunni extremists, almost certainly Wahabis and probably not Iraqis, have attacked and heavily damaged one of Shia Islams most holy sites, the al-Askari shrine at Samarra. This is obviously a deliberate attempt to inflame the already tense sectarian divisions between Shia and Sunni Iraqis. Sadly, it is already succeeding.

Tens of thousands of Shiites have taken to the street to protest and dozens of Sunni mosques have been targetted in revenge attacks. Iraqi leaders, including influential cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have called for calm but tensions are running at unprecedented levels.

From Reuters.
Shi'ite gunmen took over several [Sunni] mosques in the capital, burning down two, and at others hanging out black Shi'ite flags.
Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militias appear to have been involved in some of the violent confrontations with Sunnis. An al-Sadr spokesman said "If the Iraqi government does not do its job to defend the Iraqi people we are ready to do so."

There was some suggestion that al-Sadr might have been able too provide the impetus needed to bridge the gap between Sunni and Shia Islamist groups in Iraq. His faction, unlike most of the rest of the UIA, has expressed a willingness to work with Sunni Islamist groups in the new government. The unifying factor, he seems to believe, is their opposition to the occupation (and their related shared emnity towards Allawi's secular group). It would, if it ever happened, be a coalition based on the principle that my enemy's enemy is my friend.

The conflicts between Sunni and Shia Muslims are based on historic splits and run very deep. The most remarkable aspect of the US "war" on terror may yet be that the traditional animosities between Shia and Sunni are put aside as they unite against the common enemy. If that were to happen, those who mistakenly claim that Islamic extremism is a single cohesive movement would, no doubt, loudly proclaim that they were right all along. These people wouldn't recognise a self-fullfilling prophesy if it bit them in the face. Today's events, however, are likely to put a significant dampener on al-Sadr's willingness to cooperate with Sunni groups.

Some Sunni groups, significantly the Iraqi Islamic Party, have condemned the attack on the al-Askari shrine. After their offices in Baghdad and Basra were attacked by Shi'ites, however, a spokesman said "We will pursue anyone who attacks Sunnis."

The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, of interior ministry infamy, have also reacted to today's attack.
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the powerful SCIRI Shi'ite Islamist party, accused U.S. ambassador Khalilzad of encouraging Sunni insurgents with comments on Monday insisting that the new cabinet must include Sunnis and others.
After today, Khalilzad's efforts to remove SCIRI and their Badr militia from the interior ministry are even less likely to succeed than had previously been the case.

Reports are also emerging of revenge killings in retaliation for the attack on the shrine. The possibility of all out civil war is closer now than at any time since the invasion.

There are those who argue that the media concentrates on the bad news and ignores the good news from Iraq. I find this argument to be unconvincing propaganda, as regular readers will know. And what has happened today is very bad news indeed, however you try to spin it.

For anyone who disagrees, I once again recommend taking a nice relaxing holiday in the peaceful new Iraq. That would be just the thing to shut up pessimistic fools like me. Of course the Foreign Office says anyone who tries that will be putting themselves in extreme danger. Don''t take any notice of that though; the FO is clearly staffed exclusively by traitorous, leftie, Saddam loving stoppers like myself. Don't forget to send me a postcard.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

John Reid: Idiot

I've just started re-reading Brave New World. I'm trying to wean myself off the 1984 references. More on Huxley shortly.

Sadly, the plan to wean myself off Orwell was sunk as soon as I read John Reid demonstrating an outstanding ability to engage in doublethink. Drat.

We'll start here:
We do all of this today against an enemy unrecognisable from the past, indeed unprecedented. It is the completely unconstrained terrorist.
Nonsense, as Walter Wolfgang would rightly say. This is one of the big lies in the "war" on terror. I've yet to decide whether Reid, Blair and co actually believe this crap or whether they simply use this claim for their own ends. The reality is that even hardcore al Qaeda types are not "completely unconstrained". I'm working up to writing a serious post on this.

In the meantime consider that the September 11th terrorists flew an aircraft into the Pentagon. There are literally thousands of places in the US where they could have caused far more damage and killed far more people. They chose the Pentagon, and New York for that matter, primarily as symbolic targets. The idea was to create the impression that they were "completely unconstrained" and that no-one in the US was safe from potential terrorist attack. It is, in some ways (but significantly different in others), comparable to the "shock and awe" campaign. It was designed primarily to be a psychological blow to the target country, and specifically to the target audience. Yes, the attacks on New York were designed to kill many innocent people, but as a means, not an end.

Don't misunderstand me though, these fundamentalist terrorists are an extremely dangerous bunch and we need take action to prevent future attacks. Their tactics are indeed abhorent and I condemn them absolutely. That is not in question. But we must understand that these attacks were a deliberate attempt to portray al Qaeda as unconstrained in the eyes of the Western world. Terrorists seek to provoke an over-reaction built on a fear which is out of proportion to the actual threat they pose. This over-reaction, if successfully provoked, and particularly when it appears to operate arbitrarily, can then be used to create a new wave of support for the extremists. Be in no doubt that this is a deliberate strategy; it is a classic asymmetric warfare technique.

Reid, apparently not understanding this, talks them up in an effort to justify his government's over-reacting policies and the occasional "isolated blemish" by our troops. What an arse.

He then goes further by attempting to portray the fight against these goons as similar to the fight against the Nazi war machine. Let's see. In 1939, Hitler had assembled what was probably the most powerful military force the world had ever seen. As the Battle of Britain hung in the balance, that enormous military power very nearly became the first to launch a successful invasion of England since 1066.

Thanks to MatGB for reminding me that the last successful invasion of England was actually in 1688. It's a fair cop. William did have rather a large army with him when he arrived. (And I read this just last week too) So - 1066 saw the last successful militarily contested invasion of England. That should sort of sort it out.
[End of Update]

Reid says "if Lord Haw-haw was still around today, someone would be telling us that human rights demand that he be given a weekly column in our newspapers." Because having Hitler's war machine stationed in occupied France, approximately 25 miles from Dover, is almost exactly the situation we currently face? I'm really trying to cut down on blog swearing but piss off John. I think you'd find we'd all be taking a slightly different view of things if there was a huge fundamentalist extremist army in France which was threatening to invade Britain. But there isn't. We, the British public, are aware of that, even if you, for reasons which surely escape me, are not. Your attempts to scare us just show you up as the shallow, spineless, cowardly gargoyle that you so clearly are.

Then, after bigging up the terrorist threat for all he's worth, really going for it, and obviously including the now obligatory Communism reference (because the terrorists are just like the Soviets, with their ability to completely destroy Britain in around four minutes, almost literally at the touch of a button... oh, wait a minute) he says:
The strategic goal of the act of terrorism is fear, directed at breaking the will of their opponent. To a terrorist, the news reporting of an incident is nothing more than a method of amplifying and transmitting that fear.
Hang on, what's this? He does understand that the terrorists use fear as a strategic weapon. He does understand that they try to amplify and transmit that fear for maximum effect. He even understands how the media have become unwitting accomplices in this activity. He goes on to generously explain that he understands why the free media reports these acts, even though that effectively spreads the fear and aids the terrorists.
I fully accept that this is a difficult bind for a free media in a democratic country whose news values are driven by commercial competition in an international market. But, be in no doubt, terrorists want to use our democratic freedom of speech to destroy our will to fight for our democratic values.
The implication is that the media should perhaps care less about money and more about restraining their reporting. They should, Reid suggests, take care not to play on the fear factor. He does get it after all - when faced with terrorism, you do not play on the fear factor.

All of which leaves you wondering if he's actually read his own speech? The stuff about the unconstrained enemy? Did he hear himself pretending that these terrorists pose a threat equivalent to an extremely large, well trained, efficient, fully equipped military force, occupying France and threatening our nation's very existence? Did his suggestion that the danger posed by terrorists is equal to that of an enormous nuclear arsenal pointing our way simply pass straight from autocue to mouth without any involvment of the brain?

Did it occur to him that perhaps, just perhaps, the terrorists might be looking to exploit our society by using morally bankrupt, power hungry, and just plain stupid politicians as a "method of amplifying and transmitting that fear"? Somehow, I doubt it's even crossed his tiny little mind.

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Seperation of Powers

Just a quick follow up to my previous post on the Liberty Central project.

Starting here, I've read various posts and comments, from positive support and constructive criticism all the way through to missing the point completely. It seems that two projects are emerging. There is, I think, some quite understandable confusion about this as much of it is being discussed, debated and formulated in a public forum. This openness is obviously very confusing for those involved in traditional politics (sorry, but cheap jokes are my thing). Also, as already mentioned, many people advocating this are also staunchly anti-New Labour and this has muddied the waters somewhat.

I've left variations on this theme in a few comment boxes today, and much of it is already in the previous post but I thought I'd solidify some thought here. Two projects.

The first project is Libery Central. As described on Talk Politics, this is not intended to be an anti-New Labour movement. The goal is not to get the Conservatives back into power in the probably vain hope that they'd be better than the current government. As Jonah commented on a previous post, that would very much be like going back to 1997 all over again.

So Liberty Central isn't about that; it is very much a pro-liberty movement. The consensus seems to be that any tactical voting solutions offered there will be based on garnering support for those MPs and candidates who are sympathetic to the cause. This is a long term project which will focus primarily on working towards the next general election. It is intended to build support for radical changes to the current political system, to create a coalition of people who genuinely want to change British politics for the better.

The second project is the anti-New Labour movement, described on occassion as the "anyone but Labour" campaign. This is, I maintain a necessary evil in the current situation but it should be an entirely seperate campaign. It should have shorter term goals. Specifically, it should work to limit the excesses of the current government by giving them something seriously worrying to think about. A bloody nose at the local elections would, in my view, be a good start. It can certainly be argued, as some have, that this is unfair on the many hard working Labour councillors who have no control over national party policy or the leadership. I have some sympathy for that view.

But, and it's a big but (stop that sniggering), the Labour party is your party, people. Blair has been in power for a long time and you, the Labour Party, are the only one's who can remove him from his current position. That you have not done so is telling. We've given you a long time to do something and you have not. Now, I'm afraid, it's payback time. The gloves are coming off.

So, seperate issues. Overlapping yes, but seperate. Liberty Central should be about building a cross-party consensus on a better future. "Anyone but Labour" should be about a bearable present. That's my view of it anyway.

And now, I'm off to ridicule John Reid in the post I meant to write this morning.

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We Have a Dream

There's been quite a bit of talk about the potential confusion which exists regarding the overlap between a liberty coalition and an anti-New Labour coalition. As things stand, most of the people interested in the liberty coalition will also be against the Blair government. (Hello. *waves*) Given the current situation, that is pretty much inevitable.

It is, however, my belief that it is essential that the Liberty Coalition does not allow itself to become defined by what it is against. As such, I broadly agree with Unity. More on that shortly.

But first, the politics of fear. You should read this article in my opinion. No matter where you exist on the political compass, it'll probably provoke a little bit of quiet introspection. Of course, it's easy to argue that you genuinely should be afraid of the things you campaign about but that's missing the point slightly. (If you were ever to meet the author, you would, of course, be legally obliged to ask him why he's so intent on scaring people about how much fear there is in modern politics. But never mind that now.) A short extract doesn't do the article justice but is useful for the purposes of this post:
British politics is currently dominated by debates about the fear of terror, the fear of food, the fear of asylum seekers, the fear of anti-social behaviour, fears over children, fear about health, fear for the environment, fear for our pensions, fears over the future of Europe. The politics of fear transcends the political divide.
That's a whole lot of fear. Blair won the last election based mostly on the fear that to not vote for him would be to let the scary Conservatives in by the back door. Since the election, many people have told me that this was why they voted Labour. This is anecdotal, but I strongly suspect it's representative of a large percentage of the 22% of the voting population who actually voted for the government at the last election. It is also worth pointing out that Sun readers appear to be afraid of the very same things that the Sun likes to whip up frenzies about. Remarkable (although I'm sure they, and Blair, were sorely disappointed by the poor showing of terrorism in that poll. Luckily, they've had lots of chances to move it back up the charts recently). Fear is a powerful motivator. And it works, at least some of the time.

But this sort of politics does not make people feel safe, never mind happy. In Britain, human beings are probably as safe as they have ever been - diseases are far more controlled than ever before, average life expectancy is increasing, violent death is actually extremely rare, the possibility of military attacks against UK citizens minimal, and conscription hugely unlikely - but fear has never been more prevalent. This is obviously not an intellectually healthy state of affairs.

I've linked to this post before but I'm going to do it again because it is very good indeed.
Modern western leaders can be split into two broad categories. The ones that use visions and dreams to lead their people away from fear towards justice and liberty, and the ones that empower fear and ignorance to lead their people back into the dark.
We must be sure to be in the correct category.

This is why it is so important that we strive to offer something positive for the future and why I agree with Unity. The central focus of the coalition should not be opposition to Blair's statism but the promotion of something more visionary and more inspiring. We need to grip people with enthusiasm for the future, not scare them with fears of Blair/Brown. We want constitutional reforms which will make Britain a better place for us, and more importantly, for our children and their children too.

As for tactical voting, as I said in a comment Unity's post, it may be a necessary evil. It's hard to see how this coalition could affect the policies of the Blair/Brown Labour agenda without threatening their power through the ballot box; if Brown wins the next election, it's probably going to be business as usual. As such, tactical voting may be a way of exerting pressure. The general election is a long way off at this stage and time will tell. Perhaps, as the election nears, an active "none of the above" vote would be worth considering. Perhaps, Gordon will surprise us all as he finally emerges from his Blairite cocoon to reveal a beautifully liberal mind (no, I don't believe there's even an outside chance that this'll happen either to be honest).

Whatever the tactics, we must be clear that the campaign is focused on securing positive goals.

In the meantime, I also fully support the calls to vote for anyone but Labour in the local elections (even though we're not having any up here) in order to bloody Blair's nose. This, I believe, might finally knock him off his perch (along with the potential rebellion over his education reforms). At the very least, it might make Blair and Brown realise that they cannot continue to run roughshod over the political process. To my mind, this is an overlapping, very much interconnected but still seperate issue.

* Which reminds me that I must get round to updating my blogroll. There's a fair few bloggers I've been meaning to add for ages.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

Dangerous Democracy

So we are near the end of the conflict. But the challenge of the peace is now beginning. We took the decision that to leave Iraq in its brutalised state under Saddam was wrong.
- Tony Blair, 14th April 2003
Very nearly three years later, Blair is far more cautious about making rash predictions concerning the end of the conflict. Shame he didn't understand the situation at the time really.

One other point before looking at recent developments. In April 2003 Blair quite clearly said that he took the decision to support regime change in Iraq. This, as we are all too aware, was illegal. The debate about the legality of the war centres on disarmament. Some say it was illegal and some say it wasn't but no-one argues that regime change was a legally acceptable goal of the invasion. And yet, here is Blair explicitly stating that this was his goal. He's actually done this any number of times since the invasion. In April 2005, for example, he told Paxman "I took the decision to remove him [Saddam]".

Just how do you prosecute someone for ordering an illegal act in this context? International criminal court? The evidence is fairly compelling what with Blair saying these things on national television. Seriously.

Today, of course, only an idiot would argue that we're nearing the end of the conflict. The idea that democracy would magically bring peace and stability to Iraq has been exposed for the simplistic nonsense it was. In another day of violence, many people have been killed. The violence shows no sign of abating.

And the US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been speaking out today. His comments serve to emphasise just how stupid Blair and Bush were to believe that democracy would be the cure to Iraq's woes.
The ministers of interior, defence, national intelligence, the national security adviser have to be people who are non- sectarian, broadly acceptable, non-militia-related that will work for all Iraqis. The United States is investing billions of dollars into these forces, military and police forces of Iraq. American taxpayers expect their money to be spent properly. We are not going to invest the resources of the American people into forces run by people who are sectarian...
Oh, check him and his handbag threats. That Khalilzad has decided to bring out the biggest stick he's got left just emphasises how he feels his efforts have been progressing so far. The basic problem is, of course, that a very large majority of Iraqis did vote for sectarian politicians, be they Shiites, Kurds or Sunnis. Very few voted for secular non-sectarian parties. That is the reality of the situation and Khalilzad's opinion as to what Iraq needs doesn't change that in the slightest.

Those who knew a little about Iraqi society realised that this would be the outcome of elections before the invasion had occurred. They warned that in a country with a majority Shiite population which had long been brutally oppressed, the introduction of democracy would transfer power to religious Shiite groups. They further warned that many of these religious Shiites had close associations with Iran and that the invasion and the demoratic process which would follow would increase Iranian influence in the region. These warnings were ignored by Bush and Blair for reasons I've yet to fathom. Even as someone opposed to the invasion, it does not gladden me that the "doomsayers" were right, far from it, but right they were.

Now Khalilzad must attempt to subvert the democratic will of the Iraqi people in order to get the sectarian parties out of the key ministries (and particularly the interior ministry as mentioned here many times before). The irony is all the more bitter for the ever mounting pile of dead bodies it's constructed on.

Khalilzad is also attempting to do something about the militia groups inside Iraq. In an extremely unusual step for a US government official, he went some way towards recognising the influence that these groups now exert over the population in Iraq.
They cannot have two justice systems, one that is based on the Iraqi constitution law and another on Shari'a law.
For most pro-war commentors, particulary in the US, this is a problem which has been Orwelled out of existence. The fact that Shiite militias are imposing their own version of Shari'a law on the population of the areas they control is a non-event. I strongly suspect that the fact that the US ambassador has confirmed that this is happening will simply be ignored. Those Iraqi's who've had their businesses attacked and closed down, and those Iraqi women who are now forced to follow Shari'a law on pain of violence or even death do not have the luxury of ignoring these issues. And now, it appears, Khalilzad, for no doubt sound political reasons, feels he can no longer ignore the power of the militias either. He wants them disbanded. Good luck with that. Most of them are the armed wings of the politicians who've just been elected. He might as well have tried to persuade the IRA or the UDA to disband in the late 70's. Actually, that would probably have been a lot easier.

For added irony, the ambassador added a few digs at the Iranians. He accused them of providing assistance to various militia groups. This is something the Iranians undoubtedly do but when these complaints come from the ambassador of a country with 100,000+ troops stationed in Iraq, it's hard not to just snort derisively. His attempt to link the Iranians to Sunni insurgent groups is pushing credibility levels beyond acceptable limits. And if you don't snort at that, here's the ultimate test. Reacting to Iranian calls for British troops to be withdrawn from Basra, Khalilzad dismissed this, saying "Basra is Iraqi territory the last time I checked the map". Yeah, you maybe wanna tell your boss that, guy.

The truth is that Iraq probably has a better chance of a peaceful future if the US ambassador succeeds in his efforts to block the power of the democratically elected Iraqi politicians of the UIA. The odds of success, however, are long indeed.

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Voluntary Compulsion

We will introduce ID cards, including biometric data like fingerprints, backed up by a national register and rolling out initially on a voluntary basis as people renew their passports.
- Labour Party manifesto 2005
The ID card bill is not law yet. One aspect can still be usefully opposed - the non-voluntary nature of the government's proposal. The Lords wanted to change this clause:
Where an individual applies for a designated document he must either apply to be entered in the National ID Register or, if he is already entered, confirm and correct the contents of his entry.
The Lords amended this to read:
Where an individual applies for a designated document he may, if he chooses either apply to be entered in the National ID Register or, if he is already entered, confirm and correct the contents of his entry.
Designated document most significantly refers to a passport. In short, the government wants to make it compulsory to register on the NIR when you apply for a passport. The Lords, quite rightly, opposed this move. Last week the government successfully whipped their MPs into reinstating the compulsory clause.

My MP, Anne Begg, is a loyal Labour authoritarian. I have written to her concerning ID cards and I'm afraid all I got back was a fob off about the need for a "gold standard" identity system. Somewhere in my archive is my disgust at being sent a rebranding marketing exercise which avoided any of the issues I raised. "Gold standard"? That's OK for selling coffee but not a useful defence of the national identity register. So, I'm afraid I see no useful purpose in writing to Anne again about this matter. (Anne, by the way, is highly likely to qualify as a target for a liberal tactical voting strategy at the next election - the constituency is a fairly tight Lab/Lib Dem marginal and Anne definitely qualifies as illiberal.)

Something can be done though. Via MatGB, here's a useful link to help with writing to a peer about this clause. The bill goes back to the Lords on 6th March where, it is to be hoped, they will once again insist on re-inserting the voluntary clause. The government cannot honestly say that the Lords are opposing a manifesto commitment (not that this is likely to stop them trying of course). In actual fact, it is very much the other way round. The Lords amendment reflects the manifesto in a way that the government's proposal does not.

So, I've written to fellow Aberdonians Lord Sutherland of Houndwood and Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld. Courage, my Lords, courage.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Coalition of the Militant Liberals

On Thursday, I really thought I was living through one of the worst weeks for democracy in the history of modern Britain. I took a couple of days off political blogging, including reading, to try to regain my sense of perspective; it is, as I'm sure we're all aware, all to easy to succumb to hyperbole and exaggeration when dealing with a current issue. The grass is always greener in the past, as we all know. A break was what was needed, I thought. My mojo was most definitely lost. (I did continue to read my comments which are always gratefully received and I must offer my apologies to MatGB; as a Garry with two R's, I really should know better.)

So, after three days of reflection, it still looks like last week was one of the worst weeks for democracy in the history of modern Britain. And, catching up on some of my reading today, I'm certainly not alone. Far from it, in fact.

To take just one example, last week saw the Prime Minister descend into the realm of the utterly irrational at PMQs:
With the greatest of respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I hope that he understands that he and his colleagues will vote for something today that would significantly dilute and weaken the provisions that attack glorification, which are vital if we are to defend this country successfully against the likes of Abu Hamza.
That's Abu Hamza who'd just been given a seven year sentence under existing laws. That Blair can come out with this stuff at all is worrying; that he can get away with it and "win" the argument is, yes, terrifying. I could go on but rather than rehashing the arguments on the government's attitude towards terrorism, I suspect I'd be well advised to steer you towards watching Dispatches on Monday at 8pm.

More than one blogger has highlighted this from the Observer. Worth reading.

The situation is such that many people are now seriously discussing forming a new coalition. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the central goal of this coalition will be to try to preserve freedom and democracy in Britain. Unity has a good round up and a plan. We're talking about a liberty coalition - people who'd traditionally supported a particular party, and those with no particular alleigance, putting aside their differences to work towards reversing the New Labour slide into undemocratic practices and authoritarianism. This is, I believe, the most important political issue of the early 21st Century. I will certainly be attempting to play a part

The main problem this campaign is likely to encounter, to hopelessly mangle Marx, is that consumerism is now the opium of the masses. As Blair's third way plays out, it seems more and more that it's based on the new Chinese model; economic prosperity is to be used to distract attention from the lack of basic freedoms. Sadly, it appears to work all to well in modern Britain. Interest in politics is at an all time low. What we must remember is that, much as we'd like to believe otherwise, political bloggers are not representative of the average person in this country. For every person I know who's interested in politics, I know any number who are not. (The "Politician are all the same" Party would win the next election hands down except that it wouldn't because it would be considered just the same as the rest of them.) What we need to do is to involve those who are not currently involved. How we do that is the difficult part, obviously. Without mass participation the campaign will struggle to make an impact. This week, I shall be trying to discuss this with people I know who might loosely be described as politically apathetic. We need hooks to get those people interested; I'm going fishing.

Finally, a word from (perhaps) a leftie perspective. Another quotation:
Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f*cking big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed- interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of f*cking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing sprit- crushing game shows, stuffing f*cking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, f*cked-up brats you have spawned to replace yourself.
In Blair's Britain, this isn't a choice. There is no alternative to the pursuit of financial reward. This you must do to anaesthetise yourself against life. Anything else is considered an abomination. And if you find this unsatisfactory there is nothing you can do about it, no way to express your dissatisfaction in a meaningful sense.

Except, like Renton there, you could take drugs and drink excessively to enhance the anaesthetic, of course. This, I believe, is the driving force behind the remarkable growth in the number of disaffected youths on our streets of an evening. In my most cynical moments I wonder if liberalising the licensing laws and downgrading the classification for cannabis are a deliberate attempt to propogate the apathetic haze of the disenfranchised. When it comes to remaining in power, it's hard to rule out even the most repugnant tactics when it comes to this New Labour government. Just a(n admittely rather dark) thought.

At the end of the day, it boils down to this - we need people to care. Democracy depends on it. Tell your friends.

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Friday, February 17, 2006

Into the Quagmire

Today, I fell into a bog. I was trying to clear out the garbage at the bottom of the aforementioned bog when I lost my balance and fell backwards into the fetid gunk. It was. I can assure you, an incredibly smelly,messy business.

Much as I'd like to explain this as a metaphor, I'm afraid I can't. That's because today, I fell into a bog.

Really. I did have on thigh length waterproof boots but it turns out that they're pretty much useless at keeping you clean or dry when you fall backwards into a bog. My feet had become stuck in the gloop so it was a slow motion affair; I lost my balance slightly but couldn't take a step back to sort it out and ended up waving my arms windmill style until finally falling into the bog. Splash.

I did just manage to keep my head out of the bog. Which was nice. No apparent injuries either.

Anyway, if there'd been a video camera around, I'm assured by those who saw the bog falling incident that I'd definitely have made it onto You've Been Framed. But there wasn't a video rolling so my 15 minutes of fame will have to wait. As such, I thought I'd relate it here instead. Today, I fell into a bog.


Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Politics of Death

Just sat down to write about random acts of human goodness and instead I'm writing a post with a very bleak title indeed.

It's because of this.
Iraq has launched an investigation into claims by the US military that an Iraqi interior ministry "death squad" has been targeting Sunni Arab Iraqis. The probe comes after a US general revealed the arrest of 22 policemen allegedly on a mission to kill a Sunni. "We have found one of the death squads. They are part of the police force," US Maj Gen Joseph Peterson said.
Death squads.

The fact that this has been happening has almost certainly been known to the US government for months at the very least. Sunnis have been making loud accusations of this sort for a considerable period of time. We know that the US military raided an interior ministry building in November last year and "discovered" prisoner abuses there. That raid was undoubtedly an American attempt to damage the repuation of the UIA in the run up to the election. Until that moment, the US government thought it in their interest to ignore these activities.

In fact, the possibility exists that the US government instigated these covert operations. From January 2005:
Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, the Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success—despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.

Following that model, one Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria, according to military insiders familiar with the discussions. It remains unclear, however, whether this would be a policy of assassination or so-called "snatch" operations, in which the targets are sent to secret facilities for interrogation. The current thinking is that while U.S. Special Forces would lead operations in, say, Syria, activities inside Iraq itself would be carried out by Iraqi paramilitaries, officials tell NEWSWEEK.
These types of actions have a specific psychological aim which is only partly targetted towards the insurgents themselves.
[al-Shahwani, director of Iraq’s National Intelligence Service] said most Iraqi people do not actively support the insurgents or provide them with material or logistical help, but at the same time they won’t turn them in. One military source involved in the Pentagon debate agrees that this is the crux of the problem, and he suggests that new offensive operations are needed that would create a fear of aiding the insurgency. "The Sunni population is paying no price for the support it is giving to the terrorists," he said. "From their point of view, it is cost-free. We have to change that equation."
[my emphasis]
These tactics, it appears, were being considered in the US administration in early 2005. Can anyone explain why the Pentagon source above is not advocating terrorism? We're talking about using death squads to terrorise a population into submission and co-operation. Morality aside, the idea that members of these covert death squads would only kill "terrorist evildoers" who fully deserve it is extraordinarily naive. Real life just doesn't work that way. Note also that the implication of the above is that the explicit aim of the strategy is to create a fear in people who "do not actively support the insurgents or provide them with material or logistical help".

There is no evidence to conclusively prove that the US government did implement this strategy but it seems clear that it was seriously being considered. Does this explain the apparent rise in reports of death squad activities in Iraq in 2005? It's a possibility which certainly can't be dismissed outright.

To go back to today's raid, the idea that this is was chance discovery or a surprise to the US military is not credible. The fact that the group did not feel the need to cover up their actions when confronted by the US military tells its own story, I suspect. It is undoubtedly the case that these captures were ordered by the US government and are politically motivated. There are two factors.

The first is, of course, the release of the new images of abuses at Abu Ghraib. The US government needs a distraction and this fits the bill perfectly. Straighforward enough, I should think.

The second is to do with the new politics of Iraq. As I've mentioned before, the US ambassador is desperately trying to get the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq out of the interior ministry. Given that the SCIRI is one of the powerful blocks of the UIA, this is proving to be enormously difficult (even more so after the SCIRI candidate did not get the PM job to sweeten the pill). The arrests today will put pressure on the SCIRI which will be used to once again try to remove them.

Notice however that it is gentle pressure. From the BBC article:
Gen Peterson said he was convinced Iraqi Interior Minster Bayan Jabr, a member of Sciri, had no knowledge of or involvement in the death squads.
It is very difficult to know whether this is true. The extent to which the SCIRI leadership is aware of, or supporting these activities is unclear. That doesn't usually stop the US administration bandying about accusations when it suits them though. In this case, they can't squeeze too hard because their position is already weak. The UIA would almost certainly get the votes it needs to call for a full US withdrawal if they feel their power is being threatened.

This is the politics of death in Iraq. Because of it, one Sunni Iraqi (who may be guilty of murder) is alive who would otherwise be dead. Many more have died while the US government looked the other way. And evidence suggests that US government complicity may go far beyond simply turning a blind eye.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Unthinkable Thoughts

I may be too hacked off to write anything useful.

Here are the three posts I wrote on the terrorism bill today.
Number 1
Number 2
Number 3

The linked Independent article in number 1 is well worth reading as is the Talk Politics post linked in 2 and 3. I wrote 2 and 3 in a hurry while listening to Parliament Live so my interpretation of what the law means might need double checked. Can't see any obvious flaws but feel free to point out any I might have made.

But the long and short of it is that the government got what it wanted. A vague law will allow the government to prosecute those who they believe indirectly incite terrorism. It will enable them to be seen to do something when the tabloids start one of their periodic frenzies. It's about politics and has very little, if anything to do with national security or the prevention of terrorism. But it does provide the potential for political prosecutions of the type favoured by the likes of Karimov. And police constables are to be given powers which should clearly be the preserve of the judiciary.

The point is not that Blair is as bad as Karimov; much as a detest his politics, he clearly is not. Blair is very much the Karimov-lite (which is bad enough obviously). And if a Karimov type were to come to power in the UK, he would find that a handy set of authoritarian laws, which could be used to control the population, had already been put in place. This is why so many people believe that Blair is a danger to democracy in this country.

Twice this week, I've read people seriously arguing that the Labour party is beyond saving. Quarsan at Blairwatch says we should vote for anyone but Labour at any and all elections and MattGB at Great Britain, Not Little England calls for Tory/Lib Dem co-operation to get the gits out of office. (Tim and co. have already been there too.)

For me personally, as someone who grew up with Thatcher, the idea of voting Conservative has historically been roughly equivalent to eating babies. I know others feel differently of course and I respect that. To digress slightly, reading other people's blogs has even brought some understanding as to why people who do vote Tory are not actually nutters as I'd previously thought. The astonishing power of blogs to promote better understanding of other views should be celebrated. Anyway, the idea that I would want a Tory government is an alien concept and not something I thought I'd consider in this lifetime.

But, tonight, I sit here genuinely wondering if it might not be better for this country if the Conservatives won the next general election. I'm even seriously considering whether I would vote for them myself (I'd have to move as my constituency is a Lab/Lib Dem marginal but that's btw). It's an odd feeling.

This is politics based on the least worst option. How inspiring. I just don't understand why more people aren't interested in politics.

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