Thursday, January 29, 2009

Russia's Strategic Location for both Europe and the Far East

Today's article on Putin's commitment to build Russia's future on its ability to control the energy resources to Europe seems to me significant. In a sense Putin has limited options, but the one he has, the fossil fuels of Russia and Central Asia, is powerful leverage. Discussions of the topic so far seem to be about the provision of energy to Europe, but as China grows it will also demand huge amounts of energy; we know the Chinese have already been busy establishing connections withe the oil and gas rich Central Asian states. So, Russia and the neighboring states over which Russia will continue to be hegemonic are strategically situated for the future.
It is hard to see how the great populations of Eurasia cannot become desperately dependent on the Russian/Central Asian consortium, which controls the gas and oil fields critical to both ends of the continent. As much as I respect Parag Khanna's ideas about the future trends for the world (see his Second World), I think he mistakenly writes off Russia, noting its population problems. No matter how few people live in northern Eurasia, that area will be the energy source for billions of people.
Here I merely quote from a few statements in the article.
[Click on the title for the link to the source.]

NYTimes January 29, 2009
Putin’s Grasp of Energy Drives Russian Agenda

. . . from his earliest days in power in 2000, Mr. Putin, who left the presidency in 2008 and became prime minister, decided natural resource exports and energy in particular would not only finance the country’s economic rebirth but also help restore Russia’s lost greatness after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

. . . he ordered natural gas shut off to Ukraine, in the process cutting supplies to Europe. It was portrayed by the Kremlin as a protracted commercial dispute with Ukraine. But the hundreds of thousands of shivering gas customers in the Balkans and Eastern Europe sent an unmistakable message about the Continent’s reliance on Russian supplies — and Mr. Putin’s willingness to wield energy as a political weapon.

. . . In fact, the standoff in Ukraine was just one part of a far larger Russian playbook on natural gas policy under Mr. Putin. In the past year, Russia has formed a cartel-like group with Middle Eastern nations with the goal of dampening global competition in natural gas, sewn up sources of supply in Central Asia and North Africa with long-term contracts to thwart competitors and used its military to occupy an important pipeline route in Georgia.
. . .

“He has been thinking for some time, ‘What are the means and tools at Russia’s disposal, to make Russia great?’ ” said Lilia Shevtsova, a researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Center. In the post-Soviet world, she said, Mr. Putin concluded that “military power would no longer be sufficient.”

. . . A spokesman for Mr. Putin, Dmitri S. Peskov, said that the energy market “was, is and will remain a strategic sphere for Russia”

. . . In this contest, Russia’s overarching goal is to prevent the West from breaking a monopoly on natural gas pipelines from Asia to Europe. Boris E. Nemtsov, a former Russian first deputy prime minister who is now in the opposition, said: “It is the typical behavior of the monopolist. The monopolist fears competition.”

. . . The Nabucco pipeline was proposed in 2002 by executives from European energy companies with the express intent of undercutting Russia’s gas monopoly. It would pass through Turkey and Georgia to the Caspian Sea.

Under the best of circumstances, building an international pipeline is an intricate and arduous process, technically, financially and politically. However, Nabucco’s planners rapidly discovered that their biggest obstacle was not a mountain chain or a corrupt local politician, but Mr. Putin himself. When OMV, the Austrian energy company, formally created a consortium for Nabucco in 2005, he responded with a competing idea: a pipeline called South Stream that would terminate at the same gas storage site in Austria, but originate in Russia and bypass Ukraine by traveling under the Black Sea.

. . .
To pay the hefty upfront construction costs, a pipeline needs both an assured source of supply and a market for the gas it transports. The South Stream pipeline would flood the gas market in southeastern Europe, locking up the customers the bankers behind Nabucco were counting on to finance the project.

At the same time it would undermine Ukraine’s domination of gas lines headed west, one of the biggest obstacles to Russian domination of the European gas market.

But Mr. Putin did not stop there. Leaving nothing to chance, he also took steps to choke off potential sources of upstream gas supplies deep in Central Asia.

. . . While energy executives around the world rushed to Ashgabat, the Turkmen capital, to meet the new leader, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, a former dentist, Mr. Putin was the first to cut a big deal.

. . . Mr. Putin and Mr. Berdymukhammedov agreed in 2007 to build a pipeline north, to Russia, depriving Nabucco of potential supply. It was not until 2008 that European Union officials got to Ashgabat with a memorandum of understanding for a trans-Caspian pipeline that could link to Nabucco. . . .
The West still had an important pipeline partner in Georgia, a critical geographical link. But that all but evaporated in the brief war last summer.

By 2007, a pipeline section had been laid across Georgia, the Baku-Erzurum pipeline, which is now used for local distribution but will become a part of the Nabucco pipeline, if it is ever built. This brought the struggle for Nabucco to a pivotal stage, for it was now playing out along a storied trade route in the petroleum business, and one highly sensitive to the Russians.

. . .
The August war sent a chill through boardrooms in the West when, for example, Russian tanks scurried back and forth over one of the buried pipelines and one crew occupied a pumping station. Russia, said Svante Cornell, a specialist on Central Asia and the Caucasus at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, sent a simple message: “We can blow this up at any time.”

. . .
Despite its best intentions, Europe is likely to remain dependent on Russian energy supplies for the foreseeable future and, perhaps, indefinitely if Mr. Putin has his way. And that reflects his long-held beliefs.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Billion People Hungry: Is Famine the Next Thing?

Reuters AlertNet has just published a report by Oxfam that claims that a billion people are hungry and many of them could starve. This is news, if true, and yet it seems not to have attracted much interest by other publication outlets. The scale of the world's crisis seems to swell beyond our ability to internalize. Anyone who is watching has so many reasons to be concerned, whatever one's political orientation. I reproduce the report to increase the public interest.

One billion people hungry - Oxfam
26 Jan 2009 19:48:00 GMT
Written by: Emma Batha

Almost a billion people are going hungry and millions more could slip over the edge unless the world takes urgent action, aid agency Oxfam warns in a new report.

"This should be a wake-up call for all those who believe that the food crisis will be over soon," Oxfam's Chief Executive Barbara Stocking said.

Recent food price rises have helped swell the number of hungry to around 963 million - an increase of 109 million people in about two years, according to U.N. figures quoted in the report, A Billion Hungry People.

Oxfam warned that the global economic recession and climate change would likely exacerbate the problem.

"Leaders have a window of opportunity to prevent a worse situation resulting from the triple crunch of the economic crisis, climate change, and energy and water scarcity," Stocking said.

"Failure to act will see millions more people falling into hunger."

The British aid agency released the report on the opening day of a U.N. conference in Madrid on food security.

Although global food prices have fallen in the last few months, they are not back to previous levels, and are likely to rise sharply again in the future, Oxfam said.

Sub-Saharan Africa is a region causing particular concern, with the number of hungry people increasing by 43 million over the last 15 years to 212 million, according to the report.

Oxfam said much more must be done to address the underlying issues that cause the chronic hunger now affecting one in six people in the world.

The report includes recommendations for reforming the humanitarian aid system and calls on poor countries to invest more in agriculture.

Developing countries must increase protection measures for vulnerable populations - including employment creation schemes for those at risk of hunger, it says.

For their part, rich countries must ensure long-term predictable funding to developing countries for investment in agriculture and climate change adaptation.

Another report, published on Monday by British think tank Chatham House, says climate change, water scarcity and competition for land will make it hard to meet an expected 50 percent rise in demand for food by 2030. The Feeding of the Nine Billion - a reference to the world's ballooning population - also calls for more investment in agriculture with a focus on helping small farms.

Here are some facts and figures from Oxfam:

* One in six of the world's population is hungry
* Between 50 and 60 percent of childhood deaths in the developing world are hunger related
* The risk of death is 2.5 times higher for children with mild malnutrition than for children who are adequately nourished
* The proportion of overseas development assistance spent on agriculture has fallen from almost a fifth in 1980 to 3 percent today
* Poor people are particularly vulnerable to food price changes with many spending up to 80 percent of their income on food
* Even before the recent crisis 16,000 children died every day of hunger-related causes - one every five seconds

Reuters AlertNet is not responsible for the content of external websites.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Terror in Swat

It is difficult to internalize how serious the situation is in Pakistan -- at least if we believe all that is being reported. The most stressed places are in the tribal territories, Baluchistan, and, now, Swat. Local populations in many parts of these regions are falling under the control of whoever is the meanest, which seems to be people calling themselves "Taliban." The military seems to be paralyzed at the points where they are most needed. The government has been unwilling to recognize many things that seem obvious, like the imperious presence of the Taliban in Quetta. An now the government can't make up its mind about what to do about the radical Islamist groups.
I have objected that calling the tribal areas "lawless" misleads -- given that in fact tribal law (tribally based conventions of solving problems) has long been accepted and generally followed in the Pushtun tribal areas -- but the word "lawless" seems to me appropriate for places like Swat where the edicts of a single individual constitute whatever "law" there is. Obviously, this is not the Islam that most Pakistanis believe in. But it seems well ensconced and dominant in some notable places in the country.

The New York Times January 25, 2009
Radio Spreads Taliban’s Terror in Pakistani Region

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Every night around 8 o’clock, the terrified residents of Swat, a lush and picturesque valley a hundred miles from three of Pakistan’s most important cities, crowd around their radios. They know that failure to listen and learn might lead to a lashing — or a beheading.

Using a portable radio transmitter, a local Taliban leader, Shah Doran, on most nights outlines newly proscribed “un-Islamic” activities in Swat, like selling DVDs, watching cable television, singing and dancing, criticizing the Taliban, shaving beards and allowing girls to attend school. He also reveals names of people the Taliban have recently killed for violating their decrees — and those they plan to kill.

“They control everything through the radio,” said one Swat resident, who declined to give his name for fear the Taliban might kill him. “Everyone waits for the broadcast.”

International attention remains fixed on the Taliban’s hold on Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal areas, from where they launch attacks on American forces in Afghanistan. But for Pakistan, the loss of the Swat Valley could prove just as devastating.

Unlike the fringe tribal areas, Swat, a Delaware-size chunk of territory with 1.3 million residents and a rich cultural history, is part of Pakistan proper, within reach of Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Islamabad, the capital.

After more than a year of fighting, virtually all of it is now under Taliban control, marking the militants’ farthest advance eastward into Pakistan’s so-called settled areas, residents and government officials from the region say.

With the increasing consolidation of their power, the Taliban have taken a sizable bite out of the nation. And they are enforcing a strict interpretation of Islam with cruelty, bringing public beheadings, assassinations, social and cultural repression and persecution of women to what was once an independent, relatively secular region, dotted with ski resorts and fruit orchards and known for its dancing girls.

Last year, 70 police officers were beheaded, shot or otherwise slain in Swat, and 150 wounded, said Malik Naveed Khan, the police inspector general for the North-West Frontier Province.

The police have become so afraid that many officers have put advertisements in newspapers renouncing their jobs so the Taliban will not kill them.

One who stayed on the job was Farooq Khan, a midlevel officer in Mingora, the valley’s largest city, where decapitated bodies of policemen and other victims routinely surface. Last month, he was shopping there when two men on a motorcycle sprayed him with gunfire, killing him in broad daylight.

“He always said, ‘I have to stay here and defend our home,’ ” recalled his brother, Wajid Ali Khan, a Swat native and the province’s minister for environment, as he passed around a cellphone with Farooq’s picture.

In the view of analysts, the growing nightmare in Swat is a capsule of the country’s problems: an ineffectual and unresponsive civilian government, coupled with military and security forces that, in the view of furious residents, have willingly allowed the militants to spread terror deep into Pakistan.

The crisis has become a critical test for the government of the civilian president, Asif Ali Zardari, and for a security apparatus whose loyalties, many Pakistanis say, remain in question.

Seeking to deflect blame, Mr. Zardari’s government recently criticized “earlier halfhearted attempts at rooting out extremists from the area” and vowed to fight militants “who are ruthlessly murdering and maiming our citizens.”

But as pressure grows, he has also said in recent days that the government would be willing to talk with militants who accept its authority. Such negotiations would carry serious risks: security officials say a brief peace deal in Swat last spring was a spectacular failure that allowed militants to tighten their hold and take revenge on people who had supported the military.

Without more forceful and concerted action by the government, some warn, the Taliban threat in Pakistan is bound to spread.

“The crux of the problem is the government appears divided about what to do,” said Mahmood Shah, a retired Pakistani Army brigadier who until 2006 was in charge of security in the western tribal areas. “This disconnect among the political leadership has emboldened the militants.”

From 2,000 to 4,000 Taliban fighters now roam the Swat Valley, according to interviews with a half-dozen senior Pakistani government, military and political officials involved in the fight. By contrast, the Pakistani military has four brigades with 12,000 to 15,000 men in Swat, officials say.

But the soldiers largely stay inside their camps, unwilling to patrol or exert any large presence that might provoke — or discourage — the militants, Swat residents and political leaders say. The military also has not raided a small village that locals say is widely known as the Taliban’s headquarters in Swat.

Nor have troops destroyed mobile radio transmitters mounted on motorcycles or pickup trucks that Shah Doran and the leader of the Taliban in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, have expertly used to terrify residents.

Being named in one of the nightly broadcasts often leaves just two options: fleeing Swat, or turning up headless and dumped in a village square.

When the army does act, its near-total lack of preparedness to fight a counterinsurgency reveals itself. Its usual tactic is to lob artillery shells into a general area, and the results have seemed to hurt civilians more than the militants, residents say.

In some parts of Pakistan, civilian militias have risen to fight the Taliban. But in Swat, the Taliban’s gains amid a large army presence has convinced many that the military must be conspiring with the Taliban.

“It’s very mysterious how they get so much weapons and support,” while nearby districts are comparatively calm, said Muzaffar ul-Mulk Khan, a member of Parliament from Swat, who said his home near Mingora was recently destroyed by the Taliban.

“We are bewildered by the military. They patrol only in Mingora. In the rest of Swat they sit in their bases. And the militants can kill at will anywhere in Mingora,” he said.

“Nothing is being done by the government," Mr. Khan added.

Accusations that the military lacks the will to fight in Swat are “very unfair and unjustified,” said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the chief military spokesman, who said 180 army soldiers and officers had been killed in Swat in the past 14 months.

“They do reach out, and they do patrol,” he said.

Military officials also say they are trying to step up activity in Swat. This weekend, soldiers were deployed to protect a handful of educational buildings in Mingora, amid a wave of school bombings.

General Abbas said the military did not have the means to block Taliban radio transmissions across such a wide area, but he disputed the view that Mingora had fallen to the militants.

“Just because they come out at night and throw down four or five bodies in the square does not mean that militants control anything,” he said.

Few officials would dispute that one of the Pakistani military’s biggest mistakes in Swat was its failure to protect Pir Samiullah, a local leader whose 500 followers fought the Taliban in the village of Mandal Dag. After the Taliban killed him in a firefight last month, the militants demanded that his followers reveal his gravesite — and then started beheading people until they got the information, one Mandal Dag villager said.

“They dug him up and hung his body in the square,” the villager said, and then they took the body to a secret location. The desecration was intended to show what would happen to anyone who defied the Taliban’s rule, but it also made painfully clear to Swat residents that the Pakistani government could not be trusted to defend those who rose up against the militants.

“He should have been given more protection,” said one Pakistani security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the subject. “He should have been made a symbol of resistance.”

Gruesome displays like the defilement of Pir Samiullah’s remains are an effective tactic for the Taliban, who have shown cruel efficiency in following through on their threats.

Recently, Shah Doran broadcast word that the Taliban intended to kill a police officer who he said had killed three people.

“We have sent people, and tomorrow you will have good news,” he said on his nightly broadcast, according to a resident of Matta, a Taliban stronghold. The next day the decapitated body of the policeman was found in a nearby village.

Even in Mingora, a town grown hardened to violence, residents were shocked early this month to find the bullet-ridden body of one of the city’s most famous dancing girls splayed on the main square.

Known as Shabana, the woman was visited at night by a group of men who claimed to want to hire her for a party. They shot her to death and dragged her body more than a quarter-mile to the central square, leaving it as a warning for anyone who would flout Taliban decrees.

The leader of the militants in Swat, Maulana Fazlullah, gained prominence from making radio broadcasts and running an Islamic school, becoming popular among otherwise isolated homemakers and inspiring them to sell their jewelry to finance his operation. He also drew support from his marriage to the daughter of Sufi Mohammed, a powerful religious leader in Swat until 2001 who later disowned his son-in-law.

Even though Swat does not border Afghanistan or any of Pakistan’s seven lawless federal tribal areas, Maulana Fazlullah eventually allied with Taliban militants who dominate regions along the Afghan frontier.

His fighters now roam the valley with sniper rifles, Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortar tubes and, according to some officials, night-vision goggles and flak vests.

His latest tactic is a ban on girls’ attending school in Swat, which will be tested in February when private schools are scheduled to reopen after winter recess. The Taliban have already destroyed 169 girls’ schools in Swat, government officials say, and they expect most private schools to stay closed rather than risk retaliation.

“The local population is totally fed up, and if they had the chance they would lynch each and every Talib,” said Mr. Naveed Khan, the police official. “But the Taliban are so cruel and violent, no one will oppose them. If this is not stopped, it will spill into other areas of Pakistan.”

Ismail Khan contributed reporting.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Shocking loss: ISIM has closed down

Sad news. The International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM)has closed its doors. This may be an early omen of how the world economic collapse will affect scholarly activity. ISIM was one of the innovative centers for the study of Muslim society. For some of us it was especially useful because it was not Middle East or Arab- centered. This was a center that sought to track the affairs of Muslims outside the Arab world - who collectively number far more than those in the Arab world. We are thankful for all that they have contributed to knowledge about the Muslim peoples around the world.
For the moment, the only thing I know to say is, how much we will miss them. Thanks, guys.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Arming journalists --- a strange idea

This is from RT news. Journalists who are armed? In Russia perhaps it is conceivable.

Pen and sword: is it time to arm journalists? January 22, 2009, 19:18

The co-owner of a leading independent newspaper in Russia is considering asking the authorities to provide guns for his journalists. It follows the assassination of a Novaya Gazeta reporter by an unknown man on Monday.

Aleksandr Lebedev said on Thursday that his employees at the paper need to be armed for personal security, since ‘the FSB cannot protect them’.

He added that he is considering sending a letter to the Security Services asking them to provide small arms for the journalists, even though a similar request was earlier denied.

The sale of guns is strictly regulated in Russia. But some people, like State Duma deputies, are allowed to carry personal weapons to protect themselves.

Lebedev’s comment comes after Anastasiya Baburova, a journalist who worked for Novaya Gazeta, was killed by an unknown assassin along with the prominent lawyer Stanislav Markelov.

The double murder took place in a small street in central Moscow. Investigators said they had neither eyewitness to the attack nor a clear picture of the suspect.

Meanwhile, a Russian tabloid has published a CCTV image from a security camera at a metro station close to the scene of the shooting. The paper claims it shows the alleged assassin after he shot the pair.

The authorities have yet to comment on the publication of the photograph.

However, Russia’s “For Human Rights” organization says the image has all the hallmarks of a ‘leak’. One of the group’s leaders, Lev Ponomarev, says it’s still unclear whether the CCTV image was leaked for cash, or whether the leak was authorized from above, “aimed at saving the murderer”.

Economic crsis in Central Asia

EurasiaNet's report on the impact of the economic crisis on Central Asia.

Business & Economics:

Central Asia's national currencies are plunging against the dollar and may sink still further as the global monetary crisis continues to shake the region's fiscal foundations, financial chiefs have warned. Kazakhstan, which boasts the region's largest economy, has vowed to hold the line at no more than a 10-percent devaluation of the tenge against the dollar. "It is necessary to ensure the equilibrium and sustainability of the financial system, as a sharp devaluation will exacerbate banks' problems in paying external debts," warned Kazakh Economy Minister Bakhyt Sultanov, Kazakhstan Today reported on January 19. Falling currencies make external debts more expensive and contribute to domestic inflation. Other countries expect to take more of a hit. According to the Kyrgyz news agency, the chairman of the Kyrgyz stock exchange has forecast an exchange rate later this year of 45 soms per dollar. The dollar stood at 40.1 soms on January 21. However, bankers in Tajikistan have admitted that there is little they can do to stop the freefall of the somoni. "The National Bank of Tajikistan has limited opportunities to maintain the stability of the national currency rate," National Bank Chairman Sharif Rahimzoda said on January 10. Rahimzoda added that "about $235 million" per month needs to be injected into the domestic currency market to prop-up the somoni against the dollar, Avetsa news agency reported. However, the government does not have the resources to hold exchange rates steady, he said. "Unfortunately, we do not have such [an] opportunity. [T]he amount of the country's gold and foreign currency reserves have already decreased from $350 million to $198 million in the period from January 2008 to January 2009." Uzbekistan, too, faces a currency crisis and local media have speculated that if uncontained, popular discontent could grow. The official exchange rate stands at 1,396 soums to the dollar, but on the black market the rate climbs to 1,700 soums per dollar, the news site claimed on January 16. The declining value of the soum coupled with inflationary pressures, growing unemployment, non-payment of salaries and a series of government tactics to control the economy are pushing many families to the brink of financial disaster, the report said. "The situation, as estimated by experts, will result in an additional and very painful leap in inflation, which would make a large proportion of the population of Uzbekistan insolvent," it added. Early last month, Uzbek President Islam Karimov maintained that the "Uzbek model" of economic development would steady the state against market fluctuations. However, on December 27 the International Monetary Fund cautioned that "increasing protectionist measures and implementing foreign exchange restrictions" would harm Uzbekistan's prospects for 2009.

Editor's Note: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan

Uncovering the Deep State in Turkey

Many of us tend to look at Turkey as a progressive state that exemplifies what a society can become in the Middle East and Central Asia. Pakistan in some ways has modeled itself after Turkey. But there has always been an underside to Turkey in the sense that the military was a stabilizing force in Turkey's affairs. But recent inquiries into an apparent attempted coup by "progressives" is uncovering the work of the "Deep State," which is here defined as "a shadowy zone where state interests intersect with lawless and corrupt elements of the bureaucracy, military and the security establishment." So there may be "a criminal apparatus within the state." That such an inquiry is taking place reveals how truly progressive Turkey is, however -- who would imagine it taking place in Egypt or Syria or Jordan or Saudi Arabia? EurasiaNet published this article today. [Click on the title for a link.]

Civil Society:
Yigal Schleifer: 1/22/09

An investigation into an alleged plot by secularist ultranationalists to overthrow the Turkish government has deepened with the recent arrest of senior military officers and the discovery of several weapons caches. At the same time, there is growing concern that the probe could lead to increased tension between the government and Turkey's powerful military, as well as that the investigation -- aimed at tackling long-standing anti-democratic forces in Turkish politics -- is becoming dangerously politicized.

"You have to take [the investigation] very seriously and you have to be afraid of it," says Andrew Finkel, a columnist with the English-language newspaper Today's Zaman.

"This is an attempt to dismantle the unelected authority in the Turkish state, which has been responsible for militarism and a whole raft of serious anti-democratic practices. And, it seems like what is also happening is that the government is literally disarming its opponents."

"This is a search for justice and it's a search for power, and it doesn't mean you can't do one without the other," he adds.

In an effort to ease the tension, Turkish President Abdullah Gul gathered on January 21 with top officials from the executive, legislative and judiciary branches for a lunch meeting. After the meeting, Gul released a statement calling for the country's institutions to pay close attention to legal procedure in the case. "A rigorous attachment to the supremacy of law and its basic principles and maximum attention to procedural laws will make Turkey stronger and will consolidate the public's trust," the statement said.

The investigation into the coup plot, commonly known as "Ergenekon," has already resulted in the arrest of some 130 people, among them retired four-star generals and prominent politicians, journalists and academics. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. According to an indictment, the plotters were hoping to bring down the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) by sowing enough chaos, through terror attacks and high-level assassinations, that the military would be forced to intervene.

In recent weeks, following sketches found in the homes of some of the suspects, police have uncovered two weapons caches buried on the outskirts of Ankara. Among the weapons were hand grenades, plastic explosives and ammunition.

For many Turks, the investigation and the arrests -- particularly of high-level military personnel -- offer a chance to expose and unravel some of the work of the "Deep State," a phrase used to describe a shadowy zone where state interests intersect with lawless and corrupt elements of the bureaucracy, military and the security establishment.

"I think this is a historic case. This is a good chance for Turkish political system to put a stop to military interventions and to clean its ranks of these illegal affiliations between state authorities and gangsters and mafia types," says Sahin Alpay, a professor of political science at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.

But the case, launched in June 2007 after grenades were found in the Istanbul home of a retired military officer, is also creating new tensions between the AKP and the military, which sees itself as the ultimate guardian of Turkey's secular tradition and which has forced out of power four governments in the past.

The recent arrest of three retired generals and nine active officers led to the armed forces chief General Ilker Basbug to call on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a surprise meeting. The military also recently released a statement warning Turkey's media not to "declare people and institutions guilty without trial."

"From now on, responsible authorities and good-sensed media must fulfill their duties and take necessary measures, instead of using only rhetoric," the statement added.

Other parts of Turkey's secularist establishment, including the judiciary, are also crying foul, asserting that the government is using the Ergenekon investigation to take revenge against its political opponents. "We are witnessing a confrontation against the Republic's core values," Deniz Baykal, leader of main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) said at a press conference earlier in January.

Meanwhile, Turkey's Judges and Prosecutors Association (YARSAV) and the Istanbul bar association have also strongly criticized the way investigation is being handled. "We are concerned about the rule of law (in Turkey), as these people [suspects] were detained . . . in a way that could be assessed as revenge," Muammer Aydin, head of the Istanbul Bar, recently said.

But criticism of the case has not been limited to hard-line secularists. The large number of arrests, which include some of the AKP's most vocal critics, and the dubious nature of the some of the evidence in the investigation, has some observers asking if the Ergenekon case has become tainted by politics.

Says Gareth Jenkins, a military analyst based in Istanbul: "[The Ergenekon investigation] started as a kernel of truth, but the AKP has seized on this as an opportunity to undermine the military and its secularist opponents. . . . With every step of the way it has become more politicized and anti-democratic."

"If the prosecution continues as we seen it, we can have an extremely dangerous situation," Jenkins adds. "You now have extreme distrust between the government and the military. What we don't want is a situation where the military believes the government is out to get it."

Government officials have rejected claims that the probe has gone off track, saying its critics are simply not accustomed to seeing the rule of law extend to what had previously been untouchable figures.

Still, observers say that the enormity and importance of the case requires the government to move carefully. "There really needs to be a scrupulous investigation. Everything has to be done by the book and in the right way," says Emma Sinclair-Webb, a Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"On the other hand, you can't just caricature this whole process as simply being about a power struggle," she says. "It's just too important of a chance for Turkey to grapple with a very dark history and get rid of a criminal apparatus within the state."

Editor's Note: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

US is going to supply Afghanistan through the northern routes.

This news is significant in that it indicates how dependent Afghanistan continues to be on its linkages to the north. It is not only what comes into the country through the northern routes that matters but also what goes out, most critically for the economy at this time, opium, heroin, hashish; could it some day again be raisins, pistachio nuts, melons? The highways and railroads of Central Asia now reach places in Central Asia that once were quite inaccessible. Distances in time and cost for the local residents and for shippers are shorter. Practical concerns of the great powers may oblige Central Asia to become ever more accessible to the wider world, despite the protective and defensive instincts of those who rule there. [Click of the title to link to the source.]

NYTimes January 21, 2009
U.S. Secures New Supply Routes to Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Faced with the risk that Taliban attacks could imperil the main supply route for NATO troops in Afghanistan, the United States military has obtained permission to move troop supplies through Russia and Central Asia, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in the Middle East, said on Tuesday.

About three-quarters of NATO supplies are normally shipped into Afghanistan from western Pakistan, most of them through the Khyber Pass, an ancient trade and military gateway that lies just west of the Pakistani frontier hub of Peshawar.

But Taliban guerrillas who dominate the northwestern Pakistani tribal areas have pushed deeper into the Khyber region recently, burning hundreds of NATO supply trucks in Peshawar and carrying out deadly attacks on NATO convoys.

The violence has led some Pakistani truckers to stop driving the route and has raised concerns that continued attacks might seriously hurt NATO’s ability to resupply troops. With the American deployment expected to as much as double this year to 60,000 troops, it has become even more critical to find new routes to bring supplies into Afghanistan.

In Islamabad on Tuesday, General Petraeus said the American military had secured agreements with Russia and other countries to move supplies to Afghanistan from the north, easing the military’s heavy reliance on more dangerous routes through western Pakistan.

“It is very important as we increase the effort in Afghanistan that we have multiple routes that go into the country,” General Petraeus told reporters in Islamabad, where he had met with the head of the Pakistani Army as well as the country’s president and prime minister. The general had previously visited Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to discuss the issue.

“There have been agreements reached, and there are transit lines now and transit agreements for commercial goods and services in particular that include several countries in the Central Asian states and also Russia,” he said.

Russia is the principal source of fuel for the alliance’s needs in Afghanistan, and the Kremlin already allows the shipment of nonlethal supplies bound for Afghanistan to travel across Russian territory by ground.

As if to underscore the instability of western Pakistani areas near the main NATO supply route, Pakistani security forces said Tuesday that they had killed 60 militants in fighting in Mohmand Agency, a Taliban stronghold north of the main road through the Khyber Pass.

According to reports in the Pakistani media, the country’s paramilitary troops, backed by artillery, tanks and helicopter gunships, fought militants on Monday and Tuesday in operations intended to root out guerrillas who a week earlier staged a 600-person assault on Pakistani outposts in Mohmand that left at least 6 Pakistani soldiers and 40 militants dead.

Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

How dangerous, and precious, is the truth: worth two more lives

Another two lives are taken lest the truth be known and promoted, one a lawyer the other a journalist working for a Russian newspaper who had already lost three journalists, including Anna Politkovskaia, since 2000. Another indicator of how costly -- how precious -- the truth is. Or, saying it the other ways, how dangerous, to some, the truth would be if it were known.
[Click on the title to link to the source.]

NYTimes January 20, 2009
Leading Russian Rights Lawyer Is Shot to Death in Moscow, Along With Journalist

MOSCOW — A prominent Russian lawyer who spent the better part of a decade pursuing contentious human rights and social justice cases was killed on Monday in a brazen daylight assassination in central Moscow, officials said.

The lawyer, Stanislav Markelov, had just left a news conference where he announced that he would continue to fight against the early release from jail of Yuri D. Budanov, a former Russian tank commander imprisoned for murdering a young Chechen woman.

Anastasia Baburova, a 25-year-old journalist who was with Mr. Markelov, was also killed, according to a spokeswoman for a newspaper where she worked as a freelancer, Novaya Gazeta, which is highly critical of the government. The two were shot.

Officials said they believed that Mr. Markelov, 34, was the primary target, having brought cases against the Russian military, Chechen warlords and murderous neo-fascists. With a laundry list of his potential enemies, authorities refrained from naming any suspects.

“Investigators are looking into various theories, including that the murder was linked to the victim’s professional activities,” Vladimir I. Markin, a spokesman for the investigative wing of the Prosecutor General’s Office, said of Mr. Markelov.

The murder bore the characteristics of a contract killing, a not-uncommon phenomenon in Russia. Even so, the audacity of Mr. Markelov’s murder surprised some commentators.

“Even when organized crime in the 1990s was rampant, such a killing would have been considered bold and horrific,” said a correspondent from Vesti television.

Mr. Markelov, who was the director of the Rule of Law Institute, a civil liberties group, gained prominence recently representing the family of Elza Kungayeva. She was an 18-year-old Chechen whom Mr. Budanov, the former tank commander, admitted strangling in his quarters in March 2000, just as the second post-Soviet war in Chechnya was beginning to rage.

Mr. Budanov was sentenced to 10 years in prison but was given early parole for good behavior.

Mr. Markelov, at the news conference just before his death, told reporters that he might file an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against the early release of Mr. Budanov, who was a decorated colonel of the Russian Army before he was stripped of his rank. In an interview last week with The New York Times, Mr. Markelov said he might also file a lawsuit against the administration of the prison that released Mr. Budanov last Thursday.

The decision to free Mr. Budanov set off street protests and outraged some human rights groups and Chechen officials. It reignited long-simmering tensions years after a decade of intermittent war in Chechnya, a southern Russian republic, was replaced by tenuous stability.

But Mr. Budanov was also revered by nationalists as a valiant fighter who helped wage a bloody but necessary war against separatist rebels in Chechnya. Some now see Mr. Markelov’s murder as revenge for his efforts against a Russian hero.

“The murder of Markelov, I consider a bold open warning by the ‘party of war’ to democratic Russia,” Nudri S. Nukhazhiev, Chechnya’s human rights ombudsman, said in a statement. “Today, there are no facts or evidence of the direct participation of Budanov in this crime, but I am more than certain that it was committed by his supporters with his consent.”

Mr. Markelov phoned the father of Ms. Kungayeva, the slain teenager, a few days ago to complain that he had received death threats, the father told the Interfax news agency.

Lela Khamzayeva, another lawyer for Ms. Kungayeva’s family, was adamant, however, that the killing of Mr. Markelov could not be linked to his connection with Mr. Budanov, because his role during the actual proceedings against the former colonel was, as she put it, “insignificant.”

“If someone is trying to link this murder with Markelov’s participation in the Budanov case, well, that’s just ridiculous,” she said.

Given Mr. Markelov’s propensity for challenging the Russian authorities and others known to settle scores violently, the list of potential suspects is lengthy.

He worked closely with Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist with Novaya Gazeta and strong critic of Russia’s Chechnya policies, who was murdered in Moscow in 2006.

He often defended the interests of those, like Ms. Kungayeva, who became ensnared in the violent and often arbitrary military justice of the Chechen conflict or the tyrannical rule of Chechnya’s violence-prone leader, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, in the war’s aftermath.

“He handled almost every case opened as a result of the work of Anna Politkovskaya,” said Nadezhda Prusenkova, a spokeswoman for Novaya Gazeta.

While he was not involved in the current trial of three men accused in the murder of Ms. Politkovskaya, Mr. Markelov did work on the case of another murdered Novaya Gazeta journalist, Igor Domnikov, who died in 2000 from wounds caused by a hammer blow to the head.

Mr. Markelov has also represented victims of neo-fascist and xenophobic violence, a phenomenon that has been expanding annually both in frequency and intensity, according to experts.

At least 10 people were killed and 9 others injured in racist attacks in Russia in the first two weeks of 2009, said Aleksandr Brod, the head of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau, Interfax reported.

Ms. Baburova, the freelancer who was killed Monday, began working for Novaya Gazeta last October. She cited Mr. Markelov in her most recent article about fascist groups, published on Saturday.

In it, the lawyer criticized the authorities for their handling of a case against the leader of a violent nationalist group, who was sentenced to three years in prison for arranging the murder of a man from Tajikistan and putting video of the killing on the Internet.

With Ms. Baburova’s death, Novaya Gazeta has lost four reporters to murder or other mysterious circumstances since 2000.

Michael Schwirtz reported from Moscow, and Graham Bowley from New York.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Monday, January 19, 2009

The power of contemporary myth in war: A reporter's personal tragedy

Lately I have become accustomed to saying to my students that we all live in fields of lies. It is lies that give us grounds for doing what we do. In that sense we live by faith -- faith that the stories we tell ourselves are true and authenticated, irrefutable; the reality is often otherwise. Indeed, the real world we encounter is reasonably well encompassed by the lies we tell ourselves; the lies work more or less OK most of the time. Only rarely do events so starkly break into our consciousness as to force us to question what we have taken for granted. The killing of a radio reporter's three daughters by Israeli shells just before he was to give an on-air update of affairs in Gaza was such an event. It seems to have challenged the comfortable consciousness of many Israelis, but not all. Even then a young Israeli soldier's mother took it for granted that the reporter's house was attacked for good reason. She assumed that reporter's family deserved the attack. Here is McClachy's report on the incident, apparently unreported by some of the other papers. RLC [Click on the title for the source]

McClatchy Washington Bureau
Sun, Jan. 18, 2009

Israeli fire killed interviewee's 3 daughters just before airtime
Dion Nissenbaum

January 19, 2009 01:00:36 AM

TEL HASHOMER, Israel - For many Israeli television viewers, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish was the disembodied Palestinian voice on their nightly news that brought them first-hand telephone accounts of the fighting in Gaza.

Over the past 23-days, the Palestinian doctor had described a harrowing life in Gaza as Israeli air strikes, tanks and artillery repeatedly pounded the isolated Mediterranean strip.

On Friday night, when Israel's Channel 10 prepared to check in with Abuelaish as hopes for a cease-fire began to become reality, viewers were gripped as a personal tragedy played out live on their evening news.

Minutes before Channel 10 went on the air, an Israeli strike had hit the doctor's home in Gaza, killing three of his daughters. A niece also was killed. When an Israeli reporter reached Abuelaish during the newscast, the doctor was frantically trying to save their lives.

"My god, my girls," Abuelaish wailed on the telephone as he pleaded with Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar for help. "Shlomi, can't anybody help us?"

In what may be remembered as one of the most emotionally-charged events of the devastating 23-day-old Israeli military campaign in Gaza, the Palestinian doctor's family calamity touched a nerve.

The Israeli public has been grappling for days with the cloudy ethical questions raised by the strikes on Gaza. Abuelaish made real the abstract moral quandary about fighting adversaries hiding in the densely-populated cities.

Channel 10 quickly mobilized. Eldar and his colleagues tapped their Israeli military contacts and helped spirit Abuelaish, one of his surviving daughters, and other family members into Israel for emergency medical treatment.

The injured were taken to the Chaim Sheba Medical Center, where Abuelaish, one of the rare Gaza residents allowed to work in Israel, conducts research.

The story was jarring. The Israeli government actively sought to restrict coverage from Gaza as a way to prevent heart-wrenching tales like Abuelaish from overwhelming the reasons behind Israel's campaign to destabilize Hamas.

Israel barred reporters from freely entering Gaza during the entire military campaign, and Israeli government officials unapologetically backed the policy.

"There is an unequal war going on there between a power and a terror organization, and the only way to hurt us is to get those images to hurt us in the battlefield of public opinion," Danny Seaman, the head of Israel's Government Press Office, said last week before the strike on Abuelaish's home. "In that sense, the less pictures coming out helping them the better."

But Abuelaish's story unfolded live on Israel's evening news.

And emotions boiled over again on Saturday when Abuelaish spoke to reporters the hospital.

"Why did they kill them?" an inconsolable Abuelaish told journalists. "Give me a reason."

The doctor's appeals were too much for Levona Stern, a 55-year-old Israeli mother of three boys who had served in the military.

As Abuelaish wept, Stern began angrily shouting at the Palestinian doctor and the reporters gathered around to hear his tale.

Without knowing the story, Stern accused Abuelaish of storing weapons in his home, an accusation that has not been made by the Israeli military.

"What's wrong with you, have you all gone crazy?" Stern shouted as people tried to hold her back. "My son is in the paratroopers, who knows what you had inside your home, nobody is talking about that. Nobody is talking. Who knows what kind of weapons were in your house; so what if he's a doctor? The soldiers knew exactly. They had weapons inside the home, you should be ashamed."

The Israeli military said it is looking into the incident, one of many that has drawn condemnation from the international community and calls for Israel to be investigated for committing possible war crimes.

In a preliminary review, the Israeli military said that its forces were responding to fire from, or near, Abuelaish's five-story apartment building.

Abuelaish dismissed the story as fiction and appealed to the Israeli military to give him an honest reason why his daughters are dead.

"If they have morals, if they have courage, they should say the truth," he said Sunday while taking a break from looking after his 17-year-old daughter, Shata. "That they made a mistake. Because there is no other way: By mistake or intentionally. No other way. No excuses."

Abuelaish couldn't hold back tears every time a new person called to grieve with the Palestinian doctor who spent 15 years working a gynecologist in Israel.

"They were soldiers for peace," Abuelaish said of his daughters, who had taken part in co-existence programs with Israeli children over the years. "Why did they kill this hope?"

In a telephone interview Sunday from her Herzliya home, Stern said she felt sorry for Abuelaish, but could not accept the possibility that Israeli soldiers might have mistakenly killed the Palestinian doctor's children.

"I don't believe our soldiers would shoot for no reason," said Stern. "I know how sensitive we are to human life, but war is war - and civilians get killed."

Abuelaish, who speaks Hebrew, English and Arabic, said he was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from his Israeli friends.

"I will never change the way I believe," he said. "There is no other way but for us to live in peace, with justice and respect for human rights. The military way proved its failure years ago. And still we haven't learned the lessons."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A letter from the grave: The cost of revealing affairs as one finds them.

Steve Coll has just published in the New Yorker a notice of the assassination of a journalist in Sri Lanka, Lasantha Wickramatunga. Coll reproduces in full the letter written by Wickramatunga for publication in case he is assassinated.
What this report reminds us of is how precious authentic information is. We take journalists for granted and often we don't like them because they don't cover a story the way we think they should or that reveals details that offend. But journalism is one of the enduring great ministries to the world, a service and if done right, in a society like Sri Lanka's and many other societies, a dangerous even sacrificial ministry.
We can give thanks for the zeal of this faithful public servant, who sought as he best knew how to tell the story as he found it. We grieve with and for all those who were close to him and who have lost someone they knew and loved. But we need to grieve for ourselves also because we cannot estimate how much might have been revealed if Wickramatunga had lived.
So how valuable is an authentic report in a society at war? How valuable is a story told among folks who cannot bear for it to be revealed?
I deliberately avoid here the word "truth" in order to recognize how problematic all reports are in a complex world -- but when one's life is at stake in the telling of a story, that story has to be considered precious beyond reckoning.
[Click on the title above to link to the source.]

New Yorker January 12, 2009
Steve Coll: Letter from the Grave

Last Thursday, Lasantha Wickramatunga, who was fifty-two years old and the editor of a Sri Lankan newspaper called the Sunday Leader, was assassinated on his way to work by two gunmen riding motorcycles. The Leader’s investigative reporting had been fiercely critical of the government and of the conduct of its war against Tamil separatists; Wickramatunga had been attacked before. He knew that he was likely to be murdered and so he wrote an essay with instructions that it be published only after his own death. Some mutual friends in the region sent a copy to me today. Read it in full below. It is like nothing else you will read today, that I promise.

A very brief bit of context: Sri Lanka’s government, drawing support from the island’s Sinhalese ethnic majority, has been at war since the nineteen-eighties with various militant separatist groups representing the country’s Tamil ethnic minority. In recent years, the war has narrowed to a contest between government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a group designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and others. The L.T.T.E. purports to speak for the aspirations of Tamil civilians, but it has conducted its campaign with child soldiers, suicide bombers, and other horrors. For its part, the Sri Lankan government has arranged for the disappearance and murder of uncounted numbers of Tamils, just as it “disappeared” and murdered thousands of its own Sinhalese citizens during an earlier period of counterinsurgency.

The country’s current president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is referred to in Wickramatunga’s essay, came to power emphasizing human rights and reform but has more recently pursued a military solution to his L.T.T.E. problem. Sri Lankan troops have lately marched deep into Tamil territory under a heavy veil of media censorship. Local journalists have been accused of disloyalty to the war, which has inspired or created a pretext for attacks against them and their offices. Wickramatunga believed that he would be killed, and the Sri Lankan government would be responsible for his murder.

According to media reports from Sri Lanka, the government has condemned Wickramatunga’s murder and ordered an investigation. Sri Lankan journalists and others today staged a silent march in Colombo, the capital, to protest his killing. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based group devoted to protecting journalists, issued a statement about Wickramatunga’s murder that said, “President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his associates and the government media are directly to blame because they incited hatred against him and allowed an outrageous level of impunity to develop as regards violence against the press.”

Here is his essay:

No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honor to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.

I have been in the business of journalism a good long time. Indeed, 2009 will be The Sunday Leader’s 15th year. Many things have changed in Sri Lanka during that time, and it does not need me to tell you that the greater part of that change has been for the worse. We find ourselves in the midst of a civil war ruthlessly prosecuted by protagonists whose bloodlust knows no bounds. Terror, whether perpetrated by terrorists or the state, has become the order of the day. Indeed, murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty. Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges. For neither group have the risks ever been higher or the stakes lower.

Why then do we do it? I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not. Friends tell me to revert to the bar, and goodness knows it offers a better and safer livelihood. Others, including political leaders on both sides, have at various times sought to induce me to take to politics, going so far as to offer me ministries of my choice. Diplomats, recognizing the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries. Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.

But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.

The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognize that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic… well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you’d best stop buying this paper.

The Sunday Leader has never sought safety by unquestioningly articulating the majority view. Let’s face it, that is the way to sell newspapers. On the contrary, as our opinion pieces over the years amply demonstrate, we often voice ideas that many people find distasteful. For example, we have consistently espoused the view that while separatist terrorism must be eradicated, it is more important to address the root causes of terrorism, and urged government to view Sri Lanka’s ethnic strife in the context of history and not through the telescope of terrorism. We have also agitated against state terrorism in the so-called war against terror, and made no secret of our horror that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world routinely to bomb its own citizens. For these views we have been labeled traitors, and if this be treachery, we wear that label proudly.

Many people suspect that The Sunday Leader has a political agenda: it does not. If we appear more critical of the government than of the opposition it is only because we believe that - pray excuse cricketing argot - there is no point in bowling to the fielding side. Remember that for the few years of our existence in which the UNP was in office, we proved to be the biggest thorn in its flesh, exposing excess and corruption wherever it occurred. Indeed, the steady stream of embarrassing exposes we published may well have served to precipitate the downfall of that government.

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organizations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship.

What is more, a military occupation of the country’s north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering “development” and “reconstruction” on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen - and all of the government - cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall.

It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

The irony in this is that, unknown to most of the public, Mahinda and I have been friends for more than a quarter century. Indeed, I suspect that I am one of the few people remaining who routinely addresses him by his first name and uses the familiar Sinhala address oya when talking to him. Although I do not attend the meetings he periodically holds for newspaper editors, hardly a month passes when we do not meet, privately or with a few close friends present, late at night at President’s House. There we swap yarns, discuss politics and joke about the good old days. A few remarks to him would therefore be in order here.

Mahinda, when you finally fought your way to the SLFP presidential nomination in 2005, nowhere were you welcomed more warmly than in this column. Indeed, we broke with a decade of tradition by referring to you throughout by your first name. So well known were your commitments to human rights and liberal values that we ushered you in like a breath of fresh air. Then, through an act of folly, you got yourself involved in the Helping Hambantota scandal. It was after a lot of soul-searching that we broke the story, at the same time urging you to return the money. By the time you did so several weeks later, a great blow had been struck to your reputation. It is one you are still trying to live down.

You have told me yourself that you were not greedy for the presidency. You did not have to hanker after it: it fell into your lap. You have told me that your sons are your greatest joy, and that you love spending time with them, leaving your brothers to operate the machinery of state. Now, it is clear to all who will see that that machinery has operated so well that my sons and daughter do not themselves have a father.

In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.

Sadly, for all the dreams you had for our country in your younger days, in just three years you have reduced it to rubble. In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights, nurtured unbridled corruption and squandered public money like no other President before you. Indeed, your conduct has been like a small child suddenly let loose in a toyshop. That analogy is perhaps inapt because no child could have caused so much blood to be spilled on this land as you have, or trampled on the rights of its citizens as you do. Although you are now so drunk with power that you cannot see it, you will come to regret your sons having so rich an inheritance of blood. It can only bring tragedy. As for me, it is with a clear conscience that I go to meet my Maker. I wish, when your time finally comes, you could do the same. I wish.

As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: most of them are now dead, imprisoned without trial or exiled in far-off lands. Others walk in the shadow of death that your Presidency has cast on the freedoms for which you once fought so hard. You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch. As anguished as I know you will be, I also know that you will have no choice but to protect my killers: you will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted. You have no choice. I feel sorry for you, and Shiranthi will have a long time to spend on her knees when next she goes for Confession for it is not just her owns sins which she must confess, but those of her extended family that keeps you in office.

As for the readers of The Sunday Leader, what can I say but Thank You for supporting our mission. We have espoused unpopular causes, stood up for those too feeble to stand up for themselves, locked horns with the high and mighty so swollen with power that they have forgotten their roots, exposed corruption and the waste of your hard-earned tax rupees, and made sure that whatever the propaganda of the day, you were allowed to hear a contrary view. For this I - and my family - have now paid the price that I have long known I will one day have to pay. I am - and have always been - ready for that. I have done nothing to prevent this outcome: no security, no precautions. I want my murderer to know that I am not a coward like he is, hiding behind human shields while condemning thousands of innocents to death. What am I among so many? It has long been written that my life would be taken, and by whom. All that remains to be written is when.

That The Sunday Leader will continue fighting the good fight, too, is written. For I did not fight this fight alone. Many more of us have to be - and will be - killed before The Leader is laid to rest. I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will help galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland. I also hope it will open the eyes of your President to the fact that however many are slaughtered in the name of patriotism, the human spirit will endure and flourish. Not all the Rajapakses combined can kill that.

People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niemoller. In his youth he was an anti-Semite and an admirer of Hitler. As Nazism took hold in Germany, however, he saw Nazism for what it was: it was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niemoller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, Niem0ller wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted. Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.

Russia's natural inclination for hegemony in Central Asia

The report today on the feud between Russia and Ukraine suggests that the real issues have more to do with hegemony in the region than economics. It is hard for the "nationalists" in Russia, heirs of the Soviet legacy, to accept the independence of Ukraine: "they will never accept the notion of Ukrainians, nearly half of whom are ethnic Russians, as members of an independent, Western-oriented state." It is in this sense that it can be said that this affair is a continuation of the Georgian War. It is not merely Ukraine and Georgia, either: it is the wider world of "independent states" in Central Asia who can scarcely avoid the influence of the northern Bear. [Click on the title for a link to the source.]

New York Times, January 14, 2009
Memo From Moscow: Gas Dispute Runs Deeper Than Pipes, Experts Say

MOSCOW — The feud between Russia and Ukraine over natural gas prices and transit fees has left large swaths of Europe without heat. Yet, what is baffling is that the dispute has always seemed overly technical and easily resolved, if there was the slightest desire on either side. After all, both countries stand to profit from selling fuel to Europe.

The latest agreement collapsed Tuesday, in a familiar cacophony of complaints and countercomplaints, and again over a seemingly trivial issue. With European Union monitors along the pipeline to make sure that Ukraine did not divert any gas for its own use, Russia agreed to resume shipments to Europe.

But rather than repressuring the Ukrainian pipeline system for exports, Russia’s gas monopoly, Gazprom, ordered a single test shipment to see if it would pass through Ukraine to Europe, through a pipeline that was being used to supply the Ukrainian city of Odessa. Ukrainian authorities refused, saying they did not want to cut supplies to their own people, and Russia again halted shipments — not, some experts believed, reluctantly.

Political experts say that neither side is motivated to settle the dispute, because it has never been about the stated issues. Instead, it has been a proxy for far more fundamental and insoluble matters, particularly Ukraine’s 2004 turn to the West in the “Orange Revolution,” which deeply shook Russia’s nationalists.

“The Russian side is appealing to a lot of technical details to explain why it still wants the conflict to go on,” Vladimir S. Milov, president of the Institute of Energy Policy in Moscow and a former deputy energy minister of Russia, said in a telephone interview.

“It’s very clear to see the desire to pressure the Ukrainian politicians, and pressure them that if they continue to pursue a pro-Western course and not adhere to the rules imposed by Moscow on the post-Soviet space, they will face difficulties,” he said.

Nationalists in Moscow could swallow the loss of the Baltic states and Russia’s former colonies in Central Asia, but they will never accept the notion of Ukrainians, nearly half of whom are ethnic Russians, as members of an independent, Western-oriented state, and potentially in NATO, no less.

Some other analysts point to the aftermath of last summer’s Georgian conflict as another sticking point, noting that after the war Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, had claimed a “privileged sphere of influence” over former Soviet states.

“This is a continuation of the Russian-Georgian war, only by other means,” Grigory N. Perepelitsa, director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, an arm of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, said in a telephone interview. “There it was tanks, here it is gas.”

This time, though, Europe is suffering as well, with hundreds of thousands of people in southeastern Europe living without heat for six days and factories shutting down in several countries.

[more in the source article]

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The gas deal with Russia: In extremity: forget blame.

The agreement between Russia and Ukraine on gas prices reveals how powerful Russia's position is over Europe: The Europeans dependent on this gas supply were, in this severe winter, "unnerved as lights blinked out and homes went cold in some of the new member states of the union in Eastern Europe." As this article reports, “the situation has gone so far that they stopped being interested in who is to blame,” ... “Now we’re talking about preserving trust in a large supplier and a large transit country.” Russia, despite its own problems of population decline, enjoys a strategic position: supplier of vital resources (oil, gas) for Europe. And soon it will be a vital source of fossil fuel resources for the populations of the Far East, for China's growth rate is still one of the highest in the world. Pipelines west, pipelines east: Russia at the center, along with client states in Central Asia like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, whose natural resources are similarly vital to their neighbors.
Here are two articles from the New York Times today that reveal how powerful are the conditions of exigency: people in distress make deals, sometimes very costly ones. So what are the prospects over the long haul?
NYTimes January 11, 2009
Ukraine and Russia Sign Deal Over Gas

MOSCOW — Russia and Ukraine took a major step toward resolving a dispute over natural gas that has left large parts of Europe without heat or fuel for days, signing an agreement with the European Union to establish independent monitors of pipelines, officials said early Sunday.

The agreement was a precondition set by Russian energy officials to turn on the gas flow again. Russia shut off the valves on Thursday after an extended dispute with Ukraine over pricing and accusations of stealing gas from the export pipelines.

It may be days before relief comes to European countries down the line from Ukraine, especially Poland and Bulgaria, which have suffered greatly without heating fuel in the bitter winter weather. Even if Russia immediately turns on the flow, it would take about three days to repressurize the European natural gas pipeline system and restore full service, experts said. And the underlying price dispute has still not been resolved.

Still, the agreement was the first major progress in days of tough negotiations.

The breakthrough started on Saturday, when the Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolanek, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, met for hours of talks with Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia outside Moscow and secured Russia’s agreement. Mr. Topolanek then flew to Kiev, Ukraine, late that night to meet with Ukrainian leaders.

Early Sunday, Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko of Ukraine emerged from talks with Mr. Topolanek to say her country had signed the protocol. On the Russian side, Ilya Y. Kochevrin, executive director of the export arm of Russia’s natural gas company, Gazprom, confirmed in a telephone interview that an agreement had been reached.

Mr. Topolanek was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying that now, “Nothing prevents the deployment of monitoring teams and renewal of gas transit.”

Mr. Topolanek and other European officials, clearly unnerved as lights blinked out and homes went cold in some of the new member states of the union in Eastern Europe, had been pressing hard for a settlement in recent days.

In his opening remarks to Mr. Putin, Mr. Topolanek said his colleagues in Europe were interested in restoring gas flow rather than placing blame for the shut-off. The matter is deeply entangled in former Soviet politics and Russia’s assertions of a new and dominant role in the region.

“Indeed, the situation has gone so far that they stopped being interested in who is to blame,” Mr. Topolanek said, according to a Russian government transcript of the meeting. “Now we’re talking about preserving trust in a large supplier and a large transit country.”

Russian authorities maintain that Ukraine began siphoning from pipelines some of the Russian natural gas intended for export to Europe and has been using it to meet internal demand since Russia halted supplies to Ukraine on Jan. 1 because of a dispute over pricing.

Angered that Ukraine was circumventing its fuel embargo and and accusing its leaders of interrupting exports to paying customers farther west, Moscow halted all shipments to Europe via Ukrainian territory. That was unfortunate for European consumers, as about one-fifth of all the natural gas burned in Europe passes through the pipelines. Ukraine denied that it had withdrawn gas from the lines.

Ukraine rejected an earlier version of the monitoring protocol, saying the structure was too cumbersome and would delay the deployment of monitors. It was unclear early Sunday what specific changes had been made, if any, to meet those concerns.

Under the agreement finalized Sunday, Ukraine and Russia would accept observers on their territory, said Mr. Kochevrin, the export director for Gazprom.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

NYTimes January 11, 2009
A Crossroad for Russia and America

MOSCOW — In August of last year, a new Russia presented itself to the world. From the battlefield of Georgia, the message said: We are no longer seeking the good opinion of the West. The new taste for confrontation was seen by many as a byproduct of oil and gas wealth, which had given Russia’s leaders the confidence to risk international isolation. In the title of a book he published in April, the scholar Marshall Goldman offered a one-word explanation: “Petrostate.”

That thesis may have a short shelf life. Russian leaders, no longer hoping to make the ruble an international reserve currency, now face a confluence of disasters: The price of a barrel of oil has slid below $40, shares of Gazprom fell 76 percent in a year and more than a quarter of Russia’s cash reserves have been spent shoring up the ruble.

But does that mean we can expect a thaw between Russia and America?

The question arises at a moment of high tension. The deadlock between Russia and Ukraine on gas prices has drawn in all of Europe; violence in Georgia could flare up again. Barack Obama’s Russia policymakers are taking office under the pressure of unfolding events.

Henry Kissinger, who was in Moscow last month, is offering the hopeful view that the global financial crash could lead to “an age of compatible interests.” But others see the crisis pushing Russia in the opposite direction. So there are two paths:

SCENARIO 1: COOPERATION In the global financial collapse, as Alexander Rahr of Germany’s Council on Foreign Relations put it: “We have all become weaker. We have all become poorer.” So, pressed by domestic concerns, both sides pare back their foreign ambitions. Washington slows its timetable on NATO expansion and missile defense; Russia defers the dream of recapturing the Soviet “privileged sphere of influence.” Leaders in Moscow present this to the public as a victory.

The logic here is straightforward: A cash-strapped Russia would need Western money and technology to develop its energy fields. State monopolies would seek foreign partners, and bare-knuckled power grabs like Russia’s past moves against BP and Shell Oil would look counterproductive. The “battle of ideas” within the Kremlin, as Igor Y. Yurgens, an adviser to President Dmitri A. Medvedev, describes it, would turn away from “isolation, seclusion, imperial instincts” and toward long-term partnership with the West.

“If we take care of the crisis by isolating ourselves, if we don’t learn the lessons from what is already being done, then the fate of Russia can be the repetition of the fate of the U.S.S.R.,” Mr. Yurgens said. “I don’t think we are stupid enough.”

SCENARIO 2: RETRENCHMENT AND NATIONALISM “Less resources means more selfish behavior,” as Sergei A. Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies in Moscow, has said. In this case, Russia finds itself facing internal dissent and the threat of regional separatism, and lacking large piles of oil money to disburse in hopes of keeping control. Forced to fight for their own survival, political leaders tailor their policies to domestic public opinion. They focus on an external enemy — the United States, which leaders have already blamed for Russia’s financial crisis, and with whom Russia is already deeply irritated over the prospect of American military influence reaching Ukraine.

By this logic, it would be absurd to cede ground to the West now, after the long-awaited taste of satisfaction that Russians got in Georgia. Many Russians see the August war as a restoration of Russia’s rightful place in world events — a product not of oil wealth, but of the Russian society’s recovery from the Soviet collapse.

“Russia has returned, period,” said Vyacheslav A. Nikonov, president of the Kremlin-aligned Polity Foundation. “That will not change. It will not get back under the table.”

WHICH scenario is more likely? To begin, it is clear that Russian authorities are preparing to defend their political power. After presenting himself to the world as a liberal modernizer, President Medvedev has prioritized one major reform — lengthening the presidential term to six years. Last week, he signed a law eliminating jury trials for “crimes against the state,” and pending legislation would expand the definition of treason.

The authorities are nervous, it seems. Mr. Medvedev, in his State of the Nation speech, sent a barbed warning to “those who seek to provoke tension in the political situation.” And last month, riot police were sent 6,000 miles from Moscow to Vladivostok, where hundreds of people were protesting automobile tariffs, The Associated Press reported. “I just think they don’t trust what they can’t control,” said Clifford Kupchan of the Eurasia Group, a global risk-consulting firm based in New York. “Their instinctive reflex is to clamp when faced with uncertainty.”

The first scenario, in which economic considerations dictate a more subdued foreign policy, requires conditions that may not exist. In the government, economic liberals might challenge hardliners. The constituencies who might back them up are ones that fell silent during the boom.

“People in epaulets who feel they are middle class, people in bureaucracy who feel they are middle class, they could be part of this coalition,” Mr. Yurgens said. “Whether this coalition will be strong enough, I have no way of knowing.”

These days, Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, sees signs of “policy confusion” as Moscow’s leaders adjust to Russia’s sudden economic slide. Moscow has allowed the Georgia crisis to subside, but has escalated tensions over gas with Ukraine.

The choice the elites face, Mr. Sestanovich said, is whether to keep talking in ways that make them look like “angry risk-takers and disturbers.”

“Is that still their real view of themselves, and of the appropriate policy in a time of crisis?” he said. “It may be. But I’m not sure, and I don’t think they are.”

The United States has real interests in a cooperative Russia; it wants help in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and NATO needs more supply routes into Afghanistan. And with Mr. Obama’s arrival in the White House, there seems room for compromise on two big Russian concerns: possible NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia, and the plan to station missile-defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic.

But in the deep freeze of a Moscow January, the gains of August are still thrilling. When Mr. Putin went on television last week to cut gas shipments to Ukraine — retaliation, he said, for thefts from Russia’s pipeline — who could miss the glint of satisfaction at another tough-guy stance? Foreign policy emits an energy that goes far beyond mere economics, and the new year will call for all the resources Moscow can muster. To a Russia intent on reclaiming great-power status, there may be something elemental about resisting America.

“It’s just the way things are,” said Mr. Nikonov, whose grandfather, Vyacheslav Molotov, was Stalin’s foreign minister. Searching his memory for periods of warmth between the two countries, Mr. Nikonov came up with two: March and April of 1917, and August through December of 1991.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

The movement of Iranian funds through secretive means

Iran holds a kind of pivotal position in the Middle East/Central Asia. The Iranians are not Arab and yet aspire to making their country the hegemon of the Arab Middle East. They are Iranian and Turkish in cultural background, with a long historical/cultural connection with Central Asia where various dialects of Persian and Turkish are still spoken [although most of those speakers are Sunni, not Shia like most Iranians]. The effect for the Iranians is a marginal position in respect to the various political blocs of the region. In fact most of their neighbors distrust Iran's activities. In a sense, Iran has no friends; only those created by themselves [Hizbollah] or those whose loyalty has to be bought [Hamas]. Because of Iran's relatively large population and wealth everyone has an interest in what the Iranian leaders are doing. The following article on Iranian moneys moving through American banks reveals how interlinked the financial systems are among the banks around the world, and how Iran seems to have funded some of its operations. And also how vulnerable we all are to abuses of advantage and to distortions of information that can be created by those in strategic positions in the financial sector. The article reveals things that the world is just coming to know: what is it that the world does not know about the funding of various other dangerous enterprises? [Click on the title for the source.]

NYTimes: January 10, 2009
Iran Moved Billions via U.S. Banks

Iranian banks illegally shifted billions of dollars through American financial institutions in recent years, and authorities suspect some of the money may have been used to finance Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.

Details of the illicit transfers came to light on Friday when New York State and federal authorities announced that a large British bank had agreed to pay $350 million to settle accusations that it had helped the Iranian banks hide the transactions.

The British bank, the Lloyds TSB Group, “stripped” information that would have identified the transfers in order to deceive American financial institutions, which are barred from doing business with Iranian banks, Robert M. Morgenthau, the Manhattan district attorney, said. Lloyds acknowledged its conduct and agreed to turn over detailed records of the transactions.

“They went to great lengths to obliterate any identification,” Mr. Morgenthau said.

The district attorney’s office was still investigating nine major banks that might be engaging in similar conduct, but prosecutors declined to name them. Mr. Morgenthau said, however, that money in one transaction was used to buy a large amount of tungsten, an ingredient for making long-range missiles. He said he suspected that other funds might have been used to finance Iran’s nuclear program.

In the current case, investigators were unsure what the money was used for, said Daniel J. Castleman, the chief assistant district attorney. The stripping made it impossible to determine where the money was going, he said. “We don’t know of any money that has gone to any terrorist organizations, individuals or anything like that,” he said.

Lloyds has agreed to examine all of the transactions it stripped to try to determine where the money was headed. In all, Lloyds hid the source of billions of dollars that passed through the United States, prosecutors said. Lloyds also hid transfers from banks in Sudan, which are also banned from doing business with American institutions.

Half of the $350 million Lloyds has agreed to pay will go to the federal government and the rest to Mr. Morgenthau’s office, which will divide the money between the city and the state.

Mr. Morgenthau said he hoped the money, the largest financial penalty his office has ever collected, would provide a boost to tight city and state budgets.

Although prosecutors did not identify specific individuals at Lloyds responsible for the fraud, Mr. Castleman said, “It was a systemic, wide-ranging scheme." The training manual given to employees of Lloyds even included a section on how to strip transactions, prosecutors said.

Banks in several nations are banned from doing business with American institutions, but the United States is particularly concerned about Iran, which it says finances terrorists and runs an illicit nuclear weapons program. Iran denies those accusations.

The investigation into Lloyds goes back to 2006. It was conducted jointly by Mr. Morgenthau’s office and the Justice Department, with the assistance of the Treasury and banking regulators.

According to a deferred prosecution agreement, Lloyds handled $300 million of Iranian transfers and $20 million of Sudanese transfers that ended at American banks. Mr. Morgenthau said billions of dollars of transactions went through American banks but ended outside the country.

Several employees in Lloyds’ international payment processing unit in London removed from the bank’s central system orders from certain foreign banks, according to the agreement released Friday by Mr. Morgenthau’s office. Employees struck out identifying information about the originating banks on printed copies of the payment instructions, which someone then re-entered into the payments system. When American banks received the transfers, they seemed to have originated at Lloyds.

Worried that they might be violating American law, senior officials at Lloyds stopped the stripping operation for Iranian banks in 2004, but transfers from Sudan were stripped as recently as 2007.

Under the agreement between Lloyds and Mr. Morgenthau, no employees, officers or the bank will be charged with a crime unless evidence emerges that the bank or its employees and officers knew that specific transfers were sent to or by terrorist groups or “proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.” The agreement lasts for two years.

In recent years, officials in the Treasury have stepped up a campaign to have foreign banks sever links with Iranian banks, which they accuse of providing support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, in addition to financing Iran’s own nuclear ambitions.

In November, the Treasury barred American financial institutions from handling certain money transfers for Iranian interests that had been previously allowed, closing what it described at the time as the “the last general entry point for Iranian banks.” Certain exceptions are still allowed for humanitarian aid and remittances.

In December, federal authorities moved to seize the assets of the Assa Corporation, which the Treasury says is a front for Bank Melli, Iran’s largest bank. Assa owns a stake in a Midtown Manhattan office tower.

Mr. Morgenthau’s office had been investigating ties between the Iranian government and Assa and a related entity, the Alavi Foundation, since 2006. Mr. Morgenthau said evidence unearthed in that investigation led his office to inquire about money transfers made through Lloyds.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

New intelligence on the Iranian nuclear project: What was it for?

Iran has been claiming that its interest in developing nuclear capability is for domestic purposes, especially for the time when its oil supply will be giving out. The New York Times has published a selection from David Sanger's book on the challenges for Obama that reveals the intrigues of intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program. And it tacitly reveals how little the western countries [including Israel] actually know.

New York Times
January 11, 2009
U.S. Rejected Aid for Israeli Raid on Iranian Nuclear Site

WASHINGTON — President Bush deflected a secret request by Israel last year for specialized bunker-busting bombs it wanted for an attack on Iran’s main nuclear complex and told the Israelis that he had authorized new covert action intended to sabotage Iran’s suspected effort to develop nuclear weapons, according to senior American and foreign officials.

White House officials never conclusively determined whether Israel had decided to go ahead with the strike before the United States protested, or whether Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel was trying to goad the White House into more decisive action before Mr. Bush left office. But the Bush administration was particularly alarmed by an Israeli request to fly over Iraq to reach Iran’s major nuclear complex at Natanz, where the country’s only known uranium enrichment plant is located.

The White House denied that request outright, American officials said, and the Israelis backed off their plans, at least temporarily. But the tense exchanges also prompted the White House to step up intelligence-sharing with Israel and brief Israeli officials on new American efforts to subtly sabotage Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, a major covert program that Mr. Bush is about to hand off to President-elect Barack Obama.

This account of the expanded American covert program and the Bush administration’s efforts to dissuade Israel from an aerial attack on Iran emerged in interviews over the past 15 months with current and former American officials, outside experts, international nuclear inspectors and European and Israeli officials. None would speak on the record because of the great secrecy surrounding the intelligence developed on Iran.

Several details of the covert effort have been omitted from this account, at the request of senior United States intelligence and administration officials, to avoid harming continuing operations.

The interviews also suggest that while Mr. Bush was extensively briefed on options for an overt American attack on Iran’s facilities, he never instructed the Pentagon to move beyond contingency planning, even during the final year of his presidency, contrary to what some critics have suggested.

The interviews also indicate that Mr. Bush was convinced by top administration officials, led by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, that any overt attack on Iran would probably prove ineffective, lead to the expulsion of international inspectors and drive Iran’s nuclear effort further out of view. Mr. Bush and his aides also discussed the possibility that an airstrike could ignite a broad Middle East war in which America’s 140,000 troops in Iraq would inevitably become involved.

Instead, Mr. Bush embraced more intensive covert operations actions aimed at Iran, the interviews show, having concluded that the sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies were failing to slow the uranium enrichment efforts. Those covert operations, and the question of whether Israel will settle for something less than a conventional attack on Iran, pose immediate and wrenching decisions for Mr. Obama.

The covert American program, started in early 2008, includes renewed American efforts to penetrate Iran’s nuclear supply chain abroad, along with new efforts, some of them experimental, to undermine electrical systems, computer systems and other networks on which Iran relies. It is aimed at delaying the day that Iran can produce the weapons-grade fuel and designs it needs to produce a workable nuclear weapon.

Knowledge of the program has been closely held, yet inside the Bush administration some officials are skeptical about its chances of success, arguing that past efforts to undermine Iran’s nuclear program have been detected by the Iranians and have only delayed, not derailed, their drive to unlock the secrets of uranium enrichment.

Late last year, international inspectors estimated that Iran had 3,800 centrifuges spinning, but American intelligence officials now estimate that the figure is 4,000 to 5,000, enough to produce about one weapon’s worth of uranium every eight months or so.

While declining to be specific, one American official dismissed the latest covert operations against Iran as “science experiments.” One senior intelligence official argued that as Mr. Bush prepared to leave office, the Iranians were already so close to achieving a weapons capacity that they were unlikely to be stopped.

Others disagreed, making the point that the Israelis would not have been dissuaded from conducting an attack if they believed that the American effort was unlikely to prove effective.

Since his election on Nov. 4, Mr. Obama has been extensively briefed on the American actions in Iran, though his transition aides have refused to comment on the issue.

Early in his presidency, Mr. Obama must decide whether the covert actions begun by Mr. Bush are worth the risks of disrupting what he has pledged will be a more active diplomatic effort to engage with Iran.

Either course could carry risks for Mr. Obama. An inherited intelligence or military mission that went wrong could backfire, as happened to President Kennedy with the Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba. But a decision to pull back on operations aimed at Iran could leave Mr. Obama vulnerable to charges that he is allowing Iran to speed ahead toward a nuclear capacity, one that could change the contours of power in the Middle East.

An Intelligence Conflict

Israel’s effort to obtain the weapons, refueling capacity and permission to fly over Iraq for an attack on Iran grew out of its disbelief and anger at an American intelligence assessment completed in late 2007 that concluded that Iran had effectively suspended its development of nuclear weapons four years earlier.

That conclusion also stunned Mr. Bush’s national security team — and Mr. Bush himself, who was deeply suspicious of the conclusion, according to officials who discussed it with him.

The assessment, a National Intelligence Estimate, was based on a trove of Iranian reports obtained by penetrating Iran’s computer networks.

Those reports indicated that Iranian engineers had been ordered to halt development of a nuclear warhead in 2003, even while they continued to speed ahead in enriching uranium, the most difficult obstacle to building a weapon.

The “key judgments” of the National Intelligence Estimate, which were publicly released, emphasized the suspension of the weapons work.

The public version made only glancing reference to evidence described at great length in the 140-page classified version of the assessment: the suspicion that Iran had 10 or 15 other nuclear-related facilities, never opened to international inspectors, where enrichment activity, weapons work or the manufacturing of centrifuges might be taking place.

The Israelis responded angrily and rebutted the American report, providing American intelligence officials and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with evidence that they said indicated that the Iranians were still working on a weapon.

While the Americans were not convinced that the Iranian weapons development was continuing, the Israelis were not the only ones highly critical of the United States report. Secretary Gates, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said the report had presented the evidence poorly, underemphasizing the importance of Iran’s enrichment activity and overemphasizing the suspension of a weapons-design effort that could easily be turned back on.

In an interview, Mr. Gates said that in his whole career he had never seen “an N.I.E. that had such an impact on U.S. diplomacy,” because “people figured, well, the military option is now off the table.”

Prime Minister Olmert came to the same conclusion. He had previously expected, according to several Americans and Israeli officials, that Mr. Bush would deal with Iran’s nuclear program before he left office. “Now,” said one American official who bore the brunt of Israel’s reaction, “they didn’t believe he would.”

Attack Planning

Early in 2008, the Israeli government signaled that it might be preparing to take matters into its own hands. In a series of meetings, Israeli officials asked Washington for a new generation of powerful bunker-busters, far more capable of blowing up a deep underground plant than anything in Israel’s arsenal of conventional weapons. They asked for refueling equipment that would allow their aircraft to reach Iran and return to Israel. And they asked for the right to fly over Iraq.

Mr. Bush deflected the first two requests, pushing the issue off, but “we said ‘hell no’ to the overflights,” one of his top aides said. At the White House and the Pentagon, there was widespread concern that a political uproar in Iraq about the use of its American-controlled airspace could result in the expulsion of American forces from the country.

The Israeli ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor, declined several requests over the past four weeks to be interviewed about Israel’s efforts to obtain the weapons from Washington, saying through aides that he was too busy.

Last June, the Israelis conducted an exercise over the Mediterranean Sea that appeared to be a dry run for an attack on the enrichment plant at Natanz. When the exercise was analyzed at the Pentagon, officials concluded that the distances flown almost exactly equaled the distance between Israel and the Iranian nuclear site.

“This really spooked a lot of people,” one White House official said. White House officials discussed the possibility that the Israelis would fly over Iraq without American permission. In that case, would the American military be ordered to shoot them down? If the United States did not interfere to stop an Israeli attack, would the Bush administration be accused of being complicit in it?

Admiral Mullen, traveling to Israel in early July on a previously scheduled trip, questioned Israeli officials about their intentions. His Israeli counterpart, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, argued that an aerial attack could set Iran’s program back by two or three years, according to officials familiar with the exchange. The American estimates at the time were far more conservative.

Yet by the time Admiral Mullen made his visit, Israeli officials appear to have concluded that without American help, they were not yet capable of hitting the site effectively enough to strike a decisive blow against the Iranian program.

The United States did give Israel one item on its shopping list: high-powered radar, called the X-Band, to detect any Iranian missile launchings. It was the only element in the Israeli request that could be used solely for defense, not offense.

Mr. Gates’s spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said last week that Mr. Gates — whom Mr. Obama is retaining as defense secretary — believed that “a potential strike on the Iranian facilities is not something that we or anyone else should be pursuing at this time.”

A New Covert Push

Throughout 2008, the Bush administration insisted that it had a plan to deal with the Iranians: applying overwhelming financial pressure that would persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear program, as foreign enterprises like the French company Total pulled out of Iranian oil projects, European banks cut financing, and trade credits were squeezed.

But the Iranians were making uranium faster than the sanctions were making progress. As Mr. Bush realized that the sanctions he had pressed for were inadequate and his military options untenable, he turned to the C.I.A. His hope, several people involved in the program said, was to create some leverage against the Iranians, by setting back their nuclear program while sanctions continued and, more recently, oil prices dropped precipitously.

There were two specific objectives: to slow progress at Natanz and other known and suspected nuclear facilities, and keep the pressure on a little-known Iranian professor named Mohsen Fakrizadeh, a scientist described in classified portions of American intelligence reports as deeply involved in an effort to design a nuclear warhead for Iran.

Past American-led efforts aimed at Natanz had yielded little result. Several years ago, foreign intelligence services tinkered with individual power units that Iran bought in Turkey to drive its centrifuges, the floor-to-ceiling silvery tubes that spin at the speed of sound, enriching uranium for use in power stations or, with additional enrichment, nuclear weapons.

A number of centrifuges blew up, prompting public declarations of sabotage by Iranian officials. An engineer in Switzerland, who worked with the Pakistani nuclear black-marketeer Abdul Qadeer Khan, had been “turned” by American intelligence officials and helped them slip faulty technology into parts bought by the Iranians.

What Mr. Bush authorized, and informed a narrow group of Congressional leaders about, was a far broader effort, aimed at the entire industrial infrastructure that supports the Iranian nuclear program. Some of the efforts focused on ways to destabilize the centrifuges. The details are closely held, for obvious reasons, by American officials. One official, however, said, “It was not until the last year that they got really imaginative about what one could do to screw up the system.”

Then, he cautioned, “none of these are game-changers,” meaning that the efforts would not necessarily cripple the Iranian program. Others in the administration strongly disagree.

In the end, success or failure may come down to how much pressure can be brought to bear on Mr. Fakrizadeh, whom the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate identifies, in its classified sections, as the manager of Project 110 and Project 111. According to a presentation by the chief inspector of the International Atomic Energy Agency, those were the names for two Iranian efforts that appeared to be dedicated to designing a warhead and making it work with an Iranian missile. Iranian officials say the projects are a fiction, made up by the United States.

While the international agency readily concedes that the evidence about the two projects remains murky, one of the documents it briefly displayed at a meeting of the agency’s member countries in Vienna last year, from Mr. Fakrizadeh’s projects, showed the chronology of a missile launching, ending with a warhead exploding about 650 yards above ground — approximately the altitude from which the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was detonated.

The exact status of Mr. Fakrizadeh’s projects today is unclear. While the National Intelligence Estimate reported that activity on Projects 110 and 111 had been halted, the fear among intelligence agencies is that if the weapons design projects are turned back on, will they know?

David E. Sanger is the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times. Reporting for this article was developed in the course of research for “The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power,” to be published Tuesday by Harmony Books.