|Southwest Asia News Digest
Swiss Role in Secret Israeli-Syrian Talks Confirmed
Swiss Federal President Micheline Calmy-Rey confirmed that her country played the role of mediator in secret back-channel talks between Syria and Israel between 2004 and 2006, according to Ha'aretz Jan. 23.
Switzerland was the broker in the talks reported by the press, Calmy-Rey told a press conference in Geneva on Jan. 22. She also said she would be meeting both Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian President Abu Mazen at the World Economic Forum in Davos which took place that week.
The Swiss President also revealed that Nicholas Lang, the Swiss Foreign Ministry official who took part in the talks, was now in Damascus, where he was to meet Syrian Vice President Farouk Shara and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.
Hamas-Fatah Violence Leaves 15 Dead
Violent clashes between the Palestinian militias of Fatah and Hamas Jan. 26 left 15 dead in Gaza, including a 2-year-old child, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported. The clashes led to the suspension of talks between Hamas and Fatah for the formation of a unity government for the Palestinian Authority. A ceasefire agreement was said to have been reached between the two factions.
Lebanon Turns Violent
Protesters demanding that Lebanon's Siniora government resign, blocked highways and roads with burning tires and sparked clashes with government loyalists Jan. 23. The call for a nationwide general strike was issued by the Shia-dominated Hezbollah and a section of the Christian groups led by former Gen. Michael Aoun. Wire reports indicated that the violence that ensued during the day claimed three lives and wounded 133 others.
It is evident that pro-government figures were active in bringing about a confrontation with the protestors. "What is happening is a revolution and a coup attempt," Christian leader Samir Geagea told al-Jazeera TV on Jan. 23. "This is direct terrorism to paralyze the country," said Geagea, who has emerged in recent months as a major provocateur in this ethnically and religiously divided nation.
Two days later, on Jan. 25, fighting between Sunnis and Shi'ites on a university campus in Beirut, spilled out into the city, and after the deployment of government troops into the riots, four people were killed, and 150 injured in a second day of fighting this week.
Neo-Cons Gloat Over Lebanese Civil War
Lebanese sources have told EIR that the Bush Administration has vetoed attempts to form a National Unity government in Lebanonwhich is what the joint forces of Hezbollah and Christian leader Gen. Michael Aoun have been demanding. Regional neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Iran, have also been trying to mediate to bring about this national-unity solution. The Cheney-run White House insists that Iran and Syria be blamed for the strength of Hezbollah, which must be "disarmed" and wiped out.
EIR has also learned that, in the context of Dick Cheney's "Sunni card" against Iran, there has been covert arming of the Sunni forces inside Lebanon to provoke a full civil war.
A Jan. 25 piece from the Likudnik Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP)which supports the infamous neo-con "Clean Break" doctrinegloated that civil war, which has so far been averted despite massive crises, might be back to stay. "Lebanon has dodged this bullet [civil war] three times in recent months, and its luck may soon run out," said WINEP.
Lebanese Leaders Seek a Way Out of the Crisis
Following the Jan. 23 general strike, and days of violence which has led to seven deaths, leaders of Lebanon's various political factions have been making contact in an attempt to calm the situation and prevent a possible slide into civil conflict. Political sources said Jan. 27 that Nabih Berri, the Shi'ite Speaker of the Parliament, had engaged in telephone talks with Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who supports Siniora.
"We're at a crossroads," a close adviser to Berri told AFP on Jan. 27. "If those in power continue to reject all solutions that would satisfy all sides, there will be a third round of violence, and then no one would be able to halt a slide to civil war."
Meanwhile, Saad Hariri, head of the parliamentary majority, said he was ready to meet Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. "There is no other choice but to return to dialogue," Hariri said.
Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Lebanon, Abdul Aziz Khoja, met separately Jan. 27 with Siniora and Berri. "It is time for the Lebanese to unite and save the country," the diplomat said afterwards.
Intense diplomacy has also been going on with the Saudis and the Iranians, meeting each other, and with the Syrians.
In Beirut, on Jan. 27, a Hezbollah-led sit-in outside the Prime Minister's office entered its 58th day, demanding that Siniora make way for a national unity government. The Education Ministry announced that schools and universities, closed since Jan. 25, would not reopen before Jan. 31.
Civil War Danger Makes Mockery of Donors Conference
This is the question that might be posed to those gathered in Paris Jan. 25 for the Lebanon donors' conference, organized by French President Jacques Chirac, and attended by over 30 government and corporate donors. The figure announced thus far is $7.6 billion, in a combination of grants and loans.
The idea is to prop up the government of Fouad Siniora, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was a bit embarrassed when asked if his staying in power were the condition for the aid. She reportedly deflected the question, while Siniora, seated beside her, quickly said, "No conditions, no conditions." When she was asked whether money would be cut off if Hezbollah took government control, she said, "As you know, Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. That has not changed."
As most wires and the International Herald Tribune put it, there is competition for control over the country, with the Sunni Saudis leading the donors with a whopping $1.1 billion (in grants and soft loans), while Shi'ite Iran and Syria pump in $40 million a month to Hezbollah. The United States pledged $770 million, the European Union $522 million, and France $650 million (all loans). The money is being given on condition that Siniora implement a vast "reform" program with the usual International Monetary Fund-style provisions for deregulation, liberalization, privatization, etc.
A leader of a Lebanese organization in Germany told EIR that he thinks the entire affair was a farce, since most of the money is only pledged, and in loans. Lebanon has $42 billion in debt already, and the best thing, he added, would be to cancel that debt. What they are doing, is creating new debt. Something called the Lebanese-American Partnership has been set up as a fund, on Bush's suggestion, and it includes executives of Citigroup, Occidental Petroleum, Cisco, and the like.
Meanwhile, in Beirut, the situation calmed down somewhat after clashes between rival factions left three dead a day earlier. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrullah went on TV to tell his followers it was a "religious duty" to clear the streets, and let the security forces maintain order.
Iraqi Witnesses Call for Regional Conference To Rebuild
At a little-noticed Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Jan. 25, a testimony very critical of the U.S. occupation and current U.S. policy was presented, by two witnessesboth of whom are extremely pro-American, and both of whom had worked for the Iraqi Interim Government after the U.S. invasion.
Rend al-Rahim, who served as the Iraqi Representative/Ambassador in the United States, and who was one of the founders of the Iraqi National Congress in 1991, delivered a devastating critique of the current situation, for which she blamed the actions of the occupation's Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Al Rahim said the situation in Iraq today is characterized by "a political structure that feeds on and strengthens sectarian and ethnic divisions ... political deadlock and a national reconciliation process that is going nowhere ... state institutions that are under-capacitated or downright dysfunctional ... a government that is ineffective in its primary task of serving the people."
Al-Rahim asserted that this was not the inevitable result of the collapse of the Saddam regime, but rather, of the structure that was adopted by the CPA: "The cardinal, root error committed by the CPA was to define and build Iraqi politics along purely sectarian and ethnic lines."
Laith Kubba, who served as spokesman for Prime Minister Jaffari in 2004-05, and who has been associated with the National Endowment for Democracy in the U.S. for many years, said that it is "dangerously misleading to assume that the problem is historically rooted in Iraq's communities or externally caused by rogue neighbors." Rather, he stated, it is caused by Iraq's current electoral laws, under which Iraq will always have a weak executive and a fragile coalition government. The cabinet was formed on the basis of a quota system, and the ministers are more accountable to party bosses than to the Prime Minister.
Kubba points out that while the U.S. was focussing on the political processelections, etc.there were no effective state institutions to provide services and security to the citizens. The state was dismantled in April 2003, and it has not been rebuilt.
At best, Kubba says, a "surge" can only bring temporary relief, not a cure. The threat of U.S. withdrawal will not pressure politicians into a compromise; the only way to pressure Iraqis politicians into compromise, is for the Prime Minister, with U.S. support, to convene a "roundtable conference" of all six of Iraq's neighbors, to work out security measures and the rebuilding of the devastated country.
Also on the panel at the hearing was Qubad Talebani, the son of the current Iraqi President, who denounced the Baker-Hamilton Report, and who asserted that Iraq has always been a "failed state" from its creation.