Saturday, June 16, 2007 

Losing even while they're winning.

There are shocking acts of cynicism, and then there's the United States, delighting in the slaughter that's taken place this week in the Gaza Strip, brazenly announcing that since Fatah has now been wiped out despite the US's efforts in arming them, that they'll lift the boycott imposed since Hamas was elected last year, as Mahmoud Abbas has kicked them out of government. When Hamas won what were the most free and fair elections in the Middle East outside of Israel itself, the Palestinian people suffered for their impertinence in voting for terrorists. When Hamas wins through armed struggle, the Palestinian people are rewarded for dying and the civil war which might be yet to come.

Another week of violence, summary executions and inhumane brutality has in reality changed very little. Despite the Guardian claiming in its leader today how very unexpected this was, like Hamas's overwhelming electoral victory last year, neither was that much of a surprise. After years of corruption under Fatah, helmed by Yasser Arafat whom Israel refused to negotiate with, imprisoned all the while in his compound up until he left to die in Paris, the Palestinians voted for change. Rather than recognising that the very tactics of non-negotiation, the gradual colonisation of the West Bank by settlements and checkpoints and the open-air imprisonment imposed on Gaza were fueling radicalism, the status quo continued, and Hamas were duly elected. Instead of realising that the people had voted for an end to corruption and for peace rather than Hamas and its rejectionism, the international community went along with Israel and imposed the boycott. Everything that has happened since then can be directly linked back to that decision.

This isn't without Hamas and Fatah trying to build bridges between each other, and with Israel. The agreement which led to the coalition between the two in February was meant to break the boycott, while acknowledging that Hamas had the right to continue to refuse to recognise Israel. This however wasn't good enough for Israel and the US, who continued to enforce it. There was never going to be a better settlement reached between Hamas and Fatah without new elections being called which would have only likely resulted in Hamas winning again, yet this least worst option was boycotted just the same.

As Alvaro de Soto, the outgoing UN envoy wrote in his leaked valedictory report, this refusal to countenance Hamas in any way is "systematically pushing along the violence/repression cycle to the point where it is self-propelling." With no sign of any change, Hamas saw the opportunity to take full control in Gaza where it has long been in the ascendant. Why not, when whatever they do won't make any difference to their overall situation? The fighting has mercifully appeared to end; yesterday calm seemed to return to Gaza, and while the warring factions both carried out what can easily be described as atrocities against one another, Hamas has now released those that were briefly held, and is making overtures towards talks and reconciliation. Whether this will last or not is the key question: as was reported this week, this was no longer about which faction ruled Gaza, this was about taking revenge for brothers and family members killed in the ructions. The simmering anger may not be boiling over yet, but it could easily erupt again, especially if Fatah, now ever more likely to be getting open US backing, carries out more revenge attacks in the West Bank.

The indifference to Palestinian suffering, especially considering how attacks on Israel apart from the rockets fired at Sderot have collapsed, is just as influential in this latest catastrophe as Hamas and Fatah are. We've just commemorated 40 years since the six-day-war, and bit by bit the West Bank is broken up, settled in by extreme right-wing religious Jews and those who enjoy the subsidies, vast areas of it occupied only by the IDF, checkpoints making traveling around the territories next to impossible for ordinary civilians, all while the security wall swallows up yet more land, not to mention how all these factors make it next to impossible for those unlucky enough to live there to actually work in any meaningful sense. This isn't about protecting Israel any longer, it's about making life as uncomfortable as possible, about systematically destroying any hope that there will be any kind of viable Palestinian state left once Israel's decided which parts it wants to keep and inflicting collective punishment on a people who have been waiting for over half a century for justice for having the cheek to continue resisting. The world it seems is more than prepared to let this happen, more concerned with boycotts other than the only one which matters(ed) and with stopping one of the few critical academics from continuing in his job. Israel has already triumphed.

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Terrorists are gay!

Reading the reports on the sentencing of the 7 men found guilty of plotting with Dhiren Barot, whom was individually going to bring the world to an end with his evil Islamic trickery, it's far more instructive what they don't say than what they do.

Of all the reports in the "quality" press (Telegraph) (Times) (Indie), only the Guardian's points out that err, no explosives and no bomb-making equipment were ever found. Barot, alleged to be an "al-Qaida general" by the prosecution, was the one who came up with the plans, which he is supposed to have presented to superiors further up the al-Qaida chain in command in Pakistan, only to be arrested on his return. The judge, when passing sentence, additionally mentioned that it was quite possible that the plans put together by Barot would never have been carried out.

Put simply, we're never going to find out in full what Barot's plans were, for obvious reasons. The ones we have learned of, however, suggest that like many other jihadists, Barot was more interested in the spectacular and incredibly difficult to pull off than he was in the practicality of attacks that really would have "killed hundreds if not thousands".

Take for instance his plans for a so-called "dirty" bomb, of which not a single newspaper bothered to explain in full apart from playing up the notion. According to the Telegraph on the day previously, he wrote that:

A few grams of cobalt 60 with several pounds of explosives are enough to close an area the size of Manhattan.

And he's right, it probably would. Interestingly, it seems quite possible that he might have plagiarised some of his ideas and research on "dirty bombs" from the testimony of Dr Henry Kelly to the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, which examined the threat that radiological attacks would pose to the United States. The evidence to me, especially considering the way the threat posed by dirty bombs has since been played down, and how other investigations have come to very different conclusions, seems rather over-the-top and close to hysterical in claiming that even if a tiny amount of a radiological substance was exploded it might mean demolishing much of the surrounding area. The reality is that Barot had no chance of obtaining cobalt 60, and he knew it. He was far more interested in Americium.

Americium, as Kelly's evidence also states, is found in smoke detectors. Barot's plan was to somehow either harvest the minute quantities of it from smoke alarms, or if that proved too difficult, to somehow acquire 10,000 of them, then either set them alight, or place all 10,000 of them on top of an "explosive device", all without anyone noticing this tottering tower of beeping annoyances. He worked out that it would cost around £50,000 to obtain the smoke alarms, and another £20,000 to store them, all money which he didn't have. As Tom on BlairWatch wrote at the time:

15cm * 15cm * 4cm = volume of 900 cubic centimetres
10000 of those is 9000000 cubic cm or 9 cubic metres. So we're talking of someone spending £50,000 he didn't have piling up a stack of smoke alarms into a tower 1m square and 9m tall, then setting fire to it, in the middle of a city, without anyone noticing, releasing a total of 0.002 grams of a slightly radioactive substance which is only dangerous in gram quantities. Scared yet?

Fucking petrified. This is the so-called dirty bomb which Peter Clarke described would:

have caused fear, panic and widespread disruption

but only as a result of the police themselves panicking, not because of what Barot might have been able to do.

Barot's other plans were similarly doomed to failure. The stretch limos which were to be filled with gas cylinders were meant to be used in attempts to bring down buildings with underground car parks, which as any architect will tell you, would be incredibly difficult to achieve. His other idea in the same vein was to blast a hole through the incredibly thick walls of the Underground where it's near to the Thames in order to flood the tube, which would have required a bomb far, far more powerful than those which were detonated by the suicide bombers on 7/7, something which Barot himself acknowledged would be difficult to obtain, which was why he had suggested using gas cylinders in the limo attacks.

None of this is to deny that Barot was a clearly dedicated and intelligent terrorist, far more versed and interested in exact planning and research than many of his ilk, but it still stands that his conclusions, rather than just one sentence references to his overall aims ought to have been disseminated in order to show just how (un)likely his plans were to succeed.

Still, why bother doing any of that when you can just call him gay? The Sun's set their "chief investigative reporter", aka "chief embellisher and bullshitter" on the case:

SEVEN terrorists were caged for a total of 136 years – as it was revealed their al-Qaeda ringleader is suspected of being a closet GAY.

The suspicions about Prince fan Dhiren Barot were harboured by at least one trusted lieutenant and a woman who knew him.

Conclusive proof then.

And homosexuality carries the DEATH PENALTY in strict Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia.

Err, and your point is? Barot isn't from Saudi Arabia: he originated from India then came to live here, and if he was closeted rather than "practicing" it wouldn't have made any difference.

As his cell members were jailed over their role in his plot, suspicions of Barot’s sexuality emerged.

A barrister for Nadeem Tarmohamed said during their trial at Woolwich Crown Court in London: “It became apparent that Barot decided to surround himself with younger, impressionable men.”

Christ, really? That wouldn't be anything to do with him attempting to indoctrinate or mold them in his image, would it?

Lawyer Matthew Ryder said one woman who knew Barot had said: “He was always asking questions about beards and music like Prince, so much so that she questioned his sexuality. There were many others who did.”

About beards?! Clearly this shows the working of the homosexual mind; what heterosexual person would care about their beard? As for Prince, well, who doesn't like Purple Rain? In any case, Prince is supposedly a Jehovah's Witness, something which Barot would likely look down on.

Terrorist mastermind and queer, the British press has spoken.

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Friday, June 15, 2007 

Fascists and Islamists rise against each other's oppression.

The rally against "British Oppression" seems to have been a huge success, if the account on Pickled Politics by the Grauniad's Riazat Butt is anything to go by.

Apparently around 200 Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah (descendant organisation of Al-Muhajiroun) supporters bothered to turn up, despite the claims on the BO website that coaches from "Brimingham, Manchester, Bradford, Leeds, Leicester, Wolverhampton, Derby, Stocke-on-Trent (sic), Bedford, Luton, London East and London West" would be ferrying protesters to Downing Street. A similar number of fascists turned up to counter-protest, with around 300 police joining the party. Naturally, Anjem Choudary, the extremist idiot, was there to provide some quotes which will probably turn up in the tabloids tomorrow. It seems to have passed off peacefully and without a repeat of the idiocy of last year's Motoons protest, which can only be a relief.

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What's that smell? Oh, it's Richard Desmond's bullshit.

Earlier this week, Tony Blair lambasted parts of the media for being feral, in particular picking on the Independent for so much as daring to put what its editorial pages say on occasion on the front page, something that the tabloids have been doing for decades. The real feral media of course didn't get a mention.

At last they admit: immigration has damaged Britain, claims today's Express front page. As if you couldn't already guess, not once in the actual report Our shared future by the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, is the word damaged used. Nor does it say that immigration has in any way real terms made Britain a worse place. It does however make clear that the level of immigration, especially since the ascent of the former Soviet states in 2004 to the EU, has unsettled places across the country. The report, like the one which the Express last week tried to make out was predicting race riots, is instead an attempt to deal with the problems and concerns that some localised communities have, before they develop any further.

Here we go then:

MINISTERS finally admitted yesterday that opening Britain’s borders to mass immigration has fuelled racial tension.
A Government-backed report confirmed that chronic divisions were “bubbling under the surface” in many parts of the country.

Here's the paragraph (6.41) from the report where the Express has got its "bubbling under the surface" quote from:

Against the tide of expectation, far right parties failed to make the gains many were expecting in this year’s local council elections. This will be taken as a welcome sign by some that the acute tensions caused by concern around immigration have failed to materialise at a local level. However, we would draw attention to the number of places where far right parties came second – indicating that there are still chronic tensions bubbling under the surface of some local areas.

The Express has taken then a statement which is mainly of good news - and then sexed it up further still by replacing "some local areas" with "many parts of the country".

It showed that nearly two thirds of people now believe too many immigrants have been allowed into the UK.

Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly confessed: “This is a wake-up call.”

It's not until 300 words later that the Express bothers to mention that although 68% of those surveyed thought that there were too many migrants, on average 79% agreed that people of different backgrounds got on well in their local area (paragraph 2.3). It only fell below 60% in 10 out of 387 local areas polled - which by any standards suggests that in the vast majority of the country "cohesion", or concerns about tensions between races is a non-issue. Despite many thinking that there are too many migrants here, something dealt with by Stumbling and Mumbling, the report also mentions that a MORI poll from 2005 found that 62% thought multiculturalism, that concept which the tabloids and even some Labour politicians are now blaming for the rise of both Islamic and far-right extremism, made Britain a better place to live (p. 2.40), while back in January of this year another MORI poll 58% agreed that immigrants made Britain more open to new ideas and culture. Strangely, nowhere in the article does the Express mention that 56% also felt that some groups in Britain get unfair priority over others in the public services (p. 2.46), probably because they know full well that they have more than a hand in encouraging such a view even though they know it's completely untrue.

Last night the report was being seen as vindication at last of the warnings repeatedly raised against relaxing border controls by the Daily Express and other campaigners.

How very modest!

Critics of Labour’s decision to relax immigration controls were vilified and decried as “racist” by ministers. But after record numbers of newcomers have swelled the population and put crippling pressure on public services and housing, ministers are now in retreat.

Really? Could we have some direct quoting evidence of this please, especially seeing as of late both John Reid and Ruth Kelly have been at pains to make clear just how unwelcome "political correctness" and allegations of racism are in the debate over integration. Additionally, Michael Howard at the last election said it wasn't racist to put limits on immigration, and everyone mocked him for suggesting that anyone had ever said it was. Again, where's the evidence that there is crippling pressure on public services and housing? The Audit Commission found that there was very little to suggest that migrants were to blame for any such pressure, and while it found that migrant workers were in some areas adding to the demand for affordable rented property, they have very little to no rights to council housing, and as the debate over Margaret Hodge's comments showed, the real problem has long been the mass-selling of council stock that simply hasn't been replaced.

Much as I often find myself disagreeing with Polly Toynbee, and the attacks in her article today on the internet for being full mainly of right-wing cynics and haters are far from the full truth, she couldn't be more right in her opening gambit:

It's a fleet of runaway JCB diggers without driver or brakes, beyond accountability or control even by those who nominally run them.

And they'll do whatever they can to prove themselves right, as today's Express article shows.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007 

One step closer to the truth.

Yesterday's landmark ruling by the House of Lords that the Human Rights Act does apply in detention centres abroad over which British soldiers have effective control brings a full public inquiry into how Baha Mousa came to die while in UK captivity in Iraq one step closer.

This is a grim prospect indeed for the government. Lord Goldsmith, the supposedly independent attorney general, is once again caught up in the mire. He advised that British troops were not bound by the Human Rights Act, which explicitly bans inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The question is whether he knew at the time that the army had apparently decided to completely disregard the 1972 commitment by Ted Heath to prohibit the use of the "five techniques", and if he did, how the man could possibly believe that something that was considered illegal in 1971 could suddenly be acceptable again in 2003 in Iraq?

The treatment meted out to Mousa and the men detained with him went far further than the "five techniques". Mousa suffered 93 separate injuries; another of the men nearly died from renal failure after being beaten so badly. Both the military, as well as the soldiers present that day except for Donald Payne, who had the decency to admit to being involved in the mistreatment, conspired in a cover-up, with the judge at the court martial making clear that he had been unable to get to the truth because of a "closing of ranks". The questions that need answering are obvious: who in the army/MoD authorised such brutal tactics in obvious breach of the Geneva conventions, let alone the Human Rights Act, and why? Were government ministers involved in the decision? If not, did they know what was going on at the time? If they didn't, when did they find out?

Rather than forcing those representing Mr Mousa's family to go back to the high court to argue that the current investigations into what happened were inadequate, which they clearly were, the government ought to have the decency to order an immediate independent inquiry, with those summoned to give evidence having to do so under oath, so that anyone who tries pulling the same "I can't remember" trick can be prosecuted for trying to pervert the course of justice. As it seems increasingly likely that the government itself will be found complicit in either ignoring or actively being involved in authorising ill-treatment tantamount to torture, that's about as realistic as this generation of politicians ever admitting they lied about weapons of mass destruction.

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And now for something completely different...

Let it never be said that the Sun doesn't sometimes do good deeds. After being contacted by the Scum, the housing association People 1st in Slough has discarded its deeply racist 'whites only' policy it had imposed on a tower block because of perceived 'racial tensions', allowing a mum with mixed race children the opportunity to move in. Perhaps more interesting is that the article is by a certain Julie Moult - one of the Sun hacks responsible for last year's "Windsor Muslim yobs" abortion, who never got around to responding to Unity about the numerous inaccuracies in the report. Is this possibly her way of making amends? I very much doubt it, but it'd be nice to think so.

Elsewhere in the Scum, the front page article, claiming that
Rekha Kumari-Baker killed her two teenage daughters because of their behaviour, is almost entirely based on the fact that hacks' quickly found their Bebo (I'm not expert on social networking sites, but Bebo seems most popular amongst kids under 16) profiles which unsurprisingly detail some of their rather typical teenage antics, all of which seems rather at odds with neighbours' statements that the family was quiet and that they mostly kept themselves to themselves. It underlines that it's not the greatest idea to go into a complete breakdown of your life on social networking sites - the first thing that hacks do now is search Friends Reunited, MurdochSpace, Facebook, Bebo etc etc whenever someone is either killed, injured or arrested for a fairly serious crime, looking for anything even slightly salacious which they can use to spice up an otherwise tedious article. In this case, the Scum has had a field day - and it's hard not to find it somewhat ghoulish and insensitive in the way it's presented such personal details before the mother has even been charged in connection with their deaths.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007 

String 'em up by the goolies.

Despite the misleading banner headlines promoting Reid's proposals for changes to how sex offenders are managed in the community - paedophiles are not going to get the "chop", as the Scum for one put it; they'll be increasingly offered chemical castration, with the key-word being chemical, as those that agree to it will be injected with the libido-limiting drug Leuprorelin, also known as a gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonist, at least according to the Scum, with others mentioning anti-depressants potentially being used as well - they were mostly reasonably sane, considered and not wildly populist, despite warnings earlier in the year that Reid was leaning towards tabloid pleasing measures.

Most controversial, apart from the proposed expansion of "chemical castration", which has yet to be fully detailed and explained in any case, will be the introduction of a sort of "Sarah's law", and the decision to make lie-detector tests compulsory.

More or less unchanged since it was publicised earlier in the year, the changes will especially allow single parents to request whether their new partner has an entry on the sex offenders' register, or any past convictions of a similar nature. This is mainly to deal with the perception and fear that predatory paedophiles are moving in on vulnerable single mothers in order to get to their children. The biggest concern over this has to be that the mother then, quite legitimately, it has to be said, then informs the whole local community of what's happened, or what she thinks might have been about to happen, and the problem is either simply shifted, with the man then forced into moving away, or with the ugliness of vigilantism then coming into play. The great difficult will be in proving that the man actually had any ill intentions, making a prosecution unlikely. It also poses the exact problem which Sarah's law has threatened: predatory paedophiles forced even further underground, made more likely to snatch and abuse, or rape on the spur of the moment, exacerbating the danger to children. Reid mentions that those who did disclose information given them could be charged with a public order offence, but it doesn't seem much of a deterrent, and a prosecution is hardly likely to be popular. It is a far better, more careful proposal than a blanket Sarah's law based on Megan's law would be, but it's still potentially counterproductive.

Compulsory lie-detector tests are objectionable on an entirely different point, being that while they can be a good indicator of someone lying, that they can also be notoriously inaccurate. provides a number of excellent, sourced rebuttals and details behind the tests which show that they can and often have got it horribly wrong. Even if they are right 90% of the time, that still means that 10% are going to suffer further restrictions after being released for no good reason; embittering someone isn't the best way to reintroduce them into a community. Chemical castration is also by no means a panacea,as David Wilson on CiF vividly describes.

The proposals for a campaign to be launched fighting some of the myths around child abuse is much more welcome. The hysteria and fear of paedophiles, which used to be known more quaintly when I was a child as "stranger danger", continues to grow. The evidence of this could not be more epitomised than by the treatment meted out to Timothy Martin, variously described as a "pervert" and a "paedophile", even by the BBC. He didn't help his case by refusing to move out of a house in the grounds of a primary school, where he had been appointed as a caretaker, but the facts behind the case have been rather more buried. He was charged and convicted of sexual assault: while drunk, he had made a pass at and kissed a 14-year-old girl, the step-daughter of a friend. The judge in the case said:

You made a pass at an underage girl. To be kissed by a man she hardly knew was something she was not ready for and it has worried her.

"I think you were just drunk and being extremely badly behaved."

His sentence was a two-year community order, a 12-month supervision order, banned from contacting the victim, disqualified from working with children indefinitely and must sign the sex offenders register for five years. Maybe I'm a liberal bleeding heart, and there was more to it than that, but that seems ever so slightly harsh for what seems to have been little more than someone drunk behaving lecherously.

The danger is that we're overreacting. The figure earlier in the week of 8,000 sex offenders being given cautions didn't breakdown the reasons why a caution was given; it seemed like an attempt at scaremongering about wicked people getting off scot free, which as the police had to point out, was not the case at all. Some of the cases no doubt involved teenagers having sex with girlfriends/boyfriends slightly below the age of consent, and other minor offences, which as Jim Gamble pointed out, are best dealt with without automatically locking every single person found guilty up.

I also don't like calling campaigners, however well-intentioned but potentially misguided names, especially those who have suffered so terribly through crimes committed against those in their family, but this comment from Sara Payne, mother of the murdered Sarah, needs challenging:

“We never asked for Megan’s Law in this country. We never believed that Megan’s Law would work in this country. We only ever asked for access to information about predatory paedophiles in our areas."

This is a fucking lie. Ever since the News of the Screws, under the helm of now Sun editor Rebekah Wade launched their campaign for "Sarah's law", Sara Payne has supported it. Both the Screws and Scum have demanded an exact copy of Megan's law, the Scum going to the trouble earlier in the year to put together a leading questionnaire for its readers to demand "Sarah's law" in full, rather than the limited scheme which the Home Office was putting forward. I have nothing but sympathy for Mrs Payne, but to willfully distort exactly what she has campaigned for over the last 7 years is unacceptable.

The Scum's leader is just as forthright as ever, too:

Punish pervs

THE thought of castration sends a shiver down the spine of normal men.

But child killers and rapists are not normal. They are incorrigible and dangerous perverts.

Some might argue castration is too good for them.

The Sun of course rejects the idea that such perverts can be rehabilitated. Some argue that once a man has hit a woman in anger that he'll always be a domestic abuser, and that the woman should leave him as a result: a decision it took Ross Kemp a while to make.

Cheap shots aside, Reid has at least recognised that even these measures need to be put to trial first: 3 such schemes are to operate before any legislation is put forward, which is welcome. If the proposals are shown to work, then fears like that expressed in this post will be willingly dropped. Such blanket demands as that voiced earlier in the year though should not be rushed through on the basis of these limited ones working; trying to help too much can be just as dangerous as doing too little.

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He's not talking about us, is he?

I can't resist taking a look at today's Scum leader on Blair's media speech (the Scum's article, written by political editor George Pascoe-Watson, is equally piss-poor):

BRITAIN is blessed with the richest variety of media in the world.

It can be belligerent, biased and sometimes blatantly unfair.

And that's just the Sun! Badum-badum tisk!

To be serious, Britain is indeed blessed with the richest variety of media in the world. We undoubtedly have one of the finest broadsheet, or quality newspaper selections of any coountry. The Telegraph, despite the efforts of the Barclays, is still one of the finest in actual news reporting; the Times, despite Murdoch, and its Blair-obeisance, stands in equal stead, and you'd be unlikely to find a wider selection of comment and different viewpoints anywhere outside of Europe than in the Grauniad and Independent, whatever some might feel about some of it.

Unfortunately, we also have a tabloid media which rivals America in terms of how awful it is. The Sun may be the worst of the worst, but the Express and Mail do on occasions give it an equal run for its money. That's why it so breathtakingly hypocritical to be lectured about the rest of the media by the likes of Paul Dacre and now, whichever hack put together this Sun editorial.

But for all our imperfections, we play a vital role in the political life of this nation.

We keep the powerful on edge, looking over their shoulders, and shed light in the hidden corners of our public life. Yes, the media enrages politicians — it’s part of our job.

Except the Scum hasn't kept Blair on edge, has it? That what was inexplicably missing from yesterday's speech, the fact that in this country Rupert Murdoch seems to count for a lot more than what the voters themselves do. It's easy to overstate just what effect that tabloids have in making a nation even more cynical and miserable, but the Sun's right that they play a vital role in the political life of the nation - an almost entirely negative one.

Here's the really hilarious bit:

He denounced journalists for hunting like “feral beasts, tearing people and reputations to bits”.

His sights were on the Daily Mail and the BBC — but the only newspaper he named was the tiny, defenceless Independent.

Ah, definitely not the Sun then! Very little of the speech actually seemed applicable, or directed at the BBC, but it's little wonder that the Scum thinks it was, its hatred for the corporation never far beneath the surface of Murdoch's Rottweiler.

Labour cannot hail 9/11 as a “good day to bury bad news” and then accuse the media of manipulation.

This is ever so slightly unfair - only one special adviser did that, hardly representative of Labour as a whole, even though Labour most definitely has attempted to bury bad news since then.

But what worries us about the PM’s speech was his threat to shackle the media.

It should worry everyone who believes true democracy cannot exist without a free Press.

Except Blair didn't suggest anything like "shackling" the media. He actually said:

regulatory framework at some point will need revision

and explained why, which has been taken out of all proportion, not just by the Sun. The truth is that the Sun is not a part of a free press - the only person it's accountable to is Rupert Murdoch. It, along with the other tabloids and their respective owners, can smear, lie and distort and they get away with it day after day. One has to wonder whether true democracy would come a step closer if they were to just disappear overnight.

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Destruction of a country (and shrine) in stages.

It's been a dreadful day for news in general from the Middle East, so much so that the repeated desecration of al-Askaria shrine, one of Shia Islam's most holy sites, has been knocked down the news. The mosque was previously bombed in February of last year, with al-Qaida in Iraq (then known as the Mujahideen Shura Council, now the "Islamic State of Iraq") being widely blamed for the destruction of its shrine.

Today the two remaining minarets of the shrine were destroyed, although it's unclear as of yet whether they were mortared, bombed or otherwise. CNN has reported that they were blasted after a gunfight, with the insurgents planting explosives around the minarets before detonating them. The ISI is again being widely blamed.

Whoever is to blame, it's incredibly bad news. It was the attack on the shrine which triggered the sharp decline into civil war, with dozens of bodies being found on the streets of the capital every day. Both al-Sadr and al-Sistani have called for calm, but such requests went unheeded last time. The Iraqi government responded by ordering a curfew after 3pm in Baghdad, but IraqSlogger is reporting that the reprisal attacks may well have already started, with up to three Sunni mosques targeted. It's difficult to believe that things could get much worse in Iraq, but this might do just that.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007 

The worst, most sensationalist newspaper? Why, the Independent, of course!

Chutzpah seems to be a word increasingly en-vogue, but how else could you possibly describe the great obsfucator himself having the guts to stand up in front of an audience of hacks in Canary Wharf and tell them, after 10 years of leaving it variously to Alastair Campbell and Dave Hill, how to do their jobs?

To be fair to Blair, and Martin Kettle, one of his chief sycophants or sympathisers, there is a certain amount of decent analysis in his speech. I wouldn't go so far, as Kettle does, to call it pretty sobering and pretty truthful. There are elements of both in there; but that has always been the appeal and strength of Blair. His analysis, both of public opinion and his belief in being able to contain the media, alongside the help of Campbell, meant that he was never troubled by either until 2003, when he got it so horribly, disastrously wrong, and his own vanity, hubris and delusions took over.

It's no surprise therefore, that neither the words "spin" or "Campbell" appear anywhere in his whole lecture. He does at least set out at the beginning that this is part of his valedictory series of speeches, and that it's not a whinge, although it certainly looks like it in places. His best entire point is made in the opening paragraphs, and it's one which can be used against his entire thesis: that despite the media, he has won 3 elections and is still standing, able to leave office more or less on his own choosing. This is in fact the biggest indictment of it at large; the reasons why he was not brought down over Iraq are partially because of the supine nature of most Labour backbenchers, the failure of the inquiries, which he mentions, to draw blood, and probably most significantly, the support of the Murdoch press, which of course is also never mentioned.

It's far too long to fisk entirely, and others have already made some salient points, but here's some highlights, or lowlights.

In the analysis I am about to make, I first acknowledge my own complicity. We paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging, and persuading the media. In our own defence, after 18 years of Opposition and the, at times, ferocious hostility of parts of the media, it was hard to see any alternative. But such an attitude ran the risk of fuelling the trends in communications that I am about to question.

This exemplifies the whole conflicting emotions I have towards this speech. Blair's right that the treatment which Neil Kinnock experienced at the hands of, you guessed it, the Murdoch press, was instrumental in destroying Labour's chances up until 1992. The Sun may not have won it, but it was certainly one of the decisive, corroding, festering boils which Kinnock couldn't lance. The solution came upon, assiduous courting, manipulation, bullying, threatening and with the Murdoch press, a Faustian pact, has though turned out to have been far worse than the status quo was, turning attitudes towards politicians as a whole, not just Labour, increasingly cynical, apathetic, dismissive and miserable. The ends, as Michael Howard identified when he confronted Alastair Campbell, have never justified the means.

I would only point out that the Hutton Inquiry (along with 3 other inquiries) was a six month investigation in which I as Prime Minister and other senior Ministers and officials faced unprecedented public questioning and scrutiny. The verdict was disparaged because it was not the one the critics wanted. But it was an example of being held to account, not avoiding it. But leave that to one side.

This is true, but the press, again, except for the Murdoch empire, looked at the evidence presented at that inquiry, and rightly came up with the verdict: guilty as hell. Only Lord Hutton, apart from Rebekah Wade, decided that the government was innocent of all charges and that the BBC was the one at fault. The passing of time has only accentuated just how egregious the government was in 2002/3, and the dire consequences both for our own forces and for the Iraqi people. Lord Butler has claimed that he was dismissed far too easily, but he again compiled a non-dodgy dossier of government making policy on the hoof, handing all power over to Blair and ignoring cabinet, only to not bother to actually criticise too heavily in his conclusion. It's only now, with Brown ascending to the throne as it were that we're again discussing accountability and ways to reinvent trust, when this should have happened 3 years ago.

Blair next goes off, enthusing like many other politicos blinded by the interweb about the changing face of media, mentioning that mythical 70 million blogs figure without bothering to point out that approximately 1% of that total are updated everyday and are about politics. He also overestimates how the new media is supposedly taking over from old, when increasingly the "old" is becoming "new". His main point, about the 24 hour news culture, is mostly sound.

We devote reams of space to debating why there is so much cynicism about politics and public life. In this, the politicians are obliged to go into self-flagellation, admitting it is all our fault. Actually not to have a proper press operation nowadays is like asking a batsman to face bodyline bowling without pads or headgear. And, believe it or not, most politicians come into public life with a desire to serve and by and large, try to do the right thing not the wrong thing.

Apart from appropriating Geoffrey Howe's famous joke during his resignation, Blair is again probably mostly right. Most politicians do come into public life to serve: it's just when we're faced by their faces day in day out, and when all they've done for the last ten years is talk like a robot about how great everything the government's done has been, the public just might be entitled to get cynical. So many politicians seem to be irksome jobsworths, who never consider for a moment even the slightest hint of disloyalty, or as it used to be known, disagreeing with your peers, that it's quite easy to dismiss them all as more of the same. This is the reason why Hazel Blears, Oona King, Hilary Armstrong, Patricia Hewitt, David Blunkett and others are so widely loathed and ridiculed, especially online. This is most definitely Blair's fault: his demand for total loyalty from his ministers, even backbenchers, was pounced on by the media who shrieked "split!" and "rebellion!" over the slightest little squeak of independent thinking. That's why the Labour deputy leadership election, despite the presence of Blears and Hain, has been such a breath of fresh air: politicians from the same party with different opinions! Who would have thought it? And how did the Sun react? "Leftie dinosaurs hate Blair!", to paraphrase slightly.

My view is that the real reason for the cynicism is precisely the way politics and the media today interact. We, in the world of politics, because we are worried about saying this, play along with the notion it is all our fault. So I introduced: first, lobby briefings on the record; then published the minutes; then gave monthly press conferences; then Freedom of Information; then became the first Prime Minister to go to the Select Committee's Chairman's session; and so on. None of it to any avail, not because these things aren't right, but because they don't deal with the central issue: how politics is reported.

This is just simply bollocks. As numerous hacks have reported, the press conferences are hopeless, mainly because Blair doesn't answer the sodding question. It's like Prime Minister's Question Time without the Punch and Judy, and unsurprisingly, no one's interested. He also tries to bore the journalists into submission: producing endless powerpoint presentations of how the latest target in the NHS has been reached, which actually explain very little to nothing at all, and if that fails, then he turns on the foreign media present who'll throw a softer ball about something of little interest to the domestic press. Freedom of Information has been brought in, and again, surprise surprise, the government has enjoyed it so much that it wants to curtail it, something which Blair curiously decides not to mention.

Blair finally gets to his point and hits the nail squarely on the head here, then instead of going after the ones actually responsible for exactly what he's described, he heads in completely the opposite direction:

The reality is that as a result of the changing context in which 21 Century communications operates, the media are facing a hugely more intense form of competition than anything they have ever experienced before. They are not the masters of this change but its victims. The result is a media that increasingly and to a dangerous degree is driven by "impact". Impact is what matters. It is all that can distinguish, can rise above the clamour, can get noticed. Impact gives competitive edge. Of course the accuracy of a story counts. But it is secondary to impact. It is this necessary devotion to impact that is unravelling standards, driving them down, making the diversity of the media not the strength it should be but an impulsion towards sensation above all else.

Who could disagree? In one of his rare moments of clarity, he's got the main problem with Britain's media dead right. Today is incidentally a perfect day for Blair to making such a point: the death of Bob Woolmer, revealed to be of natural causes after all. How did the media respond? They went straight for the jugular and smeared, accused and slurred the Pakistani cricket team. Woolmer was variously killed because of match fixing, out of a personal argument with aggrieved Pakistani players, poisoned with whichever outlandish substance you could think of, and even maybe murdered by al-Qaida. Not a single one of any of those allegations were true, and it didn't just infect the tabloids, although they were the chief culprits; Panorama was among those suggesting that Woolmer had definitely been poisoned. The BBC has at least today in its reports owned up to its acute failures, and how it got it wrong. Somehow you doubt the tabloids will be doing the same thing tomorrow. This isn't to suggest that the media were wrong to print such speculation, but rather that they should have known better, especially considering the various impacts, both on the case and those under suspicion, as well as the grieving. This isn't an exception though: this is what the tabloids do every day, day after day, and have done for years. The Scum's mea culpa about Janet Hossain was notable not so much for how badly it got it wrong, but how familiar it seemed because of how it's happened so often in the past.
Third, the fear of missing out means today's media, more than ever before, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits. But no-one dares miss out.

Again, pretty accurate. This is more often done to celebrities and suspects in crimes than politicians, but there's little that's off otherwise.

Fourth, rather than just report news, even if sensational or controversial, the new technique is commentary on the news being as, if not more important than the news itself. So - for example - there will often be as much interpretation of what a politician is saying as there is coverage of them actually saying it. In the interpretation, what matters is not what they mean; but what they could be taken to mean. This leads to the incredibly frustrating pastime of expending a large amount of energy rebutting claims about the significance of things said, that bears little or no relation to what was intended.

This is where it falls apart. Blair is trying to suggest that this is new: it isn't. The tabloids have again been doing this for years, completely blurring the line between news and commentary, for their own political and commercial gain.

The metaphor for this genre of modern journalism is the Independent newspaper. Let me state at the outset it is a well-edited lively paper and is absolutely entitled to print what it wants, how it wants, on the Middle East or anything else. But it was started as an antidote to the idea of journalism as views not news. That was why it was called the Independent. Today it is avowedly a viewspaper not merely a newspaper.

There you are: rather than taking on the real purveyors of cynicism, sensationalism and "impact", for the obvious reason that very shortly Rupert Murdoch is likely to be offering him a vast wad of cash for his memoirs, and because of that pact we're often talking about, he's instead picked on the tiniest, smallest, lowest punching target of the lot, the Independent. Again, this clearly has nothing to do with its continued, avowed and exemplary opposition to the war in Iraq, this is instead all to do with the fact it has campaigning front pages and opinion on the cover. Completely unlike the Daily Mail, Express, Sun or Mirror then. The difference between the Independent and the tabloids is that the Independent has never insulted its readership or patronised them by suggesting the front page is now anything other than opinion rather than news: Simon Kelner was more than open in how, with the change from broadsheet to tabloid that he wanted it to become a "viewspaper", a horrible neologism. The tabloids pretend completely otherwise, even if no one's falling for it.

The rest is more or less more of the same, complete with a suggestion that the already hopeless self-regulatory framework will need revising, which won't happen because parliament won't push through a privacy law because of the tabloids' opposition. The whole speech is perhaps indicative of the Blair years: decent analysis of what the problems are, followed by hypocrisy, stagnation and then picking on the opposite of what needed fixing. Just without the bloodshed.

Sort of update: The Grauniad's leader gets it partially right, mentioning how good the British press can be, just without the necessary attack on its worst excesses as well. Simon Jenkins is also in his usual irascible form over BAe and how it's been uncovered by the muck-raking press, although I'm not sure how the BBC and Grauniad quite come under that description.

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Boycotting and bullying.

The decision by the president of DePaul university to deny Norman Finkelstein his application for continued tenure highlights the yawning chasm between campus politics on both sides of the Atlantic. A little less than two weeks ago the University and College Union passed a motion by 158 to 99 for a "a comprehensive and consistent boycott" of all Israeli academic institutions, in solidarity with a call made by Palestinian trade unions for such measures. In one country, the anti-occupation argument wins, while on the other the accusations of antisemitism against those who are critical of Israeli government policy appear to have prevailed.

The background to Finkelstein being put out of a job is part of the wider argument, increasingly conducted outside Israel itself, about the differences between antisemitism and anti-Zionist expansion, about the rights of the Palestinians to resist and organise in the face of both a 40-year occupation and how the peace process can be moved on from outside. Finkelstein, a widely acknowledged brilliant analytical academic, the son of Holocaust survivors, has long been a thorn in the side of unapologetic pro-Israelis, most notoriously writing an attack on what he calls the "Holocaust industry", which he regards as both exploiting the shame and guilt felt about the failure to stop the Holocaust into treating Israel with kid gloves, ignoring its own abundant abuses of human rights and failure to make peace with the Palestinians.

Finkelstein's undoing appears to have been taking on Alan Dershowitz, an equally vehement defender of Israel to Finkelstein's ardent criticism. You might know Dershowitz more for one of his other ideas: proposing, despite his own opposition to torture, that authorities could gain a warrant which would allow them to engage a "suspect" with non-lethal forms of interrogation in a "ticking bomb" scenario. He more recently toured studios in effect defending rendition, making much the same argument, slightly altered by saying that since torture was already evidently taking place, that there should be set guidelines on what is and what is not allowed. Another similarly enlightened argument he made was that Israel should declare a unilateral ceasefire in responding to Palestinian terrorism, and that if militants didn't similarly declare an end to operations, that a village or town identified as being an operations base for the militants would be given a ultimatum, after which all the houses and buildings in the village would be destroyed. Even by the Israeli standards of inflicting collective punishment on the Palestinians, such a measure is terrifying in its base inhumanity.

Ignoring the more tedious elements of Finkelstein and Dershowitz's conflict, Dershowitz was one of the first to write to DePaul university calling for Finkelstein's request for further tenure to be denied. While Finkelstein's methods of responding and arguing are by his own admission polemical, and he strays occasionally into ad hominem attacks, with him making mistakes in his claims against Dershowitz's book The Case for Israel, there are few who regard him, as Dershowitz does, as an anti-Semite or a bigot. Ignoring perhaps the usual suspects who support and defend him in Noam Chomsky and Alexander Cockburn, highly respected historian of the Holocaust Raul Hilberg and Avi Shlaim, formerly of Haifa university, both went on Democracy Now! to support his continued tenure.

The whole dispute perhaps tells us more about how academia is being increasingly divided and ruled in Europe and America than it does about anything else. The biggest difference is how almost all political opinion in America is amazingly pro-Israeli, especially considering the relatively small Jewish population, which in any case overwhelming votes Democrat. Various reasons for this, differing between a highly successful Israeli lobby, itself the subject of high controversy involving Alan Dershowitz last year after a highly notable paper attempted to show how the Israeli lobby and US foreign policy intertwined, neo-con ideology which itself is highly caught up in the Likudist outlook on the Middle East, the support of Christian far-righters, for their own various selfish reasons, and just general sympathy for a people which without the intervention of the Americans may well have been close to being wiped out, all play a part, as does the continued concern about the intentions of Iran, at least now that Saddam Hussein has been removed from the equation. The "war on terror" has also thrown the two nations together in something of a common cause, despite the obvious differences between the various motives behind the attacks which both have suffered.

The movement towards boycotting Israel in Europe suggest that the opposite is true here, but this is almost certainly not the case. Prior to the removal of Conrad Black, the Telegraph was one of the strongest defenders of Israel policy in all areas, and while perhaps slightly less strident now that it's under the Barclay brothers, it remains mostly the same. It's not just the Melanie Philips' of this world that are shrill in their speaking out on Israel's behalf, but other organisations like Independent Jewish Voices, which while critical would by no means support a boycott of academia. The attempts to portray some of this legitimate criticism, as Deborah Lipstadt has, as soft-core denial, or even as Philips did, as Jews somehow being for Genocide, often shows just what those who are critical of the occupation have to face for speaking out. This is partly down to the defenders of Israel both using hyperbole and over-selling themselves at the same time, and while pro-Palestinians do fall into this trap as well, there is no other debate which so often descends purely into mud-slinging, with accusations of bigotry, self-hatred and racism never being far from surfacing.

As is so often the case, the middle road again seems to be the best course. I've never seen it adequately or lucidly explained exactly what an academic boycott of Israel is meant to achieve: it seems, despite the no doubt honourable intentions of the Palestinian trade unions and universities in calling for one, that it's meant to more send a far too easily misconstrued message to the world, with predictable results in backlash terms. It smacks all too much of intellectual circle-jerking, doing nothing to help the Palestinians on the ground while the great debate swirls round and round. The only boycott that really matters at the moment is the one which continues to cause economic devastation in the occupied territories, and which has more than a hand in the descent in Gaza into all-out civil war. That is the one which needs lifting, but it seems to have been almost forgotten. Finkelstein should be at DePaul, while universities ought to petitioning the government and the EU to lift the reckless and irresponsible boycotting of Hamas which is only penalising the people who had the audacity to use their democratic vote.

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Bits and pieces.

Various scraps of news which don't deserve their own individual post.

Via D-Notice, a very hopeful petition calling for the repeal of the Obscene Publications Act:

The Obscene Publications Act 1959 is an out of date, virtually useless piece of legislation. Its definition of "obscenity" as something which "depraves and corrupts" is an uncertain, unclear and completely subjective test, dependent solely on alternate attitudes and opinions and feelings of particular judges and juries. Obscenity is a moral attitude which every individual perceives differently; some are offended easily and some are rarely offended at all. Individuals should be able to make up their own minds about what they deem to be obscene, and avoid such material if they do, and embrace it if they do not. A law against such material, except where it protects children, violates individual liberty.

All of which is very true, but with this latest bunch of illiberals I wouldn't put it past them to repeal it and replace it with something far, far worse, like the original proposals to make viewing "violent" pornography a criminal offense, thankfully toned down but still highly objectionable. I've signed anyway.

Via Ten Percent and the Mail on Sunday, which has rather belatedly but still welcomely decided to take the government on over rendition comes further evidence that planes (see image) linked to rendition flights are still landing here, quite contrary to the claims made by APCO:

The row over CIA ‘torture flights’ using British airports has deepened following fresh evidence that a plane repeatedly linked to the controversial programme landed in the UK just days ago.

The plane was logged arriving at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk last weekend, and watching aviation experts said the aircraft, piloted by crew clad in desert fatigues, was immediately surrounded on the runway by armed American security forces.

Its registration number, clearly visible on the fuselage, identifies it as a plane which the European Parliament says has been involved in ‘ghost flights’ to smuggle terrorist suspects to shadowy interrogation centres abroad.

Shami also soon got to the bottom of the so-called ACPO investigation:

"ACPO have admitted to me in a private letter that their investigation amounted to little more than a cursory review of reports on the issue – which they issued, 18 months after I requested it, to coincide with the Council of Europe’s report."

The voting is hotting up, or rather, getting about as exciting as a Labour deputy leadership contest is likely to get, and other blogs have been listing their preferences in order, so here's mine, despite the fact I have no way of influencing the vote whatsoever:

1. Cruddas
2. Benn
3. Harman
4. Johnson
5. Hain
6. Blears

I would probably have put Harman second if it wasn't for the endless repetition, both from her and other Grauniad columnists that the party needs a male/female leadership, and that only dear Harriet can rebuild Labour's support among the fairer sex. It's bollocks, we know it's bollocks, and Harman is taking advantage of the fact she doesn't have any for her own purposes rather than that of Labour. Blears is last for obvious reasons, and there's hardly a Rizla to put between Johnson and Hain, Hain being the slightly more opportunistic and hubristic in his finding his moral compass act once Blair's finally shuffling off.

Finally, the omnipresent carnage in Iraq continues, with the third bridge in as many days to be bombed. This seems to be an attempt, most likely by the "Islamic State" to hinder military movements, with the knock-on effect that it further inhibits movement by the general population, who according to IraqSlogger are resorting to ferries. It probably constitutes some sort of a war crime: we condemned it when it was Israel doing it to Lebanon, we should condemn it equally virulently now. It additionally makes it far, far harder for any families that are fleeing to take almost any belongings at all: latest reports estimate that 2.2 million Iraqis have become refugees, mostly going to either Syria or Jordan, with a similar number likely to be displaced within Iraq itself. The "Islamic State" has also once again succeeded in capturing a large number of Ministry of Interior/Defence employees (some have suggested that they could be civilians dressed up, as the Iraqis have previously denied having any men missing, although this seems incredibly unlikely to me), inevitably to face the same fate as the previous groupings; a bullet to the back of the head, all filmed for the one-handed hordes on the jihadist forums to explode and salivate over. Justice for those murdered in such a fashion will eventually prevail.

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Monday, June 11, 2007 

My enemy's enemy is my enemy.

The Jihad and Reformation Front's logo.

It's a well-known quote, or cliche, depending on which you prefer, that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. The United States, which has never done irony or history well, seems to have ignored the proverb. Why else would it be embarking on such a palpably suicidal tactic as once again arming the enemy of the enemy?

The driving force behind the thinking of arming groups such as the Anbar Salvation Council has to be both a mixture of desperation and stone-cold realpolitik. The "coalition" cannot possibly defeat the insurgency militarily, without using the kind of overwhelming force that will drive even more ordinary Iraqis into the arms of the resistance groups, but neither can it live with the consequences of the possibility of the "Islamic State of Iraq" gradually enforcing its brutal rule over the areas it has declared as part of their new theocracy. The in-between measure they've decided upon is supplying those who have finally grown weary of the despicable tactics employed by the radical Salafis, themselves rising up and fighting back against the groups which until recently enjoyed an uneasy truce with the tribal Sunni clans.

Recent memory ought to show the high risks involved in a such a strategy. The training and funding of the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets has had consequences which very few could have possibly imagined at the time. The arming of both sides during the Iran/Iraq war only encouraged Saddam Hussein and further embittered Iran. Israel's covert decision to help the fledgling Hamas as a bulwark against the secular, nationalist Fatah must be one of the most regretted decisions ever made by an Israeli government.

One of the simple, sad realities of life in Iraq is that the security situation, and with it, living conditions, have deteriorated to such an extent that even supplying arms over sectarian lines when the seller knows full well what they'll be used for is something that's become acceptable. The fear has to be that supplying arms to groups as potentially fracturous as the Anbar Salvation Council appears to be is that they'll simply be sold on for a profit, or even supplied straight back to the insurgent groups.

The rising of some tribal Sunnis might well turn out to be a lesser factor compared to the apparent turning of other insurgent groups against the "Islamic State". Just last week it appeared that the 20th Revolution Brigades and the Islamic Army in Iraq, both far more nationalistic and Sunni in their outlooks and ideology than Salafi, were fighting running battles in the streets of Amiriyah against al-Qaida in Iraq, having been provoked by attacks on their own members by the State. The Islamic Army has now like al-Qaida formed its own umbrella group, the Jihad and Reformation Front, which includes the Mujahideen Army and at least two of the former highest members of the Sharia council of Ansar al-Sunnah, and with the 20th Revolution Brigades apparently fighting side by side with the IAI, it's a possibility that they too could eventually join. How this new alliance and its opposition to the Islamic State should be judged is for now hard to tell: any grouping which opposes the indiscriminate violence which al-Qaida and its allies are unleashing throughout the country ought to be supported, but it may well yet turn out that this is simply Iraq going the way of Algeria, the armed groupings turning on each other rather than fighting the "enemy".

Providing arms and support to such groups may for now look like the least worst option, but the chances for it coming back and biting the suppliers' in the ass are great. It may well be though that the luxury of making such choices has long gone.

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