Sunday, July 23, 2006

Political news of the week take 16

[After a short hiatus, this week's news from the middle east has motivated me to post another political news post. See also: political news of the week takes 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9b, 9a, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1.]

Thousands flee as Iraq violence deepens:
Tens of thousands more Iraqis have fled their homes as sectarian violence looks ever more like civil war two months after a U.S.-backed national unity government was formed, official data showed on Thursday.

Iraq's most powerful religious authority, Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, joined the United Nations and U.S. officials in raising the alarm that a spike in bloodshed and "campaigns of displacement" threaten Iraq's very future.

The U.S. military admitted violence in Baghdad was little changed by a month-long clampdown and the city morgue said it had seen 1,000 bodies so far in July, a slight increase on June.

A day after the United States issued a stern warning to both Shi'ite and minority Sunni leaders to match talk with action on reining in and reconciling "death squads" and "terrorists" from their respective communities, the Migration Ministry said more than 30,000 people had registered as refugees this month alone.

"We consider this to be a dangerous sign," ministry spokesman Sattar Nowruz told Reuters, acknowledging that many more people fled abroad or quietly sought refuge with relatives rather than sign up for official aid or move into state camps.

The increase took to 27,000 families -- some 162,000 people -- the number who have registered for help with the ministry in the five months since the February 22 bombing of a Shi'ite shrine at Samarra sparked a new phase of communal bloodshed.


They [new refugees at a tent camp in Diwaniya] include Abd Hammad al-Saeidi: "Gunmen told us to leave or they would kill us," said the farmer from the violent lands just south of Baghdad. His family of 11 now live in a tent.


Four of the bloodiest incidents this year have taken place this month -- two al Qaeda car bombings of Shi'ite markets in Baghdad and Kufa and two gun attacks blamed on Shi'ite militias.

Those four alone, two of them just this week, claimed some 220 lives. But as the United Nations said this week, that is a fraction of some 100 civilians a day who are dying in violence.

U.S. Speeds Up Bomb Delivery for the Israelis:
The Bush administration is rushing a delivery of precision-guided bombs to Israel, which requested the expedited shipment last week after beginning its air campaign against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, American officials said Friday.

The decision to quickly ship the weapons to Israel was made with relatively little debate within the Bush administration, the officials said. Its disclosure threatens to anger Arab governments and others because of the appearance that the United States is actively aiding the Israeli bombing campaign in a way that could be compared to Iran’s efforts to arm and resupply Hezbollah.

Israel set war plan more than a year ago: Strategy was put in motion as Hezbollah began increasing its military strength:
Israel's military response by air, land and sea to what it considered a provocation last week by Hezbollah militants is unfolding according to a plan finalized more than a year ago.

In the years since Israel ended its military occupation of southern Lebanon, it watched warily as Hezbollah built up its military presence in the region. When Hezbollah militants kidnapped two Israeli soldiers last week, the Israeli military was ready to react almost instantly.

"Of all of Israel's wars since 1948, this was the one for which Israel was most prepared," said Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University. "In a sense, the preparation began in May 2000, immediately after the Israeli withdrawal, when it became clear the international community was not going to prevent Hezbollah from stockpiling missiles and attacking Israel. By 2004, the military campaign scheduled to last about three weeks that we're seeing now had already been blocked out and, in the last year or two, it's been simulated and rehearsed across the board."

More than a year ago, a senior Israeli army officer began giving PowerPoint presentations, on an off-the-record basis, to U.S. and other diplomats, journalists and think tanks, setting out the plan for the current operation in revealing detail. Under the ground rules of the briefings, the officer could not be identified.

Israeli Troops Forge Farther into Lebanon
To a steady clap of artillery fire, columns of Israeli tanks and troops roared deeper into southern Lebanon on Saturday, battling to control a strategic hilltop village that the Israelis said was a Hezbollah stronghold.

As tens of thousands of Lebanese fled the southern tier of their country over precarious, bombed-out roads, Israeli warplanes blasted communications towers in central and northern Lebanon, and struck the southern port city of Sidon for the first time. By late afternoon, Hezbollah had unleashed 90 rockets into Israel, striking Kiryat Shmona in the northern Galilee and Nahariya and the Haifa area along Israel's northern coast.

In its most extensive incursion to date, the Israeli army punched through the border near this northern Israeli community and pushed at least 2 1/2 miles into Lebanon, commanders at the scene said, carving out a swath six miles wide that encompassed a dozen or more frontier Lebanese villages.

"We are going there to kill them, to find them in bunkers and tunnels," Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, the commander of the army's Galilee division, told reporters. "This takes time and required patience. This is war."

Gupta: Nursery cut-out figures tear at emotions, Beirut doctor's guts, guile keep hospital running
What they have in common, though, is Dr. Nazih Gharios, one of the heroes of this war. A stately physician, Gharios kept Mount Lebanon Hospital open when every business around him shut down, worried about airstrikes in a neighborhood where Hezbollah dominates.

"It is my duty," he told me, acknowledging that every day was a game of "Russian roulette."

On the first day of attacks, he came up with a plan. With a bunker-like mentality, Gharios evacuated his patients to the subterranean floors of the hospital.

In places that are normally used to store equipment and perform radiology studies, Gharios created a maternity ward, an intensive care unit and even a neonatal ICU, which is caring for a 600-gram (1.3-pound) newborn girl and two 1.2 kilogram (2.6-pound) twin boys.

Patients here are blissfully ignorant of the whining of missiles above, some landing as close as 100 meters from the hospital.

New Orleans, Getting Less Power, May Pay More:
Ten months after Hurricane Katrina, the city still does not have a reliable electrical system. Hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of repairs are still needed on a system devastated by flooding, the local utility is in bankruptcy and less than half the system’s prestorm customers have returned. Of those who have, many have endured hot and sleepless nights with no air-conditioning.


So much for the injury; now comes the insult. Entergy New Orleans, the power company here, wants to increase its rates 25 percent to help pay for part of what it says is $718 million in storm losses and revenue shortfalls. That would increase the average household bill by $45 a month.


Last year, the Bush administration rejected a taxpayer bailout of Entergy, and now the utility is hoping the state will give it a sprinkling of the $10 billion in federal housing aid planned for New Orleans. The state has not agreed to that request, however, and if assistance does not come, customers may be forced to foot the bill.

For several months after Hurricane Katrina, much of New Orleans was dark; by the end of 2005 most of the city was lit again. But a tiny section of the Lower Ninth Ward, near the levee breach, remains unserved — an indication of the system’s continuing fragility.

NASA’s Goals Delete Mention of Home Planet
From 2002 until this year, NASA’s mission statement, prominently featured in its budget and planning documents, read: “To understand and protect our home planet; to explore the universe and search for life; to inspire the next generation of explorers ... as only NASA can.”

In early February, the statement was quietly altered, with the phrase “to understand and protect our home planet” deleted. In this year’s budget and planning documents, the agency’s mission is “to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research.”

David E. Steitz, a spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said the aim was to square the statement with President Bush’s goal of pursuing human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars.

But the change comes as an unwelcome surprise to many NASA scientists, who say the “understand and protect” phrase was not merely window dressing but actively influenced the shaping and execution of research priorities. Without it, these scientists say, there will be far less incentive to pursue projects to improve understanding of terrestrial problems like climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Judge Rules Against Government in Spying Lawsuit (EFF site on the suit):
A federal judge Thursday rejected a government request that he dismiss a lawsuit challenging the Bush administration's domestic spying program.


The government had argued that the lawsuit should be thrown out because it threatens to reveal state secrets and jeopardize the war on terror.

Man Believed to Be Last 9-11 Detainee Freed
An Algerian man believed to be the last domestic detainee still in custody from a national dragnet after Sept. 11 - and who was cleared of links to terrorism in November 2001 - was set free this week, his lawyer said Friday.


Benatta was among 1,200 mostly Arab and Muslim men detained nationwide as potential suspects or witnesses in the investigation following the terrorist attacks. The government has refused to discuss their fate, but human rights groups have said they believed the former Algerian air force lieutenant was the only one still in custody.


The last detainee's odyssey began Sept. 5, 2001, when, after overstaying a six-month visa, he crossed the border near Buffalo to seek asylum in Canada. After the Sept. 11 attacks, his background as a Muslim man with flight experience prompted Canadian officials to turn him over to U.S. authorities.

He spent the next six months in solitary confinement in a federal jail in Brooklyn. Though the FBI concluded he had no links to terrorism, he was eventually charged with carrying false identification - a case that was dropped after a federal magistrate found his right to due process had been violated.

The magistrate wrote in a 2003 decision that Benatta had been ``undeniably deprived of his liberty,'' and ``held in custody under harsh conditions which can be said to be oppressive.''

Experts tell Congress U.S. e-voting security is flawed:
Security experts told Congress on Wednesday (July 19) that the federal qualification process for electronic voting machines is flawed.

"We have grave reservations about the safeguards in place with many of the computerized voting technologies being used," Eugene Spafford, chairman of the Association for Computing Machinery's Committee on Public Policy.

"New federal standards and a certification process hold promise for addressing some of these problems, but more must be done to ensure the integrity of our elections in the face of software and hardware errors as well as the possibility of undetectable tampering," Spafford told a joint House hearing.

David Wagner, an associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a specialist in information security and electronic voting, went further. "We've seen security defects that allow a single person with insider access and some technical knowledge could switch votes, perhaps undetected, and potentially swing an election," he testified. "These problems should be weeded out by the independent testing process, but it is clear that this system isn't working."
See also a few of my own posts from this week:

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