Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas and Creationism

Christmas and Creationism
By Christopher Dickey December 22nd 2013 6:45 AM

In an exclusive interview, the bishop who heads the Pontifical Academy of Sciences accepts the theory of evolution, critiques capitalism, and defends his fellow Argentine, Pope Francis.


France 24: The World This Week
In Brussels, French President François Hollande was hoping to get support from 27 other heads of state for French military intervention in the Central African Republic. But he didn't walk away with much - apart from half a dozen countries sending modest logistical support, the EU is not providing direct financial aid, and there is still no path towards a common European defence policy.
And in Syria, US Secretary of State John Kerry signalled that American diplomacy was ready to sit down and talk with the islamists, but they refused. How likely is it that January's peace conference will bring about true reconciliation?
I also get a chance to talk about killer robots ...

Thursday, December 19, 2013

How I Learned to Love 'Killer Robots'

DARPA's Drone Olympics
By Christopher Dickey, December 19th 2013 5:45 AM
The world may discover some hard truths about killer robots this week at the amazing DARPA Robotics Challenge, a competition for the world's next-generation robots.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Black Swans over Iran: A look at clear and present improbable threats to the nuclear deal

Iranian Bombs and Black Swans in the Nuclear Negotiations

By Christopher Dickey, December 17th 2013 5:45 AM
Many improbable catastrophes might wreck the all-important Iran negotiations. One of them is named Giuliani.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

NYPD Blues: Bill Bratton vs. Ray Kelly

NYPD BLUES: Bill Bratton Vs. Ray Kelly
By Christopher Dickey
December 12th 20135:45 AM
The new commissioner of the NYPD will do many of the same things for which the old commissioner has been criticized. Politics change. Policing, not so much.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The NYPD’s Report on The Kenya Shopping Mall Massacre

Inside The NYPD's Report on The Kenya Shopping Mall Massacre
By Christopher Dickey, December 10th 2013 10:00 AM
The shocking revelations of the New York City Police Department's report on "lessons learned" from the September terrorist attack in Kenya.

A draft copy of the NYPD report is available here:

You may also want to look at the videos posted earlier on this blog:


And for some lighter reading:

Paris's New Metro Etiquette Manual is a Rosetta Stone for Travelers
By Christopher Dickey, December 8th 2013 5:45 AM
A new rulebook for people in Paris public transports also serves as a helpful key to decoding the idiosyncrasies of French public behavior.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Day Iran's Embassy in DC Went Dry

Amid speculation that Iran may someday soon reopen its embassy in Washington D.C. (which I doubt), it seemed appropriate to post this little piece I wrote for The Washington Post metro section in May 1979:

The Washington Post

May 28, 1979, Monday, Final Edition


By Christopher Dickey, Washington Post Staff Writer

First Section; A1

Champagne corks were popping and the scent of martinis wafted through the air at the Iranian embassy yesterday for the first time since the shah's people left in February and the abstemious Islamic republic took over.

But this event was in the style of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The liquor - more than 4,000 bottles of rare wines and expensive spirits - was flowing not down the throats of guests, but down the drain.

The entire liquor supply of former ambassador Ardeshir Zahedi, once the city's most lavish party-givers, had been carted up from his wine cellars and liquor cabinets to be emptied into a small fountain beside the terrace in back of his former residence at 3003 Massachusetts Ave. NW.

An embassy inventory of the liquor placed its wholesale value at about $22,000, but connoisseurs who were telephoned yesterday afternoon its retail worth could be three times that amount.

A young woman who said she was speaking for the embassy press office said the liquor supply was discovered soon after the embassy and residence changed hands Feb. 11.

"It was a consensus that something must be done with this," she said, watching a magnum of Dom Perignon 1970 being poured away. "It could have been auctioned off or sold back to the retailers. But we checked with Ayatollah Khomeini (the spiritual leader of the Islamic republic) and he was the one who said it should just be disposed of . . . If you want to build an Islamic republic on principle then you want to start clean."

The Islamic government also launched a drive against drinking in Iran, and a similar emptying of bottles took place at the Shah's palace in Tehran after the revolution, the woman said.

The embassy's liquor was bought, according to a sign on the 10-foot high stack of cases, with "money of the oppressed people of Iran," but was especially onerous to the new regime because of the Koran specifically prohibits the faithful from drinking alcohol.

In liquor, the Islamic holy book says, there is "great sin, and some profit, for men; but the sin is greater than the profit."

Some wine merchants reached at home yesterday expressed dismay at the disposal of the Iranian liquor.

"That's incredible. What a waste," said Ed Sands of Woodley Wine and Liquor as the inventory was read to him: 23 cases of gin, about 20 more of vodka (emptied along with 16 cases of vermouth, hence the martini smell), 23 cases of scotch; a long list of vintage wines, 20 cases of Champagne that retails for $80 a magnum, and so on.

"Unbelievable," said Sands, "unbelievable."

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Notes on the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) and Americans in Paris

[Photo by CSD of Rudolph Giuliani and Maryam Rajavi]

On Saturday, 7 December 2013, in an auditorium at the Bourse in Paris, France, Maryam Rajavi and the Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) held a meeting with several notable supporters including former New York Mayor and Republican Presidential Candidate Rudy Giuliani, former Vermont Governor and Democratic Presidential Candidate Howard Dean, former attorney general in the George W. Bush administration Michael Mucasey, and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu's daughter Naomi Nontombi Tutu. Over the years, despite it cult-like practices and even when it was formally labeled a terrorist organization, the organization managed to acquire quite a list of high-profile ex-dignitaries in the United States.

I went to cover the event because I think the group may wind up playing a role of one sort and another helping to undermine American and European efforts to reach an agreement with Iran to forestall and foreclose its nuclear weapons capability.

There are several ways the MEK might do this.

It was listed by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization until last year for reasons outlined in this Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder. Despite official denials, it may yet try to use violence inside Iran to undermine the talks, knowing full well that any terrorist incidents will serve the hardliners in the regime and "exacerbate the contradictions," as leftist revolutionaries used to say. When Iranian scientists have been killed, suspicion often has fallen on the MEK, the Israelis, or both.

The MEK claims to have extensive intelligence resources on the ground in Iran and claims credit for the important revelation in 2002 of the regime's secret nuclear program, although there has been extensive speculation that the actual intelligence was supplied to the MEK by the Israelis. Its ability to float information -- or disinformation -- about the regime's activities could complicate debate inside the the United States.

To the extent the MEK claims credit for adding to the pressure on the Iranian government to negotiate it strengthens the hand of those inside Iran who want to discredit the negotiators.

But its greatest disruptive ability at the moment may well be connected to the way the Iranian-backed government of Iraq has treated MEK members in various camps there. On September 1 this year, 52 of them were killed, allegedly by special forces from the Iraqi Ministry of Interior, and seven (six of them women) are alleged to have been taken hostage.

Why the Iraqi government would do this, even with prodding from the Iranians, is something of a mystery. One obvious possibility would be revenge: the MEK sided with the mullahs to overthrow the shah, then attempted, and failed, to take over the revolution; it subsequently blew up scores of top Iranian religious leaders, and after Saddam Hussein invaded Iran it sided with his forces. More than 20 years later, when the United States led the invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam, the MEK still supported him. But U.S. forces decided its members might be used in some way as a card in future negotiations with Iran and the more than 3,000 MEK members in Iraq were put in a camp, disarmed, and began an existence in legal, political and diplomatic limbo. As the United States withdrew from Iraq in 2011, fears mounted that the government of Prime Minister Maliki would simply ship the Iranian MEK members across the border to face the tender mercies of the government in Tehran.

That did not happen. Instead their camp at Ashraf was closed after a violent incursion by Iraqi forces and they were sent to Camp Liberty on the outskirts of Baghdad (although they are still referred to by the MEK as "Ashrafis," which is why in my tweets there were some references to killings at Camp Ashraf that were in fact at Camp Liberty).

The United States and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees assured the Ashrafis that they would be resettled in other countries, but that process has been very slow and one of the few countries willing to accept them even temporarily for medical care has been Albania. The camp came under repeated mortar attacks, and then came the September 1 killings and abductions. 

Giuliani, Dean and others who worked to get the MEK "delisted" from the State Department's catalogue of foreign terrorist organizations were involved to some extent in the assurances given the MEK that they would be protected at Camp Liberty and relocated in a timely fashion. 

Giuliani argued yesterday that the issue of the Ashrafis and the nuclear negotiations should be linked, something the Obama administration is very unlikely to do. Dean claimed that failure to protect the Ashrafis dishonored the United States of America. 

Following are my live tweets from the meeting:

Friday, December 06, 2013

Nelson Mandela's Choice: Guerrilla? Terrorist? Saboteur? Pragmatist.

Anger at the Heart of Nelson Mandela's Violent Struggle

By Christopher Dickey, December 6th 201310:19 AM

The future president of South Africa once considered guerilla warfare and terrorism to overturn Apartheid. Imprisoned for so long, his anger mellowed.

Prostitutes, Johns and Posturing in France

France's New Prostitution Law Targets Johns, Ignites National Debate
By Christopher Dickey, December 5th 20135:45 AM
The new anti-prostitution law in France is supposed to make sex workers safer, but it may make their business more dangerous than ever.

I've also been posting a lot of snapshots of Venice and Paris on:

La Strada

Instagram @csdickey

and, of course, Tumblr

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Putting the Iran Deal in Context

Gamechanger: Inside the Historic Iran Nuclear Deal

By Christopher Dickey, November 24th 20138:19 AM

Once again the Obama administration pulls the United States away from the path to war, but that's not the same as peace.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Mad Shooter of Paris & the "Natural Born Killers" of '94

The Mad Shooter of Paris
 and the 'Natural Born Killers' of 1994

By Christopher Dickey, November 21st 2013 8:02 AM 
The alleged gunman who terrorized the city over the last few days turns out to be the accomplice of a pair of romanticized would-be revolutionaries back in 1994.

Florence Rey, Abdelhakim Dekhar and Audry Maupin as they looked in 1994. Photos by AFP, montage by Ouest-France

-- Alison Mosshart of The Kills

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Follow-Up: Polio in Syria, where it came from, what's being done to stop it

Update from World Health Organization says the "wild polio virus" found in Syria apparently originated in Pakistan and is related to the examples found in Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian territories over the last year, although no outbreak of the disease occurred in those places. In Syria, because immunization programs broke down in contested areas, 13 cases of the disease have been reported among young children. Previously there had been no cases in Syria since 1999.

Polio in the Syrian Arab Republic - update

Disease outbreak news

11 NOVEMBER 2013 - Thirteen cases of wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) have been confirmed in the Syrian Arab Republic. Genetic sequencing indicates that the isolated viruses are most closely linked to virus detected in environmental samples in Egypt in December 2012 (which in turn had been linked to wild poliovirus circulating in Pakistan). Closely related wild poliovirus strains have also been detected in environmental samples in Israel, West Bank and Gaza Strip since February 2013. Wild poliovirus had not been detected in the Syrian Arab Republic since 1999.

A comprehensive outbreak response continues to be implemented across the region. On 24 October 2013, an already-planned large-scale supplementary immunization activity was launched in the Syrian Arab Republic to vaccinate 1.6 million children against polio, measles, mumps and rubella, in both government-controlled and contested areas. Implementation of a supplementary immunization campaign in Deir Al Zour province commenced promptly when the first ‘hot’ acute flaccid paralysis (AFP) cases were reported. Larger-scale outbreak response across the Syrian Arab Republic and neighbouring countries will continue for at least 6-8 months depending on the area and based on the evolving situation.

Given the current situation in the Syrian Arab Republic, frequent population movements across the region and the immunization level in key areas, the risk of further international spread of wild poliovirus type 1 across the region is considered to be high. A surveillance alert has been issued for the region to actively search for additional potential cases.

WHO’s International Travel and Health recommends that all travellers to and from polio-infected areas be fully vaccinated against polio.

WHO update on polio outbreak in Middle East

WHO statement

13 November 2013

A comprehensive outbreak response continues to roll out across the Middle East following confirmation of the polio outbreak in Syria.

Seven countries and territories are holding mass polio vaccination campaigns with further extensive campaigns planned for December targeting 22 million children. In a joint resolution all countries of the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region have declared polio eradication to be an emergency and called on Pakistan to urgently access and vaccinate all of its children to stem the international spread of its viruses. The countries also called for support in negotiating and establishing access to those children who are currently unreached with polio vaccination.

WHO and UNICEF are committed to working with all organizations and agencies providing humanitarian assistance to Syrians affected by the conflict. This includes vaccinating all Syrian children no matter where they are, whether in government or contested areas, or indeed outside Syria.

The first priorities are to resupply and reactivate the required health infrastructure, including redeploying health workers to deliver vaccine in worst-affected areas, and moving vaccine across conflict lines where necessary and possible. The government has committed to reach all children; information on which areas are not reached will guide corrective actions and planning for the next rounds. All parties are working to find solutions for conflict-affected areas.

Dr. Jaouad Mahjour, Director of Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control at WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office, stressed the necessity of reaching all children inside Syria and in neighbouring countries. "WHO and UNICEF are coordinating the vaccination campaign with all concerned parties to make sure that all children are vaccinated no matter where they are located."

Larger-scale outbreak response across the Syrian Arab Republic and neighboring countries will continue, to last for at least 6 to 8 months depending on the area and based on evolving epidemiology.


This is a follow-up to my story: A Dread Disease Spreads by Accident

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Mad Gunman of Paris and the Mad Gun Culture of the United States

The Mad Gunman of Paris
By Christopher Dickey November 19th 20137:10 AM
The French can be thankful the man trying to terrorize their journalists and bankers does not have the mindset—or the arsenal—of your usual American mass murderer.

Monday, November 18, 2013

French Press Review: President Hollande in Israel; Inequality growing in France

Europe's Casual Racism Finally Being Called Out

Outrage at the racist caricatures of French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira; protests against the blackface "Black Pete" holiday celebrations in The Netherlands: Maybe Europe is beginning to come to terms with the casual racism ingrained as part of its culture. Or, maybe not. A phenomenon to watch:

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's Messenger and Master Spy

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's Gatsby & Master Spy

Christopher Dickey
By Christopher Dickey
November 16th 20135:45 AM
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, once famous in Washington for his cigars, parties and charm, is now Saudi Arabia's point man, fighting Iran in Syria and denouncing the Obama administration.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A Grim-Reality Show: A Day in the Life of Za'atari Refugee Camp, on YouTube from UNHCR

This is fascinating, and may become very controversial. The UNHCR turns a camera on itself to expose the drama, and the deep tensions, inside a burgeoning refugee city filled with Syrians who've fled across the desert into Jordan.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Undoing of the Iran Nuclear Deal

Why France Is to Blame for Blocking the Iran Nuclear Agreement
by Christopher Dickey Nov 10, 2013 11:54 AM EST
After years of discussions, the world's major powers had finally devised a promising deal to stop Iran's worrisome nuclear program—until France's bureaucrats thwarted the plan.


For France, Arak is a deal killer
By Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst. He teaches contemporary Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. On Twitter: @meirja

And, in French, the French spin:

Nucléaire iranien : Fabius a-t-il empêché un accord ?
Publié le 10-11-2013 à 16h41 - Mis à jour le 11-11-2013 à 08h48Par Vincent Jauvert
La France est désignée, par certains, comme la responsable numéro un de l'échec des pourparlers de Genève entre l'Iran et les grandes puissances.

Friday, November 08, 2013

The Arafat Poisoning: The Intrigues, the Background, and What Was in His Bag

Arafat's Polonium Poisoning Mystery Resurfaces
by Christopher Dickey Nov 7, 2013 2:15 PM EST
Was the Palestinian leader poisoned? Maybe. Will we ever know for sure who did it? Nope. A very personal look at the intrigues that surrounded his life and death.

Yasir Arafat's Underwear: What the PLO chairman carried with him on his way to die in France in 2004. These photographs are from the Swiss forensic report, posted by Al Jazeera,  that suggests Arafat was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210. I tell the back story of this alleged murder mystery on The Daily Beast.

Flashback: Arafat's Baby and Rabin's Gift, 1995
Almost a decade after the death of Yasir Arafat, his widow is trying to build a case that he was murdered. A recent forensic report out of Switzerland gives her theory partial support. But there was a moment in the early 1990s when it actually seemed there might be peace between Palestinians and Israelis, and Arafat's baby girl became a part of that process.

Follow my articles on @csdickey and my photos @6ideas

Flashback: Arafat's Baby and Rabin's Gift, 1995

Almost a decade after the death of Yasir Arafat, his widow is trying to build a case that he was murdered. A recent forensic report out of Switzerland gives her theory partial support. But there was a moment in the early 1990s when it actually seemed there might be peace between Palestinians and Israelis, and Arafat's baby girl became a part of that process. 


September 18, 1995 , UNITED STATES EDITION

The Tiniest Diplomat



LENGTH: 570 words

HIGHLIGHT: Arafat: Having a baby warms relations with Rabin

BABIES DO HAVE WINNING WAYS. THEY melt hearts and help break the ice socially. But can a baby contribute to peace in the Middle East? If the little girl in question is Zahwa Arafat, daughter of the PLO chairman, then the answer may be yes -- in a very Middle Eastern sort of way. And she's not even teething yet. Actually, her work started before she was born.
The problem she's helping solve is how to smooth relations between her father. Yasir Arafat of the PLO, and Israel's Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin hates Arafat, and always has. Even when they shook hands for peace on the White House lawn two years ago, Rabin held back for a second. But their political futures depend on their ability to help each other. They've been forced to move from a handshake to a wary embrace.
Formal "confidence-building measures" aren't the only way to establish trust. Blood ties and family milestones count for a lot in the Mideast -- and have slowly made the contacts between Rabin and Arafat more personal. Aides exploring back channels have played an important role, too. But baby Zahwa helped when she needed to. She set the tone.
A moment of bonding between the Palestinian and Israeli leaders came in Oslo last December, when they met to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Suha Arafat had just announced that she was pregnant. There was "a strange, very familiar atmosphere in Oslo," says a source close to the Arafats. Rabin's wife, Leah, "said in front of everybody, "If you don't mind, we'd like you to have the baby in Israel." As if that were normal for Palestine's First Lady. And before the Rabins left Norway, according to this friend of the family, the two of them made a point of stopping by the Arafats' room to say goodbye.
For medical reasons Suha decided she would have the baby in the American Hospital near Paris. By midsummer most of her own family had gathered there. Then, suddenly, Suha's father died. Arafat sent word that he wanted his father-in-law buried in the West Bank. That part of the occupied territorities was under negotiation, and the talks were at a very problematic moment. "Arafat told Suha that everything was cleared [for the funeral] with Rabin and to go there," says the family friend. In the end, the family decided not to go, because Suha couldn't travel in her last month of pregnancy -- but Rabin's accommodation was any important gesture.

Zahwa was born on July 24. Rabin called Arafat the next day to congratulate him. Leah Rabin phoned Suha Arafat to ask how she and the baby were doing. And a gift arrived in Gaza: a basket in which to carry the baby. The gift was sent by Yossi Ginossar, an aide to Rabin, a key back-channel contact between him and Arafat -- and a former internal-security officer implicated in abuses against Palestinians. An odd man to choose as a go-between with Arafat, it would seem. But Ginossar's own son was killed while serving with the Israeli Army in Gaza in 1991. "The fact that he 'paid the price' puts him on an even basis," says a former gabin adviser on security. Ginossar, whose brief is to discover the fate of Israeli MIAs. now strongly supports coexistence with the Palestinians. And Arafat's help with MIA issues has been a key to improving his relations with Rabin. It's not likely Rabin and Arafat will ever be friends. But over the long run, lost sons and newborn daughters may do a lot to help the old warriors make peace.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The Man Who Hoarded Art for the Nazis; Pedophiles Caught in the "Sweetie" Sting; The Paris of Your Dreams; and more

The Man Who Hoarded Art for the Nazis
by Christopher Dickey and Nadette De Visser Nov 5, 2013 8:50 AM EST
The dealer who sold off modern art that Adolf Hitler considered garbage saved masterpieces from destruction – and for himself. His billion-dollar stash has now been uncovered.

Dutch NGO Stages Sting Of Pedophiles With Virtual Girl
by Christopher Dickey Nov 5, 2013 11:48 AM EST
A "virtual" 10-year-old girl from the Philippines snares 1,000 alleged pedophiles around the world—but Interpol is not pleased.

The Paris of Your Dreams, 3 November 2013
A brief review of Peter Turnley's new collection of photographs, and a selection of 20 unforgettable images.

France24 Video: The World This Week - October 25th, 2013
National dialogue finally gets under way in Tunisia to head off popular discontent, Obama has some explaining to do after it's revealed the NSA has spied on more than 30 world leaders and French football goes on strike against higher taxes. Cyril Vanier and his panel of journalists discuss all this and more in The World This Week. Christopher Dickey, Paris Bureau Chief, The Daily Beast; Jean Marc Illouz, Former Senior Correspondent, France 2; Emre Demir, Editor at Zaman France.


Shadowland Flashbacks -- The columns we were writing a decade ago before, during and after the American-led invasion of Iraq. Updated daily.

Echoes of the Civil War -- The lessons unlearned from 150 years ago.

Follow my articles on @csdickey and my photos @6ideas

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Polio Spreads in Syria; plus BBC audio - NSA Overreach and Public Overreaction

A Dread Disease Spreads in Syria
by Christopher Dickey Oct 30, 2013 12:51 PM EDT
Bio-terrorism by accident? Radical foreign jihadists allied with al Qaeda may be bringing polio with them into the war-ravaged country without even knowing it.

BBC Radio "World Have Your Say," 28 October 2013
Is there anything wrong with spying on your allies?
International attention has turned towards America as leaked documents reveal their National Security agency has secretly monitored countries and International leaders across the world. And more than a million people in Kenya have signed a petition after a group of men accused of gang raping a teenager, were ordered to cut grass as a punishment. The case caused national outrage and now campaigners are calling for police to accept that rape is not a misdemeanour, it is a serious crime.

(NOTE: This podcast only available for 7 days after first broadcast, so must be downloaded before November 4.)

DON'T MISS: Shadowland Flashbacks -- The columns we were writing a decade ago before, during and after the American-led invasion of Iraq. Updated daily.

Follow my articles on @csdickey and my photos @6ideas

Monday, October 28, 2013

Watch It While You Still Can: "Wolves at Westgate" Redux - The Inside Story report is offline, but KTN TV in Kenya has another report up. The video is even more graphic.

This 18-minute report from KTN raises many of the same issues as "Inside Story: Wolves at Westgate," which I posted earlier this month: Did the Al-Shabaab terrorists escape? Did a senior army officer die in a shootout between police and the military? Did the military loot the mall?

As Margot Kiser has reported from Kenya, the authorities are talking about prosecuting the journalists.

Egypt's Vendettas; Subversive Soap Operas; and flashes from the past

In Egypt's Countryside, Vendettas Between Police and Islamists Simmer
by Mike Giglio, Christopher Dickey Oct 28, 2013 5:45 AM EDT
The old blood feud between Egypt's Islamists and the security forces runs deep. And until it ends, the country may never have peace.

The World's Most Subversive Soap Operas
by Christopher Dickey Oct 27, 2013 5:45 AM EDT
From telenovelas about Latin America's missing girls to a series on conflict resolution in wartorn lands, soap operas are surreptitious agents of social change in the developing world. By Christopher Dickey.

Flashback to 2005: A Mysterious Death on Route Irish, Baghdad

Follow my articles on @csdickey and my photos @6ideas
For recaps follow-ups and footnotes, see The Shadowland Journal:

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Soap Operas for Social Change Around the World

First, take a look at this story on The Daily Beast:

The World’s Most Subversive Soap Operas

From telenovelas about Latin America’s missing girls to a series on conflict resolution in wartorn lands, soap operas are surreptitious agents of social change in the developing world. By Christopher Dickey.

Then look at some of these videos:

"The Team" in Nepal, with beautiful Recha Sharma:

"The Team" in Yemen (with a no-nonsense woman coach):

And this moving scene between mother and son -- she a victim of rape, he the child born of it -- in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Flashback: A Mysterious Death on Route Irish, Baghdad, 2005

Since the Newsweek archives are still inaccessible or lost, I will continue to post some of the pieces I have on my hard drive, just for the record. These two deal with a tragic event -- actually, several tragic events -- on the airport road in Baghdad in 2005.

Reality Checkpoints
Why did U.S. Soldiers shoot at the car carrying Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena? Here’s the most likely scenario.

By Christopher Dickey
11 March 2005, Newsweek Online

            “I was terrified by checkpoints,” remembers Giandomenico Picco, who was the United Nations’ key hostage negotiator in Lebanon when so many Americans, Britons and Frenchmen were abducted there in the 1980s by factions of Hizbullah. In order to talk to the hostage takers, Picco would allow himself to be blindfolded and driven through back streets, following circuitous routes over uncertain political terrain in a land divided among feuding militias and occupied here and there by soldiers sent from Damascus. “There were Syrian checkpoints, there were god-knows-who checkpoints,” says Picco, pausing at the recollection. “Yes, I was afraid. Things can go wrong. Things do go wrong.”
            That’s what happened with Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena at an American checkpoint in Iraq last Friday night. She had been held for a month by a little known group of insurgents. She had pleaded pitifully for her life on videotape. After delicate negotiations and, according to the Italian press, a payment of several million dollars, the kidnappers finally released her. But on the road to Baghdad airport, U.S. troops opened fire on her car. Sgrena was wounded and the Italian intelligence officer who had negotiated her freedom, Nicola Calipari, was killed. Yes, things could go wrong, and they did.
            A lot of passionate and ill-founded accusations have been made since then, including some by Sgrena. Is it possible the Americans meant to shoot at her? Could they have wanted to teach a lesson to the Italians for paying ransom? If you’re conspiracy minded, you could dine out on that tale for a long time. But here’s the most likely scenario, based on what we know so far:
            Baghdad airport is right on the edge of town. The road there is short (roughly the same as from the White House to Reagan National). But it’s just about the most dangerous highway in the country. The American troops who patrol it come under fire all the time, and anyone who drives it risks attack by snipers, roadside explosives, and occasional suicide bombers. Last Friday night, the American soldiers on patrol had reason to be even more alert than usual. Somebody special was going to be using the road: U.S. ambassador and intelligence-czar-designate John D. Negroponte. That’s why the American soldiers on the road threw up a checkpoint where the highway is usually open, an embassy official in Baghdad tells me. They were ready to stop any suicide driver who might target the ambassador’s convoy.
            Calipari, Sgrena, and another Italian agent who was driving the little Toyota, knew nothing about Negroponte’s travel plans. But they had spent enough time in Iraq to know they were only a few hundred yards from the concrete barriers at Checkpoint 1, normally the first place you stop. After you’ve come through the hairiest stretch of that airport highway, Checkpoint 1 feels like home free, the first moment of real safety. They might even have accelerated to get there a little more quickly.
            Although Calipari had made calls to Italian officials to let them know he was on his way with Sgrena, it’s doubtful word had reached the roving American patrol that had staked out the airport highway on a stretch that’s usually unguarded. So, as the soldiers saw the Toyota coming at them, how much of a warning did they give?  How fast was the car traveling? Did the Americans there make hand signals, flash lights, and fire warning shots in a reasonable sequence before they opened up on the car – or did everything happen pretty much at once? Investigators will be looking into those questions for months to come. But on that road at 8:30 at night, when you have an unexpected car and an unexpected checkpoint, it’s a good bet somebody’s going to die. Things can go wrong, and will.
            Picco and I were talking this morning in the corridors of a summit conference on “Democracy, Terrorism and Security” convened in Madrid to mark the first anniversary of the terrible train bombings that took 191 lives last year. There are a lot of smart people here with good ideas about how to address  terrorist threats, both global and local. But Picco’s experience is especially valuable right now, because his particular contacts were with Hizbullah at the height of its terrorist rampage.
            Yesterday this “Party of God” showed its full strength as a political organization in the streets of Beirut. It turned out hundreds of thousands of supporters – by some estimates a million. The entire population of Lebanon is only about 4 milllion. Defying President Bush, who’s insisting that Syria beat a long overdue retreat from Lebanon, one message of the multitude was adamantly pro-Damascus, but that was not all. Hizbullah is still looking to define itself as the premier political party in the country.
            The speech by leader Hassan Nasrallah was not terroristic, it was essentially nationalistic, although there are a lot of gray areas between this group’s violent means and its political goals. “I was reminded of the language that the rank and file and Nasrallah himself would use when I met with them over the years,” said Picco, “this emphasis on their Lebanese character was always present. When I say rank and file, I mean even my ‘handlers’ in the car when I was blindfolded.”
            Hizbullah has come a long way since then, and in this new era of democratic euphoria sweeping the Middle East, yesterday’s demos pose a special problem for American policy. Hizbullah may be a terrorist group. It may be the last gun-toting militia in Lebanon, targeted for disarmament by the same U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 that demands Syrian withdrawal. But it’s now obvious that Hizbullah actually has achieved its goal to become Lebanon’s biggest and best organized political party. If there are free and fair elections in May, which is what Washington says it wants, what happens if Hizbullah wins?
            It’s tempting to see Lebanon’s polls as a checkpoint on the big political map. You’re expecting to see one thing, then you see another. Things can go wrong. Things do go wrong.

Body Counts
The Pentagon secretly keeps track of many grim statistic in Iraq, and the numbers are not encouraging.           

By Christopher Dickey
12 May 2005, Newsweek Online

The morning news from Iraq today brought fresh chronicles of slaughter. Yes, even more than usual. American troops are waging an offensive they call Operation Matador in a remote stretch of desert near the Syrian border, while suicide bombs are going off in Iraq’s towns and cities, including the capital. Who’s winning? Who’s losing? Who knows?
The military and political future of Iraq remains so uncertain that the Pentagon in recent months has gone back to the Vietnam-era practice of citing body counts as measures of success.  We’re told, for instance, that “as many as 100” insurgent fighters have been killed by the Matador forces. But of course that’s just a guesstimate, while the toll on the Americans and their Iraqi allies is all too concrete. Today alone, the insurgents managed to kill more than 60 would-be Iraqi military recruits and civilian bystanders in urban Iraq. The Americans are drawing lines in the sand, it would seem, while Tikrit and Baghdad are bathed in blood. Meanwhile, the total number of American dead in this war is now more than 1,600. And the Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. troops? Well, we’ll get back to that.
If there’s good news, it’s that while the Pentagon may obscure this grim reality in public presentations, it doesn’t seem to be kidding itself, as it did in Vietnam.  An accidentally declassified Pentagon report about a killing on the road to Baghdad Airport at the beginning of March shows quite clearly how much worse the overall situation is than the Bush administration would like us, or even its allies in the Coalition Forces, to believe.
“The U.S. considers all of Iraq a combat zone,” says the report, which was wrapped up at the end of April, three months after the elections that were supposed to have turned the tide in this conflict. “From July 2004 to late March 2005,” says the document, “there were 15,527 attacks against Coalition Forces throughout Iraq.” Then comes one of several paragraphs marked S//NF (secret, not for foreign distribution): “From 1 November 2004 to 12 March 2005 there were 3306 attacks in the Baghdad area. Of these, 2400 were directed against Coalition Forces.” In a span of four and a half months, which included the election turning point, that’s not only a hell of a lot of hits in the capital city, it’s just pure hell.
The report in question was prepared at the direction of the Multi-National Corps commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. John R. Vines, to answer questions about a now-infamous incident on the night of March 4. Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena had just been released by the hostage-takers who’d held her for a month, and she was on her way to Baghdad airport with Nicola Calipari, a  major-general in the Italian intelligence service who had negotiated her freedom. At a U.S. roadblock on an access ramp leading to the airport highway, U.S. troops opened fire, wounding Sgrena and killing Calipari.
The sequence of events outlined in the report, which recommends “no disciplinary action be taken against any soldier involved in the incident,” was generally the way you might have figured at the time. “On that road at 8:30 at night,” as I wrote then, “when you have an unexpected car and an unexpected checkpoint, it’s a good bet somebody’s going to die.” The situation was made all the worse because the guys at the roadblock had only expected to be there about 15 or 20 minutes. Their mission was to close the road so John D. Negroponte, then the ambassador and now the U.S. intelligence supremo, could be driven more safely to an appointment near the airport. But the weather was so miserable, his staff couldn’t decide whether he’d be able to return to Baghdad in a chopper or go back in a car. While they dithered, tension mounted out on the rain-swept highway. The troops had been in position an hour when the Italians’ car came sweeping around the on-ramp.
Sgrena, and many others who are automatically suspicious of U.S. actions and motivations, continues to believe there may have been some sort of conspiracy or cover-up involved. Meanwhile the Italian government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi certainly doesn’t want to have to admit that the shroud of secrecy surrounding the hostage negotiations – perhaps because a ransom was involved – put Calipari and Sgrena at such risk. According to the American report, an Army captain assigned as an aide-de-camp to the ranking Italian general in Iraq was the only American official who had any idea what Calipari was up to as he went off to meet with the kidnappers and free Sgrena. “It is best if no one knows,” the Italian general told the American captain. Certainly no one at the roadblock knew, the report says, and the rest is history.
After long delays, the American report was posted on the Web at the end of April with classified sections blacked out. But those sections could be restored, as it happened, with just a couple of mouse clicks that revealed all the S//NF material, including the names of every soldier at the checkpoint and the second Italian secret agent driving the car.
Under the heading “Atmospherics,” the author lays out the reasons the soldiers at the checkpoint were getting so jumpy – even though they acted according to the rules of engagement and within regulations. Everyone knows the 12-kilometer road from downtown Baghdad to the airport is dangerous. Here’s how dangerous: “(S//NF) Between 1 November 2004 and 12 March 2005, there were 135 attacks or hostile incidents that occurred along Route Irish,” as the military calls the airport highway. That’s about one attack per day during those months, by the Pentagon’s calculations, or, looking at it another way, 11.25 attacks per mile. There were nine “complex attacks” combining, say, the explosion of a roadside bomb along with small arms fire and mortars; there were 19 explosive devices found, three hand grenades, seven “indirect fire attacks” 19 roadside explosions, 14 rocket propelled grenades, 15 car bombs, and four other kinds of attacks. Investigators into the March 4 shooting had a grenade thrown at them when they tried to visit the scene. (Sgrena has suggested in some interviews that she was on a special road for VIPs when she was shot. In fact there’s only one highway to the airport, and this, sad to say, is it.)
Suicide bombs are the biggest threat. “The enemy is very skillful at inconspicuously packing large amounts of explosives into a vehicle,” says the report. “When moving, these [car bombs] are practically impossible to identify until it is too late.” The number of suicide attacks has been increasing steadily, including some using “multiple vehicles.” “Suicide [car bombs] are typically used against convoys, Coalition Force patrols, or Coalition checkpoints where they can achieve maximum damage,” says the report. “Such vehicles will rapidly approach the vehicle from the rear and attempt to get in between convoy vehicles before detonating.” The week of the March 4 shooting, 17 suicide bombs had gone off in Iraq, averaging 23 people killed per detonation. That average will be higher now.
As I write this, I can’t help but think about my friend Marla Ruzicka , who was killed on the airport road on April 16 while trying to pass a convoy, reportedly at just the moment when a suicide bomber struck. Because Marla’s passion was for helping people who’d suffered from the war, and because she had to deal with the military frequently to do that, she was sure that the same officials who kept such detailed numbers about everything else in the Iraq conflict had to be keeping a record somewhere of the civilians they killed and wounded. They always maintained they did not. But just before she died, Marla wrote a report with a partial number she said she’d received from U.S. military sources: 29 civilians killed by small-arms fire in Baghdad alone during firefights between U.S. troops and insurgents over the course of five weeks before April 5. Estimates of the total number of Iraqi civilian casualties in this war, calculated by reporters and human rights groups, have ranged from about 10,000 to the much-less-plausible 100,000. Does the Pentagon know? If so, it should tell.
In the meantime, without a doubt, the body counts will continue.