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Warning from Muqtada al-Sadr - the Shia cleric whose word is law to millions of his countrymen

In a rare interview at his headquarters in Najaf, he tells Patrick Cockburn of his fears for a nation growing ever more divided on sectarian lines.

The future of Iraq as a united and independent country is endangered by sectarian Shia-Sunni hostility says Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia religious leader whose Mehdi Army militia fought the US and British armies and who remains a powerful figure in Iraqi politics. He warns of the danger that “the Iraqi people will disintegrate, its government will disintegrate, and it will be easy for external powers to control the country”.

In an interview with The Independent in the holy city of Najaf, 100 miles south-west of Baghdad – the first interview Mr Sadr has given face-to-face with a Western journalist for almost 10 years – he expressed pessimism about the immediate prospects for Iraq, saying: “The near future is dark.”

Mr Sadr said he is most worried about sectarianism affecting Iraqis at street level, believing that “if it spreads among the people it will be difficult to fight”. He says he believes that standing against sectarianism has made him lose support among his followers.

Mr Sadr’s moderate stance is key at a moment when sectarian strife has been increasing in Iraq – some 200 Shia were killed in the past week alone. For 40 years, Mr Sadr and religious leaders from his family have set the political trend within the Shia community in Iraq. Their long-term resistance to Saddam Hussein and, later, their opposition to the US-led occupation had a crucial impact.

Mr Sadr has remained a leading influence in Iraq after an extraordinary career in which he has often come close to being killed. Several times, it appeared that the political movement he leads, the Sadrist Movement, would be crushed.

He was 25 in 1999 when his father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, a revered Shia leader, and Mr Sadr’s two brothers were assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s gunmen in Najaf. He just survived sharing a similar fate, remaining under house arrest in Najaf until 2003 when Saddam was overthrown by the US invasion. He and his followers became the most powerful force in many Shia parts of Iraq as enemies of the old regime, but also opposing the occupation. In 2004, his Mehdi Army fought two savage battles against American troops in Najaf, and in Basra it engaged in a prolonged guerrilla war against the British Army which saw the Mehdi Army take control of the city.

The Mehdi Army was seen by the Sunni community as playing a central role in the sectarian murder campaign that reached its height in 2006-7. Mr Sadr says that “people infiltrated the Mehdi Army and carried out these killings”, adding that if his militiamen were involved in the murder of Sunnis he would be the first person to denounce them.

For much of this period, Mr Sadr did not appear to have had full control of forces acting in his name; ultimately he stood them down. At the same time, the Mehdi Army was being driven from its old strongholds in Basra and Sadr City by the US Army and resurgent Iraqi government armed forces. Asked about the status of the Mehdi Army today, Mr Sadr says: “It is still there but it is frozen because the occupation is apparently over. If it comes back, they [the Mehdi Army militiamen] will come back.”

In the past five years, Mr Sadr has rebuilt his movement as one of the main players in Iraqi politics with a programme that is a mixture of Shia religion, populism and Iraqi nationalism. After a strong showing in the general election in 2010, it became part of the present government, with six seats in the cabinet. But Mr Sadr is highly critical of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s performance during his two terms in office, accusing his administration of being sectarian, corrupt and incompetent.

Speaking of Mr Maliki, with whom his relations are increasingly sour, Mr Sadr said that “maybe he is not the only person responsible for what is happening in Iraq, but he is the person in charge”. Asked if he expected Mr Maliki to continue as Prime Minister, he said: “I expect he is going to run for a third term, but I don’t want him to.”

Mr Sadr said he and other Iraqi leaders had tried to replace him in the past, but Mr Maliki had survived in office because of his support from foreign powers, notably the US and Iran. “What is really surprising is that America and Iran should decide on one person,” he said. “Maliki is strong because he is supported by the United States, Britain and Iran.”

Mr Sadr is particularly critical of the government’s handling of the Sunni minority, which lost power in 2003, implying they had been marginalised and their demands ignored. He thinks that the Iraqi government lost its chance to conciliate Sunni protesters in Iraq who started demonstrating last December, asking for greater civil rights and an end to persecution.

“My personal opinion is that it is too late now to address these [Sunni] demands when the government, which is seen as a Shia government by the demonstrators, failed to meet their demands,” he said. Asked how ordinary Shia, who make up the great majority of the thousand people a month being killed by al-Qa’ida bombs, should react, Mr Sadr said: “They should understand that they are not being attacked by Sunnis. They are being attacked by extremists, they are being attacked by external powers.”

As Mr Sadr sees it, the problem in Iraq is that Iraqis as a whole are traumatised by almost half a century in which there has been a “constant cycle of violence: Saddam, occupation, war after war, first Gulf war, then second Gulf war, then the occupation war, then the resistance – this would lead to a change in the psychology of Iraqis”. He explained that Iraqis make the mistake of trying to solve one problem by creating a worse one, such as getting the Americans to topple Saddam Hussein but then having the problem of the US occupation. He compared Iraqis to “somebody who found a mouse in his house, then he kept a cat, then he wanted to get the cat out of the house so he kept a dog, then to get the dog out of his house he bought an elephant, so he bought a mouse again”.

Asked about the best way for Iraqis to deal with the mouse, Mr Sadr said: “By using neither the cat nor the dog, but instead national unity, rejection of sectarianism, open-mindedness, having open ideas, rejection of extremism.”

A main theme of Mr Sadr’s approach is to bolster Iraq as an independent nation state, able to make decisions in its own interests. Hence his abiding hostility to the American and British occupation, holding this responsible for many of Iraq’s present ills. To this day, neither he nor anybody from his movement will meet American or British officials. But he is equally hostile to intervention by Iran in Iraqi affairs saying: “We refuse all kinds of interventions from external forces, whether such an intervention was in the interests of Iraqis or against their interests. The destiny of Iraqis should be decided by Iraqis themselves.”

This is a change of stance for a man who was once demonised by the US and Britain as a pawn of Iran. The strength of the Sadrist movement under Mr Sadr and his father – and its ability to withstand powerful enemies and shattering defeats – owes much to the fact it that it blends Shia revivalism with social activism and Iraqi nationalism.

Why are Iraqi government members so ineffective and corrupt? Mr Sadr believes that “they compete to take a share of the cake, rather than competing to serve their people”

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr 
Sadrism deeply divides the Iraqi Shia, many of whom see the movement as having a history of sectarian violence

Muqtada al-Sadr comes from a family of martyrs: his father, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, was the leader of a Shia religious revival in the 1990s which became so threatening to Saddam Hussein that he had the cleric murdered, along with two of his sons. Muqtada’s father-in-law and cousin was Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr, a revolutionary leader and thinker, who once said: “If my little finger was Ba’athist, I would cut it off.” He was executed along with his sister by Saddam in 1980.

It is a measure of the contradictory nature of the US-led occupation of Iraq that within a year of the 2003 invasion, American officers were saying publicly that their orders were “to kill or capture” Muqtada, although he came from a clerical dynasty with a record of opposition to Saddam.

In theory, the US was nation-building in Iraq. In practice, this turned out to mean that only Iraqi nationalists wholly supportive of US policy were deemed politically acceptable. Muqtada was, and is, always hostile to the occupation. He believes it forced on Iraq a leadership which has stayed in power despite toxic levels of corruption and incompetence.

Long before last weekend’s deal on Iran’s nuclear power programme, the Americans and Iranians cooperated uneasily in determining which Iraqis would rule Iraq. Such is the division between Iraqi communities, sects and parties that foreign powers have a measure of control.

Perhaps more surprising than Muqtada’s personal survival is the persistence of the Sadrist movement, despite savage repression by Saddam followed by war with the Americans and conflict with the present Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. It survives because it has a leadership prepared to be martyred and a mass following among the poor.

Nevertheless, Sadrism deeply divides the Iraqi Shia, many of whom see the movement as having a history of sectarian violence that belies its present moderation. It denounces a government of which it somehow remains part while demanding that Mr Maliki be replaced.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr 
W.E. Johns's tales about the often derided but intrepid fighter pilot have been unfairly maligned

A tidal wave of commentary on the First World War is about to break as we approach the 100th anniversary of its outbreak. Growing up in the 1950s, it was accounts of the Second World War that dominated my reading. I began to pay real attention to what had happened between 1914 and 1918 only when I started reading about aerial warfare in the numerous books about Biggles by Captain W E Johns, which at that time were voraciously consumed by most teenagers and now are almost unobtainable in bookshops.

It was not a bad way to learn about the war. Johns, a pilot in the RFC (which in April 1918 became the RAF), gives vivid accounts of what it was like to fly the fragile planes of the time, which were all too likely to fall apart or crash long before they fired a shot. In describing aerial combat, his stories are still intensely readable and, at his best, he writes about pilots and their planes with a clarity and realism that have seldom been equalled. The survival rate for aircrew was low, and Johns’s own six weeks of combat flying in 1918 before he was shot down behind German lines was about average.

In the 1960s, librarians started withdrawing books on Biggles from the shelves, claiming that he, and the author who created him, glorified war as a sort of public-school game and were jingoistic, racist and sexist. The very name “Biggles” is mostly used today with slightly derisive undertones to suggest a dim-witted and juvenile enthusiast, probably with an aeronautical bent. But it is a reputation wholly undeserved, and Johns, who had fought at Gallipoli and in Macedonia as a machine gunner before joining the RFC, had no delusions about war. Writing about First World War generals and politicians, Johns later denounced them for squandering the lives of hundreds of thousands of “trusting lads, who now lie between Calais and Kut…. I helped to shovel 1,800 of them into pits (without the blankets for which their next of kin were probably charged) including 67 of my own machine gun squadron of 75 in front of Horseshoe Hill in Macedonia”.

He goes on to describe how his unit had to attack without artillery support because somebody had forgotten to supply the cranes to lift the guns out of the ships that brought them. Almost all the information about Biggles and Johns in this article comes from the excellent biography, “By Jove, Biggles! The Life of Captain W E Johns by Peter Berresford Ellis and Piers Williams. Johns was, in fact, a flying officer, not a captain, a rank that did not exist in the RFC or RAF.

The Biggles stories have frequent laconic but grim hints about what fighting was really like on the Western Front. At one moment Biggles and his observer are shot down and wander about amid the muddy craters of No-man’s-land. “I can’t stand much more of this!” growled Biggles. “It’s giving me the creeps. I’ve just crawled over somebody – or something that was somebody.” The switch from the jaunty English idiom of the day – “gives me the creeps” – to the image of Biggles feeling his way over a corpse torn apart by gunfire is highly effective.

Johns was a victim of his publisher who bowdlerised the narrative when stories were republished, and banned all mention of swearing and drinking. Thus when Biggles’s windscreen is shot to pieces, he exclaims: “My Gosh! What a mess!” Lemonade is substituted for whisky, and in one amended story Biggles and a friend compete to extract pre-war lemonade from a French hotelier. In an early story in its pre-censored version, Biggles, demoralised by a love affair with a girl who turns out to be a German spy, is described as drinking half a bottle of whisky in a day. “Biggles is finished unless he takes a rest,” says his worried commander. “He is drinking whisky for breakfast, and you know what that means – he is going fast.”

Johns’s own military and political instincts were generally good and humane. He was a fervent opponent of the appeasement of Hitler and the Japanese invasion of China. His views were of some importance to the government because he edited the two main flying magazines of the day, Flying and Popular Flying, in which he vehemently attacked government policy.

From the early 1930s, he called for the training of more pilots, on the grounds that if there were too few when war came, training would have to be rushed, and under-trained airmen would die in accidents or in combat against better trained German pilots. In fiction, he gives Biggles only 10 hours’ training in the air, saying this was all he had got before meeting German pilots who might have been flying for years.

The government was evidently concerned about being so expertly attacked by the editor of the most widely read aviation magazines in the world and which were read, moreover, by so many in the RAF or connected with flying. In March 1939, he attacked the government’s “foul and craven hypocrisy” for its non-intervention policy in Spain. Soon after, the government put pressure on his publishers to have Johns sacked as editor of both publications.

Few authors have had a posthumous reputation so at variance with their work, which is still highly readable. As for his general attitude towards war, it is worth quoting his reaction to the Japanese bombing of Shanghai in 1937, which he described as “wholesale carnage, the turning of a town into a vast slaughterhouse”.

Johns wrote: “What have these poor devils of Chinese done, whose mangled remains I saw being forked into carts like so much manure? It is a pity the Japanese bomber pilots cannot be shown what they did, but that, I fancy, is the last thing the Japanese government would permit. Nor, for that matter, would our own government allow our bomber pilots to see it.”

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: History • Tags: World War I 
At a time of tremendous religious significance for the Shia, the insensitive actions of a British security man appear to have sparked a major crisis

Hundreds of foreign workers are being hurriedly evacuated from Basra in southern Iraq following violent protests by Iraqi oil workers and villagers over two incidents.

In one of them, a British security man tore down a poster or flag bearing the image of Imam Hussein, a figure highly revered by Shia Muslims. The violence may make international oil companies more nervous about operating in Iraq, which is at the centre of the largest oil development boom in the world.

The fighting started on Monday when oil workers refused to remove Shia banners and flags when asked to do so by a British security adviser who then took them down himself – by one account, tearing a poster of Imam Hussein.

This happened just before Ashura, the Shia day of mourning for the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, who was killed by the Caliph Yazid at the battle of Kerbala in 680, the anniversary of which falls today.

An Iraqi witness was reported as saying: “Workers were provoked and squabbled with the British guy, but he suddenly pulled a pistol and started shooting and wounded one Iraqi worker.” The man was later removed to hospital bleeding heavily.

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has called for the deportation of the unnamed British security man. Iraqi officials in Basra said he worked for the security firm G4S at a camp run by Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services company. The camp is near the giant Rumaila field, close to the border with Kuwait, which produces a third of Iraq’s oil output. BP and China’s CNPC have been seeking rapidly to raise production at the field.

Accounts differ on exactly what happened, but there appear to have been at least two incidents when Shia oil workers and people living in nearby villages believed that images of their most venerated religious figures had been desecrated.

“A British employee took down a flag for Hussein and a picture of Imam Ali from the cars of the security company, and tore them down with a knife,” Ali Shaddad, a member of Basra’s provincial council, told Agence France-Presse. “This provoked a group of workers and they went and hit him repeatedly.”

At least part of this incident was caught on a video uploaded to YouTube, It shows a man in a flak jacket being dragged from a white vehicle and hit repeatedly by men in dark blue T-shirts, who carry long sticks and spades. He falls occasionally but generally manages to stay on his feet before he is rescued by Iraqi soldiers. In the background is the wall of a Schlumberger camp, topped with barbed wire.

An Iraqi field engineer employed by Schlumberger describes the incident, saying it started at 10am on Monday when an Iraqi driver working for the security team attached a Shia holy flag to the antenna of one of the vehicles. He was asked to remove it by the head of security and refused, so “the team leader jumped up on the car and he tear up [sic] which made the Iraqi driver and his colleagues [all Shia] to be angry”. They reportedly called in protesters from outside the company to join the attack.

The days leading up to Ashura are always a particularly sensitive time in Iraq, with millions of Shia involved in the mourning ceremonies.

The Iraqi Oil Report website said that BP, the main operator at Rumaila, was scaling back its workforce and that employees of Baker Hughes and Schlumberger “were massed at Basra airport”. There were conflicting reports about whether the oil services companies were shutting down their operations.

In an earlier incident affecting Baker Hughes, an Egyptian worker had removed the flags commemorating Imam Ali and Imam Hussein from company vehicles. Protests prompted Iraqi authorities to arrest the Egyptian on charges of insulting a religion, while Baker Hughes suspended its operations in the country and declared force majeure because of “a significant disruption of business”.

In general, the international oil companies that have poured into Iraq in recent years are barely affected by the violence which is killing about 1,000 civilians a month. Most are Shia caught by blasts from car bombs and suicide bombers driving vehicles packed with explosives. The number of incidents and casualties has reached a level not seen since 2008, at the end of the last round of the Shia-Sunni civil war in which tens of thousands were killed. The deaths are mostly in the cities and towns of central and northern Iraq, while the oil companies are developing fields around Basra in the far south.

Their foreign workers live in fortified camps, protected by security companies, and move in well-protected convoys. At this time of year, Shia-dominated districts in Iraq are a forest of banners and flags, and walls are covered with portraits of revered religious leaders past and present.

Some 41 people, mostly Shia pilgrims, have been killed so far during the Ashura festival by bombings that bear the hallmarks of al-Qa’ida. In one attack, 17 pilgrims died and 65 were wounded by a suicide bomber who targeted a procession of pilgrims north of Baquba, near Baghdad, in a mixed Sunni-Shia province notorious for its violence.

Two million Shia are expected to make pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Hussein in Kerbala today, protected by 35,000 soldiers. As part of the ritual, the mourners beat and cut their heads and chests and whip themselves with chains to emphasise their grief and as a sign of remorse for failing to defend Imam Hussein.

The quality of security firms in Iraq varies enormously. Some are highly disciplined and discreet, while others have been trigger-happy – making them extremely unpopular.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq 
The Reformists in Iran will be vulnerable to allegations that they are negotiating from weakness

Has the best chance of an agreement on controlling Iran’s nuclear programme just passed by?

Political will for a deal is still there in Washington and Tehran, but its opponents will also gather their formidable forces. These include Republicans and many Democrats, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, France. The momentum towards an interim agreement that was building at the end of last week has been broken.

In Tehran President Hassan Rouhani has so far had a fairly easy ride because of his recent election and the support of the Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. But if he is seen as offering too many concessions on the nuclear programme and not getting enough back in terms of a relaxation of economic sanctions then he and his supporters become politically vulnerable. There are some signs that this is already happening.

The Reformists in Iran will also be vulnerable to allegations that they have given the impression that they are negotiating from weakness because economic sanctions are putting unsustainable pressure on Iran. If this argument was true then Israel, France and Saudi Arabia can argue that more time and more sanctions will make the Iranians willing to concede even more.

There is no doubt that sanctions do have a serious impact on the Iranian economy, but it does not necessarily follow that it will sacrifice its nuclear programme. The confrontational policy advocated much of the US Congress may, on the contrary decide Iran to build a nuclear weapon on the grounds that the international campaign against Iranian nuclear development is only one front in an overall plan to overthrow the system of government installed in Iran since the fall of the Shah in 1979. In other words, Iranian concessions on nuclear issues are not going to lead to an agreement, because the real objective is regime change.

On the other hand, the decision by President Obama not to launch airstrikes against Syria, Iran’s crucial Arab ally, after the use of chemical weapons on 21 August, has to a degree demilitarised the political atmosphere. This could go into reverse if Congress adds even tougher sanctions and threats of military action by Israel resume. Much will depend on how much political capital President Obama is willing spend to prevent prospects for a deal being extinguished by those who believe that confrontation with Iran works better than diplomacy.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iran 
A deal on nuclear weapons has been on the cards since President Obama decided not to attack Syria

The decision by President Obama not to launch air strikes on Syrian government forces after the apparent use of chemical weapons by them on 21 August prepared the ground for a possible US-Iranian deal on Iran’s nuclear programme. By its actions, the US showed it was not prepared to undertake military action to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s one crucial ally in the Arab world. The US-led assault on Syria was more or less openly directed against Iran, so its abandonment was a decisive turnaround in the 30-year confrontation between the US and Iran. And the fact that this was not simply a zigzag in US policy was born out by popular and congressional hostility towards American involvement in another war in the region.

Iranian officials had long described the threat to the regime in Damascus by the US and its allies as directed in large part at their own government in Tehran. Not only would they have lost an allied state, but Hezbollah would have been isolated in Lebanon if a post-Assad Syria were ruled by a Sunni regime supported by the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The solid band of Shia-controlled or influenced countries, stretching from Iran’s border with Afghanistan through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon’s coastline on the Mediterranean, would have been broken up. The Sunni counteroffensive against the Shia would have won its first real victory.

The deal between Iran and the US and its allies being negotiated in Geneva this weekend is usually analysed in terms of the likelihood of success and identifying which side is giving the most concessions. The answer to the question about who comes out ahead – contrary to what the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been saying – is that Iran is, for the moment, doing most of the conceding on its nuclear programme, and not getting much back in terms of a relaxation of the economic blockade. Core sanctions on Iran remain, and bankers throughout the world will stay scared of inviting legal retribution from Washington if they have any dealings with Iran.

In return, the Iranians are offering concrete concessions, notably putting an end for the moment to the production of highly enriched, weapons-grade 20 per cent uranium, and stopping construction work at its heavy-water reactor at Arak. This is being done to establish “trust”, but does not leave Iran with many assets to negotiate with in future talks over a long-term solution. The danger from Iran’s point of view is that the West will gobble up concessions made in the name of “confidence-building”, but there will be no stage-two negotiations in which Iran might get something back in return. Sanctions will largely stay in place.

But the less concrete gains by the Iranians are impressive. Since the election as Iranian President of conciliatory Hassan Rouhani this summer, Iran is no longer so easy to demonise as it was under his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose blood-curdling rhetoric was an Israeli propagandist’s dream come true. Indeed, Israeli journalist Uri Avnery argued that if one looked simply at damage to Iran and benefits to Israel done by Ahmadinejad, then one would rapidly be convinced that the Iranian president was an Israeli agent.

But history will be complicated to reverse. Sanctions on Iran may be difficult to modify because they were put in place by Congress as instruments of its own anti-Iranian policy. One reason why the White House wants to negotiate with Iran now is to stop Congress from passing a fresh round of sanctions. On the other hand, the Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid was arguing that once the political tide behind sanctions started to ebb they would be swept away willy-nilly, because international businesses were queuing up to get into Iran. It might be good if this were true, though the forces against an accommodation with Iran are impressively powerful: Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies abroad, much of Congress at home.

Opponents of a deal with Iran argue that because sanctions have achieved much in terms of damaging its economy, they can do everything. They do not notice or, if they do, are careful not to draw attention to the fact that, effective though economic sanctions may be in their impact on Iranian’s living standards, their effect on Iran’s nuclear programme has been to speed it up.

Pressure on the West for a deal with Iran sooner rather than later stems from the fact that diplomats say Iran may be in a position to test a nuclear weapon by next summer. This is not to say that sanctions do not have a devastating effect, but not enough for the Iranians to run up the white flag. The Iranian government will also be in a stronger political position at home if it is seen by its own people to have sought an international agreement on its nuclear programme and to have been rebuffed.

The US congressional opponents of a deal with Iran always behave as if the US has more cards in its hand than it has in reality. Iran is stronger than it was 12 years ago, when its neighbours included a hostile and fanatically Sunni Taliban regime to the east in Afghanistan and an equally hostile Saddam Hussein to the west. In Iraq, Iran is the predominant power, and in Syria, Assad is more dependent on Iran then ever before. The US has fought two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past decade in which it wholly failed to achieve its aims. Belligerent rhetoric from William Hague about military action against Iran or Syria is not going to frighten anybody – if it ever did – after Parliament voted against it.

Could Israel go it alone? Israel does not generally go to war without some sort of green light from Washington. The Israeli military threat against Iran has always seemed to be the bluff of the century, but a highly effective bluff which induced the rest of the world to impose more severe sanctions than Iran expected.

The US has been engaged in a cold and hot war against Iran since the fall of the Shah in 1979. Could this rivalry be coming to an end? This is unlikely to happen overnight, but the confrontation might be taking a more benign form.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iran, Israel 
Death of leader seriously weakened the Palestinian cause and removed the one figure who could unite the diverse and quarrelsome Palestinian groups

Suspicions that the former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was poisoned will be strengthened by the discovery by Swiss scientists of 18 times the normal level of radioactive polonium in his remains.

Mr Arafat, who had long symbolised the Palestinians fight for their own state, died on 11 November 2004 from an illness that was never fully diagnosed by his doctors.

Swiss scientists have been carrying out tests on tissue taken from Mr Arafat’s body and personal items with which he was brought into close contact.

They say they are confident up to an 83 per cent level that the Palestinian leader was poisoned and suspect that the cause may be polonium.

The results of the investigation by Swiss scientists is contained in an 108-page report by the University Centre for Legal Medicine in Lausanne which was obtained exclusively by Al Jazeera television channel which had previously carried out its own enquiry.

Mr Arafat’s body was exhumed last November in Ramallah on the West Bank where he was buried and 60 tissue samples were given to Swiss, French and Russian teams of forensic scientists.

Dave Barclay, a British forensic scientist and former detective, told Al Jazeera that the findings had convinced him that Mr Arafat had been murdered. “Yasser Arafat died of polonium poisoning,” he said. “We found the smoking gun that caused his death. The level of polonium in Yasser Arafat’s rib… is about 900 millibecquerels. That is either 18 or 36 times the average, depending on the literature.”

The report only examined what killed Mr Arafat not whether or not he was deliberately poisoned.

The death of Mr Arafat seriously weakened the Palestinian cause, of which he had been the enduring symbol for almost 40 years, and removed the one figure who could unite the diverse and quarrelsome Palestinian groups.

Many Palestinians will be further convinced by the new report that Israel was behind his death. Israel had previously sought to assassinate Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal, in Jordan in 1997 by spraying what they hoped was an undetectable poison in his ear.

But there will still be doubts about the trustworthiness of the evidence taken from Mr Arafat’s body so long after he was buried. The radioactive substance used, polonium-210, has only a brief half-life of 138.4 days so traces detected eight years after he was supposedly poisoned would be difficult to find.

There is also the question as to why French doctors, who were looking after Mr Arafat in Paris – to which he had been flown when he first fell ill – did not find signs that he had been poisoned in the days immediately after his death. France had bad relations with Israel at the time and had no reason to participate in a cover up.

At the time he was taken fatally ill Mr Arafat was closely confined by the Israelis in his Ramallah compound where he had been for two years. Though he was old and not very strong he was not in ill health in October 2004 when he first fell ill with nausea and stomach pains which were at first thought to be flu symptoms. On 29 October he was taken to Jordan and then flown to France where he relapsed into a coma.

Suha Arafat, Mr Arafat’s widow, had given permission for his body to be exhumed after an Al Jazeera investigation into his death. After receiving a copy of the report she was quoted as saying: “When they came with the results I am mourning Yasser again. It’s like you just told me he died.”

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Israel/Palestine, Yasser Arafat 
In South Korea a sense of vulnerability bred from past humiliations lies just below the surface

Old hatreds bred from old atrocities and injustices are slow to disappear. South Korean President Park Geun-hye said at the start of visits to France and Britain this week that she is willing to hold a summit anytime with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, whose country intermittently threatens war against South Korea.

But she rejects flatly any idea of meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe until Japan apologises for wrongdoings during its 35-year occupation of Korea.

In particular, South Korea wants a deeper apology and greater compensation for an estimated 200,000 South Korean “comfort women” who were forced to work as prostitutes in Japanese military brothels during the occupation. Everything to do with the 1910-45 Japanese occupation of Korea, brutal and authoritarian even compared with most other imperial occupations, still festers. The Japanese response to Ms Park’s remarks – that what happened during the occupation and Second World War is very ancient history – is not going to mollify South Korean resentments.

Small issues in the dispute generate extreme animosity, such as the true ownership of a rocky island and surrounding islets called Dokdo by Korea and Takeshima by Japan. Situated in the sea in between the two countries, South Korea holds Dokdo and has stationed a coastguard detachment there. But the Japanese Foreign Ministry refers to this as an “illegal occupation”. South Korea has just celebrated “Dokdo Day” and Japan will soon hold “Takeshima Day”. Speaking about the issue of the South Korean women forced into sex slavery, Ms Park told an interviewer this week that “these are women who spent their blossoming years in hardship and suffering, and spent the rest of their lives in ruins”. She added that as long as the Japanese did not change their perception of what Koreans see as these past crimes, “what purpose would a summit serve”?

The speed of South Korea’s economic development is astonishing. The country, which most people in Europe could not find on the map a century ago, is now the sixth-biggest exporter and the 15th biggest economy in the world. Yet a sense of vulnerability bred from past humiliations and suffering still lies not far beneath the surface. South Korea may be courted by world leaders today but look back just over a century ago to 1905 when one of Korea’s first diplomats in London took poison and killed himself because there was nothing he could do to prevent Japan’s takeover of Korea with the approval of Britain.

The suicide of Yi Han Yeung, a 31-year-old diplomat who had been in London for four years, took place in Flat 4, Sunnyhill Court, in Trebovir Road, a gloomy, rundown street off Earls Court Road. It was probably as depressing an address for a small legation in 1905 as it is today, a prominently placed CCTV the only obvious addition to its shabby doorway in the years since. No plaque commemorates Mr Yi’s death or the reasons for it.

At that time the suicide was scarcely noticed in the British or Korean press. The Korean government was a pawn in the struggle for control of the Korean peninsula between Japan, Russia and China, with Britain keen to keep on good terms with Japan when it emerged as the winner at the end of the Russo-Japanese war. Mr Yi’s desperate but vain efforts to preserve Korea’s independence would not have cut much ice with the Foreign Office, which was enthusiastic for Britain’s new alliance with Japan.

The significance of Mr Yi’s death is it showed that, even at the lowest point in Korean history, there were Koreans who were prepared to die rather than mutely accept foreign domination. Back in Korea, his family remains proud of his sacrifice. I went with Mr Yi’s grandson, Professor Yi Miseob, to a wooded hill the family owns an hour’s drive from Seoul where the young diplomat is buried beside a memorial stone with a view of small fields in a valley bottom with a steel mill in the middle distance.

Ms Park’s visit to the UK is marked by events and exhibitions aiming to show South Korea’s cultural and technological prowess. But the exhibit that is most original, interesting and revealing about modern Korea in an exhibition at Old Billingsgate is a long raised garden of green plants and ferns growing in a bed of gravel and an occasional rock with a stream of water running down the middle. Ji-hae hwang, the designer, points to a small green plant commonly called the horse leek, which, aside from a reputation in Korea for supposedly preventing cancer, is a symbol of Korean determination to survive in adverse circumstances. She had filled the garden with green plants and only a few flowers to underline a lack of gaudiness in the Korean character.

Somehow, this strange and wonderful garden seemed to tell one more about the Korean character than all the other gadgets and designer items on display.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Japan, South Korea 
Trying to protect a Korean journalist brought Henry Cockburn into conflict with the Japanese – and his own Whitehall masters

I spent last week in South Korea helping make a television documentary about my grandfather, Henry Cockburn, who was British Consul General in Korea shortly before the First World War. He arrived in 1905, just as Japan was occupying the country and extinguishing Korean independence, for a posting which was to change his life and abruptly end his diplomatic career just as it was reaching its peak. He did not oppose the imperial expansion of Japan or its takeover of Korea, which he accepted as part of the great power chess game in which smaller and weaker countries were the inevitable losers. In any case, many of the dilemmas facing Japan seemed to him to be similar to those confronting the British Empire.

But by 1908 Henry, who had spent the previous 25 years in China and had survived the Boxer siege of Peking, found himself at the centre of a diplomatic crisis between Britain and Japan. The Japanese were trying to suppress anti-occupation newspapers, which they blamed for fomenting opposition to their rule, and which by this time included a vicious guerrilla war. They were particularly outraged by the way Britain’s extra-territorial rights protected the operations of two British-owned anti-occupation newspapers called the Korea Daily News and the Daehan Maeil Sinbo, which were run by a combative British journalist called Ernest Bethell and his Korean counterpart named Yang Ki-taik.

Henry thought the Japanese, like so many imperial powers, exaggerated the extent to which their troubles stemmed from a hostile media. After initial skirmishing, the Japanese arrested Yang and put him in a prison where conditions were so bad that visitors thought he was dying. He whispered to one of them “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe”, and he was visibly terrified of his guards. Henry, at this point still backed by the Foreign Office in London and the British embassy in Tokyo, demanded that Yang be freed, or at least his conditions improved. British pressure was enough for him to be moved to hospital, but in the course of the transfer he was accidentally released and promptly took refuge in the nearby office of the Daily News, which was protected by an enormous Union flag. Under a treaty with Britain, the Japanese police could not enter the building to detain Yang without Henry’s permission and this he adamantly refused to give, protesting that Yang had been mistreated and probably tortured before and, if he were now returned to Japanese custody, this would happen again.

The Foreign Office was at first sympathetic to Henry’s point and did not want to be pushed around too openly by the rising power of Japan. But officials were determined that nothing should disrupt the new alliance with Japan, on which they relied to defend Britain’s eastern possessions while concentrating their forces for a potential war with Germany. The fate of a single Korean journalist seemed insignificant when put in the balance with these great issues. Official correspondence on the affair used the word “rendition” in much the same sense of a prisoner being turned over to a country that might mistreat him as it is used today.

Henry was increasingly isolated within the Foreign Office, one senior diplomat remarking that “with a little goodwill and less heat on Cockburn’s part” the crisis might have been avoided. He played for time, refused to meet Japanese officials, and warned how British public opinion would be shocked to learn that those who had tortured a prisoner once should be given a chance to do so again. Japanese officials and media demanded Henry’s recall and accused him of being motivated by visceral hatred for Japan.

Finally, he was directly ordered by London to hand over Yang and he reluctantly did so, saying at the same time that he would resign from the Foreign Office. He left Seoul for London on the trans-Siberian railway on 15 September – too early to learn that his campaign on Yang’s behalf had persuaded the Japanese that it was not in their interests to convict him and that he had been released. Henry complained in private letters that he had been let down by the Foreign Office, but said nothing publicly to explain his decision to retire suddenly, and with no job to go to.

I found it exciting to look for signs in Seoul, over a century later, of this minor confrontation between Britain and Japan. A few buildings that Henry, Yang, and Bethel would have recognised are still there, such as the handsome brick-built British consulate, now the embassy, and the gaudy royal palace where Henry presented his credentials to the Korean emperor, whose power was ebbing by the day as the Japanese took over. The prison in which Yang almost died is marked by a stone monument beside a coffee shop, and the old Daily News office is now an open square. On the ground floor of a nearby newspaper building are two busts of Yang and Bethell.

South Koreans do not stint on memorialising patriotic heroes who opposed the occupation. When Bethell died at the age of 36 he was buried with an inscription on his monument recording his achievements, which was scraped off by the Japanese and replaced with a fresh one after their defeat in 1945. The grave is in a pretty foreigners’ cemetery full of trees beside a forest of skyscrapers.

A Korean friend said to me that he thought that “South Korea is the most Confucian country in the world, even more than China”. Filial piety is at the centre of Korean culture and families take immense trouble to ensure that ancestors who opposed the Japanese occupation are remembered. Yang Ki-taik was finally forced to flee to China where he was briefly president of a provisional Korean Government in Shanghai, but died in an obscure town in 1938. Sixty years later his descendants, using a rough map drawn by a surviving colleague, set off to find his bones which were returned and reburied in the South Korean national cemetery set in the wooded hills rising above the capital.

Anti-Japanese sentiment still runs deep – as witness South Korea’s furious territorial dispute with Japan over tiny rocky islands which the Koreans call Bokdo and the Japanese Takeshima. The day before I arrived in Seoul was “Bokdo Day”, with South Korean naval manoeuvres around the islands, while in seven cities on the mainland dance groups staged “flash mob” performances, and fashion designers defiantly held a fashion show on the rocks.

I feel a certain pride in Henry’s lonely and doomed attempt to defend Yang against open attacks from the Japanese and covert sniping from his colleagues. The theme of a thousand films is the dogged battle of a heroic official who puts justice above official policy and defends an individual against persecution by the state. Except it does not often happen and almost all officials greet with relief the departure of whistle blowers or people overly concerned with the moral consequences of their actions. Henry never looked for applause or even told his own family exactly what had happened in Korea, but he must have felt a certain bitterness about the premature end of his career.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: History • Tags: Britain, Cockburn Family 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.


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