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Entries in Britain (3)


Is US Now Talking to Hamas?

meshaalUpdate (9 p.m.): Hamas has written a letter to President Obama and attempted to send it to Washington via Senator John Kerry, one of three US Congressmen visiting Gaza.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency confirmed that it had received the letter from Hamas but did not say whether Mr Kerry had then accepted it.

Anne Penketh of The Independent of London offers a huge disclosure:
In the first meeting of its kind, two French senators travelled to Damascus two weeks ago to meet the leader of the Palestinian Islamist faction, Khaled Meshal (pictured)....Two British MPs met three weeks ago in Beirut with the Hamas representative in Lebanon, Usamah Hamdan.

The diplomatic line is that "the lawmakers’ contacts with Hamas were at their own initiative". The British Foreign Office says that members of Parliament “were not engaged in back channel or officially sanctioned talks".

Fair enough, but Penketh fails to connect dots that would make the story even more significant. On his way back from the his first Middle East tour, US envoy George Mitchell stopped in Paris for talks with the French leadership and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. We noted at the time, "There is the possibility that France, Qatar, and George Mitchell have agreed, either in consultation with Mahmoud Abbas or overriding his objections, to set up an interlocutor with Hamas."

Of course, we may be making connections that aren't there and, even if the US is considering third parties to establish a link with Hamas, there are immediate challenges. "Experts" opposed to any engagement will be throwing cold water on the idea. Martin Indyk, Bill Clinton's former point man on Israel and Palestine, wags his finger: it would be "a huge mistake” to talk with Hamas, as it would “undermine the Palestinian leadership that wants to make peace with Israel”.

And Hamas will not be making concessions, at least in public. Khaled Meshaal told his French visitors that "Palestinian unity" was the key issue, by which he meant recognising Hamas' ascendancy: " The Palestinian Authority no longer represents anything."

Despite all of this, there has no denunciation of the visits by the French and British delegations, either from their home governments or from Washington. So there is still a glimmer, and maybe more, of a long-awaited US approach to Israel and Palestine which includes all key parties.

Mr Obama's World: The Latest in US Foreign Policy (19 February)

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huttonEvening Update (8:30 p.m.): Al Jazeera has a useful summary of the challenge facing the US military "surge", not from the enemy but from its allies. A two-day meeting of NATO defence ministers in Poland is highlighting that few, if any, members are eager to raise their troop levels beyond token commitments. Even John Hutton, the blowhard British Minister of Defence who talked about "a struggle against fanatics that...challenges our way of life in the same way the Nazis did", is saying it is up to other NATO countries to take the first step.

As Damascus makes a major play for leadership in Middle Eastern politics, the United Nations may revive an inconvenient incident. It is reporting additional nuclear particles from a Syrian facility bombed by Israel in September 2007 and noting that the particles cannot have come from Israeli missiles.

The Pentagon is playing for time after this morning's Parliamentary vote in Kyrgyzstan closing the US airbase within six months: "We continue to consider what we might be able to offer the (Kyrgyzstan) government but we're not prepared to stay at any price and we continue to look at other options that are available to us."

Afternoon Update (1:15 p.m.): The Afghanistan Foreign Ministry has tried to take advantage of President Obama's inclusion of Kabul in the US strategic review by claiming a lead role on issues of security, development, and reconstruction: "Since a new page has been opened with America and we have had the opportunity as an ally to raise our points, we are repeating them for we believe they are essential in bringing security."

Afghanistan will also be pressing the US to extend its operation against "sanctuaries" in Pakistan.

A series of roadside and car bombs have killed seven Iraqi soldiers and policemen and wounded more than 20 people.

North Korean military spokesmen welcome Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's forthcoming visit with the declaration: "[South Korea's] group of traitors should never forget that the Korean People's Army is fully ready for an all-out confrontation."

Morning Update (6 a.m. GMT; 1 a.m. Washington): A Surge is Not a Surge. Now that President Obama has approved an additional 21,000 troops for Afghanistan this year, bringing the US force close to 60,000, the military are putting out the line that this is a long-term commitment. General David McKiernan, the commander of US and NATO forces in the country, emphasized, "This is not a temporary force uplift. It will need to be sustained for some period of time, for the next three to four to five years." While some units would be in place, especially in southern Afghanistan, by the summer, "Even with these additional forces,...2009 is going to be a tough year."

McKiernan then added a statement which, if anyone is watching carefully, exposes the difficulties of the surge which is more than a surge. The general cited the causes of turmoil as "three decades of low literacy rates and rampant poverty and violence". These would seem to require more than a show of US force, but McKiernan pressed on, "We do see, with these additional forces, an opportunity to break this stalemate, at least in terms of security conditions in the south."

Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has set up another test of the US strategy, calling on NATO allies to increase their military presence: "The [US] administration is prepared... to make additional commitments to Afghanistan, but there clearly will be expectations that the allies must do more as well." The call to arms may be met with less-than-enthusiastic responses: Italy said yesterday that it would send more 500 troops, and Georgia, angling to join NATO, has announced it will despatch 200. However, British Foreign Minister David Miliband stalled with the claim that there had been request for more UK forces. With Barack Obama in Canada today, it will be interesting to see how Ottawa, which has been on the front-line of the Afghan effort, responds.

The Kyrgyzstan Parliament is likely to deal another blow to US plans today when it approves the Government proposal to close the US Manas airbase, a key supply line for the military in Afghanistan.

Egypt has released the opposition leader Ayman Nour from detention because "health concerns". Nour was sentenced to five years on forgery charges in 2005, months after he finished second to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in elections. His case has been a prominent symbol for activists pressing for democratic reform and human rights.

US Threatens UK to Keep Gitmo Torture Secret

(thanks to Ali Yenidunya for co-writing this entry)

The British High Court ruled this afternoon that evidence of the torture of a Britain resident at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and the British intelligence services' knowledge of that torture, must remain secret because of US threats to stop sharing intelligence with Britain.

The judges unhappily and reluctantly issued their decision in the case of Binyam Mohamed, who has been held in Guantanamo since 2002. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband had claim that the disclosure of evidence, originally contained in documents given to him by the US government, would threaten British national security.

The judges made clear that they had been told the US threat remained in place under the Obama Administration. This outweighed their assessment that there was "no disclosure of sensitive intelligence matters" in the American documents:
Indeed, we did not consider that a democracy governed by the rule of law would expect a court in another democracy to suppress a summary of the evidence contained in reports by its own officials ... relevant to allegations of torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, politically embarrassing though it might be.

David Davis, Conservative Member of Parliament and former Shadow Home Minister, has taken the issue to the House of Commons. He wants to investigate whether the UK was threatened by the US officials and whether Britain had taken part in tortures: “David Miliband, the UK Foreign Minister, should explain what degree of complicity we have in this.”