As Mother Jones reported last week, the political future of Iraq didn't get any clearer with the results of its early-March parliamentary elections. One surprise, though, was the strong showing of ex-prime minister Ayad Allawi, a former strongman for Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party who had forged an alliance of secular Sunnis and Shiites. Allawi's Iraqi National Accord gained 91 seats, a "thin plurality" that was two seats better than the current prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, and his Shiite coalition. As regional expert Juan Cole noted today, it's unlikely Allawi has an easy path to resuming his old position, but he's clearly become—once again—a heavy player in Iraqi politics.

All of which makes it worth asking: Is Ayad Allawi a stone cold killer?

The Daily Caller, as we like to say in this business, buried the lede. I mean, so what if higher-ups in the Republican National Committee may or may not have been talking about arranging for a private jet for RNC chair Michael Steele. Who would be surprised? The Tea Partiers? They already think the mainstream GOP is out of touch.

Equally unsurprising but a lot more fun was the revelation of FEC expense reports showing that the RNC had dropped cash on a bondage club where the strippers simulate real live lesbians! And this for the Party of No Gay Sex, of no gay marriage, of no gays in the military, of no sex of any kind outside marriage.

The Caller mentioned it in passing:

Once on the ground, FEC filings suggest, Steele travels in style. A February RNC trip to California, for example, included a $9,099 stop at the Beverly Hills Hotel, $6,596 dropped at the nearby Four Seasons, and $1,620.71 spent [update: the amount is actually $1,946.25] at Voyeur West Hollywood, a bondage-themed nightclub featuring topless women dancers imitating lesbian sex.

Details, man! We need details.

The Daily Beast had a few: "The RNC denies that Steele himself visited the club, saying that it was "a reimbursement made to a non-committee staffer. The RNC is also investigating the claim."

I'll bet they're investigating. In any case, the Beast also mentioned that the expense report was filed by one Erik Brown—who is about to become a little less obscure—for a couple of weeks at least.

The DNC is loving it, according to the Baltimore Sun's Maryland Politics blog:

The Democratic National Committee is having a field day Monday at the expense of its cross-town rivals at the RNC—or the "Risque National Committee," as the Dems put it in one of the blizzard of e-mailed releases they are sending out.

The RNC also claimed the Daily Caller piece was "riddled with misleading information and inaccuracies." But Steele & Co. didn't deny reimbursing the expense for "meals" at Voyeur West Hollywood. In fact, according to a Washington Post blogger, the RNC now wants its money back.

Follow Michael Mechanic on Twitter.

Sean Hannity is proud of noting that "every penny" from his Freedom Concerts goes to scholarships for the children of killed or injured veterans. But in a legal complaint filed today, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and VoteVets dispute that claim.

The concerts, which are presented by the Fox News star and feature entertainers such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, purportedly donate their entire proceeds to Freedom Alliance, a non-profit led by Lt. Col. Oliver North. In turn, Freedom Alliance says it directs all of this money to a scholarship program for veterans' kids. "Every penny, 100 percent of the donations are applied to the Freedom Alliance scholarship fund," Hannity has claimed. North has made similar statements, remarking, "There's no overhead. There's no expenses taken out. Every penny that's donated or that's raised through things like the Freedom Concerts goes to the scholarship fund." (A giant "Thank you! Sean Hannity" currently appears on Freedom Alliance's homepage.)

CREW's complaint, lodged with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), alleges that Hannity and Freedom Concerts have been dishonest in suggesting that the entirety of the revenues from ticket sales goes straight to a scholarship fund. Freedom Alliance does not actually manage the concerts, Crew discovered via a Freedom of Information request and promotional materials. Instead, they're organized by a middleman—a promotional company called Premiere Marketing. The firm is headed by Duane Ward, who is also the president of Premiere Motivational Speakers Bureau, which represents both Hannity and North and has a "long history in conservative activism." Ward previously worked for Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and ran North's legal defense fund following the Iran-Contra scandal in the late 1980s. Premiere in turn donates an "unknown portion of the concert proceeds to the Freedom Alliance," alleges CREW. "We have no idea how much money it actually is," CREW executive director Melanie Sloan told reporters on Monday. But CREW argues that Hannity and Freedom Alliance's claims that the revenues go directly to scholarships amounts to "illegal and deceptive marketing practices."

These guys make the Oath Keepers look like model citizens. The FBI raided a Michigan-based Christian militia group this weekend for allegedly plotting a campaign of violence against police officers, and to use WMD against Americans. The Feds claim the Hutaree "conspired to oppose by force the authority of the U.S. government."

According to the indictment, "Hutaree members view local, state, and federal law enforcement as the 'brotherhood,' their enemy, and have been preparing to engage them in armed conflict." So in order to oppose the government, the Hutaree targeted one of the Oath Keepers' core consituencies: police officers.

You'd think this would turn Oath Keepers against this anti-cop militia. But according to initial responses on the group's website, the anti-government ethos is strong enough to dispel "rumors" propagated by the mainstream media. Members were quick to call the raids a "set up" and potentially the start of a government crackdown on militias (which are constitutionally legal). Eric Hansen, for one, notes that the FBI raided a funeral where Hutaree members were "paying respects for a member who died recently."

That sounds heartless. Until you look at the Hutaree's detailed strategy to kill police officers. According to federal prosecutors, the Hutaree planned to murder a cop and detonate explosives at his funeral to increase the police body count. The indictment also states that the group planned to threaten police families, and place fake 911 calls luring cops into danger.

Congo's troubles are legion, and there is no clear, easy-to-define way to fix them; even with every possible lucky break, it will take decades for the country to emerge from the wreckage of war and for the Congolese to start benefiting from their country's vast natural wealth. Nevertheless, there are things Americans could do to help.

1. Get pushy. Aid from the US and Western Europe keeps the Kinshasa government from going bankrupt. We ask for too little in return. The European Union, for instance, has some 55 active or retired military officers attached to the Congolese national army, to make sure—in those units they are able to monitor—that commanders don't help themselves to their soldiers' pay. But no one is even attempting the equivalent in civilian ministries dependent on aid money. Nor are any donor countries demanding that the army rid itself of the notorious thugs who are responsible for an epidemic of mass rapes—one high commander has even been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Why such timidity?

2. Send more blue helmets. The UN force in Congo has not been without its problems, among them cases where officers have succumbed to the lure of mining riches. But I did not meet a single Congolese who would not like to expand that force, which has offered at least some protection from warlord militias and marauding Congolese army soldiers. The number of UN troops is tiny for such a vast country, and they lack everything from interpreters to intelligence units that could tell them where someone is planning the next massacre. Particularly needed, to challenge the climate of impunity for mass rape: more female peacekeepers.

3. Support the most effective NGOs. In a country where government accomplishes little, nongovernmental organizations do indispensable work. Look, especially, for those that partner with Congolese groups. Women for Women International, V-Day, Human Rights Watch, Doctors Without Borders, and numerous faith-based agencies, for example, have helped survivors of rape and have lobbied to highlight mass rape as a war crime. The HEAL Africa hospital in Goma has a legal clinic sponsored by the American Bar Association to help people brutalized by the army; in its first year and a half it sent 325 cases to court and won 20 convictions.

4. No more blank checks for Rwanda and Uganda. Eager for stable allies in this part of Africa, both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations enthusiastically embraced these two regimes and showered them with aid. The Rwandan government has been especially skillful in playing on American guilt over failing to intervene during the 1994 genocide. Yet its PR-savvy strongman, President Paul Kagame, has been more responsible than anyone for orchestrating Congo's war. Rwanda's claim that its troops were pursuing genocidaires was partly true at the beginning, but is by now mostly a cover story. A succession of UN reports (which prompted Sweden and the Netherlands to cut off aid to Rwanda) have documented how both regimes have used troops, weapons, and deals with warlords and unscrupulous multinationals to extract hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of Congo minerals—all of it with seldom a complaint from Washington.

The Congo, one of the world’s richest countries, is also one of its poorest. To find out why, read Adam Hochschild’s special report here.

Click here to see a photo essay of Congo's Midas curse.

In the 1960s, many Americans boycotted California table grapes to help farmworkers unionize; in the '70s and '80s, we boycotted South Africa to help the anti-apartheid movement. In the late 1990s there was the push to ban "conflict diamonds," which led to the 2002 agreement, now signed by some 75 countries, to boycott diamonds produced by armed rebel groups in Africa and elsewhere. Shouldn't we help war-torn Congo by boycotting "conflict minerals"?

Unfortunately, it's not clear that a boycott would do much more than put tens of thousands of miserably paid miners out of work. Take the rather toothless conflict diamonds accord (which came about only because the international diamond cartel saw "blood diamonds" undercutting its inflated prices): It already applies to Congo, but makes no practical difference since the country's diamonds, like the overwhelming majority of its other exports, don't come from areas currently at war. And even when there is a direct connection between war and mining (as with the minerals sold by the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda, the genocidaires who have taken refuge in Congo), those exports are vexingly difficult to trace. You can quickly tell where an imported automobile was manufactured, but even the best laboratory tests cannot easily prove where an ounce of gold comes from. Congo's lengthy borders are impossible to police, and certificates of origin are easily forged.

The real problem is not conflict minerals, but the fact that Congo's long-suffering people reap only a tiny share of their country's vast wealth. Yet an alternate example is only a few hundred miles away from Congo's southern border: Diamond-rich Botswana has used its mines, which are partially owned by the state, to fund infrastructure, education, and health care, as well as set aside a rainy-day fund of nearly $7 billion. A recent joint venture between the government and the diamond giant De Beers is even bringing in some of the cutting and polishing work that used to be done in London, generating thousands of jobs. But Botswana has something essential Congo does not: a government known for being both functional and honest.

The Congo, one of the world’s richest countries, is also one of its poorest. To find out why, read Adam Hochschild’s special report here.

Click here to see a photo essay of Congo's Midas curse. 

war photo 032910

Airborne students exit the aircraft at 1,250 feet above the drop zone. Photo via the US Army.

[Ed note: You can find Tim's earlier installments in this series here, here, and here.]

After the kicked-up dust had settled in Searchlight (much of it on my glasses) and most of the RVs and pickups had started the long crawl back to civilization or suburbia, a few stragglers stuck around, in no real hurry to make an exit. I gravitated toward a group of friends from Arizona armed with a stack of signs urging a crackdown on illegal immigration. Two of them puffed on fat cigars—a nightcap on a victorious day.

I started asking questions just to get them talking, and it was clear they were used to arguing with each other. One of them, who was sporting a Crocodile Dundee-style desert hat, lobbed the first grenade. The problem with today's conservatives, he said, was that they wasted all their time talking about gay marriage and abortion, two things he couldn’t give a hoot about, personally. "That’s between a woman and her doctor," he said. "And marry whoever you want." At this his friend jumped in, "Well, it should be up to the states." "Right, the states," said Dundee. "Well, I guess that makes me a real bad conservative,” he added with a laugh.

I listened for a little while longer—about Abraham Lincoln’s socialist influences, mostly (Lincoln was apparently a big reader of Karl Marx)—and then left them to their cigars.

The Showdown in Searchlight just wrapped up, although things pretty much climaxed with the rousing chants of "Sa-Rah, Sa-Rah" as Sarah Palin finished her speech earlier. That’s when the event began to empty out—the subsequent list of speakers (Joe the Plumber, Angela McGlowan, distinguished musical guests) either offered standard boilerplate rhetoric, or they appealed to only a fraction of the attendees. (For instance, nearly every single one of Harry Reid's potential GOP challengers were given five minutes to make they case for why they disliked Searchlight's native son the most.)

Everyone said kind of the same thing, that is, except for Washington Times' Andrew Breitbart, who, as Andrew Breitbart is wont to do, fired a rather audacious salvo during his 10-minute address. Breitbart promised the audience he would donate $100,000 to the United Negro College Fund if anyone could come forward to verify John Lewis' assertion that protestors had called him the "N-word." It would also be fine with him, he said, if John Lewis would take a polygraph test (and pass). The assertion that Rep. Lewis simply made the whole thing up—or worse, that Democratic operatives planted the offending hecklers, was a recurring theme among the people I spoke with today (a few souls generously allowed that the Civil Rights icon may have simply misheard), but Breitbart really played it up. As he put it, by smearing health care opponents, "they’re calling us the n-word," Breitbart said. Yeah, totally.

With two hours to go before Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber et al. arrive, the place is packed. Cars are scattered over a dozen or so lots and attendees are trekking overland through a climate that roughly resembles Mordor, if Mordor were pockmarked with potentially fatal abandoned mines. It's a free-for-all here; it took 25 minutes to drive 30 feet from the highway shoulder on account of the unregulated, lanes-be-damned traffic chaos (you do the emissions math). Irate motorists are voicing their discontent. Look people, it's called liberty; deal with it.

In keeping with the "lost in the desert" theme, the Tea Partiers I've spoken with remain united in opposition but totally scattershot in how to set things right. One man suggests Paul Ryan. Another Scott Brown. And of course, Governor Palin. To them, the movement’s apparent contradictions aren't flaws; they're signs of free will. I asked a supporter of J.D. Hayworth, the talk show host who's challenging John McCain from the right (an increasingly difficult task) in Arizona's GOP primary, whether he was dismayed that his other hero, Palin, had endorsed the traitor McCain.

"We don’t march in lockstep," he responded. "We're not Democrats."

(Read part I, II, III)