Daily MoJo


Saddam Or Not Saddam?
Is Saddam alive? Is he dead? Is Washington ready to decide which is preferable?

Frankenfoods on Parade
The Bush USDA throws a world hunger summit. So why does it look like an agribusiness convention?

Fade to Black in Russia
The Kremlin shuts down Russia’s last independent television station.

Sharon’s True Colors?
Sharon veers back towards settlement expansion — in hushed tones, of course.

Saddam Or Not Saddam?
“It’s like Elvis. There’s a lot of sightings of him all over the place.”

— Jordan’s King Abdullah, on the recent increase in Saddam Hussein “sightings.”

If today is Tuesday, then Saddam must be alive. By tomorrow, maybe he’ll be dead again. Or so goes the thinking in Washington, which can’t seem to make up its mind whether it wants Saddam alive or dead.

Rumors of the deposed dictator’s whereabouts — is he walking the earth or six feet under it? — continue to swirl. Was he killed during the first minutes of the war? Or was he vaporized during air strikes on a convoy sprinting toward the Syrian border last week? Is he sitting on the beach in northern Syria, or hiding out in the “Sunni Triangle” north of Baghdad, sheltered by Ba’athist diehards and relatives?

The truth is anyone’s guess. Just yesterday, reports emerged suggesting that he had offered to surrender to US forces. On the Sunday talk shows, however, lawmakers speculated that Hellfire strikes on a fleeing convoy might have killed him and at least one of his sons. “I will not be surprised at any military action that would lead to the possibility that we have now finally killed Saddam Hussein,” Senator Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, told FOX News. Unnamed Pentagon officials also told reporters that Saddam may have been in the convoy.

As of this writing, however, no one knows who was in those speeding SUVs. It could have been the man himself; it could have been a collection of Ba’ath officials; it also could have been a convoy of innocent civilians. Only time, and DNA testing, will tell.

Senator Roberts notwithstanding, the most popular theory appears to be that Saddam is still on the lam in Iraq, providing inspiration to those willing to fight the American occupation. For a US administration mired in an increasingly nasty guerrilla war, this line of reasoning has a reassuring, if highly suspect, corrollary: Find Saddam, and the resistance will melt away. According to L. Paul Bremer, Baghdad’s new American viceroy, it’s not the lack of electricity, water, or security that’s turning Iraqis against the US. It’s Saddam’s lingering influence.

“‘The fact that we have not been able to prove conclusively that he is dead or capture him alive is an intimidating factor for some people in this country,’ he said on Tuesday.

‘It intimidates people into saying “we don’t want to cooperate because we are afraid the Baath is going to come back”.'”

Whatever the merits of Bremer’s argument, finding Saddam has proven extremely difficult. This report from the BBC helps explain why:

“But here in Tikrit, the graffiti on the main street says it all.

‘Saddam exists,’ it proclaims, ‘And you can’t buy Iraq with your dollars’. Bush and Blair get only curses.”

If Saddam disappears into the sands like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the London Independent‘s Andrew Buncombe notes, it could come back to haunt the Bush administration:

“In the run-up to the war, Mr Bush repeatedly highlighted Saddam as the cause of Iraqi suffering and the sole reason why the US and Britain were prepared to ‘disarm’ the regime. At times it became very personal. As far back as November 2001, Mr Bush said: ‘Saddam is evil.’ But as the war started and it became increasingly clear that Saddam might not be found, so the administration changed its language. Mr Bush’s spokesman said: ‘So clearly, the future or the fate of Saddam Hussein is a factor but … whether he is or is not alive or dead, the mission is moving forward, and the regime’s days are numbered.’

The shift in language represents an understanding at the White House that it cannot allow itself to be judged on whether Saddam is found. After the war in Afghanistan, the administration was criticised for failing to find either al-Qa’ida’s leader, Osama bin Laden, or the head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, having declared, in the case of Bin Laden, that he was wanted ‘Dead or alive’. For Saddam to appear on grainy videotape broadcast by an Arab news channel and vowing resistance to the US during the build-up to the presidential elections would be damaging politically and hugely embarrassing.

‘Saddam is the [Iraqi] regime personified,’ said Franois Boo, of the Washington-based military research group GlobalSecurity.Org. ‘It’s much easier to declare victory if you have captured the leader of the country and the person said to represent the major obstacle to rebuilding.’ The flip-side is the huge PR coup capturing Saddam would represent for Mr Bush and Mr Blair. The war on Iraq was always presented as a fight between good and evil with Saddam playing the part of the devil. If they could actually find him, both Mr Bush’s chances of securing re-election and Mr Blair’s of silencing Labour critics would receive a massive boost.”

Frankenfood Convention
The US Department of Agriculture is holding its first Conference on Agricultural Science and Technology in Sacramento, California this week. Representatives from over 100 countries are in attendance, according to Mike Lee of the Sacramento Bee, but outside the conference walls, over 130 groups are protesting. Protesters assert that the Bush administration’s policies on genetically modified (GM) foods encourage ecological degradation, unfair economic practices, and environmental racism, especially in developing countries, Duncan Campbell of London’s Guardian reports.

Europeans have rallied against GM foods for years, concerned that genetically engineered crops would threaten the diversity of European foods, thereby threatening local European cultures. Critics also worry that many GM seeds are made to encourage pesticide use, which affects the surrounding environment and human health. Studies have shown that wind can cause contamination non-GM crops, and could damage organic or heirloom crops. Protestors argue that the US’s drive to plant GM foods worldwide is simply a way of increasing large agricultural corporations’ access to world markets. Controversy raged recently when the US announced that it would be suing the European Union in WTO court because of the EU’s ban on GM exports to Europe.

The debate over genetically-modified edibles and technologies has now spread beyond the trans-atlantic split. The Bush administration says Europe’s refusal to accept GM crops is contributing to the widespread famine in Africa, prompting accusations of hypocrisy from European officials, like this one quoted by Lee:

“[Such] comments are unacceptable. It’s up to the countries in Africa to say what they will accept in food aid. … In any case, given the paltry contribution by the U.S. towards (Third World) development, they are not in the position to lecture us on moral grounds.”

African countries stand to gain the least from GM foods, writes Bianca Mugyenyi of Kampala, Uganda’s Monitor. Mugyenyi writes that GM seeds would further African dependence on US-based corporations. The crops’ low yields, potential environmental destruction, and increased food production costs would be of little benefit to small-scale African farmers. In St. Louis’, the Green Party’s Don Fritz echoes Mugyenyi’s assertions, citing a case where GM manufacturer Monsanto sued a nearby farmer whose fields had been contaminated by GM crops for violating a patent. And the current EU ban on GM crops severely limits the market for GM crops from Africa, he writes:

“African scientists know that wind can spread GM pollen across the continent. If that contaminates enough African crops, Europe would not buy them, leaving desperate farmers crushed.

African governments also know of the Percy Schmeiser case. If fields are contaminated by GM pollen and the next generation of corn tests positive for GM, farmers would become patents violators and owe technology fees to Monsanto and other biomasters. Massive impoverishment could cause the transfer of land throughout Africa.”

Despite Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman’s denials that the Bush administration has pro-corporation motives for either the current conference or the push to get GM crops into Africa, Mugyenyi’s reports that Bush’s corporate-friendly policies extend beyond the agriculture industry — and still do very little to help Africans.

“After all, it is the Bush administration that recently blocked access to life-saving generic drugs for poor nations at the World Trade Organisation. Even more telling, is the fact that this US aid is released on the condition that American exports of GM food are accepted!

Instead of calling for any more opening up of African economies or dumping genetically modified foods on our soil, G8 nations, if seriously concerned about the welfare of Africans, would eliminate Africa’s debt. Countries such as Uganda, which have experienced significant debt relief, have had more disposable resources to improve the lives of ordinary citizens, such as the fight against the Aids virus.”

Fade to Black in Russia
Russia’s last independent television network, TVS, was shutdown by the Kremlin at midnight on Saturday leaving its viewers with one final message, “Goodbye! We have been shut off.” Critics charge that the government-induced shutdown puts Russia one step closer to a totally nationalized media — reminiscent of the former communist USSR.

The TVS closure was officially attributed to its $60 million debtalong with a legal disputeover their license. But TVS reporters were notorious for hard-nosed reporting that was critical of the Kremlin — particularly its assault on Chechnya. Many reporters believe that the shutdown was largely politically motivated, and that it was spearheaded by the Putin administration and Russian big business in an effort to silencetheir biggest critics. Agence France Presse reports:

“It was curtains for Russia’s last private national television station TVS — a loss-making operation that tried desperately to stay afloat and needle a state media that has been kowtowing to President Vladimir Putin ahead of nationwide elections.

The TVS saga is characteristic of the drama and secrecy that envelopes much of Russia and the political and business elite that is now in charge.”

TVS’s editor, Yevgeny Kiselyov did not intend to step down quietly. He planned to host TVS’s last show on Sunday night, where he was planning to release“earthshattering information”about the Putin administration. But late Saturday night, the Press Ministry abruptly shutdown TVS — the night before Kiselyov’s show was to air.

Kiselyov’s expose couldn’t have come at a worse time for Moscow — with parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled to happen within the next year. According to AFP, Putin’s critics are convinced that the president and his administration expeditedthe closure process to prevent the ill-timed exposé:

“The press ministry ‘just could not wait’ to close the station, moving in before chief editor Kiselyov had a chance to speak on his weekly Sunday evening political talks show, said Vedomosti [a daily publication].

Kiselyov himself was quoted in the Russky Kuryer newspaper as saying that ‘everyone knows’ who is responsible for his station’s demise — a clear reference to the Putin administration.”

Furthermore, The Moscow Times’ Anna Dolgov points out that under Russian law, only the Russian courts are authorized to shutdown television channels — not the Putin administration:

“Critics brushed off the explanation as hypocritical and said the closure was illegal. Under the law, a television channel can be shut down only by a court decision, not a Press Ministry order, said Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations.

‘The authorities have achieved what they have wanted — to destroy Kiselyov’s team,’ Panfilov said. ‘They have been working at it for 3 1/2 years in a very consistent manner.’

Media-Sotsium, which holds TVS’s broadcasting license, said it would fight the Press Ministry decision. Media-Sotsium director Oleg Kiselyov told Ekho Moskvy radio that the ministry had no right to take TVS off the air over its financial problems.”

The TVS journalists, who have gone without pay for three months, are no novices to the fight for journalistic freedom. In 2001, they were muscled out of NVS, the largest liberal independent station, when the state-run gas company, Gazprom, bought out NVS. After the takeover, most of Kiselyov’s journalistic team fled to TV6. Shortly thereafter, TV6 closed due to financial problems and Kiselyov’s team formed TVS. Saturday’s early shutdown left the former TVS reporters unemployed — many of them heard about the shutdown on Russian radio stations, as they were on their way to work.

The Russian Press Ministry claims that the closure was “for the benefit of the audience.” (An all-sports channel is replacing TVS). But to the Russian people, the politicized message of the shutdown is clear — the opposition will be silenced. The Guardian’s Nick Paton Walsh reports:

“‘I do not know what I should do – laugh or cry,’ said the company’s director, Yevgeny Kiselyov, who heard of the decision in the media.

‘The channel might have closed for the most trivial financial reason, but by taking this step, they [the government] have added a political dimension to their decision.’

Sergei Ivanenko, first deputy head of the liberal Yabloko opposition party, said: ‘Everything that has happened once again proves that business and power are inseparable.'”

Sharon’s True Colors?
On Sunday, the Israeli Knesset had a heated debate about Israel’s little problem with Jewish settlements outside the 1967 border. George Bush’s roadmap calls for a full stop for settlement construction, in addition to the removal of all settlements built after Ariel Sharon took office in 2001. The Jerusalem Post reports that National Infrastructure Minister Yosef Paritzky suggested that settlers from the West Bank could be relocated to the Negev in southern Israel.

This comment caused a number of right-wing ministers to rush to the defense of the settlers — including Prime Minister Sharon. Several ministers dismissed the idea of relocation to the Negev and instead called for increased construction of larger settlements that are “within the consensus,” in other words, within the largest, most established settlements around Jerusalem that many Israelis feel should not be dismantled. This is despite the fact that even those settlements — even Ariel, the focus of the argument — are located in the West Bank (any expansion of the settlements would run counter to Bush’s roadmap). Sharon responded by urging his compatriots to quit drawing so much attention to themselves, saying that there was no need for a “celebration” each time a settlement project is tendered. But he still offered his approval of the idea of expansion, saying that instead of celebrating, we should, “just build.”

Back to this notion of Israeli “consensus” on the issue of settlement: there is nothing so clear as a real consensus, in Israel. Even a newcomer to Israeli politics can see that there is no universal agreement on the status of illegal settlements.

Monday’s editorial in Ha’aretz called attention to the fact that while soldiers were busy knocking down a whopping 10 token outposts, settlers were busy building replacements. Ha’aretz pointed out the government’s settlement doublespeak:

“It is shameful that an Israeli government has announced to the world that it has adopted a policy of getting rid of ‘unauthorized’ outposts — but in effect allows a group of civilians to make a mockery of its stated policies.”

But even such mild words from Ha’aretz are sure to anger much of Israel’s ultra-religious community. At a Jerusalem conference of the Rabbis’ Union for the People and Land of Israel, Rabbi Shalom Gold was already in a fury over the past week’s settlement removals. “We speak on behalf of the Jewish people — past, present and future. It is forbidden to give the land away,” he said. The rabbis wrote in a resolution:

“The terrible act of evacuating outposts is liable to lead to an all-out plan of uprooting settlements […] The government is under a biblical prohibition against evacuating any outpost or settlement.”

Such statements from Rabbi Gold don’t add up in secular Israel where a recent poll found that 59 percent of Israelis support a peace deal that excludes all but the largest settlements. Gold might be even more surprised to learn that Israeli support for unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza has increased to 56 percent this year — up from 49 percent in 2002. Further surveys by Israel’s center-left Peace Now movement show that many settlers would peacefully leave the Occupied Territories if their government passed legislation requiring them to go. (As a self-proclaimed spokesman for all Jews, Gold might benefit from reading such polls.)

But Prime Minister Sharon is backing further and further away from any real, substantial settlement removal. Despite the fact that he committed his government to following Bush’s precarious roadmap, Sharon continues to pay lip service to the settlers’ movement. On Sunday Sharon told Israel’s TV channel One that continuing settlement construction, ”isn’t part of the road map, it’s my personal commitment.”

We’ll have to see which Ariel Sharon is stronger; Bush’s pious “man of peace” or the settler’s frontman. Either way it looks like the settler cat and mouse game will continue while the real work of peace building is left undone.