Friday, June 30, 2006

nebulous Nebuchadnezzar

Nebuchadnezzar, as well as being an alternative name for Woolly Days, is probably more well known as a name for several Babylonian Kings. It was also the name of a black butler in Jules Verne’s novel Mysterious Island, the name of a hovercraft in the Matrix series as well as being a phenomenally supersized champagne bottle capable of holding 15 litres of bubbly. Saddam Hussein gave that name to a division of his republican guard. In its Italian form, Nabucco, it is an opera by Giuseppe Verdi. But of all the Nebuchadnezzars it is King Nebuchadnezzar II (alternatively Nebuchadrezzar or more properly still Nabuchodonosor) who has the highest historical acclaim.

He was the best known of the Chaldean rulers of Babylon and his reign lasted almost fifty years from 605BC to his death in 562BC. His main claim to fame was the building of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. He had the gardens built in 600BC to cheer up his homesick wife Amyitis from Medes (Medes is in modern Iran, whereas Babylon is in Iraq.) The gardens did not hang as such. The name is a mistranslation from the Greek word ‘kremastos’ which means ‘overhanging’ as in the case of a terrace or balcony.

Babylon, situated on the Euphrates River some 50km south of Baghdad, was the world’s first metropolis. The Babylonian kingdom and Babylon the city flourished under the rule of the famous King, Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC). Hammurabi is renowned as a law-giver. His code was the first known set of city regulations and definition for the organisation of a complex society. Babylon was, at many times, the largest city of the ancient world and probably the first city to achieve a population in excess of 200,000. Hammurabi’s dynasty lasted until 1595BC. Babylonia’s flat terrain made it easy for armies to invade. Wild mountain men from Persia called Kassites ruled the kingdom for a mere 600 years. It then became an Assyrian vassal state for another 200 years.

Nabopolassar was the first king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. He revolted after the great Assyrian king, Assurbanipal, self-styled “King of the World” died in 627 BC. Nabopolassar conquered the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, after a three-month siege in 612 BC. The Assyrians regrouped and allied themselves with the Egyptians to rejoin the war. In 605 BC an exhausted Nabopolassar died and the reigns of power passed to his son Nebuchadnezzar II (Nebuchadnezzar I was a Babylonian king 500 years earlier). The name means "May (the god) Nabu protect the son (crown)."

In the same year Nebuchadnezzar defeated the combined Assyrian-Egyptian army at Carchemish which finally gave him the Assyrian Empire. The victory also ended ancient Egypt’s role as a significant power. Among the Egyptian provinces he inherited was Palestine. Through this conquest, we know most about Nebuchadnezzar as he plays a prominent role in the Old Testament Book of Daniel. The book revolves around the figure of Daniel, an Israelite who becomes an advisor to Nebuchadnezzar. The Jewish state under Zedekiah rebelled against the Babylonians and were punished by a mass deportation.

Daniel records how Nebuchadnezzar now set himself the task of rebuilding the city of Babylon. He was a civic engineer building canals, aqueducts and reservoirs. He also expanded the empire defeating the Cimmerians, Scythians and putting down several rebellions in Palestine and Phoenicia. Daniel also describes how the king became acquainted with the Hebrew religion and the Jewish God Yahweh. The king’s mental incapacity for 7 years is known only from the Bible, since such misfortunes were rarely recorded by court officials. Some have described this incapacity as lycanthropy "the change of a man into a wolf".

Nebuchadnezzar recovered from his wolfman phase, and died aged 83 or 84 after a reign of forty-three years. He was succeeded by his son bearing the delightful name Evil-merodach (also known as Amel-Marduk). Nebuchadnezzar left a huge physical legacy. Archaeologist Sir H. Rawlinson said of him “nine-tenths of all the bricks amid the ruins of Babylon are stamped with his name.”

2,500 years later, the legend of Nebuchadnezzar was invoked by Saddam Hussein. Saddam described himself as Nebuchadnezzar's successor. He owned a replica of Nebuchadnezzar’s war chariot and had himself photographed standing in it. Saddam has compared himself to many other historical figures, but his preferred heroes are Nebuchadnezzar and Saladin. Of all the Iraqi empire-builders of antiquity only these two ever captured Jerusalem.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Rupert bare

Rupert Murdoch, 75, dropped a heavy hint today that he might throw his significant weight behind David Cameron’s Tories in the next UK election. He told his own Australian newspaper "We would like to see...a stand-off between Brown and Cameron so we can decide which of those most coincides with our views." The move has implications; Murdoch's The Sun has backed every British election winner since 1979.

News Corporation is one of the three largest international media groups, operating across most sectors in every continent. Its total assets as of March 31, 2006 was US$55 billion and has total annual revenues of approximately US$25 billion. Murdoch has massive influence in the British electoral system controlling the broadsheets The Times and the Sunday Times and the tabloids The Sun and the News of the World and the cable television station BSkyB with its 24 hour Sky News service.

Murdoch publishes 175 newspapers, including the New York Post. Other American properties he owns are Twentieth Century Fox, Fox Network (including Fox News), and 35 TV stations that reach more than 40% of the country. In a 2006 poll conducted by Reuters and the BBC, Fox News was named as the most trusted news source in the US with 11% of the vote. Which is a scary statistic if Robert Greenwald’s film “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism” is to be believed. Fox News has been heavily criticised for its right-wing bias with one voice on Outfoxed saying it was “a 24 by 7 paid commercial for the Republican Party”. It was the first station to call the 2000 presidential election in George W Bush’s favour and wore its pro-American stance proudly during the Iraq campaign.

Rupert Murdoch was born in Melbourne in 1931. His father Keith was one of the legendary figures in Australian journalism. Keith Murdoch got permission to travel to Anzac Cove in August 1915. His report on the mismanagement of the campaign convinced British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith that Gallipoli was a failure. Back in Australia, Keith became a powerhouse when he managed the Herald and Weekly Times Limited newspaper stablein Melbourne. He gained a reputation as a kingmaker whose imprimatur could decide elections. He used this power to stop the newly fledged ABC radio from forming an effective news desk until after World War II. Keith died suddenly in 1952. At the time young Rupert was studying in Oxford. He returned to Melbourne, aged 21, to step into his father’s massive shoes.

His first real job was control of the Adelaide News. He quickly established himself as a dynamic media proprietor and added a string of publications to his stable. His most significant early success was the purchase of the Daily Mirror which gave him a toehold in Sydney, the largest market. In 1964, he created Australia’s first national newspaper, The Australian. This broadsheet gave Murdoch a new respectability.

Murdoch was never just a newspaper man. He bought Festival Records as early as 1961 and he made money from it. It is now merged with Mushroom records under Murdoch ownership. His efforts to get into Australian TV were stymied by cross-media ownership laws. In Paul Keating’s words, Murdoch’s Australian empire would always see him be a Prince of Print rather than a Queen of the Screen.

By the late 1960s, Murdoch was starting to look abroad to further his ambitions. His family moved to Britain and in 1969 he made his first Fleet St purchase. He bought the Sunday newspaper The News of the World beating Robert Maxwell in an acrimonious year-long struggle. That same year he bought an ailing daily paper from the Mirror Group called The Sun. Murdoch immediately relaunched the newspaper as a tabloid, and ran The Sun and the News of the World as sister papers. They used the same printing presses and were managed by the same senior executive team. In 1970 The Sun introduced the concept of the Page Three girl. By 1978 it had replaced the Daily Mirror as Britain’s biggest selling paper. In 1986 Murdoch moved the entire London operation to Wapping where he defeated a journalists strike after a bitter one year struggle. From the papers’ profits, he moved into TV with the Sky satellite channel.

In the early 1970s, he made his first foray into the US market. He bought the Texan San Antonio news in 1973 and the 12th largest circulation paper in the US, the New York Post, in 1976. In 1985, Murdoch became a naturalised citizen to satisfy the legal requirement that only United States citizens could own American television stations. That same year he paid $250 million to buy 20th Century Fox movie studio. His company News Corp then agreed to pay $1.55 billion to acquire independent television stations in six major media markets. These first six stations, broadcasting to 22 percent of the US, became known as the Fox Television Stations Group. Fox was launched in 1986, using the combined resources of the movie studio and new stations. It was broadcast to 96 stations reaching more than 80 percent of the nation's households.

The scale of his empire grew exponential in the nineties. In Asia he is pinning his hopes on Star TV. In 2003, Rupert Murdoch told a congressional panel that his use of "political influence in our newspapers or television" is "nonsense." But critics have suggested that a close look at the record shows Murdoch has imprinted his neoconservative agenda throughout his media empire.

Forbes Magazine currently list Murdoch as the 28th richest person in the world with a personal fortune of $5 billion. Unlike Warren Buffett, Murdoch has no plans to give it all away. A report in today’s Australian says he would prefer to "make a difference" through the social and political influence afforded by his international media empire. "Our assets are not there for the money, our assets are there to try and make a difference as a media company," he said.

In other words, his voracious appetite for acquiring shiny new things is showing no signs of slowing down. The only question now is who will inherit the empire. Second son James Murdoch is now favourite after eldest son Lachlan surprisingly resigned from his executive positions at News Corporation in 2005. James is a director at BSkyB and is likely to lead the drive further into internet and other new media.

For now, Rupert remains healthy and at the reins of control. His entry on MySpace, the online community he bought for $580 million in 2005, describes him as the "Dirty Digger". Thus he reclaims the insult that Auberon Waugh called him in Private Eye.

Lets leave the most pertinent details of Rupert to his myspace entry:
Gender: Male
Status: Married
Age: 74
Sign: Virgo

Virgo: The Mutable Earth sign associated with precision and detail--reading the fine print. Ah, now it makes sense why Murdoch is not a man to mess with when it comes to contracts!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Road to War

Monaghan is a beautiful rugged county in the North of Ireland. It is in Ulster, but politically part of the Republic of Ireland. That’s about as political as Monaghan gets. Until the Iraqi war, that is. In 2003, the New York Monaghan association decided not to carry its traditional banner in the St Patrick’s Day parade. The reason given was that the banner carried an outline map of Monaghan and it bears a striking resemblance to the map of Iraq. A spokesman for the association said, “it came as quite a surprise to us that Monaghan and Iraq had basically the same outline shape. We had been receiving some jeers and comments as we assembled for the parade in New York and we couldn't understand why.”

Easy to get confused. As one observer noted, “according to the National Geographic Society, most Americans could not find the North Pole on a globe. It comes as quite a surprise to me that they are able to notice the similarity of map shapes.” But perhaps Americans can be forgiven for recognising the outline shape of Iraq. It has appeared on the nightly news in a continuous fashion over the last five years. Not much of note has happened in Monaghan in that time so it’s unlikely anyone outside the county itself is aware of its shape. However a question does have to be asked why were New Yorkers jeering these extremely pale-faced and possibly red-headed Iraqis they thought were marching in the St Patrick’s Day parade?

A clue might be in the timing. These events occurred on 17 March, 2003. The invasion of Iraq, "Operation Iraqi Freedom", was launched three days later on 20 March, 2003. The US had determined that Iraq illegally possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and had to be disarmed by force. They argued these weapons was a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1441. Resolution 1441 had been adopted by the UN in November 2002. It was the UN’s 17th resolution on Iraq and it stated that Iraqi WMDs and long-range missiles posed a threat to international security. It gave Iraq a month to comply with a laundry list of demands relating to weapons sites and atomic energy inspections. The inspections were to be carried out by UNMOVIC and IAEA (the atomic energy commission). The resolution offered Iraq “a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations”. And if they rejected this final opportunity, “serious consequences” were promised.

By March 2003 four months had passed and Iraq continued to prevaricate. The US, supported by Britain felt that 1441 had now given them a mandate to invade. France and Germany disagreed. France, Russia and China planned to use their veto powers to block any resolution allowing military intervention. Of the 10 temporary members, only Bulgaria and Spain were in favour of unilateral military action. The others were intimidated by the US into supporting their position or risk financial sanctions. The Bush administration described a 40 member ‘Coalition of the Willing’ ready to invade Iraq. It can more properly be described as the coalition of the coerced. Countries were badgered militarily, politically or economically into providing support. Bulgaria promised support in return for NATO membership and developmental aid. Guinea and Angola were bribed with ‘preferential access to US markets.’ Mexico was bought with a threat to end tariff reform in the NAFTA market, Chile by a Free Trade Agreement. Pakistan had received over a billion dollars from the US since its support in the Afghan war. The campaign was backed up by a surveillance operation on Security council diplomatic communications.

On 5 February State Secretary Colin Powell presented the case for invasion to the Security Council. The supposed ‘smoking gun’ evidence did not emerge but Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued that if the US waited for a smoking gun, it would be too late. UN Chief weapon Inspector Hans Blix reported a week later questioning the interpretations of the satellite images put forward by Powell. The war opposers started to put together an 18th resolution on Iraq. The US did not want this. They argued 1441 gave the war legitimacy. The war started without a further resolution, which was seen by many governments throughout the world as a breaking of international law. There remains considerable disagreement among international lawyers on whether prior resolutions, relating to the 1991 war and subsequent inspections, permitted the invasion.

Baghdad fell two months later.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Tuesday Therapy

One of the more spectacular failures dreamt up by a marketing department in recent years was the short-lived plan to rename audit firm Price Waterhouse Cooper (PwC) to “Monday”.

The company’s rationale was to connect Monday with fresh thinking and new ideas. “Sharpen your pencil” commanded their slogan. It continued with other snappy orders, “iron your crispy white shirts, set the alarm clock, relish the challenge, listen, be fulfilled, make an impact, take a risk," Unsurprisingly, the plan was met with universal derision. Monday? You’ve got to be kidding. The idea quickly collapsed in a screaming heap and PwC quietly dropped the idea.

Although I didn’t sharpen a pencil yesterday or iron a crispy white shirt, I did have to set the alarm to get up. Monday was a first day back in work after taking two weeks off to enjoy the late-night footballfest. These World cup midnight oils are addictive. By contrast England v Ecuador on Sunday night was supposedly a cure for insomnia but even here the sight of a vomiting David Beckham made up for the poor quality of the play. What would the marketers make of that? Monday night would be Australia’s time in the midnight sun. In the office, I noticed an incredible transition has occurred while I was away. Everyone was basking in the glow of a sporting success story. Tearoom conversation was all about Graham Poll’s cards, Brett Emerton’s suspension and Ned Zelic’s slouch. Someone wanted to know why the Italians are called the Azzurri. Harry Kewell’s groin was getting an unhealthy, almost forensic attention. In short, a bandwagon had come calling while I was away.

There was even giddy talk that once we beat Italy, Switzerland or Ukraine will be a push-over in the quarter finals. It was all too much. It had little to do with football and everything to do with national pride. I fled the office early. There was no respite on TV as all stations went into adrenalin overdrive and pushed the Aussie hyper-hype.

I decided that some radical pre-game therapy was needed and went to the Dendy Cinema in the city to see Michael Haneke’s Caché (Hidden). Almost ten years ago I saw a Haneke film called ‘Funny Games’ in which the director played tricks with time that kept the audience in a whirl of uncertainty. ‘Hidden’ takes this fooling with time to new levels. The plot is straightforward. A wealthy French couple’s lives are thrown into doubt and fear after they received a package of videos that shows they are under surveillance. They do not know who send them or why. Their lives are disrupted simply because someone is watching them. The film is all about frames and images, what we see and what we miss, what is real and what is fake, what is open and what is hidden. It perplexed me greatly and absolutely demands a second viewing.

At the very least it took my mind right off the big game until close to midnight. I walked over to the Pig and Whistle where the queue stretched down the street. I phoned a friend inside who pulled a favour with management to get me in. The place was packed. The crowd was filled with a belligerent Aussie pride. In the toilets I was asked ‘who did I think would win?’ I replied ‘well, my heart says Italy…” I meant to say ‘head’ and was immediately picked up. ‘Your heart?’ he replied angrily. “er…yes” The mistake wasn’t worth correcting and I quickly made myself scarce.

Fans gathered in front of the big screen and shouted their Aussie chants. When the recurring Nike ad came on with the craggy cranky character known as “History” taunting the Aussie players, the crowd shouted at the screen “Fuck off History, fuck off history” (unlike PwC, the swooshtika marketing boys at Nike are very clever indeed). The Italian anthem was booed and the Australian one was sung ferociously, off-key. Harry Kewell is shown on crutches wearing civvies. I guess he won’t be playing then. Then further disaster, TV loses the picture from Germany. Australia’s biggest game ever and for 54 seconds we are reduced to an image of the World Cup symbol and radio commentary. No-one knows where to look. The picture returns to a rapturous roar of approval.

Although Australia passed the ball around smartly, the Italians take the early ascendancy. Fiorentina striker Luca Toni (the first person to score 30 goals in a Serie A season in almost 50 years) should have scored with a header after just four minutes. He passes up three more good chances in the first half and the recalled Mark Schwarzer has to make a few smart saves. There are slim pickings at the other end with only one Scott Chipperfield effort forcing a response from Italian goalkeeper Gigi Buffon. Italy were slick and it look only a matter of time before the Azzurri (so called because they play in blue, the colour of the ruling house of Italy from 1861 to 1946) would strike lucky.

The second half started much like the first, the Australians fast and aggressive, the Italians determined, patient and economical. Then a flashpoint. Marco Materazzi fouls fellow Marco, Bresciano of Australia. The ref pulls out a red card. Italy are down to 10 men with 40 minutes to play. Immediately the Italians withdraw in their shells and the Aussies can smell blood. But a 20 period of intense pressure is superbly handled by the Italian defence marshalled by Fabio Cannivaro. Italy begin to look more dangerous again. The game fizzles out towards extra time. Then in the third minute of injury time, the Italians launch a hopeful ball for Fabio Grosso to chase down. He hoodwinks his way into the box past Bresciano. Neill lunges out to challenge and Grosso falls over his trailing knee. Penalty.

Francesco Totti is the coolest man on the field and he waits a seeming eternity before planting his kick wide of Schwarzer’s despairing dive. 1-0 and that’s it. Not even time for the re-start. Pins can be heard plummeting in the pub before a mass plaintive groaning as it begins to dawn on people that its all over. At 3am Tuesday, the wheels have fallen off the bandwagon. The crowd heads home wearily to watch Wimbledon. Tomorrow’s papers will see ‘Pies Injury Woes’ return to backpage headlines. And the football aficionados can return to the relative quiet of the quarter finals minus Australia.

Bring on Germany v Argentina.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Battle of Algiers

Foxtel World Movies showed one of the great films about war last night. It was Gillo Pontecorvo’s La Battaglia di Algeri known in English as “Battle of Algiers”. It tells a dispassionate story of the Algerian War of Independence from France which lasted from 1954 to 1962. The film was shot on location in Algiers in 1966 and because the wounds were still raw, it was banned in France for many years after. The war itself was one of the bloodiest seen in Africa. More than 1.5 million Algerians died in the struggle. The French lost over 27,000 soldiers, and over 4,000 civilians.

In the 1950s France was reluctantly divesting itself of empire. They lost Vietnam at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The North African protectorates of Tunisia and Morocco both gained independence in 1956. However, Algeria, sandwiched between them, was more important than a protectorate. It was legally considered to be a department of the French Republic. It had a large population of French settlers, mainly in the coastal towns. So when the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) started a guerrilla campaign against the French in 1954, it was met with fierce resistance. The then interior minister François Mitterrand rejected peace talks with the FLN and said "the only possible negotiation is war”.

Initially the FLN campaign was restricted to country areas where the army presence wasn’t as strong. Many refugees fled to the capital Algiers to escape the violence. Eventually the war followed them. I say ‘war’ but it was not a match of equals and the conflict more properly resembles what would now be called an ‘insurgency’. The tactics on both sides were brutal and terrorism was a vital part of FLN’s strategy as well as that of the French response.

The film Battle of Algiers covers the conflict from the time it hits the capital until 1960 when Algeria was on the verge of independence. With chilling accuracy it shows the tactics used and how the war escalated. The film is remarkably even-handed. Although Pontecorvo (a member of the Italian Communist Party) was undoubtedly sympathetic to the Algerians, he is not afraid to show the devastating effects of their bombs in French cafes as well as giving the French army a fair portrayal.

The FLN campaign had three strategies. Firstly there was the guerrilla campaign against French police and military. Secondly there was the persuasion, and in some cases coercion, of the local population to accept their leadership. The third strategy was the manipulation of international opinion. They convinced Arab League and Communist countries to lobby the UN for their recognition as the national government of Algeria. One of the film scenes show a general strike and the FLN leadership see this strike as a way of the UN gauging the strength of the revolution.

By 1957, the year of the strike, the FLN marshalled 40,000 fighting troops. As well as fighting the French they also had to deal with a rival Algerian group the MNA (Mouvement National Algérien) which had greater support among émigré Algerians in France. In the spring of 1957 there was three bombings each month and over 800 shootings. The paratroopers were brought in from Indochina to restore the peace. They were led by brigade general Jacques Massu ("Colonel Mathieu" in the film) Although the film shows him as cultured and elegant, he systematically rooted out and destroyed the FLN leadership using torture and mass punishment.

In the film, Colonel Mathieu holds a press conference where a captured FLN leader holds court. A Parisian journalist asks the revolutionary, "do you not consider it cowardly to send your women carrying bombs in their handbags, to blow up civilians?" The rebel replies "do you not think it cowardly to bomb our people with napalm?" He continued "give us your airplanes and we will give you our women and their handbags."

The power of the film is still massive. It is often seen as a textbook for emerging nations and remains a controversial dissertation on the nature of terrorism. In 2003, the Pentagon held a showing of the film for 40 officers and “experts” in order to gain insight into the nature of guerrilla warfare, insurgency and the efficacy of brutal state response.

The duration and savagery of the revolution caused major ramifications in France. The fourth republic collapsed in 1958 and De Gaulle was brought in to lead the country and reach a settlement with Algeria. Although the army had defeated the FLN, opposition grew among the Algerian population and France came under increasing international pressure to come to a settlement. De Gaulle realised the futility of continued French action and full independence was finally achieved in 1962 after referendums in France and Algeria.

Algeria was admitted as the UN’s 109th member in October 1962. Ahmed Ben Bella was elected as the country’s first premier in the same year. He declared Algeria would be a neutral country and aligned itself with Cuba. Che Guevara visited the country in occasion during these heady early days. It didn’t last. Ben Bella was deposed in 1965 and Algeria became a military dictatorship under strongman Houari Boumédienne.

The events are prophesised in the film. Two of the leaders of the revolution are talking about the difficulties of rebellion. One of them says “it is difficult to start a revolution, more difficult still to keep it going and most difficult of all to win it. And when you’ve won, only then does the real work start.” Pontecorvo is now 86 years old and although made another nine films since Algiers, none have matched this early work for its honesty, breathtaking vision and undeniable sense of history in the making.

The "Battle of Algiers" is a masterpiece.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Schonell closes down

Brisbane has lost another another cultural icon. The best independent cinema in the city closed down yesterday. Saturday June 24 was the last showing day at the Schonell Theatre on the University of Queensland campus in the Brisbane suburb of St Lucia. The cinema held free sessions all day to commemorate its passing. The Schonell will remain open in the short-term at least for theatrical events.

The cinema was founded in 1970. Throughout its 36 year operation it specialised in screening world movies, alternative films and documentaries. They showed independent cinema that would never have been shown at the multiplexes. Student Union president Lucy Weber says the closure is "heart-breaking", but unavoidable, as other union services for students must take priority over cinema screenings. The cinema has not made a profit since the 1980s. The theatre had undergone a $3.3 million facelift as recently as 2004.

The cinema was run by the UQ student union and was shut as a result of funding cuts due to VSU. VSU is Voluntary Student Unionism, controversial legislation brought in by the Howard federal Government in 2005. Prior to this, Australia had Universal Student Unionism, where Universities charged all enrolled students a set of fees, such an Amenities and Services fee, and those fees go toward important student services and the student unions. VSU is the abolition of universities' ability to charge fees for student services that are not academically related. The Government rationale is that VSU means freedom of choice. But the ulterior motive of VSU was to weaken the power of university union groups which are predominantly controlled by Labor and leftist groups. The end result is that campus social services subsidised by the student union bodies such as legal aid, child care and cinemas are shut down.

When it came to a vote for closure, members of the UQ Liberal Club and independents had supported the Schonell cinema continuing to trade but the vote to close the venue was carried by the Labor majority on the student union in order to make funds available for other priorities such as student advocacy, representation and welfare. The Liberals claimed the financial records actually showed the Schonell breaking even. This is denied by the Labor majority.

The Schonell is not the only Brisbane cinema to pass into history in recent times. The city's last single screen cinema, the Chermside Dawn, which opened in 1928, closed last August. It followed the demise of other single screen cinema in the last ten years such as the Crystal at Windsor, the Civic at Gaythorne and the Classic at East Brisbane.

It isn’t that people no longer go to cinemas. The Australian Bureau of Statistics figures suggest that cinema is still the most popular cultural activity in the land. Australia has 2000 cinema screens (triple the number of screens 20 years ago) and box-office takings this year ($373 million to date) up almost 15 per cent for the same time last year.

But it is the multiplexes and the slick operations of the independent chains such as Dendy and Palace that are making the money. Later this year, Dendy will open a five-screen cinema complex in the Portside development on the Brisbane River at Hamilton. Dendy Films based in NSW specialises in world cinema. Palace spread from their Victoria base and also have their own film company which has financed Australian films such as Rolf de Heer’s highly acclaimed Ten Canoes. These smaller chains rely on their distribution arm to survive. Schonell could never compete on this level.

Schonell’s final screening was the documentary Cunnamulla by ex-UQ alumni Dennis Rourke. It was Schonell’s biggest ever earner and a suitable way to finish. The documentary ends with a statement about the town being at the end of the railway line. Now the Schonell has reached the end of its line. It will be sadly missed.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Whalers

Pro-whaling countries won a major victory this week when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) declared to return to its “original mission as a body to regulate whaling”.

The controversial and tight vote (passed by 33 votes to 32) does not mean an immediate return to commercial whaling; it needs a three-quarters majority for that. But is it a definite declaration of intent that calls for the eventual lift of the twenty-year global suspension on whaling. The vote was held in its annual meeting in the tiny Caribbean island nation of St Kitts Nevis.

The IWC also voted on other matters such as increasing its numbers from 66 to 70. There are some odd member countries. The group of 70 includes the Marshall Islands and the meeting hosts St Kitts Nevis neither of which has a whaling tradition. It could be argued they have vested interests as coastal nations. Odder still are Mali and Mongolia, neither of which has a coastline at all. It would be safe to say that their delegates enjoyed a few days in the Caribbean. Canada is oddest of all as it is not a member. It conducts modest whaling outside the sanctions of the IWC. New Zealand has criticised Japan, the leading pro-whaler still working within the commission, for vote-buying among the smaller members. But there are two steady blocs within the commission. Voting in the conference on all other issues were close. Barely two votes separated any issue and nothing carried unanimously. The closeness is reflected in the organisation; The US is chair and Japan is vice chair.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark accused Japan of “driving a wedge through the Pacific” by spending big among the small islands. The Solomon Islands voted for Japan and their opposition wants Fisheries Minister Nollen Leni sacked for defying a cabinet decision to abstain. French Polynesia meanwhile claims its vote with the anti-whalers could ensure they have whaling tourist dollars thrown at them instead.

Japan placed a peculiar item on the agenda called “normalising the IWC” which was voted down because no-one could agree what normalising meant. Japan want to make it normal because, to use their words, it is dysfunctional. Their argument is that the IWC is too busy being a stage for conflicts to have time to be a resource management organisation. They, and their allies believe that there is a place to allow more sustainable whaling than is currently allowed. Japan has a permit to kill the smaller minke and fin whales (aka lesser rorquals) for research. Iceland has something similar. Aboriginals in Alaska and the Indonesian island of Lembata are allowed to hunt for cultural reasons; they get a “subsistence allowance”.

Iceland has cultural and aboriginal reasons too, It was one of the last big islands to be inhabited by humans. Norwegians arrived there in the 9th century and whaling quickly became a crucial source of industry and rare source of food on the barren island. The age and importance is reflected in the Icelandic word “hvalreki” which means both "beached whale" and "jackpot".

Harpooning of whales by hand began in Japan 800 hundred years ago. The Basques dominated the field in Europe. But it was the Americans who turned it into mass production from their base in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Between the 1812 War and the US civil war, Nantucket was by far the biggest whaling town in the world. Inevitably it overfished and turned Moby Dick into a white ghost. The discovery of petroleum drove the price of whale oil down and Nantucket died too.

Opponents argue the we will have hit the hvalreki for the last time unless whaling is banned entirely. In 1994, Australia legalised their theoretical 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around the Australian Antarctic Territory. One of the rationales used was that it would thwart the Japanese whaling program. However, Antarctic territories are not generally recognized internationally and Australia did not make an issue out of it. The Treaty of the Antarctic says that "Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes". Australia knew that they couldn't be seen as the first to break ranks in that powerful group. The treaty will come under increasing strain anyway as access to resources becomes increasingly thin this century.

The strain on whales remains here and now. No human knows what they think of it all. They still sing but might be mourning their luck that our factory ships are now bigger than they are. Time will remember whether they are a "sustainable resource" or not.

Friday, June 23, 2006

a solution for Somalia?

Somalia is a basket case in the Horn of Africa. On Thursday June 22, Somalia's president and the Islamist leaders who have taken control of the capital Mogadishu agreed to recognise each other after a meeting in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. That possibly means they'll just shake hands next time they meet.

Somalia is a de jure state. De jure is Latin for in principle. It means Somalia has no recognized central authority or government nor any other feature associated with an established independent state. De facto authority is spread across various warlords as well as at least two unrecognised countries in Somaliland and Puntland.

Over a thousand years ago, Muslim Arabs and Persians established trading posts along Somalia's coast. Mogadishu was established as a trading station. It was a significant spot on the gap between the Red and the Arabian seas. Egypt dominated the area until the 1870s until the British based in Aden parted the Red Sea and turned Somalia into a colonial protectorate. The Italians held their bit of Somalia called unimaginative Italian Somaliland. They also held Ethiopia in a dress rehearsal for the Second World War. In 1940 Mussolini’s troops invaded British Somaliland across the border from Ethiopia. The invasion force was 175,000 strong and easily overwhelmed the defence force. Churchill, worried that the territory had been abandoned without a fight, criticized General Wavell head of Middle East Command, for the rapid defeat of the Commonwealth forces. Wavell countered that this was a textbook withdrawal in the face of superior numbers and said to Churchill, “A bloody butcher’s bill is not the sign of a good tactician.” It was the only campaign the Italians won unaided in World War II.

Their glory didn’t last long. Barely a year later, a South African led amphibious invasion took next door Italian Somaliland. They took Eritrea a month later before British Somaliland fell after a seaborne assault staged from Aden. The force moved on to take Ethiopia. Under pressure from the US, the British signed an agreement with Haile Selassie acknowledging Ethiopian sovereignty in January 1942.

Somaliland remained British territory. It finally gained independence as the State of Somaliland on 26 June 1960. Within a few days it united with Italian Somaliland to form a new Somali Republic on 1 July 1960. The new united nation was renamed Somalia.

On the same day representatives of the two territories elected Dr Aden Abdullah Osman, ex Italian Somali president), to be the first President of the new combined Republic. In the 1960s the government was confronted with a poorly developed economy and a nationalist movement that wanted to see a “Greater Somalia” of Issa people encompassing the Somali-dominated areas of Kenya, French Somaliland (now Djibouti), and Ethiopia. The nomadic existence of many Somali herders and the ill-defined frontiers worsened the problem. Somalia and Ethiopia went to war in 1964, and Kenya became involved as conflict dragged on to 1967. French Somaliland voted to continue their association with France. In 1969, President Abd-i-rashid Ali Shermarke was assassinated. The new ruler was Major General Mohammed Siad Barre. The major general set up a one party state with strong ties to the Arab League and the Soviet bloc.

The Soviets, however backed the other horse Ethiopia in a border squabble with Somalia. The war was fought in a desert called Ogaden. Although Ethiopia repulsed a Somalian invasion, the war dragged on until a peace accord in 1988. Ogaden remains a Somali populated area of Ethiopia. The effects of the war combined with drought has caused massive famine.

Warfare among rival factions within Somalia intensified. The regime of Siad Barre was ousted in January 1991; turmoil, factional fighting, and anarchy have followed in the years after the major general. That same year northern clans declared an independent Republic of Somaliland (believing themselves the inheritors of British Somaliland). Although not recognized by any government, it has maintained a stable existence, aided by a secure ruling clan and economic infrastructure left behind by overseas military assistance. The British are unsurprisingly favourable to this entity as an ex-colony. In 2004, the British Minister for African Affairs, Chris Mullin, on a visit there, told BBC Somali Service that "the Republic of Somaliland fulfils all the criteria for recognising states".

In Mogadishu, Mohammed Ali Mahdi was proclaimed president by one group and Mohammed Farah Aidid by another, as fighting between rival factions continued. Civil war and the worst African drought of the century created a devastating famine in 1992, resulting in a loss of some 300,000 lives. The UN brokered a ceasefire. In 1992, a mostly American military force attempted to restore political stability and establish free and open food-aid routes by protecting ports, airports, and roads in a high media profile action. A Somali ambush killed 23 Pakistani peacekeepers. In retaliation, US forces tried and failure to capture Aidid and 18 US troops and several thousand Somalies were killed in what became known as the Battle of Mogadishu.

As a result, the UN withdrew its forces in 1995. Matters were complicated further in 1998 when a north eastern region declared itself an autonomous state under the name of Puntland. Unlike Somaliland, it does not seek outright independence from Somalia.
Southwestern Somalia has also broken away in a similar fashion but again has not asked for complete independence.

Back in what was left of Somalia, clan elders and other senior figures appointed Abdulkassim Salat Hassan president at a 2000 conference in Djibouti. A transitional government was set up but could not unite the country. In 2004 after the mandate of the previous government expired, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, a former leader of Puntland, was chosen by Somalia's interim parliament as the country's new president. The new government is the 14th attempt since 1991 but has no civil service or government buildings. Their task is made harder now that Islamists control much of the south including Mogadishu after their militias kicked out warlords who had ruled for 15 years.

Arab League diplomats are now trying to reconcile Somalia's transitional government with the Islamicists in Mogadishu. They met representatives from both sides this week. However, discussions between the two parties were yet to take place. The world waits for Somalia to get its collective act together. However suspicion of Somali links with global terrorism further complicates the picture.

If a new national government takes power in Somalia, it would be much easier to arrest and deport terror suspects. The current situation hasn't stopped Mogadishu from getting first class telecommunicates systems. Somalia is unique in that it constitutes the sole existing case in which a country has continued to exist in spite of 15 years of continuous statelessness. Another major issue is the status of Somaliland. Puntland and the others in the Somali split don't want full statehood; Somaliland is the only one who does. The issue of their recognition is crucial to stability in the tinderbox region. British support may be a crucial factor.

But in the meantime until the world decides the country is ready, clan rules apply in a billion dollar economy.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Da Vinci codicil

Having waited till the hype died down, Woolly Days went to see the Da Vinci Code at Stafford cinema on Tuesday night. The session was sparsely attended.

I did not have high hopes for this film. Enough reviews had slated it and the book was ludicrous. A 153 minute running time didn’t impress either. Just about the only good reason to see it was the Catholic Church had advised people not to. Nevertheless I enjoyed it. The Da Vinci Code was so bad it was hilarious. Unintentionally hilarious. The film took itself very, very seriously.

It was trying to match the book. Back in 2003 Dan Brown published The Da Vinci Code. It was an instant winner and sold over 60 million copies in over 40 languages. You cannot make this sort of money without interesting Hollywood. TV tried to buy it but Sony Pictures paid eventually paid $6 million for the movie rights. The budget was an estimated $125 million. Despite the critics, the film has managed to make some profit (grossed $145 million to the end of May in the US alone) thanks to the connections to the book and the massive advertising hype prior to the release date. Ron Howard was brought in to direct the film. He is a competent director but he was clearly too starry-eyed about the prospect of directing a “masterpiece”.

Brown’s book was based on the British 1982 book “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail”. That book traced the thousand year history of a mysterious cabal called the Priory of Sion. The priory is a hoax, perpetrated in the 1950s and 60s by a pretender to the throne of France called Pierre Plantard. Plantard used this ficticious organisation to advance his own claims that he was descended from the Merovingian kings of France. He died in 2000 without achieving any success from the myths. But others would profit. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail was also a bestseller in its day and tried unsuccessfully to cash in on Dan Brown's success when it sued for plagiarism in 2004.

Tom Hanks and Audrey Tatou have the lead roles in the movie. Both sleepwalk their way through their misadventures. It’s the only rest they seem to get as they cope without sleeping, eating or drinking in their 48 hour dash across France and Britain. Ian McKellen twinkles mysteriously and overacts monstrously as the Grail expert Teabing. Jean Reno gets to shrug gallicly on occasion as well keeping alive the stereotype of blundering French policemen. And Paul Bettany goes on a recruitment drive for Opus Dei as a common-or-garden self-flagellating, cilice-wearing, killer albino monk.

The plot is the unravelling of a secret that “could shake the foundations of Christianity.” Gasp! A curator is murdered in the Louvre, Robert Langdon (Hanks), a sleepy semiotician, is implicated (he should have read the signs!) and Sophie Neveu (Tatou) is conveniently both a cop who is an expert on signs as well as the granddaughter of the murdered man.

Before he died, the curator leaves a coded message in his blood which only the combined knowledge of Langdon and Neveu can interpret. It leads them to a key which opens a safety deposit box in a Paris bank. They then hitch a lift on a bank security van to the property of Sir Leigh Teabing (McKellan) who has a vested interest of his own in the dastardly secret. He takes them to London where the police are just as bungling as the French. The film even shows a rerun of the fugitives escape for those of us, like the Police, too dumb to work it out the first time.

The murderer is revealed as Silas, the hitman monk who works for the Catholic CIA, better known as Opus Dei. The Spanish priest and recently canonised Josemaría Escrivá founded the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei, commonly known as Opus Dei (Latin for "The Work of God") in 1928. Their central teaching is "ordinary life is a path to sanctity.” It is difficult to see much sanctity in the work of Bettany’s mad monk or Raul Julia’s sinister bishop.

Their adventures take them to the Temple Church and Westminster Abbey and a showdown with all the key participants. Silas and his cilice are bumped off and PC Plaude arrives to sort out the mess, arrest the crims and tell us how it was solved, very much in the manner of Scooby Doo. There an epilogue at Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland where the members of the Priory of Sion mysteriously arrive to greet their newest ‘leader’…Sophie Christ.

All the while they travel, Langdon and Neveu plod their way tediously through the ever decreasing circles of the conspiracy. Expensive CGI imagery takes us back on a guided walking tour to the Crusades, middle age London and the bible.

Catholics have protested about the revision of their Church history. Perhaps the Chinese, in their infinite wisdom, have shown the best taste. They have banned the film. No official reasons have been given. An anonymous source says China's propaganda department has warned media outlets "not to comment, discuss the film, or even mention the name of the movie in any form in print." I don't recall Falon Gong being implicated in the conspiracy.

Anyone who hasn't read Brown's novel will probably be confused about the ponderous story, and anyone who has will be equally bored, since the film offers nothing new to Brown's plot. Why the Catholic Church is so upset over such turgid rubbish is beyond belief. Monty Python’s Holy Grail was more believable and more deliberately funny.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006


January 27, 2006 was the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart. Recordings of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's music have sold more copies than any other composer in history. As Einstein once said “Mozart is the greatest composer of all. Beethoven created his music, but the music of Mozart is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely found it - that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed.”

Mozart was born in 1756 in Salzburg. He was baptised Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Gotlieb Mozart. Mozart dropped the St. John Chrysostom (the saint name day for January 27) from his name. Gotlieb is German "beloved of God"; in Latin, Amadeus and so in later life he restyled his name as Wolfgang Amadeus.

Salzburg was then the capital of the Archbishopric of Salzburg, an ecclesiastical state in the Holy Roman Empire (a loose confederation that was neither Holy, Roman nor an Empire.) Salzburg was secularised in 1803 and was annexed to Austria three years later. After a brief period of Napoleonic and Bavarian rule it became Austria’s newest Länder (province). The last bishop of Salzburg with princely authority was Hieronymus Von Colloredo, a contemporary and patron of Mozart.

Salzburg is located on the banks of the Salzach river under the shadow of the Alps. The town was founded by the Romans who prized it for the salt deposits which gave the city its name. The four extant salt mines are now major tourist attractions. Tourists also visit for its graceful baroque architecture, especially the great cathedral, the Hohensalzburg and other buildings in the altstadt, or "old town". But the main attraction is Mozart. “Mozart’s Geburtstaghaus” at 9 Getreidegasse is now the epicentre of the attraction with cafes lining the streets and nearby squares. He was one of only two children to survive infancy born of Leopold and Anna Maria Mozart. The other surviving sibling was his elder sister Maria Anna known as “Nannerl”. Five years older than Wolfgang, she was also a musician not quite as gifted as her brother.

Their father Leopold was a leading music teacher whose well-received textbook “Essay on the fundamentals of violin playing" was published in the year of Mozart's birth. He was also a leading member in Salzburg’s court orchestra but gave it all up for his son. Wolfgang first showed musical talent, aged 3. His father encouraged this and gave him intensive musical training. He learned to play the clavier, violin and organ. At aged 5, he published his first work, the Andante in C for keyboard (K. 1a) a work of six measures clocking in at 20 seconds.

In 1762 Leopold decided to take his two musical prodigies on tour to the courts of Europe. Their first trip was to Munich court of Maximilian III Joseph where they played before the Elector. Mozart gave his first public concert in Linz, Austria. And by the time they arrived in Vienna, the children’s reputation had preceded them. They wooed the Hapsburg emperor and then performed numerous private concerts. That was to be repeated across the courts of Europe for the next four years for the “miracle children of Salzburg”.

Mozart spent most of his formative years travelling. It was a gruelling schedule but Mozart did have the fortune of meeting some of Europe’s greatest composers. J.C. Bach befriended Mozart in London and his work proved to be a lifelong inspiration. During three trips to Italy, he was introduced to the Italian overture and opera buffa.

In 1772 Count Colloredo, was elected Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg and Mozart followed in his father’s footsteps when he was granted an annual salary of 150 florins as Konzertmeister in the court orchestra. Throughout the 1770s Mozart pumped out work after work. In 1777 he petitioned Colloredo to allow him and his father to seek their fortunes elsewhere. In response, the archbishop dismissed them both from his service but later relents. Accompanied by his mother, Mozart went to Mannheim in Germany, home of Europe’s best orchestra. There he met the Weber family and falls in love with the second-eldest daughter, Aloysia. His love is unrequited. The following year Mozart moved on to Paris where his mother died. Mozart moved back to Munich where he stayed with the Webers.

In 1780 Mozart premiered his first great opera Idomeneo. He moved to Vienna in 1781 after another row with the archbishop. Colloredo sacked him again this time for good. Mozart developed his own freelance career in Vienna after its aristocracy began to take an interest in him. A year later he married Constanze Weber at St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. Constanze was the sister of Aloysia who turned him down five years previously. The newlyweds settled in Vienna. Their firstborn son was born a year later but died after just two months. Around this time, Mozart develops his baroque In 1785 their second son was born and Mozart was inducted into the Masons. He befriended the composer Haydn who was a member of the same Masonic lodge. Mozart dedicated six quartets to Haydn who was in awe of him. He told Mozarts’s father “Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.”

Though he continued to live in Vienna, Mozart also spent a lot of time in Prague where he was greatly revered. In 1786 Le nozze di Figaro played Prague. Unlike in Vienna, where the opera had not received much attention and soon disappeared from repertoire, here its success was immense. As a result he premiered Don Giovanni there in 1787. His father Leopold died the same year.

Mozart died suddenly in 1791. The cause of death is also a matter of conjecture. His death record listed severe miliary fever (a rash that looks like millet-seeds), which although unfortunate is hardly likely to cause death. Many other theories have been proposed, including trichinosis, mercury poisoning, and rheumatic fever.

In his short life he was extraordinarily active. He wrote 41 symphonies. The Köchel catalogue by 19th century musicologist Ludwig Alois Ferdinand Ritter von Köchel lists 626 works. K626, Mozart’s last work is his unfinished Requiem Mass in D Minor, fittingly one of his greatest works.

Mozart died at 35. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, when Mozart was my age he had been dead seven years. Woolly Days had better get on with it.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Ecuadors of Perception

The World cup is eleven days old. The final games in the groups start tonight. Many teams have already booked their place in the round of 16 and some others have booked their flights home. Togo may have done that but have probably not paid their players.

Tonight Germany play the sons of the Equator for the right to win Group A. Five hours later, England and Sweden do battle for the same prize in Group B. Ecuador are 5/1 to beat Germany but only need a point. Germany might be happy to take a point and then take their chances against a leaden-footed England in the next round. Crock Rooney early and they'll be done for.

Trinidad (ok, and Tobago too) could possibly still qualify from England's group but as well as they've done so far its hard to see how Beenhakker can turn them into Ajax overnight. Paraguay will win that game.

Group C mirrors Group A and 6 pointers Argentina and the Dutch have a tasty play off for the right to win that group of half death. Argentina are the team of the tournament so far (their 'periscope' Riquelme is the player of the finals so far) and only need to draw to finish first. Group D mirrors Group A with Portugal cast as England and Angola as T&T. Angola have a slim chance of qualifying if they win and Mexico lose.

Groups E and F have been the most intriguing. Italy & the Czechs started well but both lost the plot in the second game. Ghana's win has made it a real possibility that either European side could go out. The USA not quite dead yet but are unlikely to make it. Group F sees Brazil though but Australia has stirred the plot. Defeat to Croatia would put them out but any other result and they qualify UNLESS Brazil reserves lose 2-0 to Japan. Incroyable? Thankfully Kewell got away with his hairdryer routine on Markus Merk. FIFA obviously agreed that the over-officious Merk probably deserved it!

Group G and H should see the European sides sneak through. Admittedly Spain are in great form and in Villa and Torres (pictured) have the most potent attack. Nevertheless, the weight of history will prove too strong and I see them losing to a higher pedigree side in the quarter finals. Saudi Arabia are only slightly better than the abysmal effort of 2002. They are still an overpaid embarrassment to Asia. They will never improve until their best players are encouraged to play in Europe. Insh'allah indeed.

My guess for the round of 16 and beyond is

Germany v Sweden
Argentina v Mexico
England v Ecuador
Portugal v Netherlands
Italy v Australia
Switzerland v Ukraine
Brazil v Ghana
Spain v France

if quarters went according to favourites

Germany v Argentina
Italy v Switzerland
England v Netherlands
Brazil v Spain

after that...lap of the penalty gods!

Germany v Italy
Netherlands v Brazil

oh no...Its Germany v Brazil again in the final! Successive finals after avoiding each other for 70 years? Lets hope Argentina or Spain prove me wrong. Or Ghana. Or even Ecuador, brave men with lots of altitude.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Fatah v Hamas

The two main Palestinian factions announced yesterday that they were moving closer to an agreement that would implicitly recognise Israel. It is an attempt to end international sanctions and seen as a response to the plan whereby the US, UN, and Russia endorsed an EU plan to funnel humanitarian aid to the Palestinians while bypassing the anti-Israeli government. Parallel to the Palestinian armed struggle against Israel is a power struggle between the two main political parties; Hamas and Fatah.

Fatah, the inheritors of Yasser Arafat’s power, have been the long-standing power in Palestinian politics. They have dominated elections since 1996, when Hamas boycotted the poll, allowing Fatah to sweep to victory over a handful of independents. Hamas came in from the political cold this year and contested the January 2006 elections. They capitalised on corruption within the Palestinian Authority (PA) and beat Fatah in a stunning landslide election victory. Hamas now have 76 of the 132 seats compared to Fatah’s 43. Fatah still control the presidency under Mahmoud Abbas. Crucially he retains official control over the Palestinian security services.

Since then tensions have increased between the two factions. In early May, three people were killed in clashes between the groups. A spate of tit-for-tat kidnappings led to the death of a Hamas member and as a result Hamas gunman fired a shoulder-held missile into a government vehicle, killing two Fatah members of the security forces.

Fatah is a reverse acronym of Harakat al-Tahrir al-Filistiniya (Palestinian Liberation Movement) and means "conquest" in Arabic. Arafat founded the party in the 1950s to promote the armed struggle to liberate Palestine from Israeli control. It led the peace process in the 1990s after recognising Israel’s right to exist. Most of the bureaucrats in the Palestinian Authority are Fatah members and they also control the 70,000 strong police and security forces. Abbas is leading the fight to gain recognition of the West Bank and incorporate it with Gaza into a Greater Palestine. Their militant wing the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades has held an informal ceasefire since 2005 but has breached it on occasions which it calls retaliatory attacks against Israel.

Hamas is an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement) and means "zeal" in Arabic. They were formed in 1987 with a dual purpose: social welfare and armed resistance against Israel. These goals have earned the support of the Palestinian oppressed but saw them designated a terrorist organisation by the West. Their charter seeks Israel's destruction. Hamas’s Ismail Haniya, the Palestinian prime minister, has said that a long-term truce with Israel possible if Israel withdraws from territory occupied in 1967. Their armed wing is called Izzedine al-Qassam brigades and they too have a ceasefire in operation but they also claim the right to retaliate against Israeli attacks. According to the U.S. State Dept, Hamas is funded by Iran, Palestinian expatriates, and private benefactors in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. Because of Hamas’s status, outside funds to the PA have dried up. Banks refuse to handle emergency donations fearing US penalties. An impending financial meltdown of the PA is possible which could cause a major humanitarian crisis. As the police force is controlled by Fatah, Hamas has deployed a 3,000-strong shadow security force including its supporters to tackle lawlessness in Gaza. The move exacerbated tensions with pro-Fatah security agencies sparking gunfights between the groups.

The Palestinian Authority was set up as a direct result of the Oslo peace accords signed by in 1993 between Israel and the PLO under the auspices of US President Clinton. Initially the Accords gave the Gaza Strip and the city of Jericho in the West Bank to the PA. The aim was to set up a Palestinian state covering Gaza and the West Bank. The status of Jerusalem was not addressed. The 2000 Palestinian Intifada known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada caused the Oslo Accords to be seen as increasingly irrelevant.

It has been superseded by the so-called “Road Map for Peace” in 2002. The road map set out by President Bush called for an end to Palestinian violence, political reform and Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. This would be followed by an internationally led Palestinian economy recovery leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state. In August 2005, Israeli troops disengaged from the Gaza Strip and in June this year Israeli PM Ehud Olmert announced he will meet Mahmoud Abbas to resume peace talks.

Abbas remains the key. In May 2006 he took the initiative back from Hamas by proposing a referendum to accept an independent state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. If he can get Hamas to accept this, then Palestine stands a chance to exist. If Hamas turns its back on the proposal, they will remain outcasts and, although electorally popular, they will leave Palestine as an international pariah. Israel can only stand to gain from this outcome.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Gulag Gitmo

Guantanamo Bay nestles gracefully on the sun-kissed Caribbean South East coast of Cuba. It is America’s oldest overseas Naval Base and the only one in a country with which the U.S. does not maintain diplomatic relations. Since 2002, it is also the home of the most notorious detention centre in the world.

The Guantanamo Bay detainment camp also known as Camp X-Ray and as Gitmo has been the home to over 600 suspected terrorists, the majority of whom were captured in the Afghanistan invasion post 9/11. As the camp is outside US jurisdiction, the inmates have languished here without trial and without POW status. The US government is now coming under increasing pressure to shut down the secretive camps. The EU has stated this week that “holding suspected terrorists without trial there is a human rights violation”.

The bay has played a prominent role in Cuban history. The land adjacent to both sides of the southern end of Guantanamo Bay was leased indefinitely to the US in 1898. But the Americans were not the first foreign power to land there. Britain and Spain had long contested control of the Caribbean. In 1729 they signed the Treaty of Seville which gave the Spanish the right to search British ships. The treaty gave rise to the delightfully named “War of Jenkins' Ear". When the Spanish searched a Captain Jenkins’ ship, he claimed the Spanish had cut off his ear. He exhibited the severed organ to the House of Commons and the British declared war on Spain. The British invaded Spanish controlled Cuba and landed at a bay that the local Taino Indians called “Guantánamo”. They briefly renamed it Cumberland. But they left a year later and the war ended in the same unsatisfactory state as the ear that gave it its name. Spain continued to rule Cuba until the end of the 19th century. When a US battleship was blown up in Havana harbour in 1898, the US invaded the country and placed Cuba under a 20 year trusteeship. During that war the U.S. fleet needed shelter from the summer hurricane season and Guantanamo Bay was chosen for its excellent harbour.

In 1903 they established a perpetual lease for the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base (shortened as Gitmo). A 1934 treaty reaffirmed the lease and granted Cuba free access through the bay. It also made the lease permanent unless both governments agreed to break it or the U.S. abandoned the base property. Until the Castro revolution, many Cubans worked on the base. The revolution took over five years to oust the Fulgencio Batista regime and it wasn’t until 1958 that tide turned in Castro's favour. That year traffic was halted to the base. The new rulers continued to allow Cubans to work there and cross by bus or on foot. However, they also forbade new recruitment. As of 2006 only two elderly Cubans now make the daily trek. Castro planted a 13 km “cactus curtain” around the base to prevent Cubans seeking refuge on the base. US troops also planted 75,000 landmines in the area, the second largest landmine zone in the world after the Korea border.

The base was used to house Haitian refugees in the 1990s that fled their country after President Aristide was overthrown by the military. They were removed in 1993 after a US court found the camp unconstitutional. The camp was opened again in 2002 after the Afghanistan invasion. A report for Seton Hall Law School based on Defence Department data showed that 86% of the prisoners were handed over by bounty-hunters rather than as the result of any American investigation or intelligence action. The report alleged that because the bounty-hunters were compensated per head, they detained innocent civilians in order to make more money.

There were four camps, Delta, Echo, Iguana and X-Ray. X-Ray was a temporary facility now closed but the name Camp X-Ray still remains as a synonym for the whole facility. Over 600 people have been held there from 35 different countries. One of the inmates is Australian David Hicks. Australia has made no effort to seek his release. In July 2003, Hicks was one of six detainees first determined by President George W. Bush to be eligible for trial by a military court. As of three years later, no trial has commenced. Frustrated by lack of Australian support, Hicks has sought British citizenship through his English mother. Britain has already won the release of all of its citizens and Hicks is hoping for the same outcome. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer believes that Hicks 'would be dodging justice’ if he succeeds.

Rights are granted to POWs under the Geneva Conventions. These conventions date back to 1859 after Swiss businessman Henri Dunant witnessed one of the bloodiest battles of the nineteenth century at Solferino in Italy. In 1862 his book "Un Souvenir de Solferino" proposed a plan to care for wartime wounded. His proposal was taken up by the Société genevoise d'utilité publique (Geneva Society for Public Welfare) and the first of the Geneva Conventions was born. Dunant went on to found the International Red Cross. The US has ratified all four Geneva conventions however they got round this for Gitmo by classified the detainees as “illegal combatants.”

It means prisoners are held in a legal black hole, most without access to any court, legal counsel or family visits. Many detainees allege they have been subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. This treatment include sleep deprivation, the use of so-called truth drugs, beatings, locking in confined and cold cells, and being forced to maintain uncomfortable postures. In 2005, Amnesty international called the facility “the Gulag of our times.”

Matters came to a head this week when three detainees committed suicide. The camp commander described the suicides as “an act of asymmetric warfare waged against us". He was echoed by the US deputy assistant secretary for public diplomacy Colleen Graffy who said the suicides were “a good PR move.” Lawyers said the men who hanged themselves had been driven by despair. William Goodman from the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights said they were "heroes for those of us who believe in basic American values of justice, fairness and democracy". The suicides have further heightened the calls to close the facility.

President Bush says he would like to close the camps but was awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on how suspects held there might be tried. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of June on whether military tribunals of foreign terrorist suspects can proceed. Meanwhile the pain continues. What British judge Lord Steyn said as early as 2003 hold true just as much today, “As a lawyer brought up to admire the ideals of American democracy and justice, I would have to say that I regard this a monstrous failure of justice.”

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Blood and Oil

“Blood and Oil: How America’s Thirst for Petrol is Killing Us” is a 2004 publication by Michael T. Klare. Klare is a Professor of Peace and World Securities Studies at Hampshire College, Amherst, Massachusetts and is also the author of “Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws”, “Low Intensity Warfare” and “Resource Wars”. Klare’s thesis in “Blood and Oil” is that America has an ever-growing reliance on imported petroleum which dominates its foreign policy. Klare argues that the US must undergo a paradigm shift on its energy usage and policy or face ever more disastrous and bloody consequences.

The book commences with a dissertation on post Cold War politics. He dismisses Samuel Huntington’s premise in the “Clash of Civilisations” that identity politics would fill the vacuum left by the demise of political ideologies. Huntington saw new power blocs emerging on the basis of culture: The West, China, Japan, Orthodox, Indic, Muslim, African and Latin America. Future wars would be conducted on the fault lines of these civilisations. However Klare comes to a different conclusion to Huntington. In Klare’s view, it is resources that are at the root of most contemporary conflict. Access to minerals, water and land were all important triggers. But one resource stood out clearly in its overall impact: oil. In the twentieth century, cheap oil was at the heart of American economic vigour. Oil became so important it was considered a national security matter. The US relationship with corrupt oil regimes was exposed by 9/11 while demand continues to increase worldwide. The rest of his book is a study of oil, geopolitics and American foreign policy in order to understand the roots of the importance of petroleum and its payment in blood.

The US was the first country in the world to have a petroleum industry when oil was struck in Pennsylvania in 1859. It soon contributed to rapid and reliable transportation. Private cars and cheap petrol made the suburbs possible. Oil provided the raw material for paints, plastics, pharmaceuticals and textiles. The farm and tourist industries also totally rely on it. The first jolt to this dependence was the 1973 oil crisis when OPEC flexed its muscles and caused massive increases at the pump and an economic collapse worldwide. The Iranian revolution in 1979 and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 caused similar irruptions. The US was self-sufficient in oil until the end of World War II. Oil imports jumped from 10% in the fifties to 50% in the nineties. US production of oil has been in decline since 1972. As the percentage of imports grew, consumption is also increasing. The US used 13.5 million barrels a day for transportation in 2001 and is estimated to jump to 20.7 million by 2025. Klare then goes on to make the point that most exporting countries are unstable, unfriendly and/or in the middle of dangerous areas. As of 2002, the top ten countries with proven reserves of petroleum (in billions of barrels) are
1 Saudi Arabia 261.8
2 Iraq 112.5
3 UAE 97.8
4 Kuwait 96.5
5 Iran 89.7
6 Venezuela 77.8
7 Russia & Caspian states 77.1
8 USA 30.4
9 Libya 29.5
10 Nigeria 24
World total 1047.4
Six Persian Gulf countries possess 64% of the world’s known reserves. There may be more oil out there but it is also possible that peak oil (ie maximum production) has already occurred.

Klare goes on to describe the history of US-Saudi relations. The US started looking for petroleum in Arabia in the 1930s. By the end of the war, exploitation of Saudi petrol was a major policy objective. As early as 1943 Roosevelt declared ‘the defence of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defence of the US’. He cemented the relationship with a five and a half hour meeting with King Ibn Saud in March, 1945. No records were kept but they formed a tacit alliance which has lasted to the present day. The US held an air base on the Eastern port of Dhahran and provided funds to build an Arabian navy. They also funded the National Guard which defended the royal family against internal revolt. The fall of the Iranian Shah in 1979 was a direct cause of the Carter doctrine which declared that access to Persian Gulf oil was a vital national interest to be protected by ‘any means necessary.’ After the stalemate of the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam saw the conquest of Kuwait as a way out of his mounting debts. The US saw this as a direct threat to Saudi oil and decided military action was essential. But by putting 250,000 troops in Arabia, reactionaries such as Bin Laden had the perfect excuse to wage war on infidels in their holy land. The path to 9/11 was laid.

New president George W Bush charged Dick Cheney to come up with an energy policy for America in 2001. The National Energy Policy (NEP) written by Cheney, with help from Enron’s Kenneth Lay, was a disappointing pandering to the status quo and vested interests. It proposed steps to increase consumption and reliance on imports with little or no attempt to harness alternative resources. The proposal to open up Arctic Wilderness areas to drilling also produced denunciation of the report. The NEP confirmed the strategic importance of Gulf oil producers. The policy outlined the importance of the US military in ensuring steady supply. The US bolstered its ability to react to crises in the crucial Straits of Hormuz, the narrowest part of the Gulf. Saddam was seen as the biggest threat to secure production. Iran was seen as the second threat. The third threat was terrorism and the US acted to shore up the Saudi regime. Bush bolstered the new leader Abdullah’s authority by inviting him to his Texan ranch.

The 9/11 attacks gave the US excuse they needed to remove Saddam. As soon as they dismantled the Taliban regime, the focus switched to propaganda battle to justify an Iraqi invasion. The Department of Defence prepared to seize the Iraqi oilfields at the start of hostilities to prevent sabotage. Cheney’s Halliburton won a multi-billion no-bid contract to repair any post-war oil damage. When they finally attacked, they occupied the Baghdad Oil Ministry while ignoring all other government buildings. The oilfields were kept under state ownership which is forced to collaborate with the likes of Halliburton and Bechtel for infrastructure modernisation. But the US dilemma remains, without stability in the country, the oil output will not increase. The goal in Iran is the same; regime change. The US is used Iranian nuclear ambitions as a stick with which to beat them. US sanctions are in place but Iran is getting support from Russia and China. US energy policy remains tied to Persian Gulf oil and Iran will remain in the spotlight while this is the case.

Elsewhere, the NEP listed eight areas of interest where petroleum exports could be increased: Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Nigeria and Angola. These states have their own political problems. The Caspian area is a hotbed of nationalist wars, the African countries are politically unstable, the South American countries are riven with unrest and drug problems and Mexico is consuming nearly all its own oil.

Klare is concerned that US-Russian-Chinese geopolitics will play out in the Persian Gulf and Caspian Basin. Russia has a large nuclear arsenal and a substantial network of pipelines connected to the Caspian. Russia has influence in many countries in the area with financial support and military bases. China too is looking increasingly at this part of the world as its economic boom demands more oil products. It has sold arms and military technology to Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Beijing has established links with its neighbours in an effort suppress extremist Islamic movements in its westernmost province Xinjiang. Chinese state-owned oil companies have forged linked with over a dozen oil-producing countries. In each case they have outbid Western firms by substantial amounts. The US, Russia and China are major arms suppliers to all Middle East countries and it is likely that geopolitical tensions will continue to rise as oil stocks become more depleted.

Klare concludes by seeing this as a poor strategy for America. He sees the price of Gulf dependence as too steep. The US has ‘crawled into bed’ with corrupt and despotic governments and promoted terrorism in the process. The cost of oil will be measured in blood; the blood of oil-related violence in Iraq and possibly Iran, Colombia or the Caspian. Klare proposes a paradigm shift. He advocates a fundamental shift in values; more fuel-efficient vehicles, more mass transit, more cycling. But he acknowledges that leadership is required to facilitate this. The NEP should be scrapped. Energy policy should not be a driver of overseas security commitments. Anomalies in policy should be corrected to ensure that low-efficiency vehicles such as SUVs are taxed appropriately. The search for alternative fuels such as ethanol, hydrogen-powered fuel cells and hybrids should be re-doubled. Ultimately the US should be looking at the transition to a post-petroleum economy. The world will suffer petroleum shortages sometime in the next ten to twenty years.

The time is right to abandon the allegiance to oil and in Klare’s words “select the path of autonomy, self-restraint and innovation.”

Abu Bakar Bashir is freed

The 68 year old Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir was released from an Indonesian jail this week. His supporters gathered outside the prison, cheering as he left the building. He had spent 26 months in Jakarta’s Cipinang jail after being found guilty of conspiracy charges relating to the 2002 Bali bombing.

Bashir says he is the leader of the legal Indonesian Mujahedeen Council (MMI). Intelligence agencies say is also the leader of the quasi-illegal Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). JI has been deemed a terrorist organisation by the US but remains legal in Indonesia. The name "Jemaah Islamiyah" means Islamic Community and the Indonesian government argues it cannot make the Islamic Community illegal. Nonetheless JI is thought to have been behind many terrorist activities in South East Asia, the most prominent of which were the two Bali bombings.

In his early years Bashir was active in conservative Muslim action groups. He created a pirate radio station and a boarding school in Java. The school's motto was, "Death in the way of Allah is our highest aspiration."

Bashir spent several years in prison as part of a crackdown on radical groups. He escaped with his followers to Malaysia where founded Jemaah Islamiyah. JI was founded in the early 1980s and has an avowed aim of creating an Islamic super-state in Southeast Asia. Many JI members joined the worldwide Mujahideen, the resistance movement against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It was at this time that JI established links with Al Qaeda. JI started to get serious in the 1990s when Bashir met fellow Indonesian Riduan Isamuddin, a.k.a. Hambali.

Hambali had big plans. He wanted to create an Islamic caliphate across all of the Muslim nations of South East Asia. They started to create terrorist cells dedicated to this goal. They set up Operation Bojinka, a precursor to 9/11. It was a plot to destroy 11 airliners in 1995 but it was foiled by an accidental fire at the plotter’s apartment.

While Hambali schemed, Bashir went back to his homeland after Suharto was overthrown in 1998. He openly preaching jihad and taught at his Islamic school. JI got busy. In 2000 they killed 15 people in a bomb attack on the Jakarta stock exchange. On Christmas Eve that year they killed another 18 in a co-ordinated series of attacks across the country. In 2002, they spread their attacks to the Philippines and launched fatal attacks on the southern cities of Zamboanga and Kidapawan.

Their biggest attack was the 2002 nightclub attacks on Bali. 202 people were killed in the deadliest act of terrorism in Indonesia’s history. It was a double attack. A suicide bomber blew himself up in a bar and when everyone panicked and ran out on the street, they became victims of a massive 1,000kg car bomb which blew out windows across Kuta town and left a 1 meter deep crater. The largest group among those killed were Australian tourists which numbered 88 fatalities.

Hambali was arrested in Jordan in 2003 and is now in CIA custody at a secret location. Meanwhile Bashir was tried in 2004 for his part in the Bali bombing. The prosecution hoped to get life imprisonment or even the death penalty under the primary charges of inciting or ordering acts of terrorism. However in the end he was cleared of the more serious changes and convicted only of conspiracy.

Australian PM said Bashir’s release was a matter of “great pain to Australia.” He told parliament “Many Australians will see that particular outcome, although a product of the Indonesian justice system, as an extremely disappointing result.”
Bashir has returned to his Ngruki boarding school, which has been dubbed the "Ivy League" of terrorism education centres by the International Crisis Group. Most of the Bali bombers were graduates of the school.

JI remains active. The cell structure and membership of JI is still virtually unknown, in part due to the lack of cooperating governments in the region, as well as the lack of knowledge about the scope of alliances between regional terrorist factions. It is not known whether Bashir still has influence in the organisation but he has certainly left his mark on those that follow him. While both Hambali and Bashir were in prison, they struck Bali again on 1st October 2005 killing another 23 people.

Bashir hasn’t softened his stance. On release from prison, he reiterated his ultimate goal: “All Muslims should unite in vision and mission. Islamic sharia law should be imposed in Indonesia."