Stories From The Year That Was 2009

Stories From The Year That Was 2009


Berkeley Daily Planet

Feb. 4, 2010

News tends to vanish from our radar screens when the attention of the media moves elsewhere. But the stories go on. In the coming year Dispatches will revisit some subjects it has covered. Here are four.

“Shadow Wars” (6/4/09) examined an October 2008 incident when several U.S. helicopters crossed the Syrian border to attack a supposed al-Qaeda operative, Abu Ghadiya, near the town of al-Sukariya. The column concluded that the raid was a case of botched intelligence that resulted in the deaths of seven innocent civilians.

In October 2009, investigative reporter Reese Erlich and actor/writer Peter Coyote journeyed to Syria to report the story for Vanity Fair. They interviewed local witnesses and the doctor who treated the wounded survivors.

According to the reporters, U.S. officials claimed—anonymously—that the raid was a success, although they never produced proof the Ghadiya had been killed.

Bob Baer, a CIA field officer in the Middle East for more than two decades, told Erlich and Coyote that the U.S. claims were “total bullshit;” he suspects the raid was a result of bad intelligence. “Where’s the body? Where are the documents or the cell phone? If they brought back an al-Qaeda body, why don’t they have something? There’s no conceivable way they would have killed him and not shown it.”

Possibly because he was already dead. According to Erlich and Coyote, al-Qaeda in Iraq “announced the death of Ghadiya in 2006” from a rocket attack on the Saudi Arabia-Iraq border. Apparently jihadist web sites published his obituary at the time.

So was it botched intelligence, or something more sinister?

According to the reporters, some Syrians are convinced the raid was a set-up by the Bush Administration to derail any attempt to improve U.S.-Syria relations.

“The neocons and their headmaster, Vice President [Dick] Cheney, wanted to create problems so that a rapprochement between the [Obama] administration and Syria will be made more difficult,” Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Fayssal Mekdad told the reporters.

The authors speculate that may be a reason Syria did not respond more forcefully to what was a clear act of war.

The story may have disappeared, were it not for the survivors. According to Dr. Ayers al-Fara—who autopsied the dead and treated the wounded—the woman survivor is still in very bad shape. When he saw her last Oct. 26, he said, “She was hallucinating. She kept saying, ‘’Go, go, go, go,’ these four words over and over in English.” The doctor speculated that they were what the soldiers were shouting in the 15-minute raid.

For a full read of this excellent story, go to:’al-sukariya-200910)

In “The U.S. Connection in Honduras,”(8/12/09) about the June 23 coup in that country, Dispatches reported on some seamy connections between the U.S. and Honduran business and political interests, and suggested that the Nov. 29 election that brought conservative Porfirio Lobo to power was deeply compromised.

The Obama administration bought the Honduran Electoral Tribunal’s figure of a 61 percent turnout, six points higher than the 2004 vote that elected Manuel Zelaya president.

In fact, turnout wasn’t close to that. According to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal the actual turnout was 50 percent, five points less than the 2004 election. Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program for the Center for International Policy—who was in Tegucigalpa during the voting—said the 61 percent figure was a “bald-faced lie.” Based on registration and voter turnout, the actual figure was 49.2 percent.

And according to Amnesty International, the “crisis in Honduras did not end with the election.”

In the weeks following the vote, the Honduran police and military launched a wave of terror to silence the hundreds of thousands of people who protested the coup. In These Times reporter Jeremy Kryt says “More than 3000 people have been detained, and hundreds more have been beaten, with many requiring hospitalization for their wounds. At least 28 members of the resistance have been killed by the military, police, or political assassins during the last five months.”

According to Human Rights Watch, gay, lesbian and transgendered people have been especially targeted. Some seven have been murdered since the coup. Journalists sympathetic to Zelaya have also been singled out.

The coup-sponsored election has only been recognized by the U.S., Panama, Columbia, Peru, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and, oddly enough, Canada.

Canadian Junior Foreign Minister Peter Kent praised the Nov. 29 vote and said, “We are encouraged by reports from civil society organizations that there was a strong turnout for the elections, that they appear to have been run freely and fairly and that there was no major violence.”

Canada was conspicuously silent about the coup government’s attacks on demonstrators.

Honduras is Canada’s top aid recipient in Central America, and the Ottawa government has a program to train Honduran soldiers and police. The Canadians also export $89 million worth of goods to Honduras, and import $151.5 million in return, mostly in bananas.

And gold. Canadian mining corporations, including Yamana Gold, Breakwater Resources, and Goldcorp invest in Honduras, and lobbied against a Zelaya-sponsored law that would have restricted mining and banned its widespread use of cyanide. Environmentalist Carlos Amador told Upsidedown World reporter Dawn Paley that he now expects the proposal to be defeated.

One activist compared the repression to the death squad days of the 1980s when Honduras served as the Reagan administration’s base for its war on the Sandinista government in Nicaragua

However, according to human rights activists, the coup has sparked a powerful opposition force. “Of course they [the military and the elites] didn’t mean to do it,” says resistance leader Juan Barahona, “But through their own greed, the putschists have awakened an even greater resistance.”

Japan’s New Course” (11/12/09) predicted that the victory by the Democratic Party (DP) in the last election could alter the traditional relationship between Japan and the U.S., and that a flash point would be a fight over the building of a new U.S. military base on the island of Okinawa. The DP won, and change is in the air.

First, the new government canceled a naval refueling mission in the Indian Ocean that supported U.S. ships bound for Iraq and Afghanistan. Then Tokyo announced that it was suspending any new monies for an anti-missile system it is building in conjunction with the U.S.

And when the residents of Nago, Okinawa elected a mayor who opposed the base, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama announced that his government would renegotiate the 2006 base agreement “from scratch.”

Nago residents were reacting in part to what Japanese media called “bullying” by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who have insisted the 2006 pact is binding.

Japan currently hosts 50,000 U.S. troops, the vast majority of them on the island of Okinawa.

Okinawa is part of a U.S. strategy to challenge Chinese presence in the western Pacific. Besides the new base in Okinawa, the U.S. is turning the islands of Guam and Tinian into virtual Gibraltars, with numerous bases and ports. The buildup will cost some $12 billion, with Japan footing slightly more than half the bill.

This small island strategy became necessary when Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea and Singapore refused to allow any permanent U.S. bases.

Guam residents are unhappy about the new bases, fearing land confiscations and the destruction of forest areas. “They want to run over our land,” Henry Simpson, general manager of the Guam Racing Federation, told The Japan Times.

The Tokyo government says the U.S.-Japan Security Pact is still the “cornerstone” of Japanese foreign policy, but with upper house elections coming up this summer, the DP can’t afford to ignore the Okinawa vote. The island voted heavily for the DP in the general elections.

Now that China is Japan’s number one trading partner, Tokyo is also edging away from the more confrontational U.S. strategy. “From the Chinese side, the debate about Okinawa and what to do with bases in the framework of the security pact has been looked at very favorably, that Japan is not simply following old contracts,” Marin Schulz, a research fellow at the Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo told the Washington Post.

We Deeply Regret” (10/15/09) focused on a controversial Sept. 4 NATO air strike in Afghanistan that killed up to 142 people. A German army commander called for the attack.

Then German Defense Minister Franz Joseph Jung defended the attack by citing intelligence showing that German soldiers had been in danger. When it turned out he had no such evidence, he was forced to resign. German army Chief of Staff Gen. Wolfgang Schneiderman and a senior official at the Defense Ministry, Peter Wichert, also resigned.

But the story has not gone away.

On Nov. 6, new German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg called the attack “militarily appropriate,” based on what he said was his reading of a classified NATO investigation on the incident. On Dec. 3 he suddenly reversed course and said the attack was “militarily inappropriate.” Change of heart? Not exactly. Guttenberg just realized that the “classified” report was going public

After studying the report, Der Spiegel noted acidly, “Just how Guttenberg, after studying this report, could have arrived at the conclusion that the attack was ‘militarily appropriate’ will have to remain his secret.”

According to the newspaper, the attack on Sept. 4 “was the result of a combination of ineptness and deliberate misinformation, without which the air strike would never have occurred.”

Now the Social Democrats, Greens and Left Party are asking uncomfortable questions of Guttenberg. Will the new defense minister get entangled in his own web of deception? Stay tuned.

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