Wednesday, 31 December 2008

China This Week, Dec 30

A weekly digest of the most eye-catching editorials in the Chinese media. 

Corruption has been acknowledged as a major problem in China, and Chinese newspapers are at the forefront of a national campaign to expose financial sleaze and keep government officials honest. 

For the full story, go to Ohmynews International

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Wednesday, 24 December 2008

China This Week, Dec. 24

A weekly digest of eye-catching editorials in the Chinese print media

China's editorial writers skewered smokers and poorly conceived bylaws against ill-mannered bus passengers this past week, but still had some ink left for another cautionary word on wasteful government spending.

For the full story go to Ohmynews International 

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Wednesday, 17 December 2008

China This Week (Dec 14)

Is the global financial crisis being overplayed by the media? 

And are Chinese companies using the "economic turmoil" as an excuse to turn the screw on their employees?

The Beijing-based Guangming Daily thinks so.
To find out why, go to the complete article on Ohmynews International! 


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Friday, 12 December 2008

Coming out of hibernation...

Okay, as winter descends we are supposed to slip into hibernation.. but being the contrary individual that I am, I am choosing the depth of winter to jump back into the blogging ring.

I haven't been idle. 

For the past six weeks I have been up at the crack of dawn to do the early morning news on China Radio International. 

This involves a 75 minute commute from my home in Beijing's "trendy" East End, to a godforsaken location way, way out west... 

As commutes go, this one is a positive horror story..

And at the end of it, I have to run a gauntlet of three wheel suicide merchants - Nokia N95 vid to come - before reaching the sanctuary of my office.

I expect to get back into the writing "groove" in the next couple of weeks and links to published material will be posted here.

Feel free to contact me with story ideas, things you'd like to see on the blog, or even job offers!

But do come back.

This is going to become something of a busy blog.

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Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Reading Lolita in Tehran - In Tehran

A personal journey through Iran's revolution

I rested the book on the arm of my chair and gazed through the living room window at the majestic peaks of the Alborz Mountains rising in the distance.

“Wow,” I thought, “She just described my day. In fact, she has just described my week, my month and my year.”

I double checked the publication date. First released in 2003, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran is a personal memoir of life in Iran before, during, and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, up to her departure from the country in 1997.

But the insights offered by this remarkable book are as relevant today as they were when it reached the New York Times bestseller list - and remained there for two years.

The book is constructed around university professor Nafisi’s personal experience in dealing with the dramatic changes that came with the Islamic Revolution.

Giving further depth and colour to the narrative are the thoughts, fears, ambitions and disappointments expressed by a small group of her students attending a private, independent, and informal literary class at Nafisi’s home.

Reading the book was a particularly moving experience for me, given that I did so from the illusory security of my Tehran apartment. While the view from my window was indeed dominated by the Alborz, in the left lower corner of my eye was the high wall surrounding the infamous Evin Prison, running like a scar across the landscape.

Because Nafisi’s 343-page personal memoir is by no means a homage to the benevolent rule of the mullahs, it comes as no surprise to learn that the book is not widely available in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The copies that are making the rounds were usually picked up in airport book shops around the Persian Gulf, as was mine in the Dubai duty free.

Nafisi skillfully tells her story, at least in part, through comparisons with characters in the handful of foreign novels she used to teach her small and private literature appreciation class.

Azar Nafisi left Tehran just before the 1997 election of reformist Mohammad Khatami as president. Critics of the book say it is dated and no longer presents a fair picture of life in the Islamic Republic.

If considered simply as a history book, critics say it may offer a fair reflection of how things were in the early years of the revolution. But they claim it doesn’t present a true representation of life in today’s Iran.

Up to a point they may be right, but I would beg to disagree that the book has little or nothing to offer those interested in contemporary Iran.

“Life in the Islamic Republic,” writes Nafisi, “was as capricious as the month of April when short periods of sunshine would suddenly give way to showers and storms. It was unpredictable. The regime would go through cycles of some tolerance, followed by a crackdown.”

The alleged period of sunshine enjoyed during the reformist Khatami years, has given way to the thunder showers and threats of war under the ultra conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Morality crackdowns are once again fairly common. Black clad female policewomen challenge young girls for showing too much hair, or wearing too much makeup. Reports of harassment and arrests are commonplace.

It was not unusual for my wife, a Chinese national and journalist with PressTV in Tehran, to be stopped and cautioned for “bad hejab” - for not following the strict Islamic dress code.

“The unveiling of women mandated by Reza Shah in 1936 had been a controversial symbol of modernization, a powerful sign of the reduction of the clergy’s power,” Nafisi wrote, “It was important for the ruling clerics to reassert that power.”

And reassert it they do. Frequently, and forcefully.

Nafisi described life in Tehran as like living in an “Islamized version of a Soviet novel.”

Many of Nafisi’s comments and observations resonated deep with me - some ten years after she had left Tehran.

“Teaching in the Islamic Republic, like any other vocation, was subservient to politics and subject to arbitrary rules,” she wrote.

She could have been describing life as an anchor and program host with PressTV, Iran’s bold adventure into international English language broadcasting.

While it was easier for the men, the female anchors and staff were under constant harsh scrutiny.

“How well could one teach when the main concern of university officials was not the quality of one’s work, but the colour of one’s lips? The subversive potential of a single strand of hair.”

Nafisi’s description of the dilemma facing female professors in the early 1980s would equally describe the situation experienced by female journalists working with PressTV more than a quarter century later.

Not long after its launch in June 2007, the dress code for female anchors was suddenly and inexplicably tightened - and whereas previously the viewer might have caught a “subversive glimpse” of hair, after the new rules came into effect, all hair was carefully tucked way under tight hejab and headscarf.

A recurring theme in Nafisi’s book is, “The daily struggle against arbitrary rules and restrictions.”

What frustrated Nafisi in the 1980s also frustrated local and expat journalists with PressTV in 2008.

Daily notification of new and arbitrary restrictions was making it increasingly difficult to function as an objective news organization. While I would hesitate to use words like censorship or propaganda, there was a definite sense that the boundaries of our earlier freedoms were being drawn in.

It was becoming suffocating.

As Nafisi’s memoir progresses, it becomes obvious that she too is feeling increasing trapped by her circumstances and needs to escape.

She writes of, “Going to a place where everyday life was not such a battleground.”

After almost a year in Tehran, my wife and I had also grown weary of the daily routine of checking if her wardrobe would be acceptable to the morality squad before we left the house.

There’s a saying about life in Tehran before and after the revolution. Before 1979, the saying goes, Iranians did their praying in private and their drinking in public. After 1979, the drinking was done in private and praying most conspicuously done in public.

Apart from that, you could say that very little has changed.

Everything is possible in Tehran, everything is available. For a price.

Iran is a country tightly bound to the point of suffocation by rules and regulations, and the national pastime of Iranians is breaking them.

But the excitement of late night taxi runs to the seedier side of town to buy illicit liquor, or of sneaking a flask of bootleg whisky into a restaurant to spice up the obligatory coke or lemonade - well, it begins to wear off after a while and it just becomes another tiresome aspect of living in the Islamic Republic.

Might as well eat at home, at least you can leave the bottle on the table.

Despite the generally depressing standard of living in Iran, I disagree with those Iranian expats writing from Europe and the Americas about the need for regime change. Iranians are tired of revolution, and regime change isn’t the answer.

Almost nobody I spoke to was in favour of it, given that the alternative would most likely be a Washington installed puppet.

They just want the folks currently running things to lighten up a bit. Well, lighten up a lot.

But this willingness of the overwhelmingly young population to maintain the existing system but in a more benevolent form, as opposed to another revolutionary change in government, will not last forever.

The incessant rules wear you down. And it doesn’t really matter if you are currently enjoying one of April’s sunny days or one of its showers, to paraphrase Nafisi, the bottom line eventually becomes, “You don’t want a nicer jail warden - you just want to get out of jail.”

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Friday, 5 September 2008

Guardians of Power

We live in a deeply cynical world, there's no doubt about that.

And to be honest, it is a good thing that we do.

Perhaps, you might argue, we are not cynical enough. One of my favourite quotes comes from Claude Cockburn - "Never believe anything until it has been officially denied."

It is so easy to be skeptical, critical, and leery of any official statements - especially when those statements are carried in a media that is closely linked to the administration.

In some cases the links are obvious and no attempt is made to disguise them - you could cite China in this category. Consequently, Chinese state media outlets are often the target of criticism in the foreign press for their alleged lack of openness, impartiality and objective reporting.

Whatever your opinion of the Chinese media, one has to give credit where credit is due; it has made enormous and undeniable improvements in recent years. However flawed or imperfect it may be, the trend is definitely one of more candid and frank reporting.

But where countries like China make no secret of the links between the administration and editors, in some of the Western media the links to government are not quite so transparent.

And according to authors David Edwards and David Cromwell, the trend here is one of closer collaboration between editors and corporate interests and government spokespeople.

For a really eye-opening glimpse behind the headlines "Guardians of Power - The Myth Of The Liberal Media" is a must read.

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Thursday, 4 September 2008

Beijing plans another spectacular event

Beijing is preparing another spectacular show for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Paralympic Games.

From the China Radio International website:

A spectacular rehearsal for the upcoming opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games will be held in the same iconic venue as the Olympic Games, the Bird's Nest, on Thursday night. No blaze of fireworks will appear in the rehearsal this time.

According to sources, the opening ceremony will last about three hours. Unlike the ceremony for the Olympics, the artistic performance will be preceded by the entrance of the athletes, making it easier for everyone to interact during the performance.

The opening ceremony of Beijing Paralympics will feature 6,000 actors, including some disabled performers.

The show encompasses three parts: the travel of space, time and life, previous media reports quoted Zhang Jigang, the artistic director of Paralympics ceremony, as saying. One portion will be staged in sign language by 320 deaf-mute performers, which is possibly the largest-ever performance of this kind.

There is certainly a lot less hoopla in the foreign media just two days ahead of the opening, but officials say opportunities to cover the games will be as extensive as they were for the main event last month. From China Daily:

More than 6,300 journalists, 47 of them disabled, from 13 countries and regions have been accredited to cover the Games, which start on Saturday, Sun said.

In the period between the two Games, both the MPC and IBC were adapted to better suit the needs of disabled reporters, he said.

Xinhua reports that: Beijing has about one million disabled people, about 6.49 percent of its total population. The hosting of the Paralympic Games, between Sept. 6 to 17, will accelerate the improvement of the lives of those with disabilities.

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Monday, 25 August 2008

Missing in Somalia - Amanda Lindhout

I was shocked and saddened to learn that a former colleague, Amanda Lindhout and at least three other companions had been abducted by armed men in Somalia on Saturday morning.

According to sources, 48-hours after the kidnapping there has been no public announcement of responsibility, or demands - either political or financial.

While it is believed Amanda and her companions are being held in Mogadishu, there has been no reliable indication of which group is behind the kidnapping, or what their motive may be.

Please show your support for the hostages, and indeed the plight of the Somali people by signing up to Facebook and adding your name to Voice for Amanda Lindhout.

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Saturday, 23 August 2008

Freedom "fleet" enters Gaza waters

Following is the content of an email I just received from One Democratic State.

10am, 23 August, 2008

A Statement from the International Human Rights Workers Aboard the SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty, Sailing to Gaza

*At 10am this morning, the Cyprus team of the Free Gaza Movement was able to briefly speak with our people on board the SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty. They are all fine, and they asked us to release the following statement:

"The electronic systems which guarantee our safety aboard the SS Free Gaza and SS Liberty have been jammed and scrambled. Both ships are flying Greek flags, and are in international waters. We are the victims of electronic piracy. We are currently in GMS P area A2 and we are relying on our satellite communications equipment to make a distress call, if needed.

We are civilians from 17 nations and are on this project to break the siege of Gaza. We are not experienced sailors. As a result, there is concern about the health and safety of the people on board such an emergency develop.

We are currently experiencing rough sea conditions, and we call on the Greek government and the international community to meet their responsibilities and protect the civilians on board our two ships in international waters."


Intimidation will not stop our boats sailing for Gaza

Our perilous, non-violent mission should now be nearing its destination, bearing a message that some want to silence

For the latest go to

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Friday, 25 July 2008

Not quite the last post...

Back home in Beijing.

It has been a week since arriving home - a week of unpacking and creating space for almost three year's worth of souvenirs and other assorted "junk" from places far and near.

It has also been a period of reflection.

A year in Tehran, almost two in Seoul.

A head full of stories...

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Tuesday, 15 July 2008

The last post...

Well, it has been a roller coaster ride.

Tonight, Tuesday 15th July, I hosted my last edition of Middle East Today.

After more than 130 shows interviewing some of the region's top decision and news makers, I indeed owe a debt of gratitude to my crew here in the Live Department at PressTV.

They never failed to provide me with a line-up of guests who had something to say... and some of them quite a lot!

And thanks also to my colleagues in the News Department, busily cutting packages and writing snappy introductions to stories; making sure that I was miked up and buttoned down as the intro rolled at the start of each news broadcast.

Thanks to them all.

I will miss it, and I will miss the crew, a great bunch of people.

It has been an interesting and very informative exercise.

I hope what I have learned here in Tehran - from my colleagues and my guests who joined me by satellite, phone and sometimes in the studio - can be put to good use in the future.

No single person produces a program like Middle East Today. The program host is just one cog in a very big wheel that begins to turn hours and sometimes days before the program goes to air.

It is a team effort from start to finish. And for their support, friendship and professional attitude I thank them, one and all.

I wish them all success in their future endeavors, and the success of Middle East Today - I am sure I am leaving it in good hands.

And I wish success to the hard working anchors, program hosts, graphic designers, cameramen, news writers, editors, producers, control room staff, news assistants, foreign correspondents - the list is long - but they are the people who hold the success of PressTV in their hands.

It is their talent, hard work and dedication, under sometimes trying circumstances, that creates the product you see on the screen.

It was a great pleasure to invite just a small number of them onto the set at the end of the last edition of MET.

Chris Gelken

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Monday, 14 July 2008

The Paris Summit - Club Med or Club Flop?

Middle East Today spoke to two experts on Mediterranean politics to gain an insight into Sarkozy's motives for regenerating an old idea - and its chances for success.

Watch Paris Mediterranean Summit and join the debate.

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A dirty war with no winners

PressTV's another plunge into the complicated world of the Palestinian issue. This particular edition was broadcast a few days before the Paris Summit hosted by Nicolas Sarkozy.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had warned he would sever ties and suspend negotiations with Israel unless he received assurances they would abide by UN resolutions and International Court verdicts that the so-called "apartheid wall" and settlement expansion were illegal and should cease immediately.

His statement was posted on the Palestinian Authority's official website.

Obviously, he received no such assurance.

But a few days later, there he is, in a bear hug clinch with Prime Minister Olmert and President Sarkozy - all smiles.

So is anything Abbas says to be taken seriously?

I remember remarking to my colleagues at the time - every Abbas/Olmert handshake is probably worth 10,000 votes to Hamas.

Hamas has accused the PA of assisting the Israeli security forces in their crackdown on Hamas affiliated businesses - including a girl's school - in the West Bank.

So where do we go from here?

Well, watch A Dirty War With No Winners for some insights.

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Thursday, 10 July 2008

Palestinian state? A dream, nothing more.

The truce is falling apart, with Israeli raids against Hamas interests in the West Bank, and now, accusations that Fatah is actually assisting the Israel Defense Forces in their operations.

That's a story for another day.

One of the riskiest parts of the recently agreed truce between Hamas and Israel, was perhaps the fact that it was not extended to the West Bank.

Many analysts were saying it was a disaster waiting to happen. An increase in Israeli military activity in the West Bank would infuriate Palestinians in Gaza, and despite their desperate situation, might be tempted to retaliate – and thus give Israel an opportunity to respond.

And the Israelis are being provocative.

For example, the Israeli military has blockaded a Palestinian village for the alleged crime of protesting further construction of the West Bank Barrier – which the World Court has already deemed illegal.

Five Palestinians were seized in Nablus during a raid in which the Israeli army used sonic bombs.

Israeli troops stormed into the city of Bethlehem arresting another two.

In June, the Israeli army arrested 340 Palestinians in raids on the West Bank.

The Israeli military, obviously, view border demarcations, and signs that you are now entering areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority as nothing more than cute little street decorations.

Such is their lack of respect for any semblance of sovereignty or authority the government of President Mahmoud Abbas – and such behavior will achieve nothing more than undermine his authority and play directly into the hands of Hamas – an organization they have spend two years trying to weaken.

We have also seen a suspension of talks for a prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel, and the Egyptians are still acting as if they are a client state of the US and Israel by keeping the Rafah Crossing locked down.

Its been said that unification between Palestinian factions is the only way to push forward with the peace process – divided, while not perhaps not entirely without some negotiating power - severely limits their effectiveness.

Watch "A Palestinian State - a dream, nothing more" and join the debate. Get involved.

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Sunday, 6 July 2008

Olmert - Fit to lead?

PressTV's Middle East Today takes another look at the leadership of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and asked the question: Is he fit to lead?

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is well known as a political survivor. But despite winning yet another reprieve after making a deal with his most bitter rival, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Olmert is literally hanging onto power by his fingertips.

Currently embroiled in a bribery scandal that could see him indicted on criminal charges, he is also the target of internal palace intrigues within his own coalition government.

With his approval ratings in single digits, the embattled Prime Minister has a lot to occupy his mind – so how distracted is he with his own survival – and how does that impair his judgment in his primary function – that of running the country.

Anyone watching this program is well aware that office intrigues around the water cooler are a distraction and diminish productivity. But imagine the impact when impaired concentration can have life and death consequences, rather than just ordering one too many boxes of copy paper.

Israel is currently embroiled in a simmering war of words with Iran, with Israeli politicians openly making threats to launch pre-emptive attacks to neutralize Tehran’s nuclear energy program.

There are the first tentative steps to engage Syria in peace negotiations – whether this is more for Israel’s immediate security needs or simply to isolate Damascus from Tehran is another question.

There are the prisoner swap arrangements with Hezbollah, expected to take place within two weeks. Hezbollah says the swap will include two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev. Olmert says he believes the soldiers are dead. If true, what will be the consequences?

If that wasn’t, there is the shaky ceasefire with Gaza – and the bulldozer attack in Jerusalem, that left four dead.

There is evidence to suggest that the man was acting alone. He did, however, come from the same village as the gunman who shot dead eight seminary students in Jerusalem al-Quds in March.

The Israeli government had just ordered the house of the gunman to be demolished, a continuation of Israel’s practice of collective punishment.

Olmert has already angrily expressed his desire that the home of the Palestinian who drove the bulldozer should also be destroyed.

Analysts believe news of the house demolition and the bulldozer attack are no coincidence.

So given the circumstances, is Olmert’s knee-jerk reaction the one of a rational man, in complete control of his faculties.

Is Olmert making strategic decisions that affect not only Israel but the entire Middle East after careful consideration, or in the face of pressure from his enemies – does he simply feel compelled to he simply feels the need to give the impression of a functioning government?

Watch Middle East Today's "Olmert - fit to lead?" and join the debate.

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Thursday, 3 July 2008

SOFA - Bruised but still in the game

PressTV's Middle East Today takes another look at the developments related to the fractious negotiations to establish a Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq.

The clock is ticking on a proposed Status of Forces Agreement between the United States and Iraq.

Earlier this year, both sides appeared optimistic that a deal would be signed at the end of July. But as details of the agreement began to leak out – opposition to the deal exploded onto the streets of Baghdad and other cities in Iraq.

In its original form, Iraq would have been turned into little more than a semi-autonomous province of the United States. And a dangerous one at that, with more than 50 permanent bases for the US military and air force.

Iraq would have become a heavily armed outpost of American foreign policy, and with its nuclear armed ally, a stark reminder to any government in the region about who was really in charge in the Middle East.

Despite opposition to the SOFA deal, and obvious provisions that have had to be amended or dropped altogether, it is still on the table.

Officials have become a little more cautious in recent weeks about releasing too many details about what is exactly contained in the deal currently under negotiation. The media – including programs like Middle East Today – can be a real nuisance to policy makers trying to push through a policy that is unpopular with the people it will affect the most.

Washington claims to be striving to bring full democracy to Iraq. Interestingly, the Iraqi parliament went into session Tuesday July 1st to discuss the deal, while President Bush seems to be doing everything possible to keep this away from Congress. Does this mean they have succeeded in bringing democracy to Iraq at the expense of losing it at home?

But however watered down the SOFA deal may become, there is growing opposition to any deal at all. There are plenty Iraqis who simply want the occupations forces and their civilian security companies such as the notorious Blackwater Group out of the country.

And for them, sooner would be far more preferable to later.

Watch the discussion "Bruised but still in the game" and please, join the debate!


Maher Othman, Journalist (Al Hayat) and Media Consultant

Conn Halliman, columnist of Foreign Policy in Focus

Fmr Congressman Paul Findlay

Kamil Mahdi, Senior Lecturer, Middle East Economics, Exeter University

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Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Gaza Truce & and Palestinian reconciliation

PressTV's Middle East Today delves into the potential for rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah following the Egyptian brokered ceasefire in Gaza.

It has been a difficult week for the truce between Hamas and Israel. Multiple reports of ceasefire violations, delays in the opening of the crossings into Gaza to release much needed aided to the one and a half million residents.

There’ve been disputes regarding the interpretation of the scope of the truce – prisoner exchanges and so on.

But having said all that, and against the predictions of many analysts, at the time of going to air, the truce still appears to be holding.

What we are going to look at in this edition, is what impact the questionable success of the truce could have on reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.

Any hope for a final status, two state solution as called for so many previous agreements, relies not only on Israel and the United States negotiating in good faith and keeping to their promises – but also to a unified Palestinian political entity to become the final recipients and signatories of any deal.

Analysts say there can be no deal until the Hamas-Fatah dispute is resolved.

Moves are apparently afoot to resolve that dispute. A possible meeting between exiled chief of the Hamas Political Bureau Khaled Mashaal and Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas is being considered.

To discuss this sensitive issue we invited a guest from both sides of the political fence.

In Gaza, we had Ahmed Yousef, political advisor to the Hamas Prime Minister. And in Ramallah, was Moustapha Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

After coming away from watching this discussion, if you learn nothing else, you will discover that the two sides have far more in common than issues that separate them.

Watch Gaza Truce and Palestinian Reconciliation - and join the debate!

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Sunday, 29 June 2008

Has Barak become Olmert's puppy?

PressTV's Middle East Today takes a closer look at the relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Defense Minister, Ehud Barak.
Barak has twice threatened to bring down the government of Olmert, and twice backed down. PressTV Middle East Today asks, why?

For the past several months Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been fighting for his political life, plagued by corruption scandals and internal power plays, but as one analyst said – like a magician he keeps pulling those rabbits out of the hat. Another described him as the ultimate political survivor – despite polling single digit popularity.

He survived the latest challenge after he was thrown a lifeline by his Defense Minister and political rival, Ehud Barak, who said he would keep his Labor Party in the government coalition and drop a bill calling for the dissolution of parliament, if Olmert agreed to hold a internal Kadima Party primary election on his leadership in September.

But it may be premature to write Olmert’s political obituary. According to a poll in a local newspaper, if the vote were held today, Ohmert would win only about 22 percent of the vote, losing out to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni who would take 31 percent, and Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz, with 23 percent.

His fate, apparently, depends on the ability of his lawyers to undermine the testimony of American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky, who is due to make a second appearance in court on July 17th.

If lawyers manage to refute allegations that Talansky gave Olmert more than 150-thousand dollars in alleged illegal cash payments, the poll suggested it could dramatically effect the power struggle within Kadima, leaving Olmert in the chairman’s seat.

In any event, even if he loses the poll, he could remain Prime Minister, because there is nothing in the Kadima bylaws that would force him to step down.

This is the second time that Ehud Barak has threatened to wreck the coalition and bring down the government. He said that if he was to remain only as Defense Minister he would withdraw the Labor Party from the coalition. But he eventually backed down.

Barak – despite being Olmerts obvious political rival, seems reluctant to carry through his threats.

Some analysts have suggested there may be ulterior motives for Barak’s reluctance to bring down the government at this time.

He has previously said he would only give up the premiership if indicted for criminal actions linked to the corruption case.

By hook or by crook – he seems determined to hang onto the reins of power – and his ability to do so, was the basis of our discussion on this edition of Middle East Today.

Watch "Personal ambition and partisan politics" here on the PressTV archive

((After overcoming technical difficulties, the 19th June edition of Middle East Today on the Gaza truce is now available online here))

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Thursday, 26 June 2008

Iraq - Blood for Oil

PressTV's Middle East Today takes another look the true motives behind the 2003 invasion of Iraq - and how the country's resources are being divided up among the major oil companies.

A lead item on the latest online edition of the Boston Globe goes: It took five years, the deaths of 41-hundred US soldiers, and the wounding of 30,000 more to make Iraq safe for Exxon.

The article continues with reference to a New York Times article that several Western oil companies, including ExxonMobile, Shell, Total, BP, and Chevron are about to sign no-bid contracts with the Iraqi government.

No mention of course about the Iraqi casualties in the report, after all, they are just collateral damage in the effort to strip the Iraqi government and country of its resources.

We hear nothing these days about weapons of mass destruction. And while the subject of democracy is mentioned from time to time, the big story is obviously whether or not Washington can push through its status of forces agreement – essentially turning Iraq into a semi-autonomous province of the United States – in order to protect the investments those oil companies will be making.

Negotiations over the SOFA deal have been met with street protests and widespread opposition in Iraq, whose people see their future being stolen from under their own noses.

Officials from the central government and the autonomous Kurdish region in the north are set to resume talks in Baghdad over a proposed new oil law.

First introduced to Parliament in February 2007, the law would set the rules for foreign investment in the oil sector, and determine how revenues will be shared among the different ethnic factions in the country.

In the absence of such a law, the Kurds have signed nearly 20 production sharing deals with international oil companies – deals that the Baghdad government says are illegal.

But after the tremendous investment in blood and treasure the West has made to “liberate” Iraq, they are not simply going to write it off to a gesture of American good-will.

While the men in suits squabble over the spoils of war, the actual business of fighting the war continues.

Apparently the joint Iraqi Government-US military assault on the South Eastern town of Al-Amarah was a resounding success. Reports say the Al-Mahdi army that had taken residence in the town after the British left two years ago, were routed without a shot being fired.

Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has denied he is going after the Mahdi army of anti-American cleric, Moqtada Al Sadr. Rather, he said, he is on a mission to rid the country of lawlessness ahead of municipal elections scheduled for October.

On the panel to discuss these issues:

In London, Sabah Jawad, director of Iraqi Democrats Against Occupation

In Baghdad, Mahmoud Uthman, from the Kurdistan Alliance

And on the phone from Washington, Conn Hallinan, a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus.

Watch Iraq - Blood for oil - and join in the debate!

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Sunday, 22 June 2008

Gaza's tenuous truce

PressTV's Middle East Today looks behind the headlines to investigate the motivation for Israel's decision to sign up to a ceasefire with Hamas. Some of the answers may surprise you.

It has been a long time coming, especially for the one and a half million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip, and the residents of the small southern Israeli towns of Siderot and Ashkelon.

But the truce that was declared on Thursday morning was broken almost as soon as it began, with an Israeli warship firing shells into the waters off Gaza. Fortunately, Hamas fighters in the Gaza Strip did not respond.

Israeli helicopters and tanks are conducting highly visible patrols along the borders of Gaza, in what some observers say is an unnecessarily provocative show of force.

But if the truce holds, then Israel will gradually lift the siege of the coastal strip, bringing relief to Gaza residents who have been the victims of what international humanitarian agencies have described as a criminal collective punishment.

((At the time of publishing, a promised relaxation of border controls has not come into effect. Trucks have been lining up all day to take much needed supplies into Gaza, only to be turned back from the border crossing.))

The question of will the truce hold, or for how long it will hold, seem to be gaining far more prominence in the speeches and comments of the region’s leaders, than the far more important question of, what benefits will this truce bring to the people of the region and the peace process as a whole.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for example, on the eve of the ceasefire said he had no illusions, and that the truce is likely to be short lived, describing Hamas as contemptible and bloodthirsty terrorists.

Hardly words to encourage optimism. And with Israel already technically guilty of breaking the truce, his pessimism may just turn out to be a self fulfilling, or perhaps we should say, self inflicted prophecy.

On the panel of "Hope tempered by pessimism" were:

In Gaza, political analyst, Doctor Asad Abu Sharikh

In New York, Professor Norman Finkelstein, author and lecturer on the Middle East

And on the phone from Washington, Kenneth Katzman, Middle East Specialist, Congressional Research Service

Watch Middle East Today's "Gaza, hope tempered by pessimism" for frank and open discussion on what Israel and the United States plans for the Middle East.

Watch the fascinating debate with Norman Finkelstein and our other guests on the PressTV archive here!

In the meantime, related story based on the program available on on Ohmynews International.

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Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Al-Maliki's Beard

PressTV's Middle East Today investigates the opposition to a proposed security pact between the United States and Iraq.

Let's begin with a bit of Arabic folklore. An older man took a younger woman to be his wife. She thought the grey in the man’s beard made him look old, and would take to plucking out the grey strands.

The man’s older wife, however, thought the predominance of black hairs looked out of place, and she too reached for the tweezers and started snipping away.

Before you knew it, the beard was totally gone and neither the older nor younger wife was happy.

The moral of the story is, you can’t please everyone – especially two wives – and at some point one has to make tough choices.

This little story is now being applied to illustrate the dilemma facing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, with Iran and the United States, naturally standing in to take the place of the two wives.

The questions is, can al-Maliki pull off a diplomatic coup and keep them both happy?

One the one side, we have the United States pushing hard for a status of forces agreement to be signed by the end of July. On the other, we have Tehran encouraging its neighbor to reject the agreement, saying the presence of foreign troops in the country is the root cause of instability both in Iraq and around the region.

Without the military clout of the United States, al-Maliki’s initiatives to assert his authority over wayward militias within the country would probably end in disaster.

Much of the international effort and budget that should have gone into building a strong national army and police force in Iraq, has instead been spent on effectively bribing insurgent groups with cash and guns to change sides – the Sunni Awakening Councils for example.

But this policy, according to an article written Iraq veteran Lt. Colonel Douglas Ollivant, has only resulted in a competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources.

According to Ollivant, it is an extremely difficult and lethal problem, and one that the fledgling Iraqi national army is ill-equipped to handle on its own.

But the alternative of offering the United States even a semi-permanent military foothold in the heart of the Middle East would not sit well with any of Baghdad’s neighbors.

On the panel were, Malak Hamdan, from Solidarity for an Independent and Unified Iraq.

Ghassan Atiyyah from the the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy.

Aziz Jabber, a professor at Baghdad University.

And on the phone from New York, Steward Stogel, UN correspondent for Time.

Watch Al-Maliki's Beard on the PressTV archive

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Sunday, 15 June 2008

US & Israel Beating The Drums Of War

PressTV's Middle East Today investigates the cause and possible effect of the heated rhetoric that has been directed against Iran in recent months over its refusal to give up its uranium enrichment program.

Ever since George Bush’s 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech, the people of Iran have lived with the sometimes distant, but almost ever present, beat of war drums thumping in their ears.

In recent weeks and months, however, the rhetoric of war has become more direct and strident.

Sometimes directed at Iran’s alleged malign interference in the internal affairs of Iraq, more frequently because of Tehran’s refusal to back down over its uranium enrichment program, the warning that a military option remains on the table is giving way to more explicit and unambiguous threats.

Earlier this month, Israeli Transportation Minister, Shaul Mofaz, triggered an international uproar by saying in a published interview that Israel would have “no choice” but to attack Iran if it did not halt its nuclear program.

During a speech to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert forcefully repeated warnings from Washington, that Iran would never be allowed to develop the technology to produce nuclear weapons.

In related circumstances, Israel has a history of taking unilateral military action against other countries. In 1981 Israel made a surprise airstrike on the Osirak nuclear facility in Iraq, and just last September, warplanes destroyed what Israel described as a suspected nuclear site in Syria.

Notwithstanding the lack of any credible evidence that Iran is in fact interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq or that the International Atomic Energy Agency has discovered no verifiable proof that Tehran has an ongoing nuclear weapons program, the tempo of threats has picked up noticeably.

So much so, in fact, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations has lodged a formal protest, saying Israel’s threatening posture breaks every tenet of the UN charter.

With George Bush set to hand over the reins of power in just over six months, and with Olmert embroiled in legal troubles at home, both men are looking for a legacy – and both of them appear convinced that resolving the Iranian nuclear issue before they leave office will provide them such a legacy.

The response from Iran has been to call on the Western powers to provide proof of Iran’s alleged misbehavior. Newly elected House Speaker Ali Larijani essentially told critics to either put up or shut up. The former nuclear negotiator said allegations without proof are worthless, and claims that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons are totally baseless.

In this edition of Middle East Today we’ll be taking a closer look at the threats against Iran, Tehran’s response, and the responsibility of the global community to help prevent a wider conflict in the Middle East.

Joining the panel were:

From London, Toufic Machnouk, Associate Director for Policy Research and Development

In Washington we were joined by Richard A. Hellman, Middle East Expert and President of the Christian’s Israel Public Action Campaign

And in New York, Sara Flounders, National co-director of the International Action Center

Watch the full debate on Middle East Today's "Beating the drums of war."

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Thursday, 12 June 2008

Coming up! Israel beats drums of war

A broad and fresh discussion on the real risk posed to Iran by Israeli and US threats of military action if Tehran continues with uranium enrichment.

First broadcast on Thursday 11th June, Israel - Beating the drums of War - will be reproduced here on Sunday 14th - with links to guests and the show itself.

Look forward to seeing you!

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Iraq - End of the American dream?

PressTV's Middle East Today investigates the implications of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's recent visit to Tehran.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has just completed a three day visit to Tehran, his third since taking office.

Before his arrival, there was widespread speculation in the Western media that, among other agenda items, Maliki would be challenging the Iranian government to explain allegations that Tehran was arming militia groups, and in the words of US General Petraeus, generally being a malign influence in Iraq.

The reality couldn’t have been any different. The talks included assurances from Maliki that he would never allow Iraq to be a jumping off point for any aggression against Iran. His words effectively and officially poured cold water over US plans for a substantial long term presence in the country.

In fact, in what many analysts perceive as a US reaction to the Maliki visit, officials in Washington have now admitted that they are not optimistic that a Status of Forces Agreement will be signed with Baghdad before George Bush leaves office next January.

And in what must be a stinging blow to US pride, Iraq and Iran signed a memorandum of understanding on expanding military cooperation between the two countries.

Iraq’s Defense Minister asked his Iranian counterpart to help Baghdad build up its military to ensure both internal and regional stability.

It must getting fairly obvious to the Bush administration, that in many ways Baghdad is leaning closer to Tehran than it is to Washington.

Negotiations over the Status of Forces Agreement has strained relations between the US and Iraq, and the assertive foreign policy of Maliki suggests that he can no longer really be considered as Washington’s man in Baghdad.

The question is, how close and how far will Tehran-Baghdad ties develop? and what impact will this have on Baghdad’s relationship with Washington.

And I suppose we have to look at Washington’s potential reaction. After all, to be perfectly frank they are hardly likely to write off their incalculable losses in Iraq, and just simply hand the country absolute sovereignty to deal with whomever they please.

For Washington hawks, simply accepting the especially close ties between Iraq and Iran would be tantamount to handing the country over to Tehran, and that simply isn’t going to happen, either with this or any future president.

On the panel to discuss a whole range of related issues were:

In Washington, Erik Leaver, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

In New York, we welcomed back David Katz, Homeland Security Expert

and from From San Francisco, David Solnit, Anti War Activist (published interview)

On the phone from London, we were joined by Malak Hamdan, from Solidarity for an Independent and Unified Iraq.

Watch the entire show, Iraq - End of the American dream? on the PressTV archive.

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Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Iraq - End of the American Dream?

Watch out for the next edition of Middle East Today where we ask the the question:

If we look at what the Western mainstream media thought was going to happen before Nouri Al-Maliki's visit to Iran, and what actually did happen - let’s get the first and obvious question out of the way before we go into details. Is Maliki setting himself up for a serious confrontation with the United States? Let's face it, Washington can’t be happy, especially with the defense cooperation agreement for example?

Full story and links will be posted on Thursday, so please come back!

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Foreign intervention in Middle East

PressTV's Middle East Today takes a look at the effects of foreign mediation in Middle East disputes. Is it time for the West to bow out, and let the region sort out its own problems?

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is on his third official visit to Tehran since taking office – and his second this year.

High on the agenda in his meetings with foreign ministry officials, the president and leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Seyyid Ali Khamanei, are the plans by Washington to forge a long term strategic relationship with Iraq – a status of forces agreement – or SOFA.

Critics of the deal say it would reduce Iraq to the level of a vassal state of the US, and a base for US military adventures in the region.

Maliki has assured his neighbor that Iraq will not become a base for threats against Tehran. But even if a watered down version of the SOFA security pact goes through – and all indications are that it will - these are promises that Maliki is hardly in a position to make.

Meanwhile, French President Nicholas Sarkozy has been in Lebanon to offer his support for national unity.

Sarkozy also suggested a “new page” may be opening in relations with Damascus now that crisis in Lebanon appears to have passed.

In an interview published last week, Sarkozy said France would resume contacts with Syria only when positive, concrete developments occurred in Lebanon.

Interestingly, some of the most significant developments in Mid East peacemaking in recent weeks have been achieved without the obvious hands of Western power brokers.

The Doha Agreement that brought the Lebanese factions together, Egyptian brokered talks for a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, and Turkish mediated efforts to bring Israel and Syria closer to a deal for peace are just the most recent examples.

Fair to say, none of these new initiatives are anything close to being described a done deal, in fact, there are still plenty of concerns over whether the Doha deal will hold together.

But it does raise the question of whether Western mediation or peace efforts are on the wane.

Is it fair to say that after decades of effort, it is time for the West to bow out, and consign what could be described as its kill or cure approach to diplomacy – often with the emphasis on the former rather than the latter – to the waste bin of history.

Is it time for the region to resolve its own problems – cut the apron strings to former colonial rulers – and with what some have described as aspiring colonial powers.

Answering these and several other pressing questions were, in Washington, Ambassador Edward Peck former US Ambassador to Iraq - (profile)

In Cairo we were Joined by Gamal Nkrumah, Foreign Editor of Al-Ahram Newspaper.

Discussing the Sarkozy visit, were Edmond Gharib, Professor of International Relations at the American University.

In Beirut, the program was joined by Havan Haidar, of the Third Force, and on the Phone from London, Jacque Reland, Head of European Research, Global Policy Institute.

Watch "Kill or Cure - Foreign Mideast Intervention" from the Middle East Today archive.

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Sunday, 8 June 2008

Shock and awe at AIPAC

PressTV's Middle East Today brings together a diverse range of guests to discuss the most pressing issues facing the region in particular, and the world as a whole.

In this edition we are taking another look at the relationship between the United States and Israel – one that comes in the light of the latest visit to Washington by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and an unexpectedly robust expression of support for Israel by presidential candidate, Barak Obama.

Throughout his primary election campaign, Senator Barak Obama has constantly reinforced his message of change. A change from the tired, worn out and failed policies of the past.

Most notable, perhaps, was his retort to Iraq military commander General David Petraeus that what was needed was a surge in diplomacy, not a surge in troops.

At the time he was accused of appeasement.

But his speech to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee on Wednesday sounded like something taken from the pages of the Project for the New American Century.

In fact, one of our correspondents remarked that Obama’s speech was more Dick Cheney than, well, Dick Cheney.

Obama’s frequent repetition of certain statements emphasizing his support for Israel actually made me wonder whether he was trying to convince the audience or himself of his pro-Israel credentials.

Political analysts say he had to do it. Without the Israel Lobby, without the Christian Zionist Lobby, then he may as well not bother continuing with his bid for the presidency.

But now he has done it. We can debate whether or not he really believes in what he said. But if the message was coming from Obama’s heart, then the prospects for a Middle East Peace settlement just became even more remote.

With just one assertion – that Jerusalem is and would remain the eternal undivided capital of Israel – Obama effectively drove the final nail into the coffin of Oslo, Annapolis and any Palestinian aspirations for a two state settlement with East Al-Quds as its capital.

Obama’s declaration flies in the face of numerous United Nations resolutions on the status of Jerusalem-Al Quds.

Obama said it is unacceptable to question the accepted history of the Holocaust, or challenge the legitimacy policies enacted by Israel. But apparently this presidential candidate is perfectly comfortable with ignoring a raft of UN resolutions, effectively endorsing an ongoing criminal activity.

The result of a US presidential election – unlike any other – is something that has a resounding impact around the world. And Obama’s campaign of change had struck a positive chord, especially among some countries here in the Middle East.

But Obama’s strident message delivered to AIPAC, reinforced by repetition after repetition, has left many in the region bitterly disappointed, and it would be fair to say, in something of a state of shock.

Joining the panel of Middle East Today to discuss the developments were:

In Gaza, Doctor Hani Al-Bassos, Lecturer at the Islamic University of Gaza (

In Ramallah, we welcomed Abdallah Abdallah, a spokesman for Fatah. (

From East Jerusalem, Ahmad Tibi, a member of the Knesset. ( )

And on the phone from New York, Maxine Dovere, AIPAC Reporter, Maariv Newspaper (

It was a lively debate, with some fresh and interesting perspectives that you won't often see on the regular MSM. Watch Middle East Today's "A Vote For What Change?"

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Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Iraq - Has Bush Lost The Plot?

PressTV's Middle East Today takes a fresh look at one of the region's most perplexing areas of conflict.

We are back in Iraq this week where the US coalition suffered another setback with the announced withdrawal of Australian forces.

There were also widespread protests against the signing of any form of Status of Forces Agreement between Baghdad and Washington, with critics describing the pact as essentially reducing Iraq to the level of a vassal state.

Washington, has been accused of trying to bribe Iraqi politicians to give their support for the pact, politicians that many Iraqis say either hide behind the fences of the Green Zone, or do not even have the courage to reside in the country.

While a number of Iraqi politicians and other prominent figures have come out strongly against the SOFA deal, the general public is wary of a legislature that many believe has been tainted by corruption and perhaps is not acting in Iraq’s best interests.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has announced he will be making his second visit to Tehran at the end of the week.

Iraq’s Tehran ambassador said Maliki will be here to explain the details of the proposed SOFA agreement. He also refuted media reports that Iraqi senior cleric Ayatollah Sistani is opposed to the SOFA agreement.

Earlier reports last week said Sistani would not accept the agreement while he was still living. The ambassador denied such statements were made.

Added to the mix of events this week is the release of Scott McClellan’s “What Happened” – an insider’s account of how the media and the public were manipulated by the Bush administration to accept its wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. According to some, the book contains enough information to launch a major investigation and possible impeachment of Bush and Vice President Cheney.

As Bush sees the end of his presidency fast approaching, he must be seriously considering his legacy. Under such pressure, is it possible he is losing focus? Has President Bush finally lost the plot on his seven years of what many have described as the most disastrous American foreign policy missteps in the country’s history?

On the panel to discuss the latest developments were:

From London, Jaafar el-Ahmar – Iraq expert for Al-Hayat

From Washington, Mohammad Oweis, Political analyst (profile)

In New York, Anthony Arnove, the author of ‘Iraq Under Siege

And David Katz, a Homeland Security expert who joined us by phone.

Watch the sometimes heated debate - Iraq - Has Bush Lost The Plot? and hear what the experts have to say.

Also see Bush's Eroding Credibility first broadcast on May 22nd.

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Monday, 2 June 2008

Sudan - A disaster in progress

PressTV's Middle East Today delves into the complicated issues dividing Africa's largest nation, Sudan.

It’s a country that is very rarely out of the news, but also a country that very few people actually understand.

To many people, Sudan is synonymous with civil war, ethnic strife, poverty and hunger. A little known fact, however, is that despite all this, the country still managed to be the sixth fastest growing economy in the world in terms of GDP last year.

Sudan also emerged as the world’s most unstable country on the Failed States Index, pushing Iraq into second place, probably not an achievement welcomed or accepted by the authorities in Khartoum .

But while Sudan may appear as a solid block on the map, on the ground, several regions with their own distinct cultures and languages maintain a vigilant watch on their neighbors; over the gunsight of an assault rifle.

Despite a ceasefire declared between the north and south in 2005 – a ceasefire both sides accuse the other of violating – there have been a rising number of armed clashes, leading observers to suggest the country may be on the brink of open civil war.

In the west, Darfur remains the focus of much international attention with alleged government attacks on tribes who are seeking regional autonomy.

Along its border with Chad , tensions remain high, with Khartoum accusing its neighbor of helping Darfur rebels, and two weeks ago Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir declared he was cutting diplomatic relations.

Sudan has more than 550 different tribes speaking some 400 distinct languages. But generally they are separated into two main groups, Arabs with Nubian roots in the north and non-Arab Africans.

This of course is an oversimplification, given that within those groups there are bitter rivalries and tenuous alliances.

A joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping mission has been the country since last year, attempting to enforce the terms of a Darfur Peace Treaty.

On Sunday, Khartoum ordered the chief of the mission, Brigadier Patrick Davidson-Houston out of the country.

His force was supposed to comprise 26,000 troops and police, drawn mainly from African countries. At the time of his departure, he had just 9,000 men under his command.

Middle East Today invited three Sudan experts to appear on the program to give their insights and help the rest of us try to get a better understanding a better understanding of what is actually happening on the ground.

After watching this program you certainly will not be able to boast in any way that you are now some sort of expert on Sudan and its complex issues. You will, however, be able to declare that from what you have learned, this is not a problem that is going to disappear from our television screens any time soon.

On the panel were, in London, Gibril Ibrahim Mohammad, Senior Advisor to the Justice and Equality movement.

In Khartoum we were joined by political analyst, Rabii Abdelatti.

And from Washington, Bill Fletcher, former president of Transafrica Forum offered us some sound advice.

Sudan - A disaster in progress on PressTV

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