Greater Middle East
The US has called home its ambassador to Syria in protest of Damascus' supposed links to the Hariri assassination before the facts are even in. In response, Syria and Iran—traditional rivals, but both fearing they could be next for US aggression—have forged a "united front," said media reports today. "We are ready to help Syria on all grounds to confront threats," Iranian Vice-President Mohammad Reza Aref said after meeting Syrian PM Naji al-Otari. Denying any links to the killing, Syrian cabinet minister Buthaina Shaaban said: "To point to Syria in a terrorist act that aims at destabilising both Syria and Lebanon is truly like blaming the US for 9-11." Throwing down the guantlet in unsubtle terms, US Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, visiting Beirut for Hariri's funeral today, called for a "complete and immediate withdrawal" of Syria's 14,000 troops stationed in Lebanon. (BBC, Feb. 16)
Former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri (and 11 others) were killed in a Beirut car bomb attack Feb. 14. Because he had been an outspoken opponent of the Syrian military presence in Lebanon, suspicion immediately fell on Damascus and Damascus-backed armed factions. A previously unknown group, Victory and Jihad in Greater Syria, has apparently claimed responsibility, and authorities are said to be hunting down a Lebanese-based Palestinian refugee, Ahmed Tayseer Abu al-Ads, who is said to have appeared in a video taking credit for the attack. (Lebanon Daily Star, Feb. 16)
In the men-only elections for half the seats on Saudi Arabia's municipal councils--a landmark step towards democracy by Saudi standards--results are in from the capital, Riyadh, and over 30 losing candidates are claiming the seven winners violated campaign guidelines. The winners, predictably, were all affiliated with Islamist organizations backed by the government, and are accused of violating the ban on electoral alliances by portraying themselves as a de facto alliance backed by prominent reglious sheikhs. Results are still pending in other municipalities. Reuters says the principal opponents of the government-backed Islamists in the races are "businessmen" (presumably more liberal and globalist technocrats) and "tribal" leaders (presumably representing local sheikhs who resent the ostentatious power of the Saud clan, but are not likely to be more progressive on such questions as women's rights). (NYT, Feb. 14; Reuters, Feb. 11)
A front-page story in the Feb. 10 NY Times notes that Saudi Arabia is holding its first national election that day--albeit with an "asterisk": women are barred from the vote, and even men only get to elect half the members of municipal councils. The other half will remain appointees, and no national leaders will be elected.