Friday, August 04, 2006
'These men have nothing to lose'
As we watched a feed of today's pro-Hezbollah rally come in from Sadr City, Baghdad, I had to wonder: Did those young men dressed in white shrouds to demonstrate their willingness to die for Hezbollah really mean it?
It's one thing to get caught up in the fervor of a mass demonstration and say you'd be willing to die for a cause. It's another thing to actually do it.
One of the Arabic-speaking producers in our bureau in Baghdad was standing next to me as I watched the feed. I turned to him and asked him what he thought. His answer was a categorical yes. "These men have nothing to lose," he said. "Their fervor is their sustenance."
The constant suicide bombings in Iraq are proof people are willing to die for their cause. I'd just never seen a potential suicide bomber or fighter express his will in such a passionate, public way.
The white shroud is a powerful symbol. Its message is one of purification through the ultimate sacrifice.
The crowd in Sadr City today was a mass of white. A mass of passionate men expressing their support for Hezbollah and Moqtada al Sadr, who use violence as a way of effecting the changes they say their region needs.
But many of those who were shrouded in white were young men, some of them, just teenagers. Could they really believe death is the only way to better their lot?
Obviously, many do.
Wednesday, August 02, 2006
White House denies giving green light to Israel
President Bush made a rare visit to the White House briefing room this afternoon to celebrate the fact that the ratty, old pressroom that we correspondents call home (where the carpets are disgusting, the chairs are falling apart and the air conditioning is spotty at best) is about to undergo nine months of extensive renovations.
The president yukked it with newbie correspondents, as well as some veterans like Helen Thomas and Sam Donaldson, who came back for this special event and fired-off a screaming question for old-time's sake, prompting the commander-in-chief to joke that the ABC News denizen is a "has-been." Ouch.
But the president took no questions from the press corps as the war in the Middle East raged on for a 22nd day, leaving it to his press secretary, Tony Snow, to face a barrage of queries about why the United States has not stopped the violence yet.
"We would love a cease-fire yesterday," Snow said. But he again repeated the mantra that the administration wants a "sustainable" peace, not one that will slip away within days. He said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is still hopeful that a U.N. resolution can be passed by the end of the week.
Despite emphasizing diplomacy in his remarks, Snow acknowledged that three weeks into the crisis President Bush still has not called Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. That's led even some Republicans, such as Sen. Chuck Hagel, to raise questions about whether the Bush administration has given Israel tacit approval to level Lebanon, in hopes it will destroy the terrorist group Hezbollah, despite the ongoing toll on innocent victims in both Lebanon and Israel.
"We don't have a green light," Snow said. "The idea that the U.S. is saying, 'Go, go, go,' I think is a disservice to the Israeli government, which operates independently, and this government."
But has the White House given Israel a green light to "go, go, go"? We'll explore this question in more depth tonight.
Tuesday, August 01, 2006
Rockets so close you can smell them
Monday was a quiet day along Israel's border with Lebanon. Instead of more than 100 Katyushas hitting the area, only a handful did.
But it was my first day here and I was still adjusting to the loud sound of artillery going off around us. So one rocket, two rockets, three rockets. It felt crazy enough for me. But all in all, by Monday night, I thought, "Not bad, I can handle this."
However, that peace of mind would not last long.
Tuesday around 2:30 a.m. local time, cameraman Neil, driver Elias and I left our hotel to start prepping for the show at our live location about 20 minutes away. We were about halfway there when a rocket or perhaps a mortar hit up ahead. That was followed by a second one, which landed even closer.
It took a second for us to all realize what actually was happening. I believe I even asked, "Is that incoming our outgoing?" The fireworks-like effect should have made it obvious enough.
Elias pulled the van over to the side and we debated for a second whether to drive forward or stay put. Then Neil pointed out that incoming fire often come in packs and that we were a sitting duck by staying parked to the side. I am not sure if it helps to stay still, drive your way through or turn around. All I knew was I wanted to get the hell out of there.
As we moved forward and around the bend, we found ourselves right next to the site of the explosions. There was a lot of smoke and the smell burned my nose. A piece of casing was sitting on the road. Neil managed to crack a joke about getting out of the car to shoot some b-roll. But I couldn't muster a smile. I was too busy trying to get my flak jacket and helmet on.
We made it to our show location safely and the show itself went smoothly. But I have to admit, I was spooked. I spent much of today wearing my flak jacket ... even in our hotel ... opening myself up to some friendly ribbing at the hands of my colleagues.
Here's hoping tonight is a little less eventful.
Syria bids for world's attention
Last night, Syrian President Bashir Assad told the country's armed forces to "raise their readiness." It was a deliberate statement, timed amid rising tensions in the region and meant to remind the world that Syria should not be ignored.
President Assad did not mobilize more troops. He did not increase the number of military vehicles at the border. He simply told the forces to train harder and to be ready for whatever comes next.
Amid growing calls for a diplomatic solution, Syria is trying to make enough noise to let the world know it doesn't want to be left out of the discussion.
The United States, among others, has been wary of calling for an immediate cease-fire, fearful violence will return to the region after the world stops paying such close attention. Instead, "sustainable peace" is the phrase bandied about by American and Israeli leaders. There are, they say, root issues, such as getting rid of Hezbollah's militia -- labeled a terrorist group by the United States and Israel -- that must be dealt with permanently before lasting peace can be achieved.
But a permanent solution seems increasingly elusive. Since the tragic attack in Qana, Lebanon, there have been demonstrations across the Muslim world, from Tehran to Damascus to Baghdad. Not surprisingly, many demonstrators screamed anti-Western slogans, burned American and Israeli flags, and voiced support for Hezbollah.
But from where I sit it in Syria, it seems that those impassioned voices are finding more sympathy in Arab countries. Where there were some skeptical Arab voices when it came to Hezbollah, there are now more and more impassioned supporters. Hezbollah's infrastructure can be decimated by Israel's military, but allegiance among a new generation is rising by the day.
Clearly, the region's problem will not be solved in the weeks ahead by any simple means. At the end of the day, this may be one of the key questions: For real peace in the Middle East, does everyone in the region need to be at the negotiating table?
Monday, July 31, 2006
Seeing red in Israel
"Does anybody know what's in this stuff?" That's the question my cameraman, Neil Hallsworth, asked as a red-colored chemical fell over us.
It's a flame retardant the Israelis drop from small planes trying to put out the fires started by incoming Hezbollah rockets.
"My face is burning," Neil went on to say.
"I'm sure it's nothing. They must drop this stuff on firefighters all the time," I said. Though the truth is, I have no idea what's in it.
We were standing next to a roaring fire started by a Katyusha rocket. So far, two have fallen around Kiryat Shmona, but it's still early in the afternoon. Yesterday, nearly a hundred rockets fell in this area.
Despite all the talk of a ceasefire, the exchange of rockets and shells continues along the border.
Given the pictures the world has been watching since yesterday, the horrific images of little children crushed by a falling building in southern Lebanon, it is possible that sometime this week diplomatic efforts will overtake events on the ground.
It is interesting how one event, one attack, one tragedy, can suddenly alter a situation.
In Israel, many people look at those pictures of children pulled from rubble on Sunday and say, "It's terrible, but Hezbollah is to blame, because they hide their rockets next to civilians."
In the Muslim world, that is certainly not what most people say when they see those pictures. And that sentiment certainly was not the dominant one on Arab TV yesterday, which played the pictures over and over.
Tonight, we will focus a lot on the deaths in Qana. Meantime, I'm interested in hearing from you. Did what happened yesterday in Qana somehow change the way you view this crisis? Or did it leave your views unchanged?
Oh yeah, and if any of you know what's actually in that flame retardant, I've got a red-colored cameraman who'd love to know.