Seizures in the Middle East

Ariel Sharon's siege of Yasir Arafat's headquarters may well turn out to be Saddam Hussein's major victory in his struggle to convince the Arab world to oppose a planned attack on Iraq.

While George W. Bush says rhetorically that he hasn't decided whether or when to attack, there are numerous indications that the administration is seriously considering some form of strike.

"I don't know when, but I know this president is not going to let Saddam Hussein stay in power," said South Carolina Republican congressman Lindsey Graham last week. He is running for the GOP Senate nomination. And the Turkish press quoted Dick Cheney as telling Sharon that the U.S. was planning to attack Iraq "first and foremost for Israel's sake." There has been some increase in U.S. military presence, with forces in Kuwait being doubled to 10,500 in recent months. There are now some 80,000 American military personnel in the Middle East and Central Asia.

An attack may come in the form of heavy bombardment of Iraqi installations thought to be researching and making mass-destruction weapons or of seizure of oil fields in southern Iraq. The latter would not require tens of thousands of troops; theoretically, at least, that would keep U.S. casualties to a minimum. Seizing the oil fields would throw down the gauntlet to Saddam and leave him no choice but to respond by sending in his own army. If that were to happen, our planes would have a turkey shoot. Despite what the hard-line mullahs say, Iran in the past has indicated it would stay out of a war between the U.S. and Iraq.

In any event, Sharon's strike at the Palestinians seems to have temporarily united the Arab world, and it made the Saudis, who had just proposed a peace plan, look like fools. The situation between the Saudis and the U.S. military is difficult. The U.S. is believed to have about 4,500 troops stationed at the Prince Sultan base; the number of planes based there is unknown. From that base, U.S. planes patrol the southern no-fly zone in Iraq. If retaliatory strikes are involved, the planes would fly out of Kuwait so as not to upset the Saudis. Saudi Arabia refused the U.S. permission to fly sorties over Afghanistan, but the base did serve as an electronic hub for the campaign. Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, has been against any attack on Iraq. He told Cheney that the U.S. "should not strike Iraq because such an attack would only raise animosity in the region against the United States." To relieve tensions, the U.S. is reportedly planning to move its big base from Saudi Arabia to Qatar.

The real Arab weapon is oil, and last week, Saddam urged Arab leaders to employ "economic measures" against Israel and its supporters. If the Arabs were to mount an oil embargo as they did in the 1970s, Bush would face a major political backlash.

THIS IS YOUR PRISON ON DRUGS

Because the cost of new prisons is beginning to drain the financial resources of state governments and pose the prospect of tax increases, conservatives in Congress and state governments are slowly loosening drug laws to send offenders to treatment programs and relax mandatory sentences. There are more than 300,000 people incarcerated for drug offenses in the U.S.

In Congress, conservative Republican senators Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Orrin Hatch of Utah have introduced a bill that would lower the minimum mandatory sentence for crack cocaine and would make a stab at ending the disparity in sentencing those with crack and those with powdered cocaine. The sentences for crack are heavier than those for powder, meaning that more blacks, who mostly use crack, go to jail and for longer periods of time than do powder-snorting whites.

The Sessions-Hatch proposals represent a "symbolic victory," said Julie Stewart, executive director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a D.C.-based group. The Sessions-Hatch legislation just scratches the surface, she added, but it's better than nothing, and, except for the Black Caucus, Democrats take little interest in drug sentencing. At least the Republicans, she added, "are saying there is something wrong with crack sentences and we need to deal with it."

Connecticut, Indiana, North Dakota, Iowa, Mississippi and Oregon all have taken small steps to reduce minimum sentences. In addition to abolishing mandatory minimums for first-time offenders, North Dakota dropped plans for a new prison. A California proposition urges treatment over jail. In Louisiana, Governor M.J. Foster Jr. wants to cut government costs ($600 million per year) by getting addicts out of jail and reducing some sentences.

TERROR FROM ON HIGH

Cloaked in the favorite conservative lingo of states' rights, the Bush administration has drawn up a proposal that ought to give even the president's staunchest backers the willies. Presented as a draft, the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act, written by the Centers for Disease Control, sets forth procedures and rules so that a state government could respond to a sudden bioterror attack. Granting governors the power to declare a "bioterrorism emergency," the proposal, as originally written, would have allowed them to quarantine the population, take property, and ration food and guns. People who don't go along could be jailed.

The act has been introduced in 12 state legislatures and is expected to be scrutinized by every state legislative body sometime this year. Key provisions:

•Governors could declare a public-health emergency without consulting the legislature, courts or public-health officials.

•An "emergency" could be prompted by any "disease caused by a living organism" that "may or may not be transmissible from person to person, animal to person, or insect to person." This definition, in the eyes of some, could include the flu or other ordinary viral illnesses.

•Public health officials could quarantine people "suspected of having" an "infectious disease," make vaccination mandatory, order medical exams and fine doctors if they don't comply.

•The state could mobilize its "organized militia," presumably the National Guard, and seize control of private property, including "communication devices, real estate, fuels, food, clothing and health care facilities."

So far, three states—South Dakota, Utah and New Mexico—have enacted the law, and a version has passed the Florida legislature. Similar proposals have been defeated in four states: Idaho, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming. In New York, the law has been introduced and is being considered by the state senate's public-health committee.

PENTAGON UNSCATHED?

The best-seller in Paris, according to Amazon.com's French operations, is Sept. 11: The Frightening Fraud (L'Effroyable Imposture) by lefty Green Party "journalist" and Voltaire Network luminary Thierry Meyssan. He claims that the Pentagon was never hit by a plane and that the U.S. establishment, led by the Pentagon disinformation gang, thought the whole thing up.

Dismissed as nuts by most French journalists, the book nonetheless has soared on the Internet. "This theory suits everyone," snapped Le Nouvel Observateur. "There are no Islamic extremists, and everyone is happy. It eliminates reality."

Some have suggested that the book is a spoof relying on the same French sense of humor that elevated Jerry Lewis to a comic genius.

Additional reporting by Gabrielle Jackson, Meritxell Mir and Michael Ridley.
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