I will just record here my own serious concern about two developments in the Middle East.

Today’s NYT lead story reports:

Monday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel urged President Bush to step up pressure on Iran to give up all elements of its nuclear program, according to senior American and Israeli officials

Mr. Sharon said Israeli intelligence showed Iran was near “a point of no return” in learning how to develop a weapon, the officials said. However, Mr. Sharon gave no indication thatIsraelwas preparing to act alone to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, a prospect that Vice President Dick Cheney, who was at the lunch, raised publicly three months ago

Nothing that is “revealed” that took place in such discussions is made known to us without purpose. I am concerned that the purpose is to forewarn the US public of further action – which, in six weeks time could have the support of the newly elected UK government.

The second item of concern is a report plucked off AP news:

On Tuesday, U.S. troops battled arms smugglers and fighters near the Iraqi town of Qaim along the Syrian border, killing an unknown number of foreign insurgents, the U.S. military said. Local hospital officials reported at least nine people killed in clashes in the same area, and said they believed the dead were civilians.

Insurgents opened fire when the U.S. troops began their raid on the smuggling ring Tuesday, and several militants, including at least one suicide bomber, were killed, the U.S. military said in a statement. No Americans were injured, it said.

Residents reported violent clashes before dawn Tuesday in and around Qaim, although it was unclear if the violence was related to the raid.

Hamid al-Alousi, director of Qaim hospital, said his facility had received nine corpses and nearly two dozen wounded in the violence. Residents of a small village just north of Qaim said more than a dozen more people were buried in the area and not taken to the hospital. Residents and hospital officials said the victims appeared to be civilians.

Clear evidence of the smuggling of arms across the Syrian border is an intolerable situation for the US military and shows a breakdown in any supposed agreement to secure this border that had been arrived at with the Syrian authorities.

Both these reports are indicative that joint American/Israeli action may soon commence.

The same AP report records the death of twelve Iraqi Guard in a roadside bomb.

Noticeable is that AP make a point about the non-availability of any confirmation regarding these happenings from US Military. Such military clampdowns on responding to press enquiries is a further worrying sign of intense military activity.

Breaking News: Top of the news stream on AP is the following report:

President Hamid Karzai said Wednesday he is preparing a formal request to President Bush for a long-term security partnership that could include a permanent U.S. military presence.

At a joint news conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Karzai said he had consulted many of his country’s citizens in recent weeks about “a strategic security relationship,” with the United States that could help Afghanistan avoid foreign interference and military conflicts.

“The conclusion we have drawn is that the Afghan people want a long-term relationship with the United States,” Karzai said. “They want this relationship to be a sustained economic and political relationship and most importantly of all, a strategic security relationship to enable Afghanistan defend itself, to continue to prosper, to stop the possibility of interferences in Afghanistan.”

This comes as no surprise despite persistent denials to the contrary in the past by the US Administration.

It is comforting to know that exactly the same announcement will be available for Iraq when the time comes without the need for any additional work, thus easing the burden on the hard-pressed US PR staff.

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