Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Obama calls elitism attack "political silly season"

By Ellen Wulfhorst

WASHINGTON, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Presidential hopeful Barack Obama, accused of being elitist for remarks he made about small-town American voters, said on Tuesday the slap at his background is amusing and signals a nation in the midst of "political silly season."

The Democratic senator, campaigning in Pennsylvania, dismissed the charges of being elitist and out of touch by fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton and by Republican John McCain as unfounded, given his background.

"I am amused about this notion of elitist, given that when you're raised by a single mom, when you were on food stamps for a while when you were growing up, you went to school on scholarship," he told a town hall meeting of U.S. military veterans in western Pennsylvania.

Obama has come under fire by opponents after he told an audience in San Francisco last week that economic problems led voters in some small towns to become "bitter" and "cling to guns or religion" as an outlet for their frustrations.

Neither of his wife Michelle's parents attended college, and both he and his wife financed their educations with student loans, Obama said.

"We lived for the first 13 years of our marriage up until three years ago in a three-bedroom condo without a garage so if you live in Chicago that means you're scraping ice every morning," he said in rejecting the elitist label.

"When somebody makes that argument, particularly given that I've spent my entire life working with workers in low-income communities to try to make people's lives a little bit better, that's when you know you're in political silly season," said Obama, who leads Clinton in the tight race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"This is what we do politically when we start getting behind in races, and we start going on the attack," he said.

The winner of the Democratic presidential nomination faces McCain, the Republican presumptive nominee, in the November general election.

Obama and his wife lived in a condominium they bought in 1993 for $277,500, The Boston Globe reported. They now live in a house for which they paid $1.95 million in 2005.

Clinton has condemned Obama's remarks from last week in a political ad featuring a woman saying she was "insulted," while McCain said the comments represented "a certain out-of-touch elitism."

Obama's comments on Tuesday came in response to a man in the audience who said he felt the label of elitist was not far from the label of "uppity," a racially insulting term used against blacks.

Obama said he did not think there were racial overtones to the criticism.

(Editing by David Alexander and David Wiessler)

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Obama Outraises Clinton Among Small Town Pennsylvanians

Sen. Barack Obama's political opponents charge that his recent remarks on the economic woes and bitterness of low-income voters put him gravely out of touch with small town Pennsylvanians.

But a review of campaign finance records -- conducted for The Huffington Post by the Spotfire Division of software firm TIBCO -- reveals that it is Obama, not Sen. Hillary Clinton, who has received the majority of donations from these very same Keystone State communities.

Indeed, through the end of February 2008, Obama received nearly $250,000 in contributions from Pennsylvanians residing in zip codes with populations under 30,000 people. That total, which does not include Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and both city's suburbs, was roughly $30,000 more than the amount raised by Clinton: $220,000.

When the population size is made even smaller, Obama continues to best his Democratic rival. Among those non-urban Pennsylvania zip codes with populations under 20,000, the Illinois Democrat has brought in just over $200,000. Clinton has raised slightly more than $170,000.

(Obama's advantage may in fact be even stronger than these numbers show, since campaigns do not provide information on donors who gave under $200, a subset where Obama has excelled. See the complete data here.)

"Essentially, this is a separation between the smaller areas in Pennsylvania as opposed to the two major cities and their surrounding areas," said Tim Wormus, an analytics guru with Spotfire. "It gives you a much different demographic and donation profile than when you just look at the state as a whole."

Obama's advantage in these small rural communities is undoubtedly a reflection of his broader organizing and fundraising prowess. In March, for example, the senator raised twice as much as Clinton -- $40 million to her $20 million -- which in turn likely added to his small town Pennsylvania fundraising lead.

But the figures also cut against some conventional political wisdom: mainly, that Clinton has been challenging Obama almost strictly on the large advantages she has in rural, white communities.

Of course, the predictive powers of fundraising data are highly debatable. Rep. Ron Paul, for instance, did not win a single election in the Republican primary despite raising more than most of his challengers. And because the sample size of this query is small (smaller communities have fewer donors), and because Obama's remarks on the economic angst of these towns were only recently made, it would be difficult to jump to any conclusion about the state of Pennsylvania's upcoming primary based on the contributions of its low-populated communities.

Nevertheless, campaign finance experts argue, fundraising records do provide a limited snapshot of where voters will ultimately lean politically.

"People who contribute money are going to vote," Massie Ritsch, a spokesperson for the Center for Responsive Politics, recently told The Huffington Post. "I don't think anyone is making a contribution to a candidate and then staying home on Election Day. Because of that you can draw some conclusion about a candidate's popular support based on the money that they've raised."

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Who wants to trade?

Politicians won't discuss trade on merit


DISCUSS a trade deal, and you might think that the main issues would be whether it is good for the American economy. But few debates on public policy ever reach this level of purposefulness. And in America, talking trade in an election year is no exception. Recent manoeuvres show how politicians are reluctant to talk about trade on its own merits.

George Bush’s administration signed a trade agreement with Colombia in 2006. But last week, under the auspices of Nancy Pelosi, the party’s leader in the House of Representatives, an arcane rule was invoked to prevent the bill from moving closer to ratification. Susan Schwab, America’s Trade Representative, called the move “pure, partisan politics” in an interview on Sunday April 13th.

Ms Pelosi says her party is not anti-trade. Instead, she says that Colombia must crack down on the murders of labour leaders (over 700 since 2001). But she is also using the threat of holding up the deal to get Mr Bush to make progress elsewhere. Ms Pelosi says specifically that she may release the trade deal for a vote in the House if Mr Bush bends her way on economic stimulus, including an energy tax credit and infrastructure spending.

Republicans play politics with trade, too. Although Colombia is a minor trading partner the deal would have the virtue of showing that America has not given up on pushing for global liberalisation. Nevertheless Mr Bush has repeatedly made the case for the Colombia trade deal not on its economic rationale, but because it would help a Latin American ally in the war on drugs, and incidentally one whose next-door neighbour is that anti-American irritant, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s president. John McCain, in chiding the Democrats for holding up the deal, repeated Mr Bush’s reasons for supporting the deal, not to mention hinting at his own distaste for Mr Chavez.

Several factors are making trade a hard sell in America these days. One is a constant: the benefits of trade are spread fairly evenly around the economy; the costs, however, tend to show up more obviously on a few sectors, whose less competitive workers and producers will be disadvantaged by the deal. This gives politicians less clout when defending trade deals amid the cries of the afflicted. At the time of a credit-crunch, a mortgage crisis and general talk of recession, which has heightened economic anxieties, making the case for trade is harder still.

Mr McCain seems genuinely in favour of trade liberalisation, and the centre of gravity of the Republican Party is largely with him (though some parts of his party will always be leery about trade as they are other forms of globalisation). But the Democratic Party is moving in the other direction at speed. Bill Clinton pushed through America’s biggest trade deal, NAFTA (with Canada and Mexico), that was introduced at the start of 1994. But Hillary Clinton has soured on trade on the campaign trail. While hailing NAFTA in a book published in 2003, as a senator she voted against CAFTA, a deal with Central America. She now claims that she opposed NAFTA all along, but that she kept mum out of loyalty to her husband’s administration. She has proposed a “time out” before signing any new trade deals.

Barack Obama, Mrs Clinton’s Democratic rival, has a similarly mixed record. He too voted against CAFTA and has called NAFTA a bad deal. He says he would use the threat of pulling out of NAFTA to strengthen America’s hand in renegotiating it as president. His economic advisor got in a flap by allegedly telling Canadian diplomats in a private conversation that Mr Obama’s anti-trade talk was more political positioning than policy substance.

But both Democrats’ tough talk on trade is likely to continue. Democrats are enduring a six-week pause between their last primaries, on March 4th, and the next contest in Pennsylvania on April 22nd. This big rust-belt state has lost over 200,000 manufacturing jobs since 2001. So it’s just the kind of place where demonising trade with foreigners (particularly China) is likely to prove politically useful.

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Chatty Crowd Forces Clinton to Cut Speech Short

From CBS News' Fernando Suarez:

PHILADELPHIA -- Hillary Clinton was forced to cut her normal stump speech short when a chatty and meddlesome crowd kept her from grasping their attention. Clinton, who was addressing the Philadelphia County Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, spoke for just over five minutes, despite having the press arrive almost two hours beforehand.

The crowd never settled down during her remarks. A spokesman for Clinton denied that she cut the speech short, and told reporters that Clinton was advised by her Pennsylvania team to deliver “a short speech" given the set up of the event.

In previous party dinners, most recently in Butte, Mt., Clinton spoke for almost an hour to a crowd that seemed to be paying attention. The aide said this was a “different type” of J-J Dinner, primarily because people were not seated at tables, and were “milling around” the banquet hall.

Whether or not Clinton’s reception at the dinner had anything to do with her recent attacks on Barack Obama remains unclear. Clinton has never delivered a formal speech in such a short amount of time. The most recent abbreviated speech was back on February 15 when Clinton spoke to a crowd at a Lockheed Martin plant in Akron, Ohio. The speech lasted for just 12 minutes, with the first applause line coming 11 minutes into the speech.

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Obama Would "Immediately Review" Potential Of Crimes In Bush White House

Tonight I had an opportunity to ask Barack Obama a question that is on the minds of many Americans, yet rarely rises to the surface in the great ruckus of the 2008 presidential race -- and that is whether an Obama administration would seek to prosecute officials of a former Bush administration on the revelations that they greenlighted torture, or for other potential crimes that took place in the White House.

Obama said that as president he would indeed ask his new Attorney General and his deputies to "immediately review the information that's already there" and determine if an inquiry is warranted -- but he also tread carefully on the issue, in line with his reputation for seeking to bridge the partisan divide. He worried that such a probe could be spun as "a partisan witch hunt." However, he said that equation changes if there was willful criminality, because "nobody is above the law."

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John McCain Should Go on Vacation, Hillary Clinton is Doing His Job for Him

Clinton supporters say the darndest things.

Here's Sen. Evan Bayh, commenting on the political firestorm surrounding Barack Obama's remarks -- broken here on HuffPost's OffTheBus -- about economically-depressed small town voters: "The far right wing has a very good track record of using things like this relentlessly against our candidates, whether it's Al Gore or John Kerry. I'm afraid this is the kind of fodder they might use to harm him."

They? They? It's not the far right wing relentlessly using these comments for political gain, Senator. It's your candidate, Hillary Clinton, adopting the frames, lies, stereotypes and destructive clichés long embraced by the likes of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. She has clearly decided that the road to victory runs through scorched earth.

The question is, if she succeeds, what kind of Party will she be left to lead? She's burning down the village to save it -- or to prove that she would make the best fire chief. But the village won't be saved; only one house will be left standing. A house with room for just two occupants. Hill and Bill.

Clinton's cynical distortion of Obama's remarks is in keeping with her campaign's modus operandi. On the foreign policy front, we've been fed a steady diet of her RNC-patented attacks: No Democrat can be trusted with national security -- except her. Obama hasn't crossed the threshold to be commander-in-chief. Etc.

Now she's turned to the domestic policy section of the RNC playbook, twisting Obama's words in a way that confirms every right-wing demagogic caricature of her own Party.

Yes, as Obama himself admits, he certainly could have chosen his words more artfully. Perhaps he should have borrowed Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign riff about "economically insecure white people who are scared to death." Maybe "scared to death" is less "elitist" than "bitter." But telling the truth, however inartfully, makes you "out of touch"? Give. Me. A. Break.

It has been an article of faith in the Democratic Party over the last twenty years that when small town, working class whites vote for Republicans they're voting against their economic self-interest. And why do they do that? Because every four years the Republican Party comes into those small towns and, to distract folks from the worsening economic situation, trots out a bunch of divisive, hot button social issues: "Let's not talk about why you don't have a job, can't afford health care, or can't send your kids to college; let's talk about gay marriage, school prayer, illegal immigration, and flag burning amendments." And Hillary is following the blueprint.

John McCain may as well take the next six months off, raise some money, maybe take a vacation -- because Hillary Clinton is out there doing his work for him.

This weekend she tried to paint herself as a good old boy, the kind of gal you'd want to have a beer with -- not like that "elitist" Barack Obama: "You know, my dad took me out behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton and taught me how to shoot when I was a little girl." After she said this, she took a shot of whiskey. What's next, ads of Obama windsurfing? At 3 a.m.

But before Hillary Oakley runs out and bags her a few more ducks, Andrew Sullivan points out that of the top ten gun-owning states in the country, Obama has won six -- Hillary has won one. Cling to that.

But, of course, this isn't about guns or religion or fear of foreigners. It's about, as David Axelrod says, the (pardon the expression) bitterness and mistrust that stem from voters being "tired of politicians who come around at election time and express their solicitude as part of a tactic and don't follow through on it."

Jumping on the GOP talking points bandwagon, Clinton's new Mark Penn, Geoff Garin said: "These are the kinds of attitudes that have created a gulf between Democrats and lots of small-town and heartland voters that we've been working very, very hard to bridge." Karl Rove, who has devoted his life to making people believe that such a gulf exists, couldn't have scripted it better himself.

If Clinton's Rovian stoop-to-anything tactics succeed -- not at beating Obama but at making him an easier target for McCain -- the price will be paid by the very small-town Americans she is now pandering to. Americans already banished to economic oblivion by the same cynical tactics she's employing will be rewarded with four more years of downward economic mobility.

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Pennsylvania crowd jeers Clinton attacks on Obama


Watch Clinton's comments Monday.

PITTSBURGH, Pennsylvania (CNN) – On Monday, with the Pennsylvania primary just days away, Hillary Clinton continued to hammer Barack Obama over his comments that small town Americans "cling to guns or religion" because they are "bitter."

But the audience at a forum put on by the Alliance for American Manufacturing didn't appreciate her line of attack.

"I understand my opponent came this morning and spent a lot of his time attacking me," she said at the beginning of her remarks here.

Many in the crowd responded with audible groans, and a few shouted, "No!"

Obama spoke to the same forum earlier in the morning and ribbed Clinton for doing a shot of whiskey in front of TV cameras on Saturday in Indiana.

Clinton continued, "I know that many of you, like me, were disappointed by the recent remarks he made."

This time, a louder, sustained chorus of "No!" emanated from the audience. Clinton soldiered on.

"I am well aware that at a fundraiser in San Francisco he said some things that many people in Pennsylvania and beyond Pennsylvania have found offensive," she said.

This time, a smaller smattering of jeers.

It was only when Clinton concluded her opening remarks by attacking President Bush that she received a warm round of applause.

The Clinton campaign later said the disgruntled reaction to her remarks came from Obama supporters in attendance.

Several audience members told CNN after the speech they came to the forum to hear each candidate talk about trade issues, and were not interested in the political back-and-forth of the Democratic primary race.

When Clinton focused on policy and expounded on enforcing trade agreements, creating new jobs and standing up to China, she received some hearty ovations.

But despite Pittsburgh's working class reputation, it was at times a tough crowd for the New York senator.

As the question and answer session began, one man asked Clinton for assurances that American workers would not be "tricked" like they had been when her husband signed NAFTA in 1993.

A press release distributed to reporters by the Alliance for American Manufacturing calculated that Pennsylvania lost 44,173 jobs due to NAFTA between 1993 and 2004.

Clinton, who spent much of her speech attacking America's trade imbalance with China, responded by drawing a line in the sand between her policy positions and her husband's trade record.

"As smart as my husband is, he does make mistakes," Clinton quipped.

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The First Draft of History Looks a Bit Rough on Bush

President Bush often argues that history will vindicate him. So he can't be pleased with an informal survey of 109 professional historians conducted by the History News Network. It found that 98 percent of them believe that Bush's presidency has been a failure, while only about 2 percent see it as a success. Not only that, more than 61 percent of the historians say the current presidency is the worst in American history. In 2004, only 11.6 percent of the historians rated Bush's presidency in last place. Among the reasons given for his low ratings: invading Iraq, "tax breaks for the rich," and alienating many nations around the world. Bush supporters counter that professional historians today tend to be liberal and that it's too early to assess how his policies will turn out.

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Report: China led world executions in 2007

LONDON, England (AP) -- China reduced the number of executions it carried out last year but still executed more people than any other country in the world, Amnesty International said Tuesday in its annual report on the death penalty worldwide.


A woman is shown being taken to her execution in Beijing, China, in 2001.

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Iran remains the country with the second-highest number of executions, with 377 killings that included a man stoned for adultery, the human rights group said.

The number of American executions fell to its lowest level in about 15 years, putting it fifth in the world with 42, Amnesty officials said.

Amnesty analysts said that early in 2007 China reformed the way capital cases are handled, leading to a substantial reduction in executions. They said at least 470 people were put to death, from 1,010 in 2006. But they cautioned that the actual number is undoubtedly higher, and warned that any drop may be temporary.

Piers Bannister, a death penalty researcher at Amnesty, said the group fears that the slowdown is only a "logjam" that will lead to a rise in executions once a review by China's top court of all capital cases is concluded.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing did not respond to requests for comment on the findings in the Amnesty report. The ministry has said in the past that Amnesty is "biased and hostile toward China."

More than 60 offenses in China are punishable by the death penalty, including drug trafficking and embezzlement, Bannister said.

Amnesty reported that three countries -- Iran, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia -- put people under the age of 18 to death, the youngest a 13-year-old executed in Iran in April.


Amnesty's report cited research by other groups claiming the number of people put to death in China was much higher, with some research indicating that as many as 6,000 people may have been executed in 2007. Death penalty figures are treated as a state secret in China.

In all, at least 3,347 people were sentenced to death in 51 countries, and as many as 27,500 people are estimated to be on death row, Amnesty said.

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FINANCE: U.S. Lawmakers Invested in Iraq, Afghanistan Wars

WASHINGTON, Apr 7 (IPS) - U.S. lawmakers have a financial interest in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a review of their accounts has revealed.

Members of Congress invested nearly 196 million dollars of their own money in companies that receive hundreds of millions of dollars a day from Pentagon contracts to provide goods and services to U.S. armed forces, say nonpartisan watchdog groups.

David Petraeus, the top U.S. general in Iraq, is to brief the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees on Tuesday and Wednesday. The latest findings are unlikely to have a significant impact on this week's proceedings but could stoke anti-incumbent sentiment in this year of presidential and legislative elections.

Lawmakers charged with overseeing Pentagon contractors hold stock in those very firms, as do vocal critics of the war in Iraq, says the Centre for Responsive Politics (CRP).

Senator John Kerry, the Democrat from Massachusetts who staked his 2004 presidential bid in part on his opposition to the war, tops the list of investors. His holdings in firms with Pentagon contracts of at least five million dollars stood at between 28.9 million dollars and 38.2 million dollars as of Dec. 31, 2006. Kerry sits on the Senate foreign relations panel.

Members of Congress are required to report their personal finances every year but only need to state their assets in broad ranges.

Other top investors include Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican with holdings of 12.1 million - 49.1 million dollars; Rep. Robin Hayes, a North Carolina Republican (9.2 million - 37.1 million dollars); Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin (5.2 million - 7.6 million dollars); and Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat (2.7 million - 6.3 million dollars).

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Democrat and former governor of West Virginia who chairs the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, invested some 2.0 million dollars in Pentagon contractors, CRP says.

Other panel chiefs who invested in defence firms include Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut Independent who presides over the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Rep. Howard Berman, the California Democrat who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

In all, 151 current members of Congress -- more than one-fourth of the total -- have invested between 78.7 million dollars and 195.5 million dollars in companies that received defence contracts of at least 5.0 million dollars, according to CRP.

These companies received more than 275.6 billion dollars from the government in 2006, or 755 million dollars per day, says budget watchdog group OMB Watch.

The investments yielded lawmakers 15.8 million - 62 million dollars in dividend income, capital gains, royalties, and interest from 2004 through 2006, says CRP.

Not all the firms deal in arms or military equipment. Some make soft drinks or medical supplies and military contracts represent a small fraction of their revenues. Many are leaders in their industries and, as such, feature in the investment portfolios of millions of ordinary people who invest at least a portion of their savings in mutual funds, which in turn hold stocks in up to hundreds of companies.

"Giant corporations outside of the defence sector, such as Pepsico, IBM, Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson, have received defence contracts and are all popular investments for both members of Congress and the general public," says CRP.

"So common are these companies, both as personal investments and as defence contractors, it would appear difficult to build a diverse blue-chip stock portfolio without at least some of them," the group acknowledges.

If some of the stocks appear innocent, aides say legislators also are. Some did not buy the stocks in question but inherited them. Many hold them in blind trusts, so called because the investments are handled by independent entities, at least theoretically without the politicians' knowledge of how their assets are being managed.

Even so, according to CRP, owning stock in companies under contract with the Pentagon could prove "problematic for members of Congress who sit on committees that oversee defence policy and budgeting."

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees held 3.0 million - 5.1 million dollars in companies specialising in weapons and other exclusively military goods and services, it added.

Critics have assailed President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard Cheney for their ties to companies seen as benefiting from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Bush was characterised as pushing conflict in the interest of the oil fraternity whence he hailed.

Before becoming vice president, Cheney headed Halliburton, a major player in the oil services industry and the object of controversies involving political connections, government contracts, and business ethics.

Halliburton's subsidiary, Kellogg Brown & Root, was given multi-billion-dollar contracts to provide construction, hospitality, and other services to the U.S. military following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The contracts drew fire because of Cheney's history and then-ongoing financial relationship with the firm, and because the company did not have to compete for the Pentagon's business. The firm was renamed KBR Inc. after Halliburton spun it off last year.

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O'Reilly's Homophobia

Iran Top Threat To Iraq, U.S. Says

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, accompanied by Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, gestures during a news conference at the Pentagon, Friday, April 11, 2008. (AP Photo/Heesoon Yim)
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, accompanied by Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, gestures during a news conference at the Pentagon, Friday, April 11, 2008. (AP Photo/Heesoon Yim) (Heesoon Yim - AP)

Last week's violence in Basra and Baghdad has convinced the Bush administration that actions by Iran, and not al-Qaeda, are the primary threat inside Iraq, and has sparked a broad reassessment of policy in the region, according to senior U.S. officials.

Evidence of an increase in Iranian weapons, training and direction for the Shiite militias that battled U.S. and Iraqi security forces in those two cities has fixed new U.S. attention on what Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday called Tehran's "malign" influence, the officials said.

The intensified focus on Iran coincides with diminished emphasis on al-Qaeda in Iraq as the leading justification for an ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq.

In congressional hearings this week, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus said the U.S. military has driven al-Qaeda from Baghdad, Anbar province and central Iraq, and he depicted the group as now largely concentrated in a reduced territory around the northern city of Mosul.

During their Washington visit, Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker barely mentioned al-Qaeda in Iraq but spoke extensively of Iran.

With "al-Qaeda in retreat and disarray" in Iraq, said one official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, "we see other obstacles that were under the waterline more clearly. . . . The Iranian-armed militias are now the biggest threat to internal order."

Partly in response to advice from Petraeus and Crocker, the administration has initiated an interagency assessment of what is known about Iranian activities and intentions, how to combat them and how to capitalize on them. The review stems from an internal conclusion, following last week's fighting, that the administration lacked a comprehensive understanding and a sophisticated approach.

President Bush reiterated yesterday that if Iran continues to help militias in Iraq, "then we'll deal with them," saying in an interview with ABC News that "we're learning more about their habits and learning more about their routes" for infiltrating or sending equipment.

But he also reaffirmed that he has no desire to go to war with Tehran. Saying that his job is to "solve these issues diplomatically," Bush suggested heightened interest in reaching a solution with other countries. "You can't solve these problems unilaterally. You're going to need a multilateral forum."

Iran has long been seen as a spoiler in Iraq, with such strong ties to all of the major Shiite political and militia groups, including that of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, that other Arab countries have begun to regard Iraq as almost a client state of Iran.

The recent fighting in Basra, which began when Maliki launched a military offensive against the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, revealed a threat and an opportunity, officials said.

U.S. military officials said that much of the plentiful, high quality weaponry the militia used in Basra and in rocket attacks against the Green Zone in Baghdad, where the U.S. Embassy and much of the Iraqi government are located, was recently manufactured in Iran. At the same time, the militia's improved targeting and tactics indicated stepped-up Iranian training.

Interrogations of four leaders of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force captured in Iraq in December 2006 and January 2007 have also bolstered U.S. conclusions that portions of Sadr's militia are directed from Tehran.

Despite earlier indications that Iranian backing for Iraqi armed groups and the flow of Iranian arms have waned, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday that "this action in Basra was very convincing that indeed they haven't." Basra "gave us much more insight into their involvement in many activities."

Gates, who appeared with Mullen at a Pentagon news conference, said of Iran: "We are going to be as aggressive as we possibly can be inside Iraq in trying to counter their efforts." Iraqi security operations in Basra, he said, have been "a real eye-opener" for Maliki's government.

Petraeus told Congress that Maliki had launched the offensive hastily and with inadequate preparation, leading to a standoff and the need to call in U.S. air support. During the first days of the Basra operation, U.S. officials were sharply critical of Maliki's timing and performance; some worried that the attack against Sadr forces was less an offensive against what he called "criminals" in Basra than it was an attempt to win political advantage over a rival Shiite group before upcoming elections.

Iran's brokering of a tentative cease-fire among Shiite political groups and the militia in Tehran added to U.S. consternation.

"The importance of Iranian influence in facilitating the discussion between different political factions was of significant importance," Petraeus told Pentagon reporters yesterday. Administration officials worried that Iran appeared in control of events in Iraq, while the United States seemed weak and uninformed.

But more recently, U.S. officials have seen a possible advantage in the situation. Maliki's willingness to go after fellow Shiites attracted support from other political groups in Iraq, including Sunnis and Kurds, that have long been suspicious of his sectarian leanings. It also gave Washington a talking point to use with Sunni Arab governments in the region that have shunned him. "It's an opportunity to make him look better inside Iraq and to make a better argument to the Arabs," an official said.

The administration has long tried in vain to build Arab diplomatic and economic support for the Iraqi government. But the Arabs, led by Saudi Arabia, consider Shiite Iran a competitor for regional dominance and have rejected Maliki as "a stooge for Tehran," as one U.S. official called him.

"The Saudis appear to feel that the current Iraqi government is pretty much in thrall to Iran," said a State Department official involved in Middle East policy. The administration's hope, "in the wake of Maliki's decisions on Basra," the official said, "is that the Saudis will take a step back and take another look."

In a news conference Thursday, Crocker dismissed Arab concerns about a recent visit to Baghdad by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "It's not the fact of the Ahmadinejad visit, but the absence of visits by other neighbors that it's important to focus on. There hasn't been a single visit, even by an Arab cabinet minister, to Baghdad. As Iraq grapples with the challenges Iran is posing, it could certainly do with some Arab support."

After consultations with Crocker and Petraeus this week, Bush cut short their Washington visit and dispatched them to Riyadh. During a luncheon at The Washington Post, Crocker said that at a White House meeting Thursday morning, they "reviewed where we are in Iraq."

The message to the Saudis, he said, "is going to be . . . it is time, more than time, for the Arab states to step forward and engage constructively with Iraq. Get their embassies open, get ambassadors on the ground, consider visits, implement debt relief, treat Iraq like the country it is, which is a central part of the Arab world."

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