Talk about Newsnight

In the Middle East

Blogging - a new era

  • Newsnight
  • 18 Apr 08, 05:49 PM

blog203.jpgAs many of you who've used the BBC's blogs will know, it has for some months been a deeply frustrating experience, not just for you but for us too.

The point of blogging about our programmes is to have a swift and informal conversation with our viewers. That's impossible if it takes hours to get your comment or our response through.

I'm relieved to say that as of yesterday we have a new system which should be much more robust and which I hope will usher in a new era of blogging for Newsnight.

One change is that in order to comment you'll need to register by filling in a simple form.
Once signed up, you'll be able to comment on any BBC blog using the same login.

Many of you have already commented on how it's working and one or two have suggested it's designed to introduce more censorship.

That's certainly not our intention. The aim is to encourage much more open discussion about the programme and much more interaction with the programme-makers. I'm sure it isn't perfect and that you'll let us know how it could be improved.

Thanks very much to all those contributors - the Bob Goodalls, Barrie Singletons, Mistress76UKs and many others - who have persevered through all the blog problems. Apologies for all the Error 502s, and welcome to the new era.

Blog fix imminent

  • Newsnight
  • 16 Apr 08, 04:32 PM

Blog closed temporarilyFrom 1800 this evening (UK time), we'll be doing some essential maintenance to the blog. As a result of this, you won't be able to leave any comments on our blog posts from that time until Thursday morning and the comments function on all old posts will close. We apologise for any inconvenience.

The work will fix the very frustrating problems we've encountered for some time now with the whole comments system.

From Thursday a new system will be in place - this will mean you will need to complete a simple registration form in order to post a comment on the blog. Once signed up, you will be able to comment on all BBC blogs using the same login. There will be more details in the morning. In the meantime - if you wish to comment on the programme you can email us via

Blog problems - a solution is nigh

  • Newsnight
  • 10 Apr 08, 11:40 AM

blog502error.jpgAnyone who regularly reads the Newsnight blog will know that we have suffered from a series of technical problems for some time now. Comments disappear, the dreaded 502 'not available' message appears, and multiple copies of comments get submitted in error. (More on the problems here.)

Well, to much relief (not least here at Newsnight), a solution is about to be unveiled.

In the very near future the comments system that causes all the problems is being replaced by a BBC-wide system.

Under the new system, anyone wishing to leave a comment will need to sign in - a relatively swift and painless affair that comes with the added bonus of enabling you to leave your thoughts on blogs and message boards across all BBC websites.

Finally, we hope to revamp and relaunch the whole Newsnight blog shortly, with more bloggers, more variety, and the odd bit of video thrown in. But one step at a time...

We'll update you on the changes next week.

Egyptian blogger alleges prison beating

  • Richard Colebourn
  • 3 Dec 07, 10:23 AM

Abdel Kareem handcuffed at courtBEIRUT - I was passed a pretty miserable letter this week from a young Egyptian man called Abdel Kareem Suleiman. He’s currently serving time in a prison in the northern city of Alexandria.

His letter alleges abuse by the prison’s guards. “I have been subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” he writes.

For anyone who knows anything about Egypt, that's not very surprising, except for this: Abdel Kareem is 23 and behind bars for blogging.

Continue reading "Egyptian blogger alleges prison beating"

Bureaucratic limbo for stranded Iraqis

  • Richard Colebourn
  • 19 Nov 07, 01:24 PM

BEIRUT --- Dalia was an Iraqi administrator at the British Embassy in Baghdad until early this year. But after her brother was kidnapped, she was followed home from work and her parents discovered a death threat in her house, she knew she had to leave Iraq.

AmmanShe never thought that the fact she worked for the Americans for 90 days before joining the British Embassy might make the difference between a more secure future and continued uncertainty.

Dalia (her name has been changed to protect her identity) now lives in a flat in Amman, where I interviewed her for a Newsnight report (watch it here) on the dangers facing Iraqis who have worked with the British and Americans.

The announcement of government assistance to Iraqis like her was a relief. But the detail of the policy, delivered in a statement to the Commons by David Miliband, disappoints.

Continue reading "Bureaucratic limbo for stranded Iraqis"

“Enough” say the Lebanese, but who is listening?

  • Richard Colebourn
  • 14 Nov 07, 02:00 PM

BEIRUT --- The music was upbeat, the young audience enthusiastic, but a concert in Beirut on Friday night was an expression of the doom that is felt in Lebanon. A car park was the venue for an event staged by a new campaign called “Khalass!” – Arabic for “Enough!”

concert_203.jpgConcertgoers desperately want their politicians to resolve Lebanon’s latest political standoff. The country’s constitution requires the election of a new President by November 24th. As the days pass, compromise between Lebanon’s pro-Western/anti-Syrian government and pro-Syrian/Hizbullah-dominated opposition seems distant. No acceptable candidate has been found and the election has been delayed three times. There seem to be as many theories as to the possible outcome of this crisis as there are Lebanese, but most involve political paralysis and violence.

Continue reading "“Enough” say the Lebanese, but who is listening?"

Kurdish region open for business despite tensions in the north

  • Richard Colebourn
  • 30 Oct 07, 03:14 PM

ERBIL, NORTHERN IRAQ - The Erbil International Trade Fair opened yesterday. Representatives of western brands like Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Mercedes Benz, Sony and Massey Ferguson are pitching for business from local companies and investors. It seemed astonishing to browse the high-tech gadgets and displays and meet agents sent from London, New York, Beirut and Dubai.

Continue reading "Kurdish region open for business despite tensions in the north"

Questions remain over Brown's pledge to Iraqi interpreters

  • Richard Colebourn
  • 8 Oct 07, 06:41 PM

TranslatorBAGHDAD - After weeks of election speculation, the Prime Minister's Commons statement on Britain's military deployment in Iraq will inevitably be viewed through a domestic political prism. But for a group of Iraqis, scattered around the Middle East, the statement provided some long awaited hope.

Newsnight was first to report the death threats facing Iraqis who worked for the British military in Basra and at the British Embassy in Baghdad (read about it here and watch the report). Regarded as collaborators with the enemy, many have felt forced to flee to neighbouring Syria and Jordan. Unable to work in their new homes, they live off rapidly diminshing savings and fear deportation by the police.

Since Newsnight covered the story others have followed, including The Times which has run a number of articles campaigning on the issue. Today the Prime Minister announced the Government's response. Iraqi staff who are still working for the British and who have served for 12 months will be able to apply for financial support to aid resettlement elsewhere in Iraq or in the Middle East. In certain circumstances - yet to be defined - they will be entitled to admission to the UK.

Professional staff, including the translators and administrators interviewed by Newsnight, who left employment since the start of 2005 will be entitled to the same assistance.

This will be welcomed by the Iraqi refugees. Many don't want asylum in Britain. They want to stay in Syria or Jordan until it is safe to return and to help rebuild Iraq. But they need assistance to live in countries where the cost of living is five times that in Iraq.

However, there are plenty of questions about how Brown's proposals will work. I interviewed Jassim in Damascus earlier in the year. His name has been changed to protect his identity. He worked for the British military in Basra since 2003. "It's a good decision," he said, welcoming Brown's announcement. "But there are thousands and thousands of Iraqis who worked for the British."

He's sceptical about how such assistance can be administered. Along with other Iraqis, he has been refused entry to the British Embassy in Damascus. The Embassy's consular section has been closed for some time. But more Iraqi refugees live in Damascus than anywhere else in the world. Will the British be able to cope with the applications for assistance that they are sure to receive?

Iraqi interpreters - visa fight continues

  • Richard Colebourn
  • 7 Aug 07, 10:11 AM

Iraqi interpreters with US troopsDAMASCUS: The Sayidda Zeinab area of Damascus is now known to Syrians as ‘little Baghdad’. Above the traffic noise you can hear the shouts of bus drivers advertising services to and from Baghdad and Kirkuk. Stalls sell traditional Iraqi sweets that are unknown to the Syrians.

Outside the Fallujah Café, two teams warm up for a regular football game between Syrians and Iraqis. Some of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees now living here make up an enthusiastic crowd.

I met Jassim here earlier in the year when I interviewed him forNewsnight’s report about the death threats against Iraqi employees of the British and American governments. (Read my article here or watch the film here.) Until early this year, Jassim was working for the British military in Basra. He has continuously served alongside British soldiers since the start of the Iraqi conflict in 2003. But when a friend and fellow translator was kidnapped and decapitated, and Jassim received a death threat sent as a text message to his mobile phone, he knew he had to leave Iraq.

He arrived in Damascus clutching a stack of letters of recommendation from senior officers in a number of different British army regiments. They praise his hard work and bravery. But despite such commendations, he receives no support from his former employer. The British Embassy in Damascus refuses to let him in to even discuss his situation.

I wanted to find out whether things have improved since the media coverage.

“We’ve had no luck with visas,” he tells me. “They still won’t talk to us. We’re stuck here and we’re not allowed to work.”

The situation facing Jassim and his colleagues hasn’t received much attention in Britain – from the media or from politicians. By contrast, this is now a big issue in the United States.

The Washington Post has published a leaked memo written by the current US Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker. In it, he calls on the US State Department to grant immigrant visas to all Iraqis currently employed by the Americans.

“Unless they know that there is some hope of an [immigrant visa] in the future, many will continue to seek asylum, leaving our Mission lacking in one of our most valuable assets,” he writes.

Meanwhile, Senator Edward Kennedy has pushed legislation through Capitol Hill to deliver more visas for the translators. Lanny Davis, former Clinton White House Counsel and Newsnight regular, has set up a bipartisan campaign. And the New Yorker journalist George Packer is even writing a play about the plight of the translators he interviewed for his article, ‘The Betrayed’.

Iraqi interpreter works with Danish troopsThere is another development in this story. The Danish government will soon withdraw its 470 troops from Iraq. It recently emerged that, prompted by political pressure, they have secretly airlifted to Denmark the 200 Iraqi translators, and their families, who worked alongside them.

Gordon Brown has said that any recommendation on the future role of Britain’s troops in Iraq could be put to Parliament after the summer recess. Although Jassim has already left Iraq, he hopes for the sake of his colleagues left in Basra that the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office would consider copying the Danish evacuation.

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UPDATE - 8 Aug:
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The British government says it will review the cases of 91 Iraqi interpreters told their asylum claims will not be given special treatment. Defence Secretary Des Browne said the government took its "duty of care very seriously".

‘Everyone wants a piece of Tony’

  • Richard Colebourn
  • 30 Jul 07, 11:01 AM

Tony Blair meets Israeli PM Shimon PeresJERUSALEM AND NABLUS: The headline is from the weekend edition of the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz. At the end of Blair’s first week in the region as envoy for the Middle East Quartet, Israelis and Palestinians are now left contemplating the gap between hype and hope.

Blair said he felt a “sense of possibility”. But the grounds for optimism were left unexplained. Israel’s politicians were positive, adopting a strategy they openly describe as “hug him close”. Israel’s press is enjoying the publicity. “An international rock star is now dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process,” claims Haaretz. Palestinian reaction was more muted.

“This isn’t about Tony Blair, this is about us,” the new Palestinian Prime Minister, Salaam Fayad, told the BBC. And, at least according to Blair’s job description, he’s right.

The remit provided by the Middle East Quartet - made up of the EU, the United States, the UN and Russia - limits Blair’s role to Palestinian economic development, good governance and the raising of international aid. This isn’t about summits and peace negotiations, it’s about getting the Palestinians to a position where a viable state becomes plausible.

Khaled, a falafel seller in the Balata refugee camp near Nablus, isn’t convinced about Blair’s commitment. “He’s a loser,” he told me. “He did nothing to help the Palestinians when he was Prime Minister, when he had power. Why do you think he can help now?”

Ashraf Misre from Nablus would like a piece of Tony’s time. He often struggles to reach his different businesses because of restrictions on movement imposed by the Israelis. They say checkpoints are necessary for security. But for Ashraf and his wife Nisreen, the unpredictability involved in travelling short distances is a basic impediment to building his business.

What Israelis and Palestinians seem unclear about is whether Blair will stick to his limited mandate. Will he get stuck into the problems faced by entrepreneurs like Ashraf or will he end up involved in mediation between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas?

Unlike in Northern Ireland, Blair may find his freedom of movement curtailed. There are many players on this stage. Briefings by the American government have been clear: they will take the lead on major diplomatic negotiations.

In the summit sun

  • Richard Colebourn
  • 26 Jun 07, 11:30 AM

Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt

olm_mub203.jpgIt’s summit season in Sharm el-Sheikh. The tourists on the beach, flown in on charter flights from Manchester, Moscow and Berlin, are oblivious to the political scrum taking place nearby. Inside the congress centre, President Mubarak of Egypt is hosting Israeli PM Ehud Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan.

Outside journalists from across the region are sprawled on a small patch of grass. Hours and hours of airtime are devoted to a meeting lasting just under three. In the 45 degree heat, the media pour out sweat and speculation.

That summit cliché - the stakes are high – is true. The leaders are here to discuss how to bolster President Abbas and his Fatah party after the recent takeover of the Gaza Strip by their opponents Hamas. The rise of Hamas has put ‘moderate’ Arab states like Egypt and Jordan on the back foot. They worry about Islamist parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, in their own countries and don’t like the idea of a successful role model next door.

At 8pm, as the region’s news bulletins start, the leaders emerge to make statements to the press. The journalists scurry. Israeli press officers efficiently offer translated and typed transcripts and start a round of interviews. Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat appears and is promptly smothered by about thirty cameramen.

And the outcome of all this? Not a lot. The Israelis grabbed the headlines with an offer to release 250 Fatah prisoners. There are over 10,000 Palestinians in prison in Israel. Just over half have been convicted of an offence and around 800 are held without charge.

Continue reading "In the summit sun"

Lebanon on the edge

  • Richard Colebourn
  • 20 Jun 07, 04:33 PM

Newsnight's man in the Middle East Richard Colebourn will be providing regular despatches from across the region and putting your questions to the people in charge.

Walid EidoBEIRUT - Overlooking the Mediterranean, Beirut’s Sporting Club is an institution. Families come to swim. Women clad in immodest bikinis top up their tans. Leathery Lebanese men play backgammon and cards and smoke. Lebanese MP Walid Eido was a regular. Last Wednesday he, his son and his bodyguards came for the afternoon.

There are also normally a few pale foreign journalists and UN-types. Wednesday afternoon saw my first visit. I recall thinking that if you squinted you could be in the south of France.

At twenty to five, whilst swimming in the deep end, I witnessed Eido’s convoy of cars explode near the entrance to the club as they left. Some 150m from the pool, a giant plume of black smoke shot into the sky carrying bits of car bumper and clothing. The bomb killed ten in total, including two young footballers from the neighbouring club.

The contradictions and the volatility of Lebanon were made clear - a bit too close for comfort.

Continue reading "Lebanon on the edge"

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