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Cardinal Fang's softer side


The public relations folks at the Vatican are working overtime to warm up Pope Benedict XVI's rather forbidding image. An article by Matthew Schofield, Berlin correspondent for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, offers fond reminisences of Cardinal Ratzinger's colleagues, family and household help:

When he was a cardinal, Pope Benedict XVI often delivered sermons at the German-language church in Campasanto Teutonico near St. Peter's Basilica, but his most heartfelt talks may have been the ones he gave after celebrating Mass.

"I went with him once," said Konrad Baumgartner, the head of the theology department at Regensburg University. "Afterwards, he went into the old cemetery behind the church.

"It was full of cats, and when he went out, they all ran to him. They knew him and loved him. He stood there, petting some and talking to them, for quite a long time. He visited the cats whenever he visited the church. His love for cats is quite famous."

(So too, we might point out, is Dr. Evil's.)

The article continues: "Although his public image is that of a stern enforcer of church doctrine, in Regensburg, where the 78-year-old pope came into his own as a theologian, those who know the man known as 'God's Rottweiler' say his soft, human side has been ignored." We also learn that he loves Christmas cookies, plays the organ (like Albert Schweitzer) and had been looking forward to a quiet retirement, "reading, writing and talking to friends," before this whole papacy thing was, abruptly and unexpectedly, thrust on him.

It's not a bad article—and I'm sure he's a swell guy when you really get to know him and all—but something about it creeped me out, especially the part about how he used to love to hike in the Tyrol mountains. It put me in mind of this November 1938 article from the British magazine Homes and Gardens.


The "Mountain Home" story—part of a post-Munich Agreement charm offensive masterminded by Joseph Goebbels to distract international attention from the ugliness of Kristallnacht and the impending invasion of Czechoslovakia—was similarly slanted to present der Führer's "softer side":

All visitors are shown their host's model kennels, where he breeds magnificent Alsatians. Some of his pedigree pets are allowed the run of the house, especially on days when Herr Hitler gives a "Fun Fair" to the local children. On such a day, when State affairs are over, the Squire himself, attended by some of his guests, will stroll through the woods into hamlets above and below. There rustics sit at cottage doors carving trinkets and toys in wood, ivory, and bone. It is then the little ones are invited to the house. Coffee, cakes, fruits, and sweets are laid for them on trestle tables in the grassy orchards. Then Frauen Goebbels and Göring, in dainty Bavarian dress, perform dances and folk-songs, while the bolder spirits are given joy-rides in Herr Hitler's private airplane.

Nor must I forget to mention the archery-butts at the back of the chalet. It is strange to watch the burly Field-Marshall Göring, as chief of the most formidable air force in Europe, taking a turn with the bow and arrow at straw targets of twenty-five yards range. There is as much to-do about those scarlet bulls-eyes as though the fate of nations depended on a full score.

The fate of nations would, of course, soon depend on the jolly men who quarreled over scarlet bulls-eyes, dressed their wives in peasant garb and took happy children (perhaps a young Josef Ratzinger among them) for airplane rides.

Let's take our measure of the new Holy Father based on his words and actions—not on his love of cats or long hikes in the Tyrol.

History will no doubt do the same.

Posted by Rodger on April 27, 2005 at 12:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


Doodoo economics


You can't understand why a man would have to take shit
Or steal shit, but this is that real …

—Jay Z, "Murdergram"

Not sure how I missed this April 6 story, but a Harvard economics professor has been indicted for stealing manure:

ROCKPORT, Mass. (AP)—Police in Rockport say Martin Weitzman is charged with larceny under 250 dollars, trespassing, and malicious destruction of property for tearing up some land with his tires.

Stable manager Phillip Casey says Weitzman has been stealing manure from a farm owned by Charlie Lane for years.

Casey says he found Weitzman on the property last Friday, so he blocked in Weitzman's pickup truck and called police. Casey says Weitzman then offered to pay for the manure he had taken. But Casey refused because he says he wanted the thefts to stop.

Weitzman lives in neighboring Gloucester and is the Ernest E. Monrad Professor of Economics at Harvard. He was not immediately available for comment.

Talk about your diminishing marginal utility. I mean, enough is enough.

Weitzman is a member of the same Harvard faculty, by the way, that passed a vote of no confidence last month against embattled university president Larry Summers.

Maybe the learned professor just trying to prove—in some abstruse way—that the Harvard faculty can take what they dish out.

Posted by Rodger on April 26, 2005 at 10:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)


Bully in the bully pulpit?


President Bush's choice for U.N. ambassador has become the victim of a well-orchestrated (albeit not-so-subtle) whispering campaign aimed at tanking his nomination.

The star-studded cast includes Madeleine Albright:

Albright, speaking at Southern Connecticut State University Wednesday, said it was clear to her then that Bolton had no use for the United Nations at all.

"He thought it was a useless organization, overstaffed, and did not serve American interests. He made me wonder why I would even want the position," she said.

She called it a very sad statement about how the Bush administration views the United Nations. "I have to say, I hope he is not confirmed," said Albright, touching on one of a dozen topics she raised in speeches before three separate audiences at the university.

Colin Powell:

Former secretary of state Colin Powell is emerging as a behind-the-scenes player in the battle over John Bolton's nomination as ambassador to the United Nations, privately telling at least two key Republican legislators that Bolton is a smart but very problematic government official, according to Republican sources.

Powell spoke in recent days with Senators Lincoln Chafee, Republican of Rhode Island, and Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, two of three GOP senators on the Foreign Relations Committee who have raised concerns about Bolton's confirmation, the sources said. Powell did not advise the senators to oppose Bolton, but offered a frank assessment of the nominee as a man who was challenging to work with on personnel and policy matters, according to two people familiar with the conversations.

''General Powell has returned calls from senators who wanted to discuss specific questions that have been raised," said Margaret Cifrino, a Powell spokeswoman. ''He has not reached out to senators," and considers the discussions private. [But not too private to discuss them with the press, of course.]

And naturally Ohio Senator George Voinovich, who helped get the campaign started in the first place:

"My conscience got to me," Mr. Voinovich said after he called for more time to investigate claims about Mr. Bolton's "pathological" behaviour and further allegations that he was a bully.

Mr. Voinovich said that Democrats had raised legitimate doubts about Mr. Bolton's suitability for the U.N. job. "I didn't feel comfortable voting for him. I think one's interpersonal skills and their relationship with their fellow man is a very important ingredient. I've heard enough that gives me some real concern about Mr. Bolton."

Senator Voinovich's reference to his conscience reminds me of Emerson's remark: "The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons."

Moreover, a lack of interpersonal skills might be an issue if Bolton were being nominated to a cabinet-level position or to manage America's relationship with, say, the Court of St. James. But, in the glass zoo on the East River, a lack of interpersonal skills and an ability to intimidate are requisite job qualifications.

Jim Geraghty points out that the North Koreans have called Boulton "human scum." The Palestine Chronicle calls him an "embarrassment." John Kerry calls him "baggage we cannot afford."

Offhand, I can't imagine three more glowing recommendations.

I think Bolton's nomination will survive the whispering campaign the Dems have mounted. But it's a sad commentary on the state of the Senate that a civil servant both willing and eminently qualified—for a job that pays less than the median starting salary for graduates of one of the country's top business schools—should be forced to run the gauntlet in such fashion.

UPDATE: William Kristol, in The Weekly Standard, draws an apt parallel between the Bolton fight and Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination of 1987:

In this respect, the fight over Bolton is like the fight over Bork. One hoped-for effect of Bork's defeat was to deter possible candidates for the Court from even considering certain judicial interpretations--just as the assault, in different circumstances, on Lawrence Summers at Harvard is intended to rule out of bounds the raising of certain questions in the academy….

Republicans lost the Bork fight—partly through failures of nerve and intelligence—and the country has paid a price in constitutional jurisprudence. Now, however, there is a Republican Congress and a determined president—and also, perhaps, a greater willingness to undertake such fights among conservatives. A good thing, too, for we could pay almost as great a price in foreign policy if the Borking of Bolton is allowed to succeed.

Posted by Rodger on April 22, 2005 at 09:06 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

Pope Benedict the Digital


If Andrew Sullivan really is so shocked (to say nothing of outraged, disgusted, betrayed, dismayed and bewilderred) at the prospect of Cardinal Fang as Supreme Pontiff, perhaps he should think about firing off his opinions in a private email instead of inflicting them on the rest of us.

The Associated Press reports:

Showing that Pope Benedict XVI intends to follow in the footsteps of John Paul II's multimedia ministry, the Vatican on Thursday modified its Web site so that users who click on an icon on the home page automatically activate an e-mail composer with his address.

In English, the address is [email protected]. In Italian: [email protected].

John Paul, who died April 2, was the first pope to use e-mail, a medium that made its debut during his 26-year papacy. The Vatican said he received tens of thousands of messages in his final weeks as he struggled with illness.

In 2001, sitting in the Vatican's frescoed Clementine Hall, John Paul used a laptop to tap out an apology for Roman Catholic missionary abuses against indigenous peoples of the South Pacific.

The Holy See often issues news or documents to journalists via e-mail, and its labyrinth of obscure offices and councils are online in half a dozen languages. Even the Sistine Chapel with its famed art collection offers a virtual reality tour.

That's great, but perhaps—as a belated nod to the new millennium—the Conclave of Cardinals might want to consider dumping the whole smoke signal thing.  (It's probably worth noting that the Vatican, though an independent nation, isn't one of the 154 signatories to the Kyoto Protocol. Could it be that damn darn chimney?)

If I get wind of an official papal blog in the offing, I'll be sure to let you (and Andrew Sullivan) know.

Just watch for a plume of white smoke at 504 Osborne Lane.

Posted by Rodger on April 22, 2005 at 03:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)


One mo' time


Back in the heady summer of 2000—when Mohammed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi and Ziad al-Jarrah were still taking flying lessons—it took three adults (not the aforementioned ones) more than a week to convince the Typodaughter that Britney Spears' version of "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" wasn't a Spears original.

So, I'm not sure exactly how she'll react to the recent discovery of this Louis Armstrong version of "Oops! I Did It Again."

According to the accompanying notes, the side was "recorded in April 1932 in a Chicago studio, most likely Nearlie's on West and Fourth."

Cut for the Decca label by Louis Armstrong and elements of Zilner Randolph's touring group, "Oops!" failed to make the chart impact of "All of Me," another side recorded in the same session and soon fell out of print.

The song remained all but forgotten until … a young Britney Spears sent her interpretation of the Armstrong tune all the way to the top of the charts.

The reference to the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby lends a certain period charm to the funereal composition, which bears a curious resemblance to a later Armstrong classic, ironically entitled "Everything's Been Done Before." (RealPlayer required.)

Posted by Rodger on April 21, 2005 at 10:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)


Another unhappy anniversary


Remarkably, 10 years have passed since the bombing of the Alfred Muragh Building in Oklahoma City. Yet even after numerous investigations and three trials, many questions linger—particularly in light of the post-9/11 war on terror.

The Baltimore Sun reports:

Throughout history, from the assassinations of presidents Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy, far-reaching theories have been ascribed to horrible events that appear too vast and too wicked to be the work of one lone, troubled individual.

So it is with the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, where perceived gaps in the official investigation and pure grief have fueled questions for a decade about whether McVeigh really could have carried out alone what still stands as the single worst act of domestic terror in the United States.

"It was such a gash to the conscience," said Mark S. Hamm, a criminology professor at Indiana State University who has studied the bombing and competing theories of how it happened. "You just think: This could not have been done. And then the pictures of McVeigh come out, and he looks like the all-American, the kid next door, and you say, "How could this one guy have done this?"

Hamm began studying the Oklahoma City case within weeks of the bombing. In a book he wrote two years later, he generally reached the same conclusion as the FBI about the crime—that McVeigh was a "lone wolf" who acted without the help of others. But later, as he studied a group of prolific Midwest bank robbers known as the Aryan Republican Army, Hamm said he reached an alternate theory linking McVeigh to that operation.

In his research, Hamm discovered four instances between 1993 and April 1995 when McVeigh and members of the Aryan Republican Army were in the same small, often obscure, towns on the same days. He thinks McVeigh helped carry out the bank heists, and the crime ring helped plot the federal building bombing - possibly in retaliation for the execution on the same day as the bombing of Richard Wayne Snell, a leader in the white supremacist movement.

It is one of many theories, Hamm acknowledges, and none of them may ever be proved true or entirely debunked. But he and others say it is unfair and naive to dismiss alternate explanations for the Oklahoma City bombing.

"I'm not the lone ranger—there's a lot of people out there who still have a lot of questions," Hamm said. "I don't know how it's resolved. I think maybe it goes down with all the others, with the Kennedy assassination and the sightings in Roswell, N.M. It gets dumped in the category of Elvis sightings and all those things, which is unfortunate."

But Elvis sightings  aside, a great many reasonable doubts remain.

You'll find an excellent investigative series by J.M. Berger here.

Posted by Rodger on April 19, 2005 at 07:50 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Stoffel videos keep coming


Dale Stoffel's laptop has yielded yet more images and documents—in a new video (Rafidan4.wmv) released by the so-called Mujahideen Central Command.

As with the two previous videos (Rafdan2.wmv and Rafidan3.wmv), there are also exhibits, which our Mujahideen friends have conveniently packaged in a downloadable .pdf file (r4.Document.pdf).






A series of photographs in the video suggests that Stoffel may have been in Iraq, at least in part, to fulfill his contract to procure Soviet-made X-31 (also known as KH-31) missiles for Boeing's McDonnell Douglas division. (A lawsuit arose out of the contract in 2003; it was settled in September of 2004 and the file sealed by U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber in St. Louis.)

An identification card in the video would indicate that Stoffel's company, CLI Corporation of Canonsburg, PA, was a subcontractor to Laguna Construction Company of Laguna, NM, which received an $19.5 million contract in March of last year to repair and upgrade the Iraqi Ministry of Defense building.

The new video also features a cameo appearance by the elusive Raymond Zayna, a Lebanese businessman whom The Los Angeles Times named as the intermediary for the Stoffel's contract with the Iraqi Defense Ministry. (Can Mohammed abu Darwish be far behind?)

(By the way, if Dale Stoffel was a CIA case officer, as the Mujahideen seem to believe, he was a very poor one to have left so much unencrypted data lying around on his laptop.)

Here's the transcript of the video as translated by the indefatigable Dijla Waheed.

Posted by Rodger on April 19, 2005 at 10:43 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)


All the power on earth …


… can't change destiny.

Fans of The Godfather, Part III will be amused by this story from WLS, the ABC affiliate in Chicago:

Authorities in Italy say they have cracked a 22-year-old murder mystery with links to the Vatican and to a former church official from Chicago's suburbs.

Four people have been charged in the 1982 death of Italian financier Roberto Calvi. Calvi had close ties to the Vatican Bank and to a now-retired archbishop from Cicero.

Roberto Calvi was found hanged under a bridge in London just days after the collapse of a bank he headed. The Vatican Bank had a large stake in Calvi's bank. Now, four people are charged with his murder.

The Chicago connection runs from the Chicago archdiocese, through suburban Cicero, to the Vatican and back to the US all in one man: Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, who rose from priest to papal bodyguard to head of the Vatican Bank. Marcinkus left after a scandal that Monday resulted in the indictments of four people, including a man reportedly linked to the mafia.

Marcinkus is not among those charged, but questions about his connections to those involved in the case, remain. In 1982, Archbishop Marcinkus had aligned the Vatican Bank with Italy's largest private banking group, Banco Ambrosiano. The Roman Catholic bank, headed by Marcinkus, was a major shareholder in Ambrosiano. The Vatican Bank had guaranteed $1.4 billion worth of loans made by Italy's scandal-ridden Banco Ambrosiano, loans used to finance fake companies in Latin America that funneled weapons to the Catholic nation of Argentina for use in the Falklands War.

The president of Banco Ambrosiano, Roberto Calvi, was so tight with the Vatican, he was known as "God's banker."

During the middle of the scandal, Calvi hanged himself, found beneath the Blackfriars Bridge in London, England, two days after his secretary committed suicide. At first, Calvi's death was also thought to be suicide.

But Monday in Rome, four people have been charged with the God's banker murder. Italian indictments name businessman Flavio Carboni and his girlfriend Manuela Kleinszig with murder, along with alleged mafia associate Giuseppe Pippo Calo and businessman Ernesto Diotallevi.

Prosecutors now say Calvi was laundering mafia money and that Calo ordered his murder.

Will the new Pope help clear up the mystery—or just perpetuate the cover-up?

Posted by Rodger on April 18, 2005 at 08:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


Unhappy anniversary


The kidnapping of Jeffrey Ake in al Taji on Monday bears an uncanny resemblance to another foreign businessman's kidnapping in the same city, almost exactly one year ago.

COPENHAGEN (AFP) - A Danish businessman kidnapped in Iraq last week has been found dead, the Danish foreign ministry said.

The man was captured by unidentified attackers while travelling with an Iraqi driver and a Dane of Iraqi origin on a road near the village of al Taji outside Baghdad. The two others were not taken hostage.

"The ministry was informed overnight by coalition authorities that the Danish national was found dead by Iraqi police on April 12, 2004," a foreign ministry statement said.

It said the Danish government had no further details about the man's death nor information about his killers.

"The Iraqi police investigation has been rendered difficult by the situation in Iraq," it said.

Danish daily Politiken identified the man as 35-year-old Henrik Frandsen, who was in Iraq to start a water purification and electrical appliance store in the southern city of Basra.

Ake, too, had been employed in conjunction with a water purification project (though in al Taji rather than Basra).

Frandsen was the first hostage to be murdered while in captivity in Iraq—on April 12, 2004. Given that fact, I don't have much confidence we'll get Ake back alive.

UPDATE: Dr. Rusty Shackleford has loads of information on the Ake kidnapping.

Posted by Rodger on April 14, 2005 at 06:26 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


Mohammed abu Darwish, international man of mystery


In their most recent story on the Stoffel-Wemple murders, Los Angeles Times reporters Ken Silverstein and T. Christian Miller describe the role of Raymond Zayna, the Lebanese middleman through whom payments to Stoffel's company, Wye Oak Technologies, were to have been funneled. It seems likely, however, that Zayna was representing the interests of yet another Lebanese businessman—one who figures prominently in a variety of business dealings between Lebanon and Iraq:

Mohammed abu Darwish, worked with Zayna's firm, General Investment Group, on the contract and participated in meetings with task force officials, e-mails and interviews show. In an unrelated case in September, Darwish was blacklisted by the Pentagon from receiving any future American contracts for his role in what it called a scheme to defraud the U.S. government of millions of dollars on a security contract in Iraq, according to a U.S. Air Force document.

But who, exactly, is Mohammed abu Darwish?

Well, he first surfaces in a pre-invasion coup plot that was allegedly concocted by Britain's MI-6 in an effort to replace Saddam with a Baathist with whom the West could deal more rationally. Darwish's father, Issam abu Darwish and an associate, Imad el Hajj, were recruited in attempt to "turn" Tahir Jalil al Habbush, head of Iraq's Mukhabarat secret police. "They told MI-6 and the CIA they made contact with Habbush," says an anonymous source. "MI-6 thought they could penetrate Saddam Hussein's intelligence at the highest level. They were stupid on Iraq."

Days before American and British forces invaded Iraq, as Habbush remained loyal to the regime, El Hajj brokered an eleventh-hour attempt by Saddam to avert war without stepping down. Washington rejected the overture.

Habbush, a member of Saddam's Tikriti clan and sixteenth in the United States's pack of 55 most wanted Baathists, is still at large. Abu Darwish's son, Mohammed, now [02-08-04] enjoys a lucrative contract as head of security at Baghdad airport. [My italics.]

Darwish also turns up in this eve-of-the-invasion story about the effect of sanctions on Iraq, complaining about the high cost of living in Baghdad:

"It's 20 to 30 percent more expensive than in Lebanon," calculates Mohammad abu Darwish, standing before the [cash register] armed with two loaded baskets.

But things really start to get interesting when Darwish gets detained in January of 2004 at the Beirut airport with $12 million in Iraqi dinars:

Three alleged smugglers were held in custody Friday after they were unable to provide convincing answers to questioning on why they were transporting roughly $12 million in cash from Iraq.

State Prosecutor Adnan Addoum met with the Iraqi Charge d’Affaires in Beirut Tahseen Elwan Ena, and asked him how the plane landed in the Baghdad Airport in the first place without prior authorization from the Iraqi authorities. Ena told Addoum, that the Iraqi Central Bank governor, was not aware of the money transfer taking place.

Addoum asked Ena to provide an official answer from the Iraqi authorities regarding one suspect's—Mohammed Issam abu Darwish—assertion that he is undertaking business operations on behalf of U.S. authorities.

Addoum also questioned Mazen Bsat, the owner of the plane that was transporting the money, and asked him about the reasons behind his frequent visits to Baghdad. Bsat claimed he was going there frequently with abu Darwish and that the latter had received authorization to land from the Iraqis.

Bsat also said that on the last trip abu Darwish asked him to remove all the passenger seats and to replace them with 21 boxes, each containing 1 billion Iraqi dinars.

He also said that abu Darwish also asked him to place an additional seat for Richard Jreisati, who accompanied them on the trip.

Bsat said that he flew the plane himself and that Michel Mkattaf was waiting for them in Beirut Airport. He was asked to provide a schedule for the trips his plane had made to Baghdad. Bsat, along with customs agent Zouzou Zouein, were released, pending investigation.

The case raised public attention Friday because of the close ties between the three alleged smugglers and prominent political figures and political parties. Michel Mkattaf is a relative [son-in-law] of former President Amin Gemayel, Richard Jreisati was identified as a former member of the Lebanese Forces and abu Darwish a former member of the Amal Movement.

However, a short statement issued by the Amal Movement on Friday denied media reports issued Thursday regarding abu Darwish’s former membership of the movement. “The information is completely untrue,” the statement concluded.

The smuggling incident dominated the newspapers in Beirut for much of early 2004, as defense attorneys, prosecutors and politicians in both Lebanon and Iraq wrangled over the case.

From the Beirut Daily Star (January 16, 2004):

State Prosecutor for Financial Fraud Khalil Rahhal ordered the arrest of four people on charges of smuggling Iraqi money worth $12 million into the country on Thursday.

Three of the four men arrested at the airport coming from Jordan were identified as Michel Mkattaf, a relative of former President Amin Gemayel, Richard Jreisati and Mohammed Issam abu Darwish. According to a judicial source, investigations will focus on the source of the money, whether it was stolen, and who was behind the operation.

The alleged smugglers were caught with 19.5 billion Iraqi dinars in their possession. The newly printed Iraqi currency is priced at 1,300 dinars for every dollar and suffers from rapid inflation.

From the Beirut Daily Star (January 19, 2004):

The Lebanese government said Saturday that it would not return billions of Iraqi dinars seized last week at Beirut Airport pending further investigation.

Specifically, Lebanese officials demanded proof that the money was brought to cover a legal contract between Lebanese businessman Mohammed Issam abu Darwish and the Iraqi Interior Ministry.

About 19.5 billion Iraqi new dinars, roughly equal to $12 million, were intercepted at Beirut Airport Wednesday. Three people, including abu Darwish, have been held on suspicion of attempting to smuggle the money as part of a plan to undermine the country’s domestic stability.

State Prosecutor Adnan Addoum will decide Monday the fate of the three detainees. Abu Darwish, an alleged former Amal Movement official; Richard Jreisati, a former official in the Lebanese Forces; and Michel Mukattaf, owner of the Mukattaf Exchange Company and son-in-law of former President Amin Gemayel.

Contrary to earlier reports published in The Daily Star, newly released information suggests that Mukattaf is innocent and will be released on Monday.

Investigations and information provided by the Iraqi Interior Ministry showed that abu Darwish brought the cash to Lebanon and was planning to have it exchanged through Mukattaf’s company.

From the Beirut Daily Star (January 20, 2004):

State Prosecutor Adnan Addoum affirmed Monday that judicial authorities would continue investigating the alleged smuggling of Iraqi funds into the country, despite the release on Monday of three people who had been held in custody for four days for questioning.

Addoum told reporters that the authorities still had many questions about the case, which involved transporting the equivalent of roughly $12 million in new Iraqi dinars from Baghdad to Beirut by air.

He explained that the Chief Public Prosecutor for Financial Fraud, Khalil Rahhal, decided to release the detainees—Mohammed Bu Darwish, Richard Jreisati and Michel Mkattaf—pending further investigation, though they are prohibited from leaving the country and their passports have been confiscated. The money was also confiscated pending the presentation of “definite documents” supporting claims that it was being transported legitimately, he said.

Addoum said that the investigation would continue, but he had to release the three men according to Lebanese law regarding “precautionary detention.”

The state prosecutor also said that he sent the anti-laundering committee at the Central Bank a copy of his findings in the case so far. He hopes to use provisions of the anti-laundering law to exempt the funds from the protection of banking secrecy.

This measure will open the door for an investigation into money laundering, Addoum said, adding the American military attache at the US Embassy had visited him to discuss the case. However, he did not disclose any details about the talks.

The prosecutor said that he met with the Iraqi Charge d’Affaires, who advised him that the Iraqi Interior Ministry was aware of the operation and had sent a fax to its Lebanese counterpart in Beirut.

From the Beirut Daily Star (January 28, 2004):

State Prosecutor Adnan Addoum was informed on  Tuesday that Iraqi authorities will send   him a memo demanding the return of money that has been confiscated by Lebanese authorities, according to sources.

The sources told The Daily Star that Addoum received a call from the Iraqi Charge d’Affaires in Lebanon, Tahseen Elwan Eena, telling him that a memo will be sent through diplomatic channels.

Iraq’s Interior Ministry said on Monday that it could not be held responsible for the decision of Lebanese businessmen to fly to Beirut with billions of Iraqi dinars, which they had cashed for a procurement contract.

“Our responsibility stopped when the money was paid,” interim Interior Minister [and brother-in-law of Iraqi interim prime minister Iyad Allawi] Nuri Badran said.

He stressed that the Lebanese businessmen agreed to be paid in Iraqi dinars and cashed the money from the Rafidain Bank in Baghdad. “I don’t know why they chose a currency exchange company abroad (to convert the dinars),” he added.

Badran said that the 9.5-billion dinar contract was to supply the ministry with necessary equipment, such as protection and tools for police officers to defuse bombs and strips to protect windows from being shattered by explosions.

The amount was equivalent to $10 million when the contract was signed earlier this month, he said.

He did not explain, however, why the Interior Ministry had not sent proof of the contract, as requested by the Lebanese authorities who seized the dinars from the businessmen on their arrival in Lebanon.

“We have paid the money, we are now awaiting the equipment,” he said.

But the Lebanese authorities said on Jan. 17 they would not return the money until they had proof that the money was from a legal payment for a contract.

Four Lebanese men were detained for several days on suspicion of attempting to smuggle the money as part of a speculation scheme and their passports were confiscated by the Lebanese authorities.

Iraqi central bank officials have conceded that large quantities of the new currency, particularly the easy to carry 25,000 dinar notes, may be being smuggled to neighboring countries.

Smuggling committed by traders hoping to make hefty gains ­ especially when Iraq’s economy improves and its oil exports increase ­ has caused the currency’s value to spike wildly.

From the Naharnet Newsdesk (February 3, 2004):

A member of the Iraqi Governing Council said Lebanon will return the Iraqi millions in its banks, but he gave no indication of when it will happen.

Mouwafak al-Rubaie met the speaker of Lebanon's parliament, Nabih Berri, together with fellow Governing Council member Younadem Kanna….

The two-day visit of al-Rubaie and Kanna comes two weeks after Lebanese authorities confiscated 19.5 billion Iraqi dinars (US$15.6) from a private plane that flew to Beirut from Iraq.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry said the money was to be used for government purchases. A Lebanese businessmen on the plane, Mohammed Issem abu Darwish, told investigators the money was to pay mainly for armored cars for Iraqi officials.

Al-Rubaie and Kanna did not say whether they spoke to Berri about the confiscated dinars.

From the Beirut Daily Star (April 9, 2004):

A criminal judge postponed the trial  of four Lebanese until June 3 on Thursday. They are accused of violating regulations and laws by smuggling 19 billion Iraqi dinars in cash from Baghdad into Beirut without formally notifying the Lebanese security authorities and the Central Bank.

Judge Fawzi Khamis is due to question the accused at a forthcoming court session on the circumstances of the smuggling of the money, which was later recovered by the Iraqi authorities.

The five people involved in the case are: Michel Mkattaf, owner of the Mkattaf Exchange Company and a close relative of former President Amin Gemayel; Richard Jreisati, formerly in charge of foreign relations in the disbanded Lebanese Forces militia; Mazen al-Bassat, owner of Bassat Tourist Company; and Mohammed abu Darwish and Zuzu Zouein.

Lawyers acting on behalf of the defendants were in court Thursday for the trial and were notified of the postponement and the need for their clients' presence for questioning.

And, then, in a bizzare twist, the case was more or less inexplicably dismissed.

From the Beirut Daily Star (July 16, 2004):

The Lebanese judiciary ended legal proceedings against five Lebanese charged with violating banking laws by illegally transporting $13 million from Baghdad to Lebanon on Jan. 24, 2004.

The defendants were identified as Mohammed Abu Darwish, an official working for a private security company at the Baghdad airport; Zouzou Zouein, a customs agent at Beirut International Airport; Richard Jreisati, a former foreign affairs official working for the disbanded Lebanese Forces; Michel Mouktafi, the owner of the Mouktafi Company for Money Exchange and former president Amin Gemayel's brother-in-law; and Mazen Bsat, the owner of the Bsat al-Rih Airlines Company as well as the owner of the airplane that transferred the money from Iraq to Lebanon.

Presided over by Beirut's Penal Magistrate Fawzi Khamis, the court said the suspects would not be tried because "the money that left Baghdad Airport was allocated to buy equipment for Iraq's Interior Ministry with its approval."

The defendants chose Lebanon to exchange the money into a foreign currency due to the country's financial facilities, according to the court.

Khamis said similar sums of money enter and exit Lebanon on a regular basis with great freedom, due to the free-economic system in the country.

He added that the Central Bank's special investigation committee for fighting money laundering had issued a decision on the issue saying the source of the Iraqi money was legal.

Mohammed abu Darwish's name also surfaces in connection with a lawsuit against Fairfax, Virginia-based Custer Battles by a former executive of that company, William Baldwin, and one of its subcontractors, Robert Isakson—who together accuse the company of defrauding the U. S. government.

A $33,000 food order in Mosul was billed to the U.S.-led interim government of Iraq at $432,000. Electricity that cost $74,000 was invoiced at $400,000. Even $10 kettles got a 400 percent markup.

Documents unearthed as part of a whistleblower suit against Fairfax, Va.'s Custer Battles reveal for the first time the extent to which the defense contractor is accused of gouging the Coalition Provisional Authority, which governed Iraq following the U.S. invasion of the country in 2003.

Among those documents is a spreadsheet that appears to show the company billing the government nearly $10 million for dozens of items, including food, vehicles, and cooking pots. The total cost to Custer Battles, according to the spreadsheet, was less than $4 million—a profit margin of 150 percent, far higher than the 25 percent margin allowed under its contract.

For critics of the Bush administration's handling of postwar Iraq, Custer Battles has become something of a symbol of contractor excess during the 14-month period that the Coalition Provisional Authority governed Iraq. The company was able to secure tens of millions of dollars' worth of security and logistical contracts from the CPA—despite the fact that it didn't even exist until just months before the invasion of Iraq.

Last fall, Custer Battles was suspended from government contracting after Pentagon investigators documented evidence indicating that the company had defrauded the CPA by inflating its costs. The scheme, according to the investigation, involved a series of "sham" companies that were used to produce false invoices and hide the actual costs of items.

Darwish ("a citizen of Lebanon who resides in Lebanon and Iraq") is named as a defendant in the lawsuit in his capacity as founder of Custer Battles Levant, the Beirut-based arm of the company, and a company called Secure Global Distribution, headquartered in the Cayman Islands. According to the complaint, Darwish and his co-defendants "were directly involved in the scheme to use intermediary shell companies toobtain excess profit mark-ups on the cost-plus items in the ICE [Iraqi Currency Exchange] contract, and to bill for items and services that they did not provide."

There's more background on the Custer Battles lawsuit here.

It's also curious that the Fairchild SA-227 Metro owned by Flying Carpet bears the name "Custer Battles Levant" on its nose, right above the name "Flying Carpet." (The same plane was used to transport two Lebanese businessmen, Sharbel Karam al-Haj and Aram Nalbandian, who had been kidnapped by by militants from the group of al Qaeda operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi last October. It may also be the same plane whose interior appears in the most recent Stoffel-Wemple video.)

Darwish's aims seem to be as much political as they are mercenary, however. A report in the Beirut Daily Star from last August indicates that he has founded his own political faction in Lebanon.

A new group, called the United Lebanon Gathering was created Sunday at the town of Mosseileh in the South.

The group was started by businessman Mohammed Issam abu Darwish before a large crowd featuring politicians as well as religious and political figures.

Abu Darwish, who said he was not the leader of the group but would stand for election to that post at the next general assembly, added that the group was not a party. "The United Lebanon Gathering is a humanitarian, social, cultural and health gathering."

He added that he belonged to the Musa Sadr school. But Sadr "was not so much a Shiite as a Lebanese."

Abu Darwish said that Sadr had prayed in churches and monasteries as well as mosques because he considered them as houses of God.

In answer to a question on whether the new movement supported President Emile Lahoud, Abu Darwish said: "Lahoud more than likely does not know about the new group. But perhaps he will hear about it from the media Monday."

Abu Darwish said he had expressed appreciation to "anyone who took part in the liberation of the land." But the opening statement was free of any allusion to the anti-Israeli national resistance.

This report, from Lebanonwire.com, sheds more light on the United Lebanon Gathering:

On Aug. 1, 2004, a new grouping was proclaimed in the  southern Lebanese town of Musseileh, only a short distance from Berri's residence. Issam  Abu Darwish, a prominent Shiite businessman who is close to Speaker Nabih Berri and also a  close friend of former President Amin Gemayel, proclaimed on Sunday the birth of a new  Shiite group called al-Kiyan (entity) Gathering, As Safir and daily AlMustaqbal said August 2.

"I would like to point out that our friends and  contacts are numerous ... We will put up with those who fought against our group before it  was even born. And regardless of the obstacles we will work because the nation requires  sacrifices regardless of the price," Abu Darwish said.

"We are not a party and we will never be one. We are  not against any of the forces existing on the political scene and not an alternative to anyone. We don't want to cancel the others... However, we will be in the forefront of the  march to defend the nation, which is passing through very dangerous phases and  circumstances," he added. "Our gathering is for a united Lebanon... It is a  humanitarian, social, cultural, health and development gathering... Furthermore, in  politics we will stay away from degradation and violations and pettiness at all  levels," Abu Darwish said.

He pointed out that the group was inspired by the political  line or trend of missing Shiite Imam Musa Sadr, the founder of the Shiite Amal movement  led by Speaker Berri. "Before politics, we are interested in projects, which are many  and varied, including social, educational, cultural and health projects... Nevertheless,  in politics we will not be lenient or flexible with corruption and we will not be idle  spectators, but, we will speak up bluntly," he added.

The new group underscored the need for excellent and  distinctive relations with Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon with some 20,000 troops  deployed in several Lebanese regions. "Syria saved Lebanon from being partitioned and  backed the process of liberating the south…." Abu Darwish said urging an end to  hostile campaigns against Damascus.

Could it be purely coincidence that Darwish's formation of the pro-Syrian political group occurred in the same month as the fateful visit of Rafik al-Hariri to Damascus, in which the former Lebanese Prime Minister was allegedly told by President Assad: "If you and Chirac want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon"?

All in all, Mohammed abu Darwish is clearly a "connected guy," who could be the key to unravelling the mysterious deaths of Dale Stoffel and Joe Wemple last December. And with his close ties to both Nabih Berri and Amin Gemayel, he is without doubt a significant force in the Byzantine politics of Lebanon.

Posted by Rodger on April 13, 2005 at 09:15 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)