- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2003

Insider notes from United Press International for Feb 28

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On a scale of one to 10, Afghan officials rated Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit to Washington Wednesday and Thursday a six. True President George W. Bush assured him that the administration would not turn its back on Afghanistan, but at the news conference later Bush got all the questions and none of them was about Afghanistan. The Republicans arranged a dinner and an award with many standing ovations. But the other honoree, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., barely mentioned him in his lengthy speech, which was about the HIV virus, other virus, and Saddam Hussein. But it was Wednesday that Karzai spent in a seething fury over his meeting with the Senate Foreign Relations committee. The Afghans had understood that Karzai would be meeting the senators informally, around a table. When he arrived at the Dirksen Building Wednesday morning the senators were deployed in their usual places, and Karzai sat facing them as though he was going to testify. He handled their questions brilliantly, but the session ruined his day. He was still sulking in the evening and only reluctantly attended a reception in his honor for 700 top-drawer guests. He shut himself in a small room, appearing briefly from time to time to shake hands with the likes of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and then dashing back behind closed doors again. "Someone pulled the rug from under him," commented an Afghan official to UPI. "This will not look good in Kabul. His enemies already call him a servant of the Americans, and now they'll say we told you do." Meanwhile, the Senate committee quickly shifted into damage control gear, insisting that no slight was intended. "We really, really love this guy," one staffer told an Afghan official. To make amends Karzai was given several more helicopters than he had asked for.

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Afghanistan's dapper foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, fresh from a tour of the Middle East, told UPI Arab leaders are now convinced that war in Iraq is inevitable, and they hope it will be over quickly. That way, they feel, they will be able to contain the collateral damage. Like Karzai, Abdullah is worried that Afghanistan is too involved in the Iraq crisis to continue to pay the right amount of attention to rebuilding his country. "What the Bush administration should have done is finish the job in Afghanistan before taking on Iraq," he says. That way the Iraqis would be reassured that the United States can be generous and constructive as well as effective militarily.

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Former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wasn't too keen on accepting the post of minister of finance in Ariel Sharon's new cabinet. His first reaction when Sharon offered him the job was that if he couldn't retain the foreign ministry he would go back onto the government back benches. But the word is that Netanyahu's supporters and backers in the United States helped change his mind. Conservative American Jews told him to stay in Sharon's government to ensure that the coalition cabinet continued to take a firm line if the peace process was resumed. Meanwhile, the loser in this appointment was Ehud Olmert, the influential former mayor of Jerusalem. Some say he had a commitment from Sharon to take the finance portfolio in the new government.

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In his speech Thursday to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank that was plundered to fill posts in the Bush administration, President Bush repeated his commitment to the Middle East peace "Road Map." Washington's latest formula for jump starting the healing process between Israelis and Palestinians has been in the deep freeze for months while the Bush administration deals with the Iraq crisis. It may still be in the deep freeze as far as the White House is concerned, but Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have been pressing the administration for a public demonstration that Washington is still concerned about the Arab — Israeli conflict, and wants to solve it. The European leaders were hoping that if unseating Saddam Hussein could be linked to helping the peace process it would reduce public opposition in their respective countries.

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Italy's anti-war protest has taken a dangerous turn. After the biggest demonstration the country has ever seen a couple of weeks ago, activists have taken to staging sit-ins on the railroad lines to block freight trains carrying U.S. military vehicles and other supplies bound for the Gulf from reaching military airfields. Police worry that the demos are an accident waiting to happen. The protests haven't diminished Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's resolve to support Bush, but he's not indifferent to the possible political danger. Recently, he told a senior official," If the Iraq situation backfires I'll call early elections. I'll lose about 50 seats, but it'll be a lot worse if I delay."

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