Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Top Ten Myths about Iraq in 2007

In 2007, the top ten myths about Iraq were as follows:

1. The reduction in violence in Iraq is mostly because of the escalation in the number of US troops, or "surge."

2. Iraq has been "calm" in fall of 2007 and the Iraqi public, despite some grumbling, is not eager for the US to depart.

3. The Iraqi north is relatively quiet and a site of economic growth.

4. The Sunni Arab "Awakening Councils," who are on the US payroll, are reconciling with the Shiite government of PM Nuri al-Maliki even as they take on al-Qaeda remnants.

5. Some progress has been made by the Iraqi government in meeting the "benchmarks" worked out with the Bush administration.

6. The US overthrow of the Baath regime and military occupation of Iraq has helped liberate Iraqi women.

7. Iran was supplying explosively formed projectiles (a deadly form of roadside bomb) to Salafi Jihadi (radical Sunni) guerrilla groups in Iraq.

8. The US troop surge stopped the civil war that had been raging between Sunni Arabs and Shiites in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

9. There have been steps toward religious and political reconciliation in Iraq in 2007.

10. The US public no longer sees Iraq as a central issue in the 2008 presidential campaign.

See the indispensible Juan Cole debunk each of these myths in turn at Informed Comment.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Honest debate, and Israel's alternative

As a blogger I'm sometimes asked (words to the effect of), "why do you write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Its because you hate Jews isn't it?"

I tend to resist the urge to ask such people whether they'd attribute the anti-apartheid movement or the civil rights movement to hatred of White people, or opposition to the USSR to anti-Russian racism. Instead, my reply tends to be something along the lines of how the UK gives military, political and diplomatic support to Israel so I share responsibility for what's done with that support. Plus, if I talked about the crimes of others before I talked about the ones I share responsibility for I'd be what a wise and famous Jew once described as a "hypocrite" (Matthew 7:1-5, I believe).

Of course, there's another reason why the Israel-Palestine issue needs to be discussed and returned to repeatedly, which is that apologists for the Israeli government keep lying about it.

After all, as Norman Finkelstein shows in "Beyond Chutzpah", the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not enormously complex. The history is largely uncontested by scholars and there is a broad consensus on what a just peace would involve. The obstacle is US-Israeli rejectionism, and the epic propaganda effort made by apologists for this position to obscure the facts in service of the cause (the cause being the maximisation of the Israeli and US interests, no matter what the human costs borne principally by the Palestinians).

The moral and intellectual poverty of the US-Israeli position is nowhere better demonstrated than by the sheer audacity of the mendaciousness employed. It is as though those responsible are reduced to hoping that if they say black is white often enough and with enough conviction someone somewhere might believe them. The latest effort from the Israeli embassy in London is a case in point.

In last week's Guardian, Ahmad Samih Khalidi - a senior associate member of St Antony's College, Oxford - wrote in favour of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Khalidi sees the only two-state solution that's currently on offer as "largely a punitive construct devised by the Palestinian's worst historical enemies; Israel and its implacable ally, the US. The intention behind the [proposed Palestinian] state today is to constrain Palestinian aspirations territorially, to force them to give up on their moral rights, renege on their history and submit to Israel's diktats on fundamental issues of sovereignty".

Instead of this, Dr Khalidi proposes a single state covering all of what is now Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with equal rights for all its citizens: Jew and Arab alike. He calls for "equitable and fair resolution that is built on a different basis; one of mutual respect, equality and mutuality, and a sense of genuine partnership in sharing the land".

Today, on the Guardian letter's page, the Israeli embassy in London exercised its right of reply. Lior Ben-Dor writes:

"While moderate Palestinians, headed by the President Mahmoud Abbas, have accepted that Israelis are here to stay and adopted the vision of a two-state solution, Khalidi rejects it outright. But what alternative is Khalidi suggesting? Further terrorism, bloodshed and perpetuation of the conflict?"

Take the first of these sentences. On the one hand, we have "moderate" Palestinians who "have accepted that Israelis are here to stay and adopted the vision of a two-state solution". On the other hand we have Khalidi. The sentence is cleverly worded. It presents Khalidi as someone who has not "accepted that Israelis are here to stay" without explicitly attributing that view to him in so many words. There's a reason for that. He never said it. And the embassy, unless the staff responsible for the letter are functional illiterates, knows he never said it. Because not only did he not say it, he said the opposite, and quite explicitly - i.e. that he wishes to engage Israelis on the basis "of mutual respect, equality and mutuality, and a sense of genuine partnership in sharing the land"

Then, take the second and third sentences: "....what alternative is Khalidi suggesting? Further terrorism, bloodshed and perpetuation of the conflict?". Why ask? Nowhere does Khalidi suggest violence as an alternative to the two-state solution. He suggests the opposite: a democratic, one-state solution as an egalitarian peace settlement. Again, the embassy either knows this very well or the staff responsible for the letter are functionally illiterate.

By contrasting the "unpragmatic" Khalidi with the "moderate" Abbas, those who offer peace with those who "suggest the alternative" of violence, those who wish to live "side by side" with those who fail to accept that "Israelis are here to stay", all of which bears no relation whatsoever to the article the embassy is ostensibly replying to, Israeli diplomats are making a tacit admission: that they have no response to the substance of Khalidi's argument. They have no intellectual response and no moral response; at least none that they believe the British public will find persuasive. Their preferred response therefore is to lie about what Khalidi wrote, hoping that the lie will stick with at least some of those who read it. They can't respond to the argument Khalidi makes, so they invent a fake argument, attribute that to him (using language that might just sneak past a judge in the libel courts) and then argue with that instead. The only alternative explanation is that the embassy staff responsible for the letter are functional illiterates, since the question of a honest, literate person interpreting Khalidi in this way plainly does not arise.

We now read that the Israeli embassy is planning an "aggressive new strategy in Britain, making Israel’s case more actively in the media", which one might describe as 'public relations' or, more accurately, as propaganda. Those willing to confront this "aggressive" propaganda effort should take heart from the embassy's pathetic display on the Guardian letter's page this morning; from its effective admission of its own fear of the truth, and from its palpable desperation. Today's shoddy effort is indicative not only of the Israeli government's arch cynicism but also of its profound weakness outside of the realm of violence. That being the case, the just peace so feared by the state of Israel and its backers - be it two equal states or one state of equal citizens - can not be so far away. In the battle of ideas and principles, the government of Israel has nothing.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

British occupation of southern Iraq: the Iraqi verdict

This morning, British troops handed control of Basra province over to the Iraqi authorities.
While you and I might have our own views on the British occupation, clearly the only judgement that really matters is that of the people of southern Iraq themselves. According to poll commissioned by the BBC, only 2 per cent of Basra residents believe the British have had a positive effect on their lives since the invasion of 2003. 86 per cent say the effect has been negative. 66 per cent said that today's handover from British to Iraqi forces would improve security in the short term, 72 per cent said that it would improve security in the long term. 5 per cent in each case said that security would deteriorate when the British pulled out.
83 per cent of Basrawis said they wanted British troops to leave Iraq altogether, with 63 per cent saying they should leave the Middle East entirely. If you think that makes the troop's continued presence illegitimate, the British government will remind you that we are there at the invitation of the democratically elected Iraqi government. The fact that the democratically elected Iraqi government is summarily ignoring the long-standing will of the vast majority of Iraqis on one of the biggest issues facing their country is neither here nor there. This is not a denial of democracy, as it may appear to the untrained eye, but an expression of it. Got that? Good.
For an analysis and review of the British occupation, see my article for Le Monde Diplomatique, "Britiain's Failure in Iraq".

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

So Condi, how's that "moderate" Arab, anti-Iran alliance shaping up?

If you know a little, but not a lot, about the Middle East at the moment, you know the Sunni hate the Shia and the Shia hate the Sunni.

If you know a little more than that, but still not a lot, you might be able to identify which regimes are Shia and which are Sunni.

Those people with that little amount of knowledge are probably the ones who'll tell you that the "moderate" Sunni Arab regimes ("moderate" means close to Washington) are asking the US to help them defend themselves against Iran. That, we’re told, is the scenario in the Middle East at the moment.

Here’s an example.

Early last week the normally understated, soft-spoken US Defence Secretary Robert Gates made some uncharacteristically bellicose statements about Iran. Iran, he said, should remember that "imperial Germany, imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, the Soviet Union - all made this fatal miscalculation [of misunderestimating the US]. All paid the price. All are on the ash heap of history".

Recall that it was Gates that apparently led the efforts to push through the publication of the recent National Intelligence Estimate which said that Iran had no nuclear weapons programme after all, thus undercutting the warmongering of Vice-President Cheney and his allies. Plainly this public debacle made the US look weak; afraid of the consequences of a war with Iran (which Gates and more intelligent imperialists certainly are). This will never do. Gates’ fiery outburst was probably his way of overcompensating for any perception of weakness that might result from his leading the US retreat.

Gary Samore of the US Council on Foreign Relations has his own interpretation. For him, Gates' rhetoric was intended to reassure Washington's "moderate" Sunni allies. "The Gulf states are insecure and resentful but they are in a very weak position" Samore explained. "Gates had to reassure them that the US was not giving up on Iran after the NIE."

This is very much of a piece with the standard political correctness. The US is not seeking to dominate a continent on the other side of the planet from Washington for reasons as grubby as its own power and strategic advantage. No, Washington’s actions are defensive. It is defending its allies, defending its “national interests” or whatever. Well trained intellectuals, journalists and commentators have internalised this script to the extent that the merest idea of US power being aggressive – of the intrinsically aggressive nature of imposing our will on others – is, literally, unthinkable.

So if the “moderates” want us to defend them from the extremists, if in the backward Muslim world the Sunnis and Shia are gripped by an implacable, interminable blood feud which only the good offices of the civilised West can possibly control, how do the likes of Samore and others explain this photo?

It doesn’t get more Shia and “extremist” than the cartoon bogeyman of Western liberals Mahmoud Ahmadinajad, and it doesn’t get more Sunni and “moderate” than King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (you can forget for a moment that “moderate” Saudi Arabia somehow succeeds in being even more tyrannical than Ahmadinajad’s Iran - western liberals certainly have). And yet, here they are, holding hands. Abdullah doesn’t look very “insecure and resentful” to me. He looks so relaxed and confortable you’d think Ahmedinejad was George Bush.

Ahmadinejad was meeting with leaders of the (“moderate” Sunni) Gulf Cooperation Council; the first Iranian President ever to do so. He came offering free trade deals and a regional security pact. His hosts praised his “gestures of goodwill”, saying they wanted to “develop our relations for the sake of regional stability”.

Hang on. Doesn’t “regional stability” involve lining up with Washington to isolate Iran? How does developing relations fit in to that? How isolated is Iran going to feel when it develops relations with a regional block that wields twice the investment clout of China?

And what’s this? The BBC now reports that "Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will this week become the first sitting president of the Islamic republic to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca, his office said."

"It follows a formal invitation from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, seat of the Islamic holy places and a long-time regional rival of revolutionary Iran."

"An official said the invitation was an important event in Saudi-Iranian ties."

""It is the first time in the history of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia that the king of this country invites a president of the Islamic republic to make the pilgrimage to Mecca," said presidential aide Ali Akbar Javanfekr."

Whatever script Gary Samore’s been reading, someone obviously forgot to email it to the colonies.

So what does all this tell us? Well, lesson one is that US claims to be performing a species of altruistic missionary work in the Middle East, protecting its “moderate” friends from the Iranian bogeyman, is a self-serving spin on what are strictly imperialistic machinations serving narrow self-interest. Lesson two: these small states that most commentators couldn’t find on a map have their own interests that are defined by their own realities, not the whims of Washington. Lesson three is that, increasingly, Washington is losing its power to bring these states into line.

And if there’s a lesson four, its that an interpretation of events that is useful to power can become an established truth even when it bears no relation whatsoever to the facts.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

US u-turn on Iranian nuclear weapons

A couple of points about this week's US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) - a report from all the US government spy agencies - which said that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons programme.

Firstly, note that this simply echoes what the International Atomic Energy Agency has been saying for some time, only to be ignored by Western policymakers, commentators and the media. That there was a "threat" from an Iranian nuclear weapons programme remained the conventional wisdon across the political spectrum until the US government said otherwise. This tells us a great deal about the discipline and respect of authority that runs right through mainstream politics.
You would think that the US government was a neutral assessor of the truth, whose judgements were in no way coloured by its own interests. You would think that the IAEA inspectors were peripheral, ignorant, hopelessly biased or irrelevant. You would think that the Iraq WMD fiasco never happened; an instance where Western governments and spy agencies colluded to distort and lie about the information available while the international bodies stuck by the truth and were vindicated in their judgement. Government's should take heart from this. Iraq changed nothing. If you want to nominate an official enemy as a "security threat" simply say the word and the echo chamber will do the rest, until you say otherwise.

The second point concerns the state of play in Washington at the moment. As I say, the NIE is not a neutral assessment. Its a political assessment made by an actor with its own interests. The question then is, why is it now decided in such a high-profile, high-level fashion that saying Iran has a nuclear weapons programme no longer suits US interests? Remember that two years ago the NIE said with equal "high confidence" that Iran did have such a programme, which the spys now say was actually abandoned in 2003. So why the U-turn?

The answers to those questions mostly come down to who's in the driving seat in Washington at the moment. What we seem to be seeing now is the neo-cons around Cheney being eclipsed by the "Realists" around Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

In 2002 those pushing for war on Iraq (the neo-cons) were in the ascendency. They could ensure that an NIE emerged which suited their purposes in respect of its assessment of Iraq's WMD capabilities. Things are very different now. Cheney and Bush may want war but Gates and Rice do not, and it seems the the intelligence and defence bureaucracies are aligned with the latter camp. Neo-cons Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle etc are all gone, so the Realists' hand is strengthened. Gates' apparently played a big part in getting this NIE published, and he will have been helped by an intelligence bureaucracy that contains many who actively loathe Cheney and his neo-con "crazies" (as the Realists call privately refer to them). For them, this will be revenge for the way the neo-cons bullied them to come up with the "right answers" over Iraq.

The NIE doesn't give the definitive assessment on the available evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme. That's given by the IAEA. What the NIE gives is an indication of what Washington wants at the moment. Those able to define what Washington wants are by definition those in the political ascendency. An NIE that says Iran has no nuclear programme is an indication that the neo-cons are routed and the Realists are in command. The Realists understand that an attack on Iran would elicit a response that would make Iraq look like a tea-party. So they have removed Cheney's major casus belli.

Make no mistake, this is an almighty kick in the nuts for the Vice President. And indeed for Bush whose statements after the NIE have been humiliatingly incoherent even by his standards. Its possible that neither man will recover from what has effectively been a miniature bureaucratic coup.

Time precludes me from writing more about this, but the best place to go for more info and comment on this will certainly be Paul Woodward's indispensible site War in Context. For more background on Western-Iran relations, see my article "The Iran hostage crisis in context" or listen to my interview on Nadim Mahjoub's show "Middle East Panorama".

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Venezuelan referendum result

A quick initial reaction to the result of the Venezuelan referendum referred to in my last post.

I find myself, surprisingly, not particularly disheartened by the government's defeat. I said at the weekend that, on balance, I supported the reforms. On reflection (a reflection I hope I would still have taken had the government won) that's a hard statement to make meaningfully on such a broad package. How can you say "yes" or "no" to 60plus proposals at once? There are elements of the package that I'm sorry to see will not be passed into law for now. Prohibition of discrimination against homosexuals for example. There are other elements that I'm rather glad to see defeated - e.g. some of the extra powers for the Presidency.

For me, the main thing as far as the vote was concerned was its impact on the general health of Venezuelan democracy and of the overall reform agenda pursued by the government over the last nine years. More specifically, I was concerned as to whether the outcome would strengthen the Venezuelan opposition.

Early indications are that the government's defeat on Sunday was largely a result of abstentions from its own supporters. Overall turnout was down sharply from the normal level. It appears that opposition support remains more or less flatlined at about a third of the overall electorate, where it has been through its preceding 11 successive election defeats. 51 per cent of a turnout of 55 means that the opposition could only mobilise just over a quarter of Venezuelan voters to do something about the coming "dictatorship" (I found myself laughing out loud on Sunday as an opposition spokeswoman interviewed by Channel 4 tv news told the reporter that Venezuelan democracy was dead....while standing outside a polling station). To the extent that I was more concerned about the opposition winning than the government losing, that's encouraging news.

If its true that the government lost because its own supporters stayed at home, rather than because the opposition persuaded people to vote against the proposals, then the government will have to look into why this happened and take account of those views. Intuitively, I would expect that traditional Bolivarians will have abstained due to disquiet about the centralising aspects of the new constitution. If that persuades Chavez to forget about measures like ending Presidential term limits, for example, then that's all to the good. As Rahul Mahajan says in a good piece here, "15 years in power ought to be enough for Chavez; a revolution that requires him for longer than that isn’t much of a revolution".

If this analysis is correct then in many ways its very good news. The "Bolivarian Revolution" is born of a broad socio-political movement that President Chavez happens to stand at the front of. Claims that the Chavez is implementing a "self-styled" revolution ignore this fact, and should be understood as part of a drive by Western opinion formers to shape our understanding of Venezuelan politics purely in terms of (their caricature of) Chavez's personality, thus obscuring both the active popular basis of Bolivarianism and the substance of what the Caracas government has been doing in terms of social reform and international diplomacy since 1999. One might well interpret the decision of traditional Bolivarians to stay at home - if indeed that was to do with proposed centralisation - as a reminder to the government they put in power that ownership of Bolivarianism should remain with the public. If that's correct, once can only applaud the result, particularly if any gains for the opposition are minimal, as appears to be the case.

All the above is of course subject to a fuller understanding of the data. If I find anything substantial and reliable I'll link to it as an update to this post.

One more thing: as I mentioned at the weekend, there were some indications to suggest that a government victory would have been disputed deliberately as a tactic to destabilise the country and prepare the ground for a possible coup. A coup is after all the only way the broad leftward trend in Venezuela is likely to be stopped. An opposition victory precludes the possibility of that course of action being taken and of a violent return to the status quo ante. Instead, Venezuela remains as Bolivarian as it was on Saturday evening, as far as I can see. When opposition supporters (and certain western foreign correspondents) recover from their hangovers, that's the reality they'll have to face.

So all in all, I can't feel too sorry about the result. Bolivarianism goes on, perhaps even in a new and improved form now that the people have spoken in Chavez's alleged "dictatorship".

For more about Venezuela, see here and here.

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

A new assault on Venezuelan democracy?

Venezuela goes to the polls this weekend to vote on a new constitution. Various measures are being proposed; some that would devolve democratic and economic power to local communities, others that would grant more powers to the Presidency.

I have reservations about some elements of the package. For instance, I don't support the move to abolish presidential term limits. Plainly the attempt made by some to portray this as a move to dictatorship is, shall we say, a little shrill. But my personal view is that a liberal democratic constitution is healthier when terms of office at the highest level are limited.

However, to the extent that it devolves power to the Venezuelan people and empowers them politically, socially and economically in their everyday lives - a central theme of the Bolivarian government's reform program of recent years - I think there's much to applaud in the proposals. You can read more about them here.

Above all where Venezuela is concerned, its heartening to see a third world government acting independently of global power, and using its resources and wealth to benefit its people, instead of to enrich international capital and a domestic kleptocrat class as is more usually the case. In recent years the Bolivarian government has cut poverty by a massive 30 per cent, and access to healthcare and education have also increased dramatically. Perhaps most importantly of all, the poor majority of Venezuelan's now have an active stake in their country through grassroots economic, social and political co-operation initiatives that put power firmly into their own hands. And this example has inspired governments and populations across the continent to take major steps to kick Washington (the source of so much torture, impoverishment, brutality and oppression in recent decades) out of their affairs permanently.

Given the 500-year tragedy that in so many ways is the history of Latin America, it would take a hard heart to begrudge the poor majority in Venezuela what they have won for themselves with much effort and perseverence. But of course, there will be winners and losers from a successful move to full Latin American independence. The losers would be the US - the regional hegemon for the past century - and the wealthy elites (domestic and international) that have spent so much of the Colombian era bleeding the continent dry. Those forces have no intention of giving up lightly what they believe is rightfully theirs. That was demonstrated unequivocally in the US-backed coup five years ago when the Venezuelan business elite attempted to overthrow the democratically elected government, only to be thwarted by mass popular opposition. Now, in advance of tomorrow's vote, there is every chance that Venezuelan democracy will come under renewed attack.

An alleged CIA internal memo written last week, which Venezuelan counterintelligence claims to have intercepted, sets out a detailed plan to use the elections to destabilise the country with the eventual goal of overthrowing the government. The alleged plan involves publishing and disseminating fraudulent polls showing that the government is on course for defeat in Sunday's vote, which can then be used as "proof" of electoral fraud when the vote is in fact won, as is far more likely to happen (the government has comfortably won 11 elections in recent years, verified as free and fair by international monitors). Contesting the election results will be the focus of broader manufactured unrest designed to make the country ungovernable and set the stage for a coup.

In a sense, it matters little whether the memo is genuine or not, since it offers no surprises, only a reminder. What it describes is simply standard procedure for US covert actions in Latin America (and elsewhere). Take as an example Nixon's order to make the Chilean economy "sceam" in order to destabilise the elected socialist government and lay the groundwork for the eventual coup that brought the murderous General Pinochet (and Friedman-style neo-liberalism) into power in Santiago. The memo merely reminds anyone who knows a little of the history of US Latin America policy of the sort of black operations they can expect to now be taking place. Indeed, as you'll see below in respect of faked polls, aspects of what is described in the memo have indeed been occuring. Can we be surprised? What reason would we have, after all, to believe that the US would choose this point in history to stop doing what it has always done whenever the weakest in what it describes as its "backyard" have dared to raise their heads?

So that's the context in which I sent the below email to Rory Carroll of the Guardian (whose coverage on Venezuela I've written about previously here). The western media - with a few exceptions - have performed their standard propaganda function where Venezuela is concerned in recent years. For example, by reducing their coverage to hysterical caricatures of the personality of President Chavez instead of reporting the policy substance of the Caracas government's programme. If things do turn nasty in the coming days, the role of the media will be crucial in isolating Caracas on the world stage - portraying the democratically elected President as a "dictator-in-the-making", those working to overthrow democracy as plucky freedom-fighters, and so on. We should be alive to this now, in case the worst happens, and be prepared to politely challenge journalists with the facts wherever necessary. The end of the Bolivarian government and the return of the elites would send millions of people back to the poverty and deprivation that they have only recently begun to escape. To the extent that we can make a small but valuable effort to help prevent that from happening, we should do so.


email to Rory Carroll - sent 1 December 2007

Hi Rory - hope you're well

I notice that a couple of your recent reports have relied on polls by Datanalisis.

I've just read Luis Vicente Leon of Datanalisis telling Reuters that "The most probable [of tomorrow's constitutional referendum] is that there will be no surprise and Chavez will win 60 percent against 40 percent".

I found this strange because you reported on Thursday 29th that "A survey for Datanalisis, a polling company, said 49% of likely voters would vote no [to the constitution] and 39% would vote yes".

I thought you might be interested in the discrepancy between what Datanalisis staff think is "probable" and what they are presenting as the results of their polls. Are you satisfied that this firm is a reliable, neutral source of statistical data? Are you aware that The LATimes once quoted José Antonio Gil of Datanalysis saying that Chavez "has to be killed"? Are you aware of the recent history in Venezuela of fake polls being used by the opposition?

The opposition's alleged poll lead was central to your story of Thursday 29th ("Chávez forced to battle for long-term future"). Given that Mr Leon has now effectively admitted that the figures you published last week were fraudulent, I was wondering if you would be drawing attention to this in your next report? Please let me know.

Best wishes
David Wearing

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