Hard News by Russell Brown

Waiting at the gates of Babylon

Guess who's waiting on the Jordanian border to save souls for Christ - once His holy weapons have shredded the Iraqi resistance? Missionaries from two of the biggest evangelical Christian missions in the US: the Southern Baptist Convention and the Samaritan’s Purse.

Groups like these enter difficult territories bearing aid and comfort - Samaritan's Purse even operates hospitals in some countries. But they also bring an uncompromising mission of converting the locals to their version of Christianity.

Unsurprisingly, this message is not always welcome. Three missionaries were killed by an Islamic gunman in Yemen late last year. More seriously, the missionaries also endanger genuine aid workers, and the unwitting locals who they manage to convert, usually from Islam.

As this story points out: "As evangelical Christian emissaries have spread throughout the Muslim world, their presence has increasingly proved to be a lightning rod for anti-American sentiment while provoking the anger of native Christian sects and Islamic clerics."

If this is to be billed as a war for tolerance, then the record of Franklin Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham and head of Samaritan's Purse, is worth a look. Two months after September 11 he called Islam a "very evil and wicked religion" and last year said Muslims hadn't sufficiently apologised for the terrorist attacks and challenged Muslim leaders to offer to help rebuild Lower Manhattan or compensate the families of victims to show they condemn terrorism.

The Southern Baptist Conference - often linked with President George W. Bush - is even worse. At its pastors' conference last year, a former SBC president, the Rev. Jerry Vines, described the prophet Muhammad as a "demon-possessed paedophile". US Islamic groups were understandably appalled. Amazingly, both the SBC's outgoing president and the incumbent the Rev. Jack (no relation) Graham supported Vines.

The missionaries' presence in Southern Iraq will go down, as we say in my country, like a cup of cold sick. I just hope that if and when the bullets do fly, it will be the missionaries and not any unfortunate bystanders who cop them.

Al-Jazeera's money apparently wasn't good enough for the US content delivery service Akamai when the Arab satellite news channel approached Akamai seeking a solution to the constant hacking attacks that have effectively taken its English-language website off the Internet.

Akamai's system delivers chunky content to a global network of local caches (here, it has caches installed at Xtra, Ihug and TelstraClear), greatly improving the experience of the far-flung Net user. Because content is effectively available from any of thousands of servers at once, it's also a very sweet way of beating denial-of-service attacks, which rely on flooding servers in a single location.

According to news stories, Akamai - doubtless fearing a visit from the thought police - talked to al-Jazeera, but refused its business. Yet the English al-Jazeera site is suddenly reachable - and a quick traceroute will reveal that it redirects to: a1151.g.akamai.net ( How odd.

As the Americans dart in and out of Baghdad just to show they can, and the press briefings of Saddam's information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf become increasingly fictional, it seems that much of what is said and done in this war is said and done for political, rather than military, reasons. Israel's Ha'aretz has an excellent analysis of the propaganda war.

The Arab News has an intriguing story about un-embedded journalists trying to beat the Kuwaiti gatekeepers and get into Iraq.

Its reporter, Essam Al-Ghali, followed up with a pretty compelling account of what it's like - and who to be afraid of - as an un-embedded journalist in Iraq: "The American forces have put blanket restrictions on all unembedded reporters in Iraq, effectively banning them from traveling inside the country. Obtaining the necessary escort in order to report freely as an unembedded journalist is extremely difficult, if not impossible. Basically, the only journalists authorized to be in Iraq are those embedded with the troops, and they are escorted at all times. What those journalists are allowed to see and report on is controlled by the unit’s military commander."

And Arab News also has a story on a profoundly disillusioned "embedded" Arab journalist who escaped after being captured by Iraqis and, safely home in India, says coalition and civilian casualties are routinely covered up by the system: "This is what bugs you. You have to submit everything that is filed from the front to military censorship. Still they sit in judgment of reports from the other side. They call them enemy lines. Whose enemy? Are you a journalist or a soldier? Though they are there to write, you forget about the Iraqi people. But you lose all your objectivity. The restrictions on reporting are such that it only justifies the reason for those who wanted to go to war."

An American protestor shot in the face by Israeli forces in the occupied territories. And Israeli troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships have stormed a small Gaza Strip village, rounding up all men between the ages of 25-50 and conducting house-to-house searches.

Having tangled itself up in its story about the second Baghdad market bombing, the Blair government is venturing into sleaze. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, embarrassed at having Robert Fisk's story about the US missile fragment found at the scene quoted to him by dissident Labour MPs, has implied that Fisk is either bent or a fool.

And, more than a week after the event, he came up with another piece of "intelligence" to the effect that that Iraqi authorities had been seen "clearing up" the bomb site soon afterwards. This follows Jack Straw's initial "intelligence" to the effect that the Iraqi commander of air defences in Baghdad had been replaced, implying that the cause of the explosion was misdirected anti-aircraft fire.

Fisk's paper, The Independent, was unimpressed, describing Hoon as "a smooth politician who relies on nuance to do his dirty work."

I suppose it is possible that Hoon's account of the bombing is correct. But it simply doesn't make anywhere near as much sense as the obvious view: that the serial numbers on the missile fragment indicate that it was an American HARM anti-radar missile; and that HARM missiles become confused and lose their course if the targeted radar facility is switched off while they are in flight, which the Iraqis appear to have been doing. (This explanation also, of course, enjoys the considerable advantage of not having to be progressively bolstered with unverifiable "intelligence" reports.)

If Hoon had said no, we weren't using HARM missiles on that day, or in that area, it might have been some sort of refutation. But he didn't even mention the HARM missile, only "cruise missiles", which no one is claiming were the cause of the explosion that killed 62 civilians.

And given the growing number of documented friendly fire casualties and bombs dropped on civilians, is it really that hard to believe that this one went astray? They really ought to give up on this one - war is a brutal business and all that - but I suppose there's little enough chance of that.