Corridors of Power

WILL SHIITE CHURCHMAN OPPOSE SURGE? -- Aside from Democratic opposition at home, President Bush's troop increase for Baghdad is "greatly vulnerable" to rejection by a powerful figure in Iraq itself -- the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose charisma and towering influence over the majority of Shiite Muslims remains as undisputable as ever. A well-informed Western source in Iraq says the chances are that the aged, reclusive cleric could come out against the surge unless the Bush administration has privately prepared the ground with him in advance, which doesn't seem to have happened. He is said to feel that the military blitz foreshadowed by the surge would invite a backlash from the Shiite militias, leading to more bloodshed.
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Pressure from the grand ayatollah was behind the initial restraint of the Shiite communities (who make up 60 percent of the Iraqi population) when Sunni insurgents first launched their attacks. But the Shiite militias eventually broke loose, and the source -- who has been in contact with Sistani -- says the grand ayatollah has been trying to rein them in. If the grand ayatollah departs from his usual practice of not making public statements and actually says "no" to the surge, Shiite opposition to the continued U.S. presence in Iraq will have gone up a notch.

A LUMP OF COAL FROM THE IRS -- A not very funny thing is happening to foreign embassies in Washington recently: their staffs became the target of an Internal Revenue Service drive to collect what it claims are unpaid back taxes. The drive involves thousands of both American and foreign non-diplomatic staff in the capital's 200-plus foreign embassies, consulates and international institutions. They have been told to file returns going back three or more years. A large number had filed already in compliance with U.S. tax regulations, but -- the IRS claims -- they "failed to accurately report tax due by underreporting income, claiming deductions for unallowable expenses, and/or failing to pay self-assessment taxes."

Delivered to Washington embassies in December, the service's 11-page "Settlement Initiative" put something of a damper on Christmas celebrations. One sticking point is the Social Security to which some embassies contribute as employers and some don't, leaving their staffers to file as self-employed taxpayers. Another was the problem of double taxation when foreign nationals have paid taxes in their respective countries. The embassies are asking for a meeting of the U.S. commission on double taxation, but so far the situation has only been a bonanza for the city's tax lawyers and accountants.

SOUP'S ON -- Last week, the French ministry of the interior stepped in to halt the distribution to the Paris homeless of a soup in which pork fat is one of the ingredients. This was done on the grounds that the dish is "discriminatory" and liable to endanger public order. The soup was being handed out by a right wing organization, Solidarité des Français, whose motives in doing so -- the newspaper Le Monde strongly suggested last week -- are anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim, since neither group is allowed to eat pork.

Solidarité's lawyer pointed out that soup au lard is a traditional food distributed to the poor in France, and furthermore there have been no protests from Muslim groups, who know that they can get their food from Muslim charity soup kitchens. On Dec. 28, the Council of State, a senior government council, intervened to quash the ministry's decision and allow the soup to be handed out. However, an eyewitness reported that there seemed to be no mad rush for the lard soup.

UNVEILING HISTORY ONE PAGE AT A TIME -- The Vatican has no Freedom of Information Act, but in recent years it has become more liberal in "declassifying" documents from the papal secret archives. This past week, following the holidays, scholars and historians were gleefully poring over the mountain of papers from the pontificate of Pope Pius XI who occupied the throne of St. Peter from 1922-1939. Released to the public at the end of 2006, the amount of new material is truly massive -- over 30,000 volumes of documents spanning the range of the Vatican's decasteries or departments, plus the Secretariat of State. The catalog alone consists of 59 volumes.

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