Wildly complicated contradictions gave the flavor of the tragicomic to news dispatches on Wednesday, mingling deaths and feasts, honor and duplicity, sacrifice and farce, passing easily from passionate outbursts to grotesquerie and mixing monsters, kings, and clowns in a dramatic ensemble.  --  The Financial Times said Wednesday that U.S. raids and air strikes in the district of eastern Baghdad known as Sadr City had killed “32 militants suspected of smuggling arms into Iraq from neighboring Iran.”[1]  --  But the raid took place “two days after U.S. and Iranian officials held ‘frank and serious’ talks in Baghdad on security issues at the first meeting of a subcommittee the two countries agreed to set up last month in an attempt to help stabilize Iraq,” and “on the same day as Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Shia prime minister, began a visit to Tehran to discuss security and other issues,” Andrew England noted.  --  “Mr. Maliki held talks with senior Iranian officials, including Parviz Davoudi, Iran’s first vice-president.  He was also due to meet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president.”  --  As the prime minister of Iraq communed with Iranian leaders, the New York Times reported on an interview with Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, who maintains that, in reporter Michael Gordon’s words, “Iran [has been] increasing its support to Shiite militants in Iraq to step up the military pressure on the United States at a time when the Congress is debating whether to withdraw American troops.”[2]  --  AP, meanwhile, reported on U.S. fears “that militants might try for spectacular attacks before the September report [from Gen. Petraeus] — expected to be a high-level military and diplomatic assessment on U.S. strategies in Iraq and what's needed in the months ahead.”[3]  --  With respect to American claims that Iran is arming those attacking U.S. forces, Qassim Adbul-Zahra said “the Iraqi government has taken a low-key stance without outright backing the American claims, which Tehran denies. . . . Al-Maliki met in Tehran with Iranian Vice President Parviz Davoodi and was to hold talks later with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council,” Qassim Abdul-Zahra said.[4]  --  (Patrick Cockburn, in an article on Tuesday in the London Independent about the failure of the U.S. “surge” that is relevant to al-Maliki’s visit to Tehran, said it’s a mistake to think that the the U.S. is a fully committed ally of the Iraq government that has emerged from the misbegotten American invasion:  “The hidden history of the past four years is that the U.S. wants to defeat the Sunni insurgents but does not want the Shia-Kurdish government to win a total victory. . . . The U.S. is trying to limit the extent of the Shia-Kurdish victory, but by preventing a clear winner emerging in the struggle for Iraq, Washington is ensuring that this bloodiest of wars goes on, with no end in sight.”)  --  AP published a piece based on an insubstantial Jul. 26 interview with Gen. David Petraeus, noting that “Rarely in recent history have the words of one general loomed so large in determining the direction of a war.”[5]  --  Back in the U.S., the Democratic presidential contender appeared on a stage in a Chicago football stadium (Soldier Field, appropriately enough) looking like candidates for a game-show prize.[6] ...

1.

World

Middle East & Africa

SADR CITY RAIDS KILL 32 MILITANTS
By Andrew England

Financial Times (UK)
August 8, 2007

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/319c544e-45d0-11dc-b359-0000779fd2ac.html

U.S. forces launched raids and air strikes on Baghdad’s Sadr City on Wednesday, killing 32 militants suspected of smuggling arms into Iraq from neighboring Iran.

The U.S. military said the suspects were believed to be members of a “special-groups terrorist network known for facilitating the transport of weapons and explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, from Iran to Iraq.”

They were also alleged to have been involved in bringing militants from Iraq into Iran for training, the U.S. military said in a statement.

Iraqi police and witnesses said 11 civilians, including women and children, were killed in the operation. U.S. officials denied the reports.

The raid came two days after U.S. and Iranian officials held “frank and serious” talks in Baghdad on security issues at the first meeting of a subcommittee the two countries agreed to set up last month in an attempt to help stabilize Iraq.

The U.S. accuses Iran of providing support to Shia militia networks in Iraq, including providing a particularly lethal type of roadside bomb known as an EFP.

Iranian officials deny the allegations and say they want the U.S. to take action to curb the growth of militant Sunni groups.

About 74 per cent of attacks against U.S. troops in Baghdad in July were carried out by Shia militants, a U.S. military spokesman said.

The office of Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno, the U.S.’s second-in-command in Iraq, said on Wednesday that EFPs were used in 99 attacks last month, an all-time high that accounted for a third of nearly 70 U.S. combat deaths, according to the Associated Press.

Sadr City, a sprawling slum, is a Shia stronghold and the main support base of the Mahdi army, which is loyal to radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

U.S. military officers say Tehran has cultivated client groups among the more radical breakaway factions of the Mahdi army.

The U.S. military said intelligence had indicated that one of the targets in the raid was acting as a proxy between the Iraqi EFP network and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force, a group whose existence Iran does not acknowledge but which U.S. intelligence officials say is charged with maintaining contact with militant organizations outside Iran. The air strikes were called in after a vehicle and a group of armed men were spotted trying to launch an assault on ground forces, the statement said.

“Coalition forces continue to gain momentum against the illicit movement of lethal materials from Iran,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Garver, a U.S. military spokesman.

“Iranian-supported militia extremists and terrorists are seeking to destroy the future of Iraq.”

The raid took place on the same day as Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Shia prime minister, began a visit to Tehran to discuss security and other issues.

Mr. Maliki held talks with senior Iranian officials, including Parviz Davoudi, Iran’s first vice-president. He was also due to meet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president.

2.

Middle East

U.S. SAYS IRAN-SUPPLIED BOMB KILLS MORE TROOPS
By Michael R. Gordon

New York Times
August 8, 2007

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/08/world/middleeast/08military.html

BAGHDAD -- Attacks on American-led forces using a lethal type of roadside bomb said to be supplied by Iran reached a new high in July, according to the American military.

The devices, known as explosively formed penetrators, were used to carry out 99 attacks last month and accounted for a third of the combat deaths suffered by the American-led forces, according to American military officials.

“July was an all-time high,” Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, said in an interview, referring to strikes with such devices.

Such bombs, which fire a semi-molten copper slug that can penetrate the armor on a Humvee and are among the deadliest weapons used against American forces, are used almost exclusively by Shiite militants. American intelligence officials have presented evidence that the weapons come from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iran, although Tehran has repeatedly denied providing lethal assistance to Iraqi groups.

In recent weeks, the American military has focused on mounting operations in sanctuaries used by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a Sunni group that is predominately made up of Iraqis but has foreign leadership. But, as the information provided by General Odierno shows, Shiite militias remain a major long-term worry.

In focusing on Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the American goal is to reduce the number of car bombings and spectacular suicide attacks that have aggravated sectarian tensions, encouraged Shiite retaliation and undermined efforts at political reconciliation.

While the group is seen by the American military as the most serious near-term threat, there are other signs that Shiite militias remain active. According to General Odierno, the day-to-day commander of American troops in Iraq, Shiite militants carried out 73 percent of the attacks that killed or wounded American troops in Baghdad in July.

Though explosively formed penetrators account for a small fraction of roadside bomb attacks in Iraq, they cause a disproportionately large number of casualties.

Of the 69 members of the American-led forces killed in action in July, the lowest toll in months, 23 died as a result of attacks with the devices, according to data supplied by General Odierno’s command. Of the 614 allied troops who were wounded that month, 89 were hit in penetrator attacks.

Penetrator attacks have been a worry for years. In 2005, the United States sent a private diplomatic protest to Tehran complaining that its Revolutionary Guards and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah had been training Iraqi Shiite insurgents in Iran and providing them with bomb-making equipment.

American intelligence says that its report of Iranian involvement is based on a technical analysis of exploded and captured devices, interrogations of Shiite militants, the interdiction of trucks near Iran’s border with Iraq and parallels between the use of the weapons in Iran and in southern Lebanon by Hezbollah.

Some critics of Bush administration policy, saying there is no proof that the top echelons of Iran’s government are involved, accuse the White House of exaggerating the role of Iran and Syria to divert attention from its own mistakes.

According to American military data, penetrator attacks accounted for 18 percent of combat deaths of Americans and allied troops in Iraq in the last quarter of 2006. The number of such attacks declined in January, and some American officials thought at that time that this might be a response to their efforts to publicly highlight the allegations of an Iranian role.

But in recent months such attacks have risen steadily.

The July figure is roughly double the number for January. The total for July is also 50 percent higher than in April, when there were 65 penetrator attacks, according to American military officials.

Many of the penetrators faced by American forces are difficult to counter. Because they fire from the side of the road, the militants do not need to dig a hole to plant them, making them well suited for urban use. Because they are set off by a passive infrared sensor, they cannot be thwarted by electronic jamming.

General Odierno said Iran was increasing its support to Shiite militants in Iraq to step up the military pressure on the United States at a time when the Congress is debating whether to withdraw American troops.

“I think it is because the Iranians are surging support to the special groups,” he said, referring to the American name for Iranian-backed cells here. “Over the last three to four months, it has picked up in terms of equipment, training and dollars.”

“I think they want to influence the decision potentially coming up in September,” he added.

General Odierno said Iranians had also provided Shiite groups with 107-millimeter rockets and the launchers for firing them, as well as 122-millimeter mortars.

American forces, he said, recently thwarted an attack at a military base used by forces from the Third Infantry Division. Fifty launchers equipped with rockets were discovered within range of the facility and struck by allied aircraft. Serial numbers taken from the rocket launchers, he said, indicated that they were made in Iran.

Iranian and American diplomats held talks in Baghdad on Monday on security in Iraq. Ryan C. Crocker, the American envoy in Iraq who led the discussions for the United States, said there had been “an escalation, not a de-escalation” of Iran’s support for militias in Iraq since an earlier May meeting.

The Iranians, Mr. Crocker added, maintained their position that they had “absolutely nothing to do with” the attacks.

3.

News

World

Middle East

RISE IN U.S. DEATH TOLL SEEN AS SIGN EXTREMISTS IN IRAQ ARE REGROUPING
By Sally Buzbee

** 19 reported killed in August after a drop last month **

Associated Press
August 8, 2007

Original source: Boston Globe

BAGHDAD -- Four more U.S. troops and a British soldier have died in attacks, military officials said yesterday, in a possible sign that extremists are regrouping after a drop in American deaths last month.

The spate of recent U.S. deaths -- 19 so far in August -- seems certain to intensify the debate over U.S. progress to calm Iraq and gain ground against militants ahead of a key September report to Congress.

U.S. deaths had dropped slightly in July to 79 -- the lowest monthly tally since 70 were killed in November. More than 100 American forces died each month in the April-to-June period as the U.S. military struck out at insurgents on dangerous streets and cities across Iraq.

But U.S. commanders say rogue Shi'ite militias have stepped into the gap left as Sunni insurgents have been pushed back, and are now responsible for most attacks on Americans in Baghdad and surrounding districts. Such a trend would elevate fears that Iraqi forces are not able to maintain security even when insurgents are beaten back. Large numbers of Iraqi police are believed also to hold allegiances to Shi'ite militia groups.

The spike in deaths comes as the overall number of U.S. troops in Iraq has temporarily peaked -- nearly 162,000 -- as new units arrive to replace those on the way out, the Pentagon said.

U.S. officials also have warned that militants might try for spectacular attacks before the September report -- expected to be a high-level military and diplomatic assessment on U.S. strategies in Iraq and what's needed in the months ahead.

Leery of that, Baghdad officials tightened checkpoints and announced plans for curfews and vehicle bans ahead of a mass Shi'ite religious march planned in the capital later this week. Thousands of Shi'ite pilgrims -- women shrouded in black cloaks and men in traditional white Arab robes -- began walking from the country's south and gathering from elsewhere for the march.

Shi'ite pilgrimages often have been the target of devastating attacks by Sunni insurgents. But some of the devout, like Sami Faraj, a 52-year-old government employee, said they would march nevertheless.

"We do not care about the bombings and the terrorists. We are ready to sacrifice ourselves for the cause and for the sake of the prophet's descendants," Faraj said.

The showing of Shiite strength finds Iraq in the middle of a severe political crisis. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faced new defections from mostly Sunni politicians this week in his unity government.

The political crisis has halted efforts at progress on key benchmarks the United States sought before the September report, including laws to share oil revenue and reform police and security services.

The recent attacks against U.S. forces included two powerful roadside bombs that left multiple soldiers dead and wounded -- three soldiers died Saturday south of Baghdad and four were killed Monday in a blast that also wounded 11 in restive Diyala province north of the capital, where Sunni insurgents remain active.

4.

IRAQ SEEKS IRAN’S HELP IN MEETINGS
By Qassim Abdul-Zahra

Associated Press
August 8, 2007

http://www.forbes.com/feeds/ap/2007/08/08/ap3999791.html

TEHRAN -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with officials in Iran on Wednesday to seek help in reining in violence in his country, reaching out to a nation the U.S. accuses of fueling Iraq's turmoil by backing Shiite militants.

It was al-Maliki's second visit to Tehran in less than a year, coming days after U.S. and Iranian experts held talks in Baghdad on improving Iraq's security.

Al-Maliki and the Shiite and Kurdish parties that dominate his government are closely linked to predominantly Shiite Iran, and he has struggled to balance those ties with the United States, Tehran's top rival in the region.

The U.S. has recently stepped up its allegations that Iran is arming Shiite militiamen, but the Iraqi government has taken a low-key stance without outright backing the American claims, which Tehran denies. One al-Maliki adviser, Sami al-Askari, said last month that the government "doesn't rule out" Iranian arming of militants.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, U.S. troops and warplanes struck suspected militants in the Shiite district of Sadr City, killing 32 of them and detaining 12 others. The U.S. military said the militants were involved in smuggling weapons from Iran and sending militiamen to Iran for training.

Al-Maliki's visit came as officials from Iraq and its neighbors, including Iran, held a conference in Damascus, Syria, on improving Iraq's security. At the gathering, Iraq's Deputy Foreign Minister Labib Abbawi pressed countries to do more to stop infiltration of fighters and weapons over their borders into Iraq.

Al-Maliki met in Tehran with Iranian Vice President Parviz Davoodi and was to hold talks later with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, according to the Iranian state news agency IRNA.

"We want to promote economic ties and other ties that contribute to combating terrorism and its challenges," al-Maliki told The Associated Press on the plane to Iran.

He said Iraq and Iran "have a joint understanding that they are keen to solve the problems and sufferings of the Iraqi people. And they are both convinced that their cooperation may lead to helping Iraq and restoring stability."

Al-Maliki said he would also discuss and sign a number of cooperation memorandums with Tehran. He did not elaborate.

In an apparent welcoming gesture, Iran's Payam state radio played Arab-style belly dancing music early Wednesday, a rare event in the country, where state broadcasters shun such music because of the strict Islamic rule.

Before arriving in Iran, al-Maliki traveled to Turkey and agreed to root out a Kurdish rebel group operating from northern Iraq. But he said the Iraqi parliament would have the final say on efforts to halt the guerrillas' cross-border attacks into Turkey. Iran also faces problems with its Kurdish minority near the Iraqi border.

Turkey has threatened to stage an incursion into northern Iraq unless Iraq or the United States cracks down on rebels from the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, that have set up bases there. The envisaged counterterrorism agreement is aimed at forcing Iraq to officially commit itself to fighting the rebels.

Iraq, which like Iran is majority Shiite, has managed a difficult balancing act between Tehran and Washington since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, trying to maintain good relations with its powerful neighbor while not angering the Americans.

The U.S. has accused Iran of providing money and weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq. Iran denies the charges and argues that the presence of U.S. troops is destabilizing the region.

Washington and Tehran have held three rounds of talks on Iraqi security since May, and al-Maliki told AP he would push for these talks to continue at an ambassador level.

--Associated Press Writer Nasser Karimi contributed to this report.

5.

World

International

U.S. GENERAL DECIDING COURSE OF IRAQ WAR
By Robert Burns

** Direction of Iraq War Hangs on the Words -- All Carefully Chosen -- of Gen. David Petraeus **

Associated Press
August 8, 2007

http://www.abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=3457878

[PHOTO CAPTION: Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq is interviewed by The Associated Press in Baghdad, Thursday, July 26, 2007. If Petraeus is feeling the heat as he readies his momentous Iraq war report to Congress, it is hard to tell by the cool confidence with which he discusses the toughest mission of his career. Rarely in recent history have the words of one general loomed so large in determining the direction of a war.]

If Gen. David Petraeus is feeling the heat as he readies his momentous Iraq war report to Congress, it is hard to tell by the cool confidence with which he discusses the toughest mission of his career.

Rarely in recent history have the words of one general loomed so large in determining the direction of a war.

Two things in particular give his coming September assessment and testimony to Congress great weight: He is viewed as the master of counterinsurgency strategy, having written just last year the military's manual on how it should be done. And secondly, President Bush has repeatedly said he would count on the judgment of his top Iraq commander.

"I will rely on General Petraeus to give me his recommendations for the appropriate troop levels in Iraq," Bush said last month when pressed on the timing of when Americans might start coming home five years into the war and 18 months before he leaves the White House.

"I'm going to wait to see what David has to say. I'm not going to pre-judge what he may say. I trust David Petraeus' judgment," the president added.

Petraeus is keeping his counsel close, five weeks before he heads to Capitol Hill to pass judgment on the Iraq war strategy with the direction of the conflict hanging in the balance.

It's not easy to unnerve a guy who was shot in the chest in a training accident at Fort Campbell, Ky., earlier in his career, and who has spent a combined three years in Iraq in three different tours of duty. He led the 101st Airborne Division, with 17,000 soldiers, in the initial U.S. invasion in March 2003.

In February he became the top U.S. commander in Iraq, replacing Gen. George Casey.

In an Associated Press interview in late July in his office at the U.S. Embassy, Petraeus betrayed no sign of anxiety, except perhaps a hint of worry that he might tip his hand too early, thus opening himself to challenge from critics before he has fully armed himself with credible arguments for why the buildup is working.

Clearly, he believes it is working. But he is not ready to say that too expansively. He speaks hopefully, in an understated way, of making more security gains this year with the U.S. troop buildup.

Nor is he willing to go far in discussing the question many in Washington are asking: When can a drawdown of U.S. troops begin?

"We haven't hard-and-fast determined when to do that just yet," he says.

Petraeus, a West Point graduate with 33 years in uniform, is highly regarded by his peers and by many former generals.

Barry McCaffrey, a retired Army four-star, calls him "brilliant." Gen. Peter Pace, the soon-to-retire chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told AP during a July trip to Iraq that two key qualities make Petraeus special: "First, absolute integrity . . . and second, (he's) smart as a whip."

Petraeus, 54, is a polished communicator, and it's clear that he sees that as an important asset in wartime. Some critics have said he overstated the rate of progress by Iraqi security forces during his tenure as leader of that effort in 2004-05.

"But if so, who (among commanders) has not" been overly optimistic, said Stephen Biddle, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who was part of a team that was in Baghdad last spring to advise on developing a new war strategy.

His every word will be scrutinized when he delivers his assessment in mid-September. He will appear for testimony with Ambassador Ryan Crocker, his diplomatic counterpart in Baghdad. They are expected to explain the progress and problems with the counterinsurgency strategy that Petraeus began to implement when he arrived in February both security and political.

And they are expected to present their recommendations on how to proceed beyond September, in the face of efforts by many in the Democratic-controlled Congress to change direction again in Iraq and begin bringing the troops home, starting as soon as this fall.

Petraeus is not predicting, at least publicly, how much longer it will take for his strategy to turn the tide. Nor is he sharing his view on how much longer the Iraqi government should be given to make moves toward political reconciliation among Iraq's ethno-sectarian rivals that will ultimately decide the outcome.

During the AP interview, his tone was flat, almost a monotone. He chose his words carefully. Only when he got to the subject of the sacrifices made in this war by soldiers and their families did he get animated.

His voice rose and he gestured with his hands as he spoke of the obligation he feels to deal frankly with Iraqi leaders when he sees their actions undercutting in important ways the efforts of U.S. forces.

"This is too important to always turn the other cheek, shall we say. I think sometimes you have to have straightforward conversations," he says, adding: "I think I owe that to 3,600 families in the United States and the 160,000 coalition forces who are soldiering their hearts out. I take that responsibility very, very seriously."

His reference to 3,600 is the approximate number of U.S. war deaths.

"I will not shrink from showing the emotion that I feel about that, on occasion, if I think that will help the effectiveness of the presentation, shall we say," he said.

6.

SEVEN THINGS WE LEARNED FROM THE DEMOCRATIC DEBATE
By Don Balz

The Trail: A Daily Diary of Campaign 2008
August 8, 2007

Original source: Washington Post

[PHOTO CAPTION: The view from Chicago's Soldier Field, where Democratic candidates sparred in front of a 15,000-strong crowd of union members and their families.]

The lesson from Tuesday's Democratic debate in Chicago is plain: if you put the candidates on a football field, you should expect some contact.

Soldier Field on a sweltering evening proved a worthy host for the latest in the endless summer series of Democratic forums. With 15,000 union members and their families packed into the end zone seats, there was no likelihood that the AFL-CIO-sponsored debate would be a sedate affair.

But what did we learn from the 90 minutes of political jousting?

First, Hillary Clinton knows how to play the gender card. Not that she hasn't done that before. She plays it effectively in front of female audiences, but she seems to have a special talent for employing it in front of testosterone-filled audiences of laborites.

She delivered the sound bite of the night, one that captured all the qualities she thinks make her the Democrats' best choice in 2008: toughness, self-confidence and femininity. "For 15 years, I have stood up against the right-wing machine and I've come out stronger," she said. "So if you want a winner who knows how to take them on, I'm your girl."

Not "I'm your candidate" or "I'm the Democrat you're looking for? Instead, "I'm your girl." The line recalled her humorous throw-away line earlier this year when, acknowledging a very warm reception at the firefighters union convention in Washington, she said, "Thank you, thanks so much -- and thanks for last night too." The mostly male audience of first responders couldn't believe what they were hearing.

For the record, Clinton was acknowledging the firefighters' reception the previous evening.

Second, Barack Obama showed his mettle. The other candidates see an opening from Obama's foreign policy pronouncements of the past two weeks. Clinton jumped him two weeks ago over his willingness to meet with leaders of hostile nations during his first year as president, without preconditions.

Clinton and other rivals have seized on comments he made last week about going after terrorists inside Pakistan, if President Pervez Musharraf proves unwilling to act decisively. Chris Dodd took the lead Tuesday night when the subject came up, calling Obama "highly irresponsible" for telegraphing military action that might destabilize the Musharraf regime.

"I think it was wrong to say what he did in that matter," Dodd said.

Obama obviously knew the attacks were coming and seemed not the least bit flustered by them. He is not a natural debater but he certainly does not lack for self-confidence. He believes he is correct on the policy he has enunciated and has a ready-made counterattack: that his critics are the same people that helped get the country into the war in Iraq.

Obama may appear inexperienced to some members of the foreign policy élite, but that wasn't his audience on Tuesday. "We're debating the most important foreign policy issues that we face, and the American people have the right to know. It is not just Washington insiders that are part of the debate that has to take place with respect to how we're going to shift our foreign policy."

Third, John Edwards is fast becoming the Howard Dean of this race. That's been apparent almost from the start of the year, but with each week it is more obvious. He has toughened his rhetoric and has sought to turn himself into the outsider candidate determined not just to battle for the nomination but to make reforming the Democratic Party a part of his message. All were elements of Dean's campaign four years ago.

Edwards knows his campaign needs a boost -- and soon. Clinton has opened up a big lead in the national polls, and Edwards has fallen far back into third place. His campaign in Iowa still has a solid base of support but there is no evidence that he has expanded beyond what he had four years ago, if that. Laborites say he is pressing friendly unions for early endorsements, arguing that he needs their help now, not later.

All of that was on display last night, with Edwards denouncing corporate lobbyists for writing trade treaties that he said hurt workers; challenging Clinton for taking contributions from corporate lobbyists; and claiming he has done more to advance labor's interests in recent years than any of the other candidates.

With Dean's former campaign manager, Joe Trippi, now embedded as one of the most important strategists in his campaign, and with a pair of leaders from the anti-Wal-Mart campaign on board, Edwards has made a strategic decision to try to shake up the race by challenging Clinton and Obama at the same time.

Fourth, Joe Biden is getting tired of listening to John Edwards. When Edwards talked about all he has done for labor in the past two years, walking picket lines, campaigning for minimum wage initiatives in the states, developing policies to address labor's agenda, Biden responded in words dripping with contempt.

"The question is, did you walk when it cost?" he said. "Did you walk when you were from a state that is not a labor state? Did you walk when the corporations in your state were opposed to you? That's the measure of whether we'll be with you when it's tough, not when you're running for president in the last two years, marching on 20 or 30, or 50 picket lines."

Fifth, Dennis Kucinich had a good night. Nobody on the stage offered more of what labor wanted than Kucinich, the most liberal candidate in the field and the one with absolutely nothing to lose. He was the only one to tell the labor audience what most of them wanted to hear, that he would scrap the NAFTA treaty.

All the other candidates hedged -- wringing their hands over what trade treaties have wrought, but stopping well short of promising to abrogate the treaty.

Kucinich enjoyed himself and the audience gave him a great response.

Sixth, Bill Richardson did not have a particularly bad night but got lost in the barrages among the other candidates. He is still looking for a memorable debate performance.

Seventh, nobody missed Mike Gravel. The former Alaska senator has become the scourge of the Democratic field. When he failed to fill out a questionnaire requested by the AFL-CIO, the union officials said he couldn't participate. Having one fewer candidate on stage helped everyone.