Fraternizing with the Enemy

Here’s an old Syrian joke which I’m probably not telling correctly:

An official informed the late Hafez Assad of the results of the so-called election. “Sir,” he said. “You won 99.99 percent of the vote!”

Assad frowned and rubbed his chin.

“Sir,” said the official. “Only 0.01 percent of the people voted against you. What more do you want?”

“Their names,” Assad said.

One of those names was Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian dissident and blogger who (bravely?) allowed himself to be interviewed in an Israeli newspaper.

The End of the Arab Bismarckian Era

Tony Badran translated (from Arabic) Ali Hamade’s most recent column from Beirut’s An Nahar newspaper about the winding down of Syria’s imperial project in Lebanon.

Regardless of the results of the Saudi-Iranian summit, there is an essential constant that will not change anytime soon: the era of the Arab Bismarck is over. The Arab Bismarck is of course a reference to the late Syrian president Hafez Assad, who was dubbed by some in the press as the would-be Bismarck of the Arabs, in reference to the Prussian statesman who unified the three hundred feuding German principalities, and led a unified Germany to victory over France under Napoleon III in the war of 1870, stripping it of the Alsace and Lorraine.

Hafez Assad got the title the Bismarck of the Arabs in a decisive and final manner after his total overtaking of Lebanon in 1990, and after getting exclusive mandate to implement the Taef Accord.

At the time, some extremists went as far as considering that Assad managed after 75 years to shred the Sykes-Picot agreement and avenge for Greater Syria, which was stripped of the four districts and Mount Lebanon itself. And in the fits of extremism in those days, it was said that the train of Arab unity had taken off starting with Syria’s de facto annexation of Lebanon and from Assad’s success in gathering several regional cards in his hands to cement the “imperial” basis of Assadist Syria. In other words, he managed to launch his imperial stage beginning with his “crown jewel,” Lebanon.

When president Bashar Assad inherited Syria and Lebanon from his father in 2000, after the Israeli withdrawal, he did not inherit a “unified Germany,” à la Bismarck, as it seemed. Rather, he inherited from his father a dominion similar to the Austrian empire of the early 20th century, which was comprised of Austria and Hungary, and whose separation was a matter of time. The first World War came to hasten that separation and mark the end of the empire.

Read the rest at Across the Bay.

What Do You Want to Know About Iraq?

I’ll be in Iraq soon — first in the northern Kurdistan region, then in Baghdad.

What do you want to know that you don’t already know? What would you like me to write about? What do you most want to see in photographs and video?

Since I’m going to Kurdistan first, let’s limit our discussion to that region for now. We’ll get to Baghdad in time.

Please leave specific questions and general topics in the comments section. I won’t be able to cover everything, but a group brainstorm will still help.

Of course I can think of questions and topics on my own, but I also want to know what the audience wants. I’m working for you here, after all, thanks to your Pay Pal dontations.

Seymour Hersh Botches Lebanon (and Egypt)

Lebanon is the most complicated country I have been to by far. Lebanese politics are as complex and bewildering as any you will find anywhere — and that’s doubly true when you add Syrian politics into the mix.

Writing in detail about that messy part of the world is genuinely hazardous. When writers go wrong…boy do they go wrong.

The latest writer to botch the job almost completely is Seymour Hersh. Lebanese blogger and scholar Tony Badran — who has forgotten more about Lebanon and Syria than Hersh and I put together will ever know — published this harsh and brutal takedown.

UPDATE: Abu Kais, also from Lebanon, says Hersh has abandoned reality for fiction.

UPDATE: Egyptian Sandmonkey says Hersh botched Egypt pretty badly, as well.

I Am Procrastinating — And I Have a Good Reason

I am procrastinating and not blogging any original material right now. But I have a good reason for doing so, and will point you to this fascinating article by Paul Graham on the subject that I found via Armed Liberal at Winds of Change.

The most impressive people I know are all terrible procrastinators. So could it be that procrastination isn’t always bad?

Most people who write about procrastination write about how to cure it. But this is, strictly speaking, impossible. There are an infinite number of things you could be doing. No matter what you work on, you’re not working on everything else. So the question is not how to avoid procrastination, but how to procrastinate well.

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.

That’s the “absent-minded professor,” who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he’s going while he’s thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it’s hard at work in another.

That’s the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They’re type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.


I’ve wondered a lot about why startups are most productive at the very beginning, when they’re just a couple guys in an apartment. The main reason may be that there’s no one to interrupt them yet. In theory it’s good when the founders finally get enough money to hire people to do some of the work for them. But it may be better to be overworked than interrupted. Once you dilute a startup with ordinary office workers—with type-B procrastinators—the whole company starts to resonate at their frequency. They’re interrupt-driven, and soon you are too.


In his famous essay You and Your Research (which I recommend to anyone ambitious, no matter what they’re working on), Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions:

1. What are the most important problems in your field?

2. Are you working on one of them?

3. Why not?

Hamming was at Bell Labs when he started asking such questions. In principle anyone there ought to have been able to work on the most important problems in their field. Perhaps not everyone can make an equally dramatic mark on the world; I don’t know; but whatever your capacities, there are projects that stretch them. So Hamming’s exercise can be generalized to:

What’s the best thing you could be working on, and why aren’t you?

Sometimes this blog is not the best thing I can be working on. Right now I’m immersing myself in something else — I’m intensely studying video and documentary work. I can’t be bothered to write anything original on this blog at this particular moment. But it will pay off later because I’m doing this now. I’m not just going to go to Iraq and turn a video camera on and hope what I capture is interesting. There’s a lot more to it than that, and I have no intention of screwing this up.

I’ve been intending for some time to add video to this blog. Now that I’m genuinely inspired to do so and have the right head space to move forward, I am absolutely fascinated with the possibility of what I can do.

Thanks for understanding. And thanks so much to those of you who are donating money to help me buy a nice video camera. I hope I don’t disappoint you. I’m studying hard so I won’t.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

On My Way to Iraq

I’ll be spending some quality time in Iraq over the next two and a half months doing consulting work, journalism, and video — first in the northern Kurdistan region and then in Baghdad and the heart of the Sunni Triangle.

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Photo copyright Patrick S. Lasswell

My first job starts two weeks from now and will be another private consulting gig in Kurdistan with my business partner Patrick Lasswell. This will be my fourth trip to the region, which is becoming a regular beat for me now. I’m more comfortable there than I was when I first visited. The people, the terrain, the logistics, and the job are all familiar. The learning curve has flattened out, which means I can multitask now.

Last time I went there as a consultant I had no time for reporting or writing. This time I will because I know how to squeeze it in, even though my first obligation will be to my employers, not to my blog. I won’t be able to write full time, but I will be able to give you something now and then.

This time I’m going to give you some video as well as writing and photographs. Stay tuned for taped interviews with Kurdish civilians and officials, and also some video postcards of what this place actually looks like. Kurdistan always shocks people when they see it for the first time. It doesn’t look anything like the hellish images that come out of Baghdad.

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The Mesopotamian plain gives way to the mountains of Kurdistan

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Suleimaniya, Iraq, the Utah of the Middle East

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New houses in the city of Dohuk

I’ll be there for a month or so, then will come home for a short break. Then I’m off to Baghdad and the Sunni Triangle for two weeks with the American military.

I’ve been coordinating a trip to Baghdad with the Department of Defense for months now. If the original plan worked out I would have been home from Baghdad already. But DoD is a bureaucracy at the end of the day. The troop surge means I’m even lower on their priority list — which is, of course, understandable. My schedule keeps getting pushed back, but they promise to fly me there and provide me with as much access as possible. Theoretically now I’m going at the end of April. Hopefully the trip won’t get postponed again.

I need body armor and combat zone insurance for Baghdad. And I’d like to pick up a new handheld video camera for Kurdistan. I want to give you the highest quality video footage possible over Internet broadcasts. Spending 10,000 dollars on a professional camera would be a waste of money for Internet video, but it would be nice to pick up a 1,000 dollar camera if possible. Best not to waste the opportunity using a cheap one with a small cell phone camera sized lens.

Any donations you can send my way via Pay Pal will help me give you the best content possible, and will help keep me alive and insured when I finally make it, and long last, to Baghdad and the war.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

Here are some still shots I took on my first couple of trips to Iraqi Kurdistan. Imagine what these pictures would look like if they moved. Help me buy a good camera and you will get some pictures that move.

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A young Kurdish boy in the northern city of Erbil

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The fake “Sheraton” hotel in Erbil that isn’t really a Sheraton

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A Kurdish woman enters Erbil’s new Naza Mall

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The lobby of the Khan Zad Hotel overlooks the mountains near Gaugamela, where Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire’s Darius III. The Battle of Gaugamela is sometimes referred to as the Battle of Arbella (Erbil).

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Patrick and I shared tea with this Kurdish family in the shade of walnut trees just a few feet (literally) from the Iranian border

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Political murals espousing liberal-democratic values are everywhere in Iraqi Kurdistan. This mural is painted on concrete bomb blast walls erected to protect civilians from possible terrorist attacks from the Sunni Triangle.

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Young men make bread at a popular stop on the road between Erbil and Suleimania

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Ziggarats at the pagan temple of Lalish where the Yezidis say the universe was born

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A shy child at Lalish

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Pedestrians, downtown Suleimania

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Plasma screen TVs for sale in Dohuk

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A man comforts his infant while taking a break from a long cross-country drive

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A flower somehow survives the punishing heat of July in the Kurdistan mountains

UPDATE: My Kurdistan business partner Patrick Lasswell kindly adds the following in the comments section:

When you give Michael the means to report interesting and important stories, he reports interesting and important stories. We’re going to try to do more than we have before this trip, while still providing our employers exceptional results. Our wives are alright with us going out and working ourselves to exhaustion in far off places because we married well and got lucky besides.

As understanding as our lovely wives are, our mortgage companies are less cordial. While we would love to pay for the best reporting gear out of our pockets, the guy with the forclosure notice simply ruins our shopping.

If you value independant reporting, I urge you to support Michael in his efforts to provide exceptional writing with exceptional media. I’m not just saying that because I get to play with the new gear, honest.

He does too want to play with the new gear. So help both of us out, and yourself as well, by donating money for a good video camera so you can see Kurdistan and Baghdad move instead of only through still shots.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

All photos except otherwise noted copyright Michael J. Totten

Iraq in Fragments

I cannot recommend a film I haven’t seen. But the high-definition trailer for Iraq in Fragments knocked me out of my chair.

Watch this on the biggest computer screen you have at the highest resolution. Use headphones so you can turn the volume up loud. Be amazed. I have watched this over and over again in quiet astonishment and awe of the gorgeous cinematography and artistry on display.

I’ll watch this one for the camera work alone, but also to learn more about these stories of Iraq’s people regardless of whatever political slant the director may (or may not) bring into the film:

A stunningly photographed, poetically rendered documentary of Iraq today, seen through the eyes of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. James Longley’s 3-part opus is a series of intimate, passionately felt portraits: a fatherless 11-year-old is apprenticed to a cruel owner of a Baghdad garage; Sadr followers in two Shiite cities rally for regional elections while enforcing Islamic law at the point of a gun; a family of Kurdish farmers welcomes the US presence, which has allowed them a measure of freedom previously denied.

Interviewed by The Jerusalem Post

Ellis Weintraub at The Jerusalem Post interviewed me over the weekend.

Here’s a short excerpt:

You have traveled in Palestinian refugee camps and the territories, yet your writings come across as fair and at times even pro-Israel. What are your ideological views?

I’m an American, so I think in American political terms. Within the American political system I’m basically a centrist. I vote for both Democratic and Republican candidates and suspect I will do so for a very long time. Each party gets some things right and some things wrong.

A huge majority of Americans support Israel. I’m right in the mainstream when it comes to Israel, even though I often disagree with what Israel does. I thought the invasion of Lebanon was foolish, counterproductive, and a waste of money and lives in both Lebanon and Israel. But I sympathize with what Israel was trying to do, and of course with Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. So my criticism wasn’t the shrieking axe-grinding kind that I’m sure you’re all too familiar with. If Israel would have clearly won the war last summer I would have changed my mind, admitted I was wrong, and supported it in hindsight.

You can read the whole thing here.

Back to Iraq — Revisited

My old friend Sean LaFreniere went on that spontaneous and rather ill-fated road trip from Istanbul to Iraqi Kurdistan with me last year. Inspired by the short video from the region on 60 Minutes last Sunday, he posted some of his own observations and photos.

My overwhelming impression was of a region and a people desperately wanting to be “normal”. I was also startled (after living in Europe) to hear people talk about defending their land and risking their lives to do it. These people are peaceful, but pack guns – like Texas.

Their greatest complaint was of boredom. They are tired of hanging out at the “state park” at the waterfall in the hills every night. They want a Starbucks, a few more shopping centers, and maybe a movie theatre.

They seem used to spotty power and poor plumbing. Turkey gives them a few hours each day and the rest comes from generators. It is a bit sad since the Kirkuk oil fields should provide them with ample power if not for the political problems.

They have plenty of mosques and some women wear conservative dress. But I also saw Christian churches. And I never saw anyone drop what they were doing for the call to prayer (I have not seen that in any Middle Eastern country). They seem no more religiously strict than Alabama, maybe less.

Construction was everywhere: new roads, new schools, and new hospitals. Almost every car was shinny and new. The new houses were all several stories with impressive porches, hot tubs, and flat screen TV’s.

Now that they have the freedom to spend some money on themselves they are going for bright and flashy. Maybe it is all a bit overdone, but I think I can understand. This is a bit like California, where too much is just enough to show your change of fortune.

Read the rest and see Sean’s photos here.

Power, Faith, and Fantasy — An Interview with Michael Oren

Pajamas Media published my most recent interview with Michael Oren. Below are the first couple of paragraphs.

PORTLAND, OREGON — Renowned American-Israeli historian and best-selling author Michael Oren is touring the United States promoting his new book Power, Faith, and Fantasy, a sweeping history of America’s involvement in the Middle East from 1776 to the present. It’s the first and only book on the subject ever written, and it’s currently inching toward the top of the New York Times best-seller list for non-fiction.

I first met Michael Oren under Katyusha rocket fire when he worked as a Spokesman for the IDF Northern Command in Israel during last summer’s war against Hezbollah, and I met him again when he came to my home town of Portland, Oregon, last week on his book tour.

MJT: So tell us, Michael, why does America’s involvement in the Middle East 200 years ago matter today? What does it have to do with September 11 and Iraq?

Oren: Well it matters, Michael, because many of the same issues that Americans are facing today in the Middle East were confronted by America’s founding fathers — Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington. For example, they had to confront the issue of state-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East. They had to face a threat to the United States, and decide whether to generate military power and then project that power thousands of miles from the United States. They had to decide whether to involve the United States in an open-ended and rather expensive bloody war in the Middle East. This was, of course, the Barbary War, America’s first overseas military engagement and America’s longest overseas military engagement. It lasted from 1783 to 1815. During the course of this engagement, as my book shows, the United States was confronting a jihadist state-sponsored terrorist network that was taking Americans hostage in the Middle East. It’s very similar to what is going on today.

MJT: They were more than hostages, they were slaves, weren’t they?

Oren: They were slaves. But beyond the military component — the book is not a military history, it’s also a diplomatic, cultural, artistic, and economic history — I wanted to show Americans today that our experience in the Middle East has very deep roots. Overall it’s a story of magnificent things that America did for the Middle East. It wasn’t always about confrontation, it was also about schools and hospitals and building for development and artistic inspiration and cooperation.

Read the rest at Pajamas Media.

The Other Iraq

If I could distill everything I heard, saw, and learned in the Kurdistan region of Iraq into a 12-minute video, it would look a lot like this. (Fourth video on the right.)

Click that link. Watch. This is marvelous work from 60 Minutes, some of the best mainstream media journalism I have seen out of the Middle East, the absolute antithesis of Diane Sawyer’s useless interview with Syria’s Bashar Assad last week.

I only caught one factual error. The Iraqi flag is not banned in Kurdistan. It still flies in the city of Suleimania, but it’s the old version of the flag before Saddam Hussein wrote Allahu Akbar on it.

60 Minutes has done truly excellent work capturing the essence of this lovely place and these wonderful people and editing it all down into such a brief and comprehensive introduction.

Michael Oren at Powell’s

For interested readers who live in my hometown of Portland: American-Israeli historian Michael Oren will be at Powell’s Books tonight at 7:30 promoting his new book Power, Faith, and Fantasy.

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A History of Violence

My old Beirut friend Lee Smith writes about Syria’s history of violence in the Weekly Standard:

[W]ill the wise men who counsel we sit down and talk with Damascus–the Brzezinskis, the Powells, the Obamas, the Bakers, and Djerejians–will they have the decency at last to recognize what their high-minded posturing can no longer obscure? This is how Syria negotiates, with its knife on the table and dripping with blood.

Lebanon’s Non-existent Center Somehow Holds

Valentine’s Day isn’t a romantic occasion in Lebanon. It’s the anniversary of the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated February 14, 2005, with a 600 pound bomb in downtown Beirut. A large crater still exists in the middle of the street, which is blocked to traffic. Pedestrians are kept away by strips of yellow police tape. The St. George Hotel, which was refurbished after the civil war, stands ruined once more by the explosion.

Yesterday hundreds of thousands of Lebanese gathered in Martyr’s Square to memorialize Hariri and to demonstrate against his Syrian assassins and their Lebanese Hezbollah proxies — who have also been demonstrating downtown without letup since December 1 of last year. Sectarian and political tensions haven’t been higher in Lebanon since the civil war ended. Violent street clashes have already broken out. Yet activists from both the pro- and anti-Syrian camps co-existed in downtown Beirut peacefully and, apparently, without incident.

Very nearly no one in Lebanon wants civil war. Beirut is a tinderbox ready to blow. Lebanese might get war anyway. But it’s telling that the most militantly opposed factions in the country can still co-exist in the same physical space — albeit separated from each other by fencing, rows of razor wire, and the army — without fighting.

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Photo courtesy of Ya Libnan

A small group of violent fanatics from either side easily could have sparked a major conflagration if that’s what they wanted, even if the overwhelming majority of even the militant activists didn’t want conflict. It really wouldn’t take much. One guy with a machine gun could possibly do it. Weapons sales have tripled in Lebanon over the past couple of weeks. It looks, though, like everyone in the now-thriving gun market is thinking of defense rather than offsense.

The Syrian regime, however, does want civil war. Civil war in Lebanon has been a part of the Syrian strategy since the 70s. After 15 years of chaos and mayhem from 1975 to 1990, Lebanese were willing to surrender to Syrian overlordship as long as Damascus could bring some measure of peace, even if it was the cold-hearted and brutal peace of the soldier. People grow tired of fighting, especially in a place like Lebanon where no single faction is strong enough to dominate all the others and impose a local peace of their own.

Syria’s ruler Bashar Assad promised to break Lebanon if he were forced to withdraw from the country, and he has been trying to do it now for two years. If the civil war were to resume with a Syrian military departure — or so goes the theory — the Lebanese government might ask for Syria to come back.

Immediately after the March 14 movement demanded Syria’s ouster, car bombs began exploding at night on quiet side streets in Christian areas. These were small car bombs and they didn’t kill anyone. They seemed deliberately planted and timed in such a way to frighten people rather than kill them.

The Syrians hoped Christians would retaliate against Lebanese Muslims and re-spark the war. The Christians, though, knew what was up and refused to take the sinister bait. The car bombs stopped after that strategy was shown not to work. Only prominent anti-Syrian politicians and journalists were targeted after that.

All that changed two days ago, the day before Hariri’s memorial in downtown Beirut. Two bombs simultaneously exploded — Palestinian style — on public commuter busses in Beirut’s mountainous suburbs — once again in a Christian area. This time civilians were killed. The original civil war was sparked in 1975 in part because of a bus massacre. This was an ugly reminder of Beirut’s horrible past, and appears to be a stepped up version of the original, more timid, car bomb campaign to restart the war.


Photo copyright New York Times

It’s hard to say what, exactly, was the effect of this week’s bus massacre on Lebanon’s collective psyche. It could have been a disturbing enough warning of how high the stakes are that everyone was extra careful to avoid confrontation the following day. Either way, it failed to spark another round of sectarian and political clashes. Try as he might, Bashar Assad is having a hell of a time breaking Lebanon. The only thing that seems to work is using Hezbollah to provoke the Israelis, which is one reason among many to think he’ll do it again.

The Lebanese civil war is one of the most ridiculous wars I have ever studied. It was World War I writ small. Everyone lost. As a result, everyone is more restrained and mature since the end of the war, even Hezbollah.

Hezbollah no longer kidnaps anyone inside Lebanon (not Lebanese, and not foreigners either), and they have apparently given up — at least on paper — their dream of conquering all of Lebanon and imposing a Shia Islamist theocracy. They may yet topple the government, but they cannot replace that government with themselves. And they know it. Besides, Hezbollah is adored in much of the Arab world outside Lebanon where no one has to suffer the consequences of living with them. All that would be lost if Hezbollah were to become the Shia butcher of Sunnis.

What if they declared a war and nobody came? It’s a silly old hippie slogan from the 1960s. That’s how it’s playing out now, though, in the Middle East of all places. Bashar Assad has called a civil war, and no one is coming.

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Anything can happen in Lebanon. I may have to eat crow tomorrow. But today, for now, even under extraordinary and malevolent pressure from the same foreign dictatorships stirring up hatred and strife in Baghdad, Lebanon isn’t Iraq.

I wrote the following during the war last July: “I spent a total of seven months in Lebanon recently, and I never could quite figure out what prevented the country from flying apart into pieces. It barely held together like unstable chemicals in a nitro glycerin vat.” There is no center to hold. But somehow, amazingly, and seemingly against the laws of political physics, it manages to hold all the same.


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