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 on: Today at 07:03 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

Fiji election day arrives, bringing hope of exit from coup era

Party of military ruler Voreqe Bainimarama predicted to dominate poll that promises to restore international relations

Associated Press in Wellington, Wednesday 17 September 2014 02.17 BST   

Thousands of Fijians begin voting for the first time in eight years on Wednesday in an election that promises to restore democracy to the south Pacific nation of 900,000.

Questions remain about how far the military ruler, Voreqe Bainimarama, has tilted the outcome in his favour. Bainimarama is running as a candidate and polls indicate his party is the most popular of the seven contesting the election.

The question appears to be not whether his Fiji First party will receive the most votes but whether it will gain an outright majority of the parliament’s 50 seats under Fiji’s new proportional system. Anything less could force Bainimarama to share power after years of ruling by decree.

If the election is deemed fair by international observers it will likely wash away the last remaining punitive measures put up by western countries after Bainimarama first seized power in a 2006 coup. A stable government afterwards could see international investors return.

“This is a historic election,” said Anil Kumar, a Suva taxi driver. “I’m excited that I will be able to cast my vote. I’m looking forward to it.”

But Brij Lal, a professor at the Australian National University and longtime critic of the regime, said the international community was so eager to reward Fiji for holding the election that it was willing to overlook Bainimarama’s troubling past.

Lal said that included years of strict media censorship, ensuring he was portrayed favourably, as well as human rights violations and meddling with the constitution to ensure he and other coup leaders would remain immune from prosecution.

“They [other countries] all realise the process will be flawed,” he said. “But as long as Fiji goes through the motions reasonably OK, then that’s fine.”

Bainimarama has gained support after making improvements such as fixing roads, an important point to many in a country with limited services. He is favoured among the large minority whose ancestors came from India. Bainimarama’s coup was the fourth in 20 years and ethnic tensions played a big part in the unrest.

An indigenous Fijian, Bainimarama has promised to create a more egalitarian society. He has not set aside any seats for indigenous Fijians in the new parliament and has disbanded the powerful Great Council of Chiefs, a group of indigenous Fijian leaders who mostly inherited their positions and enjoyed a privileged status in island life.

His main opponent is the Sodelpa party, led by Ro Teimumu Kepa, a chief and former politician. “We believe in democracy, they came in through treason. That’s a major difference between us,” she said. “They’re telling the population they believe that all the citizenry are equal, yet they’re giving themselves immunity. Where’s the equality in that?”

Kepa has said she wants to return Fiji to peace and harmony after the turmoil of the coups. She expressed concern that voters in remote areas, who were required to vote early, appeared to have been disenfranchised because voting had taken place on different days than promised.

Wyatt Creech – a former New Zealand parliamentarian who is one of about 100 international observers posted to Fiji to determine whether the election is fair – said there had been problems and complaints on remote islands but nothing that appeared deliberate or fraudulent. “I have to emphasise that this is an extremely challenging place to hold an election,” he said. “There are places with poor communications, poor roads, villages that are very remote, and places where English is not strong.”

Some people had gone to extraordinary lengths to vote and the overall mood seemed positive, Creech said.

If the election is considered fair by the observers Fiji could be welcomed back into the Commonwealth group of nations as early as this month when a meeting takes place in New York. “The Commonwealth has valued having Fiji as a full member in the past and looks forward to reinstating Fiji fully back in the family upon its credible transition back to civilian, constitutional democracy,” said Commonwealth spokeswoman Victoria Holdsworth.

 on: Today at 07:01 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

Journalists in Vietnam prevented from reporting on police brutality

the Guardian

Police throughout Vietnam assault and torture people in their custody, in some cases leading to death, according to a new report compiled by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Media coverage of such abuses is very uneven, it says, raising serious concerns about the negative impact of government control of the media.

The 96-page report, "Public insecurity: deaths in custody and police brutality in Vietnam", highlights cases of police brutality that resulted in the deaths and serious injuries of people in custody between August 2010 and July 2014.

In some instances, media reports of these cases were extensive and detailed, exposing conflicting police statements and misconduct. One example was the alleged "suicide" in custody of Nguyen Cong Nhut, in April 2011.

But there was no media coverage of other key cases, such as the death of Hoang Van Ngai in March 2013 in Dak Nong province. Journalists told HRW's researchers that in some cases local authorities prevented them from approaching the families of victims for interviews.

Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director, said: "Vietnam should permit the media to do its job of investigating and reporting the news about official abuses.

"Independent journalism could help expose abuses that otherwise would be swept under the carpet."

Without publicity, police officers who commit serious, even lethal, transgressions rarely face serious consequences. Convictions are rare and even when they are prosecuted and convicted, officers tend to receive light or suspended sentences.

Robertson said Vietnam should investigate every accusation of police brutality. He said: "Until police get a loud and clear message from the top levels of government that abuse won't be tolerated...

"UN agencies and international donors assisting Vietnam establish the rule of law shouldn't allow these punishing police practices to continue. There should be a concerted outcry to press for government action to end police abuses."

 on: Today at 06:58 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
China's Xi on Charm Offensive ahead of First India Visit

by Naharnet Newsdesk
17 September 2014, 09:58

President Xi Jinping pledged China's help in developing India's infrastructure and said the relationship between the Asian superpowers was the most "dynamic and promising" of the 21st century, in a charm offensive ahead of his first state visit on Wednesday.

Xi said the "the world's factory and the world's back office" made a winning combination, welcoming Indian businesses to China and calling for greater cooperation between two countries that have traditionally viewed each other with suspicion.

"With rich experience in infrastructure building and manufacturing, China is ready to contribute to India's development in these areas," Xi wrote in an article published in The Hindu daily.

"India is advanced in IT and pharmaceutical industries, and Indian companies are welcome to seek business opportunities in the Chinese market.

"The combination of the 'world’s factory' and the 'world's back office' will produce the most competitive production base and the most attractive consumer market."

The Chinese president will begin his three-day visit on Wednesday in Ahmedabad, home city of India's new Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The nuclear-armed neighbors fought a brief but bloody war in 1962 over the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern Himalayas, and are still embroiled in a bitter dispute over the territory.

But both leaders are eager to stress cooperation during the visit, with Modi keen to secure Chinese funding to develop the country's dilapidated infrastructure, blamed for holding back the economy.

Xi said that under the new Modi-led government, which came to power in May, "a new wave of reform and development has been sweeping across India... attracting keen international interest in its opportunities.

"China-India relations have become one of the most dynamic and promising bilateral relations in the 21st century," he said.

Japan has already promised to double its investment in India over the next five years.


Chinese government makes life difficult for international journalists

the Guardian

The Chinese communist party continues to make life difficult for foreign journalists, says the latest report by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China (FCCC).

It states that international reporters are restricted in where they can travel. Their sources are vulnerable to intimidation, or worse. If they write stories that displease the Chinese government, they face retribution in various forms - threats, effective expulsion by a refusal to renew visas and reprisals against local staff.

According to an FCCC survey of China-based foreign correspondents, 80% of those surveyed thought that their work conditions had worsened or stayed the same compared to 2013.

On the basis of its evidence, the FCCC argues that China is rapidly eroding the progress it made in "opening up" to the world prior to the 2008 Olympics.

"China's poor record on allowing open and unfettered reporting is in conflict with its desire to be seen as a modern society deserving of global respect," says the report. It continues:

    "It is in great contrast with the wide access Chinese journalists have enjoyed when reporting in many foreign countries.

    Yet as China embraces and leverages press freedoms abroad for its own media, it is going in the opposite direction at home."

The FCCC, which has 243 correspondent members from 31 countries, believes that foreign reporters operating in China should enjoy the same access and freedoms that Chinese reporters enjoy in most other countries.

In advocating the elimination of barriers to free reporting, it wishes to see the establishment of a level playing field and welcomes enhanced dialogue with authorities to agree on standard operating procedures for the coverage of news events.

The FCCC has identified six areas for action: restrictive reporting conditions, interference with news assistants, interference with sources, denial of access to government information, denial of foreign media access to the Chinese market, and punitive immigration policies.

China ranks 175 out of 180 in the 2014 Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

 on: Today at 06:57 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
Iran Highlights Gripes with U.S. on Eve of Nuclear Talks

by Naharnet Newsdesk
17 September 2014, 12:50

The office of Iran's supreme leader published a series of graphics on Wednesday highlighting how little he believes the country has gained from dialogue with Washington as nuclear talks resume.

The graphics posted on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's official website include a cartoon of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry standing and pounding the negotiating table flanked by aides.

"The military option is still on the table if Tehran wants to relaunch its uranium enrichment program," the cartoon Kerry thunders.

"Dialogue with the Americans has not reduced their animosity and has not been useful," the graphic complains, quoting Khamenei's words in an August 13 speech.

"The Americans' tone has become tougher and more insulting."

A separate graphic sets out the U.S. economic sanctions still in force against Iran and the fines totaling 9.5 billion dollars (7.3 billion euros) imposed on international firms for breaching them.

Khamenei's office did stress he had authorized the continuation of nuclear talks with major powers that are to resume in New York on Thursday, despite his misgivings about the lack of benefits from the dialogue with the United States.

President Mohammad Javad Zarif opened the dialogue with an historic telephone conversation with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly last September.

It is still unclear whether Zarif will attend this year's General Assembly which opens next week.

Khamenei has the final word on all matters of state in Iran.

Source: Agence France Presse

 on: Today at 06:55 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

Passenger rage forces Pakistan politician who delayed flight to flee

Former interior minister Rehman Malik chased back to terminal building after turning up 90 minutes after scheduled departure

Jon Boone in Islamabad, Tuesday 16 September 2014 15.52 BST      

Fury with a "VIP culture" that routinely sees commercial flights in Pakistan delayed to accommodate the schedule of politicians boiled over this week when passengers angrily prevented the country's former interior minister from boarding an aircraft.

Fuming travellers had been waiting in their seats when Rehman Malik, one of the country's most recognisable politicians, sauntered down the air bridge to the Pakistan International Airlines jet more than 90 minutes after its scheduled departure from Karachi to Islamabad on Monday.

Malik promptly turned tail when a furious group of travellers waiting by the door to the aircraft began heckling, with some chasing him back to the terminal building shouting and calling him a "stupid dog".

"Rehman Malik sahib, 250 passengers had to suffer because of you!" One man could be heard shouting. "You are not a minister any more and even if you were a minister we don't care, we don't care any more!"

Video of the event captured on passengers' phones went viral in a country where politicians are widely regarded as corrupt and deeply resented for the disruptions to daily life that they cause.

That includes traffic jams created by the security convoys of ministers and the habit of turning up to political rallies many hours after the crowds who come to see them.

One Facebook page hosting the video said the incident demonstrated the growing clout of Pakistan's middle class over traditional elites.

"The common man starts believing that respect is not about how much money you have or about the position that you hold," said Faheem Azam, an arts personality. "When they understand that respect has to be earned by being fair, humble, honest, committed and sometimes by just being respectful towards others."

While the former minister fled back to the safety of the airport, another government party politician called Ramesh Kumar Wakwani managed to board the plane only to be vigorously interrogated by suspicious passengers who demanded to know who he was.

Initially he described himself merely as a "doctor" before eventually admitting to being an elected member of Pakistan's national assembly.

That prompted jeers that he was behaving like a feudal lord and demands for him to leave the plane. Amid cries of "shame" he eventually surrendered his prized extra legroom seat in the front row of the economy class cabin.

Malik defended himself on Twitter, saying he had not been responsible for the delay, which the state-owned national carrier said was due to technical reasons.

"I suffered equally," he said on Twitter – although unlike the other passengers he was allowed to wait in the comfort of the lounge.

The stalwart of the opposition Pakistan People's party is one of the country's most colourful politicians, famous for his purple rinse hairstyle, odd pronouncements and for dashing to the scenes of the regular terrorist attacks that blighted his time as interior minister.

Widely regarded as a buffoon, he compared himself to Winston Churchill, Peter Mandelson and David Miliband in an interview last year.

 on: Today at 06:53 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

Antarctic sea ice set for record high as Arctic heads for sixth lowest extent

Antarctica poised for record high as figures show Arctic sea ice was millions of square kilometres below long-term average

Adam Vaughan, Wednesday 17 September 2014 09.42 BST      

The extent of sea ice in Antarctica is set to reach a record high, scientists said on Tuesday, as they announced that Arctic sea ice appeared to have shrunk to its sixth lowest level ever.

The NSIDC said that satellite data was expected to shortly confirm whether the maximum extent of sea ice at the opposite pole, in Antarctica, had set a new record.

“Antarctic sea ice is poised to set a record maximum this year, now at 19.7 million sq km (7.6m sq m) and continuing to increase,” the centre, considered one of the world’s top authorities on sea ice data, said in a statement.

Jan Lieser, of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Co-operative Research Centre (CRC), told Australia’s ABC News that: “This is an area covered by sea ice which we’ve never seen from space before.”

The conundrum of why Antarctic sea ice appears to be expanding as the Arctic decreases had puzzled polar observers, but scientists have suggested that the reason Antarctic ice extent appears to be increasing is due to changing wind patterns.

Figures released by the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado, show that the so-called Arctic sea ice minimum – the point where the extent of sea ice there is at its lowest after the summer, before it begins to refreeze for winter – is expected to be confirmed imminently and would be millions of square kilometres below the long-term average.

At 5.09m sq km, the extent of Arctic sea ice this year would be the sixth lowest on record, slightly worse than last year, though not as extreme as the record set in 2012 when it plunged to less than 3.5 million square kilometres.

However, the centre noted that there had been a particularly strong retreat of sea ice in the Laptev Sea and although the reasons for that were not yet clear, sea temperatures there had been up to 5C higher than average.

The amount of sea ice cover in the Arctic has been showing a long-term decline as climate change takes hold, with temperatures rising more rapidly in the Arctic than the rest of the planet.

 on: Today at 06:51 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
09/16/2014 03:45 PM

Islamic State in Iraq: 'They Know Exactly What They Are Doing'

Interview conducted by Dieter Bednarz

Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi played an infamous role in spurring the 2003 American invasion of his country. In an interview, he tells SPIEGEL about the rise of Islamic State, why the West misjudged the jihadists and whether it is time to cooperate with Assad.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Chalabi, how close have fighters from Islamic State come to Baghdad?

Chalabi: They are 26 kilometers away. That is menacingly close, but the situation is calm at the moment and Islamic State has not made any more advances on Baghdad. Thank God.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe they will attack?

Chalabi: The extremists have long since brought their terror to Baghdad. Islamic State has sent its suicide bombers, has detonated explosives in front of our homes. I could show you parts from a car bomb that rained down on our roof not long ago. But Islamic State will not attempt to attack Baghdad militarily. Of the six million residents in the city, four million are Shiites. And almost every adult Shiite in the city owns a weapon. Islamic State well knows that it would be ground down by a brutal house-to-house fight.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, many Baghdad residents have fled while others have at least begun making preparations.

Chalabi: Such reports are exaggerated. We are not panicking because we know that Islamic State cannot conquer the capital.

SPIEGEL: Until recently it also seemed impossible that Islamic State might overrun Iraq's second largest city. But now, Mosul is under the control of the jihadists.

Chalabi: Yes, but the situation was different in Mosul. There are Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and Yazidis living there, all of whom have suffered under the sectarian central government. They feel excluded and cheated out of participation in the government. What happened there was predictable. Six months earlier, we already had clear indications that Islamic State was preparing to attack. The Islamists have long been levying their own taxes in Mosul, totaling some $5 million per month. As early as January, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani warned the government of an impending disaster.

SPIEGEL: And the government did nothing?

Chalabi: No. Maliki saw Islamic State as a way to exert pressure. If I am not re-elected, terror will befall you -- that was his message.

SPIEGEL: Would Islamic State have been able to conquer even more territory if the autonomous Kurdish government not gone on the attack?

Chalabi: The Kurds' achievement was outstanding, both militarily and diplomatically. European governments recognized this and abandoned their resistance to weapons deliveries. Germany, too, acted correctly. Now, we need a joint military leadership so that the Kurds and the army can retake Mosul.

SPIEGEL: The Kurds believe they are closer than ever to having their own state. Are you concerned about secession?

Chalabi: The Kurds know that they won't achieve their own state by force of arms but through international recognition. And they have certainly heard what the German foreign minister said in connection with the arms deliveries: There is no Kurdish state. But that shouldn't prevent the Kurds from continuing to develop their own institutions. Still, the best thing for them would be to remain a part of Iraq, but in return we must treat them with respect -- their nationality, their language and their culture.

SPIEGEL: And if that isn't enough for the Kurds?

Chalabi: Then it wouldn't spell the end for Iraq. Germany lost East Prussia. Isn't Germany a strong country today anyway?

SPIEGEL: In Syria, Islamic State is fighting against opposition groups rebelling against President Bashar al-Assad, who has left them alone as a result. But now, the jihadists are also endangering the regime. Do you believe that Assad regrets not having gone after Islamic State earlier?

Chalabi: No, I don't. Yes, the Islamists are now the only ones that can offer significant resistance. After taking over Mosul, Islamic State sent 75 trucks full of weapons captured from our army to Syria. But Islamic State also weakened all those forces that could have been dangerous for Assad. As such, he was able to concentrate on solidifying his power in metropolitan areas like Damascus and on the coast. Now we are faced with the question: Who is the lesser evil?

SPIEGEL: And what is your answer to that question?

Chalabi: I think it is clear. We need a united front against Islamic State and Assad happens to be the decisive power that can fight them. But the situation is preposterous because we also have to respect the calls for change. I would be in favor of a dignified change.

SPIEGEL: A senior American diplomat in Baghdad told us that Islamic State fighters are "sociopaths led by psychopaths."

Chalabi: That may apply to the fighters from the West who feel excluded in Europe and come here for that reason. But the leaders are former officers in the Iraqi army or professors. They are not psychopaths, they know exactly what they are doing, are very well organized and have a strict hierarchy.

SPIEGEL: What is so fascinating about Islamic State that hundreds of Sunnis are rushing to join?

Chalabi: Islamic State isn't corrupt. That makes it very attractive in a country like Iraq. And of course many are attracted by its military success. For the first time, the Sunnis have an effective fighting force. For Sunnis, Islamic State has a function similar to that of Hezbollah for Shiites. Before they conquered Mosul, Islamic State had maybe 10,000 fighters, but now they have many more. Their recruitment rate is enormously high: Each month, some 2,000 men are trained. And their success radiates to Jordan, Libya and the Arabian Peninsula -- even as far as Mali and Pakistan.

SPIEGEL: Yet the backbone of Islamic State is the Sunni clans that Maliki basically forced into revolt.

Chalabi: Many Sunnis joined Islamic State because they felt they were being treated poorly. Winning back their trust is the primary task of the new government. That will be difficult, but it is possible.

SPIEGEL: Where will the next battlefield be?

Chalabi: Islamic State is following a clear strategy. First, it wants to solidify its power in Iraq and Syria. Then, their fighters will try to advance to Syria's Mediterranean coast. If they are successful, that will be seen as their next great triumph. And then, their target will be Jordan, where things will be easy for them. Already, Islamic State has broad support in many cities there. And when they get there, it will once again come as a great surprise to everybody.

SPIEGEL: Why were we so wrong about the situation in Iraq and Syria?

Chalabi: You thought Islamic State was just a bunch of gunmen and underestimated their strategic and military abilities. When Sunni clans near Fallujah rebelled at the beginning of the year, Islamic State in Syria sent just 150 fighters. Now, the extremists control a huge area in Iraq. Until the US airstrikes began, they were able to move about completely freely.

SPIEGEL: US President Barack Obama announced his intention to expand airstrikes on Islamic State fighters to Syria. Do you welcome this declaration of war on the terrorists?

Chalabi: I hope we can take advantage of this new, forward-looking approach. It is shameful, but without American support, Islamic State would have taken over many more places in Iraq. Just yesterday, they wanted to capture the Haditha Dam, but airstrikes kept them from doing so. Now, our army has to make the best use of this assistance.

SPIEGEL: Do you believe that the US can stop Islamic State just with airstrikes?

Chalabi: No, effective ground troops are necessary as well. The anti-Islamic State coalition has to be totally realistic on that score.

SPIEGEL: You wouldn't be opposed to ground support?

Chalabi: The US is already supporting us with around 1,000 specialists. But it should stay at that. I am opposed to a larger military intervention with ground troops. That wouldn't be helpful.

SPIEGEL: When the last American soldier was pulled out of Iraq in 2011, Obama said that the country was a sovereign, independent and democratic state. Was that a lie, or a colossal misjudgment?

Chalabi: At the time, the president was prepared to do anything to get out of here. He had promised to withdraw the troops during the campaign and he had to fulfill that pledge, no matter what the price.

SPIEGEL: When you look around today, at the terror, the human suffering, the economic misery, do you still believe it was worth it to get rid of Saddam Hussein? And do you regret providing false information to the US to justify the 2003 invasion?

Chalabi: I don't regret anything. And we didn't provide any false information. We provided the Americans with three informants and also gave them our own assessment. But the decision to invade was one the Americans made on their own. And, as difficult as the situation in Iraq currently is, it was still right to topple Saddam Hussein. We had no future under him. Today, we at least have hope that better times are coming.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Chalabi, thank you for this interview.


09/16/2014 11:17 AM

Airstrike Uncertainties: Obama's Dangerously Vague New War

By Markus Feldenkirchen, Christoph Reuter and Holger Stark

Obama has spent much of his term withdrawing the US from quagmires abroad. But now, in the battle against Islamic State extremists, he has a war of his own. His plan of attack, though, is filled with uncertainties and America's ultimate goal remains unclear.

The City of Rabbits. That is the bucolic alias once attached to the Syrian town of Marea. But it is no longer in use. Now, one of the most important frontlines in the war in northern Syria runs through the town. Some 5,000 rebels have established themselves in the potato fields surrounding Marea in an effort to stop Islamic State jihadists from continuing their advance on Aleppo.

Thus far, they have been successful -- thanks largely to assistance from the US. In Marea, an American-supported rebel command center coordinates the rebels' defense. The entire front is divided into sectors, which are each under the control of a single group. They have names like "Defenders of the Faith," "Islamic Front" and "Nureddin Senki Brigade" and are fairly obscure. Even so, they now have satellite images, ammunition for Kalashnikovs and larger caliber weapons, night-vision devices and provisions. A few anti-tank rockets also arrived a few months ago.

All of the materiel was provided to the fighters by the US. The CIA has established a military operations center in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli which it uses to support Syrian rebels. Those given a green rating by the CIA receive both arms and a salary. Those coded yellow receive help but no weapons. Those marked red receive nothing. Nine groups with a total of around 10,000 fighters are now said to be operating north of Aleppo to stop the march of the Islamic State.

Witnesses who have visited the operations center and who work with the US. have described a curious alliance -- the cast of characters ranges from bearded Islamists to defected army officers. The fighters aren't radical. They aren't exactly secular either. Above all, they aren't corrupt; they are disciplined and capable.

Waiting for Air Strikes

"We are holding our lines, but we aren't going to attack," says one of the Syrian rebel commanders who just came to Turkey for two days. The fighters have plenty of arms and ammunition, he said, but also have a fear of the Islamic State and its extreme brutality. "To advance against the Islamic State, we need heavy weaponry, artillery and rocket launchers." He says that the Americans need to provide Syrian fighters with the kind of weapons that the Islamic State has been able to plunder from the Iraqi army. "We are now waiting for US airstrikes," the commander says. "Nothing will happen before that."

On the eve of the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, US President Barack Obama announced that such airstrikes were on the way, in a speech that was designed to demonstrate America's power and determination. Standing in the White House, the president informed his fellow Americans of a war against the Islamic State that could take years to achieve its goals. The appearance marked a complete reversal for Obama. He is now no longer the president who only brings wars to an end; he has now become a war president himself. As Obama announced the operation's aim, he sounded eerily reminiscent of George W. Bush, his predecessor: "We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL," Obama said, using one of the many acronyms used to refer to the Islamic State.

For Obama, there is something almost tragic about this moment. A rapid withdrawal from Iraq was once one of his central campaign promises, and now he is in danger of leaving his successor a country deeply mired in an intransigent conflict not unlike the ones he inherited from Bush.

Unclear Goals

That speech marked the moment Obama gave up on his "lead from behind" doctrine, which imagined a superpower pulling the strings backstage rather leading the charge. The about-face became necessary in part because of the West's earlier hesitation to get involved in the Syrian civil war, a delay which allowed the jihadists to gain strength.

The risks associated with the new operation, which Obama has sought to sell as an anti-terrorism campaign, are immense. And important questions remain unanswered. What, for example, does Obama seek to achieve? Is the US only interested in the destruction of the terror group to prevent it from being able to carry out possible terror strikes in the US? Or is Washington also tempted by regime change in Syria?

The bombs, after all, won't be targeting the cause of the Islamic State's rise -- Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is leading a destructive war in his effort to cling to power. Attacking the Islamic State helps Assad, but it also, more than anything, helps rebel groups in Syria.

"Nobody knows what our strategy really looks like in Syria," says former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution. "The strategy in Iraq is clearly a military one, with the Iraqi army as a partner. In Syria, it sounds like a counterterrorism mission like those in Yemen and Somalia." In those places, though, drone attacks have done little to weaken Islamist groups. On the contrary. And experts agree that airstrikes are not enough to destroy a well-organized pseudo-army like the one belonging to the Islamic State.

The Assad Question

It also remains unclear how the US intends to fly bombing raids in Syria without cooperating with Assad's regime. In Iraq, the government explicitly requested American assistance, but Obama has ruled out working together with the Syrian government. Assad maintains effective anti-aircraft systems, though Pollack believes that Assad would not fire at US fighters and drones. "The last thing that Assad wants is an additional fight with the US," he says. But it isn't a certainty.

Russia has been vociferous in its criticism of Obama's plans, with the Foreign Ministry in Moscow saying in a statement that airstrikes would be "an act of aggression" and that such a step, "in absence of a UN Security Council decision, would be ... a gross violation of international law" and would further increase tensions.

Should it come under attack, the US may then feel forced to destroy Syrian airports, fighter jets and anti-aircraft batteries, which would end Syrian control of airspace over large areas now under rebel control. Assad's Syria would shrink to a small strip from Damascus to the coast.

It is more likely that the Assad regime will silently tolerate US airstrikes. Indeed, Western diplomats and intelligence personnel in southern Turkey say that the US has been secretly negotiating with Damascus in recent weeks in the hopes of getting the green light for air raids.

Damascus is eager to win the US as an ally. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem has said that any airstrikes must be carefully coordinated -- though there are large differences between Washington and Damascus's notions of who exactly the enemy is.

Rebels Caught in the Middle

When Islamic State fighters began shelling rebel-controlled Marea from three sides in August, the Syrian air force flew several air raids. But their bombs didn't hit the Islamic State. They instead struck exactly the rebels that are receiving support from the US.

Yassir al-Haji, head of the political opposition in Marea, says two girls died in the town late last week, one after being struck by an Islamic State tank shell and the other as a result of a regime airstrike. "Both sides are shooting at us. Assad's air force is flying sorties against us every day. At the same time, more than 1,000 Islamic State fighters are just five kilometers away -- and are not being bombed," Haji says.

The Islamic State was long a useful enemy for the regime in Damascus, with the jihadist group's brutality making Assad look like the lesser of two evils. Indeed, the Syrian air force refrained from attacking Islamist State positions at all until mid-June. In return, the Islamists focused their fight on other opposition groups -- and financed themselves through oil deals with Damascus. Both Assad and the Islamic State were apparently trying to use each other.

Rise of the Islamic State

But suddenly, the Islamic State became much more powerful than expected. The CIA recently estimated that the group may have as many as 30,000 fighters. Since the jihadists began attacking regime positions in the east, the Syrian air force has been attacking them there. But only there.

The Islamic State is like a parasite and has taken advantage of the weaknesses displayed by its hosts, Syria and Iraq. The terror group is not only made up of fanatics, but also of strategists who prefer eye-catching brutalities to staging provocative attacks in the West. Indeed, this dearth of large-scale attacks abroad led many experts to believe until recently that the Islamic State didn't play in the terrorist big leagues. In January, even Barack Obama compared the group to a high-school's second-tier ("JV") basketball team. What they all missed was that the Islamic State had turned al-Qaeda's concept on its head: Instead of starting off with global terror, the Islamic State was first focusing on conquering territory from which to operate.

In early August, though, Islamic State leaders made a crucial mistake that set off a chain reaction: They attacked the Yazidi and Christian communities in northern Iraq. The fate of the minority groups was greeted with international outrage, and led the US to bomb Islamic State positions in Iraq -- a development the jihadists had seemingly not expected.

The terrorists then beheaded two American journalists in an effort to intimidate the United States. This, too, was not a clever move: Since mid-June, popular US approval for military operations against IS has skyrocketed, with almost three quarters of Americans now in favor. Suddenly, the Islamic State is confronted with a significant opponent.

The Islamic State is made vulnerable by the fact that it behaves like an army instead of a terror organization; captured Humvees, artillery pieces and tanks are clearly identifiable military targets. Many of them have been destroyed by the over 150 sorties thus far flown in Iraq by the US. The Islamic State is much more difficult to fight in urban areas and no cities controlled by the group have been retaken yet.

'Enemies of America'

It is still difficult to predict the effect the American air attacks will have in Syria. Much will depend on who exactly they will be targeting. If Washington adheres to its terror list, it will also have to attack the al-Nusra Front, whose leader once pledged his loyalty to al-Qaida. Nusra's fighters are almost all Syrians -- and most are embittered enemies of the Islamic State. "An attack on Nusra would be the biggest favor that Washington could do to the Islamic State," warns one of the most knowledgeable experts on the Syrian opposition. "It would turn many Sunnis into enemies of America."

More than anything, though, the US need local support, given that Obama is reluctant to send ground troops. But the Syrian opposition has been worn down by fighting a two-front war against Assad and the Islamic State and is disillusioned about the West due to its apathy. Thousands of rebels have died while others have fled from the country with their families. The Free Syrian Army has fallen apart, old brigades have been dissolved and new ones have been founded under different names. The rich Syrian exiles that have long financed the opposition are cash-strapped after years of war, leading many fighters to cross over to Nusra or the Islamic State.

If Obama wants to convince the Syrians that he is serious, he will also have to present a political strategy. This would mean abandoning the course it has followed thus far -- that of trying to force both sides to come to a negotiated solution. The secret negotiations in Switzerland earlier this year did succeed in bringing them closer together, but the talks fell apart over one crucial point: Assad's hold on power. A best-case scenario would see Washington's new strategy result in a decisive breakthrough.

'Explicit Pro-American'

But the operation's success will be especially dependent on the "Coalition of the Willing" that Obama is now currently assembling. France's President Francois Hollande declared himself ready this past Friday to attack targets in Iraq from the air. British Prime Minister David Cameron has not fundamentally ruled out military participation in Syria. Only the German government doesn't want to get directly involved in the fight against the Islamic State. "But the last thing that the US wants is a new crusade of the West in the Middle East," says Brookings expert Kenneth Pollack. "The coalition against the Islamic State needs to be regionally anchored."

It is precisely this alliance that Washington has formed in the past weeks -- an alliance that, until recently, nobody would have thought possible: between the Kurds, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. They are to block the Islamic State's flow of money, allow the use of military bases, control borders and provide humanitarian assistance. Even Iran supports the offensive against the Islamic State -- even though it is simultaneously helping Assad. The Saudis, meanwhile, want to topple Assad and destroy the Islamic State -- but doesn't want to support their Shiite archenemies in Iraq. And crucially Turkey, the country through which most Jihadists make their way to Syria and Iraq, is not on-board.

It will soon become clear the degree to which the world is prepared to follow the US. The war in the Middle East will be a central topic at the UN General Assembly in September. Obama will give another keynote address and lead the meeting of the Security Council. Should he receive Security Council backing, it would mark a significant foreign policy success.

His strategy could also help Democrats in seven weeks, when Congressional elections are held. Even Newt Gingrich, a Republican detractor of the president's, was impressed last week. "This speech," he said, "is the most explicit pro-American speech he ever made."


Top Saudi clerics issue edict against terrorism

Saudi Arabia's highest body of religious scholars issued a stern ruling on Wednesday calling terrorism a "heinous crime" and saying perpetrators including Islamic State militants deserve punishment in line with Islamic law.


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia —

Saudi Arabia's highest body of religious scholars issued a stern ruling on Wednesday calling terrorism a "heinous crime" and saying perpetrators including Islamic State militants deserve punishment in line with Islamic law.

The Council of Senior Religious Scholars said in its fatwa, or religious edict, that it backs the kingdom's efforts to track down and punish followers of the Islamic State group and al-Qaida.

The clerics are appointed by the government and are seen as guardians of the kingdom's ultraconservative Wahhabi school of Islam. The statement by the group of 21 scholars underpins the kingdom's broader efforts to deter citizens from joining extremist groups that want to bring down the Western-allied monarchy.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Saudi Arabia last week and won support from the kingdom and other Arab allies to help fight the Islamic State militants who have seized large parts of Iraq and Syria. A State Department official told reporters ahead of the visit that Kerry planned to ask Mideast countries to encourage government-controlled media and members of the religious establishment to speak out against extremism.

The edict highlights the historically close relationship between the Wahhabi establishment in Saudi Arabia and the kingdom's rulers, and gives religious backing to the Saudi king's efforts to fight the Islamic State as part of an international coalition. The council is the only official authority in Saudi Arabia allowed to issue religious edicts concerning questions about how citizens should live their lives

The council's condemnations extended to others the Saudi government opposes as well, including the Shiite Hawthi rebel group in Yemen and Saudi Hezbollah, a Shiite militant movement that was engaged in attacks in the kingdom in the 1980s and 1990s. It also criticized what it called "crimes of terrorism practiced by the Israeli occupation."

The scholars said authorities have to track down instigators of conflict and financiers of terrorism because they commit "one of the greatest sins" which is "disobeying the ruler". They said they support the government's decision to prohibit citizens from fighting in conflicts abroad.

Though the council did not recommend specific punishments, it is considered a religious sin and a criminal act in Saudi Arabia to rebel against the king, who oversees Islam's two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.

To help back up its religious ruling, the council referred to words of the Prophet Muhammad, who warned against following those who want to divide the nation.

"This is a warning to the advocates of division, strife and sedition, and a warning to those who followed them from going too far in order to avoid the punishment of torment in this world and the hereafter," the statement said.

The scholars added that any Muslim who thinks jihad -- or striving in the path of God-- means joining a terrorist group "is ignorant and has gone astray".

The Saudi king earlier this year called on scholars to speak out more aggressively against terrorism. Shortly afterward, the head of the council and grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheik Abdul-Aziz Al-Sheik, described the Islamic State and al-Qaida as Islam's top enemies.

All of the groups mentioned in the clerical statement were branded "terrorist" organizations by the Saudi government this year. Notably absent from the council's list is the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi authorities have outlawed and also branded as terrorist.


Isis video threatens to target White House and US troops

Video purports to be trailer for film entitled Flames of War with strapline 'fighting has just begun'

Matthew Weaver, Wednesday 17 September 2014 12.54 BST

Islamic State militants have threatened to target the White House and kill US troops in a new slickly made video response to Barack Obama's campaign to "degrade and destroy" the organisation.

The video, in the style of a blockbuster movie trailer for what is "coming soon", depicts a masked man apparently about to shoot kneeling prisoners in the head. Towards the end of the clip there is shaky footage of the White House filmed from a moving vehicle, suggesting the building is being scoped out for attack.

It was released on Tuesday after US defence chiefs suggested that American troops could join Iraqi forces fighting Isis, despite Obama's assurance that US soldiers would not be engaged in fighting on the ground.

The only words on the 52-second clip are those of Obama making that pledge. "American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq," it quotes him saying. This comes directly after footage of US troops being shot at, injured and taken away in an armoured vehicle, threatening what will happen if troops are redeployed to Iraq.

The video was released by the al-Hayat Media Centre, Isis's English-language propaganda arm. It includes the now-familiar high-production hallmarks of an Isis video, including super-slow motion footage of jihadis in combat, jump-cutting, and CGI explosions.

It purports to be a trailer for film entitled Flames of War with the strapline "Fighting has just begun".

It shows US tanks and positions being attacked by jihadis using shoulder-launched missiles. It also includes an image of the "Mission Accomplished" banner that was part of the backdrop to George Bush's infamous speech on an aircraft carrier after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. There is also footage of Bush's defence chief, Donald Rumsfeld, on a tour of Iraq.

Despite its slick production, experts in film and advertising have suggested the video threat would not require huge expertise or budget.

"These sort of effects are relatively simple to do nowadays. There are iPhone apps that add explosions and look quite real," said Luke Jacobs, an executive producer in TV commercials at Friend Productions.

"The video is slickly done and they have spent some time on it, but it's not something that would require access to a big post-production house. I'd say it's more likely been done by a guy with a laptop. It looks like there might be someone on team Isis who used to work at a TV network or knows his way around visual effects software, a compositor like Nuke or Adobe After Effects."

The video came as the Pentagon released details of more air strikes south-west of Baghdad and north-west of Irbil on Monday and Tuesday.

In a statement, the US military's central command said: "In total, two air strikes north-west of Irbil destroyed an Isil [Isis] armed truck and an Isil fighting position, while three air strikes south-west of Baghdad damaged an Isil truck and destroyed an Isil anti-aircraft artillery piece, a small Isil ground unit and two small boats on the Euphrates river that were re-supplying Isil forces in the area.

It said the strikes were conducted as part of US efforts to help an Iraqi offensives against Islamic State militants. The US has conducted 167 air strikes in Iraq since it launched the current campaign on 8 August.

Earlier, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, told the Senate armed services committee that he could see himself recommending the use of some US military forces now in Iraq to embed within Iraqi and Kurdish units to take territory away from Isis.

"If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [Isis] targets, I will recommend that to the president," Dempsey said, preferring the term "close combat advising".

It was the most thorough public acknowledgement yet from Pentagon leaders that the roughly 1,600 US troops Obama has deployed to Iraq since June may in fact be used in a ground combat role, something Obama has directly ruled out, most recently in a televised speech last week.

Dempsey, who has for years warned about the "unintended consequences" of Americanising the Syrian civil war that gave rise to Isis, said he envisioned "close combat advising" for operations on the order of taking Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, away from Isis.

Obama's prohibition on ground forces in a combat role was less ironclad than the president has publicly stated, Dempsey suggested.

"At this point, his stated policy is we will not have US ground forces in direct combat," Dempsey said, to include spotting for US air strikes. "But he has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis."


Pentagon: US ground troops may join Iraqis in combat against Isis

Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey refuse to rule out greater role for US ‘advisers’ if airstrikes

Spencer Ackerman in New York
The Guardian, Tuesday 16 September 2014 19.50 BST   
The Pentagon leadership suggested to a Senate panel on Tuesday that US ground troops may directly join Iraqi forces in combat against the Islamic State (Isis), despite US president Barack Obama’s repeated public assurances against US ground combat in the latest Middle Eastern war.

A day after US warplanes expanded the war south-west of Baghdad, Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate armed services committee that he could see himself recommending the use of some US military forces now in Iraq to embed within Iraqi and Kurdish units to take territory away from Isis.

“If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [Isis] targets, I will recommend that to the president,” Dempsey said, preferring the term “close combat advising”.

It was the most thorough public acknowledgement yet from Pentagon leaders that the roughly 1,600 US troops Obama has deployed to Iraq since June may in fact be used in a ground combat role, something Obama has directly ruled out, most recently in a televised speech last week.

Dempsey, who has for years warned about the “unintended consequences” of Americanizing the Syrian civil war that gave rise to Isis, said he envisioned “close combat advising” for operations on the order of taking Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, away from Isis.

He also opened the door to using US “advisers” to call in air strikes from the ground, something Dempsey said they have thus far not done but which the US Central Command leader, General Lloyd Austin, initially thought would be necessary when pushing Isis away from the Mosul Dam last month.

“He shares my view that there will be circumstances when we think that’ll be necessary, but we haven’t encountered one yet,” said Dempsey, himself a veteran of the last Iraq war.

Obama’s prohibition on ground forces in a combat role was less ironclad than the president has publicly stated, Dempsey suggested.

“At this point, his stated policy is we will not have US ground forces in direct combat,” Dempsey said, to include spotting for US air strikes. “But he has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis.”

Joined by Defense secretary Chuck Hagel, Dempsey said the latest US war in Iraq, and soon in Syria, will last several years and will not resemble the “shock and awe” aerial bombardment that characterized the opening phase of the 2003 US invasion.

Isis’s ultimate defeat will be a “generational” effort, Dempsey said, during which “moderate” Muslims abandon its ideology – raising questions about what the US military’s actual endpoint will be in pursuing the goal of “degrading and ultimately defeating” Isis, Obama’s stated goal.

Dempsey and Hagel, who described the US as being “at war” with Isis, were more thorough to the committee about US strategy in Iraq than against Isis in Syria, where Dempsey said “two-thirds” of its estimated 31,000 fighters currently are.

In Iraq, the US intends to build upon the 162 air strikes it has launched since August 8, in support of Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces’ efforts to take Iraqi territory away from Isis and “restore the border” with Syria, Dempsey said.

In Syria, the US is seeking to train “vetted” Syrian rebels to capture Syrian territory from Isis. Hagel and Dempsey acknowledged that an initial cohort of 5,000 Syrian opposition forces would not be ready until eight months at the earliest. The House of Representatives plans to attach authorization for the training mission to a must-pass stopgap funding bill with a vote on Wednesday – which will represent the most robust congressional debate thus far on a new Iraq-Syria war.

“Five thousand is not going to be able to turn the tide, we recognize that,” Hagel said. Neither he nor Dempsey ruled out requesting additional authorities and funding for building a Syrian proxy army in the future.

Dempsey said he hopes enlist unnamed Sunni Arab nations with “very considerable” special operations forces to sustain the Syrian rebel army on the ground, possibly a reference to Qatar. He and Hagel demurred when asked by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and Congress’s most prominent hawk, if the US’s new allies would receive American air cover if attacked by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

“We’re not there yet, but our focus is on Isil,” another name for Isis, Hagel said.

Dempsey – whose resignation McCain has called for, owing to the general’s reluctance to use the US military against Assad –conceded that “if we were to take [fighting] Assad off the table, we’d have a much more difficult time” persuading Syrians to join the coalition, but said the administration nevertheless has an “Isil-first strategy”.

McCain said relying on the Syrian opposition to prioritize fighting Isis ahead of Assad, their primary foe, pointed to a “fundamental fallacy” in the Obama administration’s strategy.

On Wednesday, Obama will meet with Austin in Tampa, where Central Command is headquartered. Hagel said the general will brief Obama on upcoming “targeted actions against [Isis] safe havens in Syria”, the clearest signal yet of an imminent expansion of air strikes into Syria. On the targeting list, Hagel said, are Isis “command and control, logistics capabilities, and infrastructure”.

Dempsey said introducing US ground forces into Syria in support of its proxy rebel army would not yield lasting gains, part of his argument that defeating Isis – the administration’s stated ultimate goal – will only result from a “generational” decision by regional Sunni Arabs to reject its ideology.

“I don’t think that even if we were to go in on the ground, armored divisions with flags unfurled, I don’t think we would do anything more than push this problem further to the right,” Dempsey told Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.

“If we don’t get the kind of coalition I’m describing, then we’re into a very narrow CT framework, in my view,” Dempsey said, referencing frequent but intermittent drone strikes against counterterrorism targets the US has launched in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Some senators of both parties expressed discomfort with Obama’s willingness to involve the US in a new war ahead of explicit congressional authorization. Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, and Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, both said Congress should not end its pre-election session this month without a war vote. Manchin was one of relatively few senators on the panel who appeared inclined to vote against the latest US war in the Middle East.


General John Allen: the intellectual US hawk leading the coalition against Isis

Marine veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns has unusual amount of foreign policy experience for senior military officer

Emma Graham-Harrison   
The Guardian, Tuesday 16 September 2014 18.35 BST   
The retired US marine general leading Washington's coalition against Islamic State (Isis) is a hawk with years of experience battling extremist insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he also boasts impressive intellectual credentials and an unusual amount of foreign policy experience for a senior officer.

Thoughtful and softly spoken, 60-year-old John Allen will not be a military commander in Barack Obama's effort to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic extremist group that has taken over swaths of Iraq and Syria.

Instead he will be trying to win pledges of firepower from those who have offered moral support, draw in more backers and coordinate and inspire the disparate partners.

He has seen first-hand that unmatched US military might can spawn violent resistance, as it did in Iraq, or secure only expensive and fragile gains as in much of Afghanistan.

He has, however, remained a staunch advocate of using force in the region, calling for Isis to be dealt a "hard blow" as early as June, and he is convinced that distant turmoil can be a threat to Americans at home.

"Make no mistake, the abomination of IS [Isis] is a clear and present danger to the US," he said in an editorial on the Defense One website in August, which reads almost like a pitch for his current job.

"The only question really is whether the US and its allies and partners will act decisively now … [the US] remains the only nation on the planet capable of exerting the kind of strategic leadership, influence and strike capacity to deal with IS. It is also the only power capable of organising a coalition's reaction to this regional and international threat."

Nearly two years at the head of the unwieldy international presence in Afghanistan provided useful practice in balancing an eclectic mix of national military skills and equipment, while protecting the easily wounded pride of dozens of senior commanders.

He knows the military leaders of many countries in the anti-Isis coalition from his posting as number two at Central Command, the US military's nerve centre based in Florida but responsible for operations in the Middle East, central Asia and north Africa.

A native of Virginia who still speaks with a slight southern drawl, Allen also won Obama's support after publicly backing plans for the US troop drawdown in Afghanistan in an election year. It was a time when the US president felt betrayed by, or distrustful of many other prominent officers who were pushing for a larger, more sustained presence, and his loyalty was noted.

In Iraq, he was deputy commander for Anbar province from 2006 to 2008 and played a major role in efforts convince Sunni tribes to turn against al-Qaida, some of the same groups the US may now be wooing again for help in fighting Isis.

In Afghanistan he replaced the media darling General David Petraeus in 2011, bringing a more low-key, deliberative leadership style. Petraeus had been charged with winning Obama's "good war", while Allen's brief was effectively to start winding it up honourably - although no one in the military would have put it that bluntly.

He spent two years trying to juggle the political imperative of accelerating troop departures with the reality of a still-powerful Taliban insurgency. His solution was to put more focus on training Afghan forces so they would have a better chance of protecting the government and major cities on their own.

"Our victory here may never be marked by a parade or a point in time on a calendar when victory is declared. This insurgency will be defeated over time by the legitimate and well-trained Afghan forces that are emerging today," Allen said in his farewell speech.

He was nominated as the supreme commander of Nato forces in Europe after leaving Kabul, but his appointment was put on hold when emails appeared to draw him into a tawdry scandal over an affair between Petraeus and his biographer Paula Broadwood.

Ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing, he left the military soon after, turning down the Nato job to spend more time with his ill wife, to whom friends say he is devoted.

"Kathy, I wish you were here with me today … I want to tell you how much I love you," he announced to a surprised auditorium of Nato allies and Afghan dignitaries, after saying more formal goodbyes to his fellow soldiers and the country he had battled to shape.

Shortly after returning to the US, his military experience and academic background were recognised in a job advising the defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, and secretary of state, John Kerry, on security issues in negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

He holds advanced degrees from Georgetown University, the National Defense Intelligence College and the National War College, and was the first marine to become a term member of the influential Council on Foreign Relations.

 on: Today at 06:41 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
09/17/2014 12:46 PM

Islamic State: Germany Struggles to Deal with Returning Fighters


Hundreds of radical Islamists from Germany have headed to Syria and Iraq to fight for Islamic State. Many have since returned home. Now the country's court system is gearing up for the coming legal battles -- and facing myriad challenges.

The players at TuS Makkabit Frankfurt remember Kreshnik B. as a reliable defender. As a member of the Jewish football club's youth B-team, he kept opposing players away from his goal and even shot a few of his own. Kreshnik B., who is Muslim, happily wore the blue jersey of the team, despite it being decorated with Hebraic lettering and the Star of David. "He was proud to take the field with the star," club leader Alon Meyer recalls.

Not even three years after playing for the team, Kreshnik swapped the football field for the battlefield. In the name of Allah, he allegedly joined the radical Islamist organization Islamic State in its fight to set up an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. "Jihad these days is an individual's duty," he wrote his sister from the Middle East and asked her to pray that he might fall as a martyr. "I'm chillin', fighting, doing my job for Allah. I take my Kalashnikov and bismillah," he rhymed.

The five months that Kreshnik B., now 20, spent in Syria fighting for Islamic State are now the subject of a case which began in Frankfurt on Monday. He stands accused of membership in a terrorist organization and of "preparing a serious act of violent subversion."

His trial marks the first time that a presumed Islamic State fighter has appeared in front of a German court. It won't be the last. The number of jihadists who have left the country for Syria along with the number of Islamic State's supporters in Germany is already much higher than it ever was during the Afghanistan conflict. Currently, there are around 140 investigations under way in Germany against Islamic State fighters or their supporters. And the number is climbing. Federal state prosecutors have taken on 33 cases involving more than 60 suspects, but the flood of cases has begun clogging up dockets across the country.

Politicians have also begun considering ways to stop the jihadists and their increasingly bold propaganda promoting the "holy war." Last Friday, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière made any form of support for Islamic State illegal and an association of state working groups under the leadership of the Hesse Interior Ministry is currently looking into ways of preventing young Muslims from sliding into the militant Islamist scene in the first place. The aim is to combat the consistently rising number of young Muslims joining the jihad.

'Tell Mom She Shouldn't Be Frightened'

In many ways, Kreshnik B., the son of refugees from Kosovo, is a typical representative of jihad Made in Germany. The indictment claims that he boarded an Istanbul-bound bus in Frankfurt with six others in 2013. From there, they continued on to Syria.

"I really don't care which group I end up fighting for," Kreshnik wrote to his sister during the journey. "The most important thing is that I fight for Sharia and that I can do many deeds to serve God." As fate would have it, he ended up joining Islamic State near the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Other extremist groups refused to accept the inexperienced men from the West, most of whom were unable to speak Arabic. But Islamic State took almost all of them, as cannon fodder, suicide bombers or, should it become necessary, hostages for ransom money.

Kreshnik B. went through a weapons training program, performed guard duties and fought. Back in Germany, his parents went to the police and were apparently ready to travel to Syria to convince their son to come home. "Tell mom that she shouldn't be frightened, because I have my weapon with me," Kreshnik wrote to his sister.

But the fun of jihad didn't last long. Soon, Kreshnik began complaining to his sister of harassment from his commander, and of arguments and boring guard shifts. On one day, he reported, "three or four people" from his group died. We "shot tanks and tried everything, but nothing worked."

Then, the head of the group came and said: "I need four people to go in who won't come out alive." The German jihadist wasn't prepared for such a mission after all and traveled back to Frankfurt on Dec. 12, 2013, where he was arrested.

Part of the Salafist Scene

Exactly what pushed young people like Kreshnik B. to risk their lives in faraway wars was long a mystery to German authorities. But security officials recently assembled an 18-page report examining the radicalization process. It has provided some initial answers, and its findings, in some cases, are surprising.

The report notes that, of the 378 people who had headed for Syria with "Islamist motivations" by the end of June, more than 40 were women. Sixteen of them were minors, with the youngest having just turned 15. Almost two-thirds were born in Germany and roughly half of them left with the intention of joining the jihad. The overwhelming majority, 84 percent, are believed by authorities to be part of the Salafist scene.

In no way were all of Germany's radicalized Muslims on the fringes of society or people without a future. More than 100 of them had received their diplomas by the time they left, with 41 of them having completed the Abitur, Germany's college-prep diploma. Forty-three were enrolled in universities.

The "most important factor for radicalization" were friends, the study found. In 114 cases, they had a significant effect on those who headed off to join the jihad. Indeed, a jihadist's circle of friends was found to be more important than the work of recruiters or radical preachers in Salafist mosques. In two-thirds of the cases, the Internet played a role in the radicalization process.

The report, which was commissioned by the Interior Ministry, conspicuously lacks ideas for how to address the growing number of fanatical Islamists. The fact that it took more than a year for the vast majority to become radicalized -- theoretically providing sufficient time to intervene -- offers a glimmer of hope. But family members, non-Islamist friends, teachers or social workers only rarely notice the subtle changes occurring in those close to them as they become more radical.

'I Love Allah More'

Ismail I. marks something of an exception -- his transformation took place extremely rapidly. He will likely become the next German to answer before a court for allegedly having joined the jihad in Syria. The trial is set to begin in Stuttgart at the end of October.

The Lebanese-born 24-year-old hasn't had much success in his life. He was able to receive his high school diploma, albeit at a lower-tier Realschule, but was unable to find a traineeship afterwards. Drugs and truancy led to his expulsion from a vocational college, after which he worked for short stints at a bakery and at a KFC in Stuttgart. His marriage only lasted a few months.

Ismail I. then became acquainted with several significant figures in the German Salafist scene, including the preacher Sven Lau, who recently made headlines by sending a "Sharia Police" out on patrol in Wuppertal. After taking part in a pilgrimage with Lau, Ismail I. is thought to have flown from Düsseldorf to the Turkish city of Gaziantep on Aug. 22, 2013. From there, he took a bus to the Syrian border. He left a letter behind for his family reading: "I love you, but I love Allah more."

In Syria, he allegedly joined Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, a Chechen-dominated group of Islamist fighters that merged into Islamic State over the course of last year.

In the autumn of 2013, Ismail I. apparently flew back to Stuttgart at the group's behest. There, he went on a shopping spree for the war, buying large amounts of camouflage clothing, night-vision devices, scalpels and Celox, a drug which slows bleeding. For €850, he also purchased an old station wagon that he and a helper planned to use to drive his purchases back to Syria. But they didn't get very far. They were arrested on Nov. 13 at an Autobahn rest area between Stuttgart and Ulm.

The case of Ismail I. illustrates the challenge facing the German judiciary as it addresses the muddled Syrian civil war 3,000 kilometers away. Several different groups, subgroups and sub-subgroups are involved in the fight there and it isn't easy to tell which ones are affiliated with Islamic State.

Federal prosecutors, who charged Ismail I. in May, must conduct precise investigations. They are responsible for all cases having to do with crimes committed in connection with membership in or support of a foreign terror organization.

'Unique Challenges'

History has shown that many such trials last more than a year. Officially, the federal prosecutor's office describes them as "unique challenges for criminal investigations." Unofficially, federal prosecutors recently sounded the alarm in the Justice Ministry -- if the number of such cases continue to rise, the office will sooner or later be overwhelmed.

In Kreshnik B.'s case, a deal is in the works which could provide some relief to all involved. The court this week indicated that Kreshnik B. may be given a lighter sentence should he provide a comprehensive confession. Ahead of the trial, his defense attorney and prosecutors reportedly met with the judge to pave the way for just such a deal. Either way, given the possibility that Kreshnik B. would be convicted under juvenile law, his sentence isn't likely to be severe. The defendant's attorney, Mutlu Günal, told SPIEGEL that he would be open to a plea bargain.

But policymakers face an even more difficult challenge than jurists when it comes to jihad tourists. Officials believe that 120 people have returned to Germany from Syria thus far, but in many cases it isn't clear what the person in question was doing in Syria -- whether they fought and, if so, for whom. Most importantly, it isn't clear in all cases whether they represent a threat now that they have returned home. The report compiled by security officials notes that only two dozen of those who have returned are "being cooperative with authorities." The others are refusing to talk -- and refusing to answer the question as to whether they intend to bring Islamic State's fight to Germany.

Domestic policymakers have recently spoken of "banning" Islamic State in Germany. But in order to do so, it has to be proven that the group has built up club-like structures here -- which it hasn't yet. Last Thursday, domestic intelligence officials from across the country held a telephone conference to discuss what rules could be put in place instead. The next day, Interior Minister de Maizière announced that all acts in support of Islamic State were banned.

Whether the ban will be effective in the fight against Islamic State activists remains to be seen. The edict will certainly be helpful in locking away individual Islamic State supporters for up to two years should they display the group's flag, use its symbols or spread its propaganda videos in the Internet. But banning Islamic State as a group isn't yet possible because the group as such doesn't exist yet in Germany. As such, de Maizière is operating in a legal gray area. "We want to nip the establishment of organized terror structures in the bud," he said last week.

'Deterrent Effect'

Another problem is the need to draw a clear line between Islamic State logos and normal symbols of Muslim belief. In individual cases, that might be tricky, one reason that the ban remained under consideration for so long. "We wanted to be sure that we wouldn't offend the religious sensibilities of Muslims," de Maizière said. He hopes the edict now issues will have a "deterrent effect."

Other proposals have gone much further. One which is particularly popular among members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats would see a provision added to the criminal code that was once used to combat Germany's left-wing terror group Rote Armee Fraktion (RAF).

"We have to once again make it criminal to solicit sympathy for terror organizations," says CDU domestic policy expert Armin Schuster. "That would likely hit Islamic State supporters in Germany the hardest."

The opposition in Berlin, however, continues to reject a further tightening of anti-terror laws. There are already "sufficient levers available to impose bans and limitations" on terrorists and their supporters, says Green Party domestic policy expert Irene Mihalic. "They just have to be forcefully applied."

By Jörg Diehl, Hubert Gude, Jörg Schindler, Fidelius Schmid and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt

 on: Today at 06:39 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad

Case against Oskar Gröning highlights Germany judiciary's Holocaust problem

With only 50 out of 6,500 SS guards at Auschwitz convicted, critics say German law has been too slow to seek justice

Ben Knight in Berlin
The Guardian, Tuesday 16 September 2014 16.19 BST

He was once called "the accountant of Auschwitz," but he is also one of the few former Nazi death camp guards to speak out against Holocaust deniers. Now, at the age of 93, he is to face trial in Germany, and his case has highlighted what some historians see as the failure of the German judiciary to bring Holocaust perpetrators to justice.

From 1942 to 1944, Oskar Gröning counted money taken from the luggage of murdered Jews and sent it back to SS headquarters in Berlin. He also stood guard as the transports of human beings entered the camp.

That much has long been known, not least because he himself described his experiences to the media, but it has taken a new investigation, carried out by Germany's central office for the investigation of Nazi crimes in Ludwigsburg, for charges to be brought against him. In February this year, the office searched the homes of several former members of the SS across Germany. Of these, Gröning is the only one to have been pronounced fit enough to stand trial.

For what state prosecutors called "legal and evidence reasons", Gröning's formal charges relate only to two months of his time at the camp – 16 May to 11 July 1944, the time of the so-called Hungary Operation, when "around 425,000 people from Hungary arrived at the camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau", of whom "at least 300,000 found their deaths in the gas chambers". Gröning has therefore been charged with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder.

Gröning caught public attention in 2005 when he appeared in the BBC documentary Auschwitz: The Nazis and the 'Final Solution', in which he described how being confronted by Holocaust deniers had led to him to speak out. "I see it as my task now, at my age, to face up to these things that I experienced, and to oppose the Holocaust deniers who claim that Auschwitz never happened," he said. "I saw the crematoria, I saw the burning pits."

But Gröning also denied his culpability, telling Der Spiegel magazine in the same year: "Accomplice would almost be too much for me. I would describe my role as a small cog in the gears. If you can describe that as guilt, then I am guilty, but not voluntarily. Legally speaking, I am innocent."

State prosecutors disagree – but only now. Despite high-profile trials in Nuremberg just after the war, and Frankfurt in 1964, the German judiciary has been notoriously sluggish about punishing those directly involved in the Holocaust. A previous case against Gröning himself was dropped for lack of evidence by Frankfurt prosecutors in 1985. The historian Andreas Eichmüller once calculated that of the 6,500 SS members who worked at Auschwitz and survived the war, only 49 had ever been convicted.

Jörg Friedrich, a historian and author of Acquittal for Nazi Justice: The Sentencing of National Socialist Judges since 1948, challenges the view that the German judiciary dragged its heels. "There were hundreds of thousands of investigations, kilometres of investigation documents," he told the Guardian. "I don't know of any state that did the same … A compromise had to be drawn between assimilation and prosecution, and I think Germany was a success in both cases."

The legal difficulty is in defining individual guilt; attempts to convict other SS members have failed in the past because they could not be linked to specific murders. Ingo Müller, law professor and author of Terrible Lawyers: the Past Our Judiciary Has Not Overcome, thinks this is a historical failure. "Just participating in the Holocaust doesn't count," he told the Guardian.

But Müller thinks that it is long past time that a German court recognised the Holocaust itself as a crime. "If two or three more people were to be convicted – they don't actually have to go to prison, they can stay in their old people's homes – it would have a symbolic effect," said Müller.

"We can't just let it stand that the German judiciary says participating in the Holocaust is not a crime. But I'm very sceptical that there will ever be another conviction."

 on: Today at 06:37 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad

French chefs fight to put songbird back on menu

Michelin-starred cooks request annual waiver to serve ortolan, which diners devour while covering their faces with a napkin

Reuters in Paris
The Guardian, Tuesday 16 September 2014 17.58 BST   

Four French chefs are requesting a waiver to serve a long-banned delicacy – a small songbird called the ortolan that fans including one of the country's former presidents used to devour, bones and all, while wearing a napkin over their heads.

The request for the once-a-year waiver is being lodged by, among others, Alain Ducasse, the internationally acclaimed chef, Le Parisien newspaper reported. The ortolan, which is little bigger than a child's hand, has been banned from menus in much of Europe since 1999.

The seed-eating bird is believed to have been part of François Mitterrand's last meal before he died in 1996. One customary way of preparing ortolan consists of force-feeding it until fat and dousing it in Armagnac brandy before roasting it whole in the oven.

Fans often wear a large, usually white, napkin over their head while eating. Some say it serves to conceal them while they spit out bones, some say the headgear seals in aromas, while others say it serves to fend off the shame of being seen by God eating a songbird.

The request for the right to serve ortolan one day or one weekend a year would be lodged in coming days with the French authorities, Le Parisien newspaper cited Michel Guerard, another chef with three Michelin stars, as saying.

A representative for Ducasse did not immediately answer a request for comment.

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