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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1009697 times)
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« Reply #12780 on: Apr 01, 2014, 07:26 AM »

Guinea faces Ebola epidemic on unprecedented scale, doctors warn

Médecins sans Frontières says lethal virus has broken out in areas hundreds of miles apart, while death toll passes 80

Reuters in Conakry, Monday 31 March 2014 16.33 BST   
Guinea faces an Ebola epidemic on an unprecedented scale as it battles to contain confirmed cases now scattered across several locations that are far apart, the medical charity Médecins sans Frontières said.

The warning from an organisation used to tackling Ebola in central Africa came after Guinea's president appealed for calm as the number of deaths linked to an outbreak on the border with Liberia and Sierra Leone passed 80.

The outbreak of one of the world's most lethal infectious diseases has alarmed a number of governments with weak health systems, prompting Senegal to close its border with Guinea and other neighbours to restrict travel and cross-border exchanges.

Figures released overnight by Guinea's health ministry showed that there had been 78 deaths from 122 cases of suspected Ebola since January, up from 70. Of these, there were 22 laboratory-confirmed cases of Ebola, the ministry said.

"We are facing an epidemic of a magnitude never before seen in terms of the distribution of cases in the country," said Mariano Lugli, the co-ordinator of Médecins sans Frontières' project in Conakry, the capital of Guinea.

The organisation said on Monday it had been involved in dealing with nearly all other recent Ebola outbreaks, mostly in remote parts of central African nations, but Guinea is fighting to contain the disease in numerous locations, some of which are hundreds of miles apart.

"This geographical spread is worrisome because it will greatly complicate the tasks of the organisations working to control the epidemic," Lugli added.

The outbreak of Ebola – a virus which has a fatality rate of up to 90% – has centred on Guinea's south-east. But it took authorities six weeks to identify the disease, allowing it to spread over borders and to more populated areas.

Cases were confirmed in Conakry last week, bringing the disease – previously limited to remote, lightly populated areas – to a sprawling Atlantic Ocean port of two million people.

Guinea's president, Alpha Condé, appealed for calm late on Sunday. "My government and I are very worried about this epidemic," he said, ordering Guineans to take strict precautions to avoid the further spread of the disease.

"I also call on people not to give in to panic or believe the rumours that are fuelling people's fears," he added.

Liberia has recorded seven suspected and confirmed cases, including four deaths, the World Health Organisation said. Sierra Leone has reported five suspected cases, none of which have been confirmed yet.

Brima Kargbo, Sierra Leone's chief medical officer, said a screening process had been introduced on the country's northern border with Guinea. Travellers are being asked where they are coming from and whether they or anyone they had been in contact with had fallen ill, he said.

Senegal, another neighbour of Guinea, closed its land border over the weekend and has suspended weekly markets near the border to prevent the spread of the disease.

The regional airline Gambia Bird delayed the launch of services to Conakry, due to start on Sunday, because of the outbreak.

If the deaths are all confirmed as Ebola, a disease that leads to vomiting, diarrhoea and external bleeding, it would be the most deadly epidemic since 187 people died in Luebo, in Congo's Kasai-Occidental province, in 2007.

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« Reply #12781 on: Apr 01, 2014, 07:27 AM »

Kenya Police Arrest More than 650 after Bomb Blasts

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 15:52

Kenyan police have arrested more than 650 suspects a day after six people were killed in bomb attacks in the capital Nairobi, the interior minister said Tuesday, in a crackdown on suspected Islamist insurgents.

"This act of cowardice perpetrated against innocent and peace-loving Kenyans who were going about their normal activities is barbaric," Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku said in a statement.

"So far 657 suspects have been apprehended," he added.

Kenyan police regularly arrest scores of people after similar attacks in sweeping security operations, but later release most after questioning.

The three blasts on Monday evening targeted two small restaurants and a local clinic in a particularly densely populated area of Eastleigh, an area often known as Little Mogadishu because of its predominantly Somali population.

No one has claimed responsibility for the blasts, but Eastleigh has in recent years been the scene of several explosions usually attributed by the police to Islamist extremists.

The attack comes a week after six people died when assailants burst into a church near the port city of Mombasa and opened fire on worshipers.

Kenyan authorities last month ordered all refugees, most of them Somalis, to report to two overcrowded camps, a move criticized by rights groups and the United Nations.

However, police argue the move is necessary for security.

Kenya has been hit by a series of attacks since sending troops into southern Somalia in October 2011 to battle Al-Qaida-linked Shebab insurgents.

The Islamists claimed responsibility for the most deadly attack, in which they laid siege to Nairobi's upmarket shopping mall Westgate in September, killing at least 67.

The Shebab have warned Kenya of renewed attacks, with Kenyan troops taking part in a renewed African Union military advance on bases of the insurgents in Somalia.

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« Reply #12782 on: Apr 01, 2014, 07:29 AM »

U.N. Ready to Help Evacuate 19,000 Muslims in C.Africa

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 15:19

The U.N.'s refugee agency said Tuesday it was prepared to help evacuate some 19,000 Muslims at risk of attack from mainly Christian militias in the conflict-torn Central African Republic.

"What we don't want is to stand by and watch people being slaughtered," UNHCR spokeswoman Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba told reporters in Geneva.

She pointed out that so-called anti-balaka militias controlled major routes to and from Bangui as well as a number of towns and villages in the southwestern part of the country.

They posed a particular threat to Muslims in the PK12 neighborhood of the capital, in Boda, Carnot and Berberati to the west and Bossangoa further north, she said, lamenting that "we fear for the lives of 19,000 Muslims in those locations".

"UNHCR stands ready to assist with their evacuation to safer areas within or outside of the country," she said, pointing out that so far "the only thing keeping them from being killed right now is the presence of (international) troops".

U.N. staff were heading to the town of Bemal in the north Tuesday to discuss possibly relocating Muslims there, but Lejeune-Kaba said it was difficult, since locals feared welcoming evacuees could attract unrest to their area.

The chronically unstable Central African Republic sank into chaos after the mainly Muslim Seleka rebels who had helped topple president Francois Bozize a year ago refused to lay down their arms and went rogue.

Their campaign of killing, raping and looting prompted members of the Christian majority to form the anti-balaka vigilante groups, which are also accused of atrocities.

Around 8,000 international troops are working to contain the crisis in the former French colony, where more than 2,000 people have been killed since December.

At the height of the crisis in December and January, more than a quarter of the country's 4.6 million people had fled their homes.

A new surge in bloodshed has forced nearly 16,000 people from their homes in the capital since early last week alone, Lejeune-Kaba said.

According to UNHCR numbers, 637,000 people in total are now displaced inside the country, including 207,000 in Bangui, while 82,000 mostly Muslim Central Africans had streamed into neighboring countries in the past three months.

The increase in violence has claimed more than 60 lives in the capital since March 22, Cecile Pouilly, spokeswoman for the U.N.'s human rights office, told reporters Tuesday.

She pointed especially to a grenade attack on a funeral service in Bangui that claimed at least 20 lives on March 27, and to the 24 people killed on Saturday by Chadian soldiers.

"It appears that Chadian soldiers fired indiscriminately at a crowd following an incident," she said, stressing that her office was "still trying to confirm the exact affiliation of these soldiers".

Pouilly also said she expected a U.N. team of investigators on the ground in the country to probe allegations that Chadian soldiers supporting the Seleka have been targeting Christians.

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« Reply #12783 on: Apr 01, 2014, 07:55 AM »

One Dead and 40 Injured in Bolivia Mining Clashes

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 08:46

One person died and 40 were injured Monday in Bolivia in clashes between miners and police, officials said.

Miners are disputing a bill under debate in parliament that would deny them the right to work for foreign companies, as opposed to just state-owned ones.

The toll of one miner dead was reported by Interior Minister Carlos Romero.

Mining officials said two miners were killed, but this could not be immediately confirmed.

Romero said many police were injured by blasts from dynamite sticks hurled by miners.

Protests began early in the day with highways blocked in the Andean mountain departments of La Paz, Oruro, Cochabamba and Potosi.

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« Reply #12784 on: Apr 01, 2014, 07:59 AM »

Methane-spewing microbe blamed for Earth’s worst mass extinction

By Reuters
Monday, March 31, 2014 16:20 EDT
By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Sometimes bad things come in small packages.

A microbe that spewed humongous amounts of methane into Earth’s atmosphere triggered a global catastrophe 252 million years ago that wiped out upwards of 90 percent of marine species and 70 percent of land vertebrates.

That’s the hypothesis offered on Monday by researchers aiming to solve one of science’s enduring mysteries: what happened at the end of the Permian period to cause the worst of the five mass extinctions in Earth’s history.

The scale of this calamity made the one that doomed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago – a six-mile wide asteroid smacking the planet – seem like a picnic by comparison.

The implicated microbe, Methanosarcina, is a member of a kingdom of single-celled organisms distinct from bacteria called archaea that lack a nucleus and other usual cell structures.

“I would say that the end-Permian extinction is the closest animal life has ever come to being totally wiped out, and it may have come pretty close,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist Greg Fournier, one of the researchers.

“Many, if not most, of the surviving groups of organisms barely hung on, with only a few species making it through, many probably by chance,” Fournier added.

Previous ideas proposed for the Permian extinction include an asteroid and large-scale volcanism. But these researchers suggest a microscope would be needed to find the actual culprit.

Methanosarcina grew in a frenzy in the seas, disgorging huge quantities of methane into Earth’s atmosphere, they said.

This dramatically heated up the climate and fundamentally altered the chemistry of the oceans by driving up acid levels, causing unlivable conditions for many species, they added.

The horseshoe crab-like trilobites and the sea scorpions – denizens of the seas for hundreds of millions of years – simply vanished. Other marine groups barely avoided oblivion including common creatures called ammonites with tentacles and a shell.

On land, most of the dominant mammal-like reptiles died, with the exception of a handful of lineages including the ones that were the ancestors of modern mammals including people.


“Land vertebrates took as long as 30 million years to reach the same levels of biodiversity as before the extinction, and afterwards life in the oceans and on land was radically changed, dominated by very different groups of animals,” Fournier said.

The first dinosaurs appeared 20 million years after the Permian mass extinction.

“One important point is that the natural environment is sensitive to the evolution of microbial life,” said Daniel Rothman, an MIT geophysics professor who led the study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The best example of that, Rothman said, was the advent about 2.5 billion years ago of bacteria engaging in photosynthesis, which paved the way for the later appearance of animals by belching fantastic amounts of oxygen into Earth’s atmosphere.

Methanosarcina is still found today in places like oil wells, trash dumps and the guts of animals like cows.

It already existed before the Permian crisis. But genetic evidence indicates it acquired a unique new quality at that time through a process known as “gene transfer” from another microbe, the researchers said.

It suddenly became a major producer of methane through the consumption of accumulated organic carbon in ocean sediments.

The microbe would have been unable to proliferate so wildly without proper mineral nutrients. The researchers found that cataclysmic volcanic eruptions that occurred at that time in Siberia drove up ocean concentrations of nickel, a metallic element that just happens to facilitate this microbe’s growth.

Fournier called volcanism a catalyst instead of a cause of mass extinction — “the detonator rather than the bomb itself.”

“As small as an individual microorganism is, their sheer abundance and ubiquity make for a huge cumulative impact. On a geochemical level, they really do run the planet,” he said.

The Permian mass extinction unfolded during tens of thousands of years and was not the sudden die-off that an asteroid impact might cause, the researchers said.

The most famous of Earth’s mass extinctions occurred 65 million years ago when an asteroid impact wiped out the dinosaurs that ruled the land and many marine species. There also were huge die-offs 440 million years ago, 365 million years ago and 200 million years ago.

(Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by James Dalgleish)

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« Reply #12785 on: Apr 01, 2014, 08:20 AM »

In the USA....United Surveillance America

Report: CIA Misled Congress over Interrogation Program

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 06:42

A damning Senate report concluded that the CIA misled Congress and the American public by downplaying the severity of its interrogations and overstating intelligence gleaned from the sessions, The Washington Post said Monday.

Several officials familiar with the classified 6,300-page document, years in the making, said it detailed the brutality of an enhanced interrogation program that yielded little actionable intelligence beyond what was already obtained from detainees before they were subjected to the objectionable techniques.

"The CIA described (its program) repeatedly both to the Department of Justice and eventually to Congress as getting unique, otherwise unobtainable intelligence that helped disrupt terrorist plots and save thousands of lives," a U.S. official briefed on the document told the daily.

"Was that actually true? The answer is no."

Officials also spoke of the abuses undertaken within the vast system of secret detention sites to which terror suspects were taken and interrogated.

The abuse often took place under brutal conditions, including the previously undisclosed method of repeatedly dunking suspects in ice water -- until President Barack Obama ordered the system dismantled in 2009.

Classified files reviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigators, who put together the report, showed that CIA employees left the agency's secret black site in Thailand, disturbed by the abuses that were being administered there.

Officials at CIA headquarters ordered the harsh interrogation techniques to continue "even after analysts were convinced that prisoners had no more information to give," the Post said.

The records were said to make it clear that the CIA obtaining key intelligence against al-Qaeda, including information that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, had little to do with the so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques."

One official said nearly the entirety of valuable threat-related information from al-Qaeda operative Abu Zubaida, captured in Pakistan in 2002, was obtained during questioning by an FBI agent while Zubaida was in hospital in Pakistan -- before he was interrogated by the CIA, whose agents waterboarded him 83 times.

The explosive account comes as Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein pushes to get parts of the report declassified and made public.

Her committee is expected to vote Thursday on whether to send the report's executive summary and key conclusions and recommendations, a total of about 400 pages, to the White House for declassification.

Committee staffers spent countless hours pouring over more than six million pages of documents in collating what has become one of the most comprehensive oversight projects in congressional history.

Their report has caused a deep rift between the intelligence agencies and the Senate panel tasked with conducting oversight of the spy activities, with each side accusing the other of potentially criminal violations related to accessing computer systems used during the investigation.


Chemical industry-funded senators want to hide chemical industry funding of studies

By Travis Gettys
Monday, March 31, 2014 13:53 EDT

Republican lawmakers who are trying to change research disclosure rules to hide corporate influence received more than $150,000 in campaign contributions from chemical companies who stand to benefit from the change.

Corporations may already submit studies they’ve paid for themselves as evidence in court or during congressional debate, but they must disclose how the research was funded to reveal any possible conflicts of interest.

However, this nod toward transparency apparently imposed too great a burden on the silica industry, which wanted to provide Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) with research that found its products to be safe.

OSHA chief David Michaels wants to update guidelines for working with silica dust, a significant hazard for construction workers and others exposed to the industrial byproduct that can cause lung cancer and other deadly diseases.

“What I’m doing here is essentially saying the information that we will base our standard on has to be of the highest integrity, and we have to do it in a transparent manner, and conflict-of interest disclosure is an important component of both of those,” said Michaels, an Obama appointee. “It would be surprising right now if a scientific journal didn’t ask for that information.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and 15 other Republican senators sent a letter to OSHA objecting to the agency’s insistence that any evidence submissions include funding sources.

“Disclosing the funding sources of commenters who submit scientific or technical research raises questions about whether OSHA will use that information to prejudge the substance of those comments and could result in dissuading stakeholders from even submitting comments,” the senators said in the letter.

An Alexander staffer went further, suggesting the requirement would limit debate.

“The chilling effect the financial disclosure could have seems counter to the idea of robust inclusion of a diverse set of ideas and views to inform the rule-making,” said Alexander spokeswoman Liz Wolgemuth.

As The Daily Beast points out, any brief filed in federal court must include a disclosure of interest by those making the arguments, and senators must disclose any campaign contribution over $200.

The campaign contribution requirement allowed to reveal those 16 lawmakers – who comprise nearly one-third of Senate Republicans – had received $151,266 between July 24 and Nov. 16, when the letter was written, from companies that opposed new OSHA regulations on silica dust.


Supreme Court wary of major change to software patent law

By Reuters
Monday, March 31, 2014 15:48 EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court justices stepped gingerly into a raging debate over computer software on Monday, voicing concerns about vaguely defined patents but signaling they would avoid any radical change to existing law.

This may help tech companies fend off lawsuits filed by “patent trolls,” defined as companies that hold patents only for the purpose of suing firms seeking to develop new products, but not as much as a broad ruling would.

For companies holding many patents, such as IBM Corp, a narrow ruling from the court would be better than a broader decision that tightened patent eligibility.

From their questions during an hour-long oral argument, the justices appeared likely to rule, as expected, that patents held by Australian company Alice Corp Pty Ltd for a computer system that facilitates financial transactions were not patent eligible. CLS Bank International, which uses similar technology, challenged the patents in 2007.

Although some of the nine justices signaled a willingness to go further and provide new guidance to lower courts that would describe exactly what types of computer-implemented inventions were patent eligible, others suggested there was no need for so broad a ruling. A ruling is expected by the end of June.

If the court were to avoid any major pronouncements, the outcome could mirror a 2010 case, Bilski v. Kappos, in which the court was expected to offer guidance on business method patents but eventually issued a relatively narrow 9-0 decision.


Chief Justice John Roberts questioned whether a proposed test, suggested by Solicitor General Donald Verrilli on behalf of President Barack Obama’s administration, would make the complex issue any clearer.

“I’m just doubtful that’s going to bring about greater clarity and certainty,” Roberts said of the proposal.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor also suggested the court might steer clear of the broader question.

“Why do we have to … reach software patents at all in this case?” she asked Verrilli.

The case is being closely watched by a broad swath of companies in the technology sector and beyond.

Google Inc, Dell Inc, Verizon Communications Inc, Microsoft Corp, and Hewlett-Packard Co were among a large list of companies that filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of CLS. A smaller number, including engine manufacturer Cummins Inc, supported Alice, while others, like IBM, supported neither side.

Companies vary over what kind of eligibility threshold they would prefer. Those that often get sued for patent infringement, such as Google, favor a tighter definition. Those that want to protect their many patents, such as IBM, would prefer that most software be patent eligible.


In May 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., ruled for CLS but the judges were split 5-5 on which legal test to adopt.

On the patents contested in the case, several justices, including Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, suggested they appeared to be too abstract to be eligible for patents. Previous Supreme Court rulings have said abstract ideas are generally not eligible for patents unless the inventor shows a way of applying the idea.

Making references to ancient Greek inventor Archimedes and other historical figures, Justice Stephen Breyer was one of the court members who appeared keen on a ruling that would have broad application.

On the one hand, he noted, patent eligibility that is too broad creates monopolies and reduces competition down to “who has the best patent lawyer.” On the other hand, if patent eligibility is too strict, it could “rule out real inventions with computers,” he added.

The case is Alice Corp v. CLS Bank, U.S. Supreme Court, 13-298

(Editing by Howard Goller and Grant McCool)


Republicans vow to repeal Obamacare, even as White House claims enrollment goal exceeded

By Reuters
Tuesday, April 1, 2014 6:13 EDT

The White House said Monday that it expects final enrollment numbers for private health care insurance under the Affordable Care Act in 2014 to be “substantially larger” than 6 million after a busy final weekend of in-person and online signups.

“Here on the last day of enrollment, we’re looking at a number substantially larger than 6 million people enrolled,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, noting he was not sure when the government would be able to release its final enrollment figures.

The White House also said it has resolved a glitch affecting that temporarily prevented new users from accessing application and enrollment tools around midday, as website traffic volumes surged hours before a midnight deadline to enroll in private health insurance.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is responsible for implementing the healthcare law, said those who were already in the system were able to complete the enrollment process.

More than 6 million people had signed up for private health coverage through the new Obamacare insurance markets by last week, surpassing a target set after a disastrous October rollout called the enrollment process into question.

With daily volumes continuing to surge, analysts believe the final tally could approach or even exceed an original goal of 7 million.

“We admittedly had just a terrible start because the website wasn’t working, and despite losing effectively two months, we are going to be reasonably close to that original projection,” Obama said in a CBS Evening News interview that was taped last week and broadcast on Monday.

A successful enrollment would give an important political boost to the administration and its Democratic allies, who are locked in an election year battle with Republicans over the future of Obamacare.

“No one expected us to come back from the brink,” Carney told reporters before the broadcast. “But we have. And I think that merits noting in your reports.”

Analysts say the total enrollment is less important than the number of healthy policyholders in the marketplaces, which have probably attracted large numbers of older people and consumers with pre-existing medical conditions, who are costlier to insure.

Obama told CBS that young people, who are generally healthy, were signing up in larger numbers late in the enrollment period, as expected.

Last-minute rush

In Houston on Monday, prospective enrollees again lined the sidewalks outside special city offices in hopes of obtaining private insurance coverage that comes with federal subsidies for low-income people.

“It’s madness. But it’s good madness,” said Tiffany Hogue, statewide healthcare campaign coordinator for the nonprofit Texas Organizing Project, which is helping with the 11th-hour enrollment drive in the state.

People also crowded health centers across Florida as navigators and others trained to assist with online enrollment struggled with’s access problems. Compounding the website’s challenges were long waits at a federal call center set up as an alternative route to coverage, according to health center officials.

“It’s been very, very, very busy. But the website issues haven’t been bad, and people realize they’ve waited until the last minute,” said Andrew Behrman, chief executive officer of the Florida Association of Community Health Centers, which represents facilities in nearly 350 locations.

“What can I tell you? It’s like a last-minute sale,” he added.

Texas and Florida, whose political leaders reject Obamacare, have the biggest uninsured populations among the 36 states served by The remaining 14 states, including California and New York, have set up their own insurance marketplaces.

Virtual waiting room’s performance on the final day of a six-month enrollment period was delayed until 8 a.m. EDT after a government tech team noticed a software bug and extended an overnight maintenance schedule to deal with the problem.

A few hours later, new users logging on to the federal website that serves consumers in 36 states were suddenly unable to create accounts and begin the enrollment process as volume reached what administration officials called record levels. By early afternoon, officials reported the issue resolved.

“Record traffic continues before the midnight ET deadline. As of 2 p.m., had more than 1.6 million visits. As of 4 p.m., there were more than 840,000 calls to the call center,” said Joanne Peters, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

She said the day’s high volumes triggered the system’s virtual waiting room, a holding page where people can wait to be let into the website.

The call center volume shattered the previous record of 646,000 for Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services call centers, which occurred on Medicare Part D’s last day to enroll on May 15, 2006.

As enrollment has gathered pace, opinion polls have shown public opinion on Obamacare sharply split, with the law slowly gaining favor. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll on Monday said 49 percent of Americans now support the law, up from 40 percent in November. The latest data has a 3.5 percentage-point margin of error.

Republicans continued to pour scorn on Obamacare as a mistake that would harm consumers and small businesses.

“Republicans will continue to work to repeal this law,” House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said in statement.

“We’re achieving something today that I know has our critics gnashing their teeth,” Carney, the White House spokesman, said of the law’s political opponents. “It leaves them with the need to go back to the drawing board when it comes to other means of trying to attack.”

The system’s data services hub, which connects to federal agencies, remained fully operational, allowing people already in the system to complete their enrollment, she said.

The delays occurred as healthcare reform faced a crucial test to see how many people sign up for new insurance under the Obamacare marketplaces.

Americans have until midnight on Monday to obtain health insurance under Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or face fines. The administration has softened the deadline to accommodate those who attempt to apply for coverage by Monday night but run into technology issues.

The administration said the website “has handled record consumer demand well. Over the weekend, the site saw 2 million visits,” the government said, and more than 8.7 million visits during the past week.’s consumer-facing technology has worked more or less smoothly since December following an emergency overhaul ordered by the White House. However, there are still some parts of the back-end systems that remain unbuilt.


Ryan Unsuited to Lead ‘Adult Conversation’ About Poverty

March 29, 2014
by Greg Kaufmann

House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) takes part in a San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce event, Thursday, January 23, 2014, in San Antonio. Ryan said House Republicans will tackle immigration reform in pieces rather than the Senate's comprehensive approach. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

These days, a favorite talking point of Republican Congressman Paul Ryan’s is calling for an “adult conversation” about poverty.

“It’s time for an adult conversation,” he told The Washington Post.

“If we actually have an adult conversation,” he said in remarks at the Brookings Institution, “I think we can make a difference.”

The problem is that a prerequisite for any adult conversation is telling the truth and it is there the congressman falls monumentally short.
In addition to Rep. Ryan’s recent, racially-coded comments about “our inner cities” where “generations of men [are] not even thinking about working,” his rhetoric around policy should raise red flags for anyone — including the media — assessing his credibility.

In addition to Rep. Ryan’s recent, racially-coded comments about “our inner cities” where “generations of men [are] not even thinking about working,” his rhetoric around policy should raise red flags for anyone — including the media — assessing his credibility.

A report from Emily Oshima Lee, policy analyst at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, examines the hatchet job Rep. Ryan did on Medicaid in his 204-page account of antipoverty programs that The Washington Post generously described as a “critique.” Indeed, Ryan’s report — which would have been flagged by my excellent 10th grade English teacher for misrepresenting and cherry-picking data — is a dangerous disservice to a public which has neither the time nor the staff that Ryan has at his disposal to delve into literature assessing antipoverty programs.

Lee notes that Ryan misuses research to imply that Medicaid coverage leads to poorer health — that people enrolled in Medicaid will have worse health than those with private insurance and the uninsured.

“The privately insured comparison is patently unfair because these people tend to be higher income and that comes with a whole host of health privileges,” said Lee.

She notes that Medicaid enrollees tend to struggle a lot more with chronic conditions and illnesses than other populations.

“A large body of literature identifies various social determinants of health, including socioeconomic status and living and work environments, as risk factors for poor health outcomes,” writes Lee, in my opinion admirably resisting the temptation to add, “duh.”

As for the uninsured being healthier — it would be one thing if Ryan were making an “apples to apples” comparison, but he’s not.

“The uninsured is a diverse group and doesn’t only include low-income individuals. It may include people who are high-income and don’t really want insurance but can afford health services, and lower-income people who may not have previously enrolled in insurance for a number of reasons — including cost and not having any real health issues,” Lee says. “But again, to imply that Medicaid is somehow making people worse off is absurd.”

Ryan also argues that Medicaid coverage has little positive effect on enrollees’ health. But as Lee points out, Ryan conveniently overlooks studies showing an association between Medicaid and lower mortality rates; reduced low-weight births and infant and child mortality; and lower mortality for HIV-positive patients, among other heath benefits.

“In general, we need more data to accurately assess the effect of Medicaid coverage on people’s health,” Lee continues. “But several studies do indicate positive health and non-health effects of coverage — such as increased use of preventive care and greater financial security.”
Despite Ryan’s shabby work when it comes to antipoverty policy, the media repeatedly seems willing to overlook it.

Rep. Ryan also plays on fears of low-income people abusing the welfare system when he asserts that Medicaid coverage improperly increases enrollees’ use of health care services, including preventive care and emergency department services. Ryan makes this case too by comparing Medicaid enrollees to uninsured people, who, as Lee writes, “are less likely to use health care services due to significant financial barriers.”

“Presenting data that Medicaid enrollees use more health services than the uninsured affirms that insurance coverage allows people who need care to seek it out,” writes Lee, “and that being uninsured is a major barrier to receiving important medical care.”

Further, one of the two studies Ryan references explicitly states that “neither theory nor existing evidence provides a definitive answer to… whether we should expect increases or decreases in emergency-department use when Medicaid expands.”

Despite Ryan’s shabby work when it comes to antipoverty policy, the media repeatedly seems willing to overlook it. That’s another strike against the prospects of a truly adult conversation about poverty — in addition to honesty, it requires accountability.


John Kerry: The Hardest Working Man in the Diplomacy Business

By: Becky Sarwate
Tuesday, April, 1st, 2014, 9:10 am   

While CNN busies itself covering every non-development in the search for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 (I never thought I’d say this, but I miss Newt Gingrich. He makes for amazing treadmill grist.), the world continues to turn. And as much of the nation’s news apparatus is rightfully preoccupied with a triumphant conclusion to Obamacare’s first enrollment test, it’s been another busy week for foreign policy.

Such is one of the many perversities plaguing the Obama era. Every time the beleaguered POTUS wants to shine the spotlight on domestic issues, international unrest just won’t have it. Thankfully, he has arguably the modern era’s most unflappable State Department leader by his side. There seems to be no number of hairy, potentially history changing crises that Kerry cannot attack at once.

Secretary of State John Kerry is a busy fellow. Last week the former Presidential candidate was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for what I am sure were tense discussions regarding the years-long Syrian conflict, ongoing negotiations with Iran and a host of other topics. Apparently a glutton for punishment, Kerry was halfway home this past weekend before turning his plane around and heading for Paris.

According to a report from Matthew Lee of the Associated Press, “Kerry [was] to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Sunday evening at the Russian ambassador’s residence. Kerry spoke to Lavrov on the flight to Shannon after President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in a call on Friday to have their foreign ministers meet to discuss a possible diplomatic resolution to the Ukraine situation.”

Seriously, if the only channel one watches is CNN, it’s easy to become transfixed by the Flight 370 black box countdown and Richard Quest’s virtuoso ability to make floating jellyfish sound like a break in the search. But change the station. There’s plenty of other stuff not happening.

John Kerry is definitely the ‘don’t put off until tomorrow that which can be done today’ sort. I like this Kerry, the urgent, sincere, and dare I say bold Secretary who can juggle multiple serious imbroglios without misplacing a strand of that lovely silver hair. Would that he had been half so interesting in 2004.

Apparently opposed to a good night’s rest, Kerry was up and at it early Monday morning. According to a report from Shira Schoenberg of The Republican, “As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry jetted to Israel on Monday in an attempt to revive faltering peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Israeli members of parliament visiting Boston reacted with mixed emotions, ranging from cautious optimism to strong pessimism.” That’s right. Kerry can mix it up with naysaying Israeli lawmakers talking to the press on two different continents. Boom.

And because North Korea needs to make sure the world still knows it exists every few months, the communist nation exchanged fire with its neighbor to the South in the early part of the week. While North Korea’s aggression in the event, according to Kashmira Gander of The Independent, is attributable to “an expression of Pyongyang’s frustration at making little progress in its recent push to secure international aid,” The White House and the State Department are expected to formulate some type of official response. Kerry’s got this.

Obviously some of my remarks have been semi-serious, but my respect for John Kerry’s energy and leadership is completely genuine. Others might have deemed following the celebrity and competence of Hilary Clinton’s turn in the Cabinet a daunting task not worth the undertaking. But Kerry accepted the challenge and even afterward, could easily have chosen to play it safe. Instead, with everything else on his international plate (and by extension ours), the man continues fighting the good two-nation, Israeli/Palestine fight. He seems completely unburdened by previous decades of failure to achieve a solution, and if he doubts his own eventual success, it doesn’t show.

I don’t mean to suggest that the combustible situations unfolding across the globe aren’t deadly serious. They are and it’s precisely because so much is at stake in so many regions that I am grateful for Kerry’s cool-headed, thoughtful, yet unwavering direction. He may not know it all, but he’s a thinker, a statesman, not a trigger happy cowboy. I think he’s found his calling.


John Boehner’s Shafting Of the Unemployed Has Cost The Economy Nearly $5 Billion

By: Sarah Jones
Monday, March, 31st, 2014, 12:54 pm   

Chalk another “success” up for House Republicans in their jihad against the economic recovery. They’ve caused the economy to lose nearly $5 billion since they refused to renew extended unemployment compensation for more than 2.2 million Americans. Mind you, this $5 billion isn’t all that House Republicans have irresponsibly and for partisan political purposes cost the US taxpayer, as their IRS witch hunts, Benghazi hearings, and ObamaCare repeal votes and hearings haven’t exactly been cheap.

The U.S. economy has lost $4.7 billion ($4,698,892,545 to be exact – see the breakdown below) in the first three months of the year due to the Dec. 28 expiration of federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation, according to an analysis released today Monday by Ways and Means Committee Democrats.

Sandy Levin (D-MI) is not impressed. He knows, like most people with at least a modicum of intelligence, that unemployment is not just for the unemployed, but it also helps to boost the economy. He wearily explained this fact again in case any Republicans were listening, “Unemployment insurance has played a vital role in our economic recovery and the program’s expiration has drained billions of dollars from state economies during the last three months.”

The Ways and Means Committee Ranking Member tried to shame the House Republicans into helping America as the Senate is, “Hundreds of thousands of jobs are at stake, as are the livelihoods of millions of Americans laid off through no fault of their own. The Senate is taking another bipartisan step on the long-road to extending this critical lifeline today and the House needs to also act to stand with job-seeking Americans.”

Last week, Senate Republicans shamed House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) over his refusal to help the economy and the jobless to no avail. So it’s sort of the Sane Senators Versus the House Republicans in a battle to the death.

But, you know, this House. They don’t want to help America, so this argument might be the wrong tact to take. It’s tough to know with modern day Republicans, between their lusting after Putin and their frat boy tweets to world leaders, just what kind of tone should be set when attempting to have policy discussions.

Anyway. The world carries on without them so here are some facts provided by the Ways and Means Committee Democrats, and yes, they are partisan but the source information is not and let us not forget, neither is the issue or the agenda. Their source is the U.S. Department of Labor, “EUC Program Activity.” Oh, wait, Republicans don’t trust the Department of Labor anymore either- something about a birth certificate or a conspiracy with Obama to fool them all or DOL boogeymen under their beds. So maybe this is just for the sane folks. Which makes it perfect. After all, before Obama, extending long term unemployment was just something Congress did because it was helpful for the economy. Now it’s suddenly a partisan thing for House Republicans.

    The state-by-state projections for the three-month period are based on the total federal unemployment insurance that Americans received in each state during the last three months of 2013. Nationwide, nearly 72,000 people are losing unemployment insurance, on average, every week – adding to the 2.2 million Americans who have already lost their benefits.

Yes, the 5 billion dollar fail is all due to their partisan poutfest over unemployment benefits. You see, the Senate has put forth a bipartisan agreement to pay for the renewal, but that’s not good enough for House Republicans, who claim some kind of bizarre moral superiority regarding fiscal responsibility, when in actuality they are tossing money into the trash just to be spiteful.

Republicans against the economy — to the death!


    Estimated Lost Unemployment Benefits in the First Three Months of 2014 Due to the Shutdown of the Federal UI Program. Projections Based on EUC spending in last quarter of 2013

    State: Projected Lost UI in Jan-March 2014 (total)

    AK $20,039,211

    AL $28,557,465

    AR $29,988,269

    AZ $37,714,686

    CA $833,962,685

    CO $75,813,813

    CT $106,893,214

    DC $18,892,695

    DE $10,107,283

    FL $192,522,606

    GA $110,330,484

    HI $11,074,540

    IA $16,627,467

    ID $8,535,176

    IL $296,763,435

    IN $59,532,967

    KS $17,111,509

    KY $66,090,769

    LA $15,782,115

    MA $253,584,916

    MD $98,358,539

    ME $11,200,990

    MI $139,441,834

    MN $5,556,506

    MO $72,598,463

    MS $26,689,495

    MT $5,392,439

    NC *

    ND $2,982,882

    NE $6,374,656

    NH $4,469,711

    NJ $365,139,763

    NM $20,780,040

    NV $70,020,706

    NY $429,605,084

    OH $147,950,008

    OK $15,098,605

    OR $78,948,135

    PA $317,877,824

    PR $43,529,465

    RI $21,694,857

    SC $36,310,567

    SD $534,052

    TN $49,830,392

    TX $259,154,093

    UT $10,533,273

    VA $33,130,689

    VI $5,704,895

    VT $2,379,886

    WA $108,835,855

    WI $75,741,838

    WV $20,177,455

    WY $2,666,641

    TOTAL $4,698,892,545

    SOURCE: U.S. Department of Labor, “EUC Program Activity.”
    NOTES: “*” indicates NC had terminated its EUC program prior to the end of 2013.


Court Case Is Just One Way Hobby Lobby Is Trying to Impose Its Beliefs

By: Rmuse
Monday, March, 31st, 2014, 10:30 am   

Dominionism (Christian Reconstructionism) is the dangerously tyrannical idea that god granted Christians the right to force either a nation governed by Christians or one governed by conservative Christian biblical law on a nation that exists primarily among evangelical fundamentalists in the United States; it is theocracy and very closely related to theonomy. Theonomy is the idea, espoused by American evangelical Christians, that Mosaic Law must be observed by all Americans under pain of death and is the exact Christian equivalent of Islamic Sharia Law the Dominionist movement has worked towards for well over twenty years.

Dominionists lust to implement a Christian theocracy to govern America along the lines of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and tearing democracy down by Republican legislation has been a slow but methodical means to institute biblical law in America.  However, Dominionists have been treated to a quicker and more permanent means to prevail by using the conservative Supreme Court to rule that Christians’ religious liberty supersedes established law, and they are giddy their objective is within their reach. The Hobby Lobby case before the High Court is a golden opportunity the company’s Christian Reconstructionist owners hope will help hasten a theocratic coup d’état in America, but it is just one avenue in the company’s multi-faceted machinations to impose their version of  Christianity on the nation.

Hobby Lobby co-founder Barbara Green said that as a good Christian corporation Hobby Lobby is not before the Supreme Court because they want to meddle with a woman’s right to take contraceptives. She said “We’re not trying to control that, we’re just trying to control our participation in it.” However, that statement is as completely deceitful and an outright lie as the company claiming they are only protecting their religious freedom and Barbara Green knows it; apparently good Christians lie with impunity if they do it in the “lord god almighty’s name.” It is beyond the pale that Green has the temerity to lie with a straight face and claim they are not meddling with a woman’s right to choose when they are attempting to use their Christianity to disregard the law and prohibit a woman’s right to use contraceptives. The Greens are on a crusade to do much more than protect their own religious freedom or dominate America’s women by heavily funding, with the Koch brothers, a political network of Christian activists deeply invested in forcing a biblical agenda into American law initially to subjugate women and put an end to equal rights for gays; dominating the rest of the population will come later.

According to a federal tax document revealed last week, Hobby Lobby is the primary funder of the “the largest Christian grant-making foundation in the world” (National Christian Charitable Foundation) that was the principal funder of two Christian groups, the Center for Arizona Policy and the Alliance Defending Freedom, that produced and actively promoted Arizona’s “religious freedom to disregard the Constitution” (SB 1062) legislation vetoed by Governor Jan Brewer last month. The tax document shows a total of nearly $65 million in contributions from a combination of Jon Cargill, Hobby Lobby CFO, and “Crafts Etc.,” a Hobby Lobby affiliate company. The document shows that Hobby Lobby-related contributions were from a facility housing Hobby Lobby’s headquarters in Oklahoma City, and that Hobby Lobby was the single largest source of tax-deductible donations to the Dominionist organization the National Christian Charitable Foundation (NCCF).

In 2012, the National Christian Charitable Foundation had more than $1.22 billion in assets under management in donor-advised funds that offered “innovative, tax-smart solutions to help simplify giving, multiply impact, and glorify God.” Since 1982 NCCF grants totaling $4.3 billion funded a wide range of religious causes, including some very near and dear to the Koch brothers, such as climate science denial, taxpayer funded “voucher” charter schools, promoting free markets (deregulation), and pro-life advocacy. The Alliance Defending Freedom is a national Christian organization the group’s website claims intends to “spread the Gospel by transforming the legal system and advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family;” four major Dominionist objectives. The National Christian Charitable Foundation’s primary goal is the same as Hobby Lobby’s owners; push an extreme right-wing Christian agenda that allows businesses to use a distorted interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause to discriminate against gays and deny their employees contraceptives and disregard any law their “free exercise of religion” deems is contrary to their bastardized version of Christianity. The Koch brothers support Hobby Lobby to bolster their bona fides with evangelicals and they will celebrate a ruling for Hobby Lobby that will complete the corporate personhood designation the oil magnates need to disregard federal laws with impunity. A High Court ruling for corporate religious personhood will be the corporate world’s ideal “conscience clause” protection to ignore laws and statutes that violate their concept of free enterprise including paying minimum wage, flouting federal and state taxes, banning workplace safety measures, and ignoring environmental regulations.

Hobby Lobby’s owners donate heavily to the National Christian Charitable Foundation to ensure its continued effort to test the limits of the legal system’s interpretation of religious freedom is successful and reaches fruition sooner than Dominionists had anticipated. According to Emily Martin, vice president and general counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, “Ideologically, the thing that unites Hobby Lobby’s contraception case and Arizona’s SB 1062 is an attempt to use religious exercise as a sword to impose religious belief on others, even if it harms others, which would be a radical expansion of free exercise law.” Martin is right, of course, but it appears she does not understand that harming others under a radically expanded “free exercise” interpretation is, like harsh Sharia Law, the goal of Christian Dominionists who intend to use the threat of harm to control the population.

The Center for Arizona Policy (SB 1062) supported by Hobby Lobby through the NCCF said the group’s primary focus is “making certain that governmental laws cannot force people to violate their faith,” and a statement on the group’s website boasts they pushed 123 measures that have been signed into law including mandating intrusive ultrasounds (rape by medical instrument) for women seeking abortion service that has nothing whatsoever to do with a government law “forcing people to violate their faith.” It has everything to do with Dominionists forcing their Christian beliefs on the entire population that is a claim Christians say is the goal of Muslims imposing Sharia Law on Islamic nations. 

Hobby Lobby’s owners are much more invested in using a Supreme Court ruling in favor of corporate personhood’s “religious freedom” than just dominating women and gays according to their so-called Christian faith. Barbara Green lied when she said Hobby Lobby is not attempting to meddle in women’s decision to use contraception, and the company’s tens-of-millions of dollars in donations to Christian groups to “spread the Gospel by transforming the legal system” is proof that a nation under the Christian version of Sharia Law is their primary goal. It is tragic that Americans are unaware of the impending doom a High Court ruling for Hobby Lobby will wreak on democracy, because not only will Americans be at the mercy of corporations and businesses run by evangelical fanatics, the Koch brothers will use expanded corporate religious personhood ruling to destroy what is left of America’s fragile democracy.

Dominionists have panted for a legal precedent to use the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom to impose theocracy on Americans for twenty years. Coupled with Hobby Lobby’s millions of dollars to transform the legal system to spread the gospel and the Koch brothers’ support for corporate religious personhood, Christianity’s version of Sharia Law in America is likely much closer than even cynical secular humanists and freedom from religion advocates feared possible. The only question yet remaining is exactly what Christians will call their version of Sharia Law when it replaces the Constitution as the law of the land because that is the objective of Hobby Lobby’s Dominionist owners and they are spending tens-of-millions of tax deductible  donations to see their goal reach fruition.


Wendy Davis Smacks Down Greg Abbott’s $20 Mil Hypocrisy on Pre-K

By: Adalia Woodbury
Monday, March, 31st, 2014, 9:12 pm   

Greg Abbott is just no match for Wendy Davis.  This is the second time in less than a week, Davis countered Abbott’s hypocrisy on an important policy with facts.

The last time, Davis pointed to Abbott’s discriminatory pay policies as Attorney-General when he claimed to support equal pay for women.  Davis’ use of facts was effective enough to make the Texas boys club of Republicans more than a little nervous for their boy Greg.

This time, the issue was pre-K.  Following Abbott’s announcement of his plans to improve Texas’s pre-K program, Wendy Davis gave 20 million reasons why Abbott’s promises prove he is a hypocrite.  Twenty million is the number of dollars in cuts to Texas’ pre-K program that Abbot is defending in court.

     The hypocrisy is astonishing. It’s completely dishonest for Greg Abbott to be talking about early education at the same time he’s defending deep cuts to Texas pre-k in the courtroom, Despite the pleas of students, teachers, parents and school boards across the state, Greg Abbott is using his office to undermine Texas’ effort to prepare its students for the jobs of a 21st century economy

Ouch!  Facts strike again!  Aside from using facts to prove, once again, that Greg Abbott’s statements need to be fact checked with his actions, Davis exposed Gregg Abbott’s true agenda of returning to yester-century when access to education was restricted to children of the rich and the privileged.  No matter how Abbott tries to mansplain it, there is nothing about a $20 million dollar cut to Texas’ pre-K program that is conducive to improving the program, or improving access to it.

In reality, Gregg Abbott is saying that educating all of Texas’ children to ready them for 21st century challenges is a waste and by extension that access to 21st century opportunities should be limited to a chosen few.

By calling him out, Wendy Davis is exposing Abbott’s short sightedness and unwillingness to prepare Texas’ children for 21st century jobs – something that is necessary for their well being and for Texas’ economy.

As importantly, Davis is proving to be a capable leader who relies on facts in her opponent’s record and actions instead of Koch style smear tactics and campaign appearances with radical has-beens like Ted Nugent.

This is the second time, that she caught Gregg Abbott making promises that contradict his actions.  With the election season being this young, it’s inevitable that there will be others.  Stay tuned.


GOP Tries to Woo Women Voters by Mansplaining That They Shouldn’t Care About Equal Pay

By: Sarah Jones
Monday, March, 31st, 2014, 4:36 pm   

How do you fool the ladies after your party rebranding failed? You get a bunch of women folk to parrot the lines of the Koch Brothers, ‘cuz nothing fools the ladies like another lady.

The latest conservative strategy regarding how to win women voters is to inform women that they shouldn’t care about equal pay because… Obamacare roll out glitches.

Greg Sargent was not impressed with the “winning message” (and thanks to Mr. Sargent for calling attention to this gem) :

    GOP pollster says Dem focus on equal pay is nothing but distraction from Ocare: #WinningMessage

    — Greg Sargent (@ThePlumLineGS) March 31, 2014

Nia-Malika Henderson and Jackie Kucinich must have had a tough time controlling their reaction as the GOP’s 2014 plan was explained to them for their Washington Post article. They reported, “The troubled roll out of the Affordable Care Act is an issue that GOP candidates believe they can use to return fire on the criticism that the party is hostile to women.”

So, roll out with some glitches = GOP no longer hates women! Cool trick. Women especially love being told by the Koch Brothers what matters to them.

What about that Republican policy war on women?

Oh, no worries! Remember that incredibly inaccurate, misleading “Obamacare victim” ad the Kochs were running in Michigan to help Republican Terri Lynn Land? The ad so misleading that even conservatives wouldn’t back its Obamacare claims? That’s the basic idea behind their strategy.

Sure, the Kochs had to dump that ad after being pummeled by factcheckers, but hey! The ladies don’t need to know pesky details. They’re too busy to care about equal pay anyway, according to Texas Republicans. Too busy to care.

So the Kochs are going to keep using that essential strategy of pasting a woman onto their Obamacare horror stories in order to mansplain what you ladies should be thinking. The WaPo article continued:

    In Michigan, Republican Terri Lynn Land, running in a close race for another open Senate seat, marked the anniversary of the Affordable Care Act and stressed her opposition by highlighting the voices and stories of women who said they were negatively impacted by the law. That strategy also is being used by Americans For Prosperity, a conservative nonprofit backed by the Koch brothers, that has also used women as the face of their ads attacking the health care law.

    Jennifer Stefano, regional director for Americans for Prosperity, said they have run ads designed to appeal to women because “women carry the burden of failed economic policies.”

Apparently in this GOP fantasy, women do not bear the brunt of no health insurance for themselves and their family. Oh, no. Their biggest concern is how the roll out was bad or the policy in general is a “failure”. It’s a failure that you can take your kid to the doctor even though he has a pre-existing heart condition. Yep. That’s what the moms of America are thinking. Rather than thinking gosh, I’m so glad my kid can get help, they’re thinking about policies that help the Koch Brothers make a bigger profit.

BUT LADIES. We saved the best for last.

You don’t care about equal pay anymore because… OBAMACARE!

    Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway said reminding both genders of the problems with the Affordable Care Act would trump Democratic attacks on the equal pay issue.

What can I say? I think the GOP/Koch Brothers have finally sorted us ladies out. We are more concerned about the Koch Brothers than our own kids, and equal pay. Meh. All we can think about are the Obamacare glitches. Plus, bonus points for totally ignoring any specific policies that would help women, and instead focusing on being negative and sans solutions for another policy that is helping women. This reads a bit dismissive to me, but heck. It’s not like they have a lot to offer women.

We don’t need equal pay when we can vote Republican and lose the healthcare protections afforded to us under Obamacare, like free mammograms. Plus, Republicans want to take our birth control away because they’ve recently become obsessed with our unfertilized eggs and how mean ladies are picking on corporations like Hobby Lobby, so TOTALLY.

This is totally working.

This is what happens to a party when it is dictated to by the top of the 1% of the 2%. It should surprise no one that the Koch brothers have no idea just how insulting their mansplaining strategy is, or that women will see through it.


Students walk out on ‘war criminal’ Dick Cheney during American University speech

By Travis Gettys
Monday, March 31, 2014 14:32 EDT

More than two dozen students walked out on former Vice President Dick Cheney last week during a speech at American University.

Some of the students called Cheney a “war criminal” Thursday as they filed out of the auditorium.

“Walk out on war criminals,” one student can be heard yelling on video recorded during the event.

The former vice president denied to The Eagle student newspaper that the Bush administration in which he served had used torture, although he conceded that three individuals were subjected to waterboarding.

“Some people called it torture,” Cheney said. “It wasn’t torture.”

Human rights groups say the practice was much more widespread, however.

Cheney said the enhanced interrogation tactics implemented by the Bush administration did not fall under the scope of the 1949 United Nations Geneva Convention because those rules do not apply to unlawful combatants.

“If I would have to do it all over again, I would,” Cheney said. “The results speak for themselves.”

The Associated Press reported Monday that a disputed Senate torture report found that waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods yielded no important evidence during the hunt for Osama bin Laden, although the CIA disputes the conclusion.

Cheney and former President George W. Bush have each canceled events in Canada after protests by human rights groups who accused the pair of war crimes, and Bush also canceled a speaking engagement in Switzerland over similar concerns.

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NATO Suspends Military, Civilian Cooperation with Russia

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 20:41

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Tuesday the Western alliance had suspended all military and civilian cooperation with Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, but that political dialogue remained open.

"We are suspending all practical cooperation with Russia, military and civilian," Rasmussen said at a NATO foreign ministers meeting on the crisis in Ukraine, adding however that "diplomatic lines of communication" remained open in the NATO-Russia Council.

Earlier on Tuesday, Rasmussen said he could not confirm the withdrawal of Russian troops from near the Ukrainian border as announced by the Kremlin.

"Unfortunately I cannot confirm that Russia is withdrawing its troops; this is not what we have seen," Rasmussen told journalists ahead of a NATO foreign ministers meeting on the crisis in Ukraine.

Ukraine and the United States have accused Russia of massing thousands of troops near the border and have expressed concern that Moscow intends to seize southeastern parts of Ukraine that are home to large populations of ethnic Russians, following the Crimea takeover.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's office said Putin had personally informed her of the troop pullback in a telephone conversation on Monday, and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the move "a small sign that the situation is becoming less tense".

Ukraine also reported Monday that Russian troops were leaving the flashpoint area.

Merkel said she had "no reason" to doubt the partial Russian troop withdrawal would go ahead as relayed to her by Putin.

"I can only go on what the Russian president has said," Merkel told reporters, responding to a question after NATO's chief said he had no confirmation of the move.

"I will of course get more information on to what extent it's evident or not," she said but added that the withdrawal was "certainly" not the last step necessary because the concentration of troops on the Ukrainian border was "very high".

"Nevertheless I have, today, no reason to doubt that it will happen," she said at a joint press conference with visiting Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.

NATO foreign ministers are meeting at the alliance headquarters in Brussels to forge a response to Russia's annexation of Crimea last month.

But as the talks began, NATO seemed to be stepping back from reinforcing military presence in countries bordering Russia, preferring for now to give more time to diplomacy.

"I think everybody realizes that the best way forward is a political and diplomatic dialogue," Rasmussen said, though he added NATO was "very determined to provide effective defense and protection of our allies".

One counter-measure apparently off the table for now is the idea to set up permanent military bases in NATO countries bordering with Russia.

The move would be highly controversial for Moscow, reversing an informal agreement made when NATO expanded east to include former Warsaw Pact countries that were eager to break away from years of Soviet domination.

But Dutch foreign minister Frank Timmermans said that for now "we don't need NATO troops at the border with Russia," adding there was "no need for sudden moves".

The cautious line could come as a disappointment to eastern NATO members, who were expected to argue for a tougher stance against Russia at the meeting.

"There is a rather wide consensus among the allies, even if eastern countries -- such as the Baltics and Poland -- wish NATO would adopt a more pronounced stand against Russia," a diplomat said.

Before entering NATO headquarters for the talks, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said his country "would welcome any forces" on its territory.

"All members should enjoy the same level of security," he said.


U.S. Increases Troops at Afghan Transit Base in Romania

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 20:47

Romania has approved an increase in American troops at its military airbase on the Black Sea as Washington continues to shift its main transit base for Afghanistan away from Kyrgyzstan, a report said Tuesday.

Romanian President Traian Basescu sent a letter to parliament approving the U.S. request for 600 more troops at the Mihail Kogalniceanu airport in the southeast of the country, the Agerpres news agency said.

"The request... refers to the deployment of a unit of Marines called the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response, with up to 600 soldiers and a number of military aircraft needed to fulfill specific missions," the letter said.

The U.S. is due to abandon by July the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan that has been the main transit point for its military personnel and cargo in and out of Afghanistan, after the Kyrgyz government refused to extend the lease last year.

The Mihail Kogalniceanu base, where around 1,000 troops are currently stationed, is due to become the main transit point as the U.S. prepares for a major withdrawal of forces and equipment from Afghanistan later this year.

The U.S. inaugurated the new transit center in February.

Between 20,000 and 30,000 troops are expected to transfer through the base on their way back from Afghanistan this year.


NATO Sees No Russian Troop Pullout from Ukraine Border

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 15:30

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Tuesday said he could not confirm the withdrawal of Russian troops from near the Ukrainian border as announced by the Kremlin.

"Unfortunately I cannot confirm that Russia is withdrawing its troops; this is not what we have seen," Rasmussen told journalists ahead of a NATO foreign ministers meeting on the crisis in Ukraine.

Ukraine and the United States have accused Russia of massing thousands of troops near the border and have expressed concern that Moscow intends to seize southeastern parts of Ukraine that are home to large populations of ethnic Russians, following the Crimea takeover.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's office said Putin had personally informed her of the troop pullback in a telephone conversation on Monday, and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the move "a small sign that the situation is becoming less tense".

Ukraine also reported Monday that Russian troops were leaving the flashpoint area.

Merkel said she had "no reason" to doubt the partial Russian troop withdrawal would go ahead as relayed to her by Putin.

"I can only go on what the Russian president has said," Merkel told reporters, responding to a question after NATO's chief said he had no confirmation of the move.

"I will of course get more information on to what extent it's evident or not," she said but added that the withdrawal was "certainly" not the last step necessary because the concentration of troops on the Ukrainian border was "very high".

"Nevertheless I have, today, no reason to doubt that it will happen," she said at a joint press conference with visiting Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama.

NATO foreign ministers are meeting at the alliance headquarters in Brussels to forge a response to Russia's annexation of Crimea last month.

But as the talks began, NATO seemed to be stepping back from reinforcing military presence in countries bordering Russia, preferring for now to give more time to diplomacy.

"I think everybody realizes that the best way forward is a political and diplomatic dialogue," Rasmussen said, though he added NATO was "very determined to provide effective defense and protection of our allies".

One counter-measure apparently off the table for now is the idea to set up permanent military bases in NATO countries bordering with Russia.

The move would be highly controversial for Moscow, reversing an informal agreement made when NATO expanded east to include former Warsaw Pact countries that were eager to break away from years of Soviet domination.

But Dutch foreign minister Frank Timmermans said that for now "we don't need NATO troops at the border with Russia," adding there was "no need for sudden moves".

The cautious line could come as a disappointment to eastern NATO members, who were expected to argue for a tougher stance against Russia at the meeting.

"There is a rather wide consensus among the allies, even if eastern countries -- such as the Baltics and Poland -- wish NATO would adopt a more pronounced stand against Russia," a diplomat said.

Before entering NATO headquarters for the talks, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said his country "would welcome any forces" on its territory.

"All members should enjoy the same level of security," he said.


Ukraine Moves to Disarm Protest Groups

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 16:27

Ukraine's parliament Tuesday met a key demand of both Russia and the West by voting to disarm self-defense groups that sprang up during months of deadly protests against Kiev's pro-Kremlin regime.

The decision came in the wake of a nighttime police raid on the central Kiev hotel headquarters of a far right nationalist organization that was instrumental in the February rise to power of a new team of pro-European leaders who are seeking to end decades of Russian dominance over the ex-Soviet state.

Balaclava-clad members of Pravy Sector (Right Sector) still roam the barricade-clogged capital with clubs in hand -- an ominous presence Russia has used in its campaign to delegitimize Ukraine's new authorities.

But the culturally splintered nation of 46 million has also seen armed Slavic-pride groups such as Oplot (Bastion) emerge in heavily Russified eastern regions that are looking at the Kremlin's annexation of Crimea with envy and hoping to break their own ties with Kiev.

Agitated lawmakers representing both Russian and Ukrainian speakers unanimously agreed on Tuesday that it was time for the police to break up these "armed formations" and reestablish a semblance of stability after four months of unrest.

"The Ukrainian people are demanding order," acting president Oleksandr Turchynov said ahead of the 256-0 vote.

"Those who carry arms -- besides the police, the security services and the national guard -- are saboteurs who are working against the country."

A top member of Pravy Sector later told AFP that his group intended to keep the weapons its has legally register but could give up those it seized during protests from the fallen government's police force.

"The so-called illegal arms that we grabbed from law enforcement officers who were committing crimes against the Ukrainian people have all been stockpiled," Andriy Bondarenko said in an interview conducted outside his group's new office in Kiev.

"We have been negotiating with the interior ministry and the security service about either legalizing these 'trophy guns' or giving them up," he said.

"We do not intend to do anything else with them," said Bondarenko. "The only question is why these negotiations have dragged on for so long."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has used Pravy Sector's example to justify his decision to both order troops into Crimea and use any means necessary to "protect" compatriots throughout Ukraine against attacks by militants that he says have been given free reign by Turchynov and his ministers.

The Kremlin's subsequent buildup of troops along Ukraine's eastern frontier has sparked the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War era and forced Kiev's new leaders to fear the possibility of a further dismemberment of their state.

Both Washington and EU nations have been putting pressure on the interim cabinet to take measures against Pravy Sector and thus limit the arguments Putin had for intervening in Ukraine's internal affairs.

US Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday after his latest round of crisis talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that the "demobilization and disarmament of irregular forces and provocateurs" was a top priority for Ukraine.

Pravy Sector was forced to move offices Tuesday after one of its members allegedly opened fire outside a central Kiev restaurant and then took refuge in the city's prominent Dnipro hotel.

A top Kiev city administrator and two other were wounded in the incident. A subsequent raid on the hotel unearthed a cache of arms and led to the prime suspect's arrest.

But law enforcement agents have been treading carefully in their dealings with Pravy Sector after the shooting death of one of its leaders during an altercation with the police.

About a thousand Pravy Sector members held an angry rally outside parliament Thursday night demanding that lawmakers sack the head of the country's interior ministry.
« Last Edit: Apr 01, 2014, 12:17 PM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #12787 on: Apr 02, 2014, 05:23 AM »

Ukraine Moves to Grant More Power to Regions

by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 April 2014, 14:21

Crisis-hit Ukraine took the first step Wednesday toward granting more powers to the regions in line with Western wishes but stopped well short of creating the federation sought by Russia.

The announcement came as Russia continued to mass tens thousands of troops along Ukraine's eastern border following a vow by President Vladimir Putin to use "any means necessary" to protect the interest of his compatriots in the neighboring ex-Soviet state.

Ukraine's new Western-backed government said it would like to eliminate the current practice under which local governors are appointed by the president and move toward an election system.

"The main idea behind the concept is to decentralize power in the country and substantially broaden the authority of local communities," the government said in a statement published on its website.

The interim leaders in Kiev have come under intense pressure from Moscow to adopt radical constitutional reforms in the wake of their February overthrow of a pro-Kremlin regime whose rejection of closer ties with Europe sparked months of deadly unrest.

The Kremlin would like to see Ukraine transformed into a federation that allows eastern regions in the vast nation of 46 million to adopt Russian as a second state language and establish their own trade policies with Moscow.

Putin has argued that the changes were necessary because ethnic Russians had allegedly been coming under increasing attack from ultra-nationalist forces that helped the new leaders overthrow Kiev's Moscow-backed president.

But Washington and its EU allies fear that Russia -- having already annexed Crimea last month -- is using the federation idea as an excuse to further splinter Ukraine by granting the Kremlin veto powers over Kiev's regional policies.

U.S. officials have instead urged Ukraine's new leaders to introduce more targeted reforms that undercut Putin's arguments for sending troops into the heavily Russified swathes of southeastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government's statement follows closely in line with U.S. wishes by stressing that a system under which regional governors are appointed by local legislatures would be more efficient.

"We would like to see the executive... at the regional and district levels formed through an election process," the government statement quoted Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman as saying.


Russia Says NATO's Suspension of Cooperation with Moscow a 'Cold War' Move

by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 April 2014, 11:47

Russia on Wednesday accused NATO of succumbing to "Cold War" instincts after the alliance suspended all cooperation with Moscow over the Crimea crisis.

"Basic instincts of Cold War have awoken in NATO, affecting rhetoric accordingly," the official Twitter page of Russia's mission to NATO quoted envoy Alexander Grushko as saying.

"'The alliance is under threat!' Seems like taxpayers will have to fork out for military games," he said.

The Western alliance's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Tuesday said that NATO is "suspending all practical cooperation with Russia, military and civilian" over Moscow's speedy annexation of the Crimea peninsula and reported massing of troops near Ukraine's border.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin derided the announcement, remarking that it was made on April Fool's Day.

"Last time (in 2008) they were freezing for three months, and thawed by December," he said, referring to Russia's short war with neighboring Georgia.

"What can I say: it's a Cold War, so they are still freezing," he wrote on Twitter.


Russia Tightens Pressure on Ukraine With Rise in Natural Gas Price

APRIL 1, 2014

MOSCOW — Even as American and Russian diplomats groped toward a settlement that would halt further Russian military intervention in Ukraine, Gazprom, the Russian energy company, stepped up the economic pressure on Tuesday by sharply raising the price it charges for natural gas.

Gazprom, a state-controlled gas exporter, raised the price to $385 for 1,000 cubic meters of gas, the standard measure used in gas deals in Europe, from $268, an increase of about 44 percent.

The price increase follows what analysts say is a long practice at Gazprom of punitive pricing for countries in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe that are at odds politically with Moscow, while offering discounts to governments seen as friendly. The policy is never stated openly, though, and the change on Tuesday was no exception.

Aleksei B. Miller, Gazprom’s chief executive, attributed the price increase to an unpaid debt for gas, making no mention of the recent revolution in Ukraine.

Having failed to pay the debt, Ukraine no longer qualified for a reduction that Gazprom had offered the Ukrainian national energy company in December, Mr. Miller said. That price break was an incentive Moscow granted to Ukraine in return for its rejecting a free-trade pact with the European Union, a move that touched off the protests that eventually doomed the government of President Viktor F. Yanukovych.

As Moscow’s grip on Crimea tightens, ethnic Russians who were born under Soviet rule are eager to recapture their identity.

“The December discount on gas cannot be applied,” Mr. Miller told reporters in Moscow.

The jump in the price came as no surprise to the new authorities in Ukraine. They have already planned, as required under an International Monetary Fund loan program, to slash state subsidies that have kept gas prices artificially low for consumers and industry.

Over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, failed to agree on a diplomatic solution to the crisis during talks in Paris. On Monday, however, Russia’s military withdrew a battalion of about 500 troops from the border with Ukraine, a mostly symbolic reduction in a force of about 40,000.

The army has said it is merely carrying out exercises, and Mr. Lavrov and other Russian officials have offered assurances that they do not intend to invade Ukraine. But President Vladimir V. Putin has said he will intervene to protect Russian speakers anywhere in Ukraine, if Ukrainian nationalists threaten them.

The gas price rise illustrated how, even if the Russian Army withdrew from the border, Russia would retain numerous economic weapons to wield against Ukraine, and it is widely expected to use them, deftly and unrelentingly, as it has for years.

Russia has closed border crossings to trucks and has shut two chocolate factories in Russia owned by the leading Ukrainian presidential candidate, Petro Poroshenko. Purchases of missiles from a Ukrainian factory have been canceled.

On Monday, Russia tried positive reinforcement in Crimea, the former Ukrainian territory that it now controls, doubling pensions and increasing public sector salaries, illustrating the financial benefits of allegiance with Russia.

In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, Parliament ordered law enforcement agencies on Tuesday to immediately disarm unofficial paramilitary groups, signaling growing resolve in the interim government to confront nationalists and other vigilantes who played a major role in the overthrow of Mr. Yanukovych more than a month ago.

A bill, introduced and passed unanimously, ordered the Interior Ministry and the Security Service of Ukraine, the country’s successor to the K.G.B., to disarm the groups because of the “aggravation of the crime situation and systematic provocations on the part of foreigners in southeastern Ukraine and in Kiev.”

Tensions in the capital have grown between Arsen Avakov, the country’s new interior minister, and nationalist groups that continue to patrol the main squares of the city. The groups have mostly ignored an order to turn in their arms.

A member of Right Sector, one of the largest and best-organized ultranationalist groups in Kiev, was accused of opening fire with a pistol in the city’s main square on Monday evening during a dispute with members of other self-defense groups.

After the episode, police officers armed with automatic rifles surrounded the group’s headquarters at a downtown hotel and began negotiations. Just after dawn on Tuesday, members of the group, many in military fatigues and balaclavas, boarded buses and left for a “training ground” outside the city, according to local news reports.

“What should the minister do?” Mr. Avakov wrote on Facebook, which has become a clearinghouse for information on police activity since he took office. “Correctly, I gave the order to blockade the gang and detain those who were guilty.”

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« Last Edit: Apr 02, 2014, 05:57 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #12788 on: Apr 02, 2014, 05:27 AM »

Ségolène Royal returns in French cabinet reshuffle

France's new prime minister, Manuel Valls, has unveiled a 'combat government' with some surprising appointees

Kim Willsher in Paris, Wednesday 2 April 2014 11.23 BST   
The new French prime minister, Manuel Valls, has caused surprise and shock with his choice of ministers to form the country's "combat government".

Among the new appointments were Ségolène Royal, the 2007 presidential candidate and one-time partner of the president, François Hollande, with whom she has four children. She was given the ecology, energy and sustainable development portfolio.

Perhaps the most surprising announcement was the naming of the leftwing Arnaud Montebourg, from the opposite side of the Socialist party to Valls, as economics minister.

Montebourg, who stood as a rival to Valls for the Socialist presidential nomination in 2011 – both lost to Hollande – was nicknamed Monsieur Made in France after urging economic patriotism. His anti-globalisation views, voiced as minister for France's industrial renewal, have been well aired, and he leans towards protectionism.

Another surprise appointment was the inexperienced Benoît Hamon, to the education portfolio. Hamon, who is also on the left wing of the party, has been in government for less than two years, in the relatively junior post of consumer and social economy minister.

The defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, foreign affairs minister, Laurent Fabius, justice minister, Christine Taubira, finance minister, Michel Sapin, agriculture minister, Stéphane le Foll, and culture minister, Aurélie Filippetti, all keep their jobs.

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem lost her portfolio as government spokesperson but remains minister for women's rights.

Of the 15 top cabinet posts, seven are now held by women. Valls will hold his first ministerial council on Thursday. The lower secretary of state jobs are expected to be decided next week but Hollande has called for a smaller, tighter and less expensive administration.

Royal's return to frontline politics was made possible by the ending of Hollande's relationship with Valérie Trierweiler in January, for whom he left Royal after it was revealed he was having an affair with a French actor.


France likes a strongman - and that's what it's got in this PM, Manuel Valls

President François Hollande has replaced his spineless sidekick with a reformer who likes talking tough on immigration

Agnès Poirier   
The Guardian, Tuesday 1 April 2014 17.30 BST   
President François Hollande and his now sacked prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, never made a strong team. Whenever a French president chooses a weak prime minister, it ends in tears. Remember when Jacques Chirac was re-elected in 2002 with 80% of the votes, thanks to Jean-Marie Le Pen's sneaking into the second round? Instead of choosing, for instance, socialist reformer Michel Rocard to unite the country after such trauma, he chose Mr Nobody, Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Chirac is now thought of as a leader who presided over France's slow decay. Remember Nicolas Sarkozy? Having resolved to be France's supreme leader, he appointed a puppet, François Fillon, who swallowed the Kool-Aid for five years.

They all seemed to forget that in the French system, "the president presides" while "the prime minister governs". The head of state sets out the overall strategy and the premier drives the country forward. A French prime minister needs stamina, pugnacity and no fear of unpopularity. He very much does the dirty work while the figure in the Elysée, floating above the daily grind of politicking, can indulge in big ideas and bask in his people's love. That's the theory. Tellingly, François Mitterrand played by this rule, using his prime ministers like fuses, and was elected twice. He was also a French Machiavelli, which helped.

With the appointment of Manuel Valls as France's new prime minister, Hollande is at last acting decisively. History will tell whether it was a shrewd move. What's certain, though, is that nothing could have been worse than keeping the spineless Ayrault at his side after last weekend's drubbing at the local elections and the loss of 175 municipalities. We were told in 2012 that Ayrault's appointment was in part due to his speaking fluent German; we still wonder how exactly this helped France.

The arrival of one the most popular French politicians at the Matignon will come as a relief and even please a majority of French people. Valls's promotion has of course sent shockwaves through the French left. And this could prove healthy too. Valls, like Pierre Mendes-France in the 50s and 60s and Michel Rocard in the 70s and 80s, is a reformer rather than an orthodox socialist. They think out of the party's box: don't conform, enjoy stirring controversies, and generate contradictory debates among their peers.

Valls may be a "socialist Sarkozy", as the Economist put it, he however turned down Sarkozy's offer to join the French government in 2007 while other figures on the left such as Bernard Kouchner and Fadela Amara enthusiastically accepted, losing all credibility in the process. In fact, Valls is a true French republican in the historical sense of the term, with his feet firmly on the left. All the more so since he was not born French and only obtained French nationality at the age of 20. An ardent integrationist, he wants immigrants to adapt to France rather than France having to adapt to them. A few months ago he caused consternation by saying Roma migrants should "return home" if they were not prepared to adapt to the French language and way of life.

It is Valls' stance on the economy that has distinguished him from the rest of the left, who have been bottle-fed Marxist economic theories. An economic liberal, Valls is well-placed to follow Hollande's U-turn and implement his pro-entrepreneurial and fiscal reform policies. It was no coincidence that at the end of Hollande's televised address on Monday, evening he announced a cut in taxes.

The Greens, who have often clashed with Valls in the past, have already announced they won't go into government with him. We will soon know if Valls has called their bluff. The new French strong man will also need to be good at walking a tightrope.

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« Reply #12789 on: Apr 02, 2014, 05:59 AM »

Afghan Women See Hope in the Ballot Box

APRIL 1, 2014

KABUL, Afghanistan — Mariam Wardak is one of those young Afghans with her feet in two worlds: At 28, she has spent much of her adult life in Afghanistan, but she grew up in the United States after her family fled there. She vividly remembers the culture shock of visits back to her family’s village in rural Wardak Province a decade ago.

“A woman wouldn’t even show her face to her brother-in-law living in the same house for 25 years,” she said. “People would joke that if someone kidnapped our ladies, we would have to find them from their voices. Now women in Wardak show their faces — they see everybody else’s faces.”

Ms. Wardak’s mother, Zakia, is a prime example. She used to wear a burqa in public, but now has had her face printed on thousands of ballot pamphlets for the provincial council in Wardak. She campaigns in person in a district, Saydabad, that is thick with Taliban.

She has plenty of company in this year’s elections, scheduled for Saturday. Another 300 women are running for provincial council seats around the country, more than ever before. And for the first time, a woman — Habiba Sarobi, the former governor of Bamian Province — is running for vice president on a leading national ticket.

There is finally the sense here, after years of international aid and effort geared toward improving Afghan’s women’s lives, that women have become a significant part of Afghan political life, if not a powerful one.

But their celebratory moment is also colored by the worry that those gains could so easily be reversed if extremists come back into power, or if Western aid dwindles. Those concerns have added urgency to this campaign season for women who are fighting to make their leadership more acceptable in a still deeply repressive society.

“It’s an exciting and terrifying point, because the international presence has actually empowered the women here, and when they leave, some of those women will be concerned,” said Mariam Wardak, who is working on Ms. Sarobi’s campaign as well as her mother’s.

One notable change is simply that there have been more women speaking from the dais during rallies, including the wives of two of the more prominent national candidates. That is a novelty that has drawn crowds in a country where most male public figures keep their wives in traditional seclusion — including President Hamid Karzai, despite his promises to women’s groups years ago that she would be a visible part of Afghan life.

Afghans have been particularly intrigued by Ms. Sarobi’s emergence as a running mate for the presidential candidate Zalmay Rassoul. She is not just a token name on a presidential ticket, but a campaign draw in her own right, as her stirring speeches have added a much-needed shot of crowd appeal to Mr. Rassoul’s otherwise staid and low-energy campaign.

Last Thursday, thousands of men and a few hundred women in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif cheered wildly for Ms. Sarobi, after only polite applause for the presidential candidate.

“She pretty much rocked the show,” said Haseeb Hamayoon, a Rassoul campaign aide.

Ms. Sarobi explained, “People want some change, and a woman on the ticket is a change for them.”

Fawzia Koofi, a politician and rights advocate, at one point said she would be running as a presidential candidate in this election, but she missed by a year the minimum age of 40 when candidates were registered. She recalled the days when politically active Afghan women were relegated to chanting slogans from behind privacy screens. “A woman for vice president? Eleven years ago, even dreaming about this was impossible,” Ms. Koofi said.

On the campaign trail, all of the eight presidential candidates still in the race have at least paid some lip service to supporting causes important to women — even Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, an extremely traditionalist Pashtun candidate and warlord who as a member of Parliament was a bitter opponent of a law intended to criminalize violence against women.

For his part, Mr. Sayyaf said he would “reconsider his past actions in view of respect for women’s rights.”

Most of the candidates have appeared at women’s groups to answer questions, and participated in debates on women’s issues. “This time from the beginning all of them have been talking about women’s rights,” said Hasina Safi, head of the Afghanistan Women’s Network, a coalition of women’s groups. “They have really figured out that women count.”

Partly that is because women have become particularly well-organized in recent years, nurtured by generous international funding for their organizations and causes, and requirements by donors that projects should be gender sensitive, with such measures as equal opportunity units, gender equality training and guaranteed employment of a percentage of women.

That has helped improve their political clout, despite disappointing results in voter registration drives. The actual percentage of women registered to vote has not changed appreciably, about 35 percent of the total, since previous elections. But tougher controls on voting will make illegal proxy voting — where men especially in conservative areas cast the votes allotted to the adult women in their households — harder to get away with.

And with years of set-asides for women running for Parliament and provincial council seats, women have become accustomed to some share of the power. Provincial councils are also being contested in the vote on Saturday, with 20 percent of the seats set aside for women.

About 300 women are running for such seats nationwide, which the Independent Election Commission says is the highest number ever. Even in conservative Kandahar Province, a tenth of the candidates are women.

“Today, you can now say that a woman’s vote is going for a woman,” Ms. Sarobi told a crowd of more than 1,000 women in Kabul on Monday.

Many women are quick to caution that they still have a long way to go. “Where are their first ladies?” said Zahra Mosawi, a rights advocate. “We have only seen one of the presidential candidates’ wives so far.”

She was talking about Ashraf Ghani, one of the front-runners, who had his wife, Rula, join him to make a campaign speech, another Afghan campaign first. His running mate, the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, also brought his wife, Zabaida, along to talk to a group of women at one campaign meeting.

One disappointment among women’s advocates has been Mr. Karzai’s refusal to allow his wife, Zeenat, to make public appearances. Although she is one of Afghanistan’s most famous women, so few Afghans have ever seen their country’s first lady that it is said she can go shopping without bodyguards.

Before her husband became president, Mrs. Karzai was a practicing gynecologist, and activists felt she would make a powerful role model for a generation of girls who were finally allowed full schooling in Afghanistan. Instead, she has remained in seclusion over the past decade, and some feel that has reinforced the traditional view of Afghan women as subservient, forbidden to go out without their husbands’ permission. When Mrs. Karzai registered to vote for the first time, in 2004, it was done in private.

“He promised so many times to bring his wife out and he never did,” said Mariam Nabizada, a Kabul political activist for Mr. Rassoul’s campaign and for Ms. Sarobi. Now that issue no longer looms so large, she said: “With a female running mate, it has encouraged more women than ever to participate.”

Still, Afghan women are suspicious about what is to come after Western officials turn away from Afghanistan, and about what agenda the country’s political power players are truly pursuing.

Particularly worrisome, to Ms. Mosawi and other women, has been the refrain from many of the presidential candidates of the need to make peace with the Taliban, whose government famously confined women to their homes and banned them from most work.

“They’re all talking about peace with the Taliban, which is a big danger for us,” she said. “We’re not hearing assurances about preserving all the achievements of women in these years.”

Many women are quick to note that little has changed outside of the cities; in rural Afghanistan, where most women live, women are still little more than the property of their brothers, fathers and husbands.

A victory for Ms. Sarobi and other candidates would certainly help, Ms. Wardak said, “If women do as well as they hope in this election, it will be a huge self-esteem boost.”


Afghanistan election candidates raise fears over widespread fraud

Concerns there will be a repeat of the cheating that marred the 2009 poll, when more than 1m votes were disqualified

Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul
The Guardian, Tuesday 1 April 2014 15.58 BST      

There are still days to go and no one has cast a ballot yet. But leading candidates in Afghanistan's presidential election are warning that fraud will play a big role in the vote, raising fears of bitter antagonism following Saturday's crucial poll.

Abdullah Abdullah, one of the frontrunners in the race to replace Hamid Karzai as Afghan president, has reiterated his concerns about "industrial-scale fraud" in the vote. His rival, the former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, recently told the Guardian his team was trying to pre-empt the kind of fraud that riddled the 2009 voting, adding: "People will not be deprived of their right to good governance."

Large-scale cheating has marred every Afghan election since the Taliban's fall. Prospects of a repeat performance have loomed over the 5 April poll long before the candidates launched their campaigns.

Only a quarter of Afghans expect the vote to be clean, a recent survey by the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (Fefa) found. Election organisers, monitors and diplomats all agree that ballot-stuffing, vote buying, intimidation and impersonation are likely to be a problem again.

However, many fear that candidates are focusing on fraud in an unscrupulous attempt to set the ground for complaints if they lose, and risk discouraging voters and discrediting the entire election process along the way.

"Some of the candidates are issuing statements in their public rallies that my only rival is corruption. That means he thinks he has won already, and the election is days away," said Yusuf Nuristani, chairman of the Independent Election Commission.

"We hear on the news that if there is corruption people will rise up – it's scaring people with the threat of potential agitation.

"This mistrust is not going to help, instead they should tell their followers: 'Stay away from fraud and don't let others commit fraud, be vigilant, open your eyes, come out in large numbers for voting.'"
Afghan supporters of Abdul Rasul Sayaf Afghan supporters of presidential candidate Abdul Rasul Sayaf hold placards during an election rally in Herat. Photograph: Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

Afghanistan's election is a watershed moment – the third since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but the first to herald the country's peaceful democratic transfer of power. Huge questions remain over just how peaceful it will be following a volley of Taliban attacks on soft targets in Kabul.

In the five years since 2009, when more than 1m votes were disqualified, a raft of measures have been introduced to make cheating harder. The result, many hope, will be an election tainted but not entirely discredited by cheating.

"Most of the candidates have confided that they don't expect an absolutely fraud-free election, what they want to know is that the results reflect the will of the people," said Nicholas Haysom, deputy head of the UN in Afghanistan. "So the question will focus on how extensive is that fraud, whether it impacts the result and is it capable of being excised. That is what we need to reassure them, but we want to have an election that is manifestly better than the last election, which means less fraud."

One powerbroker interviewed by the Guardianadmitted he had stockpiled voter registration cards needed to cast a ballot; another promised to bring his district to the polls in return for tens of thousands of dollars.

Elections chief Nuristani has reported one candidate for abusing government resources on the campaign trail and fined another for the same thing. Yet neither these problems nor a campaign of Taliban violence have diminished enthusiasm, with would-be voters queuing for hours in the freezing pre-dawn dark to secure the voter registration cards they need to cast a ballot.

The same poll that found most Afghans expect fraud also found that four in five plan to vote anyway, said Fefa chairman Ahmad Nader Nadery, because after more than three decades of fighting they prefer a flawed election to the alternatives. "They have seen that those who were fighting with each other are now trying to participate in the elections and not use their guns," he said.

"They do understand there is a level of fraud, but they are very much of the view that if the election is not there, the same brutality and violence to fight for power will return."

He said the organisation was "cautiously impressed" by efforts to rein in the rampant ballot-box stuffing that was the most serious problem in 2009 – when incumbent Hamid Karzai lost about a third of his votes to fraud reviews – and is also seen as the biggest threat this year.

There is a strict barcode-labelling system tracing the ballots from the individual polling station, each of which only get 600 voting papers.

If the station is closed by violence but someone tries to use the votes elsewhere, as happened five years ago, they can be identified and discarded.

Votes will be tallied on site and copies of the results sheet posted outside the ballot station, in the ballot box and sent to Kabul. Vote-counting will be done twice by two separate teams; where results differ they will be rechecked.

More than 22,000 monitors from the different campaign teams have registered to watch the voting at more than 6,000 polling centres around the country, as well as more than 1,500 independent observers. Both numbers are expected to rise rapidly before voting day.

All three men believed to have a serious chance of becoming Afghanistan's next president mistrust each other, although the greatest public suspicion has fallen on the campaign of Zalmai Rassoul, whose campaign was the one reported to Karzai for abuse of government resources.

A former foreign minister who is believed to have the president's private backing, he planned retirement on the golf course just a year ago, so has a network far smaller than the other two frontrunners, and has lagged noticeably behind in the few opinion polls published during the race.

But diplomats frustrated by the pre-emptive fraud accusations being batted around say the claims are damaging but also unnecessary, because reforms mean that anyone trying to cheat on a large scale will be caught.

"I don't think it's a particularly helpful line of argument to set the assumption that [fraud] is going to happen," said US ambassador James Cunningham.

"If there is any significant fraud, we will have – and the Afghans will have – sufficient transparency that we will know, which is another reason not to engage in it."


Alliances realign as latest superpower pulls out of Afghanistan

The presidential election and US withdrawal are lilkely to have complex repercussions for the region's web of invisible networks

Jason Burke in Delhi and Jon Boone in Islamabad
The Guardian, Tuesday 1 April 2014 20.29 BST   

Afghan watchers in the chancelleries of a dozen different states in south and west Asia know they are in for a long, tough weekend. Alongside them are spies, soldiers and business people, all keen for clues as to how the result of the presidential elections will affect the vast web of invisible regional networks that run through Kabul and across a vast swath of south and west Asia, from the Levant to the Himalayas.

"Everybody always says each year is key in Afghanistan. But we are now in a period when everything is very much up in the air. A lot of people have an awful lot at stake," said one western official based in the region. The key local players are Pakistan and Iran, with India, China, the Gulf states, the "-stans" of central Asia, and Russia playing lesser roles. Then there are informal "non-state" actors, extremist groups such as al-Qaida, Lashkar-e-Toiba or the Pakistan Taliban, as well as criminal trafficking gangs who have a strong interest in what happens in Afghanistan.

All protagonists are very conscious of the last time a superpower pulled out of Afghanistan after a decade or more of conflict. Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, India, Pakistan and Iran fought a bitter proxy war, each funding and arming local factions fighting for power in Kabul. The conflict had ethnic, religious and linguistic elements. Shia Iran backed Shia and other minority groups who spoke Dari, which is closely related to Persian. The Sunni Taliban, composed of Pashto speakers from Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, received support from Pakistan, the Gulf and informal regional networks of Islamic extremists. Many of those allegiances, decades or even centuries old, lie beneath positions taken today.

Publicly, Afghanistan's immediate neighbours all now insist they want to avoid the anarchy of the early 1990s. Pakistan's official position is that it "remains committed to supporting all efforts for a free and fair electoral process in Afghanistan … as it would strengthen the prospects of stability". This is challenged by Afghan officials, and some in Washington, who blame the tenacity of the insurgency, the failure of negotiations with the Taliban and a series of bloody attacks on their neighbours. There are fears that a win for Abdullah Abdullah, a candidate who played a key role in a faction sponsored by India in the 1990s, could prompt Pakistan to ramp up "interference".

But Mushahid Hussain, a Pakistani senator and government loyalist, said this would not happen. "Our main interest is in the process not the person. All of the candidates are part of the same system that spawned Mr Karzai post-9/11. It is not like they are coming from a different planet. We know them, we have dealt with them," Hussain said.

Officials in India are watching Pakistan's moves closely. Delhi has spent billions in Afghanistan since 2001 to build goodwill and has steered away from any security assistance that could provoke Islamabad. Salman Kurshid, the foreign minister, recently flew to Kandahar to open one project - an agricultural university set up in a former collective farm built by the Soviets and later used as a base by Osama bin Laden. Others involve power lines to central Asia, a road to Iran which would break Afghanistan's dependence on Pakistani ports, and a new parliament building.

Indian intelligence services have nonetheless made a significant effort to build up networks of contacts in strategic areas such as the south and south-west, one informed expert said. "Maybe someone would like to come to Delhi for medical treatment, or send a relative to an Indian university. That can be arranged. It's just about making friends," he explained.

Then there is Tehran, for long deeply involved in its neighbour Afghanistan, if only because of a perceived need to counter efforts of its own great rival, Saudi Arabia, as well as Pakistan, to build influence there. Senior Iranian officials have recently visited India, with which Tehran has a warm relationship, rooted in Delhi's need for cheap oil and mutual antipathy towards Pakistan and Kabul.

Mohammed Javad Zarif, Iranian foreign minister, said in Delhi last month: "The occupation [of Afghanistan] by foreign forces is inherently destabilising but if the vacuum is filled by the Taliban all of us will lose." Iran's cultural influence in the west of Afghanistan, supported by an aid effort, is immense.

Moscow, an active backer of anti-Taliban factions in the 1990s, has been less involved recently but China is increasingly prominent. Five years ago it was Afghanistan's resources that interested Beijing. Now, it is also the security threat posed by radical Islamic groups and separatists from the Muslim southwest of China, of whom a handful have made their way to Afghanistan to train.

Chaos in Afghanistan would help narcotics smugglers but a total breakdown in law and order might make opium cultivation and processing more difficult, say analysts. The nightmare scenario of post-election, post-US pull out political collapse would be an unequivocal boost for militant groups basedalong the Afghan-Pakistani frontier, easing movement across the already porous border and then on to elsewhere in the region. Violence in Pakistan, and possibly in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, would surge. There have been recent reports of militants who have fought and trained in Afghanistan in Syria and in Nepal, deserts and mountains more than 3,000 miles apart.


Don't expect Afghanistan to change with this list of presidential candidates

The imminent Afghan elections are historic, no doubt, but the line-up of familiar faces points towards parochialism and the past

Massoumeh Torfeh, Tuesday 1 April 2014 16.29 BST   
You would think the final list of candidates for one of the most important presidential elections in Afghanistan's history, and the country's first democratic transfer of power, would provide some excitement. Instead there is little to cheer about. The list comprises many old faces, and it raises questions as to whether the poll due to take place on Saturday will be truly representative across ethnic lines.

All the eight candidates in this Afghan-managed and Afghan-led election are from the majority Pashtun ethnic group, with two, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Zalmay Rassoul, leading the polls. Only one lead candidate, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, is half Pashtun and half Tajik.

Although Pashtun make up 42% of the poulation, the main non-Pashtun groups combined – Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks– also represent a sizeable proportion of the population at over 45%. Yet prominent political figures from these groups, such as Hazara leaders Karim Khalili and Mohammad Mohaghegh, or the powerful Uzbek leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum, are running mates not presidential candidates, and one of the most important Tajik political players, Atta Muhammad Noor, has refrained from participating.

Instead there have been strange alliances. Ghani, a respected former World Bank official and finance minister, an advocate of human rights, who says his main agenda is the rule of law, has chosen Dostum as his running mate. Dostum stands accused of a string of alleged war crimes and Ghani openly criticised President Karzai for choosing Dostum as running mate in 2009 elections.

Another point to consider is that both Ghani and Rassoul have over the past 12 years held top posts in President Karzai's cabinets, and if elected would probably allow him a strong say in the country's future. They have both made statements indicating that they see him as a man of influence. So their cabinets are very likely to be the Karzai team reshuffled.

Abdullah was also the foreign minister in President Karzai's first cabinet, but in the past eight years he has been a consistent voice of opposition. He refused to do a deal with Karzai after finishing runner-up in the 2009 elections. He has a strong following among Tajiks and those who remember him as the right hand man of the iconic Tajik commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud. However, many would regard this association as a negative. Although most initial polls indicate strong support for Abdullah, it is not clear he could hold an outright majority. To do this he would need to win a large portion of the Pashtun votes.

There are still more familiar faces from the past. Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who is said to have had ties to Osama bin Laden; Gul Agha Sherzai, the former mayor of Jalalabad and a former warlord; and Qutbuddin Helal, the spokesperson for another warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, with links to the Taliban.

So when people of Afghanistan go to the polls on Saturday they will see many of the old faces, either as presidential candidates or running mates: most of them reminders of a past they would really like to forget.

Even if we take the most positive view that the elections on 5 April will be inclusive, with reasonable security and minimal fraud, then the most likely outcome is that none of the three main contenders will win an outright majority. In that case the two main Pashtun contenders – Rassoul and Ghani – would unite and force Abdullah out of the race.

That result would lead to a reshuffled Karzai cabinet, possibly with increased influence for warlords and the Taliban. While the Taliban machinery of terror continues to kill civilians, including hundreds of Muslim women and children, that is not a cabinet that would bring any hope to the people of Afghanistan.

At this crucial juncture in Afghanistan's transition, only a credible political transition can provide stability. This could only be gained through a popular mandate across ethnic lines for a wider political, economic and social agenda – including peace and reconciliation.


Afghanistan: Hamid Karzai is giving up his power – but not his influence

Outgoing president will take up residence near the palace, suggesting that he will continue to play a role in Afghan politics

Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul
The Guardian, Tuesday 1 April 2014 19.36 BST    

A stone's throw from the palace where President Hamid Karzai has spent 13 years, a newly renovated home awaits him and his family. Karzai is due to step down after Saturday's presidential election. Under the constitution he cannot stand again, so the vote is setting the stage for Afghanistan's first ever peaceful, democratic transfer of power.

Simply by leaving his job voluntarily, something no other leader of the country has done, Karzai will be creating an important legacy for himself, diplomats and senior Afghan officials say. "The more important part of Karzai's legacy will be the successful achievement of a political transfer of authority to a new president," said the US ambassador to Afghanistan, James Cunningham, adding that it will be both an achievement and indicator of the country's future.

But Karzai's new home is a reminder that after 13 years at the helm, his influence is unlikely to end when he leaves office. The 56-year-old insists that after he hands over the reins, he wants a break. He has had barely a day away from his job since he came to power, and little time to spend with his wife and three young children. "If God gives me a life to go around, visit the country and enjoy myself and go to cafes, visit London during Christmas, and see the lights, visit places, work on Afghan education and be with the Afghan people," he said recently.

But few people expect a man who has so skilfully juggled competing factions, and outmanoeuvred his foreign financial and military backers, to slip into a simple retirement with his family.

Karzai will be relatively young for a former leader, and admits he would like a political role if his successor permits it. His new home would allow him to reach the seat of power in minutes; its garden backs on to the palace grounds.

"The president will be a happy citizen of the country, and if asked by the next president to advise him on issues, he will be happy to advise," said spokesman Aimal Faizi, who added that Karzai had turned down tempting job offers overseas. "He will be in the country and in the service of the people."

The three frontrunners for the top job, all of whom served as ministers under Karzai, have at least civil relationships with him and are unlikely to exile him completely. While his lingering power may be a threat, he could also be extremely useful to the new ruler as a powerful orator and master of alliances adept at balancing the country's ethnic and regional needs.

Karzai is believed to favour Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister who emerged from relative obscurity to run for the top office and has the backing of Karzai's brothers Qayum and Mahmoud. Rassoul denies Karzai would be the power behind the throne, but said if he won, he would try to tempt his predecessor back into public life. "He will play a role, he's a young man who has played a key role in Afghan history and still has a lot of support," Rassoul said in an interview on his campaign plane. "It depends on him, and when I talk to him about it he says he wants some rest."

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« Reply #12790 on: Apr 02, 2014, 06:17 AM »

Changes at U.S. Embassy in Delhi Offer Chance to Rebuild Ties

by Naharnet Newsdesk
01 April 2014, 21:38

The sudden resignation of the U.S. ambassador to India less than two years into her troubled term opens an opportunity for both sides to reboot strained ties ahead of an expected change in government, analysts say.

Nancy Powell, U.S. ambassador since 2012, had a torrid time at the helm of one of Washington's most important diplomatic missions as it became embroiled in one of the most serious downturns in relations in decades.

New Delhi was incensed in late December when an Indian diplomat in New York was arrested, strip-searched and then pursued in court over allegations she violated visa rules by underpaying a domestic servant.

Powell, who has spent 37 years in the U.S. foreign service, had to manage the firestorm, contending with furious Indian officials and even facing personal difficulties over threats to withdraw her travel privileges.

A host of retaliatory measures taken by India over the arrest included the withdrawal of additional security measures at the U.S. embassy and threats to close an embassy-run social club.

"The Indian government took a hard stand after the arrest of (Deputy Consul General Devyani) Khobragade," said Neelam Deo, director of Gateway House, a foreign policy think tank in Mumbai.

While managing this, Powell was also central to a sharp -- some say belated -- change in U.S. policy over opposition leader Narendra Modi who is tipped to emerge as prime minister after national elections starting next Monday.

The U.S. decided to end a decade-long boycott of Modi, who was chief minister of western Gujarat state in 2002 when anti-Muslim riots broke out, leaving more than 1,000 people dead.

In February, long after European powers had re-engaged, Powell called upon the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at his office in the state capital of Gujarat.

"The sense in Washington is that they should have engaged with Modi much earlier than February," Deo explained. "He is being considered a serious prime ministerial candidate by the United States."

The Hindustan Times reported Tuesday that Powell had been privately criticized by many officials for failing to be more pro-active on lifting the boycott of Modi.

The same paper reported last week that her imminent departure was "an attempt by the Obama administration to 'clean the slate' with India".

The reasons for her exit have been explained by the U.S. State Department as her simply deciding to end her distinguished career early and retire to her home in Delaware state.

"It is the internal matter of the United States and we do not have a comment to make," an Indian foreign ministry spokesman told Agence France Presse on Tuesday.

But whatever the reasons, most agree that her decision to leave offers both sides a chance to rebuild with new personalities amid speculation that U.S. President Barack Obama will now appoint a heavy-hitting figure to lead in New Delhi.

On his visit to India in 2010, Obama called the budding strategic relationship between the United States and India as "one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century".

But after finally overcoming their Cold War-era suspicions, the Khobragade episode has set back ties, leading to a flurry of cancellations between officials which have resumed only tentatively in recent months.

"The change (at the U.S. embassy) is coming at a time when there is a downturn in the relationship," former Indian diplomat G. Parthasarathy told AFP.

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« Reply #12791 on: Apr 02, 2014, 06:22 AM »

Thai PM Faces New Dismissal Threat in Court

by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 April 2014, 12:07

Thailand's Constitutional Court agreed Wednesday to consider a petition to remove Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra from office for transferring a top security official -- the latest in a volley of legal challenges by her opponents.

The case was filed by a group of senators who argued that the replacement of then-national security chief Thawil Pliensri after Yingluck was elected in 2011 was for the benefit of her party.

Under the constitution -- drawn up in the wake of a 2006 coup that ousted Yingluck's brother Thaksin Shinawatra as premier -- such an offense could lead to her sacking.

Yingluck must present her defense within 15 days of receiving a copy of the petition, according to the ruling.

The Supreme Administrative Court last month ordered Yingluck to reinstate Thawil, saying his transfer was unlawful.

Five months of political street protests have failed to achieve their goal of forcing Yingluck to resign to make way for an unelected interim leader to oversee reforms.

With attendance at the rallies dwindling, Yingluck's opponents have stepped up their legal moves, accusing her family of abusing their political dominance for personal gain.

Yingluck has been charged by the National Anti-Corruption Commission with neglect of duty in connection with a flagship rice subsidy scheme that critics say fostered rampant corruption.

If indicted on those charges, Yingluck would be suspended from office and face an impeachment vote in the upper house of parliament that could lead to a five-year ban from politics.

Her opponents applaud the moves against what they see as a corrupt government that uses taxpayers' money to buy the loyalty of rural northern voters through populist policies like the rice initiative.

But Yingluck's "Red Shirt" supporters see the legal threats as part of an attempted power grab through Thailand's courts, which have a history of removing elected governments.

The Red Shirts plan a major rally in Bangkok this weekend to show their support for the government.

The coup that toppled Thaksin ushered in years of political turmoil and bloody street protests by opponents and supporters of the billionaire tycoon-turned-politician, who lives in Dubai to avoid jail for a corruption conviction.

Grenade attacks and shootings linked to the unrest have left 24 people dead and hundreds wounded in recent months, including many demonstrators.

The Constitutional Court last month nullified a February general election disrupted by protesters, leaving the kingdom in legislative limbo with only a caretaker government.

Thaksin-allied parties won every previous election for more than a decade, helped by strong support in the northern half of the kingdom. No date has been set for new polls.

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« Reply #12792 on: Apr 02, 2014, 06:24 AM »

N. Korea Leader Warns of 'Very Grave' Situation

by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 April 2014, 06:41

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has warned of a "very grave" situation on the Korean peninsula, where a surge in military tensions has seen the two Koreas trade artillery fire and Pyongyang threaten a new nuclear test.

In a meeting with top military leaders on Tuesday, Kim blamed Washington and Seoul for the current frictions, saying they had trampled on peace overtures from Pyongyang.

"The current situation is very grave," Kim was quoted as saying by the North's official KCNA news agency on Wednesday.

Kim, the supreme commander of the Korean People's Army (KPA), told his most senior officers that despite the North's conciliatory gestures, South Korea and the United States had pushed ahead with joint military drills that Pyongyang views as rehearsals for an invasion.

"The United States and other hostile forces, ignoring our magnanimity and goodwill, are viciously stepping up their maneuvers in order to annihilate our republic politically, isolate it economically and crush it militarily," he said.

The North Korean military and people will never tolerate the "U.S. policy of hostility" and will "crush it thoroughly", Kim added.

The rhetoric seemed largely aimed at a domestic audience and Kim's more combative remarks were not translated in the English version of the KCNA dispatch.

Just one month ago, inter-Korean relations appeared to be enjoying something of a thaw.

In February the two rivals held rare, high-level talks, after which they held the first reunion in more than three years for families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War.

Even when the annual South Korean-U.S. military exercises began at the end of February, the protests from Pyongyang were relatively muted, and there was talk of further high-level meetings and greater cooperation.

But the mood soon soured, and recent weeks have seen North Korea conduct a series of rocket and missile tests, culminating last month in the test-firing of two medium-range ballistic missiles capable of striking Japan.

On Monday, North Korea conducted a live-fire drill along the disputed maritime border. After some shells crossed the boundary, South Korea responded and the two sides fired hundreds of artillery rounds into each other's territorial waters.

The exchange of fire came the day after North Korea sounded an ominous warning that it might carry out a "new" type of nuclear test -- a possible reference to testing a uranium-based device or a miniaturized warhead small enough to fit on a ballistic missile.

Although South Korean intelligence reports say there are no signs of an imminent test, analysts note that the North is treading a familiar path that has previously ended in an underground bunker.

"The most disturbing possibility is that recent steps might conform with a pattern: missile test, U.N. condemnation, nuclear threat, nuclear test," said Stephan Haggard, professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego.

The U.N. Security Council condemned the North's mid-range missile launches -- a violation of U.N. resolutions prohibiting North Korean ballistic missile tests -- and said it would consider "appropriate" action.

That could include asking the council's North Korean Sanctions Committee to consider expanding its list of designated individuals and entities.

"That step would provide an excuse -- if one were needed -- for a fourth nuclear test," Haggard wrote in a regular blog post.


U.S. Says China to Gain from Pressing North Korea on Nukes

by Naharnet Newsdesk
02 April 2014, 06:51

China should press North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons if Beijing wants to change U.S. troop plans in the region, a U.S. official said Tuesday.

Danny Russel, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, acknowledged that a growing China has been unhappy with efforts by the United States to strengthen defense cooperation with allies Japan and South Korea.

"The most direct way for China to affect those military deployments and those strategic alliance plans is by applying its leverage to North Korea to bring about a decision on the part of Pyongyang to choose the right path," Russel told a conference call organized by the Asia Society.

China is the closest ally of North Korea and has voiced growing frustration over the regime's nuclear program, although U.S. experts widely believe that Beijing does not want to risk the collapse of Kim Jong-Un's regime.

Russel credited China with supporting U.N. Security Council resolutions that toughened sanctions and with restricting its own exports into North Korea.

But he said that Chinese officials "have a strong bias in favor of coaxing tactics that have not yielded results in the past and that don't seem likely to yield results."

"China should and hopefully will take further steps to bring North Korea to the conclusion that it has no viable alternative but to come into compliance" with international agreements on ending its nuclear program, Russel said.

North Korea has defied the world with three nuclear weapons tests and, according to a recent U.N. investigation, carries out sweeping human rights violations without parallel in the current world.

Tensions have again risen in recent days, with North and South Korea firing hundreds of artillery shells Monday as Seoul responded to a live-fire drill by Pyongyang.

Robert King, the U.S. envoy on human rights in North Korea, heads Wednesday on a trip to South Korea and Japan as calls multiply for United Nations action over the totalitarian state's treatment of its people.

The State Department said that King would be ready to go to Pyongyang. He has previously visited North Korea but the regime has called off trips on which he was expected to seek the release of Kenneth Bae, an imprisoned Korean American missionary.

"We have been disappointed, as you know, that in the past -- I think twice now -- they've rescinded their invitation for him to travel to Pyongyang. And if they invite us, he's happy to go," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

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« Reply #12793 on: Apr 02, 2014, 06:39 AM »

Abbas Takes Defiant Step, and Mideast Talks Falter

APRIL 2, 2014

JERUSALEM — The Middle East peace talks verged on a breakdown Tuesday night, after President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority defied the United States and Israel by taking concrete steps to join 15 international agencies — a move to gain the benefits of statehood outside the negotiations process.

Mr. Abbas’s actions, which appeared to catch American and Israeli officials by surprise, prompted Secretary of State John Kerry to cancel a planned return to the region on Wednesday, in which he had expected to complete an agreement extending negotiations through 2015.

In that emerging deal, the United States would release an American convicted of spying for Israel more than 25 years ago, while Israel would free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and slow down construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.   

Mr. Abbas, who had vowed not to seek membership in international bodies until the April 29 expiration of the talks that Mr. Kerry started last summer, said he was taking this course because Israel had failed to release a fourth batch of long-serving Palestinian prisoners by the end of March, as promised.

Israeli officials say they are not bound by their pledge because no meaningful negotiations have taken place since November.

American officials, while rattled, said the Palestinians appeared to be using leverage against Israel rather than trying to scuttle the negotiations. Mr. Abbas, they noted, did not move toward joining the International Criminal Court, a step Israel fears most because the Palestinians could use the court to contest Israel’s presence in the West Bank.

Still, a senior American official said Mr. Kerry’s decision not to return to the region immediately reflected a growing impatience in the White House, which believes that his mediating efforts have reached their limit and that the two sides need to work their way out of the current impasse.

In announcing the moves, Mr. Abbas said, “This is our right.” He has been under pressure from other Palestinian leaders and the public to leverage the nonmember observer-state status they won at the United Nations in 2012 to join a total of 63 international bodies.

“We do not want to use this right against anybody or to confront anybody,” he said, as he signed the membership applications live on Palestinian television. “We don’t want to collide with the U.S. administration. We want a good relationship with Washington because it helped us and exerted huge efforts. But because we did not find ways for a solution, this becomes our right.”

The United States voted against the Palestinians’ 2012 bid in the United Nations General Assembly, and it blocked a similar effort in 2011 at the Security Council, arguing that negotiations with Israel were the only path to peace and statehood.

Washington has also vigorously opposed Palestinian membership in the international agencies, which under a law passed by Congress could prompt a withdrawal of financial aid to the Palestinian Authority and a shutdown of the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington.

While the Palestinians’ pursuit of the international route is widely viewed as a poison pill for the peace talks, Mr. Abbas and Mr. Kerry held out hope on Tuesday night that they could still be salvaged. The agencies Mr. Abbas moved to join Tuesday included the Geneva and Vienna Conventions and those dealing with women’s and children’s rights.

Israel has released 78 Palestinian prisoners as part of a deal to restart peace talks. The prisoners are welcomed by many Palestinians as heroes, but many Israelis feel their release is an injustice.

“It is completely premature tonight to draw any kind of judgment, certainly any kind of final judgment, about today’s events and where things are,” Mr. Kerry told reporters in Brussels, where he was meeting with NATO foreign ministers on the Ukrainian crisis.

“I’m not going to get into the who, why, what, when, where, how of why we’re where we are today,” he added. “The important thing is to keep the process moving and find a way to see whether the parties are prepared to move forward.”

“Even tonight,” Mr. Kerry said, “both parties say they want to continue to try to find a way forward.”

President Obama has given Mr. Kerry broad latitude to try to keep the process alive, even authorizing him to discuss the possible release of Jonathan J. Pollard, a former Navy intelligence officer serving a life sentence in the United States for espionage, whose release Israel has long sought. That would only be as part of a broader package of measures that American officials said would give the negotiations a genuine chance to succeed.

Such a move would antagonize the nation’s intelligence agencies, senior officials said, but might be worth the cost to keep the talks from collapsing. Mr. Pollard is eligible for parole in 2015, they noted, so his value as a bargaining chip is diminishing.

Mr. Obama, officials said, was in frequent contact with Mr. Kerry when both were in Europe last week, and during Mr. Kerry’s travels there this week. The president has rejected previous pleas by the Israelis to release Mr. Pollard, but with Mr. Kerry having invested so deeply in the peace process, officials said, Mr. Obama wanted to back him up.

Whether, and how, to use Mr. Pollard has been vigorously debated within the administration. While some officials argue that he should be used only to break the logjam on final-status issues — the borders of a new Palestinian state, for example — Mr. Kerry has argued that these issues will all be decided as a package at the end of the talks. Mr. Kerry has argued that Mr. Pollard could be more useful now in keeping the talks alive, given the possibility of parole, according to officials.

Still, the crisis is the most significant yet for talks that have been troubled from the start, with few beyond Mr. Kerry and his team believing there was much chance of closing the gaps in the two sides’ positions. Mr. Kerry has made the peace process a personal mission, with a dozen trips to the region in the past year, including two over the past week, interrupting his efforts to counter Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine.

While Middle East analysts widely praised Mr. Kerry’s determination, many thought he was on a fool’s errand. He long ago abandoned his original goal of achieving a final-status agreement within nine months, and in recent weeks he even de-emphasized his proposed framework of core principles for a deal, focusing instead simply on extending the timetable.

“It’s a process leading nowhere,” Khalil Shikaki, a Palestinian pollster and political scientist, said Tuesday morning. “The basic compromises that this Israeli government is willing to endorse are unacceptable to the majority of the Palestinians.” He added, “There is no chance.”

Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel, said: “All of the indications are that this is moribund. We’re now into Plan B, which has two parts: the blame game, which is well underway, and a last-ditch effort by the United States not to have the collapse lead to violence.”

Israeli officials remained silent about Mr. Abbas’s move Tuesday night. A spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to discuss it, or how it might affect the deal that had emerged earlier in the day to continue the talks for at least another nine months.

Mr. Abbas’s actions came after a frenzied day of rumors in Israel, where officials said a deal was emerging in which Mr. Pollard would be freed before the Passover holiday, which starts April 14. Israel would free the remaining long-serving prisoners — including 14 Palestinian citizens of Israel, whose release is particularly delicate because it raises questions of sovereignty — as well as 400 others, many of them women and children, who had not committed murder.

In addition, Israel would promise to “show restraint” in settlement construction, according to an official involved in the negotiations, by not starting new government housing projects in the West Bank. Projects underway would be allowed to continue, the official said, and East Jerusalem would not be included.

Instead, Mr. Abbas made a show of signing the documents on live television, saying that Palestine would become a member of most of the 15 bodies “as soon as we apply,” and that he would join the rest of the 63 international agencies “if Israel does not release the prisoners.”

On Tuesday night in Brussels, Mr. Kerry invoked a longstanding axiom of the peace process: that the mediator cannot want it to work more than the parties themselves.

“The president is desirous of trying to see how we can make our best efforts in order to find a way to facilitate,” Mr. Kerry said. “But facilitation is only as good as the willingness of leaders to actually make decisions when they’re put in front of them.”

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« Reply #12794 on: Apr 02, 2014, 06:40 AM »

Syria death toll over 150,000, says human rights body

Third of casualties in three-year-old civil war are civilians, claims Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as peace talks stall

Reuters in Beirut, Tuesday 1 April 2014 17.26 BST

At least 150,000 people have been killed in Syria's three-year-old civil war, a third of them civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said.

The UK-based Observatory, which monitors violence in Syria through a network of activists and medical or security sources, said the real toll was likely to be significantly higher at about 220,000 deaths.

Efforts to end the conflict by bringing together representatives of President Bashar al-Assad's government and the opposition have so far failed. The United Nations peace mediator for Syria said last week that talks were unlikely to resume soon.

The last UN figures, released in July 2013, put the death toll at at least 100,000 but it said in January it would stop updating the toll as conditions on the ground made it impossible to make accurate estimates.

The Observatory said it had registered the deaths of 150,344 people since 18 March 2011, when Assad's security forces first fired on protesters calling for reform.

The Observatory said nearly 38,000 rebels have been killed, including fighters from the Nusra Front, al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), an al-Qaida splinter group that includes many foreign fighters.

More than 58,000 pro-Assad fighters were killed, including regular security forces and Syrian pro-government militia, as well as 364 fighters from the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah and 605 other foreign Shia Muslims.

In addition to the fatalities, the Observatory said 18,000 people were missing after being detained by security forces, while another 8,000 people had been kidnapped or detained by rebels forces

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