Russia Accuses Ukraine of Using Banned Weapons
by Naharnet Newsdesk
12 June 2014, 14:09
Russia accused Ukraine on Thursday of using "prohibited weapons" during its attempts to seize back control of the separatist stronghold city of Slavyansk, charges denied by Kiev.
The Russian foreign ministry's human rights ombudsman's comments came shortly after Moscow state media reported the use of incendiary bombs by Kiev's forces in the blockaded eastern city.
"Ukrainian defense forces and nationalists are using prohibited weapons against Slavyansk civilians, firing on refugees and killing children," Russian ombudsman Konstantin Dolgov tweeted.
"Kiev's humanitarian crimes against (Ukraine's) southeastern residents are multiplying. They must be investigated and the guilty punished," he wrote.
Slavyansk, an industrial city of 120,000, has been at the epicenter of Ukraine's two-month offensive against pro-Russian insurgents in the eastern rustbelt of the ex-Soviet state.
Ukraine's health ministry said the battles have claimed the lives 270 rebels, federal soldiers and civilians.
Incendiary devices are designed to set off fires and were used widely during the Vietnam war and are banned by the U.N. Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.
Ukraine's National Guard, a part-volunteer force heavily involved in the eastern campaign, dismissed the incendiary bomb charges as "absurd".
"The National Guard categorically denies this information," its press service said in a statement.
How Ukraine's tax cheats stole billions from the country's coffers
Ukraine's deputy tax minister says fraud scams diverted $11bn from the country's budget over just three years
Maria Danilova and Raphael Satter for The Associated Press
theguardian.com, Wednesday 11 June 2014 16.17 BST
As Ukraine's tax chief tells it, the billion-dollar theft was planned at a clear plastic table in a sound-proof vault.
The table and six matching transparent chairs sit in a secret chamber on an upper story of the Tax Ministry in Kiev. It was the epicentre, he and other tax officials say, of a massive fraud suspected of squeezing 130 billion hryvnias ($11bn) from Kiev's coffers over the past three years — an amount equal to more than half a year's tax revenue for the entire country.
Deputy Tax Minister Ihor Bilous, the country's new tax boss, says his predecessor was in on the scam, helping to organise a wide network of phantom firms in return for a cut of the cash. The criminals, he says, operated with impunity.
"They didn't care about the police, the security services. Nobody was checking," Bilous told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "That's why this cancer ... spread over the whole country."
Bilous' predecessor, Oleksandr Klymenko, denies the claims, saying he "always fought tough with any corruption" and cited more than 1,300 investigations into charges of corruption that his office opened last year.
"A lot of false information that discredits my honour and reputation is spread by the media," he said.
Using transparent furniture to beat surveillance "is straight out of the old-school, Eastern Bloc, counterintelligence playbook," said Vince Houghton, curator of the International Spy Museum in Washington. East Germany's intelligence service, for example, kept transparent furniture in a chamber at its embassy in Rome.
Klymenko denied anything untoward happened in the vault.
"This room was necessary only with the purposes of confidentiality when planning operational activities, working off tax evasion and fraud cases of large taxpayers," he wrote in an email on Tuesday. "I consider such security measures justified."
Klymenko spoke to the AP from an undisclosed location, having left Ukraine in a hurry following Yanukovuch's departure. Surveillance video taken from a Ukrainian airport shows Klymenko and the country's chief prosecutor scuffling with guards who try to detain them and overturning a metal detector gate as they try to reach their plane.
Exhibit B is a massive hole in the ground on Saperne Pole Street, on the other side of town. The pit, foundation work for an apartment complex to be completed next year, is where the headquarters of a trading firm named Mistral are supposed to be.
On paper, Mistral was a management consulting and research company that did millions of dollars' worth of deals before going bust early this year, after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was chased out of office. But when police recently tried to visit its offices at 12 Saperne Pole, there was no trace of Mistral, whose name refers to a type of wind.
The numbers of Saperne Pole jump from 9 to 22.
Officials say Mistral may never have existed in the first place — one of 100-120 phantom firms organised to funnel money from legitimate businesses to corrupt officials.
According to officials and insiders, here's how it worked: A business pretended to buy goods or services from the phantom firm. Instead of delivering on the deal, the fake company secretly returned the money in cash, reducing the real company's tax liability in return for a cut of the money.
Getting in on the scam slashed tax bills dramatically. One home appliance importer used phantom partners to whittle its tax obligations down to $85,000 a month, according to ministry figures. Once it dropped the tactic, its payments jumped tenfold.
Those behind the phantom firms stood to make huge amounts of money. One tax document reviewed by AP showed that a Kiev company purporting to be a trading firm drew in $190,000 in sales per month — with only a single employee on a monthly salary of $110.
A businessman with nearly two decades' experience in Ukraine told The Associated Press about his own involvement in the scheme. He said $300,000 he owed in tax was instead split between his companies and the various phantom firms he dealt with. He said businesses signed up because of high taxes and erratic enforcement of the law. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared prosecution.
Phantom companies have long been a problem in Ukraine, which ranks 144th out of 177 in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index. Exorcising them is a key challenge faced by the newly elected administration of Petro Poroshenko, who was sworn in Saturday as Ukrainian president.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko lifts his arms in greeting after his inauguration ceremony in Sophia Square in Kiev, Ukraine, in June. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko lifts his arms in greeting after his inauguration ceremony in Sophia Square in Kiev, Ukraine, in June. Photograph: Sergei Chuzavkov/AP
For now, Ukraine's budget is being held together with the help of a $17 billion International Monetary Fund loan package.
Bilous is proposing a series of legal changes to fight corruption, and some 30 investigations are under way. But skeptics say the new government is not doing enough to end fraud.
Outside the tax ministry, drum-banging, bell-clanging protesters from the Anti-Raider League of Entrepreneurs, an anti-corruption group, alleged that crooked officials from the previous administration had merely been shuffled around.
Bilous "has not changed anything," said the league's director, Andrei Semedidko. "How are we going to build a new country when the faces are the old ones?"
In the past five weeks authorities say they have shut at least 30 phony firms across the country, often raiding empty offices filled with bogus paperwork, fake corporate letterhead and bundles of cash. There have been no mass firings at the tax ministry.
Bilous said he is doing what he can in the face of entrenched corruption. Tax evasion, he said, has been a problem "for the last 23 years, and it's not easy to close it down."
But he acknowledges he's dealing with a crisis.
"I call it a national security problem," he said, "because if we continue like this, the budget deficit will basically kill us, in a year or two years' time."
Croatian PM Reshuffles Government amid Party Rift
by Naharnet Newsdesk
11 June 2014, 17:16
Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic on Wednesday announced changes to his cabinet sacking the education and health ministers amid a deep split in his centre-left party.
Milanovic did not provide a clear explanation for the move, just saying that the two new ministers -- Sinisa Varga for health and Vedran Mornar for education -- were taking charge of "very difficult" sectors where "opposition to reforms are huge."
When asked by journalists to elaborate on removing Rajko Ostojic from the health ministry and Zeljko Jovanovic from education, he said, "There are no concrete personal reasons or reasons regarding their work... It simply leaves a person exhausted... people should rest a bit."
But the move comes after the premier's Social Democrats, the ruling coalition's main force, in a weekend vote ousted from the party, at Milanovic's request, veteran member and powerful ex-finance minister Slavko Linic.
Although Ostojic was among those who openly supported Linic, Milanovic on Wednesday denied claims that that was the reason he lost the health portfolio.
Linic, who was pursing the fiscal discipline sought by the European Union which Croatia joined last year, was dismissed in May for approving a controversial tax deal.
Political analysts say that although Milanovic succeeded in ousting Linic, he was clearly lacking support within the SDP which would undermine the government's effort to enact painful reforms 18 months ahead of parliamentary elections.
Croatia's economy has not grown since 2008, and unemployment is around 20 percent.
Experts say the country should reform its inefficient and huge public sector and improve the business environment.
Angry cab drivers gridlock Europe in protest at 'unregulated' taxi app
Uber claims disruption boosted users by 850% as continent-wide demonstration causes traffic chaos from London to Madrid
Alexandra Topping, Ashifa Kassam in Madrid and Lizzy Davies in Rome
The Guardian, Wednesday 11 June 2014 20.20 BST
Several major European cities ground to a halt on Wednesday as licensed taxi drivers took to the streets in mass protests against the smartphone taxi app Uber.
Demonstrations in London, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Berlin, Milan and Rome caused travel chaos and long tailbacks, as taxi drivers protested against the app, which they argue is unregulated and threatens their livelihood.
In London, Trafalgar Square and Whitehall were jammed from the start of the planned "go slow" at 2pm, as thousands of black cabs gathered honking their horns, bringing total gridlock to the centre of the capital, while supporters waved banners and started occasionally chanting: "Boris, out!"
A spokeswoman for Uber, the US start-up which links minicab drivers to passengers via a GPS-based smartphone app, said the protests had boosted new users in London by 850%, as people tried to cope with the gridlock.
But the company, based in San Francisco and backed by Google and Goldman Sachs, came under increasing pressure to be more transparent about its tax set-up.
Taxi associations claim Uber routes its payments through headquarters in the Netherlands to minimise its corporation tax payments in France, the UK and Germany – in a similar manner to Apple and Starbucks, which have found themselves in the firing line for the practice.
Steve McNamara, the general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers' Association – which was joined by the London Cab Drivers Club and the transport workers' union RMT – said the cab drivers were not demonstrating against Uber but against Transport for London.
By using a driver's mobile phone to track a journey and charge a fare on the distance and time travelled, Uber was operating with a meter, he said, which under current regulations only licensed black cabs are allowed to do.
"The problem here is that Uber is operating outside the law. There is no question about that. But someone on high has made a decision to leave Uber alone. Why? It is sinister," McNamara said.
Taxi associations argue that black cab meter rates are fixed, whereas Uber's fares are set by the company, which enables it to charge a "surge" fee during busy periods. They add that they have to undergo criminal checks and medicals, be wheelchair accessible, and pass the Knowledge test, but that Uber drivers need only a minicab licence and commercial insurance.
Transport for London has now referred the matter to the high court. McNamara questioned the issuing of a licence to Uber when its tax status was unclear. "Why do Uber's invoices go through Holland? I don't particularly care if Uber are paying enough tax in the UK, but that is something that should concern Boris."
In a statement, the company said: "Uber complies with all applicable tax laws, and pays taxes in all jurisdictions, such as corporate income tax, payroll tax, sales and use tax, and VAT."
Jo Bertram, the UK & Ireland general manager for Uber, said the number of people downloading the app in London had increased by 850%, compared with the same time on Wednesday last week. "The results are clear: London wants Uber in a big way," she said. "Unsurprisingly, the LTDA, which is stuck in the dark ages, is intent on holding London to ransom and causing significant economic impact to Londoners."
Asked what specific tax the company paid in the UK, and why its invoices go through an office in the Netherlands, she said she had nothing to add to the statement.
Leon Daniels, TfL's managing director of surface transport, said the strike had been "good natured" and he estimated the number of cabs at around 5,000.
"As a result of close co-operation between TfL and the Metropolitan Police Service the number of other road users caught in the congestion was minimised," he said. "The important thing now is continue with the process to get legal clarity on the issue of taxi meters. I hope that the industry will join us in taking that to a conclusion with all due speed."
In Italy, where Uber has been provoking protests from taxi drivers in Milan and Rome since last year, strikes and protests were held not only in the app's two Italian strongholds but also in other cities keen to stave off its arrival.
About 150 drivers protested in Naples, the Ansa news agency reported, while in the northern city of Verona drivers staged a one-hour strike – in solidarity with their Milanese colleagues but "above all against the possibility that the Uber app could spread to Verona too," a statement said.
In Milan, where the strike was due to last until 10pm local time, organisers said the action was about "not surrendering a sector to a multinational which cares about revenue and not service, without even paying taxes in Italy".
Spain saw similar scenes, as Madrid's ubiquitous white taxis began a 24-hour strike to protest against Uber and other similar smartphone apps. The two main taxi associations said 100% of their members had parked their cars for the day in an effort to raise awareness over what they called unfair competition. While taxi licences in Spain cost between €80,000 and €200,000, there is no such requirement for drivers with Uber.
Protests were also held in Barcelona, the only Spanish city where Uber is currently in use. On Tuesday, two months after the app was introduced there, the Catalan government announced it would demand Uber "immediately" cease its activity in Barcelona, and drivers who use it could be fined up to €6,000 and see their vehicles impounded.
Uber has expanded rapidly since it was launched in 2010 by two US technology entrepreneurs, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp. The company, which was last week valued at $18bn (£11bn) in an oversubscribed fundraising, operates in London, Manchester and more than 100 cities in 37 countries and has faced opposition in most of them.
It is banned in Las Vegas and Miami and is facing lawsuits in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, DC.
Speaking from his stationary cab in Whitehall, Carl Williams said cab drivers welcomed competition. "We've been in competition with minicabs for 40 years. This is not about competition, it's a regulation issue: if you want to give Uber meters fine – but, like ours, that meter should be regulated."
Marseille braces for return of jihadists in wake of Jewish museum attack
French police are taking no chances after arresting a suspected jihadist in a city where one in four of the population is Muslim
Anne Penketh in Marseille
theguardian.com, Wednesday 11 June 2014 12.49 BST
Four police officers are standing by their car parked outside the grand synagogue in Marseille, a short walk from the city's old port. They watch as worshippers slip inside through a side door.
"It's normal," said one, as he held open the door, referring to the police presence. "You can't help people being worried."
The officer was referring to the possibility of another antisemitic attack following the deadly shootings by a suspected French jihadist at the Jewish museum in Brussels on 24 May. Ninety synagogues and Jewish schools in Marseille have been placed under police guard since the attack in the Belgium capital, which killed four people. The French city's 80,000-strong Jewish community has had no alternative other than to "bunkerise", said Michèle Teboul, the leader of a regional Jewish organisation.
French police have been taking no chances since the chance arrest of the suspect in the Brussels attack, Mehdi Nemmouche, at bus station in the Marseille: the adjacent Saint-Charles railway station was evacuated during last Friday's rush-hour after the discovery of a suspicious package.
The Jewish museum attack has focused attention on the threat from an estimated 780 French jihadists returning from the war in Syria, and investigators' difficulties in tracking them. Nemmouche is suspected of carrying out the attack after returning from Syria via a circuitous route through Asia.
The French prime minister, Manuel Valls, who was interior minister until March, said the threat of the returning European jihadists was on an unprecedented scale and was "without a doubt, the greatest danger that we must face in the coming years".
Nemmouche's arrest on 30 May was a wake-up call, said the deputy mayor of Marseille, Nora Preziosi, a politician who hails from the city's inner city northern districts, which carry a reputation for violent crime linked to drug-dealing and cigarette smuggling.
"My beautiful religion is being sullied," said Preziosi, a member of the centre-right UMP party and an admirer of the former president Nicolas Sarkozy, whose photographs adorn her office. "The vast majority of Muslims are republican, they are against what is happening. Islam is being sullied by the Salafists, and stigmatised by the media."
Referring to Nemmouche, she added: "What was he doing in Marseille? He should have been followed. These people should be placed under surveillance, that's the state's responsibility."
Camille Hennetier, a deputy prosecutor in charge of the central investigative anti-terrorist unit in Paris, points out that France has aggressive legislation that permits the arrest of people suspected of being part of a criminal conspiracy plotting terrorist acts. "It's not a crime to be radical," she said. "But it is a crime to wage jihad."
French police have pre-emptively arrested a number of people suspected of being jihadists, including 21 people over the past 18 months linked to a group with Syria connections known as the "Cannes-Torcy" cell. Six alleged jihadist recruiters were detained last week after Nemmouche's arrest. But Hennetier's colleague, general prosecutor Ludovic Lestel, said investigators were hampered by the jihadists' use of social media and Skype, which are more difficult to monitor than extremist websites.
French authorities recently publicised a free hotline for family members to come forward with concerns about extremists in their midst. But 75% of the calls so far have been abusive.
The sheer number of potential terrorists is also a challenge for investigators. About 90 violent extremists returned from Afghanistan, compared with the current surge of French nationals who take cheap flights to Turkey, where the men leave their wives and children before heading across the border. According to the interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, 285 jihadist fighters are now in Syria – a 75% increase compared with the previous six months. President François Hollande said last week that 30 French nationals had been killed in the Syrian civil war.
Marseille, a city where one in four of the 850,000 population is Muslim, poses no significant jihadist threat compared with other cities, according to Lestel. He identified Toulouse – where Islamist Mohamed Merah went on a murderous rampage two years ago before being killed in a police siege – the Paris region, and northern France as the zones where the majority of investigations targeting suspected home-grown jihadists were being pursued.
Marseille-Espérance was set up in 1990 by the city's then mayor, Robert Vigouroux, a Socialist, to preserve the fragile social harmony in the city whose places of worship are often cheek by jowl. Co-founder Salah Bariki pointed out that Marseille escaped the explosion of rioting that hit the crime-ridden impoverished suburbs of other French cities in 2005.
Marseille-Espérance works behind the scenes to bring together the religious leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, Armenian, Greek orthodox and Buddhist communities, who meet twice a year with the centre-right mayor, Jean-Claude Gaudin.
"We don't talk about religion," Bariki said, "and we don't do politics."
Russia 'Relatively' Optimistic after Iran Nuclear Talks
by Naharnet Newsdesk
12 June 2014, 10:47
Russia said on Thursday that it was relatively optimistic after holding bilateral talks with Iran ahead of next week's negotiations between world powers and Tehran over its nuclear program.
Iran has been talking separately with most of the members of the P5+1 group -- the five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany -- before the next round of talks begin in Vienna on June 16.
"We can say that the working out of a deal... is progressing," Russian negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies after talks in Rome Wednesday, which followed discussions the Iranians held with the U.S. and France.
"After these talks we are relatively optimistic ahead of the new round of negotiations that will begin on Monday in Vienna," Ryabkov said.
He underlined that the talks were aimed at sketching out potential areas of progress and problems for the Vienna negotiations, due to last from June 16-20.
"As far as we can tell, the Iranian delegation has done important work with our American and French colleagues over the past two days," Ryabkov said.
"We are going from a simple discussion to the search for concrete solutions," he said, adding that the possibilities of progress were appearing for "certain aspects" of the tortuous negotiations.
The P5+1 group and Iran secured an interim deal on Tehran's controversial nuclear program in November after marathon talks in Geneva.
The deadline for a final accord was set as July 20, but several players including Iran have already said a six-month extension may be needed.
Ahead of next week's round of negotiations, Iran is holding bilateral meetings with all members of the P5+1 group except for China and Britain.
Washington and the other P5+1 states are seeking solid commitments that will ensure Iran's stated desire for a peaceful atomic energy program is not a covert attempt to build a nuclear bomb.
For Iran, the goal is to make a leap towards ending the international sanctions, notably those imposed by the United States, that have battered its economy.
The P5+1 comprises Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany.
Iraq Militants, Pushing South, Aim at Capital
By SUADAD AL-SALHY and TIM ARANGO
JUNE 11, 2014
BAGHDAD — Sunni militants consolidated and extended their control over northern Iraq on Wednesday, seizing Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, threatening the strategic oil refining town of Baiji and pushing south toward Baghdad, their ultimate target, Iraqi sources said.
As the dimensions of the assault began to become clear, it was evident that a number of militant groups had joined forces, including Baathist military commanders from the Hussein era, whose goal is to rout the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. One of the Baathists, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, was a top military commander and a vice president in the Hussein government and one of the few prominent Baathists to evade capture by the Americans throughout the occupation.
“These groups were unified by the same goal, which is getting rid of this sectarian government, ending this corrupt army and negotiating to form the Sunni Region,” said Abu Karam, a senior Baathist leader and a former high-ranking army officer, who said planning for the offensive had begun two years ago. “The decisive battle will be in northern Baghdad. These groups will not stop in Tikrit and will keep moving toward Baghdad.”
The sudden successes of the militant forces sent hundreds of thousands of people running, some literally, from the new outbursts of violence, panicked leaders in Turkey and Syria and revived memories of bloody American struggles to wrest the same places — Mosul and Tikrit — from jihadist fighters a decade ago.
By late Wednesday, the Sunni militants, many aligned with the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, were battling loyalist forces at the northern entrance to the city of Samarra, about 70 miles north of Baghdad. The city is known for a sacred Shiite shrine that was bombed in 2006, during the height of the American-led occupation, touching off a sectarian civil war between the Sunni minority and Shiite majority.
Militant commanders were reportedly threatening to destroy the shrine if its defenders refused to lay down their arms, while hundreds of Shiite fighters were said to be heading north from Baghdad to confront the attackers.
As Iraqi government forces crumbled in disarray before the assault, there was speculation that they may have been ordered by their superiors to give up without a fight. One local commander in Salahuddin Province, where Tikrit is located, said in an interview Wednesday: “We received phone calls from high-ranking commanders asking us to give up. I questioned them on this, and they said, ‘This is an order.’ ”
Residents of Tikrit reported remarkable displays of soldiers handing over their weapons and uniforms peacefully to militants who ordinarily would have been expected to kill government soldiers on the spot.
Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, himself suggested the possibility of a disloyal military in his exhortations on Tuesday for citizens to take up arms against the Sunni insurgents.
As the central government declared a 10 p.m. curfew in the capital and surrounding towns, an influential Iraqi Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, called for the formation of a special force to defend religious sites in Iraq. The authorities in neighboring Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, canceled all visas and flights for pilgrims to Baghdad and intensified security on the Iran-Iraq border, Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
Shiite militia leaders said that at least four brigades, each with 2,500 to 3,000 fighters, had been hastily assembled and equipped in recent weeks by the Shiite political parties to protect Baghdad and the political process in Iraq. They identified the outfits as the Kataibe Brigade, the Assaib Brigade, the Imam al-Sadr Brigade and the armed wing of the Badr Organization.
The remarkably rapid advance of the Sunni militants, who on Tuesday seized the northern city of Mosul as Iraqi forces fled or surrendered, reflects the spillover of the Sunni insurgency in Syria and the inability of Iraq’s Shiite-led government to pacify the country after American forces departed in 2011 after eight years of war and occupation.
Perhaps the greatest danger is that the Iraqi conflict could draw in neighboring countries. particularly Turkey, a NATO ally. On Wednesday, insurgents were holding scores of Turkish citizens seized in Mosul over the last two days, including the Turkish consul general, other diplomats and at least three children, the Turkish government said.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey was holding an emergency meeting with top security officials, and the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, cut short a trip to New York and was returning to Ankara. “No one should try to test the limits of Turkey’s strength,” Mr. Davutoglu said in a statement.
Turkey has long taken an interest in northern Iraq for economic reasons and because of the sizable and often restive Kurdish minority, which straddles the border and controls a region of Iraq east of Mosul.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — an organization once part of Al Qaeda — has effectively gained control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria over the past year.
Residents of Baiji, a city of 200,000 about 110 miles south of Mosul, awoke Wednesday to find that government checkpoints had been abandoned and that insurgents, arriving in a column of 60 vehicles, were taking control of parts of the city without firing a shot, the security officials said. Peter Bouckaert, the emergency services director for Human Rights Watch, said in a post on Twitter that the militants had seized the Baiji power station, which supplies electricity to Baghdad, Kirkuk and Salahuddin Province.
In Tikrit, residents said the militants attacked in the afternoon from three directions: east, west and north. They said there were brief exchanges of gunfire, and then police officers and soldiers shed their uniforms, put on civilian clothing and fled through residential areas to avoid the militants.
“They did not kill the soldiers or policemen who handed over their weapons, uniform and their military ID,” a security official in Tikrit, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Wednesday. “They just took these things and asked them to leave.”
On Wednesday, the insurgents claimed to have taken control of the entire province of Nineveh, Agence France-Presse reported, and there were reports of militants executing government soldiers in the Kirkuk region. Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of the province, criticized the Iraqi army commanders in Mosul, saying they had misled the government about the situation in the city.
Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, was quoted on Wednesday as saying his country’s Kurdish minority would “work together” with Baghdad’s forces to “flush out these foreign fighters.”
At a meeting of Arab and European foreign ministers in Athens, Mr. Zebari, a Kurd, called the insurgents’ strike “a serious, mortal threat,” adding: “The response has to be soon. There has to be a quick response to what has happened.”
Iraqi Kurds are concentrated in the autonomous region of Kurdistan, where security is maintained by a disciplined and fiercely loyal fighting force, the pesh merga, that has not yet become involved in the clashes.
In a further indication of the regional dimensions of the crisis, the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, facing the same jihadist adversary in its civil war against a broader array of armed foes, expressed solidarity with the Iraqi authorities and armed forces, the official SANA news agency reported.
Word of the latest militant advance came as a United Nations agency reported that 500,000 people had fled Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The International Organization for Migration, based in Geneva, said the civilians had mainly fled on foot, because the militants would not let them use vehicles and had taken control of the airport. Roughly the same number were displaced from Anbar Province in western Iraq as the militants gained ground there, the organization said.
The Obama administration, which has expressed alarm about the events in Iraq and offered the government unspecified support, sharpened a longstanding travel warning to Americans on Wednesday about the risks of visiting the country. “Travel within Iraq remains dangerous given the security situation,” the State Department said in an advisory. It said American citizens remained “at high risk for kidnapping and terrorist violence.”
US vows to back Iraq in fight against jihadist threat
By Jo Biddle
Washington (AFP) - The United States vowed Wednesday to boost aid to Iraq amid fears the US-backed Iraqi army is increasingly powerless against emboldened militants more than two years after American forces withdrew.
But State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki denied the offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant had caught Washington by surprise or that it marked a failure of US policy in the country it invaded in 2003.
Washington is committed to "working with the Iraqi government and leaders across Iraq to support a unified approach against ISIL's continued aggression," Psaki told reporters, adding that the US administration had long warned of the dangers posed by the militants now sweeping toward Baghdad.
A US official said President Barack Obama's administration was considering sending "more weaponry" to Iraq after ISIL seized the cities of Mosul and Tikrit.
But there was no current plan to send US troops back into Iraq, where around 4,500 American soldiers died in the bitter conflict, Psaki said.
The United States has already expedited arms shipments to Iraq this year and ramped up training of Iraqi security forces, while Congress is mulling a request for a further $1 billion in military aid.
In January, Washington sold 24 Apache attack helicopters to Baghdad, as well as about 300 anti-tank Hellfire missiles and two of some 36 F-16 fighter aircraft, a Pentagon spokesman said. Some of the arms have been delivered and others should be on their way in the coming months.
The new $1 billion includes provisions for around 200 Humvee vehicles and 24 AT-6C Texan II aircraft, but it may take months to get lawmakers' approval.
The last US troops left Iraq in December 2011, eight years after ousting Saddam Hussein following the invasion ordered by then president George W. Bush more than a decade ago.
But the country has been left riven by deep sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shiites Muslims.
Psaki repeated calls for "a strong unified front" from Iraqi leaders, saying Washington was taking steps "to cooperate on a security plan that will enhance the Iraqi army's ability to hold positions and confront this ISIL aggression."
Since ISIL began its spectacular assault late Monday, militants have captured a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, causing about half a million residents to flee their homes in Mosul.
A majority Sunni Muslim city, Mosul has long felt marginalized by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government.
Both the United States and Iraqi leaders have come under fire for failing to prevent the growth of militant groups, many of them armed and trained amid the conflict in neighboring Syria.
- Iraq didn't ask US troops to stay -
US envoy to Jordan Stuart Jones, tapped to be the next ambassador to Baghdad, highlighted that Iraqi leaders had refused to sign a security pact with the Obama administration.
"The Iraqi people really did not come together and asked us to stay in a way that made possible for us to stay," Jones told US lawmakers.
Security expert Bruce Riedel told AFP that "there's plenty of room for finger-pointing for the debacle in Iraq."
"Let's not forget the disastrous decision to start the war in 2003 as the place to begin finger-pointing," the senior fellow at the Brookings Institution added.
Calling for renewed focus on the current situation, Riedel said the Pentagon needed to make a fundamental assessment of the problems facing the Iraqi military.
"Is it a lack of Apache helicopters, or is it a fundamental breakdown in the cohesion of the Iraqi military?" he asked.
"If... it's a problem that the Iraqi military is broken at its core, then there's no point in sending more Humvees and Apaches," Riedel added.
"It's a point of how do we minimize our losses and live with what might be rapidly be developing as a de-facto partition of Iraq between a Sunni extremist state and a Shiite state."
Iran offers Iraq support against the ‘terrorism’ of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, June 11, 2014 13:58 EDT
Iran offered neighbouring Iraq support against “terrorism” Wednesday, as Baghdad battled a jihadist offensive that has seized the country’s second city and is moving towards the capital.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that “while condemning the murder of Iraqi citizens… Iran offers its support to the government and people of Iraq against terrorism.”
Iran is a predominantly Shiite Muslim country, while the campaign against Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s coalition government is led by Sunni hardliners.
In remarks to his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, carried by state news agency IRNA, Zarif also called for “effective international support” for the Iraqi government.
It was the first reaction by Iran to the campaign spearheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is also fighting to overthrow Tehran’s close ally President Bashar al-Assad in Syria
Iraq army capitulates to Isis militants in four cities
Half a million people on the move after gunmen seize four cities and pillage army bases and banks
• Iraq crisis – latest developments LIVE
Martin Chulov in Beirut, Fazel Hawramy in Irbil and Spencer Ackerman in New York
The Guardian, Thursday 12 June 2014
Iraq is facing its gravest test since the US-led invasion more than a decade ago, after its army capitulated to Islamist insurgents who have seized four cities and pillaged military bases and banks, in a lightning campaign which seems poised to fuel a cross-border insurgency endangering the entire region.
The extent of the Iraqi army's defeat at the hands of militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) became clear on Wednesday when officials in Baghdad conceded that insurgents had stripped the main army base in the northern city of Mosul of weapons, released hundreds of prisoners from the city's jails and may have seized up to $480m in banknotes from the city's banks.
Iraqi officials told the Guardian that two divisions of Iraqi soldiers – roughly 30,000 men – simply turned and ran in the face of the assault by an insurgent force of just 800 fighters. Isis extremists roamed freely on Wednesday through the streets of Mosul, openly surprised at the ease with which they took Iraq's second largest city after three days of sporadic fighting.
Senior government officials in Baghdad were equally shocked, accusing the army of betrayal and claiming the sacking of the city was a strategic disaster that would imperil Iraq's borders.
The developments seriously undermine US claims to have established a unified and competent military after more than a decade of training. The US invasion and occupation cost Washington close to a trillion dollars and the lives of more than 4,500 of its soldiers. It is also thought to have killed at least 100,000 Iraqis.
Early on Thursday the Sites monitoring group in the US said it had translated an audio statement by an Isis spokesman declaring that "the battle will rage in Baghdad and Karbala ... put on your belts and get ready". The New York Times, meanwhile, reported that Iraq last month secretly asked Barack Obama to consider bombing Sunni militant staging posts in Iraq.
In a day of extraordinary developments on Wednesday, Isis gunmen also encircled the city of Deir el-Zour across the border in Syria, kidnapped 80 Turkish citizens in two mass abductions, made advances in two other provinces and claimed to have successfully smuggled a huge weapons haul to eastern Syria's Hassaka province.
Isis fighters rode unopposed into Saddam Hussein's birthplace of Tikrit. There, as in Mosul the day before, they quickly set up checkpoints, sacked government buildings and filled trucks with weapons and cash, some of which were quickly dispatched to Syria.
Militants seized the Turkish consulate in Mosul and kidnapped the head of the diplomatic mission along with 24 staff members. A local police colonel told AFP he had spoken with the kidnappers who said those held "are safe with us" and would be moved to a "safer place". Turkish forces have targeted Isis forces in Syria.
Militants also destroyed a police station in Baiji, site of Iraq's largest refinery. Local officials said the insurgents withdrew after local tribal leaders persuaded them not to seize the refinery and power stations. At least half a million residents of northern Iraq are reported to be on the move, with most attempting to flee to the Kurdish far north where border officials were overwhelmed and expecting refugee numbers to increase sharply in coming days.
The UN said it was scrambling to deal with the crisis. Save the Children said: "We are witnessing one of the largest and swiftest mass movements of people in the world in recent memory. The majority of Iraqis fleeing Mosul had to escape in a matter of minutes."
As security unravelled in the country's north and centre, the radical Shia Islamic leader Moqtada al-Sadr threatened to reform the Mahdi army – a key protagonist in the sectarian war that nearly ripped Iraq apart in the wake of the US invasion. Militias had primacy nationwide during the worst of the war years and are once again ascendant as the Iraqi military's authority crumbles.
Foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari urged Kurdish and central government leaders to set aside their differences to deal with the "mortal threat" facing the country. Kurdish authorities were letting nearly all new arrivals enter in an early sign of closer than normal cooperation.
For a second day, the road between Mosul and Kirkuk was choked with cars full of families who described chaos in the city as troops beat an undignified retreat.
Abu Abdulla, a 55-year-old who had just arrived in Irbil, said: "Suddenly the army withdrew and there was no army nor police, just the militants; we don't know where they are from; they are masked."
So many soldiers had fled Mosul that the price of firearms plummeted as troops flooded the market with their service weapons, said Shirzad, a taxi driver at the border of Iraqi Kurdistan, who had been ferrying Iraqi army deserters from the checkpoint towards Kirkuk.
Isis released footage of large numbers of weapons and armoured military vehicles being received by members in eastern Syria, confirming fears that the looted weapons would fuel the insurgency on both sides of an increasingly irrelevant border. Sources in the Syrian city of Hassaka confirmed to the Guardian that large convoys of trucks carrying weapons arrived late on Tuesday and were met by a senior Isis figure, Omar al-Chechani.
Statements released by the group claimed that the assault on Mosul was the beginning of the end of the Sykes Picot agreement - the post-colonial settlement which in 1916 enshrined the nation states of Syria and Lebanon and influenced the drawing of the Jordan and Iraq borders. Isis commanders say they are fighting to destroy the post-Ottoman nation state borders and restore a caliphate that submits to fundamentalist Islamic law.
The group has been steadily building towards such an outcome, rampaging first through northern Syria and then back into Anbar province, the heartland of its earliest incarnation almost 10 years ago. Along the way, it has steadily accrued weapons and gained confidence, storming unopposed into towns and cities that were notionally protected by the best trained and armed military in the Arab world.
However, Mosul is by far its biggest prize so far: a gain that will seriously undermine Nour al-Maliki's efforts to be renominated as prime minister for a third term - and cripple the standing of the military, regarded for the past three years as the most important institution in the land. Any counter-offensive against Isis is expected to be led instead by Kurdish Peshmurga forces, which remain fiercely loyal to Kurdish leaders, but not to Baghdad.
A spokesperson for the Peshmurga, Brigadier General Halgord Hekmat, told the Guardian that "the sudden collapse of the Iraqi army has left us with no option but to fill some areas with our forces because we can't have a security vacuum on our border".
Maliki accused some senior military figures of "negligence" and "betrayal", attempting to deflect blame for the rout. As commander in chief, Maliki has ultimate responsibility for Iraq's armed forces and has presided over a series of spectacular defeats at the hands of Isis, starting last July when Abu Ghraib prison on Baghdad's western outskirts was overrun by the extremist group in a raid that freed several hundred convicted terrorists.
In December parts of Fallujah and Ramadi - both former al-Qaida strongholds - were retaken by the group, which has ever since deterred Iraqi forces from trying to re-enter the cities and maintained a withering insurgency in the nearby countryside.
"I know the reasons why the army collapsed," Maliki said. "But now is not the time to point the blame to whoever ordered the army to fall back. Even if it's a ploy, the generals who are responsible must be held accountable. A conspiracy has led Isis to occupy Mosul. Whoever is responsible will not get away with that they did."
Most of the weapons seized by Isis were taken from the al-Qayara base in Mosul, the fourth largest in the country, after two divisions of the Iraqi army fled the city en masse on Tuesday, allowing a far smaller extremist force to enter.
The haul included armoured humvees, rockets, tonnes of ammunition and assault weapons. Evidence of the large-scale desertion remained littered across the streets of the central city, with flak jackets, camouflage uniforms and ammunition clips being held up by insurgents as they celebrated their victory.
Hamad al-Mutlaq, a member of the Iraqi parliament's defence committee, said: "I'm convinced that what happened in Mosul is deliberate negligence or there is an agreement between the parties because it's impossible for an army to be unable to stand up to a group made up of hundreds of men."
"Isis can't have had more than a few thousand men versus two divisions made up of 30,000 Iraqi soldiers. This signifies that the army has been built on weak foundations. The Iraqi government is the one to blame and should be held responsible for this failure; it has been unable to build a healthy state and unable to defend it."
Atheel al-Nujaifi, governor of Ninevah province, who fled Mosul along with the city's chief of police, said on Wednesday Iraqi authorities were determined to recapture the northern city.
"Mosul is capable of getting back on its feet and getting rid of all the outsiders …and we have a plan to restore security," he said. "We have taken practical steps in order to restore order … by mobilising people into public committees that would retake the city."
Al-Mutlaq believes the city has been lost to Isis. "I don't think the government is able to retake Mosul. After eight years, it shows that all its plans have been faulty," he said.
Not all Mosul residents condemned the Isis rout. Ali Aziz, 35, a humanitarian worker, said: "We got statements by them confirming that they won't cause harm to anyone and all the minorities will be protected by them. They are really welcomed and we are so happy to have them rather than having Maliki's bloody, brutal forces.
"I feel we have been liberated of an awful nightmare that was suffocating us for 11 years. The army and the police never stopped arresting, detaining and killing people, let alone the bribes they were taken from the detainees' families.
"Me and my neighbours are waiting for the news that the other six Sunni protesting provinces falling in the hand of the Isis fighters to declare our Sunni region like the three provinces in Kurdistan."
Susan Rice, Obama's national security adviser, said the US would "ramp up" its support to the moderate Syrian opposition, Isis's ostensible rivals for control of the Syrian resistance to Bashar Assad. Assad's sponsors, the Iran government, hold significant influence over the Iraqi government that the US also supports.
• Additional reporting: Mona Mahmood, Naziha Baasiri, Saalim Rizk and Yousif al-Timimi
Who are Isis? A terror group too extreme even for al-Qaida
The Islamic State of Iraq in Syria has a reputation for being even more brutal than the main jihadi group of inspiration
theguardian.com, Wednesday 11 June 2014 14.00 BST
The Islamic State of Iraq in Syria (Isis) is so hardline that it was disavowed by al-Qaida's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Led by an Iraqi called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Isis was originally an al-Qaida group in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). As the Syrian civil war intensified, its involvement in the conflict was indirect at first. Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, an ISI member, established Jabhat al-Jabhat al-Nusra in mid-2011, which became the main jihadi group in the Syrian war. Joulani received support and funding from ISI and Baghdadi.
But Baghdadi sought to gain influence over the increasingly powerful Jabhat al-Nusra by directly expanding ISI's operations into Syria, forming Isis in April last year. Differences over ideology and strategy soon led to bitter infighting. Isis turned to out to be too extreme and brutal not just for Jabhat al-Nusra, but for al-Qaida itself, leading to a public repudiation by Zawahiri, who last month called on Isis to leave Syria and return to Iraq.
By then Isis, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, had lost ground in Syria to Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies. But any notion that Isis is a spent force has been shattered by its capture of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. Isis now controls territory that stretches from the eastern edge of Aleppo, Syria, to Falluja in western Iraq and now the northern city of Mosul.
Isis has shown its ruthlessness and brutality in the areas of Syria under its control, eastern Aleppo and the city of Raqqa. It was blamed for the February killing of a founding member of the Salafi group Ahrar al-Sham and the group's leader in Aleppo, Muhammad Bahaiah, who had close connections with senior al-Qaida leaders. It was also blamed for the assassination of Jabhat al-Nusra's leader in the Idlib governorate, Abu Muahmmad al-Ansari, along with his wife, children and relatives. It ordered the crucifixion of a man accused of murder; other forms of punishment include beheadings and amputations.
Despite its brutal reputation, Isis has shown flexibility as well in Iraq to win over disaffected Sunnis in the north against the Shia-led government of Nouri al-Maliki. Mushreq Abbas, who writes on Iraq for the Al-Monitor website, describes how Baghdadi has presented himself as an alternative to the Sunni political class tribal leaders and moderate clerics who oppose central government.
"Until now, Baghdadi's fighters have not harmed religious men … when the tribes refused to raise Isis banners in Falluja, he ordered his fighters not to raise the banner and try to co-opt the fighters of armed groups, clans or religious men," says Abbas.
Unlike the Iraqi troops facing them Isis fighters are highly motivated, battle hardened and well-equipped, analysts say.
"It also runs the equivalent of a state. It has all the trappings of a state, just not an internationally recognised one," Douglas Ollivant of the New America Foundation, told the Washington Post.
It runs courts, schools and services, flying its black-and-white flag over every facility it controls. In Raqqa, it even started a consumer protection authority for food standards.
Isis has bolstered its strength by recruiting thousands of foreign volunteers in Syria, some from Europe and the US, and is estimated to have more than 10,000 men under its control. As for resources, it counts large extortion networks in Mosul that predates the US withdrawal and in February it seized control of the financially valuable Conoco gas field, said to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a week, from Jabhat al-Nusra in Deir Ezzor, in Syria.
Now that it has captured Mosul, Isis is in an even stronger position to bolster its claim that it is the leading jihadi group.
"Isis now presents itself as an ideologically superior alternative to al-Qaida within the jihadi community and it has publicly challenged the legitimacy of al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri," said Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Doha, in a paper last month. "As such it has increasingly become a transnational movement with immediate objectives far beyond Iraq and Syria."
Security collapse in Iraqi city of Mosul is not solely Maliki's responsibility
The fact Islamist extremists have seized control of much of Iraq's second biggest city reflects badly on Obama's administration
theguardian.com, Wednesday 11 June 2014 13.22 BST
Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's tough-guy prime minister, bears much responsibility for the security collapse in Mosul and surrounding areas in the face of this week's hard-driving Islamist military offensive. But others must take their share of the blame, including the Obama administration, which appears once again to be asleep at the wheel.
The antagonistic attitude of Maliki's Shia Muslim-led government towards the Sunni minority in central and eastern Iraq lies at the heart of the current crisis. Sunnis in Anbar province, which includes the flashpoint cities of Falluja and Ramadi, have long complained the government in Baghdad ignores their interests and concerns.
Following an upsurge in sectarian, inter-communal violence that gathered pace through 2013, when the UN says more than 8,800 people died, Maliki ordered an army offensive in Anbar on 23 December (using units from the Shia south). He claimed all those backing the Sunni protest movement were, in effect, part of al-Qaida.
The prime minister apparently hoped to assert his authority before the general elections in April. But his heavy-handed tactics only served to unite more moderate tribal leaders – who famously backed the US military "surge" in Anbar in 2007 – with the Islamist hardliners.
"Most tribes issued calls to arms and demanded the withdrawal of all federal armed forces from the province. Heavy fighting soon followed, the army withdrew personnel from all cities, and convoys of heavily-armed Isis (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) militants streamed into Ramadi and Falluja," said Brookings analyst Charles Lister.
Despite losing de facto control of Anbar and a subsequent loss of votes in the elections, Maliki has spent recent weeks trying to stitch together a coalition government to keep him in power for a third consecutive term. Isis spent the time expanding and strengthening its position in neighbouring Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital.
Thus the Isis takeover of the city and surrounding towns and villages was sudden but hardly a surprise, according to regional analysts. It had been in the making for months.
Despite Maliki's claims, Isis is separate from and to some extent a rival to al-Qaida, whose affiliates it has clashed with in Syria. Veteran commentator Patrick Cockburn said: "Isis has taken over from al-Qaida as the most powerful and effective extreme jihadi group in the world. It now controls or can operate with impunity in a great stretch of territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria, making it militarily the most successful jihadi movement ever."
Maliki's divisive politics have made a big contribution to this outcome. Following the 2011 Sunni uprising in Syria, "peaceful demonstrations [by Iraqi Sunnis] from the end of 2012 won few concessions, with Iraq's Shia-dominated government convinced that the protesters wanted not reform but a revolution returning their community to power. The six million Iraqi Sunni became more alienated and sympathetic towards armed action by Isis," Cockburn said.
The chaotic flight of Iraqi security forces as the militants closed in on the centre of Mosul has raised understandable concerns about the government's grip on other parts of the country. Predictions by opponents of the American-led Iraq invasion in 2003 that Iraq could end up being split three ways between its Shia, Sunni and Kurdish areas now look closer than ever to being realised.
This is not the first time security in Mosul has imploded. During the occupation that followed Saddam Hussein's overthrow, the US military described the city as the last stronghold of al-Qaida and a focal point for foreign fighters coming to wage jihad against western forces. In 2004, thousands of police officers fled their posts rather than combat Sunni insurgents, leaving US and Kurdish forces to fight to keep control of the city.
But this latest collapse reflects badly on the Obama administration, which signed a series of security pacts, including a strategic framework agreement, with the Maliki government when US troops finally left in 2011. The idea (in a worrying echo of Afghanistan) was that Washington would help Baghdad to build an effective, well-trained national army.
Since then, however, the US has been busy turning oil-rich Iraq into a lucrative market for American arms sales while doing nothing much, in practical terms, about the looming Islamist threat. These advanced weapons were intended to bolster government forces. Now some of them could soon fall into the hands of the Islamists.
"Our shipments have included delivery of 300 Hellfire missiles, millions of rounds of small arms fire, thousands of rounds of tank ammunition, helicopter-fired rockets, machine guns, grenades, sniper rifles, M16 and M4 rifles to the Iraqi security agencies," the White House said this week. In January, Congress gave a green light to the sale of 24 Apache attack helicopters in a deal valued at $6.2bn (£3.7bn).
This US policy of arming the locals is now looking dangerously inept, to say the least. A recent offer by Iran, an ally of Iraq's government in the region-wide Shia-Sunni standoff, to help Maliki combat extremism highlighted the extent to which outside forces have taken advantage of the growing security vacuum in Iraq and Syria. Tehran's involvement is galling for Washington, which fought (in theory at least) for eight years to create a unified, pro-western democracy in Iraq despite subversive Iranian meddling.
But Obama has made it clear, most recently in his West Point speech, that he is against sending troops back to combat theatres in the Middle East, or anywhere else for that matter – a position enthusiastically applauded in Tehran. The bottom-line message from Washington to the hapless Maliki, as to Syria's pro-western opposition groups, is that when push comes to shove, as it did this week, you are on your own.
Voices from Mosul: 'The cities are falling into their hands'
Half a million people flee after Isis militants seize four Iraqi cities, but three Mosul residents pause to share their stories
theguardian.com, Wednesday 11 June 2014 20.19 BST
I'm so glad that we got rid of the Iraqi military forces, army and police. They were a curse on the city and its people. We have suffered a great deal since the US invasion in 2003, which brought only traitors and criminals to Iraq and to Mosul in particular.
Only now can I smell freedom and security in Mosul. I live in the centre of the city with my five kids. I work for a civil organisation. I didn't go to work today because members of the organisation are still thinking how to react in the light of the current circumstances in the city, but other governmental institutions are reopened today.
We have water, power and fuels but not enough food because grocery shops in the city weren't prepared for such emergency situation.
I have decided not to leave my house whatever the situation. I can't afford $1,500 (£893) rent for a flat in Irbil. There are 12 houses in my neighbourhood, eight of those families left in shock having seen officers in the army and the police stripping off their uniforms and fleeing. But four of those families came back today. They said they couldn't get through to Irbil and they could not stay with their kids in a tent. We have learned of the repeated wars in Iraq that it is better to stay at home and die in your bed rather then to be homeless somewhere else where you have nobody.
Today, the streets of Mosul are quiet. The clashes happened four days ago between The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (Isis) fighters and the military forces.
There was not a remarkable resistance by the Iraqi military forces and the Isis fighters put their hands on the city swiftly. They are in alliance now with Ansar al-Sunna and Ba'ath party fighters. We got statements by them confirming that they won't cause harm to any one and all the minorities will be protected by them.
They are welcomed. We are happy to have them rather than having Malki's bloody brutal forces. I feel we have been liberated of an awful nightmare that was suffocating us for 11 years. The army and the police never stopped arresting, detaining and killing people, let alone the bribes they were taken from detainees' families.
My neighbours and I are waiting to hear that the other six Sunni protesting provinces have fallen to Isis fighters – then we can declare our own Sunni region like the three provinces in Kurdistan. There is no way to live with this awful successive governments that have been ruling Iraq since the invasion. They proved to be very sectarian and a complete failure in governing Iraq.
We are trying to store as much food as we can as the news coming from Baghdad suggesting that Malki forces will attack the city soon. But they have nothing to attack as the city is empty of both Iraqi forces and Isis fighters. The Isis fighters are heading towards Baghdad to liberate other areas. The governor of Mosul has also fled the city to Baghdad – people here don't trust him anymore. We will have another governor soon to run the city. It is like Christmas in Mosul now.
Reema Fawaz, a 32-year-old mother of two daughters who works at the University of Mosul
I was at my office in Mosul University last Thursday, the students were doing their final exams when news came that Samarra city had fallen to Isis fighters and there would be a curfew in Mosul from 6pm to 7am. After a few hours we began to hear gunfire, mortars and rockets on the right bank of the river, in the Tamouz neighbourhood. My colleagues and I were in a panic trying to get a taxi home, but traffic was in chaos and people were in a hurry to get off the roads and into their homes by any means possible.
We did our best to stay in Mosul since the break out of the events last Thursday but my brother is a police officer and we were worried we would be killed by the Isis fighters. They are looking for any man who is in the police or army to kill him. My brother left his office only yesterday after the police commander and the governor fled the city. Any policeman who tried to resist the Isis fighters was killed immediately. No one could fight back against their heavy weapons.
We live at the left bank of the Tigris in Mosul. A rocket fell near my house where I live with my husband and two daughters. The kids were so terrified. We left this morning, with seven other families. We left our houses only taking our kids and clothes with us.
The Isis fighters have set up checkpoints all the way to Irbil. You need a permit to get to Kurdistan and luckily we knew people at the residency office so we only had to wait two hours to get into the city. Other people stayed for more than 10 hours to get permits. Many couldn't get permits at all and went home.
We have just arrived at a hotel in Irbil city. It's $120 (£71) for a single room but the owner of the hotel made a discount for us, so we're paying him only $70 (£42) per day. The hotel is full of people from Mosul. I do not know if the money we have with us will last for long if we keep staying here.
Captain Firas Hussein, a 40-year-old father of two and a police officer in Mosul
Warnings of an imminent attack on Mosul by Isis have been flooding into army and police commands for the past month. Weirdly enough, there were no serious preparations by the military forces in Mosul.
We knew something terrible would happen, but we didn't expect such a speedy collapse of the military command in the city.
It is obviously a conspiracy to hand Mosul over to Isis fighters and provide Maliki the opportunity to get his third mandate, against the will of the people.
[I believe] the military has agreed with Maliki to hand over the Sunni provinces to Isis and, in return, Mosul will vote for Maliki as a prime minister for the third time.
It is really difficult to understand how the commanders of the land forces were so quick to move when a similar crisis first erupted in Ramadi, but they all fled when Isis attacked Mosul – even though there were only a few Isis fighters who could have been overcome easily.
[In Isis's first assault] there were only 500 fighters. Once they got to the city, they were joined by other Iraqi resistance groups, they went to the prisons and released all the prisoners who are fighting with them now. They are quipped of far better and advanced weapons than ours. If they fire a bullet, they can scupper a wall, not like our funny weapons, which are like kids' toys.
The Isis fighters are from Syria, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. When they entered the Tamouz neighbourhood in Mosul, we tried to resist them with RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and rockets. We were waiting for support from the army, which never came.
All of a sudden, our commandos began to withdraw. We were more than 200 policeman in the office. I looked around and could only find eight. How can I fight Isis with eight policemen? We have pistols; they have PKC [machine guns].
We held them off for five days but on the fifth day, an emergency forces unit based in one of the hotels in Mosul was hit and lots of military men were killed. The attack devastated the morale of the military forces. Any policeman who handed himself to Isis was killed immediately.
Isis fighters then confiscated army vehicles deserted by the military forces and drove them to the police headquarters. At first we thought they were military men; then they started to kill any policeman they saw. They are everywhere in the city and all its villages. The whole city is under their control now.
They have set up checkpoints near the governmental building and banks. All the schools and universities are sealed off. As a police officer, I could not live in peace even when we were in control of the city. I was worried about my family all the time. Now, Isis is in control and its fighters are chasing the police and the army. I do not care who is in control, we just want some one to grant us peace and stability. All the families who fled their houses are in terrible conditions now with their little kids and not enough money.
You can't find a police officer left in the city now. No bullets have been fired against the Isis fighters. I left Mosul yesterday morning with my two kids and parents. It was a miracle we were able to flee without being arrested by Isis. Now, Isis are heading to Tikrit after taking all suburbs of Mosul, and they will go to Baghdad after. The cities are falling into their hands one after the other. All the policemen are saying, 'Why should we be killed for the sake of Maliki? His army left the city, why should we care?'
Maliki and all the governments officials have sent their families outside of Iraq. They have enough money in foreign banks to last 100 years. Police officers like me haven't received a salary this month and don't know how we'll survive in the months to come.
I spoke with my neighbours today, who told me that Isis fighters had been asking about me. I'm worried they might set fire to my house. We have lost everything.
Indian police 'gang-rape woman after she fails to pay bribe'
Woman says she was attacked at a police station in Uttar Pradesh after going there to seek her husband's release
Agence France-Presse in Lucknow
theguardian.com, Thursday 12 June 2014 08.40 BST
An Indian woman has said she was gang-raped by four officers at a police station, the latest in a string of sex attacks in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
The woman said she was attacked when she went to the station overnight on Monday in the Hamirpur district to seek her husband's release.
"At 11.30pm when there was no one in the room the sub-inspector took me to his room and raped me inside the police station," the woman told CNN-IBN.
She filed a complaint with a senior officer on Wednesday over the attack, which allegedly occurred when she refused to pay a bribe to secure the release of her husband. Virendra Kumar Shekhar, a police official from Hamirpur, said: "The procedure will be followed. The victim has filed a complaint and the guilty will be arrested soon."
Sub-inspector Balbir Singh said a criminal case had been lodged against four officers from the station.
The case is the latest in a string of rapes and murders in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, where the chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav, is under growing political pressure over his handling of law and order.
Last month, two girls, aged 12 and 14, were gang-raped and lynched in their village. They were attacked after going into a field to relieve themselves at night because they did not have a lavatory at home.
Their families refused to cut the bodies down from the tree for hours in protest, saying police had failed to take action against the attackers because the girls were from a low caste.
The prime minister, Narendra Modi, , in his first comments on the issue since the hanging of the girls sparked public outrage, on Wednesday urged all politicians to work together to protect women. Modi warned politicians against "politicising rape", saying they were "playing with the dignity of women" in his first speech to parliament since sweeping to power at last month's election.
India brought in tougher laws last year against sexual offenders after the fatal gang-rape of a student in New Delhi in December 2012, but they have failed to stem the tide of violence against women.
Also on Wednesday, a 45-year-old woman was found hanging from a tree in Uttar Pradesh. Her family said she had been raped and murdered. A police officer said five men were being questioned over the incident, which occurred several kilometres from her home in Bahraich district. "They [her husband and son] have alleged that the woman, before being strung up from the tree, was raped and murdered by these men," the district superintendent Happy Guptan told AFP.
First U.S. Drone Strikes this Year Kill 16 Militants in Pakistan
by Naharnet Newsdesk
12 June 2014, 06:59
The first two U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan this year killed at least 16 militants Wednesday, as Washington resumed the controversial program after a brazen Taliban attack on Karachi airport earlier this week.
The timing of the strikes is bound to raise suspicions of coordination between the two countries after drone attacks were reportedly suspended in December at Islamabad's request to give Pakistan space to pursue a peace process.
Pressure has been mounting on the government to launch a ground offensive in the Taliban-infested North Waziristan tribal district after a dramatic week that began with the all-night siege Monday of Karachi's Jinnah International Airport, in which 37 people, including the 10 attackers, were killed.
Those concerns were compounded by a follow-up attack Tuesday, also claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in which gunmen fired upon an airport checkpoint but failed to inflict any casualties and later escaped.
Pakistani air force jets took to the skies the same day, pounding suspected militant hideouts and leaving at least 25 dead.
The U.S. drone strikes took place within hours of each other, one late Wednesday and the second at the same site early Thursday, as militants gathered to dig out the bodies and search for the injured.
The first struck a vehicle and a compound in the village of Dargah Mandi in North Waziristan, where almost 60,000 residents have fled since May fearing a long-rumored offensive.
An intelligence official in Miranshah, the region's main town some 10 kilometers (six miles) east of the village, said the missiles had struck a pick-up truck carrying about six militants and laden with explosives.
"Four of them were Uzbeks and two were Punjabi Taliban," he said, referring to militants from Pakistan's central Punjab province.
The official said the militants had parked their pick-up truck against the outer wall of the compound -- both of which were destroyed and remained ablaze.
Another senior security official confirmed the strike and said authorities had intercepted a radio message talking about the drone attack.
"One of the militants was asking others to reach the site and search for any one injured in the strike and also to dig out the dead bodies," he said.
The second strike came early Thursday.
"Three U.S. drones fired six missiles on militants who had gathered to dig the debris of a compound," a local security official told AFP, referring to the compound destroyed in the earlier drone strike, and adding: "Missiles also hit two vehicles at the site."
Another security official confirmed the second strike, and said drones were still flying in the sky.
The last drone attack on Pakistani soil occurred on December 25, 2013, killing three suspected militants.
The strikes are officially denounced by Pakistani authorities as a violation of the country's sovereignty, but leaked documents have shown intelligence coordination between the countries in the past.
More than 2,000 people have been killed in drone attacks since August 2008, according to an AFP tally, with critics charging that the strikes cause many civilian casualties.
- Uzbek fighters -
The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan had earlier said that Uzbek militants had been part of the Karachi airport siege. The claim was confirmed by a senior TTP official, who said it was a "joint operation."
Security analyst Imtiaz Gul said IMU fighters had migrated to Pakistan's tribal areas after being forced to flee Afghanistan following the US-led invasion in 2001.
"They have been under the protection of the Pakistani Taliban for some time. The Uzbeks are dependent on them for shelter and survival and are used as their foot soldiers in operations," he said.
Foreign militants, mostly Uzbeks and Chechens, are believed to have been involved in other major attacks in recent years, including on a Karachi naval base in 2011 and the military headquarters in 2009.
The TTP rose up against the state in 2007 following the siege of a radical mosque in Islamabad, in an insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives.
Talks between intermediaries of the government and the TTP began earlier this year and led to a ceasefire in March that broke down a month later.
Some analysts have said the period of the talks, during which it was relatively unmolested, allowed the militant group to re-gather its strength.
The United States had offered its assistance in investigating the airport siege, though it is not yet clear whether Pakistan accepted the offer.
Campaign to Crack Down on Fringe Sects in China Worries Mainstream Churches
By ANDREW JACOBS
JUNE 11, 2014
BEIJING — Last month, as she waited for her husband and 7-year-old son at a McDonald’s in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong, Wu Shuoyan was approached by members of a Christian sect who were on an aggressive recruitment drive.
After Ms. Wu refused to give them her number, several members of the group beat and kicked her to death, an act of brutality captured by cellphone and widely shared on the Internet.
Although the Chinese public’s outrage initially focused on the many bystanders who failed to intervene, the national news media has sought to shift the indignation toward what the government calls “evil cults” — the roughly two dozen outlawed religious sects often demonized by the authorities as coercive and dangerous.
In the two weeks since the killing, state-run publications have produced a steady drumbeat of alarming articles detailing what they say are the predations of the Church of Almighty God, the group blamed for the McDonald’s attack. On Tuesday, the Xinhua news agency said the authorities had rounded up about 1,500 cult members, although it appears many of those were arrested as early as 2012.
“Religious cults recruit and control adherents by fabricating and spreading superstitions and heresies,” the Ministry of Public Security said in a statement carried by state-run news media last Wednesday.
Decades of blistering propaganda attacks against such groups have convinced much of the Chinese public that adherents of so-called cults deserve little sympathy. In the case of Falun Gong, the quasi-spiritual movement whose members once numbered in the millions and included high-ranking officials, even possessing a piece of literature for the group can lead to brutal treatment by the police and jail time.
Although their voices are muted by the censors, human rights advocates and some mainstream religious leaders in China say that the latest anticult campaign is misguided and that it frequently violates Chinese law.
Teng Biao, a defense lawyer who has represented Falun Gong members in the past, said the most recent roundups were politically motivated by the government’s deeply rooted fear of organized religion, especially groups it cannot control. “This is an effort to eradicate an entire group of believers, not just the ones who committed crimes,” he said.
The breadth of the newest campaign is hard to gauge. Xinhua’s report said that among those arrested, 59 had already been handed prison terms of up to four years for “using a cult to undermine enforcement of the law.”
In addition to adherents of the Church of Almighty God, the agency said, those arrested included members of another Christian group known as Disciples Sect. But other news accounts said that many of the 1,500 arrests took place in 2012, during a previous drive against Almighty God that began after its members frightened the public with warnings of a coming apocalypse.
Perhaps most alarming to the Chinese leadership is the group’s determination to slay the “Great Red Dragon,” a reference to the ruling Communist Party.
Despite its reputation for coercive proselytizing that critics describe as brainwashing, the group is not known for violence, and experts suggested that the McDonald’s killing was the work of a deranged individual.
During a jailhouse confession shown last week by the national broadcaster CCTV, the man described as the ringleader of the attack, Zhang Lidong, was emotionless and unrepentant. An unemployed medicine salesman, he said the victim had been a “monster” and an “evil spirit” who deserved to die. “We are not afraid of the law,” he said. “We have faith in God.”
Among the six people arrested at the scene were three of his children, including a 12-year-old boy.
Despite periodic efforts to rein in unorthodox Christian sects, the appeal of such faiths continues to endure. Some experts say Almighty God, also known as Eastern Lightning, may have up to a million members in China, many of them in rural areas. Founded in 1989 in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang by Zhao Weishan, the church is fixated on doomsday scenarios, and its members believe that God has returned to Earth as a Chinese woman. After the sect was banned in 1995, Mr. Zhao, a physics teacher, reportedly fled to the United States. His location is unknown, and he has not made any public statements about the killing.
Leaders of many mainstream Christian churches have condemned the sect for its teachings and heavy-handed recruitment methods. Wu Chi-wai, general secretary of the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, said he had heard stories from mainland Chinese pastors who said that Almighty God members sometimes kidnap or lure adherents from other churches by inviting them to religious seminars.
“It is not accepted by traditional churches, including the Protestant and Catholic churches, because it doesn’t let people accept Jesus Christ,” he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday from Hong Kong, where the group is allowed to proselytize. “They claim they have a woman who is more successful than Jesus Christ.”
Still, some Chinese religious leaders worry that campaigns against heterodox groups will spill over and affect congregations that are doctrinally mainstream but unsanctioned by the Communist Party, which seeks to manage all religious activity.
It is unclear whether those arrested in the latest sweep will have access to legal defenders. In the past, the handful of lawyers who have stepped forward to represent those accused of cult activity have faced harassment. One lawyer, Wang Quanzhang, was jailed for several days last year after a court in Jiangsu Province accused him of disrupting proceedings during the trial of a defendant who was a Falun Gong member.
Mr. Wang said the vilification and prosecution of so-called cults were deeply flawed because the decision to outlaw a particular group was subjective and lacked independent oversight.
“People shouldn’t be arrested for their beliefs,” Mr. Wang said. “But if there is proof, for example, that someone has indeed killed or injured others, then they should be prosecuted.”
Japan Summons China Envoy over Mid-Air near Miss
by Naharnet Newsdesk
12 June 2014, 12:42
Japan on Thursday summoned the Chinese ambassador, as the two sides traded accusations of blame for a near miss involving fighter jets over the East China Sea, the second similar incident in less than a month.
In the latest confrontation in a long-running territorial dispute, Tokyo says two Chinese SU-27 jets flew as close as just 30 meters to its aircraft in a spot where the two countries' air defense zones overlap.
"It was an action that was extremely regrettable, and which cannot be tolerated," said top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga, of the Wednesday incident.
It was the second time in less than three weeks that Tokyo has accused Beijing of playing chicken in the skies near the hotly contested Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands, which China also claims and calls the Diaoyus.
"It comes after a similar event which occurred last month," Suga said. "The government will continue urging China to prevent an accident and restrain itself."
Japan's vice minister for foreign affairs, Akitaka Saiki, called the Chinese ambassador to Japan, Cheng Yonghua, to the ministry, where he said similar maneuvers "could lead to a real accident", according to Kyodo News.
China hit back, insisting Japanese pilots had been at fault and that Tokyo was lying to the international community about China's behavior.
"Japan has hyped the claim that a Chinese fighter flew 'unusually close' to a Japanese surveillance plane, exaggerating China's military threat," said a statement on the Chinese defense ministry website.
"The Chinese pilot's operation was professional, standard and maintained restraint. The Japanese pilot's practice was dangerous, and obviously provocative in nature."
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Japan has "ignored the facts" and "hyped up this incident and the so-called China threat".
"(Japan has) deliberately deceived the world. So we can't help but wonder what is the true intention of Japan."
The website also carried video footage of another incident in which two Japanese F-15 jets approached a Chinese TU154 plane on Wednesday, saying the near-miss disrupted its safe flight.
Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said he saw the video himself.
"There was no truth behind what the Chinese side stated," he told reporters. "The self-defense force aircraft were flying stably at a certain distance."
"China may have gone out of its way to release the video as they may feel something shameful about the case in which Chinese fighter jets approached (Japanese) self-defense force aircraft," Onodera said.
The incident occurred as Japan and Australia held the fifth round of so-called "2+2" talks between their defense and foreign affairs chiefs in Tokyo.
The meeting was in line with a trend towards strengthening and political alliances in the Asia-Pacific, as countries look with alarm at China's willingness to forcefully push its claims in territorial disputes.
The two sides reached a broad agreement on a legal framework to allow them to conduct joint research and trade in defense equipment.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has relaxed strictures on his country's arms industry to allow it to sell its high-tech weaponry abroad, and as Canberra is known to be shopping for submarines.
Abe bills Japan as a benign counterweight for countries looking askance at China's recent heavy-handedness, which has led it to become embroiled in destabilizing rows with Vietnam and the Philippines.
Japan's own dispute with China is heavily colored by differences over shared history, but is being played out on the seas and in the skies near the Senkakus, where boats and planes have sparred for nearly two years.
Few observers believe there will be an outright military conflict over the uninhabited islands, but many warn that with so much hardware in the area, the greatest risk is of an accidental collision.
They say that any crash could quickly spiral into a confrontation that would see local commanders taking decisions under pressure that could have huge geo-political implications.
06/11/2014 05:34 PM
World Cup 2022: The Dark Side of the Qatar Dream
By Christoph Scheuermann
Qatar is spending billions to build hotels, subways, shopping centers and stadiums ahead of the World Cup in 2022. But those working on the projects are poorly paid and poorly housed. And some of them can't leave.
Beneath their hardhats, the workers laboring away at the construction sites in Qatar wear thin cotton balaclavas as protection against the morning chill and the midday sun. The preferred headgear has only a thin slit for the eyes, making it look as though the city were being erected by ghosts. But the men have been charged with transforming the Gulf state into a glitzy paradise, complete with hotels, office buildings, shopping malls and football stadiums. And the first thing the desert takes from them is their faces.
Ganesh was one of these phantoms. He has since returned to his family in Nepal's southeast. He could hardly wait to leave Qatar. Ganesh has promised himself to never again set foot in the desert.
On this spring evening, though, Ganesh's trip back home still lies before him. He is sprawled out exhausted on his bed on the outskirts of Doha after finishing his shift. The room is just 16 square meters (172 square feet) -- and provides shelter to 10 workers. With the fan broken and the window sealed shut with aluminum foil, the air is thick and stuffy. Outside, a diesel generator roars. It is only with great effort that Ganesh, a cheerful, somewhat shy 26-year-old with jet black hair hanging to his shoulders, is able to suppress his frustration and fatigue.
The building is a gray concrete block located in a part of Doha where the city gives way to housing projects, bus parking lots and factory warehouses. On the map, the area is simply labeled "industrial zone." But it is home to the thousands of faceless workers, the place where they eat and sleep. In Ganesh's building, 100 workers are housed on three floors, far away from the glittery hotels in the city center. They live on the edge of a dream that the sheikhs want to make reality.
Part of that dream is the 2022 World Cup, which the country has been chosen to host. Thus far, none of the new sporting facilities planned for the event has been completed, though construction has begun on one site south of Doha, the Al-Wakrah Stadium. But a World Cup requires more than just stadiums; hotels, roads, bridges, parks and an expanded subway system are necessary as well. Those are the projects that men like Ganesh are currently working on, even if organizers claim that the structures are not directly related to the football tournament to be held eight years from now. The World Cup committee wants to avoid the impression that the effort to bring football to the desert has already cost hundreds of lives.
Important Enough to Die For
In the years 2012 and 2013 alone, some 964 workers from India, Nepal and Bangladesh have died in Qatar, a total that has since been confirmed by the Qatari government. A significant number of the men died in the summer, the victims of heat or workplace accidents -- leading many to wonder how a football tournament can be so important that people must die for it.
Making matters even worse are new indications, made public last week by Britain's Sunday Times newspaper, of corruption surrounding the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Former Qatari football official Mohammed Bin Hammam allegedly bribed members of the FIFA executive committee. He is thought to have distributed a total of $5 million to various FIFA members from Africa to secure their vote in favor of Qatar back in 2010. Yet however the absurd decision to hold a football tournament in the desert came to pass, it is men like Ganesh who must now suffer the consequences.
In his room, with cockroaches skittering across the floor, some three dozen men have gathered, all of them barefoot. The workers are discussing why the rooms are still overcrowded, why the toilets are still filthy and why their meals are still not satisfactory. After all, Amnesty International publicized the miserable conditions back in November. But since then, the situation hasn't improved much. There are just three small washrooms in the building for 100 workers, one of the men says. Another complains that aid workers frequently come by to conduct interviews, but nothing changes as a result. A scaffolding worker from western Nepal says he has been working here since mid-November and still hadn't received his first paycheck. The men become louder until Dipak, an older supervisor, sends some of the workers outside. Ganesh stops talking; he doesn't like the fact that some of his colleagues raised their voices.
They are skittish. Everyone fears that he will be the next to succumb to the desert's curse. Around one half of the 1.4 million migrant workers in the country come from India and Pakistan, with 16 percent hailing from Nepal. The rest come from Iran, the Philippines, Egypt and Sri Lanka.
The men drag themselves in silent resignation to the construction sites, even when their bodies ache. "Sometimes I am so dizzy in the morning that I can't get up," Ganesh says quietly, as though he were admitting a weakness. For every day that he doesn't work, 5 percent of his monthly salary is withheld. He says that he came voluntarily, but his legal situation is hardly better than that of a slave.
Many construction companies in Qatar treat their workers as though they own them, a product primarily of the country's labor laws. Every foreigner who wants to work here must prove they have an in-country sponsor as foreseen by the so-called Kafala system. Without the sponsor's permission, workers may not change jobs or leave the country. Unions are also forbidden.
A 'Missed Opportunity'
In mid-May, the Qatari government announced a reform to the Kafala system to make it easier to obtain a departure visa and to increase penalties on companies that confiscate workers' passports. But human rights activists have criticized the reform as a sham. Amnesty International referred to it as a "missed opportunity."
This is despite the fact that Qatar is a rich country, with one of the biggest natural gas reserves in the world lying off the coast. With a GDP per capita among the highest anywhere, the country could easily pay higher wages. But the pre-World Cup construction boom has attracted many foreign companies to Qatar -- from France, Great Britain, China and Germany. And they are unwilling to share their profits with Indians and Nepalese. For six days of work per week, eight to 10 hours per day, Ganesh receives €300 per month.
His parents and sister live in a small village in the Morang District in southeastern Nepal. His father grows rice and vegetables for the family and his sister is unmarried. Ganesh's brother also works in Doha, as an aid to a camp supervisor. He earns €180 per month. The money that the two brothers wire back to Nepal with Western Union is the family's only income.
Ganesh heads to the construction site every morning with the bleak assurance of a man who knows that he has no other choice than to submit to the laws of the sheikhs. Even before he came, he wired two months' pay in advance to the agency that got him the job. He was indebted before he even boarded the airplane to Qatar. Trading in cheap labor is a lucrative business for recruiters. The cynical aspect is that workers are forced to pay for their own exploitation.
Still, there are plenty in Qatar who endure greater sufferings than Ganesh. They live in wooden barracks 30 minutes by car from Ganesh's room. The barracks are covered with corrugated metal sheets and are crammed between warehouses and junkyards on the very edge of Doha. The streets have no names and the shacks are reached by a dirt road. The air smells rotten. It is the home of those who the Qatari dream has chewed up and spit out.
Each shack contains three bunk beds and together, they provide shelter to 60 men from Sri Lanka, Nepal, the Philippines, Bangladesh and China; they work as masons, welders and drywallers. Until the end of last year, they were employed by Lee Trading & Contracting, a company specializing in interior work within office towers. Now, though, the company is being liquidated. The company president, from Singapore, is imprisoned in Qatar and his employees have been waiting to be paid since the spring of 2013. Hardly any of them have enough money for the flight home; they are stranded in Doha.
Forgetting How to Laugh
One of the men is named Ram Achal Kohar, but goes by Anil. Twenty-six years old, he grew up in a village near the Nepali city of Siddharthanagar, southwest of Kathmandu. Wearing Capris, a T-shirt and flip-flops, he looks from afar like a tourist who wandered into a slum by mistake. He arrived two years ago, full of humor and always ready for a joke. In Qatar, he has forgotten how to laugh.
In contrast to Ganesh, Anil has no job, and is bitter and desperate as a result. With a wife and two children back home in Nepal, he seems much older than Ganesh despite being the same age. On a Sunday early this year, he sits down on the edge of his bed to tell his story.
His company, Anil says, won the bid in 2012 to complete the interior of the Bidda Tower in Doha. When he first entered the building, it was little more than a shell. Now, though, the Qatari swimming association, its football association and the World Cup preparatory committee all have their offices in the gracefully twisting tower.
Anil worked as an electrician, installing ceiling lights and dimmer switches, complete with all the wiring. The client wanted everything to be white: tables, chairs, floors and walls. Anil is still proud of the work he did and continues to save photos of the building in his mobile phone. Vast, snow-white conference tables can be seen along with elegant fixtures and light-colored marble. Sheikh Jassim al Thani, a son of the former emir of Qatar, is thought to be using the space currently. Anil, by contrast, can't even afford a ticket home. And the power in his shack regularly goes out.
The outstanding wages owed to the workers add up to around €300,000. A representative from Lee Trading & Contracting sent a letter of reminder to the building owner last September, but thus far, the workers have yet to receive a satisfactory answer, much less money. Anil is owed some €2,200 in addition to the return ticket to Kathmandu. He believes that he wouldn't see any of the money if he were to leave Qatar. So he stays. Every now and then, donors pull up with a trunk full of bread, potatoes, meat and vegetables to help the men in the barracks survive.
Kafka in Qatar
The last time Anil was able to send money to his family back home was in October, but it wasn't much. His two sons, five and seven years old, live together with his wife Punam, his mother and his grandmother in a single house. "They have had to take out a loan," Anil says, adding that it is embarrassing for him that he can't feed his family, even if it isn't his fault. To earn a few riyals, he has recently been working as a day laborer. He does a bit of carpentry work or installs doors for private families -- for €18 to €20 per day.
Ganesh's workday begins at 3:30 a.m. After getting up, he quickly washes himself using a faucet next to the toilets and heads in a sleepy daze for the kitchen, located in the ground floor of a neighboring building. Two cooks stand in front of gigantic kettles and Ganesh fills up his tin jar with soup, rice, meat and bread. He takes the jar with him to the construction site. It has to tide him over until the evening.
The company he works for sees Ganesh and the other men on Street 33 in the industrial zone as little more than tools, not unlike a power shovel or bulldozer, that can be moved from one construction site to the next. Men who signed contracts as floor tilers find themselves digging foundations in the desert; carpenters are used as masons or have to lay carpet. Hardly anyone complains, out of fear of losing his job. Ganesh arrived in Doha as an electrician in February 2012. His boss placed him on a scaffolding team.
Ganesh has been working for two hours by the time Anil walks into a room on the sixth floor of Doha's courthouse, located just a few meters away from the Bidda Tower where Anil once worked. Together with some of his coworkers, he has initiated proceedings against Lee Trading & Contracting in the hopes that he might finally see the wages that are owed him. It was not an easy decision for him because he had to pay a fee of €120 to file the case with the Labor Court, almost half of his previous monthly pay. Now, Anil must appear at the courthouse every few weeks and each time he enters the building, he hopes that a verdict might finally be handed down. But mostly, he just hears the sentence: "Inshallah," (God willing) "you will soon receive your money." Anil hates hearing it. He wonders how painful it really would be for Sheikh Jassim to simply wire the money to the workers.
There are around 50 men in T-shirts and flip-flops in the courtroom and some of them have brought along documents in plastic bags. It is Anil's seventh time in the courthouse and he hopes that the court is finally prepared to take a decision. He is sitting on the left-hand side in the second row. Before him, at the podium, is the judge, who can't be much older than 35. A large man to the right collects the papers from the workers, mumbles something unintelligible, signs the papers and hands them back. None of the cases is discussed for more than a minute.
Asleep on the Bus
Doha's labor court would be the perfect setting for a modern version of Franz Kafka's "The Trial." Most of the plaintiffs can't even understand what is going on because they don't speak Arabic. Thinking of his wife Punam and his sons, Anil's voice begins to crack when he says that he can't leave empty handed yet again. A picture of the abdicated emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, stares down from the front of the courtroom. When Anil's name is called after an hour, he jumps up, only to return a minute later with a signature. He was told he should appear on the 14th floor on Wednesday. Maybe then, he was told, there will be a verdict, Inshallah.
On the same day, Ganesh is sent to work on a bridge project. It is being built not far from Lusail City and is one small part of Qatar's new infrastructure. In Lusail City, just north of Doha, a new planned settlement is taking shape on the seaside, with artificial canals, villas and luxury hotels. Ganesh hurries to the construction site and disappears among the masses of ghosts. Later, he falls asleep in the bus taking him back to his concrete home on the edge of the city at dusk.
The problem is not that Qatar has no labor laws. Rather, they simply aren't properly enforced by the authorities. Until recently, the Labor Ministry had only 150 inspectors available and they could only check up on a small number of the companies working in the emirate. The number has since been increased, but the number of construction sites is growing as well. In the next four years, Qatar intends to invest more than €151 billion in its infrastructure, which will make it all the more difficult to ensure that labor laws are complied with. Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, recently said for the first time that awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar was "a mistake."
The entire world is now watching the small Gulf country. And there has been a small improvement: Worker hostels are to be outfitted in the future with common areas complete with satellite television and free Internet and rooms will no longer be allowed to contain more than four beds. In addition, each worker is to get his own bank account in Qatar. But the new rules are only valid for those who are working on construction sites directly related to the World Cup. For the moment, that applies to only 200 workers. The vast majority of the other migrant workers in Qatar will still be forced to sleep in their stuffy, overcrowded rooms on the edge of the city. In comparison to Ganesh and Anil, the World Cup workers will live like kings.
In contrast to Ganesh, Anil has still not been able to leave the country because he still can't afford a return ticket. He has, however, managed to find a steady job as an electrician in Doha. But the wages owned to him by his previous employer still haven't been paid. And there still hasn't been a verdict. But maybe it will come soon. Inshallah.
Translated from the German by Charles Hawley
Congo mines no longer in grip of warlords and militias, says report
Enough Project finds 2010 US law requiring companies like Apple and Intel to prove products are conflct-free has worked
David Smith, Africa correspondent
The Guardian, Wednesday 11 June 2014 18.05 BST
Good news from Congo. And perhaps even more unexpectedly, it has come about with the help of users of mobile phones, legislators in Washington and corporate giants such as Apple and Intel. That is the finding of an investigation by the Enough Project, an anti-genocide campaign group, which says Congolese warlords have lost their grip on most of the country's mines and lucrative conflict minerals.
The mines have long been held up as a case of corporate social irresponsibility. Adults and often children spend days underground digging up the tin, tantalum and tungsten used to make computers and mobile phones, creating billions in profits for electronics companies.
Moreover, the minerals also generated $185m (£110m) every year for armed groups responsible for atrocities including killings and rapes, the report says, fuelling one of the world's longest conflicts in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Yet in an apparent triumph for consumer activism, and blow to political cynicism, the militias have lost control of more than two-thirds of mines in the past four years, according to the Enough Project. Among the warlords to cede control is Bosco Ntaganda, nicknamed "The Terminator", who once profited handsomely from illegal mines but is now facing trial at the international criminal court.
The turning point was a US law introduced in 2010, that required companies to determine the origin of minerals used in products. Brought in under the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act, it required any company that might be using conflict minerals to register with the US Securities and Exchange Commission and publish its supply chain. The firms, presumably aware of the public relations implications of being linked to murderous warlords and child labour, have generally complied.
Now, for the first time in Congo's history, there is a validation process to evaluate mines as conflict-free, and 112 out of 155 mines surveyed passed as clean. Intel is producing the world's first fully conflict-free product that contains clean Congolese minerals, the report says, while Apple has validated its tantalum supply chain as conflict-free. "This is spurring other companies to accelerate their reform efforts."
Meanwhile, another shaft of light has appeared in the past year as UN peacekeepers, acting on a more aggressive mandate, took on and defeated two of the rebel groups that enjoyed access to mines. According to the Enough Project, communities near conflict-free mining projects now experience a greatly reduced presence of armed groups, while hospitals and schools are starting to be built in those areas. The wages of miners have also risen, in some cases threefold, and an increased number of miners now receive helmets and safety equipment and experience safer working conditions.
"Our research found that electronics companies are expanding their responsible minerals sourcing from Congo, and Congolese miners are now able to earn 40% more from those mines," said Sasha Lezhnev, senior policy analyst at the Enough Project. "Mines formerly controlled by warlords such as Bosco Ntaganda are now part of peaceful supply chains, as 21 electronics brands and other companies now source from 16 conflict-free mines in Congo."
Speaking from Goma, field researcher Fidel Bafilemba, a co-author of the report, expressed confidence that similar models can succeed elsewhere. He said the initiative was built on "similar and earlier campaigns against cheap labour in the east Asian textile industry, and others. Pressuring companies to humanise their supply chain works."
The US-based Enough Project said it conducted five months of field research in eastern Congo, interviewing 220 people in 14 mines and towns, in addition to 32 interviews in the US and Europe. It found that 67% of tin, tantalum (refined from coltan) and tungsten in North Kivu, South Kivu and Maniema provinces were no longer in the hands of the armed groups or the Congolese army.
But inevitably there is a caveat. Artisanal mining of gold is still funding military commanders, the research found. Bafilemba added: "US special envoy Russ Feingold, the United Nations, and especially now those in jewellery business, must squarely address conflict gold that still funds armed groups responsible for atrocities and grave human rights abuses."
Another organisation that has long campaigned on the issue, Global Witness, agreed that the American legislation had a major impact but there is no room for complacency. "The US conflict minerals law has catalysed reforms in DR Congo's mining sector and has compelled US-listed firms to examine their sourcing practises for the first time, in a bid to ensure they are behaving responsibly and not funding war," campaigner Sophia Pickles said.
"But despite positive steps, there are still real challenges to overcome in DR Congo, not least the illegal involvement of high-ranking members of the Congolese army in the minerals trade.
"Some mining sites have been demilitarised, but our research shows that members of the Congolese army are profiting from the minerals trade in less visible ways, such as via taxation and extortion. The Congolese government must hold to account those acting illegally. Prosecutions in Congolese military courts are critical to cleaning up the minerals trade but to date the political will to make them happen is lacking."
Egypt's president in hospital photo-call in effort to tackle sexual violence
President pictured at bedside of woman hospitalised by series of mass sexual assaults during rally to mark his inauguration
Patrick Kingsley in Cairo
The Guardian, Wednesday 11 June 2014 16.26 BST
Egypt's new president held a photo-call at the bedside of one of several women hospitalised by a series of mass sexual assaults during a rally to mark his inauguration on Sunday, in an attempt to show his willingness to tackle Egypt's sexual violence epidemic.
Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Egypt's former army chief, followed his hospital visit with the creation of a top-level committee tasked with tackling sexual crime – a move that came 24 hours after he told Egypt's top policeman to prioritise the policing of sexual violence.
Since footage emerged of one of Sunday's assaults, Egypt has been gripped by a furious debate about sexual violence and harassment, which was banned for the first time in Egypt just last Thursday.
Sisi's positive intervention in this debate contrasts sharply with his comments as a top general in 2012, when he defended the act of forcing women detained by soldiers at protests to take virginity tests.
In a statement on Wednesday, Sisi said: "Our honour is being assaulted in the streets. This is unacceptable and we can't allow one more incident like this to happen."
But other simultaneous interventions by state institutions laid bare the cultural forces that have exacerbated sexual crime in the past. Egypt's state-run National Council for Women (NCW) announced plans to sue the al-Jazeera television network for reporting on the assaults, journalism which they claimed was a politically motivated attempt to besmirch the reputation of both Sisi and Egyptian women.
Al-Jazeera, according to NCW head, Mervat el-Tallawy, had reported on "harassment and the recent rape incident to tarnish the image of Egyptian women." In an earlier statement, the NCW condemned the assaults as "gruesome", but implied they had been carried out by Sisi's opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than being the natural result of the failure of all sections of society to take harassment seriously.
The assaults, the NCW added, were "politically oriented crimes" intended to "kill [women's] joy regarding the success of the roadmap" – a reference to the political process that brought Sisi to power. For their part, the Brotherhood's political wing also sought to make political capital from the assaults, claiming they were caused by a decline in morals following the overthrow of Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi.
But UN research completed before Morsi's overthrow shows how sexual violence and harassment has long affected all parts of Egyptian society, with their polling suggesting that over 99% of Egyptian women have experienced public harassment. A group of 25 independent rights groups said this week that they had documented at least 250 sexual assaults at mass gatherings in Tahrir Square since the 2011 uprising – including 80 on one day last June.
Thousands Fled Boko Haram Violence in Last Week
by Naharnet Newsdesk
11 June 2014, 21:12
Boko Haram violence has forced more than 6,000 people in the northeast Nigerian state of Borno to flee their homes within the last week, the country's main relief agency said on Wednesday.
The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) said it had registered 6,227 internally displaced people (IDP) in the state capital, Maiduguri, as of Wednesday.
"Most of them came in the last four days, following the escalation of the crisis and threats," said NEMA spokesman for the northeast Abdulkadir Ibrahim.
Among those who have fled their homes to Maiduguri were people from the remote Gwoza district of Borno, where last week militant fighters stormed at least four villages, killing hundreds.
But the total number of IDPs is expected to be higher, as others escaped to neighboring Adamawa state or across the border into Cameroon.
Asabe Vilita, a Gwoza local government leader who is also Borno commissioner for commerce and investment, said on Monday that 1,290 people had fled and many had come to Maiduguri.
The figures demonstrate the impact of the continued violence on civilians in the region that NEMA has previously warned constitutes a growing humanitarian crisis.
Ibrahim said bedding, mosquito nets, blankets and food would be provided for those who had fled and the body was working with the Red Cross and other partners.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) in Geneva said last week that Boko Haram attacks were forcing some 800 people to flee their homes every day.
The IDMC, run by the Norwegian Refugee Council, said that at least 3,000 people have been killed since a state of emergency was imposed in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states in May last year to March this year.
At least 250,000 fled their homes in the same period, it added.
Rio airport staff declare partial strike for World Cup kick-off
Rio de Janeiro (AFP) - Ground staff at Rio de Janeiro's three airports will stage a 24-hour partial strike Thursday, the day Brazil hosts the opening match of the World Cup, their union said.
The workers vowed to maintain 80 percent service, but the strike will nevertheless raise fears of delays as a flood of football fans descends on the tourist-magnet city around the opening match in Sao Paulo and first match in Rio on Sunday.
'The World Cup is really just for the people in helicopters'
View from streets of Brazil's largest city confirms what many fear: tournament simply illuminates gulf between rich and poor
Owen Gibson in São Paulo
The Guardian, Wednesday 11 June 2014 19.41 BST
From a hillside above traffic-choked São Paulo, the residents of the Copa do Povo (People's Cup) flash camp can see the gleaming £180m stadium that will host the opening match of the 2014 World Cup. Despite the Brazilian flag fluttering over the makeshift tents, the camp organiser, Helena Santos, says the stadium might as well be on the moon.
"Most people here are revolted. No one wants to see the games. There's no excitement here," she says, looking across to the Arena de São Paulo, which was supposed to have been a catalyst for the regeneration of the Itaquerao area.
The final touches are being put to the stadium. Sponsors have begun "activating" their £890m investment – Visa cash machines have been installed alongside Coca-Cola fridges and bars serving Budweiser. But with no sign of other promised infrastructure upgrades in the area many residents are merely furious that they can't pass freely through the surrounding streets.
To them, it is just another symbol of what the Movimento do Trabalhadores Sem Teto (the homeless workers' movement MTST) calls the "tyranny" and "terrorism" of Fifa.
"If it wasn't for us, all anybody in Brazil would see is Fifa," says Gianna, busy organising the kitchen rota to feed some of the camp's 5,000 residents. "We don't have hospitals, we don't have schools. But we have stadiums. Lots of stadiums."
Inside, the Brazilian national football team trained on the pitch where they will play Croatia for the first time. In front of a huge media scrum, the pressure on the slender shoulders of Neymar and his teammates became clear.
At the Fifa Congress, in a heavily guarded conference centre, the embattled Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, shrugged off corruption claims and insisted his organisation was "shaping society". Brazil's executive committee member José Maria Marin declared that the "party is about to begin", promising an "unforgettable" World Cup that would be the "best of all time".
In central São Paulo, Blatter has been gliding through the gridlock with a police escort, shuttling between five-star hotels as he tries to shore up support for his bid for a fifth presidential term amid a new avalanche of corruption claims.
Greg Dyke, the FA chairman who landed in São Paulo and walked straight into a storm over Blatter's claims that the British media was "racist" for investigating how Qatar was elected to host the 2022 World Cup, was not the only one struck by the lack of hoopla in a city that is football mad and hosts Brazil's World Cup opener on Thursday.
Billboards are banned, so Fifa's sponsors have been unable to festoon the city with adverts. Public proclamations of support are few, although more flags were starting to sprout from balconies and car aerials on Wednesday. The contrast with the tens of thousands who mobbed central Johannesburg, honking on vuvuzelas, before kick-off at the last World Cup, is stark.
Back at the shanty town that organisers claim houses 5,000 homeless workers, 27-year-old Adeilson Freitas is leaning on the counter of a makeshift kitchen block and painstakingly filing sick notes from those unable to attend a recent demonstration.
"We don't mind having foreigners here, in fact the idea of a World Cup is quite good. But this one is not for Brazilians," said Freitas, who says he avidly followed Brazil's progress in previous campaigns but will only tune in to this one "if I'm not busy". " Perhaps it would have been a good idea to have it in 2034, when it could be organised properly," he says.
The World Cup, which has seen costs soar to more than £6.5bn as the Brazilian government has raced to complete promised infrastructure, has become both a focal point for demands for basic amenities and a symbol of Brazil's inequality.
The Copa do Povo camp was set up around a month ago to focus attention on the plight of those forced out of their homes by real estate speculators, who campaigners claim have more than tripled rents in the area around the stadium. The camp occupies a corner of land owned by a construction company that went bankrupt. A maze of makeshift tents constructed from plastic sheeting and wooden poles, it is one of 14 that have sprung up around São Paulo alone – one houses 8,000 families, according to Santos, who describes herself as a "mum Che Guevara", juggling looking after five children with organising the camp.
She accepts the World Cup has brought the issues faced by Brazil's landless and homeless to the eyes of the world. "It helped because it brought the focus. You had the stadium being built here and you had the World Cup happening and just a few metres away you had people living like this. So it helped in a certain way," she admits.The traffic jams snaking down São Paulo's clogged arteries have become the least of Fifa's worries. Yet Corinthians fans, one of Brazil's biggest clubs yet without a permanent home, have welcomed the public money that has been invested in the new stadium. Like many things about this World Cup, it is a complex brew.
Both for the homeless workers setting up protest camps and the burgeoning middle class struggling to pay for education and healthcare, a range of pressing issues have been bound up in a distaste for Fifa, the corporate world and the corruption of their own football officials. The city's 11m residents are used to the hellish traffic and the helicopters queuing to deliver the city's super rich. "The World Cup is for those in helicopters," laughs one of the camp residents.
Despite the cramped conditions, the camp is safe and clean. Each plastic sheet bears a number and the name of a family, and a strict register is kept of who is in the camp and who attends demonstrations.
In the Grand Hyatt, where most Fifa executive committee members are staying, officials have vainly battled to launch a PR counter-offensive to salvage Fifa's battered reputation, but the MTST has been mobilising a far more effective campaign. It has paid off. The federal government, the government of São Paulo and the city of São Paulo this week agreed to build 4,000 affordable homes on the site as an extension of President Dilma Rousseff's social housing programme, Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life).
"The economic boom was only for the big businesses and the banks," says Santos. "Here, our salaries aren't increasing, we don't have places to live, we don't have clothes to wear. Now we've got this victory here, we can go to other camps and get a similar result."
In the camp, a big fiesta was planned for Wednesday night – not to celebrate the start of the World Cup opener but their success in negotiating the housing deal.
Above the warren of fluttering plastic and muddy pathways, the Brazilian flag flies alongside the red one of the MTST.