Tiny ancient fish unlocks secrets of the evolution of Earth’s early vertebrates
Wednesday, June 11, 2014 13:42 EDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – This is certainly not just another fish tale.
A tiny jawless fish that lived more than half a billion years ago is providing scientists with a treasure trove of information about the very dawn of vertebrate life on Earth.
Researchers on Wednesday described about 100 fossil specimens of the fish unearthed at the Burgess Shale site in the Canadian Rockies and other locales, many exquisitely preserved showing the primitive body structures that would later evolve into jaws.
The fish, Metaspriggina, lived about 515 to 500 million years ago amid the astonishing flourishing of complex life during the Cambrian Period. While two fragmentary specimens had been found previously, the new ones revealed unprecedented detail about one of the earliest known vertebrates.
Creatures like Metaspriggina began the lineage of vertebrates – animals with backbones – that later would include the whole range of jawed fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals including people.
“It allows an understanding of where we come from and what our most distant relatives might have looked like,” said Jean-Bernard Caron, a paleontologist at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. “Because of its great age – more than half a billion year old – Metaspriggina provides a deep down view at the origins of the vertebrates.”
Metaspriggina was a soft-bodied jawless fish no bigger than a person’s thumb – about 2-1/2 inches (6 cm) long, with a small head, a narrow, tapering body, a pair of large eyes atop the head and a pair of small nasal sacs.
It did not have bones but possessed a skull possibly made of cartilage as well as precursors to vertebrae and a skeletal rod called a “notochord” that provided body support like backbones would do in later vertebrates. It is unclear if it had fins.
The scientists were especially excited about the gill structure of the fish because of the preview it gives to the anatomy of later vertebrates – paving the way for the jaws that would open a world of possibilities for so many later creatures.
Metaspriggina boasted seven pairs of rod-like structures called gill arches, or branchial arches, that functioned for both filtration of food particles and respiration. The first pair of these gill arches was more robust than the others and presaged the first step in the evolution of jaws, Caron said.
Scientists have known about the importance of these arches in the evolution of vertebrates but had never before been able to see such an early example.
“Metaspriggina is important because it both fills an important gap in our understanding of the early evolution of the group to which we belong, but in particular shows with remarkable clarity the arrangement of the so-called branchial arches,” University of Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway Morris said.
Part of the jaw bones eventually evolved into tiny middle ear bones in mammals, Caron added, noting that the evolution of these arches “had a profound impact on how vertebrates look, live and function today.”
The study was published in the journal Nature.
In the USA...United Surveillance America
Warrantless cell phone tracking ruled unconstitutional in federal court
Judges say Americans have an expectation of privacy in their movements and that warrantless tracking violated fourth amendment
Associated Press in Miami
theguardian.com, Wednesday 11 June 2014 22.46 BST
Investigators must obtain a search warrant from a judge in order to obtain cellphone tower tracking data that is widely used as evidence to show suspects were in the vicinity of a crime, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined people have an expectation of privacy in their movements and that the cell tower data was part of that. As such, obtaining the records without a search warrant is a violation of the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures, the judges ruled.
"While committing a crime is certainly not within a legitimate expectation of privacy, if the cell site location data could place him near those scenes, it could place him near any other scene," the judges wrote. "There is a reasonable privacy interest in being near the home of a lover, or a dispensary of medication, or a place of worship, or a house of ill repute."
The ruling does not block investigators from obtaining the records — which show which calls are routed through specific towers — but simply requires a higher legal showing of probable cause to obtain a search warrant rather than a less-strict court order.
"The court soundly repudiates the government's argument that merely by using a cellphone, people somehow surrender their privacy rights," said ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler, who argued the case.
The U.S. Supreme Court, while not yet ruling on cellphone tower records, in 2012 decided that attachment of GPS devices to suspects' vehicles also constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. The justices did not, however, decided that investigators must always obtain a search warrant.
The 11th Circuit decision, which relied heavily on the GPS decision, applies in Florida, Georgia and Alabama. The judges said other circuit courts had considered similar arguments, but not in a criminal case. Ultimately the issue will likely have to be resolved by the Supreme Court.
The ruling came in the Miami case of Quartavious Davis, who is serving a 162-year prison sentence for a string of violent armed robberies. The judges refused to overturn his convictions and sentence over the cellphone tracking issue. They applied a "good faith" exception preventing authorities from being punished for relying on a law later found unconstitutional.
The cellphone tower data used at trial placed Davis near six of the armed robberies for which he was ultimately convicted.
The appeals court did agree to a separate argument by Davis that his sentence was improperly enhanced for "brandishing" a firearm, sending the case back to Miami district court for resentencing on that issue alone.
Republican rebels mount swift power grab after shock defeat of Eric Cantor
• GOP in disarray after David Brat beats House majority leader
• Rightwingers: Cantor's loss gives us fresh momentum
• String of rebels eye leading positions within upper ranks
Paul Lewis and Dan Roberts in Washington
The Guardian, Wednesday 11 June 2014 19.56 BST
Republicans were in the grip of an intense power battle on Wednesday as rival factions in in the House of Representatives, which the party controls, jockeyed to replace the outgoing majority leader Eric Cantor.
Cantor, whose defeat in a primary Tuesday stunned the political establishment, announced in a Wednesday afternoon press conference that he plans to stand down as majority leader before the end of July.
"Growing up in the Jewish faith … you learn a lot about individual setbacks. You learn that each setback is an opportunity, and that there's always optimism for the future," he said. "And while I may have suffered a personal setback last night, I couldn't be more optimistic about the future of this country."
Even before news of Cantor's departure leaked, the battle to succeed him was under way, laying bare the deep fissures tearing the GOP apart.
Cantor could technically have held onto his role – the second most senior Republican position in the House – until his term ends in December, but his defeat at the hands of a virtually unknown candidate left his credibility in tatters.
David Brat, an economics professor at a local college, beat Cantor for the Republican nomination in Virginia's seventh congressional district on Tuesday.
Chief whip Kevin McCarthy, the third-ranking Republican in the House, is expected to run to replace Cantor. But Republican sources said that Texan Pete Sessions had already made it clear he is considering a rival bid.
Other rightwing factions, including Tea Party-aligned congressmen keen to translate the upset of Cantor into their gain in the upper ranks of the GOP, appeared to be coalescing around Jeb Hensarling, another Texan.
"I am humbled by the many people who have approached me about serving our Republican Conference in a different capacity in the future," Hensarling said in a statement to reporters. "There are many ways to advance the causes of freedom and free enterprise, and I am prayerfully considering the best way I can serve in those efforts."
Asked if he planned to run to be majority leader, Paul Ryan, the former Republican vice-presidential candidate, replied: "I'm not interested."
If McCarthy vacates his chief whip role, that will open up another powerful position in the party's leadership. Another member from the right of the GOP, Steve Scalise, is eyeing the chief whip role, according to the same Republican sources.
One described the jockeying in the senior ranks of the House Republican caucus, which could end up significantly altering the balance of power in the party, as "the new fight".
On the Hill, the GOP appeared under siege, as members huddled in offices to strategise, avoided making public comment, and scurried along corridors to avoid questions from reporters.
National Tea Party groups were not heavily involved in the Virginia race, leaving Brat to draw much of his pre-election support from conservative radio hosts like Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin, who nonetheless align themselves with the Tea Party. But Brat's win is a startling achievement for the conservative wing of the GOP, and it will provide new momentum for a Tea Party movement that, just a few weeks ago, was being written off after its candidates failed to win in a handful of challenges to lesser politicians.
Earlier this primary season, Tea Party-aligned candidates lost a series of high-profile battles, including in Georgia, North Carolina and Kentucky, where there was a failed attempt to overthrow the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell. In House primaries, the Tea Party appeared to have had even less success – its only notable victory was against a 91-year-old incumbent in Texas, Ralph Hall.
There were one or two exceptions –rightwinger Ben Sasse won the party's nomination in Nebraska, and in Mississippi, Chris McDaniel forced the incumbent Thad Cochran into a runoff.
Open contributions: How much does Cantor's defeat matter?
Still, party bosses believed the waning influence of conservative groups was beginning to show on the floor of the House, too, where there were a host of bills in which Republicans appeared to be ignoring the demands of influential conservative groups like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action.
Just last week, a senior House Republican told the Guardian: "We're not yet out of the danger zone. But if Tea Party guys continue to lose at the ballot box, and on the floor of the House, they're going to either have to reform or die."
Now that consensus has been turned on its head, and the national consequences of that shift are likely to reverberate way beyond the immediate battle to replace Cantor as House majority leader.
Dave Brat celebrates his victory. Dave Brat celebrates his victory. Photograph: P Kevin Morley/AP
Early talk about those consequences has focused on immigration reform, with the perception that Cantor – despite public pronouncements to the contrary – might support such legislation, against the wishes of many in the Republican base. But Brat insisted his win was more than just a protest vote over immigration reform.
“Immigration is a part [of my platform], but I ran on fiscal issues,” he told MSNBC in an interview.
“Amnesty [for undocumented migrants] was a clear differentiator between myself and Eric Cantor, because it fits into the narrative that Eric has not been present in the district, and was out of touch – he was supporting the Chamber of Commerce agenda on that one.”
Some mainstream Republicans have dismissed the Virginia result as a fluke, and in some instances have blamed a Democratic dirty tricks campaign for flooding the primary election with voters aimed at disrupting GOP election chances by backing a more extreme candidate.
But although turnout in the open primary was 28 per cent higher than normal, Cantor’s total vote dropped from 37,698 in 2012 to 28,898 and Brat did best in heavily Republican precincts.
Independent local commentators also pointed to the defeat of Cantor’s pick to chair the party’s district committee this spring as a sign that the revolt had been brewing for some time.
“Cantor represents what people don’t like about Washington,” University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told the Guardian. “I think they perceive him as the Washington establishment … I think he lost touch with a number of his constituents.”
This is what Repubicans vote for .........
David Brat warns ‘the weak modern Christian democratic man’ will submit to another Hitler
By Travis Gettys
Wednesday, June 11, 2014 14:38 EDT
David Brat, who won a surprise victory over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, warned of another Hitler in a 13-page essay on theology and banking.
The economics professor, who works at Randolph-Macon College, said “church folk” and his “liberal pals” should extend their inclusiveness to capitalists.
“If we are ever going to be transformers of culture, we need to get our story straight on capitalism and faith,” Brat wrote in the essay, published in the journal Interpretation in 2011. “The two can go together and they had better go together, or we will not transform anything.”
He said capitalism was “here to stay,” and he said the church should reflect that reality.
“Read Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the weak modern Christian democratic man was spot on,” Brat wrote. “Jesus was a great man. Jesus said he was the Son of God. Jesus made things happen. Jesus had faith. Jesus actually made people better. Then came the Christians. What happened? What went wrong?”
“We appear to be a bit passive,” he continued. “Hitler came along, and he did not meet with unified resistance. I have the sinking feeling that it could all happen again, quite easily. The church should rise up higher than Nietzsche could see and prove him wrong.”
Brat encouraged Christians to harshly condemn their neighbors’ sins.
“We should love our neighbor so much that we actually believe in right and wrong, and do something about it,” he wrote. “If we all did the right thing and had the guts to spread the word, we would not need the government to backstop every action we take.”
He suggested that spreading Christianity would improve the economy.
“Preach the gospel and change hearts and souls,” Brat wrote. “If we make all of the people good, markets will be good. Markets are made up of people.”
“If markets are bad, which they are, that means people are bad, which they are,” he continued. “Want good markets? Change the people. If there are not nervous twitches in the pews when we preach, then we are not doing our jobs.”
Brat also wondered whether Christians could force others to follow their ethical teachings on social issues, and he said both Democrats and Republicans hypocritically imposed their values on the political system.
“The government holds a monopoly on violence,” Brat wrote. “Any law that we vote for is ultimately backed by the full force of our government and military. Do we trust institutions of the government to ensure justice? Is that what history teaches us about the State? Or do we live in particularly lucky and fortunate times where the State can be trusted to do minimal justice?”
“Do you trust that power to the political Right? Do you trust it to the Left? If you answered ‘no’ to either question, you may have a major problem in the future. See Plato on the regime that follows democracy,” he added.
“I think the main point is that we need to synthesize Christianity and capitalism,” Brat concluded. “Augustine synthesized Plato and Christianity. Thomas Aquinas synthesized Aristotle and Christianity. Calvin synthesized all the rest, but capitalism was still coming. There is a book in here somewhere for the next Calvin. Go. God Bless.”
The Tea Party Appears To Have Replaced Eric Cantor With an Idiot
By: Jason Easley
Wednesday, June, 11th, 2014, 2:55 pm
The man that the tea party defeated Eric Cantor with lied about having gone to Princeton and sounded like a total idiot while dodging simple policy questions during an interview with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd.
David Brat claims on his campaign website that he attended Princeton, but The Washington Post contacted Princeton, and the Ivy League school has no record of Brat ever attending. Secondly, The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Brat presented a 2005 paper in which he argued that Protestants are the key to economic growth.
However, the most compelling evidence that the tea party has picked another “winner” was the interview that Brat did with Chuck Todd on MSNBC:
Todd asked Brat a simple foreign policy question about arming the Syrian rebels, and this was the answer that he got, “Hey, Chuck, I just thought today we were going to chat about the celebratory aspect. I’d love to go through all this, but my mind is just…I love all the policy questions. I’m happy to do more, but I just wanted to talk about the victory.”
Brat was also tripped up on a question about whether or not there should be a minimum wage:
Todd asked if there should be a minimum wage, and Brat answered, “Um, I don’t have a well crafted response on that one. All I know is if you take the long run graph over 200 years of your wage rate, it cannot differ from your productivity. Right? So you can’t make up wage rates.” He said that he would love to pay the people in sub-Saharan Africa one hundred dollars an hour.
Brat has the rhetoric about Adam Smith and the Founding Fathers that the tea party loves, but he appears to know nothing about politics and issues. David Brat is in way, way, way over his head, but it seems that he would fit in well with the other House tea party ideologues who have wrecked Congress, because they have no interest in learning how to govern.
Eric Cantor was a lot of things, but he wasn’t an idiot. The tea party will take another step towards accomplishing their goal of killing the few last living brain cells in the GOP if David Brat wins in November.
The Tea Party Appears To Have Replaced Eric Cantor With an Idiot was written by Jason Easley for
Senate blocks Elizabeth Warren’s student loan refinancing bill
Wednesday, June 11, 2014 14:27 EDT
By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Legislation to allow student loan borrowers to refinance at lower interest rates failed to clear a procedural hurdle in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, dooming a measure that was a Democratic priority ahead of November congressional elections.
Democrats had said the bill would let holders of both federal and private undergraduate loans – some with rates of 9 percent or higher – to refinance at 3.86 percent. Republicans thought the legislation was too expensive.
The bill, championed by liberal-leaning Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, was part of Democrats’ plan this year to rally their base supporters ahead of an election that could tip control of the Senate back into Republican hands.
Young people made up a huge part of the coalition that helped elected President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Obama signed an executive order on Monday making it easier for up to 5 million people to pay off college tuition debt and scolded congressional Republicans for opposing the legislative fix to lower student-loan borrowing costs.
The Senate voted on Wednesday 56-38 to end debate on the measure and move to a final vote, short of the 60 votes required for it to move forward.
“It’s a real shame Republicans are standing in the way of this very important, timely legislation,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters after the vote.
Republican opposition has thwarted other Democratic priorities, including a push to raise the federal minimum wage and renew expired long-term jobless benefits for millions of Americans.
Democrats control the Senate, 55-45, but need 60 votes to clear Republican procedural hurdles.
Last year, Congress approved the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act of 2013, which set the undergraduate student loan interest rate at 3.86 percent for the current school year.
Democrats proposed that the cost of the bill be offset by reducing tax breaks for millionaires and cited data showing that student-loan debt grew by $31 billion from January to March, to total $1.1 trillion, making it the fastest-growing household debt category.
(Reporting by Eric Beech and Patrick Temple-West; Writing by Jeff Mason; Editing by Caren Bohan and Cynthia Osterman)
Elizabeth Warren Declares War on Mitch McConnell After He Blocked Her Student Loan Bill
By: Jason Easley
Wednesday, June, 11th, 2014, 10:22 pm
On MSNBC tonight, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) virtually declared war on Mitch McConnell after he blocked her student loan bill. Warren told viewers to donate money to Alison Lundergan Grimes, and announced that she will be going to Kentucky to campaign for the Democrat.
Warren said she is going to fight back and hold Republicans accountable for the obstruction by going to Kentucky to call out Mitch McConnell on his own turf:
Well, accountability is exactly the right word. I plan on fighting back on this, and I hope that everybody else does too. One way, I’m going to start fighting back is I’m going to go down to Kentucky and I’m going to campaign for Alison Lundergan Grimes, . She’s tough. She’s feisty. She endorsed the student loan bill, said she wanted to bring down interest rates for Kentuckians, and so my view is, I’m going to get out there and try to make this happen for her.
I hope lots of people give her money at alisonforkentucky.com. I hope people will support her, because it’s really a way to say Alison is a candidate who’s there for all of us. For trying to make sure that everybody gets a fighting chance. It’s one way to deal with this. I gotta tell you, given what Mitch McConnell’s has been doing in the United States Senate. The way it’s just block, block, block, no, no, no. We get Alison Lundergan Grimes, in there and I feel like she could almost single-handedly get rid of some of the gridlock here in Washington.
Warren is angry, because Mitch McConnell blocked her student loan reform bill, which would have helped 40 million borrowers cut their interest rate nearly in half. The bill came up just short of passage. McConnell had signaled that he intended to block the bill because it was paid for by raising taxes on millionaires.
Sen. Warren isn’t going to take McConnell obstruction for the sole purpose of saying no anymore. She would have supported Alison Lundergan Grimes anyway, but now she seems even more passionate about sending McConnell off into retirement. Warren did bring up an excellent point. The obstruction campaign was designed and is being carried out by McConnell. If Mitch McConnell is no longer in the Senate, it isn’t unreasonable to expect things to run more smoothly.
Make no mistake about it. Mitch McConnell has made a powerful enemy. When Elizabeth Warren tells progressives and liberals to donate, wallets start opening up. McConnell went too far by needlessly blocking the student loan bill, and now Elizabeth Warren will be heading to Kentucky to hold him accountable.
Will We Let Congress Hand Billion$ More To Big Corporations?
By Dave Johnson June 11, 2014
Corporations currently owe up to $700 billion in unpaid, “deferred” taxes. Congress can make them pay, or let them off the hook. Guess which choice Congress is about to make.
Will We Let Congress Hand Billion$ More To Big Corporations?
This one is simply outrageous. Corporations currently owe up to $700 billion in unpaid, "deferred" taxes. The country needs the money – partly because these companies owe so much in taxes. Which of the following choices should the country make?
1. Tell the companies to pay up what they owe, bringing us hundreds of billions to use now and tens of billions a year more from now on.
2. Let them off the hook from ever paying most what they owe, if only they please would let us have a little bit of it now.
Who Is The Boss Of Whom?
The choice depends on who you think is supposed to be the boss of whom. If you believe that We the People are in charge of this country, then obviously you'd say these corporations should just pay the taxes they owe. But if the corporations are in charge of us they'll tell us they aren't going to pay these taxes unless we give them something.
Not surprisingly, Congress appears to be working toward option '2.' It's called a "repatriation tax holiday." They are proposing to tell the companies that moved jobs, factories and profit centers out of the country that it was the right thing to do. Unfortunately that will tell companies that didn't do these things that they were chumps.
What Is A Tax Holiday?
Here is what's going on. Giant, multinational U.S. corporations owe our government up to $700 billion in taxes on about $2 trillion in profits they have made (or made it look like they made) outside of the country. But there is a loophole that lets them hold off on paying those taxes owed until they "bring the money home." So of course, many corporations have been engaged in all kinds of schemes to make it look like they make their money elsewhere – and/or move jobs, factories and profit centers out of the country.
Why is this important right now? In a New York Times "politics" story Tuesday, "Plan to Refill Highway Fund Stokes Conflict in Congress," this nugget:
[Sen. Harry] Reid and [Sen. Ron] Paul are quietly pressing for a one-time tax “holiday” — a special and lucrative tax deduction — to lure multinational corporations to bring profits home from overseas, producing a sudden windfall.
Instead of telling these corporations that it's time to pay up, it looks like Congress is preparing to just let them keep much (85 percent) of the money. It's called a "tax holiday."
What is the "conflict" the headline talks about? It isn't a conflict between those who want to hand corporations hundreds of billions of dollars and those who do not want to. The conflict is over how to hand them the money!
Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, the Finance Committee chairman, and Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican, want that money to help smooth passage of a broad rewrite of the tax code.
So if Senator Reid is on board for a tax holiday and Senator Wyden is on board for a tax holiday, it looks like the idea of giving this huge amount of cash to these corporations is baked in to the thinking in the Senate. And we're talking about Democrats here. One side wants (Reid) to give them a tax holiday and get a little bit to use to pay for infrastructure, the other side (Wyden) wants to use it as a bribe to get these giant corporations to let the U.S. government "reform" the tax laws. Both sides are conceding that they'll accept a tax holiday.
But no one in this discussion is just saying, "Hey, we'd get up to $700 billion and tens of billions every year from now on if we just told these companies to pay the taxes they owe."
The cost: At Least $95.8 Billion
The idea is to give these companies an 85 percent deduction – the "tax holiday" – on their foreign profits and only taxing 15 percent of the profits. In other words, instead of taxing $2 trillion of profits being held out of the country they'll only tax $300 billion. If these corporations "bring the money home."
Bloomberg News looks at the cost of this, in "Repatriation Tax Holiday Would Cost U.S. $95.8 Billion." The "holiday" would bring in a quick $19.6 billion, but would cost $95.8 billion of tax revenue that would come in anyway over the next decade with no changes – not even making these companies just pay up. (Note: This calculation assumes Congress won't just tell these companies to just pay their taxes. That would bring in up to $700 billion at the top tax rate of 35 percent and tens of billions a year from now on. Companies can deduct any taxes already paid elsewhere, so "up to" means $700 billion minus taxes paid elsewhere.)
An Engineered "Crisis"
That's right, after all these years of propaganda about budget deficits and the hostage-taking and the "fiscal cliff" and the "debt ceiling" and the sequester and all the resulting budget cuts in essential services and "austerity" and how this has held back the recovery ... it looks like Congress is going to just let companies off from paying hundreds of billions of taxes they already owe. This is not about passing another tax break/subsidy, etc. These are taxes that are due and payable on profits that have already been made but that these companies are keeping outside of the country (and away from their shareholders).
Why would Congress even consider letting these corporations off from paying the taxes they owe? Because of rules about not increasing the deficit Congress "needs" the money. This is a "realpolitik" deal, recognizing that the companies have enough power to keep Congress from just making them pay up what they owe. The thinking is they can appease the corporations with an 85 percent tax holiday to get them to pay at least 15 percent of that they owe.
This is another engineered "crisis" where the country is made to believe that deficits are keeping us from doing things we need to do. We need to fund transportation infrastructure, we can't borrow the money to invest in things like this that make our economy more efficient, hence the need to "incentivize" the corporations to please bring home some of the money they owe us.
They Did This In 2004 And It Made Things Worse
In 2004 corporations ran the same scam on Congress, except that time they promised to use the money they brought back to "create jobs." So what happened?
In 2011 the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) looked at the results of the 2004 tax holiday and found that “their holiday didn’t just fail to create the promised jobs. Their holiday enriched corporations that actually destroyed jobs in the months right after they received their tax windfall.” IPS found that 58 multinationals who used the “American Job Creation Act of 2004″ tax holiday not only immediately laid off tens of thousands, they continued laying off, and laid off close to 600,000 workers between 2004 and now. From the IPS summary of the study,
One government study looking at the first two years after the repatriation windfall found that 12 of the top recipients laid off more than 67,000 American workers. These firms collectively brought back home more than $100 billion …
According to IPS, the companies that gained the most from the tax holiday actually cut jobs, on top of that they used the tax gift money to buy back their own stock, increasing its value, and pay out dividends, both thereby enriching executives and shareholders.
(This is from 2011. Another half a trillion of profits have been shifted offshore since then.)
From the Times story,
In 2004, when Congress approved a similar holiday, lawmakers vowed never to do it again. If it became a habit, they reasoned, companies would keep their profits overseas waiting for the next tax holiday. That, the bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation explained, is the idea’s “moral hazard problem.”
The 2004 tax holiday only made things worse because companies realized they could get out of paying taxes entirely if they moved profits offshore and held out until the next holiday season. If we do it again, every company will be compelled to move jobs, factories and profit centers out of the country to stay competitive.
They are going to try to sneak this through under the radar. Maybe We the People can stop it if we make enough noise.
Bernie Sanders Delivers Big For Vets As Senate Passes Veterans’ Healthcare Bill
By: Jason Easley
Wednesday, June, 11th, 2014, 5:11 pm
The Senate has passed the Sanders-McCain Veterans Bill that will allow vets to go to private providers if they can’t get an appointment at a VA facility, and fund the building of 26 with only three Republicans voting no.
The Republican brigade of senators who claim that the bill is too expensive was led by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) who claimed that bill creates a new unlimited “entitlement for veterans.” He said that three years worth of spending on vets is too much, and he demanded that the Senate offset the cost with spending cuts. Sessions said that he can’t suggest to his colleagues that the budget violation in the bill be waived.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) came to the floor and angrily told Sen. Sessions that this is an emergency and that the bill should not be delayed, and he urged his colleagues to vote against Sessions’ attempt to slow down the bill with a budget order. McCain also told the Senate to vote 100-0 for the bill.
In one of those politics make strange bedfellows moments, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) followed McCain and explained the data showing how big of an emergency this is for our vets. Sanders said, “If you want to provide timely care to veterans….it is going to cost money.” Sanders also pointed out that Congress funded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with emergency funding and the costs of the VA is less than 1% of what they spent on the wars.
A procedural vote to on the budget point of order passed with 75 votes, but 19 Republicans voted no. Sens. Colburn, Cochran, Sessions, Lee, Roberts, Flake, Coates, Corker, Paul, Shelby, Portman, Enzi, Blunt, Wicker, Barrasso, Thune, Risch, Crapo and Cruz all voted no.
After the Republican attempt to block the bill failed, the vote on final passage stands at 93-3.
The White House announced that President Obama will sign the bill via an OMB statement:
The Administration recognizes and appreciates the service and sacrifice made by servicemembers and veterans on behalf of the American people, and is committed to ensuring that we care for and honor our servicemembers, veterans, and their families. S. 2450 would make a number of changes to authorities related to, among other things, improving access to care, training and hiring of health care staff, health care related to military sexual trauma, and veterans’ education benefits. The bill reinforces a number of the Administration’s efforts to address the challenges facing today’s servicemembers, veterans, and their families. S. 2450 supports efforts to continue improving veterans’ access to healthcare, including for victims of military sexual trauma, and expanded access to education benefits for veterans.
The Administration strongly supports S. 2450 and looks forward to working with the Congress, and our veteran stakeholder community, to continue to promote the efficient use of taxpayer dollars while properly defining and implementing timely solutions to ensure that our veterans receive the care they’ve earned.
This bill is a real step towards getting rid of corrupt VA employees while importantly expanding benefits and providing funding to begin to fix the problems at the VA. The fact that only two Senate Republicans (Sessions, Corker and Johnson of Wisconsin) voted no is a sign that the VA scandal had shamed dozens of Republicans off of their stance against increased funding for veterans’ healthcare. The Senate passed bill will have to be passed by the House before it can be sent to President Obama to sign. Although there are some early signs of Republican resistance from the usual extremist House circles, if Boehner brings this bill to the floor for a vote, it will pass.
Bernie Sanders has worked tirelessly on behalf of veterans, and he showed a willingness to comprise by working with Sen. McCain to get the bill through the Senate. The McCain-Sanders bill increases funding for healthcare and care for our vets while also protecting years of future funding.
Sen. Sanders (I-VT) came through for the nation’s vets, who are closer to better access to much needed healthcare and treatment.
Tea Party Express Says Because Obama is Black, Americans Suffer and Die
By: Hrafnkell Haraldsson
Wednesday, June, 11th, 2014, 7:30 am
US President Barack Obama gives a thumbsIn a column at Tea Party Express titled “Because He is Black, Americans Suffer and Die,” Lloyd Marcus, Chairman of the Conservative Campaign Committee, accuses President Obama of ” unprecedented unlawful power grabs, narcissistic behavior, blatant lies and ignoring of the Constitution.” He tendentiously claims that,
His black skin provides Obama perfect political cover, similar to an impenetrable suit-of-armor, providing the Left with a unique golden opportunity to implement all of their unsellable liberal utopian fantasies. The best interest of the American people even takes a backseat to the Left’s and Obama’s obsession with appeasing our enemies.
Marcus pretends to go back five years to show how “Team Obama (the MSM and Democrats) believes protecting their golden child and his agenda despicably trumps American lives.” In the process, he shows just how committed he himself is to telling blatant lies.
He begins with the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, which he says Obama voted against “three” times.
The law would authorize hospital staff to provide medical assistance and try to save the lives of babies who miraculously survive abortions. Before the law, hospital staff was legally forced to simply place the baby into a room until it died. To secure the radical feminist vote, Obama insidiously voted against allowing staff to assist these feisty infant survivors; acceptable collateral damage to furthering his political ambitions.
In fact, as The Washington Post fact checker points out, Obama told the Christian Broadcasting Network in 2008,
I hate to say that people are lying, but here’s a situation where folks are lying. I have said repeatedly that I would have been completely in, fully in support of the federal bill that everybody supported — which was to say — that you should provide assistance to any infant that was born — even if it was as a consequence of an induced abortion. That was not the bill that was presented at the state level. What that bill also was doing was trying to undermine Roe vs. Wade.
The claim that Obama denied rights to infant abortion survivors gets four Pinnochios. Yet Marcus blithely repeats it as if it is true. Remember, right wing demagogues don’t have to prove anything they say is true. It just is because they want it to be.
Marcus is also angry Obama’s DOJ did not treat Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev like an enemy combatant. Tsarnaev is an American citizen. He has Miranda rights. These were read to him. Presumably, Marcus would want his on Miranda rights upheld.
Then we come to the Benghazi embassy attack, and Marcus lists all the old lies we’ve heard so often before, attempting to build a case against Obama based on claims that just aren’t true. He says,
In a nut shell, the Administration denied Ambassador Stevens’ desperate pleads for extra security before the attack. Following the attack, the Administration blatantly lied to the American people about the cause of the attack.
But as The Hill reported last year, “Republicans have sought to cut hundreds of millions of dollars slated for security at U.S. embassies and consulates since gaining control of the House in 2011.”
Democrats enacted $1.803 billion for embassy security, construction and maintenance for fiscal 2010, when they still controlled the Senate and House. After Republicans took control of the House and picked up six Senate seats, Congress reduced the enacted budget to $1.616 billion in fiscal 2011, and to $1.537 billion for 2012.
In a nut shell, the Republicans in Congress denied the Obama administrations pleas for embassy security, but Republicans cut embassy security funding. You won’t find Marcus admitting this, however.
And of course, the obligatory jab at Hilary Clinton:
In a cold calculated act of political deceit, Secretary of State at the time Hillary Clinton lied to the parents of the victims while looking them in the eye and shaking their hands. Hillary vowed to punish the guy who made an anti-Muslim video, knowing full well that the attack had nothing to do with a video.
Sadly, the Republicans have succeeding in obfuscating the truth here, even to the extent that FactCheck.org can’t see that a “terrorist attack” is an “act of terror,” claiming on their Benghazi timeline for Sept.12 that, “Obama Labels Attack ‘Act of Terror,’ Not ‘Terrorism.’” How the two could be different things is anybody’s guess, but it is widely pretended by the so-called liberal mainstream media that they are.
I suppose, if as George F. Will and others have claimed, nonconsensual rape isn’t really rape, when it is, in fact, the very definition of rape, an act of terror isn’t really a terrorist attack even when it is, in fact, the very definition of a terrorist attack.
Unfortunately for Republicans, their Benghazi hoax has been fully exposed and Fox News is paying the ratings price for repeating the lies.
This is the modern Republican Party for you. So completely immune to facts that even the dictionary and the English language is powerless against it.
In the end, Benghazi is what Republicans do to make themselves feel better about Hilary Clinton.
And no attack on President Obama would be complete without an attack on Obamacare. Marcus claims,
While we have not yet experienced the true horrors of Obamacare once it is fully implemented, Obamacare is wrecking havoc on American lives.
In fact, Obamacare is working, as 17.8 million people enrolled in the coverage provided by the ACA, and the uninsured rate has hit its lowest point since 2008. Far from harming people, as do, for example, Republican lies about Obamacare, the ACA actually helps millions of Americans, including my son, by removing lifetime caps on coverage. Obamacare is so successful, in fact, that even people in the South want it, and some Red States, now that they have it, want to keep it.
All Lloyd Marcus of the “We got nothing” Party offers are more old and oft repeated and just as often refuted old lies, like “As Sarah Palin warned, there will be death panels, rationed care and diminished care.” None of these are true. The only death panel to be found is the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which thinks it has the right to decide Americans can’t have healthcare, even when the ACA is the law of the land.
Marcus claims that “Obama ignored the law which required that he give Congress 30 days notice before transferring detainees out of Guantanamo” but even FactCheck.org can’t prove that’s true, and concludes that “Whether the White House’s interpretation is correct remains a matter of debate in the legal community.”
Marcus ends with a Tea Party paean to racism, saying,
What has emboldened Obama to continuously boldly go where no white president has gone before? The answer, his black skin suit-of-armor. Despite Obama’s multiple crimes and misdemeanors against the American people and the Constitution, serious opposition to the first black president is simply not an option for many in the GOP and MSM.
In other words, black skin is somehow an advantage:
It is plain to see the pattern of behavior of Obama and his minions. They protect Obama and further their agenda at any and all cost while engaging in maximum exploitation of his skin color for perfect political cover. Therefore, because Obama is black, Americans suffer and die.
Marcus may wish he had proven his case against President Obama, but if your premise is false, the argument which follows isn’t worth the ink used – real or virtual – to make it. And Marcus has followed his false premise with a bevy of already disproved lies.
Far from being an indictment of President Obama, Marcus’ column is an indictment of his own intellectual honesty and integrity, and it says far more about the emptiness of the Tea Party’s case against the president than it does about Obama himself.
Regarding Mass Shootings, The United States’ Motto Is ‘We’re Number One!’
By: Tim From LA
Tuesday, June, 10th, 2014, 10:04 pm
We’re number one. No, not in education, health or any other social programs, but in gun crimes. As of June 10, 2014, there have been 117 mass shootings in the United States this year. The second to last was in Las Vegas, Nevada. And today, according to The Los Angeles Times, we have this:
Student killed, shooter also dead, at Oregon high school, police say
One student has been killed and the gunman is also dead at Reynolds High School near Portland, Ore., police said Tuesday morning.
At a televised news conference, Troutdale Police Chief Scott Anderson told reporters the violent situation, which began at 8 a.m., was contained and over.
The chief said one student was fatally shot in the campus attack. No names were given.
According to Reddit.com, there were 116 shootings (Oregon makes 117) in the United States. There was another story in Florida of a man with a gun on campus. Luckily no one was killed or injured. Here is the beginning of the list of shootings in the U.S.:
Number 1: 1/1/2014, Unknown, 2 dead 2 injured, Norfolk, VA
Number 2: 1/3/2014, Unknown, 1 dead 3 injured, New York (Queens), NY
Number 3: 1/4/2014, Leonard “Frank” Harris Jr, 2 dead 2 injured, Rock Falls, IL
Number 4: 1/5/2014, Unknown, 1 dead 3 injured, Erie, OH
Number 5: 1/5/2014, Unknown, 0 dead 4 injured, Atlanta, Ga
Number 6: 1/12/2014, Unknown, 0 dead 5 injured, Elgin, Il
Number 7: 1/12/2014, Unknown, 0 dead 5 injured, Huntsville, AL
Number 8: 1/12/2014, Unknown, 0 dead 4 injured, Portland, OR
Number 9: 1/14/2014, Unknown, 0 dead 4 injured, Los Angeles, CA
Number 10: 1/16/2014, Unknown, 1 dead 4 injured, Ardmore, OK
These are just the first 10 of 117 incidents of mass shootings. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is alleging that the shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada that left two police officers and another victim dead was “absolutely staged” by the federal government according to Media Matters. That Senator Harry Reid was behind this in order for the U.S. government to grab our guns…not the NRA and their lobbying to promote guns and cut mental health care, no. It’s all the Democratic Party’s fault.
Liberal gun owners, though promoters of the right to have a firearm, are alarmed by the shooting and are promoting a more stringent firearm laws…like stricter background checks. On a scarier note, this madness leading is leading to, according to Raw Story:
Returning troops help KKK build paramilitary force to ‘retake’ US in coming race war
The Ku Klux Klan plans to begin military-style combat training under the direction of military troops returning home from overseas deployments, according to a Barcroft Media report.
The notorious hate group has been attempting to recruit new members – children, in particular – in recent months, and the Loyal White Knights faction has begun preparations for a long-awaited race war.
The Las Vegas shooters Jerad Miller and Amanda Miller shot and killed two Metro Police officers at a pizza restaurant in Las Vegas and killed another person at a nearby Wal-Mart according to the Las Vegas Sun. According to the Sun, the duo also told people they planned to commit a mass shooting…they were handing out white-power propaganda and were talking about doing the next Columbine.”
According to CBS.com, “The couple bragged about their gun collection and claimed to have spent time at Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s property during a standoff with federal government agents in April.”
So are all the shooting race related? No. Many are mentally ill. Suffice it to say, the Millers were also sick and needed mental health care badly…there are also witnesses who said that they couple placed the Gadsen flag on the dead officer’s body as a sign of resistance against the “man”.
Still, after all the shooting, more than 110 and counting, just during 2014 alone, there still is no gun control. There is no thorough background check and unlike California, the pro-carry states still do not require gun owners to go through a federal firearm license dealer during a private party purchase.
Will these common sense laws reduce crime and mass shooting? The shooter in Santa Barbara had a history of mental illness but legally bought firearms because he was not deemed mentally unstable just before his killing spree. Many on the right are critical of any legislation and the shooters were deemed by them mentally ill, but the right fall short of saying take their firearms away. As for the third victim in Las Vegas, the third person who was shot and killed was ambushed from the rear as he confronted one of the killers with his firearm. The lack of real training resulted in his death.
a truly sick country ..........Law Enforcement Agencies Continue To Obtain Military Equipment, Claiming The United States Is A 'War Zone'
That law enforcement agencies across the US are swiftly converting themselves into military outfits is hardly a surprise at this point. The problem is that nothing seems to be slowing them down, not even the dismayed reactions of citizens supposedly under their care.
The government's desire to offload its unused military hardware at deeply discounted rates has turned a few outliers into the new normal. Towns as with populations well under the 10,000 mark have secured Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, supposedly in order to keep up with a non-existent arms race between the good guys and the bad guys.
The MRAPs are only the most visible symptom of law enforcement's desire to dress for battle. Along with the vehicles (which normally run from $250,000-$750,000 but are routinely paid for by DHS grants awarded to requests that mention the word "terrorism" or "drugs" in a sufficiently terrified manner), agencies are also picking up military-grade weapons like grenade launchers and automatic weapons. The low prices and large grants make this an opportunity few agencies are able to resist.
The problems with this sort of ad hoc "mobilization" are numerous. The dangers of outfitting police with military gear can best be signaled with a combination of "if all you have is a hammer..." and Chekhov's Gun. If you give police military gear, they're going to want to use it. The very occasional shootout with heavily-armed criminals simply won't satisfy the urge to deploy the new acquisitions. The slightly-more-occasional no-knock warrant served in the dead of night to known drug offenders won't sufficiently scratch the itch. Consequently, this:
Police SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times each year, increasingly for routine jobs. Masked, heavily armed police officers in Louisiana raided a nightclub in 2006 as part of a liquor inspection. In Florida in 2010, officers in SWAT gear and with guns drawn carried out raids on barbershops that mostly led only to charges of “barbering without a license.”
All the training and all the equipment obtained over the years to… crack down on unlicensed barbering. (Or check water quality/"rescue" a baby deer from an animal shelter.) Square that with this statement by David Lutz, chief of the Edinburgh (IN) police department:
Lutz fully supports using the MRAP. "Oh, yeah, anything for the safety of officers," he said. "SWAT is after the worst of the worst. It's what they do."
Crime, including domestic terrorism -- the fear most commonly cited in equipment requests -- has never been lower. But the nearly universal response has been to escalate. With no data on their sides, defenders of these acquisitions are forced to rely on speculation and worst-case hypotheticals to defend bringing an MRAP into communities where violent crimes like homicide are nearly nonexistent.
“I don’t like it. I wish it were the way it was when I was a kid,” [Neenah, WI police chief Kevin Wilkinson] said. But he said the possibility of violence, however remote, required taking precautions.
Remote possibilities are the stated "goal." The reality is raided barbershops.
Others see it as nothing more than the natural progress of law enforcement, so entirely normal that what citizens perceive as a shift towards a police state is actually something so innocuous it can be taken to local schools to impress the kids.
Capt. Chris Cowan, a department spokesman, said the vehicle “allows the department to stay in step with the criminals who are arming themselves more heavily every day.” He said police officers had taken it to schools and community events, where it was a conversation starter.
Again, the facts simply don't bear out this statement. Criminals aren't arming themselves more heavily every day. Crime stats don't bear that out. In other nations, this is happening, but the United States is not ground-zero for a drug war -- or even a real war, for that matter. But yet more and more law enforcement agencies are pretending Neenah, WI and Pulaski County, IN (pop. 13,124) are the new Kabul, Afghanistan. [Warning: AUTOPLAY]
Click to watch the utter lunacy: http://www.indystar.com/story/news/2014/06/07/police-officer-safety-surplus-zeal-military-equipment-spurs-debate-mrap-military-vehicle/10170225/
"The United States of America has become a war zone," he said. "There's violence in the workplace, there's violence in schools and there's violence in the streets. You are seeing police departments going to a semi-military format because of the threats we have to counteract. If driving a military vehicle is going to protect officers, then that's what I'm going to do." (Pulaski County Sheriff Michael Gayer)
The unintentionally irony of this claim (which also happens to be both completely ridiculous and profoundly disturbing) is that these "new war zones" will apparently be populated by US citizens returning from the "old" war zones. This is what's awaiting our nation's military veterans: their old equipment being deployed against them, because if they killed overseas, they'll probably just keep on killing when they get home.
In the Indianapolis suburbs, officers said they needed a mine-resistant vehicle to protect against a possible attack by veterans returning from war.
“You have a lot of people who are coming out of the military that have the ability and knowledge to build I.E.D.’s and to defeat law enforcement techniques,” Sgt. Dan Downing of the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department told the local Fox affiliate, referring to improvised explosive devices, or homemade bombs. Sergeant Downing did not return a message seeking comment.
Law enforcement agencies seem to want a war. And if the public fails to give them one, they'll apparently manufacture one themselves by sending heavily-armed men to enforce hairdresser regulations and use MRAPs to break up knife fights. On the bright side, this issue is receiving more and more attention, but so far, the ability of law enforcement agencies to obtain military gear far outpaces efforts directed at tempering this activity.
Tanks, of Unknown Origin, Roll Into Ukraine
By ANDREW E. KRAMER
JUNE 12, 2014
DONETSK, Ukraine — Ukraine’s interior minister claimed on Thursday that an armored column from Russia had crossed the border into eastern Ukraine overnight and had fought with Ukrainian troops during the day.
Russia did not immediately respond to the minister’s allegation, and there was no independent confirmation that an incursion had taken place.
If it did, the event would signal a significant escalation in the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatist militias have seized government buildings in several cities and have resisted government troops sent to restore control.
Russia is widely believed to be supporting and aiding the separatist militias, and significant numbers of men who describe themselves as volunteer fighters have crossed into Ukraine from Russia. But the precise role Russia has played in the violence in the east has been hard to discern.
The Ukrainian interior minister, Arsen Avakov, told reporters in Kiev, the capital, that the armored column included three tanks, as well as armored personnel carriers and armored cars, and had traversed the border at a separatist-controlled crossing.
A video posted online appeared to show a tank, spewing exhaust, clanking down a street in Snizhne, a town about midway between Donetsk, a provincial capital controlled by separatists, and the Russian frontier. Reuters reported that two of its journalists saw the tanks in Snizhne but could not establish where they had come from; separatists on the scene said the tanks had been taken from a Ukrainian military warehouse. Late Thursday, photographs that circulated online were said to show the tanks on a boulevard in Donetsk.
The pro-Russian militias are known to have armored personnel carriers that were seized from Ukrainian forces, but they have not previously been known to possess any tanks.
After Mr. Avakov’s news conference, the newly elected president of Ukraine, Petro O. Poroshenko, telephoned President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to object to the incursion, a spokesman for Mr. Poroshenko said. The spokesman, Svyatoslav Tsegolko, wrote on his Facebook page that Mr. Poroshenko had told Mr. Putin that allowing tanks to cross into his country was “unacceptable.”
Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told the Itar-Tass news agency that the two leaders had spoken, but he made no mention of the Ukrainian accusation. He said Mr. Poroshenko had congratulated Mr. Putin on the occasion of Russia Day, a national holiday celebrated annually on June 12, and then “informed Putin about his plan for a settlement in the southeast of Ukraine.”
Ukraine has repeatedly accused Russia of deliberately allowing men and weapons to cross the two countries’ porous border, allegations Russia has denied. Last week, Ukrainian officials said Russia had allowed armored vehicles to cross the border at Marinovka; it later turned out that separatists had been operating near the border but had not attacked across it.
At his news conference on Thursday, Mr. Avakov told reporters: “We observed three tanks, which, according to our information, crossed the border and were in Snizhne by morning. After this, two of them moved toward Horlivka,” a town farther west. “They were attacked by our forces,” he said. “A battle is underway.”
The tanks and other armored vehicles crossed “despite the Russian Federation’s statements that it welcomes the peace process, and that the order had been given to strengthen border patrols,” Mr. Avakov said.
Russia has raised its own allegations against Ukraine. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, complained on Tuesday that the Ukrainian army had not halted operations in the east even though talks meant to achieve a cease-fire were underway among Russia, Ukraine and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Mr. Poroshenko has said that he is prepared to allow Russian fighters in Ukraine to return to Russia safely, to grant amnesty to local militants who are not accused of grave crimes and to discuss giving regional governments more power and autonomy, but that he will not negotiate with armed separatists.
Whether tanks actually crossed the border or not, the allegation that they had done so was a setback for the talks.
Violence continued on Thursday evening in the east. At least seven people were wounded after a car bomb exploded outside the regional administration building that is the headquarters of the self-declared People’s Republic of Donetsk, in the center of the city.
The local news media reported that the blast was an assassination attempt on a separatist leader, Denis Pushilin, but that he was not harmed. If that was the motive, it would be the second attempt on his life in two weeks, because of internecine fighting among separatist groups or between them and Ukrainian nationalist organizations backed by the government in Kiev.
Russia signaled on Thursday that it would keep up its economic pressure on Ukraine. Aleksei B. Miller, the head of the giant Russian gas monopoly Gazprom, said in televised remarks that Russia would not extend a deadline for Ukraine to pay $1.95 billion for natural gas beyond 10 a.m. on Monday.
Ukraine Inflicts 'High Casualties' on Rebels
by Naharnet Newsdesk
13 June 2014, 06:47
Ukraine's interior minister said on Friday that federal forces had inflicted "high casualties" on separatist rebels led by a Chechen commander in the southeastern port of Mariupol.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said the "active phase" of the offensive began at dawn and was still raging three hours later.
He added that two Ukrainian soldiers from the part-volunteer National Guard force were wounded in the fighting.
"The terrorists from the Donetsk People's Republic are being headed by a criminal boss known as 'The Chechen,'" Avakov wrote in a Facebook post.
He said the National Guard unit had destroyed a combat patrol vehicle and several rebel sniper positions.
"The area where the operation is being conducted in central Mariupol has been sealed off," he wrote.
Rebels who seized about a dozen towns and cities in the industrial region of Donetsk and the neighbouring province of Lugansk in early April have proclaimed independence from Kiev and are seeking to join Kremlin rule.
Well-equipped gunmen from Chechnya -- a Muslim Russian republic that fought two post-Soviet wars for independence before falling under Kremlin control -- have appeared in growing numbers among the separatists.
Kiev's new leaders and its Western allies accuse the Russian authorities of fomenting the fighting and turning a blind eye to the flow of gunmen and equipment across the border and into eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine's new leader Petro Poroshenko told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday that the reported crossing of three tanks into the east was "unacceptable".
Mariupol witnessed day-long clashes on May 9 that the interior ministry said had claimed 21 lives. Local officials later gave a lower toll.
The two regions have witnessed daily violence that Ukraine's health ministry said had killed 270 civilians and fighters on both sides.
A car blast late Thursday in the heart of Donetsk destroyed the minibus of regional separatist Denis Pushilin and killed three of his guards, according to the local government in Donetsk.
Pushilin was not present at the scene of the apparent attack.
Poroshenko vowed after his May 25 election to end the fighting by the weekend and launch peace talks with militants who have "no blood on their hands".
But his call was largely ignored by the gunmen and previous rounds of negotiations with eastern officials have failed to make an impact on the ground.
Loud Explosions Heard in Donetsk City Center
by Naharnet Newsdesk
12 June 2014, 22:56
A loud explosion rang out in central Donetsk on Thursday evening followed by a series of smaller explosions that sounded like artillery, Agence France Presse journalists said.
The explosions were heard shortly after 10:00 pm local time (1900 GMT). A spokeswoman for the separatist Donetsk people's republic could not be immediately reached for comment.
And a spokeswoman for the separatist government told AFP that a car belonging to Donetsk rebel leader Denis Pushilin was blown up in the restive eastern Ukrainian city, wounding three bodyguards.
Pushilin, who was not in the car when the explosion hit, is one of the leaders of the self-proclaimed "Donetsk People's Republic".
The separatist rebel movement has its headquarters in the former regional government building in the heart of the coal mining city.
"Pushilin's car was blown up. Three bodyguards were injured. He was not in the vehicle," spokeswoman Klavdiya Kulbatskaya said by telephone.
Pig Putin Discusses Ukraine Crisis with New President
by Naharnet Newsdesk
12 June 2014, 20:02
Russian President Pig Putin held phone talks Thursday with his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko on Kiev's plans for defusing the crisis in the separatist east.
"Ukraine's president notified the Pig of his plan to settle the situation in Ukraine's southeast," the PIg's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies.
"On top of that, the presidents discussed issues related to the development of bilateral ties," Peskov said.
Poroshenko's office said the two leaders held "substantial and lengthy" talks in which they discussed steps needed to "settle the situation through peaceful means".
The Pig and Poroshenko met on the sidelines of the D-Day anniversary ceremonies in Normandy last week, their first meeting since pro-Western Poroshenko was elected to the top post on May 25.
Poroshenko's Kremlin-backed predecessor Viktor Yanukovych was ousted as a result of a popular uprising in February after he abruptly refused to sign key political and trade agreements with the EU under pressure from Moscow.
Pro-Russian Activist Vows to Send Aid to East Ukraine
by Naharnet Newsdesk
12 June 2014, 18:37
A former Ukrainian presidential candidate and current backer of the pro-Russian separatist movement said Thursday he planned to ship food, medicine and money to the nation's war-ravaged east.
Oleg Tsarev, also previously a member of Ukraine's parliament, said while on a visit to the east Ukranian city of Donetsk that his People's Front movement had opened an office in Moscow and was preparing the first shipments of aid.
"I think from next week, quite big cargoes will be sent off," he said, adding they would consist of "money, medicine, food".
He said his supporters would distribute the supplies in coordination with representatives of two self-proclaimed "people's republics" set up in eastern Ukraine.
Eastern Ukraine has been the scene of continuous fighting for two months, as the Ukrainian government is trying to suppress an armed pro-Russian rebellion.
Local civilians are suffering increasingly because of the fighting, as the supply of even simple commodities like water has been reduced drastically or halted completely.
Volunteers in 15 different regions in Russia were also preparing cargoes for shipment to eastern Ukraine, according to Tsarev.
"The desire to help is massive," he said.
A Russian lawmaker for the ruling United Russia party, Alexei Zhuravlyov, who was visiting Donetsk with Tsarev, confirmed the initiative.
"I am sure that literally in a few days all the regions of the Russian Federation (will be donating)," he said.
Ukraine's humanitarian crisis worsens as tens of thousands flee combat in east
Appalling conditions force exodus from Slavyansk as daily shelling disrupts food supply
Alec Luhn in Slavyansk
The Guardian, Thursday 12 June 2014 21.30 BST
Fighting between Ukrainian government troops and pro-Russian militia is fuelling a worsening humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine. Tens of thousands of people are fleeing combat, most of them from the rebel capital of Slavyansk, where almost daily shelling has claimed numerous civilian casualties since late May.
Most residents in the besieged city have been without water, electricity and gas for the past week. Food supplies are limited, and grocery stores smell of rotting food from the lack of refrigeration. Dozens of people queue for drinking water.
About 270 people have died in the east of the country since Kiev launched its "anti-terrorist operation" two months ago, Ukraine's health ministry said on Wednesday. Of those killed, 225 were in Donetsk region, including Slavyansk, where fighting has been heaviest. At least two children have died of shrapnel wounds in Slavyansk this month, according to the health ministry. However, past government estimates have been low, excluding deaths in rebel-held territory.
Appalling conditions in rebel-held towns have caused thousands to flee. The exodus from Slavyansk gathered pace when Ukrainian army shelling intensified at the end of May, with most residents going to the nearby city of Svyatogorsk were they are dependent on the goodwill of locals for housing and food. About 15,000 to 20,000 refugees from Slavyansk have arrived in the city since the end of May, according to mayor Alexander Dzyuba.
Svyatogorsk monastery – one of the holiest Russian Orthodox sites in eastern Ukraine – has been housing as many as 500 Slavyansk inhabitants each day, said one monk. The displaced people receive one meal a day and live in tight quarters. Women and children live three to a room in the female section, while men live seven to a room with only a few feet between each bed. Laundry and clothing hung from lines above the cots.
Several old recreational compounds in the area have also been taking in displaced people. Volunteers hand out limited portions of donated food, much of it from residents in the eastern city of Kharkiv and from the company Bravo, at the Cafe Pyramid, said volunteer Yelena Laskova.
Sergei and Yulia Rivokovsky were staying with their three young children at a "tourism base" called Iskra. Yulia and her daughters arrived by bus two weeks ago, while Sergei rode his bicycle nearly 40 miles to join them. He said he wanted to join the rebels but had to see his family first. "My daughter was crying over the phone. If it gets worse I will go fight."
"There's no prospects for the future here," said Slava, who was staying with four relatives in a room at Iskra. "There's no work. Where can we go? But at least there's a roof and lighting here."
Another nearby recreational compound called Dubravushka was housing 170 displaced people from Slavyansk, according to manager Svetlana Sachenko. One of them, Anna Ergert, said her son and elderly parents remained in Slavyansk because they hadn't wanted to leave.
"My dad doesn't want to eat or drink, he wants to die … I tried to bring him borscht, but he said, 'You don't bring borscht to a corpse,'" she said, breaking down in tears.
According to the health ministry, 251 hotels, summer camps and other sites across the country have been converted into refugee centres housing up to 30,000 displaced people – including the servants' quarters at deposed president Viktor Yanukovych's luxury estate in Kiev. More than 7,000 people have already moved into these temporary housing facilities.
But no government assistance was visible in Slavyansk or Svyatogorsk, where local civic organisations, businesses and private citizens have helped to provide transportation, housing and food for those trying to flee the violence.
According to local volunteer Natasha Bogamaz, the Communist party has been organising buses to take women and children out of Slavyansk since 3 June. Buses were to take 20 people to the nearby city of Chuguyev and 40 to Crimea on Wednesday.
Anna Ivashenko was waiting to take the bus to Crimea with her two-year-old and four-year-old daughters. They decided to flee after a shell exploded in their apartment yard the day before, injuring her father. The family lives outside the village of Andreyevka, where there has been especially intense fighting, and her "nervous system was shot", she said.
Newly elected president Petro Poroshenko has promised a humanitarian corridor in the east, though there has been no sign of this in practice yet. On Thursday the security service ordered the commander of Kiev's "anti-terrorist operation" to establish a corridor for the evacuation of civilians.
Russian officials have also claimed that about 70,000 Ukrainian refugees have fled across the border since the fighting began, though these figures appear to have been inflated. The secretary general of the OSCE, Lamberto Zannier, visited refugees in Rostov region on Thursday, and recommended that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees get involved in helping those people who have fled.
Although thousands have fled, a majority of Slavyansk's 120,000 population has remained, unwilling or unable to leave because of a lack of funds, lack of transportation or fear of the troops.
In central Slavyansk on Wednesday, pensioner Valentina Vasiliyevna was clearing glass and shattered furniture out of her flat, which was hit by a shell earlier this week just after she and her son went to bed. "Thank God our beds are behind a wall, and we weren't killed," she said. "I lived through the great war, and now we're living through another one."
It was not clear whether the shell was fired by Ukrainian or rebel forces, although government troops have fired more ordinance. The commander of a government checkpoint just outside Slavyansk who would identify himself only as Mikhail said rebels had been firing long-range weapons from residential buildings, while Yura, a rebel, said the military was "shooting at peaceful people".
Howitzer shells, mortars and rockets have struck numerous buildings in Slavyansk and nearby towns. A block of flats on Lenin Street was rendered uninhabitable after being hit at least three times, and residents said civilians had been killed in the blasts. Anatoly Zhuly said he was going to live with his daughter inn the city's outskirts. Asked how he could stay in a city being shelled every day, he said: "If you're destined to be hanged, you won't drown."
Leonid Kozmenko, one of the few still living in the wrecked building, said he couldn't leave. "We would need money first," he said. "We have nothing."
Bulgaria PM Survives Confidence Vote
by Naharnet Newsdesk
13 June 2014, 13:06
Bulgaria's technocrat prime minister survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on Friday but his government's days are still seen as numbered with snap elections expected in the autumn.
The year-old government of Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski was severely weakened last week after the MRF Turkish minority party withdrew its support.
The head of the Socialist party, the main backers of Oresharski, earlier this week called on him to resign, saying elections were "the best option for the country".
The exact date of his resignation is expected to become clear next Tuesday when the main political parties meet with President Rosen Plevneliev.
Most parties favor elections in the autumn, which will be the second snap vote in Bulgaria in just over a year, and is expected to return the center-right GERB party to power.
GERB prime minister Boyko Borisov resigned in February 2013 after mass nationwide protests about falling living standards and corruption in the European Union's poorest country.
Oresharski took office in May 2013 but he too faced months of protests with Bulgarians angry that he has failed to fulfill his promises of a break with the past.
The MRF party withdrew its support after the Socialists' terrible result in EU elections in May and because of continuing work on the Russian-backed South Stream gas pipeline despite EU and U.S. objections amid the Ukraine crisis.
Oresharski said however on Sunday that all work on the pipeline would be suspended and that future developments would depend on consultations with Brussels.
The MRF and the Socialists supported Oresharski in Friday's vote, which Oresharski won by 114 votes to 109 with one abstention, but they say they will only continue to do so until the date for new elections is set.
The International Monetary Fund said Friday after a fact-finding mission that Bulgaria’s economic outlook was improving but that political uncertainty remained a "key risk".
It added that Sofia needs to address "critical institutional and broader structural rigidities", tackle corruption and cronyism and bolster the rule of law in order to boost growth.
06/11/2014 04:10 PM
German Defense Minister: 'Russia Has Destroyed a Massive Amount of Trust'
Interview Conducted by Christiane Hoffmann and Gordon Repinski
In an interview, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, 55, discusses her push to deepen the country's foreign involvement, the Ukraine crisis and progress made to date by Germany's military in Afghanistan.
SPIEGEL: Ms. von der Leyen, are there times when you would prefer to be foreign minister rather than the head of the Defense Ministry?
Von der Leyen: No. I like being defense minister.
SPIEGEL: Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has managed to take center stage in the Ukraine crisis, but the same hasn't been true of you. When you speak, people interpret it as warmongering.
Von der Leyen: That's in the nature of the office. It is of course clear that this crisis, caused by Russia, requires a diplomatic solution more than anything. At the same time, in light of Russia's military actions the defensive alliance must make clear that it is strong and united. Only those who are united and certain are in a good negotiating position.
SPIEGEL: So is the Ukraine crisis a case for defense policy?
Von der Leyen: Ukraine isn't NATO territory, but Vladimir Putin has destroyed an enormous amount of trust with his conduct. That's why we have to take the concerns of our Eastern partners very seriously.
SPIEGEL: Last week, United States President Barack Obama announced a strengthening of the American military presence in Eastern Europe. Can this contribute to finding a solution to the crisis?
Von der Leyen: I welcome Obama's announcement. It is a sign of America's engagement for Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance …
SPIEGEL: … it means that Europe's military capacities will be upgraded. Is that the right approach?
Von der Leyen: The primary thing we have to do is provide security for our Eastern partners. We Germans know what it meant to live on the border of the Warsaw Pact countries. The Allies provided us with security so that a prosperous West Germany could be created. We haven't forgotten that.
SPIEGEL: Are we falling back into the Cold War era?
Von der Leyen: No. But the situation is serious. Russia has destroyed a massive amount of trust. At the same time, there are many crises that cannot be solved without Russia in a globally networked world. That's why we need to do everything we can to help Russia find its way back to a policy of dialogue.
SPIEGEL: Is Russia really a partner still, or has it become an adversary?
Von der Leyen: Currently, Russia is not a partner. Partners adhere to joint agreements. Still, it is also true that Russia cannot be allowed to become our opponent.
SPIEGEL: The Western military alliance is currently in the process of sending a military message to Russia.
Von der Leyen: NATO is the world's strongest alliance and has proven over the decades that it can adjust to new threat scenarios. Its philosophy is to use its position of strength to engage in dialogue. The hand that has been extended to Russia has to come from a position of strength.
SPIEGEL: Does NATO now need to adapt to a new threat? The Baltic states and Poland want NATO combat troops in Eastern Europe, but that would affect the Basic Treaty with Russia. What is your position?
Von der Leyen: Even if Russia unilaterally violated the document, we should still comply with it. Rules that we once created shouldn't be abandoned frivolously. They can provide the basis for a new beginning. Even a rocky basis is better than none at all. It is important for Poland and the Baltic states that NATO be able to react swiftly. It is possible to provide that already today without permanently stationed units.
SPIEGEL: Would it be possible for NATO to defend the Baltic states in a conventional way with its current positioning?
Von der Leyen: Yes.
SPIEGEL: Our own reporting indicates that politicians and members of intelligence services in many NATO member states view the situation differently.
Von der Leyen: Let me reiterate: NATO is the world's strongest military alliance. President Putin knows that NATO stands solidly behind its Eastern members. That's why he won't touch the sovereignty or integrity of these countries.
SPIEGEL: What is the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, doing to contribute to overcoming the crisis?
Von der Leyen: The Bundeswehr is participating in NATO measures to provide security for the Baltic states. We are leading the NATO minesweepers in the Baltic Sea and we will also participate in the monitoring of air space beginning in September. We were the first NATO member state to come up with a concrete proposal together with Poland and Denmark for reinforcement measures in the mid-term. And we are reinforcing the Multinational Corps Northeast in Szczecin, Poland, so that NATO can react more quickly in the alliance's eastern territories. This has all been recognized.
SPIEGEL: You are planning on sending 50 additional soldiers to Szczecin, which is located right on the border to Germany and, as such, is one of the western-most locations in Eastern Europe. Is there any more to this than token politics?
Von der Leyen: There's much more behind this. We're just beginning the detailed planning. The Corps Northeast stands for NATO's ability to adapt. It is multinational, rotating and flexible. The troops continue to be distributed across Europe, but they conduct joint exercises and are prepared in emergency situations to act jointly. That is the modern NATO philosophy, which is no longer about the static stationing of large troop formations. That is an antiquated Cold War concept.
SPIEGEL: A week ago Tuesday in Warsaw, Obama warned Europeans yet again that they need to make a greater financial contribution to NATO.
Von der Leyen: The United States cannot be made to carry disproportionate NATO burdens in the long run. But many European countries have shrinking national budgets, and as such also shrinking defense budgets, because of the euro crisis. We have to stop this downward trend. More important, though, is that we use the means available to us more effectively.
SPIEGEL: Does Germany need to spend more on defense given the changing threat situation?
Von der Leyen: We have numerous challenges to meet. To do that, we need a solidly financed defense budget. How this budget will develop in Germany is dependent on economic developments.
SPIEGEL: So the defense budget will grow if the German economy grows?
Von der Leyen: That's a conversation I will first have with the finance minister.
SPIEGEL: In Germany, military buildups and deployments are unpopular with the public. Could military investments even be pushed through?
Von der Leyen: Not as an end in itself. The Germans approach this question in a very differentiated manner. They rightly ask why money is being spent and for what. Polls show that Germans support the fact that we are active in ensuring peace and freedom. That is also our approach in the alliances: We want to play a part in them. But with German thoroughness and perseverance and not foolhardiness.
'The US Is Still an Important Partner'
SPIEGEL: There was never support among the population for the Bundeswehr's deployment in Afghanistan. Why do you think that is?
Von der Leyen: Afghanistan is a complex conflict that can't be solved in the short-term. One can never tire of explaining that Germany's security is also being defended in the Hindu Kush, as my predecessor Peter Struck once said. Successes only gradually become visible and it is the long length of the deployment, the losses and the doubts that characterize the German debate.
SPIEGEL: Does that mean we should be content with little?
Von der Leyen: No. It makes a difference for Afghanistan's future if 8 million children go to school, among them 3 million girls. And if the people can vote for their rights through high voter turnout during the presidential election, even with the presence of danger. This is the right path.
SPIEGEL: But the security situation has deteriorated massively during the past year.
Von der Leyen: In the long run, transferring responsibility to the Afghani people for providing security is the only way to establish self-determination. The international community is now taking a back seat. We are providing advice, support and training.
SPIEGEL: But even as the Bundeswehr withdraws further, the Afghan people find themselves confronted with a growing number of incidents. You call that success?
Von der Leyen: It's a tough pill to swallow, but the time has come for us to transfer responsibility. It's a responsibility the Afghans also want to have.
SPIEGEL: Was the progress achieved worth a 12-year deployment and the loss of the lives of 50 Bundeswehr soldiers?
Von der Leyen: I don't like these types of calculations. Nothing can compensate for the pain of the affected families.
SPIEGEL: Could you imagine coming to the conclusion a few years from now that the mission has failed?
Von der Leyen: The latest developments give me hope, but I also don't have a crystal ball I can look into. What is important is that we learn our lessons from the deployment. One is that military deployments must always be combined with diplomatic efforts and civilian development.
SPIEGEL: Still, it appears as though politicians are hesitant to critically debate the deployment. Are we missing an honest taking of stock?
Von der Leyen: Let's just imagine what would have happened if the international community had ceded control to the Taliban. Would we be in a better position today?
SPIEGEL: US President Barack Obama announced that he wants to completely withdraw his own troops from Afghanistan by 2016. Doesn't that move go against the goal of sustainability?
Von der Leyen: I'm pleased that Obama stated figures. Together with all the other nations, we can now jointly plan the support mission that follows the end of the combat deployment. There are many steps that must be taken by 2016. We should consider how we can get the country on the best possible path by then.
SPIEGEL: What will it mean for the Bundeswehr's participation if America withdraws?
Von der Leyen: Right now that is pure speculation. The only thing that is clear is that we began this deployment as an alliance and we will end it as an alliance. Obama also emphasized the importance of cooperation with the partner nations in his speech at West Point a few days ago.
SPIEGEL: At the same time, he acted on his own in making the statement.
Von der Leyen: It was an important initial signal. The Americans are now taking on a key role. Many countries waited for this signal and will now set to work planning the support mission.
SPIEGEL: The US is playing a less dominant role in global security policy than in the past. What does this mean for Germany?
Von der Leyen: The US is still an important partner. That's why Obama's announcement to act within alliances is a good sign. Germany will exercise its responsibility within NATO and the EU.
SPIEGEL: In statistical terms, the opposite is true at the moment. A few years ago, some 10,000 German soldiers were deployed on missions abroad. Today, less than half that figure is deployed.
Von der Leyen: The number of soldiers deployed says little about how involved Germany is internationally. There are other indicators.
SPIEGEL: Such as?
Von der Leyen: It's not always just about the military. It's also about a general attitude of whether one is prepared to assume responsibility. I learned a lesson from the German government's decision to abstain in the United Nations Security Council during the Libya crisis in 2011. It triggered strong resistance internationally. That's why I share the position of Germany's president and foreign minister, both of whom have said that Germany must be more engaged. That is also happening. But you can't win back trust overnight.
SPIEGEL: After those speeches, one could also get the impression things remain status quo: spectacular announcements are made, but there is little follow-up.
Von der Leyen: I disagree entirely. Just take a look at what has happened since the beginning of the year. Germany is participating in the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons. In Mali we are focusing on the training mission. In Somalia we are once again standing side-by-side with our partners in the EU training mission. And the EU deployment in Central Africa first came into play when Germany provided key capabilities in air transport and medical evacuation.
SPIEGEL: Even so, the situation in Central Africa hasn't improved since then.
Von der Leyen: Nobody promised a quick success. The mission is only just beginning. The problem in Central Africa is that we are dealing with a failing society. Even providing protection zones is of value.
SPIEGEL: You recently said that indifference is no option in Syria. How do you reconcile that statement with the passivity taking place on this issue?
Von der Leyen: Tireless diplomatic efforts are being made, and Germany is participating in diverse ways.
SPIEGEL: Again, some 160,000 people have already died as a result of the conflict and some 9 million have become refugees. All Germany is doing is destroying a few chemical weapons. You call that German participation?
Von der Leyen: Here's the bitter truth: Solving this highly complex conflict requires a common political will among all involved parties. A military intervention is no substitute for that.
SPIEGEL: What do you consider to be the criteria for German military engagement?
Von der Leyen: There is no common template for this because the conflicts and threats in a globalized world vary too widely. What is certain is that Germany can only participate militarily as part of alliances. And we believe strongly in the principle of networked security. This means that diplomacy goes hand in hand with economic cooperation and, if necessary, also with a military aspect. That's the German trademark.
SPIEGEL: Why are you encountering so much resistance for your new foreign policy from within your own government?
Von der Leyen: My experience has been that persistent persuasion pays dividends in the long run.
SPIEGEL: Ms. von der Leyen, we thank you for this interview.
Translated from the German by Daryl Lindsey
EU Extends Kosovo Mission by Two Years
by Naharnet Newsdesk
12 June 2014, 21:25
The European Union on Thursday agreed to extend its sensitive law and order mission in Kosovo by two years until June 2016.
The 2,000-strong EULEX unit was launched in 2008 just months after Kosovo broke away from Serbia in order to strengthen the rule of law in the territory.
Its prosecutors and judges are empowered to independently tackle sensitive cases that cannot be handled effectively by the local judiciary.
In a statement, the EU said the caseload handled by its magistrates would be reduced during the new mandate "given the development of local authorities."
Instead, the mission will now focus on "capacity building throughout Kosovo, security and the implementation of agreements reached in the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue in the north," the statement said.
Kosovo's war ended in June 1999 after a NATO air campaign ousted the security forces of then Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, paving the way to Pristina's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia.
Ex-guerilla chief and prime minister Hashim Thaci is currently seeking coalition partners to form a government after his party failed to win outright in a snap election last week.
The vote passed peacefully, with Serbs in Kosovo's restive northern region taking part for the first time in a general election, which could give a boost to the country's hopes of starting EU accession talks.
Turkey's Erdogan Told to Keep the Peace in Austria Visit
by Naharnet Newsdesk
12 June 2014, 20:33
Austria warned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday not to say anything that may "split" Austrian society when he visits next week following a contentious visit to Germany.
The strongman leader ruffled feathers last month when he made disparaging remarks about a German opposition leader of Turkish origin and spoke out against "assimilation" in a speech in Cologne.
"I warn Prime Minister Erdogan explicitly: he should not introduce splits in Austrian society," Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz told Friday's Oesterreich daily.
"If he makes a positive speech and addresses the right things -- learning German and being loyal to Austria -- then he can help," said Kurz, who was formerly the country's integration minister.
"But if he does the opposite, like he did in Germany, then he does damage not only to our majority population but also first and foremost also Turkish immigrants."
Erdogan is due in Vienna -- home to many of Austria's 250,000-strong Turkish community -- on June 19.
The visit is seen by many as a bid to win overseas votes for an expected run for the presidency in August.
Greece Wars With Courts Over Ways to Slash Budget
By NIKI KITSANTONIS
JUNE 12, 2014
ATHENS — The Greek government has made a range of painful cuts to salaries, pensions and jobs for public workers over the last four years, saying they were needed to satisfy the demands of the international creditors that bailed the country out. But the Greeks hurt by those steps, and the nation’s courts, have a different idea.
Steadily, citizens groups — including police officers, university professors, cleaning workers and judges themselves — have challenged the cuts as illegal or unconstitutional. And in case after case, Greek courts have agreed, presenting a nearly existential question for the government: Can it actually shrink the state?
The mounting pile of judgments has now become a serious obstacle to the austerity drive of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, with the International Monetary Fund warning this week that the “adverse court rulings” threaten to undo the country’s reforms, which its creditors are scheduled to begin reviewing in July.
Coming just as an embattled Mr. Samaras tries to convince citizens and investors that Greece is finally turning a corner, the rulings threaten to punch a gaping hole in the finances of the government. Besides potentially having to reverse many of its public-sector layoffs, Greece could be obliged to scramble for one billion euros, about $1.35 billion, in back pay.
“They’re bigger than us, but we’re angrier,” said Despina Kostopoulou, 53, who worked at the Finance Ministry as a cleaning woman for 22 years before she was laid off last fall. In May, a court ruled that she and 396 of her fellow workers were unfairly dismissed. Since then, she has been sleeping in a tent outside the ministry’s offices, brandishing mops and demanding, along with her co-workers, that the ministry rehire them.
The David-and-Goliath-style standoff has turned the cleaning women into unlikely symbols of resistance to the austerity measures that Mr. Samaras insists have gradually allowed Greece to resume control of its finances, return to bond markets and report a primary surplus — a budget in the black before debt payments — of about $2 billion.
But those same steps have also slashed Greek incomes by a third, driven unemployment to around 27 percent and left the population fuming.
Other countries that have enforced austerity programs have witnessed similar popular challenges and clashes between the government and the judiciary. In Portugal, which recently emerged from its foreign bailout, a top court rejected cuts to salaries and pensions in May, prompting the government to scramble for alternative measures amid feverish speculation about tax increases.
Some of the rulings that have gone against the Greek government have yet to be officially announced or are being appealed. An initial appeal of the decision on the cleaning workers was rejected in May; a second appeal was upheld in a ruling on Thursday by the Supreme Court. A final decision is now expected in September, when many expect that the cleaning workers will be vindicated.
Many of the rulings against the government may ultimately be upheld by Greece’s highest courts, experts said. That would leave the government at a legal dead end and with little other choice, if it is to satisfy its creditors, than to defy the rulings or look for cuts in other places. Either option could further stoke public anger and spark fresh legal appeals by other groups of citizens.
“This is an avalanche that’s started,” said Jens Bastian, an economic consultant and former official on the European Commission’s task force for Greece. “It’s not going to stop.”
Already, the number of challenges to the government’s austerity efforts is growing, and its losses are accumulating.
In January, Greece’s top administrative court, the Council of State, deemed that the government’s cuts to the wages of police and armed forces employees violated the Constitution. In February, the same court ruled that a tax on benefits for university staff members and cuts to civil servants’ pensions were illegal. The same month, Greek Supreme Court judges found that a property tax introduced in 2011 as an emergency measure and later extended was unconstitutional. Another court rejected cuts to the salaries of state hospital doctors, university professors and, unsurprisingly, judges.
The country’s faltering privatization drive is also at risk. In May, the Council of State blocked the sale of the state’s majority stake in the Athens water company, with a current stock market value of around $813 million, out of concern that water quality could deteriorate under private control. The move raised questions about whether the government can meet a target to sell off $2 billion worth of assets in 2014.
According to analysts, the decisions could upend Mr. Samaras’s progress in putting the economy back on track. Achieving a budget surplus was a precondition for the start of talks in the fall among Greece and its euro zone partners on lightening Greece’s debt load.
In its report on Greece this week, the I.M.F. expressed concern about Greece’s “very high” debt, which stands at about 175 percent of economic output, and said a “dramatic improvement” in the efficiency of its public sector was still needed to avoid further austerity measures. If the courts roll back the government’s reforms, compensating measures will be necessary, it said.
In any case, European officials recently repeated their view that Greece is likely to need a third, much smaller, bailout in addition to the two loan agreements worth a total of $325 billion it has already been granted since 2010 by its so-called troika of creditors — the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the I.M.F.
“The rulings have immediate implications for Greece’s fiscal strategy and revenue projections, which must be revised,” Mr. Bastian said.
“Privatization targets are constantly being revised downward and tax collection is difficult, as people can’t pay,” he added, referring to public debts to the state that have topped $89 billion and are rising by $1.35 billion every month.
The string of legal decisions has wrought political damage, too, on a government that has been left wobbling from the victory of the leftist opposition party Syriza in European Parliament elections last month. Mr. Samaras carried out a thorough cabinet shuffle on Monday, installing Gikas Hardouvelis, a respected economist and former government adviser, as finance minister in an attempt to breathe new life into an administration tainted by government austerity programs.
The resilience of the cleaning workers at the Finance Ministry has proved to be an embarrassment, and may signal complications to come.
A ministry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said a reversal of the cleaners’ dismissals could gut the “central tenet” of the government’s plans to trim the public sector — its “mobility scheme” — that began last year. The measure requires placing 25,000 civil servants on reduced pay for eight months before dismissing them if they cannot find another public-sector job.
That plan is in addition to the layoffs of 15,000 public-sector workers, 11,000 of whom are supposed to be let go this year. Short of dismissing the cleaners, “the alternative was to dismiss tax collectors,” the official said, noting that a private firm is doing the cleaners’ job for a third of the cost.
Experts say the government’s imposition of these measures will probably result in more rulings in favor of public-sector workers, presenting it with the difficult choice of defying Greek courts to placate its foreign creditors or giving ammunition to austerity protesters.
“The government is in a state of emergency, so it is violating the Constitution,” said Aristides Hatzis, a professor of legal theory at the University of Athens. But the courts will continue to block measures that violate laws, he said, adding: “The judges are doing their job. The demands of the troika are not their problem.”
Spanish activists launch street referendum over future of monarchy
Unofficial poll in days leading up to coronation of Prince Felipe to ask Spaniards if they want elected head of state
Ashifa Kassam in Madrid
theguardian.com, Friday 13 June 2014 11.23 BST
Emboldened by the tens of thousands of Spaniards who have taken to the streets to demand a say in the future of Spain's monarchy, activist groups have announced they will be holding their own referendum in the five days leading up to the coronation of Prince Felipe.
The idea came about on the night of King Juan Carlos's abdication announcement, after an estimated 20,000 people dressed in the red, yellow and purple of the former Spanish republic descended upon the Puerta del Sol square in Madrid calling for an end to the monarchy.
"It seems absurd to us that in a democracy nobody is asking the citizens if they want a monarchy or a republic," said Kike Castelló of ¡Democracia Real Ya! (Real Democracy Now!), one of the dozen or so collectives involved in organising the referendum.
The referendum will begin on Saturday morning and run until 19 June, the day of the coronation. About 60 polling stations staffed by volunteers will be set up along major streets in cities across the country with voting also taking place online.
A recent poll for El País found that 62% of Spaniards believe a referendum on the monarchy should be held "at some point". Nearly half, said the poll, would prefer a monarchy headed by Felipe, while 36% would support a republic.
Participants will be asked to answer yes or no to two questions: whether they agree that the head of Spain should be elected and if they agree that a constitutional process should be opened so that citizens can decide how the Spanish state is governed.
Que no cunda el pánico que no tenemos jornada de reflexión. A contarle a todas las preguntas de #ReferéndumRealYa. pic.twitter.com/wj3S12H8E2
— #ReferendumRealYa (@Referendum1419) June 13, 2014
"We just want people to express their opinion – whether it's for a monarchy or for a republic – we want to hear what Spaniards want for their country," said Castelló.
He brushed aside concerns about the legality of the referendum. "Asking people for their thoughts isn't illegal," he said, pointed to a line in the Spanish constitution that stipulates that "transcendent decisions can be put to a consultative referendum".
Under Spanish law, he added, permission is not needed for this kind of initiative. The only obligation is that those setting up polling stations notify the delegate from the central government in the region. The necessary forms to do so are provided on the group's website, he said.
Measures are being put into place to avoid people voting more than once, said Eduardo Robles Elvira, who is working on the technical aspects of the poll. Independent organisations are also being recruited to monitor and tally the results. "We're doing all of this so that it's the most transparent and legitimate referendum possible," he said.
The group has yet to decide what exactly they will do with the results, said Castelló. "We know that the government isn't going to say, 'hey, look how many people want a republic, let's do that." He said he saw the effort to take the pulse of the streets as more symbolic than anything else. "We want people to realise that it's possible for us to have a say in how our country is run."
The plebiscite is open to Spaniards living anywhere in the world and a group in Paris has signed up to host a polling station on the streets of the French capital. "Spaniards are the ones who will be affected by this monarchy. If you want one as well for the British we can organise one for your Queen," Castelló joked. "But that might seem a bit weird."
More than 85% of the Spanish parliament on Wednesday voted to move forward with the law that will pave the way for the crown to be handed from King Juan Carlos to Prince Felipe. The law will now move to the Spanish senate where it is expected to be approved early next week.
As leftist deputies waved signs calling for a referendum, the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, defended the monarchy during the debate, saying: "Spain is a parliamentary monarchy with deep roots because Spaniards want it to be so."
Iraqi Shiite Cleric Issues Call to Arms
By ALISSA J. RUBIN, SUADAD AL-SALHY and ALAN COWELL
JUNE 13, 2014
BAGHDAD — Iraq’s senior Shiite leaders issued an urgent call to arms on Friday, telling all able-bodied Iraqis to assist the government’s fight against the Sunni militants who have seized broad stretches of Iraqi territory, in a sign of the growing desperation of the country’s Shiite majority and its shaky central government.
In a statement during Friday prayers from the representative of the most senior Shiite cleric in the country, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, said it was “the legal and national responsibility of whoever can hold a weapon, to hold it to defend the country, the citizens and the holy sites.”
The representative of Mr. Sistani, Sheikh Abdul Mehdi al-Karbalaie, speaking in Karbala, one of Iraq’s holiest cities for Shiites, said the numbers of fighters and volunteers “must fill the gaps within the security forces,” but he cautioned they should not do more that, stopping short of calling for a general armed response to the rebellion led by the Sunni jihadi group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
He emphasized that all Iraqis, not only Shias should join the fight, underscoring that everyone needed to pull together or the country could fall into sectarian warfare. However, it seemed unlikely that many Sunnis would be moved to do so, especially in an atmosphere of deepening distrust between the sects. And many Sunnis feel squeezed as well because they have little sympathy for the extremist militants from ISIS.
The call came as the militants had fanned out to the east, at least temporarily seizing two towns near the Iranian border, Saadiyah and Jalawla. But, several hours after the capture of the towns, security officials in Baghdad said that government troops, backed by Kurdish forces, had counterattacked, forcing the insurgents to withdraw in a rare victory.
The capture of the towns of Saadiyah and Jalawla came a day after Kurdish forces further north seized on the accelerating rout of government troops to take over the oil city of Kirkuk, long contested between Iraqi Kurds and the country’s Arab leaders in Baghdad.
The Kurds control a semiautonomous region and have long eyed independence. The Kurdish moves on Thursday presented Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki with a twin challenge from Kurds and from Sunni militants to restore Iraq’s cohesion and his government’s authority in face of the apparent disintegration of the American-armed Iraqi Army and the worst security crisis since the American withdrawal in 2011.
The ISIS forces appeared intent on driving toward Baghdad, spreading a deepening sense of alarm as government troops failed to resist and in some cases abandoned their posts.
The sectarian conflict has drawn warnings of intervention from Tehran and Washington, who are watchingwatched the growing chaos with alarm.
The senior clerics’ language and tone made it a religious and patriotic act to to volunteer either for the army or join the Shiite militias that increasingly can not be differentiated from each other.
There were cheers and shouted chants of “It will be done” when Mr. Karbalie said, “Whoever can hold a weapon has to volunteer to join the security forces.”
Mr. Al-Karbalaie appeared to be reading a statement from Mr. Sistani and the other senior clerics and people in Mr. Sistani’s office said it was a response to a statement from the leadership of ISIS which threatened not just northern Sunni areas of Iraq, but also Baghdad and the cities of Karbala and Najaf, which are among the holiest places to Shiite Muslims.
“Iraq and the Iraqi people are facing great danger, the terrorists are not aiming to control just several provinces, they said clearly they are targeting all other provinces including Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf.
“So the responsibility to face them and fight them is the responsibility of all, not one sect or one party. The responsibility now is saving Iraq, saving our country, saving the holy places of Iraq from these sects,” he said.
Since the fall of the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, senior officers in the army have been meeting with local committees and Shiite militias in Baghdad and asking them to n round up volunteers to help bolster the government forces in the face of the steady advance of the Sunni militants who are negotiating and in some cases fighting their way towards Baghdad.
Friday’s call to arms appeared to be meant to augment that effort.
Kurdish troops, operating freely in areas northeast of Baghdad, had moved into Jalawla to secure their political party offices before the Sunni militants aligned with the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria took over the town, news reports said., There were no immediate reports of casualties. The town is in ethnically mixed Diyala Province — a tinderbox region bordering Iran that controls one approach to Baghdad through the town of Baquba, 20 miles north of the capital.
Other accounts said the militants, riding in pickups mounted with machine guns, had entered the two towns late on Thursday, encountering no resistance from government troops, who abandoned their posts as they had done elsewhere during the insurgents’ lightning campaign, which began on Tuesday with the capture of Mosul.
Since then, the militants seem to have been emboldened by the capture of American-supplied military equipment left behind by government forces as they withdrew.
There were reports that Iraqi government troops — who have abandoned several key locations in addition to Mosul, Iraq’s second city, and Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein — had lobbed artillery shells into the two captured towns from near Muqdadiya, around 50 miles from Baghdad, prompting an exodus of civilians.
On the main axis of combat along the highway running south from Mosul there were no indications early on Friday that the insurgents had been able to seize the front-line town of Samarra, 70 miles north of Baghdad, which is home to a Shiite shrine and is reportedly defended by militias from Iraq’s Shiite majority.
Thousands of Shiite volunteers were reported to be mobilizing. “We hope that all the Shiite groups will come together and move as one man to protect Baghdad and the other Shiite areas,” said Abu Mujahid, one of the militia leaders.
In the east, the reports of insurgent activity in Diyala Province followed unconfirmed reports that Iran, an ally of Mr. Maliki’s Shiite-led government, had sent Revolutionary Guards into Iraq. Iraqi Shiite militia leaders contacted in Baghdad said they knew of no such assistance from Iran and had not asked for any.
Iran’s state-run news media reported this week that Tehran had strengthened its forces along the Iraq border and suspended all pilgrim visas into Iraq but had received no request from Iraq for military help.
The insurgents have pledged to march on Baghdad, and even to strike at Shiite holy cities further south. The sprawling Iraqi capital, with its large population of Shiites, is likely to prove a more daunting operation than the militants’ advance across a Sunni heartland with little sympathy for the central government.
For its part, Mr. Maliki’s administration seems bewildered by the insurgent advance. It was unable even to muster sufficient numbers in Parliament to vote on the prime minister’s call for a state of emergency that would provide him with the authority to order curfews, restrict movements and censor news reporting.
On Friday, however, an spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying: “We put in place a new plan to protect Baghdad.”
“The plan consists of intensifying the deployment of forces, and increasing intelligence efforts and the use of technology such as observation balloons and cameras and other equipment,” General Maan said.
The insurgency has sent hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fleeing, particularly from Mosul.
Earlier this week, the International Organization for Migration, based in Geneva, put the total at 500,000 and, on Friday, the United Nations refugee agency said that 300,000 people had sought safety in Kurdish cities, notably Erbil and Dohuk.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had already been uprooted by fighting to the west of Baghdad in Anbar Province, where the city of Falluja and much of the surrounding area are under the control of the militants threatening the Iraqi capital from the north and east.
The total number of displaced Iraqis inside the country could be approaching one million, adding to the broader challenges faced by humanitarian relief agencies in neighboring Syria, where millions of people, including 2.8 million who have fled across the country’s borders, need help after more than three years of civil war.
Navi Pillay, the top United Nations human rights official, was quoted on Friday as saying that there were growing concerns in Iraq about “summary executions and extrajudicial killings and the massive displacement of an additional half a million people” as the insurgent campaign unfolded this week.
U.S. Scrambles to Help Iraq Fight Off Militants as Baghdad Is Threatened
By MARK LANDLER and ERIC SCHMITT
JUNE 12, 2014
WASHINGTON — The White House, confronted by an unexpected crisis on a battlefield it thought it had left behind, scrambled Thursday to reassure Iraq that it would help its beleaguered army fend off militants who have overrun much of the country and now threaten Baghdad.
Recognizing what one official described as an “urgent emergency situation,” President Obama and his aides moved on multiple fronts. A senior official said the president was actively considering American airstrikes against the militant groups. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. telephoned Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to express American support. And Pentagon officials briefed lawmakers about what one senator later described as a “grave situation.”
In his only public comments on Iraq, Mr. Obama said his national security staff was meeting around the clock. But the frenzy of activity has yet to produce a tangible American response — attesting to how swiftly this crisis has erupted and how it has left a stunned White House groping for a response.
The chaotic situation in Iraq showed no sign of letup on Thursday as emboldened Sunni militants who seized two important Iraqi cities this week moved closed to Baghdad while Kurdish forces poured into the strategic northern city of Kirkuk after it was evacuated by government forces.
Airstrikes were only one of several options being weighed by the president, according to the senior official, who cautioned that the president had made no decision on military action. The airstrikes, the official said, could be delivered either by unmanned drones or warplanes.
“I don’t rule out anything,” Mr. Obama said, speaking in the Oval Office after meeting with Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia, “because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter.” He said he was watching the fast-moving events with “a lot of concern.”
For Mr. Obama, ordering airstrikes would be a symbolically momentous step, returning the United States to a combat role in Iraq two and a half years after he pulled out the last American soldier, ending the nation’s involvement in a war that left more than 4,400 Americans dead.
The possibility of coming to Iraq’s rescue raises a host of thorny questions for Mr. Obama, who has steadfastly resisted being drawn into sectarian strife in Iraq or its neighbor, Syria. Republican lawmakers accused him of being caught flat-footed by the crisis and of hastening this outcome by not leaving an adequate American force behind after 2011.
Reports that Iran has sent its paramilitary Quds Force to help the struggling Iraqi Army battle the militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, raised the awkward possibility that the United States could find itself allied with Iran in shoring up an unpopular Shiite government in Baghdad. The White House said it was aware of the reports, but did not confirm them.
Mr. Obama insisted he had been monitoring the threat from Sunni militant groups for several months. The United States, he said, had supplied Iraq with military equipment and intelligence.
Until now, though, the White House has rebuffed several requests from Mr. Maliki for the United States to conduct airstrikes against the staging areas of the militant groups, north and west of Baghdad, where extremists have flowed across the border from Syria.
In the past two days, Mr. Obama acknowledged, it was clear that the United States needed to go further. “Iraq’s going to need more help,” he said. “It’s going to need more help from us, and it’s going to need more help from the international community.”
“In our consultations with the Iraqis,” he said, “there will be some short-term, immediate things that need to be done militarily. But this should be also a wake-up call for the Iraqi government.”
The president said the crisis confirmed his decision — articulated in a speech at the United States Military Academy — to reorient American counterterrorism strategy from fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan to a more diffuse set of terrorist groups, some linked with Al Qaeda, that stretch from the Middle East to North Africa.
On Capitol Hill, however, the images of Baghdad under threat from Islamic militants fanned a political firestorm. Speaker John A. Boehner warned that the progress in Iraq was “clearly in jeopardy,” and said Mr. Obama had been caught “taking a nap.”
Insurgents swept across the Syrian border over the weekend and captured Mosul on Tuesday. On Wednesday they captured Tikrit and seized parts of the oil refinery city of Baiji. On Thursday, insurgents deployed north and east of Samarra, while Shiite militias reinforced pro-government forces in the city. Insurgents also pressed south and took Dhuluiya.
Democrats said the strife was the result of former President George W. Bush’s misguided invasion of Iraq in 2003. “One act of violence provokes another act of violence,” said the Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader. “And here we are.”
Senators on the Armed Services Committee emerging from a two-hour, classified briefing on Iraq appeared stunned by what they heard from a senior Pentagon official, two senior Defense Intelligence Agency analysts and the three-star general in charge of security cooperation at the American Embassy in Baghdad.
“Needless to say, it’s a grave situation,” said Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat.
A State Department spokeswoman said American contractors working on foreign military sales had been moved from their base north of Baghdad by their companies. But diplomats and staff members at the embassy in Baghdad and consulates elsewhere in Iraq had not been moved, according to the spokeswoman, Jen Psaki.
Republicans and some Democrats sharply criticized the Obama administration for not having a credible response to help the Iraqi government.
“There is no strategy,” said Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, in an interview. “The president said he would not rule out anything. Is that a strategy? Is that a way to counter ISIS?” he said, using the acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, demanded that the administration provide Congress with both short-term and longer-term options. “We need a proposal and recommendation from the administration, and so far it has not been provided,” he said.
Mr. Blumenthal also castigated Mr. Maliki for failing to include Sunnis as full partners in his government, a failure other critics have said has pushed Sunnis into the hands of Islamic militant groups like ISIS.
Most lawmakers expressed caution in committing to American airstrikes against militant targets, as Mr. Maliki has requested. But some said it might be the only way to give the Iraqi security services time to reorganize and blunt the militants’ offensive.
“It might be the only way we can give some support so they can regroup, so the Iraqi Army can get itself together,” said Senator Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat.
While experts said leaving behind a residual force of several thousand American troops would have helped the Iraqi Army tactically, some doubt it would have prevented the sectarian forces that are threatening to tear the country into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish blocs.
“In the long run, I’m not sure it would have made a difference with the forces pushing for the disintegration of Iraq,” said Gen. Amos Yadlin, a retired head of Israeli military intelligence who is now the executive director of Israel’s Institute of National Security Studies.
Andrew J. Tabler, an expert on Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that American airstrikes would “help them deal with the symptoms of the disease, but the disease is rooted in Syria.
The Iraqi Army Was Crumbling Long Before Its Collapse, U.S. Officials Say
By ERIC SCHMITT and MICHAEL R. GORDON
JUNE 12, 2014
WASHINGTON — The stunning collapse of Iraq’s army in a string of cities across the north reflects poor leadership, declining troop morale, broken equipment and a sharp decline in training since the last American advisers left the country in 2011, American military and intelligence officials said Thursday.
Four of Iraq’s 14 army divisions virtually abandoned their posts, stripped off their uniforms and fled when confronted in cities such as Mosul and Tikrit by militant groups, principally fighters aligned with the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the officials said.
The divisions that collapsed were said to be made up of Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish troops. Other units made up of mainly Shiite troops and stationed closer to Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, were believed to be more loyal to the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, and would most likely put up greater resistance, according to the officials.
Still, Lieut. Gen. John N. Bednarek, who heads the office of security cooperation at the United States Embassy in Baghdad, told a closed hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee that some of the Iraqi soldiers who guarded the Green Zone in the capital had come to work wearing civilian clothes under their military uniform, according to one senator. The implication was that the troops were prepared to strip to civilian attire and flee if they came under heavy attack.
“That was a surprise to everybody, to have four major divisions fold as quickly as they did without even fighting,” said Senator Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat on the committee.
Training the Iraqi Army and other security forces was a seminal mission for United States forces before the last American troops left Iraq in 2011. Despite the expenditure of billions of dollars to defend against the ISIS militancy, that army is failing at a crucial moment.
The United States spent about $25 billion to train and equip Iraq’s security forces and provide installations for these forces from the start of the war until September 2012, according to a report by the special inspector general on Iraq. And Iraq has spent billions of dollars of its own money since then to acquire or order F-16 fighter jets, M-1 battle tanks, Apache helicopter gunships, Hellfire missiles and other weapons.
Although Iraq’s security forces still vastly outnumber the ISIS insurgents — which total 3,000 to 5,000 fighters, the Pentagon estimates — they have been operating with a number of disadvantages, including limited air power, inadequate training and poor leadership.
The rapid gains achieved by ISIS have obscured the fact that it has been making steady inroads in Mosul and other regions for months in a campaign including assassinations and a steady supply of suicide bombers from neighboring Syria.
Even before the fall of Mosul, the Iraqi forces had had logistical difficulties and been battered in their clash with Islamic extremists.
From January through May, six helicopters were shot down and 60 were damaged in battle, an administration official said.
In the same period, 28 M-1 tanks were damaged and five tanks sustained full armor penetration by antitank guided missiles. ISIS, the administration official added, appears to have acquired Russian antitank weapons in Syria. A significant number of M-1 tanks have been hobbled by maintenance issues, the official said.
“They are crumbling,” said James M. Dubik, a retired American lieutenant general who oversaw the training of Iraqi forces during the so-called surge of thousands of United States troops into Iraq in 2007.
“There are pockets of proficiency, but in general, they have been made fragile over the past three to four years, mostly because of the government of Iraq’s policies,” General Dubik said. “They’re losing confidence in themselves and in the government’s ability to win. And the government is losing confidence in them.”
The failure of Iraq’s army and security services to stand up to the Islamist threat also underscores a politicization of the army leadership under Mr. Maliki that has corroded the Iraqi military’s effectiveness at all levels, American officials said.
In one instance a few years ago, a leading Sunni general in northern Iraq whom American officers lauded for his operational skills was ousted and replaced by a Shiite officer. And since the last American forces left Iraq, United States officials said the government in Baghdad had failed to finance and maintain the same training missions.
“This is not about ISIS strength, but the Iraqi security forces’ weakness,” said a former senior American officer who served in Iraq. “Since the U.S. left in 2011, the training and readiness of the Iraqi security forces has plummeted precipitously.”
The retired officer said that the militants’ fast-moving advance south was more a reflection of the lack of resistance by Iraqi forces than the effectiveness of ISIS and its confederates.
“If the cops abandon a city, the criminals are going to run rampant,” the officer said.
The end of the American military presence has also diminished the Iraqi Army’s readiness. The United States has a small office of security cooperation at the American embassy that focuses on facilitating arms sales but also carries out some limited mentoring of Iraqi forces.
But with the withdrawal of American forces in December 2011, American advisers are no longer in the field with Iraqi units and the United States is no longer in a position to influence Mr. Maliki’s choice of commanders.
The way the office of security cooperation is structured and staffed, it “is not capable of doing what’s needed,” General Dubik said.
“If the Iraqis could solve their problems by themselves, they wouldn’t be in the situation they’re in,” he said. “They need sustained help in both the security and policy areas. This means a concerted diplomatic and security advisory mission.”
Senators emerging from the two-hour closed briefing with Pentagon officials and intelligence analysts expressed grave doubts that Mr. Maliki and Iraqi commanders could quickly reverse the lightning gains across the north and west that ISIS and its Islamist allies had achieved in the past few days.
Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, singled out the reports of soldiers’ wearing civilian clothes under their uniforms as a particularly foreboding development. “That’s a bad sign,” he said.
Iraqi Shia fighters rush to save Samarra shrines from insurgents
Convoys head north from Baghdad after Sunni insurgents take control of city where 2006 shrine damage sparked sectarian war
Martin Chulov in Baghdad
theguardian.com, Friday 13 June 2014 11.38 BST
Image from jihadist website Wilayat Salahuddin allegedly shows militants on streets of Samarra, Iraq
An image from the jihadist website Wilayat Salahuddin allegedly shows Isis militants on the streets of Samarra, Iraq. Photograph: Wilayat Salahuddin/AFP/Getty Images
Thousands of Shia fighters are rushing to the central Iraqi city of Samarra to defend two shrines that were blown up by insurgents eight years ago, sparking the sectarian war that almost destroyed the country.
Convoys of fighters were seen being escorted north by Iraqi police trucks from Baghdad early on Friday and many had now reached the city 125km north of the capital where insurgents were in control.
The volunteer Shia fighters were quickly assembled after Iraqi forces abandoned their positions in most of the area, leaving only a small number of troops to guard the Imam al-Askarien shrines.
Samarra is the fourth northern city to have all but fallen out of government control. The embattled prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, appears to have drawn battle lines further south in Taiji, hoping to defend Baghdad against insurgents who have occupied the north virtually unopposed.
Map of Iraq. Graphic: Paddy Allen for the Guardian
Heavy clashes broke out by late Friday on the outskirts of Samarra between the Shia volunteers and Sunni insurgents who had been trying to win over residents, some of whom appear to view the new arrivals as liberators.
Witnesses said the shrines remained undamaged so far and that the insurgents had not been menacing residents. "Some of them have long hair and they are carrying black flags," said one man. "They are Arabs from other countries."
The shrines were twice reduced to rubble in February and April 2006 in attacks that sparked a brutal two-year sectarian war across Iraq. Since then, Shia Islamic sites have remained key targets as insurgent groups, led by the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant (Isis) try to draw the Shia-led government back into the fight.
Meanwhile, Iraqi officials who remained in the northern city of Kirkuk, which was seized by Kurdish peshmerga forces on Thursday, said the Kurds were consolidating their presence.
"They came to stay," said one police captain on Friday. "They're not going anywhere."
The Kurdish control of Kirkuk, a city coveted by them for centuries, is one of the biggest shifts in a week that has starkly exposed the impotence of the government and the frailty of Iraq's borders.
Officials in Baghdad have conceded that the country is at increasing risk of crumbling along ethnic sectarian lines.
Iraqis Who Fled Mosul Say They Prefer Militants to Government
By TIM ARANGO
JUNE 12, 2014
ERBIL, Iraq — After Islamic extremists swarmed his city this week, Saad Hussein fled here with his wife and six children. But after one night, he was on his way back home to Mosul, hearing that things were quiet there.
“What can we do?” said Mr. Hussein, at a checkpoint on the road from Erbil to Mosul. “You have to depend on your God.”
Another man stood nearby, his two small sons tugging at his belt. He had left Mosul and was waiting to enter Erbil, about 50 miles to the east. “We don’t know what will happen in the future,” said the man, Ahmed Ali, 31. “The government is not there. It’s empty.”
As many as 500,000 Iraqis fled Mosul this week after the city was besieged by the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, many of them Sunnis who seemed less fearful of the beheadings and summary justice that the group is known for than of their own government and the barrage it might unleash in an effort to take the city back.
That many Sunnis would prefer to take their chances under a militant group so violent it was thrown out of Al Qaeda sharply illustrates how difficult it will be for the Iraqi government to reassert control. Any aggressive effort by Baghdad to retake the city could reinforce the Iraqi Army’s reputation as an occupying force, rather than a guarantor of security.
Many of those who fled said they were terrified of possible airstrikes and indiscriminate shelling that they have seen, in news reports, against insurgents in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, which has been out of government control for more than six months. Some, saying a rumor had been swirling through the local population, even worried that the Americans would be back to bomb their city. And most said the militants in Mosul had not terrorized the population and were keeping a low profile, with a small number of men in black masks staffing checkpoints.
“We are afraid it will be the same situation as in Falluja and Ramadi,” said a municipal worker who gave his name only as Abu Mohammed, for fear of losing his job. He was referring to the two cities in Anbar that have borne the brunt of government airstrikes, which have killed hundreds of civilians.
A woman nearby, asked if the militants were harming people, waved her hands in the air and said: “No, no, no. On the contrary, they are welcoming the people.”
Comments like these represent a stark repudiation at the grass-roots level of the governing style of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, and his policies that over the years have alienated the Sunni population.
“Maliki wants to end the Sunnis,” said Ahmed Hussain, a police officer in Mosul who abandoned his post after seeing the army leave. “Can you tell me how many Shiites are arrested on terror charges? Almost all those in prison are Sunnis. He is targeting us. I want to go back to Mosul, but we are afraid we’ll see another Falluja.”
Each security sweep that rounds up innocent Sunni men in the name of fighting terrorism has deepened resentment in the Sunni population toward the government, especially the Shiite-dominated army.
“They are not the Iraqi Army; they are the militia of Maliki,” said Abu Mohammed, 49. He also complained about corruption, which is endemic in the army and the police.
“If anyone gets into prison, he has to pay to get out,” he said. And there were smaller indignities, he said, such as when soldiers would demand money for allowing people to park on city streets.
As the militants advanced on the city this week, Iraqi Army soldiers quickly laid down their guns and fled, and many citizens were happy to see them go. “The Iraqi Army was tough on the people, not on ISIS,” said Abu Mohammed, referring to the extremist group.
The events over the last several days in Mosul — which is majority Sunni, although it has a sizable population of Kurds and some Shiites, too — highlight what critics have said for years: that Sunnis see the army not as a national force but as the protector of the Shiite population. A Western diplomat, in a recent interview, said that in places such as Mosul and Anbar Province, the security forces are regarded as “a foreign force in their own country.”
But residents of Mosul say that so far the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has handled the local population with a light touch. Some residents, hardened by their hatred of the army, spoke of the insurgents almost as if they were a liberating army. The militants, residents said, greet people at checkpoints and ask citizens if they are carrying a weapon, and if the answer is no, they let them on their way.
Many spoke of being able to move around the city more freely for the first time in years, after the militants unblocked roads that the army had shut down for security reasons and took down the blast walls that had become a permanent feature of nearly every major Iraqi city over the last decade.
“So far, the militants have not harmed any civilians, and they have freed the city from the checkpoints that choke us,” said Ammar Saleh, 32, who works in a hospital in Mosul. Still, he added: “I can’t trust that the gunmen are better than the army. I will leave my family here until things are quiet.”
And the militants’ cordiality toward the local population may not last long. A leaflet, said to be produced by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and distributed Thursday in Mosul, detailed a long list of coming rules, including the forbidding of alcohol and cigarettes, and requiring women to “stay home and not go out unless necessary.” The leaflet also said that anyone who worked for the government would be killed unless they sought “repentance.”
Whether out of fear of army retaliation or of what life might become under militant control, the crisis has displaced nearly a half-million people, about a quarter of Mosul’s population, according to the International Organization for Migration, to villages in the surrounding countryside, Baghdad, or here in the autonomous Kurdish region.
A mayor who was in charge of a small tent camp for the poorest of Mosul residents said that about 100,000 people had entered Erbil from Mosul in recent days. While many were allowed in, many others were not, especially if they were single men or had no family in the Kurdish region.
When Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq and terrorized the Kurdish population, this was a place to flee from. Prosperous and secure, it is now considered a place to flee to, and the caring for refugees, by now, resembles a permanent institution. Trucks bearing the face of Masoud Barzani, the leader of this region, carried in watermelons and mattresses, and volunteers handed out water and bread and cheese.
Thousands fled here during the sectarian war in 2006 and 2007, and over the last year, tens of thousands of Syrians have sought refuge, as have displaced people from Anbar. It is also where former top Sunni officials have come to escape arrest warrants issued by the Maliki government and where, during Mr. Hussein’s rule, C.I.A. operatives plotted with dissidents to topple the government.
With security, the region has also advanced economically, and on the stretch of road that refugees traveled from Mosul, a lone billboard greeted them with an advertisement for Park View, a luxury apartment complex in Erbil with concierge services and a health club.
One of the Mosul residents who escaped to Erbil was Atheel Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh Province, where Mosul is. In an interview on Thursday, he said that one of the reasons Mosul was quiet on Thursday — and the citizens felt comfortable returning — was the presence of other groups, like tribal militias and a group led by former Baathist officers, in addition to the Islamists.
“The situation quieted down, and ISIS is not the only force in control in Mosul,” said Mr. Nujaifi, who considers himself too much of a target to return just yet. “And we tried to keep everything as it is — the electricity, water, everything. That’s why the people feel comfortable going back.”
Mr. Nujaifi said it would be nearly impossible for government forces to retake Mosul anytime soon, especially with militant advances in other cities blocking the way for troop reinforcements from Baghdad. He also advised against the army’s return, he said.
What Mr. Nujaifi is trying to do, he said, is unite the many local fighting groups into one force to try to push out the extremists, many of whom are foreign fighters.
“This will happen soon,” he predicted.
Afghans Tighten Security as Taliban Threaten Vote
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
JUNE 12, 2014, 10:28 A.M. E.D.T.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan police and soldiers manned checkpoints at almost every intersection Thursday, searching vehicles and frisking drivers in a massive security operation ahead of elections to choose a new president to guide the country after international combat forces withdraw.
Insurgents fighting the Western-backed government have intensified attacks ahead of Saturday's runoff vote, and the Taliban issued a new statement warning voters to stay away from the polls. The first round in April passed relatively peacefully, but a recent assassination attempt against one of the two presidential hopefuls left in the race has stoked fears of more violence to come.
"The Islamic Emirate deems it necessary to alert the people and warn them for the last time that they should not participate in this American process, deliberately or inadvertently," the Taliban said Wednesday in a statement posted online.
Still, the senior U.N. envoy for Afghanistan expressed confidence Afghan voters would turn out as they did in the first round to decide their future by picking a new leader to oversee the transition after most U.S. and allied forces pull out by the end of this year.
Jan Kubis, the U.N. secretary general's special representative for Afghanistan, also called on the candidates to give electoral authorities time to tally the ballots — most of which will come from remote regions, often transported by donkeys — and resolve any complaints amid widespread fears of fraud.
"Give a chance to due process, respect the work of the Commissions, don't jump to conclusions," he said. "Don't make statements or comments in anticipation of the results. it will just mislead the people. control yourself, act as responsible politicians."
He was referring to the likelihood that the campaigns of front-runner Abdullah Abdullah, the target of last week's attack, and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai will start releasing their internal tallies before formal results are announced.
The official timetable is for preliminary results to be announced on July 2 and final results on July 22 in order to allow time for ballots to be secured and fraud complaints investigated.
The stakes are high as the winner will replace President Hamid Karzai, a one-time U.S. ally whose relations with Washington have soured, in the first peaceful democratic transfer of power in the country's history.
Karzai has governed Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted following the U.S. invasion in 2001, and is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
Karzai on Thursday called on Afghans to vote for the candidate of their choice in order to bring about a "stable, secure and developed future" for the war-ravaged country.
"The security forces of our country are fully ready to ensure security with the help of you, the people, for the election," he said in a statement.
The Obama administration is watching closely. Both candidates have pledged to sign a security pact with the U.S. that would allow thousands of international forces to stay in Afghanistan in a largely training and advisory capacity. Karzai has refused to sign it.
Afghan security forces were widely praised for the April 5 elections, which were held without major violence despite a series of deadly attacks in the weeks beforehand.
Karzai held a video conference with commanders Thursday to urge them to remain impartial and refrain from interfering in the second round balloting.
Traffic was snarled even more than usual on the streets of Kabul as police set up extra checkpoints and barriers on many roads to allow only one car through at a time. They also searched many drivers and passengers for possible explosives or other weapons.
The Afghan Interior Ministry announced that it was banning most trucks and people from other provinces from entering the capital on Election Day.
"Trucks loaded with vegetables that are in danger of being spoiled will be allowed to enter the city after a very careful search process by police," it said.
The Cabinet also has approved a week off for school and university students that began Tuesday because of security issues.
A suicide bomber on a motorcycle killed a police officer Thursday in the southern city of Kandahar, according to Dawa Khan Menapal, a spokesman for the Kandahar provincial government.
Elsewhere in the south, Taliban insurgents attacked several police checkpoints and killed nine police officers on Wednesday in Khas Uruzgan district of Uruzgan province, a provincial official confirmed on Thursday.
Dost Mohammad Nayab, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said reinforcements had arrived and were searching for the attackers. A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, claimed responsibility for the attack in Uruzgan province.
Woman Is Found Hanged in Indian State
By MALAVIKA VYAWAHARE
JUNE 12, 2014
NEW DELHI — The body of a 19-year-old woman was found hanging by her scarf from a eucalyptus tree in a village in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh on Thursday morning, the police said. It was the third similar gruesome discovery in the state in two weeks.
Relatives of the dead woman, who was last seen alive Wednesday, have filed a report alleging that she was raped and murdered by two men who they say had been bothering her, according to Jagdish Singh, an official at the police station where the complaint was filed.
Mr. Singh said that no arrests had been made in the case.
R. K. Saxena, the district police information officer, said in a telephone interview that a preliminary postmortem examination had found no external injury marks to suggest that the woman had been raped.
Pressure has been mounting on the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Akhilesh Yadav, over the deaths. Mr. Yadav has resisted calls for his resignation, saying that comparable crimes have occurred elsewhere and that law enforcement “is fine in U.P. and better than in many other states.”
Mr. Yadav made that comment in New Delhi, where he was meeting with potential investors on Thursday.
Many Indians were horrified two weeks ago by the news that two teenage cousins had been found dead, hanging by their scarves from a mango tree, in the Baduan district of Uttar Pradesh. The girls’ relatives kept the police from taking the bodies down for 12 hours, in part because officers are suspected of involvement in the crime. An autopsy found that the cousins had been raped and then strangled.
Then, on Wednesday, a 45-year-old woman was found dead in another part of the state, hung from a tree by her sari, according to The Indian Express. Relatives of the woman said she was gang-raped and murdered.
Separately, officers at a local police station in the state were accused this week of gang-raping a woman who went to the station to inquire about her husband’s arrest.
Interim Thai government in place by August, says junta leader
No elections for at least a year, General Prayuth Chan-ocha announces, and rice subsidy scheme to fold
Reuters in Bangkok
theguardian.com, Friday 13 June 2014 07.22 BST
The head of the junta that seized power in Thailand last month has said an interim government will be set up by August – the first time he has given a clear date on the military handing back any sort of power in the country.
General Prayuth Chan-ocha, in an address to senior military officials, announced the date as part of a three-phase plan of reconciliation, formation of a government and elections to be rolled out by the ruling National Council for Peace and Order.
"A government will be set up by August, or at the very latest September," Prayuth told a meeting devoted to the 2015 national budget.
The army took power on 22 May in a bloodless coup after six months of sometimes violent street protests pitting mainly rural supporters of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra against her Bangkok-based, royalist opponents.
Prayuth repeated in his address that a temporary constitution would be drafted within three months. It would take at least a year until a new general election could take place.
"In the next three months we must do everything properly, whether it is the constitution or other matters. Everything for the first phase should be complete by August," Prayuth said.
Since taking power, the military has silenced dissent and rounded up at least 300 politicians, activists and journalists. Many are linked to the exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, alleged by his opponents to have directed from abroad the government headed by his sister Yingluck.
On Thursday police charged prominent activist Sombat Boonngamanong with inciting unrest, violating cyber laws and defying the junta's orders. He had spearheaded an online campaign promoting street protests against the coup.
Thailand has been polarised for nearly a decade between supporters of Yingluck Shinawatra and former telecommunications tycoon Thaksin, who was ousted by a 2006 coup.
The country remains split broadly between supporters of Thaksin in the north and northeast and the Bangkok-based royalist groups that see Thaksin and his policies of benefits to disadvantaged voters as a threat to the old order.
A court found Yingluck guilty of abuse of power on 7 May, for transferring the country's security chief to another post so that a relative could benefit from related job moves, and ordered her to step down after months of street protests aimed at toppling her government.
Military leader Prayuth says he stepped in to restore order and has made the economy and the welfare of farmers a priority.
The army has begun payments to hundreds of thousands of farmers under a costly rice-buying scheme, one of the key policies that brought Yingluck to power in 2011. Prayuth told Friday's meeting that the military had no plans to maintain the scheme.
"Today, if you ask me, there will definitely be no rice pledging scheme, but whether we have one in the future or not is a different matter," he said.
Opponents said the scheme ran up huge losses. Farmers are owed more than $2.5bn under the programme, a key element in a court ruling that removed Yingluck from office.
Rousing Welcome for Myanmar's Suu Kyi in Nepal
by Naharnet Newsdesk
13 June 2014, 13:43
Hundreds of supporters thronged Kathmandu's airport Friday to welcome Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi as she visited Nepal for the first time since a stint as a schoolteacher four decades ago.
Suu Kyi, 68, was released from years of house arrest in 2010, and a quasi-civilian government led by former general Thein Sein has since pushed reforms that have ended sanctions and overturned Myanmar's status as a global pariah.
The former political prisoner-turned-politician was greeted by Nepal's minister for forest and soil conservation, Mahesh Acharya, as hundreds of well-wishers waved Nepalese and Burmese flags and held up banners featuring her photographs.
Supporters chanted "Long Live Aung San Suu Kyi" and "Welcome to Nepal" as the Nobel Peace Prize winner smiled and waved to them before leaving the airport.
Suu Kyi, who is on a four-day visit to Nepal, will meet Prime Minister Sushil Koirala later on Friday before being awarded the country's top peace prize by President Ram Baran Yadav.
She will address parliament on Saturday and tour the Buddha's birthplace, Lumbini, on Sunday.
Suu Kyi first visited the Himalayan nation as a teenager in 1962, when her mother was ambassador to India and Nepal.
She then moved to Kathmandu in 1973 with her husband, British scholar Michael Aris, and their baby boy Alexander, and taught English at a local school for several months.
Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party plans to contest elections next year, hoping to repeat a sweeping 1990 victory that was ignored by the former junta.
However, her desire to seek the presidency remains blocked by a constitutional clause widely believed to target her, which bars anyone with a foreign spouse or children from taking the position.
Since entering parliament two years ago, she has campaigned to amend the 2008 charter, which also reserves a quarter of seats in parliament for unelected military personnel, granting the army a significant political role despite the end of outright junta rule.