October 18, 2012
Greeks Take to the Streets, Some Violently, in a Strike Over Austerity
By LIZ ALDERMAN
ATHENS — Tens of thousands of Greeks joined a second nationwide strike in three weeks on Thursday, moving to bring the country to a near standstill in a bid to show European Union leaders meeting in Brussels that new austerity cuts being demanded by Greece’s lenders would cripple society and further depress the economy.
Protest rallies began peacefully but were disrupted when demonstrators broke away from the crowd near Syntagma Square outside Parliament and threw rocks, bottles and firebombs at the police, who responded with tear gas.
A police spokesman said 40,000 people joined rallies in central Athens, while organizers said the figure was around double that. Smaller rallies were held in other cities, including the ports of Salonika and Patra, in northern and western Greece.
A 65-year-old demonstrator who fainted in central Athens later died. News media reports suggested that the man’s heart problems were provoked by tear gas, but a statement from Evangelismos Hospital did not confirm that.
The police said that they detained 103 demonstrators, seven of whom were arrested on charges that included disturbing the peace and resisting arrest, and that three officers suffered minor injuries. Greek news media outlets said six demonstrators were injured.
Many demonstrators shouted at the rows of riot police officers. “You’re criminals, selling out your country for 600 euros a month,” one man screamed at a group of officers. “Why are you doing it? Why?”
It was the latest in a wave of protests that appear to be gaining steam in southern European countries weary of austerity, particularly Portugal and Spain, where citizens have come out to push against grinding cuts as their economies spiral lower.
The actions come as Greece’s “troika” of lenders — the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission — press Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to seal a package of austerity cuts of 13.5 billion euros, or almost $18 billion. Those include new cuts in salaries and pensions, as well as demands to streamline rigid labor laws that are seen as hurting the country’s competitiveness.
The package, which is needed to unlock a $41.3 billion loan installment that Greece needs to stay solvent, has been delayed several times in the last two months as the government has butted heads with the troika, citing concerns that those at the margins of society and the rising numbers of people falling out of the middle class cannot take much more. Leaders hope to agree to final details of the austerity plan in the coming days.
“Agreeing to catastrophic measures means driving society to despair,” said Yannis Panagopoulos, the head of Greece’s largest private-sector union. “The consequences as well as the protests will then be indefinite.”
About 4,000 police officers fanned out in central Athens and near the Parliament building, where clashes broke out three weeks ago during the last nationwide strike.
The strike disrupted transportation throughout the country, with the subway in downtown Athens closed for much of the day and taxi drivers halting service for several hours. Flights were grounded for three hours in the morning after air traffic controllers staged a walkout, joining other civil servants and workers in the private sector, including lawyers, pharmacists and doctors.
Many shopkeepers joined in by closing their doors to protest a sharp drop in income, a significant rise in taxes and a plunge in demand that have led to the loss of thousands of businesses and jobs.
Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting.
October 18, 2012
India Puts Wal-Mart Deal With Retailer Under Scrutiny
By VIKAS BAJAJ
MUMBAI — Indian regulators have begun an informal inquiry into allegations that Wal-Mart Stores violated rules restricting foreign investment in the country’s fast-growing retailing industry.
The regulators are investigating an investment of nearly $100 million by Wal-Mart in an Indian company, Bharti Retail, which operates more than 200 supermarkets across India, at a time when India restricted foreign investments in retailing. The investment took the form of debt securities that paid no interest to Wal-Mart but could be converted into a 49 percent ownership stake in Bharti.
India long prohibited foreign equity investments in retail chains that sell more than one brand of products, known here as multibrand retail. It recently changed those rules to allow foreign companies to own up to 51 percent of such stores, but that change has faced stiff resistance from opposition political parties and even allies of the governing coalition.
Wal-Mart has long wanted to expand into India, where small, family-owned stores dominate a retail sales market worth about $500 billion annually. The company has a 50-50 venture with Bharti that operates 17 wholesale stores, and it provides logistics and management services to Bharti’s Easyday retail stores.
The investigation into Wal-Mart’s relationship with Bharti was prompted by a letter last month to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from a lawmaker representing the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which opposes foreign investment in retailing and many other sectors.
Wal-Mart and Bharti issued statements denying that they had violated Indian rules or laws.
“We are in complete compliance with India’s F.D.I. laws,” the Indian unit of Wal-Mart said, referring to foreign direct investment. “All procedures and processes have been duly followed and details filed with relevant Indian government authorities including the Reserve Bank of India,” the central bank.
An Indian official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing government policy, said Mr. Singh’s office had forwarded the letter to the Ministry of Commerce, which sent it to the central bank, which oversees foreign transactions involving Indian companies, to obtain more information. The official said the investigation was not yet a formal inquiry.
Wal-Mart’s actions in overseas markets have come under scrutiny in the United States, where officials are investigating allegations of bribery at its Mexican subsidiary.
Officials want to determine if the loan from Wal-Mart to Bharti was intended to skirt the letter or the spirit of the foreign investment rules. Wal-Mart lent 4.56 billion rupees ($101 million at the time) to Cedar Support Services, the parent company of Bharti Retail, on March 29, 2010.
According to Cedar Support’s latest annual report, the debentures would automatically convert into a 49 percent equity stake 30 months after they were issued. It is unclear if that conversion took place last month when the 30 months elapsed or if the companies extended that deadline.
The companies’ opponents are expected to argue that the terms of the debentures violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the rules because the debt was to be automatically converted into equity. Critics say the plan was a clever legal maneuver to allow Wal-Mart to quickly enter the Indian market when policy makers relaxed the restrictions on foreigners, which happened last month.
“The tragedy is we are not monitoring the end use of F.D.I. in India,” said M. P. Achuthan, the lawmaker who wrote to the prime minister. “The government has to ensure that they monitor the F.D.I. coming to India is used” only in industries where it is allowed.
Bharti is a conglomerate that also controls Airtel, the largest cellphone company in India. In recent years it has expanded aggressively into retailing with help from Wal-Mart, which supplies its stores with produce and other goods, and offers training and management support.
The partners are expected to announce a venture soon to take advantage of the recent change in the investment rules, which grant each of India’s 29 states the right to keep foreign retailers out of their regions. In a telephone interview last month, the top executive at Wal-Mart’s Indian operation, Raj Jain, said the company would complete its plans in the next 45 days and could open its first stores in 18 months.
India has been seen as one of the last large untapped markets for the global retailing chains. Ikea, the Swedish furniture retailer, is expected to open stores in India soon, and Starbucks will open its first outlet in central Mumbai on Friday.
Heather Timmons contributed reporting from New Delhi.
October 18, 2012
Killings Derail Effort at Grass-Roots Governance in India
By JIM YARDLEY
NOWPORA JAGIR, India — On the day he was killed, Mohammad Shafiq Teli was working on a new sewage drain, precisely the sort of unglamorous, if essential, project that village governance is supposed to provide. Except that, for more than three decades, there had been no local governments here in the villages of Kashmir, India’s tinderbox.
Last year, despite a threat of violence, rural Kashmiris turned out in huge numbers to elect village councils, known as gram panchayats, in what became a victory for grass-roots democracy in a blood-soaked land. New officeholders like Mr. Teli set to work on long-neglected development projects.
But on Sept. 23, as he was walking to his mosque for evening prayers, Mr. Teli was shot and killed. His death followed by days the slaying of a panchayat leader in a nearby village. Posters mysteriously appeared in different villages, warning panchayat members to resign. Panicked, hundreds have since announced their resignations, and many of the new village councils have ceased to operate.
The intent of the killings seemed clear: Here in a district of Kashmir with a long history of bloodshed, someone wanted to derail the panchayats. But who? And why?
“There are forces that don’t want to see the panchayats succeed,” said Mohammad Altaf Malik, a village leader. “The panchayat elections created tremendous hope among the people. Now that hope is slowly diminishing.”
Kashmir is the stubborn, unsolved riddle of South Asia, a mostly Muslim region of blue skies and snow-capped Himalayan peaks that once witnessed a bloody insurgency and is still claimed by both India and Pakistan, even as some Kashmiris aspire to outright independence. Hundreds of thousands of members of the Indian military and other security forces remain posted in Kashmir; the region went through angry summertime clashes between stone-throwing youths and soldiers as recently as 2010.
Last year, with tranquillity restored, the state government conducted the panchayat elections. Militant groups called for a boycott, but the turnout was overwhelming, estimated at 80 percent. Soon elected leaders like Mr. Teli began directing village projects. And then last month, he was murdered.
“There had been no threat against him,” said Parvena Begum, 35, a sister-in-law, as she sat on the floor of the family home with Mr. Teli’s widow and two teenage daughters. “He had no idea he would be killed.”
Initially, state leaders blamed militant groups for the two killings. But in an interview last week, the state’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, offered a new twist: investigators had identified a militant as a suspect in Mr. Teli’s killing but were investigating whether the motive might have been rooted in local rivalries, rather than a broader-based terrorism movement.
Panchayats have long existed elsewhere in India, but the absence of the system in Kashmir has meant that political power and patronage remained with state legislators and block-level administrators. The panchayats shook that political structure, especially when their elected leaders — known as sarpanches — began complaining that the established order was not devolving power and money, as required by law.
“Let’s understand that you have not had a functioning panchayat system here for more than three decades,” Mr. Abdullah said. “So an entire generation of political and administrative leadership has grown up without having to work with this group of elective representatives. Clearly, they would much rather not have to deal with them.”
As investigators continue to look into the murders, different theories and accusations abound. Kashmiri separatist leaders have condemned the killings but say that the possibility of official involvement should not be discounted.
“Everybody will say the militants have killed them,” said Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, a moderate separatist leader. “But I think there is much more than meets the eye. We can’t rule out that there are many agencies working at cross-purposes.”
Here in Nowpora Jagir, which sits at the edge of the Himalayas, the work of the panchayat ended abruptly after Mr. Teli’s murder. Before then, elected officials — all ordinary villagers, some illiterate — were tackling a host of neglected projects, especially the piping of more drinking water into the village.
“It is the poor in the village who benefit from the panchayats,” said Mohammad Abdulla Lone, 40, who had been sarpanch before he posted his resignation in a local newspaper. “We have initiated lots of development work. But now everything has stopped. We don’t know who killed them.”
The first killing was on Sept. 10 in nearby Palhallan, a village where militants are still thought to be active. The victim was the sarpanch, Ghulam Mohammad Yatoo, 59. That incited fears among other sarpanches, who resigned en masse. Less than two weeks later, Mr. Teli was killed. That prompted other panchayat members in the region to resign for fear of being the next target.
“Please tell people we have nothing to do with the panchayat,” said Dilshada Begum, 37, the wife of Mr. Lone, the sarpanch who resigned. “Please tell them. I have eight children, and he is the only wage earner. If something happens to him, what will I do?”
The killings and resignations have been largely centered on a region of Kashmir that has long endured militancy, violence and an oppressive military presence. In all, more than 900 panchayat members have tendered their resignations, either by posting notices in newspapers or making an announcement in their mosques.
Mr. Abdullah, the chief minister, points out that the majority of the panchayats across the state of Jammu and Kashmir continue to operate. He holds out hope that many of the people who resigned will change their minds, once the murders are solved. He said that the government had not accepted any of the resignations.
“These areas, especially where the attacks have taken place, are a little shaken up,” Mr. Abdullah said. “But I believe these panchayats will start functioning again.”
For the moment, though, fear remains. “I stay in my house at night,” said Mr. Lone, the resigned sarpanch of Nowpora Jagir. “Only Allah knows who comes, and who kills, and who goes.”
Hari Kumar contributed reporting.
10/18/2012 06:19 PM
Murder, Sex and Corruption: The Battle for China's Most Powerful Office
By Erich Follath and Wieland Wagner
China will replace its leadership at the next Communist Party convention in early November. Despite well-laid plans, a bitter power struggle has emerged between two politicians. One, Xi Jinping, seems destined to become the country's next leader. The other, Bo Xilai, is in prison and his wife facing possible execution. Here, the story of a troubled Communist Party transition.
The United States has the White House, Russia the Kremlin, France the Elysée Palace and Germany the Federal Chancellery, but what the People's Republic of China has is a secret.
High, red walls shield the country's leaders in this mysterious place, armed security personnel are posted in front of heavily guarded buildings with poetic names like the "Hall of Purple Light," and hidden cameras monitor every step taken in the direction of China's inner sanctum. The complex, covering about one square kilometer (roughly 250 acres) near Tiananmen Square in the Beijing city center, is called Zhongnanhai. The buildings, set in landscaped grounds, are both the headquarters of the Communist Party and the seat of government.
If China has a heart, this is where it beats. But if there is one thing at work in Zhongnanhai, it's the country's brain. And while the traffic rages outside on nearby Chang'an Jie, a ceremonial avenue, insiders report that a ghostly quiet prevails inside the mysterious complex, almost like the silence in the eye of a typhoon -- and just as dangerous, as is now becoming evident in the dramatic struggle for power in this enormous country of 1.35 billion people.
The grounds were once part of the Forbidden City, where emperors, concubines and eunuchs spun their court intrigues. Some of the buildings stem from China's feudal days, while a number of gray, functional buildings were added after the Communist victory and proclamation of the People's Republic in 1949. Revolutionary leader Mao Zedong was conscious of the symbolic importance of the place, and it took months before he felt at home there. Sleeping in the bedrooms where emperors once slept meant donning the cloak of absolute power and claiming the Mandate of Heaven. It was as enticing as it was dangerous.
China's Ascent Undisputed
To this day, the party hasn't dared to engage in an open discussion of excesses, like the Cultural Revolution in 1966 and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, or even to attempt a re-evaluation of the events of the day. Civil rights activists who openly deplored the government's lack of action in this respect ended up in prison. Politically speaking, there is little evidence of liberalization.
On the other hand, China's phenomenal economic ascent is undisputed. Its gross domestic product has increased by about 30-fold in the last three decades, and the Chinese economy has already surpassed Germany and Japan and will soon overtake the United States. "Never before in history has so much wealth been created in such a short time," says Roderick MacFarquhar, an expert on China who teaches at Harvard University.
And no other country has accumulated anything even close to China's foreign-currency reserves. If Beijing wanted to, it could buy up all the firms listed on Germany's DAX index of blue chip companies, and to do so it would only have to spend about one-third of its reserves of $3 trillion (€2.28 trillion).
But China's rulers want more than that. They want to see their country acknowledged as a model, and as an alternative to the Western form of government. And indeed, politicians in Africa and Latin America (as well as many business leaders in Europe) have warmed to the idea of unfettered capitalism without elections and devoid of other, democratic elements that supposedly stand in the way of planning certainty. In essence, what the Chinese model offers is that of a mild dictatorship with one-party rule, in which the best managers prevail, but only after productive and sometimes contentious discussions over the best approach.
A 'Consensus System'
According to United States diplomats whose classified reports from Beijing were published through WikiLeaks, a "consensus system in which members can exercise veto power" but then feel committed to the joint decision prevails in the Politburo, which consists of 24 men and one woman. There is nothing the party fears more than luan, or chaos, and nothing it preaches more staunchly than hexie shehui, or harmonious society. The body that is primarily responsible for achieving hexie shehui is the Central Politiburo Standing Committee, which meets in the southern part of the Zhongnanhai sanctuary. The nine-member committee is China's most powerful political entity, and both the president and the premier are recruited from its ranks.
Once a decade, the party feels obligated to change its leadership and rejuvenate itself. That point has now been reached once again as both President and General Secretary Hu Jintao, 69, and Premier Wen Jiabao, 70, withdraw from the top echelon. Their goal is to make room for younger leaders and, in the process, to show their people and the rest of the world that the People's Republic is a model country that can successfully complete a harmonious transition. In 2012, this transition coincides with a critical decision on the country's future direction, important to both China and the rest of the world: Should the economy, which has lost some steam in recent months, continue to be privatized while the overall system is democratized? Or will the Communist Party opt for more of the same, and even the flexing of its military muscle and possibly an armed conflict with Japan? And in light of recent scandals, is China increasingly being run like a business with mafia-like structures?
In the eye of the storm are two of China's best-known politicians, both of them highly respected Politburo members and recognized internationally as future leaders of the global power: Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping.
For the two men, the steep path to the top seemed all but certain in early 2012. They were standing at the last station before ascending to the summit of power, and everything else was merely a formality. Bo, 63, was seen as a possible new member of the Standing Committee, while Xi, 59, was expected to assume the highest offices in the country and party. Theirs were storybook careers, as uncannily similar as their life stories. Both men were so-called "princelings," whose fathers had already held top spots in the Communist Party hierarchy. Each man had been divorced and then married a second wife who was known throughout the country. Both men sent their children to Harvard. And both are from families that have amassed astonishingly large fortunes worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
But their respective fates have diverged widely since the spring of 2012, when Bo was stripped of his official positions and ejected from the party. Today he is being held in a secret location to await his criminal trial. Xi, on the other hand, will in all probability be appointed to the top positions at the highly anticipated party congress in early November.
But Xi's triumph will be overshadowed by a scandal that, like so many others, speaks volumes about corruption in the inner circle. It wasn't long ago, in December 2010, that Xi paid a visit to Bo, the then party leader in the southwestern city of Chongqing, where he praised his unconventional approach in the megacity as "outstanding." And although all images and quotes from the meeting have since been deleted by the government media, they appear in blogs everywhere.
Will Xi, the master tactician, address the scandal at the center of power in his speech? What sort of language will the new top dog use to distance himself from the offences of his former fellow party member, a man as colorful as he was popular, without harming the Communist Party? And could Bo, like his wife, face execution? Or will some of his offences be swept under the rug, because of the risk of exposing the failings of the power elite?
The lives of both Xi and Bo symbolize the rise and fall of political fortunes in China. They are two lives that dramatically illustrate the wide disparity that still exists today between pretense and reality in a country that's become an economic miracle. And they also demonstrate how thin the glue is that holds China together, and how difficult it will be to govern this country in difficult times of declining growth, social tensions and an aging population.
Xi Jinping's Rise in the Party
Shaanxi Province, northern China -- a cave dwelling dug into the hilly, greyish-yellow loess landscape.
Very few people in China are more familiar with future party leader Xi Jinping than his old friend Lü Housheng. He proudly shows us yellowed photos in which he is posing with Xi Jinping. "He was friendly and helpful, but he was also lonely," says Lü. The boy from Beijing, he says, would stay up all night reading Marx and Mao by candlelight. "There wasn't anything else to read at the time," Lü points out.
The dwelling where Xi lived back then is a modest, three-by-four-meter (130-square-foot) room, which is now used for storage. At the time, Xi, the son of a high-ranking party member, witnessed, within his own family, how quickly and deeply one could fall in the Mao dictatorship. When Xi was nine, the Great Chairman demoted his father, who had been head of the Communist Party's propaganda division in the 1950s, because of his alleged lack of loyalty. He was 15 when his father was sent to the prison, during the Cultural Revolution.
The party banished son Xi Jinping to the countryside, where he had to work long hours in the fields. Looking back on this period of unusually strenuous physical labor, Xi said: "It was a time of experiments, instructive for me, but generally a failure for the nation." The fact that his parents were strict in better times probably helped him to endure the hardships. At home, he was forced to wear hand-me-downs from his sisters, and he even painted their pink shoes black to avoid embarrassment.
The rural drudgery continued for six years. He wanted to get out and have a career, and in return he was willing to compromise with his family's tormentors. He submitted one application after the next to be accepted into the party, and the 10th application was finally approved. At 22, the ambitious young Xi was allowed to return to Beijing, where he was enrolled in the city's renowned Tsinghua University. He studied chemistry, law and Marxism, a strange mix of subjects. His degree helped him obtain a job with the military commission. Armed with connections in the Communist Party and the army, Xi was able to plan for the future. He was competent, prudent and didn't rub anyone the wrong way.
Even after leaving Shaanxi Province, Xi stayed in touch with his friend. "He's a loyal man," says Lü, leveling the rickety table at which the two friends used to sit. "He still asks about me regularly. He is someone who doesn't give up."
Beijing, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital where high-ranking functionaries live.
People in their fifties say reverently that anyone who goes to school here is learning "at Mao's court." Bo Xilai, son of the legendary Communist Party revolutionary and Finance Minister Bo Yibo, is part of this elite, the sort of people who go swimming in a pool reserved for the families of party officials, and who have access to food items that are scarce in China like chocolate and duck meat. Whether the young man met his later rival, Xi Jinping, during those days is unknown.
Bo had a different personality. Instead of being levelheaded like Xi, Bo was an adventurer. When the Cultural Revolution began, he was 17 and enthusiastically joined the Red Guard, which, with the blessing of the Great Chairman, was permitted to destroy the schools and berate figures of authority. The excited young man even reportedly denounced his father during a rally.
His mother, who died, was likely murdered by the Red Guard, and his father was thrown into prison and tortured. Bo's activities didn't do him any good, and he was forced to atone for his family's "revisionism." He languished in prison and in a labor camp for five years, and then went to work in a factory.
The tide turned and his family was rehabilitated when Bo was 29. His father rose to the position of deputy premier and forgave his son, making him his protégé. Bo was permitted to attend university. Unlike so many other top young officials, he didn't choose to study engineering or Marxism, but history and journalism.
He received an intimate look inside the inner sanctum at an early age. His first job took him behind the walls of Zhongnanhai, where he worked in the office of the Central Committee. Zhongnanhai would become both the object of his dreams and the focus of all of his risky machinations.
Xiamen, a rich and mysterious port city in Fujian Province, founded during the Ming Dynasty and humiliated by the British in the Opium War.
The sound of piano-playing drifts from colonial villas (the best pianists traditionally teach in Xiamen), while ships' sirens boom from the busy port. Money and smuggling have always been at home in Xiamen. Xi Jinping was the city's deputy mayor for 32 years -- a promising job.
He skillfully maneuvered through all potential pitfalls, demanding respect for the Communist Party but avoiding confrontation with the business world. He didn't dare tackle cronyism and promote necessary reforms, such as making the courts more independent. His rehabilitated father was more progressive. As the governor of Guangdong Province, he expedited the economic reform process in the early 1980s more decisively than his son did in Xiamen.
At a relatively early age, Xi was able to gain an impression of the United States. He went there for the first time in 1985, as a member of a delegation, and was invited to stay with a farming family in Iowa. He seems to have enjoyed his time there and was enthusiastic about how friendly the Americans were. When he returned to the United States in 2012, he made a point of visiting his host family once again, a gesture that helped him score points in the West. However, his statements, both then and today, do not suggest that he was particularly impressed by the democratic system.
A Test of Virtue
Xi eventually became governor of Zhejiang Province in eastern China. There he also attracted attention through his efforts not to attract too much attention. Although he often wrote about "innovation" in his column in the local party newspaper, aside from his general interest in private enterprise, which he wanted to involve in major government projects, contemporary witnesses say that his biggest concern was corruption among officials. "For small advantages like being taken out to eat, they forget their principles," Xi wrote. "And during the subsequent singing and dancing, they lose their propriety."
The party, as if to put him to an especially rigorous test one more time prior to a final ascent to its Mount Olympus, sent him to Shanghai in 2007. The city of sin had just lived up to its dubious reputation, when a scandal brought down the local party leader.
The cautious Xi sensed that there were traps everywhere. When he was offered an official residence in the former French quarter, he turned it down and moved into a modest apartment instead. When he was offered a special train for an official trip to a neighboring province, he chose to travel in a minivan instead. During his seven-month tenure as party chief in China's commercial capital, Xi lived up to his clean reputation, not showing any weaknesses, but also not embarking on any political reforms. He was a sound administrator, someone who was not to be led into temptation. Only one thing about Xi Jinping is glamorous and colorful: his second wife Peng Liyuan, 49, a soprano with a national career performing patriotic songs like "My Brother Soldiers."
As a member of the dance ensemble of the People's Liberation Army, she is also politically useful to her husband. She holds a civilian rank comparable to that of a major general, and she is a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. The couple sent their daughter Mingze, an only child, to Harvard, where, unlike the son of Bo Xilai, she is enrolled under a pseudonym and keeps a low profile.
Getting Ahead in Dalian
Dalian, Liaoning Province, a port city in northeastern China with an ugly television tower and typical 30-story hotel with a rotating restaurant on top.
Bo Xilai became mayor of Dalian in 1993, putting his stamp on the city for the next seven years.
During Bo's tenure, Dalian was cleaned up, almost as if it were being prepared to win the award for China's most beautiful city. Bo had imported ornamental grass planted everywhere, and he courted foreign investors, offering them special tax incentives. At the same time, he demonstrated his national consciousness by having a marble column erected to commemorate the return of the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong to China. And he indulged in a discipline that is frowned upon in a party normally programmed to value external modesty: self-dramatization. Bo, the beau in the tailored suit, liked to stroll along Dalian's waterside promenade, where a bronze relief with the footprints of local residents was created at his request. The footprints are all the same, except those of the mayor, which shine prominently with the color gold.
His father Bo Yibo, once persecuted, was rehabilitated in the late 1990s and became one of the party's "Eight Immortals," becoming a strong advocate for his son's career. An advisor poetically described Bo Xilai as "statesman-like as Henry Kissinger, as environmentally conscious as Al Gore, and almost as beloved by the public as Princess Diana." Nevertheless, his career trajectory was not as steep as the family had envisioned.
His beautiful and successful second wife, Gu Kailai, gradually became impatient. She too saw herself on the way to becoming a superstar. As an attorney, she won a spectacular civil case in the United States on behalf of several Dalian-area companies. Using the pseudonym "Horus," the Egyptian god of the sun, she wrote a book called "Uphold Justice in America." There is one sentence in the book that haunts her to this day: "In America, there are these endless stays of execution. We don't dither for long in China. We execute them."
Businesspeople admit today that they could only succeed in Dalian if they agreed to pay high commissions. According to their accounts, the mayor's wife acted as something of a toll collector, often using the services of a trusted go-between, British businessman Neil Heywood, who was living in Dalian. He also helped the power couple place their only son, Guagua, at two exclusive English boarding schools Papplewick and Harrow. To attend to his needs, Gu Kailai moved to England in 1999, where she was a regular guest in the most expensive five-star hotels.
Bo was promoted to governor of Liaoning Province, and in 2004 he became China's commerce minister. But as he confessed to friends, in his eyes these were nothing but consolation prizes. He was determined to enter the inner sanctum of power, and he was convinced that he would be appointed deputy premier, at the very least, following the 17th party congress in October 2007. Although he was appointed to the 25-member Politburo, he was not made a member of the more important nine-member Standing Committee. And the party, apparently wanting to keep him away from Zhongnanhai, sent him to the provinces once again, far from the center of national and international events, to the troubled southwestern city of Chongqing.
Bo knew that he would have to manage unusual feats to fulfill his dream of reaching the top. Sensational feats. It was then that he must have made up his mind to build Chongqing into a sort of anti-Beijing.
Zhongnanhai, at the Xinhua Men, or "Gate of New China." The words "Serve the People!" are inscribed in gold on a red screen wall immediately inside the gate in the original handwriting of the Great Chairman, words that were so often ignored, especially by Mao himself.
Xi Jinping arrived at the gate to the inner sanctum in 2007. Unlike the flamboyant Bo Xilai, the cautious Xi was accepted into the top echelon, the Standing Committee, after the 2007 convention. He was also put in charge of organizing the prestigious Beijing Olympics. China was clearly trying to show the Western world that it too could be transparent, saying, in effect: Look at us. We are more predictable than you are. This is what he looks like, our future leader.
After being appointed vice president in 2008, Xi made several trips abroad, to Latin America, Europe, including Germany, and Japan. Wherever he turned up, he played the cautious politician with a knack for building consensus. A report by the US Embassy in Beijing describes him as someone who, although of "average intelligence," is "a pragmatist, one who keeps his cards close to his chest before coldly placing his ace when the time is right." He's "a realist," and not a Chinese Gorbachev. According to the report, Xi is just as skeptical about democratic reforms as he is about a newly affluent class in China that he believes has lost its dignity.
Xi is reportedly a fan of the classic martial arts, as well as being inspired by Buddhist mysticism. Staying true to the party line, he intends to continue fighting the Dalai Lama as a "divider." In his rare free time, he likes to watch Hollywood movies, such as Steven Spielberg's World War II epic "Saving Private Ryan." He is also impressed by critical Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke, fueling hopes of a touch of liberalism in the future. Otherwise, his goals are to avoid mistakes and spread harmony, which he achieves almost consistently. Only once, during a trip abroad in 2009, did he bluntly address Western critics, when he said that "some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do than engage in finger-pointing at us. I say to them: First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty."
And then there was that ill-fated trip in December 2010, when he met with his rival Bo Xilai in his city and praised him publicly. He would have been better off withholding praise for Bo. Although many high-ranking politicians have made the pilgrimage to Chongqing in recent years, President Hu and Premier Wen have not, probably because they recognized early on that something ominous was happening there. But even they couldn't have predicted that Bo, his wife and the British advisor would become embroiled in a murder case, and that there would be rumors of a coup against the party leadership and a spectacular trial that would bring turmoil to the party.
Chongqing, more than 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) away from the prosperous coastal region, is a city of more than 30 million people. The Chinese characters that make up the city's name mean "double celebration," and yet this city, bombed by the Japanese during World War II and, in 1945, the site of failed negotiations between Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, has little to celebrate in its history.
This is the place to which Bo was banished, and from the very beginning, he behaved like a second Mao there. He devised a brilliant concept that he hoped would make him immune to the party leaders who were not sympathetic to him: He demonstratively invoked the Great Chairman and his discipline and down-to-earth nature. He revived Mao-era culture and had citizens sing "red" songs in city parks. He also did something that was highly unusual for a senior Communist Party official: He mingled with the people, listening to their complaints about air pollution, the housing shortage, the lack of jobs and rampant organized crime.
Party boss Bo had trees planted along the city's avenues, invested hundreds of millions in low-income housing and rolled out the red carpet for foreign investors. Most of all, he portrayed himself as a relentless, squeaky-clean foe of organized crime. To support his cause, he brought in a former colleague and police expert from his Liaoning days: Wang Lijun, known as the "man with iron in his blood." Wang and Bo embarked on a relentless campaign against the "black evils" of extortion, illegal possession of firearms and protection rackets. Within a few years, more than 5,000 people in the city were arrested, and more than a dozen were executed.
The campaign was popular among the people, and even international guests like former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were pleased to make joint appearances with Bo. The "Chongqing model," with its brute assertiveness, was still being touted by many in 2011 as a possible alternative to the aloof style of the party in Beijing. Still, it is difficult to overlook the despotic way in which the Mao wannabe proceeded with the arrests, and how, with his campaign, he eliminated all semblance of the rule of law. There were also repeated rumors about the sexual excesses of the Chongqing party leaders, and about dozens of concubines.
Party Leaders Grow Increasingly Nervous
In conversations with his closest friends, Bo allegedly made no secret of his belief that he saw himself as an alternative to Xi Jinping. Because of his background and his Maoist popularity, the charismatic politician felt that he was untouchable, which made party leaders in Beijing increasingly nervous. They discreetly investigated Bo's surroundings, and in doing so discovered things that left them speechless. For instance, Bo had recorded telephone conversations during visits by senior Beijing officials, including, according to insider information corroborated by the New York Times, a tense conversation between the head of the Beijing anti-corruption agency and party leader Hu Jintao in August 2011.
At that time, Bo apparently had no inkling of the coming political storms, and he was preoccupied with family problems. Photos of his son Guagua, 24, together with young women and looking disheveled and apparently drunk at parties had appeared on the Internet. He was driving a Porsche and living in a luxury apartment, where he paid almost as much in monthly rent as a Chinese migrant worker earns in a year, and about a quarter of his father's annual salary. The discussion over how his son was paying for all of this was potentially damaging to Bo, and he told his wife to bring Guagua back to his senses. But she was already a bundle of nerves by this time, perhaps because of rumors that the family had moved millions of dollars abroad.
According to later testimony by her underlings in Chongqing, Gu Kailai practically maintained a royal household in Chongqing. She harassed her employees and her business partner, Heywood, accusing the Brit of trying to harm their son. And indeed, the British businessman allegedly threatened to expose illegal deals unless she agreed to pay him commissions on the transfers of funds abroad. Heywood was becoming a problem for the family. More than a troublemaker, he was a potential career killer.
An Unscrupulous Murder
Gu Kailai summoned him to a meeting at the Lucky Holiday Hotel, on a hill outside Chongqing, in November 2011. Heywood told friends that he didn't feel good about the meeting. But his business partner of many years was about to have her 53rd birthday, and he couldn't turn her down. What transpired in the slightly run-down rooms, with their mustard-colored wallpaper, can only be described as an unscrupulous murder. Chongqing's first lady, with the help of a subordinate, allegedly got Heywood drunk and put poison in one of his drinks.
The official explanation for the 41-year-old's sudden death is heart failure, and the body is quickly cremated. The problem would have been eliminated if Police Chief Wang hadn't become suspicious. It is unclear whether the previously unscrupulous confidant of party chief Bo had moral qualms, was in a dispute with Bo's wife or was simply trying to blackmail his boss. In any case, Wang confronted Bo Xilai with an expert report in early 2012. He had had blood samples taken from the body and had gathered evidence suggesting Heywood was murdered.
But Bo would have nothing of Wang's talk of a murder plot. He shouted at him, flew into a rage, hit him in the face -- and threatened to fire the police chief and place him under surveillance. An internal Communist Party intrigue had widened into a murder plot against a foreigner, and it was now the biggest scandal in recent Chinese history -- with national and even global consequences that Beijing's leaders still don't have entirely under control today.
A Police Chief Seeks Political Asylum
Wang fled from Chongqing in early February, knowing that there was no independent government authority in the People's Republic to which he could entrust himself. His only chance was the nearest US Consulate in Chengdu, 300 kilometers (186 miles) away. He also knew that the secret information he had obtained -- about the murder and the secret recordings -- was so explosive that it could shake the power structure throughout China. He apparently expected to receive political asylum in return for divulging his information.
But Wang was bitterly disappointed when he realized that the Western superpower was unwilling to become involved in Chinese internal affairs. Chinese security forces had surrounded the consulate within hours of Wang's appearance there. The date was Feb. 6, 2012, only a few days before Vice President Xi was scheduled to make his first visit to the White House as the designated party leader. In tense high-level telephone conversations, Washington and Beijing managed to prevent the Wang affair from developing into a serious diplomatic crisis. Obama met with Xi, and Wang surrendered to Chinese authorities. On Sept. 24, a court in Chengdu sentenced Wang, celebrated for so many years as a "brilliant policeman," to 15 years in prison.
Bo Xilai made one last, desperate attempt to change his destiny. He flew to Kunming, the city where the unit his dead father once commanded is stationed, and tried to score publicity points by commemorating his "revolutionary ancestors." But when he couldn't manage to gain the support of a single battalion, Bo decided that if he were going down, he would do it in style.
In early March, he went to Beijing to attend a parliamentary session, and publicly accused his enemies, without naming them, of "spilling dirt" about him. On March 14, when Bo posed for a last group photo with his fellow Politburo members, he seemed distracted, staring at the ceiling as if he were waiting for a last-minute confirmation of the "Mandate of Heaven." Security forces were already waiting discreetly in the wings of the Great Hall of the People to take him away -- away from everything he had tried so hard to achieve: a spot in the limelight, Zhongnanhai and Mao's legacy.
Chongqing today, a dimly lit bar in the downtown area called "Hongge Ting," or "Hall of the Red Songs."
Small groups of patrons are still defiantly singing the old Mao songs, the songs that everyone was singing only months ago. "Bo lives forever in our hearts," whispers one of the men, quickly adding that he doesn't want to be quoted. The old slogans have disappeared from the streets outside, where almost everything that could be reminiscent of the former party chief has been removed. The staff has been replaced at the Lucky Holiday Hotel, and the scene of the crime, Room 1605 in Building 16, has been cleaned. There are surveillance cameras everywhere.
Bo, who is being held in a secret location, will face charges of abuse of power, corruption and "improper sexual relationships with a number of women." The party is determined not to allow Bo to get in the way of Xi Jinping's promotion at the party congress, and decisions on the fate of his toppled rival will only be announced afterwards.
"It's completely inappropriate to take pity on Bo Xilai. He would have turned the country into a police state," says attorney Li Zhuang. He knows what he's talking about. He represented defendants in Chongqing, and he advised one of his clients to revoke a confession he had made under torture. Bo's officials told the lawyer to refrain from making his incendiary statements against the authority of the state. But Li refused to be intimated, and he was even put on trial himself and sentenced to 18 months in prison. "Bo's thugs tortured me in prison, and I'm sure that they did it on his express orders."
The attorney is pleased that the Mao wannabe is now being put on trial. "China was spared some serious problems as a result of Bo's fall from grace."
Hefei, the uneventful capital of Anhui Province in eastern China, was the birthplace of Bao Zheng, who was reputed to have cleaned up corruption and rendered fair verdicts in the 11th century, during the Song Dynasty.
But that isn't the reason the highly anticipated trial of Bo's wife took place there in August. Rather, it was because the city is so far away from Beijing and Chongqing, and because its public prosecutor's office is considered to be particularly compliant.
The farce lasted only seven hours. There was no hearing of evidence, and it took 20 minutes to read the grounds for the judgment. Gu Kailai, her face swollen and wearing a gray outfit, confessed to everything and assumed full responsibility for the murder. Her government-appointed lawyers noted that there were mitigating circumstances, namely her concerns that Heywood was "threatening" her son, and they portrayed her as a nervous wreck who could barely be held accountable for her actions. Her husband's name did not come up in the trial, and little mention was made of the nature of the "business dispute." There was also no mention of the purchases of luxury real estate in London's South Kensington neighborhood, which were made by Golden Map, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands.
A few days later, Gu Kailai was sentenced to death, but the sentence was suspended for two years. It was a relatively mild verdict, because such suspended sentences are usually commuted to life imprisonment. In her closing statement, the defendant politely expressed her gratitude for the "humanitarian care" she had received, in words reminiscent of the show trials Stalin loved. Perhaps the party hopes that her story could end like that of Mao's last wife, Jiang Qing. Sentenced to death as the leader of the "Gang of Four," she committed suicide a decade later after being released from prison for health reasons. In doing so, she spared the Communist Party many a discussion over her husband's complicity in crimes against the people.
The Myth of Superiority Has Been Shaken
The party is extremely nervous in the run-up to its 18th congress. Beijing's Internet censors have now placed terms like "Bo Xilai," "coup" and even "truth" on their hit list. On the other hand, the Communist Party leaders buckle after almost every public protest. For instance, the planned construction of factories in Sichuan and Jiangsu Provinces, which were suspected of being particularly egregious environmental polluters, was stopped after demonstrations against the projects.
Suddenly the party is trying to close ranks with the people. It suffered a serious setback in the Bo affair, and the myth of the superiority of the authoritarian Chinese system has been shaken. The People's Republic possesses no constitutional mechanisms to replace its leaders in a transparent way, which it has just demonstrated in painful ways to its increasingly cynical population. In the long term, the supposed competitive advantage of one-party rule could become the biggest element of uncertainty, detrimental for China and the entire world.
Zhongnanhai, the stronghold of the party's strategists.
Xi Jinping is preparing to assume power. He does this in closed-door meetings, and he has turned down tête-à-têtes with visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and with the leaders of Singapore and Denmark. There have already been rumors that Xi may have been in a car accident, that he suffered a heart attack or may even have been the victim of an attack. Or was it a sports injury or a "back ailment," as the blocking of the term on the Internet seems to suggest? The government does not comment on the rumors. So much for the "era of transparency" the Communist Party has announced.
Nevertheless, there is every indication that the turbulence is over. Xi has apparently prevailed, even though he would probably have preferred a trouble-free "coronation party congress." In the last few years, ever since his rise to power has been seemingly a fait accompli, he has made it clear to all of his supporters to say as little as possible about him. He wants to make sure that he isn't a target for anyone.
According to a Chinese proverb, "If a man becomes powerful, even his chicken and his dog go to heaven," probably because it has always been easier to do business in China with the right guanxi, or connections. As far back as 2004, during an anti-corruption conference, Xi cautioned his fellow officials: "Rein in your spouses, children, relatives, friends and staff, and vow not to use power for personal gain."
But the official modesty directive doesn't seem to have hit entirely home with his own extended family. In late June, the American business newswire Bloomberg published a detailed list of the immense assets of Xi's relatives. Even though Bloomberg was by no means claiming that Xi had lined his own pockets, the state censors in Beijing immediately blocked access to the information.
The designated new party leader demonstrates a modest lifestyle to his people. "We should never forget that we are only servants of the people," he has said. A US intelligence report describes him as "incorruptible," and notes that he has no interest in drinking and having affairs, the pastimes of many party officials. On the other hand, the report states that Xi is firmly convinced that only a small elite can preserve China's stability and lead the country to new glory, namely the children of its communist founding fathers, the "princelings" or "legitimate heirs" to power, and that "they deserve to rule China."
Can Xi Accumulate Greater Power than Other World Leaders?
In his speech for the 18th party congress, he will likely focus on the battle against corruption. The bitter conflict with Bo could even have increased his influence and his political latitude. No one will dare to present alternatives to Xi, in terms of both content and personnel. Ironically, the consensus-driven politician Xi Jinping could accumulate as much power as perhaps only Mao has had before him -- and perhaps more power than any other politician in the world.
Few new foreign policy initiatives are to be expected of him. He sees China on a level playing field with the United States, and he is suspicious of Washington's new strategic orientation, which includes strengthening the US presence in the Pacific. This is why Xi places the greatest value on Europe, especially Germany, as a possible strategic partner. After their talks in Beijing in late August, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly characterized Xi as "open and likeable." Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, praises Xi, saying: "I would put him in the Nelson Mandela class of persons, a person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings to affect his judgment."
He could reverse China's strict one-child policy. Perhaps he will permit new, local experiments with free elections. The biggest optimists do not rule out that he could even permit an open discussion of the Tiananmen Square massacre, especially given that his father condemned the military action there. Perhaps his rise to power will also spell freedom for Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned winner of the Nobel Peace Prize -- and for some of the country's civil rights activists who were arrested under scandalous conditions and for outrageous reasons.
But perhaps Xi Jinping's most important task will be to call off the increasingly self-confident generals, some of whom have seriously proposed teaching neighboring countries Japan and Vietnam, which are competing with China for mineral resources in the Pacific, a military "lesson." He will have to kick-start the slowing economy to achieve growth of significantly more than 8 percent, at least next year. Eight percent is the margin at which China creates enough jobs to avoid social unrest. Xi will also need to take steps to close the widening gap between rich and poor, and to introduce a convincing retirement concept for the country's aging population. Finally, he will have to reconcile the rebellious minorities in problem areas Tibet and Xinjiang with the central government once again.
In his films to date, Spielberg has two major heroes. And while Xi may like Private Ryan, but it will take a superhuman like E.T. to do the job he is about to be given.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Russia hints plans to quit environmental Kyoto Protocol
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, October 18, 2012 15:19 EDT
Russia on Thursday hinted that it may refuse to sign up to a new round of targeted carbon cuts that could see the Kyoto environmental protection treaty extended beyond its end of 2012 expiry date.
“One has to admit that we never got any real commercial gain from the Kyoto Protocol,” news agencies quoted Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as telling a government meeting.
“That does not mean that we have to try and drag it (the treaty) out any further,” Medvedev added.
European diplomats at the May G8 summit in France said that Russia along with Japan and Canada had confirmed plans not to join the second round of carbon cuts.
Russia ratified the treaty in 2004. It has since argued that its terms harm developing nations.
Medvedev noted that he had said on repeated occasions in the past that “if the world community fails to agree on Kyoto, we would wave it goodbye.”
He said he was thinking of extending the treaty’s terms with EU nations alone.
“But considering our uneasy relations with the European Union, I am not sure how likely this scenario will be,” he said.
A range of EU nations are probing Russian energy natural gas giant Gazprom for price-fixing and other unfair practices under its new Energy Charter Treaty.
Medvedev did not explain his reasoning beyond the mention of Russia’s failure to tap into the profits it could have earned had it sold other nations unused carbon emission credits from its domestic producers.
In the USA..
Second federal appeals court strikes down Defense of Marriage Act
By David Edwards
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday because the second federal appeals court to find parts of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to be unconstitutional.
A three-judge panel in Manhattan ruled that Section 3 of DOMA violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had challenged the law on behalf of Edith “Edie” Windsor, who had to pay $363,000 in federal estate taxes after the 2009 death of her partner, Thea Spyer, even though the couple had been recognized as legally married in New York.
“DOMA’s classification of same-sex spouses was not substantially related to an important government interest,” Chief Judge Dennis Jacobs and Judge Christopher Droney wrote in their majority opinion. “Accordingly, we hold that Section 3 of DOMA violates equal protection and is therefore unconstitutional.”
In a statement provided to Raw Story by the ACLU, Windsor praised the decision.
“This law violated the fundamental American principle of fairness that we all cherish,” Windsor said. “I know Thea would have been so proud to see how far we have come in our fight to be treated with dignity.”
Windsor’s DOMA case is one of several that are pending consideration by the United States Supreme Court. The high court has not said if it would take up the case.
Obama tells Jon Stewart: No confusion over Benghazi attack
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, October 18, 2012 20:01 EDT
NEW YORK — US President Barack Obama denied on Thursday there had been “confusion” in his administration over the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi which killed four Americans.
Obama, appearing on Comedy Central TV’s the Daily Show, professed confidence that he will win another four years in the White House on November 6, despite a tight race with Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
In answer to a question from Jon Stewart, anchor of the mock newscast, Obama said there had been no confusion over the Benghazi attack, after Republicans seized on the shifting narrative coming from his administration.
“I wasn’t confused about the fact that we needed to ramp up diplomatic security around the world right after it happened,” Obama said.
“I wasn’t confused about the fact that we had to investigate exactly what happened so it gets fixed. And I wasn’t confused about the fact that we’re going to hunt down whoever did it.”
Romney has hammered the White House over its response to the September 11 assault on the Benghazi consulate, after first blaming it on protesters before concluding it was a pre-planned attack by Islamist militants.
Obama fired back Tuesday in a presidential debate, accusing Romney of trying to make political capital out of a national security issue and insisting he had declared the Benghazi assault an “act of terror” the day after it took place.
Romney challenged Obama on the assertion, only for the president to tell him to check the transcript of the remarks he made the day after the attack, when he said “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.”
The president also told Stewart in the show, to be broadcast later on Thursday, that he had laid out “every piece of information” on the Benghazi attack as soon as it became available.
“The picture eventually gets fully filled in,” Obama said.
Stewart also asked Obama about communications problems within his administration following the attack and also security issues, saying the US response to the tragedy had not been “optimal.”
“When four Americans get killed, it’s not optimal. We’re going to fix it. All of it,” Obama said, referring to perceived security lapses around US diplomatic personnel in Libya.
“The government is a big operation and any given time something screws up. And you make sure that you find out what’s broken and you fix it,” Obama said, before saying he had made clear the need to protect the security of Americans.
“And they will continue to get that over the next four years of my presidency,” Obama said.
Virginia health commissioner resigns over controversial abortion clinic rules
By Eric W. Dolan
Thursday, October 18, 2012 16:54 EDT
Virginia’s State Health Commissioner, Dr. Karen Remley, resigned from her position on Thursday, saying that new regulations for abortion clinics compromised her ability to fulfill her duties.
“Today’s message is very hard to write, as I am sharing with you a difficult and important decision I have made,” she said in a letter to her colleagues.
Remley said the Virginia Department of Health had been implementing the new building regulations for abortion clinics, which were approved by the Virginia Board of Health in September. All twenty abortion clinics in the state will be fully licensed for the coming year, according to Remley.
However, the new licensing rules, which require abortion clinics to meet the same standards as new hospitals, “has created an environment in which my ability to fulfill my duties is compromised and in good faith I can no longer serve in my role,” Remley added. “I have submitted my resignation from the position from State Health Commissioner effective today.”
Reproductive rights advocates have said the new regulations on abortion clinics will force them to undergo costly renovations. The new rules, they claim, are medically unnecessary and merely an attempt to close down the clinics.
“As Commissioner she served two governors from two different parties, and all the citizens of Virginia, with constant professionalism, intellect and dedication,” Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) said in a statement. “She was a tireless public servant, and we will miss her in the Administration. I wish Dr. Remley the very best moving forward, and know she will continue to play a leading role in healthcare in Virginia in the years ahead.”
Earlier this year, Virginia passed controversial legislation that requires women to undergo an ultrasound at least 24 hours before terminating her pregnancy. The bill originally required women to receive an invasive transvaginal ultrasound, but after facing a flood of criticism from across the nation, Virginia lawmakers amend the legislation so that a transabdominal ultrasound was sufficient.
Second suspect arrested over NY bomb plot: report
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, October 19, 2012 7:09 EDT
A California man arrested on child pornography charges has been linked to the foiled plot by a young Bangladeshi to blow up the New York Federal Reserve, the New York Times reported Friday.
The Times said Howard Willie Carter II was arrested after an FBI agent found 1,000 images and three video files containing child pornography on a laptop and hard drive in the trash near his San Diego apartment.
After tracing the computer back to Carter, investigators found emails on it addressed to “Yaqeen,” a name that had surfaced in the investigation of the bomb plot.
Quazi Mohammad Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis, 21, was arrested after trying to detonate what he thought was a 1,000-pound bomb but in fact was a dummy provided in an elaborate sting operation, according to federal prosecutors.
The Times said Carter had been placed under surveillance as early as August, but that officials had waited until after the Nafis arrest to arrest him.
Prosecutors say Nafis travelled to the United States in January in order to carry out a terrorist attack and that he had sought out Al-Qaeda contacts and potential recruits.
One of the potential recruits was actually an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who then took part in the sting.
Nafis allegedly wrote a statement claiming responsibility for his planned attack, in which he said he wanted to “destroy America” and referred to slain al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden as “beloved.”
He has been charged with attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction and attempting to support al-Qaeda.
The Federal Reserve building, part of the network that makes up the US central bank, houses one of the world’s largest gold deposits, consisting mostly of bullion belonging to other countries.
Nafis’s family in Bangladesh said he was a devout Muslim but never displayed any signs of extremism.
10/17/2012 06:51 PM
An Unnecessary Death in New York: Police Killing Highlights Flaws of 'Zero Tolerance'
By Ullrich Fichtner in New York
In midtown Manhattan, police officers shot and killed an African-American man in August after he had walked across Times Square waving a kitchen knife. His last moments tell the story of a broken law enforcement system in New York City.
Darrius Kennedy's date with death begins at 3 p.m., in front of the Stars & Stripes of the neon American flag in New York City's Times Square. Kennedy, a sturdy man with long Rasta braids, is wearing a white shirt with cut-off sleeves, faded jeans and light-colored shoes, and he is skipping backwards toward Seventh Avenue, waving an IKEA kitchen knife. He is going to die, a pedestrian shouts: "They're going to kill you, brother!"
First a policewoman and then four or five other officers pursue Kennedy with their 9mm Glock service weapons, with a trigger pull of 12 pounds, held in both hands. Kennedy backs off from the officers, heading south into the eternal twilight of the streets of Manhattan. He has four-and-a-half minutes left to live.
Officers quickly seal off Seventh Avenue using police tape, and the first squad cars come hurtling down the avenues, their sirens howling. Pedestrians stumble through the blurred images documented by tourists running toward what they see as an adventure, whipping out their smartphones and cameras, hoping to capture a manhunt on video, while Kennedy continues to skip down the streets.
A Classic American Divide
The discussion that takes place in the aftermath of the shooting will divide cleanly along age-old American lines. Some will make snap judgments, in web forums, letters to the editor and call-in radio programs. "Gotcha!" they'll write, "another bites the dust," and "he deserved it." They'll lionize the police officers, calling them "New York's finest," praising their efforts to provide security in the big city. They'll ridicule the victim, calling him a crazy, knife-wielding pothead -- a foolish African American.
Others will ask anxious questions. They'll wonder whether, in this troubled America, it's even possible to just mourn, even if only for a day. They'll want to know why a few dozen police officers couldn't deal with someone like Kennedy in other ways. Why is it, one man asks, that escaped zoo animals are immobilized with tranquilizer darts, while a human being in New York is simply and ruthlessly shot to death in broad daylight?
Kennedy's sister will be quoted as saying that her brother was a talented musician, a man who undoubtedly had his problems, and yet, she will say: "They could have shot him in the leg." His aunt says that her nephew was a "loner," and that people are spreading all kinds of lies about him. She insists that he was a good man, and that he wasn't a bum.
Kennedy has picked a grotesque backdrop for his death. His short journey begins on brightly lit and eternally noisy Times Square, near the Minskoff Theater and ABC television headquarters, where huge electronic billboards advertise Broadway musicals like "The Lion King" and "Mary Poppins," as well as some of the world's most recognizable brand names, like Coca-Cola, Samsung and Heineken. News headlines flicker across illuminated panels as big as tennis courts.
Times Square, diagonally sliced in half by Broadway, sees an average of 1.6 million pedestrians a day. It's Aug. 11, a Saturday. The streets are devoid of office workers but filled with the usual weekend crowds. Day laborers dressed in Mickey Mouse and Elmo costumes stand at intersections, where tourists photograph them in return for pocket change, the "Naked Cowboy" is singing and playing his guitar and steam rises from the carts of food vendors. Kennedy and his pursuers gradually move south along the avenue, from 44th to 43rd to 42nd Street, Kennedy hopping along in front of them, making small, bouncy jumping moves like a cornered boxer, while the police officers, tense and vigilant, cautiously follow him at a distance.
No Police Reports in New York
A few hours later, New York Police Chief Raymond Kelly says that the police response was "by the book." Mayor Michael Bloomberg says: "He had a knife and he was going after people." But the videos uploaded to YouTube, and there are many of them, don't seem to support the statements made by the mayor and Kelly. They also don't show the police officers trying to subdue Kennedy with pepper spray, which they claimed they did four to six times.
There are no police reports in New York. There is, however, police spokesman Paul Browne, who doesn't say much that's useful, and there are police reporters. Sometimes they uncover valuable information, and sometimes they don't. To them, Kennedy's case is merely that of a bum who got shot to death. The headline in the New York Post will read: "He Got His Wish."
The New York Police Department (NYPD) has its motto painted onto the sides of its squad cars, three guiding principles for the 36,000 men and women serving on the force: Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect. The NYPD Patrol Guide states, under Regulation 203-12, that the NYPD "recognizes the value of all human life and is committed to respecting the dignity of every individual." The rule also states that police officers "shall not use deadly physical force against another person unless they have probable cause to believe they must protect themselves or another person from imminent death or serious physical injury."
Kennedy keeps moving. He crosses 42nd Street, passing the Ernst & Young building and the 42nd Street subway station, where lines N, Q, R, 1, 2, 3 and 7 intersect. Toward 41st Street, the fronts of buildings are covered with advertising for the new Batman film, "The Dark Knight Rises." On weekdays, office workers stand in the shadow of entranceways, smoking. Tour busses make their stops, and ticket sellers in red boleros pull passersby into their businesses. Those are normal days.
Three Minutes Left to Live
But at about 3 p.m. on Saturday, it is clear that this is no normal day -- there is no one standing in the doorways. The area is shut down because of a man with a knife -- one with a 6-inch and not a 12-inch blade, as the newspapers and TV stations will report, because they include the handle in their incorrect measurement.
The traffic has vanished from the broad avenue, and it is only police cars that hurry back and forth. Seen from Times Square, the crowd led by Kennedy is moving to the left of the center of the street. He now has two dozen or more police officers on his heels, most of them in uniform and a few in plain clothes, and all have their weapons drawn. They are accompanied by an amorphous swarm of eager witnesses, whose comments can be heard in the various clips. "Do you see this shit?" one person asks.
Kennedy, a 51-year-old who looks younger than his actual age, bounces along in front. At first, he turns his back on the police officers every few meters, looking as haughty as a torero turning his back on a bull. But now he is only striding backwards, keeping an eye on his pursuers through the round, green lenses of his metal-rimmed glasses. He has three minutes left to live.
The Trouble with 'Zero Tolerance'
In this part of Manhattan, Seventh Avenue is also called Fashion Avenue. The side streets are filled with shops selling fabric, Indian wedding dresses and gaudy Asian clothes. The urban pace is a little slower here. The sea of lights in Times Square subsides, the buildings become less extravagant and tall, and the cityscape becomes noticeably shabbier.
"I think that under the given circumstances the shooting was justified," says John Eterno, an athletic man with a gray beard and rimless glasses. He wasn't at the scene, and he doesn't know all the facts, but his opinion carries weight. Eterno was a police officer for 21 years, patrolling the streets of Manhattan. He taught at the Police Academy and he has written important pieces on police reform. He left the police force as a captain in 2004, when he went back to school to study criminology.
Eterno now teaches at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, a suburb on Long Island that happens to border Hempstead, the town where Kennedy grew up and is now buried. Depending on the traffic, the drive out to Long Island takes one to two hours, passing through a confusing blur of neighborhoods lined up along both sides of Jamaica Avenue, mile after mile. Then the city comes to an abrupt end and dissolves into postcard images of New England, idyllic villages, neatly divided into lots with small but attractive houses. Rockville Centre, where Eterno teaches, is one of those places. Hempstead, on the other hand, is different. It's poorer, sadder. More black people live there.
Blind Severity Cemented by 9/11
So everything is in order with Kennedy's death, the reporter asks? "Nothing is in order," says Eterno "when you come to discuss the actual state of the NYPD." His office is located in a low building on the edge of the campus, where the late-summer sun is beating down on the roof. Eterno talks for two hours. He makes a compelling case against the city's corrupt, broken security apparatus, which, he says, is still tragically a model for the rest of the world. Eterno's words suggest that Kennedy was also a victim of grim circumstances.
The NYPD developed a worldwide reputation for its "zero tolerance" policy and its great successes in the 1990s. The city was on the brink in the 1980s, with New York's image shaped by pictures of burning garbage cans in the Bronx. That changed with the arrival of Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who would soon become famous, and his equally well-known police chief, Bill Bratton. They substantially beefed up the police force and organized it like a business, with strict quality control procedures, applying statistical methods and considerable pressure to succeed. New York became safer and cleaner.
But scandals also became more and more common around the turn of the millennium. Police brutality became an issue, as did the NYPD's blind severity and intimidating presence. The debate over these concerns would undoubtedly have continued if Sept. 11 hadn't permanently changed everything. All of a sudden the NYPD, which until then had regularly faced sharp criticism from citizens' advocacy groups, politicians and the media for every misstep, became an untouchable force made up of heroes. It was no longer kosher to criticize the police, and anyone who did was seen as behaving in a somehow un-American way. The situation began to deteriorate, as statistics suggest.
Unpleasant and Unsettling
In 2002, the New York police stopped around 97,000 people on the streets, often searching them in the procedure known as "stop and frisk." For those affected, the experience is unpleasant, often humiliating and can be very unsettling, especially when plainclothes officers aggressively lay into citizens. The whole thing can feel like an assault.
The problem is that situation has been spinning out of control since 2002. More than 500,000 stop-and-frisk cases were recorded in 2006, and last year the number of cases peaked at 700,000. Most of those being stopped were completely innocent people. "In many parts of the city," says Eterno, "the police behave like a besieging army."
And the NYPD's image of the enemy is as clear as glass. In 2011, about 86 percent of those stopped were blacks like Kennedy or Latinos. In the 17th Precinct, on the east side of Manhattan, where the two minorities together constitute only 7.8 percent of the population, blacks and Latinos made up 71.4 percent of stop-and-frisk cases. Similar statistics apply in Greenwich Village, the Upper East Side and Tribeca.
"It's madness," says Eterno. He says he can prove that the NYPD has figured out how to massage the truth when it comes to performance, encouraged by a city hall and police headquarters that are constantly proclaiming the good news that New York is "the safest big city in America." Successes are talked up while real crime is downplayed. The city touted a 77.75-percent drop in crime between 1990 and 2009, even as it reduced the size of its police force by 6,000 jobs. "These numbers must seem completely crazy to anyone who knows anything about statistics," says Eterno.
To back up his theories, Eterno interviewed a thousand police officers. They told him the most outrageous stories, all of which, upon closer inspection, proved to be true. According to the officers, individual police stations and precincts deliberately cook the books to make themselves look good to those higher up in the chain of command.
Declines in crime levels are artificially produced by documenting serious crimes as less serious offences -- or by not recording crimes at all when they are reported in the first place. Rapes are downgraded to sexual harassment, and muggings are documented as petty theft, bringing down the overall crime count in the process.
Successes in the fight against crime can also be manufactured. Officers provoke arrests by charging old men with urban vagrancy when they are merely feeding pigeons. Pregnant women who sit down on the steps of subway stations to rest have been taken away for allegedly disturbing the peace. Unsuspecting citizens out for a stroll are stopped and frisked on playgrounds, because they don't have children with them, as required by city ordinances. These examples are not unsubstantiated accusations by ideological groups hostile to the police. Rather, they are tangible charges, supported by audio recordings and the testimony of police officers who went public and filed complaints against the police force, because their internal grievances were ignored.
A Police Stop Culminates in Death
Kennedy's path to his grave also begins with a police stop. Based on everything that's been revealed to date, on the Saturday of his death, he is standing on the corner of 44th Street and Times Square. Perhaps he is smoking a joint, or perhaps he is not. But while smoking marijuana may be illegal, it is fairly common in the US -- especially in New York.
A policewoman confronts Kennedy. Would she be doing this if she didn't feel pressure to perform, to deliver the right numbers? And would she do it if he were white? And Kennedy, who is having trouble with the police because of a joint for the eighth time in his life, and who has been fed up with this sort of treatment for a long time, suddenly sees red. He snaps. He wields his knife, rages and resists. The pursuit begins.
He makes his way through a city in which worlds are drifting dangerously apart. The New York of a black man has nothing in common with that of a white woman. The former will get to know police officers as disrespectful tormenters, while the latter will encounter them as gallant figures. Police officers are bullies in poor neighborhoods while they hold the door open for citizens in wealthy areas. These contrasts become blurred around Times Square, a Babylon bustling with poor and rich people alike, where visitors mingle with half-crazy denizens of the city. This is the backdrop of Darrius Kennedy's final minutes alive.
False Reports of a 'Times Square Ninja'
By the time he crosses 40th Street, Kennedy is being pursued by about 30 police officers, both on foot and in squad cars, and they're making a huge commotion. The air is filled with the crackle of announcements and the short bursts of police sirens. People are following along on both sides of the avenue like sports fans. Their numbers are difficult to estimate, but some of the videos give the impression that it could be hundreds. It's certainly several dozen, and the crowd continues to grow along the way, egged on by a herd instinct and paying no heed to the potential for danger.
The police usually have special units for cases like this. In their jargon, he is an "emotionally deranged person," or "EDP," and the type of unit that would normally deal with EDPs is called an Emergency Service Unit (ESU). Its arsenal includes such "nonlethal" material as batons, tasers, shields and water cannons.
By now, though, Kennedy has been walking backwards, away from the police, for at least three minutes, and there is still no ESU in sight. No one will explain how it is possible that, three blocks from one of the world's busiest public spaces, the NYPD is incapable of deploying a special unit within three minutes. In fact, there will be no explanations at all. The NYPD doesn't respond to SPIEGEL's inquiries or answer written lists of questions submitted.
What is known about the day of Kennedy's death is that a large number of police officers, armed with pistols and out of their depth, are pursuing a single man with a knife. They have no batons or tasers. Supervisors, officers above the rank of sergeant, have these nonlethal weapons, and ideally there would be one supervisor for every eight officers. But on this day there doesn't appear to be a single supervisor within the large group of police officers pursuing Kennedy.
They've already walked five blocks. It's getting close to 3 p.m., the crowd of people in their wake is growing larger, and the disruption to city life becomes more and more intolerable. This can't go on much longer. Finally, at about 38th Street, Kennedy makes another wrong move.
He leaves the center of the avenue, the width of which has protected him until now, and he bounces to the left, toward the sidewalk. Soon he'll be walled in on one side. Throughout the whole ordeal, he looks like a defiant child more than anything else. What's going through his head? Why doesn't he just drop the knife? How is this game supposed to end?
The police and the papers will portray him as mentally disturbed, as an unemployed outsider, a homeless man and a drug-addicted loser with a criminal record. Even the New York Times, straying from its declared policy of only printing verifiable news, quotes dubious eyewitnesses, who contradict one another and apparently confuse Kennedy with someone else. They turn him into the "Times Square Ninj," a man who often appeared on the square, wearing a Ninja costume and doing somersaults for tourists.
Neither Unemployed nor Homeless
Other news reports will state that Kennedy attacked people during his date with death, but that's a claim that not even the police is making. None of the reports will specify that all of the offences in his "criminal record" related to the possession of small amounts of marijuana. In fact, almost everything that will be written about Kennedy is full of holes or is flatly wrong.
In fact Kennedy, as he makes his way down Seventh Avenue, is neither unemployed nor homeless, nor does he do back flips for tourists. For the last six years, he has lived on the top floor of an apartment building on Third Avenue and 25th Street. It's an apartment reserved for the building superintendent, John Nyman, who uses it mainly for storage.
A long, messy hallway leads to the large apartment facing the street. Kennedy lived in one of the smaller rooms here. He had a deal with Nyman, who lives in his own apartment on 22nd Street: Instead of paying rent, Kennedy worked for Nyman and took care of his cats. When he wasn't working, Kennedy lifted weights in the basement, and when he sang along to a song on the radio, says Nyman, it was easy to hear that he was a musical person and had a nice voice.
In an earlier life, back in the days of disco, Kennedy had been a professional musician. He played bass and, with a short haircut and sporting flashier clothes, he went on tour with various bands, sometimes even as far away as Asia. He was married and then got divorced in the 1990s. At some point, Kennedy stopped playing music. There isn't much else to be discovered about his life. He played basketball as a child, and he sang in the church choir in Hempstead, but that was long before he became the man with the Rasta braids, the man with the knife.
'He Was the Nicest Guy on Earth'
"You can believe me or not," says Nyman, a wiry man with blue eyes, as he stands on the street, smoking a cigarette, "but Darrius was the hardest, most diligent worker I've ever met in my life. And he was the nicest person I knew, the nicest guy on Earth." On the morning of that Saturday, when Kennedy went to Times Square, he and Nyman were standing around, drinking coffee together. They were friends, "and to this day, I still don't understand what happened up there."
Of course, Nyman did read the papers after the shooting, and he watched the videos and heard the police version of the story. He also heard the stories claiming that Kennedy had knocked over trashcans in Times Square and had threatened people with a screwdriver several years ago. "All I can say is that everyone who knew him, and that was a lot of people here, doesn't believe a word of that. I think the cops make up these things."
Since 9/11, says Nyman, New York as a whole has increasingly transformed itself into a city with a "medieval concept" of life. "Darrius smoked a joint? Okay, so what? If we were in Ohio, the police officers would have driven him home and let him off with a warning."
Kennedy had a lot to do in the neighborhood. He was a handyman in 11 buildings, repairing drains and washing machines, bleeding radiators, and cleaning pipes, windows and toilets. He always worked on weekdays and often on weekends, and according to Nyman, he was always on time and "completely reliable." A Ukrainian couple that works as janitors around the corner tells the same stories. They are mourning his death. "He's missed," says Nyman.
'I Always Told Him the Knife Would Get Him in Trouble'
But what did happen with Kennedy? And what about the knife? "Oh, the knife," says Nyman. "I have a knife, too. I use it to cut up boxes and open packages every day, and Darrius did the same thing. I always told him not to walk around the city with the knife, and that it would get him into trouble one day. But he didn't want to listen to me."
Did Kennedy have psychological problems? Nyman does not hesitate before responding. "He had his demons, sure." According to Nyman, Kennedy found God a few years ago and had constantly studied the Bible ever since. "But most of all he hated the police. It was real hate, because they were always harassing him, throughout his entire life." He hated them because they stopped and searched him -- a black man and a pot smoker -- again and again. "He was a pretty big guy," says Nyman, "and for those police officers he was the picture of a suspect."
Kennedy reaches the last several feet of his path through life on Saturday, Aug. 11, at shortly after 3 p.m. The exact time to the last minute isn't entirely clear. He moves past a Bank of America branch on 38th Street, past an empty Off-Track Betting parlor and past the windows of a Chipotle fast-food restaurant.
He slows down. By now he is looking around nervously, and he must sense that his pursuers have him surrounded. What he probably doesn't see yet is that a squad car is parked across the sidewalk like a barricade, next to the glass entrance of an office building at 501 7th Avenue.
Police spokesman Browne will later say that the officers opened fire after Kennedy had come within "two to three feet" -- less than a meter -- of them. Police Chief Kelly will report: "The officers got out of the car. As a result, Kennedy approached the officers with the knife; they had no place to go." Both men, Kelly and Browne, aren't telling the truth.
The various videos circulating on the Web clearly show that Kennedy is at least 15 to 20 feet away from the officers standing at the squad car when they start shooting. And it isn't as if they had just gotten out of their cars and were taken by surprise by their victim or somehow found themselves in a situation requiring self-defense. In fact, they are standing there with their weapons drawn, waiting for Kennedy, who passes another shop, the Jewelry Patch, before turning around and facing his death.
A Pool of Blood Becomes a Tourist Attraction
Michael Massett, 41, 18 years on the job, shoots three or four times. Peter Rogers, 33, a police officer for the last seven years, pulls the trigger of his Glock nine or 10 times. Thirteen bullets strike Kennedy: six in the chest and abdomen, three in the back, two in the left upper arm and one in each thigh. He is pronounced dead at Bellevue Hospital, at 3:42 p.m.
His story lives on for another two days. On Saturday, the police spend hours searching the crime scene, securing evidence and surveying the site, but after that, no one feels the need to wash away Kennedy's blood.
On Sunday, the dark pool of blood becomes a minor attraction, as tourists from around the world take snapshots of each other at the scene. Local reporters show up to write minor reports on how amusing it is to see visitors from Europe, in particular, surprised and even outraged about the fact that no one is washing away the blood. It's still there on Monday, and more tourists begin showing up with their cameras.
Then a janitor named Pedro Toruno emerges from the doorway of the glass-and-steel structure at 501 7th Avenue, carrying a mop and a bucket. He washes away all traces of the incident.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Witness: Voices of the Heart
Witness looks at how one Native American tribe are reclaiming their heritage.
The story of the Native American people of the US is marked by a legacy of destruction and decline.
For the last two centuries, the western tribes have been re-settled to isolated reservations with little opportunity to exercise their traditions or express their heritage.
Most Americans still think of the various tribes as the Hollywood caricatures wild west savages or modern casino owners. Stereotypes which present a huge barrier to tribal growth and stability.
But one tribe, the Arapaho of Wyoming, is determined to reclaim their heritage and restore their fast-disappearing language as a way to heal their nation.
In her film, Voices of the Heart, director Amy Williams follows Native American Tish Keahna as she returns to the Wind River reservation after 30 years to see the impact that a language immersion school is having and to reflect on how life has changed.
"I think for me the most touching part of telling this story was seeing the generations come together: the very young and the very old. I watched a Granpa wipe the nose of a little girl, speaking to her in Arapaho as she ran off to play on the swings, and later witnessed the entire community drumming and dancing during a Thanksgiving feast, encouraging the young ones to sing the Arapaho national anthem," filmmaker Amy Williams says.
"So many stories about life on the rez involve poverty, neglect, abuse and desperation. Even at Wind River, they struggle with a 78 per cent unemployment rate, a 52 per cent high school drop-out rate. Crime has been rising, including a tragic recent incident where three teenage girls were found dead, presumably due to drugs and alcohol.
"It may be too soon to judge whether the Arapaho Language Lodge's approach to education will be successful, but what I learned from the Arapaho is that it's never too late to start over again."
Watch part one: http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/witness/2009/07/200975111633133271.html
Watch part two: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xpei2wrQRII
October 19, 2012
Blast in Beirut Is Seen as an Extension of Syria’s War
By ANNE BARNARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — A powerful bomb devastated a Christian neighborhood of this capital city of Lebanon on Friday, killing an intelligence official long viewed as an enemy by neighboring Syria and unnerving a nation as Syria’s sectarian-fueled civil war spills beyond its borders and threatens to engulf the region.
The blast, which sheared the faces off buildings, killed at least eight people, wounded 80 and transformed a quiet tree-lined street into a scene reminiscent of Lebanon’s long civil war, threatened to worsen sectarian tensions. By nightfall, black smoke from burning tires ignited by angry men choked the streets of a few neighborhoods in the city, which has struggled to preserve a peace between its many sects, including Sunni, Shiite, Christian and Druse.
Within hours of the attack, the Lebanese authorities announced that the dead included the intelligence chief of the country’s internal security service, Brig. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, instantly spurring accusations that the Syrian government had assassinated him for recently uncovering what the authorities said was a Syrian plot to provoke unrest in Lebanon.
“They wanted to get him, and they got him,” said Paul Salem, a regional analyst with the Carnegie Middle East Center.
But if the attack was targeted, the blast was most certainly not. The force of the explosion left elderly residents fleeing their wrecked homes in bloodied pajamas and spewed charred metal as far as two blocks. Residents rushed to help each other amid the debris, burning car wreckage and a macabre scene of victims in blood-soaked shirts.
It was the first large-scale bombing in the country since 2008 and was the most provocative violence here linked to the Syrian conflict since it began 19 months ago.
The attack struck a heavy blow to a security service that had asserted Lebanon’s fragile sovereignty by claiming to catch Syria red-handed in a plan to destabilize its neighbor, which Syria has long dominated. It threatened to inflame sectarian tensions by eliminating General Hassan, a Sunni Muslim known for his close ties to fellow Sunni politicians who support the Syrian uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. General Hassan was viewed by Syrian opposition activists as an ally and protector.
Imad Salamey, a political science professor at Lebanese American University, blamed Mr. Assad’s government and said that the attack seemed intended to show that Syria has the ability to destabilize Lebanon and threaten to embroil the region in chaos.
The Syrian government issued a statement condemning the bombing, quoting the information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, as saying, “These sort of terrorist, cowardly attacks are unjustifiable wherever they occur.”
The attack harked back to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a longtime foe of Mr. Assad’s, in a car bombing in 2005. Syria was widely blamed, and protests in the aftermath of that killing forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, a major blow to its regional influence. But a series of bombings targeting politicians, journalists and security officials followed, shaking Lebanon and sending the message that Syria’s power still reached deep into its neighbor.
The size and location of the bomb on Friday awakened a general feeling of dread that the Syrian conflict, which has already depressed Lebanon’s economy and sent thousands of Syrian refugees into the country, was coming home to Lebanese civilians, and could set off tit-for-tat killings and reprisals that could spiral out of control.
The blast seemed to accelerate a pattern already established, as the Syrian civil war increasingly draws in the region, crossing the borders of its many neighbors. Recently, a mortar blast from Syria killed civilians in southern Turkey, prompting the Turkish military to respond with artillery strikes into Syria for several days. Jordan has struggled to absorb as many as 180,000 refugees.
Shells have exploded in the disputed Golan Heights region occupied by Israel. Iran has been accused of sending weapons and advisers into Syria to help Mr. Assad. Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon have been killed in Syria and sent home for burial. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have provided weapons and cash to the rebels trying to oust Mr. Assad, and rebels have taken control of border crossings between Syria and Iraq.
In Beirut, there were efforts to tamp down animosities, and keep the peace. Not far behind the ambulances, politicians arrived at the scene of the blast. They urged Lebanese citizens to resist being drawn into the conflict — but also pointed fingers at Syria and its Lebanese allies in sharp language that seemed as likely to induce anger as to warn against it.
“For the first time, we feel that it is the regular Lebanese citizen who is being targeted in this explosion and, maybe, this is the beginning of what Syrian authorities have promised us in the past,” said Nadim Gemayel, a member of Parliament from the Christian Phalange movement that is part of Lebanon’s opposition March 14 bloc. “The Syrian regime had talked about burning everything in their path.”
As news spread of the bombing, the streets of Beirut’s largely Christian Ashrafiyeh district were initially calm. People walked dogs and escorted children home from school. But they also gathered in small groups warily discussing the bombing and clutched cellphones to share news. Outside a damaged grocery stood Sandra Abrass, a filmmaker and former Red Cross worker, frustrated that she was not allowed to help on the scene because her skimpy yellow flats were no protection against broken glass, and said she was in pain first for the wounded and then for Lebanon.
“You don’t feel safe any more,” she said. After growing up during the 1975-1991 civil war, she said, she was no longer used to the idea that bombs could go off at any moment, and feared that there would be more bombings and reprisals.
“They cannot let us live happily,” she said.
General Hassan came to prominence as a security chief for the assassinated former prime minister, Mr. Hariri. Early on, he was a suspect in that killing, but later helped build a circumstantial case, based on phone records, that a team from Hezbollah, the militant Lebanese Shiite organization aligned with Syria, had coordinated the Hariri attack and was at the scene of the murder. Hezbollah, which has since become an important member of Lebanon’s government, claims the records were fabricated.
Another security official, Wissam al-Eid, who helped compile the phone records, was killed in a car bombing in 2008, part of a series of assassinations of political figures, journalists and investigators.
More recently, in August, General Hassan shocked Lebanon by arresting a prominent pro-Syrian politician, Michel Samaha, on charges of importing explosives in a bid to set off bombs and wreak sectarian havoc as part of a Syrian-led plot. It was a surprising move in a country where state institutions have rarely had the power to take on political figures, especially those backed by foreign powers or Lebanese militias.
In a brief interview on Friday, the chief of the Internal Security Forces, Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, said, “Wissam al-Hassan was targeted because of Samaha’s case.”
The Internal Security Forces have often been seen as allied with Sunni anti-Syrian factions. But Mr. Salem of Carnegie said that General Hassan did not pursue only his friends’ political enemies; he was also credited with disrupting numerous networks of Israeli spies.
Mr. Salem said that General Hassan and his investigators were “one of the bright spots that saw the Syrian influence apparently ebb,” demonstrating that “the Lebanese state was beginning to develop capacities, they could arrest Samaha, they were doing things that a sovereign state does.”
While some anti-Syrian politicians suggested that the bombing was intended to distract from allegations that Hezbollah is fighting on the Syrian government’s side, they stopped short of accusing the party of involvement in the bombing. Several analysts said Hezbollah was unlikely to carry out such an attack, which would threaten its political standing inside Lebanon.
In the bombed neighborhood in Ashrafiyeh district on Friday, Civil Defense officers picked pieces of flesh off a security fence and put them into plastic supermarket bags.
In an upstairs apartment nearby, Lily Nameh, 73, said she had been taking a nap with her husband, Ghaleb. “I thought it was an earthquake,” she said. “Suddenly everything was falling on us.” Her husband said, “It felt like a plane landed on the building.”
On Friday nights, areas of central Beirut are usually crowded with cars and pedestrians heading out to party. But after the bombing, the usual Friday night traffic jams never materialized, and watering holes that usually send excess crowds onto the sidewalks in neighborhoods known for night life sat quiet and forlorn.
Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad, Hania Mourtada and Josh Wood from Beirut, and Christine Hauser and Rick Gladstone from New York.
October 19, 2012
As Bombs Fall, Turkey Backs Call for Cease-Fire in Syria
By HWAIDA SAAD and ALAN COWELL
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Turkey, a major regional player in the Syrian crisis, threw its diplomatic weight on Friday behind a call for a cease-fire “at least” through a three-day Islamic holiday beginning next week.
The appeal by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey came as the international envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, prepared to visit Damascus, the Syrian capital, news reports said, to press his earlier entreaties for the guns to fall silent on both sides during the Id al-Adha holiday starting Thursday.
Id al-Adha, the Islamic Feast of Sacrifice, is celebrated by Shiite and Sunni Muslims to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael as proof of obedience to God.
Mr. Brahimi’s planned visit coincided with new reports by Syrian rebels of government airstrikes against insurgents seeking to encircle a major military base at Wadi Deif in northwestern Idlib Province that has been unfolding for days.
Fresh airstrikes were also reported from the rebel-held town of Maarat al-Noaman in northern Syria pounded a day earlier by President Bashar al-Assad’s air force on Thursday in attacks that claimed scores of lives, according to reports from activists.
In the southern town of Dara’a, where the uprising began in March, 2011, as a series of peaceful protests, activists said the authorities had imposed a curfew to prevent worshipers from attending mosques for Friday Prayer, frequently used as time to protest.
The fighting offered a grim and bloody backdrop to Mr. Brahimi’s mission, which has already won some support from Iran and neighboring Iraq.
Reinforcing the cease-fire call, Mr. Davutoglu said on Friday: “It is especially important for the Syrian regime, which has launched bombs on its people with planes and helicopters, to halt these attacks immediately and without preconditions.”
“Let’s hope that the Syrian regime listens to this call by the international community and stops these attacks during Id al-Adha,” he said, according to The Associated Press. “In response, we expect the opposition to abide by the cease-fire in the same way.”
Like others, Mr. Davutoglu said he hoped a truce over the holiday would take root for a longer period.
Turkey’s support may be important because the authorities in Ankara are critical allies of the rebels seeking Mr. Assad’s overthrow. But, for the same reason, Mr. Davutoglu’s appeal, reported by news agencies, is unlikely to sway Mr. Assad.
Before visiting Damascus, Mr. Brahimi has been seeking support for the idea of a temporary cease-fire from the regional powers including Iran, Mr. Assad’s main backer in the area.
A cease-fire would be the first since last April when Kofi Annan, Mr. Brahimi’s predecessor as the envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, brokered an inconclusive truce that quickly unraveled. A force of 300 United Nations cease-fire monitors was sent to Syria but left as the fighting worsened.
Mr. Annan resigned as envoy in early August.
Earlier this week, the Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdissi, said any initiative “requires commitment by all sides in order for it to succeed.”
Mr. Makdissi said the authorities were awaiting the arrival of Mr. Brahimi to learn about the results of his regional contacts.
Syria has blamed the breakdown of the previous cease-fire on the rebels.
Hwaida Saad reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Alan Cowell from Paris.
October 19, 2012
Syrians Place Booby-Trapped Ammunition in Rebels’ Guns
By C. J. CHIVERS
DEIR SONBUL, Syria — The government of Syria, trying to contain a rapidly expanding insurgency, has resorted to one of the dirty tricks of the modern battlefield: salting ammunition supplies of antigovernment fighters with ordnance that explodes inside rebels’ weapons, often wounding and sometimes killing the fighters while destroying many of their hard-found arms.
The practice, which rebels said started in Syria early this year, is another element of the government’s struggle to combat the opposition as Syria’s military finds itself challenged across a country where it was not long ago an uncontested force. The government controls the skies, and with aircraft and artillery batteries it has pounded many rebel strongholds throughout this year. But the rebels continue to resist, mostly with small arms.
Doctored ammunition offers an insidious way to undermine the rebels’ confidence in their ammunition supply while simultaneously thinning their ranks.
“When they do this, you will lose both the man and the rifle,” said Ghadir Hammoush, the commander of a fighting group in Idlib Province who said he knew of five instances in which rifles had exploded from booby-trapped ammunition.
The practice has principally involved rifle and machine-gun cartridges, but also the projectiles for rocket-propelled grenades and perhaps mortar rounds, according to interviews with more than a half-dozen rebel leaders in Syria and many fighters, as well as an examination of shattered rifles and the contents of a booby-trapped cartridge. The tactic is highly controversial, in that it is potentially indiscriminate.
The primary source for doctored ammunition has been the Syrian government, which mixes exploding cartridges with ordinary rounds on the black markets through which rebels acquire weapons, the commanders said.
Some booby-trapped ammunition may also have entered Syria from Iraq, where during the most recent war the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency secretly passed doctored ammunition to insurgent groups, several American veterans and officials said.
The United States runs a similar program in Afghanistan, trying to undermine the Taliban. The United States has provided humanitarian and communications aid to the Syrian rebels, but has refused to supply weapons of any kind.
The practice of manufacturing and surreptitiously distributing tampered military equipment that explodes at unexpected times has a long history, but it is not often publicly documented as it happens. The British and German militaries used the tactic in World War II, and the United States developed exploding Kalashnikov ammunition in the 1960s and leaked it to South Vietnamese guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers.
One classified American ordnance intelligence document, viewed by The New York Times, suggests that the Soviet Union pursued a similar program in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Governments labor to keep their doctored-weapons programs secret, in part because they are potentially indiscriminate and often provide enemy forces with working ammunition, with which the rigged ammunition has been mixed. The tactic can also jeopardize friendly forces, causing casualties or destroying weapons among government troops or proxies — raising political sensitivities and eroding morale.
Nicholas Marsh, a research fellow at the Peace Research Institute Oslo who covers arms and arms trafficking, said that for these reasons, while there are many precedents, the tactic is not widespread.
“The problem with them is the same as with land mines,” Mr. Marsh said. “You can’t be sure who is going to pick up and try to use the spiked ammunition.”
In many cases in Syria, the spiked ammunition found its intended target: fighters seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. The wounding of Muhammad Saleh Hajji Musa, 36, in the highlands of Jebel al-Zawiya, provided an example.
Mr. Musa was part of a group that had surrounded a government checkpoint late this spring and was pressing its attack. As he fired his rifle, he said, there was an explosion between his hands. It knocked him over.
“I thought a shell had landed on me,” he said. Mr. Musa’s face was badly cut, and his right hand was mangled. He spent months convalescing, but he is now fighting again. His hand remains twisted and scarred.
American military and Special Operations veterans who had been involved in the distribution of such ammunition in Afghanistan and Iraq described a variety of steps taken to contain the spread of the most dangerous doctored ammunition to civilians.
In the Pentagon’s programs, they said, some rounds are packed with relatively small amounts of high explosives, enough to jam a firearm permanently. These are used in cases involving ammunition that runs the risk of reaching unintended targets, as when an ammunition crate including the doctored cartridges is shoved off a transport truck to make it appear as if it has been lost.
Other rounds carry a lethal high-explosive charge. These are used when the ammunition is expected to remain in narrow possession, as when exploding cartridges are inserted into the magazines of dead enemy fighters on the assumption that their fellow fighters will find those magazines and use them later.
The legality of such tactics is uncertain. The Pentagon declined to comment on its doctored-ammunition programs in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Unfortunately, we won’t be able to provide any information to you about this,” Lt. Col. James Gregory, a Pentagon spokesman, wrote by e-mail.
The officials and veterans who spoke about the tactic did so anonymously because the practice remained classified.
It is not known whether the Syrian government has distributed explosive rounds of varying power. But analysts and fighters alike agreed that as time passes, such programs often become less effective because insurgent forces become wise to the deception. This appears to be happening in Syria.
At the time he was wounded, Mr. Musa said, rigged cartridges were not recognized by fighters. Now rebels are familiar with the markings on many doctored cartridges, he said, and are able cull them.
This was made evident by rebel leaders in Kafr Takharim, in the north. When asked about the doctored ammunition, they provided a suspect 7.62x39-millimeter cartridge, the standard ammunition for Kalashnikov assault rifles. Its head stamp suggested original manufacture in 2006.
The cartridge’s provenance was not clear. Arms analysts who reviewed a photograph for The Times said the stamp was not commonly seen on ammunition circulating through conflicts. One said it appeared to be Iranian. Another, Nic R. Jenzen-Jones of Australia, said it was probably Syrian.
The propellant inside the cartridge had been replaced by a cinnamon-colored substitute with white granules. Bob Gravett, a private explosive-ordnance disposal consultant who has documented exploding cartridges in previous wars, said the powder resembled granular TNT, perhaps spiked with sugar to increase its flammability.
Rebel commanders said that Syrian Army officers who had defected and informants inside the government had told the rebels that Syria’s military was manufacturing the rigged cartridges and had begun distributing them about nine months ago.
“They have people who specialize in such things,” said Abu Azab, who commands a fighting group in the mountains.
Fighters also said that black markets had been salted with rocket-propelled grenades that were duds, that had the propellant in their booster motors removed and replaced with an inert substance, or that had exploded when launched.
Moreover, they said some mortar rounds killed mortar crews in a violent roar and flash when dropped into the tube — another possible form of booby trap.
That tactic has been a staple of American efforts to kill or dissuade insurgent mortar teams in Afghanistan and Iraq, said three American veterans with experience with such rounds, and it helped stop incoming fire on American outposts.
Abu Azab, the commander in Jebel al-Zawiya, suggested that the Syrian government’s booby-trapped ordnance program, while it might evolve, was less effective than it had been.
“We stopped buying that stuff from the markets, and we get what we need now by capturing it,” he said, but added, “We do still have some ammunition that we bought a long time ago.”
Lebanon reeling after deadly Syria-linked blast
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, October 20, 2012 7:47 EDT
Lebanon was reeling Saturday after a top security official was killed in a bombing that was blamed on Syria and also raised fears the country is being sucked into the war ravaging its neighbour.
The authorities have called a day of national mourning for those killed in Friday’s powerful rush-hour explosion in Ashrafieh, an upmarket mostly Christian district of Beirut.
Officials said Internal Security Forces (ISF) intelligence chief General Wissam al-Hassan was among at least three people who died — one of the highest-profile killings since the 2005 murder of former premier Rafiq Hariri.
Both the ISF and the Red Cross reported a lower death toll than the information ministry’s figure of eight reported overnight.
But Red Cross spokesman Ayad Mounzer told AFP “this is not the final toll, as we still need to see what happens to the critically wounded.”
The ISF put the number hurt at 80 in a blast that ripped through a busy square in the district where Hassan lived, and the Red Cross at 110.
The site, a mass of rubble and twisted metal, remained blocked off on Saturday and investigators were sifting through the damage.
Protesters also blocked some roads in Beirut, Sidon in the south, Tripoli in the north and the Bekaa Valley in the east.
The cabinet was meeting in emergency session to discuss the fallout from the bombing, after key opposition groups called on the government to step down.
“The government must leave and we call on Prime Minister Najib Mikati to resign immediately,” Ahmad Hariri, secretary general of the anti-Assad Future movement, said on Friday night.
Hassan, 47, was close to Hariri’s son, Saad, himself a former premier who leads the major opposition March 14 coalition of which Future is a party.
In keeping with a complex power-sharing arrangement in multi-confessional Lebanon, the premier is always a Sunni Muslim. But parliament and the government are dominated by the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah, an Assad ally.
Mikati’s office said the “size and tragic consequences of this heinous crime is a source of severe pain and sadness to the prime minister.”
Soon after the bombing, Syria condemned what it called a “terrorist, cowardly” attack.
But both Saad Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, the influential Druze leader, accused the Syrian president of being behind the bombing.
“We accuse Bashar al-Assad of the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan, the guarantor of the security of the Lebanese,” said Hariri.
Jumblatt told AFP “the Syrian regime is expert in political assassinations. Our response needs to be political. A president who burns Syria and is the executioner of Damascus does not care if Lebanon burns.”
Hezbollah said the attack was “an attempt to destabilise Lebanon and national unity.”
Following the news that Hassan, a Sunni, had been killed, angry Sunnis set fire to tyres and blocked the road from the city of Tripoli to the Syrian border.
Also in Tripoli, gun battles broke out after the office of pro-Hezbollah Sunni party Tawhid came under rocket fire. A Sunni sheikh and party member, Abed al-Razzak al-Asmar, was killed in the crossfire, a security official said.
The European Union, United Nations and United States condemned the bombing, as did Iran, a strong ally of both Damascus and Hezbollah.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the attack a “dangerous sign that there are those who continue to seek to undermine Lebanon’s stability.”
Traffic was light on the streets of Beirut on Saturday morning, while news of the explosion and its implications for the country’s fragile political structure dominated the press.
“Wissam al-Hassan martyred… and civil peace in danger,” said a headline in the As-Safir newspaper.
“Tomorrow will not be like yesterday. The assassination of Wissam Hassan will not pass. Lebanon will shift from the era of waiting for the worst, to living under the worst and with the costliest risks”.
An-Nahar wrote that “the iron spear against the Assad regime has been assassinated”, referring to Hassan.
Under Hassan, the ISF played a central role in the August arrest of former information minister Michel Samaha, closely linked to Damascus, who was charged with planning attacks to instigate sectarian strife.
Friday’s bombing touched off painful memories of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war and the unrest that has followed, much of it linked to Syrian influence.
At the time of Hariri’s murder in February 2005, Lebanon was occupied by Syrian troops who had entered during the civil war under an Arab League mandate.
The outcry that followed Hariri’s murder prompted Damascus to withdraw, but Syria still exerts a strong influence.
No one has ever been tried for Hariri’s murder, but a UN-backed tribunal has indicted four Hezbollah members who are still at large.
« Last Edit: Oct 20, 2012, 06:53 AM by Rad »
October 19, 2012
Hamas Finds Itself Aligned With Israel Over Extremist Groups
By FARES AKRAM and ISABEL KERSHNER
GAZA — Hamas, the Islamic group that governs Gaza and was once considered one of the most extreme Palestinian movements itself, is working to suppress the more radical Islamic militant groups that have emerged here, according to militants, putting Hamas in the unusual position of sharing an interest with Israel.
The jihadist extremists, known as Salafists and inspired by the ideology of Al Qaeda, are challenging Hamas’s informal and fragile cease-fire with Israel.
Salafist militants say Hamas has been making arrests in recent days and confiscating weapons from one of the groups, Jaish al-Umma, or Army of the Nation. While some Salafists seek to further their uncompromising form of Islam by peaceful means, others here have turned in recent years to violence.
Both Hamas and Israel view the Salafist militant groups with increasing concern. Israeli officials point to the continued flow of arms into Gaza and to links forged between the groups in Gaza and those across the southern border, in the rough and mountainous desert terrain of the Sinai Peninsula.
“Hamas is tightening the grip on our necks and storms our houses,” a Salafist said in an interview this week at his house in a refugee camp in central Gaza. Speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid the attention of the Hamas authorities, he added, “We are chased down by Israel, Hamas and Egypt.”
The activist used to belong to another radical group called Jund Ansar Allah, or Soldiers of the Supporters of God, which was crushed by Hamas in 2009. Now, he spends most of his time researching Islamic law and consulting with other Salafists who come to his home, which has a library of about 100 books on Islamic subjects.
A Salafist leader who also spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal by Hamas said in an interview, “The jihadists as groups are over now.” He said Hamas had been going after the groups one by one.
Hamas government officials refused to comment on measures against the Salafist militants. But Yahiya Moussa, a Hamas member of the Palestinian Parliament, said that while the Salafist groups had the right to carry out resistance against Israel, it must be “within the unified and national program,” meaning in line with Hamas policy.
A senior Israeli defense official, Yossi Kuperwasser, said that in Gaza, Israel was facing a “hostile governing element challenged by an even more hostile element” and that “radical Islamic groups are competing with each other over who is more radical.” In a briefing with reporters in Jerusalem this week, Mr. Kuperwasser, the director of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, also said the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, another significant force positioned somewhere between Hamas and the Salafists, was becoming stronger and better armed. Twice this month, Israel has launched deadly missile strikes against militants in Gaza whom it identified as operatives in the global jihad movement, saying they were involved in firing rockets and planning other attacks against Israel.
One of the strikes killed Hisham al-Saidini, a senior militant who led the Al Tawhid and Jihad group. The Israeli military said Mr. Saidini had been planning a complex attack against Israel along the Sinai border by Gaza-based militants in collaboration with Salafist operatives in Sinai.
Hamas has been tightening security along Gaza’s border with Egypt in an effort to prevent logistical cooperation between the groups on both sides, carrying out more identity checks of people in the area, according to Palestinians who work in the smuggling tunnels that run beneath the border.
While some point to the success of Hamas in containing the Salafist groups, others note that the effort is complicated by the fact that most of the jihadists emerged from the ranks of Hamas. They left after the group decided to participate in Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006 and beat its secular rival, the Fatah movement.
Salafists said Hamas’s decision to participate in the elections derailed it from its Islamic course. A year later, after bouts of bloody factional fighting, Hamas seized full control of Gaza, routing the Fatah forces there.
Salafists have been active in Gaza for decades, engaged in charitable activities and Islamic education, and dependent on donations from supporters abroad, mainly in Persian Gulf states.
But after the elections in 2006, militant jihadists began attacks against Israel and also against Internet cafes, restaurants and women’s hair salons in Gaza, places they saw as being at odds with their deeply conservative interpretation of Islam.
A turning point came in August 2009, when the radical group Jund Ansar Allah declared an Islamic emirate in the southern part of Gaza. About 100 of the group’s men holed up in a mosque in the southern city of Rafah and engaged in a standoff with Hamas security officers that ended in a shootout. In all, 28 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, most of them Salafists, including the group’s leader, Abdel Latif Moussa.
Nathan Thrall, a Middle East analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, noted that since the crackdown in 2009, the number of attacks against cafes and entertainment sites in Gaza had decreased dramatically.
“Hamas has been overwhelmingly successful in containing Gaza’s Salafi-jihadi groups,” Mr. Thrall wrote by e-mail.
Adnan Abu Amer, a political analyst in Gaza, said the Salafists, especially those engaged in violence, had only a “modest structure” in Gaza that lacks popular support, making it easier for Hamas to curb them.
Israeli officials also point to a degree of ambivalence in Hamas’s dealings with the jihadist groups.
“Till now, Hamas has not reached a strategic decision to put an end to this phenomenon,” said Mr. Kuperwasser, the defense official. He noted that Hamas had released Mr. Saidini, the militant recently killed in an Israeli strike, from prison in August.
Mr. Kuperwasser said Hamas’s reluctance to decisively confront the jihadist groups may stem from a fear of their strength, as well as the possibility that some Hamas security members would balk at taking tough action against former colleagues.
“They do take some steps on the ground,” Mr. Kuperwasser said of Hamas, “but never full-heartedly.”
Fares Akram reported from Gaza, and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem.
October 19, 2012
As China Weighs Shifting Economic Policy, a Rivalry for Its Stewardship
By KEITH BRADSHER
BEIJING — Advocates for far-reaching economic policy changes in China have long pinned their hopes on Wang Qishan, a cagey former banker with a reputation for forcing difficult decisions through recalcitrant bureaucracies.
When Zhu Rongji was prime minister of China from 1998 to 2003, dismantling thousands of state-owned enterprises while opening the path for a boom in private enterprise, Mr. Wang was the protégé at his side. When the SARS virus began running unchecked through the city of Beijing in the spring of 2003, Mr. Wang was named acting mayor and quickly brought the disease under control.
And when President Hu Jintao needed a vice prime minister in 2008 to manage day-to-day financial and economic policies and oversee economic relations with the United States, he turned to Mr. Wang.
But a number of Communist Party insiders say that with the approach of the 18th Party Congress, scheduled to begin on Nov. 8 and the forum for China to usher in a new leadership team for the first time in a decade, Mr. Wang’s chances of being named to a top job with broad authority over the economy appear to be dwindling by the day.
While the responsibilities of China’s new leadership team have not yet been finalized — and are not expected to be announced until the end of the Party Congress — the emerging consensus is that Mr. Wang is likely to be promoted to a position on the Standing Committee of the Politburo, China’s top decision-making body, but not to have day-to-day control of the bureaucracy that oversees China’s still largely state-driven economy.
Insiders say they now expect that economic policy will be left mostly in the hands of Li Keqiang, who is set to replace Wen Jiabao as prime minister next year. Mr. Li, 57, is a highly educated official with an almost professorial style who is said to read voluminous economic policy reports in often minute detail.
But he has considerably less experience than Mr. Wang, 64, in handling crises or pushing through tough decisions that offend vested interests, said a longtime associate of both men. Mr. Li “might not have the leverage to get things done,” he said.
A broad consensus exists at senior levels of the Chinese government in favor of shifting the economy toward a more sustainable trajectory. That trajectory could rely more on domestic demand than exports, more on consumption than investment spending, more on small and medium-size private companies than state-owned enterprises and more on creditworthiness than political connections to allocate loans from the state-owned banking system.
But practically every specific policy change required to carry out that broad objective is blocked by a different interest group, often including the “princelings” — children of current and former senior Chinese officials.
Indeed, Mr. Wen, the departing prime minister, has spent a lot of time talking about the need for economic changes, but has had little success in pushing difficult decisions through the bureaucracies of the Communist Party and the government.
Mr. Wang had been considered until recent days to be a strong candidate to become executive vice prime minister, an influential position with the main responsibility for putting in place policies on practically all nonmilitary issues. But while that cannot be entirely ruled out, opinion in elite circles seems to be moving quickly against him, said another admirer of Mr. Wang with high-level access in the Communist Party.
Party insiders with access to ministers and more senior officials said that Mr. Wang now appeared most likely to be made the chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference — a figurehead position at the head of a national advisory body. He also has an outside chance of becoming the chairman of the National People’s Congress, which has important responsibilities for legal changes but a lesser role on economic policy.
Either position would confer membership in the Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo, the nine-member panel that rules China and might shrink to seven members after the Party Congress. Indeed, both chairmanships are considered senior within the committee to the post of executive vice prime minister. But the two chairmanships have traditionally carried less administrative authority and actual power.
The leading candidate to become executive vice prime minister now appears to be Zhang Gaoli, the party secretary of Tianjin, a party insider said. He is an economist by training but has a reputation as a cautious official more preoccupied with maintaining political stability than with undertaking economic policy experiments.
The actual transfer of the prime ministership and vice prime ministerships will not take place until the National People’s Congress next March. But the succession will be determined by the new membership and ranking within the Politburo Standing Committee.
Party insiders and China analysts suggest that Mr. Wang was edged aside in the brutal game of one-upmanship and back-scratching politics that takes place behind closed doors in the Politburo.
“The main concern is that if Wang Qishan is vice prime minister, then Li Keqiang could be in his shadow in economic policy,” said one insider who deals regularly with senior officials. “Wang is older than Li, and has more experience and standing, and that makes their relationship awkward.”
Willy Lam, a specialist in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that personal animosity appears to exist between the two men. “If Wang Qishan becomes first vice premier, that will set off a vicious power struggle between Wang Qishan and Li Keqiang,” he said.
Two Beijing insiders who know Mr. Wang and Mr. Li said that the two men were not openly hostile to each other, but had radically different personal styles. Mr. Wang likes to take charge of issues and spend a lot of time talking through policies with colleagues, while Mr. Li is more cerebral and spends more time reading reports, they said.
One of them said that there had been a push in late summer by some party elders for Mr. Wang to be named prime minister instead of Mr. Li. But that push appears not only to have fallen short but possibly backfired by hurting relations between them, the insider said.
Cheng Li, the research director at the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, said that Mr. Wang “always wants to do something and take the initiative.”
But that is not necessarily an unalloyed virtue in the consensus-driven upper circles of the party. Besides Mr. Wang and Mr. Zhang, the other candidates that political insiders and observers in Beijing say are favorites for Standing Committee posts are Zhang Dejiang, a vice prime minister and party chief of Chongqing; Li Yuanchao, the head of the Organization Department; and Liu Yunshan, director of the Propaganda Department.
Two other contenders, Wang Yang, party chief of Guangdong Province, and Yu Zhengsheng, party chief of Shanghai, have encountered growing opposition in recent weeks. But any lineup currently in vogue could change before the Party Congress.
The two people who are virtually assured seats are Xi Jinping, designated to be the next party leader and the country’s president, and Li Keqiang, heir to the title of prime minister.
Edward Wong contributed reporting.
October 19, 2012
Symbol of Romanian Leadership? Hands on a Throat
By DAN BILEFSKY
BUCHAREST, Romania — Perhaps the best that can be said of relations between the president and prime minister of Romania is that they are unambiguous: they can’t stand each other.
That is less than surprising, given that one of the first major actions taken by Prime Minister Victor Ponta after he came to power in May was to push for a vote on whether to impeach the president, Traian Basescu. The attempt to oust Mr. Basescu failed in July, but the poisonous effects are still being felt.
The acrimony has dashed the high hopes that accompanied the electoral victory of the 40-year-old Mr. Ponta, who promised to usher in generational change in a country that has struggled to overcome one of the harshest Communist legacies among the former Soviet bloc states.
The two men are now locked in an uncomfortable cohabitation until elections in December, leaving this poor Balkan nation adrift. And even that vote, analysts say, may prove inconclusive.
In an interview at the gargantuan and opulent 1,100-room Palace of Parliament, built by the former Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu as a monument to his authority and grandeur, Mr. Ponta acknowledged mistakes but fell short of expressing outright regret.
He could barely conceal his contempt for Mr. Basescu, a former ship captain, whom he accused of brazenly clinging to power despite having been rejected by a majority of Romanians, calling the president politically “illegitimate.”
“My mentality as a new generation of politician is to respect the institution even if I don’t respect the person,” he said. “He will never give up. He is a former sea captain, and you won’t see a former sea captain being humble or giving up.”
Romania’s troubles have added to concerns in the United States and Europe about the political instability and threats to democratic institutions that are intensifying across the former Communist bloc.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has come under criticism for flouting democracy with a series of measures that have brought the judiciary and the news media to heel. In the Czech Republic, the government has teetered on the edge of collapse with ministers involved in corruption scandals.
Romania, in particular, lacked a history of stable, enlightened governance even before it endured World War II and then decades of the Ceausescu dictatorship, which ended with his violent overthrow in 1989.
Since then, Romanians have labored to build democratic structures virtually from scratch, finding themselves in a far more challenging position than almost any of their post-Communist neighbors. Romania’s foibles have provoked debate about whether it and Bulgaria, which both entered the European Union in 2007, were invited too soon, before their cultures of lawlessness, corruption and winner-take-all politics had been uprooted.
The vociferousness of the domestic battle in Romania has overshadowed policy-making; rattled the currency, the leu; and undermined investor confidence in a country that is the second poorest in the European Union after Bulgaria.
Mr. Ponta’s government has issued more than two dozen emergency decrees — moves that, while legal, have alarmed Western diplomats and many Romanians. The government dismissed the speakers of both chambers of Parliament, which the opposition said was unconstitutional. And amid accusations that it was pressuring the Constitutional Court, the government ousted the ombudsman, who has the power to challenge emergency legislation before the court.
Some members of the progovernment media have accused foreign journalists of being anti-Romanian agents. The public remains largely disgusted with endemic graft and corruption. Adding to the mistrust are accusations that Mr. Ponta, a former prosecutor, plagiarized parts of his doctoral thesis. (He says the accusations were politically motivated, but an academic panel at the University of Bucharest, where he was awarded the Ph.D. in 2003, upheld them. Yet, he has not been stripped of his title.)
Romania’s mercurial president has also played a key role in fomenting crisis.
The move for impeachment was prompted by accusations from the government that Mr. Basescu had overreached his mandate by, among other things, refusing to appoint ministers chosen by the prime minister, pressuring prosecutors in legal cases and using the secret services against enemies.
Mr. Basescu, who has denied the accusations, accused Mr. Ponta — already being criticized for abusing the system of parliamentary checks and balances — of orchestrating a “coup d’état.”
Mr. Ponta said his main shortcoming had been to not effectively communicate the reasons behind the impeachment vote. To repair the nation’s image, Mr. Ponta said, he was studiously avoiding confrontations with the president, and had recently removed himself from an acrimonious meeting about foreign policy to avoid another public and damaging altercation.
“Our European and American partners appreciate stability and predictability, and the lack of these two leads to overreaction and misunderstanding,” Mr. Ponta said, explaining the lessons he has learned since becoming prime minister.
Mr. Basescu declined an interview request, in keeping with the conspicuously low profile he has maintained since the referendum on his impeachment, which was favored by an overwhelming majority in July, even though the turnout of 46 percent was below the 50 percent needed to make the vote valid.
Western diplomats were so concerned in August that the country was teetering toward lawlessness that in August, Washington dispatched Philip H. Gordon, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, to Bucharest, where he met both men and warned that Romania must uphold the rule of law.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, have also voiced concerns. Talks on Romania’s bid to join the European Union’s coveted visa-free zone, scheduled for September, were postponed.
Romania has to “remove all doubts on its commitment to the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the respect for constitutional rulings,” Mr. Barroso warned Mr. Ponta last month in Brussels.
Monica Macovei, a former minister of justice and close ally of Mr. Basescu, argued in an interview that the breaches of the rule of law in the run-up to the impeachment referendum were worse than anything since the Ceausescu era, referring to the government’s measures to consolidate its power.
But she insisted that Romania’s membership in the European Union had been instrumental in overcoming the political showdown. The European Union closely monitors Romania’s justice system and also gives Bucharest much-needed financing. That gives Brussels significant leverage over the country.
“We joined the E.U. to follow the rules, not to destroy them,” she said.
There is little indication, however, that the political tumult will end soon. Mr. Ponta’s leftist coalition is expected to do well in the December elections, analysts say, but may fall short of winning a majority. Voters appear even more disenchanted with Mr. Basescu and his rightist party, which they associate with punishing austerity measures.
More than anything, the relentless sparring and stalemate have engendered deep disappointment among Romanians in the promise of their young democracy and disillusionment with their political leadership.
“Our politicians behave like children fighting over a toy,” said Monica Cristea, 43, a manicurist from Poenari, a village near Bucharest. “They have destroyed our international reputation,” Ms. Cristea said. “I am outraged. I don’t like any of them. I don’t trust them.”
10/19/2012 04:58 PM
Poverty and Crime: Conditions Little Better for Roma Immigrants in Germany
By Jörg Diehl in Duisburg, Germany
Seeking a better life and a future for their children, tens of thousands of Roma have come to Germany in recent years. They hope to escape the poverty and marginalization they experience in their home countries, but they remain outsiders in their new home too. The resulting problems are keeping police and social workers busy.
The two parents and their four children huddle together on a sofa. The room is bare and damp, with peeling walls and dirty rugs on the floor. This is supposed to be beginning of the better future that Radu and Ilena* were dreaming of when they boarded a bus four weeks ago in Romania. Now they stare apathetically at an animal documentary playing on a German television station. The first thing Radu says is: "No problems, everything is good."
Like many of the people who make the long journey to Germany, the family from Iasi, Romania just wants to keep from standing out or making trouble. In recent years, tens of thousands of Romanians and Bulgarians have come to the country's Ruhr region in the populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, and the numbers are growing. Most of them are Roma fleeing the wretched conditions and bleak prospects of their homeland, paying around €100 per person for a ticket to Germany. But once they arrive, the newcomers quickly realize that the supposed Promised Land isn't as welcoming as they'd hoped.
As European Union citizens, Romanians and Bulgarians may legally reside in Germany -- but working a regular job is not allowed because labor laws stipulate that they can't take work that could instead be performed by a German. What remains is day labor that pays €3 or €4 per hour ($4 to $5), relegating the men to independent construction or roadside work, while many women are forced into prostitution. However, they do get social benefits for their children. Radu and Ilena receive €773 per month, compared to the €110 Radu could earn as a crane operator in Romania in the same time.
The wealth disparity across the EU drives many who have nothing left to lose at home to go abroad. Many are illiterate and don't stand a chance in the German labor market, though they long for a better life in their new home. Radu says that a friend told him there was lots of "good work" in Germany, where his children could go to school and maybe even have a future.
The trend amounts to "poverty migration," says Ralf Jäger, interior minister for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. "Roma in Romania and Bulgaria live in such miserable conditions in their home countries that they make their way to Germany," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. But the EU should make an effort to insure that living conditions for Roma are improved in their countries of origin, he says, adding that more should be done to "end the discrimination of minorities."
North Rhine-Westphalia is also struggling to handle an influx of asylum seekers, many of whom are also Roma, but from the non-EU members Macedonia and Serbia. Some conservative German politicians blame this for the recent increase in welfare benefits for refugees. But what differentiates these immigrants from those that come from EU countries is that they have little hope of remaining in Germany long-term. Indeed, most are threatened with deportation.
Spike in Crime
Meanwhile, among those who are allowed to stay -- but absurdly, can't get proper jobs -- crime appears to be on the rise. Police in Duisburg believe there is one particular house where a number of children live who are sent out daily in groups to steal things. According to the state Interior Ministry, break-ins and thefts at cash machines have risen sharply, a development blamed largely on the southern-European immigrants. "We're taking the problem very seriously," says Jäger. "But this problem can't be solved by police alone."
One document from a current investigation against three Romanian women illuminates the trend. "For at least a year, observations in Duisburg (but also nationally) show that Romanian groups (apparently family clans) are committing organized crimes on an alarming scale," it reads. Most of the crimes involve pickpocketing or shoplifting, but there have also been cases of fraud whereby perpetrators pretend to be deaf or disabled while panhandling, then snatch wallets and mobile phones from their distracted victims. Clan leader send out mainly young women on a "regional" basis for these activities.
One of the few organizations that deals with the Roma situation in Duisburg is the Association for Future-Oriented Support (ZOF), which helps immigrant families integrate. One of the group's social workers, Murat Yasar, describes a phone call he recently received, during which a woman begged for help for her 16-year-old niece, who was being physically intimidated by her father into stealing and prostitution. But when help arrived, she was no longer there.
"She was probably brought back to Romania," says Yasar, who hopes that the government will get more involved with immigrants. "If we leave them on their own then they will become the criminals of tomorrow," he says, pointing to Radu and Ilena's four children. "They don't have any other options."
Currently there are hundreds of Roma children in the area who reportedly aren't showing up for school, while those who do rarely speak a word of German.
The fundamental tension between the rich and poor in Europe seems to be crystallizing in Duisburg's Rheinhausen district, where citizens' initiatives have begun collecting signatures against the immigrants because of the trash and noise they create. Romanians have also been attacked, according to a state Interior Ministry document. "Apparently organized bands of thugs were sent out to change the unpopular conditions," says a police commissioner. Officers on the beat have heard statements that were "very off-putting," he says. Roma have complained that they aren't served in shops run by Turkish families, and that their children are regularly beaten up. "If we don't work against this, we'll very quickly have a general debate about foreigners," he adds.
Despite such problems, Radu and Ilena want to stay in Germany. They have already looked at schools for their children, and hope to go from sleeping on a friend's sofa to their own apartment. Then they would feel like they had truly arrived in their new home, they say.
10/19/2012 03:50 PM
'Atlantis in the Sand': Unlocking the Mysteries of Petra
By Matthias Schulz
The ruins of the ancient city of Petra lay hidden until 1812, when a Swiss explorer stumbled upon them in modern-day Jordan. Two centuries later, a new exhibition in Basel brings together some 150 artifacts that shed light on how this mysterious culture of spice traders carved a luxurious oasis into the rocks of the desert.
In the stifling heat, the intruder squeezed his way through the Siq, a narrow gorge flanked by steep rock walls. The man walked through the dark gorge for 1.2 kilometers (0.75 miles). Suddenly, he laid eyes on a magnificent scene.
The discovery of the ancient desert city of Petra by Swiss explorer and Orientalist Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812 is considered a great moment in history. Far away from all settlements, surrounded by dust and shimmering air, he had discovered what Lawrence of Arabia would later describe as the "most beautiful place on Earth." Today, Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Burckhardt had infiltrated the Levant disguised as a Muslim. He learned Arabic, wore a turban and a robe, and converted to Islam. His plan was to secretly find a path to the land of gold beyond Timbuktu.
He never made it that far, and "Sheikh Ibrahim," as he called himself, took great risks to reach the enchanted cliffs of Petra because his behavior was too conspicuous. His guide saw him as "a sorcerer looking for treasure," Burckhardt wrote in his diary.
Luxury in the Desert
Two centuries after Burckhardt's discovery of the rock-cut city in Jordan, the Basel Museum of Ancient Art is exhibiting the latest archaeological finds from the "Atlantis of the Desert." Four teams of scientists -- from France, Germany, Switzerland and the United States -- are currently working at the site.
"Back in the 1970s, we still believed that Petra was purely a city of priests and the dead," explains archaeologist Laurent Gorgerat. More than 500 magnificent facades are chiseled into the cliffs, with burial chambers behind them. A puzzling account by the Ancient Greek geographer Strabo, that the Nabataeans "have the same regard for the dead as for dung," led many to conclude that Petra was the site of some strange cult of the dead.
As archaeologists have been uncovering the true nature of the structures cut into the cliffs, such misconceptions have been dispelled. In truth, Petra was once an oasis with irrigated gardens and streets lined with temples and luxurious homes. There were camel troughs and storage vats for frankincense, myrrh and Indian spices.
The settlement in the valley covered an area of two square kilometers (0.77 square miles). Archaeologists have found wine amphorae from the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, marble from Turkey and the remains of edible fish from the Red Sea. A shrine decorated with elephant heads stood at the center of the settlement.
Stephan Schmid, an archaeologist from Berlin's Humboldt University, is also making intriguing discoveries at his dig on the Umm al-Biyara rock massif, 330 meters (1,080 feet) above the settlement, where a king's residence once stood. It had bathtubs, a latrine with a flushing mechanism and rooms that could be heated. Firewood had to be dragged up to the palace along a narrow path.
The Arab rulers who lived there wore crimson clothing. According to Schmid, the palace was the scene of an "almost obscene display of money and power."
A Culture Shrouded in Mystery
Some 150 artifacts will be on display in Basel, starting Oct. 23, in an exhibition entitled "Petra -- Miracle in the Desert." It's a show filled with mysteries.
For example, archaeologists have determined that the Nabataeans ate pigs. But where did they keep the animals? They were unusually pious, and yet nothing is known about their priests. And why did Petra have such good jugglers? Some of them even performed for the emperor of China.
The speed with which these nomads became sedentary is also a conundrum. Analyses show that a sudden construction boom began around 100 B.C. Costly villas and temples were built throughout the valley.
It is clear that the money came from the frankincense trade. Around 400 B.C., the Nabataeans established a trade network stretching from southern Arabia to today's Gaza Strip. Thousands of camels carried loads of the aromatic resin all the way to the Mediterranean.
The Nabataeans had a system for guarding the caravan route, established rest areas in the wilderness, and supplied water and food for the more than 3,000-kilometer journey through the desert.
In the process, they made a handsome profit. The Persians alone used about 27 metric tons of frankincense in a single year. The entire ancient world was anxious to get its hands on the heavenly incense made from the resin of the Boswellia tree. Up to 50 percent of the proceeds went to the Nabataeans.
They also had their thumbs on other precious goods. They sold cinnamon and pepper from India, and they traded in gold, balsam and bitumen from the Dead Sea, the latter being an important material in the preservation of mummies.
Petra apparently served as a central warehouse for these valuable goods, a sort of safe that could be protected very effectively. The narrow gorge that provides access to the city is less than three meters wide in places. Thus, all it took was a few soldiers to stop entire armies.
Controlling Water in the Desert
Still, a lot of hard work went into establishing this luxurious oasis in the desert. To make the mountain valley habitable in the first place, the Nabataeans had to block off the Siq with a dam because heavy winter rains could create floods that would inundate the valley. In 1963, a group of more than 20 French tourists died in one of these flash floods.
In fact, the Nabataeans built a massive system of dams, cisterns and water conduits to control the water supply. Next to the main dam, archaeologists found the oldest dateable inscription in the city, written in 96 B.C.
That was when the work began, with local residents and stone masons from Alexandria chiseling away at the rock. The builders cut niches and steps into the rock, leveled off plateaus at the tops of the cliffs and built magnificent private homes with columns and inner courtyards.
In the center of the city, archaeologist Bernhard Kolb stumbled upon a villa with gold-plated cornices and mosaics. The banquet hall was once six meters high, and the walls were decorated with lines, bands and floral patterns, often in bright orange and blue. The wall paintings remind Kolb of "precursors of Islamic art."
This mixture of Western and Arab influence is also typical of the religion of ancient desert dwellers. Some of their temples contained statues of Dionysus and Isis. At the same time, they worshipped a strange "fish goddess" who wore dolphins in her hair.
But their supreme god, Dushara, had no human features at all. His likeness was a black, cubical stone somewhat like the Kaaba, the massive, cube-shaped religious structure in Mecca.
These spice traders also enjoyed a wealth of culture. They had a theater with about 5,000 seats. But since the Nabataeans have left behind almost no written accounts, no one can say what was performed there.
However, archaeologists have been able to figure out how the Nabataeans' water system worked. Six long-distance pipelines brought fresh water in from the surrounding mountains several kilometers away, and clay pipes were installed in the city itself.
The residents diverted a river, and there were also hundreds of cisterns to capture rainwater. The largest had a capacity of up to 300 cubic meters of water.
Defeat, Decline, Rediscovery
In this oasis lined with fountains and marble statues of boys pouring water, the clans came together regularly for funeral feasts.
The digs show that there were once buildings, courtyards and dining rooms in front of the large cliff tombs. This was where the families held their funeral feasts. The wine, says Gorgerat, flowed "in streams."
Not surprisingly, there were those who envied the Nabataeans. The Persians and the Greeks tried to put a stop to their profiteering, and the Romans dispatched a force to Petra in 63 B.C. But the Nabataeans cunningly defended their freedom.
When the Roman Empire hatched a plan, in 25 B.C., to advance into the land where frankincense came from, hoping to control the incense trade at its source, they experienced a setback. A Roman legion made it as far as Marib, in the legendary land of the Queen of Sheba and modern-day Yemen. But after more than eight months, the exhausted Roman soldiers turned around and headed home. Their Nabataean guide had deliberately taken them along a circuitous route.
It wasn't until 130 years later that the Nabataeans were finally defeated, and Rome incorporated its territory into its Arabia Petraea province. After that, Petra fell into a deep slumber. The temples decayed, and goatherds used the tombs as stalls for their animals.
When Burckhardt, who had been educated in the German cities of Göttingen and Leipzig, finally arrived, he found nothing but ruins. To him, though, even those ruins were "the most exquisite of remains from antiquity." Still, the adventurer would never make it back to Europe. He died of dysentery in Cairo, at the age of 32.
The exhibit " Petra -- Miracle in the Desert" will run from Oct. 23, 2012 to March 17, 2013 at the Basel Museum of Ancient Art .
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
October 18, 2012
The Scariest Little Corner of the World
By LUKE MOGELSON
On the southern outskirts of the city Zaranj, where the last derelict shanties meet an endless, vacant country — beige desert and beige sky, whipped together into a single coalescing haze by the accurately named Wind of 120 Days — there is a place called Ganj: a kind of way station for Afghan migrants trying to reach Iran. Every day except Friday, a little before 2 in the afternoon, hundreds of them gather. Squatting along a metal fence, Hazaras, Tajiks, Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Baluchis from all corners of the country watch the local drivers move through a fleet of dilapidated pickups — raising hoods, inspecting dipsticks. A few hope to continue on to Turkey, Greece and ultimately Western Europe. Most harbor humbler dreams: of living illegally in Iran, of becoming bricklayers, construction laborers, factory workers or farmhands. When one of the drivers announces he is ready to go, as many as 20 migrants pile into the back. The leaf springs flex; the bumper nearly kisses the ground. Arms and legs spill over the sides. Finally, apprehension gives way to expectation, and a few men laugh and wave goodbye.
Two days before I first visited Ganj, early this September, one such pickup, speeding south through the desert toward the lawless border region of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, struck a freshly planted land mine that killed the two smugglers in its cab and sent airborne its human cargo like firewood or fruit. My interpreter and I happened to be walking by the provincial hospital, in downtown Zaranj, shortly after the victims were admitted. At the front gate, a young orderly viciously punched a man trying to enter the premises on his motorcycle. With his feet firmly planted on the ground, the man on the motorcycle revved his engine, spinning the back tire in place and churning up a thick cloud of dust even as the orderly continued to assail his head and face. The man on the motorcycle, it turned out, was a relative of one of the dead smugglers, and in his grief, he appeared almost to welcome the blows.
Zaranj is the capital of Nimruz — by many measures the most isolated province in Afghanistan, at the remotest southwest corner of the country — and the hospital’s resources were predictably limited. Most of the survivors had been advised to get themselves to Herat, some 300 miles north, where doctors would be better equipped to help them. For all the billions of dollars that have been invested over the past decade, parts of Afghanistan remain beyond the reach of Western influence. While neighboring Helmand Province has represented the epicenter of counterinsurgency efforts, Nimruz feels like a different country altogether. There are no coalition troops or Afghan soldiers or foreign NGO workers. Instead, the Afghans have been left to find their own way — and fight their own wars. We hailed a rickshaw and headed to a bus stop outside town. There we found a man in his early 20s slouched against the wall of a small store. His shirt and pants were darkly soaked with blood. A bandage was wrapped around his head. A kinked tube ran from his arm to an IV bag tied to a door handle with a loose piece of gauze. His name was Gulbadeen. He told us there had been 10 other men in the truck from his village in Faryab Province, each of whom was determined to try again. Gulbadeen himself sneaked into Iran three years earlier, working as a laborer, sending money home, until he was deported last winter. “I’m done,” he said. “I can’t do this another time.”
In Ganj, no one wanted to talk about the episode. Clearly the local drivers did not appreciate my bringing it up with their prospective customers. The longer we lingered, the tenser the atmosphere became. An old man with a missing finger pulled me aside and admonished: “Our life depends on this smuggling business. If this ends, we will have nothing. There’s no other work here. I advise you to leave this place.” Eyeing me appraisingly, he added: “Be careful. You would be worth a lot of money.”
One reason for the hostility, no doubt, was that the people-smuggling business in Nimruz was suffering. Until recently, Zaranj profited immensely from the tens of thousands of Afghans, displaced by war and poverty, who emigrate west each year. The border is only a 10-minute drive from downtown, where more than 150 hotels, owned by local smugglers, once catered exclusively to a steady flow of migrants crossing the open desert into Iran. In those days, you could walk up to a checkpoint, pay a bribe and get into a car, Tehran-bound. The highly efficient system was administered by the Baluchis: a small ethnic minority who remained united through a distinct language and culture long after their homeland was divided among three often-rivalrous nations. Indeed, the Baluchis from each of those nations had become adept at working together to ferry from one country to another, and sometimes to another, humans, goods, drugs, fuel, weapons and — especially since the recent collapse of the Iranian rial — currency.
A few years ago, Iran designated the province that borders Nimruz a “no go” area for foreign residents and shortly thereafter began erecting a 15-foot-high concrete wall that now runs more than half the length of its 147-mile border with Nimruz. The Iranian border police — manning guard towers, each within sight of the next — were also said to have changed. There came increasing reports of Afghans being shot and killed by the same authorities who once benignly waved them through. While most of these stories are unverified, they nevertheless reinforced a growing sense that the old road to a new life was now closed. Today migrants who come to Nimruz must travel another 10 hours south into Pakistan, then cross from there into Iran. The journey consists of three legs. Afghan-Baluchi smugglers take you part of the way; Pakistani-Baluchi smugglers take you a littler farther; Iranian-Baluchi smugglers finish the job. For the first stretch — a narrow dirt road through uninhabitable, lunar flatland — roughly 300 drivers share a rotating schedule, each working one day a month. These were the men preparing to depart from Ganj, bristling at my questions about the bomb.
Before I left, I followed a group of young Hazaras down an alley to another lot where still more trucks were being loaded with people. As I rounded the corner a man cried out: “Watch this guy! Get away from him! Watch out!” It was the second time in less than a week I was mistaken for a suicide attacker — a uniquely unpleasant sensation that I had not experienced anywhere else in Afghanistan. The misunderstanding arose from a combination of two factors, I think: the extreme paucity of foreigners who had ever been to the city and the extreme degree, even by Afghan standards, of paranoia and suspicion that pervaded it. Residents of Zaranj spoke obliquely and in low tones, always on the lookout for passers-by, forgoing words whenever meaningful grins or nods sufficed. At times, the aura of mistrust felt histrionic, and it was often tough to tell when the furtive whispers or emphatic pleas for anonymity were necessary and when they were affected. You had the sense everyone fancied himself an operator; you also knew that some of them probably were. The second person I met in Nimruz — a commander with the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence service — told me a few hours after I arrived: “There is one person here whom you absolutely cannot trust. He is in the pocket of Iran. You must be very careful with this man and do whatever you can to avoid him.” The man the commander named was a senior official in the provincial government and the only other person I had met there so far.
Iran looms just as large over western Afghanistan as Pakistan does over the east — and nowhere is this more keenly felt than in Zaranj, where the land beyond the wall can represent anything from benevolent neighbor to malicious oppressor. But while Pakistan’s machinations in Afghanistan often feel obvious, Iran’s have proved far harder to discern. Everyone I spoke to in Nimruz, for example — provincial officials, smugglers, police, border guards — insisted that “Iranian agents” had placed or arranged for the placement of the land mine that killed the two Baluchi drivers and injured Gulbadeen. As for why, each source offered a different theory — usually in a hushed voice, after glancing to the left and right.
If nerves were especially raw when I visited Zaranj, it was because two weeks earlier an extraordinary spectacle of violence seemed to justify even the most paranoid anxieties. On Aug. 13, a few days before Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the police were on heightened alert after receiving intelligence that an attack against government targets might be imminent. When a white Toyota Corolla station wagon approached the checkpoint on its way into the city, the officers on duty motioned for it to stop. A bearded man in the passenger seat produced a handgun and shot at them. The station wagon accelerated toward the city center, and the officers gave chase. After several rounds shattered the station wagon’s rear window, its driver lost control and smashed into a wall. When the driver and the passenger stumbled out and tried to run away, the officers opened fire, killing them both.
Inside the car, police discovered explosives, remote controls, timers, grenades and a suicide vest. The passenger was identified as an Iranian who moved to Zaranj some months earlier and opened a small stand that sold snacks and soft drinks. He went by the name Mullah Satar. That night the police cordoned off the neighborhood where Satar seemed to have been heading, and in the morning they conducted a thorough search of it. In one house, three young Iranian men were found in possession of more suicide vests and remote-controlled explosives. According to the police, the men confessed that Satar was their leader and that they had been planning to carry out a massive, coordinated assault later that day. There were seven additional attackers still at large somewhere in the city, they said, though they didn’t know where.
At this point, the security chief for Nimruz Province, Majeed Latifi — a meticulous and gentle-mannered man who reminded me more of a clerk than of a colonel — thought to text the remaining plotters from Satar’s cellphone. One of them promptly replied that they were hungry, could Satar bring them something to eat? When Latifi suggested they meet at a familiar crossroads, the attackers balked. They must have smelled a rat. Later, the three detainees would explain that no one knew what their targets were going to be — that Satar had not planned to reveal the specifics of the operation until the last possible moment, when it came time to walk out the door, toward their fates. Realizing that this revelation was now unlikely ever to arrive, the aspiring martyrs must have panicked. Certainly, what they did next suggests that they panicked. They strapped on suicide vests in a hurry, without bothering to conceal them underneath their clothes, then stalked into the city, wielding pistols and hand grenades.
Latifi was at headquarters when he heard the first explosions. Across town a pair of suicide bombers had managed to detonate themselves outside a government fuel station, destroying a police truck and injuring several officers. Latifi headed that way. While en route, the colonel noticed — on a narrow lane behind the governor’s compound — a tall, thin man who appeared lost. Suddenly, the man raised a pistol and fired toward Latifi’s truck. Latifi kept going, instructing one of his commanders, Col. Abdullah Shiranzai, to return to the governor’s compound and deal with the man.
When Shiranzai, with four of his men, reached the lane where the man was still wandering, they parked more than a block away and pointed their rifles at him. “He had a wild look in his eyes,” Shiranzai told me. “We understood from the way he was pacing, and from the expression on his face, that he was really feeling crazy.” After a brief exchange of fire, the attacker scaled a wall, then leapt onto the roof of a house. From there he shot with reckless imprecision at the officers. When he threw a hand grenade at them, it landed and rolled harmlessly down the street. He had neglected to pull the pin. Eventually, the attacker jumped from the roof into the backyard, where an officer shot him in the head. Later Shiranzai told me: “Something I’ve been surprised to learn is that these men, who are planning to blow themselves up, always become frightened when you open fire on them. As soon as the shooting starts, the suicider runs and hides. He doesn’t want to be shot. He is here to die, but he is scared of bullets. It’s strange.”
After the first explosions, the chief of the fire brigade, Mohammad Zahir, rushed toward the garage where he kept his trucks and water tankers. On the way, he stopped at his house, where his 25-year-old son — a police officer named Gulam Rooz — was enjoying a day off. Zahir told Rooz to go to the fuel station and see if he could help. At the station, Rooz found wounded officers lying on the ground, loaded them into his car and took off for the provincial hospital.
The hospital sits in the heart of Zaranj, opposite a long row of shops, pharmacies, restaurants and hotels. The street itself accommodates a hectic bazaar, crowded with stalls and stands hawking all manner of merchandise. Money-changers wave colorful wads of Pakistani rupees and Iranian rials; cooks skewer lamb and chicken over glowing coals; rickshaws come and go; beggars beg; children push wheelbarrows full of dried apricots and dates, sell packs of gum, chase other children through the throng. When Rooz reached the hospital, the melee outside its gates was particularly frenzied. It was approximately 3 in the afternoon, and everyone in Zaranj, it seemed, was buying groceries for the coming Eid.
Rooz delivered the injured men to the emergency room, then walked back out to the street where a police truck was arriving with more victims. The bazaar was so crowded that one of the officers had to get out and fire his rifle several times into the air in an effort to clear a path. The swarm of bodies parted slightly.
Back at the garage, Mohammad Zahir was still preparing his men and trucks to respond to the first blasts when he heard another one. A few seconds later, Latifi called him on his cellphone and told him to get to the hospital.
A bomber had detonated himself in the middle of the bazaar. The blast alone would have ripped apart the dense mass of shoppers, sellers and kids, but what made it especially devastating was the closely set layer of ball bearings glued on the outside of the vest. The force of the explosion propelled the small steel pellets in every direction, and they pierced whatever thing or person stood in their trajectory. When Zahir arrived at the bazaar, the sky was dark with pulverized matter. Flames flashed in the dust. An electrical line had fallen; a transformer burned. Zahir saw that the ground was littered with bodies and debris. He was directing a stream of water from a hose toward a ruined storefront when he spotted his son, Gulam Rooz. “I had no time to tend to his body,” Zahir told me. “I had to ask someone else to take care of it while I finished putting out the fires. He was riddled with ball bearings. I still have his shirt. It’s full of holes.”
Soon police officers killed the last of the suicide attackers, not far from the hospital. (One of the seven men named by the three detainees presumably fled Zaranj when he learned that Satar had been killed; to date he has not been found.) Altogether 34 civilians and four police officers died. More than 200 people were wounded. It was by far the deadliest day in Nimruz Province since 2001, and one of the deadliest of the war.
Every official I spoke to in Nimruz identified each of the attackers who were killed or captured as Iranian Baluchis. “They were all recruited at the same mosque in Zahedan,” Colonel Latifi told me. Zahedan is the capital of Sistan-Baluchestan, the Iranian province that borders Nimruz and Pakistan, and one of the poorest, least developed and most unstable parts of Iran. The mosque, according to Latifi, was similar to some madrassas in Pakistan that promote an extreme Islamist ideology and groom budding jihadists for deployment in Afghanistan. It was “sponsored,” Latifi said, by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
With the exception of Mullah Satar, who was in his mid-30s, the attackers were all extremely young, ranging in age between 16 and 21. “They told us members of the Revolutionary Guards selected them for this mission,” Latifi said. From Zahedan, they were sent to Baramcha, a town in southern Helmand Province, near the Pakistani border, described by NATO as “a Taliban command-and-control area that consists of narcotics trafficking, weapons and ammunition storage, improvised-explosive-device factories and foreign fighter training.” Their schooling complete, they traveled to Zaranj disguised as women, wearing traditional blue burqas. It was there that they met up with Mullah Satar. “They were brainwashed,” Latifi said. “They were convinced that everyone in the Afghan government was an infidel and that jihad was an obligation.”
If the Revolutionary Guards were indeed behind the mayhem in Zaranj, Latifi’s assertion that all of the attackers were Iranian Baluchis is puzzling. The relationship between the Baluchis of Iran, who are mostly Sunni, and Iran’s Shiite regime has always been fraught. For decades, the Baluchis have endured repressive policies and state-sanctioned discrimination, and they make up the ranks of a violent insurgency, most notably under the banner of Jundallah, a terrorist organization once suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda that has launched numerous strikes against the Revolutionary Guards. That the Revolutionary Guards would recruit an all-Baluchi team to carry out an operation against the government of Afghanistan might highlight the complexities of a region where today’s enemies can become tomorrow’s allies, or vice versa. Alternately, it simply might not be the case. It’s entirely possible that the attackers were regular Taliban without any ties to Iran — that the scenario Latifi and others laid out for me was, essentially, anti-Iranian propaganda.
The most compelling explanation I have heard for the unlikely marriage of Baluchi terrorists and the Revolutionary Guards is also the most disturbing and most cynical: perhaps the Revolutionary Guards intended not only to orchestrate an attack but also, simultaneously, to vilify the attackers. As one prominent Baluchi elder from Nimruz, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me: “By using only Baluchi men, not only does it make it easier for the Iranians to deny that they were involved. It also taints the reputation of the Baluchi community in Iran.”
The day after the bombings, Latifi showed his three detainees photos of some of the dead women and children from the bazaar. One of the young men turned away, then collapsed in convulsive sobs. Another, who was maybe 16, stared at the pictures, stone-faced. Eventually, he looked up and asked Latifi to kill him.
During the 1990s, Iran unequivocally opposed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In 1998, the Taliban’s massacre of thousands of Shiites, as well as of nine Iranian diplomats in the northern Afghan city Mazar-i-Sharif, brought the two countries to the brink of war. In Nimruz, the Revolutionary Guards supported one of the only anti-Taliban resistance movements in western Afghanistan that was able to continue fighting the regime until 2001. The Nimruz Front, as it was known, was led by Abdul Karim Brahui, who, when I visited the province, was serving as its governor.
With his slouching posture and narrow eyes — which seem always on the verge of closing, even midsentence, for a long, deep sleep — Brahui is a quiet leader in the most literal sense. He does not talk so much as utter — so softly that you must often ask him to repeat himself. Brahui was born, raised and fought the Russians in Chahar Burjak, a district in the south of Nimruz: the same hard country smugglers and migrants must traverse to get to Pakistan. Chahar Burjak is naturally suited for military defense — but not in the usual way. Unlike other rebel strongholds, like the Panjshir Valley, whose long bottleneck canyon of an entrance confounded Soviet and Taliban forces alike, Chahar Burjak’s impenetrability arises from its absence of significant terrain. Its openness is its protection. “Out there, a car or a person walking can be seen from miles away,” Brahui told me. “The Russians could not attack us because whenever they approached, we could see them in the big desert from a distance.”
When the Taliban expanded from Kandahar, Brahui consolidated his Baluchi fighters, once again, in Chahar Burjak. Eventually, most of western Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. But southern Nimruz remained in Brahui’s hands. “We were a mobile group,” Brahui said. “We had our vehicles, and we kept everything in them — our water, our food, our weapons. We kept moving. Our base was our legs.” As the Taliban crushed one resistance movement after another, rebel commanders from nearby provinces fled to Chahar Burjak and joined with Brahui. Then, in 1999, Ismail Khan, the former mujahedeen leader, managed to escape, with the help of one of his guards, from Kandahar’s Sarposa Prison, where the Taliban had held him for more than two years. According to Brahui, Ismail Khan and the Talib guard headed west in an armored Land Cruiser for Nimruz. Ten days earlier, Brahui led an ambush against a group of Taliban fighters outside Zaranj; on his way back to Chahar Burjak, he buried a land mine in the road for any would-be pursuers. Ismail Khan, en route to see Brahui, suffered the misfortune of hitting the mine. The explosion destroyed the Land Rover, fracturing Ismail Khan’s leg. “One of my men came by motorbike and told me what had happened,” Brahui recounted with a hearty laugh. “It was my mine that had almost killed Ismail Khan!”
In the end, Brahui was able to get both Ismail Khan and his guard across the border, where they were treated for their injuries and offered safe haven. The Iranians continued to give Brahui weapons and access to Iranian hospitals until 2001, and in the wake of 9/11, Iran supported the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban’s collapse, Iran has pledged more than half a billion dollars toward the country’s reconstruction. No one has ever believed that Iran desires a Taliban return to power.
And yet, most experts agree that Iran aids the Taliban insurgency. Iranian-made weapons and explosives have been turning up in Afghanistan since at least 2007, and in July, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Taliban had opened an office in the Iranian city of Zahedan, the capital of Sistan-Baluchestan. More troubling, intercepted communications, according to The Journal, revealed that the Revolutionary Guards were considering sending surface-to-air missiles to insurgents inside Afghanistan. (In a written response to my questions, the Iranian Embassy in Kabul replied: “The Islamic Republic of Iran does not have any relationship with the Taliban. These are rumors spread by the enemies of Afghanistan to damage its relationship with Iran.”)
Iran’s “double game” in Afghanistan — as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called it — reflects its conflicting interests: a desire to see a stable, non-Sunni-fundamentalist government on its eastern flank combined with a deep enmity toward the United States. Early on, Iran had the potential to be a useful American ally in Afghanistan. But the ascendancy of Iran’s anti-Western conservative movement, coinciding with a pattern of severe diplomacy from Washington — beginning with George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” designation and continuing through the current sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program — has rendered America’s presence on its doorstep increasingly odious. In May, when Barack Obama and Hamid Karzai signed an agreement that allows for American troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond 2014, Iran’s foreign ministry warned that the pact “will intensify insecurity and instability in Afghanistan.” Then, last month, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ aerospace division promised that Iran’s response to an Israeli strike against its nuclear facilities would include attacks on American bases in Afghanistan and the Middle East. “There will be no neutral country in the region,” he told a state-run television station. “To us, these bases are equal to U.S. soil.”
But in a boondocks like this part of Nimruz, where there are no American bases, it feels like a stretch to ascribe to geopolitics an attack like the one on Aug. 14. In fact, in Zaranj itself, most people will tell you that Iranian meddling in their part of Afghanistan arises from a local rather than global concern — one with the immediacy of life and death.
Early one morning, I was picked up outside my guesthouse in Zaranj by Haji Mahiyadeen, a local police commander who had agreed to take me to the Kamal Khan Dam, some 50 miles south of the city. When he showed up with three 4-by-4 trucks carrying more than a dozen heavily armed men, Mahiyadeen seemed to register my surprise and explained that the dam was a major target for “Iranian terrorists.” The land mine that recently killed the two smugglers bringing Gulbadeen and his fellow migrants from Ganj, for example, was on the same road we’d be traveling.
Mahiyadeen was not the first person to cite the Kamal Khan Dam as the chief source of animosity between Nimruz and Iran. “Iran does not want this project to be completed,” Colonel Latifi had told me, echoing a refrain I heard again and again in Zaranj. “Which is why it is trying to create instability here,” he added. “The kind of attacks like we had here are 100 percent connected to the dam.”
Built as early as the 11th century by an unknown but industrious and visionary ruler, with baked bricks and an ancient lime mortar, the Kamal Khan Dam supplied for hundreds of years a complex canal system that irrigated what was then fertile wheat-and-barley country. But in the late 1300s, when some typically recalcitrant Baluchis welcomed his arrival with less-than-open arms, the Turkic conqueror Tamerlane punished Nimruz by destroying Kamal Khan. It was not until the early 1970s that President Sardar Muhammad Daoud Khan set about rebuilding it. Then Daoud was ousted in a coup, and the ensuing decades of Soviet occupation and civil war made resuming the project impractical. Only last year did the Afghan government hire a Tajik contractor to pick up where Daoud left off. The enterprise is impressive — the final cost will be around $100 million — and I was told repeatedly that to appreciate its scale, I had to see the dam for myself.
After driving for more than an hour through tall sand dunes that the incessant winds shift from place to place, during which time the sole sign of life we encountered was a pale bird elegantly lifting off the horizon (inducing Mahiyadeen to halt the convoy, jump out and try to kill it with his AK-47), we entered a narrow gully with steep rock walls where Mahiyadeen stopped and looked around and said: “This is where I was ambushed last year. I was supposed to be bringing some of the Tajik contractors from Zaranj, but they canceled at the last second.” In the gully, Mahiyadeen went on, the Taliban opened up on him with small arms and a rocket-propelled grenade, setting his vehicle alight moments before he escaped through the passenger door. “They were all killed when they fled into the desert,” he said with a smile. “There’s nowhere for them to hide out there. We know every rock.”
Eventually we arrived at a long lane of freshly painted buildings. Climbing onto a roof, we looked southward upon miles and miles of open space receding to gray bluffs that rose, heat-distorted, just within the eye’s outermost reach. Below us, a low earthen dike, with a wide gap that let the Helmand River through, extended east and west, eventually curving to link up with the bluffs. Later I would learn that once the gap was sealed, it would take one rainy season, maybe two, to transform all that desert into lake.
That is not expected to happen for at least another four years. First the dike must be reinforced, a control gate must be built, three turbines and a power station must be installed and hundreds of miles of canals must be dug. When all of that is finished — if all of that is ever finished — an expected 13 billion gallons of water will irrigate more than 300 square miles of newly created farmland.
Officials in Zaranj claim this prospect is anathema to the Iranians because it will minimize Nimruz’s reliance on them. But there is another reason for the Iranians to be anxious — one that Afghans never mention. The dam will completely block the Helmand River, well upstream from where it disburses into the region’s largest freshwater lakes and wetlands, the Hamouns, which extend deep into Iran’s Sistan-Baluchestan. These inland deltas and marshes once were home to otters, fox, deer, flamingos, pelicans and leopards, and the Hamoun Lakes have been the lifeblood of the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who have depended on them for millenniums. Years of drought beginning in 1999, however, annihilated the Hamouns, desiccating the lakes, displacing communities and turning once-fecund sanctuaries into sterile salt flats.
Since 2005, the Hamouns have shown signs of a fragile recovery. But a reduction in the flow of water from Afghanistan could be disastrous. The Afghans say they will allow an average of 7,000 gallons of water per second through the dam, down the Helmand. According to an international environmental expert who has studied the issue and asked to remain anonymous, this volume is grossly insufficient for the Hamouns, amounting to less than a quarter of what is normally required to sustain the ecosystem, let alone the irrigation and drinking-water needs of the Iranians. The Kamal Khan Dam, if built as planned, will “quite likely spell the death of the Hamouns,” the expert told me.
It is somewhat curious that people in Nimruz, who are so eager to cut Iran’s water supply, unfailingly characterize themselves as victims. Currently, the Iranians draw water from three canals that branch off the stretch of the Helmand River shared by both countries. One of these empties into a system of reservoirs that the Afghans in Nimruz like to say contain enough drinking water to sustain all of Sistan-Baluchestan for a decade. Somehow, Iran’s foresight and success at storing so much water is considered terribly unfair, despite the fact that in Afghanistan yet another canal — the Lashkari — diverts every drop of the Helmand River (except during the early spring, when it floods) directly to Zaranj before it even reaches the border.
In 2001, when Abdul Karim Brahui became the governor of Nimruz in the midst of one of the region’s worst droughts in history, the Lashkari Canal and the Helmand River both ran dry. Brahui found it necessary to ask the Iranians for help. Iran, in turn, installed a pipe connecting its reservoirs to Zaranj and agreed to deliver three hours of freshwater every morning, gratis. Today, although the pipe still flows, most Afghans resent it. The volume is insufficient, they say, just enough to breed dependency. While the water from Iranian reservoirs is significantly cleaner than the murky Lashkari, it serves only about 10 percent of Zaranj; the rest of the city receives its water from small tanker trucks that fill up on the dirt banks of the canal, sometimes downstream from bathing migrants. I found that you could gauge people’s general attitude toward Iran by how big they said the pipe was: an especially embittered official would swear its diameter measured no more than a couple of inches, whereas a frequenter of Iranian medical facilities, say, might call it a four-inch pipe.
One morning I walked to one of the five places in Zaranj where the water pours forcefully from thick black hoses attached to a row of outdoor faucets from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. We arrived around 6:30, and the fracas was well under way. Mostly young children crowded around, jostling for position, filling the four yellow jugs, 20 liters each, allotted per family. Across the street, an old man in a turban with a voluminous white beard stood outside his shop and barked admonishments. His name was Jan Agha, and he was responsible for maintaining order at the hoses. “If he weren’t here, we’d eat each other,” a younger man, loading jugs into a rickshaw, told me.
There was a separate distaff hose, and after a while, I noticed that one of the women seemed to be hogging it. The others were clearly annoyed — but they stood meekly by, watching her fill jug after jug, not protesting. “That’s Shinkhalo,” the man with the rickshaw told me, as if no more need be said. Then he turned to Agha and pointed out that Shinkhalo was taking more than her fair share.
“Yesterday she bit a man,” Agha replied. “If you want to try to take that hose from her, go ahead.” He added: “Every day she says there’s a dead body at her house that needs washing. For more than a month she’s been saying that! How does she have any family left?”
As 8 o’clock approached the jostling intensified. One kid smacked another in the face, making him cry; a teenager snatched a hose from a younger boy, who screamed and yelled while the teenager laughed. Stroking his beard with serene equanimity, Agha seemed reconciled to waiting out the clock. But then a police truck appeared, executed a sharp two-point turn and backed up through the middle of the crowd. The bed of the truck was packed with dozens of yellow jugs; two officers aggressively jumped out, requisitioned the hoses and began filling them. No one objected except for Agha, who bellowed: “You have no shame! Get out of here!”
That the Nimruz police relied on Iranian charity for their drinking water seemed weird, paradoxical. But more confusing was Agha’s irritation. It wasn’t about their cutting in line or depriving other people of their daily quota. Agha didn’t like the police coming around because he worried they might attract a suicide bomber.
“Who would want to bomb this place?” I asked.
Agha looked at me as if I were an idiot.
“The Iranians,” he said.
Taped to the walls of several of the grocery shops in Zaranj is a poster with the words “Unforgivable Crimes of Iranians Against the People of Afghanistan” printed above pictures of men with their hands tied behind their backs hanging from nooses attached to raised construction cranes. Then, a little farther down, the words “Crimes of the Revolutionary Guards” appear beside a picture of someone’s uniformed leg and black combat boot stepping triumphantly on a pile of decapitated heads. When I asked the shopkeepers about these posters, most of them shrugged and offered some variation of “A man came here and put it up.”
The supposed crimes refer to the treatment of an estimated 900,000 Afghan refugees and as many as two million undocumented Afghan migrant workers living in Iran. In recent years, as the war has ushered more and more Afghans across the border, Iran has grown correspondingly less hospitable. In 2003, Iran adopted a series of laws intended to encourage Afghan nationals to repatriate. These included cracking down on their employers, advocating their return to Afghanistan on national television and generally making it more challenging, expensive and risky to stay. This year, Iran has deported almost 700 undocumented Afghan migrants every day — about a 30 percent increase from 2011. The escalation can no doubt be attributed in part to the inevitable xenophobia of an economically beleaguered nation faced with a decades-long inundation of illegal foreign laborers. But a more calculated motive might also be at work. Some people claim that Iran uses the treatment and the threat of deportation of its Afghan refugees and migrants as leverage — sometimes explicitly, sometimes implied — against Afghanistan and the United States.
“The Afghan government lives under constant threat that Iran will ramp up its expulsion of Afghans,” says Heather Barr, the Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of a forthcoming report on Afghan migrants in Iran. “The Afghan government is in no position to handle a massive influx of penniless displaced families. Iran knows this and routinely uses Afghan migrants as a political football.”
One of the best places in Nimruz to meet Afghans recently deported from Iran, or on their way to Iran, or recently deported from and on their way back to Iran, is the Baba Wali, a small hotel in downtown Zaranj, on the second story of a crumbling stone building that also houses a pharmacy specializing in expired drugs from Pakistan. With a few spartan rooms (guests eat, sleep and laze on the floor, awaiting the longed-for phone call from their smuggler, telling them it’s time), the Baba Wali is something of a holdover from those bygone days when Nimruz flourished with the industry of exodus.
“I built this hotel during the time of the Taliban,” Abdul Wasi, the plump, mustachioed proprietor, told me one evening while we sat on his balcony, eye level with a cacophony of sparrows whirling around the bright yellow clumps in a nearby date palm. “At that time, lots of people were going to Iran. There were no walls, nothing.” After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Wasi said, “many, many people came back to Afghanistan. At this hotel, we had four waiters, and we were still unable to serve all the returning guests.” But before long the flow reversed again. “After a few years of the Karzai government,” according to Wasi, “people started going back into Iran.” Both migrations were good for business. Even after the Iranians built the wall, for a while, the Baluchi smugglers would simply take their customers to spots where the Wind of 120 Days had blown the sand against it in sloping dunes that nearly reached its top. “But then the Iranians started shooting those people,” Wasi said. “Many people were killed.” The heightened security on the Iranian-Afghan border was not, it seems, replicated on the Iranian-Pakistani border, and so Afghans started driving from Ganj to a place in Pakistan called Mashkel, where border guards still accepted bribes and still allowed Afghan migrants to cross. “Right now, there are more than a thousand people in Mashkel,” Wasi told me. “The Baluchi smugglers are waiting for a signal from the Iranians. The Iranians will tell the Baluchi smugglers in Iran, who will tell the Baluchi smugglers in Pakistan. Then they will load them into trucks and cross.”
Some still try to bypass Mashkel and enter Iran directly from Nimruz. One afternoon, on the bank of the Lashkari Canal, while eating watermelon under a fruit stand’s thatch lean-to, through which the 100-degree sun seemed to pour like water through a sieve, my interpreter and I got to talking with three young men from Kapisa Province who had just been deported from Iran. “One hundred twenty-two of us crossed together,” said the oldest, Abdul Qader Ahmadi, 20. “We were told that all the border guards had already been paid and would let us through,” added Mohammad Abdul Qader, 16. “But as soon as we crossed we were arrested.” They had met their smuggler and the rest of the group at the Baba Wali, they said. “Our smuggler was Iranian Baluchi,” Ahmadi explained. “When we reached the Iranian border post, there was no wall, just a ditch. He walked ahead and bowed and they allowed him through. He told us to wait. An hour later, the Iranians came down and pushed us into the ditch and arrested us.”
According to the young men, the group was taken to a jail on the border, where they were beaten through the night. “There was a big Afghan from Wardak Province,” Ahmadi said with a sad laugh. “He was the tallest of us. The Iranians used him like a donkey. They made him get on his knees, and they rode him all around the jail.”
Later that evening, I met more members of Ahmadi’s group, huddled together on a main street in downtown Zaranj. They all confirmed Ahmadi’s account. Some claimed the Iranians, after beating them, urinated on them. One man lifted up his kameez and showed me fresh red welts crisscrossing his back where he said Iranian border guards had lashed him with a metal cable. Several people, including the young men from Kapisa, said the Iranians shot one person in their group. But no one saw it with his own eyes. This is the trouble with many of the more serious allegations against the Iranian border guards: they are basically rumors, impossible to corroborate. “I saw two men on the bridge yesterday covered in blood!” a man outside the mosque told me one afternoon, in a typical exchange. “They said the Iranians had killed their friend.” Overhearing our conversation, a bystander chimed in, “Every night the Iranians are killing 10 to 15 Afghans who are trying to cross.” It’s not just old unemployed men with too much time on their hands who tell these stories. Everyone I talked to at the Nimruz Provincial Council also insisted that the Iranians regularly kill Afghans trying to cross the border.
“We’ve even witnessed it with our own eyes,” the council secretary, Gul Ahmad Ahmadi, assured me, though when I pressed for details he prevaricated.
Eventually I checked the registration log at the Nimruz provincial hospital, where all fatally injured Afghans, from both sides of the border, are supposed to be taken. During the past three months, only seven gunshot victims had been admitted. It was impossible to determine whether they were shot by Iranians or shot by other Afghans in unrelated altercations. Four of the seven were from provinces other than Nimruz, which means they were probably migrants.
More surprising was that a few weeks ago, according to the log, Iranian authorities sent to the hospital the bodies of three Afghan men who had been hanged.
“What did they do?” I asked the nurse who’d brought me the log.
“Drugs,” he said.
Iran has some of the severest drug laws in the world, including a mandatory death sentence for possession of more than 30 grams of heroin, morphine or methamphetamines. In cases where executions are accomplished by use of a crane, the extended arm is raised slowly, first tautening the rope, then lifting the condemned man from the ground. Whereas the drop from a gallows usually snaps the neck, giving a quick death, the crane method asphyxiates you, drawing out the event.
Afghanistan is by far the world’s biggest producer of opiates, a considerable portion of which end up in Iran. While most of the drugs coming from Afghanistan continue on to Turkey — eventually making their way to European markets — plenty never leave the country. Despite its liberal employment of capital punishment for narcotics offenses, Iran has one of the highest rates of opiate use in the world.
According to an official with the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime, who asked to remain anonymous, “a lot” of the product enters via Nimruz. “There are caravans with armed guards,” he told me. After poppies are harvested in Helmand Province, they are taken to Baramcha and refined in laboratories into opium and heroin. (Heroin synthesis cannot take place in Nimruz itself because the process requires a large and regular supply of water.) From Baramcha, the drugs travel west through the desert, straight across Chahar Burjak and into Iran. There is no wall that far south — just a deep trench that the convoys traverse by laying down steel I-beams. Nimruz has the only border in Afghanistan with this level of trafficking. Everywhere else — the northern routes into Central Asia and the eastern routes into Pakistan — drugs are moved out of the country clandestinely, secreted in shipping containers or false compartments in the backs of big rigs.
When I asked why it is that drug smugglers are able to pass so blatantly between Iranian border checkpoints while human smugglers must circumvent them by going all the way to Pakistan, the U.N. official answered: “These are different people. They have large amounts of weapons.” The Iranians, that is, are outgunned.
Or maybe they’re on the take. Discerning the level of government complicity in the drug industry on both sides of the border is extremely difficult. It is hard to believe Brahui, the most powerful man in Nimruz, when he solemnly avers, “Since I took up the gun against the Russians, I have never been involved with drugs.” But it’s also hard to prove otherwise. This September, a couple of weeks after I returned to Kabul from Zaranj, Hamid Karzai dismissed several provincial governors in Afghanistan. One of them was Brahui. Although the decision came immediately after a multiweek corruption investigation, officials have declined to disclose their findings or to say if it had any bearing on Brahui’s removal.
Nevertheless, in Brahui’s part of the world — a place so destitute even water is precious — drugs have always blurred the lines among governments, criminal organizations, security forces and insurgents. “There are a lot of networks operating out there,” a senior U.S. Embassy official recently told me. “They all cooperate with one another.” The official added that during the past 18 to 24 months, the Taliban has co-opted sectors of the Afghan narcotics industry entirely. “We’re seeing more and more direct involvement of the Taliban in drug trafficking,” the official said. “It’s becoming inseparable. The Taliban and the drug traffickers are one and the same.” According to the official, drugs are accounting for a progressively larger proportion of the insurgency’s revenue. “If you cut off all the gulf-donor funding, every rupee of it, and leave the narcotics trade intact, they’ll be able to continue unabated,” the official told me.
Partly for this reason, the United States has spent more than $140 million setting up an elite Afghan counternarcotics force, the National Interdiction Unit, with access to a fleet of helicopters, capable of mounting raids on labs, caches and chemical stockpiles across the country. But the N.I.U. does not go into southern Nimruz.
One of the first people I met in Zaranj was a homeless deportee named Mansour who had set up camp on the sidewalk beneath an industrial-size air-conditioner protruding from the central mosque. Mansour spent his days reclining on a flattened cardboard box and studying the passing traffic with an amused grin. He was rawboned and sickly looking, and I suspected part of his amusement was chemically induced.
Mansour said he was on his way to Iran; he was just waiting for his smuggler to call. Who knows, maybe he was. But I had the feeling he’d been waiting a long time — months, or maybe even years, stuck in a kind of purgatory between Afghanistan and Iran. Despite his circumstances, Mansour was a true Afghan host, and when we introduced ourselves, he rummaged through the large plastic garbage bag that contained his things and handed each of us — me, my interpreter and the Dutch photographer Joël van Houdt — a piece of cloth on which to sit. While Mansour told his story — his parents had taken him to Iran when he was a young boy; he spent most of his life there until being deported; his family was still there — Joël leaned over and whispered to me: “Is this what I think it is?” The cloth Mansour had given Joël to sit on indeed appeared to be a body bag — the tough black sort with handles used by coalition forces. There was even a transparent plastic slot in which to place an identification card.
“Where did you get this?” I asked Mansour.
“I bought it from someone.” He reached over and grabbed a corner, rubbing it between his thumb and finger. “It’s very good quality fabric. Very strong. And waterproof.” He was clearly proud of the purchase and pleased with my interest in it.
“What do you use it for?”
“To sleep in,” Mansour said. “It’s the perfect size for a man to lie down in. During the winter, you can zip it up and stay dry.”
The day before we left Zaranj, I went back to the mosque to see if Mansour was still there. He was. As our rickshaw pulled to the sidewalk, I saw him doubled over, vomiting into some bushes. He noticed us as he straightened, wiping his beard with the back of his skinny hand. For a moment, he appeared deeply embarrassed. But then he smiled and invited us to sit with him under the air-conditioner, acting as if everything were shipshape. I asked whether his smuggler had called.
“Not yet,” Mansour said. “But soon, soon.”
Luke Mogelson is a contributing writer to the magazine. He last wrote about Emergency Hospital in Kabul.
In the USA...Obama diagnoses Romney with case of ‘Romnesia’
By David Ferguson
Friday, October 19, 2012 13:27 EDT
At a campaign rally in Fairfax, Virginia this afternoon, President Barack Obama went after his opponent former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA)’s habit of adapting his political tune to whatever audience he is speaking to, a habit that Obama dubbed “Romnesia.”
“Now that we’re 18 days out from the election,” Obama said, “Mr. ‘Severely Conservative’ wants you to think he was severely kidding about everything he said over the last year. He told folks he was the ideal candidate for the Tea Party, now suddenly he’s saying, ‘What, who, me?’”
“He’s forgetting what his positions are,” continued Obama, “and he’s betting you will, too. I mean, he’s changing up so much and backtracking, sidestepping. We’ve got to name this condition that he’s going through. I think it’s called ‘Romnesia.’”
The crowd cheered the president’s newly coined term as he reminded them that he isn’t a medical doctor, but that he would like to review a list of symptoms.
“If you say you’re for equal pay for equal work, but you keep refusing to say whether you’d sign a bill that protects equal pay for equal work, you might have Romnesia,” Obama said, falling into a call-and-response rhythm that will be familiar to Jeff Foxworthy fans. ”If you say women should have access to contraceptive care, but you support legislation that would let your employer deny you contraceptive care, you might have a case of Romnesia.”
He continued in this vein on the topics of abortion rights, tax cuts and more.
“If you come down with a case of Romnesia,” said Obama, “and you can’t seem to remember the policies that are still on your website, or the promises that you’ve made over the six years that you’ve been running for president, here’s the good news! Obamacare covers pre-existing conditions.”
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=8BBEXB1Wf9c
*********************Obama urges Congress to pass ‘no-brainer’ mortgage relief
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, October 20, 2012 8:07 EDT
US President Barack Obama urged Congress Saturday to pass a mortgage plan to help troubled homeowners refinance their loans and save $3,000 a year.
“It’s a plan that we know will work,” the president said in his weekly radio and Internet address.
“It has the support of independent, non-partisan economists and leaders across the housing industry,” he added.
“It’s a no-brainer that should have passed easily.”
Obama blamed Republicans in Congress for blocking the measure, which he had introduced last February. It would have allowed responsible homeowners to refinance their mortgages at historically low rates, saving $3,000 a year.
His comments came amid signs that after years of downward slide, the US housing market was beginning to rebound.
The Commerce Department reported this past week that US housing starts — construction starting on houses — had leapt 15.0 percent from August to September to an annual rate of 872,000: the strongest pace since July 2008.
Starts were up 34.8 percent year-over-year.
The monthly gain was well above the average analyst forecast of 768,000.
The Commerce Department also revised its prior two months’ gains upwards, notably by 1.8 point to 4.1 percent for August.
Noting this improvement, Obama said that “one of the heaviest drags on our recovery is getting lighter.”
But more still needed to be done, he cautioned.
“Too many homes are still underwater,” he warned.
“Too many families are still having a hard time making the mortgage on their piece of the American Dream.”
*******************Minnesota smacks company for providing free online education
By Stephen C. Webster
Friday, October 19, 2012 16:31 EDT
The State of Minnesota made it clear recently that free education over the Internet is not kosher unless the state lawmakers explicitly approve of it.
Whether that’s actually the case remains to be seen, but according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, that’s basically what state officials told Cousera, an educational nonprofit that partners with universities to offer free courses over the Internet.
The online education provider, created by Stanford professors, doesn’t charge anything and doesn’t issue degrees. Even so, after receiving a sternly worded letter from Michigan officials in July, staff added a small caveat to Coursera terms of service, which reads:
Notice for Minnesota Users:
Coursera has been informed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university cannot offer online courses to Minnesota residents unless the university has received authorization from the State of Minnesota to do so. If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.
An entry in law books for more than two decades in Minnesota says that no organization may provide instruction in the state without first obtaining permission from the government.
Despite the law, other online course websites like the Khan Academy and Harvard and MIT’s collaboration edX haven’t made any adjustments to their terms of service that would suggest they’ve received a similar notice.
***************Average student debt hits $26,600 while job outlook still bleak for college grads
By Kay Steiger
Thursday, October 18, 2012 15:24 EDT
A survey of mostly nonprofit public and private four-year universities released Thursday reveals that the average student debt load for 2011 graduates increased yet again to $26,600, a 5 percent increase over 2010, according to the analysis by The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS).
That is coupled with a higher-than national average unemployment rate among college graduates — 8.8 percent. The report aslo notes that 19.1 percent of recent graduates are underemployed or working part time and 37.8 percent are working in jobs that don’t actually require a college degree.
“The class of 2010 and the class of 2011 have really faced enormous challenges in terms of graduating and being able to find employment, and employment befitting their educational status, in particular,” Debbie Cochrane, the research director TICAS, told Raw Story.
The report notes that average debt loads vary wildly by state and even from college to college, highlighted by an interactive map on TICAS’ website. “What you can find in a number of areas is that colleges that seem pretty similar, meaning that they’ve got similar tuition levels, maybe they even enroll a similar proportion of low-income students, but their debt levels are profoundly different,” Cochrane said.
The report points in particular to two colleges in Pennsylvania. “Indiana University of Pennsylvania has relatively high average debt, while Clarion University of Pennsylvania has relatively low average debt,” the report said, even though “Both are public four-year colleges with tuition and fees of about $7,500, and about two-fifths of their undergraduates come from low-income households.”
Cochrane said, “Unfortunately too little data is available to consumers.” TICAS’ report was compiled out of data voluntarily provided by schools, and though they estimate this report covers about 79 percent of bachelor’s degrees earned in 2010 and 2011, many colleges — including many for-profit colleges that target low-income students — chose not to disclose the data.
“Twelve percent of the colleges that reported debt data for 2010 didn’t report for 2011, and virtually no for-profit colleges reported at all. The need for federal collection of key debt information at all colleges could not be more clear,” said report author Matthew Reed in a press release. The report recommends the Department of Education expand the amount and type of data it collects to better illustrate a picture of debt level for students upon graduation.
TICAS also recommends a strong commitment to funding Pell grants, which help the poorest students, as well as a number of reforms to predatory private student loans.
These recommendations are backed up in an ombudsman report released this week by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which summarized complaints filed over lending practices in the private student loan industry. The CFPB’s student loan ombudsman, Rohit Chopra, noted many of the nearly 2,500 complaints they’d received since the agency began collecting them in March mirrored many widespread abuses in the mortgage market.
“Mortgage borrowers have complained, among other things, about inappropriate application of payments, timeliness in error resolution, and inability to contact appropriate personnel when facing economic hardship. Many of these complaints are strikingly similar to the input provided by and complaints received from student loan borrowers,” Chopra wrote in the report. One student reported to CFPB that she was still incurring late fees even though she was signed up for automatic payments to her lender.
Still, a college degree — as scary as student debt that might come along with it can be — is by far a better bet than no college degree. “Despite the fact that debt is growing, research continues to show that college degrees pay off,” Cochrane said. A report from the Georgetown Center Center for Education and the Workforce released last year found that those with a bachelor’s degree could expect to see an average lifetime earnings boost of $2.27 million.
“You hear a lot of stories about the extremes of student debt,” Cochrane continued. Still, “most [students] graduate with a level of debt that’s manageable and that they will pay off.”
« Last Edit: Oct 20, 2012, 07:00 AM by Rad »
October 20, 2012
U.S. Officials Say Iran Has Agreed to Nuclear Talks
By HELENE COOPER and MARK LANDLER
WASHINGTON — The United States and Iran have agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, according to Obama administration officials, setting the stage for what could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.
Iranian officials have insisted that the talks wait until after the presidential election, a senior administration official said, telling their American counterparts that they want to know with whom they would be negotiating.
News of the agreement — a result of intense, secret exchanges between American and Iranian officials that date almost to the beginning of President Obama’s term — comes at a critical moment in the presidential contest, just two weeks before Election Day and the weekend before the final debate, which is to focus on national security and foreign policy.
It has the potential to help Mr. Obama make the case that he is nearing a diplomatic breakthrough in the decade-long effort by the world’s major powers to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, but it could pose a risk if Iran is seen as using the prospect of the direct talks to buy time.
It is also far from clear that Mr. Obama’s opponent, Mitt Romney, would go through with the negotiation should he win election. Mr. Romney has repeatedly criticized the president as showing weakness on Iran and failing to stand firmly with Israel against the Iranian nuclear threat.
The White House denied that a final agreement had been reached. “It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman, said Saturday evening. He added, however, that the administration was open to such talks, and has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”
Reports of the agreement have circulated among a small group of diplomats involved with Iran.
There is still a chance the initiative could fall through, even if Mr. Obama is re-elected. Iran has a history of using the promise of diplomacy to ease international pressure on it. In this case, American officials said they were uncertain whether Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had signed off on the effort. The American understandings have been reached with senior Iranian officials who report to him, an administration official said.
Even if the two sides sit down, American officials worry that Iran could prolong the negotiations to try to forestall military action and enable it to complete critical elements of its nuclear program, particularly at underground sites. Some American officials would like to limit the talks to Iran’s nuclear program, one official said, while Iran has indicated that it wants to broaden the agenda to include Syria, Bahrain and other issues that have bedeviled relations between Iran and the United States since the American hostage crisis in 1979.
“We’ve always seen the nuclear issue as independent,” the administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. “We’re not going to allow them to draw a linkage.”
The question of how best to deal with Iran has political ramifications for Mr. Romney as well. While he has accused Mr. Obama of weakness, he has given few specifics about what he would do differently.
Moreover, the prospect of one-on-one negotiations could put Mr. Romney in an awkward spot, since he has opposed allowing Iran to enrich uranium to any level — a concession that experts say will probably figure in any deal on the nuclear program.
Beyond that, how Mr. Romney responds could signal how he would act if he becomes commander in chief. The danger of opposing such a diplomatic initiative is that it could make him look as if he is willing to risk another American war in the Middle East without exhausting alternatives.
“It would be unconscionable to go to war if we haven’t had such discussions,” said R. Nicholas Burns, who led negotiations with Iran as under secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration.
Iran’s nuclear program “is the most difficult national security issue facing the United States,” Mr. Burns said, adding: “While we should preserve the use of force as a last resort, negotiating first with Iran makes sense. What are we going to do instead? Drive straight into a brick wall called war in 2013, and not try to talk to them?”
The administration, officials said, has begun an internal review at the State Department, the White House and the Pentagon to determine what the United States’ negotiating stance should be, and what it would put in any offer. One option under consideration is “more for more” — more restrictions on Iran’s enrichment activities in return for more easing of sanctions.
Israeli officials initially expressed an awareness of, and openness to, a diplomatic initiative. But when asked for a response on Saturday, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael B. Oren, said the administration had not informed Israel, and that the Israeli government feared Iran would use new talks to “advance their nuclear weapons program.”
“We do not think Iran should be rewarded with direct talks,” Mr. Oren said, “rather that sanctions and all other possible pressures on Iran must be increased.”
Direct talks would also have implications for an existing series of negotiations involving a coalition of major powers, including the United States. These countries have imposed sanctions to pressure Iran over its nuclear program, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes but which Israel and many in the West believe is aimed at producing a weapon.
Dennis B. Ross, who oversaw Iran policy for the White House until early 2012, says one reason direct talks would make sense after the election is that the current major-power negotiations are bogged down in incremental efforts, which may not achieve a solution in time to prevent a military strike.
Mr. Ross said the United States could make Iran an “endgame proposal,” under which Tehran would be allowed to maintain a civil nuclear power industry. Such a deal would resolve, in one stroke, issues like Iran’s enrichment of uranium and the monitoring of its nuclear facilities.
Within the administration, there is debate over just how much uranium the United States would allow Iran to enrich inside the country. Among those involved in the deliberations, an official said, are Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, two of her deputies — William J. Burns and Wendy Sherman — and key White House officials, including the national security adviser, Tom Donilon, and two of his lieutenants, Denis R. McDonough and Gary Samore.
Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium bears on another key difference between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney: whether to tolerate Iran’s enrichment program short of producing a nuclear weapon, as long as inspectors can keep a close eye on it, versus prohibiting Iran from enriching uranium at all. Obama administration officials say they could imagine some circumstances under which low-level enrichment might be permitted; Mr. Romney has said that would be too risky.
But Mr. Romney’s position has shifted back and forth. In September, he told ABC News that his “red line” on Iran was the same as Mr. Obama’s — that Iran may not have a nuclear weapon. But his campaign later edited its Web site to include the line, “Mitt Romney believes that it is unacceptable for Iran to possess nuclear weapons capability.”
For years, Iran has rejected one-on-one talks with the United States, reflecting what experts say are internal power struggles. A key tug of war is between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Larijani, Iran’s former nuclear negotiator and now the chairman of the Parliament.
Iran, which views its nuclear program as a vital national interest, has also shied away from direct negotiations because the ruling mullahs did not want to appear as if they were sitting down with a country they have long demonized as the Great Satan.
But economic pressure may be forcing their hand. In June, when the major powers met in Moscow, American officials say that Iran was desperate to stave off a crippling European oil embargo. After that failed, these officials now say, Iranian officials delivered a message that Tehran would be willing to hold direct talks.
In New York in September, Mr. Ahmadinejad hinted at the reasoning. “Experience has shown that important and key decisions are not made in the U.S. leading up to the national elections,” he said.
A senior American official said that the prospect of direct talks is why there has not been another meeting of the major-powers group on Iran.
In the meantime, pain from the sanctions has deepened. Iran’s currency, the rial, plummeted 40 percent in early October.
David E. Sanger contributed reporting.