May 25, 2013
Chile's Indians Take on World's Largest Gold Miner
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
EL CORRAL, Chile — The Diaguita Indians live in the foothills of the Andes, just downstream from the world's highest gold mine, where for as long as anyone can remember they've drunk straight from the glacier-fed river that irrigates their orchards and vineyards with its clear water.
Then thousands of mine workers and their huge machines moved in, building a road alongside the river that reaches all the way up to Pascua-Lama, a gold mine being built along both sides of the Chile-Argentine border at a lung-busting 16,400-feet (5,000 meters) above sea level.
The crews moved mountaintops in preparation for 25 years of gold and silver production, breaking rocks and allowing mineral acids that include arsenic, aluminum and sulfates to flow into the headwaters feeding Atacama desert communities down below.
River levels dropped, the water is murky in places and the Indians now complain of cancerous growths and aching stomachs. There's no way to prove or disprove it, but villagers are convinced Barrick Gold Corp. is to blame for their health problems.
"We don't know how much contamination the fruit and vegetables we eat may have," complained Diaguita leader Yovana Paredes Paez. "They're drying up the river, our farms aren't the same. The animals are dying of hunger. Now there's no cheese or meat. It's changed completely."
Acting independently, Chile's newly empowered environmental regulator on Friday confirmed nearly two dozen violations of Barrick's environmental impact agreement, blocking construction on the $8.5 billion project until the Canadian company keeps its promises to prevent water contamination.
The Environmental Superintendent, Juan Carlos Monckeberg, also fined Barrick $16.4 million, the highest environmental fine in Chile's history, saying agency inspectors found the company hadn't told the full truth when it reported failures.
"We found that the acts described weren't correct, truthful or provable. And there were other failures of Pascua-Lama's environmental permit as well," Monckeberg said.
Barrick promised $30 million in fixes and said it remains committed to meeting the highest standards and causing no pollution. But Chile seems determined to minimize the dangers of digging huge pits and processing ore with toxic chemicals along the spine of the Andes, causing delays that threaten the future of this top priority for the world's largest gold-mining company.
"We're profoundly sorry that Pascua-Lama has suffered obstacles in its construction and we'll make our best efforts to get back on track and meet the conditions stipulated in the approved project," Eduardo Flores Zelaya, president of Barrick Sudamerica, said Friday. "We are respectful of the institutions in the countries where we operate, and as a consequence we will follow the resolution."
Monckeberg said Barrick caused permanent damage by failing to properly construct a diversionary canal, triggering a rockfall that covered a field down below with waste rock.
"I don't believe there's any way of repairing it," he told a news conference in Santiago.
Barrick had hoped to begin production in early 2014, and warned shareholders that it might abandon Pascua, the Chilean side, if construction delays keep the mine from opening this year.
Argentine authorities, meanwhile, have insisted that Lama will proceed with or without Chile, taking advantage of nearby infrastructure used for Barrick's Veladero mine, which produces ore just downhill.
Together, the two projects employ thousands of workers, fuel a third of the provincial San Juan economy, and promise millions in revenue for a country sorely in need of hard currency. But more than 70 percent of Pascua-Lama's 18 million ounces of gold and 676 million ounces of silver are on the Chilean side. The plan has been to extract it from huge open pits and carry it through a tunnel for processing in Argentina.
Rockfalls are just one of the threats to building anything in the high Andes, where gale-force winds have coated glaciers with construction dust for miles around and groundwater expands and contracts with each freeze and thaw. To refine ore into gold bullion, the company must transport thousands of tons of cyanide, mercury and other toxic chemicals to the mountaintop.
Once the precious metals are gone, Chile will be left with huge rock piles and Argentina with toxic waste that must be contained for generations to come on ever-moving slopes between melting glaciers and snowy peaks.
"I'm so angry at this company," said Meri del Rosario, 42, of El Corral, Chile. She has thyroid cancer; two cysts were removed from her throat last year. She blames water pollution from Pascua-Lama.
"If they keep working the valley will end up completely dry, and we'll have to go, and where? I think it's Barrick that has to go," she said.
Some 500 Diaguita have joined a civil lawsuit against Barrick, persuading an appellate court last month to block construction despite the company's denials that it caused any pollution or health problems.
The company's response to the environmental regulator was much more conciliatory: Faced with 23 violations, Barrick accepted nearly all of them, and obtained permission to make urgent repairs.
The violations include building some earthworks without approval, while failing to build others that were supposed to be in place before construction began so that rainfall wouldn't increase the runoff from mineral acids naturally released when rocks are broken. Instead, Barrick went ahead and moved mountaintops in preparation for 25 years of gold and silver production.
Barrick also acknowledged making an "unjustified discharge coming from the acid treatment plant to the Estrecho river" that was "neither declared nor monitored."
The company persuaded the regulator to withdraw an allegation that it had not properly built a huge, impermeable wall that stretches deep below ground and all the way across the top of the Rio del Estrecho valley.
Barrick said the wall stretches for 676 feet (206 meters) across the valley and reaches down as much as 200 feet (62 meters) below the surface, with sealants injected nearly 100 feet (30 meters) deeper still into fissures in the bedrock. It meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards and beats industry standards, the company said.
Despite all this work, inspectors found acid in five test wells below the wall. Barrick challenged the methodology and claimed the acid was there naturally, but after the regulator agreed that the wall met requirements, the company agreed to fortify several wells downstream to collect contaminated water.
Chile's environmentalists, farmers and indigenous communities were thrilled with Friday's ruling, saying it shows only strong oversight can force Barrick to keep its promises.
"One of the concerns we've always had is that they are going to work with an enormous quantity of cyanide," said Leonel Rivera Zuleta, 56, a farmer and member of the Diaguita community of Chipasse Tamaricunga. "Who will assure us that there won't be some kind of accident with this element so poisonous to nature and man?"
Living in adobe homes or concrete houses in the narrow Huasco valley, they tend "the garden of the Atacama," where the river enables them to grow oranges, apples, grapes and vegetables in landscape so barren it's been compared to the surface of Mars.
The Diaguita once followed the rivers up the mountains and roamed over both sides of the frontier, but now Barrick's security guards block their way at a checkpoint just above town. Dump trucks the size of two-story homes and dozens of red barrels with toxic warning labels are kept in a fenced lot nearby.
"The Earth is giving us the strength to be courageous," Diaguita leader Maglene Campillay said, amazed that they're being listened to in a country where mining sustains the economy. "This might be a small community that used to be afraid, but we've united, and we're defending our rights, because we're not going to let them take away our water and end our culture."__
Chile slaps $16 million fine on Canadian mine company
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, May 24, 2013 20:15 EDT
Chile’s environmental authorities slapped a $16.4 million fine Friday on Canadian mining company Barrick Gold for “serious” violations at its unfinished gold mine near the border with Argentina.
Officials here said the fine was levied after a four-month investigation into practices by Nevada Mining Company SpA, a subsidiary of Barrick Gold, which is developing the unfinished Pascua Lama mine, which would have been one of the world’s biggest gold mines.
Environmental officials here also confirmed the suspension of the mining project order last month by a Chilean court.
The penalty was imposed for “grave breaches” of permits granted in 2006 by environmental officials, including infractions of guidelines on digging and water management, and failure to provide authorities accurate information about the project.
Local residents have long complained about possible environmental damage to waterways from the massive open pit mining project.
A Chilean court last month suspended construction at the Pascua Lama site, accepting a complaint filed by indigenous groups on environmental grounds.
The Pascua Lama project was launched in 2009 by Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold producer, after an initial $8 billion investment.
The company had planned to spend another $8.5 billion on the mine, and hoped to start production there next year.
Hezbollah's role in Syrian conflict ushers new reality for its supporters
Once denied by its leaders, the Shia militant group's involvement in Syria is now a badge of honour for families burying their dead
Martin Chulov in Beirut
guardian.co.uk, Friday 24 May 2013 18.51 BST
The workmen had been busy in the room where Hezbollah honours its dead. In one corner of the martyrs' cemetery in south Beirut, four women shrouded in black sat cross-legged near a new grave, reading from the Qu'ran. Metres away, the yellow flag of the militant group covered a freshly covered hole in a white marble floor. The scent of burning incense wafted across the room.
Another grave, its concrete seal barely dry, had been partly completed nearby. There were seven fresh holes in all; and the grave digger was never far away. More bodies were due on Friday. At this rate, the tiny room – a shrine to Hezbollah's cause as much as to the men who died fighting for it – would soon be full.
The flurry of activity in the martyrs' cemetery marks the busiest period for the militant movement since the 2006 war with Israel, in which an estimated 400 of its members died. All the new graves here have been dug in the past 10 days. Many others have been sealed with the familiar yellow and green standard in villages across Lebanon where the rumblings of a very different war have now boiled over into sacrifice and loss.
The newly arrived dead have ushered in a new reality for Hezbollah, one that has taken more than two years of uprising and war in neighbouring Syria to publicly acknowledge: all the fallen have died fighting Arabs in Syria, not Jews in Israel. Such a shift in orientation, for so long denied by the group's leadership, is now being worn as a badge of honour by the families of the dead.
Many of the next of kin interviewed by the Guardian said that their sons and brothers had been defending Lebanon from foreign plotters – in this case Salafists from the east rather than Zionists from the south. "The threat to us comes from all directions," said one grieving relative in the Beirut suburb of Chiyah on Friday. "But behind it all is the hidden hand of Israel."
The relative had come to the martyrs' cemetery to bury Taalab Fadl, who had been killed fighting rebels in the Syrian town of Qusair.
Men in olive green rode motorbikes up and down nearby roads, all closed by steel barriers while the body was prepared for burial in an adjoining funeral hall. A truck stopped on a street corner, blaring martyrdom hymns throughout the cavernous lanes and alleys of the party's heartland.
A brass band prepared for the 2pm arrival. It had used the visit hours earlier of an Iranian delegation to prepare, warming up with stirring revolutionary ballads, more than the sorrowful tones often associated with loss.
The Iranians, around 70 men in two buses, had all made their way to the new graves, politely asking their guides where each had been killed. The officials spent more time in front of one grave at the centre of the room, that of the last Hezbollah member to die in Syria before the uprising, Imad Mughniyeh, the group's key strategist and military leader who was killed by Israeli assassins in Damascus in February 2008. Some bowed in deference, stooping to touch the tomb's marble cover. Others slowly toured the room acknowledging all of the dead, new and old.
Next to Mughniyeh was a new arrival, Rabiah al-Saadi, covered uncharacteristically in a red flag. And alongside him was Hadi, the son of the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Hadi had been killed by Israeli soldiers in south Lebanon in 1997.
A middle-aged man crouched in front of the grave of his 17-year son who also died in battle that year. One hand held the corner of the tomb and he sobbed uncontrollably into the other. As he rose to leave, he said: "Grief is the price we pay for love."
In the clandestine world of Hezbollah there is something revelatory about its graveyards; its members live with their secrets, but die stripped bare of them. As the tally of dead and injured has mounted over the past week, a clearer picture has emerged of the depth of the group's involvement in Syria, a battle that Nasrallah had long denied joining.
The impact of such a shift is resounding across Lebanon and beyond. Sectarian tensions, which have bubbled away as the crisis has worn on, are now more visible and potent than for many decades. "God help us," said one refugee from Qusair this week – a Sunni mother of three. "People say they are afraid of a world war. We want a world war rather than this. Either they let us die, or live with dignity."
In a series of speeches over the past two years, Nasrallah, who is rarely seen in public, has voiced unwavering support for Bashar al-Assad, whose regime has been essential to the group's power. But he has dismissed constant opposition claims that he was more than just a moral backer. In the past eight months, however, Hezbollah's leader has shifted tone, suggesting first that members were "not yet" involved in Syria, then highlighting the threat posed to Shia shrines there, particularly the Sayyida Zeinab mosque in Damascus, as a reason to consider stepping in.
This year, Hezbollah's television station, al-Manar, started playing a short video showing fighters near the Zeinab mosque – a tacit acknowledgement of the group's direct military support. Facebook posts about slain members appeared soon after. Then came tributes on Hezbollah channels and websites, all without details.
Its hand perhaps forced by the sheer volume of dead and wounded coming back from Qusair, the group has only this past week felt comfortable enough to drop the veil on its role in Syria. But even now, the graveyard clamour and pageantry of martyrdom has not led Hezbollah's leaders to address their direct involvement – a move that has profound implications both in Lebanon and across the region.
So far, justification is being left to the group's support base, much of which seems to be onside with the decision, citing a need to strike pre-emptively against rebel groups that they believe will come to fight them next.
"I am with Hezbollah in this decision, because it is better that we fight them there than here," said a Dahiyah resident, Mohammed Abdullah.
"People don't think critically. If Hezbollah want to do this, then that's OK. They believe that Hezbollah know what they are doing."
Another Dahiyah local echoed a sentiment widely heard among Hezbollah supporters – that Syria's opposition is al-Qaida-led and heading for Lebanon. "They are terrorists who pretend they are Muslims," said Zulfiqa Hamsa, 23. They want to take the weapons from Hezbollah and indirectly support the Zionists and the Jews.
"They have been afraid until now to say that Hezbollah have been involved in fighting in other countries because of international opinion."
Other supporters are equally comfortable with the shift in the group's raison d'etre. "Of course it's a big decision," said vendor Ala'a Attrass. "But it's necessary. You think there isn't sectarianism in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia? They are persecuting Shias there."
Lebanon's civilian leaders have largely remained mute over this week's events. By Friday, at least 30 Hezbollah members had returned in death shrouds. Many dozens more were injured. Its supporters estimated that the toll was much higher, with some well connected sources saying that a Syrian jet had mistakenly bombed a large group of Hezbollah members, killing up to 20 on Tuesday.
In the northern city of Baalbek – a strategic hub for Hezbollah, only 15 miles south of the frontline in Qusair – recent refugees were taking shelter from the war. Nearby, another of the group's main zones, Hermel, where its founding parade was held in 1982 and the group was mandated by Iran to fight Israel, was further down the path of conditioning its supporters to the change. Members here had begun erecting martyrs' posters to pay homage to the dead – something that is yet to be done in Beirut, where fading banners of the 2006 dead remain prominent.
On a visit to Baalbekon Thursday, Australia's foreign minister, Bob Carr, said the week's events had marked a groundshift in Syria's war. The deteriorating situation there, he said, "could become a sectarian civil war across the region. The prospect of it being a Shia, Sunni war across more than one country and this would be a huge tragedy.
"This is profoundly serious now. We could see the unravelling of nation states and the agreed boundaries that we have seen in the Middle East."
Back in Dahiyah, there was little reflection on the broader issues beyond an existential view of "us versus them", which has morphed into "we're better off getting them first".
"Fighting Israel has a different meaning and taste than fighting in Syria," said Mohammed Abdullah.
Asked which tastes better, he replied: "Israel, for sure."
Syrian government agrees to attend Geneva conference, says ally Russia
Assad regime agrees 'in principle' to conflict resolution initiative as Syrian opposition comes under pressure to take part as well
Matthew Weaver and agencies
The Guardian, Friday 24 May 2013 16.25 BST
Interview with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Damascus, Syria - 19 May 2013
The Syrian National Coalition is being urged to drop its demand that Bashar al-Assad should agree to stand down as a precondition for taking part in any talks. Photograph: AY-Collection/SIPA/Rex Feature
The Assad government has agreed to take part in next month's international conference in Geneva aimed at resolving Syria's civil war, according to ally Russia, as the Syrian opposition came under pressure to also commit to the initiative.
Russia's foreign ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, said: "We note with satisfaction that we have received an agreement in principle from Damascus to attend the international conference in the interest of the Syrians themselves finding a political path to resolve the conflict."
The Syrian government has yet to confirm that it would send a representative. Its deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, held "extensive negotiations" in Moscow this week about the conference, which was convened by Russia and the US. He described the meeting as positive but stopped short of announcing whether Damascus would take part. In his most recent interview, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, insisted he would not negotiate with terrorists.
The main sticking point remains Assad's future, an issue that was deliberately fudged at the first Geneva conference last June as a way of getting broad international backing for some sort of transition government in Syria.
The country's divided opposition group the Syrian National Coalition, is meeting in Istanbul where it is being urged to drop its insistence that Assad should agree to stand down as a precondition for taking part in any talks.
Reza Afshar, head of the Syria team at the British Foreign Office, tweeted: "Syria opposition meeting now. Time to step up, make bold choices & commit to #Geneva."
Lukashevich accused the Syrian opposition of trying to undermine the Geneva conference. "We are again hearing about the precondition that Bashar al-Assad leaves power and that a government be formed under the auspices of the UN," he said.
He added that it was impossible to set the date for the conference at this point because there was "no clarity about who will speak on behalf of the opposition and what powers they will have".
Louay Safi, who has been touted as a possible new leader of the opposition coalition, said he supported the idea of talks but was wary. "Our fear is that the regime is not going to negotiate in good faith. We would like to hear enough [from Damascus] to know that they are serious about these negotiations," he said.
Coalition spokesman Khaled Saleh said the 60-member body supports "any conference that helps transition the situation into an elective government away from the dictatorship" but would not attend without indications that Assad would step down.
On Thursday, the coalition's outgoing leader, Moaz al-Khatib, proposed a transition plan involving granting Assad and his inner circle safe passage to another country. But Khatib's colleagues, many of whom rejected his offer to hold talks with the Assad government earlier this year, have also criticised his latest initiative.
One opposition official told Reuters that the plan was "heading directly for the dustbin of history".
05/24/2013 06:19 PM
Pleas for Weapons: Europe Reluctant to Arm Syrian Rebels
By Matthias Gebauer and Ulrike Putz
Despite desperate pleas from top Syrian insurgents, Western leaders remain reluctant to arm them. Though the European embargo is set to expire at the end of the month, political and legal considerations make aid for the rebels unlikely.
The general's address on Wednesday night must have been unforgettable. With his voice trembling, Salim Idriss, chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), painted his personal nightmare scenario: All of the casualties in Syria could turn out to have been in vain, he said, if arms shipments do not quickly reach the rebels. So impassioned, as well as detailed, was Idriss' address at the final nightly meeting of the "Friends of Syria" conference, which was held in Amman, Jordan, that the foreign ministers in attendance sat together an hour and a half longer than originally planned.
The FSA could lose its fight against the regime of Bashar Assad within a few months, warned Idriss in his highly emotional speech. To avert defeat, his men say they would immediately need anti-tank weapons and surface-to-air missiles. In the general's address to foreign ministers from the United States, Turkey, Germany and eight other European and Arab countries, his depiction of the revolution's prospects for success was grim -- so grim, in fact, that the assembled foreign ministers asked their staffs at a certain point to leave the room.
The senior statesmen -- from US Secretary of State John Kerry to German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle -- know what kind of signal Idriss' desperate plea could send were it to find its way into the media, especially since the call for help will probably go unheeded. Observers close to the issue believe that the rebels will not receive arms from the West at any point in the near future. And owing to their unwillingness to intervene, the "Friends of Syria" might soon be held responsible for any additional progress that Assad makes in his battle against rebel forces.
German Arms Firms Forbidden to Supply Arms to Crisis Zones
Indeed, all the talk over the lifting of the arms embargo against Syria is mostly hot air: England and France are saying that they could soon begin arming select groups of Syrian rebels. But it is highly unlikely that this would actually come to pass. Even if the EU foreign ministers were to decide at their meeting on Monday to ease the embargo, that doesn't mean that the delivery of arms to Syria will be permitted. There are still the national laws of each individual country to contend with.
"For German companies, for instance, supplying military equipment to conflict zones is prohibited," says Markus Kaim, a defense expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. What's more, weapons producers likely have little interest in adding Syrian rebels to their list of customers. "It's not quantitatively attractive, and the political burden is too great," says Kaim. In addition, member states are bound by EU regulations to ensure that the weapons do not end up in the hands of terrorist organizations. "In the case of the rebels, that's impossible," says Kaim.
In reality, the debate on easing the embargo is mere saber-rattling aimed at Damascus. But Assad probably doesn't take it too seriously. It even appears that a majority of member states would prefer to keep the embargo in place. But this would require a unanimous decision, which France and England oppose.
Netanyahu Warns Against Arming the Rebels
Among the main backers of the embargo is Austria, which has deployed 370 peacekeepers to the Golan Heights, where they are responsible for monitoring the ceasefire between Israel and Syria. Vienna has already threatened to withdraw its troops if the embargo is allowed to expire. The risk is too big, say officials, that marauding rebel troops with weapons from the West could target the Austrians.
The Scandinavian countries, too, are united against lifting the embargo. They argue that wars only become more brutal and drawn-out when one of the sides is armed from abroad. Oxfam, the international aid organization, sees things similarly. "Sending arms to the Syrian opposition won't create a level playing field," it said in a statement. "Instead, it risks further fuelling an arms free-for-all where the victims are the civilians of Syria."
Germany, for its part, is watching and waiting. Berlin is no longer trying to prevent the embargo from being allowed to expire. The federal government says it wants to avoid an argument on the subject so as not to put the economic sanctions against Syria in jeopardy. But Westerwelle went on to caution that a grenade launcher or even an anti-aircraft missile could wind up "in the wrong hands."
During Westerwelle's visit to Israel earlier this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unequivocally warned against all arms sales -- particularly of anti-aircraft missiles -- to Syrian rebels. In the hands of the rebels, he said, surface-to-air missiles could seriously endanger civilian aircrafts in Israel and turn the country's airspace into a virtual no-fly zone.
May 24, 2013
Battle for Syrian Town Spurs Sectarian Fighting in Northern Lebanon
By ANNE BARNARD and HANIA MOURTADA
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The all-out battle for the Syrian town of Qusayr, pitting the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militant group Hezbollah and Syrian armed forces against Sunni Muslim rebels, has spurred the worst sectarian fighting in years in the north of Lebanon.
Unusually fierce battles between militias in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli — Sunnis against Alawites who are allied with Hezbollah and the Syrian government — have kept schools and businesses closed there since Monday and left at least 24 people dead. Mortar fire and other heavy weapons have ravaged neighborhoods, a severe escalation from the usual sporadic gunfire that raised fears that the violence, usually contained in a few districts, would spread.
The weak Lebanese government’s official policy of dissociation from the Syrian conflict is increasingly in tatters as Lebanon faces its own political vacuum, coasting under a caretaker government and mired in disputes over how and when to hold elections. Worries here have mushroomed as the unexpected tenacity of rebels in Qusayr against better-armed opponents has given the battle strong symbolic significance. As the battle rages, it raises the question of whether Hezbollah will emerge emboldened or weakened — both possibilities that could also unbalance Lebanon.
Though senior opposition leaders insist they are not calling for assaults on Shiite areas in Lebanon, some rebels use baldly sectarian rallying cries. Leaders of American-backed factions of the Syrian opposition call on fighters to rally to Qusayr and threaten retaliation against Hezbollah. They have issued derogatory statements about its revered leader, Hassan Nasrallah, and taunted Hezbollah as “the party of the devil,” a play on its name, which means Party of God in Arabic.
There are fears of attacks by the most militant among the opposition’s sympathizers in Lebanon, fundamentalist Sunni factions active in Tripoli and the southern city of Sidon. Residents report that Hezbollah strongholds are on high alert for car bombs and other attacks.
Sunni fighters are widely believed to lack the capacity to mount a frontal assault on Hezbollah in Lebanon. But still, senior Lebanese and American officials have expressed growing fears of the kind of spillover that has happened in Tripoli as Hezbollah plunges more deeply into the Syrian war, riling Lebanon’s Sunni militants, some of whom are fighting alongside rebels in Qusayr.
And some fear the violence could spread further. One Syrian refugee in northern Lebanon, in the Wadi Khaled area near the Syrian border, said he was alarmed to hear some Syrian and Lebanese Sunnis there discussing plans to attack civilian supporters of Hezbollah, including in the Dahiya, its hub in Beirut’s southern suburbs.
“They want to attack the vulnerable part of Hezbollah, the rump,” he said, asking to be identified only by his first name, Muhammad, for his safety. He said that while he was unsure how serious the threat was, it revealed a level of anger that made him fear for the future.
The leaders of most Lebanese factions have political and economic interests in keeping the peace, but some have expressed new alarm in recent days. Even an ally of Hezbollah in Parliament, Alain Aoun, said in an interview that any intervention in Syria endangered Lebanon by fanning sectarian flames. Lebanon’s president, Michel Suleiman, lamented Friday that Lebanese citizens were fighting one another in Syria and, in what he called “a direct reflection” of the Syrian conflict, in Tripoli.
“With our own hands,” he said, “we are turning Lebanon into an arena.”
In Tripoli, each side accuses the other of starting the battle to take pressure off its allies in Qusayr, where rebels are enduring withering attacks and Hezbollah has taken unexpectedly heavy casualties that appear to number in the dozens.
Rifaat Eid, the communal leader of the hilltop Alawite district of Jabal Mohsen in Tripoli and a staunch supporter of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, blamed Sunni gunmen.
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” Mr. Eid wrote on his Facebook page. “You will hear Jabal Mohsen roar.”
Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi, a retired senior security official from Tripoli, said Hezbollah, through Mr. Eid, started the fight to keep Sunnis from flocking to Qusayr after it realized its hope of taking the city in 24 hours was “delusional.”
Sectarian tensions also flared in the southern city of Sidon at the funeral of a Hezbollah fighter who was raised as a Sunni and converted to Shiism. Followers of the extremist Sunni cleric Ahmad al-Assir, who has tapped into Sunni anger at Hezbollah’s support for Mr. Assad and dominance in Lebanon, blocked streets to prevent the fighter from being buried in a Sunni cemetery.
Lebanese see little prospect for relief from negotiations on the Syrian conflict planned by Russia and the United States for next month, despite official confirmation from Russia on Friday that the Syrian government would take part.
On Wednesday, as two of the rebels’ most prominent commanders videotaped themselves heading to Qusayr, one, Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okeidi, declared, “We’re coming for you, Hassan Nasrallah!”
Hezbollah keeps its areas under tight control, but refugees from Syria have increased the Sunni population, and tension, in those places.
A Sunni resident of the Dahiya said Friday that Hezbollah officials urged him to notify them of any threats against him. He said he had seen 20 funerals of Hezbollah fighters in the past two weeks and heard Shiite shop owners criticizing Hezbollah’s leadership over the losses.
Syrian rebel shelling has already killed civilians in Hezbollah-controlled areas of the Bekaa Valley. One Syrian rebel, who gave only his first name, Abdullah, said his battalion fired mortar shells last week at the Shiite town of Hermel from a Lebanese area near the border.
Hisham Jaber, a Shiite who is a retired Lebanese Army commander, said he believed Hezbollah would try to extricate itself from Syria after the fight in Qusayr to short-circuit sectarian tensions and internal dissent. He said he did not foresee war in Lebanon, but could not rule out sporadic clashes in Sidon and the Bekaa.
Mr. Suleiman, the president, stopped short of condemning Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria. He declared that its traditional mission of opposition to Israel is “more noble and more important than anything, and should not get bogged down in the sands of dissension, whether in Syria or Lebanon,” especially as it has usually fought for “a national, not sectarian cause.”
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.
Chinua Achebe funeral celebrates revered Nigerian author
Pomp-filled ceremony betrays Things Fall Apart author's dislike of grandeur, but fails to override national outpouring of love
Monica Mark in Lagos
The Guardian, Thursday 23 May 2013 18.37 BST
The red carpet was rolled out, the dignitaries arrived in a whirlwind of helicopters and armed guards, and the obituaries poured in as Nigeria buried the revered writer Chinua Achebe on Thursday.
There were dancing troupes, a choir, red-bow-tied trumpeters, keyboard players and people darting around filming on their tablets. At one point, keen not to miss any opportunity, the grieving audience was counselled to buy a documentary on the celebrated author, whose terse prose did perhaps more than any other writer's to project African realities into the minds of westerners.
It was exactly the sort of pomp the literary titan hated, and often ripped apart with the witty, acerbic tip of his pen.
Achebe died on 21 March, aged 82. If he avoided a state funeral, it wasn't for lack of trying from the government. Despite rebuffing national honours twice over his distrust at an oil-fed elite who left the country a "bankrupt and lawless fiefdom", the administration of Goodluck Jonathan tried to hold a state funeral, before capitulating to the three hour-long service in the white-washed St Philips Anglican church in Achebe's hometown of Ogidi.
The writer was no stranger to such irony. His first manuscript was nearly lost to history when publishers in London thought the handwritten pages from Africa were a joke. Fifty years later, Things Fall Apart, an anti-colonialist anthem with a title borrowed from a Yeates poem, is still the biggest-selling novel from Africa of all time. It tells the story of his Igbo tribe's disastrous first experience of European colonialism.
Despite his success, Achebe turned down all offers to teach creative writing courses, saying: "I don't know how it's done."
In 2004, he declined a national award. He refused again a second time, in 2011, saying: "The reasons for rejecting the offer when it was first made have not been addressed, let alone solved."
But this time the author was in no position to resist the state honours being conferred on him. President Jonathan reminded funeral attendees of the author's criticisms of politicians and corruption. After the singing, the long speeches and prayers, this was a moment about which many had been holding their breath.
"For those of you that read The Trouble with Nigeria, Achebe told us that there is nothing wrong with Nigeria. The problem is the political leadership," he said, waving a copy of the novel.
A toe-curling pause followed and Achebe's family looked on with unreadable expressions.
Jonathan went on to read a passage that highlighted the political corruption and manipulation that had afflicted the African oil giant since independence. "That was in Chinua's last book," the former professor said. "All of us must work hard to change this country."
The audience applauded cautiously.
Ghana's president, John Mahama, seated beside Jonathan, waved as his own name was read out among a long list of political dignitaries.
"During a recent discussion about Achebe, a political contemporary asked me if I felt as though I had somehow become part of the system that we so bitterly decried in our youth," Mahama wrote in a recent tribute. "'No,' I replied without hesitation. 'I entered politics because I wanted to be a part of changing that system.'"
Whether people across Africa agree or whether, once again, Achebe may have slyly exposed a ruling elite is a question for history.
Still, only the most hardened cynic could fail to have been moved by some of the celebrations of Achebe's life. For days, young people have marched in the sweltering heat with banners commemorating the author. As they sang lilting hymns at the funeral, some of the red-gowned choir members put their arms around each other.
Three women held photos of a smiling Achebe as they sang an operatic re-enactment of traditional theatre. At one point, one knelt in front of the gleaming coffin topped with white roses.
Behind all the gloss, what was left for many was a simple celebration of a deeply admired man.
"I have never seen so many people, even white people, dancing to our [Igbo] music. I cannot tell the number of people, but they are more than 10 villages put together," said 52-year-old farmer Ike Dimelu. "The world is in our village today because of Chinua Achebe.
"I may never see a lot of people like this in one place again. I've danced and I still want to dance," he said over the noise of drumming and honking cars.
Like hundreds of others, he wore one of the blue prints emblazoned with a serene-looking Achebe, red cap atop his head, bearing the message: "The literary icon lives on."
Taliban Attack U.N. Affiliate’s Compound in Kabul, Testing Afghan Security Forces
By ROD NORDLAND and SHARIFULLAH SAHAK
May 24, 2013
KABUL, Afghanistan — In what appeared to be a concerted effort to test the capabilities of Afghan security forces in the capital, Taliban insurgents sought to penetrate the heavily fortified heart of Kabul on Friday, blasting their way into a residential compound of the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations-affiliated agency.
The Afghan forces managed to hold the attackers at bay, and hundreds of international agency employees in nearby compounds escaped harm. But at least four people were killed, including a six-year-old girl, and 13 others were wounded, including an Italian woman. And it took more than six hours for hundreds of Afghan police officers to subdue no more than six attackers with suicide vests, guns and grenade launchers.
Explosions continued through the night. The authorities said they were from booby traps the attackers had planted in the compound.
It was the first example of what the military calls a “complex attack,” involving both gunmen and suicide bombers, in the capital since insurgents attacked the headquarters of the unarmed traffic police force in January. It took Afghan forces nine hours to bring that to an end.
There have been other serious attacks in Kabul more recently, including a deadly one just a week earlier in which a suicide car bomber killed six American military advisers, but those have been single bombings, rather than extended engagements.
A coalition official said the Afghan police’s Quick Reaction Force, along with other units, responded quickly and competently on Friday. “This is a high-end Afghan unit that is down there,” he said. “I’d put it against most Western SWAT teams that are out there.”
American officials have in the past expressed concern about the timidity of Afghan security forces in Kabul when faced with determined attacks from bands of insurgents, and advisers embedded with their forces have sometimes had difficulty encouraging them to move aggressively to contain attackers. That has been a focus of training.
In April 2012, for instance, a complex attack on Parliament in Kabul went on for 18 hours before it was subdued. And the previous September, the authorities were embarrassed when it took 19 hours to clear insurgents from a building under construction, which the insurgents used to fire on the American Embassy and nearby NATO headquarters.
“How could a fight prolong for so many hours, even though we have hundreds and hundreds of Afghan forces deployed?” asked Amrullah Aman, a retired Afghan general and a military analyst. “It means Afghan forces need better equipment, better training.” He also questioned how the attackers got so much ammunition, weaponry and explosives into the city center, which is a lattice of police checkpoints.
The compound that the insurgents attacked is close to the main facility of the United Nations in Kabul, as well as guesthouses and offices used by foreigners, a post of the Afghan Public Protection Force and a hospital for the national intelligence service. The Taliban themselves claimed that the building they invaded was a Central Intelligence Agency training center, according to the insurgents’ spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, who was reached by telephone. Police officials denied that was the case.
The dead included an Afghan policeman and a Nepalese Gurkha guard, who apparently had been on the gate at the migration agency’s compound, said Gen. Mohammad Ayoub Salangi, Kabul’s police chief. All “five or six” of the attackers were killed, he said.
The attack began when one of the insurgents detonated his suicide vest to clear a path for the others to force their way into the compound. The initial blast could be heard miles away. Among the 13 wounded were three agency employees and one person working for the International Labor Organization.
Jan Kubis, the top United Nations official here, expressed gratitude for the “quick actions” of the Gurkha guards as well as the Afghan police.
A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with his country’s policy, said: “From the Afghan point of view, it could have been a lot better. From the Taliban point of view, it should have been a lot worse.”
Early Saturday morning, as the police were still sifting through the wreckage of the precious day’s attack and updating the number of dead, another suicide bomber wearing a burqa blew himself up inside the city. Details about the number of injured or dead were not immediately available.
Sangar Rahimi, Azam Ahmed and Matthew Rosenberg contributed reporting.
May 24, 2013
China Plans to Reduce the State’s Role in the Economy
By DAVID BARBOZA and CHRIS BUCKLEY
SHANGHAI — The Chinese government is planning for private businesses and market forces to play a larger role in its economy, in a major policy shift intended to improve living conditions for the middle class and to make China an even stronger competitor on the global stage.
In a speech to party cadres containing some of the boldest pro-market rhetoric they have heard in more than a decade, the country’s new prime minister, Li Keqiang, said this month that the central government would reduce the state’s role in economic matters in the hope of unleashing the creative energies of a nation with the world’s second-largest economy after that of the United States.
On Friday, the Chinese government issued a set of policy proposals that seemed to show that Mr. Li and other leaders were serious about reducing government intervention in the marketplace and giving competition among private businesses a bigger role in investment decisions and setting prices. Whether Beijing can restructure an economy that is thoroughly addicted to state credit and government directives is unclear. But analysts see such announcements as the strongest signs yet that top policy makers are serious about revamping the nation’s growth model.
“This is radical stuff, really,” said Stephen Green, an economist at the British bank Standard Chartered and an expert on the Chinese economy. “People have talked about this for a long time, but now we’re getting a clearly spoken reform agenda from the top.”
China’s leaders are under greater pressure to change as growth slows and the limitations of its state-led, investment-driven economy are becoming more evident. This month, manufacturing activity contracted for the first time in seven months, according to an independent survey by HSBC. Economists are lowering their growth forecasts and weighing the risks associated with high levels of corporate and government debt that have built up over the last five years.
“There are quite a number of messages coming from these new leaders,” said Huang Yiping, chief economist for emerging Asia at the British bank Barclays. “They realize that if we continue to delay reforms, the economy could be in deep trouble.”
The broad proposals include expanding a tax on natural resources, taking gradual steps to allow market forces to determine bank interest rates and developing policies to “promote the effective entry of private capital into finance, energy, railways, telecommunications and other spheres,” according to a directive issued on the government’s Web site. “All of society is ardently awaiting new breakthroughs in reform,” the directive said.
Foreign investors will be given more opportunities to invest in finance, logistics, health care and other sectors. For years, Western governments, banks and companies have complained that the China government has impeded foreign investment in banking and other service industries, despite promising to open up. The latest directive, however, did not give details about the specific changes to foreign investment rules that policy makers in Beijing have in mind.
China’s leaders are also promising to loosen foreign exchange controls, changes that are likely to reduce price distortions in the economy and allow the market to determine the value of the Chinese currency, the renminbi. On Friday, the central bank, the People’s Bank of China, issued a statement that repeated such vows.
The push does not signal the end of big government in China. The Communist Party, experts say, is unlikely to abandon the state capitalist model, break up huge, state-run oligopolies or privatize major sectors of the economy that the party considers strategic, like banking, energy and telecommunications.
Beijing seems to be pressing ahead because it has few alternatives. The economy has slowed this year because of fewer exports to Europe and the United States and slower investment growth. Rising labor costs and a strengthening currency have also reduced manufacturing competitiveness.
China’s leaders, including a group of pro-market bureaucrats who seem to have gained in the leadership shuffle this year, seem to think that more government spending could worsen economic conditions and that the private sector needs to step in.
China is also facing significant changes in its demographics and drivers of economic growth. The population is rapidly aging, and the number of young people entering the work force has begun to decline. Those shifts are forcing China to upgrade its industrial operations and compete using something other than inexpensive goods and low-cost labor, analysts say.
Nicholas R. Lardy, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and an authority on the Chinese economy, said government controls on interest rates, the exchange rate and the price of energy had resulted in a huge misallocation of capital and unbalanced growth. “These reforms would raise household income and reduce savings, providing a double-barreled boost to private consumption,” Mr. Lardy said.
To succeed, China’s leaders will have to fend off powerful interest groups, as well as corrupt officials who have grown accustomed to using their political power to enrich themselves and their families through bribes and secret stakes in companies.
The previous administration, led by President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, also promised to deepen economic overhauls and strengthen the private sector. But analysts say they lacked the political clout needed to succeed. During their two five-year terms, the state’s role in the economy actually expanded.
The new leaders, who took office in March after a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, seem more determined to change course. In his speech this month, delivered to party officials nationwide by teleconference, Mr. Li, the prime minister, said, “If we place excessive reliance on government steering and policy leverage to stimulate growth, that will be difficult to sustain and could even produce new problems and risks.”
“The market is the creator of social wealth and the wellspring of self-sustaining economic development,” he said.
He spoke of deregulation and slimming down the role of government.
“Li Keqiang thinks like an economist,” said Barry J. Naughton, a professor of Chinese economy at the University of California, San Diego. “He wants the government to get out of the way.”
Chris Buckley reported from Hong Kong.
Burmese Muslims given two-child limit
Rakhine state officials say limit on children will help ease tensions with Buddhists, whose population is growing at slower rate
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 25 May 2013 11.32 BST
Muslims in a province of Burma have been ordered not to have more than two children in an attempt by the government to stop Buddhist attacks on Muslims.
State officials said the two-child limit in the state of Rakhine would ease tensions between Buddhists and their Muslim Rohingya neighbours.
Local officials said the new measure was part of a policy that will also ban polygamyin two Rakhine townships that border Bangladesh and have the highest Muslim populations. The townships, Buthidaung and Maundaw, are about 95% Muslim.
The measure was enacted a week ago after a government-appointed commission investigating the violence issued proposals to ease tensions, which included family planning programs to stem population growth among minority Muslims, said Rakhine state spokesman Win Myaing. The commission also recommended doubling the number of security forces in the volatile region.
"The population growth of Rohingya Muslims is 10 times higher than that of the Rakhine (Buddhists)," Win Myaing said. "Overpopulation is one of the causes of tension."
Sectarian violence in Burma first flared nearly a year ago in Rakhine state between the region's Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya. Mobs of Buddhists armed with machetes razed thousands of Muslim homes, leaving hundreds of people dead and forcing 125,000 to flee, mostly Muslims.
Since the violence, religious unrest has developed into a campaign against the country's Muslim communities in other regions.
Containing the strife has posed a serious challenge to President Thein Sein's reformist government as it attempts to institute political and economic liberalisation after nearly half a century of harsh military rule. It has also tarnished the image of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been criticised for failing to speak out strongly in defence of the country's embattled Muslim community.
Win Myaing said authorities had not yet determined how the measures will be enforced, but the two-child policy will be mandatory in Buthidaung and Maundaw. The policy will not apply yet to other parts of Rakhine state, which have smaller Muslim populations.
"One factor that has fuelled tensions between the Rakhine public and [Rohingya] populations relates to the sense of insecurity among many Rakhines stemming from the rapid population growth of the [Rohingya], which they view as a serious threat," the government-appointed commission said in a report issued last month.
Predominantly Buddhist Burma does not include the Rohingya as one of its 135 recognised ethnicities. It considers them to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship. Bangladesh says the Rohingya have been living in Myanmar for centuries and should be recognised as citizens. Muslims account for about 4% of Myanmar's roughly 60 million people.
The secret lives of North Koreans
Conducting interviews with refugees from North Korea gave me an insight into the reality of life inside the 'impenetrable kingdom'
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 25 May 2013 10.00 BST
To Japanese citizens like me, the people of North Korea, though geographically close, are practically invisible. When I decided to write a novel about North Korea – now called From the Fatherland, With Love – I was faced with the challenge of creating believable portraits based strictly on source materials and the imagination. I was unable to enter the country, but having learned of a community of North Korean defectors in Seoul, I went there to interview nearly 20 individuals.
Rather than asking how they'd gone about escaping the north, I wanted to learn about everyday life in the DPRK – what people ate, what they wore, how they got around, how they approached love and romance, what was most important in their lives and so forth. Sometimes this emphasis on the personal only served to put the refugees on their guard. When I asked them to draw simple maps of their hometowns and villages or floor plans of their former homes, for example, some refused, suspecting me of working for South Korean intelligence.
The fundamental life paradigms of these people were so different to anything I'm familiar with that I found the interviews exhausting. North Korea employs a rigid, institutionalised system of class stratification based on family history, and I was surprised to learn that all the defectors I interviewed had previously belonged to the privileged, or "core", class. It seems that people of the middle ("wavering") and lower ("hostile") classes, due to their inability to access information – to say nothing of adequate nutrition – have neither the will nor the energy to attempt to flee the republic.
Virtually all power in the DPRK rests with the Korean People's Army (KPA); and the Korean Workers' party, which is complexly intertwined with the military, controls all chains of command. Members of the special operations forces and the secret police, who I was told served more or less as the private army of then-leader Kim Jong-il, are stationed everywhere. Training for special forces troops is unimaginably severe.
The confession of one former KPA soldier made a particularly strong impression on me. She had been with an anti-aircraft artillery unit outside Pyongyang, and was 32 years old when I interviewed her. This young woman extracted a photo from her purse, handling it as if it were a priceless treasure, and showed it to me. It was a baby picture. "This was taken on his first birthday," she said. "A year later he died of starvation."
She described in detail how her infant son's condition had deteriorated as food supplies dwindled, and how, when there was simply nothing left to eat, she resorted to feeding him boiled pine-tree bark. She explained how she would carefully strip the bark from a tree, pound it with a rock until it was soft, and then boil it in water repeatedly. The resulting gruel caused the baby's belly to swell grotesquely but did nothing to prolong his life.
After her only child died, she fled the Republic in hopes of sending back food for the remaining members of her family. And she had a dream. "Here in Seoul, I'm studying to be a preschool teacher. I want to return to the north after reunification and open a nursery school there. My baby never had a chance to grow up, so I want to see to it that lots of other children do."
It seems to me highly unlikely that this dream of hers will come to fruition. But the fact remains that we on the outside know very little about life in North Korea. People there exist in a kind of pre-modernity that's difficult for us to fully comprehend. Life in North Korea is hidden from view, cloaked in darkness, and the same can be said for the nation's military strategy and the vision of its leaders. Such is the nature of the "impenetrable kingdom" now brandishing its missiles before the world.
Volkswagen’s 75th anniversary shadowed by Hitler celebration
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, May 24, 2013 14:37 EDT
Europe’s number one carmaker Volkswagen is not keen on celebrating the 75th birthday of its German hometown of Wolfsburg on Sunday because of the long shadow cast by Adolf Hitler there.
“It was all just a bit of Nazi propaganda,” a spokesman for the carmaker said, referring to the festivities 75 years ago when the Nazi leader laid the foundation stone for a factory that would build the “Kraft-durch-Freude” (KdF) (Strength through Joy) automobile that went on to conquer the world as “the People’s Car”.
By contrast, Wolfsburg’s municipal authorities see cause for celebration, even if they have earmarked July 1 as the big day because that was when, in 1938 the official decree was signed marking the foundation of the “Town of the KdF car.”
Barely 900 people lived there then.
Now more than 120,000 “Wolfsburgers” — the new name dates from 1945 — are set to celebrate their town’s 75th anniversary.
Both VW and Wolfsburg have had varied histories.
The KdF Car, which became famous as the Beetle, did not go into mass production before World War II.
The factory mostly churned out vehicles for the Wehrmacht armed forces and other military equipment with thousands of slave labourers working in inhuman conditions for the arms industry.
At the laying of the factory’s foundation stone on May 26, 1938, 80,000 troops assembled there while Hitler and the Beetle’s designer Ferdinand Porsche drove past in an open-top car.
During the war, the factory was managed by Porsche’s son-in-law Anton Piech.
It was his son Ferdinand Piech, as chief executive of VW at the end of the 1990s, who finally cut through the tangled Gordian knot of talks regarding compensation for the slave labourers.
VW set up its own compensation fund and opened its archives to historians and scholars to explore its Nazi past.
At this point, the Beetle was only being built in Mexico, long overtaken as the group’s flagship by mass market models such as the Golf and the Passat.
Its subsidiary Audi was simultaneously transforming itself into a top-of-the-range producer, while Spanish unit SEAT and the Czech brand Skoda were also expanding.
VW also became the proud owner of luxury brands such as Bentley and Bugatti, Lamborghini and the motor cycle maker Ducati.
After taking over the reins of the supervisory board, patriarch Piech pressed ahead with the acquisition of truck makers MAN and Scania.
Even a scandal about “pleasure” trips for members of the works council could not prevent the group in its unstoppable rise to become Europe’s leading carmaker.
Nor was it hindered by a bitter power struggle between the group’s new majority shareholder Porsche and the regional state authorities of Lower Saxony with its so-called “golden share”, or blocking minority.
When Porsche chief Wendelin Wiedeking failed in his bid to become the group’s sole ruler in 2009, Piech made sure that Porsche remained in the group as another premium brand.
The battle for control between Stuttgart-based Porsche and VW was a highly sensitive matter not only for the VW’s workforce but for Wolfsburg’s municipal authorities as well.
Not only was VW’s honour at stake with the prospect of becoming merely a subsidiary of Porsche, but the fate and long-term prosperity of Wolfsburg was under threat.
Thanks to VW, Wolfsburg has the most local tax revenues of anywhere in Lower Saxony.
More than 50,000 people work for VW in Wolfsburg which also boasts world-class museums and even a premiere league football team, VfL Wolfsburg.
It is almost a truism to say “VW is Wolfsburg”, but the Wolfsburgers affectionately call their town “Golfsburg”, a pun on the name of the group’s popular small car.
And the town’s daily rhythms are dictated by the sprawling auto plant’s three shifts and it also moves down a gear when the plant shuts for the summer.
In the early 1990s, the town’s home improvement stores experienced an unexpected boom when VW introduced a 28-hour working week in face of slumping sales.
Visitors to Wolfsburg can feel the thump of the pressing plants of Europe’s biggest automobile plant beneath their feet.
However unlike neighbouring towns, it has no old churches, half-timbered houses or grand Wilhelminian villas — the only thing older than 75 years are the trees in the town’s forest.
Scientists warn that Earth faces severe water shortages within a generation
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, May 24, 2013 13:16 EDT
The majority of people on Earth will face severe water shortages within a generation or two if pollution and waste continues unabated, scientists warned at a conference in Bonn Friday.
“This handicap will be self-inflicted and is, we believe, entirely avoidable,” read a document entitled The Bonn Declaration issued at the close of the four-day international huddle.
The conference sought to assess the evidence of man’s impact on freshwater resources, which constitute only 2.5 percent of the total volume of water on Earth.
Currently, an estimated third of the world’s seven million people has limited access to adequate fresh water, according to conference delegates.
“In the short span of one or two generations, the majority of the nine billion people on Earth will be living under the handicap of severe pressure on fresh water,” said the declaration.
The nine billion mark is widely projected to be reached from about 2040.
“We are flying the red flag out of our conference here,” Charles Vorosmarty, co-chairman of the Global Water System Project research body that hosted the meeting, said in a teleconference from Bonn.
“These self-inflicted wounds have long-term legacy effects that are not easy to turn around.”
The declaration points out that humanity uses an area the size of South America to grow crops and another the size of Africa to raise livestock.
Two-thirds of major river deltas are sinking due to groundwater extraction, and tens of thousands of large dams are distorting natural river flows on which ecosystems have depended for millennia.
Much damage is being done by river pollution from sewer drainage or agricultural fertiliser and pesticide use.
Already, about a billion people around the world are dependent on finite water supplies being depleted at a fast rate, said Vorosmarty, who made a plea for more financial and technical resources for research.
“We’re not making the requisite commitments to creating observational networks and satellite systems that can measure the state of water,” he said.
“Increasingly, we are flying blind and finding it very difficult to figure where we are and where we’re going and whether the things we are doing are making a difference.”
UN-Water, a coordinating body for water efforts by UN groups, says Earth has about 35 million cubic kilometres (eight million cubic miles) of fresh water — 70 percent of it locked up in ice and permanent snow cover.
Thirty percent of freshwater is stored underground in groundwater, which constitutes 97 percent of all freshwater potentially available for human use.
About 0.3 percent is found in lakes and rivers.
Experts say some 3,800 cubic kilometres of fresh water are extracted from aquatic ecosystems around the world each year, partly as a result of global warming.
The Christian Science Monitor
Why did our ancestors start walking upright? Ancient terrain may hold clue.
By Eoin O'Carroll, Staff / May 24, 2013 at 4:08 pm EDT
Being four-legged has its perks. As a quadruped, your center of gravity is lower, there's less wind resistance when you're running, and, best of all, you can use your hind foot to scratch your ear.
All of this raises a big question: What were our apelike ancestors thinking when they started walking upright?
A prevailing hypothesis is that they were prompted by climate change. As African forests declined due to temperature fluctuations some 2.5 million years ago, the hypothesis goes, our australopithecine ancestors descended from the trees and ventured out into the open savanna, an environment thought to be friendlier for those standing on two feet.
The savanna hypothesis has its critics, however. There is some evidence that bipedal primates evolved before the biggest temperature swings kicked in, that some australopithecines ancestors lived in forests, and that they were adapted to both tree-climbing and upright walking.
Now a new study suggests that walking on two legs was a result of geology, not climate. In a study published in this month's issue of the archaeological journal Antiquity, a team of archaeologists makes the case that our forebears' transition to bipedalism was prompted by volcanoes and shifting tectonic plates in East and South Africa, which produced rocky outcroppings and steep gorges.
“The broken, disrupted terrain offered benefits for hominins in terms of security and food, but it also proved a motivation to improve their locomotor skills by climbing, balancing, scrambling and moving swiftly over broken ground - types of movement encouraging a more upright gait,” said University of York archaeologist and study co-author Isabelle Winder, in a press release.
This development would have conferred benefits that extend far beyond locomotion. Walking on two legs frees up the hands, allowing for the use of tools and, eventually, bigger brains. And the complex landscape could have made our ancestors smarter, says Dr. Winder.
“The varied terrain may also have contributed to improved cognitive skills such as navigation and communication abilities, accounting for the continued evolution of our brains and social functions such as co-operation and team work."
Rugged terrain created by volcanos may have prompted human ancestors’ upright walking
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, May 24, 2013 13:13 EDT
The rugged landscape created by volcanic eruptions and tectonic plate shifts in east and south Africa millions of years ago may be what prompted our human ancestors to start walking on two legs, a study said Friday.
The research published in the journal Antiquity challenges the commonly-held theory that early hominins (members of the broad human family) were forced onto two feet on the ground because climate change reduced the number of trees they lived in.
According to the new hypothesis, it is not why they left the forests, but where they went, that explains the evolution.
“Our research shows that bipedalism may have developed as a response to the terrain, rather than a response to climatically-driven vegetation changes,” study co-author Isabelle Winder from the University of York’s archaeology department said.
Between six and two million years ago, our ancestors lived exclusively in Africa — mainly in the east and south where much tectonic activity happened.
Winder and her team compared geological changes with evolution of hominin anatomy over millions of years, and concluded it was likely that our early tree-living ancestors were attracted not to flat plains as widely thought, but rocky outcrops and gorges.
These would have offered shelter from predators and made it easier to corner pray.
But rugged terrain also required more upright scrambling and climbing gaits — prompting the emergence of bipedalism.
“For an animal moving on rough ground, the land is made up of lots of small, broken surfaces at different heights and angles. If you use four limbs to carry your weight, the chances are higher that you will be unable to position yourself effectively or that one of your hands or feet will slip,” Winder told AFP by email.
“It is to your advantage if you can balance on just two or three limbs and use the others to steady yourself.”
Thus our ancestors’ legs came to carry most of their weight, and their hands would have been used to stabilise and pull the body up rock faces and would have become better at grasping as a result — ultimately enabling the evolutionary leap to tool-making.
“The varied terrain may also have contributed to improved cognitive skills such as navigation and communication abilities,” said Winder.
She said the finding answers a question that has stumped scientists for decades: how did our ancestors survive the many predators of Africa when they moved from the trees to the ground?
As it turns out, the rugged terrain where they emerged made it easier to hide.
The move to flatter ground probably only started a few million years later, said Winders.
“This study is the first to successfully explain how our ancestors lived during this period and why they evolved as they did,” she said.
In the USA....
May 24, 2013
For Obama’s Global Vision, Daunting Problems
By MARK LANDLER and MARK MAZZETTI
WASHINGTON — President Obama, in one of his most significant speeches since taking office, did not simply declare an end to the post-9/11 era on Thursday. He also offered a vision of America’s role in the world that he hopes could be one of his lasting legacies.
It is an ambitious vision — one that eschews a muscle-bound foreign policy, dominated by the military and intelligence services, in favor of energetic diplomacy, foreign aid and a more measured response to terrorism. But it is fraught with risks, and hostage to forces that are often out of the president’s control.
From the grinding civil war in Syria and the extremist threat in Yemen to the toxic American relationship with Pakistan and the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan with no clear sense of what comes afterward, there are a multitude of hurdles to Mr. Obama’s goal of taking America off “perpetual war footing.”
One of the most daunting is a sprawling wartime bureaucracy that, after nearly a dozen years, has amassed great influence and has powerful supporters on Capitol Hill. It will be difficult to roll back what has been a gradual militarization of American foreign policy, even in an era of budget cuts for the Pentagon.
Nor can Mr. Obama escape his own role in putting the United States on a war footing. He came into office pledging to wind down America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but within a year had ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and oversaw a significant expansion of the Bush administration’s use of clandestine drone strikes.
“We have no illusions that there are not challenges,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser who wrote Mr. Obama’s address. “But we should not be defined by our role in terrorism, by the airstrikes we order or the people we put in prison.”
Of all these threats, Mr. Rhodes said the White House was most worried about a surge of extremism in the wake of the Arab Spring. And yet the bloodiest of those conflicts, in Syria, reveals the limits of Mr. Obama’s policy. He has steered clear of American involvement, despite signs that extremist groups with ties to Al Qaeda are making gains.
Amid this uncertainty, it was telling that neither the president in his speech nor his aides afterward made firm declarations about where the United States could carry out targeted killings, or about whether drone strikes would be carried out by the Pentagon or the Central Intelligence Agency.
Administration officials spoke of a “preference” to use the military to conduct lethal operations, but said that Mr. Obama’s hands would not be tied and that he reserved the right to use the C.I.A. for covert drone strikes in far-off countries.
In a White House “fact sheet” issued Thursday about new standards for lethal operations, the administration cautioned that “these new standards and procedures do not limit the president’s authority to take action in extraordinary circumstances when doing so is both lawful and necessary to protect the United States or its allies.”
Even if Al Qaeda’s core network is routed, Mr. Rhodes said, “you’ll want to preserve certain capabilities we’ve developed.” That is a discreet way of saying that the United States, having discovered the grim efficiency of drones, is unlikely to stop using them.
At the same time, Mr. Obama put renewed emphasis on diplomacy and foreign aid, saying these were important ways to address “the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism,” even if the progress made by diplomats can be painfully slow.
As if to underline his point, John Kerry has proved to be a surprisingly activist secretary of state, plunging into shuttle diplomacy between the Israelis and the Palestinians and becoming the administration’s point man for dealing with the strife in Syria.
It is also true, though, that the administration is pushing a diplomatic solution in Syria because there is so little public support for military engagement and all the available options carry risks.
“The real question over time may be whether we can mobilize others to join with us to deal with these threats,” said Dennis B. Ross, a former senior adviser to Mr. Obama on the Middle East. “Look at Syria: would others be prepared to do more that could be effective if they saw that we were prepared to do more?”
Another problem with this new focus is that the administration cut the budget of the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development by 6 percent, to $47.78 billion, from $51 billion in the current year, reflecting the broader budget squeeze.
The impact of those cuts is even greater since there are increases of $1.5 billion for additional security personnel and upgrades to embassies and other diplomatic buildings.
Still, to the extent Mr. Obama’s vision is realized, it would radically reorder the power centers in Washington: emboldening the State Department, gradually refocusing the C.I.A. on traditional intelligence gathering, and handing primary responsibility for lethal operations to the Pentagon.
The military’s elite commandos would carry out raids or drone strikes only in exceptional cases; more likely, scores of Special Forces troops would train and advise indigenous forces to combat militants on their soil so large American armies would not have to.
“What we’re trying to do with our strategy is turn it back over to the host country and local forces,” Michael Sheehan, the Pentagon’s top counterterrorism official, said at a Senate hearing last month. “That is the future.”
For all that, some defense experts said the president glossed over some of the thorniest problems.
Anthony H. Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, criticized the speech as an “academic exercise,” and said Mr. Obama still had not publicly addressed the problems the United States faces as it tries to unwind its role in the Afghan war.
“We needed clear goals for a meaningful strategic agreement with Afghanistan and to start getting the details nailed down,” he wrote, “not wait to point of failure as we did in Iraq.”
Other critics said Mr. Obama failed to bring clarity to the targeted killing campaign. Questions remain about just how much of the drone wars would come out from behind the veil of secrecy. For instance: when, if ever, will the Obama administration begin to acknowledge each drone strike after it happens?
While administration officials said the military would assume control of the bulk of drone operations, the C.I.A. will continue to run the drone war as a covert operation in Pakistan for months to come, possibly even until the end of 2014.
Drone strikes in Pakistan have been on the decline, however, and some experts said Pakistani politicians and generals would be likely to allow the C.I.A.’s drone war in that country’s rugged, western mountains to continue as long as it remained limited.
“A smaller and more curtailed program would cause less friction both between Pakistani policy makers and the security establishment and between the United States and Pakistan more broadly,” said Simbal Khan, Pakistan scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Left unsaid in Mr. Obama’s speech was one of the biggest motivations for his new focus: a desire to extricate the United States from the Middle East so that it can focus on the faster-growing region of Asia. It is a dream that has tempted presidents for a generation.
As Mr. Rhodes put it, “We’d like to leave office with a foreign policy that is not unnecessarily consumed with a militia controlling a piece of desert.”
Eric Schmitt and Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting.
May 24, 2013
Additional Embassy Guards Will Come With a Steep Price
By ERIC SCHMITT
WASHINGTON — When the State Department fields the first of 350 additional Marine security guards at high-risk embassies and consulates around the world later this year, the price tag will be steep: about $1.6 million per Marine.
Why so much?
It turns out that about $525 million of the $553 million that Congress approved this year to deploy more Marine guards — fulfilling a recommendation of the independent review panel that investigated the attacks last year on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya — is going toward building new command-and-control hubs in the posts and living quarters for the Marines.
The department plans to send 35 new Marine detachments, with about 10 Marines each, to diplomatic posts over the next few years. The first 90 are expected to arrive by the end of the year, officials said.
At each of the 35 missions receiving Marine guards, the department plans to spend about $15 million to build a command-and-control center, called a Post One, equipped with security cameras and communications equipment, from which guards serving around the clock can control access in and out of the embassy buildings.
The 1,200 Marine security guards now stationed in more than 130 countries live in a variety of locations depending on the embassy’s design and space. Some live on the diplomatic compound; others do not.
The financing for the new facilities also covers living quarters, which would include bedrooms and common areas, as well as small gyms and cafeterias. The department prefers that the Marines live on the compound when possible, officials said.
“They’re trying to make these living arrangements as comfortable as possible,” said one government official who has been briefed on the construction plans.
State Department officials are reluctant to provide details on the building arrangements, for security reasons.
But they said each of the new command centers and additional housing would be custom-designed, either as part of brand-new embassies or leased housing. The department is in the process of developing specific project plans for each of the new Marine detachments, with the first new facilities to be included in embassies under construction in Laos and the West African country of Benin.
“They have to do site surveys and assist in designing them,” said Capt. Gregory Wolf, a Marine Corps spokesman. “Those things won’t crop up overnight.”
In addition to the construction costs, the Marines are planning to spend about $110 million a year to recruit, train and deploy the additional security guards, a Marines official said.
The corps is also creating a group of 120 Marines based in Quantico, Va., which by the end of the summer will be able to send teams of 10 to 12 Marines on short notice to embassies and consulates to reinforce the ones there.
Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday in outlining the recommendations from the investigative panel that the additional Marines would be added to the diplomatic posts that face the highest threats. “We’re making sure that their first responsibility is protecting our people, not just classified materials,” he said.
May 24, 2013
States’ Policies on Health Care Exclude Some of the Poorest
By ROBERT PEAR
WASHINGTON — The refusal by about half the states to expand Medicaid will leave millions of poor people ineligible for government-subsidized health insurance under President Obama’s health care law even as many others with higher incomes receive federal subsidies to buy insurance.
Starting next month, the administration and its allies will conduct a nationwide campaign encouraging Americans to take advantage of new high-quality affordable insurance options. But those options will be unavailable to some of the neediest people in states like Texas, Florida, Kansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia, which are refusing to expand Medicaid.
More than half of all people without health insurance live in states that are not planning to expand Medicaid.
People in those states who have incomes from the poverty level up to four times that amount ($11,490 to $45,960 a year for an individual) can get federal tax credits to subsidize the purchase of private health insurance. But many people below the poverty line will be unable to get tax credits, Medicaid or other help with health insurance.
Sandy Praeger, the insurance commissioner of Kansas, said she would help consumers understand their options. She said, however, that many of “the poorest of the poor” would fall into a gap in which no assistance is available.
The Kansas Medicaid program provides no coverage for able-bodied childless adults. And adults with dependent children are generally ineligible if their income exceeds 32 percent of the poverty level, Ms. Praeger said.
In most cases, she said, adults with incomes from 32 percent to 100 percent of the poverty level ($6,250 to $19,530 for a family of three) “will have no assistance.” They will see advertisements promoting new insurance options, but in most cases will not learn that they are ineligible until they apply.
Administration officials said they worried that frustrated consumers might blame President Obama rather than Republicans like Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, who have resisted the expansion of Medicaid.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that 25 million people will gain insurance under the new health care law. Researchers at the Urban Institute estimate that 5.7 million uninsured adults with incomes below the poverty level could also gain coverage except that they live in states that are not expanding Medicaid.
In approving the health care law in 2010, Congressional Democrats intended to expand Medicaid eligibility in every state.
But the Supreme Court ruled last year that the expansion was an option for states, not a requirement. At least 25 states — mainly those with Republican governors or Republican-controlled legislatures — have balked at expanding the program, in part because of concerns about long-term costs.
Several Republican governors, like Rick Scott in Florida, wanted to expand Medicaid, but met resistance from state legislators.
Mr. Obama and administration officials, including Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, plan to fly around the country this summer promoting the health care law to a public largely unaware of the new insurance options.
Bee Moorhead, the executive director of Texas Impact, an interfaith group that favors the expansion of coverage, said: “A lot of people will come in, file applications and find they are not eligible for help because they are too poor. We’ll have to tell them, ‘If only you had a little more money, you could get insurance subsidies, but because you are so poor, you cannot get anything.’
“That’s an odd message, a very strange message. And if people are sick, they will be really upset.”
In Atlanta, Amanda Ptashkin, the director of outreach and advocacy at Georgians for a Healthy Future, a consumer group, said: “Hundreds of thousands of people with incomes below the poverty level would be eligible for Medicaid if the state decided to move forward with the expansion of Medicaid. As things now stand, they will not be eligible for anything. What do we do for them? What do we tell them?”
Jonathan E. Chapman, the executive director of the Louisiana Primary Care Association, which represents more than two dozen community health centers, described the situation in his state this way: “If the breadwinner in a family of four works full time at a job that pays $14 an hour and the family has no other income, he or she will be eligible for insurance subsidies. But if they make $10 an hour, they will not be eligible for anything.”
Bruce Lesley, the president of First Focus, a child advocacy group, said: “In states that do not expand Medicaid, some of the neediest people will not get coverage. But people who are just above the poverty line or in the middle class can get subsidized coverage. People will be denied assistance because they don’t make enough money. Trying to explain that will be a nightmare.”
The subsidies, for the purchase of private insurance, will vary with income and are expected to average more than $5,000 a year in 2014 for each person who qualifies.
Evan S. Dillard, the chief executive of Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, Miss., said the eligibility rules would be “very confusing to working poor individuals in this, the poorest state in the country.”
Starting in January, most Americans will be required to have health insurance and will be subject to tax penalties if they go without coverage. However, the penalties will not apply to low-income people denied access to Medicaid because they live in states that chose not to expand eligibility.
Deborah H. Tucker, the chief executive of Whatley Health Services, a community health center in Tuscaloosa, Ala., said it was wonderful that many uninsured people would gain coverage, but “tragic that some of the most vulnerable, lowest-income people” would be excluded.
Ms. Tucker said her clinics cared for nearly 30,000 patients a year, including 16,000 who were uninsured. More than 75 percent of the uninsured patients have incomes below the poverty level and are unlikely to qualify for Medicaid or subsidies, she said.
The Obama administration is urging people who “need health insurance” to report their telephone numbers and e-mail addresses to the government via a Web site, healthcare.gov, so they can be notified of new insurance options.
Consumers will not necessarily know whether they are eligible for premium tax credits, Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
So if a person applies for one program, federal and state officials will check eligibility for all three.
People who are currently eligible but not enrolled may sign up for Medicaid, even in states that do not expand the program.
Still, Roy S. Mitchell, the executive director of the Mississippi Health Advocacy Program, a nonprofit group that supports the expansion of Medicaid, said “there’s going to be a huge void” as many uninsured poor people find that they are not eligible for Medicaid or insurance subsidies.
“There will be an outcry,” Mr. Mitchell said. “It may bolster our advocacy efforts.”
The history of Medicaid shows that it took several years for some states to sign up in the 1960s, raising the possibility that additional states may decide to expand eligibility in coming years.
May 24, 2013
Judge Finds Violations of Rights by Sheriff
By FERNANDA SANTOS
PHOENIX — A federal judge ruled on Friday that Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his deputies had violated the constitutional rights of Latinos by targeting them during raids and traffic stops here and throughout Maricopa County.
With his ruling, Judge G. Murray Snow of United States District Court delivered the most decisive defeat so far to Sheriff Arpaio, who has come to symbolize Arizona’s strict approach to immigration enforcement by making it the leading mission for many of the 800 deputies under his command at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
At 142 pages, the decision is peppered with stinging criticism of the policies and practices espoused by Sheriff Arpaio, who Judge Snow said had turned much of his focus to arresting immigrants who were in the country illegally, in most cases civil violations, at the expense of fighting crimes.
He said the sheriff relied on racial profiling and illegal detentions to target Latinos, using their ethnicity as the main basis for suspecting they were in the country illegally. Many of the people targeted were American citizens or legal residents.
“In an immigration enforcement context,” Judge Snow ruled, the sheriff’s office “did not believe that it constituted racial profiling to consider race as one factor among others in making law enforcement decisions.” In fact, he said its plans and policies confirmed that, “in the context of immigration enforcement,” deputies “could consider race as one factor among others.”
The ruling prohibits the sheriff’s office from using “race or Latino ancestry” as a factor in deciding to stop any vehicle with Latino occupants, or as a factor in deciding whether they may be in the country without authorization.
It also prohibits deputies from reporting a vehicle’s Latino occupants to federal immigration authorities or detaining, holding or arresting them, unless there is more than just a “reasonable belief” that they are in the country illegally. To detain them, the ruling said, the deputies must also have reasonable suspicion that the occupants are violating the state’s human-trafficking and employment laws or committing other crimes.
Tim Casey, a lawyer for the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, said the office intended to appeal, but in the meantime it would “comply with the letter and spirit of the court’s decision.”
He said the office’s position is that it “has never used race and never will use race to make any law enforcement decision.”
The office relied on training from the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, he said, adding, “It’s obvious it received bad training from the federal government.”
The ruling is a result of a federal civil trial last summer in which Sheriff Arpaio and his office were accused in a class-action lawsuit of singling out Latinos for stops, questioning and detention. It says deputies considered the prevalence of Latinos when deciding where to carry out enforcement operations, in many cases in response to complaints based solely on assumptions that Latinos or “Mexicans,” as some complainants put it, were necessarily illegal immigrants.
Regardless of the type of enforcement — workplace raids, traffic stops or targeted patrols in areas frequented by day laborers — Sheriff Arpaio’s deputies were required to keep track of the number of people arrested on federal immigration violations, as well as state charges, Judge Snow said. In news releases, Sheriff Arpaio’s office often referred to the operations as integral parts of the sheriff’s “illegal immigrant stance.”
Cecillia Wang, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit, said, “Let this be a warning to anyone who hides behind a badge to wage their own private campaign against Latinos or immigrants that there is no exception in the Constitution for violating people’s rights in immigration enforcement.”
Ravi Somaiya contributed reporting from New York
May 24, 2013
Washington State Bridge Collapse Could Echo Far Beyond Interstate
By KIRK JOHNSON
MOUNT VERNON, Wash. — The partial collapse here on Thursday night of a heavily used river bridge on Interstate 5 caused no deaths, but as the long holiday weekend began it underscored the vulnerability of a transportation system that hinges not just on high-profile water crossings and tunnels, but on thousands of ordinary and unremarked components that travelers mostly take for granted.
A 160-foot section of the 58-year-old four-lane steel truss bridge, which crosses the Skagit River about an hour north of Seattle, crumpled around 7 p.m., apparently after being struck by a truck carrying an oversize load, state officials said. Three people were injured, none of them seriously, when vehicles went into the river.
But the ripple effects of the collapse could be huge — for commuters, freight haulers, residents and businesses around the bridge on detour routes and for politicians in Olympia, Washington’s capital. Lawmakers have been loudly and publicly wrestling over the hundreds of millions of dollars in state money needed to replace another aging bridge over the Columbia River that separates Oregon and Washington farther south on the Interstate 5 corridor.
Interstate 5 is the main north-south route from British Columbia to California, passing through both Seattle and Portland. Washington State’s Department of Transportation has established detour routes through the cities of Burlington and Mount Vernon, which are separated by the Skagit River, but urged travelers to avoid the area if they can. More than 67,000 drivers cross the Skagit every day along that stretch of the Interstate, according to the state.
“Patience is going to be the watchword,” said Gov. Jay Inslee at a news conference here. Mr. Inslee, a Democrat, said that state transportation officials were scouring the country looking for a temporary, portable structure that might be brought in to span the river until the collapsed section can be replaced. But even if that happens, he said, the disruptions could last for weeks, at the least.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board also arrived Friday to begin an inquiry into the accident’s causes. The chairwoman, Deborah A. M. Hersman, said an early priority was to interview witnesses, especially the driver of the vehicle carrying the load that struck the bridge.
Whether it should be considered reassuring or alarming about the state of the nation’s infrastructure, the Skagit River bridge had not been judged unsafe or structurally deficient, according to inspection records. The bridge and its approach lanes, totaling just over 1,100 feet, were only considered to be past their useful life span, meaning that the time had arrived for a bigger, broader structure. But even calling a bridge structurally deficient does not necessarily mean that it is unsafe, as federal officials often point out; it only means that at least one major component has deteriorated, and actions may be taken to address the issue, like restricting traffic to ensure that the bridge is not stressed beyond its limits.
“Obviously, this is a bridge that has lived a very long life,” Ms. Hersman said. But, she added, based on performance and inspection records, “It has been healthy throughout that life.”
Mr. Inslee said in an interview that a broader message of the collapse is that state financing for state transportation projects — now under consideration in a special session of the Legislature — can no longer wait, especially for the long-delayed Columbia River project.
“It shouldn’t take an oversize load to let us know we have an oversized problem,” he said.
Washington State faces a deadline this year to find money for the $3.2 billion project over the Columbia River, or risk losing up to $1.2 billion in federal financing. Oregon’s Legislature has approved $450 million, but Washington State’s $450 million share has been stalled. About $1 billion would come from tolls.
Building America’s Future, an advocacy group founded by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and two former governors, Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, also issued a statement characterizing the bridge collapse as a “call to action.”
“Regardless of how this happened, the collapse of the Skagit River Bridge in Washington State is a timely reminder of our nation’s need to invest in critical infrastructure upgrades,” Mr. Rendell said. “Our nation’s bridges, roads and highways are deteriorating before our eyes.”
But Washington’s secretary of transportation, Lynn Peterson, said it was clear that money would remain tight. The bridge was constructed of four 160-foot sections, three of which could be restored to use pending inspection, she said.
“Under current fiscal constraints, there is no intent at this point to rebuild the entire bridge,” she said.
The fact that a portion of a high-use highway could suddenly fall and fail without serious casualties was hailed by political leaders and residents as near miraculous. It also allowed immediate discussion of economic impacts, by Mr. Inslee and others, in ways that might have otherwise seemed crass or callous.
Mr. Inslee, in particular, urged people to support the small businesses in the area that he said could find themselves in trouble, with customers unwilling or unable to breach the creeping train of detoured vehicles.
John Schwartz contributed reporting.
May 24, 2013
Dispute Over Budget Deepens a Rift Within the G.O.P.
By JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans are locked in a widening internal dispute over future budget negotiations, splitting along generational and ideological lines on the party’s approach to the central issue that drove the conservative surge in the Obama era: how to deal with the federal debt.
In full view of C-Span cameras trained on the floor this week, Senators John McCain of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine jousted with a new generation of conservatives — Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky — over the party’s refusal to allow the Senate to open budget talks with the House despite Senate Republicans’ long call for Democrats to produce a budget.
It was the Old Guard versus the Tea Party, but with real ramifications, as Congress careens toward another debt limit and spending crisis this fall with seemingly no one at the steering wheel. The newer members say negotiations should go forward only with a binding precondition that a budget deal cannot raise the government’s statutory borrowing limit.
“I have tremendous respect for this institution,” Mr. Rubio said in an interview on Friday. “But I’m not all that interested in the way things have always been done around here.”
Republicans made the failure of Senate Democrats to pass a budget a central talking point in the 2012 campaign, going so far this year as to pass legislation withholding Congressional pay if budgets were not approved this spring. Now, some Republicans say the fact that members of their own party are standing in the way of a House-Senate conference committee undermines their fiscal message.
“This to me is an issue of integrity,” said Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee. “We’ve pressed for a budget. We ought to go to conference.”
But the budget hawks have not budged, and they have even taken aim at their party in strikingly critical language.
“Here is the dirty little secret about some of those on the right side of the aisle,” Mr. Cruz said of his fellow Republicans. “There are some who would very much like to cast a symbolic vote against raising the debt ceiling and nonetheless allow our friends on the left side of the aisle to raise the debt ceiling. That, to some Republicans, is the ideal outcome.”
Mr. McCain called the demands of his Republican colleagues “absolutely out of line and unprecedented.” The Senate passed the budget before dawn on March 23 after a grueling all-night session, he noted, saying it was time to try to reach a final deal with the House in a negotiating conference.
“Will this deliberative body, whether it is the greatest in the world or the worst in the world, go ahead and decide on this issue, so we can at least tell the American people we are going to do what we haven’t done for four years and what every family in America sooner or later has to do — and that is to have a budget?” he asked. Although few of Mr. McCain’s colleagues took to the floor to join him, many have expressed similar views.
Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Republican leadership, said that at this point, resistance had to give.
“I suspect senators have held back long enough on the decision to go to conference,” he said.
Republicans who have made the deficit their central ideological focus are, in some sense, the dog that caught the bus. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated this month that the deficit for this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, will fall to about $642 billion, or 4 percent of the nation’s annual economic output, less than half the 2011 deficit and about $200 billion lower than the agency had estimated three months ago.
The agency forecast that the deficit, which topped 10 percent of the gross domestic product in 2009, could shrink to as little as 2.1 percent of the G.D.P. by 2015, a level most analysts say would be easily sustainable over the long run.
And a conservative stamp is hitting the government, thanks to the across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. On Friday, 115,000 employees at the Internal Revenue Service, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Housing and Urban Development and the small Office of Management and Budget — 5 percent of the federal work force — stayed home on unpaid furlough.
House Republicans had envisioned a plan to reach a comprehensive deficit reduction deal predicated on a showdown in July over the debt ceiling. That showdown was supposed to drive both sides back to the bargaining table, but a rapidly falling deficit, rising tax payments and huge infusions of cash from the newly profitable, federally controlled home financing agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have scrambled those plans. Now, the debt ceiling may not have to be raised until October or November, in the next fiscal year.
Before then, unless a budget deal can be struck, Congress must pass bills to finance the government based on very different guidelines in the House- and Senate-passed plans. The House Appropriations Committee will have to draft a bill financing labor, health and education programs at $121.8 billion, a 19 percent cut from current levels even after the across-the-board cuts took effect. The bill to finance the Interior Department and Environmental Protection Agency cannot exceed $24.2 billion, down 15 percent from the current levels after the cuts.
“There is not a member of our committee, Republican or Democrat, who is happy with these numbers,” said Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the committee.
The Senate has no intention of swallowing those cuts, so unless budget negotiators can meet and reach a deal, Congress will be headed back toward a crisis come Sept. 30, said Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the Senate Budget Committee chairwoman.
“They could create crisis by having a government shutdown or holding everything back until November and threatening a debt default. That would be to their political detriment,” Ms. Murray said. “I think the American people have had it with that kind of hostage-taking.”
But Mr. Rubio said that he was not about to give in, and that a single senator might have the power to hold back negotiations indefinitely. “I’m not sure this is an issue I can ever change my opinion on,” he said.
After the Cuts Hit Them, 68% of Republicans Disapprove of Sequester
By: Sarah Jones
May. 24th, 2013
Be careful what you wish for.
One consistency among conservatives is that the things they champion often change when they have to live it. So it is with the sequester cuts. According to a new poll released Friday by ABC News and The Washington Post, Republicans are 14% more likely to say they’ve been hurt by the cuts than Democrats, and of those who have, 68% disapprove of them. Those Republicans who have not been hurt only disapprove by 42%.
ABC News reports that experiencing the cuts trumps partisanship and ideology, “Experience of the cuts even trumps partisanship and ideology: Among Republicans, conservatives and Tea Party supporters who’ve been harmed by the cuts, most oppose them. Support is far higher among those in these groups who haven’t felt an impact of sequestration.”
It’s bad news for Congressional Republicans who championed the sequester for years before declaring a major victory when they got it, as they are hurting their own base and losing support for the cuts by enacting them: “Republicans are 14 points more apt than Democrats to say they’ve been harmed by the sequester. And among Republicans who’ve been hurt by the cuts, 68 percent disapprove of them. Among those unhurt, disapproval drops to 42 percent.”
While ideology has an impact on who approves of the cuts, with conservatives approving more than liberals, once the cuts hit them personally, ideology goes out the window, with 65% of conservatives impacted by the cuts disapproving of them: “Ideology has an effect: Forty-seven percent of “very” conservative Americans approve of the cuts, as do 42 percent of those who call themselves “somewhat” conservative. It’s 36 percent among moderates and 24 percent among liberals. But again, impacts of the cuts are a bigger factor in views on the issue. Among conservatives hurt by the cuts, 65 percent disapprove of them; among those unhurt, just 34 percent disapprove.”
The numbers are similar for Tea Partiers hit by the cuts, with 66% of them disapproving: “Similarly, 66 percent of Tea Party supporters who’ve been damaged by the cuts disapprove, vs. 44 percent of those who report no personal impact.”
The poll notes, “Support is far higher among those in these groups who haven’t felt an impact of sequestration.” Liberals often feel frustrated by what they see as the selfishness of conservative ideology. It seems disaster relief is not good for others, but is needed for conservatives, just as budget cuts that hurt the vulnerable are seen as unacceptable by liberals but necessary by conservatives, until the cuts are actually implemented and conservatives have to live with them.
Don’t expect your conservative Republican friends to suddenly develop a capacity for empathy just because these cuts are hitting them more than Democrats. And isn’t that odd, with Democrats opposing the cuts because they hit the vulnerable, or as conservatives call them, the “takers”. This poll shows that it takes experiencing something first hand for conservatives to grasp the impact on their life. If it happened to someone else, that’s still okay, because they deserve it for “failing to take responsibility for themselves.”
It’s all “reckless spending” and “don’t tread on me!” until Republicans feel the hits of spending cuts. Suddenly, they strongly disapprove of the spending cuts championed by their party. We’ve been told for years that they are the makers and this is “their” money. If that’s true, how did government cuts impact them by a larger percentage than Democrats?
They protest spending, but now they’re upset that they got their way. Hint for our conservative friends: That government spending for the “takers”? That’s you, apparently. Pardon us for trying to help.
Fox News Claims That US Government Rigged The 2012 Election For Obama
By: Jason Easley
May. 24th, 2013
Fox News has invented a new reason why Mitt Romney lost the election. They are claiming that government bureaucrats unfairly tilted the playing field for Obama in the 2012 election.
On Fox and Friends Stuart Varney said, “It’s bigger than the IRS. There’s a suspicion here that the machinery of government has been used to suppress conservatives. That the election in fact was not a level playing field. There was a tilt, and it was orchestrated by government bureaucrats. You just mentioned the EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, almost always when liberal groups apply for a waiver of document fees, they were granted that waiver. Conservative groups had to pay. Now that’s a form of financial pressure on conservative groups. Then you’ve got disaster relief funds. Four states, red states run by Republican governors, were denied disaster relief funds. Then you’ve got the IRS. It’s not just the tax exempt office. Conservative supporters, supporters of conservative groups, they were audited. Republican donors, audited. And there’s a consistent pattern here. So Republicans, conservatives are looking back over the last four years and saying there is a pattern. There is a pattern of going after conservatives which affected the election. The government bureaucracy was used as a hammer in a way that it was not supposed to be used.”
Brian Kilmeade claimed that it was hard to argue with these examples because there are actual living breathing people that have proof of it.
It is really easy to argue with Varney’s examples, because they are either not true or come from dubious sources. The claims about the EPA come from the Koch and Scaife funded Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). CEI’s mission is to shill for some of the biggest polluters in the country through climate change denial. In the 1990′s CEI was funded by the tobacco industry, and spearheaded tobacco disinformation campaigns. CEI opposes automobile fuel efficiency standards. CEI is anti-regulation, and is also funded by corporate giants like Ford and Coca-Cola. The source on Fox’s claims of EPA right wing persecution has a definite political agenda.
The claim that four red states have been denied disaster relief funds is dubious at best. These states were denied a disaster relief declaration but they received aid and support from FEMA in other ways. To make it sound as if they got nothing because they were conservative is not true. It is likely that the IRS audited or questioned more conservative donors, because conservative groups that received non-profit status outnumbered liberal ones 34 to 1. The odds of Republicans being audited are also higher because Republicans/conservative groups have a smaller donor base. Republicans rely on a few wealthy individuals to fund the majority of their activities. These individuals were donating heavily to dark money groups, which raised the suspicion of the IRS.
This was another example of Fox News trying to make excuses for Mitt Romney’s loss while building their factless case for Obama impeachment. Mitt Romney didn’t lose because Barack Obama used the government to rig the election. Romney lost because he was a terrible candidate who alienated everyone who wasn’t a conservative with his 47% comments.
Obama didn’t cheat to win reelection. He won despite numerous Republican efforts rig the election by suppressing the vote in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Fox News knows how to tap into their audience’s paranoia, and that’s exactly what they were doing here. Paranoia about government oppression is almost as old as American conservatism itself. Republicans can never accept the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency, so they continue to invent reasons for their defeat.
With this latest claim that the 2012 election was not fair, it is clear that Fox News is trying to build the Republican case for Obama impeachment.
Millions march against GM crops
Organisers celebrate huge global turnout and say they will continue until Monsanto and other GM manufacturers listen
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 26 May 2013 01.26 BST
Organisers say that two million people marched in protest against seed giant Monsanto in hundreds of rallies across the US and in more than 50 other countries on Saturday.
"March Against Monsanto" protesters say they wanted to call attention to the dangers posed by genetically modified food and the food giants that produce it. Founder and organiser Tami Canal said protests were held in 436 cities across 52 countries.
Genetically modified plants are grown from seeds that are engineered to resist insecticides and herbicides, add nutritional benefits, or otherwise improve crop yields and increase the global food supply. Most corn, soybean and cotton crops grown in the United States today have been genetically modified. But some say genetically modified organisms can lead to serious health conditions and harm the environment.
The use of GMOs has been a growing issue of contention in recent years, with health advocates pushing for mandatory labelling of genetically modified products even though the federal government and many scientists say the technology is safe.
The "March Against Monsanto" movement began just a few months ago, when Canal created a Facebook page on 28 February calling for a rally against the company's practices. "If I had gotten 3,000 people to join me, I would have considered that a success," she said Saturday. Instead, she said, two million responded to her message.
Together with Seattle blogger and activist Emilie Rensink and Nick Bernabe of Anti-Media.org, Canal worked with A Revolt.org digital anarchy to promote international awareness of the event. She called the turnout "incredible" and credited social media for being a vehicle for furthering opportunities for activism.
Despite the size of the gatherings, Canal said she was grateful that the marches were uniformly peaceful and that no arrests had been reported.
"It was empowering and inspiring to see so many people, from different walks of life, put aside their differences and come together today," she said. The group plans to harness the success of the event to continue its anti-GMO cause.
"We will continue until Monsanto complies with consumer demand. They are poisoning our children, poisoning our planet," she said. "If we don't act, who's going to?"
Monsanto, based in St Louis, said on Saturday that it respects people's rights to express their opinions, but maintained that its seeds improve agriculture by helping farmers produce more from their land while conserving resources such as water and energy.
The US Food and Drug Administration does not require genetically modified foods to carry a label, but organic food companies and some consumer groups have intensified their push for labels, arguing that the modified seeds are floating from field to field and contaminating traditional crops. The groups have been bolstered by a growing network of consumers who are wary of processed and modified foods.
The Senate this week overwhelmingly rejected a bill that would allow states to require the labelling of genetically modified foods.
The Biotechnology Industry Organisation, a lobbying group that represents Monsanto, DuPont & Co and other makers of genetically modified seeds, has said that it supports voluntary labelling for people who seek out such products. But it says that mandatory labelling would only mislead or confuse consumers into thinking products weren't safe, even though the FDA has said there is no difference between GMO and organic, non-GMO foods.
However, state legislatures in Vermont and Connecticut moved ahead this month with votes to make food companies declare genetically modified ingredients on their packages. And supermarket retailer Whole Foods Markets Inc has said that all products in its North American stores containing genetically modified ingredients will be labeled as such by 2018.
Whole Foods says there is growing demand for products that don't use GMOs, with sales of products with a "Non-GMO" verification label spiking between 15% and 30%.
Beirut hit by double rocket attack
Attack on Shia Muslim district in Lebanese capital injures five a day after Hezbollah says it will continue fighting in Syria
Reuters in Beirut
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 26 May 2013 10.22 BST
Two rockets have hit a Shia Muslim district of southern Beirut and wounded several people, residents have said, a day after the leader of Shia militant movement Hezbollah said his group would continue fighting in Syria until victory.
It was the first attack to apparently target Hezbollah's stronghold in the south of the Lebanese capital since the outbreak of the two-year conflict in neighbouring Syria, which has heightened Lebanon's own sectarian tensions.
One rocket landed in a car sales yard next to a busy road junction in the Chiah neighbourhood and the other hit an apartment several hundred metres away, wounding five people, residents said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility and the army said it was investigating who was behind the attack.
A Lebanese security source said three rocket launchers were found, one of which had misfired or failed to launch, in the hills to the south-east of the Lebanese capital, about five miles (8km) from the area where the two rockets landed.
The rocket strikes came hours after the Hezbollah leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, a powerful supporter of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, said his fighters were committed to the conflict whatever the cost.
"We will continue to the end of the road. We accept this responsibility and will accept all sacrifices and expected consequences of this position," he said in a televised speech on Saturday evening. "We will be the ones who bring victory."
Syria's two-year uprising has polarised Lebanon, with Sunni Muslims supporting the rebellion against Assad and Shia Hezbollah and its allies standing by Assad. The Lebanese city of Tripoli has seen frequent explosions of violence between majority Sunnis and its small Alawite community.
The French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, condemned the violence in Lebanon. He told reporters in Abu Dhabi on Sunday: "The war in Syria must not become the war in Lebanon."
Until recently, Nasrallah insisted Hezbollah had not sent guerrillas to fight alongside Assad's forces, but in his speech on Saturday he said it had been fighting in Syria for several months to defend Lebanon from radical Islamist groups he said were driving Syria's rebellion.
Hezbollah forces and Assad's troops launched a fierce assault last week aimed at driving Syrian rebels out of Qusair, a strategic town close to the Lebanese border that rebels have used as a supply route for weapons coming into the country.
Lebanese authorities, haunted by Lebanon's own 1975-90 civil war and torn by the same sectarian rifts as its powerful neighbour, have sought to pursue a police of "dissociation" from the Syrian turmoil.
But they are unable to prevent the flow into Syria of Sunni Muslim gunmen who support the rebels and Hezbollah fighters who support Assad, and have struggled to absorb nearly half a million refugees coming the other way to escape the fighting.
At least 25 people have been killed in Tripoli in the north of Lebanon over the past week in street fighting, which has coincided with the battle for Qusair across the border.
Nasrallah's speech was condemned by Sunni Muslim former prime minister Saad al-Hariri who said that Hezbollah, set up by Iran in the 1980s to fight Israeli occupation forces in south Lebanon, had abandoned anti-Israeli "resistance" in favour of sectarian conflict in Syria.
"The resistance is ending by your hand and your will," Hariri said in a statement. "The resistance announced its political and military suicide in Qusair."
Hariri is backed by Saudi Arabia, which along with other Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab monarchies has strongly supported the uprising against Iranian-backed Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Hezbollah leader vows to stand by Syrian regime in fight against rebels
Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah's comments come as Assad's forces and Hezbollah intensify campaign for town of Qusair
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 25 May 2013 20.34 BST
The leader of Hezbollah has warned that the fall of the Syrian regime would give rise to extremists and plunge the Middle East into a "dark period", and vowed that his Shia militant group will not stand idly by while its chief ally in Damascus is under attack.
In a televised address, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said Hezbollah members are fighting in Syria against Islamic extremists who pose a danger to Lebanon, and pledged that his group will not allow Syrian militants to control areas bordering Lebanon.
Nasrallah's comments marked the first time he has publicly confirmed that his men are fighting in Syria, and were his first remarks since Hezbollah fighters have become deeply involved in the battle for the strategic Syrian town of Qusair near the Lebanese frontier.
Hezbollah has been heavily criticised at home and abroad for sending fighters to Syria to fight along President Bashar al-Assad's forces. In his speech, Nasrallah sought to defend the group's deepening involvement, and frame it as part of a broader battle against Israel.
He also portrayed the fight in Syria as an "existential war" for anti-Israel groups including Hezbollah.
"Syria is the back of the resistance, and the resistance cannot stand, arms folded, while its back is broken," Nasrallah said.
"If Syria falls into the hands of America, Israel and the takfiris, the people of our region will go into a dark period," he said in a speech to mark the anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000. "If Syria falls, Palestine will be lost."
The term "takfiri" has become associated with an offshoot of the salafist movement, which condones violence to achieve ideological goals. Many of its practitioners embrace the teachings of al-Qaida.
Nasrallah's comments came as Syrian government forces and Hezbollah launched a fierce campaign on Saturday to seize more rebel territory in the town of Qusair.
Rebels fighting to topple Assad said additional tanks and artillery had been deployed around opposition-held territory in the Syrian town close to the Lebanese border.
"I've never seen a day like this since the battle started," said activist Malek Ammar. "The shelling is so violent and heavy. It's like they're trying to destroy the city house by house."
At least 30 people were killed in opposition-held areas on Saturday, most of them rebels, and dozens were injured, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Rebels are largely surrounded in Qusair, a town of 30,000 that has become a strategic battleground. Assad's forces want to take the area to secure a route between the capital Damascus and his stronghold on the Mediterranean coast, effectively dividing rebel-held territories in the north and south.
The opposition has been fighting back, seeing it as critical to maintain cross-border supply routes and stop Assad from gaining a victory they fear would give him the upper hand in proposed peace talks to be led by the US and Russia next month.
Assad's forces are believed to have seized about two-thirds of Qusair, but the price has been high and rebels insist that they are preventing any further advances.
Palestinian president says peace deal with Israel ‘still possible’
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, May 25, 2013 10:11 EDT
Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is “still possible”, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said on Saturday, hailing US Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to revive stalled talks.
In a speech to the World Economic Forum in the town of Al-Shunah on the banks of the Dead Sea in Jordan, Abbas called on Israel to “end the occupation of our lands”, evacuate settlements and free Palestinian prisoners.
“This is what will make peace and ensure security for you and for us,” he said.
The Palestinian leader praised Kerry’s latest efforts to revive peace negotiations with Israel, which stalled nearly three years ago.
“Recently, we have seen concrete actions and tangible attempts to restart the peace process through the efforts of US secretary Kerry, and that brings us hope,” he said.
Kerry on Friday urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to take “hard decisions” to restart talks at the end of his fourth visit to the region since he took office in February.
“It is clear that in the long run the status quo is not sustainable,” Kerry said at a Tel Aviv news conference, noting that the “one way” to peace was through direct talks.
A Palestinian official in Ramallah told AFP on Tuesday that Abbas would meet Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Kerry and a number of European foreign ministers on the sidelines of the forum.
May 25, 2013
Yemen Making Strides in Transition to Democracy After Arab Spring
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR
For more than two months, 565 people representing a cross section of Yemen’s population have gathered in a luxury hotel on the outskirts of Sana, the capital, trying to hammer out the shape a future government will take.
It is called the National Dialogue Conference, and it is the closest any of the 2011 Arab revolutions has approached to a peaceful, broad-based transition from despotism to democracy.
“It is the only negotiated transition that exists in the context of the Arab Spring,” said Jamal Benomar, the United Nations special adviser on Yemen. “It is a genuine process, nothing has been cooked in advance.”
President Obama focused renewed attention on Yemen last week with his speech on national security, both for the American drone attacks there and for the scores of Yemenis still held in the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. He said that he was lifting the moratorium against repatriating Yemenis, which was seen in Yemen as an endorsement of the national dialogue’s progress in creating more political stability.
More than half the remaining 166 prisoners are Yemenis, and among them 56 are low-level inmates long cleared to go home. They are expected to be transferred on a case-by-case basis. Mr. Obama had barred their repatriation after Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, or A.Q.A.P., a militant group based in Yemen, claimed responsibility for trying to blow up a passenger plane headed to Detroit in 2009.
The Yemeni government is hoping that the United States will help underwrite a new program to rehabilitate the detainees, said Rajeh Badi, a media adviser to Yemen’s president. Washington must provide evidence of wrongdoing if it wants any of them put on trial, Mr. Badi said. The fear that they might join extremist groups is “exaggerated,” he said.
A common sentiment among Yemenis is that the low-level detainees have suffered enough, and that the 56 due to be released are likely to pose little danger. Over all, there are about 90 Yemenis in Guantánamo, Mr. Badi said, and Yemeni officials doubt anyone still considered a real threat will be released.
But in Washington, critics of the Obama administration tend to focus on recidivism. Exact numbers for Yemen are vague, particularly since the estimated two dozen sent home previously faded away from any government oversight in the chaos of the 2011 revolution.
Perhaps the most spectacular example of recidivism is Said Ali al-Shihri, the deputy head of A.Q.A.P., who has been reported killed at least twice by the American and Yemeni governments, yet rises Lazarus-like each time. A Saudi repatriated from Guantánamo, Mr. Shihri fled to Yemen in 2008 after graduating from the Saudi rehabilitation program.
In Yemen, optimists laud the dialogue process as a successful — if messy and imperfect — attempt to forge a more representative political system. Pessimists fret that it is merely a lull in the violence that troubled the country until about a year ago, with explosive issues like the desire of the south to secede posing the threat of bloodshed.
“We have not gotten to the solution,” said Abdulghani al-Eryani, a political analyst and an adviser to the conference. But the dialogue “changed the political dynamic and the balance of power in the country,” he said.
He and others said they believed the dialogue could work in Yemen even though it failed elsewhere, most disastrously in Syria. First, the fragmentation of power, especially within the military, was such that no one faction thought it could prevail.
Second, a small group of elder statesmen cajoled the various factions into avoiding civil war. Third, the Arab Gulf states and the international community were united on Yemen. The United Nations Security Council was involved early, and it unanimously threatened international sanctions against anyone who threatened the peaceful transition.
“We finally got some benefit from being poor and insignificant,” Mr. Eryani said. “The international community is not fighting over interests in Yemen.”
But the problems of poverty, alienation, corruption, unemployment and weak or nonexistent government services, which spurred the revolution in the first place, have not evaporated, nor have powerful players retired.
Electricity shortages plague the capital, for example, because tribes angry at the lack of services cut the power lines. Saudi Arabia has provided assistance, but billions of dollars in aid pledged by Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have not been paid.
The southern secessionist movement is gaining steam, while the Houthis, a rebellious quasi-Shiite Muslim minority in the north, remain restless, although they joined the dialogue.
Al Qaeda has been chased from the territory that it ruled in the south, but it still carries out frequent attacks nationwide.
The national dialogue was supposed to address all those problems within six months after it started on March 18. Participants divided into nine specialized committees are forging a new constitution, and presidential and parliamentary elections are planned for February 2014. While they took to the task with gusto, the schedule is in doubt.
Most working groups “have not come to the so-called nitty-gritty,” said Abdul Karim al-Iryani, a former prime minister and one of the men who shaped the dialogue. “They are discussing general things.”
A plenary session is scheduled for June 8 to review progress, and many expect an extension of four to six months.
The biggest issue shadowing the dialogue is that most of the top political leaders in the south, an independent Marxist country before unification in 1990, are pushing for separation. Most are boycotting the dialogue, so if the conference agreed on a federal system, it is unclear whether they would accept it.
Among the political players, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for more than three decades, still leads the General People’s Congress, or G.P.C., the former ruling party that has not been disbanded and wields significant influence. Of 22 provincial governors, for example, 17 are still G.P.C. leaders.
Many analysts say they believe that Mr. Saleh, granted immunity for stepping down, is plotting a comeback through the elections. A G.P.C. victory would make him a kingmaker but would probably inspire a new street revolution, analysts said.
Islah, the Muslim Brotherhood branch in Yemen, is part of a coalition called the Joint Meeting Parties and so could probably not dominate a future government the way Islamist groups have in Egypt and Tunisia.
But the power-sharing agreement between the two main factions that paved the way to the national dialogue has subsequently spawned a form of paralysis. Each faction wants an equal share of government posts, which means, for example, that many ambassadors, including a new ambassador to Washington, have not been appointed because of endless haggling.
The military is plagued by personal, tribal and regional alliances, said April Longley Alley of the International Crisis Group. But it is the one area where the leader of the interim government, President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has promoted some reform.
A year ago, for example, checkpoints separated the fiefs of three military commanders in Sana. Those are gone, although some violence persists.
The dialogue participants stopped work in protest for one day last week after tribal gunmen killed two southern youths who had the temerity to try to overtake a wedding procession in Sana. “Remember, this is still a country where private citizens own tanks,” noted one diplomat.
Mr. Saleh’s son and heir, Ahmed, was retired as the head of the Republican Guard, which is being folded into the regular military. The military powers of Mr. Saleh’s main rival, Gen. Ali Mohsen, have also been curtailed, although he remains in the presidential palace as an adviser.
Yemenis and outside analysts worry that with those old rivalries bubbling under the surface, the former power brokers are not going to cede willingly to new players who have a role in the national dialogue, including women, youths and minorities. But so far the dialogue has balanced all those competing interests.
“They are not shooting at each other, they are not even shouting at each other, which is a good start,” said Fazli Corman, the Turkish ambassador to Yemen. “No one can stop the process.”