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Author Topic: Pluto in Cap, the USA, the future of the world  (Read 1083404 times)
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« Reply #3405 on: Dec 09, 2012, 08:17 AM »

09 December 2012 - 04H53 

Merkel rival bids to reinvigorate election campaign

AFP - Chancellor Angela Merkel's challenger for power in next year's German election will seek to re-energise his campaign on Sunday after a cash-for-speeches affair that threatened to torpedo his chances.

Delegates from the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) will officially hand Peer Steinbrueck, 65, a former finance minister, the unenviable task of toppling the popular Merkel, often called the world's most powerful woman.

Three months ago, party leaders nominated Steinbrueck as their candidate to challenge the conservative Merkel in elections expected on September 22 but his campaign has since misfired amid wave after wave of bad press.

He has struggled to get his challenge off the ground since revelations that he pocketed some 1.25 million euros ($1.63 million) in fees for making speeches at private functions and media described his speech Sunday as a defining moment.

"Steinbrueck needs a speech that people will later say began it all. The upturn in fortunes. The win in (state elections in) Lower Saxony. The triumph at the federal election," said Spiegel newsweekly in its online edition.

But the opinion polls show the scale of the task facing Steinbrueck, finance minister under Merkel between 2005 and 2009.

A poll released by ARD public television ahead of the party conference in the northern city of Hanover showed the SPD still languishing some nine points behind Merkel's conservative CDU and CSU sister party from Bavaria.

Germans do not directly elect their chancellor but if they could, 49 percent would plump for Merkel and only 39 percent would vote for Steinbrueck in the election, the poll showed, although the gap appears to be narrowing slightly.

A similar survey released on Thursday put the difference between them in the so-called "chancellor question" at a whopping 24 points, with Steinbrueck suffering especially from the speeches scandal.

"The SPD is coming from an extraordinarily difficult starting point," said Nils Diederich, political scientist at the Free University in Berlin.

Nevertheless, Steinbrueck, a gruff and punchy character from Germany's north, is expected to come out fighting and give a fiery speech after his nomination, reportedly set to last as long as 90 minutes.

While Merkel hails her government as "the most successful since reunification" in 1990, Steinbrueck has branded her cabinet the weakest in modern German history.

He told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily on the eve of his speech that he would aim to put "justice, freedom and solidarity" front-and-centre of his campaign.

"The financial crisis has cost us more than just money," he stressed.

Merkel has hesitated to really go after Steinbrueck, perhaps with the thought that they could yet be forced together again in a grand coalition.

But that has not stopped others in her party from licking their lips at the prospect of tackling a candidate who so far has struggled to get on the front foot.

"First of all the SPD had a bit of bad luck, and then along came Steinbrueck," quipped Volker Kauder, a close Merkel ally, to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.
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« Reply #3406 on: Dec 09, 2012, 08:20 AM »

December 8, 2012

A Family, for a Few Days a Year


GUATEMALA CITY — The little boy flies like an airplane through the hotel, his arms outstretched. Then he leaps like a superhero, beaming as the red lights on his new sneakers flash and flicker, while the American couple he is with dissolve in laughter.

He calls them Mamá and Papi. They call him Hijo — Son. He corrects their fledgling Spanish. They teach him English. “Awe-some,” he repeats carefully, eyeing his new shoes.

To outsiders, they look like a family. But Geovany Archilla Rodas, an impish 6-year-old boy with spiky black hair, lives in an orphanage on the outskirts of this capital city. The Americans — Amy and Rob Carr of Reno, Nev. — live a world away. They are the only parents he has ever known.

They have been visiting him every year, usually twice a year, since he was a toddler, flying into this Central American city for a few days at a time to buy him clothes and to read him stories, to wipe his tears and to tickle him until he collapses in giggles at their hotel or in the orphanage.

Yet half a decade after agreeing to adopt him, the Carrs still have no idea when — or if — they will ever take Geovany home.

“There’s this hope in you that doesn’t want to die,” said Mrs. Carr, who arrived here last month with her husband, more determined than ever to cut through the bureaucracy. “In my heart, he’s my son.”

The Carrs are among the 4,000 Americans who found themselves stuck in limbo when Guatemala shut down its international adoption program in January 2008 amid mounting evidence of corruption and child trafficking. Officials here and in Washington promised at the time to process the remaining cases expeditiously.

But officials and prospective parents say that bureaucratic delays, lengthy investigations and casework hobbled by shortages of staff and resources have left hundreds of children stranded in institutions for years. Today, 150 children — including Geovany — are still waiting in orphanages and foster homes here while the Guatemalan authorities weigh whether to approve their adoptions to families in the United States.

Stalled adoptions are not unique to Guatemala. Concerns about fraud, including allegations of kidnappings and baby selling, have held up American adoptions for months, and sometimes years, from Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam and Haiti. The State Department currently refuses to approve adoptions from Cambodia and Vietnam to pressure those countries to install safeguards so that children with biological relatives who can care for them are not shipped overseas, officials say.

But the problem of delayed adoptions is particularly acute in Guatemala, a country of about 14 million people, which in 2007 ranked second only to China in the number of children sent to the United States.

As officials here have spent months, and then years, trying to distinguish legitimate adoptions from fraudulent ones, many hopeful couples who had painted nurseries, hosted baby showers and bought brand new cribs began to despair as the infants they had hoped to adopt took their first steps and spoke their first words without them.

Faced with a seemingly endless process, scores of prospective parents quietly abandoned their efforts to adopt the children they once considered their own, officials say.

Guatemalan officials said they never intended for the children to remain institutionalized for so long. They say they have had to thoroughly investigate the cases, some of which are complicated by inconsistencies, false documents and questionable stories, to ensure that the children were not bought or stolen from impoverished rural women.

“These are very vulnerable people, who can be easily taken advantage of,” said Elizabeth Orrego de Llerena, president of the board of directors of the National Adoption Council, which is processing the adoption cases once they have been cleared by the child welfare investigative branch. “At times, they have not had the opportunity to make a complaint or to seek solutions.”

Ms. Orrego de Llerena said that the investigations, which typically include searches for biological relatives, were necessary to ensure that children were given up voluntarily.

“This is why, at times, the process takes longer,” said Ms. Orrego de Llerena, who added that her office was committed to finding permanent families for children as quickly as possible.

American officials counter that the process has taken long enough, noting that officials have published notices seeking out birth parents in local newspapers, have encouraged parents to report missing children and have sought out adoptive parents domestically.

They added that anomalies in case files often reflect complicated family situations, not corruption, pointing to instances in which unmarried teenagers and victims of rape and incest have lied about their identities or asked others to hand over their babies to protect themselves and their families from shame.

They say many judges and child welfare officials in Guatemala have delayed approving cases out of fear of increased government scrutiny and prosecution, not because the children should not be approved for adoption.

“I think these investigations have gone on long enough,” said Susan Jacobs, the State Department’s special adviser for children’s issues, who has traveled to Guatemala four times trying to resolve the backlog.

“If no one, after all this time, has come forward to say I want to give this child a home, I think the matches they have made in the past should be honored,” Ms. Jacobs said. “Just decide. Don’t leave these kids forever in institutions. It’s just wrong.”

Desperate for a resolution, the prospective parents have created Web sites and Facebook pages to highlight their plight, made costly visits to Guatemala to maintain their fragile bonds with their faraway sons and daughters, and pleaded with lawmakers and administration officials for help. They found a champion in Senator Mary L. Landrieu, Democrat of Louisiana, who has prodded American and Guatemalan officials to focus on their situation.

“It is unwarranted and unnecessary,” Ms. Landrieu said of the prolonged process.

Alejandro Mayorkas, director of United States Citzenship and Immigration Services, has also traveled to Guatemala to try to ease the logjam. Prospective parents hope that an agreement worked out by Guatemalan and American officials will speed the processing of the remaining cases.

But so far, only five adoptions have been made final this year. More than 100 cases remain unresolved, including Geovany’s, without any word of a concrete timeline.

A Test of Patience

In November, the Carrs packed a green suitcase full of socks, underwear, Legos and coloring books for Geovany and flew back for four full days here, determined to make some headway on their ninth trip to Guatemala in five years.

They arrived on a Friday evening at the Grand Tikal Futura Hotel, armed with a letter from their senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, and a plan to meet with their lawyer as well as officials at the National Adoption Council and the American Embassy.

And as they unpacked, they prayed that they would finally clear the last hurdles, even as they worried about the inevitable difficulties ahead.

The Carrs, who have three biological children, adopted their first child — a little girl named Samantha — from Guatemala without a hitch. They agreed to adopt Geovany in December 2007, just weeks before Guatemala closed its program. He was abandoned, their adoption agency told them. A clear-cut case.

They were told he would be home within six months, a toddler who would integrate relatively easily into their lives. They never dreamed that they would be trying someday to assimilate a Spanish-speaking boy who had grown up in an orphanage, or that they would be forced to confront the unexpected mysteries in his past.

Mrs. Carr, 42, who is a stay-at-home mother, and her husband, 43, who is a software engineer, firmly believe that God has called on them to give Geovany a home.

But they still wonder: How will Geovany cope in school without speaking English? How will he adjust to a life that is considerably more free-flowing than the regimented rhythms of the orphanage? And what about the impact of years of institutionalization?

Geovany, who has lived in an orphanage since he was an infant, shies away from hugs and kisses and rarely seeks comfort from adults if he is sad or hurt.

“If somebody had said to me five years ago, would you adopt a 6-year-old boy, I would have said no,” Mrs. Carr said. “There are a lot of pieces of this that do concern me. He doesn’t really know what family really means.”

But during their brief visit, there was little time to mull over such worries. A manager from the Remar Foundation, which runs the City of Children orphanage where Geovany lives, brought him to the hotel lobby on Saturday morning. He hurtled into Mr. Carr’s arms.

For four precious days, Geovany was no longer a child without parents, a face in the crowd among the nearly 300 children at the Remar orphanage. Instead, he was the center of attention as he pored over the Carrs’ family photos and greeted their children and parents in the United States using a video chatting program.

He stamped his feet in the new sneakers they bought for him and played pirates with Mr. Carr, jousting with brightly colored balloons, as they scrambled through their hotel room.

“Cha-cha!” Geovany shouted, slashing his orange balloon sword through the air.

Geovany shrugged uncertainly when asked whether he knew what the word adoption meant. But he spoke with confidence when asked about the Carrs, saying that they were his mother and father who lived in the United States with his brothers and sisters. He said he had never flown on an airplane and would like to try it.

Then he practiced adding their name to his own.

“Geovany Archilla Rodas Carrrr,” he said, rolling the r’s on the surname he hopes to take someday soon.

The Carrs tried to treasure the moments as the time flew by, counting down to the day when Geovany would return to the orphanage and they would have to fly back to Reno.

They alternated story time with Geovany with e-mails and phone calls to their lawyer, their interpreter and government officials, as they tried to set up the appointments they prayed would help them complete their adoption.

The Carrs no longer expect miracles. They know it is possible that they may never take Geovany home. But on this trip, they were determined to finally get what has long eluded them.

“Straight answers,” Mr. Carr said.

At their home in Reno, the uncertainty often feels unbearable.

Geovany is there, but not there. He is an ephemeral presence, peering out of a black frame that hangs on the wall alongside photos of all the Carr children. A group photo of the entire family, with Geovany when he was just a baby, sits on a shelf in the living room.

Their adopted daughter, Samantha, conjures him up in her evening prayers. And he occasionally slips into Mrs. Carr’s dreams or into her mind during the day when someone asks, unknowingly, unwittingly, how many children she has.

Mrs. Carr’s children are no longer surprised when they stumble across her weeping and wondering whether Geovany is sick or scared or feeling abandoned. She cannot help thinking of all the milestones she has missed: the day he spoke his first words, lost his first tooth, took his first bus ride to school.

The caseworkers at their adoption agency advised them several years ago to give up on the process. Even Mr. Carr has wondered at times how long they should continue to wait. In October, as they planned their trip here, Mr. Carr told his wife that he did not think he could do it again.

“I don’t want to go down and visit him and leave,” he recalled telling her before recommitting himself yet again to Geovany. “I said, ‘I’m just ready to quit.’ ”

A Tangled Background

It was not the journey that the Carrs envisioned when they first saw Geovany’s photograph. He was a baby boy in a battered, wooden crib with a runny nose and a missing sock. It was December 2007 and in the midst of completing the adoption of Samantha, the Carrs were studying the pictures of hundreds of children who were available for adoption, trying to decide whether to bring one last needy child home.

Mr. Carr stopped short when he saw the dark-eyed baby with the bare foot. He could not explain the wave of emotion that swept over him. But suddenly he was sure. “That boy needs a dad,” he said, “and I’m his dad.”

So the Carrs accepted Geovany on the spot, without worrying about the identity of his mother or how or why he had been deserted by his biological family. Their adoption agency assured them that the courts had issued a decree certifying that he had been abandoned, and that was good enough.

“We were thinking about bunk beds,” Mrs. Carr said. “We fully expected that he would be home before his second birthday.”

But the case stalled. First, they were told that there was a typo on their power of attorney form. Then in November 2008, they learned that their case was being investigated, because the woman who had given him up for adoption was not his birth mother.

Astonished, the Carrs turned to the only tangible link they had to Geovany’s past, an eight-page abandonment decree issued by the courts, which they had never read because it is in Spanish. To their dismay, they learned that Geovany’s story was not straightforward at all.

His surname in the records was different from the one that the adoption agency had given them. He was months older than they had been told. The court records said that he had been given up for adoption by a woman who had described him as her son. The woman agreed to take a DNA test to prove the relationship, but she vanished before the results came back. The test results showed that the woman was not Geovany’s mother.

Notices were placed in the newspapers calling on the woman, her relatives or anyone who knew anything about the child to come forward. No one responded.

Officials also checked with the national police, who reported that no child of Geovany’s description had been reported missing or kidnapped. Finally, Geovany was formally declared eligible for adoption.

The Carrs were dumbfounded. Who was this little boy? What was his real name? Who was his mother? Who was the woman who had given him up? No one knew.

American officials, who have reviewed all of the pending adoption cases, said that the Carrs’ case was similar to many of the others stuck in the pipeline here, filled with contradictory DNA test results, uncorroborated accounts, sloppy casework and unresolved mysteries.

Maybe Geovany’s mother was an unwed teenager, the Carrs thought, or a rape victim who had handed her child to someone else. If she had really wanted him, would she not have searched for him or visited him?

Those worries faded — only to be replaced by new ones — as the years passed without the birth mother’s re-emergence. In the end, the couple found some comfort in the fact that Geovany’s biological mother, whoever she is, never came looking for him.

“Sometimes you have questions that you don’t have answers to,” Mrs. Carr said. “You just have to keep going.”

She reminded herself of that in Guatemala after she and her husband and Geovany visited their lawyer. She arrived feeling hopeful. She left in tears.

A judge had certified that Geovany was eligible for adoption, but the decree was written up incorrectly, the lawyer said. It was likely that the National Adoption Council would reject it, and the Carrs would have to go back to court to have it reissued.

To make matters worse, there had been some confusion about the length of their visit, and as a result they would not be able to meet with anyone at the Adoption Council.

Geovany, who listened quietly as the legal discussion swirled around him, was somber after the meeting, which took place on a Monday afternoon. That evening, the Carrs told him that he would be going back home the next day.

“To the United States?” Geovany asked.

They shook their heads. To the orphanage, they said.

Mrs. Carr took a sleeping pill that night to ease the heartbreak. She reassured herself that Geovany would be fine. He was accustomed now to their comings and goings and the syncopated rhythms of their dislocated lives.

“It’s much easier for him than it is for us,” she said.

But Geovany did not sleep well in their hotel room that evening. On his last night before returning to the orphanage, he tossed and turned restlessly in his rollaway bed. Twice, they awoke to hear him crying.

How Many More Delays?

Nearly 300 children live in the sprawling orphanage that sits behind a black metal gate in the impoverished community of San Jose Villanueva. Ask Geovany and he will tell you that he was born here, even though the administrators know that is not true. It is the only home he has ever known.

Inside the compound, he shares the top floor of a spare house that bears the name, “The Love of God,” with other abandoned children.

Sofia Villanova, the house mother, was waiting for Geovany to return from his visit with the Carrs. She was bracing herself for the emotional turmoil she said she knew he would experience once the Americans were gone.

“Every time that they leave, he finds himself alone once again; he is sad, solitary, isolated,” Ms. Villanova said. “We try to give him the most support, the most love that we can. But it’s not the same as having parents. It takes time to reintegrate him to the routines of the house.”

The orphanage’s administrators say that none of Geovany’s blood relatives have come to visit him in all the years he has lived at the institution. No one, they said, knows who they are.

But on Tuesday, their last full day in Guatemala, as they settled in for a meeting with officials at the American Embassy who had reviewed their case file, the Carrs learned that the Guatemalan authorities had finally unraveled the mystery of Geovany’s origins. They had located Geovany’s birth mother.

Their adoption, the American officials told the couple, was delayed once again while Guatemalan caseworkers tried to reach the woman, who lives in a remote area. They wanted to give her a DNA test and to interview her to determine once and for all if she had voluntarily given up Geovany when he was a baby.

The Carrs were stunned. Their lawyer had not mentioned a word of this. It had been nearly four years since anyone had brought up Geovany’s birth mother. Geovany, unable to understand the conversation in English, sat quietly on Mr. Carr’s lap.

“My heart just sank,” Mr. Carr said. “Another hurdle. How many hurdles are we going to have to go through to get this kid home?”

Mrs. Carr thought fearfully about the stories she had heard from other prospective adoptive parents, about Guatemalan officials who forced birth families to accept their abandoned children, a charge that Guatemalan officials have denied.

Then she thought of that woman out there somewhere, Geovany’s mother.

“We love him,” Mrs. Carr said finally. “We want him to be a part of our family. But if there was a birth family out there who wanted to raise him, would that be better for him?”

Her shaky voice trailed off.

Geovany and the Carrs wept quietly in the hotel lobby when it was finally time for him to go, and they clung to each other on the bus ride back to the orphanage. But the little boy’s face brightened when he stepped into his house and received a hero’s welcome.

“Geovany!” the other boys shouted. “Geovany!”

Geovany proudly reintroduced the Carrs as his Mamá and Papi and opened his brand new Ben 10 backpack to share his goodies. He offered bites of cold pizza (saved from lunch) to his closest friends, glowsticks to everyone, and displayed the drawing that the Carrs’ daughter Samantha had made just for him.

“This is from my sister,” he told them.

Then Mrs. Carr began blowing up dozens of brightly colored balloons, twisting them into animal shapes and swords, transforming the orphaned and abandoned boys into a motley crew of rambunctious, swashbuckling pirates.

It was dark by the time the Americans finally said goodbye to Geovany and clambered back onto the bus. As they headed back to the hotel, they tried not to lose themselves in sorrow.

The months fly by so quickly, the Carrs reminded each other. Soon there would be Christmas to celebrate and the New Year and their children’s birthdays. And then it would be spring again, time to start planning another trip to Guatemala.

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« Reply #3407 on: Dec 09, 2012, 08:49 AM »

In the USA...

December 08, 2012 04:30 PM

Obama: Republican House Blocking Middle-Class Tax Cuts

By Diane Sweet

President Barack Obama said in his weekly address on Saturday urged House Republicans to extend the middle class income tax cuts for 98% of Americans and 97% of small businesses without delay, and made clear that a balanced approach to deficit reduction means that they -- and we all know this means John Boehner -- must agree to ask the wealthiest Americans to pay higher tax rates.

The Democratic-controlled Senate has approved the measure, but Obama said House Republicans have "put forward an unbalanced plan that actually lowers rates for the wealthiest Americans." Obama supports a plan to raise taxes on families earning more than $250,000.

    "Now, Congress can avoid all this by passing a law that prevents a tax hike on the first $250,000 of everybody’s income. That means 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses wouldn’t see their income taxes go up by a single dime. Even the wealthiest Americans would get a tax cut on the first $250,000 of their income. And families everywhere would enjoy some peace of mind."

    "The Senate has already done their part. Now we’re just waiting for Republicans in the House to do the same thing. But so far, they’ve put forward an unbalanced plan that actually lowers rates for the wealthiest Americans. If we want to protect the middle class, then the math just doesn’t work."

While Mr. Speaker mulls this all over, he might want to keep in mind that a new poll released Friday revealed that 48 percent of Americans trust Obama to come up with solutions to current economic problems, compared to just 32 percent who trust congressional Republicans to do the same. So come January, if that majority of Americans see their taxes raised, they certainly won't forget it the next time they head to the polls.

    "We can and should do more than just extend middle class tax cuts. I stand ready to work with Republicans on a plan that spurs economic growth, creates jobs and reduces our deficit – a plan that gives both sides some of what they want. I’m willing to find ways to bring down the cost of health care without hurting seniors and other Americans who depend on it. And I’m willing to make more entitlement spending cuts on top of the $1 trillion dollars in cuts I signed into law last year."

Mr. President, I really wish you would stop giving away benefits for the people who need them the most. The Republican congress would just as soon hit you over the head with the silver tray that you're trying to hand over those entitlement cuts on.

    "But if we’re serious about reducing our deficit while still investing in things like education and research that are important to growing our economy – and if we’re serious about protecting middle-class families – then we’re also going to have to ask the wealthiest Americans to pay higher tax rates. That’s one principle I won’t compromise on."

Here's the problem, the GOP does not care about anyone but America's wealthy few, -- we all know this -- isn't it time everyone let John Boehner know what they think of his obstruction? If you haven't contacted him yet, light up his phones on Monday morning.

Click to watch:


09 December 2012 - 03H58 

In game of fiscal chicken, top Republican in hot seat

AFP - With room for maneuver slipping away, top US Republican John Boehner is in a bind over how to avoid going over the fiscal cliff: embrace higher taxes and earn conservatives' ire, or scupper a deal and incur Americans' wrath.

Another option, one that few non-partisans see as very viable, is for President Barack Obama to cave in and agree to Republican demands not to raise taxes, even for the wealthiest Americans.

A likelier resolution is a compromise with the White House that avoids the early January shock of automatic spending cuts coupled with tax hikes on nearly all Americans, while laying out enough deficit reduction that eases concern about the country's financial well-being.

In the game of political chicken to see whether Democrats or Republicans blink first, perhaps the trickiest role of all rests with Speaker of the House Boehner, who along with Obama is the principal in the negotiations.

Boehner's guidance of the Republican position in coming days and weeks could signal much about party direction in the wake of an election that saw flagbearer Mitt Romney -- who advocated slashing tax rates across the board -- defeated by Obama.

"To say Boehner is between a rock and a hard place is minimizing the problem he faces," Boston University professor and longtime political consultant Tobe Berkovitz told AFP.

"Boehner is trying to keep public opinion about Republicans from totally cratering, and at the same time keep the Tea Party hardcore conservatives from totally abandoning the party."

Conservative Republican Trent Franks agrees that "our speaker is in an enormously difficult position."

"And I think he's doing the best he can," the congressman told National Public Radio. "That doesn't mean that what he finally arrives at will be something that I can support or it won't. You know, I don't know."

Few people other than Boehner and Obama know the true state of negotiations in what appears as a well-choreographed campaign to thrash out a last-minute deal.

Discussions appear to have stalled, though, and Boehner has accused Obama of having "wasted another week" by not pushing talks forward.

This weekend Boehner "will be waiting for the White House to respond to our serious offer about averting the fiscal cliff," his spokesman Michael Steel told AFP.

Obama has proposed $1.6 trillion in new taxes over the next decade from higher rates on the wealthiest two percent of Americans.

Republicans countered with a plan for $800 billion in tax revenue raised by closing loopholes and ending some deductions. Both plans were rejected.

A Democratic official said Saturday that "nothing has changed since yesterday."

Polls show most Americans want to see taxes rise on the wealthy.

With Obama winning re-election on November 6, and his Democrats gaining seats in both the House and Senate, Republicans concede privately -- and some publicly -- that the Democrats have the upper hand.

"President Obama pretty well holds all the cards in this negotiation," Republican Senator Ron Johnson told Fox News.

"If he wants to have tax increases or tax rates go up, I don't see how Republicans can stop him."

Public trust is not in Boehner's favor. A Washington Post/Pew poll this week showed 53 percent of Americans would blame Republicans should the economy dive off the cliff; 27 percent would blame Democrats.

In his weekly address Saturday, Obama said he was willing to find ways to reduce health costs and make more entitlement spending cuts, but as for asking "the wealthiest Americans to pay higher tax rates -- that's one principle I won't compromise on."

Potential future Republican leaders like Senator Marco Rubio are unlikely to want to bend to White House will.

Rubio, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, gave the Republican response to Obama's address -- and said "tax increases will not solve our $16 trillion debt."

Boehner has said that, too, but his position is tenuous. On Friday he left open the possibility for compromise on a tax rate rise.

In past negotiations, such as last December's battle over extending the payroll tax holiday, some Republicans felt Boehner gave away too much.

Hashtags on Twitter -- #boehnermustgo, #fireboehner -- have recently left little doubt that some Republicans are fed up with his handling of the talks.

With conservatives demanding unity on taxes, Boehner faces the prospect of revolt from his right flank should he agree to a deal that would raise high-end rates.

Berkovitz said Republicans face two options if they want to avoid the cliff: negotiate and compromise, or hold their noses and "give Obama what he wants. If it goes south, take the election victory in two years and maybe four years."


09 December 2012 - 08H12 

Rocky road ahead for implementation of Obamacare

AFP - President Barack Obama may have defeated opponents of his landmark health care law in the courts and at the ballot box, but the sweeping reforms still face a rocky road ahead.

Advocates are concerned that the funding needed to help expand coverage to 30 million uninsured Americans could take a hit in budget negotiations as Obama battles his Republican rivals over the so-called fiscal cliff tax and austerity crisis.

The implementation process is also expected to get messy as responsibility passes to the governors and health departments of the nation's 50 states, many of which are led by Republicans who have stridently sought to repeal the measure widely dubbed "Obamacare."

Republicans say the reforms, signed into law in March 2010, will increase costs, cause insurance premiums to rise and hurt the quality of health care.

They have especially taken issue with a key underpinning of the overhaul, an "individual mandate" requiring almost every US citizen to take out health insurance or be subject to a fine beginning January 1, 2014.

States have until December 14 to decide whether they want to set up health care exchanges that form one of the backbones of the Affordable Care Act -- or if they want the federal government to handle the matter.

These exchanges are meant to help those who will be required to purchase health insurance to choose between available plans and obtain information about subsidies.

If run properly, the exchanges can help lower costs for everyone by spreading the insurance risk and reducing the number of uninsured who end up racking up unpaid bills at hospital emergency rooms.

They also help insurance companies recover the cost of new rules -- also set to kick in on January 1, 2014 -- that will prevent them from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, increasing rates due to gender or health status, or placing annual caps on coverage.

"A lot of the reason we succeeded in Massachusetts is because we ran ads during Red Sox games telling people you have to sign up for health insurance," said John Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who helped design Obamacare and was a key architect of the northeastern state's 2006 reforms.

"The overall level of moral support of the enterprise -- which is pushing people to sign up, not undercutting the vision of the law -- that's something I'm worried about."

Another key aspect of the law that will be left up to states is whether to expand government-funded Medicaid programs that provide insurance to low-income children, adults, seniors and people with disabilities.

While federal funding will cover nearly all of the cost of expansion in the initial years, state budgets remain strained by the sluggish economy and some governors may reject the funding for political purposes.

"The politics are still percolating," said Andrew Hyman, of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a health care advocacy group.

Efforts to repeal the law collapsed when Republicans failed to defeat Obama or take control of the US Senate in the November 6 election.

While some legal challenges remain, the law's core principles were upheld by the Supreme Court in June.

However, congressional Republicans can still use oversight powers to try to complicate implementation while governors will have even more stalling power.

"To do this right requires an all-out, full bore engagement on the part of the governor, and without that I do worry about what the states will be able to accomplish," Hyman told AFP.

"The road ahead is going to be difficult, but the great thing is we're making important strides and people who have been hurt in the past because of our broken system are going to be significantly better off when the law goes into full effect."

The Obama administration is quick to point out that millions of people have already been helped by aspects of the law that have already taken effect.

Children can no longer be denied coverage on their parent's plans due to pre-existing conditions.

Insurance companies can no longer place lifetime caps on coverage or withdraw coverage because of a simple mistake on their application form.

Some 3.1 million people got coverage after new rules required insurance companies to let them stay on their parent's plans until the age of 26, instead of losing coverage after they graduated from high school or college.

Seniors are getting reimbursed for some of their drug costs while insurance companies can no longer charge cost-sharing 'co-pays' for many preventative health care services.

Meanwhile, insurance companies have to justify significant rate hikes and must send out rebate checks if they spend more than 20 percent of their funds on administrative costs.


December 8, 2012

New Taxes to Take Effect to Fund Health Care Law


WASHINGTON — For more than a year, politicians have been fighting over whether to raise taxes on high-income people. They rarely mention that affluent Americans will soon be hit with new taxes adopted as part of the 2010 health care law.

The new levies, which take effect in January, include an increase in the payroll tax on wages and a tax on investment income, including interest, dividends and capital gains. The Obama administration proposed rules to enforce both last week.

Affluent people are much more likely than low-income people to have health insurance, and now they will, in effect, help pay for coverage for many lower-income families. Among the most affluent fifth of households, those affected will see tax increases averaging $6,000 next year, economists estimate.

To help finance Medicare, employees and employers each now pay a hospital insurance tax equal to 1.45 percent on all wages. Starting in January, the health care law will require workers to pay an additional tax equal to 0.9 percent of any wages over $200,000 for single taxpayers and $250,000 for married couples filing jointly.

The new taxes on wages and investment income are expected to raise $318 billion over 10 years, or about half of all the new revenue collected under the health care law.

Ruth M. Wimer, a tax lawyer at McDermott Will & Emery, said the taxes came with “a shockingly inequitable marriage penalty.” If a single man and a single woman each earn $200,000, she said, neither would owe any additional Medicare payroll tax. But, she said, if they are married, they would owe $1,350. The extra tax is 0.9 percent of their earnings over the $250,000 threshold.

Since the creation of Social Security in the 1930s, payroll taxes have been levied on the wages of each worker as an individual. The new Medicare payroll is different. It will be imposed on the combined earnings of a married couple.

Employers are required to withhold Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes from wages paid to employees. But employers do not necessarily know how much a worker’s spouse earns and may not withhold enough to cover a couple’s Medicare tax liability. Indeed, the new rules say employers may disregard a spouse’s earnings in calculating how much to withhold.

Workers may thus owe more than the amounts withheld by their employers and may have to make up the difference when they file tax returns in April 2014. If they expect to owe additional tax, the government says, they should make estimated tax payments, starting in April 2013, or ask their employers to increase the amount withheld from each paycheck.

In the Affordable Care Act, the new tax on investment income is called an “unearned income Medicare contribution.” However, the law does not provide for the money to be deposited in a specific trust fund. It is added to the government’s general tax revenues and can be used for education, law enforcement, farm subsidies or other purposes.

Donald B. Marron Jr., the director of the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution, said the burden of this tax would be borne by the most affluent taxpayers, with about 85 percent of the revenue coming from 1 percent of taxpayers. By contrast, the biggest potential beneficiaries of the law include people with modest incomes who will receive Medicaid coverage or federal subsidies to buy private insurance.

Wealthy people and their tax advisers are already looking for ways to minimize the impact of the investment tax — for example, by selling stocks and bonds this year to avoid the higher tax rates in 2013.

The new 3.8 percent tax applies to the net investment income of certain high-income taxpayers, those with modified adjusted gross incomes above $200,000 for single taxpayers and $250,000 for couples filing jointly.

David J. Kautter, the director of the Kogod Tax Center at American University, offered this example. In 2013, John earns $160,000, and his wife, Jane, earns $200,000. They have some investments, earn $5,000 in dividends and sell some long-held stock for a gain of $40,000, so their investment income is $45,000. They owe 3.8 percent of that amount, or $1,710, in the new investment tax. And they owe $990 in additional payroll tax.

The new tax on unearned income would come on top of other tax increases that might occur automatically next year if President Obama and Congress cannot reach an agreement in talks on the federal deficit and debt. If Congress does nothing, the tax rate on long-term capital gains, now 15 percent, will rise to 20 percent in January. Dividends will be treated as ordinary income and taxed at a maximum rate of 39.6 percent, up from the current 15 percent rate for most dividends.

Under another provision of the health care law, consumers may find it more difficult to obtain a tax break for medical expenses.

Taxpayers now can take an itemized deduction for unreimbursed medical expenses, to the extent that they exceed 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income. The health care law will increase the threshold for most taxpayers to 10 percent next year. The increase is delayed to 2017 for people 65 and older.

In addition, workers face a new $2,500 limit on the amount they can contribute to flexible spending accounts used to pay medical expenses. Such accounts can benefit workers by allowing them to pay out-of-pocket expenses with pretax money.

Taken together, this provision and the change in the medical expense deduction are expected to raise more than $40 billion of revenue over 10 years.


December 8, 2012

Arithmetic on Taxes Shows Top Rate Is Just a Starting Point


WASHINGTON — Despite hints in recent days that President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner might compromise on the tax rate to be paid by top earners, a host of other knotty tax questions could still derail a deal to avert a fiscal crisis in January.

The math shows why. Even if Republicans were to agree to Mr. Obama’s core demand — that the top marginal income rates return to the Clinton-era levels of 36 percent and 39.6 percent after Dec. 31, rather than stay at the Bush-era rates of 33 percent and 35 percent — the additional revenue would be only about a quarter of the $1.6 trillion that Mr. Obama wants to collect over 10 years. That would be about half of the $800 billion that Republicans have said they would be willing to raise.

That calculation alone suggests the scope of the other major tax issues to be negotiated beyond tax rates. And that is why many people in both parties remain unsure that a deal will come together before Jan. 1. Without agreement, more than $500 billion in automatic tax increases on all Americans and cuts in domestic and military programs will take hold, which could cause a recession if left in place for months, economists say.

“The question is making sure that we hit a revenue target that’s required for a truly balanced deficit-reduction plan,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee. “And when the president and all of us say this is a question of math, we mean it. It’s very hard to make the numbers work without the top rates going back to the full Clinton-era levels.”

The top tax rates are taking center stage right now because Mr. Obama believes he won a mandate after campaigning relentlessly on the idea of extending Mr. Bush’s tax cuts only for households with annual income below $250,000. But the two parties also have ideological differences on taxes affecting savings, investment and inheritance, which have flared in battles going back to the Reagan years. To get a deal in the coming weeks, those differences must be addressed at least in broad terms, even if the details are left to a battle over revamping the tax code next year.

The argument over rates is far from settled. Although the two sides seem close enough on the percentages for easy compromise, principle and politics loom large: Republicans oppose raising rates as a matter of ideology, saying that it kills jobs, and the president insists that he will not keep the Bush-era rates on income above roughly $250,000 after two campaigns in which he vowed to return them to the levels of the Clinton years.

“Just to be clear, I’m not going to sign any package that somehow prevents the top rate from going up for folks at the top 2 percent,” he said Thursday.

In recent days, comments from some Republicans, including Mr. Boehner, their chief negotiator, have hinted that the party — recognizing its weak hand — might be moving toward a concession on tax rates. Seldom mentioned is that Mr. Obama’s revenue total also reflects four other changes from Bush-era tax cuts: higher tax rates on investment income from capital gains and dividends, and the restoration of two other Clinton-era provisions limiting deductions and tax exemptions for affluent individuals.

Together those changes would raise $407.4 billion over a decade — nearly as much as the president’s proposal on higher rates, which would raise $441.6 billion by 2023, for a total of $849 billion. Another $119 billion would come from higher estate taxes, opposed by Republicans and some Democrats.

And both the president and Republicans are committed to raising hundreds of billions of dollars by overhauling the tax code to further limit or end the tax breaks that high-income taxpayers can claim, though they differ in how to do that.

Republicans want to raise all $800 billion from overhauling the tax code, erasing tax breaks for high-income households and using the new revenues both to reduce deficits and to lower everyone’s tax rates. But they have not proposed how to do that, and the president insists it cannot be done without hitting middle-income taxpayers.

Mr. Obama has proposed to keep existing tax breaks but to limit the rate of those breaks for people in higher tax brackets to 28 percent, which would raise $584 billion in a decade. He has proposed variations of that proposal for four years, only to be ignored by both parties because of opposition from charitable groups, the housing industry, insurers and others to curbing deductions for charitable giving, mortgage insurance and other purposes.

Yet both parties seem poised to confront that opposition because they want a budget deal to commit Congress and the White House to overhaul the tax code next year. That is another reason Mr. Obama wants to have the top rates as high as possible: The lower the rates now, the harder it would be to raise revenues next year in overhauling the code.

Some Republicans inside and outside of Congress agree. “Actually, I would rather see the rates go up than do it the other way because it gives us greater chance to reform the tax code and broaden the base in the future,” Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, said last week.

Roughly splitting the difference on the top rates — settling at 35 percent and 37 percent — would collect nearly $200 billion over 10 years, under half the amount that would be raised if the rates reverted to Clinton-era levels, according to data from Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, research groups that advocate for a progressive tax code.

In the years of debate over the Bush tax cuts, which predates Mr. Obama’s first election, $800 billion has been the rough estimate for how much revenue could be raised in the first decade by ending them for the highest-income 2 percent of taxpayers. But most attention focused on the top rates, which account for half of the revenue equation.

The remainder would come from the other four tax changes for Americans with the highest income, two raising taxes on investment income from capital gains and dividends and two restoring restrictions on the itemized deductions and exemptions claimed by high earners.

Under Mr. Obama’s plan, the tax rates for long-term capital gains and dividends, now 15 percent, would revert to 20 percent for capital gains and to 39.6 percent for dividends, the same as for ordinary income. Republicans oppose the increases, and Senate Democrats oppose the proposed tax on dividends; their bill would tax both dividends and capital gains at 20 percent.

People in both parties say that the four tax issues can be readily worked out. Mr. Obama is widely expected to give ground on the main sticking point, the dividends tax. Yet that would mean roughly $100 billion less in additional revenue over 10 years than his current proposal for the higher dividend tax.

Another dispute is over estate and gift taxes. Here again Democrats are divided within as well as against Republicans, and big money is at stake — $118.8 billion through 2022 under Mr. Obama’s plan, or $143.3 billion counting assorted other adjustments.

Currently, a two-year-old bipartisan compromise holds that inheritances are taxed at 35 percent, with an exemption of $5 million for each spouse. On Jan. 1 that will revert to a 55 percent tax beyond the first $1 million of inheritance. Mr. Obama is seeking a middle-ground 45 percent rate beyond $3.5 million, but some Democrats from states with large farms and ranches favor lower estate taxes.

All of these tax issues await some agreement on the core issue of marginal rates. And a final accord on taxes rests on separate questions of spending being settled — Republicans will not give further on raising revenues until they know what Democrats will agree to by way of long-term reductions in spending for Medicare and other fast-growing entitlement benefit programs.


How a Fiscal Impasse, in 1990, Was Broken

Dec 9, 2012

WASHINGTON — Back when leaders led, followers followed and the news media made less noise, the commanding figures of American government retreated to Andrews Air Force Base to forge a bipartisan budget compromise.

That 11-day summit meeting failed — despite the threat of deep automatic spending cuts, and despite the top Republican’s acknowledgment that taxes had to go up.

A smaller group of negotiators later struck a deal inside the Capitol. That failed, too — defeated on the House floor by a coalition of liberal and conservative rebels.

History now recalls those events in the fall of 1990, and the agreement Congress eventually enacted, as the opening chapter of Washington’s long, successful climb out of the deficit hole of the 1980s. And they offer a perspective on the current stalemate between a White House and a Congress struggling to repeat that achievement.

“There is a flow to these things,” said William Hoagland, who was a top Senate Republican aide during the earlier negotiations. The bigger the deal, the greater the turbulence.

“There always seems to be little cooperation for a long time,” said Robert Reischauer, a Democrat who led the Congressional Budget Office then. “And then things come together relatively rapidly.”

That does not mean President Obama, Speaker John A. Boehner and other main players will succeed in achieving a consensus to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff. Neither Mr. Hoagland nor Mr. Reischauer voice much optimism.

But the 1990 experience provides a reminder that high-stakes budget negotiations can sometimes include high-velocity shifts from despair to deliverance. The prospect of an across-the-board increase in tax rates and automatic spending cuts, which could tip the economy back into recession, and a potential showdown over the debt limit next year provide powerful incentives for a breakthrough.

Similar forces helped propel the deal in 1990. The talks began in spring as annual budget deficits, which had topped $200 billion before declining during the latter part of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, rose over that mark again under President George Bush.

A group of foreign central bankers visiting Washington warned Mr. Bush that he needed to strike a deal with the Democrats who controlled both houses of Congress. Without one, an earlier budget-reduction law was about to trigger automatic cuts even deeper than the so-called sequester looming now.

But the Republican president, long before Grover Norquist became famous, was hamstrung by his own unequivocal no-new-taxes pledge. Once Mr. Bush abandoned it — embracing higher revenues, though not higher rates, just as Mr. Boehner has — negotiations quickened.

Yet at the time the pace felt glacial. After talks in a Senate office building failed, participants moved to Andrews to escape the media spotlight.

Eventually, a smaller group of just eight negotiators, meeting in Speaker Thomas S. Foley’s office, produced a $500 billion deficit reduction package that included $134 billion in taxes and substantial cuts in Medicare. Then Republican conservatives, led by Representative Newt Gingrich, joined liberal Democrats in blowing it up.

After a six-month slog, the White House, offering fewer spending cuts and more tax increases, won over enough Democrats to enact it. “The final agreement was reached largely out of exhaustion and convenience,” former Senator Pete V. Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, said at a recent panel discussion.

By some measures, this White House and Congress ought to be able to move faster. Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner began their postelection discussions having gone through all the labor of their near-miss “grand bargain” talks last year.

The president’s chief of staff, Jacob J. Lew, has experience in fiscal negotiations, including the 1983 deal between Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Reagan on Social Security and the 1997 budget-balancing agreement between President Bill Clinton and Republicans.

But those eras were different. The two major parties were more ideologically disparate and less polarized. That extended from legislative leaders through the ranks of their staffs, which could quietly explore potential solutions with higher levels of trust and discretion.

“It allowed you to test things without risk” that premature publicity would quash them, said Sheila Burke, then the chief of staff for the Senate Republican leader, Bob Dole.

As unwelcome as news coverage could be, it was a whisper compared with the nonstop 21st-century din on television and online. The talks took place as Mr. Bush prepared for war with Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait, substantially diverting public attention, whereas today the fiscal talks dominate the news.

The result: talks today combine louder public posturing with less-productive staff work behind the scenes.

“We’re facing a much tougher and more difficult challenge than we had in 1990,” Mr. Foley said at the panel discussion.

The Republican Party’s anti-tax wing is stronger now. No one has forgotten that President Bush lost his 1992 re-election bid after breaking his no-tax pledge.

Even two values that all parties should be able to agree on — transparency and accountability — represent new obstacles.

Staff members and interest groups alike have ready access to sophisticated analyses of tax and spending changes, which they can use to instantly mobilize opposition.

And memories of this fall’s campaign are still fresh. Though independent observers say a deal requires both Medicare cuts and higher taxes, Mr. Obama and Democrats ran as Medicare’s protectors, Republicans as unflinching foes of tax increases.

“The more details you have, the harder it is to reach agreement,” Mr. Reischauer said. And “we’ve just been through an election in which the members promised not to do what they have to do.”


December 8, 2012

Clinton’s Countless Choices Hinge on One: 2016


You’re one of the most famous women on earth, and you’re jobless for the first time in decades. You’d like to make money, but you don’t want to rule out running for president. So what do you do all day?

Right now, aides and friends say, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s plan looks like this: exit the State Department shortly after Inauguration Day and then seclude herself to rest and reflect on what she wants to do for the next few years. Those who have invited her for 2013 engagements have been told not to even ask again until April or May.

She and her husband would like to buy a house in the Hamptons or upstate New York, several friends said, and Mrs. Clinton will finally have more time for everyday activities like exercise (last summer, between world crises, she was squeezing in 6 a.m. sessions at a pool with a trainer).

She is likely to use her husband’s foundation as at least a temporary perch, several former aides said, and she has been considering a new book — not a painful examination of her failed 2008 presidential bid, as she once proposed, but a more upbeat look at her time as secretary of state.

For the moment, Mrs. Clinton may appear to be a figure of nearly limitless possibility, and her name has come up for prestigious jobs: president of Yale University, head of George Soros’s foundation. But being Hillary Clinton is never a simple matter, and her next few years are less a blank check than an equation with multiple variables. Her status is singular but complicated: half an ex-presidential partnership, a woman at the peak of her influence who will soon find herself without portfolio, and an instant presidential front-runner (a title that did not work out well last time).

Mrs. Clinton may find that her freedom comes with one huge constraint. The more serious she is about 2016, the less she can do — no frank, seen-it-all memoir; no clients, commissions or controversial positions that could prove problematic. She will be under heavy scrutiny even by Clinton standards, discovering what it means to be a supposedly private citizen in the age of Twitter. With the election four years away — a political eon — she will have to tend and protect her popularity, and she may find herself in a cushy kind of limbo, unable to make many decisions about her life until she makes the big one about another White House try.

“If you’re thinking about running for president, does that affect everything else?” asked former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, who once agonized over the same choice and whose son Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo may find his own prospects shaped by what Mrs. Clinton decides. “Yes. Once you make your decision, everything clears up.”

Still, Mrs. Clinton faces some immediate choices, which nearly two dozen current and former aides, friends and donors described:

¶ Should she team up with her husband again?

Last summer, Bill Clinton expressed doubt about whether his wife would join forces with him at the foundation that bears his name. “She has to decide what’s best for her,” he said in an interview. “It might be better for her and she might have a bigger impact if she has a separate operation.”

The question is a fraught one. The climactic moment of Mrs. Clinton’s career came in 2000, when after years of supporting her husband’s campaigns and jobs, she struck out as a solo artist. Would rejoining his team be a step backward? Many aides said no. “She’s revered and admired as her own person,” said Lissa Muscatine, her longtime adviser.

Still, some former aides said it was difficult to imagine Mrs. Clinton comfortable at the foundation in its current form. It is organized entirely around the former president, the endowment is small, and even supporters acknowledge that it lacks the organization of, say, the Gates Foundation. The group has made strides lately, with a new director of fund-raising and more involvement from Chelsea Clinton.

Mrs. Clinton could do a trial run there, “testing the structure,” as one former aide put it. That way, she would have a home for the longtime advisers who are expected to stay with her. And by joining her husband’s operation, she could save the considerable time, money and effort it would take to start her own — which might be disbanded anyway if she runs in 2016.

¶ Should she do what she wants or what makes the most political sense?

Of all the issues Mrs. Clinton has worked on over the years, the one nearest her heart is improving the status of women and children around the world. As the first lady of Arkansas, she brought Dr. Muhammad Yunus, later a Nobel Peace Prize winner, to set up a microlending program there. She turned her tenure as secretary of state into a sustained argument that women’s welfare is central to security and economic stability, championing projects like milk cooperatives in Malawi and support networks for self-employed women in India. Now her desire is to be “a professional advocate,” as her daughter put it to a reporter.

Ann Lewis, a longtime adviser, echoed that. “In the last four years, she has seen firsthand the difference she can make for women and girls,” she said.

But even if Mrs. Clinton returns full time to her activist feminist roots, it is not yet clear exactly where she would begin: the topic is diffuse by its very nature. Nor is a campaign for, say, safer cookstoves in China the obvious way to win over voters in Iowa — and her work could touch on issues, including reproductive health, that could prove sensitive.

But former aides say that Mrs. Clinton drew a lesson from her 2008 run: she believes that the country approves of her, and of female candidates in general, when they appear to be serving others rather than seeking power out of personal ambition. By that logic, Mrs. Clinton’s interest in helping poor women around the world would not hurt her politically in 2016 and might add to her current politician-above-politics luster.

Her former aides also agree that she was too cautious in the early months of her last campaign and hurt herself by hiding her real passions. Regardless of whether she runs, telling Mrs. Clinton not to focus on women would be like “telling Al Gore not to talk about the environment,” said Paul Begala, a longtime adviser to Mr. Clinton. (Mr. Gore did not always emphasize his knowledge on the subject in 2000, which later looked unwise.)

¶ What is the most dignified way for her to make money?

Being a Clinton is expensive, and when the former secretary leaves office, she’ll want a staff and the ability to travel on private planes, friends say. The Clintons — who already own costly homes in Washington and Chappaqua, N.Y. — love renting in the Hamptons in the summer, according to friends, and buying their own home there could easily run well into the seven figures. Though friends say Mrs. Clinton could easily make a lot of money at a law firm, advising foreign countries on geopolitical risk, or at an investment bank or a private equity firm, none of those pursuits would be likely to wear well in a presidential campaign.

Instead, Mrs. Clinton is expected to take on lucrative speaking engagements — maybe even joint speeches with her husband, which could command record prices — and write one or more books. After she lost in 2008, she was on the cusp of signing with her old publishing house, Simon & Schuster, for a book about her failed bid, for slightly less than the $8 million advance she earned for her 2003 memoir, “Living History,” according to someone involved in the negotiations. In meetings to discuss the book, that person recalled, she was quite critical of Mr. Obama. But then he drafted her for his Cabinet — and it is unclear if she will ever share her true feelings about that race.

¶ How should she navigate the nonstop speculation about 2016?

For her last presidential run, Mrs. Clinton declared her candidacy nearly two years before Election Day — but the timing did not feel right to her, because it made the race endless, say former aides who hint she would wait much longer if she made a bid again.

The enormously disciplined Mrs. Clinton has stuck to the same story in public and private: She’s not running. That is what she told Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and an old friend, when she and her family dined with him recently, according to Mr. Wiesel. Others close to her emphasize that no one knows otherwise, not even Mrs. Clinton herself. “Be very wary of those pretending to bear actual knowledge,” said Philippe Reines, her State Department spokesman.

Bill Clinton, however, sometimes cannot keep himself from verbally gaming out another campaign for her, said a friend who recently spent time with him. “Every indication is that he would really want her to run,” the friend said.

The speculation is not without its advantages. If Mrs. Clinton is not running, she is a widely respected figure whose chief accomplishments are mostly behind her; if she may be running, she glows with White House and historic potential. “Nobody interacts with Hillary Clinton like she’s fading off into the sunset,” Mr. Reines said.

Michael Barbaro and Amy Chozick contributed reporting.


December 7, 2012

Dinosaurs and Denial


Finally, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida — a Tea Party darling and possible 2016 presidential candidate — admits that dinosaurs and humans didn’t co-exist.

Last month, when GQ asked Rubio “how old do you think the Earth is?” he stammered through an answer.

“I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says. I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians.” He continued, “Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.”

This week, in an interview with Politico, he attempted to mop up that mess.

He said, “There is no scientific debate on the age of the Earth. I mean, it’s established pretty definitively. It’s at least 4.5 billion years old.”

But then he hedged: “I just think in America we should have the freedom to teach our children whatever it is we believe. And that means teaching them science. They have to know the science, but also parents have the right to teach them the theology and to reconcile those two things.”

Why the hedge? Because he is in a party of creationists. According to a June Gallup report, most Republicans (58 percent) believed that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. Most Democrats and independents did not agree.

This anti-intellectualism is antediluvian. No wonder a 2009 Pew Research Center report found that only 6 percent of scientists identified as Republican and 9 percent identified as conservative.

Furthermore, a 2005 study found that just 11 percent of college professors identified as Republican and 15 percent identified as conservative. Some argue that this simply represents a liberal bias in academia. But just as strong a case could be made that people who absorb facts easily don’t suffer fools gladly.

Last month, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said on CNN:

“We need to stop being the dumb party. We need to offer smart, conservative, intelligent ideas and policies.”

This is exactly the kind of turn the Republicans need to take, but Jindal’s rhetoric doesn’t completely line up with his record. As The Scotsman of Edinburgh reported in June, “Pupils attending privately run Christian schools in the southern state of Louisiana will learn from textbooks next year, which claim Scotland’s most famous mythological beast is a living creature.” That mythological beast would be the Loch Ness monster.

The Scotsman continued: “Thousands of children are to receive publicly funded vouchers enabling them to attend the schools — which follow a strict fundamentalist curriculum. The Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) programme teaches controversial religious beliefs, aimed at disproving evolution and proving creationism. Youngsters will be told that if it can be proved that dinosaurs walked the Earth at the same time as man, then Darwinism is fatally flawed.”

This is all because of a law that Jindal signed. Thankfully, last week a state judge ruled that the voucher program is unconstitutional. But Louisiana isn’t the only red state where creationism has state support.

Kentucky has a Creationist Museum that warns visitors to “be prepared to experience history in a completely unprecedented way,” according to its Web site. It continues: “Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden. Children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s Rivers.” Unprecedented is certainly one word for it.

Now the museum group is planning to build a creationist theme park, with $43 million in state tax incentives. It should be noted that Mitt Romney won Kentucky by 23 points last month. President Obama won only four of Kentucky’s 120 counties.

And the beginning of the world isn’t the only point of denial. So is the potential end of it. A March Gallup poll found that Republicans were much less likely than Democrats or independents to say that they worried about global warming. Only 16 percent of Republicans said that they worried a great deal about it, while 42 percent of Democrats and 31 percent of independents did.

This as the National Climatic Data Center reported that “the January-November period was the warmest first 11 months of any year on record for the contiguous United States, and for the entire year, 2012 will most likely surpass the current record (1998, 54.3°F) as the warmest year for the nation.”

Surely some of this is because of party isolationism and extremism and what David Frum, the conservative columnist, called the “conservative entertainment complex.” But there is also willful ignorance at play in some quarters, and Republicans mustn’t simply brush it aside. They must beat it back.

If the Republicans don’t want to see their party go the way of the dinosaurs, they have to step out of the past.


December 8, 2012

‘Famous’ Wolf Is Killed Outside Yellowstone


Yellowstone National Park’s best-known wolf, beloved by many tourists and valued by scientists who tracked its movements, was shot and killed on Thursday outside the park’s boundaries, Wyoming wildlife officials reported.

The wolf, known as 832F to researchers, was the alpha female of the park’s highly visible Lamar Canyon pack and had become so well known that some wildlife watchers referred to her as a “rock star.” The animal had been a tourist favorite for most of the past six years.

The wolf was fitted with a $4,000 collar with GPS tracking technology, which is being returned, said Daniel Stahler, a project director for Yellowstone’s wolf program. Based on data from the wolf’s collar, researchers knew that her pack rarely ventured outside the park, and then only for brief periods, Dr. Stahler said.

This year’s hunting season in the northern Rockies has been especially controversial because of the high numbers of popular wolves and wolves fitted with research collars that have been killed just outside Yellowstone in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Wolf hunts, sanctioned by recent federal and state rules applying to the northern Rockies, have been fiercely debated in the region. The wolf population has rebounded since they were reintroduced in the mid-1990s to counter their extirpation a few years earlier.

Many ranchers and hunters say the wolf hunts are a reasonable way to reduce attacks on livestock and protect big game populations.

This fall, the first wolf hunts in decades were authorized in Wyoming. The wolf killed last week was the eighth collared by researchers that was shot this year after leaving the park’s boundary.

The deaths have dismayed scientists who track wolves to study their habits, population spread and threats to their survival. Still, some found 832F’s death to be particularly disheartening.

“She is the most famous wolf in the world,” said Jimmy Jones, a wildlife photographer who lives in Los Angeles and whose portrait of 832F appears in the current issue of the magazine American Scientist.

Wildlife advocates say that the wolf populations are not large enough to withstand state-sanctioned harvests and that the animals attract tourist money. Yellowstone’s scenic Lamar Valley has been one of the most reliable places to view wolves in the northern Rockies, and it attracts scores of visitors every year.

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Al Jazeera

Can Ethiopia and Eritrea finally find peace?

After years of hostility between the countries, Ethiopia's new prime minister explains why he is willing to start talks.

The Horn of Africa is one of the most important strategic locations in the world. Control the area, and you control the Red Sea, critical for global trade connecting Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

But border disputes between regional arch-rivals Eritrea and Ethiopia - which have been running ever since Eritrea broke free from Ethiopia in 1991 - threaten the stability of the area.

Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia after a 30-year struggle that is considered to be among the continent's longest and most bitter.

The animosity between the two sides frequently spills over into neighbouring countries like Somalia and Kenya.

No Ethiopian leader has held talks with Isaias Afewerki, the Eritrean president, since the end of their bitter border war in 2000, during which at least 70,000 people died.
That is, until now.

Hailemariam Desalegn, the new Ethiopian prime minister who has been in office for only three months, says he is willing to talk to the Eritrean president.

In an exclusive interview with Talk to Al Jazeera he explains: "If you ask me 'Do you want to go to Asmara [the Eritrean capital] and sit down and negotiate with Isaias Afewerki?', then I will say 'yes'."

When asked if there was a real opportunity to forge closer links between the two countries following the death of Meles Zenawi, the former Ethiopian prime minister, in August, Desalegn answered: "My predecessor Meles Zenawi had asked for more than 50 times even to go to Asmara and to negotiate with Isaias Afewerki.

"The most important thing for us is fighting poverty. The most important thing for us is having regional integration. If we two, we do that, it will be much more productive."

Desalegn also talks about how he plans to move Ethiopia and the region forward.

Click to watch:


Zenawi: The titan who changed Africa

Will the death of Zenawi destabilise the Horn of Africa and derail the African Union's agenda for peace and security?

At 23:40 local time, the Ethiopian prime minister was declared dead, the consequences of a mysterious infection that had international policymakers and Ethiopian citizens concerned about his health for weeks. The disappearance of the man who had ruled from Addis Ababa for the past two decades - having come to power through guerrilla war against the communist Derg regime - has unleashed speculation regarding likely successors and an internal power struggle inside the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Less attention is being paid to the regional fallout of the death of this African titan - though the consequences of Meles' demise for the future of millions of Africans could be profound.

The food crises of the 1980s and hundreds of thousands of dead exemplified how the nation that was once Africa's pride - having never been colonised by white Europeans - found itself on its knees when the ERPDF established its hegemony in May 1991. Disintegration of the country and a further meltdown looked like real possibilities, in conjunction with bloody wars raging in Sudan and Somalia. Yet, within ten years, Ethiopia's new rulers put the state back on its feet and went from being a marginal regional player to an international force to be reckoned with.

Meles rapidly became an international statesman: He was hailed by Bill Clinton as the prime exponent of "Africa's new generation of leaders" in 1998; he sat on Tony Blair's Commission for Africa in 2004-2005; and represented the African Union in climate change negotiations since 2009. Boosted by relative political stability and spectacular - if deeply uneven - economic growth at home, the former guerrilla leader from Tigray transformed Ethiopia from an object of international pity into a powerful actor that has commended increasing global attention. 
 Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi dies at 57

Controversial foreign policy

Meles' controversial foreign policy has been anchored in a vision of a resurgent Ethiopia, "finally" fulfilling its historical destiny to cast off the shackles of poverty and lead the African continent: domestic and regional ambitions were always closely entwined in the mind of the premier and his ERPDF coalition. On the one hand, Meles understood that forging regional alliances and acquiring international legitimacy would boost the Ethiopian economy and consolidate ERPDF rule in Addis. On the other hand, he saw a domestically secure Ethiopia as uniquely capable of masterminding Africa ridding itself of the epithet "the hopeless continent". 

Despite his Marxist-Leninist ideological heritage, Meles established a crucial partnership with Washington in the early 1990s, becoming America’s junior sheriff in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia played a key role between 1995 and 1998 in the US regime change strategy for Sudan, committing thousands of soldiers to fight with the rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) against the military-Islamist regime in Khartoum.

Later, during the "war on terror", Ethiopia manipulated Washington's fears about failed states and Islamism to get US backing for an invasion of Somalia to quash the Union of Islamic Courts which was trying to reunite the country. Today, the US is reportedly using military facilities in Southern Ethiopia for drone operations against the extremists of al-Shabab. Hundreds of millions of dollars in bilateral aid have been Addis' reward for this alliance; no wonder Meles once called the war "something of a godsend" in a conversation with Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter.

Tens of thousands of people died as a result of the wars of the ERPDF - in Sudan, in Somalia and in the 1998-2000 conflict with Eritrea, the "war of brothers" between Meles Zenawi and Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki. Zenawi and Afewerki are relatives, former comrades-in-arms and intellectual rivals; the confrontation between Asmara and Addis was not solely caused by the bitter competition between two of Africa's most intelligent and ruthless heads of government, but it was certainly intensified and prolonged due to this animosity.

Meles Zenawi remained a communist guerrilla fighter in his politics and occasionally paraphrased Joseph Stalin: once you have resolved what your political ends are, the means to get there are also justified.

Yet Meles' legacy is not just one of domestic economic resurgence and conflict in the Horn of Africa. In recent years, he also emerged as a regional peacemaker, an invaluable broker between seemingly irreconcilable enemies. Many observers agree that Ethiopia's role in Somalia has become more constructive, contributing to a more effective handling of al-Shabab and new hopes for the fragile government in Mogadishu.

Strong Ethiopian agenda

Above all, Meles has personally overseen extensive diplomatic efforts to peacefully manage the secession of South Sudan. Since 2010, military-Islamist Khartoum and the SPLA/M from Juba have been talking to each other in Ethiopia, with Meles' patronage as a powerful force backing African Union mediation efforts. When all-out war threatened to re-erupt over the region of Abyei, Ethiopian peacekeepers poured into a conflict theatre where few others dared to thread, stabilising the most explosive part of the north-south border. 

The Ethiopian leader, whose long standing personal ties with the Sudanese protagonists date back to the 1980s, was the only regional interlocutor respected and listened to by both Khartoum and Juba. If total war between Sudan and South Sudan still hasn't materialised, Ethiopian diplomacy deserves considerable credit for that.

No contemporary African leader was considered more impressive by his African Union peers than Meles. Underpinning his new push for peace and security in the Horn of Africa was, as always, a strong Ethiopian agenda. Meles envisaged the emergence of Ethiopia as regional hegemon through energy diplomacy.

Ethiopia's hydropower potential is estimated around 40,000 to 45,000 megawatts. The office of the prime minister led the development of a hyper-ambitious dam programme that would electrify the nation and enable the export of thousands of megawatts to energy-hungry neighbours such as Kenya, (South) Sudan and, yes, Egypt.

For decades, Cairo, Khartoum and Addis were locked in geopolitical proxy wars - with the former two trying to maintain their disproportionate share of Nile waters at the expense of the latter. Meles' peace and security agenda was the crowbar he needed to launch his energy diplomacy strategy.

Regional integration through tying the Horn of Africa to Ethiopia via electricity connections will be financially lucrative, if Addis can get the devilish technical aspects of the mission right; it would also shift the regional political point of gravity to Ethiopia for years to come.

The EPRDF elite is at pains to stress that the death of the prime minister does not in any way imply that his vision of a strong Ethiopia in a strong Africa will be altered. Both his immediate successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, and Meles' long-time de facto deputy Seyoum Mesfin (co-designer of the security and energy policy as minister of foreign affairs for almost two decades) fully supported Zenawi's grand ambitions. Ethiopia's skilled corps of diplomats is well placed to continue working for the Pan-Africanist ideas set out by the deceased leader.

However, this vision will now have to be pursued without its creator and chief implementer - a man in whom many outsiders and insiders trusted personally to deliver the quasi-impossible. Ethiopia's objectives will probably remain the same for the foreseeable future, mixing domestic priorities with international manoeuvring.

But it is doubtful whether Africa's oldest nation will be as successful in achieving them without Meles Zenawi and his outstanding intelligence, shrewd political skills and uncanny ability to navigate different worlds without much difficulty. Meles was always one of the ERPDF's greatest strengths. The vacuum he now leaves behind also reveals the dangers of Ethiopia's - and the African Union's - dependence on him in leading the region's turbulent politics.


Life after Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi

He was praised for bringing economic growth to one of Africa's poorest nations, but was it at the cost of democracy?

Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, died on Monday at the age of 57 after more than two decades in power.

While thousands lined the streets of the capital, Addis Ababa, to pay their respects to a politician they saw as a visionary and fearless leader - there are others who regarded him in a less favourable light.

Zenawi was a close ally of the West and the US in particular - Ethiopia received nearly $4bn in foreign aid last year and a total of $6.23bn from the US alone over the past decade.

"I'm optimistic that there will not be a leadership crisis. There is a little bit of ambiguity in the constitution that allows for a leadership change … he has made plans for some kind of a reasonable, stable succession and I believe that will take place."

- David Shinn, a former US envoy to Ethiopia

Although a carefully groomed successor is due to take over some fear that in the absence of Zenawi's particular skills the country could begin to fragment.

Under his leadership, Ethiopia carved out a major role for itself in Africa and beyond - mediating in conflicts and assuming a lead position within the African Union. It is a role, analysts now say, Ethiopia will find difficult to fulfill.

The Ethiopian parliament has been recalled from recess to swear-in Zenawi's successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, the deputy prime minister, who will most likely lead Ethiopia until 2015, when the current term of the ruling party comes to an end.

Zenawi has been praised for bringing development and economic growth to one of Africa's poorest nations but his critics say that came at the cost of respect for democracy and human rights.

Ethiopia is ranked 174th out of 187 countries in the UN Development Programme's 2011 Index, which measures life expectancy, education and living standards.

"It is not clear if Hailemariam will have the full authority of the prime minister, he's trying to fit into a big shoe that was left by a man who ruled the country for 21 years as an authoritarian, as a very skilled politician .... Hailemariam lacks the experience and the political base."

- Jawar Mohammed, a researcher at Colombia University

His economic policies - which mixed a large state role with private investment - helped the country achieve economic growth rates of as much as 12.6 per cent - the fastest growing non-oil exporting country in sub-Saharan Africa.

Despite this, the average annual income is only about $3 a day.

The country also remains heavily dependent on agriculture, which accounts for 85 per cent of employment.

Human rights groups have condemned a system in which political opposition and the media have been stifled. That repression was codified in 2009 by legislation that led to dozens of opposition figures being arrested and numerous journalists charged.

Opposition members also accused Zenawi of rigging the 2005 election. In subsequent demonstrations at least 200 people were killed by the army and police force. And leaders of the opposition group that contested the election were sentenced to life imprisonment on treason charges.

So, will there be a leadership crisis in Ethiopia after Zenawi's death?

To discuss this Inside Story, with presenter Mike Hanna, is joined by guests: David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia between 1996 and 1999; Jawar Mohammed, a researcher at Colombia University and a political commentator on Ethiopian affairs; and Farah Abdul Samed, a specialist on the Horn of Africa at Chatham House.

Click to watch:

Click to watch a documentary on the history of Ethiopia:

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« Reply #3409 on: Dec 10, 2012, 07:36 AM »

12/10/2012 02:01 PM

Ponta Re-Elected: Romanian Vote Does Little to End Political Standoff

For months, Europe has been observing the political stalemate in Romania with concern. Sunday's parliamentary election was hardly the relief EU leaders were waiting for. With Prime Minister Victor Ponta emerging victorious, his bitter battle with the president will likely continue.

Many had hoped that Sunday parliamentary elections in Romania might show a way out of the damaging rivalry between the country's prime minister and president that has paralyzed the country for months. Such hopes, however, proved to be in vain, with official results indicating that the country's ruling party has scored a landslide victory, taking nearly three-fifths of the seats in parliament and up to 60 percent of the total vote.

The result seems likely to escalate the embittered showdown between Prime Minister Victor Ponta and President Traian Basescu even as Romania is struggling to pay debts, grappling with corruption and dealing with massive anti-austerity protests. Prior to the vote, Basescu said he would not appoint Ponta prime minister should Ponta's Social Liberal Union party come out ahead, a continuation of a power struggle the two have been engaged in for months. But Sunday's results could make the pledge a difficult one to uphold.

"We won a clear majority, a majority recognized by our adversaries who have to accept the rules of democracy," Ponta said on Sunday evening. "I assure them we will treat the opposition with the respect that we did not get when we were in opposition."

Of particular concern is an expiring, €5 billion between Romania and the International Monetary Fund. A successor agreement must be found by early 2013 and any delay could be damaging to the country's already fragile economy and currency. The good of the country, however, has not always been at the forefront as Ponta and Basescu, whose party took less than 17 percent of Sunday's vote, have bickered at the highest possible level in a battle over power, corruption and the future of democracy in Romania.

Resolution to the 'Civil War'?

Ponta, who plagiarized sections of his Ph.D. thesis and padded his resume with fake master's degrees, spent much of the early part of the year attempting to engineer Basescu's impeachment, a bid which only failed because turnout for a referendum on the president's future fell just short of the 50 percent minimum. Of those who voted, an overwhelming majority were in favor of Basescu's ouster, though the president had asked his supporters to boycott the vote.

Ponta has likewise called Basescu, a "scorpion that kills everything around him," the "biggest liar in Romanian history" and a "man without shame or honor."

Though Ponta said he would accept the results of the impeachment referendum in an interview with SPIEGEL, he later attempted to get the voter turnout changed and struggled through a scandal that saw his interior minister resign as a result of an effort to get 2 million Romanians abroad stricken from voting rolls.

Ponta said on Sunday he hopes the political "civil war" will be solved by the vote. But, Basescu's presidential post does not expire until 2014 and he is now tasked with appointing a prime minister. Still, given that parliament must approve Basescu's choice, it seems unlikely he would be able to nominate anyone other than Ponta. Furthermore, a continuation of hostilities would only further antagonize a Romanian populace that has expressed frustration, in comments and at the polls, with the current state of political fighting.

They aren't the only ones. Ponta was sharply criticized by the European Union during his machinations aimed at toppling Basescu, particular moves that many interpreted as an overstepping of his constitutional powers. In July, the EU blasted Romania in its regular progress report on the country.

"Events in Romania have shaken our trust," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said at the time. It remains to be seen whether Sunday's election is the first step toward restoring that faith.

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« Reply #3410 on: Dec 10, 2012, 07:38 AM »

10 December 2012 - 10H46  

Georgia, Russia 'to hold first direct talks since war'

AFP - Georgia and Russia are to hold first their direct diplomatic talks since the arch-foes severed ties after the 2008 war over the separatist region of South Ossetia, Georgia's foreign minister said Monday.

Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili's special representative for Russia Zurab Abashidze will meet Russian diplomats "this week in Europe," Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze told journalists, declining to specify the location.

"We may not expect any concrete positive outcome from this meeting, but the fact that a first meeting takes place is already positive," she added.

Georgia and Russia have not had diplomatic relations since the brief 2008 war and the Kremlin refuses to have any dealings with President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Ivanishvili made normalising ties with Russia his foreign policy priority after his Georgian Dream coalition defeated Saakashvili's party in a parliamentary election two months ago.

He has however vowed to maintain Saakashvili's pro-Western course and continue Georgia's bid to join NATO and the European Union -- an ambition strongly opposed by Russia.

Moscow has stationed thousands of troops in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia since recognising them as independent after the war -- a move that Tbilisi and its Western allies regard as occupation.

Since the war, Russian and Georgian diplomats meet regularly in Geneva for talks hosted by the United Nations, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

The talks have not so far resulted in any major decisions or compromises.


Originally published December 10, 2012 at 5:26 AM   

Georgia a crossroads for black-market Russian nuclear material

Associated Press

BATUMI, Georgia —

On the gritty side of this casino resort town near the Turkish border, three men in a hotel suite gathered in secret to talk about a deal for radioactive material.

The Georgian seller offered cesium, a byproduct of nuclear reactors that terrorists can use to arm a dirty bomb with the power to kill. But one of the Turkish men, wearing a suit and casually smoking a cigarette, made clear he was after something even more dangerous: uranium, the material for a nuclear bomb.

The would-be buyers agreed to take a photo of the four cylinders and see if their boss in Turkey was interested. They did not know police were watching through a hidden camera. As they got up to leave, the police rushed in and arrested the men, according to Georgian officials, who were present.

The encounter, which took place in April, reflected a fear shared by U.S. and Georgian officials: Despite years of effort and hundreds of millions of dollars spent in the fight against the illicit sale of nuclear contraband, the black market remains active in the countries around the former Soviet Union. The radioactive materials, mostly left over from the Cold War, include nuclear bomb-grade uranium and plutonium, and dirty-bomb isotopes like cesium and iridium.

The extent of the black market is unknown, but a steady stream of attempted sales of radioactive materials in recent years suggests smugglers have sometimes crossed borders undetected. Since the formation of a special nuclear police unit in 2005 with U.S. help and funding, 15 investigations have been launched in Georgia and dozens of people arrested.

Six of the investigations were disclosed publicly for the first time to The Associated Press by Georgian authorities. Officials with the U.S. government and the International Atomic Energy Agency declined to comment on the individual investigations, but President Barack Obama noted in a speech earlier this year that countries like Georgia and Moldova have seized highly enriched uranium from smugglers. An IAEA official, who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to comment, said the agency is concerned smuggling is still occurring in Georgia.

Four of the previously undisclosed cases, and a fifth - an arrest in neighboring Turkey announced by officials there - occurred this year. One from last year involved enough cesium-137 to make a deadly dirty bomb, officials said.

Also, Georgian officials see links between two older cases involving highly enriched uranium, which in sufficient quantity can be used to make a nuclear bomb. The AP's interviews with the two imprisoned smugglers in one case suggested that the porous borders and the poverty of the region contributed to the problem.

The arrests in the casino resort of Batumi stand out for two reasons: They suggest there are real buyers - many of the other investigations involved stings with undercover police acting as buyers. And they suggest that buyers are interested in material that can be used to make a nuclear weapon.

"Real buyers are rare in nuclear smuggling cases, and raise real risks," said nuclear nonproliferation specialist Matthew Bunn, who runs Harvard's Project on Managing the Atom. "They suggest someone is actively seeking to buy material for a clandestine bomb."

The request for uranium raises a particularly troubling question.

"There's no plausible reason for looking for black-market uranium other than for nuclear weapons- or profit, by selling to people who are looking to make nuclear weapons," said Bunn.


Georgia's proximity to the large stockpiles of Cold War-era nuclear material, its position along trade routes to Asia and Europe, the roughly 225 miles (360 kilometers) of unsecured borders of its two breakaway republics, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the poverty of the region may explain why the nation of 4.5 million has become a transit point for nuclear material. Georgian officials say the radioactive material in the five new cases this year all transited through Abkhazia, which borders on Russia and has Russian troops stationed on its territory.

Abkhazia's foreign ministry said it has no information about the Georgian allegations and would not comment, but in the past it has denied Georgian allegations.

Russia maintains that it has secured its radioactive material - including bomb-grade uranium and plutonium - and that Georgia has exaggerated the risk because of political tension with Moscow. But while the vast majority of the former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal and radioactive material has been secured, U.S. officials say that some material in the region remains loose.

"Without a doubt, we are aware and have been over the last several years that not all nuclear material is accounted for," says Simon Limage, deputy assistant secretary for non-proliferation programs at the U.S. State Department. "It is true that a portion that we are concerned about continues to be outside of regulatory control."

U.S. efforts to prevent smuggling have prioritized bomb-grade material because of the potential that a nuclear bomb could flatten a U.S. city. But security officials say an attack with a dirty bomb - explosives packed with radioactive material - would be easier for a terrorist to pull off. And terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, have sought the material to do so. A study by the National Defense University found that the economic impact from a dirty bomb attack of a sufficient scale on a city center could exceed that of the September 11, 2011, attacks on New York and Washington.

The U.S. government has been assisting about a dozen countries believed to be vulnerable to nuclear smuggling, including Georgia, to set up teams that combine intelligence with police undercover work. Limage says Georgia's team is a model for the other countries the U.S. is supporting.

On Jan. 6, police arrested a man in Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, and seized 36 vials with cesium-135, a radioactive isotope that is hard to use for a weapon. The man said he had obtained the material in Abkhazia. In April, Georgian authorities arrested a group of smugglers from Abkhazia bringing in three glass containers with about 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of yellowcake uranium, a lightly processed substance that can be enriched into bomb-grade material.

"At first we thought that this was coincidence," said Archil Pavlenishvili, chief investigator of Georgia's anti-smuggling team. "But since all of these cases were connected with Abkhazia, it suggests that the stuff was stolen recently from one particular place. But we have no idea where. "

Days later, more evidence turned up when Turkish media reported the arrest of three Turkish men with a radioactive substance in the capital, Ankara. Police seized 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of cesium-135, the same material seized in January in Tbilisi.

Georgian officials said the suspects were residents of Germany and driving a car with German plates, but that the material had come from Abkhazia. Turkish authorities said the men had entered Turkey from Georgia. Information provided by German authorities led to the arrest in June of five suspects in Georgia with 9 vials of cesium-135 that looked very similar to the vials seized in January.

The Batumi investigation started after the arrest of two men in the city of Kutaisi in February 2011 year with a small quantity of two radioactive materials stolen from an abandoned Soviet helicopter factory, according to Georgian officials. The men said that a businessman, Soslan Oniani, had encouraged them to sell the material.

Police interviewed Oniani and searched his house, but found insufficient evidence to arrest him, according to officials. Still, they kept monitoring him through phone taps and an informant. Georgian officials say Oniani was a braggart, who played on his relationship with his cousin, Tariel Oniani, a well- known organized crime boss convicted in Russia of kidnapping.

Early this year, Soslan Oniani started talking about a new deal. Through surveillance and phone taps, police learned of the meeting in Batumi and monitored it. While no money passed hands, the men discussed an illegal deal, which is sufficient for prosecution in Georgia.

Tests by Georgian authorities later revealed that one lead cylinder held cesium-137, two strontium-90, and the fourth spent material that was hard to identify. All are useful for making a dirty bomb, although the material in the cylinders alone was not enough to cause mass casualties, according to data provided by Georgian nuclear regulatory authorities.

The arrested Turks denied knowing they were negotiating for radioactive substances. They claimed to be musical instrument experts, who had come to Batumi seeking to buy violins.

A skeptical interrogator asked them if they were familiar with the famed instrument maker Stradivarius.

One man said he had never heard of him.

The two Turks and the seller, Oniani, were convicted in September in a Georgian court, according to officials, and sentenced to six years in prison each.


The Georgian smuggling cases suggest that the trade in radioactive materials is driven at least in part by poverty and the lingering legacy of Soviet corruption in a hardscrabble region. Georgian officials say that because of U.S. backed counter-smuggling efforts, organized crime groups seem to have concluded that the potential profit from trade in these materials doesn't justify the risk. But individuals sometimes conclude they can make a quick buck from radioactive material.

For instance, in one newly disclosed case last year, authorities arrested two Georgian men with firearms, TNT and a lethal quantity of cesium-137. One was a former Soviet officer in an army logistics unit, who told police that at the end of his service in the early 90s, he had made a second career stealing from the military.

"He openly said: `I was a logistics officer and my second duty was to steal everything possible," according to Pavlenishvili.

The man kept the cesium for years before he and a relative tried to sell it last year to a Georgian undercover officer. He did not try to sell the weapons or explosives.

Poverty and corruption also appear to have played into three smuggling incidents in 2003, 2006 and 2010 that involved bomb-grade highly enriched uranium.

In 2003, an Armenian man, Garik Dadaian, was arrested when he set off a radiation detector provided by an American program at a checkpoint on the Armenian-Georgian border. Days later, the man was released and returned to Armenia under murky circumstances.

Dadaian's name resurfaced in 2010 on a bank transfer slip in the pocket of the two smugglers arrested with highly enriched uranium. The men had obtained the material from Dadaian and were offering it as a sample of a larger quantity. Police say forensic analysis suggests the uranium may have come from the same batch seized in 2003.

Russian investigators suspected Dadaian got the nuclear fuel from a manufacturing plant in Novosibirsk, Russia, where several disappearances of material have been documented. Pavlenishvili said Dadaian bribed prosecutors to win his release and take some of the uranium.

The two smugglers in the 2010 case were Sumbat Tonoyan, a dairy farmer who went bankrupt, and Hrant Ohanian, a former physicist at a nuclear research facility in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. The AP interviewed both at a prison about 25 miles (40 kilometers) outside Tbilisi, where they are serving sentences of 13 and 14 years.

In separate interviews, each man blamed the other for the idea of smuggling uranium, and talked of financial hardship. Ohanian said his daughter needed urgent medical care that he couldn't afford, and Tonoyan said a bank had seized his house after his dairy factory collapsed.

"I didn't have a job and I couldn't pay the bank," he said in Russian through an interpreter.

The men also claimed they believed the material they were selling was to be used for scientific work, not nefarious purposes. Ohanian said a Georgian contact, who was also arrested, told him relations with Moscow were so bad that Georgian scientists could not get the uranium they needed from Russia on the open market.

"I feel guilty because I behaved like an idiot," he said. "I should have known and I would never do something like this again."

« Last Edit: Dec 10, 2012, 08:50 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #3411 on: Dec 10, 2012, 07:41 AM »

Ghanian president-elect urges respect for disputed vote results

By Agence France-Presse
Monday, December 10, 2012 7:25 EST

Ghana’s John Dramani Mahama urged respect for results giving him victory in presidential polls after the opposition alleged fraud in a nation trying to uphold its image as a model African democracy.

There were no reports of trouble on the streets of the west African nation’s capital Accra on Monday morning after the closely fought polls that led to mounting tension ahead of the announcement of the results late Sunday.

Celebrations broke out after the results announcement, with hundreds of ruling party supporters gathering in the streets, blowing horns, dancing and waving flags.

“I call on all leaders of all political parties to respect the voice of the people,” incumbent Mahama, only in office since the death of his predecessor in July, said in a victory speech. “The voice of the people is the voice of God.”

The stakes of the election held over Friday and Saturday were especially high in a country with a booming economy fuelled partly by a new and expanding oil industry.

Results compiled by local media had early Sunday pointed to a Mahama win, leading the opposition to strongly reject them, alleging fraud and claiming it had evidence that its candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo, was the real winner.

According to the electoral commission, Mahama won with 50.70 percent of the votes cast, compared to Akufo-Addo’s 47.74 percent. With eight candidates in the race, more than 50 percent was needed to avoid a second-round runoff.

Akufo-Addo’s New Patriotic Party said the results announced “by the evidence do not reflect the mandate of the required majority of the Ghanaian electorate.”

Party officials would meet Tuesday to decide the way forward, it said in a statement which also called on its supporters to remain calm.

The head of the country’s Peace Council, a multi-party platform set up to facilitate peaceful polls, told local radio that the electoral commission met with the two parties for more than an hour before announcing the results.

Akufo-Addo’s party was given a chance to present its case, but the electoral commission found that more evidence was needed, Citi FM reported on its website.

“The agreement was that the (commission) would announce the winner while the NPP can seek the proper redress through the channels laid down as they produce further evidence to facilitate that,” Emmanuel Asante told the station.

Turnout was put at more than 79 percent. Observers from the Commonwealth, West African bloc ECOWAS and local group CODEO all said the vote appeared peaceful and transparent.

The opposition however issued a scathing statement even before the official results were announced.

“Indeed, we have enough concrete evidence to show that the 2012 presidential election was won by our candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo,” it said.

“We have noticed a pattern of fraud, where substantial numbers of votes are either added to the NDC candidate or subtracted from the NPP presidential candidate.”

In the wake of the opposition claims and before the results announcement Sunday, a crowd of about 300 NPP supporters had gathered near the electoral commission. Security forces fired tear gas at one point in an apparent bid to move them back.

Tanks and anti-riot police guarded the outside of the commission building for the announcement of the results. Armed police were in the room for the announcement and escorted the electoral chief out afterward.

The 54-year-old Mahama, previously vice president, has only been head of state since July, following the death of his predecessor John Atta Mills.

Akufo-Addo, 68, is a Britain-trained human rights lawyer and son of a former president. He lost the 2008 polls by less than one percentage point.

Ghana’s presidential and parliamentary polls were held on Friday, but polling stations in some areas re-opened on Saturday after problems with a new biometric system and late delivery of materials led to delays.

Elections since the return to civilian rule in 1992 have seen both parties voted out of office, establishing Ghana’s democratic credentials in a region that has had its share of rigged polls and coups.

Ghana is also a top exporter of cocoa and gold, with economic growth of 14 percent in 2011. Eight percent growth is expected this year and next.

How to spend Ghana’s newfound oil money is a key issue. Mahama advocated a large investment in infrastructure, while Akufo-Addo promoted his signature policy of free secondary education in the country of 24 million people.
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« Reply #3412 on: Dec 10, 2012, 07:44 AM »

12/10/2012 01:03 PM

He's Baaaack: Europe Frets over Italy's Return to Political Chaos

Voices across Europe warned on Monday that the euro crisis could return to Italy after the resignation announcement by Prime Minister Mario Monti was followed by news that his predecessor Silvio Berlusconi would attempt a comeback. Italy must stick to its economic reforms, critics say.

Italy faces a return to political chaos after Prime Minister Mario Monti announced at the weekend that he will resign, prompting his notorious predecessor Silvio Berlusconi to say he would attempt a comeback.

The renewed uncertainty sent European shares into a slump as trading for the week began on Monday morning. Investors aren't the only ones worried, either.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Monday that the situation in Italy threatened to spark renewed financial problems in the euro zone. "Italy can't stall at two-thirds of the reform process," he said. "That wouldn't cause turbulence for just Italy, but also for Europe."

Westerwelle's concerns were echoed by Klaus Regling, the head of the permanent euro-zone bailout fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), who told German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung on Monday that he feared the heavily indebted country could abandon necessary reforms. "In the last year Italy has pushed through important reforms," he told the paper. "So far, the markets have honored that, although they have reacted with concern to the developments of recent weeks."

The reform process must continue for the sake of both Italy and the entire currency union, Regling said.

Widespread Worry About Italy's Future

After a crisis meeting with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on Saturday, Monti, a well-respected economist who is largely seen as responsible for restoring trust in the country's ability to weather the euro crisis, announced that he would step down before the end of his term, pending parliamentary approval of next year's federal budget. This is expected to occur before Christmas.

Until recently, technocrat Monti had governed with the broad support of the country's different political parties, including Berlusconi's right-wing People of Freedom (PdL) party and the center-left Democratic Party (PD). But after PdL, the biggest party in parliament, withdrew its support last week, Monti said he could no longer govern the country.

In response, 76-year-old Berlusconi, who is embroiled in a sex scandal, said he would pursue a fifth term as prime minister. The election was scheduled for March or April, but is now likely to be brought forward to February.

Many fear that Berlusconi could send Italy spiraling into ruin if he is re-elected. "It is pure madness," said Pier Ferdinando Casini, head of the country's Union of Christian and Center Democrats (UDC), referring to the former prime minister's plan to run again. Meanwhile Pier Ferdinando Casini, leader of the PD and a favorite for the upcoming election, called Berlusconi "irresponsible."

Meanwhile, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso warned on Sunday that the euro zone's third-largest economy cannot be allowed to turn its back on reforms. "The next elections must not serve as a pretext for putting in doubt how indispensable these measures are," he told business daily Il Sole 24 Ore. "The relative calm on the markets does not mean we are out of the crisis."

European Central Bank executive board member Jörg Asmussen told German newspaper Bild that Monti's government had "achieved great things in a short amount of time," including the return of investor trust and budgetary consolidation. "Whoever governs Italy -- a founding member of the EU -- after the election, must continue this course with the same seriousness," he added.

Will Monti Run Too?

But Berlusconi, who was sentenced to jail time for tax fraud in October, seems determined to fight his way through his upcoming trial -- over paying for sex with an underage prostitute -- and back to the top of the country's political world.

The billionaire media tycoon has his popularity measured by polls on weekly and sometimes even daily basis. And these have recently shown that the time may be ripe for a comeback, with Monti's government no longer as popular as it once was thanks to drastically rising taxes, a tough fight against tax fraud in the sports world and the loss of thousands of jobs through austerity measures.

Berlusconi, by contrast, has promised to save Italy and defend it from the "diktat" of German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he alleges was followed dutifully by Monti. Berlusconi's campaign promises to be heavily populist, and with his party on the verge of falling apart, the media mogul has little to lose.

At this point, no one can predict who will lead Italy after the election. Until then, the uncertainly is likely to drive up the yields on Italian government bonds and depress Italian share prices, not to mention the euro's exchange rate.

But a vague statement by Monti does offer a glimmer of hope. He is considering running in the election, he said over the weekend.


December 9, 2012

Next Act in Italian Drama: Exit Monti the Technocrat, Enter Monti the Politician?


ROME — For months, he had flirted with the idea of staying out of politics, but in the end former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi just could not resist. His statement on Saturday that he would seek office again out of a sense of “responsibility” for Italy effectively ended the mandate of Prime Minister Mario Monti, who said he would step down after Parliament passes a budget bill this month.

Mr. Monti’s surprise announcement on Saturday raised the prospect of more political uncertainty and market turmoil for Italy, Europe’s fourth-largest economy, in what is expected to be a gloves-off political campaign. But it also increased the possibility that Mr. Monti might run as a candidate — a shift from the role of an apolitical leader — who is open to governing if no clear winner emerges from elections expected as soon as February.

Three years into Europe’s debt crisis, the new developments in Italy underscored the clash between the economically sound and the politically sustainable. While Mr. Monti, an economist and a former European commissioner, has reassured investors and helped keep Italian borrowing rates down, the tax increases and spending cuts passed by his Parliament have eroded lawmakers’ standing with voters.

Mr. Monti’s grasp of economics and experience in European politics made him a power broker who took regular calls from the White House and worked with France and Spain to wring euro-zone concessions from a reluctant German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

“He’s ushered in a turning point in Italian politics and has been a major influence in Europe,” said Thomas Klau, director of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “He has helped turn Italy into a serious country again in the eyes of foreign investors and also many of its own citizens.”

Even if Mr. Monti decides not to run as a political candidate, his decision to step down sets the stage for a battle that pits him — a subtly ironic technocrat who attended Wagner’s “Die Lohengrin” at La Scala on Friday — against Mr. Berlusconi, who made his announcement at the training site of his soccer team, A. C. Milan.

“The war will be between Monti and Berlusconi,” said Massimo Franco, chief political commentator for the newspaper Corriere della Sera. “The moderate votes are in play, not the leftist ones.”

Although Mr. Berlusconi said he was motivated by a sense of responsibility, European leaders and market analysts immediately accused him of the opposite. Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, called his return to politics “a threat for Italy and Europe,” the ANSA news agency reported.

With the aid of Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, Mr. Monti calmed the financial markets this year, but investors and European leaders now worry that many of Mr. Monti’s initiatives could be undone by future governments.

In an interview with the business newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said that Italy was at risk of being hit by deeper financial problems. “The next elections must not serve as a pretext for putting in doubt how indispensable these measures are,” he said. “The relative calm on the markets does not mean we are out of the crisis.”

Analysts said that Mr. Monti’s decision to step down ahead of schedule was aimed at preventing Mr. Berlusconi from running a campaign that undermined him. Mr. Berlusconi, always attuned to the national mood, even of voters increasingly weary of him, now looks poised to run a populist campaign that will criticize Mr. Monti for foisting unpopular measures on Italians and that may attack the adoption of a single currency for eroding Italian sovereignty.

Stepping down now, rather than early next year, as was expected, also puts Mr. Monti in the fray. “Monti becomes a politician at this point,” said Stefano Folli, a political columnist for Il Sole 24 Ore. “If Monti helps create a space on the ballot for an electoral alliance that recognizes the seriousness of what has been achieved, this could create a new political balance. That’s the challenge.”

Polls show that the center-left Democratic Party is likely to place first in elections, but without enough votes for a majority. But the party remains divided over which ally to choose to form a government.

Mr. Berlusconi is expected to secure enough votes to stay in Parliament and keep his immunity from prosecution in various trials, but not enough votes to govern.

“It is extremely unlikely that we will see a dynamic unfolding which would bring Mr. Berlusconi back to power,” Mr. Klau said. “So even if Mr. Monti were to leave the political stage for good, we would not go back to the political situation we were in before.”

Although Parliament has blocked some of the measures on Mr. Monti’s agenda — in recent weeks, lawmakers have proposed more than 1,500 amendments to the budget bill — the budget is likely to be approved, as is a law that requires Italy to balance its budget each year.

But analysts said that other changes aimed at improving Italy’s competitiveness were at risk. And before the end of the legislative session this month, lawmakers must also vote on a bill that would simplify the tax code, another meant to streamline the cumbersome bureaucracy and a measure that to allow the Ilva steel plant — a major economic engine for Italy — to stay open while it modernizes to meet environmental standards.

As the debt crisis has lingered, such local issues, as well as Italy’s chaotic political system, have taken on international importance.

On Sunday, Ferruccio de Bortoli, the editor in chief of Corriere della Sera, offered his review of the political drama: “The ‘Lohengrin’ at La Scala ended in applause. The Italian tragedy continues. The libretto still needs writing, so does the music. The guaranteed audience is international, but unfortunately not terribly forgiving about the cast. The curtain never falls.”

Reporting was contributed by Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome, Stephen Castle from London and Jack Ewing from Frankfurt.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 9, 2012

An earlier version of this story stated that the the Ilva steel plan was responsible for 8 million euro. The correct number was 8 billion euro.
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« Reply #3413 on: Dec 10, 2012, 07:48 AM »

 10 December 2012 - 10H53 

Israel right strong, opposition divided before vote: poll

AFP - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightwing bloc remains far ahead of its rivals ahead of January 22 snap elections, with the opposition increasingly divided, a poll said on Monday.

The joint list of Netanyahu's Likud party and the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu faction of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is expected to win 39 seats, according to the poll published by the left-leaning Haaretz daily.

Last week, a poll published in Maariv gave the list 38 mandates in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.

Rightwing parties allied with Netanyahu are also expected to do well, with the Haaretz poll finding the ultra-Orthodox Shas likely to win 12 seats, Jewish Home taking 11 and United Torah Judaism securing six seats.

Overall, the rightwing bloc was seen winning a large majority of around 68 seats.

By comparison, the centre and leftist bloc appears fragmented and weak, with its strongest representative, the Labour party led by Shelly Yachimovich, likely to win 17 seats, the Haaretz poll found.

HaTnuah, a new party led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, is expected to win nine seats, while Yesh Atid, headed by former journalist Yair Lapid, is projected to win six.

And the centre-right Kadima party, which is currently the largest faction in parliament with 28 mandates, is expected to be practically wiped out, taking just two seats. The leftwing Meretz party would likely win three seats.

Analysts said Livni's decision to return to politics had hobbled the opposition, with her new centrist party taking seats exclusively from the centre-left, rather than the rightwing bloc.

The poll also showed Israelis have no doubt about who their next premier will be, with 81 percent saying they expected Netanyahu to form the next government.

A separate poll conducted on behalf of Haifa University showed around half of Israel's 1.4 million Arab citizens do not plan to vote in next month's elections.

The poll found that 82 percent of Arab Israelis have little or no faith in the government, and more than half also lack confidence in the Arab parties in the Knesset.
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« Reply #3414 on: Dec 10, 2012, 07:51 AM »

12/10/2012 12:01 PM

Merkel's Challenger Nominated: Social Democrats Set Their Sights on Chancellery

Germany's opposition Social Democrats attempted to relaunch their campaign to oust Chancellor Angela Merkel in the 2013 election by giving strong backing on Sunday to their candidate, Peer Steinbrück. But he was not able to completely escape a scandal surrounding his extra-parliamentary earnings.

At a congress in Hanover, the center-left Social Democrats on Sunday formally elected former finance minister Peer Steinbrück as their candidate to run against Chancellor Angela Merkel in next year's election, backing him with an impressive 93.5 percent of the vote.

No one opposed him in the rubber-stamp vote that was intended as a psychological boost to the no-nonsense and at times abrasive pragmatist who has struggled to win the hearts of the center-left party, fiercely proud of its roots in the 19th century labor movement.

"I am proud to be a German Social Democrat!" Steinbrück said in a 100-minute speech during which he pledged his commitment to the SPD's socialist ideals, calling for higher taxes for the wealthy and the introduction of a minimum wage.

"Germany needs more 'We' and less 'I'," he said. "The gap is growing between rich and poor because of a growing number of under-paying jobs and because of our poorly financed towns and cities."

Hit by Controversy

But the controversy that has dogged him in the two months since he was picked as the SPD's candidate in late September briefly came back to haunt him when Greenpeace activists unfurled a banner behind the podium that read: "Did you rake in enough dough?"

The 600 delegates present booed before the banner was hauled off the wall. Steinbrück, a member of German parliament, has come under attack for earning €1.25 million euros ($1.6 million) as a guest speaker at corporate events during the last three years. While the speaking engagements were not illegal, they have not been well-received by his party, conscious as it is of its working-class grassroots.

Steinbrück, a former governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, served as finance minister under Merkel from 2005 to 2009 in a "grand coalition" between her conservatives and the SPD. He won praise for his assured handling of the global financial crisis and subsequent economic downturn in 2008 and 2009. But he has been unable so far to allay doubts about whether he will be able to mobilize enough center-left voters to have a chance of ousting Merkel. Sunday's congress was aimed at reassuring the party was behind him.

He faces an uphill struggle to beat Merkel. An Infratest dimap survey published last Friday showed that, were Germans able to vote directly for their chancellor, 49 percent would support the incumbent chancellor with just 39 percent of respondents saying they would vote for Steinbrück. Still, that gap has narrowed in recent weeks.

A Grand Coalition?

More to the point, Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party (CDU), together with its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), stood at 39 percent in the poll, well ahead of the SPD at 30 percent. The Greens scored 14 percent and the pro-business FDP, Merkel's junior coalition party, was at 4 percent, below the 5 percent threshold it would need to be able to stay in parliament. The survey was carried out between December 3 and 5 and commissioned by public television channel ARD.

The FDP is Merkel's Achilles heel. She remains popular because Germans credit her with having defended the nation's interests in the euro crisis so far, by blocking calls for the introduction of common euro bonds, for example. And she has deftly nudged the CDU to the left, backing proposals for a minimum wage and better state support for childcare, and thereby encroaching on core SPD territory. But the FDP is so weak that she may need a new coalition partner to stay in power. The SPD or the Greens seem to be her only options.

Steinbrück, 65, ruled out serving in another grand coalition. "I don't just want a partial change of government," he said to loud applause. "I want an entirely new government. I want an SPD-Greens government for our country. I'm not available for any grand coalition."

Political analysts say, however, that such a coalition is the most likely outcome of the next election.

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« Reply #3415 on: Dec 10, 2012, 07:55 AM »

December 9, 2012

Opponents of Egypt’s Leader Call for Boycott of Charter Vote


CAIRO — The political crisis over Egypt’s draft constitution hardened on both sides on Sunday, as President Mohamed Morsi prepared to deploy the army to safeguard balloting in a planned referendum on the new charter and his opponents called for more protests and a boycott to undermine the vote.

Thousands of demonstrators streamed toward the presidential palace for a fifth night of protests against Mr. Morsi and the proposed charter, and the president, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, formally issued an order asking the military to protect such “vital institutions” and to secure the vote.

With the decision to boycott the referendum, the opposition signaled that it had given up hope that it could defeat the draft charter at the polls, and had opted instead to try to undermine the referendum’s legitimacy.

The call for new protests — with major demonstrations expected at the presidential palace again on Tuesday and Friday — ensures that questions about Egypt’s national unity and stability will continue to overshadow debate about the specific contents of the charter. Although international experts who have studied the draft say it is hardly more religious than Egypt’s old constitution, opponents say it fails to adequately protect individual rights from being constricted by a future Islamist majority in Parliament.

Over the past two weeks, hundreds of thousands of people have poured into the streets to oppose the charter, crowds have attacked 28 Muslim Brotherhood offices and the group’s headquarters, and at least seven people have died in clashes between Islamist and secular political factions.

The opposition “rejects lending legitimacy to a referendum that will definitely lead to more sedition and division,” said Sameh Ashour, a spokesman for a coalition that calls itself the National Salvation Front. Holding a referendum “in a state of seething and chaos,” Mr. Ashour said, amounted to “a reckless and flagrant absence of responsibility, risking driving the country into violent confrontations that endanger its national security.”

Whether to ask voters to vote no or to stay home has been the subject of heated debate in opposition circles in the week since Mr. Morsi announced the referendum, to be held on Saturday.

Now the question is whether opponents can translate the energy of the protests against the charter into more votes and seats in parliamentary elections that are expected to take place two months after the referendum.

Both sides acknowledge that President Morsi, who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, has hurt himself and his party politically with the act that first touched off the protests: a decree giving himself authoritarian powers and putting his decisions above the reach of judicial review until the new charter is passed. He suffered even more, they say, when the backlash against the decree and the new constitution led to a night of clashes between his Islamists supporters and their more secular opponents that left at least six dead and hundreds more injured.

Mr. Morsi surprised his critics after midnight on Sunday by withdrawing almost all the provisions of his decree, a step he said he took on the recommendation of about 40 politicians and thinkers he convened on Saturday for a “national dialogue” meant to resolve the crisis. Leading opposition figures were invited to take part, but nearly all declined; according to a list broadcast on state television, most of the attendees were Islamists of various stripes, and the only prominent secular politician on hand was the former presidential candidate Ayman Nour.

A spokesman for the group said at an authorized news conference that Mr. Morsi was issuing a new, more limited decree, giving immunity from judicial scrutiny only to his “constitutional declarations,” a narrow if hazily defined category of presidential actions. Steps he took under the previous decree would also be protected, including dismissal of the public prosecutor, who was appointed under the ousted former president, Hosni Mubarak.

Through the spokesman for the “national dialogue” group, Mohamed Salim el-Awa, Mr. Morsi even signaled a willingness to allow his opponents and allies to negotiate a package of amendments to the constitution that all sides would agree to enact once the draft is approved.

But Mr. Morsi did not concede to the opposition’s main demand: to postpone the referendum long enough for an overhaul of the draft.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former diplomat who now acts as a coordinator of the secular opposition, was the first to fire back on Sunday, resorting again to the language of revolution.

“We have broken the barrier of fear: A constitution that aborts our rights and freedoms is one that we will bring down today, before tomorrow,” Mr. ElBaradei wrote in a Twitter posting early on Sunday. “Our power is in our will.”

As his proposed compromise faded and tensions mounted on Sunday, Mr. Morsi followed through on plans announced the day before to authorize the military to protect national institutions and polling places. His order, printed in the official gazette on Sunday, amounts to a form of martial law, because it will allow soldiers under the direction of the defense minister to arrest civilians under a military code of justice.

The move indicated that, at least in the short term, Egypt’s powerful military was lining up behind the new Islamist president to complete the transition to a new constitution. Muslim Brotherhood leaders cheered a Defense Ministry spokesman’s televised statement explaining that the army might step in to maintain order for the balloting next Saturday because the spokesman’s wording echoed passages in many of the president’s speeches about the need for Egyptians to come together for the referendum.

The apparent alliance between the Brotherhood and the military reverses 60 years of mutual hostility, and it is likely to disappoint some Egyptians who fear the Islamists and had begun to whisper that the military might remove Mr. Morsi from power.

One person close to Mr. Morsi said the president issued the order so that troops could secure the voting process, as they have done in each of Egypt’s elections since the ouster of Mr. Mubarak. Islamists, including some around Mr. Morsi, have become increasingly distrustful of the Interior Ministry, whose police forces have failed to stop attacks on Muslim Brotherhood offices or vandalism outside the presidential palace.

But Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister under Mr. Mubarak who is now an opposition leader, said it may have been the military’s idea, not the president’s, to issue the authorization, and with it a veiled warning. “Everybody — all of us in civil society — are getting really disturbed by this very serious situation,” he said. “Everybody is upset, and that extends into the army.”

After taking office in June, Mr. Morsi spent months courting the generals, sometimes earning the derision of liberal activists for his public flattery of their role. The constitution his supporters eventually drew up included protections of the military’s autonomy and privileges within the Egyptian government, despite the protests of the same activists.

The “national dialogue” group concluded on Saturday, as Mr. Morsi had, that the constitutional referendum had to be held quickly and could not be delayed. The timing was forced, they said, by an earlier constitutional declaration that was approved by voters in March 2011, a month after Mr. Mubarak’s overthrow, over the objections of the liberals. That referendum also set up the framework for parliamentary elections, which were won handily by Islamist parties and candidates; the Parliament was later dissolved by the country’s constitutional court.

Michael Schwirtz contributed reporting from New York.


10 December 2012 - 13H23 

Morsi gives Egypt army police powers before referendum

AFP - President Mohamed Morsi has ordered Egypt's army from Monday to take on police powers -- including the right to arrest civilians -- in the run-up to a divisive constitutional referendum that has triggered mass street protests.

The decree, published in the government gazette, takes effect on the eve of mass rival protests on the referendum and follows street clashes that have left seven people dead and hundreds injured.

It orders the military to fully cooperate with police "to preserve security and protect vital state institutions for a temporary period, up to the announce of the results from the referendum," according to a copy obtained by AFP.

The military, which ruled Egypt between the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and the election of Morsi in June this year, has sought to remain neutral in the political crisis.

It has warned it "will not allow" the situation to deteriorate, and urged both sides to dialogue.

Army tanks and troops have since Thursday deployed around Morsi's presidential palace but they have not confronted thousands of protesters who have gathered there every night.

The opposition, made up of secular, liberal, leftwing and Christian groups, has said it will escalate its protests to scupper the referendum.

It views the draft constitution, largely drafted by Morsi's Islamist allies, as undermining human rights, the rights of women, religious minorities, and curtailing the independence of the judiciary.

Morsi, though, has defiantly pushed on with the new charter, seeing it as necessary to secure democratic reform in the wake of Mubarak's 30-year autocratic rule.

Late Sunday, the main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, called for huge protests in Cairo to reject the December 15 referendum.

It dismissed a key concession Morsi made rescinding another decree giving himself near-absolute powers as too late, saying he had already used it to railroad through the draft constitution.

"We do not recognise the draft constitution because it does not represent the Egyptian people," National Salvation Front spokesman Sameh Ashour told a news conference.

Going ahead with the referendum "in this explosive situation with the threat of the Brothers' militias amounts to the regime abandoning its responsibilities," he said.

In recent days, the protesters have hardened their slogans, going beyond criticism of the decree and the referendum to demand Morsi's ouster.

The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, shot back that it and allied Islamist movements would counter with their own big rallies in the capital in support of the referendum.

"We are calling for a demonstration Tuesday, under the slogan 'Yes to legitimacy'," the Brotherhood's spokesman, Mahmud Ghozlan, told AFP.

Morsi's camp argues it is up to the people to accept or reject the draft constitution.

If the charter is rejected, Morsi has promised to have a new one drawn up by 100 officials chosen directly by the public rather than appointed by the Islamist-dominated parliament.

But analysts said still-strong public support for Morsi, and the Brotherhood's proven ability to mobilise the grassroots level, would likely help the draft constitution be adopted.

"The Muslim Brotherhood believes that it has majority support so it can win the constitutional referendum," said Eric Trager, analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

If that happens, he warned, it would "set up the country for prolonged instability".


Originally published December 9, 2012 at 1:04 PM | Page modified December 9, 2012 at 3:32 PM 

Islamist-leaning draft constitution divides Egypt

Associated Press


President Mohammed Morsi is unlikely to worry if Egypt's Islamist-leaning draft constitution passes by only a small margin in a Dec. 15 referendum, since he and his backers tout his 51 percent election victory in June as a "popular mandate" that is beyond any challenge.

Still, an idea taking root among many secular Egyptians is that a constitution requires a reasonable degree of consensus to qualify as a charter for all - and that it is fundamentally illegitimate to ram one through by a simple majority despite opposition from key sectors of society that oppose giving religion such a major role in the affairs of state.

"It is irrational to have a constitution that does not genuinely represent everyone," said Kahlil al-Anani, a British-based expert on Egypt. "It is important that a constitution is passed with a comfortable majority, but it does not make the document less credible if it is a modest majority."

The proposed constitution is at the heart of the nation's worst political crisis since the overthrow nearly two years ago of authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak. The charter has divided Egypt, with Morsi and his Islamist backers, including ultraconservative Salafis, in one camp, and secularists and leftists, including minority Christians and women, in the other.

At least six civilians have been killed in street clashes and several offices of the president's Muslim Brotherhood torched in the unrest.

With such deep polarization, Morsi on Saturday offered the opposition a mixed bag: He rescinded decrees he issued Nov. 22 that gave him near absolute powers, but he insisted the referendum go ahead as scheduled.

The opposition's response was to call for more street protests to try to force him to abandon the draft constitution.

There may only be a small chance of Morsi doing that.

Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and other like-minded groups are already campaigning for a "yes" vote, marketing the referendum and the adoption of a constitution as the door to stability and economic recovery. If adopted, elections for parliament's lawmaking lower chamber - dissolved by a court ruling in June - must be held within two months.

The opposition's apparent despair over whether it can stop the referendum from going ahead is deepening the schism between Islamists and non-Islamists. Many Egyptians worry it will produce a constitution that is far from representative of the country's 85 million people.

Critics say Egypt is approaching the referendum with a heavy heart rather than the jubilation that supposedly accompanies an occasion that, at least in theory, should be a milestone in the shift from authoritarian rule to democracy.

"This is a constitution that will not contribute to stability," said prominent rights lawyer Negad Boari. "The president wants the referendum, regardless of the cost. They are creating a religious state that they had long dreamt of and waited for. It is now within reach."

The question of whether to rally a "no" vote" or boycott the referendum is a challenging one for the opposition as it comes under scathing criticism as isolated and motivated by its refusal to accept the position of power gained by the Islamists following a string of electoral wins since Mubarak's ouster in February 2011.

Islamists accuse the opposition of being - knowingly or not - part of a conspiracy by Mubarak loyalists to destabilize Egypt and derail its transition to democratic rule.

An opposition spokesman told a news conference Sunday that it is "completely rejecting" the referendum and would not accord legitimacy to a charter that will further divide the nation. But there was no word whether the opposition was calling for a boycott or urging supporters to cast a "no" vote.

The ambivalence may be a reflection of divisions in the ranks of the opposition. None of its main leaders addressed the news conference.

Urging a "no" vote would give the referendum legitimacy, especially if the draft is passed, as expected. Only a simple majority is needed for adoption.

A boycott would allow the opposition to claim the vote was illegitimate, especially if staying away from the polls significantly reduces turnout.

Not everyone is convinced, however, that the discipline and commitment of the hard-core Islamist voters would deliver the victory Morsi wants, citing his narrow win in June and the 25 percent of the vote he received in the presidential election's first round, when he ran in a field of 13 of mostly Islamist candidates.

But Morsi, the chief proponent of the document, may have succeeded in the past two weeks in rallying firmly behind him the entire spectrum of Islamist groups, not just his relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood.

"He faced the choice of losing his credibility or his popularity. He went for the latter," said al-Anani, alluding to Morsi's repeated promises in his early days in office that he would never put the constitution to a vote unless it enjoyed consensus.

The problem with the constitution began months before the current political crisis.

The predecessor of the panel that drafted the charter was dissolved when a court ruled that it was not inclusive enough. Similarly, the second one was dominated by Islamists, and the same court was widely expected to dissolve it in a session scheduled for Dec. 2.

In anticipation of such a ruling, the panel - packed with Morsi supporters and chaired by an Islamist - held an all-night session on Nov. 29-30 to adopt the document, voting overwhelmingly in favor of each of its 234 clauses.

Many Egyptians watched the session televised live with a mix of bemusement and horror as the chairman, career judge Hossam al-Ghiryani, doggedly pushed the members to finish, badgering some of them for wasting time arguing some of the clauses. In the session's final hours, several new articles were hastily written and added to resolve lingering issues. On Dec. 1, Al-Ghiryani gave the document to Morsi, who then called for the Dec. 15 referendum.

But the Islamists' job was not done.

They are now using their time-honored tactic of employing religion to influence the vote. That tactic was widely used in a March 2011 referendum on a constitutional declaration that the Islamists supported and again in the election for both chambers of parliament.

They say a "yes" vote is one for God, Islam and the faithful. A "no" vote is portrayed as being against them.

The draft constitution largely reflects the conservative vision of the Islamists, with articles that rights activists, liberals and others fear will lead to restrictions on women and minorities, as well as on civil liberties in general.

One article underlined that the state will protect "the true nature of the Egyptian family ... and promote its morals and values" - phrasing that suggests the state could intervene to prevent anything deemed a threat to families.

The draft also says citizens are equal under the law, but an article specifically establishing women's equality was dropped because of disputes over the phrasing.

A new article added to the customary mention that "principles of Islamic law" provide the basis of legislation points to theological doctrines and their rules, wording that could give Islamists the tool for insisting on stricter implementation of Shariah rulings.

Another new article states that Egypt's most respected Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, must be consulted on any matters related to Shariah. Critics fear that measure will lead to legislative oversight by clerics.

"This is not the constitution that will turn the page and usher in a new Egypt," said Hossam Bahgat, a legal expert and human rights lawyer. "The issue of the constitution will continue to be on the political agenda of Egypt with persistent calls to replace it with a more balanced one."

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« Reply #3416 on: Dec 10, 2012, 08:01 AM »

 10 December 2012 - 13H01 

Jihadists seize key north Syria army base

AFP - Jihadists led by the radical Al-Nusra Front seized a strategic army base in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo on Monday after weeks of fierce fighting, a watchdog said.

The violence came after UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi reported that he held "constructive" talks in Geneva at the weekend with senior Russian and US officials, and ahead of a Friends of Syria meeting in Morocco.

The capture of the base at Sheikh Suleiman dealt a blow to President Bashar al-Assad's regime in the region as it had been the last major military base west of Aleppo city still under army control.

It also undercut the military influence of the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army, which was not involved in the takeover, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The army used warplanes and tanks, meanwhile, to bombard rebel positions in Damascus province, where the regime is desperate to suppress an insurgency that is inching ever closer to the capital, the monitoring group said.

"Al-Nusra Front, alongside several Islamist rebel battalions linked to it, have seized control of the army base headquarters at Sheikh Suleiman," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Base 111, with its headquarters in the village of Sheikh Suleiman, sprawls over nearly 200 hectares (500 acres) of rocky hills about 25 kilometres (15 miles) from Aleppo, Syria's second city.

"It is a significant win for the rebels. It proves the army is still suffering major military losses," said Abdel Rahman, adding that the rebels seized up to 10 military vehicles and at least one tank.

Other rebel groups also claimed to have captured the base, but Abdel Rahman insisted Al-Nusra and its allies were responsible for its fall.

An AFP journalist who covered the clashes around Sheikh Suleiman said many of the fighters were from other Arab countries and Central Asia.

Elsewhere, the army carried out air strikes on suburbs of the capital, amid fierce clashes in Damascus province, said the Observatory.

"A fighter bomber carried out a raid on Daraya as rebels and soldiers fought on the ground, while artillery bombed Moadamiyet al-Sham," said the Britain-based watchdog, referring to two towns south of Damascus.

Al-Watan newspaper, close to the government, said the army on Sunday "dealt heavy blows to Al-Nusra Front gunmen linked to the Al-Qaeda network in several regions of Damascus province and Aleppo".

Soldiers also attacked gunmen in the Tadamun and Hajar Aswad districts of southern Damascus, "killing or wounding dozens of them", it said.

Al-Watan said government forces had killed more than 5,000 rebels in Aleppo in the past month.

Ninety-four people, mostly civilians, were killed on Sunday across Syria, with the Damascus area accounting for 37 of the deaths, said the Observatory, which relies on activists and medics for its information.

Brahimi, the Algerian troubleshooter, described as "constructive" a meeting on Sunday with Russian and US representatives who stressed "a political process to end the crisis in Syria was necessary and still possible".

The latest violence comes two days ahead of a Friends of Syria nations meeting in Marrakesh, which will bring together countries that support the anti-Assad revolt.

Arab and Western states will consider two key issues concerning the 21-month conflict -- the political transition in the event of Assad's fall, and mobilising vital humanitarian aid as winter sets in.

Since the last meeting, in Paris in July, the number of people killed has risen from 16,000 to more than 42,000, according to the Observatory.


December 9, 2012

Fighting Drives an Old Sense of Peace From Damascus


DAMASCUS, Syria — Business has been terrible for Abu Tareq, a taxi driver, so last week, without telling his wife, he agreed to drive a man to the Damascus airport for 10 times the usual rate. But, he said later, he will not be doing that again.

On the airport road, he could hear the crash of artillery and the whiz of sniper fire. Dead rebels and soldiers lay on the roadsides. Abu Tareq saw a dog eating the body of a soldier.

“I will never forget this sight,” said Abu Tareq, 50, who gave only a nickname for safety reasons. “It is the road of the dead.”

Damascus, Syria’s capital, is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, a touchstone of history and culture.

Through decades of political repression, the city preserved, at least on the surface, an atmosphere of tranquillity, from its wide downtown avenues to the spacious, smooth-stoned courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque and the vine-draped alleys of the Old City, where restaurants and bars tucked between the storehouses of medieval merchants hummed with quiet conversation.

Now, though, the rumble of distant artillery echoes through the city, and its residents are afraid to leave their neighborhoods. Cocooned behind rows of concrete blocks that close off routes to the center, they huddle in fear of a prolonged battle that could bring destruction and division to a place where secular and religious Syrians from many sects — Sunni, Shiite, Alawite, Christian and others — have long lived peacefully.

For more than a week, Syrian rebels and government forces have fought for the airport road, as the military tries to seal off the capital city, the core of President Bashar al-Assad’s power, from a semicircle of rebellious suburbs. Rebels have now kept the pressure on the government for as long as they did during their previous big push toward Damascus last summer. This time, improved supply lines and tactics, some rebels and observers say, may provide a more secure foothold.

But the security forces wield overwhelming firepower, and while they have been unable to subdue the suburbs, some rebel fighters say they lack the intelligence information, arms and communication to advance. That raises the specter of a destructive standoff like the one that has devastated the commercial hub of Aleppo.

“Damascus was the city of jasmine,” Mahmoud, 40, a public-school teacher, said in an interview in the capital. “It is not the city I knew just a few weeks ago.”

Car bombs have ripped through neighborhoods, the targets and attackers only guessed at. Checkpoints choke traffic, turning 20-minute jaunts into three-hour ordeals. Wealthy residents find it quicker and safer to drive to Beirut, Lebanon, for a weekend trip than to the Old City.

Shells have been fired from Mount Qasioun overlooking Damascus, a favorite destination from which to admire the city’s sparkling lights. West of downtown, where the presidential palace stands on a plateau, things are relatively quiet.

Mahmoud, unable to find heating oil and medicine for his sick wife, said his grocer has lectured him daily on shortages and soaring prices. The once-ubiquitous government, he said, now appears to have no role beyond flooding streets with soldiers and security officers, “who are sometimes good and sometimes rude.”

People with roots in other towns have left, he said, “but what about me, who is a Damascene, and has no other city?”

The sense of claustrophobia has grown as rebels have declared the airport a legitimate target and the government has blocked Baghdad Street, a main avenue out of the city. On Sunday, it blocked the highway to Dara’a.

In some outlying neighborhoods and nearby suburbs, the front lines seem to be hardening.

On the route into Qaboun, a neighborhood less than two miles from the center of Damascus, the last government checkpoint in recent days was near the municipal building. Less than a quarter-mile on, rebels controlled the area around the Grand Mosque.

Abu Mohammad, 40, the leader of a 20-member rebel unit, met a reporter in a vacant house he used as an office. He wore a black uniform and carried a radio. He said rebels controlled Qaboun except for three sections primarily populated with members of Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect. Alawites, he said, had pushed Sunni residents from their homes to make room for Alawites fleeing other areas.

Rebels had learned, he said, from the mistakes of July, when they invaded a southern Damascus neighborhood, Midan, but were driven out after a week “because we didn’t protect our back.”

This time, he said, rebels “liberated” the countryside first, then the suburbs, and now have secure rear lines as they attack the city’s edges.

He said rebels had established continuous lines of communication along three routes radiating from Damascus through pro-rebel suburbs: northeast from Barza through Qaboun to Douma and the partly rebel-held eastern desert; southeast from Tadamon to the city of Dara’a, the cradle of the uprising; and southwest from Kafr Souseh to Quneitra, an area at the foot of the Golan Heights that contributes many fighters.

His claims could not be independently confirmed. The areas he mentioned have held many demonstrations and have been hit hard by government forces. A Western diplomat who was recently in Damascus said rebels appeared to be improving their supply lines by digging tunnels.

Yet other fighters questioned the tactics for Damascus.

“There is not enough military intelligence to get into Damascus,” said a fighter who recently left the capital. “The head does not know what the tail is doing.”

He said rebels tried to seize control of the road from Damascus to the northeast, but the attack was “not well thought out.” They took heavy casualties, eventually carrying out the attack on the airport as a diversion to allow fighters to escape. In turn, he said, “the regime unleashed an unbelievable level of violence because it thought it was in real danger.”

An activist added, “It was like when a small kid slaps an adult, and he responds by slapping back with all his might.”

Rebels say both they and government soldiers suffer from exhaustion and hunger. The government, fearing that soldiers will defect, rarely sends them to fight in close encounters. But that fear has also made the government turn to artillery, imprecise weaponry that lays waste to neighborhoods.

That is what Damascus residents worry is next for their city.

They cling to the hope that the ethnic strife that has deepened when fighting has reached other areas will not arise in their city. Already, violence has engulfed suburbs that had been a haven to waves of Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.

For now, residents say they have faith in the city, whose very architecture evokes intimacy, and whose welcoming air has for centuries entranced residents, pilgrims, merchants and visitors.

“Every house clings/ to the waist of another/ as verandas hold hands,” Nizar Qabbani, an acclaimed 20th-century Syrian poet, wrote of the Old City in Damascus, where he grew up. In a widely beloved poem now often quoted as an elegy for a threatened Damascus — the Syrian-American hip-hop artist Omar Offendum did his own interpretation. Mr. Qabbani wrote:

Damascene houses are houses in love.

They wake up each morning

to greet one another,

and pay each other visits

in secret

at night.

One antigovernment activist, now in Beirut, said he pined for the neighborhoods where he had strolled with his girlfriend, and feared for their fate.

“I went with my love all over Damascus,” he said. “The memory is tied to the place.”

An employee of The New York Times reported from Damascus, and Anne Barnard from Beirut, Lebanon. Neil MacFarquhar contributed reporting from Beirut.


December 9, 2012

For Iran, Unrest in Syria Is Noise, Not Brutal War


TEHRAN — When Syria’s agricultural minister, Subhi Ahmad al-Abdullah, arrived in the Iranian capital for a visit last week, everybody involved stuck to a well-worn script.

There were welcoming ceremonies, handshakes in front of cameras and tête-à-têtes on rococo chairs. Stern-faced Iranian and Syrian officials discussed “expanding economic and agricultural ties” and signed a contract for the joint production of a vaccine for foot-and-mouth disease.

The unrest in Syria did not go unmentioned in the meetings, which were widely reported by Iranian state media. Iran’s vice president, Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, said Iran was confident of victory for the Syrian government forces, who, he said, were engaged in “sporadic fights with terrorists sent by regional countries.”

The upbeat ceremonies surrounding Mr. Abdullah’s visit illustrate how Iranian leaders perceive the bloody conflict that has engulfed their main ally in the Arabic world. While former Iranian diplomats, academics and analysts increasingly warn that President Bashar al-Assad’s government is on the brink of collapse, the country’s highest leaders insist the conflict is manageable and ultimately will be resolved to Iran’s advantage.

“We say that Bashar al-Assad, or at least his government, is the safest bet for stability and security in Syria,” said Amir Mohebbian, a political analyst whose views are sometimes published on the Web site of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “If the foreign mercenaries take over, there will be a blood bath in Syria.”

Endless news broadcasts by Iran’s state television offer an ideological narrative in which Saudi Arabia and Qatar are doing the bidding of the United States and Israel, helping to arm foreign “terrorists” and sending them into Syria to punish it for having opposed Israel. War crimes committed by Syrian forces go unreported.

“Clearly, there is no real alternative for al-Assad and his government in Syria,” Mr. Mohebbian said. “They have agreed to reforms; there will be a multiparty system in Syria. So foreign countries should stop arming terrorists and let the Syrian people decide their own future.”

Some former diplomats, analysts and academics disagree with the blind support of Syria’s government. But they have little, if any, influence on Iran’s policy makers, who are mostly rigid ideologues.

“The Syrian Army is on the brink of complete collapse, and the downfall of al-Assad is inevitable,” Ebrahim Yazdi, a former foreign minister who is a member of the opposition, wrote Saturday in the newspaper Etemaad, which is critical of Iran’s government. “Syria’s leaders respond to reforms with bloody crackdowns. Their future is very bleak.”

Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a Middle East analyst who has been imprisoned for his involvement in Iran’s opposition movement, echoed that view. “In reality, Syria will be in turmoil for years to come,” he said. “There will be nothing left of our anti-Israel front.”

Iran has organized two conferences for what it calls the “genuine” Syrian opposition, pushing for modest political changes, followed by nationwide presidential elections in 2014, as the only solution to stop the fighting.

Off the record, Iranian officials sometimes hint that Mr. Assad, as a symbol, could be sacrificed in Iran’s future vision for the country. But they insist that his political and security apparatus should remain in power, continuing to lead Syria as a regional spear against Iran’s archnemesis, Israel.

“We are seeking a peaceful solution in which the Syrian government implements reforms,” said Hamidreza Taraghi, a politician who is close to Iran’s leaders. “But whatever the cost, we want to keep Syria in the group of resistance against Israel.”

Mr. Taraghi, who recently led an Iranian delegation to North Korea and met with the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, said that Iran was willing to do “whatever it takes” to keep Syria as an ally. He said the Syrian government had not yet asked Iran for military help, but if that happened Iran would be compelled by its treaty with Syria to step in.

The United States has accused Iran of providing weapons and money to Syria. Iran has always denied any military presence and military assistance, saying Mr. Assad does not need help in quelling the unrest.

There are signs, however, of some Iranian military involvement in the country. On Saturday, Iran’s Tabnak Web site claimed that military advisers, together with Russians in Syria, had suggested that the Syrian Army should pre-emptively attack opposition forces, who, the Web site claimed, were planning to attack Damascus from four sides.

In August, 48 Iranians were taken captive by Syrian resistance fighters who accused the men of being members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. One of the kidnapped Iranians, identified by Iranian news media as Majid Adeli, a cultural adviser at the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, was released on Saturday. Iran insists the other captives are Shiite pilgrims.

On Saturday, Iran’s deputy minister of science, Mohammad Mehdinejad, told the Iranian Student News Agency that the country had sent drones to Syria but did not elaborate on how many.

“This is a fight between common people defending their homeland and foreign terrorists,” Mr. Taraghi said. He was sure that Iran’s main ally would soon be ready to face Israel again. “Syria’s army and security forces are still intact,” he said, “and they can be rebuilt in order for Syria to regain its former strength.”

During a conference on Syria organized by former diplomats in Tehran last week, Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of international relations at Tehran University, shocked his audience by publicly criticizing Iran’s support for the Syrian government.

“What sort of foreign policy do we have that we support a regime that will be gone in one or two months?” he said. Mr. Zibakalam criticized those in power, saying that foreign policy must be based on national interests and not on ideology.

But even opposition figures say the government has no choice but to stick with the current Syrian leadership to the bitter end. “That way,” Mr. Shamsolvaezin said, “we can at least influence the unrest that will inevitably follow his downfall.”

Ramtin Rastin contributed reporting.

« Last Edit: Dec 10, 2012, 08:09 AM by Rad » Logged
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« Reply #3417 on: Dec 10, 2012, 08:06 AM »

10 December 2012 - 03H48 

Iranian experts at N. Korea's rocket site: report

AFP - A group of Iranian missile experts are in North Korea offering technical assistance with a planned long-range rocket launch condemned by the international community, a report said Monday.

The Iranians were invited after Pyongyang's last rocket launch in April ended in failure, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper said, citing a Seoul government official.

"A car seen at the... launch site has been spotted driving back and forth from the accommodation facility nearby. It is believed to be carrying Iranian experts," Chosun quoted the unnamed official as saying.

"It appears that the connection between the North and Iran in missile (development) dating back to the 1980s is more extensive than previously believed," the official said.

Earlier this month, Japan's Kyodo news agency quoted a western diplomatic source as saying Iran had stationed defence staff in North Korea since October to strengthen cooperation in missile and nuclear development.

North Korea and Iran are both subject to international sanctions over their nuclear activities and their governments share a deep hostility towards the United States.

Leaked US diplomatic cables in 2010 showed that US officials believe Iran has acquired ballistic missile parts from North Korea.

And a UN sanctions report in 2011 said the two countries were suspected of sharing ballistic missile technology.

North Korea has announced plans to launch a rocket -- ostensibly aimed at putting a satellite in orbit -- between December 10 and 22.

The United States and its allies view it as a disguised ballistic missile test banned under UN resolutions prompted by the North's nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.

Pyongyang said Sunday it may delay the launch. It gave no reason, but analysts have suggested potential technical troubles.

Some said the new leader, Kim Jong-Un, may have been rushing the event to mark the first anniversary of the death of his father and former leader Kim Jong-Il on December 17.

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« Reply #3418 on: Dec 10, 2012, 08:10 AM »

December 9, 2012

Signals in China of a More Open Economy


BEIJING — In a strong signal of support for greater market-oriented economic policies, Xi Jinping, the new head of the Communist Party, made a visit over the weekend to the special economic zone of Shenzhen in south China, which has stood as a symbol of the nation’s embrace of a state-led form of capitalism since its growth over the last three decades from a fishing enclave to an industrial metropolis.

The trip was Mr. Xi’s first outside Beijing since becoming party chief on Nov. 15. Mr. Xi visited a private Internet company on Friday and went to Lotus Hill Park on Saturday to lay a wreath at a bronze statue of Deng Xiaoping, the leader who opened the era of economic reforms in 1979, when Shenzhen was designated a special economic zone. Mr. Deng famously later visited the city in 1992 to encourage reviving those economic policies after they had stalled following the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 1989.

“Reform and opening up is a guiding policy that the Communist Party must stick to,” Mr. Xi said, according to Phoenix Television, one of several Hong Kong news organizations that covered the trip. “We must keep to this correct path. We must stay unwavering on the road to a prosperous country and people, and there must be new pioneering.”

In the months before the transition, there were widespread calls, including from people close to Mr. Xi, to adopt more liberal economic policies and even to experiment with greater political openness as a way for the party to maintain its rule. Without much success so far, reformers have long been encouraging the leadership to move toward a more sustainable growth model for China, one that relies more on domestic consumption rather than infrastructure investment and exports, and where state enterprises play less of a role.

Mr. Xi, known as a skillful consensus builder, has kept his ideas carefully veiled throughout his career, but his trip to Shenzhen is the strongest sign yet that he may favor more open policies. In a speech in Beijing on Nov. 29, Mr. Xi spoke of the “Chinese dream” of realizing the nation’s “revival,” which, besides being a call for renewal, also signaled strong nationalist leanings.

Mr. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a revered senior official handpicked by Mr. Deng to help shape the new economic policies and oversee the creation of the Shenzhen zone. Mr. Xi’s mother lives in Shenzhen, and he visited her on his trip, according to Hong Kong news reports.

“If he indeed went to Shenzhen, that means he intends to make reform a subject of priority,” said Li Weidong, a liberal political analyst. “That would really be a phenomenon.”

Mr. Li cautioned, though, that the so-called reform policies that followed Mr. Deng’s 1992 southern tour, in his view, “ended up being fake” because China’s boom resulted in widespread corruption and the expansion of state enterprises at the expense of private entrepreneurship.

When Mr. Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, became party chief in 2002, he was seen by many as a potential reformer, but his tenure was marked by conservative policies. For his first trip outside Beijing as party chief, Mr. Hu went in December 2002 to Xibaipo, a hallowed site for the revolution, where he reiterated a speech given by Mao Zedong.

Over the weekend, video footage from Phoenix Television showed a line of minibuses and police cars winding its way through Shenzhen. Mr. Xi and other officials walked outdoors in dark suits. The party’s official news organizations did not immediately report on the trip, but some prominent mainland Chinese news Web sites cited the Hong Kong reports.

Mr. Xi’s early moves as party leader seem aimed at emphasizing national “revival,” a theme he highlighted when he appeared on Nov. 29 with the party’s new seven-man Politburo Standing Committee in a history museum at Tiananmen Square. According to People’s Daily, the party mouthpiece, Mr. Xi stood in front of an exhibition called “The Road to Rejuvenation” and said, “After the 170 or more years of constant struggle since the Opium Wars, the great revival of the Chinese nation enjoys glorious prospects.”

He added: “Now everyone is discussing the Chinese dream, and I believe that realizing the great revival of the Chinese nation is the greatest dream of the Chinese nation in modern times.”

The emphasis on a “Chinese dream” is particular to Mr. Xi, and could prove to be a recurring motif throughout his tenure. The notion of a grand revival — “fu xing” in Mandarin — has been popular with Chinese leaders for at least a century, but Mr. Xi appears to be tapping more deeply into that nationalist vein than his recent predecessors, perhaps recognizing that traditional Communist ideology no longer has popular appeal.

Given China’s many recent accomplishments, it is somewhat surprising that “this narrative, which counterpoises China against Japan and the West, should be becoming more rather than less prominent,” said Orville Schell, a veteran China observer who is writing a book on the country’s modern quest for wealth and power with John Delury, a historian. “And now, as the new Chinese leadership begins to write the script for the next act of their country’s reform, it appears as if Xi Jinping is finding nationalism an irresistible ingredient in his effort to galvanize his people.”

Mr. Xi’s brand of nationalism, analysts say, could mix bolder economic policies with anticorruption campaigns, a vigorous military buildup and a muscular foreign policy. The combination is somewhat reminiscent of the Self-Strengthening Movement in the late 19th century, when some Chinese leaders and intellectuals tried to push institutional reforms to revive a weakening Qing dynasty harassed by Western powers and Japan.

Leaders here know that anti-foreign nationalism, shaped by the state education system and mass media, is a powerful undercurrent in Chinese society. Just weeks before Mr. Xi took power, anti-Japan protests erupted in Chinese cities over a territorial dispute. Under Mr. Xi, China has been assertive with Southeast Asian nations over disputed territory in the South China Sea.

On Wednesday, Mr. Xi met with representatives of the Second Artillery Corps, which oversees China’s nuclear arsenal. That prompted The People’s Liberation Army Daily to say the next day: “In realizing the great dream of the great revival of the Chinese nation, the Second Artillery Corps is duty-bound to take up the task of forging the saber of a great power.”

For many Chinese, calls for revival refer to resurrecting a China strong enough to dictate foreign policy on its own terms, before Western nations humiliated the Qing rulers during the two Opium Wars in the 19th century. The last golden age of China as a great power is often considered to be the late 18th century, after the Qing empire’s ethnic Manchu rulers had expanded China’s geographic reach. Perhaps most telling, the Qianlong Emperor tried forcing George Macartney, the British envoy, to kowtow in the imperial court in 1793.

After the Opium Wars, nationalist intellectuals, including Sun Yat-sen, pushed for rejuvenation. Sun founded the Revive China Society, whose motto was to “expel the Manchus, revive China and establish a unified government.”

In Mr. Schell’s view, “if there is any one sentiment that has tied all the thinkers and leaders of China’s 20th century together, it is certainly nationalism.”

Mr. Delury, the historian, said there was a millennia-old concept of rejuvenation in dynastic China that the party might find relevant now. It was called a “middle revival,” or zhong xing, and was used to describe a period midway through a dynastic cycle when an empire had to revive itself to move past the failings of weak leadership.

“To rally the troops, there’s a call for zhong xing,” Mr. Delury said. “The archetype is you have these strong founding emperors, and then you have an inexorable weakening, and then there’s a crisis, and a strong leader emerges in the middle who pushes the zhong xing. It gives the dynasty a second life.”

Patrick Zuo contributed research.
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« Reply #3419 on: Dec 10, 2012, 08:11 AM »

12/10/2012 01:48 PM

De Facto Loss of Sovereignty: Cyprus Makes Big Concessions for Bailout

By Christian Reiermann and Markus Dettmer

Cyprus wants help from the European Union's bailout fund. But the price for the billions in emergency aid money is high. The country will effectively lose its sovereignty.

Dimitris Christofias had a serious look on his face as he turned to the cameras and spoke of what a "gut-wrenching" decision it was, but added that it was also a "necessary evil." The Cypriot president was not giving his people good news.

His staff realized how bad it would be when Christofias, in his televised address last Tuesday, reminded viewers of his country's darkest hour, the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974.

Although Cyprus is not about to suffer the same fate, it is already clear that in return for billions of euros for the debt-ridden country from the European bailout fund, the "troika," made up of the European Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), will essentialy take control of the Mediterranean island.

The Cypriot government and representatives of the troika negotiated for almost five months over the terms of a bailout package, worth at least €17.5 billion ($22.8 billion). The negotiations produced the draft version of a 30-page Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), in which the troika dictates to Cyprus what steps it will have to take in the coming years, down to the smallest detail.

Under the deal, civil servants and politicians, including cabinet ministers, will have to fly in economy class when traveling within Europe in the future. Exceptions apply to the president of the country and the president of the parliament. Spending on foreign trips will be trimmed. The privilege senior bureaucrats have to buy cars duty-free will be eliminated. And the salaries of civil servants and lawmakers will be frozen until 2016.

Blaming the Banks

When representatives of the troika get down to the nitty-gritty of imposing rules, no detail is too small for them. For instance, they have prescribed new hours of operation for government offices. In the future, public offices will open punctually at 8 a.m. Starting Sept. 1, 2013, public servants and other government employees will work within a regulated flextime program. According to the MoU draft document, this will be "37 1/2 hours per week, 7 1/2 hours per day."

The euro rescuers also addressed government revenues. The tax on fine-cut tobacco will go up drastically from €60 to €150 per kilogram, while the beer tax will increase to €6 per degree of alcohol and hectoliter. The troika also believes that a tax increase of 7 cents per liter is appropriate for diesel fuel and gasoline.

Citizens will be especially hard-hit by the planned 2-percent increase in the value-added tax, bringing it up to 19 percent. The troika is also calling for cuts in the healthcare sector, as well as reduced pensions.

Christofias left no doubt as to who he blames for the disaster, saying: "It's true that the decisions of bank executives and the miserable control by the Cypriot central bank have cost Cyprus billions of euros." The amount of the aid package corresponds almost to the country's entire economic output in a year. According to the troika's plan, by 2016 Cyprus's national budget will be cleaned up enough that the country can hopefully make do without new debt.

Creditors to Take Losses First

Cypriot banks are also expected to make a contribution. Crisis-ridden institutions will no longer be supported solely by injections of cash from the European bailout fund. This time, the banks' creditors are also expected to pay up. "With the goal of minimizing the cost to taxpayers, bank shareholders and junior debt holders will take losses before state-aid measures are granted," the MoU draft reads. This means that creditors of Cypriot banks won't just be able to withdraw their money. Instead, their claims will be converted into bank shares.

In taking this step, the troika is avoiding a potential embarrassment. Substantial sums of Russian capital are deposited into Cypriot banks, and some of it is probably of dubious origin. It would be difficult to explain to the European public why its taxes are being used to rescue wealthy oligarchs. Now, people who had previously invested their wealth into yachts, cars and football clubs will be forcibly turned into bank owners.

At the same time, Cyprus will have to rebuild its financial sector in the coming years, along with drastically improving regulations and intensifying the fight against money laundering and tax evasion.

But on Tuesday, the president wasn't willing to end his address without giving his fellow Cypriots at least some words of comfort and hope. After the Turkish invasion, he said, the country was rebuilt. And today, he added, Cyprus can hope for a new "economic miracle."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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