January 21, 2013
Algeria Defends Tough Response to Hostage Crisis as Toll Rises
By ADAM NOSSITER and ERIC SCHMITT
ALGIERS — The prime minister of Algeria offered an unapologetic defense on Monday of the country’s tough actions to end the Sahara hostage crisis, saying that the militants who had carried out the kidnappings intended to kill all their captives and that the army saved many from death by attacking.
But the assertion came as the death toll of foreign hostages rose sharply, to 37, and as American officials said they had offered sophisticated surveillance help that could minimize casualties, both before and during the military operation to retake a seized gas field complex in the Algerian desert.
At least some of the assistance was accepted, they said, but there were still questions about whether Algeria had taken all available steps to avert such a bloody outcome.
American counterterrorism officials and experts said they would have taken a more cautious approach, using detailed surveillance to gain an information advantage and hopefully outmaneuver the militants. But others declined to second-guess the Algerians, saying events had unfolded so rapidly that the government might have felt it had no choice but to kill the kidnappers, even if hostages died in the process.
The debate over how the Algerians handled one of the worst hostage-taking episodes in recent memory reflects conflicting ideas over how to manage such mass abductions in an age of suicidal terrorist acts in a post-9/11 world.
The Algerians — and some Western supporters — argue that the loss of innocent lives is unavoidable when confronting fanatics who will kill their captives anyway, while others say modern technology provides some means of minimizing the deaths.
At a news conference in Algiers, the prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, portrayed the military’s deadly assaults on the Islamist militants who had stormed and occupied an internationally run gas-producing complex last Wednesday in remote eastern Algeria as a matter of national character and pride.
“The whole world has understood that the reaction was courageous,” Mr. Sellal said, calling the abductions an attack “on the stability of Algeria.”
“Algerians are not people who sell themselves out,” he said. “When the security of the country is at stake, there is no possible discussion.”
It was the Algerian government’s first detailed public explanation of its actions during the siege, a brazen militant assault that has raised broad new concerns about the strength of extremists who have carved out enclaves in neighboring Mali and elsewhere in North Africa.
Mr. Sellal said that the 37 foreign workers killed during the episode — a toll much higher than the 23 previously estimated — came from eight countries and that five captives remained unaccounted for. It was unclear how many had died at the hands of the kidnappers or the Algerian Army. The United States said that three Americans were among the dead and that seven had survived.
The prime minister also said that 29 kidnappers had been killed, including the leader, and that three had been captured alive. The militants were from Egypt, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Tunisia and Canada, he said — an assertion the Canadian government said it was investigating. Mr. Sellal said the group began the plot in Mali and entered Algeria through Libya, close to the site.
Other countries, notably Japan and Britain, have raised concerns about what they considered Algeria’s harsh and hasty response. The United States has not publicly criticized Algeria, which it regards as an ally in the fight to contain jihadist groups in Africa. But law enforcement and military officials said Monday that they almost certainly would have handled such a crisis differently.
First, the United States would have engaged in longer discussions with the captors to identify the leaders and buy time, the officials said. In the meantime, the Pentagon, the C.I.A. and possibly allied security services could have moved surveillance drones, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft and electronic eavesdropping equipment into place to help identify the locations of the hostages and the assailants.
“It would have been a precision approach as opposed to a sledgehammer approach,” said Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, a retired deputy commander of the United States military’s Special Operations Command.
A senior American official said the Algerians had allowed an unarmed American surveillance drone to fly over the gas field on Thursday. But it was unclear what role, if any, it had played in the Algerian Army’s assault that day. American officials said they had not been told of the strike in advance.
Prime Minister Sellal conceded no mistakes as he provided the government’s first distinct timeline in the sequence of events, breaking it down into three episodes.
First, the militants attacked a guarded bus carrying foreign plant workers to the airport at In Amenas, and two people aboard were killed. “They wanted to take control of this bus and take the foreign workers directly to northern Mali so they could have hostages, to negotiate with foreign countries,” he said. “But when they opened fire on the bus, there was a strong response from the gendarmes guarding it.”
After they failed to capture the bus, the prime minister said, the militants split into two groups: one to seize the complex’s living quarters, the other to capture the gas plant itself, a maze of pipes and machinery. They invaded both sections, taking dozens of hostages, attaching bombs to some and booby-trapping the plant.
At this point, he said, the facility was ringed by security forces.
Perhaps late Wednesday or early Thursday morning — Mr. Sellal described it as a nighttime episode — the kidnappers attempted a breakout. “They put explosives on the hostages. They wanted to put the hostages in four-wheel-drive vehicles and take them to Mali.”
Mr. Sellal then suggested that government helicopters immobilized the kidnappers. Witnesses have described an intense army assault, resulting in both militant and hostage deaths.
“A great number of workers were put in the cars; they wanted to use them as human shields,” the prime minister said. “There was a strong response from the army, and three cars exploded,” he said. One contained an Algerian militant whom the prime minister identified as the leader, Mohamed-Lamine Bouchneb.
The second and final operation happened Saturday, Mr. Sellal said, when the 11 remaining kidnappers moved into the gas-producing part of the complex, a hazardous area that he said they had already tried to ignite.
“The aim of the terrorists was to explode the gas compound,” he said. In this second assault, he said, there were “a great number of hostages,” and the kidnappers were ordered to kill them all. It was then, he said, that army snipers killed the kidnappers.
None of the Algerian reporters questioned the prime minister’s version of events, and some spoke of a disconnect between foreign complaints about the way Algeria had managed the crisis and Algeria’s protracted struggle with Islamic militancy over the past three decades.
“The terrorists came with a precise plan: Kidnap foreigners and destroy the gas plant,” said Hamid Guemache, a journalist at TSA-Tout sur l’Algérie, an online news site, dismissing criticism of the government. “Did it really have a choice? If the assault hadn’t been undertaken quickly, maybe the terrorists would have succeeded in killing all the hostages, and blowing up the factory.”
Some American counterterrorism officials conceded that point.
“If the terrorists were shooting hostages or at least putting explosives around their necks and their intent was to sabotage the plant, this might have been a suicide mission to blow up the plant, and not negotiate,” said Henry A. Crumpton, a retired career C.I.A. officer and formerly the State Department’s top counterterrorism official.
“It sounds horrible to say, but given the number of hostages and scope of this, this is not as bad an outcome as what could have happened, if that was their intent.”
In all, 790 workers were on the site — including 134 foreigners of 26 nationalities — when it was first seized, the prime minister said.
From the start of the siege, the Algerians were bound to respond with force, said Mansouria Mokhefi, a professor who heads the Middle East and Maghreb program at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. The question, she said, was how bloody the outcome would be.
“Everyone knows the Algerians do not negotiate,” Dr. Mokhefi said, and surely the attackers knew this as well.
After all, she said, the foundation of the Algerian government is its longstanding defeat of Islamist militancy and its restoration of a “certain peace” to the country after the civil war during the 1990s, when tens of thousands died.
“The legitimacy of this government in Algeria is its fight against terrorism and the security of the country,” Dr. Mokhefi said.
Criticizing the Algerians for their harsh tactics, as the British and Japanese have done, simply shows “a deep lack of knowledge about this regime, of its functioning,” she said.
But the French understand the Algerians, Dr. Mokhefi said.
French officials have publicly supported Algeria’s actions, in part because France needs to use Algerian airspace for its military intervention in Mali and wants Algeria to work harder to seal its borders with Mali.
“There isn’t a military unit that would have done better, given the strategic conditions, the place where this unfolded, the number of assailants and the number of hostages,” said Christian Prouteau, who was chief of security under President François Mitterrand. “I challenge any Western country confronting this kind of operation to do better.”
Adam Nossiter reported from Algiers, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Hadjer Guenanfa from Algiers, Steven Erlanger, Maïa de la Baume and Scott Sayare from Paris, Alan Cowell from London, and Rick Gladstone from New York.
January 21, 2013
Coup Attempt by Rebel Soldiers Is Said to Fail in Eritrea
By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
GARSEN, Kenya — Eritrea, a sliver of a nation in the Horn of Africa that is one of the most secretive and repressive countries in the world, was cast into confusion on Monday after mutinous soldiers stormed the Ministry of Information and took over the state-run television service, apparently in a coup attempt.
According to several people with close contacts inside Eritrea, the coup attempt failed, with government troops quelling the would-be rebellion and no one rising up in the streets. But many analysts said it was only a matter of time before President Isaias Afwerki, Eritrea’s brash and steely leader for the past 20 years, is confronted again — and most likely from within.
“There’s a lot of dissatisfaction within the armed forces,” said Dan Connell, a professor at Simmons College in Boston and the author of several books on Eritrea. “If this is suppressed, it won’t be the end.”
Eritrea is often called the North Korea of Africa because it is so isolated and authoritarian, with few friends and thousands of defectors in recent years as Mr. Isaias tightens his grip and the economy teeters on the brink of ruin.
In the early 1990s, when Mr. Isaias first took power, Eritrea was hailed as a beacon of hope in Africa, a country of low crime, ethnic harmony and can-do spirit along the Red Sea. The Eritreans fought for years in trenches and from craggy mountaintops to defeat a Soviet-backed Ethiopian government and win their independence.
But the euphoria did not last. In the late 1990s, Eritrea and Ethiopia waged a costly war over their shared border, in which tens of thousands of people died. Shortly afterward, Mr. Isaias rounded up political dissidents and journalists, dooming them to years in prison, often in sweltering, underground shipping containers.
Thousands of young Eritreans have been drafted into the army and then required to work indefinitely for the government for pittance wages in what is called “national service.” Each year, many young people risk their lives to escape. Eritrea has waged war with just about all of its neighbors, and the United Nations has imposed sanctions on Eritrea over what is suspected to be its support of Somali militants.
By nightfall on Monday, it seemed that the government had beaten back the mutineers, with some analysts saying that the government broadcaster, Eri-TV, was back on the air.
The rebel soldiers, believed to number around 100, made it as far as the director’s office in the Ministry of Information, forcing him to read a statement on air calling for the release of political prisoners. Then the broadcast abruptly cut out. They also may have briefly taken hostage Mr. Isaias’s daughter, Elsa, who is said to work in the ministry.
It was not clear what happened to the renegade soldiers; analysts said that troops loyal to the government had surrounded the Ministry of Information and that the mutineers would most likely be captured and imprisoned.
The State Department said that the situation remained fluid, and the small embassy in Asmara, Eritrea’s capital, sent out a warning on Monday to the few American citizens living there. “The U.S. Embassy has been made aware of increased military presence in some sections of Asmara,” the warning said. “Employees of the U.S. government have been advised to limit their movements within the city, avoid large gatherings and exercise caution. We strongly recommend that private U.S. citizens do likewise.”
January 21, 2013
As Elections Near, Protesters in Jordan Increasingly Turn Anger Toward the King
By KAREEM FAHIM
AMMAN, Jordan — For two years, protests demanding reform here have seethed, fueled by complaints about corruption, incompetent governing and the slow pace of change. In November, deadly demonstrations against a cut in fuel subsidies spread throughout the country.
The widening anger has brought together longtime political opposition figures with those who were once a part of the monarchy’s loyal base. The focus of the protests has also started to broaden, from anger at corrupt officials to bolder expressions of dissatisfaction with King Abdullah II.
To quiet his critics, the king is relying on a new round of parliamentary elections scheduled for Wednesday, a contest that he has promised “will breathe life into our democracy.”
The vote comes as Jordan copes with a number of domestic challenges, including a crushing deficit and a flood of more than 200,000 Syrian refugees — the kinds of crises that have often derailed movements for reform.
However, while the opposition has often seemed more conservative in Jordan than elsewhere in the region — calling for reform rather than the overthrow of the government — it is has shown no sign of easing pressure on the king.
The disillusionment that has fueled the protests is concentrated in the southern city of Ma’an, known for uprisings and phosphate mines.
In the center of town this week, a group of men who had occupied a traffic circle to protest the region’s lack of jobs ate lunch in a tent. Some said they had worked as smugglers, but even that trade had dried up.
“We want to live,” proclaimed graffiti on a sculpture. Beyond it the charred remains of the governor’s residence was visible, set on fire during a recent protest.
The parliamentary campaign in Ma’an has focused on local issues — like winning the region its share of the spoils from the mines — and on the corruption that has become a rallying cry for dissent across the country.
“They don’t see anything from the precious mines,” said Abdul-Karim al-Bahri al-Muhameed, a former civil servant who is running with the support of his tribe. “The king is not serious about getting the money stolen by corruption,” he said.
He sat in the salon of a tribal leader, Sheik Adel al-Muhameed, a supporter of his candidacy who was boycotting the vote. “I don’t trust the Parliament,” he said.
During the last two years, the government had approached tribal leaders like him to try and stop the street protests, Mr. Muhameed said. “The government cannot handle it,” he said. The election, he added, “is a play.”
Citing a history of rigged elections in Jordan that have produced toothless legislatures, many government critics have dismissed Wednesday’s polling as a cosmetic and desperate effort by an absolute monarch to avoid handing over power. A few opposition groups, including the largest, the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, and the protest network known as Hirak are boycotting the vote.
“He doesn’t carry out of any of his promises,” said Nimer al-Assaf, the deputy general secretary of the Islamic Action Front, the Brotherhood’s political party. Mr. Assaf predicted that no more than 25 percent of registered voters would turn up at the polls. “People are rejecting the whole idea,” he said.
But other opposition groups are participating in the election, stirring new divides.
Other candidates, to be sure, have put aside their misgivings in the hope that freedom will gradually emerge.
“Democracy happens in degrees,” said Mohamed al-Hajouj, a Palestinian refugee who is running for Parliament, undeterred by gerrymandered districts that continue to underrepresent the country’s citizens of Palestinian origin, a majority.
Something had to be done, Mr. Hajouj reckoned, likening Jordan to a grenade ready to explode. The elections, he said, would keep it from blowing up.
Jordanian officials say they have added a number of election safeguards to prevent what was seen as a process manipulated by the country’s powerful intelligence services and marred by vote-buying and other fraud.
International and local observers say they have been promised full access to polling stations. In recent days, the authorities have announced investigations into several prominent candidates, including former members of Parliament, on charges of bribery.
In a kind of position paper the king released last Wednesday, he offered his people a civics lesson, discussing the mores of active citizens — including writing letters to the editors of newspapers — and pleaded for compromise in the public discourse.
“To make democracy work,” the king wrote, “it is critical that we debate, discuss and vote on the basis of the positions put forward by the candidates on key issues facing our country, and not the basis of personalities or affinities related to geography or family.”
Among the king’s critics, the effort was ignored or dismissed as a public relations exercise for the benefit of allies like the United States that need to justify their support for him. The system criticized by the king was in fact perpetuated by him, his critics charged. And opposition leaders claimed they already had seen evidence of fraud.
Mr. Assaf, of the Islamic Action Front, said a former government official, whom he refused to name, had offered the party parliamentary seats in return for cooperation with the election. Leaders of another protest movement said intermediaries for the government had approached them with a similar offer.
In any case, the claims — along with accusations of staggering corruption and the cheap sale of public land — foster mistrust of Jordan’s rulers that seems unlikely to vanish with the election. The Brotherhood and leaders of Hirak vowed to keep pressing their claims in the streets.
At a campaign tent in the town of Shobak, near Ma’an, a former member of Parliament, Wasfi Rawashdeh, had come to support a candidate in Wednesday’s vote. A lawmaker with a reputation as principled and tough on corruption, Mr. Rawashdeh said that in his experience it was nearly impossible for the legislature — dominated by government loyalists, as it is and is likely to remain — to be effective.
“We made a difference, but not like we hoped,” he said. “There is pressure on the parliamentarians. No one likes me, from the king on down.”
Mr. Rawashdeh said that Jordan’s rulers still considered democracy an option, not a necessity — something “to show the world.” The king, he said, was not hearing the complaints in Ma’an and elsewhere. “He buys time,” he added, “and it’s not good for the country.”
ICC lawyers slam Libya over Kadhafi son’s ‘Kafka-esque’ trial
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, January 21, 2013 16:35 EST
Lawyers defending Moamer Kadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam at the International Criminal Court on Monday accused Libyan authorities of conducting a “Kafka-esque show trial” after he appeared in a court in his homeland for the first time last week.
The latest broadside in the legal tug-of-war between The Hague-based ICC and Tripoli over where Seif, 40, should face justice came after he appeared in the dock in the Libyan town of Zintan on Thursday on charges of “undermining state security”.
The Libyan charges were levelled after four ICC envoys went to Zintan in June and were detained for nearly a month, triggering a diplomatic row.
One of the four, Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor, was accused of carrying a pen camera and attempting to give Seif a coded letter from his former right-hand man Mohammed Ismail, who is wanted by Libyan authorities.
After Kadhafi appeared in court, ICC lawyers on Monday submitted an urgent request to the ICC “to issue an immediate decision on the admissibility of the case, and to order the government of Libya to immediately surrender Mr Kadhafi to the custody of the ICC”.
The ICC is mulling a Libyan request to put Kadhafi and former spy chief Abdullah Senussi on trial there, while the ICC itself wants to try Kadhafi on charges of crimes against humanity committed in the conflict that overthrew his father in 2011.
The ICC lawyers said that Kadhafi “is essentially being tried for attempting to communicate with the ICC via his Counsel in relation to the fact that his rights had been violated”.
“Prosecuting a defendant for trying to defend himself epitomises the very definition of a Kafka-esque show trial.”
The ICC lawyers said Kadhafi’s trial on security charges was “a completely unrelated, and abusive prosecution”.
“Such strong-arm tactics have absolutely no place in a court of law, or in any country, which claims to respect the rule of law.”
The ICC, which was mandated by the UN Security Council to investigate the Libyan conflict, issued arrest warrants in June 2011 for both Seif and Senussi on charges of crimes against humanity.
Lawyers for the two accused have said they will not get a fair trial in Libya, which has until Wednesday to submit its latest report to the ICC in a bid to have the court quash a surrender request.
Israelis vote in general election
More than 30 parties are contesting polls expected to return Binyamin Netanyahu at the head of a more hawkish coalition
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 22 January 2013 09.09 GMT
Israelis have begun voting in a general election that is expected to return Binyamin Netanyahu at the head of another coalition government, albeit with fewer parliamentary seats and a more rightwing, hawkish bent.
Opinion polls have predicted that the Likud-Beiteinu alliance – an electoral merger between the parties of Netanyahu and the hardline former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman – will get 32-35 of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
The significant drop from the current 42 seats held by the two parties is attributed largely to the draining of votes to the ultra-nationalist rightwing Jewish Home party, led by former commando and startup millionaire Naftali Bennett. Jewish Home – which is vehemently opposed to a Palestinian state and advocates the annexation of large chunks of the West Bank – is expected to become the third biggest party, with around 12 seats. But Netanyahu has also run a lacklustre campaign marked by tactical errors.
The prime minister and his family cast their votes five minutes after the polls opened at 7am local time (0500 GMT). He said that despite the dry weather, he wished to see "a rain of ballots" for his party. "The stronger Likud-Beiteinu is, the easier it will be to lead Israel successfully," he added. He later visited the Western Wall in the Old City, leaving a note saying "With God's help, for the future of Israel" in the cracks between the ancient stones.
After Bennett and his wife cast their votes in Ra'anana, an affluent suburb of Tel Aviv, the unexpected star of the three-month election campaign sang Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, outside the polling station.
Around 18% of the public had not decided which party to vote for, according to the last opinion polls to be published before the election. In theory they could dramatically change the outcome, or boost the prospects of smaller parties. There are more than 30 parties contesting the elections for the 19th Knesset.
The polls close at 10pm, and 85% of the votes will be counted overnight. Turnout is expected to be around 65% of the 5.6 million eligible voters, although the proportion among Israeli Arabs – 20% of the population – is likely to be lower.
President Shimon Peres urged Israelis to exercise their right to vote. "In 65 years of existence Israel went through seven wars but never lost its democratic freedom. We fought for our survival but never gave up our democracy. We are a unique country; neither war nor trouble can overcome freedom. Today is a celebration of that democracy," he said.
Election day is a holiday in Israel, with schools, banks and government offices closed, and many employees given a day off.
One parliamentary candidate, Meirav Cohen of Hatnua, led by Tzipi Livni, gave birth to a baby girl a few hours before the polls opened.
Israeli elections set to amplify religious voice in Knesset
Polls suggest one in three Knesset members will be religious and ultra-orthodox Jews and one in six West Bank settlers
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
guardian.co.uk, Monday 21 January 2013 14.49 GMT
Religious and ultra-orthodox Jews and inhabitants of West Bank settlements are expected to have disproportionately high representation in the new Israeli parliament, to be elected on Tuesday.
More than a third of members of the 19th Knesset are expected to be entering parliament for the first time, a much higher turnover of political representatives than in previous elections.
"There will be an over-representation of the religious and ultra-orthodox – around one in three members of the Knesset, according to the latest polls," said Ofer Kenig, of the Israel Democracy Institute. About one in five members of the last Knesset were religious or ultra-orthodox, he said.
"This is a very significant change. The explanation is not necessarily the demographic growth of this sector but the success of religious parties in attracting support from secular and traditional voters."
He said there would be "a very high representation of Jewish settlers", up to 20 of the 120 members of the Knesset. Less than 5% of Israel's population lives in West Bank settlements.
The new Knesset is expected to be the first in Israel's history without a member from a kibbutz. "Throughout Israel's history, kibbutzniks have played a very important part in shaping Israeli society, but they have always been a very small proportion of the population," Kenig said, adding that the new political elite was a coalition of West Bank settlers, ultra-orthodox, national-religious and rightwing city dwellers.
Among those expected to be elected is Orit Struck, a candidate for the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party and a radical settler in the Palestinian city of Hebron.
This week, she defended her son, who is serving an 18-month prison sentence for abducting and assaulting a 15-year-old Palestinian boy, causing severe injuries. "Zviki is my firstborn and is sitting in prison for no fault of his own, because of his Arab neighbours," Struck told the NRG website.
Another Jewish Home candidate, Jeremy Gimpel, was the subject of a furore when a video revealed that he suggested in 2011 that the Dome of the Rock, the revered mosque in Jerusalem's Old City, could be "blown up" to allow the building of a third Jewish temple on the site, which is also sacred to Judaism.
"Imagine today if the golden dome, I'm being recorded so I can't say blown up, but let's say it was blown up, right, and we laid the cornerstone of the temple in Jerusalem … it would be incredible," he said. Following calls to disqualify him as a candidate, Gimpel said the remarks had been "a joke".
A third Jewish Home candidate, Hillel Horowitz, a rabbi also from the hardline Hebron settlement, called for Jewish settlers to return to Gaza and a West Bank outpost, which were evacuated in 2005. "We will do everything we can to work to return the people of Israel to Homesh in northern Samaria [the West Bank] and to Gush Katif [in Gaza]," Horowitz said on the religious zionist website Kipa, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's ruling Likud party, currently in an electoral alliance with the former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, is expected to be more hardline rightwing in the next parliament.
Among those expecting to become new Likud members of the Knesset is Moshe Feiglin, who this month proposed that the Israeli government pay Palestinians in the West Bank $500,000 a family to leave. "This is the perfect solution for us," he said.
Feiglin, a hardline settler from Karnei Shomron in the West Bank, was recently arrested for contravening Israeli law by praying near the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque. His faction has sought more power and influence within Likud over recent years; he won 25% of the party vote last year when he challenged Netanyahu for the leadership. He told the Guardian he believed that "one day I will lead the state of Israel".
Another rising star on the Likud rightwing is Danny Danon, a Knesset member who has accelerated up the list of candidates in the election, which may give him leverage in the post-election scramble for ministerial jobs.
Danon advocates the annexation by Israel of large swaths of the West Bank and argues that Palestinians there and in Gaza should come under Jordanian and Egyptian control rather than having their own state.
He demanded the jailing of a fellow Knesset member, the Israeli-Arab Haneed Zoabi, branding her a "traitor" for taking part in the flotilla of ships attempting to break the blockade of Gaza in 2010. Danon told the Guardian that the hardening of rightwing opinion in Israel was "an awakening". The public, he said, "appreciates my message".
The left in Israel is its own worst enemy
Elitist, splintered, myopic and Eurocentric – small wonder the centre-left has contributed to the rise of the Israeli right
The Guardian, Monday 21 January 2013
Israelis have rarely seemed so despondent. During a recent trip ahead of the impending elections, the popular sentiment I kept hearing was of Israel as a country that screws its citizens. There's a paucity of hope, a frustrated paralysis over corruption, cronyism and ego-driven politics. Nobody believes voting will change anything. Sadly, some Israelis told me their best case scenario was that their children emigrate.
Israel is expected to elect the most rightwing government in its history on Tuesday – a coalition that will make the current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, look like a man of peace.
His Likud party is running ever more extreme candidates and is outflanked to the right by Jewish Home, a rapidly rising, Palestine-denying, new settlers' party that is predicted to play a key role in coalition. But alongside the headlines heralding a rightward lurch, voter turnout is expected to plunge. That has prompted ubiquitous, state-sponsored commercials with the tagline: "Vote now; moan later."
Low motivation is highest among centre-left voters. Endemic levels of misery and apathy are tied to a popular conviction that Israeli politicians of all stripes will continue to serve an elite while ignoring everybody else, except to expose the wider population to constant fear and endless war.
The increasingly splintered centre and left parties are predicted to win up to 57 out of 120 Knesset seats. That sounds good, but no one party will have significant clout on its own, and they don't seem able to agree enough to form a strong, combined force (some of these left and centre parties might even join Bibi's coalition).
As the nation's mood seems to slide ever rightwards, polls still show majority support for the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state. And the mass social movement of 2011, a united cry against the nation's crippling neoliberal economics, brought 500,000 of the nation's 8 million on to the streets – the largest protests in Israel's history. How is it possible, in this context, for the left to be so powerless in politics?
The straight answer is that the Israeli left has never really been leftwing. Labour has long been the elite, establishment party, dominated by Jews of European origin who monopolised power and discriminated against Jewish communities from Muslim and Arab countries (labelled "Mizrahi" or "Eastern"). Such discrimination – the lopsided allocation of resources, such as land or education; the cultural negation – was so bad that ethnicity is now too often synonymous with class.
In the late 1970s, the rightwing Likud exploited this to win a landslide victory. Its leader at the time, Menachem Begin, toured city slums and peripheral towns proclaiming his party would never dishonour or deprive the majority Mizrahi population like Labour did. The wealth gap widened under Likud's naked capitalism, but mistrust of a condescending, Eurocentric left wing still holds sway – especially as ethnic discrimination remains an unacknowledged divide.
In a new documentary about the left, which recently aired on Israeli TV, the Iraqi-born Israeli author Sami Michael explains this crucial, myopic contradiction within the pro-peace left: "They see [Mizrahis] as a danger, because we bring Arab culture, enemy culture which the Israeli left hates," he says. "It's nice for them to be photographed with Arabs, to say that they have Arab friends, that they want peace. But peace with whom? First of all make peace with your own people!"
But the Israeli left can't make peace with the Palestinians, either – not even with the Palestinians who make up 20% of Israel's population, but are second-class citizens because of systemic discrimination. No Israeli government has included Arab political parties. Even in 1999, after gaining 94% of the Palestinian vote in Israel, Labour snubbed this sector and built a coalition without even a token Arab party. When peace talks with Palestinians at Camp David failed, the then Labour prime minister, Ehud Barak, proclaimed that Israel had "no partner for peace" – a cowardly own goal that kicked away a political foundation-stone.
"This is what made the right wing stronger," says Asma Aghbaria-Zahalka, leader of Daam, the Jewish-Arab workers' party. Although unlikely to gain a Knesset seat, she has gained many column inches for her fresh, charismatic socialism. "The Israeli left has no future without the Arabs, and the right will stay in power for ever," she says.
Therein lies another problem with the Israeli left: it doesn't really do equality. As Sami Michael (who is also president of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel) points out in the TV documentary, this should be the starting point of any leftwing party. While the right dominates identity politics with its ultra-patriotic Jewish nationalism, the supposed left can't provide a more inclusive, democratic alternative.
As Anat Saragusti, director of the social change communications centre Agenda explains: "My Israeli nationality is much larger and broader than my Jewish nationality. I have more in common with Arab citizens of Israel than with Jews in Guatemala or New York." A truly leftwing party would rise above the choking patriotism test of Jewish ethnocentrism and find a better alternative.
This failure to support an inclusive Israeli identity in part explains the factionalism that typifies Israeli left politics – without binding progressive ideals, every party has its pet issues to peddle. Ahead of this election, the Israeli centre-left sub-split into a baffling number of atomised parties – now including Labour, Kadima, Hatnuah, Meretz, Yesh Atid – which then polluted media coverage with childish squabbles about who wants to join whose gang. Small wonder that centre-left Israelis can't be bothered to vote.
However abhorrent, the far-right of "greater Israel", ultra-nationalism, no Palestine and pure neoliberalism is, at least, ideologically true to itself – which brings continuity and political traction. As long as the scattered Israeli left can't be properly leftwing, its hard to see the point of it – much less it having any meaningful success at the polls.
Obama's second inauguration: 'We are made for this moment'
• President vows to reclaim the spirit of founding fathers
• Gay rights, climate change and immigration mentioned
• Crowd of about half a million watches Washington swearing-in
Ewen MacAskill in Washington
The Guardian, Tuesday 22 January 2013
Barack Obama used his second-term inaugural address to issue a powerful call to action, as he embraced an unashamedly liberal agenda and urged Americans to reclaim from conservatives the spirit of the founding fathers.
Speaking in front of Congress after renewing his presidential oath of office before a crowd of about half a million, the 44th US president pledged that he would battle against poverty and prejudice, deliver equality for gay people, tackle climate change and give young undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.
Conscious that so many second terms end in failure and disappointment, he held out the prospect of bucking history. "America's possibilities are limitless … My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it so long as we seize it together," Obama said.
His speech was steeped in the language of the US constitution and in rhetorical references to Martin Luther King, underlining the symbolism of the inauguration taking place on the national holiday that celebrates the civil rights leader.
As a result it was more inspirational than the largely disappointing address in 2009. Then, faced with unrealistic hopes for his presidency and with the country caught up in he worst economic crisis since the 1930s, he had to dampen expectations.
This time round, he took the opposite approach, making a case for collectivism, the need for the federal government to help individuals out of poverty, offering opportunities for all rather than just a shrinking privileged few.
Attempting to debunk the rightwing interpretation of the constitution that has held sway in the US, Obama, in what became a near constant refrain throughout his speech, said the founding fathers did not intend the country to become enslaved by the constitution and that patriotism was not the preserve of the right.
"That is our generation's task – to make these words, these rights, these values – of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – real for every American. Being true to our founding documents does not require us to agree on every contour of life; it does not mean we will all define liberty in exactly the same way, or follow the same precise path to happiness.," Obama said.
It was down to the current generation to make the principles a reality, he declared. "For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing."
One of the most striking passages was in support of gay rights. Obama, early in his first term, was heavily criticised by gay organisations for failing to do enough. He partly redeemed himself through support for gays in the military and for equal marriage rights, but he went further on Tuesday, placing the battle for gay rights, summed up by the Stonewall protests in New York, alongside other key civil right fights.
"We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall," Obama said.
"Just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on earth."
"Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law," he said.
And he explicitly embraced gay marriage rights. ""If we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well," he said.
Obama made similar pleas for equal pay for women, for legislation to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and against other vestiges of prejudice.
Obama was more forceful about climate change than at any point since becoming president, adding it to his second-term agenda. "Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms," Obama said. "The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it."
It was a day laden with historical references. He swore the oath on two bibles belonging to two of the most revered figures in American history, Dr King and Abraham Lincoln.
Adding to the poignancy, Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers, the Mississippi civil rights leader shot dead by a white supremacist 50 years ago, delivered the invocation and recalled the ghosts of the civil rights era. She spoke of "witnesses unseen by the naked eye, but all around us, thankful that their living was not in vain." Obama acknowledged the debt.
The crowd, shouting "Obama, Obama" as he began his speech, was much smaller than the 1.8 million that turned out in 2009, mainly because second terms do not attract the same sense of history.
The mood in the crowd was more subdued than last time but retained a party spirit, and Obama too seemed more relaxed, more confident, with the mandate of a second election victory.
After the ceremony ended, with Beyoncé singing the national anthem, Obama returned briefly to the podium to look out across the crowd. His wistful comment was caught on an microphone. He said he had come out because "I will never see this again."
Republicans temporarily suspended hostilities for the day, with House speaker John Boehner joining Obama for coffee earlier in the day and joining the party on the podium as he delivered the speech.
In contrast with his inauguration in 2009 when Obama expressed hope of working with Republicans, he appeared to have given up on bipartisanship, ready to confront Republicans rather than engage in the kind of fruitless attempts at conciliation that dominated his first term.
"For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate," Obama said. "We must act; we must act knowing that our work will be imperfect."
• This article was amended on 21 January 2013. The original referred to Barack Obama as the 45th president of the United States. This has been corrected
Click to listen to this historical speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5bIT5JJX5U
**********Climate change moves to forefront in Obama's second inaugural address
President's affirmation of climate science – more prominent than in the campaign – wins praise from environmental groups
Suzanne Goldenberg US environment correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Monday 21 January 2013 22.00 GMT
Barack Obama said more about climate change in his inauguration speech – and expressed it more forcefully – than he did at any point in the 2012 election campaign and during much of his first term.
Climate change occupied a significant chunk of Monday's speech, and Obama did not stint on the language, suggesting it was a religious and patriotic duty to deal with the challenge.
"We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations," Obama said. He made a carefully calibrated appeal to Republicans, situating a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy in a religious and conservative framework of God and constitution.
"That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That's what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared," Obama said.
It was the most Obama had said on climate change for some time, and it was a stronger affirmation of the science underlying climate change than Obama has offered on other occasions.
"Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms," Obama said.
The language and reaffirmation of climate science won praise from environmental groups. "This is a call to action against the climate chaos that is sweeping our nation and threatening our future. Now it's time to act," Frances Beinecke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.
However, campaigners pressed Obama for more. Unlike Obama's first four years, when even a glancing mention of climate was seen as an achievement, environmental groups pushed the president for specifics.
"Today's address is an important first step for using the power of the presidency to spur a practical national conversation on climate change. The importance of the president regularly raising his voice on this issue cannot be overstated," said Lou Leonard, who heads climate change for the World Wildlife Fund.
But his statement added: "A sustained national conversation isn't enough. The president should lay out the steps he can and will take to clean up our energy system, help communities prepare for climate disruption and encourage the rest of the world to ramp up action."
The BlueGreen Alliance, while praising Obama for elevating the topic, also called on Obama to direct the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate existing power plants.
Campaigners have limited hopes for Obama's second term, because of Republicans' control of the house of representatives.
But they have been looking to Obama to speak out about the importance of climate change, urging him to adopt it as a legacy issue.
Monday's speech was a step in that direction. It was harder-edged than Obama's first inaugural address, when his single line on climate change promised: "We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories."
This time around, Obama acknowledged the difficulties ahead. But campaigners said they were looking to the State of the Union address next month to see whether Obama follows up with specific policy promises.
Obama in his first State of the Union address in 2009 called on Congress to put a cap on carbon. "To truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy," Obama said at the time.
By the 2012 State of the Union address, however, Obama was routinely discussing the potential of clean energy industry without even bothering to mention climate change.
On Monday, the two were linked once again. "The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition. We must lead it," he said. "We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise," he said.
"That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That's what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared."
Obama has been reaching out to environmental groups since his re-election. On Sunday night, Joe Biden, made a brief surprise visit to the Green inaugural ball. "I don't intend on ending these four years without getting an awful lot more done," he told the crowd. "Keep the faith."
***********Obama condemns ‘perpetual war’ during inaugural address
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, January 21, 2013 16:31 EST
President Barack Obama on Monday vowed to renew “strong alliances” around the world, saying that the United States was committed to finding security without “perpetual war.”
“America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe,” Obama said from the Capitol steps as he was inaugurated for a second term.
“And we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has the greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation,” Obama said.
Pointing to the end of the Iraq war and the coming withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan, Obama said: “We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
But Obama vowed to “support democracy — from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”
“And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice — not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity, human dignity and justice.”
The Obama administration has strengthened ties with US allies in Asia in response to what several nations see as growing assertiveness by China.
The inauguration comes amid France’s intervention against Islamist guerrillas in Mali, amid criticism from some US commentators that the United States has not been more forthcoming in assisting Paris.
Ban Ki-moon: climate agreement tops 2013 wishlist
The UN chief said global warming, along with ending the Syrian crisis, were his priorities among an ambitious list of hopes
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 22 January 2013 10.32 GMT
The UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon says his top hopes for 2013 are to reach a new agreement on climate change and to urgently end the increasingly deadly and divisive war in Syria.
The UN chief told the Associated Press that he's also hoping for progress in getting the global economy humming again, restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, promoting political solutions in Mali, Congo and the Central African Republic, and providing energy, food and water to all people.'
Ban laid out this ambitious wishlist in an interview before heading to the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, saying he plans to take "the uncommon opportunity" of being with 2,500 government, business and civil society leaders in the Swiss ski resort to exchange frank views on these issues.
"The world is now experiencing unprecedented challenges," Ban said.
"Climate change is fast happening – much, much faster than one would have expected," he said. "Climate and ecosystems are under growing strain."
Ban spoke before President Barack Obama, in his inaugural address Monday, put a similar emphasis on tackling climate change in his second term.
Two-decade-old UN climate talks have so-far failed in their goal of reducing the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions that a vast majority of scientists says are warming the planet. In December, a UN climate conference in Doha, Qatar, agreed to extend the Kyoto protocol, a treaty that limits the greenhouse gas output of some rich countries, and affirmed a previous decision to adopt a new global climate pact by 2015.
"I will do my best to mobilise the political will and resources so that the member states can agree to a new legally binding global agreement on climate change," Ban said.
Ban urged progress in getting nations and people to use the world's limited resources without waste and in ways to ensure their replacement, so that all people will have enough to eat and drink and there will be electricity for their homes – and have energy to spare to promote economic growth.
"We have to have sustainable development," he said. "That's our number one priority together with climate change."
Momentum for fighting climate change has stalled amid recessions, financial meltdown and government debt crises of the past five years.
"At the same time, we need to see some economic dynamism," Ban said. "The world is still suffering, struggling to overcome its economic crisis."
The forum at Davos, opening Wednesday, focuses this year on how to ensure a more sturdy economic recovery that can withstand the kind of shocks the past few years have wrought – and includes closed-door panels on many of the things worrying Ban. Among the world leaders he may rub elbows with at Davos are Bill Gates, Christine Lagarde, Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Jacob Zuma.
Worldwide unemployment hits new high: report
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, January 21, 2013 23:39 EST
Five years after the global financial crisis hit, unemployment numbers continue to soar, with a record 202 million people worldwide expected to be officially jobless this year, the International Labour Organization said Tuesday.
Last year saw a clear resurgence of the crisis, the UN’s labour body said in its annual report on global employment trends, pointing out that jobless numbers rose by four million to 197 million in 2012.
“This figure means that today there are 28 million more unemployed people around the world than they were in 2007,” before the crisis, ILO chief Guy Ryder told reporters in Geneva Monday.
Last year’s unemployment number inched up towards the all-time record of 199 million reached at the epicentre of the crisis in 2009, but “we will beat that record in 2013″, an ILO expert told AFP.
In fact, another 5.1 million people are expected to join the jobless ranks this year, bringing the total number to more than 202 million.
That number is expected to rise by another three million in 2014 and should hit 210.6 million by 2017, ILO said, adding that the global unemployment rate was expected to stay steady at 6.0 percent until then.
“The trends are very much (going) in the wrong direction,” Ryder said, lamenting a “noticable worsening of the unemployment situation around the world”.
The impact of the economic crises on the global labour market had in many cases been worsened by incoherence between monetary and fiscal policies and “a piecemeal approach” to the problems, especially in the eurozone, the report said.
“Weakened by faltering aggregate demand, the labour market has been further hit by fiscal austerity programmes in a number of countries, which often involved direct cutbacks in employment and wages,” it said.
At the same time, “labour force participation has fallen dramatically … masking the true extent of the jobs crisis,” ILO said, pointing out that 39 million people dropped out of the labour market altogether last year as job prospects became increasingly gloomy.
Young people have been especially hard-hit by the expanding jobless trend, the UN agency said, pointing out that there are currently some 73.8 million youths, aged 15 to 24, without work worldwide.
“And the slowdown in economic activity is likely to push another half million into unemployment by 2014,” the report cautioned.
Last year, the global youth unemployment rate stood at 12.6 percent, and it was expected to rise to 12.9 percent by 2017, according to ILO.
“The crisis has dramatically diminished the labour market prospects for young people, as many experience long-term unemployment right from the start of their labour market entry,” the UN agency said, adding that it had never seen anything similar during previous downturns.
Today, around 35 percent of all young people on the dole in advanced economies have been out of work for six months or longer, up from just 28.5 percent in 2007, the report showed.
Russia seeks nationwide ban on ‘homosexual propaganda’
By Eric W. Dolan
Monday, January 21, 2013 22:50 EST
Russia could soon adopt a controversial new law that targets lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people, according to the Associated Press.
The Russian parliament will vote this week on legislation that would outlaw providing minors with “propaganda of sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transgenderism.” The bill would make promoting homosexuality to minors, including public rallies to promote LGBT rights, a federal crime with fines of up to about $16,000.
Critics of the proposed law say that “propaganda” is loosely defined, allowing the country to prohibit a wide range of information and activities.
“It will discriminate against LGBTI people, in a country where discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity is already widespread,” John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International said.
“This law perversely presumes that the moral, spiritual and psychological development of children is best served by denying them access to support and information that can help them make informed, autonomous and responsible decisions. The law is not just unjust, it is patently absurd.”
The proposed law, which is supported by President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church, has already been enacted in St. Petersburg and other cities. The law was used as the basis of a strange legal complaint against Vesyoly Molochnik milk, which featured a rainbow in its logo.
How the Vatican built a secret property empire using Mussolini’s millions
By The Guardian
Monday, January 21, 2013 21:15 EST
Few passing London tourists would ever guess that the premises of Bulgari, the upmarket jewellers in New Bond Street, had anything to do with the pope. Nor indeed the nearby headquarters of the wealthy investment bank Altium Capital, on the corner of St James’s Square and Pall Mall.
But these office blocks in one of London’s most expensive districts are part of a surprising secret commercial property empire owned by the Vatican.
Behind a disguised offshore company structure, the church’s international portfolio has been built up over the years, using cash originally handed over by Mussolini in return for papal recognition of the Italian fascist regime in 1929.
Since then the international value of Mussolini’s nest-egg has mounted until it now exceeds £500m. In 2006, at the height of the recent property bubble, the Vatican spent £15m of those funds to buy 30 St James’s Square. Other UK properties are at 168 New Bond Street and in the city of Coventry. It also owns blocks of flats in Paris and Switzerland.
The surprising aspect for some will be the lengths to which the Vatican has gone to preserve secrecy about the Mussolini millions. The St James’s Square office block was bought by a company called British Grolux Investments Ltd, which also holds the other UK properties. Published registers at Companies House do not disclose the company’s true ownership, nor make any mention of the Vatican.
Instead, they list two nominee shareholders, both prominent Catholic bankers: John Varley, recently chief executive of Barclays Bank, and Robin Herbert, formerly of the Leopold Joseph merchant bank. Letters were sent from the Guardian to each of them asking whom they act for. They went unanswered. British company law allows the true beneficial ownership of companies to be concealed behind nominees in this way.
The company secretary, John Jenkins, a Reading accountant, was equally uninformative. He told us the firm was owned by a trust but refused to identify it on grounds of confidentiality. He told us after taking instructions: “I confirm that I am not authorised by my client to provide any information.”
Research in old archives, however, reveals more of the truth. Companies House files disclose that British Grolux Investments inherited its entire property portfolio after a reorganisation in 1999 from two predecessor companies called British Grolux Ltd and Cheylesmore Estates. The shares of those firms were in turn held by a company based at the address of the JP Morgan bank in New York. Ultimate control is recorded as being exercised by a Swiss company, Profima SA.
British wartime records from the National Archives in Kew complete the picture. They confirm Profima SA as the Vatican’s own holding company, accused at the time of “engaging in activities contrary to Allied interests”. Files from officials at Britain’s Ministry of Economic Warfare at the end of the war criticised the pope’s financier, Bernardino Nogara, who controlled the investment of more than £50m cash from the Mussolini windfall.
Nogara’s “shady activities” were detailed in intercepted 1945 cable traffic from the Vatican to a contact in Geneva, according to the British, who discussed whether to blacklist Profima as a result. “Nogara, a Roman lawyer, is the Vatican financial agent and Profima SA in Lausanne is the Swiss holding company for certain Vatican interests.” They believed Nogara was trying to transfer shares of two Vatican-owned French property firms to the Swiss company, to prevent the French government blacklisting them as enemy assets.
Earlier in the war, in 1943, the British accused Nogara of similar “dirty work”, by shifting Italian bank shares into Profima’s hands in order to “whitewash” them and present the bank as being controlled by Swiss neutrals. This was described as “manipulation” of Vatican finances to serve “extraneous political ends”.
The Mussolini money was dramatically important to the Vatican’s finances. John Pollard, a Cambridge historian, says in Money and the Rise of the Modern Papacy: “The papacy was now financially secure. It would never be poor again.”
From the outset, Nogara was innovative in investing the cash. In 1931 records show he founded an offshore company in Luxembourg to hold the continental European property assets he was buying. It was called Groupement Financier Luxembourgeois, hence Grolux. Luxembourg was one of the first countries to set up tax-haven company structures in 1929. The UK end, called British Grolux, was incorporated the following year.
When war broke out, with the prospect of a German invasion, the Luxembourg operation and ostensible control of the British Grolux operation were moved to the US and to neutral Switzerland.
The Mussolini investments in Britain are currently controlled, along with its other European holdings and a currency trading arm, by a papal official in Rome, Paolo Mennini, who is in effect the pope’s merchant banker. Mennini heads a special unit inside the Vatican called the extraordinary division of APSA – Amministrazione del Patrimonio della Sede Apostolica – which handles the so-called “patrimony of the Holy See”.
According to a report last year from the Council of Europe, which surveyed the Vatican’s financial controls, the assets of Mennini’s special unit now exceed €680m (£570m).
While secrecy about the Fascist origins of the papacy’s wealth might have been understandable in wartime, what is less clear is why the Vatican subsequently continued to maintain secrecy about its holdings in Britain, even after its financial structure was reorganised in 1999.
The Guardian asked the Vatican’s representative in London, the papal nuncio, archbishop Antonio Mennini, why the papacy continued with such secrecy over the identity of its property investments in London. We also asked what the pope spent the income on. True to its tradition of silence on the subject, the Roman Catholic church’s spokesman said that the nuncio had no comment.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
In the USA...
January 21, 2013
Obama Offers Liberal Vision: ‘We Must Act’
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — Barack Hussein Obama ceremonially opened his second term on Monday with an assertive Inaugural Address that offered a robust articulation of modern liberalism in America, arguing that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”
On a day that echoed with refrains from the civil rights era and tributes to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Obama dispensed with the post-partisan appeals of four years ago to lay out a forceful vision of advancing gay rights, showing more tolerance toward illegal immigrants, preserving the social welfare safety net and acting to stop climate change.
At times he used his speech, delivered from the West Front of the Capitol, to reprise arguments from the fall campaign, rebutting the notion expressed by conservative opponents that America risks becoming “a nation of takers” and extolling the value of proactive government in society. Instead of declaring the end of “petty grievances,” as he did taking the oath as the 44th president in 2009, he challenged Republicans to step back from their staunch opposition to his agenda.
“Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-old debates about the role of government for all time — but it does require us to act in our time,” he said in the 18-minute address. “For now decisions are upon us, and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act.”
Mr. Obama used Abraham Lincoln’s Bible, as he did four years ago, but this time added Dr. King’s Bible as well to mark the holiday honoring the civil rights leader. He became the first president ever to mention the word “gay” in an Inaugural Address as he equated the drive for same-sex marriage to the quests for racial and gender equality.
The festivities at the Capitol came a day after Mr. Obama officially took the oath in a quiet ceremony with his family at the White House on the date set by the Constitution. With Inauguration Day falling on a Sunday, the swearing-in was then repeated for an energized mass audience a day later, accompanied by the pomp and parade that typically surround the quadrennial tradition.
Hundreds of thousands of people gathered on a brisk but bright day, a huge crowd by any measure, though far less than the record turnout four years ago. If the day felt restrained compared with the historic mood the last time, it reflected a more restrained moment in the life of the country. The hopes and expectations that loomed so large with Mr. Obama’s taking the office in 2009, even amid economic crisis, have long since faded into a starker sense of the limits of his presidency.
Now 51 and noticeably grayer, Mr. Obama appeared alternately upbeat and reflective. When he re-entered the Capitol at the conclusion of the ceremony, he stopped his entourage to turn back toward the cheering crowds on the National Mall.
“I want to take a look, one more time,” he said. “I’m not going to see this again.”
If the president was wistful, his message was firm. He largely eschewed foreign policy except to recommend engagement over war, and instead focused on addressing poverty and injustice at home. He did little to adopt the language of the opposition, as he has done at moments in the past, and instead directly confronted conservative philosophy.
“The commitments we make to each other — through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security — these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us,” he said. “They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”
The phrase, “nation of takers,” was a direct rebuke to Republicans like Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, last year’s vice-presidential nominee, and several opposition lawmakers took umbrage at the president’s tone.
“I would have liked to see a little more on outreach and working together,” said Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican who lost to Mr. Obama four years ago. “There was not, as I’ve seen in other inaugural speeches, ‘I want to work with my colleagues.’ ”
Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, a member of the Republican leadership, said that from the opening prayer to the closing benediction, “It was apparent our country’s in chaos and what our great president has brought us is upheaval.” He added, “We’re now managing America’s demise, not America’s great future.”
Mr. Obama struck a more conciliatory note during an unscripted toast during lunch with Congressional leaders in Statuary Hall after the ceremony. “Regardless of our political persuasions and perspectives, I know that all of us serve because we believe that we can make America for future generations,” he said.
For the nation’s 57th presidential inauguration, a broad section of downtown Washington was off limits to vehicles and a major bridge across the Potomac River was closed to regular traffic as military Humvees were stationed at strategic locations around the city.
Joining the president through the long day were the first lady, Michelle Obama, and their daughters, Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11. The young girls were playful. Malia at one point sneaked up behind her father and cried out, “Boo!” Sasha used a smartphone to take a picture of her parents kissing in the reviewing stand, then made them do it again. Both girls bounced with the martial music at the Capitol.
Mr. Obama’s day began with a service at St. John’s Episcopal Church, across Lafayette Square from the White House, where the Rev. Andy Stanley told him to “leverage that power for the benefit of other people in the room.” At the Capitol, Myrlie Evers-Williams, the civil rights leader, delivered the invocation and the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir performed the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was sworn in at 11:46 a.m. by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The singer James Taylor then performed “America the Beautiful.”
At 11:50 a.m., Mr. Obama was sworn in again by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. After the two mangled the 35-word oath four years ago, necessitating a just-in-case do-over the next day, the president and chief justice this time carefully recited the words in tandem without error, although Mr. Obama did swallow the word “states.”
Mr. Obama was more specific in discussing policy than presidents typically are in an Inaugural Address. Particularly noticeable was his recommitment to fighting climate change. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” he said.
He referred only implicitly to terrorism, the issue that has so consumed the nation for the past decade, but offered a more inward-looking approach to foreign policy, saying that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.” He also talked of overhauling immigration rules so “bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our work force, rather than expelled from our country.”
For a president who opposed same-sex marriage as recently as nine months ago, the speech was a clear call for gay rights, as he noted the journey “through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall,” symbolically linking seminal moments in the struggles for equal rights for women, blacks and gay men and lesbians.
“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” he said.
The expanse between the Capitol and the Washington Monument was filled with supporters, many of them African-Americans attending only the second inauguration of a black president. As large TV screens flickered in and out and the audio often warbled, the ceremony was difficult to follow for many braving the Washington chill.
The speech was followed by song, poem and benediction from Kelly Clarkson, Richard Blanco, the Rev. Luis Leon and Beyoncé. The president and first lady got out of their motorcade twice to walk stretches along Pennsylvania Avenue. Mr. Biden and Jill Biden did as well, and the vice president greeted bystanders with fist-pumping gusto.
The two families then settled into the specially built bulletproof reviewing stand to watch the parade. Mr. Obama, who often uses Nicorette to tame an old smoking habit, was spotted chewing as the bands marched past.
In the evening, the Obamas attended two official inaugural balls, down from 10 four years ago. The president, in tuxedo with white tie, danced at each of them with the first lady, in a custom Jason Wu ruby chiffon and velvet gown, to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” performed by Jennifer Hudson. The Obamas were back at the White House by 10:15 p.m.
Reporting was contributed by Jeremy W. Peters, Michael D. Shear, Jennifer Steinhauer and Jonathan Weisman.
January 21, 2013
Speech Gives Climate Goals Center Stage
By RICHARD W. STEVENSON and JOHN M. BRODER
WASHINGTON — President Obama made addressing climate change the most prominent policy vow of his second Inaugural Address, setting in motion what Democrats say will be a deliberately paced but aggressive campaign built around the use of his executive powers to sidestep Congressional opposition.
“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Mr. Obama said on Monday at the start of eight sentences on the subject, more than he devoted to any other specific area. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”
The central place he gave to the subject seemed to answer the question of whether he considered it a realistic second-term priority. He devoted scant attention to it in the campaign and has delivered a mixed message about its importance since the election.
Mr. Obama is heading into the effort having extensively studied the lessons from his first term, when he failed to win passage of comprehensive legislation to reduce emissions of the gases that cause global warming. This time, the White House plans to avoid such a fight and instead focus on what it can do administratively to reduce emissions from power plants, increase the efficiency of home appliances and have the federal government itself produce less carbon pollution.
Mr. Obama’s path on global warming is a case study in his evolving sense of the limits of his power and his increased willingness to work around intense conservative opposition rather than seek compromise. After coming to office four years ago on a pledge to heal the planet and turn back the rise of the seas, he is proceeding cautiously this time, Democrats said, intent on making sure his approach is vetted politically, economically and technologically so as not to risk missing what many environmental advocates say could be the last best chance for years to address the problem.
The centerpiece will be action by the Environmental Protection Agency to clamp down further on emissions from coal-burning power plants under regulations still being drafted — and likely to draw legal challenges.
The administration plans to supplement that step by adopting new energy efficiency standards for home appliances and buildings, a seemingly small advance that can have a substantial impact by reducing demand for electricity. Those standards would echo the sharp increase in fuel economy that the administration required from automakers in the first term.
The Pentagon, one of the country’s largest energy users, is also taking strides toward cutting use and converting to renewable fuels.
Mr. Obama’s aides are planning those steps in conjunction with a campaign to build public support and head off political opposition in a way the administration did not the last time around. But the White House has cautioned activists not to expect full-scale engagement while Congress remains occupied by guns, immigration and the budget.
The president’s emphasis on climate change drew fire from conservatives. Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a group financed by the Koch brothers, who made a fortune in refining and other oil interests, criticized the speech in a statement. “His address read like a liberal laundry list with global warming at the top,” Mr. Phillips said. “Americans have rejected environmental extremism in the past and they will again.”
Still, Mr. Obama has signaled that he intends to expand his own role in making a public case for why action is necessary and why, despite the conservative argument that such changes would cost jobs and leave the United States less competitive with rising powers like China, they could have economic benefits by promoting a clean-energy industry. In addition to the prominent mention on Monday, Mr. Obama also used strong language in his speech on election night, referring to “the destructive power of a warming planet.”
Those remarks stood in contrast to Mr. Obama’s comments at his first postelection news conference, when he said he planned to convene “a wide-ranging conversation” about climate change and was vague about action. He is also expected to highlight his plans in his State of the Union address next month and in his budget plan soon afterward.
Beyond new policies, the administration is seeking to capitalize on the surge of natural gas production over the past few years. As a cheaper and cleaner alternative to coal, natural gas gives it a chance to argue that coal is less economically attractive.
After the defeat in 2010 of legislation that would have capped carbon emissions and issued tradable permits for emissions, Mr. Obama turned to regulation and financing for alternative energy. Despite the lack of comprehensive legislation, emissions have declined roughly 10 percent since he took office, a result both of the economic slowdown and of energy efficiency moves by government and industry.
The administration is discussing with Congressional Democrats, some of whom are leery of the issue because their states are home to coal businesses, how to head off a Republican counterattack on the new regulations. Democrats are paying particular attention to the likelihood of Republicans employing a little-used procedure to block new regulations with a simple majority vote.
Senate Democrats are also girding for a battle when Mr. Obama nominates a new head of the E.P.A. The agency, excoriated by Republicans as a job-killing bureaucracy, would take the lead in setting the new regulations.
The approach is a turnabout from the first term, when Mr. Obama’s guiding principle in trying to pass the cap-and-trade bill was that a negotiated legislative solution was likely to be more politically palatable than regulation by executive fiat. Now there is a broad expectation that he will follow up his first big use of the E.P.A.’s powers to rein in emissions — proposed rules last year for new power plants — with a plan to crack down on emissions from existing power plants.
According to estimates from the Natural Resources Defense Council, emissions from current coal-fired plants could be reduced by more than 25 percent by 2020, yielding large health and environmental benefits at relatively low cost. Such an approach would allow Mr. Obama to fulfill his 2009 pledge to reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions by about 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, the group says.
“There’s a really big opportunity, perhaps bigger than most people realize,” said Dan Lashof, director of the defense council’s climate and clean air program.
The regulatory push will be particularly important because Mr. Obama has little prospect of winning as much money for clean energy as he did in his first term, with Republicans now in control of the House. Despite the renewed attention to climate change following Hurricane Sandy and record-high temperatures in the continental United States last year, there is little sign that the politics of the issue will get any easier for Mr. Obama.
January 21, 2013
A Call for Progressive Values: Evolved, Unapologetic and Urgent
By RICHARD W. STEVENSON
WASHINGTON — He did not utter the words, but President Obama suffused his second Inaugural Address with the spirit of a favorite phrase: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to heed “the fierce urgency of now.”
This was a president unbound from much of what defined him upon taking office four years ago, a man clearly cognizant of time already running down on his opportunity to make his imprint on the country and on history.
Gone were the vision of a new kind of high-minded politics, the constraint of a future re-election campaign and the weight of unrealistic expectations. In their place was an unapologetic argument that modern liberalism was perfectly consistent with the spirit of the founders and a notice that, with no immediate crisis facing the nation, Mr. Obama intended to use the full powers of his office for progressive values.
“We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect,” he said.
After spending much of his first term “evolving” on the question of same-sex marriage and doing too little in the eyes of many African-Americans to address poverty and civil rights, he invoked “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall” and cited responsibility for the poor, sick and displaced.
He acknowledged the budget deficit but emphasized protecting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. He mentioned jobs but highlighted global warming. He lauded the bravery and strength of the United States armed forces, but started his foreign policy remarks by asserting that “enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
Mr. Obama came to office four years ago all but consumed by what he inherited: two wars and an economy in free fall. He then confronted an exhausting series of crises and political problems at home and abroad: budget showdowns, a huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Middle East turmoil, the rise of the Tea Party movement.
Through it all, he chose to wage additional battles of choice, most notably his successful push to overhaul the health insurance system. But not until this point, with the economy gradually mending, one war over and another winding down, with Osama bin Laden dead and the Democratic Party drawing strength from the nation’s changing demographics, has he had the opportunity to master his own presidency.
The policy details of what that effort entails will emerge over the next month through his State of the Union address and his budget, and many or most of them will encounter strong opposition from Republicans on Capitol Hill. Monday’s address to the nation and its political class was intended to set out the value system that informs the policy.
Mr. Obama has always had a dialectical quality: pragmatism versus ideology, bold versus cautious, hawk versus dove, post-racial versus man of color. Those tensions no doubt remain.
But since Election Day, he has seemed to be choosing between them more than in the past. His decision after the Newtown massacre to embark on a full-scale effort to crack down on gun violence showed him to be less shackled to political wisdom about what is possible or electorally wise. His willingness to stare down Republicans over raising the debt limit — and winning — showed that he is less likely nowadays to start a negotiation by moving to the center and trying to find common ground.
To some Republicans, it is what they warned of all along: a president who ran as a centrist proving to be an unreconstructed liberal. It was no doubt hard for some of them to accept a scolding for treating “name calling as reasoned debate” — a phrase in his Monday address — from a man who won re-election by excoriating Mitt Romney as a job-killing plutocrat.
“I think all Americans would hope that President Obama, now that he’s not facing re-election, would actually sit down and honestly work with Republicans who are very sincere in our desire to fix these problems,” said Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin.
But, Mr. Johnson added, that was not the sentiment he detected from Mr. Obama on Monday. “You’ve got to sit down in good faith,” he said. “But I just don’t see that with this president.”
Representative Pete Sessions, Republican of Texas, said, “I’m surprised we’ve so abruptly noticed after this election we’re now managing America’s demise, not America’s great future.”
Mr. Obama’s address nodded to ideological inclusiveness but did not repeat his view from four years ago that it was time to end the “recriminations and worn-out dogmas” that characterized Washington battles. It recognized the power of individual liberty but argued that only through collective action could the nation remain prosperous and secure.
But most of all, it sought to elevate to a more prominent place in the political debate the question of how best the nation should address the “little girl born into the bleakest poverty,” the parents of a child with a disability, the gay men and women seeking to marry, voters facing hurdles because of their race and immigrants seeking a toehold in a land of opportunity.
“We do not believe that in this country, freedom is reserved for the lucky, or happiness for the few,” Mr. Obama said.
In many ways it was an address, given on a day that commemorates King, that reflected not just the civil rights leader’s “fierce urgency of now” but the lines that immediately followed it in his “I Have a Dream” speech on the National Mall 50 years ago.
“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” King said. “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
January 21, 2013
A Day of Celebration for a Diverse Crowd Savoring a Moment in History
By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG
WASHINGTON — From the musicians in new purple uniforms who traveled from places like Des Moines and Montgomery, Ala., to march with a gay and lesbian band, to high school mariachi performers from Texas — including some who took their first plane ride to get here — to scores of elegant African-American women in full-length mink coats and matching hats, the faces of Inauguration Day 2013 were the faces of those left behind by the political process in decades and centuries past.
If Jan. 20, 2009, was a day for the history books and a feel-good moment for all of America, Monday was a celebration for the diverse coalition that landed the nation’s first black president in the White House for a second term: Latinos, gay people, women and especially African-Americans.
Riding on a bus to the heated staging tent on the National Mall, members of the Lesbian and Gay Band Association listened intently as the radio played President Obama’s Inaugural Address. A tear streamed down the cheek of Gary Nell, a 53-year-old drum major from Des Moines, as Mr. Obama referred to the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York, which spawned the gay rights movement. “It was so affirming,” Mr. Nell said.
Outside the security perimeter, 11-year-old Angel Lucero, fresh-faced and earnest, politely asked passers-by where he and his family might get tickets to the swearing-in. His parents, Mexican immigrants, spoke little English. His older sister, Jennifer, 15, said they had come from Bladensburg, Md., to see the president “because we think that he’s going to help us, help other people who aren’t free in this country.”
For gay people and Latinos particularly, the president’s second swearing-in was an occasion to savor newfound political clout. But it was also imbued with the sense that Mr. Obama had better make good on the promises he failed to keep during his first term, including an immigration overhaul, as well as a repeal of the law barring federal recognition of same-sex marriage.
“This time there is a much higher expectation,” said Jessica Gallegos, 23, a native of Quito, Ecuador, who works for the World Bank. Despite the president’s failure to revamp the nation’s immigration laws, she said, “the community still stood behind him. Now it’s time for him to deliver.”
On a day that doubled as a tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Obama drew a connection between them by swearing to uphold the Constitution over King’s Bible. While some African-American leaders wish Mr. Obama would pay more attention to issues like poverty and urban decay, many blacks who trekked to the capital said the second time around was even sweeter.
“I think the first time a lot of African-Americans voted for him just because he was black,” said Mark McDaniel, 42, a retired Navy officer from Chesapeake, Va., as he navigated a packed Metro station. “This time it seemed like the country wanted him back.”
Throughout Washington on Monday, as the sun rose over the Capitol and gray skies gave way to blue, there was a festive spirit in the air. The cold was not nearly as bitter and the crowds not as crushing as four years ago, but the turnout was still heavy, as tens of thousands of visitors, clutching maps and toting cameras, filled the city.
Security was tight. Paradegoers waved American flags, street vendors hawked Obama paraphernalia — which was not selling nearly as briskly as in 2009 — and the streets downtown, closed to cars, became a sea of (mostly polite) humanity.
“We’re here for the history in the making,” said Iris Davis-Saulsberry, a high school history teacher from Las Vegas who wore a bomber jacket bearing the presidential seal. Her friend Dorothy Lawson was already thinking about 2016, and the possibility that a woman might become president. “That’s our dream,” Ms. Lawson said.
As the president delivered a message that focused heavily on equality, members of the Texas high school mariachi band, dressed in finery that was hand-embroidered over the border in Guadalajara, awaited their turn to play. Among them was Noel Marquez, a guitar player who recently turned 18 and said he would have voted for Mr. Obama — if only he had been old enough.
Not far away, Marita Begley, artistic director of the Gay and Lesbian Band Association, could barely contain her excitement. She had painstakingly prepared a program featuring the work of gay composers (Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland), a woman (Lady Gaga), and a Latino (Pitbull).
Her group marched in the 2009 inaugural parade, before Mr. Obama came out in favor of same-sex marriage, and before “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed. Although there is still more to do — Ms. Begley would like same-sex marriage to be legal across the land — she could not help notice that inauguration officials allowed her band to bring a much bigger contingent this time, and gave it a much more prominent spot, right next to the civil rights float.
“It’s really good to be here,” she said, “as full citizens.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: January 22, 2013
An earlier version of this story misstated the name of a group who listened to President Obama’s Inaugural Address on the National Mall. It is called the Lesbian and Gay Band Association, not the Gay and Lesbian Band Association.
Republicans prepare for battle as Obama celebrates second inauguration
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, January 21, 2013 16:27 EST
Republicans sat politely and applauded as President Barack Obama called for unity Monday in his inaugural address, but some made no secret his second term would be a “tug of war” between liberals and conservatives.
Republican stalwarts like John McCain and Orrin Hatch — the latter wearing a broad-brimmed cowboy hat — appeared to gamely embrace Obama’s signal for a return to reasoned political debate rather than Washington’s farcical partisan theater of recent years.
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect,” Obama declared in a soaring speech to hundreds of thousands of people crammed onto the US Capitol grounds and the National Mall.
But no sooner had the president stepped off the inauguration platform than his rivals issued blunt reminders of the nature of America’s two-party system.
McCain, the senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee who lost to Obama that year, said he thought the Democrat delivered an “excellent speech,” but one lacking outreach to the other side.
“I didn’t hear any conciliatory remarks associated with it, but that’s his privilege,” McCain told AFP.
“This is the eighth one of these I’ve been to — (in) every one of them, there was a portion of the speech where it’s time for us Republicans and Democrats to work together.”
The two parties were badly bruised during a punishing two years of political squabbling and nastiness, particularly over the debate about how to resolve several looming fiscal issues like the national debt, that saw the 112th Congress rated as one of the most ineffective in the country’s history.
While Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stressed that the beginning of Obama’s second term marked a “fresh start,” several of them quickly dug into the president’s comments on flashpoint issues like gay rights, immigration, climate change and gun control.
“I think he’s setting his agenda for the second term, and we’ll have an opportunity to debate it and discuss it,” said Senator Tim Scott, who became the first black Republican senator in more than 30 years early this month after South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley appointed him to fill a vacated seat.
Obama “will be moving the country to the left, and we’re going to make sure that we pull it back to the right,” he told reporters.
“And we’re going to have a good tug of war in the future.”
Several Republicans spoke of Obama’s eloquence at the podium, including Senator Jeff Sessions, who said the president used his gift for oratory to push his belief that “a bigger government can drive innovation and prosperity for the country.”
“But at this point in history, I would not agree with that,” said Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee who said the country was facing a “defining moment” in how it addresses its fiscal challenges.
Most Republicans in Congress have yet to speak out about Obama’s goals for a second term, beyond tweeted messages of congratulations and pledges to get to work.
But debate in coming weeks will give them full opportunity. Congress is back in session on Tuesday, when gun control legislation could be introduced in the Senate.
McConnell warns gun owners: Obama and Democrats have you ‘literally surrounded’
By Eric W. Dolan
Monday, January 21, 2013 19:25 EST
In an email sent to his supporters on Sunday night, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) warned that the President and his Democratic allies were planning to take Americans’ guns away.
“You and I are literally surrounded,” McConnell’s campaign manager Jesse Benton wrote. “The gun-grabbers in the Senate are about to launch an all-out-assault on the Second Amendment.”
The email falsely claimed President Barack Obama planned to issue 23 executive orders “to get your guns.” Obama plans to nominate a director for the ATF and direct the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes of gun violence, among other executive actions. None of the executive orders he outlined last week involve anything remotely like gun confiscation.
“The gun-grabbers are in full battle mode,” Benton continued. “And they are serious. What’s at stake? There are almost too many schemes to list.”
The email notes that Obama has called on Congress to renew the assault weapons ban, restrict high-capacity magazines, and require universal background checks on gun purchases. Benton alleged the background checks were actually part of a secret plot “for full-scale confiscation.”
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) blasted McConnell for sending out the inaccurate and conspiracy-filled email.
“He’s misleading the people he sends that to, because what he’s saying is absolutely dishonest,” Yarmuth told LEO Weekly. “And it can also be dangerous, because people get that email who may not have been following the debate, and they all of a sudden get anxious and who knows what can happen from that kind of provocation.”
Binyamin Netanyahu suffers setback as centrists gain ground in Israel election
Results give narrowest of victories to the prime minister's rightwing-religious block
Harriet Sherwood in Tel Aviv
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 23 January 2013 07.45 GMT
Binyamin Netanyahu suffered a major setback in Israel's general election as results gave the narrowest of victories for the rightwing-religious block and a surprisingly strong showing for a new centrist party formed last year, forcing the prime minister to say he will seek a broad coalition to govern Israel.
Right wing and allied Orthodox religious parties won half the seats in the Israeli parliament, presenting Netanyahu with a tough political challenge to put together a stable coalition.
Netanyahu remains on course to continue as prime minister, as his rightwing electoral alliance, Likud-Beiteinu, is the biggest party after winning 31 of 120 seats in the next parliament. But it was a sharp drop from the present combined total of 42 for the two parties.
Yesh Atid, a new centrist party led by the former television personality Yair Lapid, won 19 seats. It concentrated its election campaign on socio-economic issues and removing the exemption for military service for ultra-orthodox Jews.
Netanyahu called Lapid, whose unexpected success hands him a pivotal role in coalition negotiations, as the final results came in to discuss a potential government.
Likud officials quoted the Israeli prime minister as telling Lapid: "We have the opportunity to do great things together".
But Netanyahu was also putting out feelers to ultra-Orthodox parties which could prove vital in putting together a government, saying he would open coalition talks with them on Thursday.
Final results could shift, although not dramatically, later in the week after votes from serving members of the military are counted.
Two out of three Israelis voted in Tuesday's election, a slightly higher proportion than in the previous two elections, surprising observers who had predicted a fall in turnout.
In a speech at his election headquarters in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu said: "I believe the election results are an opportunity to make changes that the citizens of Israel are hoping for and that will serve all of Israel's citizens. I intend on leading these changes, and to this end we must form as wide a coalition as possible, and I have already begun talks to that end this evening."
Lapid told campaign workers in Tel Aviv: "We must now … find the way to work together to find real solutions for real people. I call on the leaders of the political establishment to work with me together, to the best they can, to form as broad a government as possible that will contain in it the moderate forces from the left and right, the right and left, so that we will truly be able to bring about real change."
Dov Lipman, who won a seat for Yesh Atid, said: "This is a very clear statement that the people of Israel want to see a different direction. We will get the country back on track."
Labour was the third largest party, with 15 seats. Party leader Shelly Yachimovich said in a statement: "There is no doubt we are watching a political drama unfold before our eyes … There is a high chance of a dramatic change, and of the end of the Netanyahu coalition." She said she intended to attempt to "form a coalition on an economic-social basis that will also push the peace process forward." It seems unlikely Yachimovich could present a credible alternative to Netanyahu's claim to the premiership.
Erel Margalit of Labour said the results indicated "a protest vote against Netanyahu" and that the huge social justice protests that swept Israel 18 months ago "were not a fringe phenomena. Perhaps some of it is moving from the streets into the political arena".
The ultra-nationalist Jewish Home, which showed strongly in opinion polls during the campaign, was at 11 seats, the same as the ultra-orthodox party Shas. The leftist party Meretz made an unexpectedly strong showing, with six seats, more than doubling its current presence.
Speculation about the composition of the next coalition government intensified as the results came in. Israel's electoral system of proportional representation has ensured no single party has gained an absolute majority since the creation of the state almost 65 years ago. Negotiations are expected to last several weeks.
As the leader of the biggest party, Netanyahu will be first in line to assemble a coalition. Although Netanyahu's natural partners are the smaller rightwing and religious parties, he is likely to be keen to include Yesh Atid and possibly Hatnua, which is led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and won seven seats. However, Livni's insistence on a return to meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians could deter Netanyahu from inviting her join him.
Three parties mostly supported by Israeli Arabs had 12 seats between them. Although they are regarded as part of the left bloc in the Knesset, it is unlikely they would be part of any coalition government.
Yehuda Ben Meir of the Institute of National Security Studies, said: "The story of this election is a slight move to the centre, and above all the possibility of Netanyahu forming a coalition only with his 'natural partners' does not exist. He is definitely going to work for a wider coalition."
According to Ari Shavit of the liberal newspaper Haaretz, Netanyahu had failed to consolidate or advance his party's position. "While in the past he was given poor cards and played them well, this time he had the best cards and played them badly. This was a lesson in how not to run a campaign."
Kadima, which was the biggest party in the last parliament with 28 seats, saw its support plummet and only just crossed the threshold of votes needed to win two seats, according to the partial results.
In Washington, the Obama administration said it is waiting to see the make up of the new government and its policies on peace with the Palestinians. But the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, said there would be no change in US policy.
"The United States remains committed, as it has been for a long time, to working with the parties to press for the goal of a two-state solution. That has not changed and it will not change," he said.
Yair Lapid, smooth face of Israel's 'new normal'
The journalist-turned-politician's shrewd move in steering hard away from foreign policy has landed him in a kingmaking role
Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 23 January 2013 10.31 GMT
Yair Lapid is well known to Israelis as a former television personality and columnist for the country's biggest-selling newspaper. But even after his stunning success in the Israeli election, and as potential kingmaker in coalition negotiations, he is a novice.
Until he resigned last year, Lapid, 49, with his smooth good looks, easy manner, charming smile and knack of tuning into the issues most important to his many fans, was the presenter of a popular Friday evening television news talkshow. His weekly column for Yedioth Ahronoth also dwelt on "middle Israel" subjects: the high cost of living, political corruption and the "unequal sharing of the burden" – ie the exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service.
Just over a year ago, he announced he was quitting journalism to launch a new political party intended to challenge the political establishment. Called Yesh Atid (There is a Future), it positioned itself in the centre of the Israeli political spectrum – which is further to the right than in most European countries.
Its main platform was: reform of the political system, an overhaul of education, the inclusion of the ultra-Orthodox in military service, and more economic help for small businesses and the squeezed middle class. People who voted for Yesh Atid had voted in favour of "normalcy", he told campaign workers in the early hours of Wednesday.
Lapid steered his new party hard away from foreign policy and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, only making vague calls for the resumption of talks while insisting Jerusalem would never be divided as the capital of two states. But now he has acknowledged that Israel is "facing a world that is liable to ostracise us because of the deadlock in the peace process".
Yossi Verter, of the liberal daily Haaretz, wrote: "Yair Lapid's victory is the victory of modern politics, the politics of the internet and reality shows. He's undoubtedly a nice, well-meaning guy. But his experience begins and ends with presenting television shows and writing scripts and newspaper columns."
That, wrote Verter, was about to change. "In another month, he's liable to find himself in the cabinet room reading intelligence and defence material that he didn't even know existed."
One of Lapid's strengths with the electorate was his political heritage. His father, Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, was a popular though abrasive politician who led the secular, liberal (though now defunct) party Shinui. Lapid Sr served as minister of justice in the 2001-06 government of Ariel Sharon.
Tommy Lapid fought hard for secular interests in Israel, and was not afraid of strong criticism of the policies of his own government. During a wave of home demolitions by the Israeli military in Gaza, he said television images of an old Palestinian woman picking through rubble for medicine had reminded him of his grandmother, who died in the Holocaust.
His son has yet to prove his mettle on the political stage. During the three-month election campaign, wrote Aluf Benn, Haaretz's editor in chief, Lapid "adapted his messages to voters' interests. His strategy was to find the path of least resistance."
Dimi Reider wrote on the +972 blog that Lapid had "avoided taking any remotely controversial stand on almost any issue … Lapid is risk-averse and lacks a political programme or vision."
Nevertheless, he won the support of almost one in six Israeli voters, a legacy of the massive social justice protests that swept the country 18 months ago. Now Binyamin Netanyahu, the leader of the biggest party after the election, is almost certain to invite him to join a coalition government.
But Lapid will want assurances that his agenda of socioeconomic reform and "sharing the burden" will be at the heart of the next government's policies. In his speech at his campaign headquarters on Tuesday night, he said: "I hope to change things for the better. For 30 years, this country has been about left versus right. Now we want to change things on the inside: national service, education, housing, a middle class that cannot finish the month."
Joining Netanyahu is not Lapid's only option in the coming days and weeks, which will be dominated by labyrinthine coalition negotiations.
"Lapid has two choices," wrote Shalom Yerushalmi in Ma'ariv. "He can either join the government and save it, for all intents and purposes, and possibly the country as well, or he can head an opposition with 59 seats, and fight Netanyahu as strongly as possible and wait for him to fall … Wow. What responsibility on the shoulders of a person who only a year and a half ago was a television host and had a column in the newspaper."
US offers support in hunt for Algerian attackers
Al-Qaida north African affiliate believed to have masterminded In Amenas terrorist attack despite splinter group's claims
Julian Borger, Kim Willsher in Paris and Felix von Geyer in New York
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 22 January 2013 20.48 GMT
The Pentagon said that there were "strong indications" that al-Qaida in the Mahgreb (AQIM) was behind last week's attack on an Algerian gas field, raising the prospects of heightened US involvement in the French-led counter-insurgency in the region.
The Algerian authorities said that five foreign workers at the In Amenas complex were still missing after being taken hostage by a jihadist group. Thirty-seven foreign contractors and an Algerian worker were killed in the attack, which was launched last Wednesday.
The attackers called themselves the "Signers in Blood battalion", which claimed to have split off from AQIM last month, but American officials appear to believe that AQIM exercised ultimate command and control on the operation. Pentagon spokesman, George Little stopped short of saying al-Qaida's North Africa affiliate was to blame and described it as "at the top of the list of suspects."
The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, in a visit to London last Friday, said In Amenas was an al-Qaida attack, and called for pressure on the terrorist network "wherever it seeks to establish a safe haven."
The first two US transport planes arrived in Mali's capital, Bamako, on Tuesday, ferrying French troops and supplies from southern France.
The Pentagon has also offered surveillance and intelligence support. An American surveillance drone was reported to have been flying over the In Amenas siege. However, experts said there were legal and political barriers to the CIA reproducing its drone assassination programme that it has used extensively against al-Qaida targets in Pakistan's tribal areas.
According to the Algerian prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, the "Signers of Blood" jihadists launched their attack on In Amenas two months earlier from northern Mali. The fact that they were able to travel for many days across hundreds of miles of desert through Niger and Libya to reach their target without being stopped, illustrates the severe difficulties facing anyone now seeking to track them down.
Compounding the problems in tracking down the perpetrators is the region's political turmoil. The Algerian news site TSA cited an "Algerian security source" as saying Islamist fighters had entered the country from Libya in "official Libyan vehicles", thought to have been acquired after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
Other local media confirmed that the uniforms worn by the hostage-takers as well as their weapons, including a specific model of Kalashnikov, appeared to have also come from Libya.
Algerian claims that a Canadian-Algerian named Chedad helped coordinate the In Amenas operation could not be confirmed . The foreign ministry in Ottawa said it was still waiting for further information from Algiers.
"We are aware of reports that Canadians may have been involved in the hostage-taking in Algeria," said Chrystiane Roy, a spokesperson.
The group's founder, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is a veteran of the Algerian civil conflict and fought in Afghanistan, but he has strong links with Tuareg secessionists in northern Mali. His second wife is said to be a Tuareg. Those connections will give him an extra layer of protection from his hunters, although at the same time there are plenty of sources of friction between the local population and the Salafist ideologues who have attempted to impose a draconian and alien version of Islamic law.
The region, which the Tuareg call Azawad, is beyond the control of the weak Malian government in Bamako. The French and West African troops that have arrived in the past few days to bolster it are struggling to push the jihadists back from the southern capital and are a long way from France's aim of stabilising the north and "destroying" the extremist groups that have made it their home.
Until now, Algiers has been reluctant to intervene in Mali but is likely to be more decisive. AQIM and the Signers in Blood have grown from remnants the Algerian militant movement, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which was largely defeated by a brutal counter-insurgency in the 1990's. The Algerian government was hitherto happy for them to be bottled up in Mali.
"Ironically, the attack probably will also push Algiers off the fence about the war in Mali," Bruce Riedel a former CIA analyst and White House counter-terrorist advisor, wrote in the Daily Beast. "The generals who run Algeria initially were reluctant to push AQIM out of Mali, fearing that the group would only come back north in to Algeria. Now they have no choice. With a GDP of $260 billion, a large Russian-equipped army, and a ruthless intelligence service, it can do more to fight AQIM than any other African country."
Algeria has a 150,000-strong army, and an extensive spy network across the Sahel. It is run by Mohamed Mediene, the head of Algerian intelligence who Riedel said is known as the "God of Algiers", because his power is so pervasive and he seems to answer to no one."
Washington's claims of AQIM responsibility for the In Amenas attack, combined with reports of an American drone in the air at the time of the Algerian army stroming of the gas field on Saturday and the arrival of US planes in Bamako in support of the French counter-insurgency have all raised questions over whether armed drones would be used in the hunt for BelMokhtar and other jihadist leaders.
The drone targeted killing campaign has also spread to Yemen. However, Micah Zenko, an expert on drone warfare at the Council for Foreign Relations said there were many obstacles to the transferring to the Sahel.
"The US doesn't fly drones off aircraft carriers so they would need basing and overflight rights. At the moment, no country in Europe will allow us to launch drones from their territory, and its not clear that countries in the region will allow themselves to be used as aircraft carriers to fly drones from."
Algeria hostage crisis may be the undoing of jihadi cause in north Africa
Attack suggests poor local support for al-Qaida-like groups as well as strategy failings, and could exacerbate infighting
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 22 January 2013 16.09 GMT
How do you judge the success of a terrorist spectacular? A decade ago, it would have been enough for an organisation like al-Qaida to simply carry out an attack like 9/11.
Such an attack would have established not only that they exist, and that they are potent and dangerous, but to present their calling card to would-be recruits.
So how should one regard the attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria – as a success, or as an overwhelming failure?
That question is debated in the light of the comments by David Cameron made in the immediate aftermath of the siege, that we face "a generational struggle" against jihadi ideology, not least in north Africa. Remarks – bizarrely – that seem to accept at face value the narrative of al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM).
And while much has been made of the fact that many of the attackers came from other countries – including Canada, it is alleged – that is not necessarily a sign of strength but an indication that such groups are struggling to find local support and have to rely on a tiny minority for whom jihadi extremism is a lifestyle choice.
The reality is the operation widely believed to have been ordered by the veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar can be framed much more in terms of failure than success.
All the evidence is that it was planned long in advance, perhaps, according to some reports, two months ago, around the time that his group announced its split from AQIM.
It is clear too from the statements made by the kidnappers in the middle of the siege that their intention was to take large numbers of hostages and if possible remove them from the plant to use as a bargaining chip. Instead it ended with the deaths of almost all of the attackers – including some of Belmokhtar's most loyal and experienced lieutenants. While that must raise serious questions about the organisational capability and ultimately its long-term resilience, it is likely to have longer term consequences for the survival not only of his own unit, but AQIM.
In regional terms it has been Algeria that has been a stumbling bloc in terms of international co-operation against transnational groups with interests in both crime and terror in the Sahel region of north Africa.
When the first discussions were launched about an international military mission to reclaim northern Mali, it was Algeria that sought reassurances that there would be no spill over across in borders.
The escalation by Belmokhtar's group is also likely to have other consequences. While the aggressive pursuit of him and his followers by different agencies of different countries is now a given, In Amenas may quickly come to be seen as a serious strategic misstep for a figure who has long-survived in the Sahel's lawless margins through the joint tactics of building alliances and keeping his hostages alive.
In Mali, where he had interposed his group, the test for Belmokhtar and other allied organisations, is likely to be how many of the Tuaregs who joined the Islamist uprising last year are prepared to stick with al-Qaida affiliates that led the seizure of the country's northern towns or – faced with both a French-led military operation and hostility from many in the local population – peel off and press for negotiation.
Indeed the history, in the past decade, of jihadi groups is that wherever they have sprung up, the violence of their methods and extremism of their beliefs means that, unlike the Taliban for instance, they have always struggled to seize and hold power.
The biggest unanswered question, however, is likely to be found in the reaction to the raid within the uneasy and loosely allied constellation of jihadi groups in north Africa itself. Whether Belmokhtar's initiative leads to more cohesion, or exacerbates existing disagreements and splits in AQIM over the last few years will take time to emerge.
In the final analysis it seems likely that In Amenas will make it more difficult for jihadi groups in the region to operate rather than easier.
UK to shift focus of terrorism fight to al-Qaida offshoots in north Africa
David Cameron pushes for tough response to 'generational struggle' against militants
Patrick Wintour and Julian Borger
The Guardian, Monday 21 January 2013 21.09 GMT
A meeting of the UK National Security Council will order a shift in resources and energy in its counter-terrorist strategy away from a sole focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East towards what David Cameron described as a "generational struggle" against al-Qaida-inspired militants in north Africa.
Speaking to parliament in the aftermath of the jihadist seizure of an Algerian gas field, which left 38 hostages dead, including six Britons and a Colombian-born British resident, the prime minister pledged to make international co-operation to fight terrorism a priority of his chairmanship of the G8 leading economies this year.
He suggested the national security strategy would continue to tilt towards investing in special forces, cyber-security, drones and intelligence capability, rather than conventional forces. He said the international community's response must be "tough, intelligent and patient", involving political efforts to tackle instability and resolve grievances in the region.
Four of the British victims have been named: a former member of the British speed skiing team, Carson Bilsland, 46, an oil worker originally from near Blairgowrie, Perthshire; Paul Morgan, 46, a security expert; Garry Barlow, 49, a systems supervisor from Liverpool; and planning manager Kenneth Whiteside, 59, from Glenrothes, Fife. Carlos Estrada, a Colombian BP executive who lived in London, is also believed to be among the dead.
Raising the changing nature of the terrorist threat, Cameron told MPs: "Four years ago, the principal threat from Islamist extremism came from the Afghanistan and Pakistan region. A huge amount has been done to address and reduce the scale of that threat . Whereas at one point three-quarters of the most serious terrorist plots against the UK had links to that region, today this has reduced to less than half."
He said al-Qaida franchises had grown in Yemen, Somalia and parts of north Africa. These states were now no longer threatened by terrorists, he argued, but in danger of becoming "a magnet for jihadists from other countries who share this poisonous ideology".
The Algerian government said 37 foreign hostages and one Algerian worker had been killed in the jihadist attack on the In Amenas gas complex on the eastern border with Libya and during the subsequent four-day siege by the country's special forces. It claimed the raid had been co-ordinated by a Canadian-Algerian jihadist and relied on extensive inside knowledge of the facility.
In the short term, Britain is only going to send a handful of people to the EU military training mission in Algeria's neighbour, Mali, but Cameron wants to see a new intensity of international co-operation to prevent states such as Mali descending into the chaos of Somalia.
The prime minister's aides denied that Cameron was experiencing some kind of epiphany that Tony Blair experienced in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York, but said he did see a growing long-term threat to western security
Cameron did not repeat any criticisms of the Algerian response to the crisis, saying it was best to "understand the challenges that Algeria faced in dealing with over 30 terrorists bent on killing innocent people in a large and extremely remote and dangerous industrial complex".
He said: "This would have been a most demanding task for security forces anywhere in the world and we should acknowledge the resolve shown by the Algerians in undertaking it."
Cameron told MPs that forensic experts from the UK, US and Norway were working with the Algerian authorities to formally identify a number of bodies found at the site, thought to include three further Britons, but he warned that the process may take some time.
The Algerian prime minister, Abdelmalek Sellal, said on Monday that the final decision by the country's special forces to storm the site on Saturday was triggered by an intercepted order to execute the remaining seven hostages and by the jihadists' plans to blow up the desert gas pumping plant which, Sellal said, could have spread debris across a 5km radius.
Sellal said 29 jihadists from the al-Qaida splinter group Signers in Blood had been killed and three had been captured alive.
He said the attack was orchestrated by a Canadian national known only as Chedad, who he said was now in Mauritania. Surviving hostages also talked of a militant at the scene with a north American accent calling on foreign contractors to come out of hiding.
John Baird, the Canadian foreign minister, said: "We can't confirm the accuracy of these reports. But our embassy in Algiers and our team in Ottawa are working to try to verify this information."
Sellal said the militant cell included men from Egypt, Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Tunisia, as well as three Algerians, and he claimed the plot had been hatched at least two months previously.
The attackers had driven hundreds of miles from Mali arriving across the Libyan border.
The jihadist operation "knew the facility's layout by heart" from a former driver from the plant from Niger, Sellal said.
Sellal said the Signers in Blood group – followers of a veteran Algerian jihadist called Mokhtar Belmokhtar – had planned to blow up the In Amenas gas field and take hostages back to Mali to use as bargaining chips.
"Their goal was to kidnap foreigners," he said. "They wanted to flee to Mali with the foreigners but, once they were surrounded, they started killing the first hostages."
He said a guard at the gate of the complex who was wounded in the initial attack had set off an alarm that stopped the flow of gas and warned workers of an imminent attack. "It was thanks to him that the factory was protected," Sellal said.
He said Algerian special forces had no choice but to intervene because the jihadists were going to flee the country with their captives and because they planned to kill the hostages and blow up the installation.
He said talks with the militant group had been "a real labyrinth" in which the hostage-takers made "unreasonable" demands. There was no choice for Algerian forces but to attack, he said.
Originally published Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at 9:39 PM
Algerians link rebels in siege to Libya attack
One of the Egyptian extremists captured after last week’s bloody siege at an Algerian gas complex said several of the rebels also took part in the attack against the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, in September.
By ADAM NOSSITER
The New York Times
ALGIERS — Several Egyptian members of the squad of extremists who laid bloody siege to an Algerian gas complex last week also took part in the deadly attack on the U.S. mission in Libya in September, a senior Algerian official said Tuesday.
The Egyptians involved in both attacks were killed by Algerian forces during the four-day ordeal that ended in the deaths of at least 38 hostages and 29 kidnappers, the official said. But three of the extremists were captured alive, and one of them described the Egyptians’ role in both assaults under interrogation by the Algerian security services, the official said.
If confirmed, the link between two of the most brazen assaults in recent memory would reinforce the transborder character of the jihadist groups now striking across the Sahara. U.S. officials have long warned that the region’s volatile mix of porous borders, turbulent states, weapons and ranks of fighters with similar ideologies creates a dangerous landscape in which extremists are trying to collaborate across vast distances.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is to testify before Congress on Wednesday about the Libyan attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three staff members, raised the specter of regional cooperation among extremists soon after the mission in Benghazi was overrun.
In particular, she said the Islamist rebel takeover of northern Mali had created a “safe haven” for terrorists to “extend their reach” and work with other extremists in North Africa, “as we tragically saw in Benghazi,” though she offered no clear evidence of such ties.
Now the Algerians say the plot to seize the gas complex in the desert was hatched in northern Mali as well. Indeed, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the veteran extremist who has claimed overall responsibility for the siege, is believed to be based there.
But the Algerian official did not say why the captured kidnapper’s assertion — that some fighters had taken part in both the Benghazi and Algerian attacks — should be considered trustworthy. Nor did he say whether it was obtained under duress.
Instead, he focused on the chaos unleashed by the recent uprisings throughout the region, leaving large ungoverned areas where extremists can flourish.
“This is the result of the Arab Spring,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because investigations into the hostage crisis were still under way. “I hope the Americans are conscious of this.”
American counterterrorism and intelligence officials have said that some members of Ansar al-Shariah, the group that carried out the attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, had connections to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the groups now holding northern Mali. But U.S. officials have also said the al-Qaida affiliate played no role in directing or instigating the Benghazi attack.
Similarly, Egyptian security officials said they believed a longtime Islamist extremist from Egypt was involved in the gas-field attack, but the officials did not know of any connection to the Benghazi attack as well.
Algeria was firmly opposed to the Western intervention to help topple Moammar Gadhafi in Libya in 2011, and this nation’s conservative leadership viewed the Arab Spring with deep suspicion, making no secret of its desire to avoid any such occurrences.
Ever since, Algerian officials have not hesitated to point up what they see as the connection between popular demands for greater democracy that have swept the Arab world and the rise of Islamist extremism in the region.
Algerian officials says the rebels who seized the gas field traveled through Niger and Libya, whose border is only some 30 miles from the plant at In Amenas. Mohamed-Lamine Bouchneb, who led the attack at the site, had purchased arms for the assault in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, the senior official said.
The kidnappers also had gathered, undisturbed, at the southern Libyan town of Ghat, just across the border from Algeria, he said, depicting Libya as anarchic, without an effective military force and an ideal staging ground for attacks like the one launched a week ago.
Having already experienced a large-scale Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, in which perhaps as many as 100,000 were killed, Algeria had no intention of experiencing another, the official suggested. He defended the tough Algerian military assault during the standoff and dismissed criticism by foreign leaders that they were not informed of it in advance.
Algerian analysts say the military, and in particular a cadre of elderly generals, holds a wide degree of autonomy in the country and often acts independently of civilian leadership.
They said Algeria could expect more attacks
January 22, 2013
U.S. Begins Airlift of a French Battalion to Mali
By THOM SHANKER
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is airlifting a French battalion to join the fight in Mali against Islamist militants, Pentagon and administration officials said Tuesday, but the United States has not yet agreed to a request from France to provide refueling tankers for its warplanes.
Air Force C-17 transport planes had completed five flights from bases in France into Bamako, the capital of Mali, by Tuesday, delivering 80 troops and more than 120 tons of their equipment, according to George Little, the Pentagon press secretary. It could take the United States two weeks to transport the entire 600-member French mechanized infantry unit and all of their gear, according to other Pentagon officials.
The airlift expands the involvement of the United States in support of a NATO ally, but officials stressed that the American military footprint on the ground in Mali would remain small.
Pentagon officials declined to offer details beyond saying that security for the American airlift would be provided by French forces and that a very small number of American military communications personnel were on the ground to coordinate the flights.
A decision by the Obama administration on providing aerial tankers is expected within days, but the United States wants a clearer explanation of French plans for its mission, including whether more forces would be committed and how the French planned to end their leading role in the military campaign.
A French official, speaking on ground rules of anonymity to describe bilateral discussions, said some officials in Washington were concerned that assigning American tanker planes to refuel French warplanes bombing Islamist militant targets in Mali might make the United States appear as a co-belligerent in the conflict. Even if that view was not supported under international law, it could be the perception across the Muslim world.
One administration official confirmed that those concerns had been discussed in Washington. “If we are seen as a co-combatant, what does that mean for U.S. facilities and personnel in the region, and what are the costs associated with that?” the official said. “We are working through these issues, but there is no lack of support for our ally.”
The French official explained that the request for American refueling aircraft was submitted only as a prudent alternative if the mission continues for longer than anticipated — or in case there is a significant military crisis requiring the immediate dispatch of additional French aircraft.
“We do have air-refueling capacity,” the French official said. “And we do have offers of support from other Europeans to do it. This request to the United States is the hypothetical case that our operations last longer than expected and we have to have a backup.”
At the White House, Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said the United States already was also providing “significant intelligence support” to the French mission in Mali.
He said the United States and France agreed that long-term security required handing off the military operation to Mali’s forces, perhaps assisted by African troops from the region.
“We are working with African troop contributors to quicken their deployment to Mali,” Mr. Vietor said.
The French launched their offensive into Algeria to push back gains by Islamist militant fighters. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb started out as an Algerian group that was fighting the Algerian government. Pushed out of the country, it found a sanctuary in northern Mali, as did militants who left Libya after the fall of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
January 22, 2013
Defying Common View, Some Syrian Kurds Fight Assad
By C. J. CHIVERS
ALGHOOZ, Syria — The arc of Omar Abdulkader’s transformation from farmer to fighter resembles that of uncountable others in Syria, where since 2011 tens of thousands of men have been drawn into a civil war.
A rebel commander seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, he described the choice of a cornered man. His resistance began with peaceful demonstrations, he said. When the government answered with force, his tactics changed. “It was only after they showed that they would kill us that we became armed,” he said.
But there is a difference between this story and many others. Mr. Abdulkader is a Kurd, not an Arab, which means his experiences and decisions upend conventional wisdom that holds that the Kurds do not see this as their fight.
To hear the governments of Turkey and Syria describe it, Syria’s Kurds often side with or remain neutral toward Mr. Assad, whose government supported the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., in its bloody insurgency against Turkey until 1998, when Syria grudgingly extradited the Kurdish group’s leader at the brink of war with Turkey.
But the scenes in Alghooz and in a string of Kurdish villages north of Aleppo present a more complex picture of Syria’s Kurds and their ambitions and relations with the government. Kurds here fiercely note that they have suffered under Mr. Assad’s rule, too, and taken up arms against him. They sharply contradict the notion that they rely on Mr. Assad’s government for protection.
And so while there have been signs that many Kurds remained pro-government, with some pro-P.K.K. fighters clashing with rebels, hundreds of others have joined the Free Syrian Army, as the loosely assembled antigovernment fighters call themselves, Kurdish and rebel leaders say.
The flatlands north of Aleppo are spotted with towns. Local men said that about 40,000 Kurds live here, and that their families have produced more than 600 fighters against Mr. Assad.
The fighters are organized into at least eight separate groups, Kurdish leaders and fighters said. Their names include the Islamic Kurdish Front, the Pesh Merga Falcons and the Martyrs of Mecca.
Defying official and popular accounts of Kurdish loyalties, these men fight beside Arabs against Mr. Assad. They and their leaders bluntly denounce the P.K.K., which the United States and Europe consider a terrorist organization, and also criticize many Kurdish nationalists, saying that calls for an independent Kurdistan are not a vision they share.
“We are not interested in a separate homeland,” said Yousef Haidar, 72, Alghooz’s mukhtar, or village elder. “We want to be part of Syria.”
He added, “For hundreds of years we have lived together with Arabs, and after the revolution we want to live together more.”
The Kurdish revolutionary fighters also reject neutrality, like the public position of the Democratic Union Party, Syria’s largest Kurdish political party, which has largely kept out of the uprising, furthering the impression that Kurds were not supporting the rebels.
“I am Kurdish, and as a Kurdish citizen I am fighting side to side with the Free Syrian Army, because you cannot find anybody who was not stepped on by the regime, or was not wronged,” Mr. Haidar said. “We were wronged as well.”
Alghooz is a small farming village on an agricultural plain. It lies a few miles east of Marea, one of the area’s thoroughly anti-Assad towns.
Fewer than 3,000 people live here. Its elders said that perhaps 30 men from local families were now fighting, and that these men had attracted Arabs, Christians and Turkmens to fight with them under the rebels’ flag.
Mr. Abdulkader commands one of three sections of a group that calls itself the Grandsons of Saladin and claims to field nearly 90 fighters in all. It fights under the command of Al Tawhid Brigade, the largest Free Syrian Army unit in the Aleppo region.
From 1989 to 1992, Mr. Abdulkader said, he served a tour of duty as an infantry conscript at a base south of Damascus. Then he returned home to work in the local fields, growing potatoes, lentils, onions and other crops. His Kurdish village lived peacefully beside the Arab villages nearby.
When protests against Mr. Assad began in early 2011 and Syrians in other villages in the countryside north of Aleppo demonstrated and organized into an underground movement, the Kurds in Alghooz did not commit.
But as the Assad government turned violent, the village picked a side, its elders said. “We joined the revolution,” Mr. Haidar said.
The imperative for the uprising, he said, was even greater than when the villages rose against colonial powers. “We were colonized by the French, but even France did not do what Bashar does,” he said. “The government kills innocent people. We felt no other option but to fight against this criminal.”
In doing so, the Kurds here noted that they face the same difficulties as the other Free Syrian Army units.
The Grandsons of Saladin split time now between their home villages, organizing roaming patrols at night on the roads, and holding a small portion of the front in Aleppo’s shattered neighborhoods.
They have relied in part on the training many of their members received during their brief service as conscripts in Mr. Assad’s army.
One man was previously a rifleman, another a machine-gunner. One — an Arab fighting inside the Kurdish group — was in a Syrian military communications unit. Two were trained in air defense.
All of them denounced the lack of Western support, and said their dearth of military equipment had slowed their progress and caused them many casualties.
“In general, we have a shortage of ammunition and weapons,” said Hussein Abu Mahmoud, a construction worker who is one of Mr. Abdulkader’s fighters. “Most of our fighters who were killed died because we don’t have enough weapons.”
Facing continued shortages, the Grandsons of Saladin make their own hand grenades, from pipes and locally made explosives, and use a large slingshot to heave some of their bombs, each slightly smaller than a grapefruit, toward army positions.
In recent months, the fighters said they had suffered five killed and seven wounded — proof enough, they said, of their role in the anti-Assad cause, and that Kurdish loyalties in Syria should not be defined by the statements from Damascus or Ankara, the Turkish capital, alone.
“There has been much propaganda that the Kurds are with the regime,” Mr. Abdulkader said. “We are not with Assad. We are fighting him.”
Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Antakya, Turkey.
January 22, 2013
Syria Evacuation Hints at a New Russian Attitude
By ELLEN BARRY and ANDREW ROTH
MOSCOW — About 80 Russian citizens crossed the Syrian border into Lebanon and flew into a Moscow airport before dawn on Wednesday, a small-scale evacuation that may signal the dwindling Russian hopes that President Bashar al-Assad will regain control of the country. The move came as a United Nations’ humanitarian official emerged after a rare mission through the conflict zone to express shock at the scale of devastation.
Russia took pains to issue assurances that the departures of its citizens was not a large-scale evacuation, seeking to avoid sending a dire message to Mr. Assad and his circle. One top Foreign Ministry official said that the two Emergency Services planes had been sent to Beirut to deliver humanitarian aid and had simply offered a free trip to Russia for those “wishing to go.”
The number of people who left was small, considering that more than 30,000 Russians are believed to live in Syria. Still, the flights had symbolic weight.
“You get it from all directions – if the Free Army catches you as a Russian citizen, they’ll cut off your head,” said Albert Omar, drawing his finger across his throat. “Just like that. And from the other direction there are the bombings, the rockets. They’re attacking the Free Army, but you hear it, the rumble, and you feel it.”
“Thank God they finally did it,” he said, of the evacuation by Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations. “I called and called. And now they really came through for us.”
Briefing reporters in Beirut, Lebanon, the United Nations humanitarian official, John Ging, said conditions inside Syria were “appalling” and that he was “shocked on so many levels” by the scarcity of food, medication, clean water and sanitation. The United Nations mission, which was given access by both pro-government and rebel forces, found that after 22 months of conflict, Syria’s grain production had been cut in half, with many farmers unable to harvest because they could safely reach their land.
“Every mother we met was appealing for us to understand the effects of this conflict on their children,” Mr. Ging said.
He said Syrians’ primary concern was to find a way to end the conflict. “We appeal to those who do have the political power to end this,” he said.
But a negotiated solution appears no closer. Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations’ secretary general, told a news conference at his New York headquarters that after discussions with Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League envoy seeking to negotiate a political transition, that he was not optimistic.
“The situation is very dire, very difficult,” Mr. Ban said of the bitter fighting, in which roughly 60,000 people have died. “We don’t see much prospect of a resolution at this time.”
The United Nations is helping organize a donor conference in Kuwait on Jan. 30 in hopes of raising some of the $1.5 billion needed for humanitarian aid for the refugees and displaced Syrians over the next six months. Mr. Ban lamented that previous appeals from the United Nations had raised far less than was needed. In rebel areas, opposition forces are scrambling to raise money and broaden their donor base. Another official on Mr. Ging’s mission, Ted Chaiban, director of emergency programs for Unicef, said grass-roots activists — many of them young men and women straight out of college — were conducting most humanitarian aid efforts.
Noting that the crisis would enter its third year in March, Mr. Ban said it was time for the Security Council to overcome its disagreements on Syria.
“The international community, and in particular the Security Council, has a grave responsibility to act to bring the desperate suffering of the Syrian people to an end,” he said.
Russia and China have blocked repeated Security Council efforts to coerce Mr. Assad to step down. But Moscow has begun to publicly acknowledge Mr. Assad’s losses on the battlefield and to prepare to protect its interests during a chaotic transition. Russia’s top Middle East envoy, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, said Tuesday that Russian negotiators were interested in establishing closer contact with “several new opposition groups, with those we have not been in touch with yet.”
“You know at first the forecasts were two to three months, four, and it is already two years,” Mr. Bogdanov told Russian news agencies, forecasting the likelihood of an even more protracted conflict .
About a dozen Russian warships have been sent to maneuver off the Syrian port of Tartus, where they could also help to evacuate Russians from the coastal areas where many of them live. Any decision to leave would be particularly wrenching for the tens of thousands of Russian-speaking women who met and married Syrian men who were sent to study in the former Soviet Union and who now live across Syria.
At the airport in Moscow, Russian evacuees described a sharp deterioration over the last year. Natalya Yunus said she ran a salon on the outskirts of Damascus until the Free Syrian Army captured her neighborhood, asking, “where could I go with no lights, no water, no money?”
“It was good for me there for a long time, but in the end it was terrifying,” said Ms. Yunus, whose husband remained behind in Syria. “Of course it’s terrifying, it’s a war, what can you do? There are machine guns, planes. And now I’m in a situation with no way out. There is nowhere to go.”
Her daughter, Anzhelika, said she had also left her husband behind.
“We ran,” she said. “How else can you put it?”
Rushana Vildanova, 26, spent the early morning waiting at the airport, waiting for her husband, Ali, who is a shopkeeper, and their 7-year-old daughter. She said Ali’s mother had died when the roof of their house caved in after a bomb exploded in their section of Damascus, and he was badly injured. She said she left Syria at the very beginning of the conflict, and that in recent months, he confided that he wanted to get out.
“I left right when it started, he stayed behind because he never thought it would get this bad,” she said. “At first there were demonstrations, and it all started there.”
Natalya Ivanova was waiting for her daughter, Olga, who has lived in Syria for the last 13 years. “What could she do? She took her daughter and she left, even though her husband had to stay behind,” she said. “And we are happy that she did that, she had to do that, and now she is here with us. If only for the time being.”
Nina Sergeyeva, who until recently led an organization of Russian expatriates from her home in Latakia, Syria, said that judging from Tuesday’s operation, the number of Russians seeking to leave Syria was insignificant. There is no talk of evacuation in Latakia, she said.
“Of course it is a kind of sign, a sign that it is really scary and dangerous there, that what’s going on there is a civil war,” said Ms. Sergeyeva, who is currently in Russia. “It’s a sign that things are getting fanned up. There are so many ships in the Mediterranean Sea, and it’s such a dead-end situation Syria — there is no political dialogue — that it is necessary to figure out the ways to get Russians out.”
Russian women who have remained in Syria up until this point have compelling reasons to stay, she said, but a formal evacuation announcement would have a powerful impact. If that happens, she said, “Russian women will understand that this is the last airplane which will take them home for free, with their children.”
The sea route is secure, but evacuations from Damascus are likely to become increasingly difficult as fighting around the airport worsens, and there is a danger that rebels may target vehicles on the overland route to the Lebanese border. Security officials told the Kommersant newspaper last month that evacuating Russian diplomats from Damascus might involve the same unit of armed foreign intelligence officers that evacuated Russians from Baghdad in 2003.
The newspaper quoted an intelligence source as saying that the officers were “ready for a transfer to Damascus; however, the order from above has not been given.” Last week, Russia announced that it was closing its consulate in Aleppo, Syria, in the wake of a double bombing that killed 82 people.
Yelena Suponina, a Moscow political analyst specializing in the Middle East, saw the departures on Tuesday as the beginning of Russia’s decision to carry out plans that officials laid out last summer. It was at that time, she said, that Russian officials “started to understand that the situation around civil war in Syria would continue and that the Syrian authorities would not find it easy to return stability. This understanding did not come now; it came some time ago.”
She said evacuations had begun because Russians in Syria were demanding passage out. “This isn’t about politics,” she said. “The worse the situation becomes, the more people will want to leave.”
Ellen Barry reported from Moscow, and Hania Mourtada from Beirut, Lebanon. Andrew Roth contributed reporting from Moscow, and Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations.