Kachin rebels cling to last stronghold amid Burmese army's deadly barrage
China prepares for influx of displaced Christian ethnic minority as 50-year campaign for autonomy reaches decisive stage
Kate Hodal in Laiza, Burma
guardian.co.uk, Friday 25 January 2013 19.44 GMT
Lieutenant Su Aung Doi is lying face down on a wooden table, the back of his head sliced wide open from a mortar round that exploded a metre from his foxhole on the frontline just hours earlier. Blood is trickling down his neck and on to the hospital floor as a doctor extracts the metal splinters from his skull and stitches the flesh back together, with no anaesthesia and a single lamp to illuminate the surgery.
In the same room, nurses tend to a stunned soldier with shrapnel in his forehead, while in the corner an officer is screaming as doctors rub disinfectant over mortar splinters in his feet and arms.
Up the blood-stained stairs of Laiza's civilian hospital, soldiers whose legs have been recently amputated hobble past a closed operating room housing a soldier with leg wounds so deep that his thigh muscles are spilling on to the metal table. And in the car park outside, army-issue pickup trucks drop off still more soldiers straight from the battlefield, who are carried in one by one and dropped on stretchers covered in other soldiers' blood.
"Almost all of our battalion were hurt today. There were hundreds of Burmese army shooting RPG [rocket-propelled grenades] – it was just raining mortars," officer Sin Wah Naw, 34, says from a hospital room shared with three soldiers from his company. "They would stop shooting for a few seconds and I would run for safety and then it would begin all over again."
It has been just a week since the Burmese government initiated a ceasefire in Kachin state, where armed ethnic insurgents, under the banner of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), have been fighting for greater autonomy for the past 50 years.
The Kachin are a Christian-majority group in Buddhist-majority Burma, who say they have long been oppressed by the government. While rebels have held pockets of territory throughout this mountainous terrain for decades, they are struggling to maintain the last remaining stronghold of their headquarters in Laiza, a jungle outpost called Hka Ya Bum, which is under heavy attack by the Burmese military.
If that falls, which many fear could happen sooner than later, locals say that their only option will be to flee to China.
The government's attacks on Kachin state, which began in July 2011 after a 17-year-ceasefire fell apart, have in the past month included heavy artillery, as well as the use of helicopters and jet fighters. KIA officials reckon that as many as 1,200 mortar rounds were fired in two hours against Hka Ya Bum on Thursday, the most ever recorded in their decades of war.
The escalating conflict has soured Burma's seeming efforts for peace in a nation that only recently ended nearly 50 years of military rule. The KIA, whose headquarters are in Laiza – a sleepy town whose shops are mostly shuttered closed – is the only major ethnic rebel group not to have reached a ceasefire agreement with President Thein Sein, who came to power in 2011 and has since instituted a series of economic and political reforms.
"Ever since the KIA started this revolution, whenever we have had a ceasefire, it is the Burmese who break it," says the KIA's spokesman, La Nan. "The ceasefire agreed on 18 January was made unilaterally by the Burmese and broken by the Burmese," he said.
"From past experience, a 'ceasefire' means preparation for future assault. But peace is not just the absence of warfare. We are demanding the rights of our ethnic nationality. Once we have that which is rightfully ours, then we have no reason to fight."
The fighting has displaced as many as 100,000 Kachin, according to relief agencies working in the state, most of which lack food, medicine and other supplies because most roads to KIA-controlled territories have been blocked by the Burmese government.
Doi Pyi Sa, who heads the internally displaced people (IDP) and refugee relief committee of the KIA's political arm, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), says that Kachin state is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. "Many IDPs have had to abandon their villages [all across Kachin state] and have fled into KIO territory, which is a humanitarian crisis in itself, and others have fled to stay with friends and relatives, so we don't know how many they are.
"But the real issue is that we may one day have to flee into China. The Chinese government has told us they've cleared space to create refugee camps but they want us to build the camps. That's not what we want. We don't want to have to go to China until it's absolutely compulsory. But one day there won't be any option but for us to flee into China. The issue is that the policy used by China is that when they don't hear any fighting anymore, they push back the refugees like they did in August [last year].
"But if the Burmese soldiers take Laiza, there will be thousands of them in the villages [all across Kachin state], so no one will want to go back home. But staying in China will be hard, because we won't be allowed to leave the camps, and that could make us vulnerable to human trafficking, which has already happened [to Kachin people] in China."
At Je Yang, Laiza's largest refugee camp, nearly half of the 7,300 inhabitants are under the age of 15. Bamboo tents house three families at a time, a small marketplace sells fruit and veg, and men are busy with hammers and saws building a new school to replace the open-plan classrooms that currently shelter 40 students at a time.
"This is no place for children," says the school headteacher, Nawhpang Hkun San. "The Burmese army has taken a post just up the hill here and there's often mortar and gunfire. We're at risk here, and the children know it. Some of them are too terrified to even come to school."
Some displaced people are in highly precarious situations. Just past the military hospital outside Laiza, two families have taken refuge on the side of the road in a confluence of bushes where they sleep through the cold winter nights under banana leaves and tarpaulins. Their meagre possessions – a transistor radio, a wall clock and an old kettle – are scattered across the dirt amid cow pats, smatterings of hay and a few floor mats. "We left everything behind – all of our clothes, our farming equipment, even our blankets – when the Burmese army burned our village down," says Dashi Roi, 48, a farmer who fled by foot towards Laiza with her husband and two cows last week. "Sometimes we have nothing to eat. We scavenge for vegetables, but we don't always find them."
After Thursday's heavy assault on Hka Ya Bum, the situation in Laiza is precarious. A nightly candlelit vigil that snakes through the city is one way in which locals hope for peace, but the real test will come from the Burmese government itself – and whether it is prepared to enter into political dialogue with a group that has promised to never back down.
"Even if Hka Ya Bum is overrun, the Burmese army still can't come to Laiza because there are still many posts to take," a defiant La Nan told the Guardian. "The Burmese army has already spent millions of dollars and many lives getting this far. Even if they come to Laiza, they are entering a killing field … We will never surrender."
It's a position to which many soldiers seem to hold strong. At Laiza cemetery, where new graves are being dug, up at an uncomfortably high frequency, mortar shells could be heard Friday landing on the mountain beyond as a pickup truck carrying soldiers and the coffin of their colleague, 25-year-old Labang Tang Gun, roared up the road. The soldiers sang a war hymn, shovelled dirt on to the freshly dug grave, and then sped back off towards the explosions in the hills.
01/25/2013 01:49 PM
'Credible Deterrence': Germany Plans to Deploy Armed Drones
By Veit Medick
A document obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE indicates the German government is preparing to procure armed drones for foreign combat. Opposition politicians are outraged by the development and note that the use of weapons-equipped unmanned aircraft is legally dubious and possibly unethical.
Bowing to pressure from the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, the federal government in Berlin is preparing to deploy armed, unmanned drones in foreign conflicts. In an answer to an official query made by the far-left Left Party, which has been obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE, the German government wrote that its experience in foreign combat operations has made it clear that reconnaissance vehicles must be armed "in order to provide protection against sudden and serious changes in the situation."
As opposed to unarmed surveillance drones, these aircraft could attack known targets in a "quick, precise and scalable" way, the document stated. "In addition, the new features would confront opposing forces with a permanent and unpredictable threat that would limit their ability to act." It went on to say that the weapons boost safety and security through "credible deterrence," pointing to the "Predator" drones used by the United States as a possible model.
The government decision on armed drones brings the German air force one step closer to implementing a long-standing plan to dramatically alter the country's drone fleets. Unlike the United States, Germany has only been using unarmed drones in combat. For aerial reconnaissance in Afghanistan, the Defense Ministry leases the drone model "Heron 1" from an Israeli consortium and also relies on drones built by the German company Rheinmetall. But the government's contract with the Israeli group runs out at the end of 2014, and the military has been searching for a replacement for some time now.
The move is likely to rekindle the debate within the government over fighter drones. Last year, the head of the German air force, Karl Müllner, landed in hot water shortly after assuming office for vehemently supporting the purchase of armed drone systems. At the time, the government remained cautious and called for a "broad discussion" in parliament before making any decision.
Nevertheless, Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière has always been open to having armed drones. "Aircraft are allowed to carry weapons, so why shouldn't an unmanned aircraft also be able to do so?" de Maizière, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said in an interview with the German daily Die Welt. "The new weapons have a huge advantage: They are more targeted. And the better one can target, the less damage there will be," he said.
Political Opposition to Plans
With its move, the German government is entering a political minefield. Even the use of unarmed drones is a issue of heated debate in Berlin. Drone opponents exist the world over, but many in Germany are concerned that drones will be misused to spy on people within the country. Criticism against armed drones is even sharper. Many security experts in the political arena point to the US's intensive reliance on drone warfare as a chilling example of the use of armed, unmanned machines -- the legality of which is questionable under international law.
Within Germany, politicians have been divided on the issue. Those within the CDU and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) view drones as a necessary evil of security policy. Meanwhile, the Left Party, the Green Party and even many within the CDU's governing coalition partner, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), are opposed to the plans.
"I'm vehemently opposed to the Bundeswehr's drone strategy," said Andrej Hunko, a parliamentarian with the Left Party. "I'm also critical of expanding the use of reconnaissance drones." Hunko said that he fears that such aircraft won't just be used abroad, but that they could be used domestically as well.
Green Party officials have also expressed their opposition to the move. "The government's plans to order armed drones are evidence of a blind and irresponsible handling of progress in terms of military technology," parliamentary group leader and chancellor candidate Jürgen Trittin told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We oppose the government's plans. By lowering the bar for the use of military means, the deployment leads to a further blurring of the limits of military force. Procuring armed drones, if at all, can only proceed after the ethical issues and questions of international law have been successfully clarified."
Such sentiments are also being echoed by members of the opposition SPD, including senior parliamentarian Thomas Opperman, who told SPIEGEL ONLINE: "I'm opposed to a hasty decision because this brings a new quality to warfare. We need a broad societal and parliamentary debate about the ethical and legal boundries of the deployment of combat drones and not some backroom decision. It is entirely inappropriate that the public and parliament have learned of these plans more or less by accident."
The government, for its part, has refuted that suggestion. Unmanned flying aircraft of all kinds were "not intended to have the effect of escalating" conflict, it said in response to the Left Party's inquiry. In the future, they will be used "exclusively within the framework of their constitutional and mandated assignment."
January 25, 2013
Officials in Azerbaijan Claim to Restore Order to Rioting City
By ANDREW ROTH and SHAHLA SULTANOVA
MOSCOW — Officials of the ruling party in Azerbaijan said on Friday that the police had restored order in the city of Ismayilli after two days of rioting and calls for the local governor to resign. Local residents, however, said the police were still making arrests and the city remained on the brink of martial law.
The episode began late Wednesday night as a brawl over a traffic accident in Ismayilli, a resort town about 100 miles west of the country’s capital, Baku. But it quickly transformed into a volatile political protest, as a mob of several thousand burned down a hotel, then set siege to a regional official’s house.
On Thursday, a combined force of local and national police officers used water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowd. The police refused on Friday to say how many arrests had been made, but local news reports said at least 50 people had been detained.
The protest was a rare explosion of uncontrolled frustration in Azerbaijan, an oil-producing country on the Caspian Sea, where politics are dominated by President Ilham Aliyev, and even relatively small street demonstrations often prompt heavy-handed responses from riot police officers.
Mubaiz Gurbanli, deputy chairman of the majority New Azerbaijan Party, sought to downplay the significance of the riots in an interview on Friday.
“This was not a revolt,” he said, adding that the protests were driven by “emotional” young men. “This was a local incident and that does not reflect the situation in the whole of Azerbaijan.”
Residents of Ismayilli said they were fed up with cronyism among regional officials and growing income inequality between locals and businessmen from the capital.
“Half of Ismayilli belongs to the governor and his family, they do whatever they want,” said Leyla, 22, in a telephone interview from the city where her family owns a business.
“The city is full of military,” she said. “It is like Ismayilli is at war.”
The rioting began late Wednesday evening after Emil Shamsaddinov, a businessman from Baku who owns a hotel in the city, and another man attacked a local taxi driver after a traffic accident, the police said.
A crowd of several thousand residents quickly formed in support of the taxi driver and set fire to Mr. Shamsaddinov’s hotel, which was also rumored to house a brothel belonging to the regional governor, Nizami Alekperov.
Later, the crowd burned several motorcycles outside the home of Mr. Alekperov’s son. One protester said the crowd stopped short of burning down the residence only because it had run out of gasoline.
The following day, hundreds of protesters regrouped near the governor’s house, and video taken by local media showed police officers using armored vehicles with water cannons as well as shooting canisters of gas and rubber bullets into the crowd.
The melee carried echoes of a 2012 protest after a regional governor called his constituents “sellouts” in a televised interview. Thousands of protesters surrounded the official’s home, and in a rare concession, the official was forced to step down.
By contrast, Mr. Alekperov told journalists on Thursday that he would not resign. “One cannot politicize a conflict between two people over an automobile accident,” he said.
Irana Abdullayeva, 20, said she traveled to Ismayilli after learning that a cousin, Jeyhun, had been arrested. In a telephone interview from the jail where her cousin was being held, she said the police had barred relatives from carrying in cellphones to prevent audio or video recordings.
“I hear weird screams,” she said. “It seems that they are being beaten. Also, I hear them being cursed at.”
Andrew Roth reported from Moscow, and Shahla Sultanova from Ismayilli, Azerbaijan.
January 25, 2013
Greek Opposition Leader Seeks Conference on Debt
By RICK GLADSTONE
The 38-year-old leftist opposition leader in Greece who could become its next prime minister on a wave of simmering popular fury over the government’s austerity measures, called on Friday for a European summit meeting to ease the crushing debts that threaten not only his country but all of Europe.
The opposition leader, Alexis Tsipras, whose criticism of international bailouts propelled his party, Syriza, to win the second biggest bloc of parliamentary seats in the June 2012 elections, also said he did not believe Greece would be forced to withdraw from the group of 17 countries that use the euro currency. Greece’s heavy indebtedness has raised fears that the country could leave or be expelled from the euro zone, a possibility that many economists regard as a threat to the euro’s survival.
“They say I am the most dangerous man in Europe,” Mr. Tsipras said in an interview with the editorial board of The New York Times. “What I feel is dangerous is the policy of austerity in Europe. The Greek people have paid a heavy price.”
Mr. Tsipras was in New York as part of a trip to the United States that has included meetings in Washington with the International Monetary Fund and the Treasury Department. The trip is part of a campaign intended to bolster his credibility as a politician and to counter what his aides call the fictional portrayals of him as a financial bomb-thrower in Greece’s mainstream news media, controlled by the so-called oligarch families of privilege in the country who fear Syriza’s ascent to power.
Given the fragility of the conservative-led coalition that took over after the June elections, any no-confidence vote in Parliament could lead to new elections that give Mr. Tsipras the latitude to form a government. Recent polls put Syriza’s popularity at nearly 30 percent, about the same as the current coalition leader, the conservative New Democracy party.
This month Mr. Tsipras also visited Germany, Europe’s most powerful economy, which has been the driving force behind the insistence that Greece must endure sacrifices and impose fiscal discipline in exchange for help on its debt burden. Mr. Tsipras has argued that the strategy has not only been an expensive failure but has also increased Greece’s indebtedness relative to the size of its economy, where joblessness and cuts in wages and benefits have stoked widespread anger.
After six years of recession in Greece, he said, “we are witnessing a humanitarian crisis.”
The symptoms were on display this week in Athens, where striking subway workers, outraged over pay cuts, paralyzed a transit system that carries one million riders a day. The government on Friday used an emergency decree to halt the strike.
Mr. Tsipras said he would like to see a summit meeting that would result in an end to the austerity approach, which he said is needed to restart growth and avert a deeper economic malaise.
“We are suggesting an overall plan for a European solution,” he said. “A European conference on debt that would include all of the countries of the region facing a significant debt issue.”
He drew an analogy to the London Debt Agreement of 1953, in which postwar Germany’s debt was cut by 50 percent and the repayment spread over 30 years.
Mr. Tsipras said the German government, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, has held the possibility of expulsion from the euro zone over Greece as leverage for enforcing its austerity solution, but that in his view neither Germany nor its supporters want to see Greece exit the euro.
“The constant threats, that they will kick us out of the euro zone, is a strategy with no foundation,” he said. “It’s just a way to blackmail us.”
01/25/2013 04:09 PM
Improving Health: Banks Wean Themselves from ECB Support
European banks are planning to pay back cheap loans provided by the European Central Bank ahead of schedule, at the end of January. The move suggests that Europe's financial sector is slowly recovering.
In a further sign that the euro crisis is slowly starting to abate, 278 European banks said Friday they would repay the European Central Bank €137 billion ($184 billion) in emergency three-year low cost loans provided just a year ago. The earlier-than-expected repayment shows that at least some of Europe's commercial banks are slowly weaning themselves off of indirect state support and are returning to health.
For the ECB, it's the first step in a gradual unwinding of unprecedented measures that had been in place over the last two years in order relieve pressure on banks during the euro crisis. The ECB has issued banks more than €1 trillion euro in cheap loans in two long-term refinancing operations (LTFOs), one in December 2011 and the second in February 2012.
The ultra-cheap lending measures were designed to prop up shaky banks and avoid a credit crunch as the debt crisis sputtered on and interbank lending dried up. The money indirectly went to crisis affected countries because many banks used the cash to buy up government bonds of countries like Spain and Italy.
At the time, banks were given the option of paying back the ECB two years early. Analysts had been watching to see how much banks paid back in order to gauge the extent of the euro-zone recovery. A Reuters poll on Monday suggested banks would return around €100 billion from the first LTFO. The higher sum announced on Friday gave a boost to the euro as well. A total of 523 banks had participated in the first LTFO in 2011.
Some institutions, like Germany's Commerzbank and Britain's Lloyds, have announced that they will initially pay back only a part of the money they have been lent. The financial institutions are taking advantage of the option to pay the money back after a year because, with the crisis appearing to diminish, an increasing number of banks are finding alternative and cheaper ways of securing liquidity than the ECB.
Although the situation has improved considerably for financial institutions in the currency union's core countries, it is still nearly impossible for Greek banks, for example, to raise money from the markets. Generally, though, the situation has grown far less tense on the markets since ECB President Mario Draghi declared in July that the central bank was prepared to use any means at its disposal to defend the euro and the euro zone.
01/25/2013 06:21 PM
ESM Chief on Euro Crisis: 'The Mood in Germany Is Often Very Aggressive'
As head of the ESM permanent bailout fund, Klaus Regling is in charge of preventing a collapse of the euro. In a SPIEGEL ONLINE interview, he discusses German worries over bailouts, the debate over aid for Cyprus and personal attacks against him.
As Klaus Regling opens up his briefcase inside the convention center at Davos, one could be forgiven for mistaking him for an insurance salesman. He pulls out colorful graphics meant to illustrate the improved competitiveness and budget situations in crisis-stricken European Union member states. Regling has an ambitious goal at the World Economic Forum: The 62-year-old is searching for investors for his employer, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the euro rescue fund.
In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, he explains why he's not a popular figure in Germany and why there is no alternative to tough austerity programs for the heavily indebted euro-zone countries.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Regling, as head of the ESM, you are dealing with sums in the hundreds of billions. Is that sum ever daunting to you?
Regling: Yes, of course. We borrow the funds that we provide to governments in assistance loans from the financial markets. But of course the loans are guaranteed by euro-zone countries, and therefore ultimately by taxpayers.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Many in Germany see you as a man who helps throw billions in taxpayer money down the drain. Do you ever experience personal animosity?
Regling: Yes, especially at conferences in Germany. The mood is often very aggressive and people aren't even willing to listen to what I have to say. Still, I have the utmost confidence that the loans will be repaid.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why?
Regling: Because what we in Europe are doing right now is precisely what the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been doing all over the world for decades without ever losing money. IMF loans are tied to the conditions that the country overhauls its economy, as are ours.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So Germany will get its money back?
Regling: That's my assumption.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But, in Greece, there's already been a haircut, with private creditors losing about €100 billion ($135 billion). That's hardly reassuring.
Regling: I don't agree. A haircut improves Greece's chances of repaying a public creditor, such as the ESM. Historically, there have been dozens of private haircuts, after which public creditors have approved further loans.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is Europe evolving into a transfer union?
Regling: No, that's absurd. For the first time since the crisis struck, the 2013 budget has to factor in the Greek bailout to the tune of some €730 million. But according to estimates, Germany is also saving between €10 and 20 billion a year because the crisis is making German government bonds so highly sought-after.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: That doesn't mean that the situation in Greece will improve.
Regling: Greece is a difficult and exceptional case. The rescue packages for Ireland and Portugal were success stories. Both countries have been able to return to markets to borrow from investors again. Without the euro bailout fund, these countries would probably no longer be in the euro zone, and Europe would look different today.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Like Greece, both countries now want more time to pay back their debts.
Regling: One can discuss it. Just to avoid any misunderstanding, unlike Greece, Ireland and Portugal are not asking for a suspension to servicing their debts and interest payments -- they are merely asking for longer maturities for part of their loans. This could help them to return to the markets sooner, which is also in all our interests.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: The point of the ESM is to help cash-strapped nations. But it could also start giving banks direct aid. Does it even have the funds to do that?
Regling: Yes. Over €400 billion of the €500 billion it can lend is still unused. The condition of direct aid for banks is a single, functional supervisory authority in the euro zone. As things stand, this won't be the case before the spring of 2014.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Isn't it ethically questionable to rescue banks when they are responsible for their own debts?
Regling: The bank's shareholders lose their investments before the state steps in to provide money. Only then does the ESM get involved. It won't be any different with direct aid to banks.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In Cyprus, bailout money might end up in banks with Russian customers who are believed to have made their fortunes in dubious ways. Should we still help the country anyway?
Regling: The origins of Russian money in Cypriot banks still has to be investigated. At any rate, Russia is prepared to contribute to a possible bailout, as Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev confirmed again here in Davos.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: For a while, there was talk of leveraging the ESM via the private sector in order to possibly double its fire power. Is it true that investors rebuffed this plan when you proposed it?
Regling: No. The mechanism is available, it is registered on the Luxembourg stock exchange, and major investors have agreed on sums of up to €60 billion. But a country has to want to make use of this leverage, and so far none has.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: But even €60 billion is nowhere near double the ESM's current lending capacity.
Regling: Those were just the first offers out of the blue. Investors will only make larger committments when it is clear to them which country the money will be used for.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: It can hardly have been confidence-inspiring for potential investors in the euro zone when British Prime Minister David Cameron announced in Davos that the United Kingdom would never join the euro.
Regling: No, I don't believe it was. When Cameron says that he plans to hold a referendum on the UK's membership in the EU in 2017, all he does is create years of uncertainty for the British economy.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So is everything alright now, and is the euro safe?
Regling: In my opinion, the euro was never in danger. But of course everything is not alright. People in southern Europe are suffering. In Greece, civil servants and pensioners have seen their monthly earnings drop by 40 percent. But, as tough as these cuts may be, the situation will eventually improve, as the experience of the IMF shows.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard recently admitted that he had underestimated the negative repercussions of the austerity programs.
Regling: Yes, but he didn't say they could have been avoided.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: So there hasn't been too much austerity?
Regling: No. Of course it can be a good idea to relax austerity programs, as has now happened. But when a country has as much debt as Greece does, there's going to be a lot of suffering. There's no way around it.
Interview conducted by David Böcking and Stefan Kaiser
Polish lawmakers vote down civil unions bill
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 25, 2013 16:05 EST
Polish lawmakers on Friday voted down three bills on civil unions for unmarried couples, a move backed by gay rights activists but fiercely opposed by conservatives in the deeply Catholic country.
None of the drafts included provisions that would legalise gay marriage and adoption, similar to proposals by the French government that recently sparked mass protests in Paris.
Friday’s vote was the second time in six months Polish lawmakers rejected bills aimed at introducing civil unions for gay and straight couples. In July, the lower chamber of parliament rejected four similar draft laws.
Surveys show that nearly 80 percent of Poles oppose gay marriage and around 90 percent believe that gay and lesbian couples should not have the right to adopt children.
Two left-wing parties, the former communist Democratic Left Alliance and the Palikot Movement, proposed bills sanctioning same-sex and heterosexual civil partnerships, and granting them joint taxation and survivorship rights.
A draft tabled by the governing centre-right Civic Platform (PO) of Prime Minister Donald Tusk allowing civil unions for same-sex couples but stopping short of survivorship rights also fell flat by a narrow margin of 17 votes with 228 for, 211 against and 10 abstentions in the 460-seat parliament.
The right-wing Catholic-nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party has cast doubt on the constitutionality of the proposed same-sex partnership legislation, arguing that the Polish constitution explicitly defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
The bills would “enshrine in law the moral downfall of society and exacerbate the crisis of the traditional model of the family,” PiS lawmaker Artur Gorski told parliamentarians during the debate.
The Tusk government refused to take an official position on the issue which has proven deeply divisive, driving more conservative factions of the administration to side with the PiS opposition
Russians fear ex-governor will ruin iconic island
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 25, 2013 16:03 EST
Russians protested Friday after the government appointed an unpopular former governor to run one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Kizhi complex of wooden churches.
Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky on Thursday set off a wave of protest by dismissing the current director and appointing the ex-governor of the northwestern Karelia region, Andrei Nelidov, who resigned last year after President Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin.
The architecture complex including 18th-century wooden churches on an island in a lake is a popular stop on cruises. Its Church of the Transfiguration with 22 unpainted wooden domes is one of Russia’s most iconic images.
Deputy culture minister Andrei Busygin on Friday headed to the museum after 174 staff signed an angry open letter to Putin expressing fears that the site could be built-up and destroyed.
“The museum staff are convinced that with the arrival of Nelidov will begin not only the destruction of the monuments’ buffer zones but of the federal museum itself,” they warned.
As governor he showed “extreme incompetence” and developed a tourism strategy that “practically destroys the World Heritage site,” staff claimed.
More than 3,500 people had signed an online petition to Putin on Friday and regional lawmakers also sent a telegram to the president asking him to put the decision on hold.
Nelidov, an engineer by training, has no experience running a museum.
Medinsky argued Thursday that Kizhi needed a new manager to halt a drop in visitors to the complex and improve its infrastructure, RIA Novosti news agency reported.
“No one is going to Kizhi,” he complained.
UNESCO put the churches in the Karelia region bordering Finland on its World Heritage List in 1990. In a report last year it warned of concerns over proposals for new development in the area.
Putin accepted Nelidov’s resignation as Karelia governor in May last year.
Observers linked the decision to Nelidov’s low rating, his failure to calm social tensions and also low voting figures for the ruling party in the region.
01/25/2013 05:52 PM
The Resource Race: China Dips Toes in Arctic Waters
By Christoph Seidler
China is hungry for natural resources, and the Arctic is home to a wealth of them. Growing alarm about its ambitions has led Beijing to take a softer approach, stressing exploration and research over exploitation.
You didn't hear much Chinese spoken on the Mackenzie River until the summer of 1999. But then excitement swept through the sleepy Tuktoyaktuk settlement in Canada's Northwest Territories, when a vast ship with a crew from the Asia-Pacific unexpectedly docked in the port. Local authorities were caught off-guard by the arrival of the research icebreaker Xue Long, which means "snow dragon." The vessel -- 170 meters (550 feet) long and weighing 21,000 metric tons -- had in fact informed faraway Ottawa of its intention to sail into Canada's arctic waters, but the message hadn't been passed on.
Today, such an incident probably wouldn't happen. States around the North Pole keep careful and regular watch on visitors from China. Its "growing interest in the region raises concern -- even alarm -- in the international community," the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) recently wrote. And this despite the fact that "the Arctic is not a foreign policy priority" for Beijing.
The equation seems simple. China is hungry for natural resources, and the Arctic is rich in natural resources. What could be more straightforward? But Beijing insists that its interest in the region is first and foremost for research purposes, that the Arctic can help shed light on climate change, that it offers useful shipping routes, and so on and so forth.
Indeed, for now, the Chinese government has no official Arctic strategy. And it doesn't say much at all about natural resources in the region, especially because the economic superpower can -- for the time being, at least -- get what it needs elsewhere, such as in Africa.
But this is also because it has realized that it needs to be subtle about its interest in the polar North and not upset Arctic nations any more than it already has. "Currently, China has not carried out any exploration activities in the Arctic," said Zhao Yun, Beijing's ambassador to Norway, on Monday at the Arctic Frontiers Conference in Tromsø. China is more interested in joining forces with other states to study "trans-regional issues," he stressed.
Demonstrating great diplomatic finesse, Zhao insisted that Beijing was keen to communicate and cooperate with all relevant parties, including, of course, the indigenous population. It would also welcome a chance to be granted observer status on the Arctic Council. So far, so friendly.
A Careful Message
Even though China is trying to avoid being overbearing, it can't hide its growing interest in the region. "They are extremely careful about what message they send," says Leiv Lunde, director of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute, and independent foundation concerned with environmental, energy and resource-management policies based in Lysaker, Norway. Lunde recently returned from a trip to China, where he had delivered a 90-minute speech at the Beijing Energy Club. Afterwards, he spent over two hours fielding questions from government officials, researchers and executives from raw-material companies.
Still, Lunde believes that Chinese companies have understood that although oil and gas from the Arctic could make a long-term contribution to the country's energy supply, it won't come cheap. China will have to "play by the rules of capitalism," Lunde says. Right now, for example, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) wants to acquire its Canadian competitor Nexen, but the deal first has to be approved by US authorities.
Beijing's raw-materials managers are also eyeing Greenland. Just outside the capital, Nuuk, a British company has teamed up with Chinese financiers to develop a giant iron ore mine. Over 2,300 Chinese workers will be employed here, boosting the island's population by 4 percent. The total investment will be around €1.7 billion.
Greenland needs it -- at least if it is ever to make its dream of independence come true. Sara Olsvig is a member of the Danish parliament who represents a separatist party in Greenland. She points out that, as of 2040, Greenland's state coffers will be seeing a shortfall of some €134 million a year. "We are interested in securing additional income," she says. "And where should we look for that if not in the fastest-growing nations of the world?"
So far, Olsvig says, no decisions have been made, but Chinese investment in Greenland's mining sector would be as welcome as investment from any other country. "China is all over the world. It is no surprise that they are also interested in Greenland's resources," she says. The iron ore mine project is, however, not uncontroversial in Greenland. Among other things, critics are unhappy about the prospect of China bringing low-cost labor to the island.
Traditionally, China has upheld the principle of non-intervention. Accordingly, at the conference in Tromsø, the Chinese ambassador to Norway resorted to a linguistic slight of hand to justify his country's focus on the Artic region: Northeastern China, Zhao explained, stretches almost to 50 degrees north latitude, making his country what he called "a near-Arctic state." According to that logic, the German island of Sylt, which lies at 54 degrees north latitude, could also be described as "near-Arctic" -- but no one would.
"China's arctic research is still at the starting stage," Zhao said. In 2004, China -- like many other countries, including Germany -- set up a research station on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. Meanwhile, the Polar Research Institute in Shanghai trains scientists specialized in the region, while another 120-meter-long icebreaker is currently being built with Finnish help.
The Xue Long has now made five trips to the Arctic. The last was in the summer of 2012, when it traveled from Iceland via the North Pole to the Bering Strait. As it entered the waters off Spitsbergen, the Norwegian coast guard was there in an instant -- in stark contrast to Canada's casual response back in 1999.
"China spends much more on research in the Antarctic than the Arctic," cautions Lunde, from the Fridtjof Nansen Institute. For now, using Antarctica's natural resources is prohibited by the Antarctic Treaty System. But that ban might be lifted in the decades to come. "Maybe they are just preparing themselves," says Lunde. "China is very good at long-term thinking."
U.S. backs adding teeth to global shark protection
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, January 25, 2013 14:48 EST
The United States said Friday it would support proposals to curb the trade of five shark species and manta rays, whose numbers are declining because of demand for fins and gills.
“For several decades, we have been increasingly concerned about the over harvest of sharks and manta rays,” US Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said in a meeting at the United Nations, according to a statement.
Ashe will lead a delegation to Bangkok in March to attend a conference of parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which is set to consider the new measures.
“We believe that CITES is a valuable tool to address the threats posed by unsustainable global trade in shark fins and other marine species and their parts and products.”
Shark fins are in high demand, particularly in Asia, where they are sought after for their culinary and medicinal value. Manta Rays are harvested for their gill plates, used in homeopathic remedies.
The new restrictions would apply to manta rays and five shark species — the porbeagle, scalloped hammerhead, great hammerhead, smooth hammerhead, and oceanic whitetip — and must be approved by two-thirds of member states.
The listings would increase protection but still allow “legal and sustainable trade” in the species.
“Sharks and manta rays are extremely important to the ocean ecosystems,” said Sam Rauch, of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“The global protection that CITES offers to these incredible species will complement shark measures that have been adopted regionally, and will help ensure their survival.”
The convention has been signed by 177 nations, and currently offers protection to some 34,000 species worldwide.
01/24/2013 06:25 PM
Church and State: Where Catholic Beliefs and Public Needs Collide
By Frank Hornig, Barbara Schmid, Fidelius Schmid and Peter Wensierski
Rape victims are being turned away, and divorced employees are losing their jobs. Catholic hospitals, kindergartens and nursing homes -- which are primarily tax-funded -- are causing problems for Germany's social welfare state. But some politicians are fighting back.
The origins of the Cellitine sisters and their beneficial ministry date back to late 13th-century Cologne, when the nuns devoted themselves to the "care of the sick, the weak and the poor."
Their original mission has expanded into a corporation encompassing 16 nursing homes and 10 hospitals. The only problem is that care is precisely what has been lacking there recently. Wanting nothing to do with a possible early termination of a pregnancy, doctors working for the Cellitines turned away a woman who was seeking help shortly before Christmas, despite the strong suspicion that she had been raped.
Last week, the order publicly downplayed the case when it made national news, calling it "very regrettable" and "a misunderstanding."
Turning away rape victims can hardly be called a misunderstanding. On January 10, Sylvia Klauser, the order's chief ethics officer, explained to an emergency doctor the hospitals' procedures for handling rape victims. The notes the doctor made on the conversation reveal an astonishing aspect of the order's policy: As long as patients who have been raped are "responsive and capable of being moved," they are to be transferred "to a city facility." The apparent goal of the policy is to ensure that the nuns and doctors will not be confronted with a possible abortion.
The case reveals how far the Roman Catholic Church has distanced itself from German society, especially -- but not only -- in the area of sexuality.
Catholic facilities are increasingly sealing themselves off, often behaving as if they were part of a state within a state; a cosmos subject to its own rules, which are monitored by the pope and his bishops; and a world in which federal, state and local governments have little say.
Every year, Catholic dioceses receive billions in funds from obligatory taxes paid by church members. But when it comes to scandals, such as when sexual abuse is systematically covered up and remains uninvestigated for years, citizens have little influence and are left to experience how the church energetically defends its special rights.
The process of alienation is well advanced, and it would be a mistake to treat it as merely a problem for Germany's few remaining churchgoers. In fact, it potentially affects millions of Germans. The church is involved in many areas of society, including kindergartens, schools, hospitals and nursing homes. It is the second-largest employer in the country, after the government. It dictates the kind of life its doctors, educators, teachers and cleaning women are allowed to lead. It determines how children are raised. And it also decides -- on its own authority -- how patients are to be treated or, in some cases, turned away.
"The scandalous incidents in Cologne sharply contradict the Christian social mission," says Sylvia Löhrmann, deputy governor of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The Green Party politician is a member of the Central Committee of German Catholics, a forum in which she wants to see the incident addressed. "Not helping a woman who has been raped is a violation of human decency. In doing so, the church harms itself more than anything," says Löhrmann, who is also the state's education minister.
Avoiding the Morning-After Pill
The so-called "morning-after pill," a drug that can be administered to rape victims to prevent pregnancy, lies at the center of the controversy.
On December 15, a 25-year-old woman came to an emergency medical facility in the Nippes neighborhood of Cologne, claiming that she had been raped. The doctor on duty, Irmgard Maiworm, treated the victim. She notified the police and prescribed the morning after pill.
Maiworm then informed the nearby St. Vincent Hospital, which is run by the Cellitine order, that she was transferring her patient there for evidence-gathering purposes. But her Catholic counterparts refused to help. The Hospital of the Holy Spirit, also run by the nuns, likewise turned down Maiworm's request. The doctors at the church-run hospitals told her that their ethical guidelines required them to reject the patients. "I could hardly believe it," Maiworm says.
The Catholic doctors' reluctance is in keeping with the policies of Joachim Meisner, the conservative archbishop of Cologne. "Rape victims are transferred to other facilities," says his spokesman, "if the intention to take the 'morning-after pill' is evident."
Victims' rights groups are protesting. "Refusing to administer the morning-after pill to women who have been raped constitutes failure to render assistance, which is unjustified according to the Bible and incomprehensible according to Christian values," says Annegret Laakmann of the nationwide group Frauenwürde (Women's Dignity). "With this position, the official church is discriminating against raped women once again."
Anette Diehl of Frauennotruf Mainz, a women's emergency hotline, also wants to see a change in church policy. "A woman who has been raped needs comprehensive assistance right away. She can't simply be turned away for religious reasons in the middle of treatment and consultation."
Catholic organizations run some 420 hospitals throughout Germany. In their employment contracts, their roughly 165,000 employees are generally required to comply with the guidelines of bishops and the heads of religious orders. In fact, in some areas, the Catholic Church exerts a strong influence on the social welfare state. The church even has a monopoly in some rural areas, where it controls many facilities, from kindergartens to hospitals to nursing homes.
This complicates things for church employees. Since doctors, educators and caregivers often have no alternative to working for Catholic organizations, they are forced to comply with their guidelines.
Growing Power over Formerly Public Institutions
Paradoxically, although the number of churchgoers has been shrinking for decades, the influence of bishops has been rising. In 1950, excluding ministers and members of religious orders, both the Catholic and Protestant churches in Germany had 130,000 civilian employees, a number that has jumped to over a million today. What's more, Germany has gradually entrusted the churches with large parts of its social welfare system.
This results from a philosophy of streamlined government that encourages private organizations to acquire public assets, such as municipal utilities by international investors and hospitals and kindergartens by churches. What this policy has ignored, however, is that both financial managers and church officials pursue their own agendas rather than the objectives of the public sector.
"By turning over its responsibilities to the church, the government is accepting special rules that have their limitations in this day and age," author Eva Müller writes in her recently published book "Gott hat hohe Nebenkosten" ("God Has High Incidental Costs").
The consequences are often enormous for church employees. For instance, an employee who gets a divorce can quickly lose his or her job. And you don't have to be gay to be fired; sometimes all it takes is to express sympathetic views toward homosexuality. Couples who try artificial insemination also have no place in the church's employment.
Courts have repeatedly upheld the historical special status of religious orders. But are there no limits to the special rights the church enjoys? According to the Catholic belief, the catalogue of vices includes not only fornication and other "works of the flesh," but also envy, resentment, drunkenness, gluttony, and similar vices. If it were to be consistent, the church would also have to punish such infringements.
Between 90 and 100 percent of the funding for most of the Catholic Church's social facilities comes from the government. Nevertheless, politicians and citizens have rarely tried to exert their influence.
This changed in Königswinter, a city near Bonn in western Germany, where the director of a Catholic kindergarten was dismissed when her marriage fell apart. Local parents protested until the woman was given back her job. In fact, the Catholic Church was relieved of its position as manager of the kindergarten.
Hospitals in North Rhine-Westphalia, the state in which Bonn is located, could now be making similar threats. "If there was an official directive not to treat women who have been raped," says Barbara Steffens, the state's health minister, "it's a violation of the hospitals' duty to provide care." In an extreme case, the Green Party politician envisions the elimination of entire facilities from the hospital plan. And this would hit the churches where it hurts: in the wallet.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
In the USA...
January 25, 2013
Court Rejects Obama Move to Fill Posts
By CHARLIE SAVAGE and STEVEN GREENHOUSE
WASHINGTON — In a ruling that called into question nearly two centuries of presidential “recess” appointments that bypass the Senate confirmation process, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday that President Obama violated the Constitution when he installed three officials on the National Labor Relations Board a year ago.
The ruling was a blow to the administration and a victory for Mr. Obama’s Republican critics — and a handful of liberal ones — who had accused him of improperly asserting that he could make the appointments under his executive powers. The administration had argued that the president could decide that senators were really on a lengthy recess even though the Senate considered itself to be meeting in “pro forma” sessions.
But the court went beyond the narrow dispute over pro forma sessions and issued a far more sweeping ruling than expected. Legal specialists said its reasoning would virtually eliminate the recess appointment power for all future presidents at a time when it has become increasingly difficult to win Senate confirmation for nominees.
“If this opinion stands, I think it will fundamentally alter the balance between the Senate and the president by limiting the president’s ability to keep offices filled,” said John P. Elwood, who handled recess appointment issues for the Justice Department during the administration of President George W. Bush. “This is certainly a red-letter day in presidential appointment power.”
The Constitution, written at a time when it could take weeks for members of Congress to get to the capital, allows presidents to fill vacancies temporarily during recesses for positions that would otherwise require Senate confirmation. In recent years, as senators have frequently balked at consenting to executive appointments, that authority has served as a safety valve for presidents of both parties.
Mr. Obama has made about 32 such appointments, including that of Richard Cordray, as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. President Bill Clinton made 139, while Mr. Bush made 171, including those of John R. Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations and two appeals court judges, William H. Pryor Jr. and Charles W. Pickering Sr.
Nearly all of those appointments would be unconstitutional under the rationale of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. It ruled that presidents may bypass the confirmation process only during the sort of recess that occurs between formal sessions of Congress, a gap that generally arises just once a year and sometimes is skipped, rather than other breaks throughout the year. Two of the three judges on the panel also ruled that presidents may fill only vacancies that arise during that same recess.
Presidents have used recess appointments to fill vacancies that opened before a recess since the 1820s, and have made recess appointments during Senate breaks in the midst of sessions going back to 1867. But the three judges, all appointed by Republicans, said the original meaning of the words used in the Constitution clashed with subsequent historical practices.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said: “The decision is novel and unprecedented. It contradicts 150 years of practice by Democratic and Republican administrations. So we respectfully but strongly disagree with the ruling.” Mr. Carney did not say whether the Justice Department would appeal it.
The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by a Pepsi-Cola bottler from Washington State that challenged a National Labor Relations Board decision against the company in a labor dispute. The bottler argued, and the court agreed, that the three Obama appointments were invalid and that the five-seat board lacked a quorum to take any action.
While the ruling’s immediate impact was to invalidate the decision in the bottler’s case, it could also paralyze the agency by raising the possibility that all the board’s decisions from the past year, involving about 300 cases, could also be challenged and nullified, as well as any future ones. The decision also casts a cloud over Mr. Cordray’s appointment.
Mark G. Pearce, the N.L.R.B.’s chairman, said the board “respectfully disagrees with today’s decision and believes that the president’s position in the matter will ultimately be upheld.” He noted that similar questions about the recess appointments had been raised in more than a dozen cases pending in other courts of appeals.
Among the decisions that could be vacated are three recent rulings in which the board has assumed a powerful role in telling companies that they cannot issue blanket prohibitions on what their employees can say on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
Union officials voiced concern on Friday that if the federal court’s ruling denies the labor board a quorum, it could take years for the board to be able to act in legal disputes involving unionization drives, strikes or the firings of pro-union workers.
The current dispute can be traced back to 2007, when Democrats took control of the Senate. Hoping to block Mr. Bush from making any more unilateral appointments, they did not formally recess before going home for Thanksgiving. Instead, they held pro forma sessions, meaning a member came into the nearly empty chamber every third day and banged the gavel. The idea was that the novel tactic would legally break up the long recess into a series of short ones believed to be too brief for recess appointments.
Senate Democrats repeated the move for the rest of the Bush presidency, and Mr. Bush did not challenge it.
Under Mr. Obama, Republicans turned the tables by using the power of the House to block the Senate from adjourning for more than three days. But last January, Mr. Obama decided to challenge the new tactic by declaring the pro forma sessions a sham and appointing the three labor board members, along with Mr. Cordray.
The court rejected the Justice Department’s argument in brief but scathing language.
“An interpretation of ‘the recess’ that permits the president to decide when the Senate is in recess would demolish the checks and balances inherent in the advice-and-consent requirement, giving the president free rein to appoint his desired nominees at any time he pleases, whether that time be a weekend, lunch, or even when the Senate is in session and he is merely displeased with its inaction,” wrote Judge David B. Sentelle. “This cannot be the law.”
Republicans, who have portrayed Mr. Obama’s four appointments as a power grab, quickly celebrated the outcome. The Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, said the ruling “reaffirmed that the Constitution is not an inconvenience but the law of the land.”
Mr. Elwood, the former Bush administration lawyer, said the reasoning could also disrupt other seemingly settled actions, like cases reviewed by appeals courts in which a judge had received such an appointment.
“You know there are people sitting in prisons around the country who will become very excited when they learn of this ruling,” he said.
Charlie Savage reported from Washington, and Steven Greenhouse from New York.
Virginia Republican senators to kill electoral college change
By Stephen C. Webster
Friday, January 25, 2013 15:53 EST
A plan to alter the winner-takes-all Electoral College rules in the state of Virginia is on the chopping block after two Republican state senators on a key committee said they would oppose it, according to The Associated Press.
The proposed remake would have changed how electoral votes are tabulated by anchoring them to congressional districts, which are largely drawn to favor incumbents — the majority being Republicans, even though Democrats won the House popular vote in 2012.
Had the bill been passed ahead of last year’s presidential election, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney would have been declared winner in Virginia even though President Barack Obama won the popular vote by hundreds of thousands of actual voters.
Similar bills are being considered in the key swing states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, AP noted, and RNC Chairman Reince Priebus is encouraging state lawmakers to take up the cause.
Dems hope generational shift will turn Texas blue and shut GOP out of White House
By Stephen C. Webster
Friday, January 25, 2013 11:26 EST
The Texas Democratic Party truly believes that an electoral coup in the state, led by Latinos, would deny conservatives access to the White House for a generation or more — potentially forever, a spokesperson told Raw Story this week.
For future presidential contests, the Republican Party’s plans significantly hinge upon keeping Texas the deepest shade of red on the map, but Democrats are feeling confident fresh off their fifth popular vote victory in the last six presidential elections. That’s got Republican leadership looking to polish their images with immigrant communities, a daunting task given their recent history. Members of the Washington-based conservative group The Ripon Society watched that chill creep up House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) spine on Wednesday as he warned that the president intends to “just shove us into the dustbin of history.”
Knowing their opponents’ potential soft spot, the president’s top political strategists appear to be taking the old Sun Tzu idiom to heart — “The best defense is a good offense” — and now a big part of Obama’s campaign infrastructure is being sent to Texas with the express mission of turning the state’s politic on its head.
“What it means for Texas right now is that the nation is aware of the great promise of turning Texas blue,” Tanene Allison, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party, told Raw Story. “We’re the next or last great swing state, and once Texas becomes a swing state and turns blue, it’s almost impossible for a Republican to ever win the White House again. So, this is a fundamental game changer.”
There are two keys to this game changing coup, she explained: Latinos and infrastructure. According to the Pew Research Hispanic Center, the Latino voting bloc “is likely to double in size within a generation.” That bloc made up a full 10 percent of the U.S. electorate in 2012 for the first time ever, and supported Obama by a 3-1 ratio.
Almost nowhere in the nation is that trend more obvious than Texas, state Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa told Raw Story on Election Day. The Census Bureau reported in 2011 that Latinos make up more than 38 percent of the state’s 26 million-plus citizens, and they are the fastest-growing group, meaning it’s just a matter of time before white conservatives become minorities.
“If you take Latinos and you add them with the African-American and Asian-American population, we’re a majority minority state,” Hinojosa said. “We’re the only majority minority state in the union that doesn’t have an elected official that’s a Democrat statewide. The only reason that’s the case is dismal turnout in the Hispanic community for the last several years.”
That’s where Obama’s campaign infrastructure comes in. “Demographics are not destiny, they are opportunity,” Allison said. “What we have is voters in a democracy that is not reflected accurately. Our representation does not match what Texas actually is, so we need to get out the vote so that we have a democracy that matches the demographics of our state.”
Jeremy Bird, national field director of Obama’s re-election campaign, is headed to the state to support that effort, and he’s bringing with him millions of dollars, according to Politico. The result will be an outside organization called “Battleground Texas,” aimed at changing the guard in Texas politics.
“Republican leadership in Texas has been controlled by the tea party for a long time, so they’re to the far, far, far extreme right, which gives more room to create a coalition of people who want to focus on things like education, healthcare and creating jobs, which is the Democratic Party platform,” A!llison said.
“It’s just a question of creating the infrastructure throughout the state to get out the vote, and that’s what’s so great that so many people are coming in and so much resources are in Texas now, so we can start building this infrastructure,” she added. “I think in 2014 we’re going to be considered a swing state to some degree, and by 2016 we’re going to be considered fully in play. [Candidates] in the presidential race in 2016 are going to have to compete for Texas by that point.”
January 25, 2013
Obama and Senators to Push for an Immigration Overhaul
By ASHLEY PARKER
WASHINGTON — President Obama and a bipartisan group of senators will begin separate but simultaneous efforts next week to build support for an overhaul of immigration laws, an effort that had long stalled in Washington but was pushed to the forefront again during the 2012 presidential campaign.
The group of at least six senators with a long-held interest in immigration issues is preparing to release a detailed set of principles next Friday, laying the legislative foundation for what they hope will become a comprehensive immigration bill. Their initiative coincides with a similar push by the White House. On Friday, the president met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, calling the issue “a top legislative priority,” and on Tuesday he is set to give an immigration-focused speech in Nevada, where Hispanic voters are growing in numbers.
The Senate proposal will probably include four main elements: border enforcement, employer enforcement, handling the future flow of legal immigration (including temporary agriculture workers and high-skilled engineers) and a pathway to citizenship for those who entered the nation illegally. Mr. Obama’s approach will largely echo his 2011 immigration “blueprint,” which he first outlined in a speech in El Paso, and calls for a pathway to citizenship for the more than 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country.
Though all members of the Senate group agree that some pathway to legal residency must be a part of the final proposal, they are still divided on what exactly that route should be. Republican lawmakers are urging that border security be tied to a pathway to citizenship and other requirements like having those who entered illegally go to the back of the line behind immigrants already waiting to enter the country legally, paying fines and back-taxes, and learning English.
“You’ve got border security, you’ve got employer verification and you’ve got a temporary worker program that addresses the magnet, so those three things have to go together to address operational control over your border,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, one of the senators mapping out the legislation. “Then you go to the next big thing — the 12 million. How do you deal with the 12 million in a firm, fair way, realizing you can’t put them all in jail and they’re not all going to self-deport?”
The bipartisan group, which has been meeting regularly since the November election, includes Mr. Graham, the Democratic Senators Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Charles E. Schumer of New York, and the Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida. Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado, and the Republican Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Mike Lee of Utah have also taken part in the discussions.
“It’s going far better than any of us expected,” Mr. Schumer said in an interview. “On both sides, there is a spirit that everyone is going to have to meet somewhere in the middle, and we’re very close to coming out with a detailed list of principles.”
Aides said that the group hoped to have legislation ready by the end of March and was aiming for a vote in the Senate before the August recess. Though Republicans talked about handling immigration reform in steps, the senators are aiming for a comprehensive bill.
Mr. Rubio, who has been publicly promoting his own set of principles, was approached by the group in December, said a Republican close to the senator. However, it was unclear until recently whether he would join the bipartisan team or offer his own proposal.
In 2010, Mr. Graham and Mr. Schumer outlined a framework for overhauling immigration in a Washington Post op-ed. Their proposal similarly called for four central elements and “a tough but fair path to legalization for those already here,” but it did not advance. It is now being used as a starting point for the group’s efforts.
The 2012 election, in which Mr. Obama beat Mitt Romney with the help of 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, has also proved a galvanizing force for Republicans. “Because of the mood of the country that it’s time to move forward on this issue, it’s different than it was some years ago,” Mr. McCain said. “The election results always have an effect on that.”
Both Democratic and Republican advocates for immigration changes are hoping that the White House will delay releasing any specific plan of its own to allow a bipartisan bill to emerge from the Senate. While Republicans have previously called upon Mr. Obama to take the lead, they say the timing, now that compromise in the Senate is under way, is inauspicious.
January 24, 2013
Deficit Hawks Down
By PAUL KRUGMAN
President Obama’s second Inaugural Address offered a lot for progressives to like. There was the spirited defense of gay rights; there was the equally spirited defense of the role of government, and, in particular, of the safety net provided by Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. But arguably the most encouraging thing of all was what he didn’t say: He barely mentioned the budget deficit.
Mr. Obama’s clearly deliberate neglect of Washington’s favorite obsession was just the latest sign that the self-styled deficit hawks — better described as deficit scolds — are losing their hold over political discourse. And that’s a very good thing.
Why have the deficit scolds lost their grip? I’d suggest four interrelated reasons.
First, they have cried wolf too many times. They’ve spent three years warning of imminent crisis — if we don’t slash the deficit now now now, we’ll turn into Greece, Greece, I tell you. It is, for example, almost two years since Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles declared that we should expect a fiscal crisis within, um, two years.
But that crisis keeps not happening. The still-depressed economy has kept interest rates at near-record lows despite large government borrowing, just as Keynesian economists predicted all along. So the credibility of the scolds has taken an understandable, and well-deserved, hit.
Second, both deficits and public spending as a share of G.D.P. have started to decline — again, just as those who never bought into the deficit hysteria predicted all along.
The truth is that the budget deficits of the past four years were mainly a temporary consequence of the financial crisis, which sent the economy into a tailspin — and which, therefore, led both to low tax receipts and to a rise in unemployment benefits and other government expenses. It should have been obvious that the deficit would come down as the economy recovered. But this point was hard to get across until deficit reduction started appearing in the data.
Now it has — and reasonable forecasts, like those of Jan Hatzius of Goldman Sachs, suggest that the federal deficit will be below 3 percent of G.D.P., a not very scary number, by 2015.
And it was, in fact, a good thing that the deficit was allowed to rise as the economy slumped. With private spending plunging as the housing bubble popped and cash-strapped families cut back, the willingness of the government to keep spending was one of the main reasons we didn’t experience a full replay of the Great Depression. Which brings me to the third reason the deficit scolds have lost influence: the contrary doctrine, the claim that we need to practice fiscal austerity even in a depressed economy, has failed decisively in practice.
Consider, in particular, the case of Britain. In 2010, when the new government of Prime Minister David Cameron turned to austerity policies, it received fulsome praise from many people on this side of the Atlantic. For example, the late David Broder urged President Obama to “do a Cameron”; he particularly commended Mr. Cameron for “brushing aside the warnings of economists that the sudden, severe medicine could cut short Britain’s economic recovery and throw the nation back into recession.”
Sure enough, the sudden, severe medicine cut short Britain’s economic recovery, and threw the nation back into recession.
At this point, then, it’s clear that the deficit-scold movement was based on bad economic analysis. But that’s not all: there was also clearly a lot of bad faith involved, as the scolds tried to exploit an economic (not fiscal) crisis on behalf of a political agenda that had nothing to do with deficits. And the growing transparency of that agenda is the fourth reason the deficit scolds have lost their clout.
What was it that finally pulled back the curtain here? Was it the way the election campaign revealed Representative Paul Ryan, who received a “fiscal responsibility” award from three leading deficit-scold organizations, as the con man he always was? Was it the decision of David Walker, alleged crusader for sound budgets, to endorse Mitt Romney and his budget-busting tax cuts for the rich? Or was it the brazenness of groups like Fix the Debt — basically corporate C.E.O.’s declaring that you should be forced to delay your retirement while they get to pay lower taxes?
The answer probably is, all of the above. In any case, an era has ended. Prominent deficit scolds can no longer count on being treated as if their wisdom, probity and public-spiritedness were beyond question. But what difference will that make?
Sad to say, G.O.P. control of the House means that we won’t do what we should be doing: spend more, not less, until the recovery is complete. But the fading of deficit hysteria means that the president can turn his focus to real problems. And that’s a move in the right direction.
January 25, 2013
Obama Reaches Out, but Not Very Far, to Build New Team
By PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON — As he heads into a second term with sweeping ambition in an era of gridlock, President Obama is assembling a new White House team that looks much like the old one, choosing familiarity over freshness even at the risk of insularity.
Mr. Obama installed his longtime aide Denis R. McDonough on Friday as his fifth White House chief of staff and announced a host of other selections that suggested more stirring than shaking up his West Wing. Of 10 appointees named on Friday, all came from inside the administration or re-election campaign.
While aides played musical chairs, moving up and moving around to new positions, the overall continuity suggested that Mr. Obama felt no need to inject new energy into a team that brought him through re-election last year. Buffeted by one crisis after another, the president prefers to stick with the circle of advisers he has come to trust through four tumultuous years in office, wary of introducing new personalities after some unsuccessful experiments in his first term.
Outside the White House itself, the president’s cabinet selections have so far been a mix of administration veterans and new faces, although even there the outsiders have generally been close allies, like Senator John Kerry at the State Department. Appointments to come may bring more people from outside Mr. Obama’s orbit, including a new budget director. But Friday’s announcements made it clear that most of the faces Mr. Obama will see each day will be well known to him.
With stability comes some danger, a fact that Mr. Obama’s advisers said they recognized.
Veterans of his administration and its predecessors said one of the biggest concerns for a second-term president is listening to the same people so much that contrary voices from the outside are too easily dismissed. Moreover, the bone-crushing, 14-hour-plus days and six- or seven-day weeks wear down even the hardiest White House officials and, over time, can erode judgment.
Advisers to Mr. Obama said they hoped to avoid such pitfalls. “Our staffing, our cabinet selections, are not done, so I think you’ve got to wait for the full picture to evaluate,” said David Plouffe, the president’s departing senior adviser, whose last day on the job was Friday. “But this core White House team, I think, is going to be extraordinarily strong and cohesive.”
Mr. Plouffe and other Democrats said that moving veterans to new positions by itself would have a rejuvenating effect without the mistakes that invariably come from on-the-job training required of inexperienced newcomers.
“Working in the White House is like landing on an alien planet,” said Joel P. Johnson, who was brought in as a counselor to President Bill Clinton in his second term. “You just can’t bring somebody from the business community or private sector or a think tank and be assured they’re going to function at the level required in that kind of environment.”
To lead his second-term team, Mr. Obama turned to one of his closest advisers, Mr. McDonough, the latest to hold the corner office after Rahm Emanuel, Pete Rouse (as an interim chief), William M. Daley and Jacob J. Lew, who is leaving to become Treasury secretary if confirmed by the Senate.
Mr. McDonough, 43, has wielded influence that belied his title as principal deputy national security adviser. When he advocated a position, other officials understood that he was almost certainly channeling Mr. Obama, and no one is a fiercer defender of the president. Mr. McDonough has at times left bruised feelings elsewhere in the administration, particularly in the Pentagon and the State Department, where he is viewed by some as a brusque enforcer. But he is popular within the West Wing, where his loyalty and work ethic are highly valued.
The president called Mr. McDonough “one of my closest friends” and an “indispensable member of my national security team” who was central to every major foreign policy decision of the past four years, including the troop withdrawal from Iraq, the response to the earthquake in Haiti and the lifting of limits on service in the military by openly gay people.
“I have been counting on Denis for nearly a decade,” Mr. Obama said. “I relied on his intellect and good judgment, and that has continued ever since.”
Mr. McDonough’s ascension was greeted by warm applause from colleagues in the East Room on Friday, and the president poked fun at his round-the-clock work habits. “I actually began to think Denis likes pulling all-nighters,” he said. “The truth is nobody outworks Denis McDonough.”
Succeeding him will be Antony Blinken, the national security adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Lisa Monaco, the assistant attorney general for national security, will move to the White House to succeed John O. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, who will take over as director of the Central Intelligence Agency if confirmed by the Senate. Ms. Monaco’s appointment makes her one of the most prominent women in a male-dominated national security team.
Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director and another early Obama aide, will succeed Mr. Plouffe as senior adviser. His deputy will be David Simas, a former White House aide who headed polling and focus-group research for the re-election campaign. Succeeding Mr. Pfeiffer as communications director will be his deputy, Jennifer Palmieri, a veteran of the Clinton White House.
Moving up to deputy chief of staff, succeeding Nancy-Ann DeParle, who is leaving, will be Rob Nabors, currently the president’s legislative affairs chief. Succeeding Mr. Nabors will be Miguel Rodriguez, the Senate liaison for the White House.
Christopher P. Lu, another longtime Obama aide serving as White House cabinet secretary, the liaison to government departments, is leaving. Succeeding him will be Danielle Gray, deputy director of the White House National Economic Council. Katy Kale will become the president’s assistant for management and administration, moving up from deputy.
Mr. Lu’s departure underscored Mr. Obama’s determination to keep people he already knows around him. The president issued a statement praising Mr. Lu and making it clear that he was lobbying him to come back in another capacity. “After he enjoys some time off,” Mr. Obama said, “I hope he will consider those opportunities.”
Jackie Calmes contributed reporting.
French and Malian forces approach Timbuktu
Troops are said to be pressing towards key city in northern Mali after seizing Gao from al-Qaida-linked Islamists
Luke Harding in Sévaré and Kim Willsher in Paris and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 27 January 2013 12.24 GMT
French and Malian troops have held a strategic bridge and the airport in the northern town of Gao as their force presses towards Timbuktu, officials say.
The advances come as French and African land forces also make their way to Gao from neighbouring Niger in an effort to defeat the al-Qaida-linked Islamists who seized control of northern Mali more than nine months ago.
The French military announced late on Saturday it had liberated Gao, though other officials said the fight to control the area was in progress. Lieutenant Colonel Diarran Kone, a spokesman for Mali's defence minister, said on Sunday the forces were patrolling the town and had maintained their hold over the bridge and airport overnight.
The advance marked the biggest achievement for the French and Malian troops since they began their operation to oust the Islamist radicals two weeks ago.
About 600 French-led troops were said to be on their way to Timbuktu on the southern edge of the Sahara, where several Europeans have been taken hostage. French forces are reported to have captured Léré, on the road to the desert city. It remains unclear what kind of resistance the forces in Gao will face in the coming days.
The French defence ministry said Malian reinforcements and troops from Chad and Niger had flown in to secure Gao and the surrounding area.
Gao airport is about 3.7 miles (6km) east of the town. The bridge over the Niger river is at the southern entrance to Gao, one of the three main towns in northern Mali, and some 750 miles (1,200km) from the capital, Bamako. The Islamist positions in the town, described by officials in Paris as the "training camps, infrastructure and logistic bases for the terrorist groups", have been targeted by French air strikes.
This area of northern Mali, including the key towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, has been under the control of Islamic fundamentalists since it was overrun by an alliance of Tuareg rebels and Islamists last April.
All communication with Timbuktu has been cut off, but local sources said the town was almost deserted as the rebels fled to villages and mountain areas further north while the French intervention force advanced.
Residents in Sévaré, on the road to Gao, said on Saturday they had been delighted to see the French troops. "Gao is a big city. We think the rebellion is finished," said Bah Mamadoo. "This has all been made possible by the French intervention. They are helping us and our army."
As the French and Malian soldiers advanced, one Islamist group said it was prepared to "negotiate the liberation" of a French hostage, Gilberto Rodriguez Leal, who has been held since he was kidnapped in the west of Mali in November.
A column of soldiers and tanks from Chad, based in Niger, left the capital, Niamey, on Saturday for the Mali border, where a contingent of Nigerian troops is camped. Both forces are under orders to head for Gao, less than three hours from the border.
When Islamists seized a large area of northern Mali last year, they imposed strict sharia law on residents. France took a surprise decision to carry out air strikes and send troops to the west African state after the Islamists began to move south towards Bamako just over two weeks ago.
A United Nations-backed force, made up mostly of west African troops, had not been expected to be deployed in the country until autumn. Paris has said it expects African nations to "pick up the baton" and send troops to Mali. Several countries have pledged military aid and soldiers to help wrest back control of the north.
The African Union asked the UN security council to authorise logistical help to permit the 6,000-strong international force to be deployed quickly.
The UN refugee agency says more than 7,000 civilians have fled the fighting into neighbouring countries.
Algiers: a city where France is the promised land – and still the enemy
Andrew Hussey believes the only way to makes sense of the problems Algeria faces today is to look back into its colonial history. He takes a journey through 21st-century Algiers – into a dark past
The Observer, Sunday 27 January 2013
During the past few weeks, the terrible violence in Mali and Algeria has shocked the world. The events have also reminded us how much of Africa is still French-speaking and how deep French influence still runs in those territories. More than this, the conflicts have reminded everybody else that the French still regard this part of their world as their backyard
The long French involvement in African affairs, from Rwanda to north Africa, has also been marked by bloody massacres and torture. This is especially true of Algeria, the largest country in Africa, first conquered by the French nearly 200 years ago. Algeria gained its independence in 1962, after a hard-fought war against France, notable for the use of terrorist tactics and torture on both sides. Poverty and terrorism are still ever-present in Algerian life. At the same time, as the focus of the Arab Spring shifts to north Africa, it is also shifting nearer to France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe.
It's hardly surprising, then, that the French are becoming increasingly sensitive to changing moods in the Muslim world and especially Algeria. Indeed, this is not the first time that events in north Africa have threatened to spill over into France. In the 90s, when Algeria became a slaughterhouse and tens of thousands were killed in the dirty war between the government and Islamist insurgents, Paris was the chief target of Algerian extremists. In 1995, Abdelbaki Sahraoui, a moderate imam, was gunned down in northern Paris by the terrorist Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA). His death was followed by a swift succession of bombings on civilian targets in Paris that left eight dead and more than 100 wounded.
More recently, France was convulsed by a series of murders over nine days last March including three French soldiers of north African descent killed in two separate shootings, and a rabbi, his two young sons and a third child in an attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse. The rage only intensified when it became known that the killer was Mohamed Merah, a young French citizen of Algerian origin. Before Merah was shot dead in an armed police siege of the block of flats where he lived, he declared that he wanted to "bring France to its knees".
Many ordinary Algerians wanted to pass the affair off as an internal French matter and did not want to be contaminated by association. There was much loud anger in the Algerian press about the way in which the murders were linked to Merah's Algerian origins: this was pure racism for many. But none of this stopped Merah becoming a hero, praised as "lion", in the radical mosques of Algiers. Fifty years on from their last real war, it seems that France and Algeria are still quite capable of tearing each other's throats out.
I first saw for myself the rawness of these emotions when I went to study in France in 1982. I ended up living on the outskirts of Lyon, which is where the first so-called urban riots kicked off – the precursors of the riots of the 2000s. Throughout that summer – the "hot summer" – cars were regularly set alight by immigrant youths who called this kind of entertainment "rodeos" and who declared war on the police. The centre of the violence was the cité (housing estate) in Vénissieux called Les Minguettes.
At the time, I knew little about French colonial history and assumed that these were race riots not much different to those we had known in the UK in 1981. But I was aware that most of the kids who were fighting the police were of Algerian origin and that this must have some kind of significance.
Thirty years on, the unresolved business between France and Algeria has grown ever more complex. That is why last year I launched a Centre for the Study of France and North Africa (CSFNA) at the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP) where I am dean. The overall aim of the centre is to function as a thinktank, bringing together not just academics but all those who have a stake in understanding the complexities of Franco-Algerian history; this necessarily involves journalists, lawyers and government as well as historians.
At the same time, I am writing a book called The French Intifada, which is a parallel attempt to make sense of French colonial history in north Africa. This book is a tour around some of the most important and dangerous frontlines of what many historians now call the fourth world war. This war is not a conflict between Islam and the west or the rich north and the globalised south, but a conflict between two very different experiences of the world – the colonisers and the colonised.
The French invaded Algeria in 1830. This was the first colonisation of an Arab country since the days of the Crusades and it came as a great shock to the Arab nation. This first battle for Algiers was a staged affair. Pleasure ships sailed from Marseille to watch the bombardment and the beach landings. The Arab corpses that lay strewn in the streets and along the coastline were no more than incidental colour to the Parisian spectator watching the slaughter through opera glasses from the deck of his cruise ship.
The trauma deepened as, within a few short decades, Algeria was not given the status of a colony but annexed into France. This meant that the country had no claim to any independent identity whatsoever, but was as subservient to Parisian government as Burgundy or Alsace-Lorraine. This had a deeply damaging effect on the Algerian psyche. The settlers who came to work in Algeria from the European mainland were known as pieds-noirs – black feet – because, unlike the Muslim population, they wore shoes. The pieds noirs cultivated a different identity from that of mainland Frenchmen.
Meanwhile, Muslim villages were destroyed and whole populations forced to move to accommodate European farms and industry. As the pieds-noirs grew in number and status, the native Algerians, who had no nationality under French law, did not officially exist. Albert Camus captures this non-identity beautifully in his great novel L'Etranger (The Outsider): when the hero Meursault shoots dead the anonymous Arab on an Algiers beach, we are only concerned with Meursault's fate. The dead Arab lies literally outside history.
Like most Europeans or Americans of my generation, I had first come across Algiers and Algeria in Camus's writings, not just in L'Etranger but also his memoirs and essays. And like most readers who approach Algeria through the prism of Camus, I was puzzled by this place, which, as he described it, was so French that it might have been in France but was also so foreign and out of reach.
Part of this difficulty arises from the fact that the Algeria Camus describes is only partly a Muslim country. Instead, Camus sees Algeria as an idealised pan-Mediterranean civilisation. In his autobiographical writings on Algiers and on the Roman ruins at Tipasa, he describes a pagan place where classical values were still alive and visible in the harsh but beautiful, sun-drenched landscape. This, indeed, is the key to Camus's philosophy of the absurd. In his Algeria, God does not exist and life is an endless series of moral choices that must be decided by individuals on their own, with no metaphysical comfort or advice, and with little or no possibility of knowing they ever made the absolutely correct choice.
It is easy to see here how Camus's philosophy appealed to the generation of French leftist intellectuals that fought in the second world war, a period when occupied France was shrouded in moral ambiguity as well as in the military grip of the Germans. It was less effective, however, in the postwar period, as Algerian nationalism began to assert itself against France, modelling itself on the values of the French Resistance.
Camus was sympathetic to the cause of Muslim rights. However, like most European algériens on the left, Camus spoke no Arabic and had little patience with religion, including Islam. Most importantly, throughout the 1950s, as violence between the French authorities and Algerian nationalists intensified, Camus found himself endlessly compromised. His intentions were always noble but by the time of his death in a car crash in 1960 he had acknowledged that he no longer recognised the country of his birth.
During the 90s, it became all but impossible to visit Algeria. Reading Camus as a way in to this Algeria was simply a waste of time. This was a country dominated by terror as the hardline government fought a shadowy civil war against Islamist insurgents who sought to turn Algeria into "Iran on the Mediterranean".
Algerian Muslims were regularly massacred by Islamist and other unknown forces. Foreigners were declared enemies by the Islamists, targeted for execution. The government could not be trusted either. The only non-Algerians who braved the country were hardened war reporters such as Robert Fisk, who described disguising his European face with a newspaper when travelling by car in Algiers and staying no more than four minutes in a street or a shop – the minimum time, he decided, for kidnappers to spot a European. In Algiers in the mid-90s, in this formerly most cosmopolitan of cities, an hour or so's flight from the French mainland, for Algerians and Europeans kidnap and murder were only ever a matter of minutes away.
Andrew Hussey at a north African cafe in Paris Andrew Hussey, centre, at a north African cafe in the Parisian district of Barbes. Photograph: Franck Ferville for the Observer
When I finally arrived in Algiers for the first time in 2009, the city I found was not like this. The ceasefire and amnesty had been in place for several years, although as recently as 2007 there had been a wave of deadly bombings and assassinations. But although you no longer had to hide your status as a European, the city was still tense. On the drive from the airport, I passed no fewer than six police or military checkpoints, all manned by heavily armed men. It was getting dark and Algiers was emptying out for the night. During the long nightmare of the 1990s, nobody had dared to be out of doors after dark and the habit remained.
As we drove against the rush-hour traffic towards my hotel in the centre, you could see that, along with Marseilles, Naples, Barcelona or Beirut, this was one of the great Mediterranean cities; in the dusk, I could still make out the pine forests of the surrounding hills and the magnificent dark-blue sweep of the bay. Unlike any of her sister cities, however, with maybe the exception of Gaza, Algiers went into lockdown at the first shadows of evening.
Over the next few days, I crawled all over the city, walking the boulevards, climbing steep streets and staring out at the sea from the heights. I spoke to everyone I could – teachers, shopkeepers, students, journalists, political activists. They were all remarkably frank, breathless and impatient to tell their stories to an outsider. Their suffering during the years of Islamist terror had been incalculable. An elegant university lecturer, a specialist in Marxism and feminism, told me how she went every day to classes at the university, driving past the headless corpses that were regularly pinned to the gates of the institute. A journalist recalled for me the vicious paranoia of everyday life in Algiers in the 90s, and how, as he walked down the street, bearded young men he did not know would hiss at him and make a throat-slitting gesture.
A young female student who had grown up in the "triangle of death" – the villages and suburbs controlled by terrorists just outside Algiers – recounted a childhood memory of washing other people's blood off her feet, having waded through the muddy streets of her village after a massacre. She delivered these facts in a cold, steady voice, obviously distancing herself from the nightmare for the sake of self-preservation.
Despite the horror stories, my exhilaration at first overcame fear. I had waited a long time to be here. In the past two decades, I had worked and travelled extensively in the sister countries of Morocco and Tunisia. All the time, I had been dreaming of visiting Algeria, of seeing Algiers, the capital of French north Africa.
Most of all, I wanted to see the Casbah – the old Ottoman city that runs from the hills of Algiers down to the sea. These days, the Casbah is a rotting slum. Its narrow and ancient streets stink of sewage. There are gaping holes left by unfinished renovation projects or by unloved houses that have shattered and collapsed from neglect. Many of the inhabitants mutter that the authorities would like to see the complete destruction of the Casbah, which they see as a haven for criminals and terrorists. There is talk, too, of property speculators who want to build hotels and shops on prime real estate. Still, this is the most iconic and historically significant space in north Africa.
Walking down through Algiers from the Casbah is an eerie experience. This is not because of the usual cliches about Arab or Ottoman cities – that they are "timeless", "medieval" and so on. These are meaningless European notions of chronology, urban order and modernity grafted on to the living reality of 21st-century Muslim life. Rather, the sense of the uncanny you meet during a first trip to Algiers is classically Freudian: it is the dream-like sense that, without knowing it, you have already been here before. This is partly because of the myriad films, books and paintings about and of the city that have made Algiers probably the most known unvisited capital in the world. It is also because walking through Algiers is like walking through the wreckage of a recently abandoned civilisation, whose citizens have only just departed in a hurry, leaving behind them their most personal possessions which you immediately recognise.
As you step down to the packed streets leading towards Place des Martyrs, the ruins of the French city begin to reveal themselves. As you go down past the Turkish-style mosque and the city widens towards the sea, the arcades, passages and the streets are constructed with the geometric precision to be found in any French town. The centre of gravity of the French city was here, between the rue d'Isly (now rue Larbi Ben M'hidi) and rue Michelet (now rue Didouche Mourad).
The streets may now be named after heroes of the war against France, but Algiers here is as purely French as Paris, Lyon or Bordeaux. This much is revealed in the details of the street – the street signs, the lamps, the carefully constructed squares, the blue-shuttered balconies, the old tram tracks and the cobbled paving stones. At the dead centre of the city is the Jardin de l'horloge, a compact garden terrace that looks out directly on to the harbour, and where the monument to the French dead who gave their lives for "Algérie Française" has been covered up. As in Venice or down by the port in Marseilles, passing ships seem so near that you feel you could walk on to them.
This is the cityscape that is lodged deep in French cultural memory, persisting in paintings, books and films as the emblem of the city. One of the enduring images of this part of Algiers appears in the final part of the 1937 movie Pépé le Moko. This tells the story of Pépé, a Parisian gangster played by Jean Gabin, who is on the run from the Parisian police and holed up in the Casbah. Pépé falls in love with Gaby, a young Parisian tourist, who evokes in him a longing for the Paris he has abandoned for his imprisonment in the Casbah.
In the final scene of the film, he risks capture by the police by leaving the Casbah and running down to the French city and the port, down to the ship where Gaby has embarked to return to France. He is arrested and led away. In a final gesture of love for Gaby (and the Paris she represents), he calls out to her, pushing against the steel gates that he cannot pass. As Pépé calls out to his lover, she cannot hear him. In frustration, Pépé takes out a pocket knife and stabs himself in the heart. The scene closes with a shot of Pépé's corpse stretched on the gates that have kept him in Algeria and cut him off from the ship that we then see bound for France. The drama of this moment is heightened all the more as it is clearly set against the backdrop of the French city and the Casbah – two worlds forever locked in mutual antagonism.
On my latest trip to Algiers, I climbed for the first time the hill to Notre Dame d'Afrique. This church is visible practically everywhere in Algiers, but on all my journeys to the city I had never got round to visiting it. During the 90s, there was a permanent police presence here and the priests were under 24-hour protection. When I got there, I found the atmosphere relatively relaxed. It was a sunny day and the esplanade around the church was thronged with families, picnicking, enjoying the views (which are some of the best in Algiers), kids playing football. The terrace overlooks the district of Bologhine, which contains the football stadium and the Christian and Jewish cemetery. The seafront houses look like a small town from Brittany or Normandy that has been grafted on to a Mediterranean vista.
Inside the church, a handful of elderly pieds-noirs were at prayer. I chatted to a few, who told me that this was still their home and that they prayed for peace, which they hoped for but never expected to see. Over the altar is the rubric "Pray for us and the Muslims".
Outside in the sunshine, I chatted to the families and children at play. I asked them if they had ever been inside the church. I asked one kid, about 10 years old, wearing a Chelsea shirt and kicking a ball, if he knew what the building was. "Eh bien oui," he said in perfectly accented Mediterranean French that could have come from Marseille, "ça c'est la mosquée des Roumis. Mais il n'y a plus de Roumis." Oh yeah – that's the mosque of the Romans. But there ain't no more Romans.
In Algiers in the 21st century, the French may have left but France is still the enemy. It also represents the promised land. By day, the streets of downtown Algiers are thronged with unemployed young men who dream of France but have no chance of getting the visas they need to get there. The visits by President Chirac in 2003, then Sarkozy in 2007, and, most recently, François Hollande at the end of last year have all been met by crowds chanting: "Give us our visas!"
The Algerians who have made it in France can find the atmosphere strange and unfriendly when they come back. Sinik, a rapper in Seine-Saint-Denis, came over and swore that he would never come again: he was met by heckling crowds and general indifference. For a whole generation, so-called democracy has made Algeria feel like a prison. They don't need to be taunted by those who have escaped.
No one really knows exactly when the last "war for liberation" ended. All everyone knows is that the rate of killing has slowed down but nobody feels free. The tension hangs in the air, waiting to be transformed again into an electric storm.
Even in Assad's coastal retreat, the war has come and the bombs are dropping
Bands of rebels, pursued by Syrian air power, are consolidating their position in mountains above the wealthy playground of Latakia – which may become the regime's last redoubt
The Observer, Sunday 27 January 2013
Local people describe it as a distant growl, an ever-present rumble, just to the north. A reminder that war is now at their doorstep.
It has been this way for two months in Latakia. The port city had managed to ride out Syria's civil war, seemingly content in the knowledge that whatever was happening in Hama to the south-east, or Idlib a little further north, an army stood between its gates and its foes. Not any more.
The spectre of war is now a reality here in the staunch core of the regime heartland, as much as it is in the rebellious and ravaged Sunni cities to the east. The shells that crunch most hours into the nearby countryside have not yet arrived. But the fear that pervades the communities on the fringes of Latakia is now spreading around the city known throughout the country as the government's stronghold, and possibly its last redoubt.
"We are afraid, very, very afraid," said Loubna, a final-year university student and resident of the city. "For so long the regime has been saying we will be safe here. That nothing will happen to us. Nothing can happen to us. But people are leaving, people are dying. Death is so near."
Location of Latakia, Syria Location of Latakia, Syria. Credit: Observer graphics
As the insurgency has blazed into nearly every corner of Syria, Latakia has stood resolute as a distant and almost unobtainable target, protected by some of the Syrian military's most formidable forces and diehard militias. Business still ticks over. With the engine room of the country's ecomomy – Aleppo – having ground to a halt, Latakia has stepped partly into the breach, all the while remaining the playground of Syria's wealthy elite and a refuge for its establishment.
President Bashar al-Assad has a palace on the coast and many of his generals keep villas here. Members of Syria's fractured opposition, as well as western states calling for Assad to be ousted, often claim that Latakia will be a last redoubt for key regime figures and the Alawite sect, from which much of Syria's power base is drawn.
Over the past two months, the influx of Alawites from the increasingly besieged villages to the north is slowly transforming the city into just such a sanctuary.
"The wolves are at the door," said an Alawite refugee in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. "Even Qardaha is not safe any more."
Qardaha is the ancestral home of the Assad family. It is where the late dictator and architect of Syria's uncompromising social and military doctrine, Hafez al-Assad, is buried, in an immaculately kept shrine maintained by an honour guard. It was never supposed to be under threat of attack.
But 12km to the north, in the mountains of Jebel al-Krud, a giant plateau that soars above Latakia and Tartous to the south, rebel groups now have Qardaha in their sites.
The frontline of the war for the cultural plain, and regime's heart, is several kilometres below them. Warplanes swarm here like mosquitoes. After dark, it is the helicopters' turn to roam above the ink-black plateau, the distant whump of their rotor blades a harbinger of the spine-chilling terror that inevitably follows, in the form of large barrels of explosives pushed from their open doors.
"We can tell when they're falling now," said a young, almost nonchalant rebel who had returned from the frontline that carves jaggedly between lush green undergrowth and the crumbling remains of a grey concrete village. "They are bombing Salma [a frontline village] at the moment, because they think that the battle for Qardaha will be launched from there. We're more interested in Latakia."
So, too, are jihadist groups, first among them the al-Qaida-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra, who are now congregating around 20km north of Latakia and making plans to advance. "There are around 300-400 of them," said a rebel commander in the hills not far away. "They have their eyes on the gold and jewellery stores. They are more interested in here than in Idlib, or Aleppo."
Not all those under fire are seeking refuge in Latakia. Some families, the few that remain in the battleground villages of Jebel al-Krud, are trying to make their way north to Turkey. In one such village, the custodian of the town's Orthodox church offered the Observer a tour of the ancient stone building that she so clearly cherished.
There was little in the way of an oral history, though. She slowly made her way to the centre of the church and, before she had spoken a word, broke down in tears of unrestrained grief. A Muslim neighbour offered her an arm of comfort, but her tears would not stop. Later, she said that her face had recently appeared on a US television network and that she could no longer travel to Latakia without fear of persecution. Falling foul of the regime is a constant dread among those on the move, and especially for those who stay behind.
Abu Yousef and his two sons have chosen to remain in their mixed Sunni-Christian village. They are one of only 10 families to do so. A church sits alongside a mosque here. Both have been damaged by shelling. "We hope it will work out, we really do," he said as he stood on a hillside, Latakia around 20km behind him and the sound of a nearby battle reverberating. "It's up to God. It's out of our control."
Conversations with Syria's newest refugees are often snatched and guarded. Trust is hard won, if it's obtained at all. Eyes are averted. Contact is perfunctory.
War has settled into an eerie rhythm in this part of Syria. While rebels are now at Latakia's northern doorstep, an advance 20km south to the heart of the city will take significant planning and manpower, perhaps more than the rebel army, drawn largely from the rural poor, can muster.
An invasion in any sort of formation is well beyond the opposition army's capabilities, even with a reorganisation of the fragmented leadership's command into groups tasked with coordinating and acting strategically.
"It won't be fast and it won't be easy," said a leader of the rebels' military council, who not long ago owned large and lucrative quarries in the Idlib hinterland. His business interests have since been confiscated and he claimed to be as penniless as the defector sitting cross-legged on the barren floor next to him, a private in the Syrian army who fled his post in Jisr al-Shughour last month. "I don't care what it takes," the officer said. "As long as we beat al-Qaida to Latakia."
In this room, a former Syrian army outpost, and in others like it in the northern countryside of Syria, the working theory is that Assad and his senior officials are keeping a corridor open to Latakia from the south-east – a line that traces the Alawite heartland of the country, past Hama, then Homs, and ending in Damascus.
"They are preparing for a worst-case scenario," one rebel offered as an explanation. "If it goes badly for the Alawites, they will want a country of their own."
"Do you think it's going badly for them?" another man asked. "This is going to continue for another year. They will wear us down."
Another man joined in, struggling to be heard above a now increasing din of voices. "Another year, we'll all be dead. That is too much. May God punish Bashar and all his family."
The conversation was now drowned by shouting. Goals and realities seemed almost irreconcilable at this point in the group's battle planning. There seems little way forward except more of the same grinding, miserable suffering that has come to characterise the war in the north.
"But we must get it together. We just must," the rebel leader finally piped up. "You in the west ask us why it is going like this and then you refuse to help us. Latakia is a price worth paying. There is no way Bashar can win the war if he loses there."
We spoke by phone to a merchant in Latakia on Saturday. He runs restaurants on the coastline and an import business through the nearby port. "Jet skis are on the ocean and people are smoking [water pipes]," he said. "Yes, there are planes and bombs in the distance. But for now it's our new reality. We are getting used to it. If they get any closer, we'll leave."
Rare trees turned into firewood as Syrian civilians struggle for warmth
By Agence France-Presse
Saturday, January 26, 2013 20:30 EST
Beset by a freezing winter and stifling fuel and electricity shortages, Syrian civilians desperate to stay warm in a northern forest have no choice but to cut down trees for firewood.
Once a tourist destination for Syrians and other Arabs across the Middle East, the formerly pristine national park to the north and west of the city of Idlib is being systematically stripped bare.
Bald, muddy swathes of fresh-cut land now stretch in many directions, with men using chainsaws to bring trees down and dozens of pick-up trucks coming and going for loads of lumber.
“My heart burns to see all the trees cut down. But there’s no choice. People need to stay warm,” says Hamad al-Tawheed, one of more than a dozen pick-up drivers waiting in the town of Darkush to go out for another load.
The area being cleared is renowned in Syria for its beauty. Sheer cliffs tower over the magnificent Orontes river. Conifers, oaks and shrubs grow over the mountains, with narrow winding roads linking the villages perched among them.
Before the war, a special unit of forest rangers protected the area.
Their vigilance underlined just how precious this forest is to Syria. In all, just 1.4 percent of the country is covered with woodland, according to an estimate by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.
But with Syria’s conflict causing a spiralling fuel crisis and power cuts across the country, people are now resorting to hacking at living wood to provide fuel for their stoves to ward off the freezing winter.
And with bread shortages even affecting residents of Syria’s main cities, the wood has also become necessary to fuel bakers’ ovens.
The heating oil that used to arrive from other parts of Syria has disappeared, and substitute fuel from nearby Turkey is substandard and too expensive, locals say.
Even children in the region can be seen using picks or axes to split logs for their families.
“This area was famous for its forests. Now, almost everybody in the town is cutting down the trees,” Tawheed says.
The activity is also virtually the only economic prospect available in a region where businesses have been forced to shut.
A chainsaw operator receives the equivalent of $5 to chop down a tree, and a truck driver gets around $150 per tonne of lumber.
The locals know the lasting damage they are doing to the area, and regret it. But they say the war has left them no choice.
“I feel very bad,” says Abu Saleh, a 64-year-old, as he helps men bring branches and logs down a steep slope to be chopped up.
“Before this was a very beautiful forest — now it’s like a desert.”
The United Nations says more than 60,000 people have died in Syria’s 22-month conflict, which broke out after a peaceful uprising morphed into an armed insurgency when the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown against dissent.
More than 650,000 people have been forced to flee the fighting, the UN says.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]