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« Reply #4950 on: Mar 07, 2013, 07:50 AM »

Libyan national congress attacked by rogue militias

Several hundred militiamen attacked building in protest against proposed isolation law to purge Gaddafi-era officials

Chris Stephen in Tripoli, Thursday 7 March 2013 10.58 GMT   

Police and army units have been deployed in strength across the Libyan capital, Tripoli, after an attack by rogue militias forced the country's legislature to consider suspending its activities.

Several hundred militiamen and protesters attacked the national congress building late on Tuesday night and the car of the parliamentary speaker Mohammed Magarief, who is effectively Libya's acting head of state, was hit by more than a dozen bullets.

"We might suspend our work until we find a solution, we've been attacked," said Mohammed Toumi, an independent congress member.

The attacks were launched by supporters of a proposed bill, the isolation law, that would purge Gaddafi-era officials from public office, with demonstrators fearing the law would be watered down by the 200-member congress.

Security fears saw congress move its session on Tuesday to the Meteorological Institute south of the city in a bid to avoid violent protests which erupted as members arrived to debate the bill.

Militias surrounded the building, attacking at least one MP, while several female members barricaded themselves inside.

State media released photographs showing Magarief's armoured Toyota Land Cruiser, with five bullet holes visible in the bulletproof glass of the rear window.

"There's no army protecting us, there's no police protecting us, the ministries didn't do anything to protect us, we cannot work in this environment," said Toumi, who chaired the isolation law committee but has resigned citing security fears.

The British embassy issued a statement calling for better security: "These people were chosen to represent Libya and it is important to give them space and security so they may make their decisions," it said.

Libya's government, which relies on militias for the bulk of its forces, has yet to explain why security units did not protect congress, or its failure to guarantee that a new vote planned for the bill on Sunday will get that protection.

On Thursday a dozen beige armed pickup trucks mounted with machine guns were deployed around the office of the prime minister, Ali Zaidan, with similar numbers at the city centre Corinthian hotel, home to many diplomats.

The isolation law is proving the most divisive issue debated by congress since it was elected last July. The terms of the law would ban a swath of former Gaddafi officials from the government, civil service, police, judiciary and banking.
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« Reply #4951 on: Mar 07, 2013, 07:52 AM »

Kenyan candidate says election 'lacks integrity', raising fears of protests

Running mate of Raila Odinga, who is trailing Uhuru Kenyatta in presidential vote, says ballot should be stopped

Reuters in Nairobi, Thursday 7 March 2013 09.04 GMT   

The running mate of one of Kenya's two frontrunners in a presidential vote has said the ballot count lacks integrity and should stop, comments that could inflame a largely peaceful election so far.

"We as a coalition take the position the national vote tallying process lacks integrity and has to be stopped," said Kalonzo Musyoka, running beside the prime minister, Raila Odinga. "We have evidence the results we are receiving have been doctored."

But he said his comments were not a call for protests. Odinga is trailing the leader, Uhuru Kenyatta, three days after the polls closed. Authorities said on Wednesday the outcome would not be compromised by the failure of electronic counting technology that has left Kenyans in the dark about the result.

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« Reply #4952 on: Mar 07, 2013, 07:54 AM »

March 6, 2013

A Locust Plague, Shy of Biblical Proportions, in Israel


JERUSALEM — For many Israelis, the biblical comparisons were irresistible: locusts were swarming across the border from Egypt three weeks before Passover, like a vivid enactment of the eighth plague visited upon the obdurate Pharaoh. Others with a more modern sensibility said it felt more like Hitchcock.

Israel first announced that it was on “locust alert” on Monday, after large swarms were spotted in the Cairo area. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations warned that wind and climate conditions increased the chances of an entomological cross-border invasion.

The Ministry of Agriculture set up a hot line for swarm sightings. By Tuesday, grasshoppers the size of small birds were reported on balconies and in gardens in central and northern Israel. But the largest concentration, an ominous black cloud of millions, settled for the night near the tiny rural village of Kmehin in Israel’s southern Negev desert, not far from the border with Egypt.

Potato farmers in the area complained that their fields were being ruined. Drivers said they could not see through their windshields for all the bugs flying in their direction.

On the up side, some considered the curse almost a blessing. The popular Channel 2 television news showed delighted Thai agricultural workers frying up locusts for a crunchy snack. The Israeli television crew munched on a few too, noting that locusts are considered kosher.

The Agriculture Ministry said it was the first time that Israel had seen locusts since 2005, and recalled an even worse invasion in the 1950s.

Stav Talal, a researcher from Tel Aviv University who went south to gather samples of the invaders, told the Hebrew news Web site Ynet that the locusts had originated from the deserts of Sudan and had moved north in search of food. But he added that the conditions in Israel were not ideal for the locusts, the relative cold making it hard for them to multiply.

“As I understand it,” Mr. Talal said, “they did not come here in droves.”

However, as in the time of Moses, Egypt was deeply afflicted. While the country’s political chaos has been grabbing international attention, the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture has been combating locust swarms countrywide: in Cairo, Upper Egypt, the Canal area, the Red Sea governorate, El Arish and other border areas in the Sinai Peninsula.

Monitoring stations have been established in areas suspected as possible destinations for the locusts, the state newspaper Al-Ahram reported. While the ministry maintained that there were no material losses, the Bedouin of Upper Egypt said the locusts had destroyed their cumin crop and asked the government for compensation.

The Jewish holiday of Passover commemorates the biblical story of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. Divine punishment in the form of 10 plagues afflicted the Egyptians as the Pharaoh refused the entreaties of Moses and Aaron to let their people go. An east wind brought the locusts that devoured what was left of Egypt’s crops. Locusts also appear in the Koranic version of the tale.

Modern Israel, however, has a greater range of tools to fight off this plague. On Wednesday, the Ministry of Agriculture said in a statement that spraying pesticide from the ground and air had reduced the size of the swarm considerably.

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting from Cairo.

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« Reply #4953 on: Mar 07, 2013, 07:56 AM »

March 7, 2013

U.N. Starts Talks to Free Peacekeepers Held by Syria Rebels


The United Nations was reported to be negotiating on Thursday with insurgent fighters from Syria who seized a group of United Nations troops from the Philippines on patrol in the disputed Golan Heights region between Syria and Israel and threatened to treat them as prisoners of war. Their capture signaled an abrupt escalation in the Syrian conflict, enmeshing international peacekeepers for the first time.

There was no immediate indication when the 21 captives, who were seized on Wednesday, might be set free but the authorities in Manila said the peacekeepers were being treated as “visitors and guests” and had not been harmed.

“The negotiations are ongoing,” said Raul Hernandez, a spokesman for Philippines Foreign Ministry. “This is between the U.N. peacekeeping force and the group leader of this rebel force. We have been informed that they are unharmed and for the time being they are being treated as visitors and guests.”

With 1,011 troops from Austria, Croatia, India and the Philippines, the United Nations observer force in the Golan is responsible for maintaining the calm between Israeli and Syrian troops at the demilitarized zone along Syria’s Golan frontier, established after a cease-fire ended the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Israeli officials have expressed concern about the presence of Islamic extremist groups fighting the Syrian army close to the cease-fire line with Israel. In recent months, Israel has upgraded its troops and surveillance along its northern frontier and is constructing a new border fence.

On Thursday, Israel made it clear that it had no intention of becoming involved in the events across the cease-fire line.

Amos Gilad, a senior official in the Defense Ministry, said on Thursday that “we can rely on the U.N. to persuade” the insurgent fighters to release the captive troops.

“Neither the rebels nor anyone else has an interest in clashing with the international community, which it needs for support,” Mr. Gilad told Israel Radio, adding, “The international community will handle this.”

The Filipino ambassador to Israel, Generoso D.G. Calonge, told Israel Radio that he would welcome any information Israel had to share “but as for an active role, I don’t think that would be proper for them.”

A spokesman for the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said on Thursday that the captors had “assured us they are not going to harm the hostages in any way and they’re treating them as guests.”

The Obervatory, which is based in Britain and has a network of opposition contacts in Syria, also reported “clashes” between government troops and rebels on Thursday on the northern outskirts of the village of Al Jamlah, close to where the Filipino soldiers were seized. There was no immediate independent confirmation of the report.

As the war has worsened, the Golan region has been periodically disrupted by armed clashes and occasional artillery or mortar bombardments that have become a source of concern to Israel. But United Nations officials said that members of the Golan peacekeeping mission, officially known as the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, had never before been taken by any of the combatants in the conflict.

Separately, Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian aid organization, said Thursday that Syria’s once-efficient health care network had broken down, with patients treated in caves and basements as large numbers of hospitals closed and medical facilities became tools “in the military strategies of the parties to the conflict.”

The report, issued in New York, added to a catalog of woes this week as the number of refugees fleeing the country exceeded a million and the schools system was reported to have collapsed.

“Medical aid is being targeted, hospitals destroyed, and medical personnel captured,” said Marie-Pierre Allié, the president of Doctors without Borders.

Josephine Guerrero, a spokeswoman for the department at the United Nations that oversees the Golan operation, said the peacekeepers were detained near an observation post that had been evacuated over the past weekend after what she called “heavy combat in proximity” in the southern part of the area they control. The peacekeepers, in a convoy of trucks, had returned to investigate damage to the post when they were taken by about 30 armed rebels.

Ms. Guerrero said that the peacekeeping mission was “dispatching a team to assess the situation and attempt a resolution,” and that the Syrian authorities had been asked to help.

The Philippine government said Thursday that it had been told by the United Nations that 21 of its peacekeepers were detained.

President Benigno S. Aquino III said he believed the U.N. peacekeepers would be viewed by both sides in the Syrian conflict as a “benign presence, so we don’t expect any further untoward incident to happen.”

Foreign Minister Albert F. del Rosario told reporters that the authorities in Manila were working “very closely” with the United Nations, the United States, Britain, France and Germany “for the early and safe release of the Filipino peacekeepers.”

A video uploaded on YouTube by a group that identified itself as the Martyrs of Yarmouk claimed responsibility on Wednesday and said the peacekeepers would be held until Syrian government forces withdrew from the area around Al Jamlah, the site of the weekend clashes. The video does not show any of the captives, but United Nations vehicles are visible.

A speaker in the video warns in Arabic: “If the withdrawal does not take place within 24 hours, we will deal with those guys like war prisoners. And praise to God.”

The threat underscored the widening risk that the Syria conflict is destabilizing the Middle East, and raised new concerns about the agendas of some Syrian insurgent groups, just as Western nations, including the United States, were grappling over whether to arm them.

At the United Nations, Eduardo del Buey, a spokesman for Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, suggested that officials had long feared the possibility of harm to the peacekeepers.

“As the secretary general has said repeatedly, the spillover effects of the Syrian crisis pose a danger to the region as a whole and to the countries and the areas in the neighboring states around it, and Undof is no exception,” he said, using the acronym for the Golan peacekeeping mission.

Ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin of Russia, which holds the monthly presidency of the Security Council for March, said that members had been briefed about the Golan situation but that he could provide no further information on what precisely had happened.

Mr. Churkin, whose government is a main supporter of the Syrian government in the conflict and a strong critic of the armed rebels, urged the captors to release the peacekeepers immediately. “They should stop this very dangerous course of action,” he told reporters.

Linking the Golan situation to the Iraq killings two days earlier, Mr. Churkin said: “Some people are trying very hard to extend the Syrian conflict. Today there is this incident. This is no man’s land between Syria and Israel. Somebody is trying very hard to blow this crisis up.”

The detention of the peacekeepers came less than a week after Croatia announced it was withdrawing its soldiers from the Golan force, following reports that Croatia was selling weapons funneled to Syrian rebels by Saudi Arabia, a main supporter of the insurgency. The Croatian government denied the reports but said they had put the safety of its peacekeepers at risk.

News of the peacekeepers’ seizure coincided with other milestones in the two-year Syrian conflict, which has left more than 70,000 people dead.

The United Nations refugee agency in Geneva said on Wednesday the number of Syrians who had fled to neighboring countries surpassed the one million mark, coupling the announcement with a renewed appeal for more aid. “Syria is spiraling toward full-scale disaster,” the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees, António Guterres, said in a statement.

Rick Gladstone reported from New York, and Alan Cowell from London. Reporting was contributed by Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem; Floyd Whaley from Manila; Liam Stack from New York; Hania Mourtada from Beirut, Lebanon; David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo; and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva.

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« Reply #4954 on: Mar 07, 2013, 08:06 AM »

Hugo Chávez's final words: 'I don't want to die'

Venezuelan president mouthed his desire to live before succumbing to massive heart attack, general reveals

Associated Press in Caracas, Thursday 7 March 2013 11.37 GMT   

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez died of a massive heart attack after great suffering and inaudibly mouthed his desire to live, the head of the country's presidential guard said.

"He couldn't speak but he said it with his lips … 'I don't want to die. Please don't let me die,' because he loved his country, he sacrificed himself for his country," General Jose Ornella said.

The general said he had spent the past two years with Chávez, including his final moments, as Venezuela's president of 14 years battled an unspecified cancer in the pelvic region.

Ornella spoke to Associated Press outside the military academy where Chávez's body lay in state. He said Chávez's cancer was very advanced. He did not respond when asked if the cancer had spread to Chávez's lungs.

The government announced on the eve of Chávez's death that he had suffered a severe respiratory infection, the second since he underwent his fourth cancer surgery in Cuba on 11 December.

Venezuelan authorities have not said what kind of cancer Chávez had or specified where tumours were removed.

During the first lung infection, near the end of December, doctors implanted a tracheal tube to ease Chávez's breathing, but the problem persisted, the government said.

Ornella said Chávez had had the best doctors from all over the world, but they had never discussed the president's condition in front of him.

The general said he did not know what kind of cancer afflicted Chávez, but added: "He suffered a lot."

He said Chávez had known when he spoke to Venezuelans on 8 December that "there was very little hope he would make it out of that operation".

It was Chávez's fourth cancer surgery and previous interventions had been followed by chemotherapy and radiation.

Ornella echoed the concern of the vice-president, Nicolás Maduro, that some sort of foul play was involved in Chávez's cancer.

"I think it will be 50 years before they declassify a document [that] I think [will show] the hand of the enemy is involved," he said.

The general did not identify who he was talking about, but Maduro suggested possible US involvement on Tuesday. The US state department called the allegation absurd.

Maduro, Chávez's self-anointed successor, said Chávez died on Tuesday afternoon in a Caracas military hospital.

The government said Chávez, 58, had been there since returning from Cuba on 18 February.


March 6, 2013

Chávez Transformed the Way Venezuelans View Themselves


LA GUAIRA, Venezuela — Ever since her home was washed away in the devastating mudslides that killed thousands along Venezuela’s coast in 1999, during President Hugo Chávez’s first year in office, Graciela Pineda waited for him to carry out his vow to rebuild.

“It’s been 13 years, waiting and waiting, and we’ve gotten nothing,” said Ms. Pineda, 50, who lives as a squatter with eight members of her family, crammed into a derelict apartment in a wasteland of debris and vacant lots in a once upscale neighborhood called Los Corales. Across the street, a building leans cracked and crumpled, threatening to tumble onto the road.

And yet Ms. Pineda remained loyal to Mr. Chávez to the end, voting for him again in October when he won another six-year term — and crying for him on Tuesday when he died.

“Who wouldn’t cry for a president like him?” she said. “Everything here was Chávez. He was our country.”

Despite a rocky economic record and strings of broken or half-filled promises during his 14 years in office, the fundamental legacy of Mr. Chávez is not made of concrete and steel, highways and houses, but something less tangible: he has changed the way Venezuelans think about themselves and their country.

“He has made people who didn’t feel they were part of democracy before feel like they’re part of the system,” said Joy Olson, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy group. “That hasn’t happened in very many countries. If you look at the United States, poor people don’t feel like they’re very much a part of the system, and he did that.”

The dynamic was on full display Wednesday as enormous crowds thronged the streets to watch Mr. Chávez’s modest brown wood coffin, covered in a Venezuelan flag, being carried through the capital, Caracas.

As the procession traveled from the hospital where he died to the military academy where he studied as a young, unheralded cadet, hundreds of thousands of mourners — many dressed in his movement’s characteristic red shirt — chanted, cried, tossed flowers or held up cellphones to photograph the coffin as it passed. The procession stretched for miles, a river of red with drivers and motorcyclists trailing behind in an impromptu cortege.

“Chávez opened our eyes,” said Carlos Pérez, 58, a cookie salesman who drove into town with his wife and took part in the caravan. “We used to be stepped on. We felt humiliated.”

Of course, Mr. Chávez’s government made its imprint in material ways as well. After long neglecting a housing shortage it has built tens of thousands of new homes and apartments in the last two years, and as a counterpoint to the neglect here in Los Corales, a small, well-run hospital in a nearby neighborhood called Macuto has become a symbol of rebirth after the 1999 mudslides.

A maternity hospital before the tragedy, it has expanded, with more than 200 babies born there each month and doctors performing hundreds of vital operations, including eye and breast cancer surgery. Its services are free.

But the hospital, which officials said was one of only three in a state of 352,000 people, is also an example of the contradictions of Mr. Chávez’s revolution: it took more than a decade to get it fully back in operation.

“It was very slow,” said Dr. Luz Stella Antolinez, the hospital director, who opened the facility in October 2010. “What was missing was the will to get things done.”

Still, Dr. Antolinez called Mr. Chávez a historical figure with the stature of Simón Bolívar, the South American independence hero, or even Joan of Arc.

“He changed our consciousness,” Dr. Antolinez said. “Venezuela will not go back to what it was. All these millions of people, for 14 years the president spoke to them, now they know they are worth something.”

Ideologically, Mr. Chávez was something of a chameleon, taking on and shedding policies and programs as they suited him.

He was a self-described socialist who expropriated private businesses and property but looked the other way as opportunists enriched themselves off government contracts.

He preached about economic independence and created chains of subsidized grocery stores but neglected agriculture and relied heavily on imported food.

He excoriated capitalists and lectured about service to the country but tolerated or ignored widespread corruption.

He condemned the United States at every turn but depended on it to buy the oil that made his movement possible. He spoke of a people’s right to self-determination but allied himself with tyrants in Libya, Syria and Iran.

Mr. Chávez mined and deepened the divide between the masses of Venezuela’s poor and the middle and upper classes, presiding over a bitterly divided country. He mercilessly taunted and insulted those who disagreed with him, calling them fascists, good-for-nothings, traitors, oligarchs, reactionaries and puppets of the United States.

And he warned ceaselessly of enemies, inside and outside the country, who he said were poised to take away from the poor the benefits they had received under his government.

Conditions for the poor have certainly improved over the last decade and a half, and the ranks of the poor have shrunk. Government programs have given poor people access to low-cost food and free health care and have knocked down barriers to higher education, though many of those programs are plagued by inefficiencies and long waits.

Venezuela has the world’s largest reserves of crude oil, and the economy rises and falls with the oil industry. When Mr. Chávez first took office, oil was selling for less than $10 a barrel. This year it has sold for more than $100.

Those oil riches have fueled his movement, but critics say his policies, including the expropriation of private companies and price controls, have hobbled the economy, led to shortages of basic goods and created a system that cannot be sustained. Oil production has stagnated, and the state-run oil company has failed to make the enormous investments needed to increase it. A blast at a refinery in August killed dozens of people and raised questions about maintenance and safety.

Investment in other crucial areas of the economy, including the electrical network, has been deficient and in much of the country there are regular power failures. Roads and bridges are in bad shape, bottlenecks at ports are common and, despite the sustained increase in oil prices, the country has the lowest cumulative rate of economic growth among the seven largest economies in South America since 1999, according to United Nations data.

Mr. Chávez named his movement after his hero, Bolívar, and vowed to created what he called 21st-century socialism. But exactly what that is can be hard to define.

“There’s not a lot of ideological coherence in Chavismo,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington policy group. “It is a mood, a sensibility, a real rejection of the traditional political order, a concern for greater social justice, greater participation by those who are excluded.”

Mr. Chávez prided himself on winning election after election, and his government put in place a digital voting system that is considered generally free of fraud. His opponents called Venezuela’s elections free but not fair, pointing to huge government resources spent on his campaigns.

Mr. Chávez also did away with the democratic separation of powers. A pliant legislature granted him the power to dictate laws on his own. And he dominated the judiciary, where loyal judges dependably ruled in his favor. He used government-run television and radio stations as part of a powerful propaganda machine and forced the country’s most-viewed broadcaster, RCTV, which vigorously promoted an opposition agenda, off the air.

The corollary to Mr. Chávez’s aggressive advocacy for the poor at home was his attack on the United States.

With a defiant anti-imperialist discourse, he led a group of nations, including Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia, with leftist governments dedicated to diminishing American influence. And he helped form and strengthen broader regional groups, like Unasur, an organization of South American nations, that stressed Latin American identity and tilted the balance further away from the United States.

Meanwhile, this coastal city continues to struggle on its long road to recovery from the 1999 mudslides. Two large waterfront hotels that once provided hundreds of jobs and drew millions of tourism dollars have never reopened. A plan to rehabilitate them in time for the South American Beach Games, scheduled to take place here in December, was recently abandoned, according to local news reports. For many, the vacant rooms are yet another symbol of broken promises. But for others, they are an unlikely sign of Mr. Chávez’s empowerment of the poor and his rejection of an international order dominated by the rich.

Benjamín José Astudillo, 50, whose family runs a small restaurant on the beach, near a stretch of sand once reserved for guests of the Sheraton, said Mr. Chávez wanted the beach to be for Venezuelans, not “the gringos.” He added, “The gringos aren’t going to come here anymore.”

María Eugenia Díaz contributed reporting from Caracas, Venezuela.

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« Reply #4955 on: Mar 07, 2013, 08:09 AM »

March 6, 2013

With Worries for Its Economic Future, Cuba Bids a Sad Goodbye to a Generous Ally


HAVANA — The death of Hugo Chávez sent a ripple of sadness and uncertainty across this island on Wednesday as Cubans mourned the loss of an ideological son and generous ally, and worried about the economic pain that could lie ahead if the new Venezuelan leadership cut off hefty oil subsidies.

Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, turned its red masthead to black and white — a gesture Cubans said was rare — and dedicated six of its eight pages to Mr. Chávez’s life, his death on Tuesday, and his legacy. In a statement that covered the front page and was read on national television on Tuesday night, the government hailed Mr. Chávez as a Cuban and pledged its “resolved and unwavering support for the Bolivarian Revolution in these difficult days.”

“The Cuban people consider him one of their most accomplished sons, and they have admired him, followed him and loved him as one of their own,” the government said in the statement. “Chávez is also a Cuban.”

Flags at government buildings flew at half-staff after the government declared two days of official mourning, and canceled concerts and other public events on Friday. In Havana, where the Venezuelan leader battled cancer at a military hospital enveloped in secrecy and spent much of his last three months, some Cubans said they were deeply saddened by Mr. Chávez’s passing.

Even those who had little time for his brand of socialism wondered if Cuba would descend into an economic chasm, much as it did in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Cuba receives more than 100,000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela, purchased on favorable terms as part of an exchange that has tens of thousands of Cubans working in Venezuelan clinics, schools and ministries. The subsidized oil accounts for about two-thirds of Cuba’s consumption and is credited by many Cubans with keeping the lights on and the air-conditioners running during the brutal summer heat.

“A shudder ran through my body,” Marina Suárez, 48, said of the moment when she heard the news of Mr. Chávez’s death. She added, “He has died, but for me, he is as alive as ever.”

Ms. Suárez was confident that Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s interim president and a Chavista, would win election and retain close ties with Cuba. “With everything that Chávez did for the poor, for his people, for all peoples — how could they not vote for Maduro?” she asked.

Luis, a 39-year old engineer who did not want his full name to be published because talking about politics in Cuba is very delicate, was more skeptical.

“It’s scary. If there is a change in Venezuela, they won’t keep the deal like it is,” he said, referring to the subsidized oil.

The government would have to come up with a plan that did not depend on another nation’s largess, he said.

“You can’t have what happens inside your home depend on your neighbor,” Luis added. “If your neighbor dies, then what? You don’t eat? We need to be self-sufficient. But this system will never be self-sufficient.”

Were Mr. Maduro to be defeated, or simply decide that Venezuela could no longer afford to subsidize Cuba, the government would have to speed economic reforms, added Luis, who recently began working for himself under a two-year-old program to encourage private enterprise.

“Cubans remember the special period,” he said, referring to the severe economic hardships of the 1990s. “They won’t put up with another special period.”

Other Chávez allies around the world were grappling with his death as well. The Iranian government declared a day of mourning on Wednesday and local news media reported that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would attend Mr. Chávez’s funeral on Friday in Caracas. Through several trips to Iran, Mr. Chávez forged a strong, if controversial, alliance that has drawn Iranian construction companies to several projects in Venezuela and deepened their financial ties.

Mr. Ahmadinejad said that Mr. Chávez would surely return to earth once the Shiite 12th Imam, who according to the sect’s beliefs is a messiah, would come to liberate the world.

“I have no doubt he will come again along with all the righteous people and the Prophet Jesus and the only successor of the righteous generation, the perfect human,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said, adding that Mr. Chávez had died of a “suspicious illness” — a reference to theories espoused by some Venezuelan officials and allies that Mr. Chávez’s cancer was somehow the work of the United States government.

In Cuba, state television and radio broke into regular programming on Tuesday night to show an extended newscast about Mr. Chávez’s death and broadcast coverage from Telesur, the Venezuelan news channel. A Cuban official said he could not yet confirm whether Raúl Castro or Fidel, who is very ill, would go to Caracas for the funeral.

Members of the Venezuelan community, Cuban officials and diplomats, meanwhile, gathered at the Venezuelan Embassy in Havana, on a wide boulevard in an upscale neighborhood, on Tuesday to offer condolences. Applause and shouts of “Viva Chávez” could be heard from the sidewalk outside. But elsewhere, the streets were quiet; some residents of Old Havana said they heard little music from the salsa bars on Tuesday night.

Thomas Erdbrink contributed reporting from Tehran.

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« Reply #4956 on: Mar 07, 2013, 08:25 AM »

Revealed: Pentagon's link to Iraqi torture centres

Exclusive: General David Petraeus and 'dirty wars' veteran behind commando units implicated in detainee abuse

Mona Mahmood, Maggie O'Kane, Chavala Madlena and Teresa Smith   
The Guardian, Wednesday 6 March 2013 20.04 GMT      

Link to video: James Steele: America's mystery man in Iraq

The Pentagon sent a US veteran of the "dirty wars" in Central America to oversee sectarian police commando units in Iraq that set up secret detention and torture centres to get information from insurgents. These units conducted some of the worst acts of torture during the US occupation and accelerated the country's descent into full-scale civil war.

Colonel James Steele was a 58-year-old retired special forces veteran when he was nominated by Donald Rumsfeld to help organise the paramilitaries in an attempt to quell a Sunni insurgency, an investigation by the Guardian and BBC Arabic shows.

After the Pentagon lifted a ban on Shia militias joining the security forces, the special police commando (SPC) membership was increasingly drawn from violent Shia groups such as the Badr brigades.

A second special adviser, retired Colonel James H Coffman, worked alongside Steele in detention centres that were set up with millions of dollars of US funding.

Coffman reported directly to General David Petraeus, sent to Iraq in June 2004 to organise and train the new Iraqi security forces. Steele, who was in Iraq from 2003 to 2005, and returned to the country in 2006, reported directly to Rumsfeld.

The allegations, made by US and Iraqi witnesses in the Guardian/BBC documentary, implicate US advisers for the first time in the human rights abuses committed by the commandos. It is also the first time that Petraeus – who last November was forced to resign as director of the CIA after a sex scandal – has been linked through an adviser to this abuse.

Coffman reported to Petraeus and described himself in an interview with the US military newspaper Stars and Stripes as Petraeus's "eyes and ears out on the ground" in Iraq.

"They worked hand in hand," said General Muntadher al-Samari, who worked with Steele and Coffman for a year while the commandos were being set up. "I never saw them apart in the 40 or 50 times I saw them inside the detention centres. They knew everything that was going on there ... the torture, the most horrible kinds of torture."

Additional Guardian reporting has confirmed more details of how the interrogation system worked. "Every single detention centre would have its own interrogation committee," claimed Samari, talking for the first time in detail about the US role in the interrogation units.

"Each one was made up of an intelligence officer and eight interrogators. This committee will use all means of torture to make the detainee confess like using electricity or hanging him upside down, pulling out their nails, and beating them on sensitive parts."

There is no evidence that Steele or Coffman tortured prisoners themselves, only that they were sometimes present in the detention centres where torture took place and were involved in the processing of thousands of detainees.

The Guardian/BBC Arabic investigation was sparked by the release of classified US military logs on WikiLeaks that detailed hundreds of incidents where US soldiers came across tortured detainees in a network of detention centres run by the police commandos across Iraq. Private Bradley Manning, 25, is facing a prison sentence of up to 20 years after he pleaded guilty to leaking the documents.

Samari claimed that torture was routine in the SPC-controlled detention centres. "I remember a 14-year-old who was tied to one of the library's columns. And he was tied up, with his legs above his head. Tied up. His whole body was blue because of the impact of the cables with which he had been beaten."

Gilles Peress, a photographer, came across Steele when he was on assignment for the New York Times, visiting one of the commando centres in the same library, in Samarra. "We were in a room in the library interviewing Steele and I'm looking around I see blood everywhere."

The reporter Peter Maass was also there, working on the story with Peress. "And while this interview was going on with a Saudi jihadi with Jim Steele also in the room, there were these terrible screams, somebody shouting: 'Allah, Allah, Allah!' But it wasn't kind of religious ecstasy or something like that, these were screams of pain and terror."

The pattern in Iraq provides an eerie parallel to the well-documented human rights abuses committed by US-advised and funded paramilitary squads in Central America in the 1980s. Steele was head of a US team of special military advisers that trained units of El Salvador's security forces in counterinsurgency. Petraeus visited El Salvador in 1986 while Steele was there and became a major advocate of counterinsurgency methods.

Steele has not responded to any questions from the Guardian and BBC Arabic about his role in El Salvador or Iraq. He has in the past denied any involvement in torture and said publicly he is "opposed to human rights abuses." Coffman declined to comment.

An official speaking for Petraeus said: "During the course of his years in Iraq, General Petraeus did learn of allegations of Iraqi forces torturing detainees. In each incident, he shared information immediately with the US military chain of command, the US ambassador in Baghdad ... and the relevant Iraqi leaders."

The Guardian has learned that the SPC units' involvement with torture entered the popular consciousness in Iraq when some of their victims were paraded in front of a TV audience on a programme called "Terrorism In The Hands of Justice."

SPC detention centres bought video cameras, funded by the US military, which they used to film detainees for the show. When the show began to outrage the Iraqi public, Samari remembers being in the home of General Adnan Thabit – head of the special commandos – when a call came from Petraeus's office demanding that they stop showing tortured men on TV.

"General Petraeus's special translator, Sadi Othman, rang up to pass on a message from General Petraeus telling us not to show the prisoners on TV after they had been tortured," said Samari. "Then 20 minutes later we got a call from the Iraqi ministry of interior telling us the same thing, that General Petraeus didn't want the torture victims shown on TV."

Othman, who now lives in New York, confirmed that he made the phone call on behalf of Petraeus to the head of the SPC to ask him to stop showing the tortured prisoners. "But General Petraeus does not agree with torture," he added. "To suggest he does support torture is horseshit."

Thabit is dismissive of the idea that the Americans he dealt with were unaware of what the commandos were doing. "Until I left, the Americans knew about everything I did; they knew what was going on in the interrogations and they knew the detainees. Even some of the intelligence about the detainees came to us from them – they are lying."

Just before Petraeus and Steele left Iraq in September 2005, Jabr al-Solagh was appointed as the new minister of the interior. Under Solagh, who was closely associated with the violent Badr Brigades militia, allegations of torture and brutality by the commandos soared. It was also widely believed that the units had evolved into death squads.

The Guardian has learned that high-ranking Iraqis who worked with the US after the invasion warned Petraeus of the consequences of appointing Solagh but their pleas were ignored.

The long-term impact of funding and arming this paramilitary force was to unleash a deadly sectarian militia that terrorised the Sunni community and helped germinate a civil war that claimed tens of thousands of lives. At the height of that sectarian conflict, 3,000 bodies a month were strewn on the streets of Iraq.
CV: James Steele


Jim Steele's first experience of war was in Vietnam, where from 1965 to 1975 US combat units were deployed against the communist North Vietnamese government and Viet Cong. 58,000 Americans were killed, dealing a blow to the nation's self-esteem and leading to a change in military thinking for subsequent conflicts.

El Salvador

A 1979 military coup plunged the smallest country in Central America into civil war and drew in US training and funding on the side of the rightwing government. From 1984 to 1986 Steele – a "counterinsurgency specialist" – was head of the US MilGroup of US special forces advisers to frontline battalions of the Salvadorean military, which developed a fearsome international reputation for its death-squad activities. Prof Terry Karl, an expert at Stanford University on El Salvador's civil war, said that Steele's main aim was to shift the fight from so-called total war, which then meant the indiscriminate murder of thousands of civilians, to a more "discriminate" approach. One of his tasks was to put more emphasis on "human intelligence" and interrogation.


He became involved in the Iran-Contra affair, which saw the proceeds from covert arms sales by senior US officials to Iran used to fund the Contras, rightwing guerrillas fighting Daniel Ortega's leftwing Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Steele ran operations at El Salvador's Ilopango airport, from where Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North illegally ran weapons and supplies to the Contras.


Soon after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, now retired Colonel James Steele was in Baghdad as one of the White House's most important agents, sending back reports to Donald Rumsfeld and acting as the US defence secretary's personal envoy to Iraq's Special Police Commandos, whose intelligence-gathering activities he oversaw. Drawn mostly from violent Shia militia, the commandos developed a reputation for torture and later for their death-squad activities directed against the Sunni community.


From El Salvador to Iraq: Washington's man behind brutal police squads

In 2004, with the war in Iraq going from bad to worse, the US drafted in a veteran of Central America's dirty wars to help set up a new force to fight the insurgency. The result: secret detention centres, torture and a spiral into sectarian carnage

    Mona Mahmood, Maggie O'Kane, Chavala Madlena, Teresa Smith, Ben Ferguson, Patrick Farrelly, Guy Grandjean, Josh Strauss, Roisin Glynn, Irene Baqué, Marcus Morgan, Jake Zervudachi and Joshua Boswell
    The Guardian, Wednesday 6 March 2013 16.16 GMT   

Link to video: James Steele: America's mystery man in Iraq

An exclusive golf course backs onto a spacious two-storey house. A coiled green garden hose lies on the lawn. The grey-slatted wooden shutters are closed. And, like the other deserted luxury houses in this gated community near Bryan, Texas, nothing moves.

Retired Colonel Jim Steele, whose military decorations include the Silver Star, the Defence Distinguished Service Medal, four Legions of Merit, three Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart, is not at home. Nor is he at his office headquarters in Geneva, where he is listed as the chief executive officer of Buchanan Renewables, an energy company. Similar efforts to track him down at his company's office in Monrovia are futile. Messages are left. He doesn't call back.

For over a year the Guardian has been trying to contact Steele, 68, to ask him about his role during the Iraq war as US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's personal envoy to Iraq's Special Police Commandos: a fearsome paramilitary force that ran a secret network of detention centres across the country – where those suspected of rebelling against the US-led invasion were tortured for information.

On the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion the allegations of American links to the units that eventually accelerated Iraq's descent into civil war cast the US occupation in a new and even more controversial light. The investigation was sparked over a year ago by millions of classified US military documents dumped onto the internet and their mysterious references to US soldiers ordered to ignore torture. Private Bradley Manning, 25, is facing a 20-year sentence, accused of leaking military secrets.

Steele's contribution was pivotal. He was the covert US figure behind the intelligence gathering of the new commando units. The aim: to halt a nascent Sunni insurgency in its tracks by extracting information from detainees.

It was a role made for Steele. The veteran had made his name in El Salvador almost 20 years earlier as head of a US group of special forces advisers who were training and funding the Salvadoran military to fight the FNLM guerrilla insurgency. These government units developed a fearsome international reputation for their death squad activities. Steele's own biography describes his work there as the "training of the best counterinsurgency force" in El Salvador.

Of his El Salvador experience in 1986, Steele told Dr Max Manwaring, the author of El Salvador at War: An Oral History: "When I arrived here there was a tendency to focus on technical indicators … but in an insurgency the focus has to be on human aspects. That means getting people to talk to you."

But the arming of one side of the conflict by the US hastened the country's descent into a civil war in which 75,000 people died and 1 million out of a population of 6 million became refugees.

Celerino Castillo, a Senior Drug Enforcement Administration special agent who worked alongside Steele in El Salvador, says: "I first heard about Colonel James Steele going to Iraq and I said they're going to implement what is known as the Salvadoran Option in Iraq and that's exactly what happened. And I was devastated because I knew the atrocities that were going to occur in Iraq which we knew had occurred in El Salvador."

It was in El Salvador that Steele first came in to close contact with the man who would eventually command US operations in Iraq: David Petraeus. Then a young major, Petraeus visited El Salvador in 1986 and reportedly even stayed with Steele at his house.

But while Petraeus headed for the top, Steele's career hit an unexpected buffer when he was embroiled in the Iran-Contra affair. A helicopter pilot, who also had a licence to fly jets, he ran the airport from where the American advisers illegally ran guns to right-wing Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua. While the congressional inquiry that followed put an end to Steele's military ambitions, it won him the admiration of then congressman Dick Cheney who sat on the committee and admired Steele's efforts fighting leftists in both Nicaragua and El Salvador.

In late 1989 Cheney was in charge of the US invasion of Panama to overthrow their once favoured son, General Manuel Noriega. Cheney picked Steele to take charge of organising a new police force in Panama and be the chief liaison between the new government and the US military.

Todd Greentree, who worked in the US embassy in El Salvador and knew Steele, was not surprised at the way he resurfaced in other conflict zones. "It's not called 'dirty war' for nothing; so it's no surprise to see individuals who are associated and sort of know the ins-and-outs of that kind of war, reappear at different points in these conflicts," he says.

A generation later, and half the world away, America's war in Iraq was going from bad to worse. It was 2004 – the neo-cons had dismantled the Ba'athist party apparatus, and that had fostered anarchy. A mainly Sunni uprising was gaining ground and causing major problems in Fallujah and Mosul. There was a violent backlash against the US occupation that was claiming over 50 American lives a month by 2004.

The US Army was facing an unconventional, guerrilla insurgency in a country it knew little about. There was already talk in Washington DC of using the Salvador option in Iraq and the man who would spearhead that strategy was already in place.

Soon after the invasion in March 2003 Jim Steele was in Baghdad as one of the White House's most important "consultants", sending back reports to Rumsfeld. His memos were so valued that Rumsfeld passed them on to George Bush and Cheney. Rumsfeld spoke of him in glowing terms. "We had discussion with General Petraeus yesterday and I had a briefing today from a man named Steele who's been out there working with the security forces and been doing a wonderful job as a civilian as a matter of fact."

In June 2004 Petraeus arrived in Baghdad with the brief to train a new Iraqi police force with an emphasis on counterinsurgency. Steele and serving US colonel James Coffman introduced Petraeus to a small hardened group of police commandos, many of them among the toughest survivors of the old regime, including General Adnan Thabit, sentenced to death for a failed plot against Saddam but saved by the US invasion. Thabit, selected by the Americans to run the Special Police Commandos, developed a close relationship with the new advisers. "They became my friends. My advisers, James Steele and Colonel Coffman, were all from special forces, so I benefited from their experience … but the main person I used to contact was David Petraeus."

Link to video: Iraq's Special Police Commandos chief Adnan Thabit: 'The Americans knew about
everything I did'

With Steele and Coffman as his point men, Petraeus began pouring money from a multimillion dollar fund into what would become the Special Police Commandos. According to the US Government Accounts Office, they received a share of an $8.2bn (£5.4bn) fund paid for by the US taxpayer. The exact amount they received is classified.

With Petraeus's almost unlimited access to money and weapons, and Steele's field expertise in counterinsurgency the stage was set for the commandos to emerge as a terrifying force. One more element would complete the picture. The US had barred members of the violent Shia militias like the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army from joining the security forces, but by the summer of 2004 they had lifted the ban.

Shia militia members from all over the country arrived in Baghdad "by the lorry-load" to join the new commandos. These men were eager to fight the Sunnis: many sought revenge for decades of Sunni-supported, brutal Saddam rule, and a chance to hit back at the violent insurgents and the indiscriminate terror of al-Qaida.

Petraeus and Steele would unleash this local force on the Sunni population as well as the insurgents and their supporters and anyone else who was unlucky enough to get in the way. It was classic counterinsurgency. It was also letting a lethal, sectarian genie out of the bottle. The consequences for Iraqi society would be catastrophic. At the height of the civil war two years later 3,000 bodies a month were turning up on the streets of Iraq — many of them innocent civilians of sectarian war.

But it was the actions of the commandos inside the detention centres that raises the most troubling questions for their American masters. Desperate for information, the commandos set up a network of secret detention centres where insurgents could be brought and information extracted from them.

The commandos used the most brutal methods to make detainees talk. There is no evidence that Steele or Coffman took part in these torture sessions, but General Muntadher al Samari, a former general in the Iraqi army, who worked after the invasion with the US to rebuild the police force, claims that they knew exactly what was going on and were supplying the commandos with lists of people they wanted brought in. He says he tried to stop the torture, but failed and fled the country.

"We were having lunch. Col Steele, Col Coffman, and the door opened and Captain Jabr was there torturing a prisoner. He [the victim] was hanging upside down and Steele got up and just closed the door, he didn't say anything – it was just normal for him."

He says there were 13 to 14 secret prisons in Baghdad under the control of the interior ministry and used by the Special Police Commandos. He alleges that Steele and Coffman had access to all these prisons and that he visited one in Baghdad with both men.

"They were secret, never declared. But the American top brass and the Iraqi leadership knew all about these prisons. The things that went on there: drilling, murder, torture. The ugliest sort of torture I've ever seen."

Link to video: Iraqi general Muntadher al-Samari: 'He was hanging upside down. Steele didn't react'

According to one soldier with the 69th Armoured Regiment who was deployed in Samarra in 2005 but who doesn't want to be identified: "It was like the Nazis … like the Gestapo basically. They [the commandos] would essentially torture anybody that they had good reason to suspect, knew something, or was part of the insurgency … or supporting it, and people knew about that."

The Guardian interviewed six torture victims as part of this investigation. One, a man who says he was held for 20 days, said: "There was no sleep. From the sunset, the torture would start on me and on the other prisoners.

"They wanted confessions. They'd say: 'Confess to what have you done.' When you say: 'I have done nothing. Shall I confess about something I have not done?', they said: 'Yes, this is our way. The Americans told us to bring as many detainees as possible in order to keep them frightened.'

"I did not confess about anything, although I was tortured and [they] took off my toenails."

Neil Smith, a 20-year-old medic who was based in Samarra, remembers what low ranking US soldiers in the canteen said. "What was pretty widely known in our battalion, definitely in our platoon, was that they were pretty violent with their interrogations. That they would beat people, shock them with electrical shock, stab them, I don't know what else ... it sounds like pretty awful things. If you sent a guy there he was going to get tortured and perhaps raped or whatever, humiliated and brutalised by the special commandos in order for them to get whatever information they wanted."

He now lives in Detroit and is a born-again Christian. He spoke to the Guardian because he said he now considered it his religious duty to speak out about what he saw. "I don't think folks back home in America had any idea what American soldiers were involved in over there, the torture and all kinds of stuff."

Through Facebook, Twitter and social media the Guardian managed to make contact with three soldiers who confirmed they were handing over detainees to be tortured by the special commandos, but none except Smith were prepared to go on camera.

"If somebody gets arrested and we hand them over to MoI they're going to get their balls hooked, electrocuted or they're going to get beaten or raped up the ass with a coke bottle or something like that," one said.

He left the army in September 2006. Now 28, he works with refugees from the Arab world in Detroit teaching recent arrivals, including Iraqis, English.

"I suppose it is my way of saying sorry," he said.

When the Guardian/BBC Arabic posed questions to Petraeus about torture and his relationship with Steele it received in reply a statement from an official close to the general saying, "General (Ret) Petraeus's record, which includes instructions to his own soldiers … reflects his clear opposition to any form of torture."

"Colonel (Ret) Steele was one of thousands of advisers to Iraqi units, working in the area of the Iraqi police. There was no set frequency for Colonel Steele's meetings with General Petraeus, although General Petraeus did see him on a number of occasions during the establishment and initial deployments of the special police, in which Colonel Steele played a significant role."

But Peter Maass, then reporting for the New York Times, and who has interviewed both men, remembers the relationship differently: "I talked to both of them about each other and it was very clear that they were very close to each other in terms of their command relationship and also in terms of their ideas and ideology of what needed to be done. Everybody knew that he was Petraeus's man. Even Steele defined himself as Petraeus's man."

Maass and photographer Gilles Peress gained a unique audience with Steele at a library-turned-detention-centre in Samarra. "What I heard is prisoners screaming all night long," Peress said. "You know at which point you had a young US captain telling his soldiers, don't, just don't come near this."
Link to video: 'We were interviewing James Steele in Iraq and I saw blood everywhere'

Two men from Samarra who were imprisoned at the library spoke to the Guardian investigation team. "We'd be tied to a spit or we'd be hung from the ceiling by our hands and our shoulders would be dislocated," one told us. The second said: "They electrocuted me. They hung me up from the ceiling. They were pulling at my ears with pliers, stamping on my head, asking me about my wife, saying they would bring her here."

According to Maass in an interview for the investigation: "The interrogation centre was the only place in the mini green zone in Samarra that I was not allowed to visit. However, one day, Jim Steele said to me, 'hey, they've just captured a Saudi jihadi. Would you like to interview him?'

"I'm taken not into the main area, the kind of main hall – although out the corner of my eye I can see that there were a lot of prisoners in there with their hands tied behind their backs – I was taken to a side office where the Saudi was brought in, and there was actually blood dripping down the side of this desk in the office.

Peress picks up the story: "We were in a room in the library interviewing Steele and I look around and I see blood everywhere, you know. He (Steele) hears the scream from the other guy who's being tortured as we speak, there's the blood stains in the corner of the desk in front of him."

Maass says: "And while this interview was going on with this Saudi with Jim Steele also in the room, there were these terrible screams, somebody shouting Allah Allah Allah. But it wasn't kind of religious ecstasy or something like that, these were screams of pain and terror."

One of the torture survivors remembers how Adnan Thabit "came into the library and he told Captain Dorade and Captain Ali, go easy on the prisoners. Don't dislocate their shoulders. This was because people were having to undergo surgery when they were released from the library."

General Muntadher fled after two close colleagues were killed after they were summoned to the ministry, their bodies found on a rubbish tip. He got out of Iraq and went to Jordan. In less than a month, he says, Steele contacted him. Steele was anxious to meet and suggested he come to the luxury Sheraton hotel in Amman where Steele was staying. They met in the lobby at 8pm and Steele kept him talking for nearly two hours.

"He was asking me about the prisons. I was surprised by the questions and I reminded him that these were the same prisons where we both used to work. I reminded him of the incident where he had opened the door and Colonel Jabr was torturing one of the prisoners and how he didn't do anything. Steele said: 'But I remember that I told the officer off'. So I said to him: 'No, you didn't — you didn't tell the officer off. You didn't even tell General Adnan Thabit that this officer was committing human rights abuses against these prisoners'. And he was silent. He didn't comment or answer. I was surprised by this."

According to General Muntadher: "He wanted to know specifically: did I have any information about him, James Steele? Did I have evidence against him? Photographs, documents: things which proved he committed things in Iraq; things he was worried I might reveal. This was the purpose of his visit.

"I am prepared to go to the international court and stand in front of them and swear that high-ranking officials such as James Steele witnessed crimes against human rights in Iraq. They didn't stop it happening and they didn't punish the perpetrators."

Link to video: James Steele in Iraq: only known video footage:

Steele, the man, remains an enigma. He left Iraq in September 2005 and has since pursued energy interests, joining the group of companies of Texas oilman Robert Mosbacher. Until now he has stayed where he likes to be – far from the media spotlight. Were it not for Bradley Manning's leaking of millions of US military logs to Wikileaks, which lifted the lid on alleged abuses by the US in Iraq, there he may well have remained. Footage and images of him are rare. One video clip just 12 seconds long features in the hour-long TV investigation into his work. It captures Steele, then a 58-year-old veteran in Iraq, hesitating, looking uncomfortable when he spots a passing camera.

He draws back from the lens, watching warily out of the side of his eye and then pulls himself out of sight.


Donald Rumsfeld must be indicted over Iraq militias

What he knew of detention centres is not the only point. He was in charge, and if he had a plan the militias wouldn't have existed

Richard Norton-Taylor, Thursday 7 March 2013 12.25 GMT   

If there were any lingering doubts about whether the former US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, should be indicted before a criminal court, evidence that he asked a veteran of American dirty wars in central America to help set up vicious sectarian militias in Iraq should end them once and for all.

A Guardian investigation reports that Colonel James Steele, a special forces veteran, was nominated by Rumsfeld to help organise paramilitaries to quell a growing Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Steele reported directly to Rumsfeld. The paramilitary groups were drawn from Shia militia and set up detention centres where Iraqis were tortured.

What Rumsfeld and his Pentagon officials knew precisely about these centres is not the only point, or even the main one. These militias would not have been needed, the Sunni insurgency might never have happened, had he worked out even a most elementary basic plan for what to do after the invasion of Iraq. Having ripped responsibility from the US state department for post-invasion planning, his first crime was to fail to take any responsibility himself.

Rumsfeld's notorious "stuff happens" response to looting rampages in Baghdad reflected the most cynical complacency. In evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely, the UK's senior military representative in Baghdad at the time, quoted Rumsfeld as saying growing attacks in 2004 were the work of a "bunch of no-hopers".

Rumsfeld's covert decisions, now exposed, suggest such complacency was mere rhetoric.

His failure to take on the responsibilities of an occupying power – that was what US and UK forces were, in law as well as practice – was in clear breach of obligations laid down in the Geneva conventions.

His appointment of Paul Bremer as head of the so-called coalition provisional authority – in effect governor of Iraq – and their decision to banish Ba'ath party members and the Iraqi army, compounded the felony, leaving a huge and dangerous vacuum which was filled by assorted criminals, insurgents, and the kind of Shia militia exposed in the Guardian.

Some of those Shia militia attacked and killed British troops in Basra who were themselves in part the victims of a failure to adopt any kind of coherent or responsible plan about what to do after the invasion.

Senior military commanders made it quite clear to this writer soon after the invasion that they believed there was sufficient evidence to indict Rumsfeld and his cohorts. Strong criticism of Rumsfeld and Bremer is a theme running through evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, in autobiographies and in reports by Commons committees.

The next question is how far is the then British government, and Tony Blair in particular, implicated. His senior military advisers, and senior Whitehall officials, vented their anger and frustration, first privately and later more publicly, at Rumsfeld and his Pentagon. Blair, his foreign secretary, Jack Straw and defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, may have vented their frustration too. There is no evidence they actually did so, indeed that they would even have dared, as far as Washington was concerned, to say boo to a goose .

In any case, Rumsfeld was in charge, and was allowed to do anything he pleased, whatever his obligations under international law, and whatever those in charge of America's closest ally, Britain, might have said.

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03/07/2013 01:01 PM

America's New Mommy Wars: An Elitist Assault on Working Women?

By Joanne Bamberger

Two high-profile working mothers in America claim they aren't setting off the 2013 version of the "mommy wars," but in light of their recent actions, it's hard to view the perspectives of Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo's Marissa Mayer any other way.

Facebook's Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg has for years publicly voiced her opinion that American women should stop shying away from their place at the leadership table and insist on gender equality, even after becoming mothers. She is saying that women should stop "leaning back" from their careers once kids come along. The fact that Sandberg has tons of domestic help and a husband whose job allows him to manage a lot of their family responsibilities, mostly goes unmentioned in her line of argument.

In her new book, "Lean In," Sandberg has set her sights on European women, and, in fact, all women around the world, with her plan "to create a global community dedicated to encouraging women to lean in to their ambitions."

At the same time, Yahoo!'s CEO Marissa Mayer's "no more working from home" edict set off a storm among American working moms, so much so, that some are saying the actions of Sandberg and Mayer have created an elitist two-front assault on working moms.

Serious Guilt To Pass On

There's nothing wrong with encouraging women to live up to their professional potentials or saying that there are times when employees -- men and women alike -- need to make an appearance in an office setting. But the tools of choice in these latest developments to impact working parents aren't good ones, and they all ignite a twinge of guilt it's hard to get past.

While Sandberg suggests that there are public policy barriers to the professional advancement of women, the theme of her book isn't subtle -- she wants to hold women accountable for their professional shortcomings by pushing them to spend less time with their kids, get their spouses to shoulder more of the family burden and to acknowledge that women are their own worst enemies in the workplace. That's some serious guilt to pass on to working women who are trying to keep work and family in some sort of balance.

Mayer's recent workplace edict -- though it only applies to a few hundred Yahoo! workers -- sets the stage for other companies to roll back flex-time options for beleaguered working families. I suspect Mayer's custom-built nursery next to her Yahoo! office is something most working women with newborns would be excited to have as a workplace perk.

Mom guilt is almost always in the air for America's working women. Sandberg and Mayer -- who recently said that having a baby and continuing to work "has been way easier than everyone made it out to be" -- make it sound like they understand the work/life problems of the average American mom. But it's hard to ignore that they live in a penthouse atop the San Francisco Four Seasons (Mayer) and a 9,000-square-foot mansion (Sandberg) and hold positions of power that allow them to leave their offices at 5:30 p.m.

Young working women without children in America might view the two managers as modern leaders of the feminist movement, charging head-long into a new wave of professional empowerment. I very much doubt, though, that global women will see the Facebook COO or the Yahoo! boss as the 21st century version of Simone de Beauvoir.

Arguments Will Strike Out in Europe

Sandberg's book and Mayer's edict probably won't be well received by Dutch women, who seem to believe that happiness in life isn't all about a 60+ hour work week or breaking through a glass ceiling. What about French women, whose attitudes toward work and family were described by American writer Judith Warner as follows?

"In France," she writes, "mothers are expected to take time for themselves. Their lives are made easier by social supports such as high-quality childcare and generous parental-leave policies." French mothers, in Warner's view, enjoy a lifestyle that Americans might find almost incredible. "Guilt just wasn't in the air," she says.

Sounds like both Sandberg and Mayer will strike out there. British news reports express skepticism about Sandberg's approach. As for German women, I'm not sure if they are going to take kindly to advice from American corporate mothers with millions of dollars in stock options.

Can European women "lean in" if they so desire? Do they want the flexible working arrangements that Mayer has for herself, but that she is hesitant to bestow on her employees? I have no doubt that both are true. But just as with many American women, it has to be their decision about what's best for their lives and their families, and not about falling victim to executive women who think they know what's best for everyone around the world.

Joanne Bamberger, a journalist and mother, is the author of "Mothers of Intention: How Women in Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America".


03/07/2013 11:34 AM

Storming the Corridors of Power: A Manifesto for Working Women

By Britta Sandberg

Silicon Valley executive Sheryl Sandberg has written a new book in which she calls upon women to storm the corridors of power. The senior Facebook manager has unleashed a new debate about feminism and female ambition that is likely to spread beyond the United States.

The episode with the ladies' room must have been truly unsettling to Sheryl Sandberg, because she mentions it in the first few pages of her new book. It happened in a conference room in New York, in one of those movie-set offices with a 360-degree view of Manhattan.

Sandberg had been named chief operating officer of Facebook two years earlier, and now she and her team were giving a presentation to a private equity firm -- at a conference table surrounded by men.

When the presentation was interrupted for a break after two hours, Sandberg asked where the ladies' room was. The firm's senior partner turned around and offered a blank stare. Stumped by the question, he said he didn't know where it was located. The company had moved into the offices a year earlier.

"Am I the only woman to have pitched a deal here in an entire year?" Sandberg asked.

"I think so," the client replied, adding, "or maybe you're the only one who had to use the bathroom."

Sandberg, 43, is the mother of two children, one of the richest women in the world, a Harvard graduate, a former economist at the World Bank and later chief of staff for the United States Treasury Department and a vice president at Google. She has written down this story, like many others from her professional life, in "Lean In: Women, Work and the Will To Lead," a book to be published in the United States next week.

'Our Revolution Has Stalled'

She relates the story as evidence of the fact that the world still isn't the way she would like it to be, even 50 years after American feminist icon Betty Friedan made her famous plea for a woman's right to work. "It is time for us to face the fact that our revolution has stalled," Sandberg writes, noting that there are still myriad barriers and glass ceilings.

Sandberg is the kind of woman who likes to tell people that, when she was still nursing her daughter, she used to run an electric breast milk pump during conference calls at Facebook. If anyone asked about the strange noise on the line, she would say that a fire truck was driving by outside. Later, she decided to leave work at 5:30 p.m. each day so that she could eat dinner with her children. At first she left the office secretly, but then she did it publicly, and in doing so she did a lot of women a big favor. And although it's easier for a person at the top to leave work early or interrupt her workday so that she could finish her work in the evening at home, Sandberg still set standards by demonstrating that it was feasible -- even at the very top.

The next step in her campaign is a book that is being launched in a style befitting one of the Harry Potter books: with a party attended by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an exclusive 60-minute interview on CBS and a 40-page special in Cosmopolitan.

In her book, Sandberg quotes dozens of statistics and studies that document the plight of women in numbers. She writes, for example, that mothers who stay at home for a year because of a child see an average 20-percent drop in their salaries. Professional women spent twice as much time as their partners doing housework at home, and three times as much time taking care of children.

Women in management positions show less flexibility to move to other companies and new areas of responsibility than men, which hampers careers. Little American boys can imagine becoming president, but little American girls cannot.

'We Hold Ourselves Back'

None of this new, but what is original is Sandberg's answer to the question of why, in 2013, she remains one of the few powerful women in the American economy, an exception to the rule, in 10th place on the Forbes list of "The World's 100 Most Powerful Women," with an annual income of close to $31 million (€24 million).

It has to do with women themselves, she says. "We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in," she writes. "We internalize the negative messages we get throughout our lives -- the messages that say it's wrong to be outspoken, aggressive, more powerful than men. We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve. We continue to do the majority of the housework and child care. We compromise our own career goals to make room for partners and children who may not even exist yet."

This can't sit well with all those women whose approach to feminism has always meant holding men -- husbands, politicians, bosses -- responsible for the impasse. And there are many of them.

Criticism from all Quarters

Even before its release, the book is being berated from all sides. American newspapers promptly condemned Sandberg's criticism as an elitist and naïve way of looking at things. It isn't appropriate, Jodi Kantor writes in the New York Times, for Sandberg, as the owner of two large stock packages from Google and Facebook, as well as a 9,000-square-foot house with a small army of household help, to simply urge less fortunate women to work harder.

Author Joanne Bamberger even believes that the country is in for a new "Mommy War." While Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is just reintroducing the culture of being present in the office and getting rid of the home office, thereby placing women at a disadvantage once again, Sandberg is invoking feelings of guilt among America's women: guilt for not acting with greater ambition, guilt that gets passed on to "working women who are trying to keep work and family in some sort of balance." She sees Sandberg's ideas as a step back for working mothers, not as progress.

Is this true? Is Sandberg betraying the ideals of her champions? How so?

For years, Sandberg has made the problems of women in leadership positions her issue, because she believes that she knows something about them -- and because she has experienced all too often that women are not advancing professionally, even though they could. She also thinks it is no longer acceptable that only 21 of the heads of the Fortune 500 companies are women.

This debate is by default elitist, because it affects only a small number of women: those capable of rising to top corporate positions. But this doesn't make the debate any less important. Not every woman strives to achieve management positions. Other life decisions are also legitimate, as Sandberg repeatedly concedes. For everyone else, the tome contains many small truths and makes demands with which women can identify, regardless of their annual salary.

Breaking Through 'Internal Barriers'

Sandberg describes, for example, how women are still constantly underestimating themselves, don't sit down at the conference and shout "present," while the boys, not beset by doubts, clamor for new tasks, projects and positions. She wants women to finally shed the belief that as long as they do their work, someone will eventually stop by and place a crown on their heads. She warns women who want children against preventatively placing themselves on the reserve bench, just because they will eventually have to reconcile children and a career.

She also describes the many "internal barriers," gender-specific and acquired stereotypes, that have to be overcome and with which she too has struggled. Sandberg writes that it was only after her brother-in-law urged her to negotiate like a man for once, that she rejected the first offer she was given to join Facebook.

Women are constantly fighting against resistance, as she writes: "Imagine that a career is like a marathon ... a marathon where both men and women arrive at the starting line equally fit and trained. The gun goes off. The men and women run side-by-side. The male marathoners are routinely cheered on: 'Looking strong! On your way!'"

The female runners hear something different: "'You know you don't have to do this!" the crowd shouts. The episode ends with the question of why the women are running at all when their children need them at home.

It's yet another moment of truth.

The book is only the beginning of a large campaign. The next step will consist of "Lean In Circles," small clubs in which women seeking leadership positions meet once a month, educate themselves and learn the secrets of effective management. Sandberg wants to create a global community with the goal of encouraging women to be ambitious and "lean in."

Sandberg dreams of creating a social movement. The will behind it is both feministic and thoroughly politically correct. "We need more women in power," she says. "Only when the leadership demands different policies will anything change." One couldn't be more suspicious of men.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


United Nations: We must tackle taboos that sideline women for menstruation

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, March 6, 2013 15:25 EST

Aid agencies and governments must tackle the taboos surrounding menstruation as sidelining the issue undermines the quality of life of women and girls, chiefly in poor nations, a UN body said Wednesday.

Poor education about menstruation, lack of access to sanitary napkins and painkillers for cramps, and inadequate washing and disposal facilities have a far-reaching impact on schooling, work and health, the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council said.

“From the moment a girl has her first period, she then menstruates for almost 3,500 days throughout her lifetime, every month,” programme manager Archana Patkar said.

“This is the unspoken, silent hygiene and sanitation issue,” she told reporters.

A major concern is that a lack of sanitary napkins and washing facilities means girls miss school because of their bleeding, she said.

“This has a huge fall-out, and many implications. Not only for schools, but also in the workplace, in markets,” she said.

“This is an issue that cuts across health, education, livelihoods and all development outcomes. It’s centre-stage.”

The Council pointed to research in India showing that only 12 percent of girls and women have access to and use sanitary napkins, that many have a poor understanding of menstrual hygiene, and that 23 percent of girls drop out of school after puberty.

“There are two billion women worldwide in the menstruating age group, between 12 and 50. At any given moment, 340 million women and girls are menstruating. So the scale of this is pretty huge,” Patkar said.

In developed countries women and girls have better access to products and materials, and facilities were also more widely available, she said.

She criticised beliefs in some societies — notably male-dominated ones — that menstruation is “impure”.

“Menstruation is a biological phenomenon which is responsible for future generations. We wouldn’t be here without it. So it’s really strange that we have all this silence, shame, secrecy and taboos around it,” she said.

“This has huge psychosocial implications for a young girl which carry right through to old age. It’s part of the disempowerment and disenfranchisement of women and girls.”

The Council groups UN agencies, governments and professionals, and focuses on improving the lot of the 2.5 billion people worldwide without access to basic sanitation.

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In the USA...

CIA seizes bin Laden son-in-law: report

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, March 7, 2013 7:37 EST

Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith was seized by CIA agents and taken to the United States after Turkey deported him to Jordan this month, a Turkish newspaper reported on Thursday.

Abu Ghaith, the former spokesman of the Al-Qaeda network, was seized last month at a luxury hotel in Ankara after a tip-off from CIA and was held there by the police despite a US request for his extradition.

Turkish authorities deported Abu Ghaith to Jordan on March 1 to be sent back to Kuwait but he was seized by CIA agents in Jordan and taken to the United States, the Hurriyet newspaper said.

His deportation coincided with a visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry to Ankara as part of a regional tour, it added.

The Turkish foreign ministry declined to comment on the report while the US embassy in Ankara told AFP: “We’re aware of the reports.”

Ankara considers Abu Ghaith a “stateless” person as he was stripped of his Kuwaiti nationality after appearing in videos defending the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and threatening further violence.

The United States wanted him extradited over his alleged connection to the attacks.

He appeared in a propaganda video in the aftermath of 9/11, standing beside bin Laden, who was killed in May 2011 in Pakistan in a covert US operation.

Abu Ghaith was detained in Turkey after he allegedly entered the country illegally from Iran.

He was freed by an Ankara court because he did not commit any crime on Turkish soil and local media claimed Turkey had hesitated to extradite him to the United States fearing it could become a target of Al-Qaeda.


Grayson: Obama must not give in to GOP’s ‘unquenchable thirst to hurt the needy’

By David Ferguson
Wednesday, March 6, 2013 14:44 EST

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) and freshman Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) announced Wednesday that they are drawing a “line in the sand” with President Barack Obama on cuts to social programs and possible deals to end the sequester. Grayson said that certain cuts are unconscionable and that progressives must rally against the Republican Party’s “unquenchable thirst to hurt the needy” and urge the president not to make cuts to programs that will disproportionately hurt the poor, the sick and the elderly.

Grayson and Takano have written a letter to the president stating that they will staunchly oppose any cuts to benefits in Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security “including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments that our constituents earned and need.” The congressmen hope that other Democrats and members of the House Progressive caucus will sign the letter as well.

On a Wednesday afternoon conference call with Bold Progressives announcing the letter, Grayson and Takano were joined by the National Organization for Women’s President Terry O’Neill, who also called upon legislators to make it clear that they oppose cuts to the social safety net.

O’Neill said, “Women are far more likely to be entirely reliant on Social Security for their monthly income because they work a lifetime at unequal pay.” Two thirds of minimum wage workers are women, she said, and minimum wage jobs are far less likely to have health benefits or retirement programs.

Grayson said that by cutting benefits in programs like Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, conservatives are “cheating old people, cheating sick people and cheating poor people.”

“It used to be that there was consensus on this,” he continued. “It used to be that Democrats and Republicans agreed that there should not be cuts in benefits to Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. People used to call Social Security the third rail of American politics. But now, Republicans are not only touching the third rail, they’re dancing on it.”

He said that he doesn’t doubt that there are many moderate Republicans, particularly seniors, who are baffled by the GOP’s “unquenchable thirst to hurt the needy, to hurt seniors, to hurt people who need medical care and just want to see a doctor when they’re sick.”

Economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) joined the call to explain that the “chained Consumer Price Index” or “chained CPI,” which has been offerred as a possible remedy or compromise in the Social Security Standoff is in fact a red herring. The chained CPI is a re-figuring of how costs of living are expected to increase through inflation.  The chained CPI is based on the idea that when faced with less financial resources, consumers will simply substitute other, cheaper items in their spending.

CEPR research found that reconciling costs via the chained CPI actually fails to take into account findings by the Bureau of Labor Statistics which indicate the seniors are far from typical consumers, needing more money for housing and health care than younger people. For many of the main costs faced by elder consumers, like medications, doctor’s visits and energy costs, lower-cost substitutes are simply not available.

“The people who want to claim that chained CPI is more accurate,” said Baker, “are either being dishonest, or they simply don’t know the research.”

Takano said that he joined the effort to halt cuts in benefits to the elderly, poor and sick because, “I believe in keeping the promises that we as a society have made.”  Cuts in the social safety net would be breaking a promise to the elderly, particularly after they have spent their working lives paying into the Social Security system.

The letter that he and Grayson are asking lawmakers to sign, Takano said, “is far from extreme. It’s a common sense position that we protect our seniors and the we honor the promise that we made to them.”


Republicans Disguise Their Economic Abuse of the American People as Debt Hysteria

By: Rmuse
Mar. 6th, 2013

Human beings with an ounce of intelligence look at their mistakes and successes, learn from them, and do their best to avoid bad decisions while repeating what they know is successful to spare themselves needless misery. In the 1930s, a Great Depression racked the world’s economy and Americans were fortunate their leaders took steps to protect the people with the New Deal, implemented a massive public works project, and passed regulatory laws to ensure economic disaster never threatened the survival of the nation again, but it took years for the people and the economy to recover. Despite the devastating effects of the Great Depression, the richest industrialists emerged with greater wealth than  they could possibly imagine as the rest of the population struggled to survive and if not for the New Deal, it is doubtful working Americans would ever recover, much less prosper. Fast forward to 2007 and deregulation, Wall Street malfeasance, and uninhibited greed created a Great Recession that decimated the economy and destroyed millions of Americans’ jobs, and like the Great Depression, the richest industrialists emerged with increased wealth beyond their wildest dreams as the economy recovered.

For two years after the Great Recession, President Obama and a Democratically-controlled Congress followed FDR’s path and passed financial reforms, created a tiny public works project (stimulus), and the economy slowly recovered. However, that is where the similarities between the Depression’s recovery and the Recession’s ended because Republicans obstructed every single attempt to jump-start the economy, implement financial reforms, or create jobs, and have been unrelenting in their attempts at eliminating New Deal provisions that protect the people. However, Republicans have fiercely protected the financial sector and assisted the richest Americans to increase their wealth by preventing them from contributing to recovery through tax cuts paid for with remorseless assaults on programs to assist struggling Americans, and through it all, they had overwhelming support from the wealthy that crashed the economy, and profited from the recovery.

Yesterday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average reached a new all-time high, corporate profits are soaring, and Americans are still struggling with declining wages and a new round of job losses Republicans celebrated with enactment of indiscriminate sequestration cuts. The wealthiest Americans who have grabbed 94% of wealth from recovery have been staunch supporters of Republican’s phony debt reduction rhetoric and campaigned vigorously to implement steep cuts to New Deal programs such as Social Security and anti-poverty programs they claim “we can’t afford” any longer. The sequestration cuts conservatives and Wall Street titans claim are necessary to grow the economy and create jobs have no effect on the rich, and yet groups such as “Fix the Debt” clamor for deeper cuts in a well-funded fright-inducing campaign to convince Americans that without massive cuts to Medicare, Social Security, safety nets, and Medicaid, America is doomed.

First, there is no crushing debt, or deficit, and making relentless cuts that kill jobs and take money out of the economy will not, have not, and can not grow the economy or hasten recovery. Still, Republicans and some Democrats parrot the “deficit reduction” meme with frantic alarm and particularly the blatant lie that cutting Social Security will affect the debt, or deficit, by one penny. Besides deliberately killing jobs, Republicans complain President Obama’s “out of control spending” is crushing the economy when the reality is reduced spending reduced fourth quarter GDP by .7% and the Koch brothers sequester threatens to cut up to 1.7% more in seven months of a ten year slash-and-burn campaign guaranteed to kill millions of jobs, create a recession, and increase poverty to levels unseen since the Great Depression.

There are those who ask; what do wealthy industrialists like the Koch brothers, Wall Street CEOs, and Republicans have to gain by killing jobs and creating a recession, and it reveals their ignorance of the after effects of the Great Depression and Recession. Remember, that after both of America’s flirtations with economic demise that created massive unemployment and widespread poverty, the richest Americans increased their wealth by unimaginable amounts, and they see another opportunity to emerge from an economic recession with greater wealth and power  to control the direction of the country for years. The Koch brothers, for example, became richer by billions of dollars during President Obama’s recovery, and yet they funded attempts to defeat his re-election bid so Willard could enact  deep austerity that has driven double and triple-dip recessions across Europe. A recession to enrich the wealthy explains the GOP’s austerity drive because they learned from living examples that the quickest way to create a wealth-producing recession is austerity that kills jobs, cuts domestic programs, and increases poverty among already embattled working-poor Americans.

Americans can hardly take much more economic abuse from Republicans, Wall Street CEOs, or Libertarian teabaggers panting to cut spending under the guise of debt or deficit reduction just to enrich wealthy industrialists. Barack Obama has presided over the sharpest cut in spending in 60 years, and the phony deficit is being reduced at levels that threaten to undo the meager recovery by starving the government of much-needed revenue better spent investing in infrastructure, renewable energy, and education, but that would mean a thriving economy that Republicans will never allow, not when there is wealth for their supporters in a recession.


American Legislative Exchange Council behind push to lower minimum wages: report

By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, March 6, 2013 20:42 EST

The conservative lobbying group Alec has been behind a major push against the pay rates of low-wage American workers by sponsoring or supporting scores of new laws aimed at weakening their protections, a new survey has found.

Since 2011, politicians backed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has hit the headlines for previous campaigns on voting rights and gun laws, have introduced 67 different laws in 25 different states on the issue.

The proposed laws are generally aimed at reducing minimum wage levels, weakening overtime protection or stopping the local creation of minimum wage laws in cities or states. Using language similar to “model bill” templates drafted by Alec, they were put forward by local politicians who are almost always Republican and affiliated with the powerful conservative group.

Critics say Alec is backed by powerful corporate groups who are seeking to draft legislation that serves their business interests. “Public scrutiny is the best weapon against their agenda,” said Jack Temple, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, which advocates on workers’ rights and drew up the report.

Eleven of the 67 bills eventually became law. They included an Arizona bill weakening public sector wage contracts, an Idaho bill preventing state and local government from adopting some wage laws and New Hampshire legislation that repealed that state’s minimum wage law.

The phenomenon has come as the US economy struggles to recover from the impact of the Great Recession. Even though corporate profits are high and the stock market has soared to new record levels, job growth has been tepid and real wages largely stagnant as the economy has shifted in a low-wage direction. One study has found that around 60% percent of jobs lost during the recession were middle or high wage whilst some 58% of new jobs in the recovery have been in low-wage sectors.

“With real wages for low wage workers already declining in the post-recession recovery, the last thing America’s workers need is frontal assault on pay and overall compensation by state legislatures,” said Christine Owens, Nelp’s executive director.

Indeed President Barack Obama called for a rise in the minimum wage in his state of the union address in January, though many experts see such a move as unlikely to pass Congress. Alec, meanwhile, denies it is attacking workers’ rights. “I feel that the Nelp report unfairly casts Alec as a suppressor or oppressor of American workers. We are not against employees of companies. Rather, we believe the market should dictate wages,” said an Alec spokesman.

Alec has come under fire several times in recent years for its campaigns. After drawing serious criticism from civil rights groups for its backing of “stand your ground” gun laws and also voter ID legislation, Alec decided last year to abandon campaigning on social policy issues in favour of concentrating on economic policies. © Guardian News and Media 2013


Who Needs Congress to Raise the Federal Minimum Wage?

By: Becky Sarwate
Mar. 6th, 2013

President Obama’s now legendary State of the Union address, delivered before a joint session of Congress last month, touched on several notable issues that the POTUS plans to incorporate into his second term agenda. As of midnight last Friday, we now know that one of the Presidents’ goals: the negotiation of a budgetary deal that would take the place of the unpopular sequestration maneuver, was a dismal failure. In part, the inability to secure a new plan can be blamed on an important miscalculation on the part of the POTUS. Believing (incorrectly it seems) that the GOP would place concern for the immediate cuts to defense spending above its commitment to opposing him at every turn, Obama played the waiting game – and lost.

So that’s one down from the State of the Union with many to go. The increasingly comprehensive paralysis on Capitol Hill inspires little confidence that deeply partisan issues like gun control and immigration reform will be dealt with in an expeditious and logical fashion. The majority of Americans have been placed in the same uncomfortable position as the Commander-in-Chief: gamely rooting for members of the House and Senate to do the jobs to which they’ve been elected, while suspecting a whole lot of nothing in the end. Our collective silver lining gut feeling, which is all we really have to sustain us at this point: is that somehow, someway, Congress will be divested of its ability to hold the fiscal, social and foreign policy of the nation hostage. It’s perfectly arguable that the rise of a viable third political party has never been more necessary.

We’ve grown so accustomed to our “do nothing” government as the root cause for so much of what ails our country, it’s often easy to forget that we really don’t have to depend on lawmakers to come to the rescue. Sometimes the solutions are just sitting there staring ordinary citizens and the private sector in the face.

Take, for example, President Obama’s stated intent to advocate for an increase in the Federal minimum wage. During this portion of the State of the Union address, the President framed the issue in this context: “Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour…This single step would raise the incomes of millions of working families.”

The minimum wage, which currently sits at $7.25 an hour, has held steady since 2009. The President is proposing an increase to $9.00 that would take effect in 2015. This is the sort of common sense idea that one might expect could be embraced by members occupying both side of the political spectrum. Of course, that’s not true. The opposition from the business community is to be expected, and upon remembering that most of the Republican Party rests comfortably inside the corporate pocket, most of us are well prepared for yet another showdown.

But in considering the potential squashing of another effort to assist the beleaguered working and middle classes, it occurs to me that this isn’t an issue that should require Congressional intervention. In anyone else tired of reading about the record-breaking profits and hoards of cash enjoyed by American companies, even as workers struggle to hold onto jobs that pay them flat wages?

Call me naive but I’d like to see the media machine hold some freaking feet to the fire. For example, why is pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb planning to layoff nearly 500 additional workers, when 2012 fourth quarter profits were up over 22 percent? Why isn’t Anderson Cooper keeping the company and scores of other greedy operations like it, honest with these types of questions? Why is it continually viable to discuss making the economy work for business, without any concern for the people who are responsible for the flush state of a company’s bottom line?

Against the backdrop of a government “for the people, by the people” which does seem to serve all parties except individuals’ sense that revolution is inevitable grows more palpable. With regard to the increase of the Federal minimum wage, with a little partnership from the media, we shouldn’t need Congress to act. The Tea Party is supposedly all about individual initiative, right?


Cuts that Humiliate the Poor Are the Republican Drug of Choice

By: Adalia Woodbury
Mar. 6th, 201

Cutting government spending is the drug of choice for the Republican Party. They’re already looking for the next hit before the high from the last one wears off. Still high on Sequester, Paul Ryan is looking for the greatest buzz of all – trading Medicare in for coupons. He and the other Ayn Rand worshippers continue to spin the idea that killing Medicare is the best way to save it.

Other Republicans eye cheaper versions of the great buzz that combines the appearance of cost cutting with forcing desperate people to waive their constitutional rights. Steven Fincher’s Welfare Integrity Act  revives the age-old Republican myth about substance abuse and social assistance.

The buzz apparently comes from knowing that making people who need public assistance would have to go through the added humiliation of unconstitutional drug tests possibly forcing people to choose between survival and their constitutional rights. It’s a drug originally manufactured by Rick Scott and other Republican governors whereby people who are statistically less likely to abuse illicit substances than their job creator counter parts would be forced to pay an unnecessary test to prove they are innocent of substance abuse. Oh, the buzz of knowing that people who can least afford unnecessary drug tests can be forced to go without food to prove themselves innocent.

The buzz that comes from Fincher’s bill brings side effects of delusion – like the Florida study, released in 2012, that proved how unbuzzworthy the policy is. For one thing, there is little evidence to justify a presumed guilty until proven innocent policy toward people applying for social assistance. The government study found that someone who Republicans call a “job creator” is more likely to create a job for a drug dealer than someone on social assistance is. Of the 4,086 people tested under the Scott version of this law, only 108 people tested positive for substance abuse.

Moreover, the policy proved to be more costly for the state of Florida, which had to reimburse social assistance applicants who passed the test. The numbers, confirming previous estimates, show that taxpayers spent $118,140 to reimburse people for drug test costs, at an average of $35 per screening. The state’s net loss? $45,780. The buzz for Rick Scott came not only with perpetuating the myths about people who need social assistance and humiliating them for needing it, but because he would personally profit  from the mandated blood testing – notwithstanding that similar laws were already struck down by the courts because they violated the Fourth Amendment.

Before Michigan’s version of the same law was struck down  in 2003 only 10% of social assistance applicants tested positive for illicit drug use. Compare that with the fact that 70% of illicit drug users in Michigan were employed full time.

When Texas tried it, of the 51,000 people tested only 21 tested positive for illicit drug use. Rick Perry wasn’t going to let the history in Texas and other states including Florida get in the way of passing a law that would give a better high than mandatory testing for social assistance. He wanted mandatory drug testing for unemployment insurance too! Notwithstanding what the mandatory drug testing in exchange for public insistence revealed, the same source cut off their drug supply – the pesky courts that ruled the Fourth Amendment does indeed apply to poor people.

Fichner’s law shows there is no low to where the Republicans will stoop to get that buzz that comes from stigmatizing poverty while the same Republicans are doing all they can to create developing world levels of poverty while whining that the rich are too poor.


John Boehner Calls Obama Sick For Making It Tough on Republicans

By: Jason Easley
Mar. 6th, 2013

In an interview with CNBC, Speaker of the House Boehner said that President Obama is sick for making post-sequester life hard for Republicans.

In an interview with the always Republican friendly Larry Kudlow, Boehner whined that President Obama was making it tough for House Republicans. Boehner said, “The President is trying to make it tough on members of Congress. It’s just silly. I want to know who is being laid off at the White House. The Capitol is open for tours. We’ve been planning for this for months.”

John Boehner thinks it is sick that President Obama is trying to hold him and his House Republicans accountable for their sequester. Republicans apparently find anyone trying to hold them accountable for their own actions nauseating. The country has witnessed first hand that House Republicans don’t do accountability. They are all about manufacturing crisis situations that they can use as weapons for political gain.

What is really sick is the fact that Speaker Boehner has consistently lied to the American people. Boehner has said in interview after interview that the House had already passed a sequester replacement. The Speaker is well aware that the passage of the bill occurred in the last Congress, and is no longer valid. Yet, he has continued lie on a daily basis. What is even sicker than that is the fact that Boehner considers depriving 1.7 million people of food, “common sense cuts.”

The reason why Boehner is outraged is because Republicans don’t want there to be any visual evidence that the sequester is impacting the economy. Republicans have been claiming that the sequester would be painless. They have been selling these cuts as something that people won’t even notice. The problem for Republicans is that as time goes by people are going to notice. When workers start losing their jobs back home, House Republicans are going to have a huge problem on their hands.

Here’s a newsflash for John Boehner. President Obama is supposed to be making it tough on Republicans. Boehner wants Obama to roll over and give him everything that he wants. How dare the president actually stand up for working people? This president must be sick if he wants Republicans to be held accountable for their actions. Obama isn’t giving in. The president is going to give Boehner what he wants, so all the Speaker can do is whine how Obama is making life hard for him.

President Obama is doing his job. It’s too bad that John Boehner has no interest in doing his.

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North Korea: ‘Nuclear war may break out right now’

By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, March 7, 2013 22:41 EST

North Korea responded to new UN sanctions on Friday with fresh threats of nuclear war, the scrapping of peace pacts with South Korea and the severing of a hotline with Seoul.

The latest measures announced by Pyongyang ramped up tensions on the Korean peninsula that have surged since the North staged a third nuclear test last month.

On Thursday, the country had threatened a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States and South Korea.

Pyongyang is known for its bellicose rhetoric, but the tone has reached a frenzied pitch in recent days, fuelling concerns that it might trigger a border incident, with both North and South planning major military exercises next week.

North Korea “abrogates all agreements on non-aggression reached between the North and the South”, the state-run Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea (CPRK) said in a statement.

A non-aggression pact signed in 1991 endorsed the peaceful settlement of disputes and the prevention of accidental military clashes.

The CPRK said the pact would be voided as of Monday, the same day that Pyongyang has vowed to rip up the 1953 armistice agreement that ended Korean War hostilities.

“It also notifies the South side that it will immediately cut off the North-South hotline,” the committee said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

The hotline was installed in 1971 and the North has severed it on five occasions in the past — most recently in 2010.

Pyongyang’s latest announcement came hours after the UN Security Council beefed up existing sanctions on the communist state in response to its February 12 nuclear test.

The resolution adopted by the 15-member Council added new names to the UN sanctions blacklist and tightened restrictions on North Korea’s financial dealings, notably its suspect “bulk cash” transfers.

The new sanctions will “bite hard”, said the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice. “They increase North Korea’s isolation and raise the cost to North Korea’s leaders of defying the international community.”

China wants “full implementation” of the resolution, said its UN envoy Li Baodong, while stressing that efforts must be made to bring North Korea back to negotiations and to defuse tensions.

Prior to the Security Council meeting, the North Korean foreign ministry had threatened a “pre-emptive nuclear attack” against the United States and all other “aggressors”.

The United States responded by saying it was “fully capable” of defending itself and its allies — including South Korea — against any missile strike.

The CPRK statement Friday condemned the UN resolution as proof that Washington and its “puppets” in Seoul were “hell bent” on confrontation.

“North-South relations have gone so far beyond the danger line that they are no longer reparable and an extremely dangerous situation is prevailing on the Korean Peninsula where a nuclear war may break out right now,” it said.

The statement warned that the North Korean military would respond “mercilessly” to any intrusion — “even an inch” — into its land, sea or air space.

An annual US-South Korea military exercise known as Foal Eagle is currently underway and another joint drill is scheduled to begin Monday.

The North is also believed to be gearing up for nationwide military manoeuvres of its own next week, involving all three wings of its armed forces.

While most observers dismiss the North’s nuclear war threats as bluster, there are fears about the volatile mix of hair-trigger tension and military exercises.

“There’s always that risk of a miscalculation and rapid escalation,” said Dan Pinkston, a Seoul-based security expert for the International Crisis Group.

“Most of this is bluster, but the regime in North Korea is also signalling that it’s willing to take greater risks, and that’s a dangerous sign,” Pinkston told AFP.

KCNA said North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un on Thursday visited a frontline military unit involved in the shelling of a South Korean island in 2010.

During his inspection, Kim declared the North was ready for all-out war and that he would order attacks in all frontline areas in case of any provocation, KCNA said.


UN backs expansion of North Korea sanctions after nuclear threat

UN resolution condemns third nuclear test 'in the strongest possible terms' and warns the North against further provocations

Tania Branigan in Beijing and Ewen MacAskill in Washington, Thursday 7 March 2013 17.25 GMT   

The United Nations security council has voted unanimously to punish North Korea for last month's nuclear test with a toughened sanctions regime, hours after Pyongyang threatened to unleash a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the United States.

Secretary general Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister, said the resolution "sent an unequivocal message to [the North] that the international community will not tolerate its pursuit of nuclear weapons".

The decision by the 15-member council followed lengthy negotiations between the United States and China, the North's main ally. Measures range from tightened financial restrictions to cargo inspections and an explicit ban on exports of yachts and racing cars to the North, but experts say the real issue is enforcement.

North Korea immediately rounded on the UN with more threats, saying it would cancel a non-aggression pact with the South and end other bilateral measures such as a hotline between Pyongyang and Seoul.

China's UN ambassador Li Baodong said Beijing, Pyongyang's main trading partner, wanted to see "full implementation" of the resolution.

Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, told reporters that the measures would "bite hard". She added: "North Korea will achieve nothing by continued threats and provocations."

A foreign ministry spokesman in Pyongyang had threatened to launch "pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the headquarters of the aggressors" because Washington was pushing to start a nuclear war against it, in a statement hours before the UN vote.

Experts do not believe the North has managed to produce a warhead small enough to be mounted on a missile that could reach the US. They also pointed out that the original Korean language version referred to "invaders" rather than merely the "aggressors" of the English translation.

Jennifer Lind, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said that while the statement was disturbing, "North Korea has a long history of bluster and issuing threats that of course it does not carry out, [such as] its long term threats of turning Seoul into a sea of fire."

Earlier this week the North threatened to cancel the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War.

Thursday's resolution condemns the North's third nuclear test "in the strongest possible terms" as a flagrant breach of previous resolutions, which bar it from testing or using nuclear or ballistic missile technology and importing or exporting material for the programmes.

It aims to hinder those programmes but also targets the ruling elite. A ban on luxury exports was introduced in 2006, but countries could decide what fell under that rubric; this time, specific items are identified.

The resolution warns the North against further provocations and demands its return to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But it also stresses the council's commitment "to a peaceful, diplomatic and political solution" and urges a resumption of six-party talks.

All countries are required to freeze financial transactions or services that could contribute to the North's nuclear or missile programmes. Public financial support for trade deals that could assist the programmes is outlawed.

Countries must expel agents working for blacklisted companies from the North. They must inspect aircraft or vessels with suspect cargo and deny entry to those that refuse inspection.

Hazel Smith, an expert on the North at Cranfield University, said the key question was how rigorously the US implemented financial sanctions, citing tough measures taken by Washington towards the end of the Bush administration.

"They did have a major effect; they also paralysed diplomacy. But there is no diplomacy happening now," she said.

Analysts suggest the immediate reaction of the North is likely to be further angry rhetoric and possibly another nuclear test, as Pyongyang hinted earlier. South Korean government sources cited by Seoul news agency Yonhap said on Wednesday that the North had imposed no-fly and no-sail zones off its coasts, apparently preparing for military drills.

"North Korea will throw their usual histrionics about the resolution," said Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in Seoul in an interview prior to the latest threat.

"Every time there's an escalation the risk of confrontation increases. But neither side wants anything to happen."

At a Senate foreign relations committee hearing on North Korea, chairman Robert Menendez described the nuclear strike threat as "absurd and suicidal".

Menendez, a Democrat, was holding the hearing as the UN security council voted for the resolution. He welcomed the new sanctions but said the US needed to do more to combine sanctions and military countermeasures with strong and realistic diplomacy aimed at North Korea and China.

"There should be no doubt about our determination, willingness, and capability to neutralise and counter any threat that North Korea may present," Menendez said. "I do not think the regime in Pyongyang wants to commit suicide, but that, as they must surely know, would be the result of any attack on the United States."

Glyn Davies, the State Department's special representative on North Korea, warned of "costly consequences" for the country.

Its 12 February nuclear test, he said, represented "an even bolder threat to US national security, the stability of the region and the global non-proliferation regime".

Davies told the committee the Pentagon was working with its counterparts in Japan and South Korea to ensure protection against an attack.

The US would continue to look at unilateral sanctions against banks and other North Korean-linked bodies and seek to harmonise existing sanctions with other countries, he added.

The US will not engage in negotiations unless there is a fundamental change in attitudes in North Korea. "The DPRK leadership must choose between provocation or peace, isolation or integration," Davies said.

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« Reply #4960 on: Mar 08, 2013, 07:30 AM »

March 8, 2013

Killings Stir Fears of Ethnic Tensions in Chinese Region


BEIJING — At least four people were killed and eight injured in what appeared to be a knife fight in the city of Korla, a center of oil production in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, regional officials said on Friday.

The outburst of violence on Thursday put local residents on edge over a potential flare-up in ethnic tensions, a common occurrence in parts of Xinjiang where ethnic Uighur, a Turkic-speaking people, bridle at what they call discrimination by the Han Chinese, who rule China. The police ordered people to stay off the streets in parts of Korla after the fight, but the authorities had lifted that ban by Friday.

It was unclear from initial reports what led to the dispute behind the violence  —  whether it was mainly rooted in ethnic conflict or primarily involved other matters, such as money.

The fight broke out at a video game arcade and gaming parlor early Thursday afternoon on Thursday,  Li Taojie, a hotel manager in Korla, said by telephone. One version of the story circulating around Korla was that a young Uighur man had lost money at the gaming center and had demanded some of it back from the manager or owner, who happened to be ethnic Han, Mr. Li said. In another version, he said, the young man successfully won a lot of money from a machine, which upset the boss.

“We heard that the Uighur stabbed two Han people to death, and one Uighur died,” Mr. Li said.

The fight took place in what is known as the city’s “triangle business zone,” and the police cordoned off the area, Mr. Li said.

“At that time we were very scared,” he said. “Yes, I mean we Han people. At that time, we only knew that a Uighur had killed a Han, and we were panicked. We were very scared. But then we learned more, and everything returned to normal. It’s just a criminal case.”

An official at the Xinjiang regional propaganda bureau said Friday that four people had been killed and eight injured, but did not disclose their ethnicities. The official, who gave his surname as Li, said the police had detained one suspect.

In 2009, the worst ethnic violence in China in many years occurred in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, when Uighurs attacked Han in the middle of the city after a protest by Uighurs spun out of control. At least 197 people were killed and 1,600 people injured, most of them Han, according to the Chinese government. Uighurs said Han took retaliatory measures in the days following the Uighur rioting, and Han-dominated security forces detained many Uighurs.

In Beijing on Thursday, the Communist Party chief of Xinjiang, Zhang Chunxian, told reporters at a session of the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress that “although the situation remains tough, the overall stability in Xinjiang is improving and under control,” according to a report by Xinhua, the state news agency.

Using language typical of the party’s long-running propaganda efforts in Xinjiang, Mr. Zhang said the region would continue to oppose the “three evil forces” of separatism, extremism and terrorism. Uighur rights advocates say Communist officials exaggerate the threat of terrorist groups in Xinjiang in order to justify the use of repressive measures. Most Uighurs are Muslim.

Mr. Zhang also told reporters that Internet “rumors” about tense encounters involving Uighurs and Han threatened efforts at national unity. As an example, he cited Internet discussion about a fight that broke out last year between a Uighur street vendor and a Han customer over the price of a fruit-and-nut cake.

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« Reply #4961 on: Mar 08, 2013, 07:33 AM »

March 7, 2013

In Myanmar, Pro-Democracy Party Meets in Bid to Revitalize


YANGON, Myanmar — Nearly a quarter century after it was founded, members of the long-repressed pro-democracy party of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi gathered here for their first party congress, an attempt to revitalize a political organization that some of its own members say lacks competence, efficiency and effective midlevel leadership.

The party, the National League for Democracy, is trying to find its footing as Myanmar shifts toward democracy after years of rule by a brutal military junta and ahead of national elections scheduled for 2015. In those elections, the party will face the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which was created by the junta and now controls the majority of seats in Parliament.

The three-day meeting, which begins Friday, will feature the party’s first internal elections for its governing bodies, which until now had been appointed by the leadership.

Party leaders say thousands of people have joined the National League for Democracy in recent months. While the leadership wants to increase the party’s size and reach, the addition of new members has also generated tensions in the party, which is led by an aging group of former political prisoners.

Outside the headquarters of the National League for Democracy on Thursday, former political prisoners said they were wary of the newcomers, many of them defectors from the military-backed governing party.

Myo Nyunt, a doctor and former political prisoner, described the new members as “fishy and suspicious.”

For those who spent many years in prison, the notion of accepting members from a governing party run by former generals is jarring.

Dr. Myo Nyunt said he would vote only for party veterans, preferably former political prisoners he knew during his five years in jail. The comportment of people in prison is a good test of character, he said. He offered these test criteria: “Was he selfish in prison? Was he a good comrade who helped poorer prisoners?”

Around 900 delegates will attend the congress, and 120 people will be chosen for the party’s central committee. An instruction sheet handed out to delegates on Thursday said there should be no campaigning. “Delegates are not allowed to make recommendations among the candidates,” it stated. The party also banned members from giving interviews to the news media near the conference.

Win Tin, a senior party member, lamented what he described as the party’s deficit of talent.

“Most of the members are more or less mediocre at every level,” he said in an interview late last year. “They have no real leadership and no charisma.”

Delegates said that even before its official opening on Friday, the congress was off to a rocky start. Htun Tin, a delegate from Kachin State in northern Myanmar, who had traveled 20 hours by bus to the conference, said he was told to arrive at the headquarters at 10 a.m. to pick up his delegate’s access pass. He waited eight hours before it was ready.

“The head office has been slightly derelict in their duty,” he said.


March 7, 2013

Myanmar Reforms Could Falter, U.N. Investigator Says


GENEVA — Political reforms that are delivering greater freedom in Myanmar could falter if the authorities do not tackle some conspicuous failings, including continuing torture in prisons and discrimination against ethnic minorities, a United Nations investigator said in a report released on Thursday.

“Reforms are continuing in the right direction,” the investigator, Tomás Ojea Quintana, concluded in the report, written after a visit to Myanmar in February. But major shortcomings continue particularly in discrimination against the Muslim Rohingya minority and abuses in northern Kachin State, where the military has engaged in fierce fighting with minority rebels.

“Now is the time to address these shortcomings before they become further entrenched and destabilize the reform process,” Mr. Ojea Quintana said.

Despite the progress of reforms, “there remains a large gap between reform at the top and implementation on the ground,” he added. The Myanmar authorities offered no immediate, formal response to the assessment.

The report will be discussed next week at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council against a background of debate on whether it is time to reward the sweeping changes initiated by Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, by ending its designation as a “country of concern,” acquired during decades of ruthless military repression and abuse.

For that to happen, diplomats in Geneva suggest that Myanmar will first need to allow the opening of a United Nations human rights office in Yangon as it agreed in principle last year. United Nations human rights workers have paid three visits to Myanmar in recent months to negotiate terms but have been unable to reach an agreement.

Mr. Ojea Quintana’s report will also help to shape perceptions of Myanmar at a point when Mr. Thein Sein is touring Europe in search of aid and investment, seeking to dispel any lingering doubts about his government’s intentions after decades of isolation as a pariah state.

Speaking in Brussels on Tuesday, Mr. Thein Sein said his government had reduced the “culture of fear” in Myanmar, adding, “You have my promise we will continue on this path.”

Taking stock of the changes led by Mr. Thein Sein since he became president in March 2011, Mr. Ojea Quintana noted that Myanmar had released around 850 political detainees under a series of amnesties but said there were credible reports that some 250 prisoners of conscience remained incarcerated.

He expressed particular concern over the treatment of Rohingyas, a Muslim ethnic group, in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Clashes there between Muslims, including Rohingya, and Buddhists in October and November left nearly 200 people dead. Around 120,000 people are still displaced.

Mr. Ojea Quintana said he understood that the vast majority of the 1,100 people detained in the violence were Rohingya and that he had heard accusations that Muslims had been tortured and beaten to death in prison after the violence broke out last year.

He expressed concern at the inability of relief agencies to deliver humanitarian aid and health care, describing the camp for displaced people that he visited as resembling a prison and urging relocation of the displaced to avoid a humanitarian disaster in the approaching rainy season.

He also urged Myanmar’s neighbors to be more proactive in addressing the plight of Rohingya trying to escape the harsh conditions and insecurity in Rakhine, estimating that their numbers would reach 20,000 by April. Many flee in rickety boats, and Mr. Ojea Quintana said that hundreds had drowned. Humanitarian agencies say Bangladesh, India and Thailand have pushed back boats carrying Rohingya refugees in recent months. Mr. Ojea Quinta called for action to tackle corruption and trafficking linked to the movement of the Rohingya, saying that he had “received reports of the involvement of security officials in both Myanmar and receiving countries at every stage of the journey.”

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« Reply #4962 on: Mar 08, 2013, 07:35 AM »

March 7, 2013

Malaysian Troops Kill 31 Filipinos; Calls for Cease-Fire Are Rejected


MANILA — Malaysian security forces killed 31 Filipino gunmen on the island of Borneo, officials said Thursday, and the government rejected calls by the United Nations for an end to the fighting.

At least 60 people, including eight Malaysian police officers, have been killed in the nearly monthlong conflict over an effort by followers of a Philippine-based sultan to assert a historical claim over parts of Borneo Island.

“The secretary general is closely following the situation in Sabah, Malaysia,” said a statement from the United Nations released on Wednesday. “He urges an end to the violence and encourages dialogue among all the parties for a peaceful resolution of the situation.”

A spokesman for Jamalul Kiram III, the leader of the group fighting in the Malaysian state of Sabah, said the sultanate was declaring a unilateral cease-fire in reaction to the call by the United Nations.

He said an order was given for the group to take a “defensive position” and not to engage Malaysian troops.

“Malaysia, reciprocate the call for the cease-fire,” the spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, appealed at a Thursday afternoon news briefing.

The Malaysian defense minister, Ahmad Zahid, rejected the calls by the United Nations and the sultanate.

“A unilateral cease-fire is not accepted by Malaysia unless the militants surrender unconditionally,” he said in a statement, adding later: “Don’t believe the cease-fire offer by Jamalul Kiram. In the interest of Sabahans and all Malaysians, wipe out all the militants first.”

Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia told reporters on Thursday afternoon that the Philippine president, Benigno S. Aquino III, had telephoned him after the United Nations statement to get his reaction.

“I informed President Aquino that they need to surrender unconditionally and their weapons have to be handed over to us,” he said during a visit to Lahad Datu, the area where much of the fighting has taken place.

Malaysian officials have called for the extradition to Malaysia of the group’s leader in Manila.

Mr. Aquino said Thursday that criminal charges were being prepared against the sultan by the country’s National Bureau of Investigation, and he rejected calls for an immediate extradition. The Philippines and Malaysia do not have an extradition treaty, but they have a mutual legal assistance agreement that facilitates the capture and repatriation of fugitives.

“Let our citizens here in the country face the charges that we will be proffering,” Mr. Aquino said. “Then we will talk about other developments after they have satisfied the requirements of our laws.”

The situation began in mid-February, when about 200 people from the southern Philippines arrived in a remote coastal area of eastern Malaysia and announced that they were members of a royal army in service of the Sultanate of Sulu, which ruled the southern Philippines and parts of Sabah for centuries.

The group was initially received peacefully, but after multiple requests that they return to the Philippines, violence broke out.

The Malaysian authorities carried out several assaults against the group, using fighter jets, mortars and several battalions of ground troops.

Militant leaders in the Philippines have said that fighters from the restive southern part of the country would try to make their way to Sabah to act as reinforcements for the outnumbered Filipino fighters.

Malaysian and Philippine navy ships are patrolling the waters between the two countries to stop further incursions.

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« Reply #4963 on: Mar 08, 2013, 07:38 AM »

Further attacks on women in Delhi raise doubts over crackdown

Incidents follow measures such as fast-track courts after gang rape and murder of student sparked outcry

Jason Burke in Delhi, Thursday 7 March 2013 13.17 GMT   

A recent spate of attacks on women in Delhi has renewed fears over the safety of women in the Indian capital and raised doubts over the efficacy of reforms introduced since the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in the city last December.

Two women are reported to have been raped by multiple attackers in moving cars in separate incidents in recent days. A third woman was robbed and then raped by two men after taking a motorised rickshaw in the satellite city of Ghaziabad at the weekend.

Four victims under 18 were also assaulted in incidents reported to the police over the past four days, according to local media. Only a fraction of such attacks are ever reported in India.

The gang rape and murder in December shocked the nation. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in India calling for widespread legal and policing reforms as well as a wholesale shift in cultural attitudes towards women.

A series of measures – such as fast-track courts for sex crimes, harsher punishments for convicted offenders and gender training for policemen – have been introduced since the attack by authorities. The government was heavily criticised for its early lack of sympathy for protesters.

The finance minister last week announced a new fund of £120m to improve the safety and empowerment of India's women.

But reporting a 124% rise in reported rape cases in Delhi since the attack and a nearly sixfold rise in cases of harassment, the Hindustan Times newspaper said "the harsh reality is Delhi hasn't changed for the better, it has become worse".

Police officials say the rise is the result of officers taking complaints more seriously and a broader awareness in the city of what constitutes harassment. Five men and a juvenile are on trial for the attack on the student in December, which took place in a private bus moving on crowded roads on a Sunday evening.

The adults accused face the death sentence if convicted. Experts have suggested a variety of causes for the new wave of violence against women ranging from stereotypes of aggressive masculinity projected by Bollywood films to a clash of cultures as millions of men raised in rural areas arrive in cities where women enjoy greater freedoms. Conservatives blamed "westernisation", opposing a broadly rural, supposedly authentic India with an increasingly urban, globalised one.

Recent research in Delhi has revealed more mundane causes for high levels of violence and harassment. The lack of safe public transport in Indian cities is one major factor with "eve teasing", as sexual harassment is euphemistically known, endemic on overcrowded buses. A lack of toilet facilities in slum areas which forces tens of millions of women to use open ground at night is another.

A commission set up to examine possible measures to combat the wave of violence against women received tens of thousands of suggestions from the general public. In the southern state of Kerala officials are considering the distribution of "electronic bangles" which could send a signal to the nearest police station in the event of an assault.

There are some signs of change. Jason Temasfeld, an activist campaigning against sexual harassment in India's commercial capital of Mumbai, said there had been a "drastic change" in awareness in recent months. "Women know much more what to do and about their rights. And other people are much more vocal in reacting to harassment when they witness it. Even the police are more responsive," he told the Guardian.

The victim of the December attack was dubbed "Nirbhaya" or "the fearless one" by media in India for fighting back during the assault and for recording a statement despite massive internal injuries before she died. She will be posthumously awarded the US state department's international women of courage award on Friday by Michelle Obama, it was announced earlier this week.

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« Reply #4964 on: Mar 08, 2013, 07:48 AM »

Hungary: ‘Fidesz blockaded’

8 March 2013
Népszabadság, 8 March 2013

Several dozen demonstrators protesting against yet more changes to Hungary’s constitution on Thursday occupied the the courtyard of the building where Fidesz, the ruling conservative party, has its headquarters.

On March 11, the parliament in Budapest is set to vote on further changes to the Fundamental Law, which has replaced the constitution since January 1, 2012 — the fourth such vote in two years.

The Orbán government says the changes are simply technical modifications, while the demonstrators insist that the "fourth amendment" is a threat to democracy.

The changes to the constitution has also attracted criticism from the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council. Another opposition demonstration will be held in front of the Hungarian parliament building on March 9.
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