May 8, 2013
Prospect of Iran’s Election Stirs Little Hope This Time Around
By THOMAS ERDBRINK
TEHRAN — Iran’s state television broadcast a live program on Tuesday in which passers-by were placed in a chair and asked what they would do if they were president.
One man said he would “work for the people.” A second jumped up when he heard the question. “I don’t want this chair!” he said.
Suddenly, a young woman grabbed the microphone. “This program is nonsense,” she said. “Those who really sit on this chair are only there to fill their own pockets.”
The program rapidly broke for a commercial, but it was a rare and revealing unscripted moment in the strictly controlled run-up to the presidential election on June 14.
Iran’s 2009 presidential election was an exuberant and exciting spectacle that aroused a powerful surge of optimism in the populace but that ended with the trauma of a violent crackdown. This year’s vote, taking place under starkly different circumstances, promises to be far more subdued.
For most, the enthusiasm of 2009 has been replaced, for now at least, with an indifference bred of fear and fed by a lack of charismatic candidates. There is little talk of a boycott, but no enthusiasm or expectations that the election will make any difference in people’s lives.
Today, most of the leading figures of the 2009 opposition — politicians, dissidents and journalists — have been silenced or fled the country. Many of them are still in jail, while the two presidential challengers and leaders of the so-called green movement, Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, remain under house arrest.
Many still feel cheated, if not by the outcome of the vote, which many here viewed as fraudulent, then by the way their complaints were swept aside by security forces on the streets of Tehran.
“I gave my vote to Moussavi four years ago, and they answered me with their batons,” said Asiye, 32, a bookkeeper who, like the others in this article, did not want to be identified for fear of retribution. “I’m not saying I will not vote now, but if I do, it will be for the candidate that is most critical of the ruling system.”
As next month’s election nears, there are a few voices saying openly — and carefully — what many have been saying for a long time behind closed doors. On Saturday the former president Mohammad Khatami, himself long sidelined, blasted the “suffocating security atmosphere” in the country.
“The trust between the government and the people is torn,” he said. “The youths and middle classes have lost all their hope.”
But Mr. Khatami is an establishment figure, many here believe, perhaps tolerated by the government as one who lacks a strong following and poses little more than a rhetorical challenge.
In contrast to the carnival atmosphere of 2009, when people lined the streets night after night in the weeks leading up to the vote, now most potential voters are consumed by worries over the ailing economy, double digit inflation and insecurity over the political direction of the Islamic republic.
But there is no indication that people are interested in going back out on the streets, and if they vote, many say, it will be only to seek revenge on the system.
“Who can stand up to those in charge?” said Ali Akbar, 28, a muscular man standing in a bookstore on Enghelab Street in Tehran. “I will vote for him.”
But compared with other years, the playing field is extremely unclear, and emotions could change once the candidates declare their intention to run, which will happen by Saturday. The final candidates will be vetted later by the Guardian Council.
Besides the candidates fielded by the powerful traditionalist faction of clerics and Revolutionary Guards commanders, many in the country are waiting to see whether President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s right-hand man, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, will run. Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, a former president, is said to be considering it.
Despite the trauma of nearly six months of unprecedented street clashes in 2009, there is no talk of a boycott, even among the former opposition members. Neither are those who backed the green movement rallying behind one candidate.
“I will vote for one of them,” said Asiye, the bookkeeper. “They will end this horrible status quo.”
At a wedding recently near the city of Karaj, northwest of Tehran, two women summed up the dilemma facing those who live in Iran but are critical of the governing system.
“We need to elect the least worst of the bad,” Simin said as she ate a salad. “That way we might get some sort of change.”
But her friend Maral was not so sure. “Last time we saw what they did with our vote,” she said. “I will never vote again.”
Many in Iran’s larger cities say they are concentrating on their private lives. Melancholy has taken hold of many.
Just before a recent performance of “Your Eyes,” a monologue written and performed by the renowned actress Bahareh Rahnama, a former vice president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, slipped in through a side door with his teenage daughter.
Mr. Abtahi, looking frail, smiled shyly after several people in the audience got up from their seats as a sign of respect.
He was among the first prominent Iranians to be declared an enemy of the state after the 2009 election. Months later he appeared in a televised mass trial, where he confessed to taking part in a plot to overthrow the government.
Now out of prison, he said a return to politics was not in his plans. “What would be the use?” he said. “There is no more place for us. They don’t listen to us.”
At one point in the play, Ms. Rahnama, 38, looked around the theater as tears rolled down her moonlike face, until her green eyes locked with those of the people in the first rows.
“Damn this cancer called nostalgia,” she sobbed. “Damn the past.”
May 8, 2013
China Dips a Toe Into Middle East Peace
By EDWARD WONG and CHRIS BUCKLEY
BEIJING — China took a modest step into Middle East diplomacy this week, hosting back-to-back visits from Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.
But this was not exactly Camp David by the Forbidden City.
The fact that the visits were timed so the two leaders would not meet — Mr. Abbas left Beijing on Tuesday, and Mr. Netanyahu arrived Wednesday after a swing through Shanghai — signaled that neither they nor Xi Jinping, China’s leader, were ready for actual talks. But Mr. Xi did present a four-point peace proposal to Mr. Abbas, which, though it did not contain any breakthrough ideas, hinted that China had given some thought to playing a more energetic, if very limited, role as mediator in one of the world’s most protracted conflicts.
“As China’s economy, national strength and international status grow, Arab countries are looking more to China,” said Guo Xiangang, a vice president of the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing who follows China’s relations with Middle Eastern nations. “The expectations they place on China are growing.”
In their meeting on Wednesday afternoon, Prime Minister Li Keqiang of China told Mr. Netanyahu that “the Palestinian issue is a core issue affecting the peace and stability of the Middle East, and a peaceful solution reached through dialogue and negotiations is the only effective answer,” according to Xinhua, the state news agency.
“As a friend of both Israel and the Palestinians, China has always maintained an objective and fair stance, and is willing to strive together with all sides to actively advance the Middle East peace process,” Mr. Li said.
China has been careful to take a clear and consistent but not strong stand on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. China has growing trade ties with Israel — the value of their trade relationship has been estimated in official Chinese news reports to be nearly $10 billion a year — but it supports Palestinian statehood and relies on crude oil imports from Iran and Arab nations to meet its energy needs. About half of China’s oil imports come from the Middle East, and that dependency is expected to deepen.
The core of the four-point plan that Mr. Xi presented to Mr. Abbas was the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, based on the 1967 boundaries and with East Jerusalem as its capital. The plan was a formal version of China’s traditional stand on the conflict.
At the United Nations, where China sits on the Security Council, Mr. Abbas has pushed for greater status for the Palestinians, which has drawn economic reprisals from Israel and has led to a reduction in donations from foreign supporters. On Tuesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said at a news conference that Israel had to halt the building of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, stop violence against innocent civilians and end the blockade against the Gaza Strip to clear the way for peace talks.
But China’s measured stand on the conflict was evident in some of Mr. Xi’s comments during his meeting with Mr. Abbas. “Israel’s right to exist and its reasonable security concerns should be fully respected,” Mr. Xi said, according to a report by Xinhua.
China’s position is also complicated by its strong support of Iran and various Arab nations. Iran, with its nuclear program, is one of the greatest security concerns for both Israel and the United States. China has sided with Russia to try to impede Western proposals for greater actions against Syria, which is a close ally of Iran and has been using bloody means to try to stamp out a rebellion.
Syria accused Israel of carrying out airstrikes last weekend on military targets outside Damascus. Ms. Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, was asked at the news conference Tuesday whether Chinese leaders would raise the airstrikes with Mr. Netanyahu. “China and Israel are maintaining communication,” she said.
Despite the spotlight on the visits by Mr. Abbas and Mr. Netanyahu, China is likely to remain a muted political actor in the Middle East, analysts of the region said. Beijing sees little to gain from being entangled in distant and often seemingly intractable disputes, said Yin Gang, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
“China is a long way from the Middle East, and it can’t even reach a good solution to its own regional problems: North Korea, the Diaoyu Islands, the Philippines, Vietnam,” Mr. Yin said. “Even if China becomes a superpower with an economy on par with the United States’, it still won’t play a major role in the Middle East.”
China’s ideological flexibility on the Middle East and North Africa was evident during the recent Libyan revolution. China refused to support Western-led military support of the rebels fighting Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, then intensified its relations with the rebels when it became obvious that Colonel Qaddafi’s government would fall.
Mr. Netanyahu’s talks with Chinese leaders are likely to be dominated by bilateral issues, including economic ties. The positions of both sides on Iran’s nuclear program and on the bloodshed in Syria are too clear and entrenched to expect any shifts from the talks, said Mr. Yin and Mr. Guo, the two scholars.
“Israel’s biggest concern is still Iran; it worries that Iran will develop nuclear weapons technology, and it’s looking for the international community to intensify economic sanctions and other pressure,” Mr. Guo said. “But China’s position is clear: it opposes military strikes against Iran and maintains that sanctions need to be measured.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s trip to China is the first by an Israeli leader since 2007. In Shanghai, he visited a memorial to refugees who fled to the city from the Holocaust in Europe. Xinhua reported that in his meeting Tuesday with Yang Xiong, the mayor of Shanghai, Mr. Netanyahu said: “Israel-China cooperation in the fields of science, technology and manufacturing can result in a perfect partnership. The difference between cooperating with China and other countries is that the effect can be more than tenfold, rather than just one- or twofold.”
Edward Wong reported from Beijing, and Chris Buckley from Hong Kong. Patrick Zuo and Sue-Lin Wong contributed research from Beijing.
May 8, 2013
U.S. Fears Russia May Sell Air-Defense System to Syria
By MICHAEL R. GORDON
WASHINGTON — The United States, which is trying to bring Syrian rebels and the Syrian government to the negotiating table, is now increasingly worried that Russia plans to sell a sophisticated air defense system to Syria, American officials said Wednesday.
Russia has a long history of selling arms to the Syrians and has a naval base in the country. But the delivery of the Russian S-300 missile batteries would represent a major qualitative advancement in Syria’s air defenses. The system is regarded as highly effective and would limit the ability of the United States and other nations to operate over Syrian airspace or impose a no-fly zone.
It is also able to track and fire missiles at multiple targets, including aircraft and some missiles.
“There are concerns that this might happen,” said a senior United States official who spoke on the condition of anonymity, referring to the possible delivery of the S-300. A Western intelligence service has also warned that the Russians may soon send S-300 air defense batteries to Syria, said another American official who asked not to be identified because he was discussing intelligence reports.
News of the possible Russian sale, which was first reported online by The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday evening, came less than a day after Secretary of State John Kerry sought to enlist Russia’s help in facilitating a political transition that would supplant President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Russia and Iran have supported Mr. Assad politically and have provided military support — support that American officials say has fortified Mr. Assad’s determination to hang on to power.
American officials had been concerned that Russia might sell S-300 air defense batteries to Iran. But after the United States and Israel raised alarms, the weapons were not provided to the Iranians.
While Syria’s air defenses are formidable, Israel has successfully carried out three airstrikes to stop the suspected transfer of advanced weapons from Syria to Hezbollah. In carrying out its attacks, Israeli warplanes flew over neighboring Lebanon and fired air-to-ground weapons at their targets, American officials said.
The possible S-300 sale comes as the United States and its allies are struggling to find a way to end the fighting in Syria, which has killed more than 70,000.
The White House announced Wednesday that Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain planned to meet with President Obama next Monday in Washington. One subject they will take up will be Syria, the White House noted in a statement.
British and French officials have said that they hope to modify or do away with the European Union ban on arms sales to Syria, which has precluded Western European nations from providing weapons to the Syrian opposition. That embargo is scheduled to expire at the end of May. The Obama administration is also weighing expanding the modest level of nonlethal aid it is giving to the armed Syrian rebels.
Still, while the United States and its allies are seeking to bolster the Syrian opposition, American officials have said that only a negotiated political transition holds the promise of building an inclusive and stable Syria if Mr. Assad is deposed.
To that end, the Americans have sought Russia’s cooperation. Before his meeting with Mr. Putin on Tuesday, Mr. Kerry said that he hoped the two sides would find “common ground” on Syria. He made no mention of Russia’s arms sales to Syria.
Free Syrian Army rebels defect to Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusra
The well-resourced organisation, which is linked to al-Qaida, is luring many anti-Assad fighters away, say brigade commanders
Mona Mahmood and Ian Black
The Guardian, Wednesday 8 May 2013 20.14 BST
Syria's main armed opposition group, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), is losing fighters and capabilities to Jabhat al-Nusra, an Islamist organisation with links to al-Qaida that is emerging as the best-equipped, financed and motivated force fighting Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Evidence of the growing strength of al-Nusra, gathered from Guardian interviews with FSA commanders across Syria, underlines the dilemma for the US, Britain and other governments as they ponder the question of arming anti-Assad rebels.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, said that if negotiations went ahead between the Syrian government and the opposition – as the US and Russia proposed on Tuesday – "then hopefully [arming the Syrian rebels] would not be necessary".
The agreement between Washington and Moscow creates a problem for the UK and France, which have proposed lifting or amending the EU arms embargo on Syria to help anti-Assad forces. The Foreign Office welcomed the agreement as a "potential step forward" but insisted: "Assad and his close associates have lost all legitimacy. They have no place in the future of Syria." Opposition leaders were sceptical about prospects for talks if Assad remained in power.
Illustrating their plight, FSA commanders say that entire units have gone over to al-Nusra while others have lost a quarter or more of their strength to them recently.
"Fighters feel proud to join al-Nusra because that means power and influence," said Abu Ahmed, a former teacher from Deir Hafer who now commands an FSA brigade in the countryside near Aleppo. "Al-Nusra fighters rarely withdraw for shortage of ammunition or fighters and they leave their target only after liberating it," he added. "They compete to carry out martyrdom [suicide] operations."
Abu Ahmed and others say the FSA has lost fighters to al-Nusra in Aleppo, Hama, Idlib and Deir al-Zor and the Damascus region. Ala'a al-Basha, commander of the Sayyida Aisha brigade, warned the FSA chief of staff, General Salim Idriss, about the issue last month. Basha said 3,000 FSA men have joined al-Nusra in the last few months, mainly because of a lack of weapons and ammunition. FSA fighters in the Banias area were threatening to leave because they did not have the firepower to stop the massacre in Bayda, he said.
The FSA's Ahrar al-Shimal brigade joined al-Nusra en masse while the Sufiyan al-Thawri brigade in Idlib lost 65 of its fighters to al-Nusra a few months ago for lack of weapons. According to one estimate the FSA has lost a quarter of all its fighters.
Al-Nusra has members serving undercover with FSA units so they can spot potential recruits, according to Abu Hassan of the FSA's al-Tawhid Lions brigade.
Ideology is another powerful factor. "Fighters are heading to al-Nusra because of its Islamic doctrine, sincerity, good funding and advanced weapons," said Abu Islam of the FSA's al-Tawhid brigade in Aleppo. "My colleague who was fighting with the FSA's Ahrar Suriya asked me: 'I'm fighting with Ahrar Suriya brigade, but I want to know if I get killed in a battle, am I going to be considered as a martyr or not?' It did not take him long to quit FSA and join al-Nusra. He asked for a sniper rifle and got one immediately."
FSA commanders say they have suffered from the sporadic nature of arms supplies. FSA fighter Adham al-Bazi told the Guardian from Hama: "Our main problem is that what we get from abroad is like a tap. Sometimes it's turned on, which means weapons are coming and we are advancing, then, all of a sudden, the tap dries up, and we stop fighting or even pull out of our positions."
The US, which has outlawed al-Nusra as a terrorist group, has hesitated to arm the FSA, while the western and Gulf-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition has tried to assuage concerns by promising strict control over weapons. "We are ready to make lists of the weapons and write down the serial numbers," Idriss told NPR at the weekend. "The FSA is very well organised and when we distribute weapons and ammunition we know exactly to which hands they are going."
Syria's government has capitalised successfully on US and European divisions over the weapons embargo by emphasising the "jihadi narrative" – as it has since the start of largely peaceful protests in March 2011. Assad himself claimed in a recent interview: "There is no FSA, only al-Qaida." Syrian state media has played up the recent pledge of loyalty by Jabhat al-Nusra to al-Qaida in Iraq.
Western governments say they are aware of the al-Nusra problem, which is being monitored by intelligence agencies, but they are uncertain about its extent.
"It is clear that fighters are moving from one group to another as one becomes more successful," said a diplomat who follows Syria closely. "But it's very area-specific. You can't talk about a general trend in which [Jabhat al-Nusra] has more momentum than others. It is true that some say JAN is cleaner and better than other groups, but there are as many stories about it being bad." Critics point to punishments meted out by Sharia courts and its use of suicide bombings.
The FSA's shortage of weapons and other resources compared with Jabhat al-Nusra is a recurrent theme. The loss of Khirbet Ghazaleh, a key junction near Dera'a in southern Syria, was blamed on Wednesday on a lack of weapons its defenders had hoped would be delivered from Jordan.
"If you join al-Nusra, there is always a gun for you but many of the FSA brigades can't even provide bullets for their fighters," complained Abu Tamim, an FSA man who joined Jabhat al-Nusra in Idlib province. "My nephew is in Egypt, he wants to come to Syria to fight but he doesn't have enough money. Al-Nusra told him: 'Come and we will even pay your flight tickets.' He is coming to fight with al-Nusra because he does not have any other way."
Jabhat al-Nusra is winning support in Deir al-Zor, according to Abu Hudaifa, another FSA defector. "They are protecting people and helping them financially. Al-Nusra is in control of most of the oil wells in the city." The Jabhat al-Nusra media, with songs about jihad and martyrdom, is extremely influential.
Abu Zeid used to command the FSA's Syria Mujahideen brigade in the Damascus region and led all its 420 fighters to al-Nusra. "Since we joined I and my men are getting everything we need to keep us fighting to liberate Syria and to cover our families' expenses, though fighting with al-Nusra is governed by very strict rules issued by the operations command or foreign fighters," he said. "There is no freedom at all but you do get everything you want.
"No one should blame us for joining al-Nusra. Blame the west if Syria is going to become a haven for al-Qaida and extremists. The west left Assad's gangs to slaughter us. They never bothered to support the FSA. They disappointed ordinary Syrian protesters who just wanted their freedom and to have Syria for all Syrians."
Syrian rebels react coolly to Russian-US proposal for peace conference
Former opposition coalition leader warns Syrians: 'Be careful of squandering your revolution in conference halls'
Ian Black, Middle East editor
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 8 May 2013 14.07 BST
Syrian opposition leaders have reacted sceptically to a joint call by the US and Russia for an international conference to discuss the creation of a transitional government in Damascus to end the country's escalating 25-month crisis.
Moaz al-Khatib, who resigned last month as head of the National Opposition Coalition (NOC), the main western- and Arab-backed grouping, warned: "Syrians: be careful of squandering your revolution in international conference halls."
Walid Saffour, the NOC's London representative, said he was sceptical, though a formal decision had yet to be taken. Previous calls for negotiations with President Bashar al-Assad have caused bitter divisions in opposition ranks and been flatly rejected by armed groups.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, issued the call in Moscow on Tuesday after months of deadlock over Syria's bloody crisis. Officials from both sides hope representatives from the regime and opposition will attend. Russia remains Assad's staunchest ally and has opposed foreign involvement in the conflict, which has killed more than 70,000 people since it erupted in March 2011.
The vaguely worded proposal for new talks raises questions over calls in the US to arm the Syrian rebels – a position that is opposed vigorously by the Syrian government and by Russia. Kerry said that if negotiations were held, "then hopefully that would not be necessary".
It also creates a dilemma for Britain and France, which have proposed lifting or amending the EU arms embargo on Syria to help the anti-Assad rebels but have met opposition from other member states.
The US-Russia agreement was warmly welcomed on Wednesday by the joint UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, whose diplomacy has been stalled for months by divisions in the UN security council. "This is the first hopeful news concerning that unhappy country in a very long time," said his office. "The statements made in Moscow constitute a very significant first step forward. It is nevertheless only a first step."
The idea is based on the UN-convened conference held in Geneva in June last year, which left open the key question of what, if any role, would be played by Assad in a transitional government. The Syrian president has said repeatedly that he has no intention of standing down. The Geneva communique also called for an immediate cessation of violence.
"Before making any decisions we need to know what Assad's role would be," warned the NOC's Samir Nashar. "That point has been left vague, we believe intentionally so, in order to try to drag the opposition into talks before a decision on that is made. No official position has been decided but I believe the opposition would find it impossible to hold talks over a government that still had Assad at its head."
Suspicious responses by other observers and opposition supporters appeared to herald controversy over who would take part in talks and under what conditions. "What 'opposition' has the credibility and will to negotiate with the Assad regime?" asked Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Institution in Doha. "Geneva II is dead on arrival."
Colonel Qassim Saadeddine, a spokesman for the rebel Supreme Military Council, said the armed opposition would not get involved. "Unfortunately I don't think there is a political solution left for Syria," he told Reuters. "I think that is clear by now. We will not sit with the regime for dialogue. And frankly, I don't think Assad's decisions are really in Russia's hands. Right now he is only looking toward Iran."
In other developments, rebel sources reported the fall of Khirbet Ghazaleh, a key town in southern Syria, to government forces, because weapons the rebels had hoped would be delivered from Jordan had not arrived.
Niger offers hope of homegrown solutions to Sahel crises
Agencies must combine forces to overcome the effects of a trio of food crises in the Sahel, according to WFP's regional head
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 9 May 2013 12.40 BST
Those working to combat food insecurity in the Sahel need to "get their thinking together" and realise that it could take several years for the poorest families to recover from three successive regional droughts and hunger crises, says the new regional co-ordinator of the World Food Programme (WFP).
Denise Brown, who took up the post in early April after two years as WFP head of office in Niger, says an integrated approach between agencies is needed. "It's not an easy or quick job to build up people's resilience," says Brown, a Canadian who has previously worked in Somalia. "We're not dealing with a linear model of crisis followed by recovery any more. Humanitarians and development professionals need to work together to help the poorest – otherwise, we will be back in the same situation again and again."
Brown is hoping her experience in Niger – the worst affected country in the 2012 crisis, when about 5 million people went hungry and many thousands of children suffered severe malnutrition – will stand her in good stead to help WFP co-ordinate better regionally with other bodies such as the UN children's agency, Unicef, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation. She says the lack of joined-up thinking often goes back as far as appealing for funding at the point a food crisis becomes inescapable.
"Just the way funding has been structured in the past – differences between 'development' aid and emergency funding – has put us all in competition with each other."
In Niger, WFP has been looking for overlaps in several areas in which it works, such as food distribution and cash for work programmes. "It may sound obvious to outsiders, but if the agencies work together we're all stronger," says Brown, who claims better co-ordination is already taking place in school feeding programmes.
WFP has teamed up with Unicef to buy food from local farmers and to offer a "package" of relief services – food distribution, and water and sanitation programmes, for example – instead of each agency approaching communities individually. "It's a challenge for some people to agree not to lead on everything, but breaking down barriers doesn't make us all more fragile," she adds.
Brown's interest in better co-ordination has been influenced by watching the creation of Nigeriens Feed Nigeriens, or "Trois Ns" (in French, it is Nigeriens Nourissent Nigeriens). Led by the Nigerien president Mahamadou Issoufou, the initiative aims to tackle Niger's chronic food insecurity using homegrown methods. Trois Ns tries to pull together the work of different government departments, from agriculture to animal husbandry, and is aiming to increase food production and deal with the effects of the shortages at the same time. "In some ways, they're playing a similar role to what OCHA [UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs] does at the international level," says Brown.
Trois Ns was created almost two years ago, not long after Issoufou came to office following a coup. His predecessor, Mamadou Tandja, had been much less inclined to admit that Niger had a long-term food security problem, and the country was about to head into its third food crisis in eight years, following crises in 2005 and 2009.
The initiative has had some success – most notably co-ordinating the national response to severe flooding last year. Approximately 530,000 people were affected and the government spent 14,914 milliards to help farming families recover, chiefly through the rehabilitation of destroyed farmland and the purchase of 80,000 animals.
Trois Ns has also: increased the amount of land under small-scale irrigation by almost 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) in two years; opened up about 8,000 new wells; and created 10 river barrages to direct natural water courses to fields. As most families in Niger practise a mix of market gardening and small-scale animal husbandry, Trois Ns also tries to help pastoralists. It has trained new animal health and vaccination teams, given out 20,000 tonnes of animal feed during the 2011-12 dry season, and improved animal water sources and pastoralist corridors.
Aboubakari Koudiza, a Trois Ns spokesman, believes some of these initiatives contributed to the 5.4m tonne harvest last year, which was 49% higher than 2011 (although this was also due to a good rainy season). "We want to achieve full food security in Niger," he says. "We want everyone to have access to enough food for them to live a healthy and active life."
The precariousness of the situation for many of the poorest families across the Sahel is clear to see. Despite the good harvest in 2012, agencies are already sounding the alarm on hunger again, mostly because families have eaten all their stock and cannot afford much of the food available at local markets.
Brown believes that the Trois Ns' focus on building local capacity to deal with what seems to be becoming a permanent pattern of unpredictable rainy seasons and harvests should be translated to the regional level. "They know no one government department can do it alone," she says. "Here at WFP, we need to learn that. We've become better at responding when there is an emergency, but until now we've really fallen flat in our efforts to make something that will last."
May 8, 2013
Israel Moves to End Gender Segregation in Public Spaces
By JODI RUDOREN
JERUSALEM — Israel’s attorney general on Wednesday advised ministers across the government to immediately end gender segregation in public spaces, issuing guidelines that would change many aspects of daily life here — from buses to burials, health care to radio airwaves.
The attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, called on public agencies “to act fast, efficiently and decisively,” adding that “behavior aimed at preventing women from receiving public services with equal conditions” should be subject to criminal prosecution.
While the advisory itself is not binding, regulations and legislation that would be are widely expected to be adopted in the coming weeks, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu already having expressed general opposition to such segregation.
The sweeping ruling comes after several years of mounting tension and legal battles over the treatment of women in Israel’s public sphere, particularly the requirement that they sit in the back on bus lines through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, which set off civil disobedience campaigns involving many Jews from overseas.
The issue is part of a larger struggle over identity between the growing ultra-Orthodox minority and the rest of Israel, as Mr. Netanyahu’s new government moves to end widespread exemptions from the army for yeshiva students; integrate them into the work force; cut back subsidies that their large families rely on; and overhaul the curriculum in their schools.
“It’s a very important message saying we will not let religious extremism take over,” said Ronit Heyd, director of Shatil, a coalition of groups that fights segregation. “Israel can be both a Jewish and a liberal, democratic state. Once the religious law takes over the democracy, that’s where we’re in danger.”
Mr. Weinstein’s statement said that all seats on all buses must be open to everyone, with all passengers entering through the front door; that women must be allowed to deliver eulogies; that seating at public ceremonies must be mixed; and that signs advising women to dress modestly cannot be posted on neighborhood streets. It also gave the broadcasting authority six months to work out an arrangement with a prominent ultra-Orthodox radio station to end its ban on female broadcasters and callers from many programs.
Yedidia Z. Stern, vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said that most Israelis would welcome the changes, and that ultra-Orthodox politicians, who were shut out of Mr. Netanyahu’s current coalition government, had little chance of stopping them from becoming law.
But while Mr. Stern agrees with the prohibitions on segregation of buses and government or military ceremonies, he questions whether street signs in insular neighborhoods and radio programs geared to a narrow audience form a separate, quasi-public category that should be considered differently. And he worries that given the larger struggle over the integration of the ultra-Orthodox, the new rules could fuel the flames.
“From their point of view, this is a huge attack against their style of life, trying to change their identity, trying to convert them to something they don’t want to be,” Mr. Stern said. “Now it’s something that has to do with values. Not only should you be part of us and don’t have any benefits, but also we tell you how to behave. That’s how they will see it.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: May 9, 2013
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of director of Shatil, a coalition of groups that fights segregation. She is Ronit Heyd, not Hed.
Mars One says 80,000 have applied for one-way mission to red planet
Dutch company plans to choose crew for private mission with reality TV show, in order to meet $6bn cost
Adam Gabbatt in New York
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 8 May 2013 19.31 BST
Almost 80,000 people have applied to take part in a one-way mission to Mars, each of them completing a rigorous application that stresses the need for a "Can Do!" attitude, asks individuals about their sense of humour and requires the submission of an application fee that can be as much as $75.
Mars One, the Dutch company behind the proposed mission, says it has received applications from more than 120 countries. It also says that the role of Mars explorer/guinea pig is "the most desired job in history". More than 17,000 of the applicants are from the US – the most of any country so far.
"These numbers put us right on track for our goal of half a million applicants," said the founder of Mars One, Bas Lansdorp. "Mars One is a mission representing all humanity and its true spirit will be justified only if people from the entire world are represented. I'm proud that this is exactly what we see happening."
According to the company's chief medical officer, Norbert Kraft, Mars One is eschewing the usual astronaut candidates – scientists and pilots – in favour of YouTube fanatics and internet people, "because what we are looking for is not restricted to a particular background."
All applicants have to do is pay the application fee, which ranges from $5 to $75 – in the US, it is $38 – and then submit a video in which they answer three questions. The specific queries chosen by Mars One to select four people to represent the expansion of the human race are:
1. Why would you like to go to Mars?
2. How would you describe your sense of humor?
3. What makes you the perfect candidate for this mission to Mars?
After completing the gruelling application, Mars hopefuls will have to sit tight for a while. Mars One is hoping that 500,000 will have applied by the end of August. That number will be whittled down to 50 to 100 for each of 300 geographic regions identified by the company. By 2015, that number will be reduced to between 28 and 40 overall.
Those people will train for seven years; Mars One plans to run a reality TV show with an "audience vote" deciding who will ultimately get the nod. The $6bn cost has to come from somewhere.
Happily, Mars One is publishing people's video applications to their website, allowing peers to rank the videos on a scale of one to five. One of the best-rated applications is by Ilona, a Finnish, 23-year-old "critically discerning cosmopolitan" who says she is a "bookish diplomat by nature". At the time of writing, one of the least popular applications had been submitted by Michael, 26, from the US, who lists his interests as "Star Trek: "minus the deep
Click to watch Mars One Introduction film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=n4tgkyUBkbY
Click to watch Mars One Application Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7dhh9aR8OI&feature=player_embedded
In the USA...
US air force strips 17 officers of power to launch nuclear missiles
Nuclear missile unit's deputy commander says it is suffering from 'rot' within its ranks in leaked internal email
Dominic Rushe and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 8 May 2013 15.35 BST
The US Air Force has stripped an unprecedented 17 officers of their authority to oversee nuclear missiles, after a string of failings that the group's deputy commander said stemmed from "rot" within the ranks. The suspensions followed a March inspection of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, that resulted in a "D" grade for the team tested on its mastery of the Minuteman III missile launch operations system.
"We are, in fact, in a crisis right now," the group's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jay Folds, wrote in an internal email that was obtained by the Associated Press and confirmed by the Air Force. The Air Force had publicly described the inspection as a success.
The news follows a series of incidents in recent years that have uncovered major problems with the oversight of the US's nuclear arsenal. In 2007, airmen at Minot accidentally loaded a B-52 with six nuclear weapons. The aircraft then flew to Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. In another incident, nuclear weapons parts were mistakenly shipped to Taiwan. The defense department learned of the error in 2008, 18 months after the fuses for nuclear warheads were shipped.
Minot's crew are supposed to stand ready 24-hours a day to launch missiles on the president's command. A crew member was disciplined in 2008 for falling asleep on duty, while watching nuclear launch-code components.
The 17 officers were part of a team standing 24-hour watch over the Air Force's most powerful nuclear missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can strike targets across the globe. They were removed from duty in April. "You will be a bench warmer for at least 60 days," Folds wrote.
The suspensions are believed to be the most extensive ever. According to the email obtained by AP, Folds moved to discipline the crew after "such rot in the crew force" that a pattern of weapons safety rule violations, possible code compromises and other failings had arisen "all in the name of not inconveniencing yourselves", Folds wrote.
Folds said the crew had also questioned their superiors' orders and failed to show proper respect. An earlier inspection had been deemed "satisfactory" but problems had worsened, he said. "We are breaking you down, and we will build from the ground up," Folds wrote. In another message, he wrote: "It takes real leaders to lead through a crisis and we are, in fact, in a crisis right now."
Minot's latest crisis follows a 2008 Pentagon report that found a "dramatic and unacceptable decline" in the Air Force's commitment to the mission, which has its origins in a Cold War standoff with the Soviet Union. Ahead of the report the then defense secretary, Robert Gates, sacked the Air Force secretary and chief of staff. The Air Force has since taken numerous steps to improve its nuclear performance.
The Air Force told AP that the latest lapses had not put the security of the nuclear force at risk. It said the officers who lost their certification to operate ICBMs were now getting more training, with the expectation that they will return to normal duty within about two months. The missiles remained on their normal war footing, officials said.
Bruce Blair, who served as an Air Force ICBM launch control officer in the 1970s and is now a research scholar at Princeton University, said the Folds email pointed to a broader problem within the nuclear weapons force.
He said problems were not confined to Minot and that the lack of discipline was "extremely worrying". Blair said the jobs were seen as "dead end" positions. "It's tedious work, you are out in the middle of nowhere and answer to nobody," he said. He said problems had been growing for decades and "raised serious concerns about the safety and security of the nuclear missile force".
Blair said the missile system had been set up for a full-scale war for Russia and that it was largely now obsolete. "The force has always been second fiddle to the flying force," he said. Morale had worsened after a decision earlier this year to end a scheme where the nuclear watch crews could train and transfer to more covetable positions in areas like space operations. "That really angered the crew force," he said.
Blair is co-founder of Global Zero, an international group that advocates the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. In 2011, the defense secretary Chuck Hagel, who was then a senator, co-authored a report for Global Zero calling for a dramatic reduction in the US nuclear arsenal, of about 5,000 warheads and bombs, to about 900. "All these guys see the writing on the wall: the future is not nuclear," said Blair.
• This article was amended on May 8 2013. The picture was changed to reflect more accurately the content of the article.
May 8, 2013
Economists See Deficit Emphasis as Impeding Recovery
By JACKIE CALMES and JONATHAN WEISMAN
WASHINGTON — The nation’s unemployment rate would probably be nearly a point lower, roughly 6.5 percent, and economic growth almost two points higher this year if Washington had not cut spending and raised taxes as it has since 2011, according to private-sector and government economists.
After two years in which President Obama and Republicans in Congress have fought to a draw over their clashing approaches to job creation and budget deficits, the consensus about the result is clear: Immediate deficit reduction is a drag on full economic recovery.
Hardly a day goes by when either government analysts or the macroeconomists and financial forecasters who advise investors and businesses do not report on the latest signs of economic growth — in housing, consumer spending, business investment. And then they add that things would be better but for the fiscal policy out of Washington. Tax increases and especially spending cuts, these critics say, take money from an economy that still needs some stimulus now, and is getting it only through the expansionary monetary policy of the Federal Reserve.
“Fiscal tightening is hurting,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist of Pantheon Macroeconomic Advisors, wrote to clients recently. The investment bank Jefferies wrote of “ongoing fiscal mismanagement” in its midyear report on Tuesday, and noted that while the recovery and expansion would be four years old next month, reduced government spending “has detracted from growth in five of past seven quarters.”
That period roughly coincides with the time that Mr. Obama and Congressional Republicans have shared governance since Republicans took control of the House in 2011, promising an immediate $100 billion in spending cuts. Republicans did not get that much then, but the series of budget compromises with the president since — while not so great as they wanted — will soon reduce annual discretionary spending for domestic and military programs to the lowest level in half a century.
As for revenues, Mr. Obama forced Republicans to acquiesce in January to higher taxes from wealthy Americans. But worse, in the macroeconomists’ view, both parties agreed not to extend a two-year-old cut in Americans’ payroll taxes for Social Security, reducing their spending money.
In all this time, the president has fought unsuccessfully to combine deficit reduction, including spending cuts and tax increases, with spending increases and targeted tax cuts for job-creation initiatives in areas like infrastructure, manufacturing, research and education. That is a formula closer to what the economists propose. But Republicans have insisted on spending cuts alone and smaller government as the key to economic growth.
The results, Mr. Obama has taken to saying, despite his complicity, are “self-inflicted wounds.”
“The only way the problem does get fixed is if both parties sit down and they say, ‘How are we going to make sure that we’re reducing our deficit sensibly?’ ” he said last week at a news conference. “How are we making sure that we’re investing in things like rebuilding our airports and our roads and our bridges, and investing in early childhood education, basic research — all the things that are going to help us grow?”
Mr. Obama added, “I cannot force Republicans to embrace those common-sense solutions.”
Speaker John A. Boehner stood by the Republicans’ policies during a session Tuesday with reporters. “After four years of mediocre job creation, it’s obvious that we don’t need more tax hikes and more government spending,” he said. “We need smarter policies to make America more competitive and expand opportunities for everyone in our country.”
“We’re the ones pushing this town to do the right thing when it comes to the economy and jobs,” Mr. Boehner added.
The Federal Open Market Committee, which sets policy for the central bank, noted signs of improvement in the private sector last week in a statement. “But fiscal policy is restraining economic growth,” it added, echoing public comments that Ben S. Bernanke, the Fed chairman, has made for months. In April, the International Monetary Fund said the United States would achieve further growth “in the face of a very strong, indeed overly strong, fiscal consolidation.”
Thursday will capture as plainly as any day lately the differing approaches of Mr. Obama and Republicans toward the economy and government’s role.
Mr. Obama plans to travel to Austin, Tex., to visit technology students, workers and entrepreneurs and promote his ideas to support efforts like theirs — the kind of initiatives that Republicans have blocked.
House Republicans expect to pass a measure that would allow the Treasury to “prioritize” debt payments if Congress and Mr. Obama cannot agree this year to increase the nation’s debt ceiling so the Treasury can keep borrowing money to pay all creditors. Under the bill, as tax receipts came in, the first priority would be paying creditors — like China, Democratic opponents argue — and second would be Social Security checks. But the measure would likely die in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The “prioritization” proposal first arose in 2011 from among the most conservative House Republicans, those who were driving hardest against the White House on raising the debt ceiling and expressing unconcern about default, but it has now become mainstream in the House ranks.
Economists and financial analysts generally dismiss the idea as unworkable if not dangerous, and count on Democrats to block it. Gregory Daco, a senior principal economist at IHS Global Insight, said the Republicans’ proposal was the kind that caused his clients to ignore the fiscal policy out of Washington, and rely instead on the Fed to buttress the recovery.
“Whenever I talk to our customers or clients, they sort of brush off everything that’s related to fiscal policy,” Mr. Daco said. “The view is, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter.’ That’s what I hear a lot.”
“What we try to convey is that it does matter,” he said. “It is important in terms of growth. It’s also important in terms of confidence.”
He noted that the economy was much stronger than Europe’s largely because the United States initially opted for stimulus measures and allowed deficits to increase when the recession and financial crisis hit five years ago. European governments pursued austerity policies to cut their debts, further stalling economic activity and in turn inflating deficits.
The more recent austerity policies here are helping to bring annual deficits down, as a new report of the Congressional Budget Office shows, after four years of trillion-dollar shortfalls. Yet many analysts would prefer that the measures had been timed for when the economy is strong and unemployment below 7 percent.
“While I agree that the U.S. must get its fiscal house in order,” Jerry Webman, chief economist at OppenheimerFunds, wrote, “I join the likes of the I.M.F. in cautioning that too much austerity, too soon, is likely counterproductive.”
May 8, 2013
For First Time on Record, Black Voting Rate Outpaced Rate for Whites in 2012
By SARAH WHEATON
WASHINGTON — The turnout rate of black voters surpassed the rate for whites for the first time on record in 2012, as more black voters went to the polls than in 2008 and fewer whites did, according to a Census Bureau report released Wednesday.
The survey also found that Hispanics and Asians continue to turn out at much lower rates than other groups, and that women turn out at higher rates than men. The increase in black turnout was driven in significant part by more votes from black women.
According to the Census report, 66.2 percent of eligible blacks voted in the 2012 election, compared with 64.1 percent of eligible non-Hispanic whites. An estimated two million fewer white Americans voted in 2012 than in 2008, just as about 1.8 million more blacks went to the polls, more than 90 percent of them voting to re-elect President Obama, exit polls showed.
“In 2008, we changed the guard. In 2012, we guard the change,” said Michael Blake, who ran the Obama campaign’s effort to reach out to black and minority voters, Operation Vote.
The overall turnout rate nationwide was 61.8 percent in 2012, a decline from 63.6 percent four years earlier. Researchers cautioned that their estimates might overstate how many people voted across all categories, because they are based on surveys in which people were asked whether they had voted — a “socially desirable” activity.
Some researchers cautioned against treating 2012 as a watershed moment for the black vote. For example, Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University — using the same data but with a slightly different calculation — determined that black voters first turned out at a higher rate than whites in 2008.
The increase in black turnout seemed to stem from both energized voters and a successful voter-mobilization effort by the Obama campaign and civil rights groups. Many black voters were motivated not only to protect the president, political organizers said, but also to demonstrate their own right to vote.
In several states, Republican legislators tried to increase voter-ID requirements, limit voting times and make registration more difficult, efforts that civil rights groups aggressively opposed.
“We are accustomed to people trying to deny us things, and I think sometimes you wake the sleeping giant, and that’s what happened here,” said Marvin Randolph, the N.A.A.C.P.’s senior vice president for campaigns.
Mr. Randolph cited an Obama campaign memo boasting that the black early vote was up by at least 17 percent in a series of battleground states that offered the option, including Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, Colorado and North Carolina. “They stood in line so they wouldn’t get their vote denied,” Mr. Randolph added.
But geographic figures also suggest that black voters flocked to the polls even with little nudging from political organizers. Among the states where blacks had the highest turnout rates relative to whites were Republican bastions where neither campaign devoted many resources, like Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Thom File, the Census report’s author, said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, “Blacks for the first time in 2012 actually voted at rates higher than their eligibility would indicate.”
It remains unclear how lasting the increase in black turnout will be. Mr. Randolph acknowledged that 2016, when a black candidate may not be at the top of the ticket, would present more of a test.
Dan Pfeiffer, a top adviser to Mr. Obama, said in a Twitter message that it was “not written in stone” that the next Democratic nominee would generate the same enthusiasm, calling it a challenge for 2016 and beyond.
Democrats also face the challenge of raising turnout among Latino and Asian-American voters, both of whom voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama, while also holding on to their support as Republicans woo them.
For Republicans, the new data showed that the newly diverse electorate of recent years is likely to become only more so. In 2012, 73.7 percent of voters were white, according to the census, down from 82.5 percent in 1996.
The key to increasing Hispanics’ share of the vote is “closing the registration gap,” said Clarissa Martinez, director of civic engagement and immigration for NCLR, a Latino organization also known as the National Council of La Raza. The study, which showed that fewer than half of eligible Latinos voted in 2012, foreshadows their “tremendous additional potential,” Ms. Martinez said.
The study also found a significant gender gap, with women voting at a rate 4 percentage points higher than men. Among blacks, the gap was 9 percentage points.
May 8, 2013
An Effort to Thwart Sale of Papers to the Kochs
By ADAM NAGOURNEY and CHRISTINE HAUGHNEY
LOS ANGELES — An effort by two conservative billionaires to take over The Los Angeles Times and seven other newspapers is setting off a firestorm of opposition here. Public employee unions, the leaders of the State Legislature and liberal advocacy groups are moving to block the sale, denouncing it as a threat to public workers and Democratic Party issues.
Ten public employee unions on Thursday sent a letter to the largest shareholder in the Tribune Company, which owns the newspapers, urging it not to sell to the billionaires, David H. Koch and Charles G. Koch. The Kochs have championed legislative efforts to cut public pension benefits and the power of public unions, notably in Wisconsin.
About one-quarter of the assets held by Oaktree Capital Management, the leading shareholder in the Tribune Company, comes from public employee pension fund investments, and labor leaders, looking to exert influence on Oaktree, signaled they would press to withdraw the funds if the sale went through.
“The sale of the Tribune Company’s newspaper assets would provide the Koch brothers a powerful and influential platform by which to promote, at both the local, state and federal level, that enactment of their anti-public pension fund policies,” the unions said in a letter to Bruce Karsh, who is president of Oaktree Capital Management and chairman of the Tribune board of directors. It said that the Koch brothers had a history of orchestrating efforts that are “anti-labor, anti-environment, anti-public education and anti-immigrant.”
The prospect that the Koch brothers, notorious in Democratic circles for their heavy financing of conservative candidates and causes, could run The Los Angeles Times has struck a nerve in this liberal corner of the country. The Times, if somewhat diminished by the cuts it has suffered over the years, remains a powerful influence in public life here and its existence is integral to the modern history of Los Angeles.
The resistance is not only here. In Chicago on Wednesday, demonstrators protested outside the headquarters of The Chicago Tribune, which is also owned by the Tribune Company, about the possibility of a Koch takeover.
The effort is at an early stage — no formal bids have been submitted — and the Koch brothers face competition from, among others, a team of Los Angeles business leaders, including Eli Broad, the philanthropist, and Austin Beutner, a business executive and former deputy mayor. Officials behind the campaign said they were moving quickly in hopes of discouraging the Koch brothers from proceeding with their plans, which come after an election campaign in which they spent millions of dollars in largely unsuccessful efforts to elect conservative candidates.
Melissa Cohlmia, a spokeswoman for the Koch companies, declined to comment on the protests. “We respect the independence of the journalistic institutions referenced in today’s news stories, but it is our longstanding policy not to comment on deals or rumors of deals we may or may not be exploring,” she said. A spokesman for Mr. Karsh also declined to comment.
The two Democratic leaders of the State Legislature — Darrell Steinberg, the president pro tem of the Senate, and John A. Pérez, the speaker of the Assembly — announced on Wednesday that they would oppose the sale. Both men control seats on the boards of California’s major pension funds.
“Newspapers are public trusts, and I think it is wrong for The Los Angeles Times to end up in the hands of two people who have such a pronounced rigid ideology on a whole host of issues,” Mr. Steinberg said in an interview. Mr. Pérez, in a statement, said he was “deeply concerned about media outlets being purchased to further a political agenda.”
A liberal advocacy group, the Courage Campaign, bought advertisements to run in The Los Angeles Times on Thursday urging readers to cancel their subscriptions if the Tribune Company agrees to sell the newspaper to “the right-wing Koch Brothers.” More than 1,000 people have pledged to cancel their subscriptions, said Rick Jacobs, the head of the campaign. while 110,000 have signed petitions opposing the sale.
“The LAT has a long and storied past of publishers taking it in various directions,” Mr. Jacobs said in an e-mail. “The Kochs are much more likely to end journalism as we know it. They are likely to stop coverage of climate change or skew it. They will almost certainly change the way the LAT covers state politics, especially ballot measures.”
A red-on-black poster — “No Koch Hate in LA: Stop the Koch takeover of the L.A. Times” — went out on Wednesday urging people to turn out for a rally next Tuesday in front of Mr. Karsh’s office here.
“The Koch brothers would use the newspaper in an extremist and ideological way,” said María Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, A.F.L.-C.I.O. “And I’m saying that even though I believe the current L.A. Times is not particularly labor friendly.”
Should the Koch brothers proceed with their efforts, and draw on their considerable financial assets to try to push rivals off the field, shareholders in the Tribune Company, including Oaktree and JPMorgan Chase & Company, might be hard-pressed to refuse a deal that would be seen as in the best financial interest of the company. The union leaders, in their letter to Oaktree, argued that the cost of selling to the Kochs, in the form of losing the investments of the pension funds, would be as fiscally irresponsible.
“For those people whose retirement savings are invested in public pension funds, selling the Tribune Company’s newspapers to the Koch brothers so they could in turn use it to advance specific policies adverse to the retirement security of working people, would be akin to agreeing to selling your car to a buyer who you know wants to buy the car so they can run you over,” the letter said.
May 08, 2013 10:30 AM
Congress: Still Corporate. Still Criminal. Still Captured.
By Diane Sweet
One of the points Occupy Wall Street made, by choosing to occupy space in Manhattan and not in DC, was that it's really Wall Street who runs things, not the government.
The votes in the House Financial Services Committee today underscore that point with stark clarity.
Today the Committee considered a slew of bills that tear down many of the Wall Street reforms passed in 2010. These reforms were already imperfect, as Wall Street sent the full force of its lobbying to the Hill in 2010 to compromise these reforms as much as possible.
Wall Street, having succeeded in 2010 in watering down the reforms meant to regulate them two years after they ruined the economy, did not rest. They have been lobbying nonstop since then to do everything they could to gut these reforms even more.
Today, nine deregulatory bills were considered, and nine were passed. The most egregious, HR 992, which we wrote about on Monday, passed 53-6. This bill is named "Swaps Regulatory Improvement Act", but it should be called, "If Banks Get Bailed Out, We'll Get Sold Out. Again." This is the bill that makes the cost of doing business for Wall Street lower by exploiting the implicit backing of the Federal Government. It allows banks to hold risky derivatives in the insured depository--that part of the bank that is insured by the FDIC. As we wrote yesterday, this is dangerous because derivatives are senior in bankruptcy--derivatives counterparties get paid out first.
Only six members of Congress, out of sixty-one total committee members, decided that this risk was too much. That Wall Street has won enough fights. Six out of sixty-one. The only six who dared to not roll over for Wall Street are: Rep. Maxine Waters (@MaxineWaters) (D-CA), Rep. Keith Ellison (@keithellison) (D-MN), Rep. Steven Lynch (@RepStephenLynch) (D-MA), Rep. Velazquez (@NydiaVelazquez) (D-NY), Rep Mike Capuano (@mikecapuano) (D-MA), and Rep. Al Green (@RepAlGreen) (D-TX).
Those six were decidedly in the minority. Fifty-three members of Congress decided that, no, we really ought to make life even easier for the megabanks. The megabanks have it so hard, after all, right?
The banks have laundered money for drug cartels. They have deliberately lied to regulators. They have lied to Congress. They have illegally foreclosed on homes and then had their captured regulator give wronged parties a slap-in-the-face settlement of $300. They have manipulated global interest rates. They have sold predatory loans disproportionately to people of color. They have been bailed out. And they will not lay low.
Fifty-three members of the Financial Services Committee today decided that all this malfeasance, corruption and criminal activity is not only fine, but it should be rewarded. We should make life even easier for them. We should lower their cost of doing business on the backs of the US taxpayer. Only six decided that no, enough is enough.
It is the same old song in Congress. Wall Street owns them, and no amount of disgrace, shame, corruption and crime will deter the fifty-three members of this Committee from pledging allegiance to Wall Street.
Here is the complete list of the Financial Services Committee members. The official twitter for the Republicans on the Committee is @FinancialCmte, and the twitter for the Democrats is @FSCDems. Wall Street still runs things, but it is worth letting our captured Congressmembers know that we are fully aware that Wall Street also owns them.
Bangladesh’s collapsed building death toll passes 1,000
By Agence France-Presse
Thursday, May 9, 2013 22:28 EDT
The death toll in Bangladesh’s worst industrial disaster on Friday soared past 1,000 after more bodies were found in the rubble of a collapsed nine-storey building outside the capital Dhaka.
Army spokesman Captain Shahnewaz Zakaria told AFP that the “death toll now stands at 1,006″ as the recovery operation entered its 17th day since the building caved in at Savar town, 30 kilometres (20 miles) southwest of Dhaka.
Zakaria said recovery workers armed with “cranes, bulldozers and excavators” had pulled out 130 bodies from the rubble since 6am Thursday as more bodies were found in the pancaked lower floors.
Some of the bodies, which are badly decomposed, could be identified by mobile phones in their pockets or factory identity cards around their neck, he said. “Of the total dead, most are female garment workers.”
Of the bodies recovered so far, “at least 150 bodies were buried in unmarked graves in a state graveyard after they could not be identified,” Zakaria added.
The authorities are taking DNA samples from all the victims for future compensation claims.
More than 3,000 garment workers were in the building’s five garment factories which made clothing for Western retailers such as Benetton, Mango and Primark when the structure collapsed after a loud bang, trapping them.
At least 2,437 people have been rescued, around 1,000 suffering serious injuries, including scores whose limbs had to be cut off to free them from the rubble.
Efforts to identify the victims are being hampered by the decomposition of bodies. Recovery workers, who are drawn from the ranks of the army and fire service, are having to wear masks and use air freshener.
Preliminary findings of a government probe have blamed vibrations by four giant generators on the compound’s upper floors for triggering the collapse.
The building’s architect told AFP he designed the structure to house a shopping mall and offices, not factories.
Police have arrested twelve people including the plaza’s owner and four garment factory owners for forcing people to work on April 24, even though cracks appeared in the structure the previous day.
Factory workers have held protests calling for tough punishment for those responsible for the disaster, and demanding improved safety regulations.
The April 24 collapse was the latest in a string of deadly accidents to hit the textile industry. A factory fire last November killed 111 garment workers.
On Thursday, disaster struck again as a fire in another garment factory in the Bangladeshi capital killed eight people including its owner.
The cause of the fire was not known, but authorities said it broke out during the night on the third floor of an 11-storey building housing garment factories of the Tung Hai group in Dhaka’s Darussalam district.
Fire is a common problem in the 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh, with many operations based in badly constructed buildings with sub-standard wiring.
Around 700 people have been killed in garment factory fires in the country since 2006, according to the Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign group.
Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest apparel maker and the $20 billion industry accounted for up to 80 percent of annual exports last year.
But it has a shocking safety record and Western retailers have been threatening to pull out unless authorities come up with a credible programme to raise standards. Disney has already done so.
Western firms have criticised the factories for not ensuring worker safety, but major brands continue to place orders and critics say they turn a blind eye to the endemic problems.
The government Wednesday announced the closure of 18 garment plants, days after it promised to give “the highest consideration” to safety after talks with the International Labour Organisation.
***********Woman rescued alive from Bangladesh garment factory rubble: TV
By Agence France-Presse
Friday, May 10, 2013 6:56 EDT
A woman was pulled alive Friday from the ruins of a garment factory complex in Bangladesh more than 16 days after it collapsed and killed over 1,000 people, live television footage showed.
The miraculous rescue came shortly after emergency officials announced that the woman called Reshmi had been located under the rubble of the nine-storey Rana Plaza complex after crying out for help.
A report on Bangladesh’s Somoy TV said that she had been found sheltering in the ruins of a basement mosque.
Rescuers cheered loudly as she was carried to an army ambulance, managing a faint smile at the crowds who had gathered.
The country’s fire service chief told AFP that the woman appeared to have had access to water during her marathon ordeal trapped underneath the wreckage of the nine-storey Rana Plaza complex, which had caved in on April 24.
“She has been located in a gap between a beam and a column. Her name is Reshmi. She may have reserves of water or have drunk some of the water that we’ve pumped into the building,” Ahmed Ali told AFP.
One of the rescuers said that the woman had cried out for help as recovery teams sifted through the wreckage in the town of Savar on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka.
As we were clearing rubble, we called out if anyone was alive,” the unnamed rescuer told the private Somoy TV channel.
“Then we heard her saying ‘please save me, please save me’.”
Another rescuer said that the woman had had access to food supplies for the first fortnight of her ordeal but had run out two days ago.
“She said she has not eaten for the last two days. She said she has eaten some dried food like biscuits,” said the rescuer.
“She said she had found a safe place and found some air and light.”
News of the miracle survival came as recovery teams were preparing to wrap up their work at the site after discovering scores more corpses in the tangle of concrete overnight.
Brigadier General Siddiqul Alam, one of the leaders of the recovery operation, said the toll now stands at 1,041, making it one of the world’s deadliest industrial disasters.
Alam said many of the bodies were little more than skeletons and the stench from under the rubble suggested that many more were still to be located.
“We have found a huge number of bodies in the stairwell and under the staircases. When the building started to collapse, workers thought they would be safe under the staircases,” he said.
“Each time we moved a slab of concrete, we found a stack of bodies.”
More than 3,000 workers were on shift on the morning of April 24 when the building suddenly caved in.
Most were earning around $40 a month to make clothing for Western brands such as Italy’s Benetton, Britain’s Primark and the Spanish label Mango.
Efforts to identify victims have been hampered by the decomposition of bodies, although some were found with mobile phones in their pockets or identity cards around their necks.
The preliminary findings of a government probe blamed vibrations from four giant generators on the upper floors for triggering the collapse.
Police have arrested 12 people including the plaza’s owner and four factory bosses for forcing people to work on the day of the disaster, even though cracks appeared in the structure the day before.
The collapse was the latest in a string of disasters to blight the textile industry, with a factory fire last November killing 111 workers.
A fire at a textile factory in Dhaka on Thursday killed eight people, including its owner.
Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest apparel maker and the $20 billion industry accounted for up to 80 percent of annual exports last year.
But it has a shocking safety record and Western retailers have been threatening to pull out unless authorities come up with a credible programme to raise standards in the 4,500 factories. Disney has already done so.
Click to watch this video: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2013/may/10/bangladesh-dhaka-alive-rana-plaza-video
Bangladesh sentences third Jamaat-e-Islami leader to death
Muhammad Kamaruzzaman found guilty of crimes relating to independence war, raising fears of further deadly street violence
Associated Press in Dhaka
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 9 May 2013 11.24 BST
A Bangladeshi tribunal has sentenced to death a top Islamist politician after finding him guilty of atrocities stemming from the 1971 independence war.
The verdict against Muhammad Kamaruzzaman was the fourth in Bangladesh's war crimes tribunals since January, and many feared it could trigger another wave of deadly street violence between his supporters and security forces.
The prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, has called the trials a long-overdue effort to obtain justice for victims of war crimes committed during Bangladesh's split from Pakistan. Critics accuse Hasina of using the tribunals to neuter opposition parties ahead of elections scheduled for next year.
Kamaruzzaman, 61, was convicted on five counts of mass killings, rape, torture and kidnapping.
Obaidul Hassan, the head of the three-judge tribunal, said the charges had been proved beyond a doubt and sentenced him to death.
Kamaruzzaman's lawyer Ehsan Siddiky said justice was denied to his client and promised to appeal.
During the trial, he denied participating in wartime atrocities and said the prosecution was politically motivated.
Kamaruzzaman is the assistant secretary general of Jamaat-e-Islami, a hardline party that was opposed Bangladesh's independence. It is now a key partner in the opposition coalition.
The politician was found guilty of leading his followers to kill at least 183 people in his home district of Sherpur in northern Bangladesh.
The prosecution said he formed the group al-Badr to collaborate with the Pakistani army and led them to kill unarmed people and rape women.
Bangladesh says the war left 3 million people dead, 200,000 women raped and forced millions to flee to neighbouring India.
Kamaruzzaman has one month to appeal the verdict.
Bangladesh has put its security forces on high alert. In February, more than 70 people were killed as riots swept through Bangladesh after the tribunal sentenced to death another Jamaat leader, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, for crimes against humanity. In the same month another leading figure in the party, Abdul Kader Mollah, was given life imprisonment in February. The first verdict of the tribunal was against Abul Kalam Azad, an Islamic cleric and a former Jamaat leader, who was sentenced to death.
May 10, 2013
NKorea Nuke Arsenal Seen as Matter of When, Not If
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — For 20 years, fears about North Korea's headlong pursuit of nuclear bombs have been watered down with smirking admonishments not to overestimate an impoverished dictatorship prone to bragging and tantrums.
Few are laughing now.
After three nuclear tests of apparently increasing power and a long-range rocket launch that puts it a big step closer to having a missile that can carry a nuclear warhead to American shores, many believe that in a matter of years — as little as five, maybe, though the timeframe is a point of debate — Pyongyang will have a very scary nuclear arsenal.
Though it's a view not embraced by everyone, one respected South Korean expert says North Korea could be working toward 80 to 100 nuclear-tipped missiles. Bruce Klingner, a former U.S. intelligence officer specializing in North Korea, provides a less dramatic but still bracing assessment: If the path is A to Z, with Z being nuclear missiles that can hit the U.S. mainland, North Korea is maybe at T.
Proof of the new seriousness with which Pyongyang's intentions are now seen can be found in the Obama administration's announcement in March that it will spend $1 billion to add 14 interceptors to the U.S.-based missile defense system. It said it was responding to what it called faster-than-anticipated North Korean progress on nuclear weapons and missiles.
"Where in the past, there may have been some ambiguity about what North Korea was seeking to achieve, there is a clear recognition that they are pressing toward a nuclear capability with a potential longer-range delivery," Kurt Campbell, the top U.S. diplomat for Asia from 2009 until earlier this year, said at a forum last week in Seoul. "Such an approach represents a strategic, almost existential threat to the United States."
The sense of urgency is new. What hasn't changed is the fierce, seemingly paralyzing debate about how to discourage North Korea's development of nuclear weapons. Some call for unconditional talks. Others say it's time for tougher, Iran-style sanctions and for China to cut off aid to its ally.
Pyongyang emerged in a new light after it put a satellite into orbit on the tip of a long-range rocket in December — beating much richer Seoul to that goal. Then in February, it conducted a nuclear test that, while details remain unclear, appeared to be its most powerful yet. It followed those moves with a torrent of threats in March and April in response to U.N. sanctions and huge U.S.-South Korean military drills.
"It's quite understandable that people are spooked. The only mystery is why it's taken so long," Jeffrey Lewis, a nonproliferation specialist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, wrote in a blog post in mid-April.
Analysts now put the North's arsenal at four to eight plutonium bombs. They also suspect it is making fuel for uranium bombs, but they don't know how much.
The suspected bombs aren't thought to be small enough to put on long-range missiles, but some analysts believe Pyongyang may be able to arm shorter-range missiles with warheads.
Pyongyang's weapons probably aren't meant to carry out nuclear threats, analysts say, but instead to protect against perceived outside hostility while extracting diplomatic and aid concessions. Pyongyang insists that it needs nuclear weapons to defend against a U.S. attack. Washington insists it has no such intention.
Here's how one prominent analyst sees the future of Pyongyang's atomic arsenal. North Korea's leaders have been closely studying their nuclear history, and Pakistan, which helped Pyongyang's nascent nuclear program and which built its own atomic arsenal outside international treaties, is probably an inspiration, said Hahm Chaibong, president of the conservative Asan Institute in Seoul.
With that model in mind, the goal then could be a "minimum operational nuclear capability" of 80 to 100 nuclear missiles, including some that could reach the United States, Hahm estimated. The weapons would be hidden around the country to prevent detection, in caves, tunnels, amid conventional missile stockpiles, in dense population centers and on mobile launchers, Hahm said in an interview. He speculated that such an effort could take five to 10 years.
One hundred warheads in five years is probably alarmist, Matthew Kroenig, a nuclear expert at Georgetown University, wrote in an email, but "it would be naive to assume that Pyongyang will keep a small and primitive arsenal forever. Rather, it is likely that they will rapidly move to expand their arsenal and means of delivery."
Many analysts believe it has taken so long to come to terms with North Korea's intentions because of a long history of chronic underestimation.
This may stem from the North's poverty — it has a GDP rivaling Senegal — or from the images of goose-stepping soldiers and leadership-worshipping masses that can seem to foreigners to be frozen in the amber of Cold War stereotype.
"It's not a pretend nuclear-strike capability," said John Delury, an analyst at Seoul's Yonsei University. "We're past that point where you can just laugh it off."
Some of North Korea's recent threats were widely dismissed, including vows of nuclear strikes on Washington and Seoul. But another announcement was more worrying: It promised to restart all nuclear fuel production, including a mothballed reactor that could eventually make a bomb's worth of plutonium annually. Estimates on how long it would take to restart plutonium facilities vary from three months to a year.
An even bigger fear is a uranium enrichment program unveiled in late 2010 that could provide a second, more easily concealed source of bomb fuel, quickly augmenting Pyongyang's arsenal, Klingner, the former U.S. intelligence official, said in an interview in Seoul.
"We've underestimated them," said Klingner, now an expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington. "People made fun of their long-range missile until it didn't fail. There was sort of this, 'Why wasn't I informed there was a long-range missile threat?' Well, we've been warning you for 15 years."
North Korea has yet to prove it possesses an arsenal of flight-capable, nuclear-tipped missiles. But in a statement that still reverberates, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in early 2011 that Pyongyang will have a limited ability to deliver a weapon to U.S. shores within five years using intercontinental ballistic missiles.
To Lewis, the Monterey Institute expert, the North's December rocket launch clearly showed what it can do. "If you think North Korea lacks the basic capabilities to build long-range missiles, guess again. A space launcher is not exactly the same thing, but it's most of the way there," he said.
What to do is as tough to determine now as it was when President Bill Clinton considered bombing a North Korean reactor in 1994, when worries over North Korea's nuclear ambitions and its refusal to admit U.N. inspectors sparked the first North Korean nuclear crisis. No strikes were ordered. Former President Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang and diplomats later struck a deal, now defunct, to freeze Pyongyang's nuclear program in exchange for U.S. aid.
Campbell, the former U.S. diplomat, said mounting "serial provocations" from Pyongyang have "caused a quiet rethinking in a variety of capitals about just how difficult it is to construct any engagement strategy with North Korea."
For many, the key is China, which is Pyongyang's economic and diplomatic lifeline, providing nearly all of its fuel and most of its trade.
A frustrated new Chinese leadership has recently displayed willingness to work with Washington to apply pressure on Pyongyang. But Beijing's primary goal is stability. A crisis could damage its economy; a collapse in Pyongyang could push refugees into China or leave a U.S.-friendly unified Korea on its borders.
Campbell said Washington has told Beijing "that if this process continues, we will be taking defensive and other steps in Northeast Asia that will not be in China's strategic interests."
There's also a push by U.S. lawmakers for strong unilateral steps similar to sanctions issued against Iran, and similar to what the Bush administration used against a Macau-based bank that held about $25 million in North Korean funds. The Macau measure was seen as effective because it caused a ripple effect among other banks worried about being shut out of the international financial system because of dealings with Pyongyang. The measure, however, proved complicated to undo when nuclear negotiations with North Korea finally got back on track.
At the other end of the spectrum is dialogue. But both sides have preconditions. North Korea is interested in talking as one nuclear power to another with the United States. Washington rejects Pyongyang's claim to be a nuclear state and insists on total denuclearization as the basis for any dialogue — a condition that dooms talks before they begin, according to Delury.
It's still possible, Delury said, for Washington to sit down with the North and negotiate a partial nuclear freeze, laying the groundwork for an eventual rollback and ultimately elimination. He said that aggressive policy measures by Washington will "only justify faster movement" by North Korea "to strengthen all those capabilities."
05/09/2013 04:50 PM
War Angst and Karaoke: Daily Life as Bizarre As it Gets in South Korea
By Ullrich Fichtner in Seoul
North Korea threatens to start a nuclear war, while South Korea dances Gangnam style. Those are the clichés. War has never been this close, but Koreans in Seoul confront their fears by going about a bizarre version of everyday life, complete with truffle pasta and super-smart phones.
A few hours before another ultimatum is set to expire, Seoul is transformed into a sea of fire. Fountains of flames encompass a glass stage in the broadcast studio at the South Korean state television network KBS, where the girls of Girl's Day are performing their new hit. It's the Friday before last, "Music Bank" day. The program is broadcast live every week to 72 countries, and the studio in the southern part of Seoul is filled with excited fan clubs and steams with puberty. Girl's Day sings a song called "Expectation," which isn't a bad way to describe a time when the whole world is wondering whether nuclear war could erupt in Asia tomorrow -- or whether it's all nothing but a show.
The girls are swaying to the music in the KBS studio, an amphitheater with steep rows of seats. Many have come straight from school and are still wearing their uniform, a white blouse with a tartan skirt. The girls stood in line outside for hours, shivering on a cool, rainy day. K. Will sings his chart-topping song "Love Blossom," followed by performances by the pop duo Davichi, an R&B boy group called SHINee and 4Minutes, another girl band. They are the sweet idols of a pan-Asian youth, made-in-Korea stars with a following as far away as Singapore, Tokyo and Jakarta. Whenever there is a break in the music, the audience shouts their names -- it's a party in the midst of the recent crisis and saber rattling.
One of the shouting audience members is Jang Seul Gi, an 18-year-old girl from the Seoul suburb Namyangju. She won her coveted ticket in a lottery and is wearing a compress over her right eye, which is infected. She and her girlfriends endured a two-hour bus ride, changing buses several times, so that they could experience this teen pop extravaganza in person. The girls already begin to shriek when the slim members of the boy band start making noise in the shadows offstage, just before their appearance. An ultimatum? Suel Gi doesn't know anything about that, or about the "serious consequences" with which the South Korean government has threatened the North Koreans once again. Seul Gi has other concerns.
The 'Beauty Belt'
The girl from the suburbs would like to have a smaller face and bigger breasts, a better nose and a prettier chin. It's a dream she shares with many of her female friends, and it's on full display on the walls of passageways in Seoul Metro stations, which would all serve as bomb shelters in the event of a war. There are before-and-after ads for beauty clinics, depicting girls who have been transformed into almost monstrous creatures, with the saucer-like eyes of a Disney cartoon character. Kim Soo Shin gives people those kinds of eyes.
He's one of the established cosmetic surgeons on the "Beauty Belt" in Seoul's Gangnam district, south of the sluggish, wide Han River. Contrary to its name, Real, his clinic deals in unreal beauty. He can handle 50 to 60 customers during the winter season. He has even surgically removed the bags under the eyes of his 74-year-old mother.
Asked by the journalist why his business is doing so well in South Korea, he responds that he has both a humorous and a serious answer. The humorous one is: "When you have an empty brain, you need an attractive face." The serious answer has to do with the fact that South Korean women have become more self-confident, especially since the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Besides, says Kim, women have more and more money and less and less to do these days, "so they have an incredible amount of time to admire themselves in the mirror."
As a young man, Dr. Kim once spent six months in a South Korean prison, because he had a friend who had met North Korea's "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung. The judges accused him of involvement in communist activities and found it questionable that he had specialized in reattaching the severed fingers of workers, charging a very low fee for the procedure. When he opened his own cosmetic surgery clinic in 1991, he had only two competitors. "Today," he says, "there are 300 clinics in business in this area." This is in keeping with the overall impression the West has formed of Korea.
Heavy Historical Baggage
Over the decades, the world has become accustomed to painting North Korea in the blackest and South Korea in the most pristine terms, with the north being run by a sinister dictatorship and the south a cheerful democracy. The rest of the world sees the north as a place where people are starving and oppressed, while South Koreans are free and happy consumers. While the clichés about the north may not be entirely wrong, South Korea is a grayer and more troubled country than its image would suggest.
The heavy historical baggage of a country that was a Japanese colony, a battlefield and a military dictatorship in the 20th century is on full display in Seoul's brand-new National Museum of Korean Contemporary History, on the city's opulent grand boulevard, Sejong-daero. The exhibits there highlight the deep, old wounds of a divided nation, wounds that no economic miracle can heal.
The last few exhibit rooms are a lie by omission, a collection of the most beautiful Samsung smartphones and Hyundai limousines, with PSY performing his hit song "Gangnam Style" on a giant wall of monitors. But what the exhibits ignore is the unhealthy power of the South Korean industrial conglomerates, and the sleaze and political corruption plaguing the country. They fail to mention the omnipresent press censorship or the authoritarian impulses of the current administration, evidenced most recently by the fact that the new president, Park Geun-hye, daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, has just signed a law that regulates the wearing of miniskirts.
No one talks about the fact that South Korea has the highest suicide rate of all industrialized countries, with 40 people committing suicide every day -- a rate three times as high as in Germany. And hardly anyone mentions what the nightmare of potential nuclear obliteration really does to a country.
A Dramatic Intensification of the Conflict
In fact, the rest of the world pays more attention to the constantly simmering Korean conflict than the country itself, whose very existence would be threatened in the event of a war. While each new shady maneuver by the north creates headlines in the West, in the south reporting on Pyongyang's actions tends to be detached and routine by nature. Over the decades, the country has learned to treat the constant rhetoric coming from Pyongyang as empty threats. But perhaps it has also forgotten how to recognize real danger.
Depending on how you look at it, the current crisis began two, 19 or 60 years ago, while its low points are being reached today, in February, March and April of this year. The Korean War ended without a peace treaty 60 years ago, the "Great Leader Kim Il Sung" died 19 years ago and was succeeded by the "Dear Leader Kim Jong Il" and, when he died two years ago, the "Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un" came into power. Despite what we are told by the chattering experts in the broadcast media, almost nothing is known about Kim Jong Un. It is clear, however, that the Supreme Leader is in the process of shaping a new policy.
The world was shocked on Feb. 12, when North Korea conducted a third nuclear test. The incident triggered meetings and new sanctions by the United Nations Security Council, NATO sessions and a flurry of diplomatic activity. There were maneuvers over South Korea involving B-2 stealth bombers, US missiles were moved and the armies of the south and the north were placed on high alert, all within a few weeks.
North Korea abrogated various treaties and severed its hotline with the south, generals appeared in public, and Pyongyang promised a total nuclear war, one that would transform Seoul into a sea of flames. Missiles were tested, and North Korea aired propaganda videos that depicted Washington being bombed and Seoul being captured.
In March, the regime in Pyongyang threatened, for the first time in history, to launch a nuclear attack against the United States and South Korea, while the government in Seoul announced its intention to level Pyongyang. In early April, the north announced that it was restarting the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which was shut down six years ago. Foreigners in South Korea were advised to leave the country. Pyongyang barred South Korean access to the Kaesong industrial zone, and the South Korean government delivered its ultimatum.
The ultimatum expired without response on the Friday before last, while the streets and alleys of Gangnam and Seoul's Itaewon shopping district were filled with carefree consumers. The bars were full and the windows of restaurants were fogged up. No one seemed interested in the ultimatum or the closing of Kaesong. South Koreans were left cold by the fact that the north had initially withdrawn its 53,000 workers in the special economic zone on the North Korean side, while the south has now shuttered its 123 factories there. In fact, the closing of Kaesong marked a dramatic intensification of the conflict, a terrible setback, and yet no one is paying attention anymore. South Korea has other worries.
When the new fashions from Paris and Milan arrive on Apgujeong Street in the south of Seoul, a chain of giant flagship stores unlike anything else in the world, a pilgrimage begins throughout much of Asia, as wealthy women from Japan, China, Russia and Indonesia fly in for an intense shopping spree. The Galleria shopping mall is filled with an unprecedented collection of luxury boutiques, and the floor maps read like catalogs of the world's most expensive name brands. Shoppers can dine on foie gras, truffle pasta and sashimi from the Red Tuna in the food court on the lower level.
The number of visitors to South Korea has crumbled since the north began fanning the flames of possible war. The Japanese, in particular, have made themselves scarce. The country's tourism association is reporting dramatic declines, with only 88,000 tourists coming from Japan in the first two weeks of April, a 33-percent decrease over the same period last year. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is striking at his South Korean enemy without the use of bombs and missiles. While his threats may not be reaching Seoul, they are heard in Tokyo and Beijing. Kim is resorting to the tactics of the former Cold War.
Parallels to Divided Germany
As foreign as South Korea may seem to a German visitor, there are many things that seem familiar. In its nouveau riche neighborhoods, Seoul feels almost like an Asian version of the former West Berlin, where the glow emanating from the KaDeWe department store and, along the Berlin Wall, newspaper publishing house Axel Springer's gold-colored skyscraper could be seen in East Berlin as symbols of capitalist superiority.
The German experience is also reflected at the border between the two Koreas. The Imjingak Peace Park, for example, only 30 minutes north of Seoul, evokes old images of towns on the former border between East and West Germany. Streets come to a dead end, rivers are borders, and in the middle of the landscape stands the Bridge of Freedom, a now-defunct bridge once used to exchange prisoners of war. There is no wall, but watchtowers are spaced at 200-meter (656 feet) intervals, interspersed with endless spirals of barbed wire.
On the day of the ultimatum, a busload of tourists travels to Panmunjom and enters the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a four-kilometer strip of wasteland marked in the middle by the 38th parallel, stretching for 248 kilometers (155 miles) from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan. The inner-Korean border has passed through the DMZ for the last 60 years. There are Danish, British and Spanish tourists on the bus, and a Norwegian couple is dressed as if the group were going to war, carrying large backpacks filled with food supplies. The tour guide, a Korean woman who calls herself Sally, stands at the front of the bus, telling stories to the group. "The soldiers out here don't need any skills. The most important thing is that they're good-looking," she says.
Two worlds meet in the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom, where there is a row of barracks, painted UN blue, built straddling the 38th parallel, half in the south and half in the north. The visitors are permitted to go inside and walk across the border without leaving the building. They make a lot of noise as they take pictures of themselves in front of the back door, which leads to North Korea -- in theory, at least. Practically speaking, the door is locked, and two South Korean soldiers are stationed on the southern side, standing at attention with clenched fists, observing the enemy with a faux-serious expression on their faces. A solitary North Korean guard stands on the steps of the border station on the opposite side, occasionally raising a pair of binoculars to his face. "Enjoy it!" Sally says. "You can take pictures here. But don't wave or point at the other side."
It's one of the mysteries of life in Korea that the people of the south, who are supposedly free, are barred by their own government from traveling to the north. They are also not permitted to enter the DMZ or visit the 38th parallel, as if there were something to hide there. And aside from government censors, no one in South Korea is familiar with the shrill propaganda videos the north produces. Those who attempt to access these videos online in Seoul receive a message on their screens, warning them that viewing the videos is a criminal offense, and are instructed to contact the nearest police station.
A Difficult Freedom
Jang Jin Sung is one of the few Koreans to have lived in both countries. He is standing in the lobby of the aging Koreana Hotel, looking like a spy, in his sunglasses and black coat. In fact, he is a writer who once served as national poet at the court of Kim Jong Il, where he wrote epic poems paying homage to the Dear Leader, before he had to leave the country at a moment's notice and escape on foot across the Chinese border.
Jang was permitted to meet the Dear Leader in person twice. He will never forget the first encounter, in May 1999. He was 28 at the time and had graduated with distinction from Kim Il Sung University. "I was young," he says, "and I thought I would be meeting a god."
The god turned out to be a very short man who wore shoes with such high heels that he had to remove them to sit down, which he did on the day Jang met the North Korean leader. There were seven people in the room, and Kim, in his socks, said a lot of nonsensical things in ordinary, bad Korean. When a Russian folk song was played, Kim began to weep, and the entire entourage wept along with him.
Nevertheless, poet Jang wrote eulogies to Kim, and he was rewarded for his work with regular food rations and, at the second encounter, a Rolex watch. He embarked on a career as a sort of poetry-writing agent, assigned to the country's office of psychological warfare. His role was that of a South Korean poet who wrote hymns dedicated to the North Korean dictator, leading the kind of schizophrenic life that can only exist in divided countries.
The end came about by accident. Jang had the rare privilege of being allowed to read South Korean newspapers and magazines, which he had to sign out from the library at the intelligence agency headquarters. Sometimes he gave them to a friend to read. One day in January 2004 the friend, whose father was a high-ranking police chief, accidentally left his bag containing the magazines, which had been lent to him illegally, on Pyongyang's short subway. On the same day, the friends decided to flee the country, convinced that they would be put on trial for treason.
The gripping story of their escape will be published next year in English by Random House, in a book called "Crossing the Border." During the meeting at the Koreana Hotal, Jang talks for three hours without even coming to the point of his arrival in South Korea. He drinks one cup of coffee after the next and cracks his knuckles in the pauses, while the interpreter speaks. "On Dec. 17, 2004," he says, "I was finally a free man."
In the preceding months, he was put through the wringer by the South Korean intelligence. First he was interrogated at length for two weeks, to rule out the possibility that he was a North Korean mole, and then he was subjected to further questioning for six months while under house arrest in a fenced-off villa. The south did not welcome him with open arms, like a lost son or brother. Living in freedom was difficult at first, he says. He was disgusted by the materialism and superficiality of the south.
Jang worked as an academic in the ensuing years, and he eventually concluded that the South Koreans simply ignore the north instead of doing it the favor of being afraid of it. He still hasn't figured out whether this is the result of some clever insight or pure ignorance. His students sometimes seem programmed to him, says Jang, lacking the culture to lead an autonomous life.
"When I say to them: 'I risked my life for freedom, while you get it for free,' they pretend to be moved, but in reality they are not moved at all." Jang has turned his attention to his former country, once again. His online newspaper New Focus listens in on the north and is praised for the quality of the information it provides. The New York Times printed an op-ed piece by Jang a few days ago, and he sells articles to the British newspaper The Guardian. Jang seems to be the kind of person who would know whether a new Korean war is brewing. "Kim Jong Un is the one who should be the most concerned about war, because it would mean the collapse of his country." But what if he isn't concerned? Jang cracks his knuckles. "Then it's a problem."
Martin E. Dempsey, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the problem in Beijing on the Wednesday before last. His speech was briefly mentioned in South Korean newspapers and covered extensively in the American media. General Dempsey, who traveled to Asia specifically to address the Korean crisis, is the highest-ranking US general ever to have visited China. "The risk of miscalculation is higher and I think the risk of escalation is higher," Dempsey said. North Korea is "in a period of prolonged provocation rather than cyclical provocation," he added. "They are on a path that will certainly increase risk in the region."
Dangerously Quick to Take Offense
South Korea has other concerns. The day after Dempsey's speech, Samsung unveiled the new telephone in its Galaxy series, the S4, which the company has dubbed the "Life Companion," in the three opaque glass towers of its headquarters in Seoul's Gangnam district. There were so many journalists at the event, all wearing suits and ties, that one had to wonder whether there could even be that many newspapers and broadcast stations in South Korea.
Some 40 camera teams, 200 photographers and 500 journalists attended the presentation, which Samsung staged to resemble the pseudo-religious appearances of former Apple CEO Steve Jobs, and yet it amounted to little more than a pirated Asian knockoff. A man who was not wearing a tie described the new phone's unique features. It can take pictures from both sides, even simultaneously, and the touch screen will in fact be "touch-less," just like the rest of the "glove-friendly" device, which "makes every moment of our life meaningful," hence the name "life companion."
But then the press conference following the deliberately low-key presentation and colorful slide show was, once again, a carefully staged performance by the South Korean patriarchy. Six gray-haired men in gray suits sat on the stage, and instead of taking questions they merely accepted praise from the audience. The journalists expressed their gratitude for the show and thanked Samsung for developing the new telephone. One journalist, while bowing profusely, said: "This presentation and the new Galaxy S4 make me proud to be a South Korean."
South Korea. It's a country that cultivates its national pride while constantly differentiating itself from the north, which indeed has little to offer besides weapons of mass destruction. But this pride has also made the small country vulnerable. In comparison with the black north, South Korea is no pristine society, but in fact dangerously quick to take offence. Artists who have the temerity to caricature the important public figures in industry and politics are hauled into court. Reporters who seriously confront the country's many corporate giants risk losing their jobs. Criticism of the government is treated as an insult, while anyone who studies North Korea is suspected of being a traitor with communist intentions. Perhaps that explains why there is so much singing going on in the country, with its many other worries.
When the surge of popularity known as the Korean Wave, or Hallyu, is in full swing, and when South Koreans gather for collective karaoke sessions, the doubts fall silent and the dirty world, with its bombs and missiles, is left out in the cold. When K. Will sings "Love Blossom" in the KBS broadcast studio, when the boys of Busker Busker dance on stage, when PSY performs his viral song "Gangnam Style," everything seems to calm down, and Korea seems very cool, as long as the music plays. And when the stage is on fire during the Girl's Day performance, and Seoul on TV looks like it's being consumed by a sea of flames, the fire department is waiting in the wings, and it's all just a show.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Pakistan's hardliners' political clout protecting them from the law
Many moderates are concerned that Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi is allowed to run for office despite allegations of terror offences
Jon Boone in Jhang, Pakistan
guardian.co.uk, Friday 10 May 2013 06.00 BST
Throwing money around in mosques is not usually the done thing at Friday prayers, Islam's weekly holy day.
But when Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi exhorts the 1,500 followers that cram into the mosque that towers over the back alleys of Jhang city to put their hands in their pockets to help his election campaign, the faithful immediately begin tossing crumpled banknotes in the direction of their leader.
"Do you truly love the Caliphs of Islam?" he shouts at the crowd. "Stand up and sacrifice your money like showers of rain!"
There are strict rules banning all campaigning in mosques, but it's doubtful there will ever be consequences. Ludhianvi's critics say he is getting away with far worse because the police, the courts and the election authorities are too scared to touch him.
Many are troubled that a man who has been in and out of prison on suspicion of terrorism and inciting hatred against Pakistan's minority Shias should be allowed to run at all.
Ludhianvi is one of dozens of hardline Islamist candidates running in Saturday's elections whose names have been lodged under a clause in the country's anti-terrorism law that allows police to keep close tabs on anyone suspected of involvement in terrorism and sectarian violence.
In theory Ludhianvi is meant to report to a police station each day, but he never does, he says.
"He's a proclaimed offender, he should be arrested rather than allowed to contest elections," said Waqas Akram, the former Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) occupant of the Jhang seat who is now masterminding the extremely close-fought campaign for another candidate, his father.
Akram says Ludhianvi could have been banned from standing on other grounds, including failure to declare a number of court cases pending against him. "He didn't mention a single case against him but none of the courts will hear our petition," he told the Guardian at a meeting of party workers in a campaign headquarters complete with a mobile cage containing a snoozing lion – the big cat being the PML-N's symbol.
Ludhianvi was one of the leaders of the banned Sunni sectarian group called Sipah-e-Sabah Pakistan (SSP) that has been linked to hundreds of murders of Shias, a minority sect of Islam in Pakistan. In recent years gunmen have hauled Shias off buses on remote mountain roads and suicide bombers have brought carnage to major cities.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a spin-off organisation from SSP, is one of Pakistan's most deadly terrorist organisations. Although SSP was banned more than a decade ago, the organisation simply changed its name to Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ), which Ludhianvi heads. ASWJ says it is fielding more candidates for the national and provincial assemblies than ever before.
The prospect of Ludhianvi winning a place in parliament will be taken as a sign that Pakistan is failing to tackle one of the country's most serious security threats.
Ludhianvi, who came second in 2008, looks well placed to win the seat he is contesting in Jhang city, a ramshackle town that was the source of violent sectarianism in the 1980s. Activists claim the anti-Shia sentiment arose in response to economic hardships among rural workers who revolted against their Shia landlords. However, there are plenty of Sunni landlords in Jhang, a vast area comprising several national assembly seats.
Ludhianvi's followers, all of whom wear little ladders – the electoral symbol of the alliance of religious parties ASWJ belongs to – have been going door to door in an impressive effort to get out the vote.
Speaking to the Guardian after prayers in the bedroom of the mosque's guesthouse, Ludhianvi said that should be no bar to him standing, saying he had never been convicted. "It is against the most basic fundamental rights to have to go to a police station each day, to be put in a cell without a trial," he complained.
Indeed, a common complaint of Pakistan's approach to extremists is that while they get arrested from time to time, they are eventually released when the controversy has blown over.
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a security analyst, said candidates like Ludhianvi are also being protected by the political clout they demonstrate at election time.
He said: "These groups are using democracy to assure their survival. They are creating the space that enables them to go around and pursue their extremist agendas and resort to violence. The government then finds it very difficult to control them."
For weeks Ludhianvi has been cruising around his constituency in a four wheel-drive vehicle, holding stump speeches and generally presenting himself as regular politician.
"I have no anti-Shia agenda, I want to bring peace," he says. "We just demand that sharia law is fully impended."
He said his main effort if he gets into parliament will be to sponsor a bill that would further tighten the country's much-criticised blasphemy laws and introduce sanctions such as hand amputations for thieves.
But his followers freely speak of their deep revulsion towards Shias. Mohammad Anwar Saeed, a Ludhianvi aide, said other clauses of the hoped for bill would include a ban on Shias conducting any religious events outside their own places of worship.
Traditionally during the month of Muharram members of the Shia community process through the streets engaging in public acts of mourning, and even self-flagellation, that hardline Sunnis abhor.
Another worker, when asked why they the party does not canvas among the town's shias, laughed at the idea. "The Shias are like dogs, we cannot ask them to vote for us," he said.
Some counter-terror experts argue that groups like ASWJ should be encouraged to take part in the political process. They hope that they will concentrate on broadly legal activities, such as preaching and running welfare organisations, rather than perpetrating acts of violence and terrorism.
Others are not so sure. "When they were doing politics last time in Jhang they were killing more people," said Akram, the former national assembly member for Jhang. "There was more terrorism, more crime and more attacks on the Shia."
It's a view echoed by Jhang's alarmed Shia community, who remember all too well the last time an SSP leader held the seat in 2002. "I was only a child, but a remember seeing bodies in the street and curfews every night," said Sadar Farrukh, a young English teacher and member of the Shia community. "We don't want to go back to those times.
May 9, 2013
Karzai Says U.S. Bases Can Stay, Raising Some Eyebrows in West
By MATTHEW ROSENBERG
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan is ready to let the United States and its allies keep military bases here after the end of the NATO combat mission next year, President Hamid Karzai said on Thursday, offering a concrete public signal that foreign troops would remain welcome in the coming years.
The United States and Afghanistan are negotiating a security agreement that would allow American forces to stay here beyond the end of 2014, and Mr. Karzai said the Obama administration had asked for nine bases spread across the country.
“We agree to give them these bases,” Mr. Karzai told students during a speech at Kabul University. “We consider our relations with the United States beyond 2014 to be positive for Afghanistan.”
The American reaction, though, was far less positive than one would expect. Officials characterized Mr. Karzai’s comments as premature at best, and said they appeared to reflect the Afghan government’s desire for a larger force than the United States is likely to be willing to commit.
The Obama administration has yet to decide how large a force it would like to keep in Afghanistan, but administration officials have signaled that it is unlikely to total more than 10,000 service members. They said it was more important now to hash out a range of issues, like whether American troops would continue to have legal immunity in Afghanistan after next year, than to talk about the specifics of where troops would be based.
The American officials also stressed that no matter the final number of troops, the United States envisions using Afghan bases — not its own — to house its forces.
“As President Obama has made clear, we do not seek permanent military bases in Afghanistan,” the American Embassy said in a statement. Any deal would “address access to, and use of, Afghan facilities by U.S. forces.”
Still, the officials seemed relieved that the comments were generally positive, especially in light of more recent statements from Mr. Karzai, like his suggestion — weeks after demanding that Special Operations forces leave an entire province — that both the American-led coalition and the Taliban were working to destabilize the government.
The United States, for its part, has unleashed its share of public salvos. In January, days before Mr. Karzai was to visit Washington, administration officials said that one option after 2014 was simply to leave no American forces in Afghanistan — a move that some officials worry would leave the government unable to contain the Taliban.
Yet even as the discussion has heated and cooled, officials in Kabul and Washington have repeatedly stressed that both sides want a deal and a post-2014 troop presence, even if no one can yet say what it would look like.
Mr. Karzai offered a glimpse of his thinking in his speech on Thursday at Kabul University, saying he was ready to agree to American bases in Kabul and Kandahar, the country’s two biggest cities, and at Bagram, north of Kabul, the current site of one of the largest coalition bases in Afghanistan.
He also said the United States wanted two bases in Herat Province, which borders Iran, and others in the north, east and south of Afghanistan.
At the same time, Mr. Karzai said he wanted more clarity from Western countries and from NATO as a whole about what they planned to contribute to Afghanistan after next year.
So far, Germany, which has more than 4,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, is the only major NATO member to have made a firm offer of troops after 2014. It said last month that it was prepared to keep 600 to 800 soldiers here until 2017 to train Afghan forces.
“At first, they said that they are all leaving in 2014, and now every one of them is coming one by one and saying, ‘We are not leaving,’ ” Mr. Karzai said.
“We know that they are not leaving, and so we are insisting that we have our own words with them,” he said, adding that he wanted an overall agreement with NATO in addition to any agreements with individual countries.
He also laid out conditions for the United States and its allies. “America should strengthen their efforts to bring peace, fundamentally strengthen the security forces of Afghanistan, should give us strong support in strengthening the economy of Afghanistan and rebuild our economic foundations, such as dams, electricity, roads,” he said.
The conditions, said American and NATO officials in Kabul, were basically what the West has been trying to accomplish through billions in development aid over the past 12 years.
Officials said that aid would continue, although the amounts given were likely to be reduced over time. And the Afghan government would have to live up to its commitments to battle corruption and run a more open government for the aid to keep flowing.
Mr. Karzai did not address those issues in his speech. But he did highlight financial pledges he recently secured on a trip to Europe. He said Finland, where he signed a partnership deal, had agreed to provide $30 million in aid each year, though he did not say for how long.
Denmark, meanwhile, has agreed to give Afghanistan $100 million over the coming five years and more aid in the 10 years after that, he said.
Sharifullah Sahak contributed reporting.
May 9, 2013
U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Those Aiding Iran
By RICK GLADSTONE
The United States on Thursday expanded its roster of those violating Iran sanctions, blacklisting four Iranian companies and one individual suspected of helping the country enrich nuclear fuel. It also singled out two other companies, including a Venezuelan-Iranian bank, accused of helping Iran evade other Western-imposed prohibitions on oil sales and financial dealings.
The penalties announced by the Treasury and State Departments came a day after the Senate introduced legislation that could effectively deny the Iran government access to an estimated $100 billion worth of its own money parked in overseas banks, a step that proponents said could significantly damage Iran’s financial stability.
That legislation, known as the Iran Sanctions Loophole Elimination Act, is expected to be integrated into a broader House measure introduced in February.
The actions on Thursday appeared to signal an accelerated American effort to squeeze Iran economically over the lack of progress in negotiations on the disputed Iranian nuclear program, which Iran says is peaceful but the West has called a guise to achieve the ability to make atomic bombs.
The latest round of negotiations last month ended inconclusively, and Western critics of Iran have accused it of stalling for time while it continues to enrich uranium.
“With Iran’s nuclear program marching steadily forward, we need to work as quickly as possible to eliminate any sources of funding for the regime,” the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican, said in a statement issued jointly with the ranking Democrat, Representative Eliot Engel of New York.
They said the committee would hold a hearing Wednesday on Iran’s nuclear activities.
Any assets that blacklisted companies or individuals may have under American jurisdiction can be frozen, and they are prohibited from doing business with American citizens or businesses. Other individuals or business that engage with those under sanctions are themselves subject to penalties.
Iran has characterized the sanctions as illegal bullying by the United States and its allies. Some critics of the sanctions have said they are more likely to harden Iran’s resistance.
A State Department announcement said four Tehran-based businesses, identified as Aluminat, Pars Amayesh Sanaat Kish, Pishro Systems Research Company and Taghtiran Kashan Company, and an Iranian citizen from Tehran identified as Parviz Khaki, were all blacklisted for providing goods, technology and services for activities that violated United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran’s nuclear activities.
“This action was taken in light of the ongoing concerns that the international community has with respect to Iran’s nuclear program, which Iran continues to refuse to address,” the State Department announcement said.
In what appeared to be a coordinated announcement, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which helps administer sanctions, announced that it was punishing Sambouk Shipping FZC, based in the United Arab Emirates, for cloaking the origin of Iranian oil and selling it on the international market. The Treasury said that the company was owned by a Greek business executive, Dmitris Cambis, who was blacklisted earlier this year for ties to sanctioned Iranian companies.
In addition, the Treasury penalized the Iranian Venezuelan Bi-National Bank, based in Tehran, for engaging in financial transactions for the Export Development Bank of Iran, which has already been blacklisted.
“As Iran becomes increasingly isolated from the international financial system and energy markets, it is turning increasingly to convoluted schemes and shady actors to maintain its access to the global financial system,” David S. Cohen, the under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in the Treasury announcement. “As long as Iran tries to evade our sanctions, we will continue to expose their deceptive maneuvers.”
May 9, 2013
Hezbollah Threatens Israel Over Syria Strikes
By ANNE BARNARD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — The leader of Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militant group, escalated tensions with Israel on Thursday over the recent Israeli airstrikes near Damascus, suggesting that the Syrian government would respond by providing Hezbollah fighters with the same weapons that Israel wants to keep out of their hands.
While the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, did not specify the type of arms, he said that they were “unique weapons that it never had before” that would “change the balance” of power with Israel, which regards his group’s alliance with Syria and Iran as one of its most potent security threats.
In a televised speech, Mr. Nasrallah said the transfer of the weapons would be Syria’s “strategic response” to the airstrikes that hit the outskirts of Damascus on Sunday.
Israel has not publicly acknowledged responsibility for those strikes. But Israeli leaders have said they would take military action to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining “game changing” weapons like chemical arms, which Syria is believed to possess in large quantities, and sophisticated long-range missiles that could hit anywhere in Israel from Hezbollah-controlled areas of southern Lebanon.
Analysts close to Hezbollah said they believed that Mr. Nasrallah was referring to long-range missiles, not chemical munitions. But the Israelis have expressed growing concern about the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war, suggesting that the transfer of such weapons to groups hostile to Israel was more and more likely.
The airstrikes believed to have been carried out by Israel last Sunday heightened fears that Syria’s war could lead to a regional conflagration.
Syrian officials said Thursday that they would respond forcefully to any future Israeli attacks and that they planned to retaliate for Sunday’s strikes, possibly by authorizing Syria-based militant groups to attack in the Golan Heights, the disputed border region captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 war.
Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, said in an interview with Agence France-Presse in Damascus that any new Israeli assault would bring a “harsh and painful” response from Syria’s military.
“Instructions were given to respond immediately to any Israeli attack,” he said in the interview, which was also published on the Web site of Press TV, an Iranian satellite channel. “Syria will not allow this to be repeated.”
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria told recent visitors to Damascus that his government had decided to give Hezbollah “everything,” according to an article in the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar. He also said that Syria planned to become “a resistance country” and take a more active role in opposing Israel. Syria has long positioned itself as the champion of the Palestinian cause and as Israel’s greatest Arab foe, but since 1973 it has rarely clashed militarily with Israel.
The Israeli government did not respond to the assertions by Mr. Assad or Mr. Nasrallah. But Israeli analysts said they did not doubt that Mr. Assad’s forces and Hezbollah, which Israel considers a terrorist organization, would be drawing closer militarily, and that weapons transfers were possible.
“I’m afraid that both sides are serious in what they are saying and this is a recipe for direct confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah,” said Boaz Ganor, a counterterrorism expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.
The escalating tensions came as the United States was seeking to exert more diplomacy in conjunction with Russia, Syria’s most powerful foreign supporter, aimed at starting negotiations to settle the Syrian conflict.
Secretary of State John Kerry, asked during a visit to Rome about intelligence reports that Russia was completing a sale of surface-to-air missiles to Syria, told reporters that the focus should be on the Russian-American agreement to convene peace talks as soon as possible.
But he said he had made it clear to Russian leaders during his visit to Moscow this week, where the agreement on peace talks was reached, that the United States “would prefer that Russia not supply assistance” to Syria’s air defenses because of the threat they posed to the region, particularly Israel.
In addition to meetings with Italy’s new prime minister and foreign minister, Mr. Kerry discussed Syria with Jordan’s foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, pledging $100 million in new humanitarian assistance, nearly half of it to help Jordan deal with a flood of refugees. He also spoke with the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, in an effort to start negotiations.
Mr. Kerry suggested that the United Nations would soon announce a date for talks to begin, presumably in Geneva, where an effort to create a framework for a negotiated settlement began last year but stalled.
In Paris, the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said in an interview with Le Monde that France favored the diplomatic solution advanced by Mr. Kerry, but that it also wanted to rethink the European Union arms embargo in order to help the Syrian rebels. He also proposed that the United Nations should declare Syria’s Islamist Al Nusra Front a terrorist organization to separate it from other rebel groups.
The United Nations Security Council has already looked informally at whether to impose sanctions on Al Nusra Front after it pledged allegiance last month to Al Qaeda. The State Department designated Nusra a terrorist organization in December, but the group has strengthened since then. It is considered one of the Syrian insurgency’s most effective fighting forces.
Senior French officials said that the French position toward the Syrian rebels had become noticeably more cautious in the last few weeks, especially since the resignation last month of Sheik Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the main political opposition group, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, amid political infighting.
They said they would like to see the opposition’s main armed wing, the Free Syrian Army, become more centralized and come under the command of a civilian hierarchy before moving ahead with arms transfers.
At the United Nations, where a deadlock in the Security Council has frozen any concrete action on Syria, Qatar and other supporters of the Syrian opposition began circulating a draft General Assembly resolution on Thursday that strongly condemned the Assad government and called for a political transition.
Such resolutions are nonbinding, but its supporters hope a vote supporting the measure in the Assembly as early as next week will add pressure on Damascus to end the fighting.
In a related development, the United Nations said Thursday that Lakhdar Brahimi, the special Syria envoy for both the United Nations and the Arab League, had agreed to Mr. Ban’s request to stay on the job. Mr. Brahimi had been expected to resign in frustration over the lack of progress on the political track. But he apparently changed his mind after the Russian-American agreement to convene a peace conference — something Mr. Brahimi had long sought.
Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem, Steven Erlanger from Paris, Steven Lee Myers from Rome, Neil MacFarquhar from the United Nations and Rick Gladstone from New York.
Syria crisis: Cameron in talks with Putin
Matthew Weaver and Guardian readers
guardian.co.uk, Friday 10 May 2013 08.41 BST
• David Cameron is to discuss the crisis in Syria when he meets Vladimir Putin at the Russian president's residence in Sochi today. The Telegraph suggests that Britain could host an international conference on Syria aimed at achieving a diplomatic breakthrough. But Britain and France are also continuing efforts to lift or amend the EU arms embargo on Syria to allow them to supply arms to the rebels.
• US secretary of state John Kerry has thrown into doubt an agreement he made with Russia to a convene an international conference between the two sides in the conflict, by insisting that Bashar al-Assad cannot be part of a future transitional government in Syria. His comments were at odds with the view of Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, that Assad's departure could not be a precondition for the peace talks. The unresolved question of what role the Syrian leader could play has been at the heart of faltering diplomatic moves to end the conflict since a UN meeting in Geneva last June.
Syria crisis: US insists Assad can have no future role
Comments by US secretary of state, John Kerry, throw international efforts to resolve crisis into further uncertainty
Ian Black, Middle East editor
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 9 May 2013 19.09 BST
International efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis reached new levels of uncertainty on Thursday when John Kerry, the US secretary of state, insisted that Bashar al-Assad could not be part of a future transitional government – casting doubt on a US-Russian agreement to convene a conference of the regime and opposition.
Kerry's comments were at odds with the view of Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, that President Assad's departure could not be a precondition for the peace talks. The unresolved question of what role the Syrian leader could play has been at the heart of faltering diplomatic moves to end the conflict since a UN meeting in Geneva last June.
Speaking in Rome, Kerry said the parties were working to "effect a transition government by mutual consent of both sides, which clearly means that in our judgement President Assad will not be a component of that transitional government".
David Cameron is to discuss Syria when he meets Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Friday, British officials said. The UK position remains that Assad "has no place" in a future Syria, while arguing for a political solution.
But Britain and France are also continuing efforts to lift or amend the EU arms embargo on Syria to allow them to supply arms to the rebels. The US, already helping coordinate weapons deliveries by Gulf states, is also considering supplying arms.
International alarm about Syria has been fuelled in recent days by the alleged use of chemical weapons, last weekend's Israeli air raids near Damascus and a sense that a crisis that has already cost a reported 70,000 lives and created huge refugee flows that are destabilising neighbouring countries, shows no sign of winding down.
In another development, the leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah – a key Assad ally – said on Thursday that Syria would step up its support of the militia group. "If the aim … was to prevent the strengthening of the resistance's capabilities, then Syria will give the resistance sophisticated weapons the like of which it hasn't seen before," he warned in a televised address.
Syrian opposition figures said they remained sceptical about Tuesday's US-Russian initiative, with some accusing Washington of reneging on its previous insistence that Assad must go. Kerry's carefully worded statement seemed designed to persuade them to attend the proposed conference despite their profound misgivings.
The US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, met the Syrian opposition coalition in Istanbul on Wednesday. Some of its leaders fear a ploy to persuade unrepresentative opposition figures to enter talks with the regime.
Washington may be deliberately employing ambiguous language about Assad's fate, perhaps considering a formula under which the Syrian president might agree to resign later. Assad has, however, shown no sign of readiness to step down.
Syria's government said, meanwhile, that it welcomed the US-Russian statement but reserved the right to fight terrorism – its phrase for all opposition to the regime. It is likely to insist on an end to arms supplies as a condition for attending any conference.
Kerry said after talks with the Jordanian foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, that he hoped Russia would not supply advanced ground-to-air missile systems to Syria – following a report in the Wall Street Journal that Israel has told the US that such a deal was imminent.
France's foreign minister Laurent Fabius said in an interview with Le Monde that the UN should follow the US in declaring the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organisation to differentiate it from other Syrian rebel groups – apparently implying ones affiliated to the Free Syrian Army that France, Britain and others may be preparing to support actively if current diplomatic efforts fail. The Nusra front, which has links to al-Qaida, is emerging as the most effective force fighting the Syrian government, FSA commanders say.
Angola's poor people hit hard by urbanisation crackdown in Luanda
Forced evictions and illegal housing demolitions have become the norm for people in the overcrowded Angolan capital
Friday 10 May 2013 07.00 BST guardian.co.uk
The Angolan government says it is waging "a sustained war against chaotic urbanisation", but this appears to have become a war against poor people.
The most extreme examples are in Luanda, a city bursting at the seams. Around half a million people lived in Angola's capital in 1975, when the Portuguese moved out. Now, with many forced into the city to escape the country's 27-year civil war, 5 million jostle for space, of whom three-quarters live in informal settlements with little or no documentation or land tenure.
Angola has experienced fast economic growth, due to a booming oil and diamond trade. But the war left a ravaged infrastructure and weakened political and social institutions. Luanda is now one of the world's most expensive cities, yet an estimated two-thirds of the people living there exist on less than $2 a day. Since 2002, forced evictions and the demolition of poor areas to make way for shopping centres and gated condominiums for Angola's elite have been recurrent themes. Postwar infrastructure and development are undoubtedly necessary in this chaotic and crowded place, but at what cost?
Sitting outside her tin shack in what is left of Cambamba II neighbourhood, where she has lived for 47 years, a Luandan grandmother says she and the other inhabitants had cultivated land over the years to grow their own food, but police and government bulldozers have destroyed her home five times, together with all her possessions. "We lost the bed, the pans, our stove – the people who pushed down the houses took them. They came with dogs and guns and they flattened everything."
Across the road the new houses, now renamed "Nova Vida" (New Life), are like a dystopian 1950s suburbia – matching pastel colours and manicured front lawns surrounded by the shacks of the dispossessed.
In the Banga We neighbourhood next door, a 36-year-old man who had put all his savings into building a home for his wife and baby son saw it reduced to rubble, without warning, with no compensation and no alternative. "They came without bringing documents," he says. "They would come early in the morning, around 5am or 6am, and would start tearing down the buildings. There was no way of defending our homes because they were armed." He has rebuilt his house more than 10 times.
Between 2002 and 2006, Christian Aid partner SOS Habitat and Human Rights Watch documented (pdf) more than 18 mass evictions on the outskirts of Luanda alone. More than 3,000 homes were destroyed, leaving 20,000 people homeless. In 2009, the homes of an estimated 15,000 people in the capital were destroyed. In the runup to last year's presidential election, the evictions stopped. But they have since started again; in February, 5,000 residents were forcibly evicted in Maiombe, on the outskirts of Luanda.
When Navi Pillay, UN high commissioner for human rights, visited Angola for the first time last month, she highlighted this worrying lack of land tenure or land rights.
But she also pointed towards a possible solution: a vibrant civil society. However, it's not easy being a human rights defender in Angola. Members of several of Christian Aid's partner organisations have been threatened and jailed. They put their lives at risk each day in their efforts to protect the most vulnerable people, yet they achieve great things.
SOS Habitat works with the residents of Banga We and Cambamba I and II, helping them to engage with the authorities. As a result of eight years of campaigning, the government has finally built the community new homes in Zango. In the neighbourhood of Wenji Maka, SOS Habitat has also helped the community to successfully lobby the authorities for a school, a clinic and water pumps.
SOS Habitat works with other associations to lobby at national and international levels, and members met Pillay to tell her about their work. They had previously delivered a letter to the Angolan parliament, highlighting the role of provincial authorities in exacerbating housing and other social problems through repeated demolitions and evictions, which damage the fabric of society, and promote insecurity and violence.
They demanded that the government fully adhere to the constitution and national and international laws, including halting the illegal housing demolitions. They are seeking a guarantee of judicial intervention for acts of demolition carried out without adequate rehousing and compensation. SOS Habitat is appealing to the government to initiate proper participatory urban planning processes to build a better future for all Angolan citizens. It is through the work of organisations like SOS Habitat that change will come.