Afghanistan's forces losing more than a few good men. And women
Army and police bleeding recruits due to Taliban threats, lack of pay and apathy as west prepares to reduce security role
Emma Graham-Harrison in Kabul
theguardian.com, Tuesday 3 September 2013 20.44 BST
General Sayed Mohammad Roshandel is not a man who scares easily: he spent years battling both the insurgency and corruption in a violent province on the Afghan-Iranian border, and several more facing down the Taliban in Kabul's crowded, dusty streets, under the full glare of the world's media.
But earlier this summer, the officer who had risen from an ordinary background to become head of special forces for the Afghan police slipped away from an official work trip to Europe, crossing into Denmark, where he intended to apply for political asylum, sources with knowledge of his trip told the Guardian. The interior ministry, to which Roshandel reports, confirmed he had been in Europe for over two months, but said he was on extended leave to deal with family issues.
A few weeks after Roshandel's journey, a pioneering army helicopter pilot, Latifa Nabizada, hailed as Afghanistan's Amelia Earhart, made her last landing and shifted to a desk job in the ministry of defence, after a barrage of Taliban threats against her family became too intense.
The news of both moves has been hushed up in Kabul, where they are perhaps the most high-profile examples of a more widespread problem facing the country's police and army. At a time when they are meant to be taking over the fight against a ruthless, battle-hardened insurgency, and as the west moves into a support role, the forces are haemorrhaging more than a few good men. And women.
Many of the losses are deaths and injuries in battle, with casualties mounting up at a rate that senior Afghan and Nato commanders both admit poses a serious risk to morale. But thousands more are men, and a few women, who go awol or simply don't renew their contracts.
Nato and the Afghan government have hailed the expansion of the police and army to a 350,000-strong force in the space of just a few years of intense recruitment and development; the west didn't really turn its focus to training them until 2009.
But there have long been concerns about the durability of such a rapidly assembled force. A recent US government report found that in the six months to March 2013, the Afghan national army lost men at an average rate of over 3% each month. That amounts to over a third of its total strength each year, an alarming number.
"The ANA cannot keep the people it needs, train the people it does have, or adequately supply the people it manages to train," said one report from the Afghanistan Analysts Network earlier this year, analysing examining official statistics on the losses and training programmes.
The police, who usually serve closer to home but are more like frontline paramilitaries than the civil order forces of the western world, have lower numbers of disappearing officers, but it still stacks up to around 15% of the force each year.
Cruel odds of injury or death, rising violence nationwide, widespread drug abuse, heavy corruption and Taliban targeting of soldiers and police even when away from their forces have all contributed to the departures, officials and analysts say.
Roshandel appears to have fallen victim to the lack of family connections that made his rise so impressive. His determination to crack down on corruption and lack of powerful backers left him vulnerable at the top, despite praise for his shakeup of once-listless forces.
Under his guidance, the police special units were transformed from a shaky force that operated only alongside foreign commandos into a powerful unit that earlier this year held off a major attack on the airport without a single casualty, and have won widespread plaudits.
"He had no support from his superiors," said one source with information about Roshandel's flight, who said the general's departure was not driven by fear, but frustration. "When the new interior minister took up the job he didn't see him for weeks."
Roshandel's departure was unusual because he was a member of the usually well trained and highly motivated security elite, often closely groomed by Nato forces for success, and with access to perks like opportunities to travel abroad.
Most of the disappearing soldiers are far lower down the ranks, where there is often limited loyalty to Afghanistan or the security forces. In a country where by some estimates unemployment is higher than one in every three adult men, the primary driver of recruitment is frequently financial.
"People don't join the police with the aim of serving the country, it's just for the salary. If they don't get paid for two months, they will leave," said one officer with several years' service. "I am in this job because I had no other options."
Nabizada, a forceful woman originally trained by the Russians and accompanied on flights by her young daughter when there was no one for childcare duty, did not want to stop flying, but was targeted by a barrage of Taliban death threats.
It was eventually too dangerous for her to travel from her home to the airfield every day.
A string of high-profile women have been attacked and killed recently, including a member of parliament, a senator, and the most senior female police officer in southern Helmand.
Although she has stayed in the military, her shift to a desk job diminishes the already thin ranks of the country's air force, and means another pilot will need to be trained. That will cost millions and take several years, highlighting one of the most dangerous effects of the attrition problem in a country expected to fight the Taliban more or less alone from the end of next year.
"The high ANA attrition rate is undermining attempts to develop a trained and experienced cadre of NCOs and soldiers," the US government report warned. "Continued high attrition increases the overall cost of sustaining the force and creates a burden on recruiting and training structures."
Additional reporting by Mokhtar Amiri
September 3, 2013
Indian Police Officer Says Leaders Approved Executions
By HARI KUMAR
NEW DELHI — A high-ranking Indian police officer awaiting trial on suspicion of staging extrajudicial killings and passing them off as shootings committed during major terrorism arrests accused political leaders in the state of Gujarat on Tuesday of approving the executions.
The officer, D. G. Vanzara, said that two leaders of India’s opposition Bharatiya Janata Party — Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s chief minister, and a lieutenant, Amit Shah — had sanctioned the shootings, then allowed him and 32 other police officers to take the blame.
Mr. Vanzara’s accusation could prove damaging to Mr. Modi, the de facto prime ministerial candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party, which hopes to win a majority in the 2014 parliamentary elections.
In a letter announcing his resignation from the Gujarat police force, Mr. Vanzara described his bitter disappointment with Mr. Modi, “whom I used to adore like a god.”
“But I am sorry to state that my god could not rise to the occasion under the evil influence of Shri Amitbhai Shah, who usurped his eyes and ears and has been successfully misguiding him” for 12 years, he wrote.
Mr. Vanzara and nearly three dozen other officials are accused of killing Muslim suspects from 2002 to 2007, then telling the public that the victims were important terrorists killed in “encounters” trying to elude arrest.
Mr. Vanzara said the police officers were carrying out the Gujarat government’s “proactive policy of zero tolerance for terrorism” during a period when Islamic militants threatened Gujarat.
He did not directly acknowledge staging encounters, but said that if the charges were true, “we, being field officers, have simply implemented the conscious policy of this government, which was inspiring, guiding and monitoring our actions.”
Mr. Modi has not been charged in the Vanzara case, but he has long been suspected of having played a role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat, in which nearly 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. In previous trials, witnesses have testified that Mr. Modi discouraged the police from intervening.
Many of the victims’ families have successful pushed for trials, with some cases reaching the Supreme Court of India.
Jay Narayan Vyas, a spokesman for the government of Gujarat, played down the importance of Mr. Vanzara’s letter, saying it “has no value.”
“He is a defendant; he is not a victim,” Mr. Vyas said in comments to NDTV, an independent news channel, referring to Mr. Vanzara.
The letter came as good news for officials from the governing Congress Party, who are preparing for a tough electoral challenge from Mr. Modi, who presents himself as a pro-business, pro-development candidate.
“It further strengthens our view on Narendra Modi and what we have said in the past,” said Ajay Maken, a Congress Party general secretary. “The kind of misuse of police that has taken place during Mr. Modi’s regime is unfortunate.”
Ellen Barry contributed reporting.
Australia's heaviest drinkers are drinking more, study finds
Top 10% of heaviest drinkers found to be consuming 4-5% more alcohol than a decade ago, and women draw level with men
theguardian.com, Wednesday 4 September 2013 08.51 BST
Very heavy drinking among Australia's most frequent consumers of alcohol has increased over the past decade, one study has found, while women are drawing level with men in terms of consumption rates, according to another study.
A study by Dr Michael Livingston, a post-doctoral research fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, found that the top 10% of heaviest drinkers in Australia are now consuming between 4-5% more alcohol than a decade ago.
This is despite an overall fall in drinking rates through a rise in the number of people abstaining from drink or cutting back on consumption. Australia's heavy drinkers are classified as those who consume more than 3,000 standard drinks a year, or around 60 a week.
A separate study by Dr Catherine Chapman and associate professor Tim Slade found that long-standing differences between men and women have virtually vanished.
The research found that while men born in the early 20th century drank more than three times the amount of women, this gap has narrowed dramatically. Women born in the 1990s are now almost as likely as men to drink alcohol. Chapman said that the shift is also evident in rates of heavy drinking and binge drinking.
Livingston told Guardian Australia that the research shows a conflicted pattern of drinking in Australia.
"It goes against what we thought about alcohol consumption, where if the rate goes down, we all shift together," he said. "The big question is why this is happening. I think there has been a lot of media attention on the issue but it's not quite sinking in with some people.
"Overall, we are seeing a lot in the media about the harmful effects of drinking, as well as things like FebFast and Dry July. There has been an overall shift in thinking about drinking.
"We know that heavy drinkers respond to changes in price, so a minimum price or extra tax could have an impact. Also, an intervention from a health professional can also be helpful."
Fairfax chairman Roger Corbett says Kevin Rudd is 'discredited'
Prime minister brushes off criticism from business leader, but Greens claim timing of attack was inappropriate
theguardian.com, Wednesday 4 September 2013 05.40 BST
Kevin Rudd has brushed aside criticism from Fairfax chairman and Reserve Bank board member Roger Corbett, who said on Tuesday that the prime minister had been "discredited by his own conduct".
Speaking to the ABC's Lateline, Corbett, who is one of Australia's most prominent business people and is a member of the Liberal party, repeated allegations that Rudd had been active in destabilising the government at 2010 election, arguing that Labor would have been better off under Julia Gillard at the 2013 federal election.
"In my view Kevin Rudd is a leader that has been really discredited by his own conduct. His colleagues sacked him because they judged him to be incapable as PM. He, it's alleged, was active against the government during the elections – maybe true, may not be," said Corbett.
"Here's a man that really has done the Labor party enormous damage, destabilised it, and is now wishing to present himself to the Australian people as a PM and as the incoming PM. I don't think the Australian people will cop that, to be quite honest, and I think that's very sad for the Labor party.
"I think if they come undone in these elections it would have been much better that they'd come undone with Julia Gillard leading them than Kevin Rudd."
Rudd responded on Wednesday morning by saying that Corbett was "talking up his own business" interests.
"I respect Mr Corbett talking up his own business book and his business interests," he told ABC Radio Melbourne.
"That's a matter for him. Mr [Rupert] Murdoch does the same," he added, "But guess what: Australian voters make up their own minds."
Corbett used the interview to come out in support of an Abbott government: "I think he [Abbott] will probably be a pretty good PM because he's a very sincere, nice type of human being and I think he will be very dedicated, focused in the job and we certainly need in the economic times we're about to go into some really clear and good leadership."
Corbett also criticised the bias of News Corp Australia's papers. Asked his opinion of the Rupert Murdoch owned group, which has produced a number of heavily pro-Coalition frontpages in recent weeks, Corbett said: "To be as strongly biased as News have been in the last few months, I do think does great damage to the credibility of the press."
Corbett's comments also drew criticism from the Greens leader, Christine Milne, who said the timing of the remarks was inappropriate.
"If business leaders have a view that they intend to express, they should express it at the time, not wait until they think there's a certainty in terms of who they think is going to be in government," she said.
"[Because] they then, by their remarks, guarantee themselves access, that's exactly what goes on through the corporate sector."
Labor senator Doug Cameron called on Corbett to quit the board of the Reserve Bank.
"I just think trading on your position as a reserve bank board member, trading on your position as the chair of Fairfax and not disclosing that you're a paid-up member of the Liberal Party is outrageous," he told ABC News 24. "I'm calling on Roger Corbett to do the right thing and resign as a member of the Reserve Bank board."
Australian TV networks reject anti-Murdoch commercial that accuses him of printing ‘misleading crap’ in his newspapers
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, September 4, 2013 6:35 EDT
Australia’s commercial television networks are refusing to run an advert which accuses Rupert Murdoch of printing “misleading crap” in his newspapers ahead of national elections, the activist group behind the ad said Wednesday.
Australian-born Murdoch, now a US citizen, owns mass-selling newspapers in his former homeland and his Sydney tabloid The Daily Telegraph has called for voters to “kick out” Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Labor government in Saturday’s polls.
“It was great when you could pick up the paper and get… well… news,” says the man in the advert, produced by activist group ‘GetUp!’, as he stands on his front lawn to collect his newspaper — and later using it to clean up his dog’s droppings.
“But political bias presented as news is, well, misleading crap.
“Don’t let the crap decide your vote. Stand up for what you want. Tell Rupert, ‘We’ll choose our own government’.”
The left-leaning GetUp!, which describes itself as an independent community advocacy organisation, is complaining to the competition watchdog after three major commercial networks refused to air the video which has been viewed more than 270,600 times on YouTube.
“Seven, Nine and 10 are still refusing to run it,” GetUp! spokesman Rohan Wenn told AFP, adding that the Nine Network had originally broadcast the ad but then had a change of heart.
Wenn said the Seven Network had described the ad as “distasteful” and Network Ten, of which Murdoch’s son Lachlan Murdoch is a director, had said it did not want to target another media organisation.
GetUp! director Sam McLean told national broadcaster ABC it was unfortunate the ad would not receive airplay by the commercial channels in the lead up to the election widely expected to be won by conservative opposition leader Tony Abbott.
“We think that’s an outrageous breach of our right to freedom of speech,” McLean said.
Murdoch’s News Corp has made no secret of its support for Abbott, with the Telegraph running a front page editorial the day after Rudd called the polls under the headline “Kick This Mob Out”.
The tabloid has since run a string of stories against the government, including one in which Rudd was photoshopped to look like bumbling Colonel Klink from television show “Hogan’s Heroes” wearing a Nazi uniform and monocle.
News has defended its coverage, saying in an editorial on Sunday that Labor had led a “bad government” and News had been a “critical voice for our readers”.
“We are not, and never have been, cheerleaders for any one side of politics,” it said in the Sunday Telegraph editorial. “We have consistently railed against incompetence.”
Power cut paralyses Venezuela
President Nicolás Maduro cites sabotage by opposition for blackout, which left 70% of country without electricity
Associated Press in Caracas
theguardian.com, Wednesday 4 September 2013 08.12 BST
Venezuela was plunged into darkness on Tuesday when the country's main power distribution network failed, depriving 70% of the country of electricity and creating traffic chaos in much of Caracas.
The electrical energy minister, Jesse Chacón, appeared on state TV to explain that the failure was in the "backbone" that carries electricity from the Bajo Caroni region, where 60% of Venezuela's power is generated.
President Nicolás Maduro said on Tuesday night that 14 of 23 states had lost power for much of the day and blamed "sabotage", suggesting opposition groups were responsible. He said service had been progressively restored with some exceptions, including the oil-producing state of Zulia. Maduro blamed "the extreme rightwing", as he has in the past, via Twitter.
Power was restored in Caracas by nightfall.
Despite possessing the world's largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela has been plagued in recent years by worsening power outages, but they have rarely reached metropolitan Caracas, home to more than one-sixth of the country's 28 million people.
Maduro said the oil industry, the lifeblood of the economy, had not been affected by the outage.
In an evening broadcast on state TV, he claimed the outage was "part of a low-level war" on what his government refers to as "the revolution" begun by the late president Hugo Chávez, Maduro's political mentor but provided no evidence to support his accusations of sabotage.
Maduro said he had ordered the military to protect the entire country.
The capital's subway service was temporarily interrupted and the authorities evacuated passengers from several trains.
Opposition politicians say the government, while spending billions on programmes for the poor, has not invested sufficiently in the electrical grid and generating plants to keep up with growing demand.
Authorities say delays in several initiatives designed to boost electricity output are partly to blame.
Chacón, a long-time close aide to Chávez, was named energy minister after Maduro won the election in April by a thin margin. The previous energy minister was Chávez's brother, Argenis.
Chávez died in March after 14 years in power. Maduro was his foreign minister and later, while Chávez was dying of cancer, his vice-president.
Mexico police launch manhunt for vigilante 'huntress of bus drivers'
Bus drivers in Ciudad Juárez fear for their lives after claims that middle-aged woman killed two as revenge for past sexual crimes
Jo Tuckman in Mexico City
theguardian.com, Tuesday 3 September 2013 20.17 BST
Two decades ago Ciudad Juárez became infamous for the murders of dozens of young women who often disappeared after leaving their jobs in assembly-for-export factories. Their raped, tortured and mutilated bodies were typically found dumped in the desert.
Two years ago the beleaguered border city topped global violence lists when rival drug cartels recruited and trained vicious killers to wage war as a misjudged crackdown generated more violence.
Today police are investigating what initial evidence suggests could be a different kind of serial killer – a middle-aged woman out to avenge past sexual crimes committed by bus drivers.
"Witnesses say she was about 40 to 50, was dressed in black and had blonde hair, but it might have been a wig," police spokesman Arturo Sandoval said of the prime suspect in the murder of two bus drivers killed as they worked on the same route on two successive days last week. Witness accounts indicate that she shot the drivers as she got off their buses.
The vengeance theory developed early on with reports that before the second murder she shouted: "You lot think you are so tough." It took off at the weekend when local media received an email signed by "Diana, huntress of bus drivers".
The mail claimed to be from a factory worker who had suffered violence from bus drivers and was fed up that nothing had been done to protect people like her.
"I am an instrument to take revenge for several women," the email said. "Society may think that we are weak, but in reality we are brave and if we are not respected we will make ourselves respected. Juárez women are strong."
While careful to point out that the mail could be a hoax, women's activists say they would not be surprised to find it was true. "Women here have been 100% disposable because of the situation of the city, the culture and the inaction of the police, and women have had enough," said Marisela Ortiz, a long time women's activist who in 2011 fled across the border to El Paso because of a series of death threats, driven home by the murders of other female activists.
Ortiz stresses the pain carried by relatives of murdered women who not only have to deal with the loss, but also find themselves constantly imagining the horrors they suffered before death. "I have worked with many victims and mothers of victims over the years who don't just want justice, they want vengeance too."
Nor is she surprised that bus drivers might be a target, given their reputation for abusing female passengers. They have also been accused of involvement in the murders of a number of women either directly, or as conduits to the victims for more powerful people presumed by many to be responsible for the phenomenon.
But Ortiz and others point out that bus drivers have also been targeted by the authorities when they need somebody to blame for crimes they cannot solve, cannot be bothered to investigate, or simply want to cover up.
"There are many well documented cases of abuse by bus drivers and the police have always ignored violence against women," said Juárez criminologist and forensic scientist Oscar Maynez. "This means they have also often been the perfect scapegoats."
But while the combination of sexual violence, bus drivers and vengeance is not new – and neither are female killers, whose presence in cartel death squads is well documented – the idea that a middle-aged woman would kill in the name of her sex is. "This would be the first case of a woman who is killing in order to get back at the patriarchal system," Maynez said. "That would be novel."
Meanwhile, police say they are working on establishing the authenticity of the email from Diana. They are also putting undercover officers on buses armed with an artist's impression of the murderer drawn from witness accounts.
None of which has done much to calm the fears of bus drivers, particularly on the route where the murders took place, where many drivers have not been turning up for work. According to local paper Diario de Juárez passengers on the route are also nervous about being caught in any crossfire.
Everyone’s talking about ‘Molly’ — a deadly designer drug
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, September 3, 2013 23:06 EDT
Everybody is talking about Molly, but few aside from the young, hip and famous knew who she was until the death of two people at a New York music festival this weekend.
The sweet-sounding name belongs to an Ecstasy-like designer drug that is being blamed for the deaths of Olivia Rotondo, 20 and Jeffery Russ, 23, during the Electric Zoo music festival.
Four others landed in intensive care and the three-day event — which attracts tens of thousands to see artists such as David Guetta — was cancelled ahead of its final day on Sunday “due to serious health risks,” according to the mayor’s office.
A New York Police Department spokeswoman told AFP the deaths appeared to be related to “a narcotic commonly known as Molly.”
Molly is thought by many users to be a “pure” form of MDMA or Ecstasy, an hallucinogenic party drug which is often laced with dangerous substances.
“There is nothing pure about it at all,” said Erin Mulvey, spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Agency’s New York division.
She told AFP the drug was entirely synthetic, based on a stimulant called methylone which enters the country from places such as Canada, China or India and is turned into capsules or powder form to be snorted or ingested.
The party drug of choice for this dance generation, Molly has increasingly come under the spotlight in the past year, surging into popular culture through the mouths of some celebrities.
Madonna sparked outrage after she took to the stage at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival last year and said: “How many people in this crowd have seen Molly?”
She later said she was referring to a friend’s song. However that song refers to a girl named Molly who makes him “want to dance.”
Hip-hop star Kanye West sings about it, as does Miley Cyrus who had the lyric “dancing with Molly” bleeped out of her performance of “We Can’t Stop” at the MTV music video awards last Sunday.
“It is kind of like an endorsement of anything else. If Madonna and Miley know about it, I should know about it,” said Robert Thompson, pop culture expert at the University of Syracuse
He likened the innocent-sounding name to nicknames used by previous generations such as Mary-Jane for marijuana or Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds for the psychedelic drug LSD.
The cryptic code-name has become a kind of inside joke.
One photo circulating from the Electric Zoo festival shows five friends in neon yellow tops each spelling out a different letter of the word “Molly’
It has also become a veiled way for youngsters to boast about drug abuse on social media.
“Kids are saying on Twitter: ‘I am going to see Molly tonight’, their parents have no idea who Molly is,” said Mulvey of the DEA.
She said the harmless name was just another way distributors were trying to make their product enticing to teenagers and college kids.
“We have seen Molly in a pink crystalized form looking like candy,” said Mulvey, warning that despite its reputation as a less damaging drug “there is nothing safe about it at all.”
“It is a stimulant with very detrimental effects, your temperature increases, you are almost burning inside. Blood pressure increases, you can go into a coma.
“People assume it is going to be a euphoric event and they end up in the emergency room. There have been overdoses throughout the entire United States.”
Yet while Molly may be getting more popular, Ellen Borakove, spokeswoman for the New York chief medical examiner, said that there were “a very small number” of deaths from the drug.
She highlighted that drug overdoses were “very often a combination of more than one drug.”
After the Electric Zoo deaths, Molly’s image has become a little bit less conspiratorial and hush-hush.
One Twitter user commented: “Last night my mom was watching the news and asked me if I knew who Molly was hahahahaha.”
Oxford researchers determine timeline for rise of Egypt’s early dynasties
By Agence France-Presse
Tuesday, September 3, 2013 22:30 EDT
Archaeologists drawing on a wide range of tools said on Wednesday they had pinpointed the crucial time in world history when Egypt emerged as a distinct state.
Experts have wrangled for decades as to when turbulent upper and lower Egypt were brought together under a stable, single ruler for the first time.
Conventional estimates, based on the evolving styles of ceramics found in human burials, vary hugely, from 3400 to 2900 BC.
A team led by Oxford University’s Michael Dee, reporting in the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A, widen the methods used for estimating the date.
They took radiocarbon measurements from more than 100 samples of hair, bones and plants found at burial sites and held in museum collections today.
The archaeological and radiocarbon evidence were then knitted together in a mathematical model.
It calculates the accession of King Aha — the first of eight dynastic rulers in early Egypt — as taking place between 3111 BC and 3045 BC, with a probability of 68 percent.
This period was a critical one in world history, marking the emergence of a durable civilisation in the western hemisphere.
It occurred when people began to settle permanently on the banks of the Nile and started to grow crops, providing a surplus that spurred trade.
“The origins of Egypt began a millennium before the pyramids were built, which is why our understanding of how and why this powerful state developed is based solely on archaeological evidence,” said Dee.
“This new study provides new radiocarbon-dating that resets the chronology of the first dynastic rulers of Ancient Egypt, and suggests that Egypt formed far more rapidly than was previously thought.”
Aha and his seven successors ruled over a territory spanning a similar area to Egypt today, with formal borders at Aswan in the south, the Mediterranean Sea in the north and the modern-day Gaza Strip in the east, according to the study.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]
Scientists debate new equation for estimating alien life across the universe
By Stuart Clark The Guardian
Wednesday, September 4, 2013 6:10 EDT
How many other inhabited planets are there? It’s a question that fascinates scientists and lay people alike. A new equation may help weigh up the possibility
Many of us have glanced upwards at the stars and wondered whether there is other life out there somewhere. Few, however, have then tried to write down an equation to express the probability in numbers.
Sara Seager of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has done just that. Her equation collects together all the factors that could determine how many planets with detectable signs of life may be discovered in the coming years.
The factors include the number of stars that will be observed, the fraction of those stars with habitable planets, and the fraction of those planets that can be observed. First presented at a conference earlier this year, the equation is written as N = N*FQFHZFOFLFS. It was published yesterday in the online Astrobiology magazine.
This is not the first time an astronomer has put such thoughts into numbers, as Seager acknowledges. Back in 1961, astronomer Frank Drake gave a lecture about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. To set the agenda, he wrote down a list of the factors needed to estimate the number of intelligent civilisations in the galaxy.
The resulting string of factors is known as the Drake equation, and it has become a bit of a scientific superstar. It may even be the most famous equation after E=mc2.
Drake’s factors were:1: The average number of stars to form per year in the galaxy.2: The fraction of those stars that form planets.3: The fraction of those planets that could support life.4: The fraction of life-supporting planets that form life.5: The fraction of those living planets that develop intelligent life forms.6: The fraction of those intelligent life forms that develop technology.7: The average lifetime of a communicating species; in other words how long a civilisation will use radio technology, leaking signals into space for us to hear.
Rather discouragingly, the only factor that is known is the first one. Astronomers have shown that the galaxy gives birth to about seven new stars per year. They are now working on an estimate of the second term, the fraction of stars that form planets. All the rest is still guesswork.
Seager’s new equation makes no assumption that extraterrestrials are intelligent and using radio technology. Instead, she simply works on the idea that life of any type may be present in sufficient abundance to alter the chemical composition of its planet’s atmosphere.
On Earth, for example, our atmosphere has been driven to a specific chemical composition by the combined metabolisms of all the living things. It is as distinctive as a fingerprint. So, by analysing the atmosphere of another planet, we may be able to detect the presence of life, even if it is only pondweed.
Nevertheless, Seager’s new equation suffers many of the same drawbacks as Drake’s original: we have no idea what value to assign to most of the factors.
Last year, I appeared at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto alongside Canadian poet Larissa Andrusyshyn. Realising the probabilistic nature of the Drake Equation, she had written her own tonugue-in-cheek equations to estimate such things as the number of men in her city who displayed boyfriend potential.
Similarly, I could write down an equation to estimate the probability of me finishing this article. Factors could include: the number of computers in the house that I could potentially use to write, the fraction of those computers equipped with a word processor, the fraction connected to the internet, the amount of time I had to spare, and of course, how motivated I felt (which on my cynical days could be a function of how much I was getting paid for the article).
In short, you can think up a “Drake equation” for anything.
While Seager’s and Drake’s equations are useful ways of organising one’s thoughts about the challenge of looking for life, the bottom line is that the factors are too loosely constrained for either to have any quantitative value.
The only way to know if there is truly life on other worlds is to design and build missions that will look for it. Thankfully, Seager is at the forefront of that effort too. Her planet-finding telescope, TESS, will be launched by Nasa around 2017 and could locate hundreds of Earth-sized planets.
Stuart Clark is the author of The Big Questions: The Universe (Quercus), from which part of this posting was adapted. Find him on Twitter as @DrStuClark.
© Guardian News and Media 2013
In the USA...Obama’s Smart Syria Decision Has Fractured The Republican Party
Sep. 3rd, 2013
There are myriad derogatory missives applicable to Republicans in Congress that would take ten thousand words to enumerate and justify, but the one overriding constant is that they are all related to Republicans’ devotion to their special interests without regard for the needs of others. In fact, Republicans lack of a sense of urgency to address any issue unrelated to enriching their wealthy donors or advancing their religious sycophants’ theocratic agenda and it is the hallmark of the GOP since President Obama was sworn in office in 2009. Now that President Obama gave Republicans what they wanted and expects them to address America’s response to Syria’s chemical weapons use against the rebellion attempting to topple the Assad administration, they are using the opportunity to advance various special and self-interest agendas with no regard for the task at hand; chemical weapon use against innocent Syrian civilians.
After Republicans return from their 5 week hiatus next week, they will have a small window of time (9 days) to address looming issues such as the budget crisis and debt ceiling deadline as well as debating and deciding whether America should take action against the Syrian government for using chemical weapons against the insurgency battling the Syrian government. Republicans have weighed in on the President’s request for authorization to launch a limited strike to send a message the world cannot tolerate any government using chemicals weapons, but they have splintered off into separate groups that inform an honest debate and resolution will not be forthcoming anytime soon. It is astonishing, really, that for a group normally opposed to anything President Obama proposes, most Republicans praised the President’s decision to revert to the Constitution’s mandate that Congress authorizes acts of war, but that is where the cohesiveness typical of Republicans ends.
There was a typical reaction from neo-con warmongers anxious to exert their imperialistic agenda of using America’s military to impose their will in the Middle East led by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham who will not comport a limited military response. McCain and Graham want America to repeat Bush’s Iraq debacle of invasion for regime change because a limited strike will not satisfy their lust to antagonize and draw Iran, and likely Russia and China, into a full-scale regional conflict with the United States like an invasion force on Syrian soil. On Sunday McCain revealed his intent when he said the President going to Congress is “sending a bad signal to Iran, to North Korea, to Bashar al-Assad” that a decision to launch a war is no longer in the hands of one warmongering President.
McCain said, “We’re in a bit of a dilemma here, because Senator Lindsey Graham and I and others will be wanting a plan, rather than just, ‘We’re going to launch some cruise missiles and that’s it. We even worry more when the president’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs says, ‘Well it doesn’t matter when we strike.’ Well, that’s not a military action, then. That’s a symbolic action.” The President’s request is to send a message, a symbolic action, to Assad’s regime and the world that chemical weapons are unacceptable. McCain’s criticism of the President and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs reveals his personal agenda is war for dominance and to benefit the military industrial complex; particularly the oil industry that stands to profit most from war.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul took advantage of the President’s request for congressional action for personal political gain with Israelis and Christians by appealing to anti-Muslim sentiment to garner support for a possible presidential campaign in 2016. Paul thinks America should sit down and convene a confab with America’s allies Russia and China to consult on how best to avoid confronting Assad’s use of chemical weapons because he is, after all, killing Muslims and protecting Christians. Paul believes America should bring in Russia and China to “negotiate a settlement where Assad is gone, but Assad’s regime remains stable because that would also be good for the Christians.” Paul has no clue, or interest, in addressing the use of chemical weapons so long as the innocent victims are Muslims and not Christians because he needs their support if he decides to run for president.
Some Republicans and the media are unhappy the President is not following Bush’s tactics of using the presidency to rush to war. Representative Peter King said going to Congress weakens the presidency, and it was a subject the main stream media shared over the weekend probably because they pre-arranged brilliant graphics, theme music, and lined up experts replete with maps and charts about war with Syria. On five political programs, Secretary of State John Kerry faced NBC, Fox, CBS, ABC, and CNN hosts to dispute their claims that the President’s decision to hold off on immediate military action emboldened America’s adversaries, undermined America’s resolve, and weakened future warmongering presidents. That the media is cheering for another rush to war and criticizing the President debunks the persistent conservative claims the media labors under a liberal bias and reveals their lust for ratings’ boosts that accompany America at war.
The Republican leadership in the House, Boehner and Cantor, could not be bothered with Syria because they still have a week of their 5-week hiatus to instigate their constituents to support shutting down the government, creating a credit default, and eliminate Social Security and Medicare if President Obama fails to allow them to defund and abolish the Affordable Care Act. Since they will only be in session for nine days in September, it is likely they will continue missing briefings and put off debate on the Syrian issue because as Boehner told his caucus “there will be many classified briefings” implying there is no urgency to the President’s request for authorization to strike Syria that, by the way, Boehner said he will back even though his support means very little in a teabagger-led House he has no control over.
Throughout all of the Republican opinions about what, if any, action America should take against Syria, it is evident that none of them have the least interest in the only question at hand; what should America’s part in an international response to the use of chemical weapons be that may prevent more civilian deaths in a sovereign nation’s civil war. Republicans are typically unified in opposing the President, and although many of them praised President Obama for going to Congress, a fractured party pursuing their individual self-interests and ideological bents informs they will give the same urgency to a serious problem they afford the economy, jobs, and rising poverty; none.
**************John Kerry Exposes Rand Paul as a Fraud While Obliterating Him During Syria Hearing
By: Jason Easley
Sep. 3rd, 2013
Sec. of State John Kerry completely obliterated Rand Paul and showed the world that he is a foreign policy fraud during the Senate hearing on Syria.
This was a long exchange between Kerry and Paul, so here is a partial transcript:
SEN. PAUL: So what I would ask is how are we to know? How are we to go home — I haven’t had one person come up to me and say they’re for this war, not one person. We get calls by the thousands. Nobody’s calling in favor of this war. I didn’t meet one when I was home all month. I went to 40 cities. I didn’t have one person come up and say — do they all agree it’s a horrendous thing? Yes, we all agree that chemical attacks are a horrendous thing. But people are not excited about getting involved, and they also don’t think it’s going to work. And they’re skeptical of what will occur with this.
But I’d appreciate your response, and try to reassure the rest of us, one, that the vote is meaningful and valid, that you’d adhere to it, and also that you’re convinced that all of these different items will be better, not worse, by this attack.
SEC. KERRY: Well, Senator, I’d be very happy to do that. Will Israel be more likely to suffer an attack, or will they be safer; will they be less safe? I can make it crystal clear to you that Israel will be less safe unless the United States takes this action. Iran and Hezbollah are two of the three biggest allies of Assad. And Iran and Hezbollah are the two single biggest enemies of Israel. So if — if — if Iran and Hezbollah are advantaged by the United States not curbing Assad’s use of chemical weapons, there is a much greater likelihood that at some point down the road, Hezbollah, who has been one of the principal reasons for a change in the situation on the ground, will have access to these weapons of mass destruction. And Israel will for certain be less secure.
SEN. PAUL: — it would be more likely that Hezbollah will attack, because of this attack, in response.
SEC. KERRY: And Israel feels quite confident of its ability to deal with Hezbollah if they were to do so. You will notice that Israel has on several occasions in the last year seen fit to deal with threats to its security because of what’s in Syria, and not once has Assad responded to that to date. I think there are a bunch of things we should talk about in a — in a classified session.
But let me just make it very clear to you that — you know, you ask these questions, will this or that be more likely to happen or not likely to happen. If the United States of America doesn’t do this, Senator, is it more or less likely that Assad does it again? You want to answer that question?
SEN. PAUL: I don’t think it’s known. I don’t think it’s known –
SEC. KERRY: Is it more or less likely that he does it again?
SEN. PAUL: — (inaudible) — the attack. I think it’s unknown whether it’s more or less likely (whether you have ?) the attack.
SEC. KERRY: It’s unknown? Senator, it’s not unknown. If the United States of America doesn’t hold him accountable on this, with our allies and friends, it’s a guarantee Assad will do it again. A guarantee. And I urge you to go to the classified briefing and learn that.
Secondly, let me just point out to you that with respect to this question of Americans wanting to go to war, you know, you got three people here who’ve been to war. You got John McCain, who’s been to war. There’s not one of us who doesn’t understand what going to war means, and we don’t want to go to war. We don’t believe we are going to war in the classic sense of taking American troops and America to war. The president is asking for the authority to do a limited action that will degrade the capacity of a tyrant who has been using chemical weapons to kill his own people.
SEN. PAUL: But I think by doing so, you announce — you announce –
SEC. KERRY: It’s a limited — it’s limited.
SEN. PAUL: By doing so you announce in advance that your goal is not winning.
SEC. KERRY: But that’s not what –
SEN. PAUL: And I think the last 50 years of secretaries of defense would say if your goal is not to win, then you shouldn’t be involved.
SEC. KERRY: Senator, when people are asked, do you want to go to war with Syria, of course not. Everybody, a hundred percent of Americans will say no. We say no. We don’t want to go to war in Syria either. It’s not what we’re here to ask. The president is not asking you to go to war. He’s not asking you to declare war. He’s not asking you to send one American troop to war. He’s simply saying we need to take an action that can degrade the capacity of a man who’s been willing to kill his own people by breaking a nearly hundred-year- old prohibition, and will we stand up and be counted to say, we won’t do that. That’s not — I don’t — you know, I just don’t consider that going to war in the classic sense of coming to Congress and asking for a declaration of war and training troops and sending people abroad and putting young Americans in harm’s way. That’s not what the president is asking for here.
Since Rand Paul wanted to live in a world of theoretical things that may never happen, Sec. of State Kerry went there with him and schooled the Kentucky senator. Sen. Paul based all of his grandstanding on the completely false idea that President Obama is declaring war on, or taking America to war with Syria. Sen. Kerry saw through what Paul was doing and cut him to shreds.
Things got very ugly very quickly for Sen. Paul as soon as Sec. Kerry turned the tables, and asked him a question. Paul was trying to validate his fantasy war with Syria, but instead displayed his complete and total ignorance of foreign policy.
The same bogus war talking point is being floating with regularity by media on both the left and the right. It is simply not true. Obama has the legal authority under the War Powers Resolution to carry out the limited strikes that he is seeking authorization for without congressional approval. President Obama is seeking congressional authorization because he doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the Bush administration. However, President Obama does have the legal authority to act. The action that he already can legally undertake is not a war.
Rand Paul is fearmongering about war with Syria to build his profile for his 2016 presidential campaign. He is trying to appeal to the isolationist movement, by fabricating a war that isn’t going to happen.
Instead of looking like a leader, Paul was exposed by Kerry to be nothing more than a feeble minded son who is trying ride his daddy’s worn talking points to the White House.
John Kerry proved once again that when a poser like Rand Paul tries to hang with a real foreign policy expert, the poser always gets exposed as a fraud.
***************Country Last Republicans Call Boehner and Cantor Traitors For Supporting Obama
By: Jason Easle
Sep. 3rd, 2013
The obstruction monster that John Boehner and Eric Cantor created has turned on them after the top two House Republican leaders called on their members to support the president on Syria.
Video of Boehner announcing his support of Obama on Syria:
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Boehner’s comments were followed by Eric Cantor’s release of a long statement of support for Obama that said in part:
I intend to vote to provide the President of the United States the option to use military force in Syria. While the authorizing language will likely change, the underlying reality will not. America has a compelling national security interest to prevent and respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction, especially by a terrorist state such as Syria, and to prevent further instability in a region of vital interest to the United States.
The United States’ broader policy goal, as articulated by the President, is that Assad should go, and President Obama’s redline is consistent with that goal and with the goal of deterring the use of weapons of mass destruction. It is the type of redline virtually any American President would draw. Now America’s credibility is on the line. A failure to act when acting is in America’s interests and when a red line has been so clearly crossed will only weaken our ability to use diplomacy, economic pressure, and other non-lethal tools to remove Assad and deter Iran and other aggressors.
Rank and file Republicans reacted to Boehner and Cantor’s calls for Republicans to put their country first by taking to the Internet to attack the Republican leaders.
*****************Republicans Cause Insurance Rates to Rise by Rejecting Parts of ObamaCare
By: Sarah Jones
Sep. 3rd, 2013
No doubt the sad victims of Republican controlled-states will blame the President for the raise in their rates. But actually, Republicans are about to raise rates by 8-10% on their constituents by rejecting a key part of ObamaCare.
The Dallas Morning News (subscriber only link) reported, “Study Says Texas Premiums Will Rise With Medicaid Expansion Opposition”:
Texas’ refusal to expand Medicaid will cause private health insurance premiums to rise by an average of 9.3 percent for people who buy their own coverage, a new study finds. GOP lawmakers, strongly encouraged by Gov. Rick Perry, decided not to add poor adults to Medicaid’s rolls. That means about 1.3 million fewer Texans will have health coverage by 2016 than if the federal Affordable Care Act were fully implemented in the state, according to the study by the nonprofit research organization Rand Corp.
It’s not just Texas. The RAND Health study focused on the impact of the Affordable Care Act on health insurance enrollment and premiums in Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas and the nation overall, and they found that premiums increase by 8 to 10% if states fail to expand Medicaid.
This is what opposition to ObamaCare gets you. ObamaCare lowers the deficit, too, so there is no reason to oppose this market based healthcare reform law, but that isn’t stopping Republicans like Rick Perry who is costing Texans an average of 9.3% raise in their rates.
The study also determined that all ten states could expect a large decline in uninsurance due to ObamaCare, especially if they expand Medicaid. “In many states, the uninsurance rate will be reduced to levels between 6 and 8 percent with the Affordable Care Act, compared to levels in the range of 15 to 20 percent without the law.” Of course, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for ObamaCare, so states with a high number of undocumented immigrants will still have high rates of uninsured.
Republicans have been obstructing the implementation of ObamaCare in order to offer citizens GOPNoCare. The CBO determined that GOPNoCare (repealing ACA) “will increase the federal budget deficit by more than $100 billion in the first decade and more than a trillion dollars in the next decade.”
A separate Health Affairs study found that states that rejected Medicaid expansion would lose $8.4 billion in federal money, and state spending could increase by $1 billion in 2016.
As usual, it’s the poor in rural areas of red states who will be the most harmed by the Republican Party, and yet will also vote most reliably for the Republican Party. They will blame Obama for the rise in their rates and the rest of us will try not to scream in frustration.
Help us help you.
The study is a copyrighted 2013 RAND Health study. The RAND Corporation describes itself as “a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.”
**************Georgia governor gets paid through secret PAC to obstruct Obamacare
By David Ferguson
Tuesday, September 3, 2013 10:01 EDT
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R)’s family and business partner have been receiving payments from a secret Political Action Committee called Real PAC. Half a million dollars of the money donated to the PAC has come from corporate health care interests which — like the governor and Georgia state Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens — oppose the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as “Obamacare.”
According to investigative reporter Jim Walls of Atlanta Unfiltered, the PAC hasn’t filed taxes or the required financial disclosures in two years, and the information it did file for 2011 was incorrect.
Contributors to Real PAC include Aetna, Humana, Blue Cross, United Health care and other interests that want to keep health insurance premiums and other costs as high as possible. Bryan Long of activist group Better Georgia told Raw Story that the list of donors shows who Gov. Deal really works for.
“He goes out and he does their bidding,” Long said, “He’s working for them instead of working for the 650,000 Georgians who don’t have insurance at all or access to the Medicaid expansion.”
“What’s remarkable about this isn’t that there’s money in politics,” he continued. “We all know there’s money in politics. He knew that this was so wrong that he didn’t want to tell anyone. He tried to keep it a secret for two years.”
Deal’s office made financial records publicly available on the Friday before Labor Day weekend, hoping, Long said, that no one would pay attention. The AP reported Friday that among its outgoing costs, the PAC “paid $30,000 to Southern Magnolia Capital, a fundraising firm founded by Deal’s daughter-in-law, Denise Deal. It also paid Ken Cronan, who co-owned a Gainesville salvage yard with Deal, more than $10,000 in December for pilot and plane expenses.”
All of the companies that pay into the PAC are doing business with the state of Georgia on some level. The PAC’s treasurer, former state ethics chairman Rick Thompson, protested that the PAC money is not just for Deal’s re-election, but for “Republican causes.”
Last week, state insurance commissioner Ralph Hudgens was caught on tape boasting to a crowd of supporters that his office is deliberately obstructing the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. As Floyd County Republicans called out “Amen!” and applauded, Hudgens said that his office is interfering with the certification of the ACA’s insurance policy “navigators,” individuals hired to help consumers choose policies on the open market.
“Let me tell you what we’re doing (about Obamacare),” he said. “Everything in our power to be an obstructionist.”
****************Liz Cheney Throws Sister Under the Bus to Pander to Bigoted GOP Primary Voters
By: Keith Brekhus
Sep. 3rd, 2013
Wyoming Senate Candidate Liz Cheney Holds News Conference Day After Announcing She's Running
On Friday, Wyoming US Senate candidate Liz Cheney publicly stated “I am not pro-gay marriage. I believe the issue of marriage must be decided by the states, and by the people in the states, not by judges and not even by legislators, but by the people themselves.” Her statement put her at odds with her sister Mary Cheney, who is a lesbian and is married to her same-sex spouse, Heather Poe. Mary stated that her sister was “dead wrong on the issue of marriage” and added that the issue “should not be decided by a show of hands.”
By coming out against gay marriage, Liz Cheney missed an opportunity to distance herself from her opponent, incumbent Senator Mike Enzi, who also opposes same sex marriages. Cheney could have taken a bold stance in favor of freedom to marry and aligned her campaign with conservative values such as support for liberty, which is often given lip service among Wyoming’s libertarian leaning Republicans. Young voters in particular might have found such a position attractive. Instead, however Cheney chose the path of political cowardice and pandered to religious conservatives and homophobes rather than giving voice to redefining the party for the 21st century.
In a state made infamous by the brutal murder of University of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepherd in 1998, a stance in favor of same-sex marriage would have been just the kind of courageous political decision that could have put Liz Cheney in a position to offer a less bigoted, yet fiscally conservative alternative to Mike Enzi. Sure taking such a position would have been politically risky, but it would have been the right thing to do. Instead, Cheney opted to mimic Enzi’s opposition to the freedom to marry.
No doubt she is aware that while gay marriage is gaining support nationally, it is still unpopular in Wyoming and wildly unpopular with Republican voters in the state. A Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey in July of 2013 found that only 17 percent of Wyoming Republicans favored allowing same-sex marriages to be legal. Worse yet, just three percent of Wyoming voters who identified themselves as very conservative, supported allowing same sex marriages, while 73 percent were opposed. Since very conservative voters are among the most likely to vote in Republican primary elections, Cheney is probably angling for their support.
A July PPP poll found Cheney trailing Enzi 54-26 in a hypothetical GOP primary. Among moderate Republicans, the same poll found her getting absolutely destroyed by Enzi 68-14. However, instead of shoring up her support to be more competitive with moderates, a group who in Wyoming supports allowing same sex marriages by a 45-36 margin, Cheney instead has decided to try to run to the right of Mike Enzi. With so little space to run in, Cheney will likely find that her strategy is destined for political failure. In her efforts to placate the most extreme elements of the Republican base, Liz Cheney tossed her sister under the bus. In her bid to unseat Senator Mike Enzi in the GOP primary, voters will likely toss her under the bus, despite her best efforts to pander to the bigotry of Wyoming’s most conservative primary voters.
Obama seeks global backing on Syria: 'I didn't set a red line. The world did'
President plays down personal role in response to chemical weapons attack amid uphill battle to win over politicians at home
Dan Roberts in Washington
theguardian.com, Wednesday 4 September 2013 19.15 BST
Barack Obama appealed to the international community to back his plan to punish Syria with a military strikes, saying the "world had set a red line" over the use of chemical weapons, not him.
Speaking in Stockholm, Obama sought to play down his personal role in the response to the allegations that the Assad regime had gassed its own people in attacks outside Damascus on 21 August.
He also left open the possibility of ignoring a vote against military action in the House of Representatives, saying he did not believe there was a constitutional need for congressional approval.
Although efforts to win over Republican hawks appear close to gaining sufficient support in the Senate, the White House continues to face an uphill struggle to persuade enough members of Congress from both parties to authorise its planned strike against Syria in the House.
But the president claimed there was legal flexibility when asked directly about the possibility of continuing to attack without the full backing of Congress.
"As commander-in-chief I always preserve the right and the responsibilty to act on behalf of America's national security," he said. "I do not believe that I was required to take this to Congress but I did not take this to Congress just because it's an empty exercise. I think it is important to have Congress's support."
He also sought to turn attention to world leaders gathering in St Petersburg for a summit later this week. "The international community's credibility is on the line," he said. "We have to act because if we don't we are effectively saying 'someone who is not shamed can continue to act with impunity'."
Earlier, Pig Putin, who will host the G20 summit on Thursday and Friday, warned the US against launching military action in Syria, stating that Russia has "plans" on how it would react if such a scenario unfolded.
In an interview with the Associated Press and Russia's state Channel 1 television, the Pig said it was too early to talk about what Russia would do if the US attacked Syria but added: "We have our ideas about what we will do and how we will do it in case the situation develops toward the use of force or otherwise. We have our plans."
At the same time he said Russia did not exclude supporting a UN resolution on punitive military strikes if it were proved that Damascus used poison gas on its own people. But he described the idea that Syrian government forces would use chemical weapons at a time when he said they were in the ascendancy and knowing the potential repercussions as absurd.
In Stockholm, Obama also gave more detail about his unexpected decision on Friday to seek a congressional mandate, saying advice from military commanders that US attacks on Syria would have the same impact in a few weeks time meant there were little harm trying to secure extra political buy-in.
"This had been brewing in my mind for a while," he said. "Had I been in the Senate in the midst of this period, I would probably have suggested to the president that Congress have an ability to weigh in on an issue like this that is not immediate, imminent and time-sensitive."
"It is important for us to get out of the habit of just saying we'll let the president stretch the boundaries of his authority as far as he can and Congress will sit on the sidelines and snipe," added the president.
Crucially, the leadership of both parties have already openly backed the White House plan and Obama's threat to defy any rebellion from more junior members was also endorsed by the most senior Democrat in the House, Nancy Pelosi.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, the minority leader said it was a myth that presidents could not defy lawmakers in such circumstances.
"I have been reading what you have written that the president has never gone forward if Congress has opposed the issue," she said. "I remind you that in 1999 President Clinton brought us all together to talk about going to into the Balkans and the vote was 213 to 213 … he went and you know what happened there. I don't think that congressional authorisation is necessary. I do think it's a good thing and I hope we can achieve it."
In Congress on Wednesday, negotiations continued over the wording of Senate and House amendments to the authorisation mandate. Republican hawks were holding out for an amendment that would require the administration to seek to "reverse the battlefield momentum" in favour of rebel forces and involve more sweeping US attacks that would eventually force Assad to step down.
Senator John McCain revealed he would table an amendment on Wednesday afternoon to introduce tougher language to the legislation, which currently focuses only on deterring Syrian use of chemical weapons and "degrading" related military capabilities.
McCain insists he was promised that such regime change would be made part of US policy by President Obama when he met on Monday at the White House with fellow Republican Lindsey Graham.
Obama appeared to respond favourably to McCain's request earlier this week, suggesting that his planned attack on Syria would "fit in" with a wider US policy favouring the departure of Assad.
But many on Capitol Hill are wary of so-called "mission creep" and reluctant to explicitly pursue an Iraq-style strategy of regime change, particularly as this would threaten the chances of getting sufficient Democrats to vote in favour of military authorisation in the House of Representatives.
McCain said he was confident the Senate foreign affairs committee was close to finding a compromise amendment that would include his tougher language. The senator also insisted his plan would not require US troops on the ground
Barack Obama and Pig Putin set for collision over Syria at G20 summit
Russian president signals he will take action if America strikes at Assad as US counterpart admits relations have hit a wall
Patrick Wintour and Dan Roberts in Washington
The Guardian, Wednesday 4 September 2013 21.45 BST
World leaders will gather in St Petersburg on Thursday for what has transformed into an international showdown with Pig Putin threatening to send a missile shield to Syria if the US launches an attack without the authority of the United Nations.
The G20 summit, hosted by the Pig, had been expected to focus on the world economy and growth, but will now be dominated by the Middle East crisis, even if the formal agenda remains fixed on the slowdown of growth in emerging markets.
Barack Obama, speaking during a stopover in Sweden before the summit, denied his political credibility was at stake but admitted relations with Russia had hit a wall. He insisted he had not set the red lines requiring a military response if the Syrian government deployed chemical weapons.
"The world set a red line when governments representing 98% of the world's population said the use of chemical weapons was abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war," he said. "That was not something I just kind of made up, I did not pluck it out of thin air."
He added: "My credibility is not on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.
"Keep in mind, I'm somebody who opposed the war in Iraq, and I'm not interested in repeating mistakes about basing decisions on faulty intelligence," the US president said at a news conference in Stockholm.
On Tuesday Obama portrayed his plans for US military action as part of a broader strategy to topple Bashar al-Assad, as the White House's campaign to win over sceptics in Congress gained momentum.
Pig Putin, in an interview published on Wednesday, said it was too early to talk about what Russia would do if the US attacked Syria but added: "We have our ideas about what we will do and how we will do it in case the situation develops toward the use of force or otherwise. We have our plans."
He then said Russia might restart Syria's suspended S-300 air defence missile contract. Describing the weapon as "very efficient", he said: "If we see that steps are taken that violate the existing international norms, we shall think how we should act in the future, in particular regarding supplies of such sensitive weapons to certain regions of the world."
The statement could also be a veiled threat to revive a contract for the delivery of the S-300s to Iran, which Russia cancelled a few years ago under strong US and Israeli pressure.
But Obama arrives at the summit with his hand strengthened by the growing impression that he will win the support of Congress next week to take military action. In signs that the political tide was slowly turning Obama's way in Washington, US senators on an important committee yesterday agreed on a draft resolution backing the use of US military force in Syria. The Senate foreign relations committee passed an amended resolution to authorise military action. It authorises strikes against the Syrian regime within a 60-day window, extendable to 90 days, as requested by the White House.
But it also includes tougher wording introduced by the hawkish Republican senator John McCain, which makes it "the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria".
Obama also retains the support of the French and the personal backing of David Cameron, even though the British government is now debarred from joining any action owing to last week's mishandled Commons vote.
The resolution will be put before the full Senate for a vote on Monday, where it is expected to pass. Obama was facing a tougher battle in the House of Representatives, whose foreign affairs committee heard testimony from secretary of state John Kerry on Wednesday. Kerry warned a sceptical and sometimes raucous panel that failing to strike Syria would embolden al-Qaida and raise to "100%" the chances Assad would use chemical weapons again.
In the only glimmer of diplomatic light Pig Putin said he did not exclude supporting a UN security council resolution supporting military action in Syria if there was credible evidence Assad had used chemical weapons. But he described the idea that Syrian government forces would use chemical weapons at a time when he said they were in the ascendancy and knowing the potential repercussions as absurd.
He added: "In our view, it seems completely ridiculous that the regular armed forces, who are actually on the attack and in some places have the so-called rebels surrounded and are finishing them off, that in these conditions would use prohibited chemical weapons.
"Understanding quite well that this could be a reason for sanctions on them, including the use of force. It's just ridiculous. It does not fit into any logic."
But German intelligence, using intercepts in Lebanon, became the latest agency to claim it had information linking the attack to Assad forces.
Cameron is also expected to announce further British intelligence to persuade Putin that Assad forces were responsible. He is also likely to press on the need for clear humanitarian corridors in Syria to boost aid to trapped refugees, as well as call for an end to the bureaucratic delays preventing aid workers reaching Syria.
In the Commons he made it clear that Assad had to be persuaded to the negotiating table by his military capacity being degraded. The White House claims says 1,429 people died from the gas attack on August 21. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which collects information from a network of anti-government activists in Syria, says its toll has reached 502. Assad's government blames the episode on the rebels.
A UN inspection team is awaiting lab results on tissue and soil samples it collected while in the country last week. It emerged on Wednesday that it could be three weeks before they issue their report.
Syria intervention must be firm and fast, French prime minister tells MPs
France has obligation to stop Assad regime using chemical weapons, says Jean-Marc Ayrault echoing François Hollande
Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
The Guardian, Wednesday 4 September 2013 20.03 BST
The French prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, has made an emotional appeal in parliament for firm, fast intervention in Syria, blaming Bashar al-Assad for "the biggest, most terrifying use of chemical weapons" this century, warning that inaction would let him carry out more atrocities and send the wrong message to other regimes like Iran.
Addressing MPs during a two-hour parliament debate on whether and why France should launch a military intervention in Syria, Ayrault echoed strong language already used by the French president, François Hollande, pleading that France had a moral obligation and duty of honour to put a stop to the Syrian regime's certain and abominable use of chemical weapons.
France has been pushing for action from early on in the crisis. But Hollande finds himself in an awkward position since London ruled out involvement in military intervention and Barack Obama turned to the US Congress for a vote. Some opposition politicians have accused the French government of simply "tagging along" behind the US in regards to a war in a volatile region.
Ayrault insisted: "It's not war we're proposing". He said France had consistently called for specific targeted and dissuasive international action that was "not a war, but a warning [to Syria] to stop."
He denied that France was just deferring to the US. "We're not simply following," he said. "We're ready to take this decision to stop [chemical weapons use]. We can't do it alone. We've wanted an international coalition from the start, not just militarily but politically.
"Our position is clear. It's the US president's right to call Congress. But we're not following a US decision. It's our own decision that we can finally put in place, with a need to be clear, firm and fast".
He added that if France did nothing, "what credibility would our international commitments against non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, stand for? What message would this send to other regimes – Iran and North Korea? The message would be clear: you can continue."
He denied that action would be aimed at ousting the Syrian leader. "Of course we want the departure of Assad. But there's no question of launching operations to overturn the regime."
He said French action would be "legitimate, collective and well thought out." When faced with barbarity, he insisted passivity could not be an option. Not to react would be to send a message to Assad that chemical weapons could be used again tomorrow and "maybe even in a bigger way".
In a scathing speech, Christian Jacob, head of the opposition right-wing UMP parliament group, said his party would not support Hollande if he went ahead with military action without UN backing. He said France's role was not to just "sit and wait for the US Congress with its arms crossed." He warned that France lacked European allies and was in a "diplomatic and military impasse." He warned of "troubling similarities with Iraq", lauding France's decision to oppose US-led intervention in Iraq in 2003. He said France, always "free and independent" was now as isolated as it had ever been.
The Greens' François de Rugy reminded Jacob that the rightwing UMP president Nicolas Sarkozy was the only head of state who had wanted to "rehabilitate the Syrian dictator" by giving him a place of honour at the French Bastille day military parade in 2008.
The Socialists argued that, 100 years after France was the first country that saw a chemical attack on its soil during the first world war, Paris had a historical duty to stop the "appalling move backwards" of chemical weapons being used today.
The debate was held without a parliamentary vote, despite opposition MPs' call for one. The French president's vast constitutional powers mean he is not obliged to call a vote before taking military action abroad, but the government has not totally ruled one out at some stage, saying it needed more elements on planned intervention first.
Syria is François Hollande's toughest test yet
Since the surprise British vote and the consequent US decision, the French president has been on the defensive
theguardian.com, Wednesday 4 September 2013 18.44 BST
This is a tough week for the French president. François Hollande is fighting against the political tide for his credibility and leadership after his quick and decisive support for military action against the Syrian regime ran into trouble with the negative vote in the British parliament and Barack Obama's decision to request a vote in US Congress.
In January, the Socialist president surprised everyone with his quick decision to send the French army into Mali to stop a jihadist column heading to the capital, Bamako. There was praise for his leadership and a wide domestic consensus, both in political circles and public opinion, for this decisive – and successful – action.
If he had expected to replicate this rare unanimity with his Syrian initiative, he has been proved dramatically wrong.
Since the surprise British vote and the consequent US decision, President Hollande has been on the defensive.
The French president finds himself in the embarrassing position of being the only leader of a major participant in the proposed strikes not to have requested a parliamentary vote on the issue. As in the US, the French constitution of the fifth Republic, designed by Charles de Gaulle, doesn't require such a vote, and Hollande had only planned to "inform" parliament. He will most likely have to ask for a parliamentary green light if the US Congress authorises such action next week.
But the president finds himself in a tight corner. The rationale of the operation is being disputed by most of the opposition, from the right and the extreme right, as well as the extreme left. Only the governing coalition of Socialists and greens unconditionally support him.
In yesterday's information debate in the National Assembly, the French prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, tried to use neo-gaullist tones about France's "grandeur" and "pride" to rally the opposition as well as public opinion which, according to opinion polls, opposes the strikes.
Objections range from the lack of international legitimacy in the absence of a UN security council resolution, to the vagueness of the war objectives, with the limited punitive scope the operation has been given, and the unknown consequences of the strikes in an explosive region.
Christian Jacob, the head of the parliamentary group of the main opposition party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), has accused Hollande of being in a "diplomatic dead end" and of having "betrayed" France's traditional foreign policy of being "allied but not aligned" on the US.
Yet, Hollande has no choice than to stick to his hardline approach and hope to overcome three obstacles in the next decisive days: the French president needs the US Congress to approve the operation as France doesn't have the capacity and the political clout to go it alone in the case of US refusal; Hollande will have to be very persuasive to convince the French public of the legitimacy of his decision at a time of economic and social trouble; and the military action will have to be as limited and effective as he says it will be, without creating the massive regional explosion that its opponents predict.
The French president's position has surprisingly been strengthened by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who in an interview this week with the rightwing French newspaper Le Figaro, threatened France if it attacked. How can the country now back down and therefore grant victory to a man most French people consider a brutal dictator?
To show that he is determined, Hollande has had a wreath laid on the grave of Louis Delamare, the French ambassador to Lebanon, murdered in September 1981. It is common knowledge that the decision to murder the ambassador was made in Damascus, by or with the consent of Hafez al-Assad, the current Syrian president's father.
This is Hollande's toughest test since he was elected in May 2012. Highly unpopular, due to the economic crisis, he wants to show the doubting French, and the world, that France is still a major power to be reckoned with. The next few days will show if this was a hazardous path to follow.
09/05/2013 01:27 PM
US-Russia Stalemate: Merkel Must Take the Initiative on Syria
A Commentary by Frank-Walter Steinmeier
The US and Russia are at loggerheads on Syria, yet both Moscow and Washington have a common interest in preventing the use of chemical weapons. German Chancellor Angela Merkel must get off the sidelines and take action to find a political solution.
The television pictures of slaughtered Syrian children are just as hard to bear for politicians as they are for ordinary citizens. The endless killing, the despair, the hopelessness of the refugees in the camps -- all this leaves us with a feeling of impotent rage. The horrific gas attack cannot remain without consequences; the global community must respond. But a responsible foreign policy has to be more than simply acting for the sake of acting. The motive for military action cannot simply be to relieve the burden of public pressure, the wish to clear one's conscience. The millions of Syrians who are suffering so dreadfully in this civil war deserve more from us.
Syria must be a top priority at the G-20 Summit that begins on Thursday. The summit offers a last chance to break the spiral of violence and to finally renew efforts at a genuine attempt to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. It is up to Germany to persuade the two leading players, the United States and Russia, to sit down at one table and thus ensure the proper, concerted involvement of the United Nations Security Council. However, considerable doubts exist as to whether German foreign policy is capable of achieving this. It has lost clout in Washington and its channels of communication with Moscow are barely functioning.
Preparations for military action against Assad and his regime are well advanced, and Congress is unlikely to deny President Obama its support for a limited strike. But even the staunchest hardliners are not comfortable with this. Everyone knows that the United States is caught in a terrible dilemma. President Obama is taking action in order to salvage his credibility. The fact that he has hesitated for so long shows that he is keenly aware of the dilemma: Namely that there is no evidence that the planned strike will improve the situation in Syria.
By No Means Certain
A few days ago, the International Crisis Group again summarized the main arguments against American military intervention. The military goals of an attack are as unclear as the political goals. The conflict threatens to escalate and spread to other countries. And it is by no means certain that Assad will go down as the loser. If he and his regime survive the attacks without significant damage, he will appear stronger in the eyes of many. The most decisive point, however, is that the attacks will do nothing to prevent the hundreds of thousands of deaths and the displacement of millions. Of course we cannot simply shrug our shoulders at the criminal use of poison gas against innocent civilians and children, but dropping bombs and deploying cruise missiles cannot be the answer. At a time when the suffering of so many innocent people is grieving us so deeply, we cannot adapt a strategy that would harm them further.
The international community can only fulfil its responsibility to Syria by earnestly striving to achieve a political solution to the conflict. Let me make it quite clear: A two-day bombing campaign is not dangerous for Assad. What would really threaten his position is if the United States and Russia were to reconcile their differences and mend the split in the UN Security Council.
A year ago, US Senator Richard Lugar proposed to the Russian government that the two countries set up a security initiative with the goal of securing and destroying Syrian chemical weapons. Lugar rightly saw that this was in the interest of both Russia and the United States. Peer Steinbrück, the Social Democratic candidate for chancellor, revisited this proposal two weeks ago when he stated that the members of the UN Security Council should launch a concerted effort to control those chemical weapons.
Germany Has a Role to Play
Despite all the disagreements, the US and Russia may have over the Syrian conflict, neither one can benefit from lowered inhibitions to using chemical weapons -- nor can any other country in the world. Just as terrifying is the thought that the terrorists of tomorrow will be equipped with mustard gas and sarin gas from Syrian stockpiles.
Moscow holds the key to ensuring a common stance among the international community. To date, President Putin has hindered a concerted approach. This is where Germany could play a role. Since the era of détente policy, Germany has often played the role of keeping channels of communication open with Russia and of seeking areas of common interest despite all differences of opinion. Unfortunately, these channels of communication between Berlin and Moscow are no longer as robust as they once were. This is partly due to a hardening of Russia's position; one sometimes gets the impression that President Putin enjoys provoking the West in any way he can. But it is also a result of Angela Merkel's short-sighted foreign policy, which seems to be directed purely at increasing her popularity at home and lacks any creative ambition.
Instead of standing idly on the sidelines, Mrs. Merkel should take advantage of the summit in St. Petersburg and seize the initiative of finding a political solution. As proposed by Peer Steinbruck, such a solution must include UN experts conducting an immediate and thorough investigation into the August 21 gas attack; it must include the UN Security Council unequivocally calling on Syria to swiftly ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and place its weapons stockpiles under international supervision. It is likewise particularly important that a further Syrian Conference take place with the aim of achieving a political solution to the crisis. In addition to parties to the conflict within Syria, regional actors, including Iran, must be made part of that effort.
September 4, 2013
Split Senate Panel Approves Giving Obama Limited Authority on Syria
By MARK LANDLER, JONATHAN WEISMAN and MICHAEL R. GORDON
WASHINGTON — A sharply divided Senate committee voted Wednesday to give President Obama limited authority to use force against Syria, the first step in what remains a treacherous path for Mr. Obama to win Congressional approval for a military attack.
The resolution would limit strikes against Syrian forces to a period of 60 days, with the possibility of 30 more days after consultation with Congress, and it would block the use of American ground troops.
The vote of 10 to 7 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee laid bare the complicated political crosscurrents raised by military intervention in Syria. Two liberal Democrats voted against the resolution, one voted present and three Republicans voted for it. The Senate panel’s action capped a day of fierce debate in both houses of Congress that indicated there is a widespread impulse to respond to the deadly chemical weapons attack but deep divisions over how much latitude the president should have to do so.
The White House welcomed the vote, declaring, “America is stronger when the president and Congress work together.” But administration officials said that while they expected the full Senate to vote next week, after Congress returns from recess, they did not think the House would act until the week after and were girding for a prolonged debate.
As the Senate committee hashed out its resolution, under the shadow of a potential filibuster, members of Mr. Obama’s cabinet pressed their case for action before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, drawing sharp criticism from Republicans, and raising doubts among Democrats, over the wisdom of getting drawn into a messy sectarian conflict.
However fractious the arguments, the lawmakers clearly responded to the challenge that Mr. Obama handed them earlier in the day, when he declared that authorizing a military strike was not a test for him but for Congress and the international community.
“I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference in Stockholm on the first day of a three-day visit to Sweden and Russia, where he will take part in a summit meeting that is likely to be dominated by the war in Syria.
“My credibility’s not on the line,” he said, appealing to lawmakers and foreign leaders to back his plan to retaliate against President Bashar al-Assad. “The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’s credibility is on the line.”
Still, the Senate vote was hardly resounding. Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, co-author of the resolution and the ranking Republican on the committee, was one of the Republicans who sided with Mr. Obama. Another was Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a freshman who voted with his state’s senior senator, John McCain, an ardent proponent of robust intervention.
The three Democrats who did not support the resolution served as a warning to White House aides still searching for support in the House. Senators Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut and Tom Udall of New Mexico are newcomers who reflect the sentiment of the House Democratic ranks they recently left. Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the Senate’s newest member and a longtime denizen of the House, voted present, saying he was still haunted by his vote to authorize war in Iraq.
“In the days to come, I will further examine the classified intelligence information and consult with experts before deciding how I will vote on the final resolution when it is considered on the Senate floor,” Mr. Markey said in a statement.
The panel had struggled in drafting the resolution, with the committee’s leaders pressing to limit the duration and nature of military strikes, while Mr. McCain demanded more — not less — latitude for the military to inflict damage on Mr. Assad’s forces. To assure the support of Mr. McCain, who is viewed as crucial to the authorization’s final passage, the committee toughened some of the language.
Noting that “it is the policy of the United States to change the momentum on the battlefield in Syria,” it urged a “comprehensive strategy” to improve the fighting abilities of the Syrian opposition.
The panel set aside a resolution by Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican leading the opposition to the strikes, which would have declared that the president has the authority to act unilaterally only when the nation faces attack. Democratic and Republican Senate leaders agreed on Wednesday night to gavel in a brief session on Friday to put the war resolution on the Senate’s calendar so the clock can begin counting down to a final vote toward the end of next week.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Paul said the senator was considering parliamentary maneuvers to ensure that final passage of the resolution would require a vote of 60 senators, but she said no decision had been made about how to do that. If the Senate does authorize military action, it will have to reconcile its authorization with whatever resolution emerges from the House. A resolution being circulated by two Democrats, Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Representative Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia, would impose even tighter limits on Mr. Obama, authorizing only a single round of missile strikes, unless there is another chemical weapons attack.
For the second day in a row, divisions over what do in Syria played out at a combative hearing in which Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, argued the Obama administration’s case.
Appearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr. Kerry offered a new argument: extremist groups fighting against the Syrian government would become stronger if the United States did not carry out a military strike.
Mr. Kerry said the United States had worked hard in recent months to persuade Arab nations and benefactors not to finance or arm the more extremist rebels who are battling Mr. Assad’s forces. But if the United States does not punish the Assad government, Mr. Kerry said, it is likely that some Arab supporters of the Syrian opposition will provide arms and financing to the best rebel fighters, regardless of whether they are extremists. “We will have created more extremism and a greater problem down the road,” Mr. Kerry said.
After days of discussion over whether a limited military strike would be effective, administration officials sought to assure anxious lawmakers that it would not provoke a major escalation in the fighting.
Representative Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican, asked if a missile attack might set off a chain reaction that could lead to a military action as prolonged as the 78 days of NATO bombing in Kosovo. “How do you define limited and short duration?” he asked. “And what might Assad do in retaliation?”
General Dempsey acknowledged that was a risk but argued that the danger had been mitigated since the United States had signaled that it was planning a limited strike, even as it retained the ability to carry out additional attacks if Mr. Assad responded in a provocative manner. “We’re postured for the possibility of retaliation,” he said.
The most heated moment in the hearing came when Representative Jeff Duncan, a South Carolina Republican, accused Mr. Kerry of taking a hawkish stand on Syria while ignoring the terrorist attack on the American Mission in Benghazi, Libya.
“Mr. Kerry, you have never been one that has advocated for anything other than caution when involving U.S. force in past conflicts,” Mr. Duncan said. “Is the power of the executive branch so intoxicating that you would abandon past caution in favor for pulling the trigger on a military response so quickly?”
His voice rising with anger, Mr. Kerry responded that as a senator, he had supported “military action in any number of occasions,” citing the invasions of Panama and Grenada. Mr. Kerry also voted in favor of President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, before turning against the war.
“We’re talking about people being killed by gas, and you want to go talk about Benghazi,” Mr. Kerry said.
In an indication of the hostility that Russia has shown to any American military action, President Vladimir V. Putin accused Mr. Kerry of lying to Congress.
“They lie beautifully, of course,” Mr. Putin said in remarks that were televised in Russia. “I saw the debates in Congress. A congressman asks Mr. Kerry, ‘Is Al Qaeda there?’ He says, ‘No, I am telling you responsibly that it is not.’ ”
“Al Qaeda units are the main military echelon, and they know this,” Mr. Putin said. “It was very unpleasant and surprising for me — we talk to them, we proceed from the assumption that they are decent people. But he is lying and knows he is lying. It’s sad.”
Peter Baker contributed reporting from Stockholm, and David M. Herszenhorn from Moscow.
Syrians face 'Armageddon' without military action, says David Cameron
UK prime minister says Assad regime will launch further chemical attacks if nothing is done
Nicholas Watt, chief political correspondent
theguardian.com, Wednesday 4 September 2013 13.38 BST
David Cameron has warned that the Syrian people will face "Armageddon", in which the Assad regime will launch further chemical weapons attacks, if no military action is taken following the attack on 21 August.
In his strongest remarks in favour of military strikes, the prime minister warned of a very perilous future if the red line drawn up by Barack Obama was not enforced. Obama warned the Assad regime last year that the use of chemical weapons would amount to the breach of a red line that would invite a response.
The prime minister, who insisted Britain would not take part in any military action after his defeat in the Commons last week, made clear that he personally supports such a move after he was warned by the veteran Tory MP Sir Peter Tapsell that strikes could create "Armageddon".
Cameron replied to Tapsell: "In a way you have put the Armageddon question round the other way which is that if no action is taken following President Obama's red line and if no action is taken following this appalling use of chemical weapons you have to ask yourself what sort of Armageddon are the Syrian people going to be facing?"
The prime minister had earlier told MPs that he personally supported military action while making clear that Britain would not join any action. He told the Labour MP Dame Joan Ruddock, the former chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament who had called for a ceasefire rather than bombings: "I respect the decision the house came to after the debate last week and Britain won't play any part in military action. I would just ask her to put herself in the shoes of the president of the United States and others. He set a very clear red line that if there was large-scale chemical weapons use something had to happen.
"Now we know the regime used chemical weapons on at least 14 previous occasions. I think to ask the president of the United States – having set that red line, having made that warning – to step away from it, I think that would be a very perilous suggestion to make. In response I think you would see more chemical weapons attacks from the regime."
The prime minister, who was furious with Ed Miliband after Labour joined with Tory rebels to defeat the government last Thursday, pulled his punches with the Labour leader. Cameron, who may have to rely on Miliband in future parliamentary votes, saved one barbed remark until the end of their exchanges after the Labour leader said the vote was not about shirking Britain's global responsibility but about "preventing a rush to war".
The prime minister said: "My only regret of last week is I don't think it was necessary to divide the house on a vote that could have led to a [second] vote [authorising military action]. But he took the decision that it was."
Miliband had earlier called on Britain to redouble its humanitarian help for Syrian refugees. He also called on the prime minister to do more to ensure that Iran takes part in any peace negotiations.
The prime minister indicated that he was wary of a role for Iran after the ransacking of the British embassy in Tehran last year. But he said he had written to Hassan Rouhani, the newly elected president, who is a moderate compared with his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The house fell silent when Tapsell, 83, the father of the house who was an adviser to the late prime minister Sir Anthony Eden in the 1950s, stood up to ask the prime minister about Syria. Tapsell, a prominent opponent of military intervention, said: "As the Syrian tragedy has unfolded I have always had the Armageddon question in the back of my mind which I shall now, in an understated form if I may, put to the prime minister. If the Americans illegally bombard the Assad forces and Assad legally invites the Russians in to degrade the rebels what will Nato do?"
The prime minister said Britain would never support illegal action, though he said that it could be lawful to act without the authority of the UN. Cameron said: "We would never support illegal action. We debated and discussed this at some length last week. It isn't the case that the only way action can be legal is a UN resolution. So we would only support action that was legal, we would only support action that was proportionate. As I've said, Britain wouldn't be taking part in any of this action."
The "Armageddon" envisaged by Tapsell appears to raise the prospect of Britain having to intervene under its Nato commitment. Russian attacks on rebels would probably alarm Turkey, a Nato member. If Turkey were attacked Britain would be obliged to join a Nato operation to come to its aid.
UN report on Syria chemical weapons could take three more weeks
UN secretary general asks inspectors to speed up work but US-led attack could take place before findings are published
Ian Black, Middle East editor
The Guardian, Wednesday 4 September 2013 19.23 BST
UN inspectors investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria are not expected to complete their work for another two to three weeks, increasing the likelihood that any US-led attack may take place before they have delivered their report.
The UN team left Syria with biological and other samples last Saturday and has been asked by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to speed up its work. But according to an unnamed western diplomat quoted by the Associated Press in New York on Wednesday, the accelerated timetable will only shave about a week off the original processing time.
John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has already said the UN report will not reveal anything not already known to Washington. Britain's position is similar. The US, France and Britain have all produced declassified intelligence assessments blaming the al-Ghouta attacks on 21 August on the Syrian government and arguing that the rebels were not capable of carrying them out.
Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, and Russia have blamed the opposition but have produced no evidence in support of their claim.
On Wednesday Russia's foreign ministry issued a report claiming to show that a chemical substance used in fighting at Khan al-Assal near Aleppo in March was not fired by standard Syrian army ammunition. The shell was similar to those made by a rebel group, the ministry said.
Khan al-Assal, where 26 people were killed, was one of the incidents the UN team was supposed to be investigating before the al-Ghouta attacks. The Russian report thus establishes a link between rebel forces and chemical weapons.
Russia had previously described the use of "cottage industry" quality sarin nerve gas delivered by a crudely made rebel missile. Western officials have characterised Moscow's submissions on chemical weapons as shoddy and incomplete.
The Obama administration is continuing to push Congress to authorise a punitive US military strike to "degrade" Syria's chemical weapons capabilities.
All the biomedical and environmental samples collected by the UN team were due to have arrived at so-called designated laboratories across the world by Wednesday. Such laboratories, approved by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), include facilities in the UK, China, the US and France.
Ban has said the mission, led by the Swedish scientist Åke Sellström, has worked around the clock since returning from Syria. Once the analysis of the samples is completed, a report will be given to Ban, who will share the results with the 193 UN member states and the 15-member security council.
The value of the UN report is likely to be limited since the mission's mandate, agreed by the Syrian government, was to determine whether chemical weapons had been used, not by whom.
Assad has said it would not have been logical for Syria to use chemical weapons, especially as the UN inspectors were already in Damascus investigating previous incidents of their alleged use.
The head of Germany's BND foreign intelligence service has reportedly suggested that the dosage of nerve agents may unintentionally have been too strong and thus led to far higher casualties than in previous cases. Der Spiegel also cited an intercepted telephone call between a senior member of the pro-Syrian Lebanese group Hezbollah and the Iranian embassy in Damascus in which Assad's order for the attack was described as a mistake.
In another development on Wednesday, Syrian opposition sources claimed that the former defence minister General Ali Habib, a leading member of Assad's ruling Alawite sect, had defected and was now in Turkey. If the defection is confirmed Habib would be the highest-ranking Alawite to break with the regime since the uprising began in March 2011.
A Gulf source told Reuters that Habib had defected on Tuesday evening, arriving at the Turkish frontier before midnight. But Syrian state TV quickly denied the report and said Habib was still at home in Damascus.
In August 2011 Habib was sacked as defence minister after reportedly disagreeing with the use of force against protesters. Habib was replaced by General Daoud Rajha, a Christian, who was killed in a bomb attack on a security installation in Damascus a year later.
Syria says it will never give up ‘even if there is World War III’
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, September 4, 2013 12:35 EDT
Syria said Wednesday it had taken “every measure” to retaliate if hit by a feared US-led military strike and would never give in, even if a third world war erupts.
In an exclusive interview with AFP, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Muqdad also insisted that Russia had not wavered in its support, despite comments by President Vladimir Putin suggesting a more conciliatory tone towards the West.
“Syria has taken every measure to retaliate against… an aggression,” he said, although he refused to provide any clue as to what that might mean.
“The Syrian government will not change position even if there is World War III. No Syrian can sacrifice the independence of his country,” he added.
US President Barack Obama is busy trying to convince Congress to approve a strike against the Assad regime in retaliation for a suspected deadly poison gas attack on August 21 that Washington blames on Damascus.
The regime categorically denies any responsibility for the alleged attack in Damascus suburbs and has said it is cooperating with UN inspectors who are currently analysing samples taken from the sites of the suspected incident.
Analysts fear that the conflict currently tearing Syria apart will spill over permanently into fragile, neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, where supporters of the Damascus regime are already pitted against its opponents.
And allies Russia and Iran have warned that any military intervention would have devastating regional consequences.
But in an interview broadcast earlier Wednesday, Putin appeared to strike a more conciliatory note by saying he did not exclude agreeing to strikes if it was proven the regime had carried out the alleged gas attack.
Yet Muqdad stressed that Moscow had not wavered in its support of Damascus.
“The Russian position is unchanged; it’s a responsible position of a friend that is in favour of peace,” he said.
In later comments at a Kremlin meeting, Putin appeared to corroborate this, warning the US Congress that it would be legitimising an “aggression” if it gave its blessing to military action in a vote expected next week.
Washington says the alleged chemical weapons attack on August 21 killed more than 1,400 people.
Since the Syrian conflict broke out in March 2011 with an uprising against the Assad regime, more than 110,000 people have died, including over 40,100 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
September 5, 2013
Brutality of Syrian Rebels Posing Dilemma in West
By C. J. CHIVERS
The Syrian rebels posed casually, standing over their prisoners with firearms pointed down at the shirtless and terrified men.
The prisoners, seven in all, were captured Syrian soldiers. Five were trussed, their backs marked with red welts. They kept their faces pressed to the dirt as the rebels’ commander recited a bitter revolutionary verse.
“For fifty years, they are companions to corruption,” he said. “We swear to the Lord of the Throne, that this is our oath: We will take revenge.”
The moment the poem ended, the commander, known as “the Uncle,” fired a bullet into the back of the first prisoner’s head. His gunmen followed suit, promptly killing all the men at their feet.
This scene, documented in a video smuggled out of Syria a few days ago by a former rebel who grew disgusted by the killings, offers a dark insight into how many rebels have adopted some of the same brutal and ruthless tactics as the regime they are trying to overthrow.
As the United States debates whether to support the Obama administration’s proposal that Syrian forces should be attacked for using chemical weapons against civilians, this video, shot in April, joins a growing body of evidence of an increasingly criminal environment populated by gangs of highwaymen, kidnappers and killers.
The video also offers a reminder of the foreign policy puzzle the United States faces in finding rebel allies as some members of Congress, including Senator John McCain, press for more robust military support for the opposition.
In the more than two years this civil war has carried on, a large part of the Syrian opposition has formed a loose command structure that has found support from several Arab nations, and, to a more limited degree, the West. Other elements of the opposition have assumed an extremist cast, and openly allied with Al Qaeda.
Across much of Syria, where rebels with Western support live and fight, areas outside of government influence have evolved into a complex guerrilla and criminal landscape.
That has raised the prospect that American military action could inadvertently strengthen Islamic extremists and criminals.
Abdul Samad Issa, 37, the rebel commander leading his fighters through the executions of the captured soldiers, illustrates that very risk.
Known in northern Syria as “the Uncle” because two of his deputies are his nephews, Mr. Issa leads a relatively unknown group of fewer than 300 fighters, one of his former aides said. The former aide, who smuggled the video out of Syria, is not being identified for security reasons.
A trader and livestock herder before the war, Mr. Issa formed a fighting group early in the uprising by using his own money to buy weapons and underwrite the fighters’ expenses.
His motivation, his former aide said, was just as the poem he recited said: revenge.
In Washington on Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the issue of radicalized rebels in an exchange with Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican. Mr. Kerry insisted, “There is a real moderate opposition that exists.”
Mr. Kerry said that there were 70,000 to 100,000 “oppositionists.” Of these, he said, some 15 percent to 20 percent were “bad guys” or extremists.
Mr. McCaul responded by saying he had been told in briefings that half of the opposition fighters were extremists.
Much of the concern among American officials has focused on two groups that acknowledge ties to Al Qaeda. These groups — the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — have attracted foreign jihadis, used terrorist tactics and vowed to create a society in Syria ruled by their severe interpretation of Islamic law.
They have established a firm presence in parts of Aleppo and Idlib Provinces and in the northern provincial capital of Raqqa and in Deir al-Zour, to the east on the Iraqi border.
While the jihadis claim to be superior fighters, and have collaborated with secular Syrian rebels, some analysts and diplomats also note that they can appear less focused on toppling President Bashar al-Assad. Instead, they said, they focus more on establishing a zone of influence spanning Iraq’s Anbar Province and the desert eastern areas of Syria, and eventually establishing an Islamic territory under their administration.
Other areas are under more secular control, including the suburbs of Damascus. In East Ghouta, for example, the suburbs east of the capital where the chemical attack took place, jihadis are not dominant, according to people who live and work there.
And while the United States has said it seeks policies that would strengthen secular rebels and isolate extremists, the dynamic on the ground, as seen in the execution video from Idlib and in a spate of other documented crimes, is more complicated than a contest between secular and religious groups.
Mr. Issa’s father was opposed to President Hafez al-Assad, the father of Syria’s current president. He disappeared in 1982, according to Mr. Issa’s accounts.
Mr. Issa, the aide said, believes his father was killed during a 27-day government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that year, known as the Hama massacre.
By the time he was a young man, Mr. Issa was vocally antigovernment and was arrested and imprisoned twice for a total of nine months, the aide said.
When the uprising against Bashar al-Assad started two and a half years ago, the family saw it as a means to try to settle old scores.
At first, people who know Mr. Issa said, he was a protester, and then he led fighters in small skirmishes. By last year he was running a training camp in the highlands near Turkey.
By this year, the aide said, he was gathering weapons from relatives and Arab businessmen he knew from his work as a trader and, at least once, from the Western-supported Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, the rebel forces.
(Two representatives of the military council declined to comment on the council’s military collaboration or logistical support for Mr. Issa’s group. Mr. Issa could not be reached for comment over two days this week.)
By the spring, his group had taken a resonant name: Jund al-Sham, which it shares with three international terrorist groups, and another group in Syria.
Its relationship — if any — with these other groups is not clear.
Mr. Issa’s former aide and two other men who have met or investigated him said he appears to assume identities of convenience.
But, they said, one of his tactics has been to promise to his fighters what he calls “the extermination” of Alawites — the minority Islamic sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which Mr. Issa blames for Syria’s suffering.
This sentiment may have driven Mr. Issa’s decision to execute his prisoners in the video, his former aide said. The soldiers had been captured when Mr. Issa’s fighters overran a government checkpoint north of Idlib in March.
Their cellphones, the former aide said, had videos of soldiers raping Syrian civilians and looting.
Mr. Issa declared them all criminals, he said, and a revolutionary trial was held. They were found guilty.
Mr. Issa, the former aide said, then arranged for their execution to be videotaped in April so he could show his work against Mr. Assad and his military to donors, and seek more financing.
The video ends abruptly after his fighters dump the soldiers’ broken bodies into a well.
One of the participants, a young man wearing a purple fleece jacket, looks into the camera and smiles.
Karam Shoumali contributed reporting from Antakya, Turkey; Anne Barnard from Beirut, Lebanon; and Michael R. Gordon from Washington.
Zimbabwe faces looming food crisis, says UN
World Food Programme predicts one in four people in rural areas will need food assistance next year
David Smith in Johannesburg
theguardian.com, Wednesday 4 September 2013 17.15 BST
Zimbabwe is facing a "looming food crisis" with one in four people in rural areas at risk of hunger early next year, the highest number in half a decade, the UN has warned.
The gloomy prediction was seen as a blow to analysts who have argued that Robert Mugabe's widely condemned land reform programme is starting to pay dividends.
It also illustrated the stiff economic challenge facing the 89-year-old president following his hotly disputed victory in recent elections. Memories of hyperinflation and starvation five years ago are still fresh.
The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) said an estimated 2.2 million people – a quarter of the rural population – are expected to need food assistance during the pre-harvest period in early 2014. This is the highest since early 2009 when more than half the population required food support.
The extent of predicted hunger was revealed in the government's own rural livelihoods report compiled with the support of the UN and other partners.
"Many districts, particularly in the south, harvested very little and people are already trying to stretch out their dwindling food stocks," said Sory Ouane, country director of the WFP. "WFP is working closely with the government and partners to respond to the looming food crisis and will start food and cash distributions to the most vulnerable in October."
The WFP and partners will provide regionally procured cereals as well as imported vegetable oil and pulses, it said. Cash transfers will be used in selected areas to support local markets and distributions will be gradually increased from October until harvest time next March.
The WFP blamed the shortages on various factors including "adverse weather conditions, the unavailability and high cost of agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilisers and projected high cereal prices due to the poor maize harvest". Grain prices are 15% higher than this time last year, its research found.
It did not cite Mugabe's chaotic and often violent programme of farm seizures which began in 2000, justified by him as a necessary step to right colonialist wrongs following "betrayal" by Tony Blair's government, but blamed by critics for halving agricultural output and ruining the economy.
For a decade this critique held sway as conventional wisdom abroad, but a 2010 study by Prof Ian Scoones Sussex University contended that, while the methods were inexcusable, 6,000 white farmers had been replaced by 245,000 black farmers and agricultural production was returning to its 1990s level.
A debate has raged ever since, with critics arguing that Mugabe supporters remain the main beneficiaries, thousands of farm workers lost their jobs and supermarkets are still full of imports rather than local produce.
Mugabe played the black economic empowerment card during his election campaign and pledged to extend it to businesses. He regarded his controversial win at the polls as a vindication and has been lauded by other African leaders. But the rising tide of hunger could pose a fresh threat to his legacy.
Vince Musewe, an economist based in Harare, said: "The fundamental problem is that most of the smallholder farmers have changed to farming tobacco. It doesn't require inputs and it's the easiest route. We need to get back to producing food. What was the purpose of land reform? It's to feed ourselves."
But Mugabe's Zanu-PF is unlikely to admit mistakes, Musewe added. "Zanu-PF will blame sanctions and lack of access to credit and totally ignore the core reason. They never want to accept responsibility so why should we expect them to do it now?"
Ben Freeth, a white farmer who was badly beaten when evicted from his farm, said: "Quite clearly since land reform started we haven't been able to feed ourselves and the situation seems to be getting worse. From being the breadbasket that we were, we now need food aid every year. It's very sad."
He accused defenders of Mugabe's land reform of dishonesty, adding: "They focused on a couple of little areas and said production is back to where it was, and meanwhile people are starving. They also haven't looked at what happened to the farm workers."
The argument does not seem likely to be resolved any time soon, however. Joseph Hanlon, a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics and author of Zimbabwe Takes Back its Land, insists that land reform is not the disaster that has been portrayed. He cited a shortage of rains as hurting this year's maize crop.
"Maize production in Rhodesia and then Zimbabwe has always been rainfed," he said. "In the 20 years before independence, Rhodesia imported maize in seven of those 20 years. So much for the white breadbasket."
Hanlon added: "All the evidence, globally and in Rhodesia (white farmers) and Zimbabwe (1980s resettlement), is that it takes two decades for new farmers to reach maximum production, so we cannot expect the 2000 land reform farmers to be there yet. So, in a bad rainfall year, Zimbabwe will be importing maize – as it always has. No surprise there."
Libyan police unit admits kidnapping ex-spy chief's daughter
Four days after PM vowed to track down her abductors, SSC says Anoud al-Senussi was taken 'for her own protection'
Chris Stephen in Tripoli
theguardian.com, Thursday 5 September 2013 12.23 BST
The chaos at the heart of the Libyan government was underlined on Thursday when it admitted its own security forces kidnapped the daughter of Muammar Gaddafi's former spy chief from police custody this week.
Anoud al-Senussi, 22, was snatched in an armed ambush on a convoy of Libya's judicial police escorting her to Tripoli airport.
Four days after the prime minister, Ali Zaidan, vowed to track down her abductors, his government's elite gendarmerie, the Supreme Security Committee, admitted it carried out the raid.
An SSC statement said Senussi, daughter of Abdullah al-Senussi, who is due to stand trial for war crimes this month, was taken "for her own protection".
Hanan Salah, of Human Rights Watch, who spoke to Senussi on Wednesday night, said the episode was "stranger than fiction".
A video of Senussi in captivity was released in which she claims she was not kidnapped and says the SSC is "treating me like a sister" at an undisclosed location.
Senussi had been released from a Tripoli jail after serving a 10-month sentence for entering the country illegally, apparently to visit her imprisoned father.
The abduction – in which one police unit snatched a high-profile charge from another – underlines the parlous state of a country facing economic catastrophe with most oil ports blockaded by armed protesters and the army battling radical militias in Benghazi.
"What happened is a shambles," said Hassan El Amin, a former dissident who fled to the UK this year, resigning as head of congress's human rights committee, after receiving death threats. "There is no control, nobody in particular holds the cards."
Abdullah al-Senussi and Saif al-Islam, Gaddafi's son, are due to stand trial in a fortnight, in breach of rulings by the international criminal court that both should be sent to The Hague.
Amnesty International joined Human Rights Watch in condemning the kidnapping. The former spy chief's British lawyers said it underlined the inability of Libya to guarantee a fair trial.
"She was ambushed by heavily armed gunmen and kidnapped just yards from the prison," Ben Emmerson QC and Rodney Dixon said in a statement. "It is clear that Mr al-Senussi is not safe and cannot receive a fair and genuine trial in Libya."
Zaidan's spokeswoman said she had no information about the incident.
Senegal hails new prime minister known for football and feminism
Aminata Toure, predictably dubbed Iron Lady in the press, has successful track record opposing corruption
Dan Moshenberg for Africa is a Country, part of the Guardian Africa Network
theguardian.com, Thursday 5 September 2013 11.03 BST
On Sunday night, Aminata Touré was named prime minister of Senegal. True to Touré's style, she announced the appointment herself.
A new prime minister forms a new cabinet. It was thought that Touré would have the cabinet by the end of the week. She had it by Monday evening. That's how Mimi Touré, as she is called, works.
Touré is known as the Iron Lady. Every woman who rises to a certain level of government becomes an Iron Lady in the press. The men are, well, just guys.
Whichever mineral flows through the veins of Aminata Touré, she has spent all of her adult life working as a human rights and women's rights activist, who has worked in Senegal and around the world on women's issues and, more generally, at the intersection of social and economic justice struggles.
Until Sunday's appointment, Touré was Senegal's justice minister. In that role she became well known, and largely popular, for far-reaching anti-corruption campaigns that reached deep, far, wide and high into the previous government's ranks. She brought Karim Wade, son of the previous president, to trial and then to prison. She oversaw the arrest of Chad's former president Hissène Habré and made sure the subsequent trial wouldn't be delayed for decades.
Since adolescence, Touré has been an activist, a militante, and a footballeuse who played for the Dakar Gazelles. At university, Touré worked with the Communist Workers' League. Since then, her militancy has turned to family planning, both in Senegal, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, and around the world, working most recently with the United Nations Population Fund. At the UNFPA, Touré was chief of the gender, human rights and culture branch. There, she pushed and pulled to get all sorts of people, agencies, governments to begin to think and act more seriously about "gender mainstreaming". Touré understood that, from the state perspective as well as from an analytical point of view, women's reproductive rights are part of the governmental budget process, and so the two have to be synthesised. She has argued that women's empowerment and gender equality are key to any kind of health programme. She has said that access to health is a human right, and that that human right is first and foremost a women's right. Repeatedly, she has shown the world that, if not another world, then a better world is possible … now.
And she has worked to make the now happen … now. And she has often succeeded.
In her new cabinet, Touré appointed Sidiki Kaba as the new justice minister. Kaba is the former head of the International Federation of Human Rights. His appointment has already come under attack because of his support for decriminalisation of homosexuality. So, he's got something going in his favour.
While Senegalese women's groups have hailed Touré's promotion, they also note with some dismay the mathematics of her cabinet: four women, 28 men.
It's an important and newsworthy moment for Senegal and beyond, unless of course you rely on the Anglophone press. There, in the land of all the news that fits to print, nothing happened in Senegal.
But something is happening. A feminist, women's rights, reproductive rights, human rights activist with a history of accomplishments has become prime minister: Aminata Touré.
Dan Moshenberg is director of the Women's Studies Program at the George Washington University
Egyptian interior minister survives car bomb attack
Mohammed Ibrahim, who is charge of the country's police force, targeted as his convoy travelled through Nasr City in Cairo
Associated Press in Cairo
theguardian.com, Thursday 5 September 2013 10.36 BST
Egypt's interior minister, Mohammed Ibrahim, has survived a car bomb attack on his convoy as it travelled through the Nasr City district in Cairo.
Security officials are not yet clear whether the explosion on Thursday morning was caused by a suicide car bombing or an explosives-laden car detonated by remote control.
Ibrahim is in charge of the country's police force.
Nasr City is a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which ousted president Mohamed Morsi hails. It was also the site of a sit-in protest by his supporters that was stormed by police on 14 August, killing hundreds.
September 4, 2013
New Generation of Jewish Sect Takes Up Struggle to Protect Place in Modern Israel
By ISABEL KERSHNER
RAMLA, Israel — The men and boys offered their prayers in a full-throated chant, raising their arms in supplication and prostrating themselves, barefoot, on the plush red carpet lining the synagogue floor. Many of the women did the same in a balcony above. Outside in the yard, Shuki Cohen, the local butcher, was barbecuing mounds of chicken skewers and aromatic lamb kebabs for a communal feast at long tables laid out in the adjacent hall.
At the headquarters of Karaite Judaism in this city southeast of Tel Aviv, the recent festivities were in full swing for the new moon and what the movement’s calender says is the start of the Hebrew month of Elul. The problem, according to Israel’s official Hebrew calendar, is the celebration was two nights late.
That means that while most Israelis began celebrating Rosh Hashana at sundown on Wednesday, Karaite Jews are not set to start the Jewish New Year until Saturday — another example of the challenge this ancient sect has in holding on to its traditions in a state where Judaism is dominated by the Orthodox.
For the Karaites, who split from rabbinical Judaism more than 1,000 years ago, being a couple of days out of sync is a mark of otherness. While most Israelis know little about them, other than to say that they pray “like Muslims,” the Karaites say that the Orthodox authorities — their centuries-old nemesis — have tried to wear them down in an effort to subsume them into the rabbinical mainstream.
But a new generation of Karaite leaders has taken up the struggle to anchor their place in modern Israel.
“I see a community determined to preserve its customs, as opposed to other communities,” said Neria Haroeh, 30, a lawyer who is the president of the Karaite community. “We have a long history of loyalty to our tradition, and we don’t want to change it.”
He added, “We see the Rabbinates as the ones who diverted the Jews from the right path,” referring to the rabbinical Jews in charge of the state’s religious bodies, like the chief rabbinate.
The Karaites derive their laws from the written scriptures of the Hebrew Bible, rejecting the binding nature of the oral law of the Talmud, the rabbinical interpretations that came later and guide mainstream Judaism. The schism is said to have originated among the Jews of Baghdad about 1,200 years ago. Some trace the origins further back to the early sects of the Second Temple period, like the Sadducees.
The Karaites and Orthodox disagree on many issues, including what holidays to celebrate. Karaite women also have a more equal status than in rabbinical Orthodoxy. Like Reform and Conservative Jews, Karaites do not adhere to the strictly Orthodox prohibition against hearing a woman sing. Karaite couples both sign a religious marriage contract, and a woman can be granted a divorce even against her husband’s will.
But as opposed to the advent of the more egalitarian Reform and Conservative strains popular with American Jews, Mr. Haroeh said, “We were always like that.”
The number of Karaite Jews in Israel is hard to gauge because no census has been held. The Karaites say it is forbidden to count Jews, citing a verse from Genesis 32: “I will surely do thee good, and make thy seed as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.”
Generally, though, the community is estimated at 30,000 to 50,000, out of Israel’s population of eight million. There are also smaller communities in the United States, Turkey and Europe. Most came to Israel from Egypt in three waves starting in 1948, when the state was founded, and 1970. Many live in Ramla or the Mediterranean port city of Ashdod. Others are in smaller concentrations around the country.
The community is undergoing a revival. Dozens of Karaite children attended a summer camp here in August. Eli Eltachan, the deputy chairman of the community and a manager at Ericsson, said that the young, educated professionals now in leadership roles had brought “a new spirit.”
Shoshanna Eliahu, from the town of Rehovot, was attending the Elul feast. She was born in 1956 as her parents made their way from Egypt to Israel. Her son, Elior, 18, with a diamond stud in his ear, had come for a blessing from the rabbi because he was soon to be drafted into the military.
The deputy rabbi of Ramla, Maor Dabbah, 25, gave a sermon on the importance of happiness. Sporting a fashionable buzz cut, he urged people to buy a newly published illustrated collection of songs and blessings for the family, which includes a disc by the Karaite choir.
But amid this new energy, some rabbis have questioned the Jewishness of the Karaites.
In Karaite Judaism there is no Hanukkah, because that festival is not mentioned in the Bible. The Hebrew months go strictly according to the lunar cycle and cannot be altered, as in rabbinical Judaism, for the sake of convenience. Karaite dietary laws differ from those of the mainstream, and while the matriarchal line of descent usually determines who is a Jew, the Karaite line is patriarchal. “It is written in the Torah that Abraham begat Isaac,” said Ovadiah Murad, the rabbi of the ancient Karaite synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem.
The Karaites run their own religious court and perform their own marriages and divorces, which are registered at the Interior Ministry. The community receives a state budget and employs its own rabbis, ritual slaughterers and providers of other services like burial. But because the community’s status has never been formalized in Israeli law, it remains vulnerable.
Two years ago inspectors from the chief rabbinate visited Mr. Cohen’s butcher shop and fined him for displaying a sign declaring his meat “kosher.” They said it was misleading, even though the sign specified that the store was under Karaite supervision.
The community took the case to the Ramla Magistrates Court and won. The judge said that fining the store would have constituted an abrupt change in policy.
More recently, when the chief rabbinate stopped issuing documents that Karaite couples needed to confirm their marriages and divorces abroad, the community petitioned the Supreme Court. Rabbi Eli Ben-Dahan, the deputy minister of religious services, said in an interview that the issue of marriage documents had since been resolved but that recognizing Karaite divorces was more complicated.
Legal recognition as a separate religious community, he said, is problematic. “They say they are Jews, and according to our religious law they are Jews,” he said. “But they cannot be special Jews.”
David Yefet Yerushalmi, 58, a Karaite who retired from a military career and lives in the village of Mazliach, near Ramla, said the rabbinical authorities could never fully sanction Karaite Judaism. “That,” he said, “would mean they were wrong.”