Greek prime minister pledges to eradicate neo-Nazi ‘shame’
By Agence France-Presse
Monday, September 30, 2013 14:45 EDT
Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras on Monday pledged to eradicate the “shame” of neo-Nazism as judicial authorities prepared sweeping criminal charges against members of the far-right Golden Dawn party.
“We are dedicated in completely eradicating such a ‘shame’,” Samaras said in a speech to the American Jewish Committee in New York.
“We must do it within the context of our democratic constitution. But we have to go all the way and do whatever it takes,” the premier said, according to a text released by his office.
Some two dozen members of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, including six lawmakers, will appear in court this week after a series of arrests and police raids on party offices at the weekend.
A first wave of suspects, including four Golden Dawn lawmakers and lower-ranking members, are to be officially charged on Tuesday.
The party’s leader Nikos Michaloliakos is set to be charged on Wednesday, followed by deputy leader Christos Pappas on Thursday.
Testimony from former Golden Dawn members and police wiretaps have revealed a series of “criminal acts” by the group including attempted homicide and voluntary homicide, culminating in the murder of anti-fascist musician Pavlos Fyssas by a self-confessed neo-Nazi on September 18.
Golden Dawn regularly organised “assault militias” in which dozens of members would ride the streets on motorbikes, hitting immigrants with sticks, according to a government report and testimonies cited in the Greek press on Monday.
“I took part several times in activities involving 50 or 60 motorbikes, with two people on each. The one who was sitting behind held a stick with the Greek flag and hit all the Pakistanis he could see,” one ex-member said in court testimony.
Golden Dawn has a “strictly hierarchical structure, the leader is all-powerful following the principle used by (Adolf) Hitler,” said the report by the deputy prosecutor of the Supreme Court, Charalambos Vourliotis.
The neo-Nazi party started its attacks in 1987, the report said, initially targeting immigrants and then turning against Greeks.
The magistrate’s report said party members were trained in military style — including the use of assault weaponry according to reports — and had allegedly committed dozens of criminal acts.
These include scores of migrant beatings that police had allegedly failed to properly investigate until now.
Police on Monday continued their raids on Golden Dawn premises, searching for hidden arms supplies.
Several police officers have been suspended for alleged links to the group.
A search of the home of Golden Dawn deputy leader Pappas in the northwestern city of Ioannina turned up photographs of Hitler, swastikas and German army helmets, reports said.
Greek authorities on Monday were examining ways to cut off Golden Dawn’s funding from the state, to which all parliamentary parties are nominally entitled.
The justice ministry said it would table emergency legislation to stop the institutional flow of state funds to the party.
“Democracy cannot be funding its opponents,” Deputy Prime Minister Evangelos Venizelos, head of Greece’s socialist party, told a news conference.
“When you have a criminal organisation operating inside a political party, there must be funding sanctions.
“(Payment) suspension mechanisms will be put into effect” ahead of the Golden Dawn court trials, he said.
Venizelos, a constitutional expert, also played down fears that Golden Dawn lawmakers could resign en masse to force by-elections around Greece.
“I do not think they will dare to resign,” Venizelos said. “Nobody can make a mockery of parliamentary and democratic institutions (in Greece).”
****************Golden Dawn leader's wife spits at reporter - video
The wife of the arrested Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Mihaloliakos spits in a reporter's face. Eleni Zaroulia, who is herself a member of the Greek parliament, first threw her drink at the reporter from Star Channel as she was leaving her apartment complex in Athens to get into her car. As the reporter tried to ask her about her husband's arrest she spat in his face, and later threw a bag at him
Watch this pig's wife spit: http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2013/oct/01/golden-dawn-leader-wife-spits-reporter-video
Bosnia's first census as independent state revives ethnic rifts
Tension between leaders of former warring sides as each fears being weakened in quota system set by 1995 Dayton accord
Reuters in Sarajevo
theguardian.com, Tuesday 1 October 2013 11.25 BST
Bosnia began its first census as an independent state on Tuesday, a politically charged event that has revived ethnic rifts and could shake the delicate power-sharing system that helped end the country's 1992-95 war.
The 15-day survey, the first in 22 years, should give the most detailed snapshot yet of the enduring upheaval of the war, in which some 100,000 people were killed and 2 million were driven from their homes.
The results will provide data vital for efficient economic planning and for Bosnia's ambition to join the European Union.
But preparations have been marred by tension between leaders of Bosnia's former warring sides – Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) – who each fear being weakened in the system of ethnic quotas set by the 1995 Dayton peace accord. The Dayton deal created an unwieldy form of government which stopped the war but which has stifled development.
The last census was in 1991, on the eve of Yugoslavia's collapse, when 43.5% of Bosnia's then 4.4 million people declared themselves Muslims, 31.2% as Serbs and 17.4% as Croats.
More than 5% said they were "Yugoslav", identifying with the socialist federation of six republics since consigned to the history books.
In campaigning that has resembled an election more than a census, political and religious leaders have called on their constituents and congregations to declare their ethnicity and faith as a matter of national duty. "Our religion is Islam," Muslim clerics across Bosnia read in a message delivered during Friday prayers. "In the census, we shall say we are Bosniaks and our language is Bosnian."
Roman Catholic priests told their worshippers, mainly Bosnian Croats, to encourage relatives living abroad to return and take part in the census.
The 1995 peace accord defined Bosnia's Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks as its "constituent peoples", splitting territory and power between them at the expense of everyone else - Jews, Roma and the children of mixed marriages who refused to pick a side and who are excluded from public sector job quotas.
Loosely defined as "others", they could shift the balance of power in Bosnia if enough people eschew the dominant ethnic and religious labels in the census, piling pressure on leaders to change the constitution in line with a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that declared it discriminatory.
Bosnia's failure to act on the court's ruling has blocked its application to join the EU, which neighbouring Croatia joined in July. Results of the census are due in mid-January 2014.
Norway's Conservatives to form coalition with anti-immigration party
Erna Solberg's rightwing minority government to clamp down on immigration after teaming up with Siv Jensen's Progress party
Associated Press in Stavanger
theguardian.com, Tuesday 1 October 2013 08.46 BST
The leader of Norway's Conservative party has announced she is forming a rightwing minority government, the first to include the anti-immigration Progress party.
Erna Solberg, whose Conservatives finished second in this month's parliamentary election, will team up with the Progress party, which came third.
The two-party coalition is expected to introduce stricter immigration policies. Many Norwegians have called for a reduction in immigration, and the Progress party has capitalised on that feeling.
Solberg praised her party's co-operation with Progress but left the door open for the two smaller centre-right parties – the Christian Democrats and Liberals – to join the coalition, saying she was eager to work with them, too.
"Now the Conservatives and the Progress party start real negotiations on the government platform. This is the start of a committed relationship," Solberg told reporters in parliament.
In the general election on 9 September, the Conservatives and three centre-right parties won a majority, but only Progress agreed to team up with the Conservatives. Its leader, Siv Jensen, said it hoped to tighten asylum policies, secure more rights for the elderly and reduce inheritance tax.
The new government is scheduled to take office on 14 October. It will replace a moderate but left-leaning coalition led by the Labour party, headed by the outgoing prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg. It has governed Norway for eight years, and Labour will remain the largest party in parliament.
Post-war, rightwing coalitions have often been fractious and fallen apart in Norway, as they did in 1986, 1990 and 2000. If the current coalition doesn't last, the Labour party could quickly reclaim power, as it has three times since 1986.
Norway's sovereign wealth fund 'is example for oil-rich nations'
Former PM Jens Stoltenberg says indebted European nations should look to Norway's £460bn fund to avert 'curse of oil'
The Guardian, Monday 30 September 2013 14.20 BST
Norway has much to teach spendthrift nations such as the UK, its outgoing prime minister has said.
Jens Stoltenberg said indebted European nations should look to Norway, which has become one of the wealthiest countries in the world mainly by refusing to spend its huge oil revenues and placing them instead in a sovereign wealth fund.
"That way the fund lasts for ever," he said in a speech at Harvard University. "The problem in Europe with the deficits and the debt crisis is that many European countries have spent money they don't have. The problem in Norway is that we don't spend money we do have. That requires a kind of political courage."
Norway's sovereign wealth fund is the biggest in the world at £460bn. The fund generates money from its ownership of petroleum fields, taxes on oil and gas, and dividends from a 67% stake in Statoil, the country's largest energy company. Norway is the world's second-largest gas exporter and the seventh-largest oil exporter.
Stoltenberg, a Labour party member who served two consecutive four-year terms as prime minister, said his administration restricted itself to spending the investment gains made by the fund.
He said the fund was the main reason Norway sidestepped the "curse of oil" that has plagued many other resource-rich nations, particularly in the developing world.
"There are many, many other countries in the world that are in similar positions, that are facing the same kinds of challenges that we are facing: huge temporary income from natural resources," he said. "So, if there is a danger of an oil curse, Norway is really exposed to that danger. But we have managed to avoid it. The oil industry has been a blessing for Norway."
Maintaining the policy has not been pain-free for the nation. In 2009, the fund's value slumped in the wake of the Lehman Brothers crash. The loss of £56bn was equivalent to £11,000 per person. Since then, its investment strategy has widened its scope to include Asian assets, and property including a multimillion-pound purchase of shop leases on London's Regent Street.
Argument raged during the recent election over how much of the fund's revenues to invest. The far-right Progress party, which is expected to enter a coalition with the more mainstream Conservative party, wants to spend more of the fund on welfare to enable tax cuts. A broad consensus among politicians of all major parties that spending the oil funds would corrupt the nation and encourage young people to become dissolute means the proposal is unlikely to gain much traction.
Britain, too, had the luxury of significant oil and gas funds, but successive governments have faced criticism for frittering them away on maintaining inefficient industries rather than saving the money in a sovereign wealth fund. Britain became a net importer of oil in 2003 and has faced a worsening balance of payments deficit and decline in tax revenues as a result, without a wealth fund to soften the blow.
Norway's disturbing lurch to the right
The anti-immigration party's electoral success shows the country has not dealt with the roots of Anders Breivik's crimes
Alf Gunvald Nilsen
theguardian.com, Tuesday 10 September 2013 14.33 BST
The results from today's Norwegian elections are more or less clear: with some 26.8% of the vote, the Conservative party (Høyre) is poised to head Norway's next coalition government. The first thing to note about Norway's unsettling rightward turn is the fact that the Progress party (Fremskrittspartiet) is set to join as junior partner in a coalition government. Disturbingy, a political party whose platform is marked above all else by an ardent anti-immigration agenda is capable of making such headway little more than two years after neofascist Anders Breivik carried out his heinous terrorist attacks.
The events that left 77 people dead, prompted public debate to focus on a deeply troubling question: what was it about Norwegian society that had made 22/7 possible? Breivik's extensive links to far-right groups and anti-Muslim networks prompted the recognition that his actions and ideology could not be understood in a vacuum. Rather, it seemed clear that he had emerged from the fertile ground of a racism and an Islamophobia that had attained a degree of respectability in public debate in Norway. This, it was argued, demanded a collective response: Norwegian society had to confront deep-seated xenophobic attitudes and embrace the fact that cultural and ethnic diversity had come to stay.
For a time, this was a recognition that seemed to hold sway. The most significant indication of this shift was the fact that electoral support for the Progress party – a party of which Breivik had been a member for a number of years, and whose warnings against the "sneak-Islamisation" of Norwegian society resonated with the main tenor of Breivik's ideology – was significantly reduced in the local elections of September 2011.
However, the fact that the party now seems destined to become the second largest player in Norway's new ruling coalition raises the question of why 22/7 failed to become more of a watershed in Norwegian politics. A very likely reason is the fact that Norway has failed to take the lessons of the attacks that befell us that dreadful day to heart. Breivik's actions and ideology were quickly pathologised and turned into an aberration – indeed, the court proceedings against him were remarkable for their studious avoidance of questions relating to the broader context in which Breivik had flourished. An aberration, of course, is not something that weighs down on a nation's collective conscience. Norwegian society could move along, safely ensconced in its affluent comfort zone. And this should be a matter of great concern for those of us who were hoping for a more tolerant society to emerge from the trauma of 22/7.
But it's not only the advance of the far-right Progress party that gives cause for concern. It is equally disconcerting that victory has been claimed by a conservative political party that advocates tax cuts, privatisation, deregulation, and a substantial reduction of public spending on welfare. This agenda is of course familiar in these austerity-ridden times, but the paradox is this: there is no crisis to warrant such policies. Under its current "red-green" government, Norway has in fact steered clear of the economic and social debacle that has mired the EU project since 2008. Growth rates have been stable over the past five years and unemployment is lower in Norway than in any of the countries in the European Union.
This is not to say that there are not challenges ahead for Norway's economy. For example, there is still inequality and poverty amid plenty, and immigrants and minority communities suffer its consequences disproportionally. However, there is no conceivable way in which the neoliberal agenda touted by the Conservatives can address such challenges.
On the contrary – the eager pursuit of such an agenda in the current context shows what the objective for the Conservatives really is, namely, a project geared towards redistributing wealth in favour of society's elites. In doing so, this project will undermine what has been an enduring and valuable feature of Norwegian society – and a key reason why the country topped the UNDP's human development index in 2013 – which is a social infrastructure that ensures the availability of crucial public goods and underpins the country's relative egalitarian social structure.
In other words, the 2013 elections have thrown up a marriage of neoliberal conservatism and rightwing populism that threatens to entrench that which we need to rid ourselves of and erode that which we should struggle to keep.
Erdoğan's split personality: the reformer v the tyrant
The Turkish prime minister revealed the iron fist in his velvet glove this summer, but of which is his true character built?
Ian Traynor, Europe editor
theguardian.com, Monday 30 September 2013 18.15 BST
All summer long, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been in a very bad mood. The public squares and parks of Istanbul and several other Turkish cities were taken over by protesters he angrily dismissed as "riff-raff", turning the full coercive power of the state on the largely peaceful demonstrators.
The riot police and indiscriminate use of teargas – including on children, women and the infirm – tarnished the Turkish prime minister's image. He wrecked his own international standing. And he damaged his own domestic political ambitions.
On Monday in Ankara, a rather different Erdoğan was on view, although no one is quite sure which one is the real prime minister. He gave a glimpse of his former self long disappeared from view, the most reformist and liberalising head of government seen since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the republic's founder. Seldom predictable, Erdoğan went some way to confound his critics, suggesting that his summer bark was a lot worse than his autumn bite.
The prime minister's big package of reforms comes ahead of important local and presidential elections next year. So Erdoğan's first aim on Monday was about retaining maximum power for his Justice and Development party (AKP). That might explain the most concrete pledge he made — headscarves will be allowed for female civil servants and MPs, he vowed. That's progress for democratic rights and a major blow to the secularists who dominated Turkey's pre-Erdoğan decades.
The move was aimed at shoring up his own conservative Muslim constituency, the voter base that has given him a hat-trick of election victories over a decade. This is also about settling old scores in the culture wars that continue to engulf Turkey. A thread running through Erdoğan's extremely angry speeches since the summer has highlighted the old grudges he continues to bear against the "Kemalist" elite whose power he has throttled.
The other main thrust of the reforms concerned the Kurdish question. Here the prime minister was more halfhearted, perhaps half-baked, calculating he was giving enough to keep a year-old peace process with the PKK guerrillas of the Kurdistan Workers party alive, while not conceding too much. Fed up with what they saw as a prime minister refusing to deliver on his side of the bargain, the PKK has been threatening for weeks to halt withdrawing its fighters from Turkey into neighbouring Iraq and to abandon the ceasefire it called in the spring.
Until now, Erdoğan had given nothing. On Monday he still refused to yield on the fundamental Kurdish demands of education in their own tongue and devolution of central government powers to the regions. But there were also real concession to the Kurds: the scrapping of Turkish nationalist school incantations that Kurdish children have to intone every day; the likelihood of bigger and easier Kurdish representation in the Ankara parliament; Kurdish parties allowed to campaign in their own language and to benefit more easily from state funding.
There were disappointingly large lacunae in what Erdoğan offered. No reform of the draconian catch-all anti-terror legislation that, among other things, has been abused to make Turkey the world's biggest jailer of journalists. Most significantly, there was nothing to dampen the escalating tensions between Turkey's Sunni Muslim majority and the Alevi minority, pushing increasingly for greater religious and cultural rights. Turkey-watchers describe the Alevi problem as worsening, with the capacity to turn truly toxic.
Erdoğan has pleased his own supporters, probably bought more time for peace with the Kurds and alienated the Alevis. It's a dangerous game. But although it looked in June as though he had lost the plot, Erdoğan has not yet completely lost his touch.
PIG PUTIN'S RUSSIA...
Russia accuses Greenpeace activists of posing a threat to platform personnel
Investigative Committee says it will file charges soon against 30 activists remanded in custody over Arctic drilling protest
theguardian.com, Monday 30 September 2013 15.36 BST
Russia's main investigative agency has accused Greenpeace activists of posing a "real threat" to the security of personnel at an offshore drilling platform in the Arctic, another indication of plans to prosecute the environmentalists for their protest.
All 30 people who were on a Greenpeace ship, including two journalists, have been remanded in custody for two months pending an investigation into their protest on 18 September at the platform owned by state-controlled energy firm Gazprom.
The Investigative Committee said on Monday that charges would be filed soon, but did not specify whether it was still considering charging the activists with piracy, a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
The investigators said the Greenpeace ship the Arctic Sunrise had violated the 500-metre security zone around the platform and that it was carrying equipment whose purpose was still unclear.
In a statement, the investigators said they had seized some equipment and documents from the ship as part of their ongoing search.
Greenpeace Russia denied the ship had ventured closer than the 500 metres established by Russian and international law. The inflatable boats used by activists to scale the offshore platform did violate this zone, but posed no danger, the organisation said.
Russia moves to fill power vacuum in Mideast
Russia has been nurturing new alliances and reviving old friendships, reaching out to countries long regarded as belonging to the American sphere of influence in ways that echo the superpower rivalries of the Cold War era.
By Liz Sly
The Washington Post
BEIRUT — Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union affirmed the United States as the dominant power in the Middle East, a resurgent Russia is back, seeking ways large and small to fill the vacuum left by the departure of American troops from Iraq and the toppling of U.S. allies in the Arab Spring revolts.
The recent diplomacy that averted a U.S. strike against Syria underscored the extent to which Moscow’s steadfast support for its last remaining Arab ally has helped reassert Russia’s role.
Russian President Pig Putin has emerged as the world leader with the single biggest influence over the outcome of a war threatening the stability of the wider region, winning concessions both from President Bashar al-Assad and President Barack Obama to secure a U.N. resolution requiring Syria to surrender its chemical arms.
Less conspicuously, Russia has been nurturing new alliances and reviving old friendships further afield, reaching out to countries long regarded as belonging to the American sphere of influence in ways that echo the superpower rivalries of the Cold War era.
Those countries include Egypt and Iraq, both traditional Arab heavyweights that have been exploring closer ties with Moscow at a time when the Obama administration has signaled a reluctance to become too deeply embroiled in the region’s turmoil.
In his address to the United Nations last week, Obama stressed that he does not regard the Middle East or the conflict in Syria as an arena of competition with Washington’s bygone foe.
“This is not a zero-sum endeavor. We are no longer in a Cold War. There’s no Great Game to be won,” Obama said, referring to an earlier period of big-power rivalry in which the British Empire and Russia’s czars vied for influence across Central Asia.
Whether Russia is equally determined not to compete with the United States in the strategically vital region is in question, however, Arab analysts say.
Saudi Arabia, the region’s strongest Arab power and still the U.S.’ staunchest Arab ally, is deeply suspicious of Russia’s maneuvering and convinced that Russia is engaged in an effort to outwit the United States at its own expense, said Mustafa Alani, of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.
The overtures between the United States and Iran, a close Russian ally, further reinforce anxieties in Riyadh and other Persian Gulf capitals that Russia is seeking to eclipse the American role in the region, he said.
“The view is that Russia is looking at the whole problem in the Middle East from the old position of the Cold War,” he said. “Wherever America is, they have to spoil the game. They don’t have any principles. Their only policy is to counter the Americans.”
That is not the case, countered Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. Rather, he said, it is Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies that “are trying to play great games themselves ... and arrogantly casting stones in a glass house.”
Russian intentions in the region are rooted in many concerns, but foremost among them is Moscow’s determination “to emphasize Russia’s role in the world as an indispensable nation, especially vis-à-vis American helplessness to settle problems,” he said.
The intent is already being felt. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was elected after the 2003 American invasion, has made two trips to Moscow in the past year and none to Washington. His talks were focused on a $4 billion defense deal under which Russia will supply Iraq with a wide range of armaments, including jet fighters, which are expected to be delivered soon.
The size of the deal is dwarfed by the more than $18 billion worth of arms deals concluded between Iraq and the United States over the past eight years. But key elements of those — including coveted F-16 fighter jets — have yet to arrive.
Iraqi officials say they turned to Russia only because they were frustrated by the slow pace of U.S. arms deliveries at a time when the war in neighboring Syria has heightened anxieties about the country’s stability.
Russia, concerned about escalating violence in Iraq, “sees a vacuum there, which she is trying to fill,” Lukyanov said.
Meanwhile, strains between Egypt’s new military-backed rulers and the United States have led Egyptian leaders to encourage Russian advances. A Russian tourism delegation visited the country to explore ways of expanding visits by Russians at a time when most Westerners have been staying away, and interim Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, a Boston University and World Bank alumnus with close connections to the United States, chose Moscow for his first visit beyond the region in his new job.
Although many U.S. allies in the Middle East are frustrated with the Obama administration’s policies, it is unlikely any would seriously contemplate abandoning Washington altogether in favor of Moscow, if only because the military imbalance between the two countries is so great, said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
Only the United States, with its extensive network of military bases around the region and superior military technology, can offer the kind of security guarantees that jittery Arab nations seek, he said.
Gulf Research Center’s Alani, who consults closely with Gulf leaders, acknowledged the dependence.
“With all our complaining, it is not going to happen,” Alani said of the likelihood that regional powers would shift allegiances. “We understand there is no alternative, and we have to live with all the faults of U.S. policy. “But that doesn’t mean we are not looking around.”
Eurozone crisis: can the centre hold?
The patient may appear to be on the mend. But with chill winds blowing in from the European periphery, the euro is far from safe
theguardian.com, Monday 30 September 2013 16.30 BST
A little more than a year ago, in the summer of 2012, the eurozone, faced with growing fears of a Greek exit and unsustainably high borrowing costs for Italy and Spain, appeared to be on the brink of collapse. Today, the risk that the monetary union could disintegrate has diminished significantly – but the factors that led to it remain largely unaddressed.
Several developments helped to restore calm. The European Central Bank (ECB) president, Mario Draghi, vowed to do "whatever it takes" to save the euro, and quickly institutionalised that pledge by establishing the ECB's "outright monetary transactions" programme to buy distressed eurozone members' sovereign bonds. The European stability mechanism (ESM) was created, with €500bn (£419bn) at its disposal to rescue eurozone banks and their home governments. Some progress has been made on a European banking union. And Germany has come to understand that the eurozone is as much a political project as an economic one.
Moreover, the eurozone recession is over (though five periphery economies continue to shrink, and recovery remains very fragile). Some structural reform has been implemented and a lot of fiscal adjustment has occurred. Internal devaluation (a fall in unit labour costs to restore competitiveness) has occurred to some extent – in Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Ireland, but not in Italy or France – improving external balances. And, even if such adjustment is not occurring as fast as Germany and other core eurozone countries would like, they remain willing to provide financing, and governments committed to adjustment are still in power.
But beneath the surface calm of lower spreads and lower tail risks, the eurozone's fundamental problems remain unresolved. For starters, potential growth is still too low in most of the periphery, given ageing populations and low productivity growth, while actual growth – even once the periphery exits the recession, in 2014 – will remain below 1% for the next few years, implying that unemployment rates will remain very high.
Meanwhile, levels of private and public debt, domestic and foreign, are still too high, and continue to rise as a share of GDP, owing to slow or negative output growth. This means that the issue of medium-term sustainability remains unresolved.
At the same time, the loss of competitiveness has been only partly reversed, with most of the improvement in external balances being cyclical rather than structural. The severe recession in the periphery has caused imports there to collapse, but lower unit labour costs have boosted exports insufficiently. The euro is still too strong, severely limiting the improvement in competitiveness that is needed to boost net exports in the face of weak domestic demand.
Finally, while the fiscal drag on growth is now lower, it is still a drag. And its effects are amplified in the periphery by a continuing credit crunch, as undercapitalised banks deleverage by selling assets and shrinking their loan portfolios.
The larger problem, of course, is that progress toward banking, fiscal, economic and political union, all of which are essential to the eurozone's long-term viability, has been too slow. Indeed, there has been no progress whatsoever on the latter three, while progress on the banking union has been limited. Germany is resisting the risk-sharing elements of such a union, such as common deposit insurance, a common fund to wind up insolvent banks, and direct equity recapitalisation of banks by the ESM.
Germany fears risk-sharing would become risk-shifting, and that any form of fiscal union would likewise turn into a "transfer union", with the rich core permanently subsidising the poorer periphery.
At the same time, the entire regulatory process for the financial sector is pro-cyclical. The new Basel III capital-adequacy ratios, the ECB's upcoming asset-quality review and stress tests, and even the European Union's competition rules (which force banks to contract credit if they receive state aid) all imply that banks will have to focus on raising capital at the expense of providing the financing needed for economic growth.
Moreover the ECB, in contrast to the Bank of England, is unwilling to be creative in pursuing policies that would ameliorate the credit crunch. Unlike the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan, it is not engaging in quantitative easing; and its "forward guidance" that it will keep interest rates low is not very credible. On the contrary, interest rates remain too high and the euro too strong to jump-start faster economic growth in the eurozone.
Meanwhile, austerity fatigue is rising in the eurozone periphery. The Italian government is on the verge of collapsing; the Greek government is under intense strain as it seeks further budget cuts; and the Portuguese and Spanish governments are having a hard time achieving even the looser fiscal targets set by their creditors, while political pressures mount.
And bailout fatigue is emerging in the eurozone's core. In Germany, the next coalition government looks set to include the Social Democrats, who are pushing for a bail-in of the banks' private creditors, which would only exacerbate balkanisation of the eurozone's banking system; and populist parties throughout the core are pushing against bailouts for banks and governments alike.
So far, the grand bargain between the core and the periphery has held up: the periphery continues austerity and reform while the core remains patient and provides financing. But the eurozone's political strains may soon reach a breaking point, with populist anti-austerity parties in the periphery and populist anti-euro and anti-bailout parties in the core possibly gaining the upper hand in next year's European parliament elections.
If that happens, a renewed bout of financial turbulence would weaken the eurozone's fragile economic recovery. The calm that has prevailed in eurozone financial markets for most of the past year would turn out to be only a temporary respite between storms.
• Nouriel Roubini is Chairman of Roubini Global Economics, and professor of economics at the Stern School of Business, New York University.
09/30/2013 03:44 PM
World From Berlin: Coalition Talks Could Last Into January
It's quickly becoming clear how hard it's going to be for Angela Merkel to form a new government. The SPD wants the Finance Ministry and will ballot its members on any deal. In the end, though, they're likely to reach an agreement, say media commentators.
The election may have been held eight days ago, but Germany is no closer to forming a government. It could take until December or January, the general secretary of the opposition Social Democrats (SPD), Andrea Nahles, warned on Monday. The SPD, in a canny move to drive up its price for joining a coalition and to secure grass-roots support for a deal, decided at a party conference on Friday that it will ballot its 470,000 members on any agreement. That means they can say in talks, "we can't give in on that point because our members won't back it."
That's bad news for Chancellor Angela Merkel, because it will make the talks to form a so-called grand coalition of the two main parties all the more difficult. As if that weren't enough, Bavarian governor Horst Seehofer, an important conservative ally of hers, on Sunday narrowed her negotiating position with some undiplomatic rhetoric before preliminary talks had even begun.
He said the current debate among conservatives over whether to give in to SPD demands for tax hikes for the rich was "unspeakable and totally superfluous." In an interview with the Bild am Sonntag newspaper, the notoriously outspoken Seehofer, brimming with confidence from his own victory in the Sept. 15 Bavarian regional election, said there would be no departing from the conservatives' election pledge to refrain from tax hikes and from higher new borrowing. "People have my word on that," he added in a comment that may well have ruined Merkel's Sunday.
Seehofer is head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to her Christian Democratic Union. She can't afford to snub or ignore him. The SPD was quick to respond. Ralf Stegner, the SPD's regional leader in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, dismissed Seehofer's comments, telling the Rheinische Post newspaper on Monday: "With Herr Seehofer you know that the Bavarian lion likes to roar loudly but keels over in the end."
Meanwhile, media reports say the SPD plans to demand six cabinet posts including the all-important Finance Ministry, a key position in the euro crisis, as well as the Family and Labor ministries. Lower Saxony Governor Stephan Weil of the SPD told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung newspaper he wanted the SPD to demand the repeal of a controversial benefit for stay-at-home mothers launched last year -- the benefit is a pet project of the arch-conservative CSU.
President Gauck Invites Parties for Talks
In a sign of concern at how difficult the talks are shaping up to be, President Joachim Gauck invited the leaders of all parties represented in the new parliament for bilateral talks this week to ascertain how they view the situation.
Gauck's position is largely ceremonial but he does have some constitutional powers relevant to the formation of a government, such as formally proposing a chancellor to be elected by the federal parliament, the Bundestag, and appointing them. He would also be involved if a new election were called -- a real possibility if coalition talks fail -- or if Merkel decided to rule with a minority government.
The first preliminary talks between the conservatives and the SPD are due to take place in Berlin on Friday. The SPD's six-member negotiating team will include chancellor candidate Peer Steinbrück, who announced on Friday he will be quitting top-flight politics and focusing on his duties as an ordinary member of parliament.
His departure didn't come as a surprise -- he had said during the campaign that he would not serve in a Merkel-led government. He said farewell in an emotional 10-minute speech to an SPD party conference last Friday. "I will be grateful to the SPD as long as I can stand on my two legs," he said, drawing long applause. Steinbrück, 66, a former finance minister in the last grand coalition between 2005 and 2009 and a former governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, never really had a chance against the overwhelmingly popular Merkel. His campaign was marred by a series of gaffes.
German media commentators seem convinced that despite all the difficulties, the next government will be a grand coalition.
Conservative Die Welt writes:
"Angela Merkel is just five seats short of a majority but the SPD is dreaming of six ministerial posts. It's dreaming of the CDU abandoning all the promises with which Merkel won the election. They seem to be making up for their depression with a bout of megalomania. Five missing seats doesn't mean Merkel's victory is negotiable. When the conservatives and the SPD enter coalition talks, the following should be remembered: The ballot box didn't hand the SPD a mandate to enforce a change in policy. The German people gave Merkel a mandate to continue her policy. She won with two issues -- EU reforms and a rejection of tax hikes. The SPD lost this election with vague statements about Europe and because of its call for higher taxes. If the conservatives break their promise for the sake of the election losers, the EU partners will conclude that she will do the same with EU reforms. Then Paris and Rome will test her in the 2014 election for the European Parliament. A broken pledge today will undermine Germany's authority in Brussels."
Center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"There are two obstacles standing in the way of a grand coalition. The first one is called Horst Seehofer. The overbearing way in which he is doling out condescending advice to the SPD is like poison and will reinforce the deep skepticism about a coalition among SPD grassroots members. The planned membership ballot is the second obstacle. Members won't be won over by the party leadership securing six nice ministerial posts for itself. Critics will say it's all about policies, not jobs. A coalition agreement is meant to secure these policies. But sometimes such a coalition agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on."
"The SPD leadership will have to show substantial progress to persuade members to vote in favor of a grand coalition." One way to ensure the success of the grand coalition, the newspaper writes, could be a deal whereby the SPD would elect Merkel as chancellor and some of the legislation agreed in the coalition deal would be passed by parliament before the SPD signs the agreement. It would create a stable foundation for a power-sharing government, the paper argues. "A grand coalition isn't a heaven-sent option for either party, least of all the SPD. But such a coalition could be good for the country temporarily if it is well-founded."
Conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"In the end, the path into a grand coalition may not be the biggest problem for the SPD. The problem will be how to get out of a grand coalition. The party leadership is so plagued by the question of what kind of SPD will be running in the 2017 general election that it has said this is the last time it's ruling out an alliance with the Left Party. But it knows it will be the Left Party's main enemy once it's in a coalition with the conservatives. In the foreseeable future neither an SPD alliance with the Greens nor with the Greens and Left Party look feasible."
In fact, "Austrian conditions" -- persistent grand coalitions -- might become the norm in Germany, the paper added. Austria re-electedits left-right coalition government on Sunday.
09/30/2013 03:59 PM
Auschwitz Trial: Late Case Raises Questions about Justice System
By Felix Bohr
Prosecutors claim 93-year-old former Auschwitz worker Hans Lipschis is complicit in the murder of thousands of people. The charges raise questions about how to interpret guilt in the Holocaust, as well as why the German justice system waited so long to pursue such cases.
Hans Lipschis' indictment doesn't withhold any of the gruesome details. It describes how victims convulsed in agony for several minutes and their screams could be heard from far away. It also says that the SS ran truck motors in a vain attempt to drown out the sound of the wailing victims. Prosecutors note that the bodies of the dead were so intertwined in their death struggles that they had to be hacked apart with axes when the Auschwitz gas chambers were opened.
These events themselves aren't being debated -- historians have little doubt about their veracity -- but, rather, a question of guilt. Decades after the last major wave of trials, a German court will again have to decide who is guilty of committing a crime during the Holocaust -- and whether Lipschis, a 93-year-old man who lives in the southwestern German town of Aalen, should be convicted for his role in it.
Lipschis first came to Pomerania from Lithuania as a 21-year-old baker's assistant before reportedly taking up duties as an SS guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp in October 1941. For nearly two years, he allegedly kept watch over prisoners in the Nazis' largest extermination factory. He also likely served on the camp's notorious ramp, where officials decided on the fate of new arrivals: forced labor or immediate death in the gas chambers.
According to prosecutors, Lipschis was one of some 7,000 henchmen who aided in the murder of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. Today, 68 years after the end of the war, German judicial authorities intend to hold him accountable for his actions. In early May, he was arrested in his apartment. During a search of the premises, officials found letters written to social service agencies in which Lipschis mentioned his activities in Auschwitz. After his arrest, he was admitted to a prison hospital.
Now the Stuttgart public prosecutor's office has charged Lipschis with being an accessory to premeditated murder. Prosecutors have also underscored the insidious and cruel nature of the victims' deaths. During the period in which Lipschis worked as a guard at Auschwitz, 12 prisoner transports from throughout Europe reached the camp. Of the thousands of unsuspecting newcomers, 10,510 people were immediately murdered in the gas chambers after their arrival.
Germany 's New Wave of Nazi Trials
In an interview with the Welt am Sonntag newspaper last April, Lipschis said that he only worked as a cook at Auschwitz, and claimed only to have heard about people being killed in the gas chambers, but never to have seen anything. The public prosecutor's office argues this statement is unconvincing. Prosecutors contend Lipschis was aware of the camp procedures -- including why and how people were killed there -- and that he tacitly accepted this. Furthermore, they argue that he was not transfered to the camp's interior administration and assigned to kitchen duty until September 1943.
Lipschis has made no comments on the allegations by the public prosecutor's office. His public defender, Stuttgart lawyer Achim Bächle, who specializes in trials relating to the Nazi era, says: "It is exceedingly difficult and highly unsatisfactory to clear up a case 70 years after the end of the war. Hardly any of the eyewitnesses are still alive." According to Bächle, 21-year-old Lipschis couldn't resist the order to report to Auschwitz "without putting his own life in danger."
This case could soon be followed by a series of trials of alleged Nazi war criminals. Just a few weeks ago, Kurt Schrimm, head of the special prosecutors' office in Ludwigsburg that focuses on German war crimes committed during World War II, announced that his office has completed preliminary investigations of 30 former Auschwitz camp guards. Most of these men can expect to be charged with acting as an accessory to murder. The oldest suspect is 97.
Although it's undeniably important to bring the perpetrators of the Nazi reign of terror to justice, this belated legal action raises a number of questions: Why did the German justice system do virtually nothing for decades? And why are former concentration camp guards -- cogs in the Holocaust machine -- now being charged when their commanding officers generally got off scot-free?
The Demjanjuk Precedent
Shortly after Lipschis' arrest, legal experts criticized the special prosecutor's office, saying the agency had waited far too long to conduct comprehensive investigations of former concentration camp guards from Auschwitz. Dutch law professor Frits Rüter, who heads an Amsterdam research project on justice and Nazi crimes, even called Lipschis' arrest "scandalous." Rüter points out that for decades Germany hardly ever investigated low-ranking concentration camp guards. Their names -- including Lipschis' -- have been known since the 1960s.
Chief investigator Schrimm justifies his office's current wave of investigations by referring to a "new legal interpretation" that emerged from the 2011 trial and conviction of John Demjanjuk, a former concentration camp guard at the Sobibór extermination camp. A Munich regional court found Demjanjuk guilty of more than 28,000 counts of being an accessory to murder -- although prosecutors could prove no direct involvement. In their verdict, the Munich judges argued that when prisoner transports arrived at Sobibór, every guard performed duties that made them accessories to murder.
This interpretation of the law already existed back in the 1960s, and according to Ludwigsburg public prosecutor Thilo Kurz, who also works in the special prosecutors' office for Nazi war crimes, the legal precedent established during the Demjanjuk trial is "nothing new." In an article published in the German online legal magazine Zeitschrift für Internationale Strafrechtsdogmatik, he argued that it is actually "in line with previous legal decisions on camps built for the sole purpose of extermination." Kurz pointed out that a bookkeeper was sentenced to four years in prison back in 1966 for his role in the administration at Sobibór. The judges ruled that he acted as an accessory to the murder of at least 68,000 people. The German Federal High Court upheld this decision.
In the late 1960s, Kurz wrote, Germany's highest court heard another case from which the conclusion emerged that proof must be provided that each defendant has committed a concrete criminal act -- an approach which characterized German judicial practice for decades. Consequently, thousands of former concentration camp guards were let off the hook. Law professor Rüter puts this down to a systematic lack of interest in pursuing members of the SS. "For 50 years, the West German justice system has knowingly and intentionally not pursued low-ranking concentration camp guards because they were seen as mere underlings," contends Rüter. German judicial authorities didn't change their approach until the Demjanjuk trial in 2011.
What Did Lipschis Do?
So far, no proof has surfaced that Lipschis committed a single criminal act. But the Stuttgart public prosecutor's office feels that it has a solid enough case, based on its allegation that Lipschis served as a camp guard, to move forward. Prosecutors say that he deliberately, unlawfully and culpably contributed to the extermination of the camp's prisoners. Furthermore, they contend that camp staff members could have refused to carry out concrete orders -- and that they were well aware of this. The public prosecutor's office argues they by no means had to fear for their lives.
Since the Auschwitz concentration camp complex is generally classified as a combined labor and extermination camp, legal experts have long argued over whether it should be subject to the same standards as facilities that solely operated as death camps. Now, the Stuttgart prosecutor's office emphasizes in its indictment that the objective at Auschwitz was to exterminate all prisoners. Prosecutors contend that those prisoners who were assigned to work brigades were only given a reprieve from death, and that the Nazis never intended for them to survive.
Lipschis' unit reportedly not only secured the grounds surrounding the notorious ramp, the gas chambers and crematories, but also performed guard duty and served on the ramp itself. After the war, Lipschis was captured by the British and soon released. Then, following a time living in the town of Geesthacht in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, the native Lithuanian emigrated with his family to Chicago in 1956. In the US he found a job as a worker at the Harmony guitar factory.
A Long Path to Court
In 1981, the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) -- a former agency under the US Justice Department charged with hunting down Nazis in the US -- found out about Lipschis' dubious past. Two years later, US authorities deported him to Germany, citing his activities with the SS. Although the OSI offered to provide its German colleagues with copies of the extensive investigative material it had gathered, the special prosecutors' office in Ludwigsburg showed no interest in pursuing the case.
At the time, the deputy head of the special prosecutor's office even personally traveled to the US -- but he evidently made no copies of documents and his staff back in Ludwigsburg apparently felt that no preliminary investigation was required. As a result, former SS Rottenführer Lipschis was able to live undisturbed in the town of Aalen until last May. His lawyer Bächle says: "Lipschis' whereabouts have been known to the authorities since 1983. It is totally incomprehensible that they are only now taking action."
According to the Stuttgart prosecutor's indictment, the defendant is in good health, despite a double bypass operation, and he was able to manage his household on his own at the time of his arrest.
The local court in nearby Ellwangen now has to decide whether to accept the indictment. Roughly 10 individuals, including former Auschwitz prisoners, have already filed as co-plaintiffs.
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
10/01/2013 01:34 PM
Iran Nuclear Talks: Europe's Unsung Chief Diplomat
By Gregor-Peter Schmitz and Christoph Schult in Brussels
The European Union's foreign policy apparatus is often written off as trivial. But its leader, Catherine Ashton, is the one whose tenacious diplomacy has brought the West and Iran back to the table to negotiate Tehran's nuclear program and related sanctions.
The title she puts on her official business card -- "High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy" -- has an illustrious ring. But, in reality, Catherine Ashton's job is rarely glamorous. After she was appointed to the position in 2009, the British diplomat had to endure being called the "fourth choice" in the press -- and even a "garden gnome." And while her counterparts from the United States and Asia zip around in their own jets to summit meetings, Ashton has to patiently wait for commercial flights because the EU doesn't treat her to an official aircraft.
But now the 57-year-old baroness is suddenly at the center of world diplomacy. And whenever she is mentioned, she earns praise for her hard-nosed negotiating skills, her stamina and her diplomatic talents. It is said that US Secretary of State John Kerry has much faith in her. "She is discrete and perceptive, but also tenacious. That makes her an ideal negotiator," says Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the head of Germany's business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) in the European Parliament and a member of its Committee on Foreign Affairs.
What's the cause for all this enthusiasm? After negotiations about the Iran nuclear issue appeared on the brink of collapse, the main parties are finally returning to the table. The next round of talks is scheduled for Oct. 15 in Geneva. The West's aim at the meetings in Switzerland is to test whether the Iranians are actually "serious about their willingness to abide by international norms and international law and international requirements and resolutions," as US President Barack Obama said Monday evening after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House.
The word in diplomatic circles is that this diplomatic renaissance can primarily be attributed to Ashton. In recent months, she has spoken on the phone four times with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, who studied in the United States and gives the impression of being effectively pro-West.
Ashton was the one who came up with the idea of bringing Zarif together with representatives of the P5+1, the international group in charge of negotiating with Iran about its nuclear program that is made up of Germany and the five permanent member states on the UN Security Council -- China, France, Russia, the UK and the US. As a result, the often quarrelling group has embraced Ashton as its chief negotiator.
She, in turn, is doing her part to see that the new Iranian government focuses on fostering better relations between Iran and the European Union. "One of the main objectives of the new Iranian foreign policy is to put aside misunderstandings and to begin a new political era via a better understanding," Iranian President Hassan Rohani recently wrote to Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament.
Chances of a Thaw in Relations?
Leaders in Tehran welcomed the fact that, in early September, the European Court of Justice stated that some of the EU sanctions against Iran should be lifted. The court ruled to annul the 2011 acts of the European Council that froze the funds in Europe of seven Iranian companies and one Iranian national, all of which had been identified as being involved in nuclear proliferation, on the grounds that its allegations hadn't been sufficiently substantiated and that there had been certain procedural errors.
Of course, it has already happened many times that official talks have begun on Iran's nuclear program and ended in stalemate. But representatives with the P5+1, also known as the Group of Six, claim to have the impression that the new Iranian government is serious about things this time around. What's more, the West assumes Rohani has secured the blessing of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader, to launch his diplomatic charm offensive.
Iranian negotiators have let it be known they want to resolve the nuclear dispute within six to 12 months. Furthermore, during the election campaign, Rohani pledged to his supporters that he would improve Iran's economic situation, which can only happen if international sanctions are lifted.
Hard-liners in Tehran, who oppose any compromises related to the nuclear program, are keeping a close eye on Rohani. This has prompted him, for example, to turn down President Obama's offer to meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly currently being held in New York. Indeed, Rohani already sparked fiery protests at home after speaking on the phone with Obama in what was the first official contact between Iranian and American heads of state since 1979.
Likewise, the new Iranian government has yet to make any substantial concessions. But time is running short for the West, and a report published in August by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), stating that Iran is continuing to pursue its uranium-enrichment activities unabated, has only increased the pressure. At the White House on Monday, Netanyahu repeated his warning that the West should not let itself be hoodwinked by Tehran's charm offensive, stressing that: "Iran is committed to Israel's destruction." President Obama also struck a tough note, saying: "It is absolutely clear that words are not sufficient."
EU diplomats have ruled out lifting the sanctions against Iran before the country at least agrees to halt uranium enrichment. European Parliament member Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, for example, is wary. "Rohani finds himself in a situation that is similarly complex to that of the new pope, Francis," the foreign affairs expert says. "Both are trying to break up an encrusted system. And, at this point, no one knows whether they will succeed or whether those backing the status quo will prove to be too powerful."
09/30/2013 01:29 PM
Reaching Out: Obama's Ambitious Mideast Diplomatic Offensive
By Dieter Bednarz, Matthias Gebauer and Holger Stark
Barack Obama is moving his foreign policy course toward diplomacy and away from military intervention. Suddenly the Iranian nuclear issue and Israeli-Palestinian conflict are back on the table -- but is the Middle East ready for a breakthrough?
The historic moment was carefully choreographed. The foreign ministers of the five permanent member states of the United Nations Security Council, Russia, China, Great Britain, France and the United States, along with Germany, met at 4 p.m. on Thursday afternoon. After 15 minutes the host, European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, called Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif into the recently renovated Security Council Chamber. The Iranians shouldn't feel excluded -- but they shouldn't feel too much a part of the global community either.
Zarif, who lived in New York for many years, dispensed with the usual polite remarks. He said that he didn't want to waste any time, and that much had changed in his country as a result of recent elections. He told the assembled members that his mission was to peacefully resolve the conflict over Iran's nuclear program. He even suggested a timeframe, saying that a compromise could be reached "within a year," and that his country was "determined to make this possible." After his remarks, Zarif met privately with US Secretary of State John Kerry.
The encounter could mark a turning point in the history of the Middle East. Only once in recent years has a US secretary of state met her Iranian counterpart, when Condoleezza Rice "exchanged pleasantries" with Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's foreign minister at the time, in Egypt in 2007. Otherwise, the relationship between the two countries has been characterized by 34 years of silence since the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran.
Now the contours of a peaceful agreement with Iran are becoming recognizable for the first time. There are also signs of hope in two other areas of conflict. Last week, the Security Council agreed on a draft resolution establishing a timeframe for the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons. In addition, US President Barack Obama declared peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, along with Iran, to be a priority of his second term in office.
It took only a few words from Iranian President Hassan Rohani to usher in a new age: "Once the nuclear file is settled, we can turn to other issues."
A Changed Political Landscape
The spirit of optimism, which seems too good to be true for some seasoned diplomats, is made possible by the unusual conditions in two nations that now have more in common than it would seem at first glance. President Rohani leads a country that is economically shattered after years of severe sanctions. Iran seems ready to assume a different role in the world.
Obama also leads a country that has become tired, after more than 12 years of war, and is now yearning for a respite.
The American president began his second term with the intention of making the American economy greener and the middle class more resilient against crises. He wanted to regulate illegal immigration and bolster his healthcare reforms. His focus was "nation-building here at home," said Obama, reiterating a promise he had made when he was reelected in November 2012. But then came the NSA scandal and the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, and now Obama has reluctantly shifted his focus from domestic reforms to foreign policy.
With the planned destruction of Syria's chemical weapons, the hopes for putting an end to the Iranian nuclear weapons program and the overdue peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, he placed three blockbusters of international crisis diplomacy on the agenda last week. Suddenly it seems as if Obama wanted to save the world, after all.
What the New York Times called Obama's "evolving doctrine," which the president presented in his keynote speech at the United Nations, became an outline of the US president's foreign policy in his remaining years in office. It is not without substantial risk. It could turn Obama into a great statesman, a visionary who was able to at least partially pacify hot spots without military action. If it works, Obama will have earned the Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded in 2009. But his personal legacy isn't the only thing at stake. Obama is also risking America's dominant position, which has always consisted of a mixture of diplomatic strength and military superiority.
If Obama fails, he will not only lose his influence in the Middle East, but he will also have to accept that the threat of military violence against countries like Iran will lose its credibility, precisely because he so publicly chose to refrain from using such violence. In that case, as many Americans feel, he would be responsible for a disaster in foreign policy.
Return to the Israel-Palestinian Conflict
It was unexpected that Obama would try once more to take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a challenge that had already proved too daunting for two Bushes, two Clintons and Obama himself. Expectations were low when Secretary of State Kerry brought the Palestinians and Israelis back to the negotiating table a few months ago. Kerry went to Tel Aviv, Amman, Ramallah and Cairo, spoke with all parties involved and issued both threats and incentives. It looked like another secretary of state was wearing himself out over a conflict for which there seems to be no solution.
Obama gave Kerry free rein. According to a diplomat from the State Department, the White House apparently reasoned that if Kerry failed, like all of his predecessors, it would be his personal defeat. Now the president has made the issue his own, perhaps because he realized that it would take the personal commitment of the world's most powerful man to lead the parties to compromise.
One reason this strategy is so risky is that Obama may soon be seen as a lame duck president, says Heather Conley, a policy expert who served as deputy assistant secretary of state. It is completely unclear how he expects to solve three major conflicts at once, conflicts that "have been ongoing for decades with little result," she says.
Shortly before his election in 2008, Obama quoted John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States: "[America] does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy," he said, noting that if she did, "she might become the dictatress of the world." Obama was strongly influenced by Adams' words. His advisers say that he still adheres to this view today.
Last week, Obama spoke as if he intended to transport Adams' legacy into the modern age. He said that there was no longer a "Great Game" to be won, as there was in the Cold War, and added: "Iraq shows us that democracy cannot simply be imposed by force."
'Danger for the World'
The America that Obama recently described to the UN delegates does not intervene in the affairs of other nations to overthrow regimes. It seeks diplomatic allies and avoids the use of weapons, if possible. "The danger for the world," Obama noted, "is that the United States, after a decade of war … may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill." But he added that there could also be exceptions that required military operations in the future.
According to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the president has drawn the right conclusions from past mistakes and has recognized that America's military campaigns have not achieved the desired results. "Haven't Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya taught us something about the unintended consequences of military action once it's launched?" Gates asks.
Iran's change of course comes at just the right time. The country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is giving newly elected President Rohani an unusual amount of latitude -- which is not altogether surprising, since the ayatollah is equally aware of how the tough sanctions have choked Iran's already ailing economy. This explains why Rohani was able to employ such a moderate tone in New York.
Although the sanctions are "intrinsically inhumane and against peace," Rohani said, "nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran's security and defense doctrine." The usual sharp words against Israel were also absent. A member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard and adviser to Khamenei praised Rohani's speech as "clever and observant."
Iran's 'Heroic Flexibility'
Many are pinning their hopes on two words attributed to Khamenei. Shortly before Rohani's appearance in New York, the revolutionary leader spoke of "heroic flexibility." But contrary to what many in the West assume, the ayatollah was apparently saying that relenting can be advantageous. He was using a metaphor from wrestling, Iran's national sport, when he said that in order to win, one sometimes has to exhibit certain characteristics "for technical reasons" -- malleability and flexibility, for instance. So is it all just a ruse meant to mollify the West only to ultimately triumph against them?
The Iranians' supposed change of course was also met with suspicion, especially in Jerusalem. Rohani had hardly left the podium before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a "cynical and hypocritical speech." The Israelis play a key role in the Middle East. Without them, there can be no Palestinian state, and an agreement with Iran would be difficult to achieve. Obama cannot reach two of his three goals without the Israelis.
When Obama threatened Syrian despot Bashar Assad with reprisal attacks for his use of chemical weapons more than four weeks ago, Netanyahu said that the "message that is received in Syria will be received loudly in Iran." But the political situation has changed fundamentally since then. Jerusalem feels that by striking a diplomatic deal with Assad, Obama has gambled away his threat potential against Tehran.
Which of these views is correct will soon become apparent. The round of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program will take place in Geneva in mid-October, with Zarif slated to head the talks. Russia, China and the West expect Iran to stop enriching uranium beyond 3.5 percent, to convert previously enriched material into reactor fuel rods unusable for bomb-making and, most likely, to close the Fordo enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom. The ability of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna to readily inspect Iran's nuclear plants is a requirement, as is access to its suspicious military facilities, which was previously denied to the IAEA inspectors. In return, Tehran hopes the West will recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium and lift the sanctions.
Rohani promised an agreement in the near future, saying that it should be a matter of "months, not years." On Friday evening, Obama called Rohani for the first time and spoke with him for 15 minutes. The two men tweeted each other afterward, with Rohani expressing his gratitude for Obama's hospitality and the telephone conversation. Obama wished the Iranian a good trip home and apologized for New York's horrible traffic.
Meanwhile, there is talk in Tehran that revolutionary leader Khamenei has given Rohani until the beginning of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in March to show palpable results. Apparently Iran's willingness to negotiate will end if no progress has been made by then. This would explain Rohani's sense of urgency.
Before he left the General Assembly Hall in New York, Obama turned around to face the audience one more time, as if to make sure that his message had been received. The Iranian delegates were sitting in the second row, on the right, while the Israelis were on the left side of the same row. The Syrians were seated six rows farther back.
The world has listened to Obama. Now it's time to wait for an answer.
Translation from the German by Christopher Sultan
Israel squeezed out by Iran and US goodwill
Binyamin Netanyahu has vowed to counter Iran's 'onslaught of smiles', insisting that Tehran cannot be trusted
theguardian.com, Tuesday 1 October 2013 11.25 BST
Barack Obama, and Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, were at pains to demonstrate common ground on dealing with Iran's nuclear programme. But their White House meeting on Monday failed to assuage or disguise deep Israeli unease about the ramifications of a possible rapprochement between Washington and Tehran, and the overall direction of Obama's Middle East policy. In short, Israel is being squeezed in a tightening strategic vice.
Netanyahu has made no direct public comment about last week's highly successful charm offensive at the UN by Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, and his subsequent game-changing telephone conversation with Obama. But the Israeli leader vowed before arriving in the US to counter Iran's "onslaught of smiles". He was not expected to pull his punches when addressing the UN on Tuesday and has extended his US visit by a day to push his views in a series of media interviews.
Netanyahu stuck to his old script at the White House. "Iran's conciliatory words have to be matched by real actions – transparent, verifiable, meaningful actions. Iran is committed to Israel's destruction," he said. He reiterated his previous demands: "Iran must fully dismantle its military nuclear programme. If Iran continues to advance its military programme during negotiations, the sanctions should be strengthened."
But the Israeli leader appeared to realise that Obama's revived emphasis on diplomatic solutions in both Iran and in Palestine – framed within Iran's apparently more moderate posture– has left him with little alternative, for now at least, but to go along with the US administration and to wait, perhaps, for the inevitable collapse that sooner or later usually attends such well-intentioned initiatives.
While it was an achievement of sorts that a repeat of their 2011 Oval Office row, and any hint of open disagreement, were avoided, it was not a good day for Netanyahu. While reassuring his visitor that he would insist on substantive concessions before relaxing the pressure on Tehran, Obama avoided any mention of a timetable, or "red lines", or of any specific steps that Iran must take.
Like its European allies, the US does not believe a complete dismantling of Iran's nuclear programme is a realistic objective. Their emphasis instead is on curbing uranium enrichment and on expanded verification and inspection measures.
Netanyahu's energetic bid, over the past three years, to convince the great powers that Iran is the world's number one security threat, akin to but more dangerous than North Korea, thus seems to have run into the sand. Nor do previous, veiled threats of Israeli military action against Iran's nuclear sites now appear to have any substance, as US opposition to any such action has stiffened with Obama's re-election and the technical and practical difficulties for Israel of mounting unilateral strikes have become clearer.
Most Israelis – 78% – appear to share their prime minister's scepticism about Iran's change of heart, according to a recent poll, as do numerous American and Israeli commentators. Yet, ironically, the hawkish Netanyahu, a favourite target for American and European liberals, now finds himself under attack from Israel's political right for allegedly failing to stand up to Obama.
Current and former members from far right and nationalist side of the Knesset have been voluble in their concern about Netanyahu's handling of both the Iranian and Palestinian issues. As the Jerusalem Post reported: "Likud MK Moshe Feiglin said Netanyahu's conception that the world will take action to prevent a nuclear Iran has collapsed. He said it was now clear to all that Iran will proceed toward a military nuclear capability and the US will not take action to stop it ... What Netanyahu needs to ask himself is not what Obama will do, but whether under his own watch, an extremist Muslim country that wants to destroy Israel like Iran will join the nuclear club... That's what history will judge him on. It is wrong to shift our security to the US. It shows we haven't learned anything."
Former Knesset member Aryeh Eldad said Netanyahu and Obama were both "good actors," but the reality facing Israel was starkly clear. "Bibi [Netanyahu] gave up the Israel option for military action on Iran, and he is now relying on the US, which says we need to give up on the Palestinian issue in return," Eldad said. "He understands the fight is lost. He sacrificed the land of Israel."
Deputy defence minister Danny Danon said Netanyahu was under an obligation to try and help Obama make the diplomatic route succeed. But he warned that the Israeli right had been surprised by the  Oslo peace agreement and the  Gaza withdrawal and did not want "another surprise".
Its nuclear ambitions apart, Israel has a long list of grievances against Iran, starting with former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated assertion that the state itself is illegitimate. Rouhani distanced himself from such talk but has said little to suggest an end to Iran's support for militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, its backing for Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, its development of long-range missiles, its alleged complicity in terrorist attacks against Israeli targets, its cold war with the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, its machinations inside Iraq, and its evident aspirations to regional superpower status.
On the American side of the ledger, Israel has cause to worry that Obama's U-turn on military action in Syria means his threat of strikes on Iran, should diplomacy fail, is equally empty; that before leaving office he may try to force Netanyahu into the historic compromise on Palestine that he has hitherto successfully resisted; and that the White House is insufficiently appreciative of how deeply threatening is the current turmoil in Egypt and other Arab spring states to Israel's security.
Netanyahu got a bruising reminder this week: between Iran and the US is Israel's hard place.
Binyamin Netanyahu urges Obama to keep Iran sanctions in place
Israel has been sceptical of Iranian president Rouhani's diplomatic overtures, saying 'Iran is committed to Israel's destruction'
Paul Lewis in Washington
theguardian.com, Monday 30 September 2013 19.44 BST
The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, used a visit to the White House on Monday to urge the US president to maintain or even increase sanctions against Iran, despite the promise of progress over Tehran's nuclear program.
"If diplomacy is to work, those pressures must be kept in place," Netanyahu said of the sanctions, which have proved economically crippling in Iran.
The two leaders met at the White House just days after Obama's historic 15-minute phone call with the new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, which has been interpreted as a possile prelude to a thaw in relations between the US and Iran.
Israel has been sceptical of Rouhani's diplomatic overtures at the United Nations general assembly in New York last week. Netanyahu will deliver his own speech to the assembly on Tuesday.
Sitting next to Obama in the Oval Office, Netanyahu said: "Iran's conciliatory words have to be matched by real actions – transparent, verifiable, meaningful actions. Iran is committed to Israel's destruction."
He added: "Iran must fully dismantle its military nuclear program. If Iran continues to advance its military program during negotiations, the sanctions should be strengthened."
Obama reiterated the commitment of the US to Israel, one of its closest allies. "We enter into these negotiations very clear-eyed," Obama said, adding that Iranian words "are not sufficient".
The president said: "We have to have actions that give the international community confidence that in fact they are meeting their international obligations fully and they are not in a position to have a nuclear weapon.
"We have to test diplomacy. We have to see if in fact they are serious about their willingness to abide by international norms and international law and international requirements and resolutions."
The Israeli prime minister was scheduled to meet the US secretary of state John Kerry and, later on Monday, Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
September 30, 2013
Iran Staggers as Sanctions Hit Economy
By THOMAS ERDBRINK
TEHRAN — The owner of a bus manufacturing company here admits that he is a man who likes his routines, and so every day he continues to commute to his downtown office. There he orders cups of tea, barks orders to his factory foremen over the phone and signs a steady flow of papers his employees put on his desk.
“It looks like I’m working, right?” the owner, Bahman Eshghi, said, folding his hands. “No. In reality I am praying, either for a miracle to save our economy or for a fool to come in and buy my factory.”
For years, Iran’s leaders have scoffed at Western economic sanctions, boasting that they could evade anything that came their way. Now, as they seek to negotiate a deal on their nuclear program, the leaders are acknowledging that sanctions, particularly those applied in 2010 on international financial transactions, are creating a hard-currency shortage that is bringing the country’s economy to its knees.
This was evident in New York last week when Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, emphasized the need to act swiftly to resolve the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, perhaps in three to six months. While there may well be political reasons for him to be in a hurry, Mr. Rouhani and other officials admitted that the sanctions were hurting.
In repeated meetings during the week, Mr. Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said the government’s financial condition was far more dire than the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had let on.
Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Zarif did not publicly specify the severity of the cash squeeze. But Western economists believe the crisis point may be much closer than previously thought, perhaps a matter of months. Iran news outlets have reported that the government owes billions of dollars to private contractors, banks and municipalities.
Because of the sanctions, oil sales, which account for 80 percent of the government’s revenue, have been cut in half. While Mr. Ahmadinejad had asserted that Iran had $100 billion in foreign exchange reserves, the total had shrunk to $80 billion by mid-2013, according to a new study by Roubini Global Economics, a research firm based in New York, and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington group that advocates strong sanctions against Iran.
But even that vastly overstates the amount readily available to Iran. Three-quarters of the $80 billion is tied up in escrow accounts in countries that buy Iranian oil — the result of an American sanctions law that took effect in February. Under that law, the money can be spent only to buy products from those countries.
Even gaining access to the remaining $20 billion is difficult — it has to be physically moved in cash because of Iran’s expulsion from the global banking network known by its acronym Swift, which had allowed the money to be transmitted electronically.
“They can’t repatriate the money back to Iran,” said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “This is the dilemma Iran finds itself in.”
The sanctions pose other problems. Unable to arrange simple financing for business deals, executives are forced to transfer suitcases of cash through street-level money changers to shady bankers abroad. This is not only costly, with middlemen exacting fees every step of the way, but also dangerous, the cash making a tempting target for thieves.
Lower-level officials here and businesspeople are even more alarmed than the leadership, with some saying Iran’s economy is already on the verge of collapse.
The frustrations encountered by Mr. Eshghi (pronounced Esh-REE) in trying to conduct normal business deals are by all accounts typical.
A self-made entrepreneur, Mr. Eshghi, 43, said he had enough savings to scrape by for four more months. After that, if nothing changes, he said, he will have to make the difficult drive to the poor city of Malayer and tell his remaining 100 employees — out of 200 a few years ago — that he is closing the factory. The sanctions have so increased the cost of doing business that he is losing money on every bus the factory turns out, he said.
“Like a camel can survive in the desert on the fat in his hump, I have survived on my savings in recent years,” Mr. Eshghi said. “But now the end is near. I’m giving up.”
Before the sanctions were imposed, Mr. Eshghi, whose thick hair has grayed since he started his business in 2005, would walk to the bank just around the corner from his office. There he would sign a letter of credit to buy parts from China, pay a small portion of his order up front, have tea with the clerk and be back behind his desk in less than an hour.
But things are far more complicated these days. When he wants to order components for his buses now, Mr. Eshghi has to follow a long, complicated and sometimes dangerous procedure.
His partner in China also works with European carmakers, who might drop him as a supplier if they know he is dealing with an Iranian, and is scared to death that “the Americans” will find out and punish him with high fines. “They treat me like a mistress they have to keep secret,” Mr. Eshghi said.
To avoid detection, his partner works through a third party. “Let’s call this middleman Mr. Chen,” said Mr. Eshghi. “Mr. Chen says, ‘No letter of credit,’ because the Americans have already fined the only bank willing to work with Iran in China, the Bank of Kunlun.”
So Mr. Eshghi, without any bank credit, must pay the banker all the money up front, through a bank in Dubai, where his wife and children have moved. First, he needs to gather all the cash rials, Iran’s currency, and give them to a money-changer. The money-changers then send the cash through couriers to partners in other countries who have stepped in to fill the void, asking up to 10 percent in transfer fees.
“Just last week one of these money-changers disappeared into thin air, stealing around $160,000 from me,” Mr. Eshghi said, lifting his hands in the air in a sign of desperation.
Barring theft, the payment slowly makes its way to the banker in China, who also takes a cut. Only then will the Chinese company begin to fill Mr. Eshghi’s order. “They promise loading in 10 days, but take two months.”
When the shipment finally arrives at the factory, “there are lots of issues,” Mr. Eshghi said, saying he felt he was losing on all sides. If the products are late or defective, he said, there is not much he can do about it. “What do I do? Send it back? That’s impossible,” he said. “I have to trust everybody and take all the risks.”
In July, he joked, he “nearly had a heart attack" when he found out that President Obama had imposed sanctions against any company working with Iran’s automotive industry. “That’s me,” he said. “I feed 100 families in a city where nobody has work. Is Mr. Obama waging economic war on our leaders or on us?”
Businesspeople in Iran have seen this coming and have been adapting, said one economic analyst, who asked not to be named to avoid trouble with the government. “But the government is slow and way too optimistic in their predictions,” the analyst said. “Now they are starting to feel the full force of what has been unleashed on them.”
The sanctions have introduced numerous distortions into everyday life. For example, Iran is allowed to use money it earns from oil sales only to buy products from the purchasing country. As a result, Iranian supermarkets are filled with low-quality Chinese products, while several infrastructure projects are being built by Chinese companies, rather than Iranian.
“We don’t have an oil-for-food program like Iraq,” the analyst said. “We have an oil-for-junk program.”
One economist, Mohammad Sadegh Jahansefat, said the government had been taken hostage by countries benefiting from the sanctions — particularly China, which he called the worst business partner Iran had ever had.
“China has monopolized our trade — we are subsidizing their goods, which we are forced to import,” he said, adding of its work in the energy industry, “They destroy local production and leave oil and gas projects unfinished so that no one can work with them.”
The state’s dire financial straits are especially tough on contractors and their workers. Akbar, 50, a building contractor from Isfahan, said a big state foundation had not paid $40,000 it owed him. “I will never again work for the state,” he said. “We just can’t trust they will pay up.”
Iranian business families are used to dealing with the roller coaster that Iran’s economy is. Patience is key, said Ali Khalilpour, 34, who operates a chain of sports apparel stores with his father. “We have fired many people, lost dozens of stores and lots of money following the collapse of the national currency,” he said.
There were times when the rial would fall 20 percent in value in a few months while the Khalilpours owed the equivalent of millions of dollars to Western sports brands in Dubai. They were forced to absorb the loss.
“It’s is hard, but some things are beyond your control,” Mr. Khalilpour said, before finding a silver lining.
Most of his competitors have gone bankrupt, he said, leaving the field to his family.
“We have faith that good times are finally coming to this country,” He said. “When they come, we will be the biggest player in the market.”
Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York.
Syrian jihadists wreak havoc as violence spreads into Iraq
Groups fighting to establish Islamic state in Syria are increasingly dragging the wider region into chaos
Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent
theguardian.com, Monday 30 September 2013 15.18 BST
From his desert compound near the green banks of the Euphrates river, Ahmed Abu Risha has been nervously watching as the jihadists he helped oust from Iraq with the help of the US army once again grow in strength all around him.
In towns and villages on the flat lands south towards Baghdad and in the communities that dot the sprawling desert west towards the border with Syria, militant groups are imposing their influence with brutal efficiency.
Random, savage and relentless violence is once more a reality in this part of Iraq, with almost daily bombings and killings stirring ghosts of a time, not long ago, when Anbar province was almost lost to al-Qaida and when hopes for a civil and stable country seemed futile.
But with Anbar again immersed in anarchy, Abu Risha's eyes are fixed far away from the reborn troubles at home, on battlefields far from his purview – across the border in Syria. There, as in Iraq, jihadists are wreaking havoc, attempting to assert themselves in a revolution that aimed to reorient a nation state, but is now increasingly dragging the region into chaos.
Abu Risha, and the tribal leaders of Anbar who helped drive the anti-al-Qaida movement in 2007 known as the awakening (in Arabic, al-Sahawa) are deeply troubled by what they are seeing.
"If somehow a democratic state is not eventually established in Syria, there will be a problem for all the region," said Abu Risha. "It cannot be an Islamic state."
Yet an Islamic state is unambiguously what the jihadist groups now fighting alongside the opposition in Syria are aiming for. "They want strict Islamic law and they want Syria to be a stage for a jihad elsewhere," said Abu Risha. "This has to be stopped."
Across northern and eastern Syria, where the jihadist groups are strongest, talk of an Iraq-style awakening has been prevalent since the start of the year. While the resurgent violence in Iraq is nothing to aspire to, the four years of relative quiet there from the end of 2007, and the temporary crippling of al-Qaida's ability to wreak havoc at will, at least offer some form of respite from a situation in Syria that is fast slipping from their control.
The al-Qaida-aligned groups that started mustering in Syria from July 2012 onwards have been consolidating in large swaths of the north and east and spreading out, just as they have been in Anbar and the farmlands north of Baghdad. With their creeping presence has come the enforcement of new ways in the rural north; summary justice, fear and intimidation. There is a sense of lurking danger.
"We welcomed them at the beginning," said Majid Abu Lail, a shopkeeper from al-Bab, north-east of Aleppo. "Even though we don't share their values. They told us they had saved Anbar from the Americans and that they weren't here to fight us. But they are here to fight us, to try and dominate our ways of life with theirs. And now we must fight them."
Black flags now fly above many mosques and civic buildings in towns across Syria's north and in Iraq's border towns. Local residents near Aleppo walk silently past school walls with white horses painted on a black background – an image widely used by al-Qaida in the north. "We don't want their paintings, or their jihad," said Abu Saed, a member of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo. "They can take the stallion back to the dark past that they came from."
Talk of how to get an awakening under way is now well advanced here, just as it is in the corridors of power in Riyadh, and even Baghdad, where Iraq's prime minister, Nour al-Maliki, is convinced that the jihadist push in Syria is bleeding directly into the rising terror menace he is facing at home.
Abu Risha, who in 2007 became the Iraqi face of al-Sahawa, which ousted al-Qaida for a while and helped the US military partly restore security in Iraq, said little could be done in Syria without the backing of a powerful nation state.
"An awakening would only succeed if it was not done by militias, or tribes," he said. "It has to be done by a state."
While the tribes of Anbar were the first to turn on al-Qaida, they had limited means to turn their resentment into action, or to sustain a fight against a powerful foe that had made inroads across the society. Sensing a moment to turn around an increasingly hopeless situation, the then commanding general of US forces in Iraq, David Petraeus, in early 2007 partnered first with the Anbar tribes, then Iraq's security forces in a year-long campaign that cost much blood and treasure but ultimately freed the province from the grip of jihadists. Until now.
Abu Risha acknowledges that there is little chance that the US army would make such a commitment to Syria and he fears that US allies in the region have a similar lack of appetite for a direct intervention.
"If the Americans in all good conscience cannot help [the Syrian opposition] now after all the deaths of the children, the chemical attacks, then what can be done for them. How will this end? People can't just use the name of the awakening. It is more than just a slogan.
"The Gulf countries are the ones who should help destroy Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaida. They have to be regarded as terror groups and not supported in any way."
Saudi Arabia and the Emirate states, which support the Syrian opposition, have looked on with alarm as the jihadist influence has risen in the north and the likelihood of any western power taking them on continues to fade. "There is a serious risk that the opposition can no longer achieve its main objective up there," said an influential backer of the Syrian opposition.
On the ground, much of the opposition fears that such a moment is now upon it. Last week, 13 armed opposition groups formed a new alliance that ostensibly breaks away from the western-backed opposition structure, which it claims is disconnected from realities on the battlefields and whose backers who have little willingness to bring the war to an end.
The new structure omitted the most powerful al-Qaida-aligned group in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (Isis), which is directly linked to the main al-Qaida group in Iraq and whose leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, helps direct the insurgency in both countries.
Isis itself was a breakaway from the first al-Qaida group in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, which was subsumed by the Iraqi-led body in a power struggle in May and has remained resentful ever since. Ever since, its influence has faded in the north, while elsewhere in the country it has remained strong.
The move followed several weeks of intense clashes in the north between Isis and brigades aligned with the Free Syrian Army, which saw the jihadists overrun the border town of Azaz, and al-Bab, in the first of what it said would be other similar moves.
"We could see that remaining with the military council [the western-backed body] would get us nowhere," said a leader of Liwa al-Tawheed, the largest opposition unit in the north and a key signatory to the new alliance.
"The Americans want to trade Syria away as part of a regional solution with Iran. Iran is not part of a solution, they are central to the problem."
Other members of the nascent body say that while they support the newfound distance from the military council, the main reason for the split is to isolate Isis. "There is a broad understanding that they have to be stopped," said a leader of Ahrar al-Sham, a salafist group with some al-Qaida links. "This is still a Syrian revolution. We will not let it become a toy for them."
A third opposition leader, from the Suqour al-Sham unit, said the new grouping, while ostensibly Islamic, was the first foundation stone of an awakening that many in the north had tried to delay, for fear of losing the war, but now felt was inevitable.
"The regime doesn't bomb their bases," he said. "All those flags and trucks outside and they hit hospitals and schools next door. Bashar may be happy with what we have done, but we will get to him soon."
September 30, 2013
Old Atrocities, Now Official, Galvanize Afghanistan
By ROD NORDLAND
KABUL, Afghanistan — So many people were buried alive by bulldozers in the barren fields around the Pul-e-Charkhi Prison on Kabul’s outskirts that guilty soldiers later said it was like an earthquake as their victims tried to claw their way out.
Thirty-four years later, the names and details of nearly 5,000 of those victims — arrested, tortured and killed by the Afghan Communist government in 1978 and 1979 — have resurfaced, cataloged in records released in September.
The so-called death lists were originally compiled by the Afghan government. They languished, unreleased, for decades, until unearthed by Dutch investigators and published on the Web site of the Netherlands national prosecutor’s office.
The Afghan government’s reaction to the release of the lists was initially cautious, and President Hamid Karzai was quoted as saying that reconciliation was more important than prosecutions.
It is a sensitive issue in Afghanistan, and not just because so many former Communist officials now hold high positions in government, especially in the military and police hierarchies. Calls to prosecute old Communists inevitably lead to calls to prosecute all those who came after them and committed massacres of their own during the three decades of conflict that followed.
But as word spread among thousands of relatives of the victims, the death lists went viral, lighting up social media among a younger generation, and bringing calls from older people for prosecutions. Finally, pressed by Sima Samar, the head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, President Karzai declared Monday and Tuesday national days of mourning.
Mosques in Kabul and throughout the country were thronged with mourners for the victims on Monday, and many memorials were planned in rural villages that were particularly hard hit by the wave of torture and killings carried out by Afghanistan’s intelligence service at the time.
Just in the village of Gul Qala, in Kabul Province, 25 people were on the newly released lists. They were all relatives of Mualavi Abdul Aziz Mujahid, a former jihadi commander and a politician; they included uncles, cousins and in-laws.
At the time, Mr. Mujahid was 10 and knew little of the ferment around him, until he saw an older cousin, a religious scholar and a farmer named Shah Dahla, arrested by plainclothes agents.
Mr. Dahla had just returned from the muddy fields, barefoot, and the agents refused to allow him a moment to rinse off his feet and put his sandals on.
The memory reduces Mr. Mujahid to tears 34 years later.
“Over the years, I have seen a lot of dead bodies in a lot of battles,” he said. He later fought the Communist government, the Soviets and then other jihadis in the civil war, and finally the Taliban. “But this person’s innocence hurts me deeply.”
Mr. Dahla’s son, Mohammada Jan, said his mother and his siblings never fully accepted that their father was dead, though they suspected it. “Even so, when we found out from the Internet that it was confirmed, everyone cried,” he said. Mr. Jan was 15 at the time of his father’s disappearance; he, too, choked up at the memory of his being taken away unshod.
The death lists include victims’ names, dates of death, father’s name, occupation, hometown and the charges against them — usually reduced to one word, including “anarchist,” “fundamentalist,” “Maoist,” “Khomeini.”
The chain of events that led to the lists’ discovery began with an asylum request by Amanullah Osman, the head of interrogation for Afghan intelligence in 1978 and 1979, who fled to the Netherlands in 1993. In his asylum interview, according to the prosecutor’s office, Mr. Osman admitted to signing documents concerning people who were to be executed. “That was expected and desired of me,” he said. “If you don’t go along with it, you can never attain such a high position.”
The Dutch denied him asylum but never expelled him, and eventually opened up a war crimes investigation. That led them to a 93-year-old Afghan refugee in Germany who gave them the death lists, which she had gotten from a former United Nations official, Felix Ermacora, who had never released them. Dutch authorities said they were confident of the lists’ authenticity.
The prosecution was dropped in 2012 when Mr. Osman died, and the Dutch decided to release the lists. “The close relatives of the deceased in this case have the right to know the truth about the circumstances of the disappearance and the final fate of their loved ones,” the prosecutor’s office said.
The overwhelming public response in Afghanistan has forced the government to make some acknowledgment, said Ahmad Nader Nadery, a former member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the author of a still-unreleased report on mass graves throughout Afghanistan. But he added that the lists had stirred a fresh wave of concerns among officials.
“The government was afraid as always that this was the beginning of a process, and it will not stop just in this era of the Communists,” Mr. Nadery said. “Those in the government were also involved in the ’90s, and the Taliban also committed similar atrocities.”
One particular target of popular anger is Assadullah Sarwari, Mr. Osman’s boss at the Afghan intelligence agency in 1979, who was initially sentenced to death but later had his sentence reduced to a 19-year prison term.
Shalizai Didar, a former governor of Kunar Province, said 11 people from his family were on the lists, along with 100 people he knows. “We demand from the government to execute Assadullah Sarwari — not only him but also his colleagues.”
Another former official who is frequently mentioned is retired Gen. Abdul Wahid Taqat, who headed the intelligence services under the last Afghan Communist government. General Taqat called the publication of the lists a plot against him to thwart his own presidential aspirations.
“I am ready to answer for our part, but how about thousands of others who were killed,” Mr. Taqat said. “It is not only the Communists, but dozens of Afghan leaders have killed innocent people for the sake of their Russian and British bosses. If those leaders can be prosecuted, then I am ready to be prosecuted as well.”
Mr. Mujahid, the former jihadi commander, said he would like to see them all brought to court — including some of his contemporaries, jihadi leaders who fought the civil war that followed the Communists and brought in the Taliban.
“They should all be prosecuted, no exceptions,” he said. “In the name of democracy, Taqat and all those people are just walking free.”
Sharifullah Sahak and Jawad Sukhanyar contributed reporting.
September 30, 2013
Powerful North Indian Politician Is Convicted of Siphoning Funds
By HARI KUMAR
NEW DELHI — A longtime political heavyweight from northern India, Lalu Prasad, was found guilty on Monday of participating in a scheme that siphoned off public money for more than a decade, ending a trial that was seen as a watershed in India’s struggle with corruption.
Mr. Prasad, 65, was India’s railway minister from 2004 to 2009 and chief minister of Bihar from 1990 to 1997, presiding over a state so mired in corruption and poverty that it became known as the Jungle Raj. Despite a poor record, Mr. Prasad was re-elected once, and when a corruption scandal forced him to step aside in 1997, he appointed his wife as his stand-in; she too won re-election.
Along with Mr. Prasad, scores of Bihar officials were found guilty on Monday in the case, known as the Fodder Scam because it concerned the diversion of public funds meant to support animal husbandry.
Though Mr. Prasad’s party, Rashtriya Janata Dal, finally lost control of Bihar in the election of 2005, it still has four seats in the national Parliament, one held by Mr. Prasad, and he maintains an alliance with the national ruling party, the Indian National Congress, and with its leader, Sonia Gandhi.
Under a recent Supreme Court order, Mr. Prasad will not be allowed to remain in office if he is given a sentence of more than two years. When the Congress party recently introduced a proposal to allow convicted lawmakers to stay in office, many suspected that the move was prompted by his case. But with India’s electorate increasingly frustrated over a series of corruption cases, the party’s proposal has come under harsh criticism, and Rahul Gandhi, Congress’s vice president, made a statement last week rejecting the measure as “nonsense,” leading to speculation that the government might withdraw it.
Under Mr. Prasad’s leadership, Bihar was home to some of India’s sickest, poorest and shortest-lived people. A populist from one of India’s lower castes, Mr. Prasad was widely credited with infusing Bihar’s lower castes with political power, and with cracking down on religious violence in the state, which won him the loyalty of many Muslims there.
He was eventually dislodged by another lower-caste politician, Nitish Kumar, who forged an alliance between the lowest of the Dalits, or untouchables, and wealthy upper castes in Bihar.
A spokesman for Bharatiya Janata, the main opposition party, celebrated the verdict against Mr. Prasad on Monday, calling it “a justice day for Bihar and justice day for India against corrupt politicians.”
Ellen Barry contributed reporting.
Bangladesh politician sentenced to death for war crimes
Salauddin Quader Chowdhury found guilty of ordering killing of at least 200 people during 1971 independence war
Associated Press in Dhaka
theguardian.com, Tuesday 1 October 2013 09.48 BST
A special war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh has ruled that a senior member of the main opposition party should be put to death for his involvement in the killing of hundreds of people during the county's independence fight against Pakistan in 1971.
The verdict against Salauddin Quader Chowdhury came in a packed courtroom amid tight security in the capital, Dhaka. Fearing a backlash from Bangladesh Nationalist party supporters, authorities deployed paramilitary forces in south-eastern Chittagong district, where Chowdhury was elected to parliament six times.
The attorney general, Mahbubey Alam, said Chowdhury had been convicted on nine of 23 charges, including four counts of genocide. Chowdhury was found guilty of aiding and ordering the killing of at least 200 people, mostly minority Hindus, in Chittagong.
During the war Chowdhury's father was an influential politician of the Muslim League party, which worked to prevent Bangladesh from breaking away from Pakistan.
"I think this is a fair trial," Alam said. "We are happy."
Chowdhury's wife, Farhat Quader Chowdhury, told reporters immediately after the verdict that her husband would appeal. "We will do whatever we need to do to show the world that this is a farce," she said.
Bangladesh says Pakistani soldiers, aided by local collaborators, killed three million people and raped 200,000 women during the nine-month war that ended in December 1971. The prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, set up the tribunal in 2010 to punish the alleged collaborators.
The opposition, led by the former prime minister Khaleda Zia, has criticised the trials as an attempt to weaken the Bangladesh Nationalist party and its allies.
Six people have already been convicted of war crimes by the tribunal. Four of them are leading officials of the country's main Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami, while one is a former party chief and another is an expelled member of the party. Those verdicts sparked widespread violence.
Jamaat-e-Islami is the main political ally of Zia's party and will contest the next general elections under a Zia-led alliance. Jamaat-e-Islami shared two posts in the cabinet during Zia's latest premiership, in 2001-2006.
Human Rights Watch criticised the conduct of the tribunals, saying they were not up to international standards.
Hasina's government denies that the tribunal is biased. It points out that it pledged before the 2008 elections to prosecute those responsible for war crimes and that its 14-party political alliance won that election with a two-thirds majority.
Sri Lanka foreign minister denies Tamil abuses
GL Peiris says government has no case to answer over the reported deaths of thousands of civilians at the end of the war
Associated Press in New York
theguardian.com, Tuesday 1 October 2013 08.27 BST
Sri Lanka's foreign minister says his government has no case to answer over the reported deaths of thousands of civilians at the end of the country's civil war, even as pressure grows for an international inquiry to account for the dead.
The UN's top human rights official said last week Sri Lanka needed to show progress by next March or the international community should establish its own inquiry. The allegations centre on civilian casualties and summary executions in the final months of the quarter-century conflict that ended in 2009, when government forces crushed Tamil rebels.
Speaking on the sidelines of the UN general assembly on Monday, the foreign minister, GL Peiris, defended the government's efforts in investigating reported abuses by security forces, and said a commission of inquiry appointed by Sri Lanka's president in August to investigate disappearances would report back after six months.
"Sri Lanka is not stalling," Peiris said.
He contended that the Geneva-based UN human rights council and western nations were discriminating unfairly against Sri Lanka as a result of disinformation circulated by Tamil separatists overseas, and were demanding quicker action on accountability than they had of other countries that had been through tumultuous conflicts, such as the former Yugoslavia and Cambodia.
"In no other post-conflict situation has there been this intensity of pressure in such a short period of time," he said.
A panel of experts appointed by the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, reported in 2011 that as many as 40,000 civilians were killed in the final five months of the war, a figure Peiris dismissed as pure conjecture. The experts concluded most died as a result of indiscriminate shelling by the Sri Lankan military as it closed in on the Tamil Tigers, who had fought for an ethnic homeland in the north of the island. The government has estimated about 9,000 people died during that time.
Peiris said as the war neared its end, the British and French foreign ministers had urged President Mahinda Rajapaksa to halt the offensive against the rebels because of concerns for an estimated 300,000 Tamil civilians. Peiris said the Tamils had been used as human shields, and the Tigers had gunned down those who sought safety on the government side, so the president decided to press on.
"If he had called it off, the war would still be going on. How many thousands more would have been killed? That's the situation. You ask me if that's a case to answer. I tell you, categorically not," Peiris said.
After international pressure, Sri Lanka conducted its own review of the war that essentially cleared government forces of wrongdoing although it did highlight evidence of possible military abuses that warranted further investigation.
Peiris, a lawyer, pointed to the indictments of 12 members of an elite police unit in connection with the 2006 deaths of five Tamil students in the coastal town of Trincomalee as a sign of the government's willingness to act when there was adequate evidence to prosecute a case.
But a US-backed resolution at the UN human rights council this March "encouraged" Sri Lanka to more thoroughly investigate alleged war crimes committed by both sides in the conflict. And the diplomatic pressure is likely to increase after the UN human rights commissioner, Navi Pillay, said last week that without tangible results by March 2014, including prosecution of perpetrators, "the international community will have a duty to establish its own inquiry mechanisms".
Pillay's statement followed an acrimonious visit to Sri Lanka, during which several top government officials accused her of bias in favour of Tamil separatists. Pillay is a South African of Indian Tamil origin. Her spokesman accused the officials of an "extraordinary array of distortion and abuse".
Peiris joined in criticising Pillay, saying her remarks that Rajapaksa's government was heading "in an increasingly authoritarian direction" amounted to political interference. He also complained that Sri Lanka did not get credit for its "singular achievement" of eradicating the threat of terrorism and bringing peace.
Since the war ended, Rajapaksa has accumulated growing authority. Term limits for the presidency have been abolished, and he has greater control over appointments of judiciary, police and elections officials. The controversial impeachment in January of the chief justice raised further questions about separation of powers.
Two of the president's brothers are powerful cabinet ministers. Another is parliamentary speaker.
The government recently won international praise for staging provincial council elections in northern Sri Lanka won by a Tamil party – a step toward devolving power. Peiris said it showed Rajapaksa was not authoritarian.