Sunday, June 21, 2009

IRAN,At least 24 reporters arrested in Iran since election

PARIS — Iranian authorities have arrested at least 24 journalists and bloggers since postelection protests began a week ago, and a media watchdog says reporters are a "priority target" for Iran's leadership.
Among those detained were the head of the Association of Iranian Journalists and a Canadian reporter for Newsweek. The British Broadcasting Corporation's correspondent has been ordered to leave the country.

"It's becoming more and more problematic for journalists," said Benoit Hervieu of Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, also known by its French acronym RSF.

The group released the names of 23 Iranian journalists, editors and bloggers arrested since June 14, and says it has lost contact with several others believed detained or in hiding. Hervieu said RSF verified each arrest via its network of reporters and activists in Iran.

Newsweek said in a statement later that its correspondent Maziar Bahari, a Canadian citizen, was detained without charge Sunday morning and has not been heard from since. Newsweek defended his coverage of Iran as "fair and nuanced" and called for his release.

In most cases, the reasons behind the detentions remain unclear.

Iran's authorities have long kept a close eye on local and international media operating in the country, and clamped down as protests engulfed Tehran last week over the June 12 presidential election, the biggest challenge to the cleric-led government in 30 years. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the landslide winner, but supporters of reformist challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi say fraud was widespread.

Authorities have banned foreign media from reporting from the street and allow only phone interviews and information from officials sources such as state TV. Many websites have been blocked. Iran is particularly sensitive about news reports, blogs and Internet reports in Farsi.

"The regime has been visibly shaken by its own population and does not want to let this perception endure," RSF said in a statement.

The BBC's Jon Leyne has been ordered to leave the country, a BBC spokesman said on condition of anonymity in line with company policy.

The Fars news agency said Sunday that Leyne will have to leave Iran within 24 hours, and that Iranian officials have accused him of "dispatching fabricated news and reports, ignoring neutrality in news, supporting rioters and trampling the Iranian nation's rights."

Ali Mazroui, the head of the Association of Iranian Journalists, was arrested Sunday morning, RSF said. Overnight, husband-and-wife Bahaman Ahamadi Amoee and Jila Baniyaghoob were arrested by plainclothes officers who searched their home, RSF said.

Baniyaghoob edits a news website that focuses on women's rights, and her husband writes for various pro-reform publications.

Others detained include a blogger known as the "Blogging Mullah," a cartoonist, a TV producer, the publisher of several newspapers, a disabled former newspaper editor and a business reporter.

Nakhle Elhage, news director at Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television network, said authorities told them their activities have been suspended until further notice but did not ask their resident correspondent Diaa al-Nasseri — an Iraqi — to leave.

Last Sunday, Al Arabiya in Tehran was told by the authorities to suspend their activities for one week.

RSF says that, even before the election, Iran held more journalists and cyber-dissidents in jails than any other country in the Middle East.

Hervieu said blogs, Twitter, YouTube and other Internet methods are the only way most people can convey information from the street. But the use of anonymity by blog posters trying to avoid repercussions makes information difficult to verify.

Many of those posting "are both spectators and activists," blurring lines of impartiality, he said.

He said small digital cameras passed from activist to activist and then to a foreign colleague or news organization are helping spread images, though their provenance is not always clear.

He noted the example of the much-viewed amateur video on YouTube, showing dozens of Iranians running down a street and shouting "Allahu Akbar" after police fired tear gas.

AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said last week that, when controls are imposed, "we work with those restrictions, keeping in mind our ultimate goal is to be able to do our jobs as journalists," she said.

Reporters were also restricted during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which saw the installation of the Islamic regime in power today.

Pakistani aircraft hit militants near Afghan border

WANA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Pakistani forces used aircraft and artillery on Sunday as they stepped up an assault aimed at eliminating Pakistani Taliban commander Baituallah Mehsud.

Security forces have secured much of the scenic Swat Valley, northwest of Islamabad, in the past six weeks and the military plans to extend its offensive to al Qaeda ally Mehsud, holed up in the South Waziristan region near the Afghan border.

The military action came after Taliban gains raised fears for the future of nuclear-armed Pakistan, a vital ally for the United States as it strives to defeat al Qaeda and stabilize Afghanistan.

A full-scale offensive has not yet begun in South Waziristan but fighter jets have been attacking Mehsud's positions in recent days, and did so again on Sunday.

"It's very scary. Jets have carried out heavy bombing. I saw billows of smoke and dust coming from houses that were hit," Jahangir Barki, a residents of Wana, South Waziristan's main town, told Reuters.

Security forces also fired artillery at an office of a top militant commander allied with Mehsud, Maulvi Nazir, residents said. The commander was not there at the time, they said.

The military has said it is trying to clear militants from a stretch of the main road linking Wana with North West Frontier Province.

Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding out in a militant enclave somewhere in the ungoverned ethnic Pashtun tribal lands along the Afghan border.


The top government official in Swat, which is not on the Afghan border but in North West Frontier Province, said electricity and gas had been restored in many areas and residents who had fled from the fighting could soon come home.

"Hopefully, we'll be receiving our people from June 25 as things are in place in some areas. Other areas will get power and gas as soon as they're cleared by security forces," Khushal Khan, the top government official in the valley, told Reuters.

The military reported sporadic clashes in some parts of Swat on Sunday and said seven militants had been killed in the latest violence.

More than 1,300 militants have been killed in the fighting in Swat and neighboring districts since early May, according to the military. Independent casualty estimates are not available.

Nearly 2 million people have fled fighting in the northwest which intensified in late April when the army moved to push the Taliban out of Buner district, 100 km (60 miles) from Islamabad, before launching an offensive in Swat.

Thousands of people have been returning to Buner since the government announced last Friday it was now safe for people to go home.

Most of Pakistan's political parties and members of the public support the offensive against the Taliban but the government risks seeing that backing disappear if the people displaced by the fighting are seen to suffer.

A government official in the Bajaur region, another militant enclave on the Afghan border, to the north of the city of Peshawar, said three militant hideouts had been destroyed in bombing by aircraft there on Sunday.

The official, Saad Ghulam, said authorities did not have information about casualties.

Riot police out in force in Tehran

TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- As thousands of riot police and militia lined Tehran's streets Sunday, the public rift among Iranian leaders appeared to be widening.The country's foreign minister disputed allegations of ballot irregularities in Iran's disputed presidential election, and the parliamentary speaker implied the nation's election authorities had sided with one candidate.Amateur video showed large crowds marching down a major Tehran thoroughfare shouting, "Don't be afraid, we're together!" and "Death to dictator!" The person who shot the video said it was taken Sunday, but CNN could not immediately verify that the protest had taken place.Eyewitnesses reported a protest also took place at Southern Tehran's Azad University, where final exams were postponed after about 200 students refused to take them.Thousands of riot police and members of the Basij militia lined the streets of the city, according to eyewitnesses. Security personnel surrounded the headquarters of the country's state television and radio. Many shops were closed, and shopkeepers whose stores were open said they planned to close early Sunday. However, no tanks were seen on the city's streets. Traffic was light. A statement purportedly from opposition leader Mir Hossein Moussavi on Sunday called on Iranians to "exercise self control" during protests in Tehran, while still supporting their right to demonstrate against the government and the results of the disputed June 12 presidential election.
"The country belongs to you. The revolution and the system is your heritage," the statement attributed to Moussavi said in a statement posted on his Web site. "Protesting against lies and cheating is your right. Be hopeful about regaining your rights. Do not allow anyone who tries to make you lose hope and frighten you make you lose your temper."The authenticity of the message could not be verified; it was posted in Farsi and translated by CNN.The message came a day after hospital sources said 19 people were killed in clashes between anti-government protesters and police. Unconfirmed reports put the death toll as high as 150. "The sad news of the martyrdom of another group who protested the results of the elections has caused our society astonishment and our people mourn them," said the statement attributed to Moussavi. "Firing on people, militarization of the city's atmosphere, threats, agitations and show of force are all the illegitimate children of law breaking and we are facing all of that. It is a wonder that the perpetrators accuse others of breaking the law for expressing their opinions.Police have not been given permission to use firearms in confronting protesters, Tehran Police Chief Azizollah Rajabpour told Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency. Police have not used firearms on the public, he said. Allegations to the contrary are false and "spread by those who want to muddy the waters," the agency reported.News coverage in Iran has been limited by government restrictions on international journalists. On Sunday, the BBC said Iran had expelled Jon Leyne, the British network's permanent correspondent in Tehran. And Al-Arabiya, a Dubai-based Arab satellite network, said its Tehran bureau was ordered closed.Government-funded Press TV confirmed 13 fatalities Saturday, saying the deaths resulted from police clashes with "terrorist groups" in Tehran. But the station did not say whether all the deaths took place Saturday or spanned the length of the weeklong protests.Videos posted on social networking Web sites depicted tense scenes and chaos Saturday, and one graphic video that captured the death of a young woman became the iconic symbol of a brutal day. But like most of the information coming out of Tehran, it is impossible to verify her name -- Neda -- or the circumstances of her apparent death.Press TV also reported Sunday that five relatives of former President Ali Akhar Hashemi Rafsanjani were arrested for "alleged involvement in post-election incidents ... taking part in unauthorized protests in central Tehran ... they are accused of provoking riots."All but Faezeh Rafsanjani, the former president's daughter, were later released, Press TV said. The woman's brother said she was arrested while taking part in a protest.The older Rafsanjani is chairman of the Assembly of Experts, which is responsible for appointing or removing the supreme leader. He is a supporter of Moussavi, while Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remained staunch in his defense of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.A spokesman for the Guardian Council, Iran's election authority, told state television that Wednesday is the last day it can recount the votes disputed by candidates. The council earlier had said it received more than 600 complaints of irregularities from the three candidates.Only Mohsen Rezaie has identified those boxes he wants recounted, said council spokesman Ali Kadkhodaie. Mehdi Karrubi and Moussavi have not, but there is still time for them to do so, he said. No recounting is allowed after Wednesday by law, he said.Followers of Moussavi have alleged that the council -- which approves all candidates running for office and verifies election results -- declared hard-line incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner of the elections despite indications of ballot fraud. Both Karrubi and Moussavi rejected the June 12 election as fraudulent and demanded a new one.Meanwhile, prominent figures, many of whom were part of Iran's Islamic rvolution 30 years ago, issued conflicting statements, a sign that Iran's leadership was far from unified.The foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said Sunday an investigation into claims of fraud in the election will be announced by week's end.But speaking to foreign diplomats in Tehran, he called the possibility of irregularities almost nonexistent."The possibility of organized and comprehensive disruption and irregularities in this election is almost close to zero given the composition of the people who are holding the election," Mottaki said.On the other hand, Iran's influential parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani implicated the same people -- the Guardian Council -- of siding with one candidate.
"Although the Guardian Council is made up of religious individuals, I wish certain members would not side with a certain presidential candidate," Larijani told the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) on Saturday, without naming whom he meant.The comments were reported on Press TV and on another news Web site, Khabaronline, Sunday.Larijani's statement was in direct contrast to that of Khamenei.
Khamenei, in a sermon Friday, declared the elections a "definitive victory" for Ahmadinejad and rejected charges of vote rigging.
"A majority of people are of an opinion separate" from that of a minority, Larijani said.While Larijani and Ahmadinejad have had a tense relationship in the past, Larijani is seen as being aligned with Khamenei. For him to directly contradict the leader's statement amounts to another example of the growing disagreement among ruling conservatives.
Meanwhile, former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, in an open letter posted on his Web site, said, "the presence of the people is one of the achievements of the revolution and must be respected."
"Sensational and insulting propaganda against the people, who have always acted independently, and insinuating that their healthy movement is directed by foreigners is itself a sign of the implementation of faulty policies which will widen the gap between the people and the government," Khatami wrote.
The election and the subsequent clashes in Iran were the subject of protests in some U.S. cities Sunday.
In Washington, roughly 400 Iranian-Americans gathered in front of the Iranian Interests Section on Sunday to protest the disputed election.

The protesters, dressed in the colors of the Iranian flag, waved signs and chanted slogans such as, "Down with the dictator," "Democracy for Iran," and "Where's my vote?" Some carried signs with images of injured and bleeding Iranian protesters.

Protests also were held in Los Angeles and New York.

President announces cash award

ISLAMABAD: President Asif Ali Zardari congratulated the national cricket team on Sunday for winning the T20 World Cup in London and announced an award of Rs1 million each for Captain Younus Khan and Man of the Match Shahid Afridi and Rs500,000 each for other players.

Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said the award would be given from the president’s discretionary fund.In messages sent from Naudero to the captain and manager of the team, the president termed the victory one of the most magnificent moments in the history of national cricket.

‘That our team is wearing this crown on the 56th birth anniversary of Shaheed Mohtarma Bhutto has made it even more magnificent,’ he said.

The President said the superb teamwork had made the victory possible and the nation would savour it for a long time. He asked the captain to convey his felicitations to all members of the team.

Pakistan wins Twenty20 World Cup

ISLAMABAD -- Thousands of fans have taken to the streets across Pakistan to celebrate their country's eight-wicket victory over Sri Lanka in the Twenty20 World Cup final.

The rejoicing started as batsman Shahid Afridi steered Pakistan to the title with an unbeaten 54 off 40 balls, with his team chasing down the target of 139 runs in 18.4 overs.

Captain Kumar Sangakkara scored an unbeaten 64 off 52 balls and helped Sri Lanka recover from 70-6 to finish with 138-6 off its 20 overs.

Giant screens were put in place in the main markets of Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad and Multan where thousands of men, women and children gathered to watch the final live from Lord's in London.People of Pakistan including Karachi started fire crackers, danced on streets and distributed sweets as Pakistan cricket team made the country proud by winning the Twenty20 World Cup after outclassing Sri Lanka in the final.

President Asif Ali Zardari on Sunday felicitated the nation on Pakistan glorious victory in the ICC World Twenty 20 Cup final against Sri Lanka at Lords.

The President in a message to the captain of Pakistani team, Yunus Khan congratulated him as well as the whole team and management for bringing laurels and pride to the country.

The victory provided many back home with a welcome lift, given the Pakistan army's fight against militant Taliban fighters.

Tehran Tense in the Wake of Violent Clashes

TEHRAN — Hours after police and militia forces used guns, truncheons, tear gas and water cannons to beat back thousands of demonstrators, a tense quiet set over this city Sunday as amateur video continued to emerge of the violent clashes that filled the streets the day before.

It was unclear how the confrontation would play out now that the government has abandoned its restraint and large numbers of protestors have demonstrated their willingness to risk injury and even death as they continue to dispute the results of Iran’s presidential election nine days ago.

There was uncertainty as well about how many deaths resulted from Saturday’s violence. Witnesses and human rights groups reported at least several deaths. Iranian state radio reported that there were 19 deaths, and Iran state television reported 13.

There was no sign on the streets Sunday morning of the heavy security forces from the night before, but there were reports that protestors planned to demonstrate again later in the day, beginning at about 5 p.m., giving both sides time to regroup, or reconsider.

In Washington on Saturday, President Obama called the government’s reaction “violent and unjust,” and, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., warned again that the world was watching what happened in Tehran.

The Iranian government continued its efforts to block all coverage of events here, but information began to trickle out from eyewitnesses and on social networking sites. The most vivid image to emerge was contained in a video posted on several Web sites that showed a young woman with her face covered in blood. Text posted with the video said she had been shot. It was impossible to verify the authenticity of the video.

A group called The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran reported on its Web site that injured protestors were being arrested as they sought medical treatment at hospitals. The group said that doctors had been ordered to report protest-related injuries to the authorities.

Since the crisis broke open with massive streets protests the last several days, the government has been arresting reformers, intellectuals and nearly anyone who promoted reform ideas or challenged the leadership’s version of events.

On Sunday, two Web sites reported that the government had arrested several members of the family of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president who heads two influential councils in Iran. Mr. Rafsanjani, one of the fathers of the revolution, has been locked in a power struggle with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and worked closely with the reform movement during the presidential election. The posting on the Web sites, one associated with the reform movement and another with Mr. Rafsanjani’s family, could not be independently verified, but if true the arrests would represent an escalation of the government’s crackdown against the protest movement.

One of the Web sites said those arrested included Mr. Rafsanjani’s daughter, Faezeh Hashemi, and her daughter, and that they were accused of provoking people.

The relative calm Sunday morning followed a day of violent clashes unfolded on a day of extraordinary tension across Iran. The opposition leader, Mir Hussein Moussavi, appeared at a demonstration in southern Tehran and called for a general strike if he were to be arrested. “I am ready for martyrdom,” he told supporters.

Mr. Moussavi again called for nullifying the election’s results, and opposition protesters swore to continue pressing their claims of a stolen election against Iran’s embattled and increasingly impatient clerical leadership in Iran’s worst crisis since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. On Friday, Ayatollah Khamenei, reaffirmed the election results as valid and said there would be “bloodshed” if street protests continued.

In an interview broadcast Sunday on Iranian television, Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki said that officials were examining the charge of voting fraud and expected to issue their findings by the end of the week. But like Ayatollah Khamenei, Mr. Mottaki appeared to have already judged the vote as clean and fair. He said the "possibility of organized and comprehensive disruption and irregularities in the election , is almost close to zero," in remarks translated by Iran’s English-language Press TV.

Iran’s divisions played out on the streets. Regular security forces stood back and urged protesters to go home to avoid bloodshed, while the feared pro-government militia, the Basij, beat protesters with clubs and, witnesses said, electric prods.

In some places, the protesters pushed back, rushing the militia in teams of hundreds: At least three Basijis were pitched from their motorcycles, which were then set on fire. The protesters included many women, some of whom berated as “cowards” men who fled the Basijis. There appeared to be tens of thousands of protesters in Tehran, far fewer than the mass demonstrations early last week, most likely because of intimidation.

The street violence appeared to grow more intense as night fell, and there were unconfirmed reports of multiple deaths. A BBC journalist at Enghelab (Revolution) Square reported seeing one person shot by the security forces. “If they open fire on people and if there is bloodshed, people will get angrier,” said a protester, Ali, 40. “They are out of their minds if they think with bloodshed they can crush the movement.”

Separately, state-run media reported that three people were wounded Saturday when a suicide bomber attacked at the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the southern part of the city, several miles from the scheduled protests. The report of the blast could not be independently confirmed.

Mr. Obama’s statement was his strongest to date on the post-election turmoil in Iran. Saying that “each and every innocent life” lost would be mourned, he added: “Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.

“Martin Luther King once said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ I believe that. The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian people’s belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.”

Journalists were banned from leaving their offices to report on the protests. A reporter from an American news organization said she had been called by a member of the Basij militia warning her not to go to the venue for the Saturday rally because the situation would be dangerous and there could be fatalities.

Witnesses said that Mohammad Ghoochani, a prominent journalist and editor in chief of several reformist publications that had been shut down, was arrested Saturday by the authorities. There were no further details of his condition or location.

The authorities were also reported on Saturday to have renewed an offer of a partial recount of the ballots in the disputed election — an offer that the opposition has previously rejected. A letter from Mr. Moussavi published on one of his Web sites late Saturday repeated his demand for the election to be annulled.

“The Iranian nation will not believe this unjust and illegal” act, he said in the letter, which was addressed to the powerful Guardian Council, a panel of clerics which oversees and certifies election results. Making his case for electoral fraud, he charged that thousands of his representatives had been expelled from polling stations and some mobile polling stations had ballot boxes filled with fake ballots.

Regional analysts said that, by calling for an end to the rallies and promising the use of force, Ayatollah Khamenei had inserted himself directly into the confrontation, invoking his own prestige and that of Iran’s clerical leaders. But his speech also laid the groundwork to suppress the opposition movement with a harder hand, characterizing any further protests as being against the Islamic republic itself.

Iran’s National Security Council reinforced Ayatollah Khamenei’s warning on Saturday, state media reported, telling Mr. Moussavi to “refrain from provoking illegal rallies.”

The demand came in a letter from the head of the council after a formal complaint by Mr. Moussavi that law enforcement agencies had failed to protect protesters.

“It is your duty not to incite and invite the public to illegal gatherings; otherwise, you will be responsible for its consequences,” the letter said, according to state media.

Amateur video posted to the Web since Saturday afternoon showed scenes of chaos and gunfire, some of it as vividly violent as in the clashes on Monday that left at least seven people dead. One video posted on the BBC Farsi service showed streets on fire and a large crowd fleeing amid several rounds of semiautomatic gunfire. A photo showed the riot police repelling demonstrators with a hand-held water cannon.

The Basij militia completely blocked off Enghelab Square, one major gathering ground for the protesters. They are less accountable than regular security forces and, many witnesses said, were far more violent on Saturday.

“Please go home,” one regular officer told protesters. “We are scared of the Basijis, too.”

One woman who lives off Vali Asr Square, near where the protests took place, said Basijis beat and kicked anyone outside, shouting at them to return to their houses.

“The streets near our house were full of Basijis wearing helmets and holding batons,” she said.

The government warned that it would step up the pressure on the opposition from its regular security forces if it continued to stage demonstrations.

“We acted with leniency, but I think from today on, we should resume law and confront more seriously,” Gen. Esmaeil Ahmadi Moghadam said on state television. “The events have become exhausting, bothersome and intolerable. I want them to take the police cautions seriously because we will definitely show a serious confrontation against those who violate rules.”

In a measure of the scale of the opposition’s complaints, one losing candidate in the June 12 election, Mohsen Rezai, a conservative former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, claimed to have won between 3.5 million and 7 million votes compared with the 680,000 accorded to him in the first announcement of results a week ago, state-run Press TV reported Saturday.

The authorities had also invited the three opposition candidates to attend a meeting on Saturday with the 12-member Guardian Council, the panel of clerics which oversees and certifies election results. But only one candidate — Mr. Rezai — attended, Press TV said.

Beat extremists you can, says Obama

WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama, in an exclusive interview to Dawn, has said that he believes the Pakistani state is strong enough to win the military offensive against the extremists.

In this first-ever one-on-one interview by any US president to the Pakistani media, Mr Obama assured the Pakistani nation that he has no desire to seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons or send US troops inside the country.

The US president also emphasised the need for resuming the dialogue process between India and Pakistan, which was stalled after the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November last year.

The interview covered a wide-range of subjects — from the controversy involving the Iranian presidential election to Mr Obama’s speech in Cairo earlier this month in which he called for a new beginning between the Muslim and the Western worlds.

The venue, the White House diplomatic room with murals of early settlers, brought out the importance of Mr Obama’s historic victory in last year’s general election.

Close to the murals — under the watchful eyes of George Washington — sat a man who overcame gigantic hurdles to become America’s first non-White president.

Here was a man tasked with finding a graceful end to two unpopular wars — in Iraq and Afghanistan — and to steer America, and the rest of the world, out of an unprecedented economic crisis.

Yet, when he strolled into this oval-shaped room, Mr Obama seemed completely at ease with himself. Tall and slim, the 47-year-old US president had the youngish looks of a man who works out daily.

He walked straight towards the camera, greeting everyone, shook hands, occupied the chair reserved for him, and started talking about how he had a special affection for Pakistan and its people.

Asked to comment on Ayatollah Khamenei’s statement that the US was interfering in Iran’s internal affairs, Mr Obama said what’s happening in Iran was remarkable. ‘To see hundreds of thousands of people in peaceful protest against an election that obviously raised a lot of doubts tells us that this is an issue that the Iranian people care deeply about.’

The US and the West, he said, had been very clear that this was not an issue between the West and Iran; this was an issue about the Iranian people seeking justice and wanting to make sure that their voices were heard.

‘And it’s unfortunate that there are some inside Iran and inside that government that want to use the West and the United States as an excuse,’ he said.

‘We respect Iran’s sovereignty, but we also are witnessing peaceful demonstrations, people expressing themselves, and I stand for that universal principle that people should have a voice in their own lives and their own destiny. And I hope that the international community recognises that we need to stand behind peaceful protests and be opposed to violence or repression.’

Mr Obama said that since there were no international observers in Iran, he could not say if the elections were fair or unfair. ‘But beyond the election, what’s clear is that the Iranian people are wanting to express themselves. And it is critical, as they seek justice and they seek an opportunity to express themselves, that that’s respected and not met with violence.’

‘Your speech in Cairo indeed was a speech that created a lot of stir, both in the US and in the Muslim world. Was it the beginning of something bigger to come, or was it just a one-off thing? He was asked.

‘No, I think that this is going to be a sustained process. As I said in Cairo, one speech is not going to transform policies and relationships throughout the Middle East or throughout the world,’ Mr Obama responded.

‘But what I wanted to do was to describe very clearly that the United States not only respects Muslim communities around the world but that there’s an opportunity for I think a new day, where there’s mutual understanding, mutual tolerance; where the United States is seen as somebody who stands with people in their daily aspirations for an education for their children, for good jobs, for economic development,’ he said.

‘And just as the United States at times has, I think, not fully understood what’s happening in Muslim communities, sometimes there have been countries that haven’t understood the rich history of Muslims in America,’ he added.

‘As I mentioned in that speech, it was Morocco that was the first nation to recognise the United States. We have Muslim Americans who are doing extraordinary things. In fact, their educational attainment and income is generally above the average here in the United States. We have Muslim members of Congress. And, in fact, we have 5 million Muslims, which would make us larger than many other countries that consider themselves Muslim countries.’

Mr Obama then explained how he plans to further expand the peace process he introduced in Cairo.

‘So what we want to do is just begin to open up a dialogue around which we can constructively work together to deal with significant issues,’ he said, acknowledging that ‘part one of those issues is the issue of the Middle East.’

Mr Obama explained that he has been ‘very aggressive’ in saying that Israelis and Palestinians have to resolve their differences and create two states that can live side by side in peace and security.

He said he also has put forward a special envoy, George Mitchell, a former majority leader of the US Senate, to work with the parties involved.

‘But part of the key is also to isolate the extremists who have been wreaking havoc around the world. And we’re seeing that now in Pakistan, and I think the Pakistani government and the people of Pakistan recognise that the kind of mindless violence that we’ve been seeing, that that cannot be the answer to long-term prosperity.’

His comments led to a larger discussion on Pakistan and the issues confronting this nation of 170 million people.

‘Some people say that it is still too early to push Pakistan into a military offensive in South Waziristan; that the Pakistan army, and the Pakistani state, is not strong enough to win this war and that it may break up the country.

What do you say?’

‘Well, let me make two points. Number one, nobody can or should push the Pakistani government. The Pakistani government is accountable to the people of Pakistan,’ said Mr Obama.

‘I think the Pakistani government and the people of Pakistan recognise that when you have extremists who are assassinating moderate clerics like Dr Naeemi, when you have explosions that are killing innocent women and children, that that can’t be the path for development and prosperity for Pakistan,’ he said.

‘And so there’s been a decision that’s made that we support, that the Pakistani military and the Pakistani government will not stand by idly as extremists attempt to disrupt the country,’ Mr Obama said.

‘But ultimately these are decisions to be made by the Pakistani government and the Pakistani people. What the United States believes is, is that we are a partner in the process of peace-loving nations seeking to root out extremism, increase development, and that is the kind of role that we want to play with Pakistan.’

‘Do you believe the Pakistani state is strong enough to win this war?’

‘I have confidence in the Pakistani people and the Pakistani state in resolving differences through a democratic process and to isolate extremists. Dating back to Jinnah, Pakistan has always had a history of overcoming difficulties. There’s no reason why it can’t overcome those difficulties today,’ Mr Obama said.

‘Going back to what we discussed about the Muslim world, there are issues that are too difficult even to discuss – for instance, the Indians don’t even want the ‘K’ word (Kashmir) to be mentioned to them. In your inaugural speech you did mention Kashmir and after that it had been absent from your statements and those of other officials in your administration. Why?’ he was asked.

‘I don’t think that we’ve been silent on the fact that India is a great friend of the United States and Pakistan is a great friend of the United States, and it always grieves us to see friends fighting. And we can’t dictate to Pakistan or India how they should resolve their differences, but we know that both countries would prosper if those differences are resolved,’ said Mr Obama.

‘And I believe that there are opportunities, maybe not starting with Kashmir but starting with other issues, that Pakistan and India can be in a dialogue together and over time to try to reduce tensions and find areas of common interest,’ he said.

‘And we want to be helpful in that process, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to be the mediators in that process. I think that this is something that the Pakistanis and Indians can take leadership on.’

Asked if he was urging India to resume bilateral talks with Pakistan, Mr Obama said: ‘Well, what we have said is that we think that all of South Asia would benefit by reduced tensions between India and Pakistan. I think that dialogue is the best way to reduce tensions.’

Mr Obama noted that recently the Indian and Pakistani leaders met at a regional conference in Russia. Although they did not hold an extensive conversation, it was the start of what may end up being more productive talks in the future.

‘Well, I won’t engage in hypotheticals like that,’ said Mr Obama when asked if the US could seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons to prevent the Taliban from capturing them. ‘I have confidence that the Pakistani government has safeguarded its nuclear arsenal. It’s Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.’

His main concern, said Mr Obama, was to make sure that the Taliban and other extremist organisations were not taking root in South Asia, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

‘And we want to partner with everybody to make sure that this cancer does not grow. One of the things that I said in my speech in Cairo is that Islam has an extraordinary tradition of tolerance and peaceful coexistence and that tradition is being distorted and being warped,’ he said.

‘We do not want to be in a position where we’re having to send troops to Afghanistan, for example. We would love the Afghans’ government to be secure and stable so that it can ensure that it does not become a safe haven for organisations like Al Qaeda,’ he said.

‘We would much prefer being a partner with countries like Afghanistan or Pakistan, and simply work together on issues of common interest like commerce and increasing trade and improving development in all countries,’ he said.

‘But it’s very difficult to do that if you have people who have distorted a great religion and are now trying to wreak havoc not only in the West but most often directed against fellow Muslims in places like Pakistan. And that is something that we will always stand against.’

Responding to a question about drone attacks inside Pakistan’s tribal zone, Mr Obama said he did not comment on specific operations.

‘But I will tell you that we have no intention of sending US troops into Pakistan. Pakistan and its military are dealing with their security issues.’

The US, he said, was focussing on helping those displaced during recent military operations.

‘Our primary goal is to be a partner and a friend to Pakistan and to allow Pakistan to thrive on its own terms, respecting its own traditions, respecting its own culture. We simply want to make sure that our common enemies, which are extremists who would kill innocent civilians, that that kind of activity is stopped, and we believe that it has to be stopped whether it’s in the United States or in Pakistan or anywhere in the world.’

‘Any plan to visit Pakistan in the near future?’

‘I would love to visit. As you know, I had Pakistani roommates in college who were very close friends of mine. I went to visit them when I was still in college; was in Karachi and went to Hyderabad. Their mothers taught me to cook,’ said Mr Obama.

‘What can you cook?’

‘Oh, keema … daal … You name it, I can cook it. And so I have a great affinity for Pakistani culture and the great Urdu poets.’

‘You read Urdu poetry?’

‘Absolutely. So my hope is that I’m going to have an opportunity at some point to visit Pakistan,’ said Mr Obama.

‘And obviously one of the things that I think ties our countries together is the extraordinary Pakistani-American community that is here in the United States who are thriving and doing great work as physicians and as lawyers and as business people. And one of the great opportunities I think for Pakistan is to be able to draw on all this talent and extraordinary entrepreneurship to help provide concrete benefits to the Pakistani people, and I think that’s one of the biggest challenges for Pakistan,’ he said.

‘We want to be a partner in opening up trade opportunities, but making sure that people on the ground, day to day, they’re getting an education, children are going to school, that farmers are able to get a decent compensation for their products, that electricity and infrastructure is built, because I know the Pakistani people and I know that if the tools are there available to them, then they will thrive and continue to be a great nation.’

‘Some people say that you’re against some of the restrictions introduced in the House version of the aid to Pakistan bill. Are you?’

‘Well, my view is, is that we have to help Pakistan – to provide them the resources that will allow for development. Now, we have in the past supported, I think, Pakistan militarily. I think it is important to make sure that military support is directed at extremists and our common enemies,’ said Mr Obama.

‘But I also think that the relationship between the United States and Pakistan can’t just be based on military-to-military cooperation. It’s got to be based on something richer that involves development and exchanges of students and business people. And so we want to encourage that kind of work, as well,’ he said.

‘And we helped to lead an effort that raised $5 billion of development assistance for Pakistan at a donors’ conference in Japan, hundreds of millions of dollars that we’re trying to provide to support internally displaced people. That’s the kind of strategy that I think will bring our countries closer together. And having known the people of Pakistan, I am convinced that the future between our two countries can be very, very bright.’

‘You cannot escape cricket while living with Pakistanis. Did they leave a cricket bat with you?’

‘You know, I have to say that I have tried to get up to bat a couple of times, but I’ve been terrible. So I’m an admirer of great cricket players, but make no claims in terms of my own skills,’ said Mr Obama, breaking into a broad smile.