Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson, Pop Icon, Is Dead at 50

I am deeply saddened by the death of the most unique talent the world has seen in pop music. Michael Jackson was one of the greatest music icons of the 20th Century. A true star who will never be forgotten.God Bless him....M WAQAR

(CNN) -- Michael Jackson, the show-stopping singer whose best-selling albums -- including "Off the Wall," "Thriller" and "Bad" -- and electrifying stage presence made him one of the most popular artists of all time, died Thursday, CNN has confirmed.

He was 50.

He collapsed at his residence in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles, California, about noon Pacific time, suffering cardiac arrest, according to brother Randy Jackson. He died at UCLA Medical Center.

Jackson's blazing rise to stardom -- and later fall from grace -- is among the most startling of show business tales. The son of a steelworker, he rose to fame as the lead singer of the Jackson 5, a band he formed with his brothers in the late 1960s. By the late '70s, as a solo artist, he was topping the charts with cuts from "Off the Wall," including "Rock With You" and "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough."

In 1982, he released "Thriller," an album that eventually produced seven hit singles. An appearance the next year on a Motown Records 25th-anniversary special cemented his status as the biggest star in the country. Timeline: The life of Michael Jackson »

For the rest of the 1980s, they came no bigger. "Thriller's" follow-up, 1987's "Bad," sold almost as many copies. A new Jackson album -- a new Jackson appearance -- was a pop culture event. iReport: Share your memories of Michael Jackson

The pop music landscape was changing, however, opening up for rap, hip-hop and what came to be called "alternative" -- and Jackson was seen as out of step.

His next release, 1991's "Dangerous," debuted at No. 1 but "only" produced one top-ranking single -- "Black or White" -- and that song earned criticism for its inexplicably violent ending, in which Jackson was seen smashing car windows and clutching his crotch.

And then "Dangerous" was knocked out of its No. 1 spot on the album charts by Nirvana's "Nevermind," an occurrence noted for its symbolism by rock critics.

After that, more attention was paid to Jackson's private life than his music career, which faltered. A 1995 two-CD greatest hits, "HIStory," sold relatively poorly, given the huge expense of Jackson's recording contract: about 7 million copies, according to Recording Industry of America certifications.

A 2001 album of new material, "Invincible," did even worse.

In 2005, he went to trial on child-molestation charges. He was acquitted.

In July 2008, after three years away from the spotlight, Jackson announced a series of concerts at London's O2 Arena as his "curtain call." Some of the shows, initially scheduled to begin in July, were eventually postponed until 2010.

Rise to stardom

Michael Jackson was born August 29, 1958, to Joe Jackson, a Gary, Indiana, steelworker, and his wife, Katherine. By the time he was 6, he had joined his brothers in a musical group organized by his father, and by the time he was 10, the group -- the Jackson 5 -- had been signed to Motown.

He made his first television appearance at age 11.

Jackson, a natural performer, soon became the group's front man. Music critic Langdon Winner, reviewing the group's first album, "Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5," for Rolling Stone, praised Michael's versatile singing and added, "Who is this 'Diana Ross,' anyway?"

The group's first four singles -- "I Want You Back," "ABC," "The Love You Save" and "I'll Be There" -- went to No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart, the first time any group had pulled off that feat. There was even a Jackson 5 cartoon series on ABC.

In 1972, he hit No. 1 as a solo artist with the song "Ben."

The group's popularity waned as the '70s continued, and Michael eventually went solo full time. He played the Scarecrow in the 1978 movie version of "The Wiz," and released the album "Off the Wall" in 1979. Its success paved the way for "Thriller," which eventually became the best-selling album in history, with 50 million copies sold worldwide.

At that point, Michael Jackson became ubiquitous.

Seven of "Thriller's" nine cuts were released as singles; all made the Top Ten. The then-new cable channel MTV, criticized for its almost exclusively white playlist, finally started playing Jackson's videos. They aired incessantly, including a 14-minute minimovie of the title cut. ("Weird Al" Yankovic cemented his own stardom by lampooning Jackson's song "Beat It" with a letter-perfect parody video.)

On the Motown Records' 25th-anniversary special -- a May 1983 TV extravaganza with notable turns by the Temptations, the Four Tops and Smokey Robinson -- it was Michael Jackson who stopped the show.

Already he was the most popular musician in America, riding high with "Thriller." But something about his electrifying performance of "Billie Jean," complete with the patented backward dance moves, boosted his stardom to a new level.

People copied his Jheri-curled hair and single-gloved, zippered-jacket look. Showbiz veterans such as Fred Astaire praised his chops. He posed for photos with Ronald and Nancy Reagan at the White House. Paul McCartney teamed with him on three duets, two of which -- "The Girl Is Mine" and "Say Say Say" -- became top five hits. Jackson became a Pepsi spokesman, and when his hair caught fire while making a commercial, it was worldwide news.

It all happened very fast -- within a couple years of the Motown special. But even at the time of the "Motown 25" moonwalk, fame was old hat to Michael Jackson. He hadn't even turned 25 himself, but he'd been a star for more than half his life. He was given the nickname the "King of Pop" -- a spin on Elvis Presley's status as "the King of Rock 'n' Roll" -- and few questioned the moniker.

Relentless attention

But, as the showbiz saying has it, when you're on top of the world, there's nowhere to go but down. The relentless attention given Jackson started focusing as much on his eccentricities -- some real, some rumored -- as his music.

As the Web site notes, he was rumored to sleep in a hyperbaric chamber and to have purchased the bones of John Merrick, the "Elephant Man." (Neither was true.) He did have a pet chimpanzee, Bubbles; underwent a series of increasingly drastic plastic surgeries; established an estate, Neverland, filled with zoo animals and amusement park rides; and managed to purchase the Beatles catalog from under Paul McCartney's nose, which displeased the ex-Beatle immensely.

In 1990s and 2000s, Jackson found himself pasted across the media for his short-lived marriages, the first to Elvis Presley's daughter, Lisa Marie; his 2002 claim that then Sony Records head Tommy Mottola was racist; his behavior and statements during a 2003 interview with British journalist Martin Bashir done for a documentary called "Living With Michael Jackson;" his changing physical appearance; and, above all, the accusations that he sexually molested young boys at Neverland.

The first such accusation, in 1993, resulted in a settlement to the 13-year-old accuser (rumored to be as high as $20 million), though no criminal charges were filed, notes.

He also fell deeply in debt and was forced to sell some of his assets. Neverland was one of many holdings that went on the block. However, an auction of material from Neverland, scheduled for April, was called off and all items returned to Jackson.

Interest in Jackson never faded, however, even if some of it was prurient. In 2008, when he announced 10 comeback shows in London, beginning in July 2009, the story made worldwide news. The number of concerts was later increased to 50.

Seventy-five thousand tickets sold in four hours when they went on sale in March.

However, when the shows were postponed until 2010, rumors swept the Internet that Jackson was not physically prepared and possibly suffering from skin cancer.

At the time, the president and CEO of AEG Live, Randy Phillips, said, "He's as healthy as can be -- no health problems whatsover."

Jackson held open auditions for dancers in April in Los Angeles.

He is survived by his three children, Prince Michael I, Paris and Prince Michael II.

Barack Obama admits he still smokes

Despite signing the toughest anti-tobacco bill in over 25 years, he confirmed that he still lights up – but never in front of daughters Malia and Sasha.
"There are times where I mess up," Mr Obama said at a White House news conference. "As a former smoker I constantly struggle with it. Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes. Am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No. I don't do it in front of my kids. I don't do it in front of my family," he said."I would say that I am 95 per cent cured."
Mr Obama had been urged to quit smoking by his wife Michelle during his 2008 election campaign.
But the pressure of battling Republican presidential candidate John McCain meant that under pressure he succumbed.
He did switch to nicotine patches in an attempt to wean himself of the habit he started when he was a teenager.
Mr Obama refused to say how many cigarettes he smokes or how often he lights up in the White House.
He said: "Once you've gone down this path, then, you know, it's something you continually struggle with, which is precisely why the legislation we signed was so important, because what we don't want is kids going down that path in the first place.
"The new law that was put in place is not about me. It's about the next generation of kids coming up."

Drug cultivation plummets in Afghanistan as demand falls
The cultivation of crops for making illegal drugs has declined steeply in both Afghanistan and Colombia, the world’s largest producers of heroin and cocaine, a UN survey shows.

The organisation’s 2009 World Drug Report , released yesterday, said that opium poppy cultivation fell 19 per cent in Afghanistan last year and coca leaf farming dropped 18 per cent in Colombia. The reductions reflect falls in the prices offered to farmers for their illicit crops, and stable or declining demand in the West. But the UN Office on Drugs and Crime said that it had identified a probable rise in the use and production of synthetic drugs, such as amphetamines, methamphetamines and Ecstasy, in the developing world.

The agency estimated that in 2007 up to 250 million people had used illicit drugs at least once in the previous year, but that drug consumption was concentrated among 18 million to 38 million “problem” users, or addicts.

Antonio Costa, the agency’s director, strongly rejected calls for the legalisation of illicit drugs. “Proponents of legalisation can’t have it both ways,” he said. “A free market for drugs would unleash a drug epidemic, while a regulated one would create a parallel criminal market. Legalisation is not a magic wand that would suppress both mafias and drug abuse. Societies should not have to choose between protecting public health or public security. They can, and should, do both.”

The UN figures showed substantial declines in drug production in Afghanistan, which produces 93 per cent of the world’s opium, and Colombia, which produces more than half the world’s cocaine. In Afghanistan, opium poppy cultivation was heavily concentrated in Helmand province in the south, where British troops are fighting the Taleban.

With more than 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) of opium poppy cultivation, Helmand accounted for more than two thirds of the opium poppy grown in Afghanistan. The province also supplied more than half the 189,000-hectare total for the three main cultivating countries, Afghanistan, Burma and Laos. About 2,000 hectares on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border were planted with opium poppy. “Opium poppy cultivation continued to be associated with insecurity,” the report said. “Almost the entire opium poppy-cultivating area was located in regions characterised by high levels of insecurity.”

Prices for a kilogram of opium have fallen roughly half in Afghanistan, to about $75 (£46), in the past five years, though they have doubled in Burma.

In Colombia, coca leaf cultivation fell by 18 per cent, or 18,000 hectares, to 81,000 hectares, but production fell even more, by 28 per cent.

The United States, the world’s largest cocaine consumer, reported a significant drop in use, while in Western Europe, where consumption has surged in recent years, it has shown signs of stabilising.

“The $50 billion global cocaine market is undergoing seismic shifts,” Mr Costa said. “Purity levels and seizures in the main consumer countries are down, prices are up, and consumption patterns are in flux. This may help explain the gruesome upsurge of violence in countries like Mexico. In Central America, cartels are fighting for a shrinking market.”

Ahmadinejad Tells Obama Not to Interfere in Iran

TEHRAN, June 25 -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned President Obama on Thursday to "avoid interfering" in Iranian affairs, and his security forces arrested 70 academics overnight after using clubs and tear gas Wednesday to break up demonstrations over the disputed June 12 elections.

"Do you want to speak with this tone? If that is your stance then what is left to talk about?" Ahmadinejad said of Obama, who during a news conference Tuesday criticized Iran's crackdown on protesters who have alleged fraud and demanded that the elections be annulled.

Accusing Obama of acting like his predecessor, George W. Bush, Ahmadinejad said: "I hope you avoid interfering in Iran's affairs and express your regret in a way that the Iranian nation is informed of it." His remarks were translated by Reuters news service.

Iran's government has declared that Ahmadinejad outpolled his nearest rival, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, by a margin of nearly 2 to 1. On Wednesday, as an expression of disapproval, the U.S. State Department withdrew its invitation to Iranian diplomats to attend July 4 festivities at embassies around the world.

Afghan Leader Outmaneuvers Election Rivals

KABUL, Afghanistan — With a nationwide election only weeks away, the paradox of President Hamid Karzai has never seemed more apparent: he is at once deeply unpopular and likely to win.

Mr. Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, is blamed by many for the failures that have plagued the American-led mission here in the past eight years, from the resurgence of the Taliban to the explosion of the poppy trade.

Yet at the same time, Mr. Karzai enjoys a commanding lead in the race for the presidency, to be decided in a nationwide election on Aug. 20. Since the beginning of the year, Mr. Karzai has deftly outmaneuvered a once formidable array of opponents, either securing their backing or relegating them to the status of long shots.

Those two facts — Mr. Karzai’s unpopularity and the likelihood of his victory — have cast a pall of resignation over the presidential campaign here, with many Afghans preparing themselves for another five years of a leader they feel they already know too well.

The danger, Mr. Karzai’s opponents and other leading Afghans say, is a kind of national demoralization, which will discourage Afghans from voting and dash hopes for substantial progress once the election is over.

For the Americans, the prospect of Mr. Karzai’s re-election risks an even closer association with an unpopular president with a record of mismanagement. With the Taliban now stronger than ever — early this month, attacks reached their highest level since 2001 — a Karzai victory could threaten the American-led push to turn the war around.

“Karzai will not change, he has demonstrated that,” said Ashraf Ghani, once a close friend of Mr. Karzai, who is now running against him. “If he wins, there will be a downward spiral.”

American officials, who have provided indispensable support for Mr. Karzai since he first took office in 2001, have recently tried to put him at some distance. The new American ambassador, Karl W. Eikenberry, took the unusual step last week of attending news conferences of the leading challengers to Mr. Karzai, including Mr. Ghani and Dr. Abdullah, a former foreign minister, who like many Afghans uses only one name.

The Obama administration has reversed the previous American policy of nearly unconditional support for Mr. Karzai. President Obama has publicly chastised Mr. Karzai for his government’s weakness and corruption.

Yet there is a widespread perception among Afghans that Mr. Karzai is the American favorite. Some American officials express resignation that they may be stuck with him for five more years.

Indeed, the Obama administration appears to have begun preparing for that prospect. American officials, for instance, have done nothing to oppose the discussions between Mr. Karzai and Zalmay Khalilzad, the former American ambassador here, about Mr. Khalilzad’s becoming a senior official in a new Karzai administration.

“The Americans need to do more to distance themselves,” Dr. Abdullah said. “Otherwise, they will be blamed for the failures of his government by their own public as well as by ours.”

No one expressed more surprise about the perception of American favoritism than Mr. Karzai himself. Asked about it at a recent news conference, he curtly replied, “I’m glad to see this change of heart.”

It is hardly surprising that Mr. Karzai’s popularity is slumping. He has been in power for eight years, and in that period hopes for a stable and prosperous Afghanistan have been frustrated.

Mr. Karzai’s unpopularity was spelled out in a recent poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, a nonpartisan group supported by the American government.

Only 31 percent of Afghans said they would vote for Mr. Karzai again, down sharply from the 54 percent of votes he received in the 2004 election. If no candidate surpasses 50 percent of the vote, the two top vote-getters would face each other in a runoff election.

Yet the same I.R.I. survey found Mr. Karzai easily outpolling his rivals. Only 7 percent favored Dr. Abdullah and just 2 percent Mr. Ghani, and they are considered to be Mr. Karzai’s most serious rivals.

It was not always so. Only months ago, Mr. Karzai was considered vulnerable, and his rivals were lining up to take his place.

But showing a deftness that has often eluded him in governing, Mr. Karzai systematically co-opted most of the Afghans who were considering running against him.

In neutralizing his opposition, Mr. Karzai has aggressively wielded the power of his office. With all the resources of government at his disposal, Mr. Karzai can dispatch his employees to work on his re-election, and he can use government resources, like helicopters and airplanes, to crisscross the country. No other candidate can match that.

Nor has Mr. Karzai been shy about making deals with unsavory characters, including militia commanders with reputations for brutality and corruption.

The horse-trading has infuriated his opponents, who accuse him of putting the Afghan government up for sale to the worst sort of people. “He is auctioning off the government,” Mr. Ghani said.

This month, for instance, Mr. Karzai reinstated as chief of staff of the army Abdul Rashid Dostum, who was suspended last year after he was accused of storming the house of a political rival and threatening him at gunpoint.

Mr. Dostum, a former militia commander, has perhaps the most brutal reputation of any warlord, having fought for virtually every side over the past 30 years.

In a similar way, Mr. Karzai last month named Muhammad Qasim Fahim as one of his two vice presidential running mates. Mr. Fahim is a former commander of the Northern Alliance, the rebel group that toppled the Taliban in 2001. He has a spotted past; among other things, he is suspected of printing millions of dollars worth of Afghan currency for himself in the early days of the first post-Taliban government.

Finally, Mr. Karzai appears to have made a brazenly explicit promise to Muhammad Mohaqeq, the leader of a large ethnic party and a former militia commander. In an interview, Mr. Mohaqeq said that Mr. Karzai had promised his group, the Islamic National Unity Party, five seats in his cabinet in exchange for his support.

“People are tired, yes, but they have not lost their nerve,” Mr. Mohaqeq said. “There is no alternative to Karzai.”

At a recent public appearance, Mr. Karzai was looking his typically regal self, sporting his trademark karakul hat and cape. Asked about his deals with the warlords, he was unapologetic.

Choosing Mr. Fahim as a running mate, Mr. Karzai said, “was a decision that I made for the good of the country, for the unity of the country, for the strength of Afghanistan, in which it has a government that is Afghan and not influenced from outside.”

He did not elaborate on whose outside influence he was concerned about.

Zardari asks US to provide drone aircrafts

ISLAMABAD :President Asif Ali Zardari asked the US to give drones technology to Pakistan for boosting its indigenous capacity to eliminate the militants from its soil.

The President said this while talking to General (R) James Jones US National Security Advisor who called on him in the Presidency today.

The US Ambassador in Islamabad Ms Anne W.Patterson and senior officers of the National Security Agency of the US were also present on the occasion.

The President also thanked the US administration for its efforts in the adoption of the Kerry Lugar Bill to provide 1.5 billion dollars of annual assistance to Pakistan over a period of 5 years.

The President said that Pakistan needed much more assistance to rehabilitate the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and embark upon a massive socio economic development program of the area to banish poverty and thereby to the forces of militancy.

He said he was looking forward to the materialization soon of the building of Reconstruction Opportunity Zones (ROZs) to help build the underdeveloped areas economically and provide jobs to the people.

He also asked for international assistance to Pakistan in meeting its energy challenges.

The US National Security Advisor complimented the President for launching an effective operation against militants. He said that it was particularly helpful that the war against the militancy had broad based public and political support.

Earlier, the key US aide called on Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to discuss various issues of mutual interest including the situation of internally displaced people of Malakand Division and the US help in this connection.

General Kayani visits South Waziristan

Chief of Army Staff (COAS), General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani on Thursday had a daylong visit to South Waziristan Agency to spend time with field commanders and troops deployed in the area, report said. During the informal discussion with troops, COAS appreciated their performance and high morale. He also offered fateha for the martyrs of the operations. Gen Kayani was also briefed in detail by the respective General Officer Commanding. COAS stated that Pakistan Army is executing a deliberate 'Campaign Plan' to achieve the desired end state of re-establishing the writ of the state while ensuring minimum loss to life and damage to property. He thanked the people of Pakistan for their whole hearted Support.