Sunday, March 21, 2010

Congress clears historic health care bill

WASHINGTON – Summoned to success by President Barack Obama, the Democratic-controlled Congress approved historic legislation Sunday night extending health care to tens of millions of uninsured Americans and cracking down on insurance company abuses, a climactic chapter in the century-long quest for near universal coverage.

Widely viewed as dead two months ago, the Senate-passed bill cleared the House on a 219-212 vote. Republicans were unanimous in opposition, joined by 34 dissident Democrats.

Obama watched the vote in the White House's Roosevelt Room with Vice President Joe Biden and about 40 staff aides. When the long sought 216th vote came in — the magic number needed for passage — the room burst into applause and hugs. An exultant president exchanged a high-five with his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.

A second, smaller measure — making changes in the first — was lined up for passage later in the evening. It would then go to the Senate, where Democratic leaders said they had the votes to pass it.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the legislation awaiting the president's approval would extend coverage to 32 million Americans who lack it, ban insurers from denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions and cut deficits by an estimated $138 billion over a decade. If realized, the expansion of coverage would include 95 percent of all eligible individuals under age 65.

For the first time, most Americans would be required to purchase insurance, and face penalties if they refused. Much of the money in the bill would be devoted to subsidies to help families at incomes of up to $88,000 a year pay their premiums.

Far beyond the political ramifications — a concern the president repeatedly insisted he paid no mind — were the sweeping changes the bill held in store for millions of individuals, the insurance companies that would come under tougher control and the health care providers, many of whom would face higher taxes.

Crowds of protesters outside the Capitol shouted "just vote no" in a futile attempt to stop the inevitable taking place inside a House packed with lawmakers and ringed with spectators in the galleries above.

Across hours of debate, House Democrats predicted the larger of the two bills, costing $940 billion over a decade, would rank with other great social legislation of recent decades.

"We will be joining those who established Social Security, Medicare and now, tonight, health care for all Americans, said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, partner to Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in the grueling campaign to pass the legislation.

"This is the civil rights act of the 21st century," added Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the top-ranking black member of the House.

Republicans readily agreed the bill would affect everyone in America, but warned repeatedly of the burden imposed by more than $900 billion in tax increases and Medicare cuts combined.

"We have failed to listen to America," said Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, leader of a party that has vowed to carry the fight into the fall's midterm elections for control of Congress.

The measure would also usher in a significant expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the poor. Coverage would be required for incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, $29,327 a year for a family of four. Childless adults would be covered for the first time, starting in 2014.

The insurance industry, which spent millions on advertising trying to block the bill, would come under new federal regulation. They would be forbidden from placing lifetime dollar limits on policies, from denying coverage to children because of pre-existing conditions and from canceling policies when a policyholder becomes ill.

Parents would be able to keep children up to age 26 on their family insurance plans, three years longer than is now the case.

A new high-risk pool would offer coverage to uninsured people with medical problems until 2014, when the coverage expansion would go into high gear.

The final obstacle to passage was cleared a few hours before the vote, when Obama and Democratic leaders reached a compromise with anti-abortion lawmakers whose rebellion had left the outcome in doubt. The president issued an executive order pledging that no federal funds would be used for elective abortion, satisfying Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan and a handful of like-minded lawmakers.

A spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed skepticism that the presidential order would satisfy the church's objections.

For the president, the events capped an 18-day stretch in which he traveled to four states and lobbied more than 60 wavering lawmakers in person or by phone to secure passage of his signature domestic issue. According to some who met with him, he warned that the bill's demise could cripple his still-young presidency.

After more than a year of political combat, Democrats piled superlative upon superlative across several hours of House debate.

Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York read a message President Franklin Roosevelt sent Congress in 1939 urging lawmakers to address the needs of those without health care, and said Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Richard Nixon had also sought to broaden insurance coverage.

Republicans attacked the bill without let-up, warning it would harm the economy while mandating a government takeover of the health care system.

"The American people know you can't reduce health care costs by spending $1 trillion or raising taxes by more than one-half trillion dollars. The American people know that you cannot cut Medicare by over one-half trillion dollars without hurting seniors," said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.

"And, the American people know that you can't create an entirely new government entitlement program without exploding spending and the deficit."

Obama has said often that presidents of both parties have tried without success to achieve national health insurance, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt early in the 20th century.

The 44th president's quest to succeed where others have failed seemed at a dead end two months ago, when Republicans won a special election for a Massachusetts Senate seat, and with it, the votes to prevent a final vote.

But the White House, Pelosi and Reid soon came up with a rescue plan that required the House to approve the Senate-passed measure despite opposition to many of its provisions, then have both houses pass a fix-it measure incorporating numerous changes.

To pay for the changes, the legislation includes more than $400 billion in higher taxes over a decade, roughly half of it from a new Medicare payroll tax on individuals with incomes over $200,000 and couples over $250,000. A new excise tax on high-cost insurance policies was significantly scaled back in deference to complaints from organized labor.

In addition, the bills cut more than $500 billion from planned payments to hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and other providers that treat Medicare patients. An estimated $200 billion would reduce planned subsidies to insurance companies that offer a private alternative to traditional Medicare.

The insurance industry warned that seniors would face sharply higher premiums as a result, and the Congressional Budget Office said many would return to traditional Medicare as a result.

The subsidies are higher than those for seniors on traditional Medicare, a difference that critics complain is wasteful, but insurance industry officials argue goes into expanded benefits.

IDPs from Upper Kurram not being registered: UN

PESHAWAR: Two hundred families are migrating from Upper Kurram to Kohat every day but they are not being registered, said a report of a UN agency.According to the report, a new camp has been set up for the IDPs at Thog Siraj.It said 51 per cent affectees pouring in Hangu do not have computerized national identity cards.

Democrats predict historic House vote on health care

House Democrats are predicting that a rare Sunday session will produce one of the most significant legislative triumphs in decades: passage of a historic bill to overhaul the nation's health care system to provide coverage to millions of people who currently lack it.

Republicans resolutely opposed to the bill didn't concede defeat Saturday, but warned they will make Democrats pay dearly in the fall elections if the fiercely debated measure becomes law.

With President Barack Obama's emotional appeal from Saturday ringing in their ears, House Democratic leaders prepared for three showdown votes Sunday: on a "rule" to establish debate guidelines; on a package of changes to a Senate-passed bill, including deletion of special Medicaid benefits for Nebraska; and on the Senate bill itself, the focus of intense national debate for months.

Democrats need 216 votes to pass each one. With all 178 Republicans and at least two dozen Democrats vowing to vote no, the legislation's fate lies in the hands of about 20 Democrats who remained uncommitted late Saturday.

Party leaders appeared confident that most would break in favor of the bills. They pointed to Obama's emotional speech to the caucus at the Capitol, and they cited a sense of momentum from the handful of rank-and-file Democrats who have announced their support over the past several days.

Obama told House Democrats they have arrived at "one of those moments" when they can realize their highest aspirations in public life.

"This is one of those times where you can honestly say to yourself, 'Doggone it, this is exactly why I came here,'" he said. "'Because I believe so deeply in this country and I believe so deeply in this democracy and I'm willing to stand up even when it's hard.'"

If Democratic leaders prevail on all three House votes, Obama could sign the Senate version of the bill into law. The bill of "fixes" would go to the Senate under fast-track debate rules that would enable Democrats to pass it without facing a Republican filibuster.

Democrats control 59 of the Senate's 100 seats, one vote shy of the number needed to overcome bill-killing filibusters from a united GOP.

House Democrats have long insisted that senators agree to change the bill that the Senate passed on Christmas Eve. Since then, it became deeply unpopular with many Americans, because of the special deal for Nebraska, a new tax on generous employer-provided health plans and other aspects.

In a sign of increasing Democratic confidence Saturday, House leaders dropped plans for a controversial parliamentary tactic. They agreed to allow a simple yes-or-no vote on the Senate bill. By planning to pass the package of fixes on the same day, Democrats hope they can persuade constituents they did not support the Senate measure as a stand-alone bill.

The legislation, affecting virtually every American and more than a year in the making, would extend coverage to an estimated 32 million uninsured, bar insurers from denying coverage on the basis of existing medical conditions and cut federal deficits by an estimated $138 billion over a decade.

Congressional analysts estimate the cost of the two bills combined would be $940 billion over a decade.

House leaders continued to negotiate late Saturday with a handful of anti-abortion Democrats who threatened to switch from "yes" to "no" on the legislation without greater assurances that no federal money under the new laws would be used for elective abortions.

It was unclear whether Obama would agree to issue an executive order along those lines. Long-standing federal policy bars U.S. aid for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is in danger.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats who joined Obama on Saturday spoke of the health legislation in historic terms, citing the many presidents who tried and failed to rewrite the nation's laws. Several cited tales of ordinary Americans struggling to pay bills when insurance companies denied or cut off coverage.

Republicans who vow to do all they can to stop the legislation in either congressional chamber "are not just delaying the inevitable, they are delaying the imperative," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Pakistan tribal council: Army must destroy Taliban

Pakistani tribesmen participate in traditional dance, after a tribal jirga or meeting in Peshawar,

ISLAMABAD – Hundreds of tribesmen from Pakistan's semiautonomous regions near the Afghan border ended a rare tribal council meeting Saturday with a declaration calling for the army to crush the Taliban.

The meeting, held in the northwestern city of Peshawar, was called by an umbrella group of aid organizations and political parties in an effort to bring together people from the violence-battered region.

Participants called for the army to escalate its attack against the network of Islamist militants across the tribal regions, dismissing Pakistan's earlier offensives as "military dramas."

"It should be a genuine military operation like the Sri Lankans did against the Tamil Tigers," said Sayd Alam Mehsud, a powerful tribal leader, referring to the brutal military campaign that destroyed the separatist Tamil army in Sri Lanka.

They also called for more power for traditional councils.

"If we strengthen these councils and make them more functional, I believe it will win us half of the war," said one participant, Salar Amjad Ali, 34. "We, the Pashtuns, live for our culture and tradition and we die for it."

Tribal councils — or "jirgas" — play a central role in the Pashtun culture that dominates the region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. These often-lawless regions, havens for al-Qaida and Taliban fighters, have been the scene of bloody fighting and regular attacks by American drone aircraft as the Pakistani and U.S. governments try to defeat the Islamist militants. Smaller council meetings are used in tribal areas to decide matters ranging from local administration to criminal cases.

While Saturday's meeting was not a formal jirga, it is rare to have so many tribal leaders gather together.

A declaration at the end of the meeting called democracy vital to rooting out terrorism, arguing that Pakistan's powerful military — which many see as the true power behind the country's elected government — should keep out of politics.

"A sapling of terrorism cannot grow in democracy. Any attempt to derail democracy is like letting the terrorists walk all over us," the declaration said.

One organizer, Syed Alam Mehsud, said the meeting was a way to bring together people from the area that is suffering most in Islamabad's war against the militants.

"We have just tried to unite people for the sake of peace," he said.

Participants said they had little faith in the U.S.-Pakistan alliance, and that Washington and Islamabad were more worried about internal political issues than dealing with the deepset social issues at the root of much of the violence.

"If we do not address the mindset of the terrorists, we will not be able to eliminate terrorists," said Sayd Alam Mehsud.

The tribal leaders urged the government in Pakistan to reach out to the militants — but also to crush those unwilling to negotiate.

"We tribesmen are more patriotic than anybody else," said one participant, Din Mohammad Khan, who had come South Waziristan, where a government offensive that began last fall is thought to have killed hundreds of people — militants and civilians.

"Pakistan is ours. We are for Pakistan," he said.

Meanwhile, in the southern city of Karachi, police arrested three Taliban militants Saturday and seized a bomb-making factory, a counterterrorism official said.

Police raided a house in the city's industrial area and forced the militants to surrender after a gunbattle, said Raja Omar Khatab. No one was injured.

After their arrest, the suspects led police elsewhere to the bomb factory, and a large number of explosives, detonators and other bomb-making material was seized, he said.

Violence has surged in Pakistan in recent days as militants — thought to be part of a loose network of Islamist insurgents fighting the U.S.-allied Islamabad government — launched a wave of suicide bombings.


Dems face historic House vote on health care

WASHINGTON – House Democrats predict that a rare Sunday session will produce one of the most significant legislative triumphs in decades. Passage of a historic bill to overhaul the nation's health care system would provide coverage to millions of people who currently don't have it.

Republicans are firmly opposed to the bill and haven't conceded defeat. But they warn they will make Democrats pay dearly in the fall elections if the fiercely debated measure becomes law.

With President Barack Obama's emotional appeal ringing in their ears, House Democratic leaders prepared for a series of votes Sunday. Democrats need 216 votes to pass each one.

Clinton pokes fun at Dems, GOP and himself

Former President Bill Clinton poked fun at Republicans, Democrats, his own health and his audience of reporters Saturday night, telling the Gridiron Club's annual dinner he was there because "I really didn't have anything much better to do tonight."

Clinton, who stood in for President Barack Obama, said Democrats are going to pass health care.

"It may not happen in my lifetime, or Dick Cheney's, but hopefully by Easter," he said referring to his and the former to vice president's heart ailments.

Obama, who's preparing for Sunday's probable House vote on health care reform, spoke to the dinner via videotape, saying that when he called Clinton to stand in for him, the former president said, "Let me clear my schedule for the next three years."

The dinner marked the 125th annual gathering of the Gridiron Club, whose members include Washington based reporters.

In another reference to his health, Clinton said his favorite cocktail now was "Lipitor on the rocks," referring to the widely prescribed cholesterol-lowering medicine.

He said that when Obama appeared recently on Fox News the president was "keeping his word about meeting with hostile leaders without preconditions."

In a poke at Obama's combative chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, the former president said, "I found Rahm. I created him. I made him what he is today. I am so sorry."

In the 1990s, Emanuel worked in Clinton's White House.

China Says Western-Style Democracy Won’t Take Root There

BEIJING — A Chinese legislative official has said that China will not adopt Western-style democracy, marking a rare instance in which a member of the government here openly rejects Western-style liberal political reforms.

The official, Li Fei, said in an interview published Saturday on the Web site of China Daily that “different countries have different election rules and a socialist China won’t follow Western election campaigns.”

Mr. Li is deputy director of the legislative affairs commission of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, a rubber-stamp Parliament whose annual two-week work session ended on March 14.

Mr. Li told China Daily, an official English-language newspaper, that while some people wanted to expand direct elections, he believed that the priority was to improve on the so-called election system now in place. The Chinese system generally reinforces the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, which has governed the country in an authoritarian manner since 1949, when it won the civil war. Many Western scholars have said elections at local levels have not given voters true alternatives to the Communist Party.

Despite that, Chinese officials often say in public and in the Chinese news media that the country is moving toward democracy, implying that some form of a Western-style political system could take root here.

But there are times when an official states outright that people should not expect Western-style reforms in China. In March 2009, Wu Bangguo, chairman of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, said China would never “copy” the systems of Western nations by adopting multiparty democracy.

Mr. Li’s interview with China Daily was the latest instance of such blunt talk, and it comes at a time of heightened tensions between China and the West. In particular, relations between China and the United States have hit a rough patch, with no sign that conflicts between the two will be resolved anytime soon. In recent weeks, Chinese leaders have vocally rejected demands by President Obama for China to revalue its currency, which White House officials and some economists say is undervalued, giving China an unfair advantage in world trade.

In criticizing Western democracy, Mr. Li asserted that the Western system of elections simply benefited the wealthy and was warped by capitalism.

“Western-style elections, however, are a game for the rich,” he said. “They are affected by the resources and funding that a candidate can utilize. Those who manage to win elections are easily in the shoes of their parties or sponsors and become spokespersons for the minority.”

Mr. Li added, “As a socialist country, we cannot simply take the Western approach.”

He made his remarks after the National People’s Congress adopted an amendment to the main electoral law on March 14. The amendment reportedly gives rural residents the same rights in selecting representatives to the National People’s Congress as residents in cities.

U.S. Turns a Blind Eye to Opium in Afghan Town

New York Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — The effort to win over Afghans on former Taliban turf in Marja has put American and NATO commanders in the unusual position of arguing against opium eradication, pitting them against some Afghan officials who are pushing to destroy the harvest.

From Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal on down, the military’s position is clear: “U.S. forces no longer eradicate,” as one NATO official put it. Opium is the main livelihood of 60 to 70 percent of the farmers in Marja, which was seized from Taliban rebels in a major offensive last month. American Marines occupying the area are under orders to leave the farmers’ fields alone.

“Marja is a special case right now,” said Cmdr. Jeffrey Eggers, a member of the general’s Strategic Advisory Group, his top advisory body. “We don’t trample the livelihood of those we’re trying to win over.”

United Nations drug officials agree with the Americans, though they acknowledge the conundrum. Pictures of NATO and other allied soldiers “walking next to the opium fields won’t go well with domestic audiences, but the approach of postponing eradicating in this particular case is a sensible one,” said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, who is in charge of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime here.

Afghan officials, however, are divided. Though some support the American position, others, citing a constitutional ban on opium cultivation, want to plow the fields under before the harvest, which has already begun in parts of Helmand Province.

“How can we allow the world to see lawful forces in charge of Marja next to fields full of opium, which one way or another will be harvested and turned into a poison that kills people all over the world?” said Zulmai Afzali, the spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Counternarcotics.

“The Taliban are the ones who profit from opium, so you are letting your enemy get financed by this so he can turn around and kill you back,” he added, referring to how the Taliban squeeze farmers for money to run their operations.

The argument may strike some as a jarring reversal; in the years right after the 2001 invasion, tensions rose as some Afghan officials vehemently resisted all-out American pressure to stop opium production.

Though the United States government’s official position is still to support opium crop eradication in general, some American civilian officials say that the internal debate over Marja is far from over within parts of the State Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

A spokesman for the United States Embassy in Kabul, Brendan J. O’Brien, said officials would decline to comment while the matter was under review.

At the heart of the debate with Afghan officials is an important question of cause-and-effect: is poor security in Marja the reason there is so much opium, or is so much opium the reason there has been poor security?

“Every province in Afghanistan where you find opium cultivation, you have insecurity as a result,” Mr. Afzali said.

American military officials and United Nations drug officials see it the other way around. Opium cultivation has been largely wiped out in 20 provinces where security has been improved, and in the seven most insecure provinces, poppy is still farmed.

“Nothing can compete with opium in an insecure environment,” Mr. Lemahieu said. “A secure environment is the precondition for governance and a long-term solution.”

Although the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO force that General McChrystal commands, no longer carries out eradication programs itself, its official position is that it supports the Afghan government’s efforts to eradicate, and lends backup and protection to the provincial officials, who are responsible for carrying out the eradication program.

The ardently anti-opium governor of Helmand Province, Gulab Mangal, has a record of success, cutting back cultivation by 33 percent last year. But he, too, is willing to make an exception for the current harvest in Marja — for the moment.

“In general I’ve been told by my higher-ups that this year you will not eradicate there, because people have suffered a lot of hardships because of the fighting,” Mr. Mangal said. “We may do it next year.”

Mr. Afzali, however, said the Counternarcotics Ministry still hoped to prevail in time to eradicate the current crop in Marja.

Mr. Mangal said, “If they order me, I will start the destruction of Marja’s opium the same day.”

The problem of Marja’s opium harvest is being discussed intensely by General McChrystal’s advisers, but none of the proposed solutions have proved satisfactory. One idea was to buy up and destroy the opium harvest, but opponents of that proposal feared that it would only encourage more opium cultivation — and might be illegal under United States law, turning American troops into de facto drug financiers.

Another idea was to give incentives to farmers to change to legal crops next year, while this year concentrating on interdiction of smugglers and the laboratories they use to make opium or heroin from the poppy paste. That would institute a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward the cultivators and would present a thorny question: where would troops interdict the opium — just outside the farm gate, on the lane leading from the farm, on the road to town?

“How do you support the rule of law while providing a proper penalty and disincentive so they switch crops next year?” Commander Eggers said. “We are in a real dilemma.”

There is little time left to find an answer: two-thirds of Marja’s fields are now blooming with tall red poppies, and the forthcoming harvest would provide work for thousands of Afghans from outside the area because it is so labor intensive.

Helmand produces more than half of Afghanistan’s opium harvest, with 22 percent of its arable land devoted to poppies, even after Governor Mangal’s forces eradicated a third of the crop last year. His province was awarded a $10 million Good Performer’s Initiative grant by the American Embassy for that effort.

Afghanistan now produces 90 percent of the world’s opium. And one way or another the opium trade supports an estimated 1.4 million households in the country, which has a population of 25 million to 30 million. It also provides enormous amounts of money to the Taliban, with a recent United Nations study estimating the insurgents had earned as much as $600 million in taxes from farmers and traffickers just from 2005 to 2008.

The farmers themselves do not get rich on the harvest.

Hajji Said Gul, a 51-year-old farmer with nine acres of poppies in Marja, said that after he paid back loans to buy seeds, and gave the Taliban their 10 percent of the profits, he earned $500 an acre with each harvest. He is not worried about eradication. “The Taliban have already promised us that they will keep fighting the government and foreign forces until we collect our harvest from the fields,” he said. “All my hopes are related to the poppy harvest.”

Muhammad Nabi, 52, a tribal elder, said: “It’s better if they don’t destroy the crops this year. Next year, if they provide better security, reconstruction and work programs, then we guarantee they will not grow poppy.”

Opium prices now are at historic lows, after years of over-production in Afghanistan. A few years ago, farmers could earn 37 times as much from opium as from wheat, the favored substitution crop recently; now it is more like two or three times as much, United Nations officials say.

Mr. Lemahieu said he thought that provided an opportunity to persuade the farmers that if they changed to legal crops, the government would provide them with services like schools and clinics, and then they might be willing to accept lower profits.

“Between yesterday’s opium income and tomorrow’s legal income, today requires an increase in quality of life for the farmer and his family,” he said. Destroy his crop this year, Western officials say, and he won’t see anything but red.

Pakistan's Load shedding touches 20 hours

Pakistan’s power crisis worsened on Saturday as the shortfall exceeded 4,600 megawatts – according to sources – and unannounced outages spiralled to 20 hours in certain areas of the country.

While unannounced load shedding in suburbs of the country has gone up to 18 hours a day, villages are going as many as 20 hours without power. For rural areas, PEPCO has announced a load shedding schedule of four to six hours a day, but outages every day add up to eight or 10 hours.

The sources said 9,000 megawatts of power were being generated against a demand of 13,600 megawatts – translating into a deficit of 4,600 megawatts.

According to figures released by PEPCO on Saturday, hydel power generation stands at 1,462 megawatts and thermal power generation at 2,525 megawatts, while independent power producers (IPP) are contributing 5,235 megawatts to the total production. PEPCO’s latest export to KESC amounted to 690 megawatts.

Meanwhile, PEPCO spokesman Muhammad Khalid told Daily Times that 360 megawatts from three IPP units would be “added to the national grid tonight (Saturday)”.

He said the situation was likely to “improve in June, because melting glaciers would raise the level of water in Mangla Dam.

“We will add 640 megawatts of power to the national grid by March 31 from IPPs ... there are no other sources available for power generation.”

However, PEPCO sources said the supply-demand gap could rise further because of a shortage of water in reservoirs, and “it will affect power consumers more severely in June”.

The power shortfall, in turn, has sparked a potable water crisis in rural areas across the country, especially Sindh and South Punjab.

Water and Power Ministry sources told Daily Times that hydel power generation had gone down by 5,000 megawatts. The ministry is finding it hard to cope with the crisis, with most oil and gas fired power stations already operating at optimum levels. Currently, hydel power generation stands at 1,462 megawatts.

Nowruz without illusions

Obama's Nowruz message comes, he says, with "no illusions," and lacks the conspicuous respect for Iran's leaders he included last year, replacing it with an extended rebuke for putting down last summer's protests.

"Our offer of comprehensive diplomatic contacts and dialogue stands," he says in conclusion. "It is the Iranian government that has chosen to isolate itself.

Iranians celebrate Persian New Year, Nowruz

Iranians around the globe celebrate the Persian New Year, Nowruz, marking the first day of spring, as a time of renewal, hope and change.

For Iranians, Nowruz is a celebration of new beginnings, a time to visit relatives and friends, and pay respect to senior family members.

Preparation for Nowruz begins with spring cleaning, buying new clothes and setting the Haft Seen, a table containing seven items starting with the letter 'S' — Sabzeh (freshly grown greens), Samanu (sweet wheat paste), Senjed (jujube), Seeb (apple), Seer (garlic), Somagh (sumac) and Serkeh (vinegar).

Senior family members give presents to their juniors and people renew their friendships and start the New Year with kindness and amity.

Meaning 'new day,' Nowruz is celebrated by over 300 million people worldwide on March 21st, the day of the vernal equinox.

The ancient tradition of Nowruz and the rebirth of nature is observed in the Balkans, the Black Sea Basin, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East.

The United Nations General Assembly recognized March 21st as the International Day of Nowruz during its sixty-fourth session on Feb. 23, 2010.

The Assembly called on its Nowruz-celebrating member states to study the ancient festival's "history and traditions with a view to disseminating that knowledge among the international community and organizing annual commemoration events."

Nowruz was also registered on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on September 30, 2009.

Afghans celebrate new year with hopes for peace

Afghans have travelled from across their war-ravaged country to the northern city of Mazar-I-Sharif united behind one wish: that the advent of the new year will bring them peace.
Up to half a million people are in the city, police said, to mark the spring equinox and the first day of the traditional Persian new year, called Nowruz and celebrated across Central Asia and Iran.Mazar is at the heart of one of the most peaceful regions of the country, but security is tight amid an escalation of Taliban activity in the north.City police chief Abdul Rauf Taj said 4,000 security personnel had been deployed against insurgent attacks and all visitors were being screened at seven check points around the city outskirts.
"Every person and every vehicle entering the city is being searched, we're in full control of security," he said, adding that 10,000 cars, each carrying between five and ten people, had entered the city in recent days.Insurgent activity has escalated in northern Afghanistan over the past year as US-led military efforts to eradicate the Taliban from their southern strongholds have intensified, driving the war north.
The Taliban have established shadow administrations across a swathe of northern provinces, including Kunduz, Balkh and Faryab, and military bases run by NATO allies such as Germany and Norway are being reinforced by US troops in an effort to reverse the trend, military and security officials have said.The US and NATO have more than 120,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting the insurgents, with another 30,000 arriving in coming months, mostly for deployment in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces, Taliban hotbeds.After recent deadly and coordinated attacks in Kabul and Kandahar cities, tensions across the country have been running high ahead of Nowruz amid expectations of Taliban attacks on major population centres.For many people converging on Mazar-I-Sharif's breathtaking Blue Mosque, believed to be the grave of Islam's fourth caliph Hazrat Ali, peace was at the heart of their new year wishes.
The Taliban outlawed this celebration during their brutal rule of Afghanistan -- when Mazar-I-Sharif was never fully under their control-- from 1996 until the US-led invasion in late 2001.Since the Taliban's downfall, Mazar-I-Sharif has reclaimed its place as the centre of Afghanistan's Nowruz festivities, a blend of ancient Zoroastrian rites and Afghan traditions dating back thousands of years.
"One of my biggest wishes has been to participate in Nowruz celebrations here and I have finally made it," said Murtaza Rezayee, a student from the central province of Daikundi.Getting here wasn't easy, he said, as the road traverses the often treacherous Salang Pass, scene in February of one of Afghanistan's worst natural disasters when avalanches buried cars and buses, killing 170 people.
ut he said he had been saving up for five years, and his family sold a goat to help cover his travel expenses so he could bring in the year 1389 at Ali's shrine.
"I will make a wish," he said, adding: "My biggest wish is for peace for Afghanistan. Just peace."
Shopkeeper Besmiullah Abdul Saleem was more pragmatic, hoping the economy improves and business picks up -- as it has after previous Nowruz visits to the Blue Mosque.
"I come every year and thanks to Hazrat Ali my business has been very, very good. I owe everything to this," he said, as a sweep of his arm took in the turquoise tiles of the mosque and the white doves flying over it.But peace was also on his mind, he said, adding: "I think every Afghan will wish for peace before anything else."
For some Afghans, the shrine brings more than just luck and fortune; some believe it also has the power to cure the ill and infirm.
Shepherd Abdul Saleem said he had brought his "insane" daughter in the hope of a miraculous cure from the spirit of Ali."I took her to the clinic in our village but nothing happened, she's as she was before," he said, pointing to his eight-year-old daughter as she sat cross-legged beside him, her wrists bound with a scarf."I have heard from lots of people that when doctors can't do any thing, Ali can."So I have brought her here to Ali's court -- this is my last hope," he said.

Peshawar jirga criticizes Shahbaz’s statement

PESHAWAR: National peace jirga in Peshawar Saturday alleged that the statement of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif is an evidence of his association with the terrorists.

The national peace jirga was held under the banner of Aman Tehreek, which was attended by leaders of various political parties and representatives of civil society.

The jirga condemned the statement of Shahbaz Sharif regarding Taliban, saying that Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz is a supporter of those terrorists who are working to destabilize the country.

The jirga demanded all the institutions to work according to the constitution for the stability of the democracy.

“Foreign aid given to eleminate terrorism should be used in terror-hit tribal areas and NWFP,” it added

In Pakistan millions of children forgo classrooms for hard labor

ISLAMABAD— Abbas Sajeet is 11 years old, but he doesn't go to school. Instead, he earns 2,500 rupees ($30) a month as an auto mechanic in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

The money goes straight into the meager coffers of his seven-member family.

"Every day from the car garage, I see children walking to their schools," he says. "I wish I could go to school with them, finish high school and study engineering. After that, I would have a good job with a lot of money, and give it to my mother."

At least 10 million children are believed to be working in Pakistan at a variety of jobs, including some of the hardest and most poorly-paid.

Some clean upper-class homes and help baby-sit. Others craft bricks, weave carpets or work in mines. In some cases, families give their children as employees to landlords to pay off debts. That system, known as bonded labor, is likened by human rights activists to slavery.

The children who work often lose their chance to attend school and are vulnerable to abusive employers. Still, those are considered acceptable risks for the many poor families who need every member to pitch in for food, shelter and clothing.

The South Asian nation has come under international pressure to reduce child labor, but there is little regulation of the practice, despite laws protecting children from exploitation in the workplace.