Monday, March 28, 2011

The Saudi women taking small steps for change

Sue Lloyd-Roberts
Before I flew to the Saudi capital Riyadh to make a film about the position of women in the kingdom, I met a Saudi woman studying in the UK who told me, "Saudi Arabia is the biggest women's prison in the world".Can I quote you? I asked. "You can quote me," she said, "but you can't name me."I heard that same sentiment and request to remain anonymous repeated during my 10-day stay in the kingdom.Few dare criticise the country openly, though the restrictions on women are scarcely believable in the 21st Century. A woman can't drive and she is not allowed to work or travel without the permission of her male guardian, father or husband.Customs such as Arranged marriages, under-age marriage and polygamy still prevail.Workplace revolution
The on-going battles to bring about change tend to be small ones.
Twenty-year-old Dina, with her heavily kohl-rimmed eyes and diamante cuffs on her abaya (the burka of Saudi Arabia), is a revolutionary in the workplace. She sits in the Jeddah studio at Radio Mix FM with a man.

Up until a few years ago, men and women were not allowed to work in the same room and broadcast journalism has so far proved one of the very few exceptions.
But, beyond that, Dina's message is hardly revolutionary. She acts as a kind of agony aunt for the station's young audience.
A 17-year-old girl sends in an e-mail complaining of boredom. Dina tells her to take up a hobby like painting or photography which, because an unaccompanied girl is not allowed to leave the house, she will have to do at home.If an 18-year-old wrote in asking how to meet a member of the opposite sex, Dina says she would respond by saying, "It is not possible and [you] must accept it - it is our culture".
At the end of her shift, her boss accompanies her down on to the street and waits until her brother's car pulls up to collect her.
"You present your own radio show and yet you can't drive?" I asked. "It's normal," she said, and closed the car door.
She has to watch what she says. The radio station receives angry calls from the country's religious conservatives who are appalled that women like her are allowed to sit in the same room as an unrelated man.
Any false step or unguarded remark could see the station closed.
Lingerie campaign
Reem Asaad, a 38-year-old college lecturer in finance at a Jeddah women's college, believes that women will never be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and that there should be a public transport system.But would women be allowed to use it? "Probably not," she admitted, "unless chaperoned."
Women in the kingdom are not allowed to come into contact with any man who is not a family member. Even the few women who run businesses have to employ a male manager to negotiate with other men.
"It is limiting, restricting and humiliating," Ms Asaad said bitterly, "but we are used to it."
Thousands of girls graduate every year but, beyond teaching in an all-girls' school or college, career opportunities are limited and unemployment is high.
Women are not allowed to serve behind a shop counter. If you want to buy a bra in Saudi Arabia, you must ask a male shopping assistant, who will be an expat because a Saudi man could never discuss a bra size with a woman.
Ms Asaad is campaigning both through social media and with the owners of lingerie shops to get some female assistants hired - but she has to employ a male intermediary to negotiate on her behalf with the men who own the shops.
Privileged and pampered
Women in Saudi Arabia are not always helped by other women.
Radwa Yousef, who runs an organisation called My Guardian Knows What is Best For Me, says she wants to "dispel the negative notions about guardianship".
"We Saudi women are privileged and pampered by our guardians and we have drivers to get us about," she said as she pours cardamom coffee into gilt-edged glass cups in her elegant apartment in Jeddah.
"What about the woman who would like to drive herself to work?" I asked.
"A woman who is so financially constrained that she has to work, will never be able to buy a car," she replied.
Women without identity
Away from the plush drawing rooms of wealthy women, Faadwa al-Tayar, a volunteer social worker, works in the slums of Jeddah.
She helps the "non-women" of Saudi Arabia, the women without guardians - widows or women whose husbands have left them without the formality of a divorce and who have no legal identity.There is a Ministry of Welfare in the country, explains Ms Al Tayar, but it is the men who must go and ask for assistance.
"A woman is too embarrassed to go, or if her husband has left her, too ashamed."
Apathy and lack of aspiration prevail. I met a woman who lives alone with her two veiled daughters in their 20s, who have been sitting in the shadows of the house since completing primary school 15 years ago.
"I hope that they will find good husbands who will let them finish their education and look after them," she told me.
Although how the girls will find the much-needed male guardian without being able to leave the house is anyone's guess.
Other women who want to change the system are using social media - which gives them some freedom to express their frustrations.
Eman Fahad al Nafjana, a 30-year-old blogger, writes on her Saudiwoman website that the guardianship rules must change and that women are fed up with the constraints on their lives.
"I believe that social media will help us," she said. "Women are asking questions and demanding answers."
But is anyone out there listening?
Riding with bikers
In one of the more surreal moments of my visit, I found myself on the back of a motorbike one night, guest of the Jeddah Chapter of the Saudi Harley Davidson Club, being taken for a spin along the waterfront.
I spotted them as they were assembling and asked for a ride. To my astonishment, they obliged.
Surely these men, in their 20s and 30s, who had just risked being chastised by the local morality police, would be sympathetic to the plight of women?
Over coffee (alcohol is banned) and hubbly bubbly (smoking is not socially acceptable), I asked them why their wives hadn't joined them.
"Just because we say that a woman stays at home doesn't mean that we are not giving her rights," one of them answered defensively.
"A woman sits at home, she can eat, drink, she's comfortable and everything comes to her.
"In our religion, men are responsible for women. My mum, my sister, my wife, can stay at home and I'll take care of them.
"In our religion, women obey their men. If she wants to work, she can work but only with my permission. I won't be forced."
As long as women in Saudi Arabia are dependent on their husbands and fathers, and kept out of the public eye, this attitude seems unlikely to change.

Muslim model defends Miss Universe contest bid

By Anthony Baxter
A model bidding to become the first Muslim to represent the UK in the world final of Miss Universe has been defending her decision to enter.

Shanna Bukhari

, who is 24 and lives in Manchester, said she's been sent racist and abusive messages since making it to the beauty contest's UK final.

She believes Muslims in the UK should be allowed to have a western lifestyle.

But Muslim groups have accused her of disrespecting Islam.

Shanna was born in Blackburn and she became a full-time model after finishing her degree.

'Swimwear round'
She said it's her dream to be crowned Miss Universe - but has been told she's going against her religion.

"[I get] comments like 'you're not a Muslim because you're doing this' and it's like - this competition does not make me a bad Muslim at all.

"So it does hurt me to think that people are thinking like that," she said.

One of the main reasons some Muslims are angry is that Shanna would have to appear in swimwear in one round of the competition.

Mohammed Shafiq is from the Ramadhan Foundation, a group that works with young Muslims in the UK - he's against Shanna taking part.

"Islam is very clear that a woman should dress modestly and we do not believe that parading yourself in a bikini is appropriate," he said.We are clear that we find what she's doing distasteful - lots of women find these [competitions] degrading."

He said he accepts the right for Muslim women to wear whatever they choose, but that those living in a western country should still be respectful of Islam.

"We celebrate individual freedom but to suggest that someone who is opposed to something she's doing needs to move off to another country is quite offensive," he continued.

Shanna said most people do support her, including her family in Pakistan.

'Really jealous'
But her older sister Sameera admitted some of the abusive comments have worried her.

"Is it going to be bricks and stones next when she's walking out on the street? People thinking 'oh look at her, she's a Pakistani and she's entering this competition'."

If Shanna wins the UK final on 1 May, she'll be the first ever Muslim to represent Britain in the grand final in Brazil later this year.

"People are attacking me, using religion as a tool, but is it really religion?

"Or are you really jealous of a girl coming forward and not allowing anyone to dictate to her?

"There are people out there who want to control women," Shanna said.

Meanwhile, other young Muslims have told Newsbeat that being allowed to live a Western lifestyle in the UK is a big issue.

Rayan Jawad, 27, said: "This is a discussion that goes on all the time.

"She's doing pretty much what any girl would love to do who's been brought up here."

Rumena Begum, 18 said: "It goes against our morals and our religion.

"But it's her life - she can do whatever she wants really."

The Miss Universe beauty contest was first held in 1952 - the title is currently held by the Mexican contestantBy Anthony Baxter


US Army apologises over new Afghanistan abuse images

The US Army has apologised for any distress caused after new images of US troops posing with the bodies of Afghan civilians were published in a magazine.

In a statement, the US Army said the photos in Rolling Stone magazine were disturbing and contrary to its values.

Similar photos appeared in German paper Der Spiegel last week. The killings apparently took place early last year.

The US Army is in the midst of courts martial of those allegedly involved, one of whom was jailed last week.

According to executive editor Eric Bates, Rolling Stone magazine obtained about 150 photos in all, and posted 17 of them on its website.

Also posted are two videos allegedly showing US attacks on Afghans.

Bates would not say how the magazine obtained the photographs.

Responding to their publication, the US Army said it would "relentlessly" pursue the truth, no matter how difficult or lengthy the investigation.

"The photos published by Rolling Stone are disturbing and in striking contrast to the standards and values of the US Army," it said in a statement.

"Like those published by Der Spiegel, the Army apologises for the distress these latest photos cause.

"Accountability remains the Army's paramount concern in these alleged crimes, and we continue to investigate leads."

'Rogue army unit'
The photographs are alleged to have been taken by a "rogue" US Army unit in Afghanistan in 2010.

They feature US soldiers grinning over the corpses of Afghan civilians they had allegedly killed.

Specialist Jeremy Morlock was sentenced last week to 24 years in prison for his part in the killing of unarmed Afghan men.

Under a plea deal he is expected to testify against four comrades also to be tried over the killings last year in Kandahar province.

"The plan was to kill people," Morlock told a military judge during his trial.

Pakistan has 'hands full' against militants: NATO

Pakistan is so busy fighting its own Islamist militants that it can do little more to help NATO forces battling in neighboring Afghanistan, NATO's top civilian there said Monday.
Mark Sedwill

, senior civilian representative for the Western military alliance in Afghanistan, said Pakistani attitudes were hardening toward guerrilla groups that had previously been supported by the state.
"In the past, they had relations with various groups," he told the Asia Society think tank in New York, but now "I think there has been a shift."
However, there are limits on what Pakistan can do to stem the flow of militants entering Afghanistan to fight NATO troops.
"To be honest, the Pakistanis are preoccupied with those domestic threats. This is out of hand," Sedwill said."People sometimes say the Pakistanis must do more.... (but) actually they have lost an awful lot of soldiers fighting the groups that target them," he said. "They have their hands full."
Sedwill said Western governments should resist seeking quick pressure against the Pakistani government.
"If we just say we'll either bestow or withdraw a favor, then they'll turn to someone else. We've seen that in the past," he warned.

Clinton urges backing for women in Arab world

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

on Monday hailed a draft Senate resolution backing the rights of women in the Arab world as the region is swept by political upheavals.
"Women must be included in every aspect of political and institutional reform, because we know that no government can succeed if half its population is excluded from the process," Clinton said in a statement after the legislation was introduced by Republican Senator Olympia Snowe and 16 other women members of the US Senate.
"I thank Senator Snowe and all the women senators for shining a spotlight on the critical role women continue to play in the dramatic events sweeping North Africa and the Middle East," she said.
"This resolution underscores our current efforts to build capacity for good governance, allow all citizens to participate, and ensure that the human rights of all, including those of women, are respected," Clinton added.
Unrest sweeping the Middle East and North Africa has encompassed Egypt, Libya, Qatar, Syria, Tunisia and various other countries where the ruling powers have either been overthrown following public uprisings or are in danger of being ousted.
[ For complete coverage of politics and policy, go to Yahoo! Politics ]

Snowe said in a statement that the measure aims to ensure that rights and opportunities for women are not shunted to one side as new governments are formed amid the upheaval in the region.
"Essential to the success and stability of any government is the equal voice and participation of women," the Maine lawmaker said.
"The spirit and devotion exemplified by women in North Africa and the Middle East -- and the ongoing challenges they continue to face -- is both an inspiration to us all and a reminder that discrimination and gender-based violence endures around the world," she said.
"I honor their commitment to ensuring future generations enjoy the guaranteed equality and basic human rights for which they endeavor to this day and remain steadfast in my commitment to these universal liberties."

Pakistanis rally in solidarity with Bahrainis

The revolutions in the Arab world have found support here in Pakistan.

The members of the Imamia Student Organization, the largest Shia student organization in Pakistan, staged a protest in Islamabad to voice their support for Bahraini people.

These protestors gathered here in the capital Islamabad to show their solidarity with the people of Bahrain whom they say are fighting for their legitimate rights.

The demonstration is coincided with the visit of Bahrain's Foreign Minister to Pakistan.
Bahrain's Foreign Minister has arrived in Islamabad to meet the country's top political and military officials in order to discuss the turmoil in Bahrain.
But the protestors here condemn the visit.

Speakers at the rally urged the Pakistani government to support the people of Bahrain instead of the government.

Islamabad has so far remained silent over the violent crackdown on peaceful anti-government protesters in Bahrain. At least 24 people have been killed and around 1000 injured in protests against the rule of the Al Khalifa dynasty.

The protestors blocked Islamabad's main road for several hours, disrupting the traffic.
They have threatened more demonstrations if the government continues its support for the Bahraini authorities.

The West's 'double standards' in Middle East

Al Jazeera
Support for Bahraini government's crackdown on protests is a paradox as West supports Libyan rebels, activist argues.

On March 14, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, King of Bahrain, invited Saudi Arabia and other GCC forces into his tiny island kingdom to aid a crackdown on pro-democracy protests that had been going already for precisely one month.

The protests, launched on February 14 to coincided with the tenth anniversary of the King's issuance of the "National Action Charter", a text that was supposed to lead his country towards greater democracy. But the terms were subsequently betrayed by the King, leaving the parliamentary system he established with little power actually to enact laws and shape the country's political future.

The non-violent spirit of the protesters was very much in line with that of the Egyptian pro-democracy movement that only days earlier had managed to remove Hosni Mubarak from power.

Protests had in fact begun last year, before Egypt and Tunisia exploded, surrounding the October 2010 parliamentary elections.

One month later, Egypt's vote saw the government arrest prominent human rights activists and according to observers, move the country back towards the days of "full blown authoritarianism". It seems the Egyptian government was over-confident about its ability to more or less openly suppress a fair vote, and in response the political consciousness of the people was heightened rather than further beaten down.

An assessment one month in

One month into the uprising in Bahrain, the warnings of last fall have come to fruition. Bahrain has returned to absolutist rule, with the King declaring martial law a few days after the Saudis entered the country.

Aside from violently clearing out and even destroying Pearl Roundabout, the symbol of the protests, the crackdown has been noticeable for three factors.

The first is the fact that the government forces have taken over hospitals and prevented them from being used by injured protesters.

This move is clearly a violation of international human rights law, but it had the intended effect: major protests leaders have decided that further large scale protests were to dangerous to hold, considering that people shot or otherwise harmed by government forces would not be able to receive medical attention, likely leading to an unacceptably high number of deaths.

Second, the government has attempted to arrest leading human rights and pro-democracy activists, with the goal of silencing those with the best ability to document ongoing abuses and relay the information to the outside world.

Finally, the United States and other Western countries have clearly thrown their support behind the government, refusing to go beyond mild rebukes against the government-initiated violence, even though they have thrown their full military weight behind the Libyan rebels.

"This is the situation we're facing," explained Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights.

"We are not only facing a regime and neighbouring powers, but American influence as well. They either do not want to see change or only slight changes that do not give people real democracy because the monarchy might lose power. Everyone sees the US double standards very clearly now. They see Gaddafi hitting people and the US strike back. But here they even bring in foreign armies who don't believe in democracy and killing people on streets and the US does nothing. It is a big mistake the Americans are making, losing people, losing the faith of the streets."
Rajab has good reason to be angry, although he speaks with an equanimity utterly at odds with the fact that only days before we talked he had been arrested, beaten and threatened with death by security forces.

"They came at 1 am at night and knocked on my door, then my father's door and by the time I came downstairs after my wife called me, they already broke into my father's house and almost broke into mine. 25 masked men in civilian dress came in and she thought they were mercenaries coming to assassinate me. But I saw the government cars outside the window. I asked if they would wait till I took my sleeping daughter out of our bedroom before searching it but they burst in and she woke up to them and me handcuffed. They took everyone's laptops and cartons of papers, blindfolded me and pushed me into the back of a four-wheel drive car.

"And the moment I was in a car they started treating me worse. They started using sectarian abuse, saying I'm Shia, and then started beating me in the car while saying things like: 'we will rape you and kill you now'. They seemed to be looking for other activists but did not find them and ultimately they took me in another car to the Investigation Directorate of the Ministry of Interior. A senior agent asked me if I knew someone with a gun, and I replied that I did not and that I do not know anyone with a gun and believe we should not use guns because the protests. And with that, the man told the other agents to give me my things and take me back home."

A 'Shabak education'?

In Israel proper Palestinian friends of mine have a term for this kind of ordeal, a "Shabak education". It is when the Shin Bet, or internal intelligence services, take Palestinian citizens, rough them up and threaten them, not as a precursor to longer detention, but rather to let them know who is boss, and remind them what could happen to them if the state decided to get really tough.

Egypt's recently disbanded state security services had a similar modus operandi, as do most of the internal security services across the region.

But it is not stopping Rajab or his allies, although, as he pointed out, almost all of them are now in hiding. "I'm the only one still at home," he explained.

Bahrain, apparently, would not be hospitable place for gun-loving Americans.

"We do not have a culture of guns. We have people my age who have never had guns except royal family and those close to them. Only thugs from government have guns. But most important, everyone believes that fighting the government would be a losing battle, they have tanks and machine guns. But if we remain peaceful a lot of people will support our goal and work. By carrying flowers and giving them to the army, even though most of the soldiers are from outside Bahrain, we can achieve our goal, even if we lose a lot of people along the way."

A negative precedent?

As I watched US and NATO planes attack Libya, I have wondered a lot about precisely how and why Libyans turned to violence, against the non-violent spirit of the region-wide protests to that point.

After all, even in Yemen, one of the most violent places on earth, if you are to believe the standard media portrait of the country, protests have remained largely peaceful despite mass killings by government forces.

It is very hard to sit in the distance, removed from such attacks, and criticise citizens who decide they have no choice but to resort to violent insurrection when their government has decided to kill them wholesale. However, the reality is that without foreign NATO intervention, Gaddafi would probably have succeeded in unleashing a far greater wave of death against them suggests that their calculus, however understandable, might have been fatally flawed.

I also wonder whether the reason Western allies have been forced into this situation in Libya is not because Obama and his colleagues refused to come out strongly and from the start in support of all the pro-democracy protests across the Middle East and North Africa (and while we are at it, has Obama and the West forgotten about the equally murderous repression in Cote d'Ivoire? Or do black Africans killing each other still not matter to Americans, even to the son of an African? Don't they deserve a no-fly zone too?)

By not setting a clear agenda for democratisation, laying out a series of measures – the "allies" – as they are calling themselves with respect to Libya – would punish any and all governments that did not begin serious processes of democratisation (not "reform," as Hillary Clinton loved to say, but democratisation, with a capital D) and at the same time declaring that the West would not support armed uprisings.

Did the US and Europeans not open the door for precisely a situation in which protesters would have an incentive to move towards violence in response to government violence, hoping that the West would intervene if the situation got desperate enough?

Such questions do not suggest that the Libyan uprising is unjustified; it is very hard for an outsider to make such a judgement.

But most advocates of non-violent struggle argue that moving to violence, however understandable, usually leads to far more casualties against protesters than staying the course.

Had the world been prepared for Gaddafi's repression and had a clear cut and robust system in place to punish him and other leaders who use such violence, we have to ask whether it could have helped prevent the present situation.

And if Western assistance helps topple Gaddafi, might not Syrians rationally choose a similar path against their government's repression, given the long-standing American opposition to the Baathist regime.

Charges of hypocrisy

As it happens, in Bahrain, where the movement refuses to move towards violence so far, things have only gotten worse since the crackdown. Rajab declared with a hint of exasperation:

"More people died and injured. The gap between the ruling elite and the people is getting wider and wider. The government is trying hard to incite sectarianism, frightening both Bahraini Sunnis and neighbouring countries, which is why they sent troops to Bahrain. Indeed, by refusing to take a strong stand, did the US not open the way for the Saudis to take control of the situation for their interests. Look, the Bahrainis could have used their own police, not even the army, just the police, to stop this, because we were peaceful."

But they brought in the Saudis and GCC specifically to regionalise the conflict and raise the stakes. As he reminded me, the Bahraini Shias have always been hostage to this regional conflict between Iran and the Saudi-American axis.

"Now we are paying price of the growing power of Iran because America will be silent on the crackdown when it is defined as combating Iranian power."

Rajab also feels, as many do many Bahraini pro-democracy and their supporters, that Al Jazeera has not done enough to cover the protests, a dynamic which proved so important in increasing support for protesters in Tunisia and Egypt.

"Frankly, Al Jazeera has not even called me one time. I have talked to everyone else. They will bring only non-government people acceptable to the the government."

Rajab argues that the Bahraini government pressured the Qataris into avoiding too much coverage, especially on the Arabic channel.

I cannot verify this claim, but I can say that in a segment on this week's Al-Jazeera English program Listening Post in which I participated addressing this issue several guests made similar arguments.

US presence not the issue

If Bahrainis see US support for the government has helping the crackdown, why don't Bahrainis protest against the US Embassy and troop presence?

Rajab was very clear about why this is not on the pro-democracy movement's agenda, despite well-justified anger at American hypocrisy in this conflict.

"America is not our issue, your presence is not our issue. Even the opposition has declared the intention to uphold any existing agreements. No one has a problem with US there, but not if you're using our bases to fight Iraq or Lebanon or Iran. No one will accept killing people from neighbouring countries from Bahrain."

Of course, this is precisely the problem. The US has little use for a military base it can not use however it wants.

Given the choice between a pliant authoritarian government that does not complain (too loudly) if the US uses its bases for military missions against other countries, or a democracy that would prohibit this, the US will naturally choose the former.

Similarly, when the King hears that most protesters do not want to overthrow the monarchy but rather create a constitutional system where most power is in the hands of the legislature, it is hard to blame him for wondering what the difference would be from his perspective.

In the end democracy is a zero-sum game. You can not really have a little, or some, because as long as non-democratic elements have a foothold they will use it to corrupt and control the system even if the formal shell of democracy remains.

This is precisely what has happened in the United States today, why its political system has become so dysfunctional. And it's what is happening in Egypt already only weeks after Mubarak's resignation, and according to Tunisian friends, what is starting to happen there as well.

And Bahrain is no different, which is why protesters are insisting on a full democratisation - something that cannot be reconciled with either the King's or the Americans' interests as presently defined.

What can be done?

The pro-democracy movement in Bahrain is trying to hold it's own, but there is little it can do at the moment. "It's powerless," Rajab explained.

But in his mind the government has not acted wisely.

"They could have met some key demands a month ago. We have always been ruled with tribal mentality - if you give people something they will always demand more so don't give them anything, just hit them hard. But you can not silence people anymore, especially as they see others achieve goal like in Egypt. Bahrainis will not be silent anymore, it is done, finished."

As Syria, Jordan and even Morocco see protests that are turning increasingly deadly, the era of the authoritarian bargain in the Middle East is clearly over.

What replaces it across the region has become the most compelling question in global politics today.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (Random House 2008) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).

Obama makes his case for U.S. intervention in Libya

President Barack Obama made his case Monday night for intervention in Libya, addressing the nation amid tough calls for him to clarify the United States' role in the U.N.-authorized military mission.
Both Democrats and Republicans have criticized the president's policy in the war-torn North African nation. Among other things, they have questioned the purpose of the mission, as well as its cost, endgame, and consequences for the broader Arab world.
Obama argued a failure to act would have carried a far greater price.
The world had a "unique ability to stop" violence "on a horrific scale" by acting in a broad coalition with the support of Arab countries in Libya, he said.
"To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and -- more profoundly -- our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are," Obama said.The U.S. president said he ordered U.S. warships into the Mediterranean because of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's "brutal repression" of his people and "a looming humanitarian crisis."
"America has an important strategic interest in preventing Gadhafi from overrunning those who oppose him," said Obama.
He also stressed that transition to a "legitimate government" in Libya is "a task for the international community, and more importantly, a task for the Libyan people themselves." Obama said the transfer of military operations from U.S. to NATO command would take place Wednesday.
Finally, he cautioned against broadening the military mission.
"If we tried to overthrow Gadhafi by force, our coalition would splinter," Obama said. He added, however: "History is not on Gadhafi's side."
The president's address at the National Defense University in Washington was meant "to update the American people on the situation in Libya, including the actions we've taken with allies and partners to protect the Libyan people from the brutality of Moammar Gadhafi, the transition to NATO command and control, and our policy going forward," the White House announced Sunday.
The president has said that U.S. policy is the ouster of Gadhafi. However, the mandate of the military coalition is only to enforce a no-fly zone and arms embargo in Libya while taking other necessary steps to protect civilians.
"If the American people are uncertain as to our military objectives in Libya, it's with good cause," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said Monday afternoon.
"What national security interest of the United States justified the risk of American life?" McConnell asked. "What is the role of our country in Libya's ongoing civil war?"
Obama may have several objectives in Monday night's speech, but first and foremost he needs to help an exhausted public understand why the United States needed to intervene in Libya, according to presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.
"The majority of the American people are overwhelmed by a whole series of crises," Goodwin told CNN's "American Morning" on Monday. "They have to understand the reasoning that brought him into this military intervention. And I think he needs to tell a story to trace the events from the time of the protests in Libya up through the push back by Gadhafi."
The president, Goodwin said, needs to explain the fear of an imminent humanitarian crisis and why he assembled a coalition as opposed to pursuing a unilateral course of action.
Obama also needs to explain "why he didn't act quicker (and) why he didn't get to the Congress" for its approval.
"Tell us the story of why he did what he did, and make us believe his leadership did it the right way," she said.
Obama also needs to prepare the public for a potential long-term engagement, Goodwin warned.
Ousting Gadhafi "may take time, and I think (the president) has to warn us," she said. "This may take months even (though the) no-fly zone was achieved in an incredibly short period of time."
Nick Ragone, a presidential communications expert, noted that Obama is addressing the public later than most presidents do when they commit to military action. Obama needs to "fill in the blanks" and "tell a story," he said.
"Typically in the presidency, there's a narrative to decisions, an arc," Ragone told CNN. "He needs to give a little of that narrative" dating back to the start of the protests in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.
"I don't think this speech is about rhetorical flourishes," Ragone said. "I don't think it needs to hit the high notes we expect." He just "needs to explain why he did what he did."
But Adam Sheingate, a Johns Hopkins political science professor, said he doesn't believe Monday's speech is "make-or-break" for Obama.
It "is more to ease the concerns of his critics than the public as a whole," he said. "I just don't think the broader public is that concerned" about the war in Libya.
"There's not a great deal of political fallout" at the moment for Obama, Sheingate asserted. But that could change if there are U.S. military casualties, he warned.
Should Obama have addressed the nation sooner?
"With 20/20 hindsight, it probably would have been better giving (an earlier) speech announcing the U.S. was giving assistance to avert a humanitarian crisis," Sheingate said. But in terms of politics, addressing the issue later is "not a grievous mistake of any kind. Events are still unfolding."
Ultimately, the president's speech may have little impact on public opinion on the war, according to John Sides, a George Washington University political science professor.
"Presidential speeches hardly ever move public opinion," Sides told CNN. "People vastly overestimate the power of the bully pulpit."
Americans who pay close attention to presidential addresses tend to already have their minds made up, Sides said.
Generally speaking, people take their cues from opinion leaders such as top members of Congress, he noted.
Seventy percent of Americans favored the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya in a March 18-20 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll. Fifty-four percent favored air strikes against Gadhafi's forces, while 43% were opposed.
Obama is "not facing a very hostile public on this issue," Sides said. While people are not overwhelmingly supportive of the air strikes -- a possible reflection of the questions being raised on Capitol Hill and elsewhere -- they're also not heavily engaged. And air strikes are a less risky form of intervention than ground combat, he noted.
Two senior Obama Cabinet members -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- appeared on talk shows Sunday to make the case for the administration's policy.
Both Clinton and Levin emphasized that the international support was essential to avoid any perception or accusation that the United States -- already engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- was unilaterally committing military forces in a third Muslim country.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is expected to announce his candidacy soon for the Republican presidential nomination, challenged such an approach, telling "Fox News Sunday" he wants Obama's speech to be "dramatically clearer than he has been up until now."
"I hope the president will say, first of all he is consulting the U.S. Congress, not just the Arab League and United Nations," Gingrich said. "I hope he will say second that it's clear that the Gadhafi dictatorship has to leave, and that we are prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure the Gadhafi dictatorship leaves."
Despite his tough rhetoric, Gingrich made clear he opposes sending any U.S. ground troops to Libya -- a position also held by Obama.
"Once you engage air power, you should use the air power in its most effective way," Gingrich said. "You don't need to send in ground forces."
Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, criticized a lack of congressional debate before Obama committed military forces to the Libyan mission.
"There should have been a plan as to what our objectives were, a debate, before we committed armed resources," Lugar told the NBC program "Meet the Press," later adding: "I don't believe we should be engaged in the Libyan civil war. I think the Libyans are going to have to work that out."
Obama has said the U.S. role in the Libyan mission will diminish once NATO takes over control and command. However, Gates made clear that even in a diminished role, U.S. forces will still be involved in the mission as long as it continues.
"As long as there is a no-fly zone and we have some unique capabilities to bring to bear -- for example, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, some tanking aviation -- we will continue to have a presence," he said on ABC.

'250 arrested in Bahrain crackdown'

Almost 300 people have been detained or have gone missing during the Bahraini government's crackdown on protesters, a former opposition lawmaker says.

"We have around 250 confirmed arrested and 44 who are missing, though that number fluctuates when people reappear after hiding from police," Ibrahim Mattar told Reuters on Monday.

Mattar, who is from the largest opposition group al-Wefaq, added that many Bahrainis are being arrested at checkpoints or in house raids.

Most of those who were detained or went missing were not activists, he noted.

Meanwhile, leader of another opposition group told Press TV that protesters would continue with their rallies until their demands are met.

On Sunday, protesters once again poured into the streets of the capital city, Manama, despite the state of emergency imposed by King Hamad bin Al Khalifa on March 15.

Bahraini forces along with troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have stepped up their attacks against protesters.

The protests against the government began in mid-February. At least 24 people have been killed and about 1,000 others have been injured so far.

Pentagon promises "truth" as magazine publishes photos of soldiers murdering Afghan civilians

The U.S. Army on Monday promised to pursue "the truth" as disturbing photos of U.S. soldiers murdering innocent Afghan civilians were published by the Rolling Stone magazine.

The magazine released a series of gory images and videos depicting dead Afghans as well as U.S. soldiers who posed with the bodies. One photo even showed a soldier took a stick to a severed head of an unidentified man. The videos showed what the magazine described as "legitimate" military operations in which suspected militants were killed, but the magazine also noted it was a violation of military rules for the soldiers to share the videos among them.

In a statement, the Army said the photos published by Rolling Stone are "disturbing and in striking contrast to the standards and values of the United States Army," and it "apologizes for the distress these latest photos cause."

The statement said "accountability remains the Army's paramount concern in these alleged crimes. Accordingly, we are in the midst of courts-martial, and we continue to investigate leads."

According to the magazine, the photos were from the "Kill Team, " soldiers with the 5th Stryker Brigade stationed near Kandahar, who conducted premeditated murders of Afghan civilians in cold blood. The photos first appeared in Germany's Der Spiegel magazine.

In the statement, the Army promised to "relentlessly pursue the truth, no matter where it leads, both in and out of court, no matter how unpleasant it may be, no matter how long it takes."

It calls on to "allow the judicial process to continue to unfold and be mindful that the government has distinct obligations to the victims and to the accused, which include compliance with the court's protective order to ensure a fair trial."

It said the Army is "troubled that any soldier would lose his ' moral compass'," and vowed to "do whatever we need to as an institution to understand how it happened, why it happened and what we need to do to prevent it from happening again."

Afghan Elite Borrowed Freely From Kabul Bank

When a brother and nephew of an Afghan vice president wanted to build up their fuel transport business, they took out a $19 million loan from Kabul Bank. When a brother of the president wanted to start a cement factory, he took out a $2.9 million loan; he also took out $7.9 million for a luxury townhouse in Dubai. When the bank’s chief executive officer wanted to invest in newly built apartments in Kabul, he took almost $18 million.

The terms were hard to beat: no collateral, little or no interest. And repayment optional, at least in practice.

Those are just a few of the loans detailed in a damning internal report by Afghanistan’s own Central Bank, which depicts the Afghan political elite as using Kabul Bank, the country’s biggest financial institution, as their own private piggy bank.

The report both raises questions about why the authorities did not act sooner, and suggests the answers lay in the political connections of the bank’s officers and shareholders — the recipients of most of the roughly $900 million in bad loans.

"Transparency and accountability were sacrificed to widespread falsifications in order to cover up the use of influence," the Central Bank’s officials wrote in the Oct. 20, 2010, report, a copy of which was recently obtained by The New York Times.

“It was like a Ponzi scheme,” said a Western diplomat familiar with the bank’s dealings. “The bank had to keep marketing and getting more deposits to fund the loans that they weren’t getting interest on.”

The report also suggests that Kabul Bank’s long-term finances are in far more dire shape than previously understood, which explains why the Central Bank has been discussing putting the bank into receivership. The International Monetary Fund is pressing for receivership as a condition of renewing its program with Afghanistan. Lacking that, some key donors are planning to withhold aid from the country.

Whether the government will approve the dissolution of the bank is not yet clear, but whatever its future, as the Central Bank outlines in its report, there will be high costs for the Afghan government, which will have to make good on the nonperforming loans in order to keep depositors whole.

News reports on Sunday and Monday that the Central Bank had formally decided to dissolve Kabul Bank were denied by officials at the Central Bank and at the Afghan Ministry of Finance Sunday and Monday. "In fact no decisions have been taken yet by the Central Bank and the government of Afghanistan," said Said Ishaq Allawi, an adviser to the governor of the Central Bank. "Technical issues are being discussed right now. No decision has been made on the fate of Kabul Bank."

However, an Afghan banking official did confirm that the Supreme Council of the Central Bank, its governing board, had voted in favor of dissolution of Kabul Bank, putting its assets, deposits and remaining good loans up for sale, and the rest into receivership. However, discussions are continuing within the Central Bank on implementation of that decision, and the Afghan government will have to approve the decision through a body called the Financial Disputes Resolution Commission, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to bank secrecy rules. Officials at the commission said Monday they had not yet been notified of any move to dissolve Kabul Bank, according to secretary Mahmadullah Firoz.

Mr. Allawi, the Central Bank spokesman, said the bank would have no comment on the Central Bank’s internal report.

The sheer scale of the fraud and the lack of documentation about where exactly the money went appears to have initially stunned Central Bank officials. “All administrative bodies, supervisory bodies and decision-making bodies in the bank” played a role in the fraud, wrote the Central Bank’s internal auditors. So did the shareholders, who knew each other personally and were involved in joint bank-financed ventures. They “engineered extensive violations and used influence” with the bank’s executives, so that they would have a ready source of money, the report said.

With considerable effort and only limited support from the government, the Central Bank has belatedly tried to stem the flood of red ink. Its officials have worked hard to secure loan repayment agreements from the major borrowers and shareholders, but it has not been easy. Not all of them agreed to repayment schedules. Others disputed the full amount of their loans saying they should only have to repay a portion of the money. In some cases the loans were for businesses from which little money could be recouped even if the assets were sold off. For instance, the $98 million poured into Pamir Airways could not be repaid by selling its small fleet of aging airplanes, which are now grounded.

Those borrowers and shareholders who did sign repayment agreements, agreed to long-term installment plans that could take three to seven years to pay off. Some diplomats doubt that the borrowers will make good even on those agreements and say that only an estimated $30 million to $50 million has been repaid so far out of an estimated $700 million to $900-plus million in dubious loans. While some of those loans are being repaid with interest, the vast majority are not, according to the Central Bank report, which lists the bank’s total outstanding loans as $986 million.

The interest the bank was earning on its nonperforming loans was so low that come last September, when depositors briefly made a run on the bank, it was earning "a small amount in comparison with the bank’s fixed costs," the report said, suggesting that depositors’ money would have to cover those costs.

Among the Central Bank’s findings were that Kabul Bank’s management kept two sets of books: a fake set in Kabul and a real set in Dubai at the Shaheen Currency Exchange, which was run by Sherkhan Farnood, the bank’s chairman. The bank never showed the real books to the Central Bank or to outside accountants who audited the bank’s books, the report said.

And even those “real” books did not include all transactions. In some cases loan recipients were concealed by multiple front men and loans were often made in the name of fictional people or fictional companies. Some loans were even given to anonymous or unknown borrowers.

In addition, bank officers handed money out to political campaigns, to artists, a sports team and influential figures, and simply used bank revenues to pay for their own life styles, the report said.

The Central Bank report gives a sense of the scale of the fraud by noting that just from February through August last year, Kabul Bank granted 101 loans without any real loan documents — for a total value of $387.1 million. This was done both to evade banking laws which limit how much money any one borrower can take from the bank, but also to make it look as if the bank had a number of interest-playing loans, when in many cases no interest was being paid at all.

Among the 18 breaches of Afghan banking law and regulations detailed in the Central Bank’s report is that the bank invested directly in businesses other than banking, including an airline, a television station, numerous real estate construction ventures and gas transport. Some of those business then attempted to drive out rivals by slashing prices below the cost of the product, losing millions of dollars. For instance Pamir Airlines cut its ticket prices to Dubai so far below its costs (at one time to $50 a ticket) that no other airline could compete on price. However, it failed to drive out competitors. After a fatal plane crash killing 44 persons, Pamir was unable to compensate the victims and was recently shut down by the Afghan Civil Aviation ministry for its poor safety record.

The largest number of loans, other than those taken by the bank’s chairman, Mr. Farnood, went to first vice-president Marshall Fahim’s brother, Abdul Haseen Fahim. Mr. Fahim had a share in at least three companies that took loans totaling $182 million. While Mr. Fahim’s had only a share in each of the companies that borrowed money, his presence, like that of Mahmoud Karzai’s, helped to curtail scrutiny of the loan’s validity, according to diplomats.

In an interview Mr. Fahim downplayed the significance of his loans and suggested that the bank and Mr. Farnood bore the main responsibility. “The main money is with Sherkhan,” he said. Mr. Fahim said he had paid off “10 percent to 20 percent” of his loan, but did not say whether that referred to one loan, or to the total of all his loans.

He added that the government should not take over the bank. “The government should not own the bank because anything that belongs to government becomes a bureaucracy.”

According to the Central Bank report Mr. Fahim agreed with another shareholder, Khalilullah Fruzi, the bank’s former chief executive, to pay back $24 million he borrowed for Gas Group, one of his energy sector ventures. However, the total amount borrowed by Gas Group was at least $121 million, according to the report, leaving unclear how Kabul Bank will obtain the other $97 million. Mr. Fahim also owes a total of $40 million for a loan to the Zahid Walid Group. He has paid back $4 million and asked for a term-loan for the balance.

His third major loan was $21 million for the Kabul Oil Company, in which he had a partial ownership along with Mohammed Ismail Ghazanfar, the owner of Ghazanfar Bank; Atta Muhammad Noor, a former Northern Alliance commander and now the governor of Balkh Province; and Kamal Nabizada, a business magnate in northern Afghanistan. Mr. Ghazanfar subsequently sold his share to the Kabul Bank chairman, Mr. Farnood.

The report says that auditors doubt that the Kabul Oil Company’s loan could ever be repaid because it “has no operation now in this field and has not left any moveable or immoveable assets (chattels or real estate.)” No one seems to know where the money went.

The governor of Balkh, Mr. Noor, said the business never got off the ground and that while he was a partner he never played any active role. “The business never went forward,” he said. Although the Central Bank report does not mention Mahmoud Karzai, a brother of the president, as a shareholder in the company, Mr. Noor said that Mr. Karzai also had a share.

Mr. Karzai has agreed to pay back only a sliver of what he owes, according to the Central Bank report. According to the Central Bank, he borrowed a total of nearly $18 million (without interest): $5.9 million to buy real estate in Dubai; $7.2 million for his shares in Kabul bank; and $4.7 million for his “personal accounts” and shares in the Afghan Investment Company.

“As soon as the officials of the loan department in Kabul Bank and the Central bank started settlement of the accounts, he denied purchase of the real estate in Dubai and called it the personal property of Sherkhan Farnood,” according to the report.

However, Mr. Karzai did pay back the money he borrowed for his personal use and has agreed to a repayment schedule for his loan for his investment in the cement company.

The International Monetary Fund and a number of Western diplomats believe that the wrongdoers must be held to account in order to restore Afghans’ faith in the banking system, including criminal prosecutions. However, it is unclear that the government is committed to that level of public scrutiny of those close to the presidential palace. Still, the government’s official line is that those who committed the fraud will be prosecuted. “Kabul Bank is a criminal case,” said Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the Afghan National Security adviser, in an interview earlier this month.

“For the interest of the financial system we have to protect the money and property of our people; in the coming days we will have more investigations; this can not be business as usual,” he said.

The International Monetary Fund has suspended its program with Afghanistan because of its dismay at the handling of banking regulation and Kabul Bank in particular, which has delayed the ability of several western donors to funnel money to the Afghan government. One is the British government which has delayed $137 million in funds, and many others are expected to follow suit.

"The Afghans still do not have a solution to the Kabul Bank mess and they just don’t seem to realize how serious it is," a Western diplomat said recently.

I.M.F. officials and donor countries want to see the misappropriated loans repaid out of Afghan government tax revenues -- rather than through the money it gets from donors, who finance the great majority of the country’s operating budget.

Kabul Bank’s biggest depositor has been the Afghan government itself, which pays military and police salaries through the bank; most of those funds are provided directly by the United States.

Pakistani soldiers die in ambush near Afghan border

At least 11 Pakistani soldiers have been killed in an ambush by suspected militants close to the Afghan border, officials say.

The military convoy was attacked in the north-west Khyber tribal region, near the city of Peshawar.

The dead included a colonel and a captain in the paramilitary Frontier Corps, a government official said.

Pakistani forces are often targeted by militants linked to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the tribal regions.

Islamabad has launched several operations against insurgents along the Afghan border over the past two years.

Khyber government official Iqbal Khan said the convoy had been returning from a mission in three vehicles when it was attacked. He said several of the attackers were also killed, but gave no more details.

One report said 14 soldiers had died.

Dangerous game

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

It is more than apparent now. The western adventurists are in Libya for regime change, not for civilians’ protection as were they authorised by the UN Security Council. In fact, in that UN mandate’s cover, they are debilitating Muammar Qadhafi’s military muscle to help eastern revolutionaries gain upper hand over pro-government elements and make advances to capture more territories. Their sleight stands exposed from the way they are reacting to popular uprisings in Yemen and Bahrain, so akin to the Libyan revolution. In Yemen, as in Libya, military commanders and their units have revolted against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. His own kinsman and his number two in military, Major General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar has walked over to the revolutionaries’ camp. A number of ministers and diplomats too have defected. Even the country’s influential tribal confederacy, including his own tribe, has revolted. And no loath has he been in employing brute force to crush the student-led uprising. He too has unleashed his security forces and thugs as well as tanks and guns on street protestors and has also clamped down the country in a state of emergency. And in Bahrain, the al-Khalifa royals after failing to smash the popular revolt with their own security forces have called in troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to crush the movement. Besides, they have put their Gulf island state under martial law. Yet neither has drawn a strong reaction from the western adventurists as has Qadhafi. Obviously, their humanitarianism, spurious and self-serving as it is, has caved in to their vested interests there. They in fact are deeply worried, particularly the Americans, if Saleh is turfed out by the revolutionaries, which in all probability he would be, Yemen may then not be as pliable to them as is it now. And they are fearful if the al-Khalifa royals go, not only the Americans may be in a pickle in keeping Bahrain as their Fifth Fleet’s base but the island state may fall into the orbit of Iranian influence. So they are all hedges and caveats in reacting to Yemeni and Bahraini popular upsurges while suffer from no such inhibitions in Libya. But they are playing there with a fire with regional ramifications Libya is no monolithic polity, as are not the Arab polities by and large. It is a conglomerate of tribes, divided by mutual rivalries as well as confessional, sectarian, even ethnic antipathies, as are so many other Arab polities. These diverse entities were held together under Qadhafi’s authoritative rule, as are other Arab polities under their own autocratic dispensations. By egging on the eastern Libyans to go for a kill in Tripoli, the western adventurists are making for tribal animosities to engulf Libya with a civil strife that may not even remain confined to its own frontiers. But they appear least pushed, as they now seem eyeing Syria as their next target, as evidenced by the popular upsurge’s coverage there by their western media, which so perceptibly is no more an objective observer but fully partisan and participant of their bloating adventurism. Nonetheless, their experience of Iraq should hold them back. The US-led war party descended there, thinking their Iraqi adventurism would just be a cakewalk. But it turned out to be their nightmare. And almost ten years down the lane and a lot of expending of blood and treasure, apart from the terrible holocaust of the Iraqis, they are leaving it when it is still to fully be at peace with itself, even as it has gone through a horrible period of wholesale bloodletting on sectarian, tribal and terrorist lines. If all sanity has not left them, the western adventurists must work for a political settlement in Libya that stands in the best interest of the Libyan people, not theirs own. The prospectus otherwise portend to be very harrowing for the Libyans of course, but for them too. The Libyan resistance too in its blind desperation should not become just a pawn in their hands for some transient gains to rue later. And Qadhafi must also understand his time is over and in his people’s greater interest he must himself volunteer to lay down the baton he has held and wielded for so long as 41 years. Those Arab autocracies and royalties reigning for so long so despotically, too, must know their party is over and on their own submit to their enslaved subjects’ wills, wishes and rights.

Karzai urges neighbours to support transition

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, during a visit to Tehran, said countries in the region, especially Iran and Pakistan should support the security transition to Afghan lead. President Karzai made the statement in Tehran where he was invited for a Nowruz festival. The Afghan President has also met with President Ahmadinejad yesterday evening. The two leaders discussed security transition to Afghans, the situation in the region as well as in the middle east, and the fight against drug trafficking. Ahmadinejad expressed his country's support of the security transion to Afghan lead. As Afghanistan is slowly approaching the first phase of security hand-over, the Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak has urged international community to equip the Afghan forces with heavy weaponry ahead of the transition. Emphasising on proper equipment of Afghan forces, Mr Wardak said that international community has to make sure the counrtry's army finds the potential to resist against regional and international threats. Afghan and US military officials have earlier spoken of a tough war ahead this year. There are currently more than 300,000 personnel in the Afghan national army and police.

Carter returning to Cuba, raising expectations

Revolutionaries closing in on Tripoli

Libyan revolutionary forces, already in full control of several key cities, are reportedly advancing towards the capital, Tripoli.

Anti-regime forces say they have captured the city of Sirt -- the hometown of embattled ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

However, reports suggest they are still locked in fighting with Gaddafi troops.

At least nine explosions have been reported in the city on Monday. No further details are available.

The opposition forces have already taken control of the cities of Ras Lanuf, Ben Jawad, Uqaylah, Ajdabiyah and Brega.

They are now pushing their way westwards along the coastline towards Tripoli where Gaddafi is holed up.

Meanwhile, fresh coalition airstrikes are reported as Libya's revolutionary forces advance closer to the capital.

According to Libyan media reports, Western forces have targeted residential areas in the southern city of Sabha, leaving civilian casualties.

Dozens of civilians have been killed in Libya since US-led forces launched aerial and sea attacks on the North African country. Moreover, Libyan troops have also killed thousands of civilians since the revolution started against Colonel Gaddafi in mid-February.

Russian Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has accused the US-led military coalition of igniting a civil war in the North African country.

He has also charged that the US-led airstrikes were in violation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 that envisaged a no-fly zone only to protect civilians.

"We are currently seeing and hearing media reports, here as well as in Europe and in the US, saying that officials of the countries involved in this coalition are making statements that on the one hand are confirming that the only goal they are pursuing is the protection of the civilian population, but on the other hand reports are coming - and no one denies them - on coalition air force strikes against Gadhafi's columns of troops, reports about the support of the actions of the armed insurgents. There is a clear contradiction here. We believe that interference of the coalition in the internal - as a matter of fact - civil war, has not been sanctioned by the UN Security Council resolution," Lavrov told a news conference on Monday.

Syrian forces fire to disperse Deraa protest

Syrian forces opened fire to disperse hundreds of protesters in Deraa calling for an end to emergency laws on Monday, but demonstrators regrouped despite a heavy troop deployment, a witness said.
At least 61 people have been killed in 10 days of anti-government protests in the southern city, posing the most serious challenge to President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
Assad has yet to respond to the demonstrations, which have spread to the port city of Latakia and Hama, but Vice President Farouq al-Shara said Assad would announce important decisions in the next 48 hours.
The demonstrators in Deraa had converged on a main square chanting: "We want dignity and freedom" and "No to emergency laws", the witness said. He said security forces fired in the air for several minutes, but protesters returned when they stopped.
Security forces had in recent days reduced their presence in the poor, mostly Sunni city, but residents said on Monday they had returned in strength.
"(Security forces) are pointing their machine guns at any gatherings of people in the area near the mosque," said a trader, referring to the Omari Mosque which has been a focal point of demonstrations in the city.
Abu Tamam, a Deraa resident whose house overlooks the mosque, said soldiers and central security forces had a presence "almost every meter". Another resident from the Jawabra tribe said snipers had repositioned on many key buildings.
"No one dares to move," he said, speaking before Monday's demonstration began.
Such demonstrations would have been unthinkable a couple of months ago in Syria, where the Baath Party has been in power for nearly 50 years but now faces the wave of Arab revolutionary sentiment which has toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
Vice President Shara said Assad would announce important decisions that will "please the Syrian people" in the next two days, according to Lebanese Hezbollah's al-Manar television. Syria has close links to Shi'ite Hezbollah and Shi'ite Iran.
Assad, 45, sent in troops to the key port city of Latakia on Saturday, signaling the government's growing alarm about the ability of security forces to keep order there.
The government has said 12 people were killed in clashes between "armed elements" -- whom they blame for the violence -- citizens and security forces. Rights activists have said at least six people had been killed in two days of clashes.
State television showed on Sunday deserted streets in Latakia, littered with rubble and broken glass and two burned-out, gutted buses. Latakia is inhabited by a potentially volatile mix of Sunni Muslims, Christians and the minority Alawites who constitute Assad's core support.
Assad has pledged to look into granting greater political and media freedoms but this has failed to dampen the protest movement now in its 11th day.
In an attempt to placate protesters, authorities have freed 260 mostly Islamist prisoners. They also released political activist Diana Jawabra and 15 others arrested for taking part in a silent protest.

Obama's Moral Case For War

In the President's Libya speech tonight, he'll have to deflect critics who ask why we're taking on Gaddafi--but not other murderous regimes. Peter Beinart on Why Consistency in Foreign Policy is Overrated.
There are plenty of smart objections to America’s Libya intervention. But when President Obama addresses the nation on Monday night, he should rebut the stupidest one: that America shouldn’t wage humanitarian war in Libya because we’re not doing so in Congo, Zimbabwe and every other nasty dictatorship on earth.
The consistency argument, it’s important to understand, has nothing to do with Congo and Zimbabwe. Most of the people who invoke those ill-fated countries showed no interest in them before the Libya debate and will go back to ignoring them once Libya is off the front page. Ask someone who demands moral consistency in humanitarian war how exactly they propose to intervene in Congo and you will quickly realize that the call for moral consistency is actually a call for immoral consistency. The point of invoking the horrors of Congo is not to convince the US to act to stop the horrors of Congo; it is to ensure that, out of respect for the raped, murdered and maimed in Central Africa, we allow innocents to be raped, murdered and maimed in North Africa as well. The Congolese, presumably, will find it comforting to know that the great powers are as just as indifferent to savagery in other lands as they are to the savagery in theirs.
There will always be horrors that outside powers cannot or will not prevent. But the fact that they cannot be stopped everywhere is no reason not to try to stop them somewhere.
There is a serious argument against humanitarian intervention. It starts with the belief that international affairs is by nature tragic. Terrible things happen in distant societies but we do not really understand them, and so our efforts at amelioration either prove futile or actually make things worse. We think that because our motives are pure we can violate the norms of sovereignty that we guard jealously when it comes to our own affairs, but in so doing we open—or reopen—the door to a predatory imperialism that can do even greater harm. And finally, by spending money on distant lands we bankrupt our own.
What unites these arguments is a belief that foreign policy must be Hippocratic: First, do no harm. But the advocates of moral consistency cannot stomach this moral minimalism so they cloak it in moral maximalism: Rather than arguing against humanitarian war anywhere, they argue for it everywhere, which is a less honest way of saying the same thing.
But humanitarian war is not possible everywhere because war is never waged for humanitarian reasons alone. There is nothing strange or scandalous, for instance, about considering logistics. NATO is intervening in Libya in part because Libya lies relatively close to the NATO countries that are doing the intervening, as did Bosnia and Kosovo. That means the operation can be done more cheaply, at less risk to American and European lives, and with a greater chance of success, than in Zimbabwe or Congo. Those are all valid considerations, as valid as a doctor choosing to operate on the patient he has the best chance of saving.
Libya also resides in a more strategically important part of the world than do Congo and Zimbabwe. In intervening there, the US hopes not only to save innocent Libyans, but to bolster its reputation and relationships with the activists seeking to replace Gaddafi and his fellow tyrants in the oil-rich Middle East. To say that makes the Libya intervention immoral is like saying that covering the uninsured was immoral because Barack Obama hoped it would win him votes. It’s also true that NATO is intervening in Libya because, unlike say, Burma, is does not lie within the sphere of influence of a hostile great power. That’s also a pretty reasonable consideration if one wants humanitarian interventions to succeed, and not increase the risk of superpower war.
The point is that there is no purely moral position from which to judge international affairs. At best, moral concerns coincide with practical, self-interested ones. It may be that this nexus never offers much hope for a place like Congo. But that hope is probably slightly greater if the West intervenes—successfully—in Libya than if it does not. In the 1990s, after all, critics condemned the Bosnia intervention because the West was not stopping genocide outside Europe. It was in large measure because the West did stop genocide in Europe, however, that the world’s non-intervention in Rwanda was considered in retrospect such a disgrace. Spurred by the memory of Rwanda, activists from around the world drew attention to the killing in Darfur. And now, in part because of that widening circle of outrage, NATO is doing in North Africa what fifteen years ago critics charged it would do only in Europe.
There will always be horrors that outside powers cannot or will not prevent. But the fact that they cannot be stopped everywhere is no reason not to try to stop them somewhere. And showing that they can be stopped somewhere—first in Bosnia and Kosovo, hopefully now in Libya—may make dictators pause to reflect that they could be next. That’s moral progress, which in the ugly, real world is a pretty impressive thing.

Afghanistan agrees to break up fraud-hit bank

Under threat of the loss of support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and billions of dollars of aid, the Afghan government has agreed to break up Afghanistan's biggest private lender after a multi-million dollar fraud scandal.

Diplomats in Kabul said government approval for placing Kabulbank into receivership would be given later on Monday and the process would be complete within two weeks, clearing the way for the IMF to renew its support programme under which billions of dollars of foreign aid are mandated.

All existing shareholders' rights will be extinguished and a special court set up by President Hamid Karzai to determine complaints from last year's troubled parliamentary election would conduct fraud prosecutions, one diplomat said.

Karzai's government and the IMF have been at loggerheads since last September, when news emerged of the scandal at the politically well-connected Kabulbank that has put at risk at least $579 million dollars through fraud, bad loans and mismanagement.

The IMF last month delivered a withering assessment of the Afghan government's handling of the Kabulbank crisis, a review that raised the possibility of the IMF not renewing support.

The IMF wanted the bank placed into receivership immediately to stem losses, while the Afghan government wanted to keep the bank trading and rehabilitate it before a sale in two or three years.

An IMF representative briefed diplomats in the capital, Kabul, late on Sunday. One Western diplomat based in Kabul said negotiations would be concluded during the annual World Bank conference in Washington from April 11-18.

"The renewal of IMF support is one of the conditions that will allow the alignment of our programmes with Afghan needs," the Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.

"It's very encouraging that the government and president Karzai are taking it seriously," he said.

Earlier this month, the British government said it would delay payment of 85 million pounds ($136 million) in aid to Afghanistan because of the continued lack of an IMF support programme, the first warning shot fired by Afghanistan's international aid donors over the banking crisis. [ID:nLDE7282L3]

Britain's Department For International Development said at the time IMF support was used by donors as an indication of sound economic and financial management.

The delayed British aid was to have been paid into the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), the main vehicle for donor funding.

The bank would not be closed, the Western diplomat said, despite some media reports suggesting it would.

"The bank will not be closed," he said. "The good assets will be transferred into a new bank. The bad assets will be put into a 'bad account' and the asset recovery programme will begin."

Much of the missing money was paid out in loans to buy luxury villas in Dubai, where the property markets has since slumped.

The Western diplomat said the central bank had already pumped in $200 million since it took control of Kabulbank last September and the Ministry of Finance would offer a government bond to help cover losses.

Central bank Governor Abdul Qadir Fitrat could not be reached for comment.

The central bank has said the bank is now stable and has argued that putting it into receivership might cause a run on it and other banks, as happened to Kabulbank last year.

Karzai's government has long been plagued by accusations of endemic corruption, and the Kabulbank scandal added a banking crisis to Afghanistan's troubles, which include a growing Taliban-led insurgency and political paralysis. [ID:nSGE71D06A]

Western officials were especially angry about the Kabulbank crisis because its main customers are thousands of small investors in one of the poorest countries in the world.

It also handles salaries for about 300,000 civil servants and the Afghan security forces, which amount to about $100 million a month. U.S. And NATO forces are busily training Afghan forces to take security responsibility so foreign troops can leave by 2014.

Among three senior Kabulbank executives and shareholders who are under investigation is Mohammad Haseen, the brother of First Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim.

Another major shareholder whose rights will be extinguished is Karzai's brother Mahmoud Karzai, who owns about 7 percent of the bank but is not under investigation in Afghanistan.

Pakistan: False Accords In Kurram – Analysis

By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty

On February 3, 2011, an Aman Jirga (peace conclave) between Sunni and Shia tribes in the Kurram Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) signed an accord to end bloodshed between the two sects.

On March 13, a group of militants attacked a Shia convoy coming from Kurram Agency, at Mamo Khwar area of Hangu District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, leaving 11 passengers dead and six injured.

On March 25, at least 13 passengers were killed and eight were injured, while another 33 were abducted by suspected militants, in an attack on a convoy of passenger vehicles in the Kurram Agency. Sources indicated that the victims were Turi tribesmen of the Shia sect. The convoy had entered Kurram Agency after crossing the Chapari check-post via Thall tehsil (revenue unit) in the Hangu District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

In the wake of the second attack, Sajid Hussain Turi, the Member of the National Assembly (MNA) from the Kurram Agency, declared the agreement signed by the warring tribes was a ‘useless document’, and that the attack on passengers by terrorists was a failure of security agencies and a serious breach of the peace deal.

A grand jirga (tribal council) composed of tribal elders and parliamentarians from the FATA, had announced a peace accord between Shias and Sunnis at Parachinar, the headquarters of the Kurram Agency, on February 3, 2011. The ‘truce’ was declared after three years of fighting that left over 2,000 dead and at least 3,500 injured.

Headed by Malik Waris Khan Afridi, a former Federal Minister from the Khyber Agency, the 225-member tribal jirga took two years to arrange a negotiated settlement of the issue. MNA Sajid Toori from Parachinar and MNA Muneer Orakzai played leading roles to bring the two sides to the negotiation table. Federal Minister of Interior Rehman Malik also attended the news conference announcing the accord, to demonstrate the Government’s support for this ‘historic’ event.

The jirga also appealed to the Government of Pakistan to ensure the execution of the accord, implying clearly that the state should re-establish its writ in the Agency. Indeed, even Fazal Saeed, ‘commander’ of the Kurram Chapter of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), declared that “anyone violating the new accord would be punished according to Shariah (Islamic law)… We will first ask the political administration and jirga members to take action against the side violating the agreement. But we will be justified to punish the violators after 15 days as per the accord.” Saeed asked Shias to use roads, including the Thall-Parachinar Road, without any fear, as the TTP was not against the peace deal between the Shia and Sunni elders. However, it was feared that the deal would not be acceptable to certain quarters of the TTP.

Sectarian violence is nothing new to the Kurram Agency, the only tribal Agency with a significant Shia population. Sectarian strife in the Agency dates back to the British era, long before the advent of sectarian terrorist groupings such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Sipah-e-Muhammad (SeM). About 40 percent of the region’s 500,000 inhabitants are Shia. Upper Kurram is inhabited largely by the Turi (the only Pashtun tribe which is wholly Shia) while Lower Kurram is inhabited by Sunnis, principally of the Bangash tribe. Historically the Turis were under domination of the Bangash, until the 18th century when they attacked the Bangash and pushed them into Lower Kurram.

There are disputes over land and water resources between Sunni and Shia tribes and sporadic incidents of communal violence have taken place since the 1930s, particularly during Muharram and Nowroz (the Iranian New Year is celebrated by the Shia). Till 1977, the Shias were in a preponderant majority in the Kurram Agency, on its border with Afghanistan, and in the areas of Gilgit and Baltistan. After the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in February, 1979, there was a measure of radicalisation among the Shias of these areas, who started demanding the creation of a separate Shia majority province, to be called the Karakoram Province, consisting of the Kurram Agency, the Northern Areas and other contiguous Shia majority areas. The leadership of this movement came mainly from the Turi tribe of the Kurram Agency. The movement was allegedly funded by the Iranian Intelligence. Then President General Zia-ul-Haq ruthlessly suppressed this movement, and also initiated a policy of re-settling Sunnis in these areas in order to control the Shias and dilute their preponderant majority. While Sunni ex-servicemen from other parts of Pakistan were re-settled in the Northern Areas, Afghan Sunni refugees were re-settled in the Kurram Agency. This led to widespread resentment among the Shias against the Government and the Sunni settlers.

The massive influx of Afghan refugees during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan inverted the demographic equation in the Agency, and also introduced a militant (Taliban) brand of the Sunni ideology, at a time when the Shias of Parachinar, under the leadership of cleric Allama Arif Hussain al-Hussaini, were being radicalized by the Iranian Revolution. As modern weapons became available, clashes grew in frequency and intensity, while the local administration was viewed as indifferent or partisan.

The first large-scale attack was recorded in 1986, when the Turis prevented Sunni Mujahideen from passing through to Afghanistan. General Zia ul-Haq allowed a purge of the Turi Shias at the hands of the Afghan Mujahideen, with the active help and assistance of local Sunnis. Arif Hussain Al Hussaini was killed in Peshawar on August 5, 1988, and the Turis held General Zia responsible. The Kurram Agency has also been the scene of frequent Shia-Sunni clashes, with most of the attacks by the Shias directed against the Afghan and Pakistani Sunni settlers brought in by Zia.

Another round of the conflict began in 2001, when the Shias refused to offer shelter to al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban fleeing from US led NATO forces. Both the nature and dimensions of the sectarian conflict were transformed after 2001, with organised terrorist and insurgent groupings, including the Taliban getting involved in what was, earlier, far more irregular confrontations between local tribes.

There was a recrudescence of the violence in April 2007, after three people were killed and 13 injured, when Shias were attacked in an Imambargah in the morning of April 6, 2007. The trouble erupted when Shias staged a demonstration outside their mosque against local Sunnis, who had allegedly chanted anti-Shia slogans during a religious rally the previous week. At least 40 persons were killed and an unspecified number were wounded at Parachinar and other parts of the Kurram Agency on the second day of sectarian clashes that followed. Another 16 were killed on the third day, as sectarian clashes spread to most parts of the tribal region bordering Afghanistan. Despite a cease-fire between the rival Sunni and Shia groups on April 9, sectarian riots continued for three days in different parts of the Kurram Agency. The Army used helicopter gunships to control Parachinar and Sadda (headquarters of Lower Kurram), but the fighting continued in the rural areas.

Another round of sectarian violence commenced in the month of November 2007. At least 86 persons were killed and over 50 were injured during a clash at Parachinar on November 16, 2007. A 16-member peace jirga headed by Pir Haider Ali Shah brokered a cease-fire on November 19, but failed to stem the violence. At least 129 persons were killed and over 300 were injured in the Tangi and Mengak areas in the night of November 23. The very next day, violence claimed another 50 lives. Local Sunnis were joined by al-Qaeda fighters and the TTP from Waziristan, and even paramilitary forces were targeted. The situation in Parachinar and Sadda town, however, remained peaceful as the Army, Frontier Corps and Kurram Militia personnel had taken control of the town. The cease-fire also remained intact in Balishkhel and Ibrahimzai, where no untoward incident took place.

According to UNHCR, 6,000 Sunnis, mostly women and children, fled to Afghanistan in January 2008. The clashes intensified during the summer, and the Government was blamed for doing nothing to stop the influx of militant outsiders from North Waziristan. In June 2008, people from Kurram staged a demonstration in front of Parliament House in Islamabad, seeking the intervention of the Federal Government, but to no avail. Instead, the Government kept denying the sectarian problem in Kurram, blaming a ‘foreign hand’ for pitting the tribes against each other.

As the violence continued, the road from Parachinar to Peshawar was blocked, resulting in a shortage of food and medicines. Shia truck drivers were abducted and beheaded. Shia communities were besieged, as Sunnis controlled the road from Parachinar to Thal. People going to Peshawar were forced to travel across the much longer and difficult route, via Paktia and Kabul.

A unilateral cease-fire was declared by the Turis ahead of Ramzan (Islamic holy month) on September 2, 2008, but the bloodshed continued. A peace jirga was later convened in Islamabad under the supervision of the Political Agent of Kurram. More than 1,500 persons had been killed and 5,000 had been injured in sectarian clashes in the Agency over the preceding year-and-a-half, The News reported on September 19, 2008.

The intervention of the Haqqani network in the Kurram peace talks, which dates back to 2007, has also surprised and concerned many, since this group had been associated principally with the wars in Afghanistan, and had its base in North Waziristan. The US has been pressurising the Pakistan Government for months to dislodge the Haqqanis from the North Waziristan Agency. Khalil and Ibrahim, sons of the network’s founder Jalaluddin Haqqani, had reportedly been meeting tribal elders from Kurram in Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and in Islamabad, to end the hostilities between the local tribes. The last round of these talks was held in Islamabad on October 10, 2010. “They first turned up at a meeting held in Peshawar in the first week of September,” a tribal elder told the media, and his account was corroborated by another elder, who added that the two brothers were also present at a second meeting in the provincial capital on September 16, 2010, and then at one in Islamabad.

The Kurram tribes are wary of the involvement of the Haqqanis, because they assume that such intervention would have the tacit approval of the Army, which has strong links with the Haqqani network. Reports suggest that the Haqqanis have sought full authority and machlaka (bonds) from rival factions before hammering out a new peace agreement. The proposed deal will be binding on all parties. The tribes, however, remain reluctant to give full authority and machlaka to the Haqqanis, and the February Accord sought to marginalize the Haqqani initiative.

Through all this, the Pakistan Government and Army have chosen to remain silent observers, implicitly backing the Haqqani initiative, despite the US pressures to act against this group.

Meanwhile, tribal groups are stressing that the Murree Agreement of October 16, 2008, brokered by the Government and signed by all the tribes, be implemented. Under the agreement, the rival tribes deposited PKR 20 million with the local authorities as a guarantee that they would refrain from fighting. But the five-point Agreement, which covers all major issues, has never been implemented. Tribesmen blame a lack of interest on the part of the Government for this.

On March 1, 2011, shortly after the Kurram Accord, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani announced PKR one billion in the current budget and PKR 700 million in next year’s budget for rehabilitation of an estimated 32 thousand residents of the Kurram Agency who left their homes due to sectarian riots and militancy. Gilani stressed that the amount allocated for the purpose of rehabilitation and welfare of the affected people must be spent in the “most transparent manner, so that everybody who had suffered during the last four years may benefit from the compensation”.

But the Kurram Accord is little more than a collection of recommendations and appeals to the Government of Pakistan, with no corresponding guarantees from the Government’s side. The Accord appeals to the Government of Pakistan for support and necessary action for the repatriation of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and implementation of the Murree Agreement; and for approval of a special development package for Kurram to compensate for the losses the agency has suffered in violent clashes since 2007. It ‘urges’ both Shias and Sunnis to ‘show restraint’ and cooperate with the Government for peace, and calls on the political administration and Security Forces to play their due roles to re-establish their writ in the Agency.

Islamabad, however, has never been in good faith on the issue of sectarian violence, and shows no inclination to end the conflict. Indeed, there is almost no official resistance to any actions – including militant activity – that would help bring the Shia minority to heel, and the administration appears to have intentionally ceded its writ in Kurram to Sunni extremists. With the state fanning the fires of hatred, Peace Accords can only end up in flames.

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management