Friday, July 22, 2011

Obama pushes compromise plan,Senate to vote on GOP debt measure

The Senate is set to vote Friday on the "cut, cap and balance" deficit reduction plan backed by tea party conservatives but dismissed by President Barack Obama.

This plan, which calls for cutting the nation's debt by about $3.7 trillion over the next 10 years, was passed by the Republican-led House of Representatives on Tuesday.

"Cut, cap and balance" is widely acknowledged to have virtually no chance of clearing the Senate or overcoming a promised presidential veto. Voting on it, however, allows Republicans to demonstrate their preference for steps favored by many in the tea party movement.

The plan includes the requirement that Congress pass a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution before agreeing to extend the federal debt ceiling.

The vote will happen some time Friday, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.
Obama was continuing Thursday to pursue a different plan that White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called the most "significant deficit reduction package possible."

The president and Vice President Joe Biden met for almost two hours Thursday with Democratic leaders from the House and Senate as sources indicated the negotiations were focusing on a deal to cut $3 trillion in federal deficits over the next 10 years that would be accompanied by a debt ceiling increase.

According to the congressional aides who spoke on condition of not being identified, the possible deal remains in limbo over a disagreement on whether to extend Bush-era tax cuts for families earning more than $250,000 a year. Nothing has been agreed to yet, they noted.

The possible deal would include spending cuts expected to total $1 trillion or more agreed to in earlier negotiations led by Biden, the sources said. It also would reform entitlement programs by changing the eligibility age for Medicare over time, and using a more restrictive inflation index for Social Security benefits, according to the sources.

On taxes, it would permanently extend the Bush tax cuts for families earning less than $250,000 while allowing the cuts to expire at the end of 2012 for those with income above that, the aides said. At the same time, the deal would include a commitment to reform the tax code next year, which is expected to lower all tax rates and eliminate loopholes and subsidies, the sources said.

However, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wants the deal to make all of the Bush tax cuts permanent while keeping the commitment to tax reform, the sources said. Republicans oppose any tax hikes, and their resistance has been a major obstacle to any deal in the negotiations so far.

Some sources said the deal would work in two stages, with spending cuts and a debt ceiling increase occurring right away while entitlement reforms and tax reforms would occur later.

Earlier, Carney denied a report by the New York Times that Obama and Boehner were close to reaching a deal.

"There is no deal. We are not close to a deal," Carney told reporters. "There is no progress to report."

A spokesman for Boehner's office echoed Carney, denying any reportable progress. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, told reporters he was "unaware of any deal that has been struck."

Other signs pointed to possible movement in the talks. Carney signaled to reporters earlier in the week that Obama may now be willing to sign a short-term debt limit extension if Democratic and Republican leaders are close to agreement on a broader deficit reduction deal that includes both tax hikes and spending reforms.

Obama previously indicated he would veto any short-term extension.

Boehner huddled with some Republican freshmen after meeting with Obama on Wednesday night, and is set to hold meeting with the entire House GOP caucus Friday. He told reporters Thursday that while some House Republicans wouldn't compromise, he didn't believe they "would be anywhere close to the majority."

The highly contentious negotiations -- reflecting the core ideological beliefs of both parties -- have now become a race against the clock. If Congress fails to raise the $14.3 trillion limit by August 2, Americans could face rising interest rates, a declining dollar and increasingly jittery financial markets, among other problems.

The seriousness of the overall situation was reinforced last week when a major credit-rating agency, Standard and Poor's, said it was placing the U.S. sovereign rating on "CreditWatch with negative implications." Another major agency -- Moody's Investors Services -- said it would put America's bond rating on review for a possible downgrade.

"Even if Washington did raise the debt ceiling after just a few harrowing days following a default ... we envisage that the economy could fall quickly back into recession," Standard and Poor's said in a report Thursday

Lawmakers are also continuing discussions focused on the $3.7 trillion debt reduction blueprint put forward by the "Gang of Six," a group of three Democratic and three Republican senators.

Under the group's proposal, $500 billion in budget savings would be immediately imposed, with marginal income tax rates reduced and the controversial alternative minimum tax ultimately abolished.

The plan would create three tax brackets with rates from 8% to 12%, 14% to 22%, and 23% to 29% -- part of a new structure designed to generate an additional $1 trillion in revenue. It would require cost changes to Medicare's growth rate formula as well as $80 billion in Pentagon cuts.

Obama has praised the plan, calling it "broadly consistent" with his approach to debt reduction because it mixes tax changes, entitlement reforms and spending reductions.

Congressional leaders, however, have warned that there is most likely not enough time to translate the Gang of Six plan into legislation, tie it to a debt ceiling hike and pass it by August 2. In addition, the proposal has been hit with a barrage of criticism from both the right and the left.

Conservatives have complained about some of the plan's tax changes, while liberals have warned it would cut entitlement benefits too deeply.

Extreme heat settles over portions of East Coast

A heat wave blamed for as many as two dozen deaths settled over portions of the East Coast as the National Weather Service issued an extreme heat warning for much of the Mid-Atlantic, saying Friday would be the hottest day in the region.

The highest heat index values -- how hot it feels -- could reach 115 degrees in some locations, the weather service said.

"These triple-digit temperatures are forecast to remain in place across the eastern U.S. through Saturday," it said.

How hot is it where you live? Share your photos, videos and stories

The weather was expected to cool off slightly to the mid-90s by Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.

The warnings came as the heat wave broke 55 record highs and tied 60 more records in portions of the Midwest and the Ohio Valley, forecasters said.Millions were also being warned to avoid strenuous activity and exercise outdoors after the National Weather Service issued a number of code red air quality alerts -- meaning air pollution levels are considered unhealthy for the general population -- in a handful of cities, including Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Beat-the-heat advice from a pro

The heat has affected many outdoor activities, prompting one Minneapolis movie theater marquee to read, "We have AC. Who cares what's playing," and one Canadian couple to forgo their original plans while visiting the Twin Cities.

Scott Hoffort and his wife, Colleen, of Saskatchewan, Canada, arrived in Minneapolis Sunday with their camping gear, planning for a vacation spent mostly outdoors at a campground. Instead they're now doing "more touristy" things.

"We went from camping in a tent to staying in hotels, so that we could get air conditioning," said Hoffort said. "We spent a fair amount of time in the Mall of America yesterday because of the heat."

Heat hurts your insides too

About 100 people, primarily teenagers, were overcome Thursday by the heat at the Vans Warped Tour in Camden, New Jersey, where more than 12,000 people gathered at the outdoor concert, authorities said.

"I just, I guess got overheated and I got really dizzy," 17-year-old Maureen Meckly, who attended the concert, told CNN affiliate KYW. "I had to grab onto her (friends') shoulder to tell her I was passing out."

In Wildwood, New Jersey, tourists and residents beat the heat by heading to the ocean.

What a heatstroke feels like

But for some working hot food concession stands at Morey's Piers in Wildwood there was little relief.

"Sometimes it's so hot, I can't even breathe," Erik Perez, who works at Curley's Fries, told KYW.

In Newark, New Jersey, Mayor Cory Booker announced that facilities were available in every ward to help keep citizens cool.

"It is imperative that our residents drink plenty of fluids, stay indoors in a cool climate, and avoid strenuous activity," Booker said in a statement. "I urge our senior citizens and Newark residents who lack air conditioning to come to one of our cooling centers."

In New York, Con Edison called on customers to stay cool and not waste energy.

"Store owners who leave doors open with the A/C running could be subject to fines from the city," ConEd said.

The first confirmed heat-related death in Kansas City was declared Thursday, but it stemmed from a death last month. A 57-year-old man was found dead in his home on June 5, according to Dan Ferguson, who works for Jackson County.

In addition to the man's death, there are 13 other possible heat-related deaths in Missouri -- the youngest was a woman in her mid-30s, and the oldest were two women in their mid-70s, said Jeff Hershberger, spokesman for the Kansas City Health Department.

It may take six weeks to several months for officials to process toxicology tests to determine whether all 13 died of heat-related causes, Hershberger said.

In Wisconsin, a 65-year-old man from Fountain Prairie was confirmed by health officials to have died from heat-related causes Thursday, according to CNN affiliate WKOW. Columbia County Medical Examiner Angela Hinze said the man had underlying medical conditions that were made worse when he was helping a family member outside with housework.

In Oklahoma, four heat-related deaths have been confirmed since May, said Cherokee Ballard, a spokeswoman for the state medical examiner. Three of those occurred in the past 30 days, including a 3-year-old boy in a car in Norman and a 69-year-old man from Blackwell, she said.

An additional eight Oklahoma deaths may be related to the heat, she said, with most occurring in July.

CNN affiliate WPXI reported Thursday that a child accidentally locked in a hot car was rescued in Spring Hill, Pennsylvania. The girl's mother locked her keys in the car and immediately called for help, the report said. The girl was not hurt.

The high heat is also taking its toll on animals.

In South Dakota, 1,500 head of livestock have been lost to the heat, Larry Olsen of the Farm Service Agency told CNN affiliate KSFY.

Dozens of cattle died south of Harmony, Minnesota, CNN affiliate KTTC reported. And on a cattle farm just across the border in northern Iowa, an estimated 100 cattle died, the report said.

At the Brookfield Zoo just outside Chicago, staff kept water misters in exhibits and gave some animals huge blocks of ice filled with meat and fruit.

Afghan reconciliation process


Having tried to keep Pakistan out of the reconciliation process in Afghanistan, the US is now looking at Islamabad to press the Afghan Taliban to cooperate. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that Washington has noted Pakistan’s “legitimate interests” in Afghanistan, which is why it expects Pakistan to ask the Afghan Taliban to join the reconciliation process. This means that now noises of Pakistan’s central role in Afghanistan are being heard in the US. This is a realistic approach given how it is impossible to keep Pakistan out of the loop when the Afghan Taliban as well as the Haqqani network are in its fold. As the end game in Afghanistan comes closer, regional relationships and politics are all in a flux. This can be judged by President Asif Ali Zardari’s whirlwind trips. From Iran to Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia, the president has been rather busy. Ostensibly, President Zardari went to Iran to sort out the gas pipeline issue. He went to Afghanistan to condole with President Hamid Karzai at the loss of his half-brother. The president’s trip to Saudi Arabia could be looked at from two angles. One, ask for economic cooperation (read more oil and money). Two, to allay Saudi fears about greater cooperation with its archrival, Iran.

The solution to the Afghan quagmire does not rest in Pakistan’s hand solely. There are other major players who have stakes in this region. India has its own concerns. Ms Clinton tried to reassure India that “drawing down is not the same as disengaging” but at the same time she was also clear that everyone needs “to be on the same page for this to work...whether we live in Kabul or Islamabad, New Delhi or Washington”. It shows that the US is well aware of all stakeholders. Iran and Saudi Arabia are also important when it comes to Afghanistan. Iran hosted a counterterrorism summit in Tehran last month in which the leaders of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan “stressed their commitment to efforts aimed at eliminating extremism, militancy, terrorism, as well as rejecting foreign interference, which is in blatant opposition to the spirit of Islam, the peaceful cultural traditions of the region and its peoples’ interests”. As for Saudi Arabia, it wields considerable hold over the extremist forces in the region owing to Saudi-funded madrassas and covert and overt support to sectarian outfits. Pakistan’s military establishment created the Afghan Taliban and continues to support them. Thus it was a bit surprising to hear Prime Minister Gilani say that Pakistan believes in non-interference policy in Afghanistan. The prime minister obviously made this statement for public consumption but everybody is aware of ground realities.

The US, Afghanistan and other countries have been asking Pakistan for a long time now to stop providing safe havens to terrorist outfits. Pakistan has so far not acceded to this demand. Now, with formally being asked to play a central role in the Afghan reconciliation process, our military might think it has achieved the desired outcome. Unfortunately, this is a miscalculation. If and when the Afghan Taliban come to power in Afghanistan either through a power-sharing deal or directly once the foreign troops withdraw, Pakistan will be in further trouble. The local Taliban will be the actual beneficiaries of this deal. There will be more terrorist attacks in Pakistan. The only way to deal with it is to break our ties from all terrorist factions and launch a genuine crackdown against them. Peace in Pakistan will return once we realise how faulty our policies have been.

Power outage wreaks havoc in Khayber Pukhtunkhaw,Punjab

The people in the provinces of Punjab and Khayber Pukhtunkhaw losing patience over protracted power outage burst out on the roads and streets, while the situations in Sindh and Balochistan appear no different.

The people went on strike and blocked the roads in Shab-e-Qadar areas adjacent to the Mohmand Agecy, the strike at Khazakhela in Swat protesting prolonged power outage persisting, the rural and urban people of Chichawatni irked by the power breakdown came out on the roads and angrily protested, in Multan at Masumshah Road and other areas the citizens kept protesting against the non-supply of electricity since yesterday, however, on the assurance of the Wapda officials for soon restoring the electricity supply the demonstrators peacefully dispersed.

The situations in Sindh and Balochistan are no better. The people passing nights sleepless, while there being no electricity end in daytime the business and the industry suffering huge losses, while the daily wage earners rendered jobless.

Pakistan embassy in Washington biggest spender

The Pakistan embassy in Washington leads in terms of annual expenditures among all 121 foreign missions which the country maintains throughout the world, the National Assembly was informed on Thursday.

In reply to a question by Mr Muhammad Ali Khan, the lower house of the parliament came to know that during 2009-2010, the Pakistan embassy in Washington spent Rs775.172 million.

A written answer submitted by Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar further said the embassy had consumed Rs 474 million till March this year. Complete data on expenditures for 2010-2011 have yet to be collected.

Besides the embassy in Washington, the foreign ministry has a healthy presence in a number of other American cities as well.

In Chicago, the government spent Rs38 million in 2009-2010 and Rs39 million up to March this year. The expenditure at Houston was Rs39 million in 2009-2010 and Rs26 million up to March 2011, for Los Angeles the amounts were Rs74 million and Rs59 million, for New York (consul general`s office) Rs122 million and Rs 90 million New York, Rs270 million in 2009-2010 and Rs229 million till March 2011.

These figures show that despite Pakistan`s stop-start relationship with the United States, the Foreign Office has a substantial presence in that country. And their annual expenditures prove that the country`s diplomats in the US have busy lives.

An official of the Foreign Office defended the heavy presence in the US, saying the large Pakistani community benefited from it.

On the other hand, the Pakistan embassy in China has spent Rs107 million only during 2009-2010 and Rs80 million up to March this year Assembly.

Other foreign missions of the country which every year consume a significant amount of their annual expenditures include: Abu Dhabi Rs100 million in 2009-2010; Berlin Rs175 million; Dhaka Rs114 million, Dubai, Rs123 million, Geneva Rs244 million, Jeddah Rs138 million, Kabul Rs156 million, London Rs281 million, Moscow, Rs148 million, New Delhi, Rs237 million, Paris, Rs109 million, Singapore, Rs104 million, Tehran, Rs98 million, and Tokyo Rs99 million.

CRITERIA: In reply to a question about the criteria for establishing a mission abroad, the foreign minister said Islamabad “interacted with all countries that it recognised.” The minister further said resident missions were maintained in states depending on their political and economic significance as well as requirements of the expatriate community.

The prime minister is the competent authority to appoint ambassadors from among officers of the Foreign office of BS-20 and above depending upon their seniority and suitability for posting under consideration.

Instability in Balochistan

Southern Command Commander Lt Gen Jawaid Zia expressed his grave concern over the killings of Baloch missing persons and the dumping of their bodies in the streets and said that it might result in Balochistan breaking away from the country.

Lt Gen Jawaid Zia made these observations while talking to local editors and senior journalists at Quetta Press Club on Thursday. Inspector General of Frontier Corps Balochistan Major General Obaidullah Khattak was also present on the occasion.

In his first ever face-to-face chat with the local press, the lieutenant general said that the military had no hand in the disappearance of Baloch citizens, their killing, or their disposal in the streets of Balochistan. He said that the army realised that it was a very serious and highly sensitive issue and caused hatred.

“Certain ‘elements’ who do not believe in the courts are involved in the killing and throwing the dead bodies of missing persons, however despite that, if some are at fault and involved in some crime, this is not the way and there is no such policy of Army Chief General Kayani,” he said. He said that he was aware of the feelings aroused against the country and government when families lost their kith and kin. He said that the army was making efforts to restore the people’s confidence in their country.

He categorically dispelled the impression that the army wanted to capture the resources of Balochistan by setting up mines and initiating mineral projects, and said that the army would get nothing from these profit-making projects. He said that these projects were for the benefit of the people of the province. He said that no country could win wars without the support of its people. He said that the army wanted to set role models by taking active part in bringing about prosperity in Balochistan.

To a question about the relationship of the General Headquarters with the provincial government, he said that he and his corps were enjoying excellent support in various projects. He stated that the army was not a separate entity from the government and that they desired to help each other in various fields in Balochistan, particularly education. He said that the presence of the army chief, Balochistan governor and chief minister under one roof, in a meeting aimed at development of Balochistan, and was reflective of their unity.

He said that the army had decided to celebrate Independence Day by arranging different events for a whole week prior to the month of Ramazan. He said that a number of sports events had already begun, while the prize distribution ceremonies would be held on 14th August.

Mega music festival kick offs in Ayubia today

The Tourism Corporation Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (TCKP) has made all arrangements for a mega musical gala wherein singers and artistes from across the country would participate to entertain the audience in the three-day event at the scenic tourist resort of Ayubia, in the Galiyat region.The event entitled ‘National Folk Music Festival’ is opening today (Friday) where for the first time some of the famous artistes from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Balochistan, Sindh and Punjab would perform at one venue – Ayubia Chairlift Midpoint, a press release of the TCKP Media Cell said.The musical extravaganza would help bring closer people of diverse ethnicities. The organisers hope to establish an atmosphere of social and cultural exchange and dialogue in order to inculcate respect and appreciation diversity.According to them, such initiatives make the society more tolerant, peaceful and it promotes coexistence. Concerts by leading pop stars every evening and various colourful cultural shows, fun and food are also part of the three days festival. It will be a rare occasion for families to enjoy both pop and folk music of different parts of the country at one venue.Art performers from all the four provinces, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan will perform traditional dances including Khattak Dance, Wazir Attan, Gatka of Hazara in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Cholistan and Multani dances of Punjab, Leva dance of Balochistan, Jhoomer and Tharri dances ofSindh and famous Azad Jammu Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan dances.Mudassar Zaman, Afshan Zebi, Sami,Rizwana Khan, Aamir Zeb, Janas Khan, Khumaryan, Ismail Junaid, Karan Khan, Khalid Malik, Hamad Beg and others would perform in the ‘Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Evening’ on the first day of the gala on Friday.’Folk Music of Pakistan’ is another attractive item on the second day’s itinerary wherein Gulzar Alam, Ahmad Gul, Akhtar Channaal, Nadeem Abbas Lonewala, Shazia Khushk, Rukhsana Kashmiri, Safdar Hussain, Mumtaz Ali, Rehmat Bano, Pervez and others would enthral the audience. Rabi Pirzada, Amanat Ali, Humera Arshad, Roxen Band, Faakhir and others would perform in the ‘Pop Night’ on the final night on Sunday. Revival of such cultural events, traditional melas and festivals are meant to provide opportunities to the famous artistes to bring their talents to fore in a conducive atmosphere.These activities would also help promote social and cultural exchange among the diverse communities and ensure sustainability and open up possibilities of growth, continuity, replications and networking with other similar groups, arts councils and various organisations working for the promotion and preservation of culture.TCKP has in the past held various festivals in Hazara district at venues like Khanpur, Naran and Ayubia. Easily accessible from cities like Islamabad and Abbottabad, and at an hour’s driving distance, the Galiyat region comprising many hillstations is a tourism and culturally rich area frequented by thousands of tourists

It's the Leadership, Stupid

Wajid Ali Syed
Journalist and documentary producer

There is never a dull moment in Pakistan. You'll always find big news of one sort or another. If it's not extremists killing hundreds of people in broad daylight in a crowded marketplace, then it's a suicide bomber blowing himself up in a mosque or a shrine. If it's not supporters of extremists rallying in the streets of Lahore or Islamabad, then it's some kind of anti-America protest.

But this kind of political upheaval and violence happen in almost every country, more so if it's an epicenter of al Qaeda and Taliban activities. What distinguishes a failed state from the rest is their response to such upheaval and the ability to restore law and order according to the wishes of the people. This ability is ensured by the leadership of the country. It was the leadership of Abraham Lincoln that united different states. It was the leadership of Lyndon Johnson that implemented civil rights. It was the leadership of Mohammad Ali Jinnah who lead a movement for the rights of Muslims in India. It was the leadership of Gandhi that got India freedom. Surely the standards of leadership have diminished in the last two decades. America was ruled by George W. Bush, and Pakistan is now ruled by a weak political establishment.

If you want to see an example of the sorry state of the current political leadership in Pakistan, consider the statements issued by government officials after the recent mayhem in Karachi. In just four days, as many as 100 people were brutally killed by rampaging gunmen in the streets. One would expect that the government would step in to put a stop to the carnage and vow to bring the killers to justice; instead, Interior Minister Rehman Malik claimed that the reported figures of deaths due to targeted killings was not accurate. According to the Minister, 70 percent of the victims died at the hands of their wives or girlfriends. It's not a joke that most Pakistanis wished Malik had a wife or girlfriend like that. Even if one were to accept Malik's creative explanation, wouldn't it makes sense to ask why law and order was not maintained? Are rogue-minded wives and girlfriends above the law?

Two days after the paramilitary was called in to restore calm in the city and the two political parties -- PPP and MQM representatives -- cooled down their ferocious war of words, the Interior Minister claimed that foreign forces were behind the unrest, saying that Israeli-made weapons were being used by "miscreants" in the killings. If one were to follow the Minister's explanations to their logical end, one would conclude that the aforementioned wives and girlfriends got ahold of Israeli-made weapons, or that Israel declared war with Pakistan and hired proxies to do its dirty work in the streets of Karachi. Such theories truly boggle the mind.

Baluchistan is a province that has been plagued by waves of kidnappings, killings, a separatist insurgency and sectarian violence. The situation there is also blamed on a foreign conspiracy, and the army is periodically sent in to quell the violence. Surely most politicians believe that army is not the answer and a political deal is required to resolve the issues within Baluchistan. Apparently a political resolution is not possible, because the Chief Minister of the province is busy dealing with his own "health issues".

The same chief minister, Raisani, has courted controversy before. A few months ago, the local media and members of a few political parties started identifying public officials who had fake degrees. Several were dismissed from their positions. Some of them even managed to get back into the political scene after their voters re-elected them. The issue turned into a national saga. Responding to the scandal, Baluchistan's chief minister remarked that "a degree is a degree, no matter whether it's authentic or fake."

These incidents reveal that Pakistan is not only facing serious terrorism threats on daily basis from insurgents and militants, but also a grave crisis of political leadership. The insurgent threat cannot be defeated with military force alone. Pakistan's political leaders have to demonstrate strong will and vision. The unfortunate reality is that Pakistan is suffering from a leadership vacuum and the politicians are neither serious about their jobs nor willing to act responsibly.

Saudi terror law 'would strangle protest'

A secret new anti-terror law being drawn up by the Saudi authorities would "strangle peaceful protest", Amnesty International has said.

The BBC has been shown a classified copy of the draft law showing a number of measures Amnesty said would severely restrict human rights.

These include lengthy detention without trial, restricted legal access and increased use of the death penalty.

But a Saudi official said it was directed at terrorists, not dissidents.

The Saudi government has so far declined to comment, but the senior official, who did not want to be named, confirmed the existence of the draft law and did not dispute the clauses contained in it.

Amnesty International's Middle East press officer James Lynch told the BBC the draft law - a copy of which was leaked to the human rights group - "seeks to entrench some of the most repressive practices that Amnesty has been documenting for years".

Among the measures proposed is a broadening of the definition of a terrorist crime to include any action deemed to be "harming the reputation of the state" or "endangering national unity".
Continue reading the main story
image of Frank Gardner Frank Gardner BBC security correspondent

Saudi Arabia has fought and largely won a protracted campaign against al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism.

But the gist of Amnesty International's criticism of this new draft law is that parts of it are really more aimed at crushing political dissent than locking up dangerous terrorists.

In a country where political parties are banned and half the adult population (women) are not allowed to drive, Saudi Arabia's conservative rulers have been deeply rattled by the "Arab Spring" street protest movement.

Amnesty now fears that if this secret draft law comes into practice, it could offer the authorities dramatically enhanced powers to arrest anyone suspected of political dissent.

But a Saudi government advisor, who closely monitors terrorism cases, told me it is all down to interpretation.

He strongly disagrees with Amnesty's view. He insists this draft law is needed to fight al-Qaeda militants trying to get into the country from Yemen.

"We face", he said, "a serious ongoing threat".
'Crushing dissent'

Suspects could be held incommunicado for up to 120 days - longer if authorised by a court - and there would be restrictions on access to legal advice.

Violations of the law would carry harsh punishments, with the death penalty applied in cases of taking up arms against the state or for any "terrorist crimes" that resulted in death, said Amnesty.

Questioning the integrity of Saudi Arabia's rulers would become an offence punishable by a minimum of 10 years in prison.

Amnesty said a number of provisions in the document contradicted the kingdom's legal obligations, including the UN Convention against Torture.

Philip Luther from the charity said the law would be a serious threat to freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia in the name of preventing terrorism.

"If passed it would pave the way for even the smallest acts of peaceful dissent to be branded terrorism and risk massive human rights violations," he said.

The BBC's Frank Gardner says Saudi Arabia has fought and largely won a protracted battle against al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism in recent years.

But the gist of Amnesty's criticism is that parts of the new draft law are more aimed at crushing political dissent than locking up dangerous terrorists.

Saudi woman driver vows to continue campaign

A Saudi woman whose imprisonment for driving drew global attention to the issue says she is more determined than ever to continue her campaign.

Manal al-Sharif

, 32, was held for nine days in May after driving in the eastern city of Khobar.

"We won't stop until the first Saudi license is issued to a woman," she told the BBC in her first interview since.

Earlier this week, prosecutors in the city of Jeddah announced they were going to prosecute a woman for driving.

The campaign to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia has gained momentum in recent weeks.

On 17 June, dozens of women took to their cars across the country in open defiance of the ban on driving.

The campaign gained the support of prominent women around the world, including US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.
'Positive change'

Manal al-Sharif's imprisonment led to Amnesty International calling for her release.
Continue reading the main story
“Start Quote

Women tell me they are different since 21 May - the day I was arrested - it's a positive change, they believe now”

End Quote Manal al-Sharif Women's rights activist

She said she was surprised by the level of coverage and support she received. "I didn't know the whole world was moved."

More importantly, she said, had been the reaction from women in Saudi Arabia itself.

"Women tell me they are different since 21 May - the day I was arrested. It's a positive change, they believe now. [Driving] is one of our smallest rights. If we fight, we can build women who trust themselves, have belief to get the bigger rights we are fighting for."

Some Saudi women say the authorities have slightly relaxed their attitudes to female drivers, merely cautioning women rather than making them sign a pledge not to do it again.
Jeddah case

Earlier this week, however, prosecutors in Jeddah - on the Red Sea coast - announced they intended to pursue a case against a 35-year-old woman driver.

The woman, who has not been named, claims she had no alternative to driving as she needed to get to hospital and there was no man to take her there.

Zaki Safar from the Women2Drive campaign has spoken to her and said she had told the judge who set her trial date for September that he did not understand the background to her case.

Such setbacks appear not to be deterring many Saudi women from pursuing their campaign.

Manal al-Sharif, one of the organisers of Women2Drive, says they have been contacted by 1,023 women who want to drive - and by 192 women from across the country who are willing to teach them.

They are now looking to recruit volunteers.

"Women want to drive and they are taking actual steps towards that," said Ms Sharif.

Israeli PM turns to Arab TV in call for peace

With a September deadline looming, Israel's prime minister

turned to the Arabic media Thursday for the first time since taking office two years ago in an attempt to lure the Palestinians back to peace talks, saying "everything is on the table."

Benjamin Netanyahu's interview with the Al-Arabiya satellite channel reflects Israeli concerns over Palestinian plans to seek U.N. recognition of their independence this fall. But it also highlights Netanyahu's new strategy of engaging directly with the Arab public.

Netanyahu has fielded questions from Arabs before on YouTube and even made a recorded plea to Arab viewers to submit questions. But the face-to-face Al-Arabiya interview is his first of its kind. Netanyahu's office called the move "the beginning of a new era" and promised more such interviews in the near future.

The interview, which aired Thursday evening, comes as Israel is scrambling to counter the Palestinian U.N. initiative this fall. Israel fiercely opposes the move, saying a Palestinian state should be formed through negotiations and not by unilateral steps.

Peace negotiations have been stalled since 2008, and the Palestinians have refused to negotiate while Israel continues to build homes in Jewish settlements.

Although the vote will be largely symbolic, the Palestinians hope to isolate Israel and put pressure on it to make concessions.

In the interview, Netanyahu says he is willing to negotiate anywhere and with anyone who accepts Israel's right to exist.

"Everything is on the table. But we need to get to the table," Netanyahu said.

"I'm prepared to negotiate with President Abbas directly for peace between our two peoples right now. We can do it here in my home in Jerusalem, we can do it in Ramallah, we can do it anywhere," he said.

Netanyahu said he realized he would have to make "difficult compromises for peace," but he offered few new details about his plans.

The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — as parts of a future independent state. Netanyahu has said he wants to keep parts of the West Bank, and he opposes any division of Jerusalem.

Netanyahu also addressed the regional unrest in Syria and Egypt.

"You know anything that I say will be used — not against me — but against the process of genuine reform that Syrian people would like to see. We don't intervene in Syria but it does not mean we are not concerned. We'd like the peace and quiet on the Israeli-Syrian border to be maintained and I would like to ultimately, have that turned into a formal peace between Israel and Syria," Netanyahu said. "I think the people, the young people of Syria deserve a better future."

Netanyahu said he hopes the Arab Spring will result in democracies in the Arab world.

"If there's genuine democracy in the Arab world, in the Arab countries, then there will be genuine peace. Because a genuine democracy reflects the desires of the people, and most people Arabs, Jews, anyone they don't want their sons and daughters dying on battlefields."

He said, "If it goes toward an Iranian-style dictatorship, as it did, unfortunately in Iran and in Lebanon, then it's bad. It's bad for the peoples there, but it's also bad for peace."

Ofir Gendelman, Netanyahu's spokesman for the Arab media, said Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya was chosen as a conduit for Netanyahu's outreach because it is a professional station that reaches 40 million Arabs. He refused to discuss why Al-Jazeera, the top-rated Arab media outlet, was not selected. Al-Jazeera's coverage has been accused of stirring up anti-Israel sentiment on the Arab street.

Gendelman said Netanyahu's office also communicates with the Arab world via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

"There are a lot of issues the prime minister wants to address," he said. "The goal of the interview is twofold: to convey the message that he wants to resume negotiations and express via the interview how important Arab public opinion is to him."

Israel's most pressing concern at the moment is what happens in September. No one knows exactly how the vote will unfold.

The United States opposes the plan and, as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, could veto a Palestinian membership request and derail the process.

If that happens, the Palestinians could go to the General Assembly and seek recognition there as a nonmember observer state, a largely symbolic nod. Still, widespread support in the General Assembly would signal that a majority of countries support Palestinian statehood in the pre-1967 lines.

The Palestinians insist that their U.N. bid does not rule out a return to negotiations.

Palestinian leaders have called on their people to take to the streets in nonviolent protests in September and Israeli officials are concerned that these could spiral out of control and set off a new round of fighting.

Israeli Cabinet Minister Moshe Yaalon dismissed these concerns Thursday, telling foreign reporters that he "can't see any change on the ground after September."

He called the unilateral option one of the "balloons inflated in the last two years by those who thought we might be threatened."

Yaalon, a former military chief, also rejected the argument that the current status quo is untenable.

"The situation is not sustainable? It's sustainable. It's not going to be solved in the near future. We can live with it. We can survive with it," he said.