Saturday, January 7, 2012

Opposition supporters rally in Bahrain despite ban

Anti-government protesters converged on the headquarters of Bahrain's main opposition party Saturday, defying a government ban on the gathering and pressing ahead with their campaign for greater political and civil rights for the nation's Shiite Muslims.

The protest in front of Al Wefaq's offices in the capital of Manama was a show of defiance by the party that has been the main backer of the Shiite majority's 10-month-old protest movement, which is aimed at breaking the Sunni dynasty's monopoly on power in the strategically important Arab kingdom in the Persian Gulf.

The government rejected the party's permit request for the demonstration, but thousands of protesters came anyway. They waved Bahraini flags and chanted anti-government slogans despite a massive security presence across the capital.

Opposition supporters poured into Manama from the predominantly Shiite villages that ring the capital. The villages have been the site of almost daily clashes between demonstrators and security forces since the government intensified a punishing crackdown on dissent in March.

Shiites represent about 70 percent of Bahrain's population but are denied top political and security jobs.

In the past decade, Al Wefaq has led a campaign for greater rights for the Shiite majority, but with inspiration from the Arab Spring uprisings, Shiite protesters took to the streets in February in numbers never seen before in the island nation.

A month later, the party's 18 lawmakers resigned from parliament to protest the crackdown.

The party also walked out of government-designed reconciliation talks in July, claiming authorities had no intention of compromising with the opposition. The party also boycotted September elections for the vacated seats because of the detention of several of its officials.

Al Wefaq has been staging weekly public gatherings in the past months, but it has usually refrained from doing so without a permit from authorities. In return, Al Wefaq's applications are usually granted, but the request for Saturday's gathering was rejected.

Bahrain's Interior Ministry said Al Wefaq's request to stage a gathering on one of Manama's vital roads was not approved for security reasons.

"If the event were to be held on such a vital road ... it could hinder traffic, disturb security and affect the interests of the public," the ministry said in a statement that was posted on its website late Friday.

Riot police encircled the party's headquarters and prevented protesters from marching to the highway, just east of the building. But the protest ended peacefully.

At least 40 people have died since the unrest began in February.

Bahrain is a critical U.S. ally and is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Washington has taken a cautious line with authorities, urging Bahrain's leaders to open more dialogue with the opposition, but avoiding too much public pressure.

Cargo drone makes debut in Afghanistan

The U.S. military is testing a revolutionary new drone for its arsenal,

a pilotless helicopter intended to fly cargo missions to remote outposts where frequent roadside bombs threaten access by road convoys.

Surveillance drones for monitoring enemy activity and armed versions for launching airstrikes have become a trademark of America's wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. But this is the first time a chopper version designed for transport has ben used operationally.

Two unmanned models of the Kaman K-MAX helicopters and a team of 16 company technicians and 8 Marines are conducting a 6-month evaluation program for the new craft at Camp Dwyer, a Marine Corps airfield in the Garmsir district of southern Helmand Province.

The craft have flown 20 transport missions since the inaugural flight on Dec. 17, said Maj. Kyle O'Connor, the officer in charge of the detachment. They have delivered nearly 18 tons of cargo, mainly thousands of Meals Ready to Eat and spare parts needed at the forward operating bases.

"Afghanistan is a highly mined country and the possibility of improvised explosive devices is always a problem moving cargo overland in a convoy," O'Connor said.

"Every load that we can take off of a ground convoy reduces the danger and risk that our Marines, soldiers, and sailors are faced with," he said. "With an unmanned helicopter, even the aircrew is taken out of harm's way."

The Marines from Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 lead the missions and deliver the cargo into combat drop zones, while contractors operate and maintain the two aircraft.

The craft's onboard computer uploads the mission plans, enabling them to fly on autopilot. But an operator at base control monitors progress and can step in and override the autopilot for manual operation if any problems occur, or if the drone must be redirected in mid-flight.

The K-MAX is the latest in a series of Kaman synchronized twin-rotor helicopters dating from the 1950s. The unusual arrangement, with two side-by-side pylons on the helicopter's roof supporting counter-rotating blades, results in exceptional stability while hovering and allows pinpoint cargo delivery.

During the Vietnam War, a previous Kaman model, the two-pilot HH-43 Huskie, flew more rescue missions than all other aircraft combined because of this unique hovering capability.

The manned version of the K-MAX helicopter first appeared in the 1990s, and the pilotless prototype was unveiled in 2008. It can carry a maximum payload of 6,855 pounds (3,100 kilograms) and costs about $1,100 an hour to operate, several times less than any manned helicopter.

After a six-month test period, the military will determine whether to put the craft into regular operational use.

Throughout the 10-year war, NATO troops have wrestled with serious logistics problems in the high-threat areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan. Resupplying the isolated forward operating bases has meant facing the dangers of frequent ambushes and roadside bombs.

This has meant that specialized escort units, known as route clearance packages, must escort all supply convoys.

"This is very time-consuming because you have to clear the routes for every single mission," said Theo Farrell, Professor of War at King's College London. "Also, there is a shortage of route clearance packages due to the high demand for them."

But the use of large manned helicopters to deliver supplies has also proved problematic as they present easy targets for Taliban machine-gunners while hovering over the delivery point, he said.

"The use of drone choppers could resolve both problems," Farrell said. "It reduces the need for armed escorts and presents a much smaller target to the enemy."

Afghan commission alleges US detainee abuse

An Afghan investigative commission accused the American military Saturday of abuse at its main prison in the country, repeating President Hamid Karzai's demand that the U.S. turn over all detainees to Afghan custody and saying anyone held without evidence should be freed.

The demands put the U.S. and the Afghan governments on a collision course in an issue that will decide the fate of hundreds of suspected Taliban and al-Qaida operators captured by American forces. Members of the Afghan investigation said U.S. officials told them that many of those militant suspects were taken based on intelligence that cannot be used in Afghan courts.

The escalating controversy and demands by Karzai appeared to be the most recent in a series of exercises in political brinksmanship, as the president tries to bolster his negotiating position ahead of renewed talks for a Strategic Partnership Document with America that will determine the U.S. role in Afghanistan after 2014, when most foreign troops are due to withdraw.

Among the conditions that Karzai has set is an end to night raids by international troops and complete Afghan control over detainees.

The dispute that has unfolded in recent days mirrors many of the thorny issues surrounding the controversial U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay. There, as at the prison in Afghanistan, American forces are holding many detainees without charging them with a specific crime or presenting evidence in a civil court.

Detainees interviewed during two visits to the U.S.-run portion of the prison outside Bagram Air Base north of Kabul complained of freezing cold, humiliating strip searches and being deprived of light, according to Gul Rahman Qazi, who led the investigation ordered by Karzai.

Another investigator, Sayed Noorullah, said the prison must be transferred to Afghan control "as soon as possible," adding that "If there is no evidence ... they have the right to be freed."

U.S. Embassy spokesman Gavin Sundwall said Saturday that American officials only received the commission's report after its press briefing. He said the U.S. investigates all allegations of prisoner abuse.

"We will certainly take seriously the report and study it," he said. He added that the U.S. is committed to working with the Afghan government on a joint plan to turn over detainees "in a responsible manner."

Karzai on Thursday abruptly demanded that the U.S. military turn over full control of the prison, officially known as the Parwan Detention Center but generally referred to as the Bagram prison, within a month. A spokesman for the president said Saturday that he made the announcement in response to the investigation team's report.

The president's demand for full control of the prison so soon took many by surprise, since the U.S. and Afghan governments had been working on a gradual timetable for transferring responsibility for the prison over the next two years.

Karzai is walking a fine line. Although he routinely plays to anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan by denouncing the U.S., he needs America's military and financial strength to back his weak government as it battles the Taliban insurgency.

Some U.S. officials have argued that freeing some of the detainees at the facility known as Bagram could send hardened Taliban and al-Qaida militants back out to fight the government and coalition troops, according to Qazi.

Officially, U.S. and Afghan militaries jointly run the facility, but the Afghan side controls a small portion with about 300 detainees whose cases are slated to be tried by Afghan judiciary. The U.S. military runs the larger portion of the prison.

Qazi, who led the ad hoc investigation of the Independent Commission for Overseeing the Implementation of the Constitution, said U.S. prison officials told only about 300 of the nearly 3,000 detainees had legal cases against them.

He said he was told that that 2,700 others were suspected Taliban who were captured using intelligence that could not be used in a court.

"The foreign friends told us they are held based on the rules of the battlefield, and they are dangerous and cannot be set free," Qazi told reporters Saturday.

Prison officials also made it clear that many of those being held had no evidence against them that would hold up in court, said Abdul Qader Adalatkhwa, the deputy leader of the commission.

"The Americans told us that according to their rules and regulation, whenever they detain somebody, after taking photos of the evidence at the site, they eliminate all the evidence of the site — bullets, weapons, any other evidence," Adalatkhwa said.

"So this is their concern," he said. "That when they hand over the detainees to the Afghan side, because of the differences in the civilian Afghan system and the U.S. (military) system, most of these people might get freed."

Nevertheless, the commission repeated Karzai's demand of full Afghan custody of all prisoners as soon as possible, though it did not set a deadline.

"Inside Afghanistan, having a prison run by foreigners is not allowed with the respect of Afghan constitution," Qazi said.

Besides Afghan militant suspects, the prison near Bagram also holds foreign al-Qaida suspects from several different countries captured in what the U.S. considers battlefield conditions.

It's unclear what would happen to those foreign suspects if they were turned over to Afghan custody.

Iran holds military exercise near Afghan border

Iran launched a military maneuver near its border with Afghanistan on Saturday, the semi-official Fars news agency reported, days after naval exercises in the Gulf increased tensions with the West and pushed up oil prices.

Mohammad Pakpour, commander of the Revolutionary Guards' ground forces, said the "Martyrs of Unity" exercises near Khvat, 60 km (40 miles) from Afghanistan, were "aimed at boosting security along the Iranian borders," Fars reported.

The Revolutionary Guards' naval forces' 10-day exercise in the Gulf that ended last Monday worsened relations with Washington days after U.S. President Barack Obama approved sanctions that aim to stop countries buying Iranian oil.

Threats that Iran could close the Strait of Hormuz, which leads out of the Gulf and provides the outlet for most oil from the Middle East, pushed up oil prices and Iran warned Washington not to send an aircraft carrier back into the Gulf.

Forces with the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier strike group, the target of Tehran's threat, rescued 13 Iranian fishermen from Somali pirates days after passing through the Strait.

Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi played down the political significance of the rescue.

"On some occasions, Iran has helped and secured the released of many other countries' sailors that had been caught by pirates," he told state-run Press TV.

"This is a humanitarian gesture and it is not related to the countries' relations with each other."

Pakistan’s real dangers are internal

The year 2010 witnessed a dramatic deterioration in trust and diplomatic relations between the United States and Pakistan. The two strategic partners in the war on terror traded allegations on the Raymond Davis affair, the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound, drone strikes, Admiral Mike Mullen’s assertion about ISI’s alleged contacts with the elements of Taliban who attacked the US embassy in Kabul, and the attack by Nato forces on Salala check post, which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

So, what is the future of the US-Pakistan relationship? spoke exclusively to William Bryant Milam, a former US ambassador to Pakistan (1998-2001) and Bangladesh (1990-1993). Milam is a currently a Senior Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, where he completed a comprehensive study on modern Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Q: Some experts in Pakistan say the US does not seem to have a clear Pakistan policy. Others say Washington is ‘confused’ over whatever Pakistan policy it has at the moment. Do you agree?

A: The United States does have a Pakistan policy. In fact, it has had several Pakistan policies at different times. It has not been confused about Pakistan but it has had different situations to deal with Pakistan at different times. What we see today is the outcome of a long history of errors and misassumptions on both sides. In fact, it is a time when both countries will hopefully start reviewing the way they have been behaving and dealing with each other. At the moment, it is a pretty bad relationship.

Q: How would you evaluate Pak-US relationship in 2010? Were you expecting the developments that strained the relationship?

A: No. I think no one was expecting these events. I have contributed a chapter in the newly released book ‘The Future of Pakistan.’ I had written the first draft of my paper two years ago and subsequently revised it twice but even then things changed to such an extent in 2010 that when the book was published in 2011, much of the subject matter seemed out of date.

In early 2010, the US thought Pakistan could be an ally they could work with as a strategic partner, by helping develop it as a state instead of exclusively expecting it to cooperate in the war on terror. When the US passed the Kerry-Lugar Bill, it thought of Pakistan as a strategic partner. With the Raymond Davis affair, it became clear there was no free exchange of information between the two countries. The raid that killed Osama bin Laden highlighted the faulty exchange of information between both sides. It also became clearer that the two countries did not trust each other. Since then, the relationship has been limping along on distrust.

Q: How can a strategic relationship succeed when, with respect to drone strikes, Pakistanis feel that the US does not respect Pakistan’s sovereignty?

A: I presume Pakistan has been complicit in drone strikes. In fact, I think the government and military looked at the drone attacks on al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban in Pakistan’s interest for a long time. There has always been misunderstanding on the part among the public.

As far as the Osama raid is concerned, distrust between the United States and Pakistan had already reached such a point that the United States did not feel that it could inform Pakistan about an important target like bin Laden. They could not gamble on such a rich target being warned before conducting the raid and obviously did not inform the Pakistanis.

Q: So what was the reaction of retired diplomats and scholars when bin Laden was found and killed in Pakistan?

A: Well, everybody knew that he was hiding in Pakistan. His presence in Pakistan did not surprise us but the fact that he had taken shelter in Abbottabad was surprising. We all envisioned him hiding somewhere in a cave but he was found in a mansion in Abbottabad. I think the Pakistani government was not officially complicit in this but it leads to questions about their capabilities.

Q: How do the Americans look at the upsurge in anti-Americanism in Pakistan, their ally?

A: Pakistan has recently experienced the enormous growth of anti-Americanism in public opinion. It was always present but it was submerged much of the time. The real problem is that the Pakistani military officers and political leaders are all driven by this anti-American public opinion, which is fanned by the media. One example of how anti-Americanism can appeal to public opinion is the emergence of Imran Khan as a politician of consequence. The basis of his philosophy is anti-Americanism. Anti-Americanism among politicians is understandable as they have to move with public opinion but the rise of similar feelings in the military has surprised a lot of Americans.

Q: Do you see an end of US engagement with Pakistan after 2014, when it withdraws troops from Afghanistan?

A: I think our engagement with Pakistan will continue beyond 2014, but it’s important to address the issue Pakistan’s impending failure as a state. One of the things currently bringing Pakistan down is its economy. The country’s economic situation is influencing the behaviour of its people.

Q: Will the (US) presidential elections influence America’s policy on Pakistan?

A: I don’t think so. Pakistan is going to remain geo-strategically important to the US even after the Afghanistan withdrawal. Pakistan remains vitally important to America’s interests in the South Asian region in terms of ensuring peace and curbing terrorism, be it from Pakistani soil or elsewhere, so that it does not spread across the region and the world.

The Bush administration dealt with Pakistan differently from the way the Obama administration did. It is clear that every administration will have its own way of working with Pakistan, but their interests will remain the same. If President Obama gets re-elected, you will see almost the same policy towards Pakistan. Nonetheless, the emphasis on Afghanistan, due to the withdrawal, may change. If the Republican presidential candidate gets elected, I do not foresee any policy change.

Q: It is ironic that the US castigates Pakistan for having contacts with different factions of Taliban but it also continues to have secret communication with some sections of the Taliban movement, such as the Haqqani Network. The US no longer discourages or rules out negotiating with Taliban.

A: For a long time, I didn’t know that the United States had contacts with the Haqqani Network. There are different types of Taliban within the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban. The Afghan Taliban are further divided between the Haqqani Network and the Quetta Shura while the Pakistani Taliban are also divided between the Taliban in tribal region and the Punjabi Taliban. You can’t lump them all together.

When President Obama was elected, we thought of trying to find a peaceful and political solution to the Afghan problem. This would allow us to draw down the number of US troops present in Afghanistan. From the initial days of President Obama, we were looking for ways to push for a political settlement. I think we should have made it a South Asian regional settlement from the very beginning. This could be something akin to the international agreement on the neutralization of Switzerland, in which all the neighbours would guarantee the neutralization of Afghanistan. Thus, none of these regional states would have a reason to push their own interests inside Afghanistan through their ethnic followers.

We started with the idea that we needed to reconcile with the reconcilable Taliban. At that point, it did not include the Haqqani Network. It only included some members of the Quetta Shura. You remember that we began to know about this when the ISI picked up Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the reconcilable Taliban, who was supposedly talking to the Afghans and others.

As our relations worsened because of the Raymond Davis affair and the bin Laden raid, we thought it was necessary to get the Haqqani Network involved in negotiations. I don’t know how much we are talking to the Haqqani Network now. Whatever contacts remain there, they are mainly through the ISI. My guess is that our contacts with the Haqqanis are a very recent phenomenon.

Q: Is Afghanistan becoming a proxy battleground between Pakistan and India?

A: I sincerely hope not. In my article in the recently published book, The Future of Pakistan, I say we should try to build the kind of peace and political process in Afghanistan which will bring Indians and Pakistanis together so that they work with each other. Otherwise, the alternative may turn out to be that Afghanistan becomes a proxy battleground between the two. It is clear that one of the things that has been bothering Pakistan for a long time is the Indian presence in Afghanistan. I don’t think that is going to change much.

Q: It is paradoxical that many American diplomats and scholars complain about Pakistan’s India-centric approach although they know it emanates from the unresolved conflicts between India and Pakistan. Can the United States help in settling the problems between the two countries so that Pakistan gives up its burden of history?

A: The US can’t do anything in a tangible way as far as the dispute over Kashmir is concerned. We tried that years ago and failed miserably. We can help in formulating a peace process in Afghanistan that brings the two countries closer to each other to work together for a peaceful, stable and neutral Afghanistan which will benefit the interests of both countries. Another idea, which seems more likely, is to improve relations between the two countries by promoting bilateral trade.

We should stress our interests in both countries working to resolve their differences. Countries can have normal relations despite having differences. That is actually harder without a normal relationship. Pakistan and India need to normalize their relationship to resolve their differences, which can only happen over time. If they do not normalize relations by encouraging trade and allowing people-to-people contacts, they will never resolve their problems. I don’t believe there is anything the US can do in a specific way to help Pakistan accomplish its goals in Kashmir. Pakistanis have also started to understand this reality.

Q: How significant was the recent Bonn Conference without Pakistan attending it?

A: The Conference was a serious attempt to get things started on a regional basis. It was a serious problem that the Pakistanis boycotted the conference because of the killing of the Pakistani soldiers, which I think was basically an accident.

Q: Is the recent opening of a Taliban office in Qatar another attempt to distance Pakistan from the future solution of Afghanistan?

A: I don’t think it has anything to do with moving Pakistan out of the picture. Pakistan has legitimate interests in a viable, peaceful solution in Afghanistan. The Taliban had been looking for an office and it does not push them further apart from Pakistan than they are today. We have to know which Taliban we are talking about. If it is the TTP, they are already hostile against the state of Pakistan and they are determined to bring it down. If it is the Quetta Shura or the Haqqani Network, they are already friends with Pakistan.

Q: What are the immediate challenges Pakistan faces in near future?

A: Pakistan’s real and immediate dangers are internal, and, at the moment, primarily economic. The economy is about to collapse, which is a problem that cannot be solved overnight or without sacrifices on the part of the political leadership. The political leadership should develop policies that encourage growth and stop inflation. A second immediate danger is an armed insurgency from the Pakistani Taliban. Thirdly, related to the economic coming economic tsunami, the 18th Amendment has not been implemented well, which is likely to trigger inter-provincial disharmony, increasing risks that endanger the very survival of the federation.

If you look closely at these problems, the external threats, such as the Indian involvement in Afghanistan, pale by comparison. Pakistan’s internal problems are eating away at the vitals of the state. Pakistan may muddle through in the next five to ten years, but the present direction is sliding toward failure. There are some strong and positive institutions, such as the military and the judiciary, which will not let Pakistan fail. However, I hope the military does not take the economic situation as a pretext to grab political power.

Q: Today the future of democracy in Pakistan is once again in danger because of visible rift between the civilian government and the strong military in the wake of the Memogate which somewhat indirectly involves the United States. What are your thoughts on Memogate?

A: I am totally befuddled. When I saw the text of the memo, I wondered how anybody could think it was genuine. It seemed a ridiculously phony document. I am confused why intelligent people are trusting the memo is real, and why intelligent people who are accused of having written it would have done so. The memo has clearly worsened relations between Pakistan’s senior military and civilian leadership. We don’t know what is going to happen as a result of that.

There are now rumours of ousting Prime Minister Gilani and replacing him with somebody else. This all looks weird to us outsiders. Pakistan is falling apart economically and here the leaders are caught debating a very questionable memo and making it into a cause celebre, when there are riots over electricity and gas shortages, raging inflation, and rapidly increasing poverty.

The memo struck me from the beginning that somebody was being set up. I find it a weird preoccupation at a time when the country is sinking fast economically. I hope the investigation conducted will be fair, objective, transparent – and quick so the leaders can get back to Pakistan’s real existential problems.

Kuwait stateless protest for citizenship

More than 4,000 stateless people in Kuwait demonstrated on Friday for the fourth week, insisting that the only solution to their plight is by getting Kuwaiti citizenship and other human rights.

"There is no solution without citizenship," read one banner carried by the protesters in Jahra, northwest of the capital Kuwait City, who rallied peacefully as riot police looked on.

The crowd, which was the largest so far, carried hundreds of Kuwaiti flags and pictures of Kuwait's ruler, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, insisting that they are Kuwaitis and should be granted citizenship.

Last week Interior Minister Sheikh Ahmad al-Humud al-Sabah announced that the oil-rich Gulf state was preparing legislation to grant citizenship to stateless individuals who fulfilled certain criteria.

The stateless, locally known as bidoons, claim the right to Kuwaiti nationality, saying that their ancestors failed to register for citizenship when the government began registration five decades ago.

Kuwait has long said that most of the 105,000 bidoons or their forefathers destroyed their original passports to claim the right to citizenship in order to gain access to the services and generous benefits provided to citizens.

In a bid to force them to produce their original nationality papers, Kuwait has denied them essential documentation, including birth, marriage and death certificates, according to a report in June by Human Rights Watch.

About 52 stateless men are on trial over protests while 32 others have been interrogated and freed on bail.

Qaddafi brought war upon himself, says architect of Libyan intervention

By Al Arabiya

“Qaddafi is the one who planned and waged war. I only supported the NATO intervention,” Bernard-Henri Lévy, French philosopher and main campaigner of foreign intervention in Libya, told Al Arabiya.

Lévy, who initiated the lobbying for NATO intervention in Libya and supported French President Nicolas Sarkozy in talking the United States and the United Nations into waging war on Qaddafi, said it was not oil that drove Sarkozy to interfere in Libya.

“Interference in Libya was triggered by the necessity of protecting civilians and preventing a massacre in Benghazi similar to the one that took place in Srebrenica,” he told the Noqtat Nezam (Point of Order) show, aired by Al Arabiya on Friday.

Lévy, who released his latest book, La Guerre sans l'aimer (The War Without Loving It), a volume about the Libyan war, in November 2011, admitted that the role France played in toppling the Qaddafi regime did serve Sarkozy on the domestic level, especially with the elections drawing near, yet this was not his original intention.

“The Libyan issue was not a priority for the French people, but Sarkozy wanted to do it because it was a fair war.”

Lévy argued that had it not been for Sarkozy, the alliance that fought against Qaddafi’s forces would not have been possible.

“Obama was in the back seat and Cameron was hesitant, while Sarkozy was determined and led the initiative.”

When asked whether NATO intervention was for protecting civilians or toppling Qaddafi, Lévy replied that at a certain point the two became closely related.

“We discovered that as long as Qaddafi and his sons stayed in power, civilians would be in danger.”

Regarding the armament of Libyan revolutionaries, Lévy said that Qatar provided weapons for fighters in Benghazi and Misrata while French soldiers worked on the ground to direct air strikes and make sure they did not hit civilian targets.

“There were also soldiers from the Emirates, Qatar, and Britain to direct air strikes. Emiratis and Qataris, on the other hand, were directing Libyan fighters.”

Lévy said the fall of Qaddafi should teach other tyrants a harsh lesson.

“If I were Bashar al-Assad or Ahmadinejad, I wouldn’t get a minute of sleep after the fall of Qaddafi. They and other tyrants are now in a very critical situation.”

Lévy said, however, that the situation in Syria is different, basically because Syrian revolutionaries did not ask for foreign intervention.

“But if they do, I will most probably do my best to convince Sarkozy to interfere.”

Lévy then talked about the conference he organized on Syria in Paris last summer and which was attended by representatives of the Syrian opposition.

“They were all very brave despite the threats of Bashar al-Assad’s agents in Europe.”

The conference, he added, was also attended by representatives of all political parties in France, both right and left.

Lévy admitted he is a supporter of Israel, yet also added that he is all for the two-state solution.

“I tried to convince the Israeli government of that even more than Sarkozy did, but I failed.”

Concerning his earlier statement about the Israeli army being the most democratic in the world, Lévy said that compared to Qaddfi’s brigades and other armies in Africa it is.

The violations the Israeli army has been committing, especially during the aggression on Gaza, Lévy said, are not vey surprising.

“All armies are involved in dirty actions and the Israeli army is one of those.”

Israeli Society Facing Religious Extremism, Backlash


For some time now, Israeli women have been protesting against what they see as efforts by some ultra-Orthodox Jews to exclude them from public spaces. Ultra-Orthodox Jews counter it is they who are suffering discrimination.A wintry evening in central Jerusalem. Activists are preparing a protest against segregated buses that run through the city's ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods.

The women sit in the front instead of the back as they are supposed to here. Some followers of ultra-Orthodox Judaism believe men and women should be separated in public, although it is illegal under Israeli law. Women who challenge segregation have been insulted and spat upon.

Anat Hoffman is an activist in the religious reform movement. She says ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to live insulated lives in closed communities, but this is changing.

"There are some fringe extremist groups that are threatened by, first and foremost, Orthodox women changing in modern times, being educated, being savvy in the world. And they want to keep them in their place," said Hoffman.

In certain neighborhoods, advertisements showing women have been vandalized. Women are encouraged to walk on the other side of the street from men, and recently, an 11-year-old schoolgirl complained on television of being harassed. Critics say some rabbis condone these activities.

Rabbi and parliament member Israel Eichler disagrees. He says discrimination against the ultra-Orthodox, not religion, is the root cause.

"Even the extremist rabbis don't give a license to violence because violence is antithesis [to] Judaism, [to] the Torah, from [to] Gods' will," said Eichler.

Tamar El Or, an anthropologist at Hebrew University, says the ultra-Orthodox community is growing and becoming more diverse. Many who spent their lives studying religion or raising families are being forced to look for jobs. At the same time, Israel's non-religious society is growing more secular.

"These are two developments, two social powers that are going against each other," said El Or. "They are bound to clash over and over again. Now this is typical to Israel, but every society has trends and tensions, and this is the role of the state to control it.

El Or says the laws against segregation and discrimination must be enforced. But Israeli society must also make space for the demands of ultra-Orthodox people. And she says those tensions will continue until reluctant political and religious leaders address the issue.

UN Rights Group Slams Saudi Over Death Penalty

The U.N. Human Rights Office is expressing alarm at the significant increase in the use of the death penalty in Saudi Arabia. It says the number of people executed in 2011, a total of 79, was almost three times higher than in 2010

Last month, one woman was executed on charges of sorcery and witchcraft, said spokesman Rupert Collville.

“What is even more worrying is that court proceedings often reportedly fall far short of international fair trial standards, and the use of torture as a means to obtain confessions appears to be rampant," Colville said. We call on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to respect international standards guaranteeing due process and protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty, to progressively restrict the use of the death penalty and to reduce the number of offenses for which it may be imposed.”

Colville said people face the death penalty for a wide range of offenses and crimes, including drug offenses, murder, sorcery, rape, blasphemy, apostasy and adultery. Most executions are by beheading and foreigners are more frequently subjected to the death penalty than Saudi citizens.

He added the U.N. Rights Office is also concerned at the sentence of so-called cross amputation handed down to six men convicted of highway robbery, explaining that the amputation of a single limb is punishment for theft, whereas cross or double amputation is for highway robbery.

“On December 24, the Supreme Court upheld the sentences, which will involve amputation of the men’s right hands and the left feet," Coleville said. "So that is why it is called cross-amputation. It is one limb on either side. We call on the authorities to halt the use of such blatantly cruel, inhuman, degrading punishment. As a party to the Convention Against Torture, Saudi Arabia is bound by the absolute prohibition against the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

In a report in the English daily Arab News this week, Saudi officials say they are making progress in addressing human-rights issues. The National Society for Human Rights chairman Mufleh Al-Qahtani said after a meeting with Saudi's interior minister that "doors are open to the society to reinforce human rights,” especially among prisoners and women.

U.N. rights spokesman Colville said it is likely that the Committee Against Torture will review and condemn Saudi Arabia’s practice of amputation as punishment when it meets later this year.

Saudi Arabia is increasingly applying the death sentence at a time when the global trend is toward abolition of capital punishment, according to Coleville. He added some 140 states now have either completely abolished or declared a moratorium on the death penalty and urged the oil-rich kingdom to follow suit.

Syria vows to strike with 'iron fist'

The embattled Syrian regime, reacting after a suicide bombing in the capital and continued violence in several anti-government bastions, vowed Friday to confront its foes with stern resolve as more than 60 deaths were counted across the nation.

"We will strike with an iron fist anyone who tampers with the security of the nation and citizens and we call our citizens to alert any suspicious situation," the Interior Ministry said, according to state media.

Bahraini activist severely beaten at protest, human rights group says

A prominent Bahraini activist was severely beaten by security forces at a protest Friday, according to the human rights group that he leads.

Nabeel Rajab was hospitalized and later released, with injuries to his head, back and chest, according to the website of his group, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

A protester, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Rajab has trouble standing now.

"He is able to talk and walk, with some difficulty because he has some pain in his back," the protester said. "After the police realized he was Nabeel Rajab it was completely different treatment afterward. They took him to hospital. He heard that the leader of the group asked them to stop beating him when they realized he was Nabeel Rajab."

The activist's supporters had gathered to wait for his return at his home in the town of Bani Jamra. They were attacked by security forces, firing tear gas, Maryam Khawaja, head of foreign relations for the center, told CNN, citing witnesses.

Some protesters ran away; others ran into the house. No one was injured, according to the protester who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"Rajab is being treated for injuries at Salmaniya hospital, along with activist Said Yousif of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who was hit in the leg with a stun grenade," activist Zainab Alkhawaja said before Rajab's release from the hospital.

CNN was not immediately able to reach Bahraini officials at the president's office for comment.

In May, Rajab's house was tear-gassed as he and his family slept, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said. That followed a similar attack in April.

Human Rights Watch said then that it knew of no entity other than Bahrain's security forces that would have access to the kind of grenades used in the April attack.

"This has been a fear for some time. Many were fearing (for) the safety of Nabeel," said Jasim Husain, an Al Wefaq party member and a former member of Bahrain's lower house.

"At least we know he is safe and recovering," Husain said before word of Rajab's release from the hospital. "The authorities need to explain."

The outspoken activist has often appeared on CNN, complaining about the use of violence and torture against pro-democracy protesters at the hands of Bahraini security forces.

Rajab was presented with the Ion Ratiu Democracy Award by the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington in November.

Husain described Rajab as one of the most famous figures in the country, who pushes for change through peaceful means.

Another activist, 18, remained in detention Friday after being arrested this week, marking the fifth time he has been arrested for political reasons in the last 18 months, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said. During previous detentions, he was allegedly raped, repeatedly, the center said. His lawyer, who saw the teenager a day after his latest arrest, told CNN he was limping and showed signs of having been struck in his face and leg.

"They arrested him because he and my brothers are well-known activists in our village and he participated in many protests," the detainee's sister told CNN. She said her brother had contacted the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and told officials there about the torture he allegedly suffered during his previous detention.

Amnesty International released a statement in which it said it feared the 18-year-old may have been targeted again because he reported the abuse.

CNN does not identify rape victims.

On Monday, Bahrain's top court announced that it is creating a judicial panel to review some military court verdicts related to protests last year, the state news agency said.

"A new judicial body comprising a number of judges from the civil courts shall be created in order to review nonappealable verdicts issued in favor of conviction by national safety courts according to international principles of the right to undergo a fair court trial and to access a lawyer for assistance in order to achieve the principles of fair justice," said Sheikh bin Rashid Al Khalifa, the Supreme Judicial Council's deputy chairman and president of the Court of Cassation.

He was quoted by the state-run Bahrain News Agency.

The new judicial body will review nonappealable convictions pertaining to freedom of expression, but not those related to incitement of violence, it said. The judicial body will then submit the cases to the Supreme Judicial Council "in order to take appropriate actions," it said.

The announcement came a day after witnesses said hundreds of mourners walked the streets of Sitra, south of the capital, behind the coffin carrying the body of a 16-year-old boy who was killed during protests Saturday.

Clashes also occurred Sunday in Sitra between protesters and security forces that fired tear gas at them, injuring several people, witnesses said.

In a New Year's message, Chief of Public Security Tariq Al Hassan announced that 500 officers will be recruited from all sections of Bahrain society in an effort to improve community relations. The officers will wear distinctive uniforms and police only the areas from where they have been recruited, he said.

Noting the highly critical report issued in November by Bahrain's Independent Commission of Inquiry, which looked into the violence, Al Hassan said the task now "is to look at where we've gone wrong, to face our mistakes and learn lessons."

"I am determined to make people understand that we have a responsibility to ensure that whoever breaks the law will be held accountable, whether it is a private citizen or a policeman," said Al Hassan, who has 30 years of experience in Bahrain's police force and studied public security in the United States and Britain.

The commission, set up by the king, concluded that police had used excessive force and torture during last year's crackdown on protests. Abuse of detainees included beatings with metal pipes and batons, and threats of rape and electrocution, commission Chairman Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni said in November.

The mistreatment included physical and psychological torture, intended to extract information or to punish those held by security forces, he said.

The report recommended reforms to the country's law and better training of its security forces.

Protests demanding political reform and greater freedoms in Sunni-ruled, Shiite-majority Bahrain began February 14 before authorities -- backed by troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- cracked down on the demonstrations, first in February and later in mid-March.

Five million illegal immigrants living in Pakistan

Due to safe havens available across the country and failed policies of the government, around five million illegal immigrants are living in Pakistan for the past three decades, including two million Bangladeshis, 2.5 million Afghans and 0.5 million other nationals like Africans, Iranians, Iraqis, and Mayanmars, the National Assembly was informed on Friday.
In a written response to a question by PML-N’s MNA Tahira Aurangzeb, Interior Minister Rehman Malik admitted that due to safe havens available in Pakistan, partition of Pakistan in 1971, Afghan war of the 1980s, poor law and order in Iraq, the illegal immigrants were living in the country.
The minister, however, outlined a 10-point strategy to deal with the illegal immigrants, but did not inform parliamentarians how many people had been repatriated to their respective countries.
Meanwhile, Minister for Finance Abdul Hafeez Shaikh said in a written reply that one million tonne of urea was being imported by the Trading Corporation of Pakistan (TCP) and the subsidy to be paid by the federal government on this count was estimated at Rs 33 billion. To another question, the finance minister said Rs 10,984.2 billion of foreign and domestic loans were outstanding against Pakistan.
He said the government was trying to decrease the debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio to 58 percent by the end of this fiscal year and for the purpose, reforms in the tax collection system would be implemented to increase revenue.
The minister said the budget deficit of current financial year had been projected at 4.7 percent against 5.9 percent of GDP during 2010-11. The budget deficit for the first three months of this fiscal year amounted to 1.2 percent, against 1.6 percent during the same period last year.
The finance minister said to another query that the government had prepared a new growth strategy to accelerate the growth of gross domestic product (GDP). He said the new growth strategy focused on productivity and skill development, which would help increase the income of the people.
It also envisages reforms for various sectors of the economy to sustain high growth rate, he added.
Shaikh said the government had taken several steps to improve the income and living standard of the people.
“It is focusing on creation of decent employment opportunities and human resource development. For this purpose, National Vocational and Technical Education Commission has been set up besides the strength of lady health workers has also been doubled. Under the Benazir Income Support Programme, cash grant of one thousand rupees was being disbursed monthly to deserving families,” he said.
The minister said the government had increased salaries of employees by hundred percent in the last three years. As a result of these steps, per capita income of the people had risen to $1,254.
To a question, the finance minister said two billion rupees had been allocated in the current budget for the provision of 10,000 tractors to eligible farmers at subsidised rates.

Gruesome slaughter Of Frontier Constabulary soldiers

Editorial : Frontier Post

With this gruesome slaughter of 15 Frontier Constabulary soldiers in North Waziristan, the outlawed TTP militants have shown themselves up yet more contemptibly what in reality they are: just gangs of thugs and syndicates of mercenary killers. This should tell tellingly the reconciliation-dialogue advocates too how bestial innately are these fiendish characters. The advocates’ very likening of these monsters with Afghan Taliban is a blatant travesty of the truth. There can be no comparison between the two. Afghan Taliban are battling against foreign occupiers for their land’s freedom. TTP brigands are fighting against the very Pakistani State and its citizens to perpetuate their dark agendas. Afghan Taliban target foreign occupiers and their allies. TTP mercenaries murder and maim their own civilian compatriots in bomb blasts and suicide bombings and attack military targets at their masterminds’ behest.
Their religious clothing is just a deceptive device to cloak their murder trade and evil designs. Surely, the noble religion of Islam can have no place at all for their vile errands. It preaches compassion and mercy for even enemy’s women and children. But they slaughter our innocent women and children by detonating bomb blasts and conducting suicide assaults in bazaars, shopping plazas, public parks and crowded streets. Our noble religion veritably stands for showing magnanimity and forgiveness to even a surrendered enemy’s men folks. But these beasts show no qualms even in massacring their male compatriots. And while our beloved faith abhors even sacrilege of any places of worship, these brigands spare not from their violent wickedness our own co-religionists’. And contrary to our most enlightened and forward-looking religion’ teachings, they torch or blast off schools, particularly girls’.
By every reckoning, they indeed are very shady characters, wearing deceitful appearances but with a demonic underneath. In reality, they are not their own masters but someone else’s hatchet-workers. After all, the large number of brigands they harbour in their lairs and the huge mounds of sophisticated deadly weapons and fatal munitions they employ with abandon in their thuggish trades need mountains of money, which certainly cannot by mopped up by kidnappings for ransom, contrary to what some would have it believed. That kind of violence requires perennial assured sources of money and arms supplies. And on that count, their true credentials do come to glaring limelight when they quarrel, as do thieves over booty, among themselves and spill the beans on one another devastatingly. It was a fallen-out comrade who spoke out that Baitullah Mehsud was on India’s payroll, as has recently claimed this about Hakimullah Mehsud by his one estranged lieutenant.
There indeed are very dubious things about these thuggish gangs and syndicates and their ringleaders that may not be unknown to our state agencies, which for reasons best known to them they peak out not. As for one, the Baitullah gang’s close rapport with the Jundullah terrorist outfit of Iranian dissidents. The outfit’s chief Abdelmalik Rigi was statedly Baitullah’s frequent guest. And Rigi was snatched in a high-altitude operation by trailing Iranian spooks as he emerged from the US Bagram military base in Afghanistan and boarded a Gulf flight in February 2010. In fact, weapons of foreign make were captured in quantities by the Pakistan army during its operations against the militants in South Waziristan and notified to the foreign office for further action. One knows what happened on that count. But foreign weapons were also found sizably during the operation the Army launched in Swat to dismantle Swati thug Fazlullah’s terrorist network. That too is gone into oblivion, with the public unaware of any action to identify sources of these weapons supply.
But Fazlullah, now ensconced in the bordering Afghan regions of Kunar and Nuristan after escaping from the military operation, has much mystery about him. When the US-led invaders were warming up to take on the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Fazlullah led up thousands of Swati young greenhorns his father-in-law Sufi Mohammad had seduced to fight on the Taliban’s side. But as soon as the invasion started, the Sufi fled back to Pakistan leaving behind the unfortunate Swati youth to end up either in Afghan warlords’ captivity or US and Afghan jails. Fazlullah mysteriously disappeared inside Afghanistan from where he emerged after a few years laden with loads of money and stacks of weapons to entrench formidably in Swat to lay down a dreadful terrorist infrastructure and recruit bevies of brigands to throw an armed challenge to the Pakistani state. From his Afghan sanctuaries, he now launches attacks in battalion-strength on Pakistani security posts and civilian villages freely and his brigands return unchecked to their safe Afghan havens.
So whose men are actually these bestial monsters posing to be fighting for Shariah rule and what mission have they been tasked for by their financiers, masterminds and arms suppliers? Someone in Islamabad must speak up. And those reconciliation-dialogue advocates too must hold back on their populism and re-chart their discourse in accord with daunting objective realities.

Zardari reaches out to the Army

In an apparent bid to reach a truce with the Army over the Memogate scandal, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari on Saturday said that the government was not at war with the Army.

"We are not at war with the military. There is no war. This is part of evolution. It will evolve and simmer down.

He further defended his prime minister saying that Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani's remarks about Osama bin Laden hiding in Pakistan for 7 years were directed at General Pervez Musharraf and not at the Army."When PM Gilani said Osama was here for 7 years - account for that, he was talking about Musharraf. Why are you interpreting it as Army?"

He added that he did not try Musharraf as he did not want to demoralize the Army.

"I did not want to demoralize the Army. The institution would have been demoralized by a trial of Pervez Musharraf."

Meanwhile, the US has asked Pakistan to ensure former envoy Husain Haqqani is treated fairly during the probe into the memo scandal. Washington said it is monitoring the situation closely after Haqqani's wife had contacted the US State Department.

Haqqani was forced to quit last year over his alleged role in sending the secret memo on behalf of the Zardari government's seeking US assistance to oust the military leadership.

The scandal broke out when a Pakistani businessman Mansoor Ijaz claimed that he was asked to deliver a secret message from the Zardari government to the Obama administration last year.

U.S. to Pakistan: Ensure fair treatment to Haqqani

The US on Friday asked Pakistan to ensure that Islamabad's former envoy to Washington, Husain Haqqani, gets fair treatment in the ongoing judicial process that is investigating the 'Memogate' scandal and said it is watching and monitoring the situation closely.

"While it's obviously an internal matter for Pakistan and we respect Pakistan's constitutional and legal processes, we expect that any process for resolving the matter of ambassador Haqqani will proceed in a way that is fair, that's transparent, that is as expeditious as possible," State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said.

"We also expect that ambassador Haqqani will be accorded all due consideration under Pakistani law and in conformity with international legal standards. And we will be watching and monitoring the situation closely," she said.

Ensure fair treatment to Haqqani: US to Pakistan
Haqqani was forced to resign late last year after Pakistani-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz claimed he had asked him to pass on a memo, on behalf of Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, to the American government calling for their help to oust Islamabad's military leadership.

Nuland, who so far had refrained from responding to questions on Haqqani terming that it was an internal matter of Pakistan, said that it was time to go public with the views of the United States that has been officially conveyed to the Government of Pakistan.

"I think we've been watching the situation evolve in Pakistan. We didn't want to prejudge what the legal situation for him would be. As we've watched the situation, we have concluded that it is important for us to speak out, as we do around the world, about, you know, an appropriate constitutional and legal process for him and to make clear that we're watching," Nuland said.

Ensure fair treatment to Haqqani: US to Pakistan
The US official said that the wife of Haqqani has been in touch with the State Department. It is believed that she also met a number of lawmakers during her stay here.

"We have regular contact with her and we have since he went home," Nuland said in response to a question regarding contact with the wife of Haqqani. "This situation is obviously evolving in Pakistan. So we want to see it evolve in a manner that meets the highest international legal standards," she said.

"I think we've always wanted to see this process handled properly. I think there's a question simply about whether these messages were conveyed privately or whether it wasn't also appropriate to convey them publicly," she added.

U.S. Immigration process to be eased for some families

The government said on Friday it plans to reduce the time that U.S. citizens are separated from spouses and children who have been in the country illegally and who are forced to leave for as long as 10 years while their visa requests are processed.

The move drew immediate praise from Hispanic groups, a key constituency for President Barack Obama in the 2012 election year.

"The purpose of the new process is to reduce the time that U.S. families remain separated while their relative proceeds through the immigrant visa process," U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said in its announcement.

Democrats and Republicans have said Hispanic voters could decide the 2012 election. Latino groups have been disappointed in Obama's lack of progress on immigration reform and have disapproved of a stepped-up deportation program.

The largest Hispanic civil rights group in the United States called the current system "unconscionable" and praised the plan.

"This sensible and compassionate proposal helps bring much-needed sanity to an often senseless process," said Janet Murguía, president of National Council of La Raza.

A group that works with Arab immigrants said the changes would help thousands of families who are kept apart because of the current process.

"The modifications ... are an important and humane first step toward alleviating that pain and suffering," said Nadia Tonova, director for the National Network for Arab American Communities.

The changes will not take effect for months. First, the government needs to propose a detailed rule and then it will take public comments, the USCIS said.