Sunday, April 6, 2014

Seymour M. Hersh on Obama, Erdoğan and the Syrian rebels
In 2011 Barack Obama led an allied military intervention in Libya without consulting the US Congress. Last August, after the sarin attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, he was ready to launch an allied air strike, this time to punish the Syrian government for allegedly crossing the ‘red line’ he had set in 2012 on the use of chemical weapons.​* Then with less than two days to go before the planned strike, he announced that he would seek congressional approval for the intervention. The strike was postponed as Congress prepared for hearings, and subsequently cancelled when Obama accepted Assad’s offer to relinquish his chemical arsenal in a deal brokered by Russia. Why did Obama delay and then relent on Syria when he was not shy about rushing into Libya? The answer lies in a clash between those in the administration who were committed to enforcing the red line, and military leaders who thought that going to war was both unjustified and potentially disastrous.
Obama’s change of mind had its origins at Porton Down, the defence laboratory in Wiltshire. British intelligence had obtained a sample of the sarin used in the 21 August attack and analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn’t match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army’s chemical weapons arsenal. The message that the case against Syria wouldn’t hold up was quickly relayed to the US joint chiefs of staff. The British report heightened doubts inside the Pentagon; the joint chiefs were already preparing to warn Obama that his plans for a far-reaching bomb and missile attack on Syria’s infrastructure could lead to a wider war in the Middle East. As a consequence the American officers delivered a last-minute caution to the president, which, in their view, eventually led to his cancelling the attack.
For months there had been acute concern among senior military leaders and the intelligence community about the role in the war of Syria’s neighbours, especially Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan was known to be supporting the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist faction among the rebel opposition, as well as other Islamist rebel groups. ‘We knew there were some in the Turkish government,’ a former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, told me, ‘who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria – and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.’
The joint chiefs also knew that the Obama administration’s public claims that only the Syrian army had access to sarin were wrong. The American and British intelligence communities had been aware since the spring of 2013 that some rebel units in Syria were developing chemical weapons. On 20 June analysts for the US Defense Intelligence Agency issued a highly classified five-page ‘talking points’ briefing for the DIA’s deputy director, David Shedd, which stated that al-Nusra maintained a sarin production cell: its programme, the paper said, was ‘the most advanced sarin plot since al-Qaida’s pre-9/11 effort’. (According to a Defense Department consultant, US intelligence has long known that al-Qaida experimented with chemical weapons, and has a video of one of its gas experiments with dogs.) The DIA paper went on: ‘Previous IC [intelligence community] focus had been almost entirely on Syrian CW [chemical weapons] stockpiles; now we see ANF attempting to make its own CW … Al-Nusrah Front’s relative freedom of operation within Syria leads us to assess the group’s CW aspirations will be difficult to disrupt in the future.’ The paper drew on classified intelligence from numerous agencies: ‘Turkey and Saudi-based chemical facilitators,’ it said, ‘were attempting to obtain sarin precursors in bulk, tens of kilograms, likely for the anticipated large scale production effort in Syria.’ (Asked about the DIA paper, a spokesperson for the director of national intelligence said: ‘No such paper was ever requested or produced by intelligence community analysts.’)
Last May, more than ten members of the al-Nusra Front were arrested in southern Turkey with what local police told the press were two kilograms of sarin. In a 130-page indictment the group was accused of attempting to purchase fuses, piping for the construction of mortars, and chemical precursors for sarin. Five of those arrested were freed after a brief detention. The others, including the ringleader, Haytham Qassab, for whom the prosecutor requested a prison sentence of 25 years, were released pending trial. In the meantime the Turkish press has been rife with speculation that the Erdoğan administration has been covering up the extent of its involvement with the rebels. In a news conference last summer, Aydin Sezgin, Turkey’s ambassador to Moscow, dismissed the arrests and claimed to reporters that the recovered ‘sarin’ was merely ‘anti-freeze’.
The DIA paper took the arrests as evidence that al-Nusra was expanding its access to chemical weapons. It said Qassab had ‘self-identified’ as a member of al-Nusra, and that he was directly connected to Abd-al-Ghani, the ‘ANF emir for military manufacturing’. Qassab and his associate Khalid Ousta worked with Halit Unalkaya, an employee of a Turkish firm called Zirve Export, who provided ‘price quotes for bulk quantities of sarin precursors’. Abd-al-Ghani’s plan was for two associates to ‘perfect a process for making sarin, then go to Syria to train others to begin large scale production at an unidentified lab in Syria’. The DIA paper said that one of his operatives had purchased a precursor on the ‘Baghdad chemical market’, which ‘has supported at least seven CW efforts since 2004’.
A series of chemical weapon attacks in March and April 2013 was investigated over the next few months by a special UN mission to Syria. A person with close knowledge of the UN’s activity in Syria told me that there was evidence linking the Syrian opposition to the first gas attack, on 19 March in Khan Al-Assal, a village near Aleppo. In its final report in December, the mission said that at least 19 civilians and one Syrian soldier were among the fatalities, along with scores of injured. It had no mandate to assign responsibility for the attack, but the person with knowledge of the UN’s activities said: ‘Investigators interviewed the people who were there, including the doctors who treated the victims. It was clear that the rebels used the gas. It did not come out in public because no one wanted to know.’
In the months before the attacks began, a former senior Defense Department official told me, the DIA was circulating a daily classified report known as SYRUP on all intelligence related to the Syrian conflict, including material on chemical weapons. But in the spring, distribution of the part of the report concerning chemical weapons was severely curtailed on the orders of Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff. ‘Something was in there that triggered a shit fit by McDonough,’ the former Defense Department official said. ‘One day it was a huge deal, and then, after the March and April sarin attacks’ – he snapped his fingers – ‘it’s no longer there.’ The decision to restrict distribution was made as the joint chiefs ordered intensive contingency planning for a possible ground invasion of Syria whose primary objective would be the elimination of chemical weapons.
The former intelligence official said that many in the US national security establishment had long been troubled by the president’s red line: ‘The joint chiefs asked the White House, “What does red line mean? How does that translate into military orders? Troops on the ground? Massive strike? Limited strike?” They tasked military intelligence to study how we could carry out the threat. They learned nothing more about the president’s reasoning.’
In the aftermath of the 21 August attack Obama ordered the Pentagon to draw up targets for bombing. Early in the process, the former intelligence official said, ‘the White House rejected 35 target sets provided by the joint chiefs of staff as being insufficiently “painful” to the Assad regime.’ The original targets included only military sites and nothing by way of civilian infrastructure. Under White House pressure, the US attack plan evolved into ‘a monster strike’: two wings of B-52 bombers were shifted to airbases close to Syria, and navy submarines and ships equipped with Tomahawk missiles were deployed. ‘Every day the target list was getting longer,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The Pentagon planners said we can’t use only Tomahawks to strike at Syria’s missile sites because their warheads are buried too far below ground, so the two B-52 air wings with two-thousand pound bombs were assigned to the mission. Then we’ll need standby search-and-rescue teams to recover downed pilots and drones for target selection. It became huge.’ The new target list was meant to ‘completely eradicate any military capabilities Assad had’, the former intelligence official said. The core targets included electric power grids, oil and gas depots, all known logistic and weapons depots, all known command and control facilities, and all known military and intelligence buildings.
Britain and France were both to play a part. On 29 August, the day Parliament voted against Cameron’s bid to join the intervention, the Guardian reported that he had already ordered six RAF Typhoon fighter jets to be deployed to Cyprus, and had volunteered a submarine capable of launching Tomahawk missiles. The French air force – a crucial player in the 2011 strikes on Libya – was deeply committed, according to an account in Le Nouvel Observateur; François Hollande had ordered several Rafale fighter-bombers to join the American assault. Their targets were reported to be in western Syria.
By the last days of August the president had given the Joint Chiefs a fixed deadline for the launch. ‘H hour was to begin no later than Monday morning [2 September], a massive assault to neutralise Assad,’ the former intelligence official said. So it was a surprise to many when during a speech in the White House Rose Garden on 31 August Obama said that the attack would be put on hold, and he would turn to Congress and put it to a vote.
At this stage, Obama’s premise – that only the Syrian army was capable of deploying sarin – was unravelling. Within a few days of the 21 August attack, the former intelligence official told me, Russian military intelligence operatives had recovered samples of the chemical agent from Ghouta. They analysed it and passed it on to British military intelligence; this was the material sent to Porton Down. (A spokesperson for Porton Down said: ‘Many of the samples analysed in the UK tested positive for the nerve agent sarin.’ MI6 said that it doesn’t comment on intelligence matters.)
The former intelligence official said the Russian who delivered the sample to the UK was ‘a good source – someone with access, knowledge and a record of being trustworthy’. After the first reported uses of chemical weapons in Syria last year, American and allied intelligence agencies ‘made an effort to find the answer as to what if anything, was used – and its source’, the former intelligence official said. ‘We use data exchanged as part of the Chemical Weapons Convention. The DIA’s baseline consisted of knowing the composition of each batch of Soviet-manufactured chemical weapons. But we didn’t know which batches the Assad government currently had in its arsenal. Within days of the Damascus incident we asked a source in the Syrian government to give us a list of the batches the government currently had. This is why we could confirm the difference so quickly.’
The process hadn’t worked as smoothly in the spring, the former intelligence official said, because the studies done by Western intelligence ‘were inconclusive as to the type of gas it was. The word “sarin” didn’t come up. There was a great deal of discussion about this, but since no one could conclude what gas it was, you could not say that Assad had crossed the president’s red line.’ By 21 August, the former intelligence official went on, ‘the Syrian opposition clearly had learned from this and announced that “sarin” from the Syrian army had been used, before any analysis could be made, and the press and White House jumped at it. Since it now was sarin, “It had to be Assad.”’
The UK defence staff who relayed the Porton Down findings to the joint chiefs were sending the Americans a message, the former intelligence official said: ‘We’re being set up here.’ (This account made sense of a terse message a senior official in the CIA sent in late August: ‘It was not the result of the current regime. UK & US know this.’) By then the attack was a few days away and American, British and French planes, ships and submarines were at the ready.
The officer ultimately responsible for the planning and execution of the attack was General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs. From the beginning of the crisis, the former intelligence official said, the joint chiefs had been sceptical of the administration’s argument that it had the facts to back up its belief in Assad’s guilt. They pressed the DIA and other agencies for more substantial evidence. ‘There was no way they thought Syria would use nerve gas at that stage, because Assad was winning the war,’ the former intelligence official said. Dempsey had irritated many in the Obama administration by repeatedly warning Congress over the summer of the danger of American military involvement in Syria. Last April, after an optimistic assessment of rebel progress by the secretary of state, John Kerry, in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that ‘there’s a risk that this conflict has become stalemated.’
Dempsey’s initial view after 21 August was that a US strike on Syria – under the assumption that the Assad government was responsible for the sarin attack – would be a military blunder, the former intelligence official said. The Porton Down report caused the joint chiefs to go to the president with a more serious worry: that the attack sought by the White House would be an unjustified act of aggression. It was the joint chiefs who led Obama to change course. The official White House explanation for the turnabout – the story the press corps told – was that the president, during a walk in the Rose Garden with Denis McDonough, his chief of staff, suddenly decided to seek approval for the strike from a bitterly divided Congress with which he’d been in conflict for years. The former Defense Department official told me that the White House provided a different explanation to members of the civilian leadership of the Pentagon: the bombing had been called off because there was intelligence ‘that the Middle East would go up in smoke’ if it was carried out.
The president’s decision to go to Congress was initially seen by senior aides in the White House, the former intelligence official said, as a replay of George W. Bush’s gambit in the autumn of 2002 before the invasion of Iraq: ‘When it became clear that there were no WMD in Iraq, Congress, which had endorsed the Iraqi war, and the White House both shared the blame and repeatedly cited faulty intelligence. If the current Congress were to vote to endorse the strike, the White House could again have it both ways – wallop Syria with a massive attack and validate the president’s red line commitment, while also being able to share the blame with Congress if it came out that the Syrian military wasn’t behind the attack.’ The turnabout came as a surprise even to the Democratic leadership in Congress. In September the Wall Street Journal reported that three days before his Rose Garden speech Obama had telephoned Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House Democrats, ‘to talk through the options’. She later told colleagues, according to the Journal, that she hadn’t asked the president to put the bombing to a congressional vote.
Obama’s move for congressional approval quickly became a dead end. ‘Congress was not going to let this go by,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Congress made it known that, unlike the authorisation for the Iraq war, there would be substantive hearings.’ At this point, there was a sense of desperation in the White House, the former intelligence official said. ‘And so out comes Plan B. Call off the bombing strike and Assad would agree to unilaterally sign the chemical warfare treaty and agree to the destruction of all of chemical weapons under UN supervision.’ At a press conference in London on 9 September, Kerry was still talking about intervention: ‘The risk of not acting is greater than the risk of acting.’ But when a reporter asked if there was anything Assad could do to stop the bombing, Kerry said: ‘Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week … But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously.’ As the New York Times reported the next day, the Russian-brokered deal that emerged shortly afterwards had first been discussed by Obama and Putin in the summer of 2012. Although the strike plans were shelved, the administration didn’t change its public assessment of the justification for going to war. ‘There is zero tolerance at that level for the existence of error,’ the former intelligence official said of the senior officials in the White House. ‘They could not afford to say: “We were wrong.”’ (The DNI spokesperson said: ‘The Assad regime, and only the Assad regime, could have been responsible for the chemical weapons attack that took place on 21 August.’)
The full extent of US co-operation with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in assisting the rebel opposition in Syria has yet to come to light. The Obama administration has never publicly admitted to its role in creating what the CIA calls a ‘rat line’, a back channel highway into Syria. The rat line, authorised in early 2012, was used to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya via southern Turkey and across the Syrian border to the opposition. Many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida. (The DNI spokesperson said: ‘The idea that the United States was providing weapons from Libya to anyone is false.’)
In January, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a report on the assault by a local militia in September 2012 on the American consulate and a nearby undercover CIA facility in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of the US ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and three others. The report’s criticism of the State Department for not providing adequate security at the consulate, and of the intelligence community for not alerting the US military to the presence of a CIA outpost in the area, received front-page coverage and revived animosities in Washington, with Republicans accusing Obama and Hillary Clinton of a cover-up. A highly classified annex to the report, not made public, described a secret agreement reached in early 2012 between the Obama and Erdoğan administrations. It pertained to the rat line. By the terms of the agreement, funding came from Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar; the CIA, with the support of MI6, was responsible for getting arms from Gaddafi’s arsenals into Syria. A number of front companies were set up in Libya, some under the cover of Australian entities. Retired American soldiers, who didn’t always know who was really employing them, were hired to manage procurement and shipping. The operation was run by David Petraeus, the CIA director who would soon resign when it became known he was having an affair with his biographer. (A spokesperson for Petraeus denied the operation ever took place.)
The operation had not been disclosed at the time it was set up to the congressional intelligence committees and the congressional leadership, as required by law since the 1970s. The involvement of MI6 enabled the CIA to evade the law by classifying the mission as a liaison operation. The former intelligence official explained that for years there has been a recognised exception in the law that permits the CIA not to report liaison activity to Congress, which would otherwise be owed a finding. (All proposed CIA covert operations must be described in a written document, known as a ‘finding’, submitted to the senior leadership of Congress for approval.) Distribution of the annex was limited to the staff aides who wrote the report and to the eight ranking members of Congress – the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate, and the Democratic and Republicans leaders on the House and Senate intelligence committees. This hardly constituted a genuine attempt at oversight: the eight leaders are not known to gather together to raise questions or discuss the secret information they receive.
The annex didn’t tell the whole story of what happened in Benghazi before the attack, nor did it explain why the American consulate was attacked. ‘The consulate’s only mission was to provide cover for the moving of arms,’ the former intelligence official, who has read the annex, said. ‘It had no real political role.’
Washington abruptly ended the CIA’s role in the transfer of arms from Libya after the attack on the consulate, but the rat line kept going. ‘The United States was no longer in control of what the Turks were relaying to the jihadists,’ the former intelligence official said. Within weeks, as many as forty portable surface-to-air missile launchers, commonly known as manpads, were in the hands of Syrian rebels. On 28 November 2012, Joby Warrick of the Washington Post reported that the previous day rebels near Aleppo had used what was almost certainly a manpad to shoot down a Syrian transport helicopter. ‘The Obama administration,’ Warrick wrote, ‘has steadfastly opposed arming Syrian opposition forces with such missiles, warning that the weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to shoot down commercial aircraft.’ Two Middle Eastern intelligence officials fingered Qatar as the source, and a former US intelligence analyst speculated that the manpads could have been obtained from Syrian military outposts overrun by the rebels. There was no indication that the rebels’ possession of manpads was likely the unintended consequence of a covert US programme that was no longer under US control.
By the end of 2012, it was believed throughout the American intelligence community that the rebels were losing the war. ‘Erdoğan was pissed,’ the former intelligence official said, ‘and felt he was left hanging on the vine. It was his money and the cut-off was seen as a betrayal.’ In spring 2013 US intelligence learned that the Turkish government – through elements of the MIT, its national intelligence agency, and the Gendarmerie, a militarised law-enforcement organisation – was working directly with al-Nusra and its allies to develop a chemical warfare capability. ‘The MIT was running the political liaison with the rebels, and the Gendarmerie handled military logistics, on-the-scene advice and training – including training in chemical warfare,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Stepping up Turkey’s role in spring 2013 was seen as the key to its problems there. Erdoğan knew that if he stopped his support of the jihadists it would be all over. The Saudis could not support the war because of logistics – the distances involved and the difficulty of moving weapons and supplies. Erdoğan’s hope was to instigate an event that would force the US to cross the red line. But Obama didn’t respond in March and April.’
There was no public sign of discord when Erdoğan and Obama met on 16 May 2013 at the White House. At a later press conference Obama said that they had agreed that Assad ‘needs to go’. Asked whether he thought Syria had crossed the red line, Obama acknowledged that there was evidence such weapons had been used, but added, ‘it is important for us to make sure that we’re able to get more specific information about what exactly is happening there.’ The red line was still intact.
An American foreign policy expert who speaks regularly with officials in Washington and Ankara told me about a working dinner Obama held for Erdoğan during his May visit. The meal was dominated by the Turks’ insistence that Syria had crossed the red line and their complaints that Obama was reluctant to do anything about it. Obama was accompanied by John Kerry and Tom Donilon, the national security adviser who would soon leave the job. Erdoğan was joined by Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, and Hakan Fidan, the head of the MIT. Fidan is known to be fiercely loyal to Erdoğan, and has been seen as a consistent backer of the radical rebel opposition in Syria.
The foreign policy expert told me that the account he heard originated with Donilon. (It was later corroborated by a former US official, who learned of it from a senior Turkish diplomat.) According to the expert, Erdoğan had sought the meeting to demonstrate to Obama that the red line had been crossed, and had brought Fidan along to state the case. When Erdoğan tried to draw Fidan into the conversation, and Fidan began speaking, Obama cut him off and said: ‘We know.’ Erdoğan tried to bring Fidan in a second time, and Obama again cut him off and said: ‘We know.’ At that point, an exasperated Erdoğan said, ‘But your red line has been crossed!’ and, the expert told me, ‘Donilon said Erdoğan “fucking waved his finger at the president inside the White House”.’ Obama then pointed at Fidan and said: ‘We know what you’re doing with the radicals in Syria.’ (Donilon, who joined the Council on Foreign Relations last July, didn’t respond to questions about this story. The Turkish Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to questions about the dinner. A spokesperson for the National Security Council confirmed that the dinner took place and provided a photograph showing Obama, Kerry, Donilon, Erdoğan, Fidan and Davutoglu sitting at a table. ‘Beyond that,’ she said, ‘I’m not going to read out the details of their discussions.’)
But Erdoğan did not leave empty handed. Obama was still permitting Turkey to continue to exploit a loophole in a presidential executive order prohibiting the export of gold to Iran, part of the US sanctions regime against the country. In March 2012, responding to sanctions of Iranian banks by the EU, the SWIFT electronic payment system, which facilitates cross-border payments, expelled dozens of Iranian financial institutions, severely restricting the country’s ability to conduct international trade. The US followed with the executive order in July, but left what came to be known as a ‘golden loophole’: gold shipments to private Iranian entities could continue. Turkey is a major purchaser of Iranian oil and gas, and it took advantage of the loophole by depositing its energy payments in Turkish lira in an Iranian account in Turkey; these funds were then used to purchase Turkish gold for export to confederates in Iran. Gold to the value of $13 billion reportedly entered Iran in this way between March 2012 and July 2013.
The programme quickly became a cash cow for corrupt politicians and traders in Turkey, Iran and the United Arab Emirates. ‘The middlemen did what they always do,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘Take 15 per cent. The CIA had estimated that there was as much as two billion dollars in skim. Gold and Turkish lira were sticking to fingers.’ The illicit skimming flared into a public ‘gas for gold’ scandal in Turkey in December, and resulted in charges against two dozen people, including prominent businessmen and relatives of government officials, as well as the resignations of three ministers, one of whom called for Erdoğan to resign. The chief executive of a Turkish state-controlled bank that was in the middle of the scandal insisted that more than $4.5 million in cash found by police in shoeboxes during a search of his home was for charitable donations.
Late last year Jonathan Schanzer and Mark Dubowitz reported in Foreign Policy that the Obama administration closed the golden loophole in January 2013, but ‘lobbied to make sure the legislation … did not take effect for six months’. They speculated that the administration wanted to use the delay as an incentive to bring Iran to the bargaining table over its nuclear programme, or to placate its Turkish ally in the Syrian civil war. The delay permitted Iran to ‘accrue billions of dollars more in gold, further undermining the sanctions regime’.
The American decision to end CIA support of the weapons shipments into Syria left Erdoğan exposed politically and militarily. ‘One of the issues at that May summit was the fact that Turkey is the only avenue to supply the rebels in Syria,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘It can’t come through Jordan because the terrain in the south is wide open and the Syrians are all over it. And it can’t come through the valleys and hills of Lebanon – you can’t be sure who you’d meet on the other side.’ Without US military support for the rebels, the former intelligence official said, ‘Erdoğan’s dream of having a client state in Syria is evaporating and he thinks we’re the reason why. When Syria wins the war, he knows the rebels are just as likely to turn on him – where else can they go? So now he will have thousands of radicals in his backyard.’
A US intelligence consultant told me that a few weeks before 21 August he saw a highly classified briefing prepared for Dempsey and the defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, which described ‘the acute anxiety’ of the Erdoğan administration about the rebels’ dwindling prospects. The analysis warned that the Turkish leadership had expressed ‘the need to do something that would precipitate a US military response’. By late summer, the Syrian army still had the advantage over the rebels, the former intelligence official said, and only American air power could turn the tide. In the autumn, the former intelligence official went on, the US intelligence analysts who kept working on the events of 21 August ‘sensed that Syria had not done the gas attack. But the 500 pound gorilla was, how did it happen? The immediate suspect was the Turks, because they had all the pieces to make it happen.’
As intercepts and other data related to the 21 August attacks were gathered, the intelligence community saw evidence to support its suspicions. ‘We now know it was a covert action planned by Erdoğan’s people to push Obama over the red line,’ the former intelligence official said. ‘They had to escalate to a gas attack in or near Damascus when the UN inspectors’ – who arrived in Damascus on 18 August to investigate the earlier use of gas – ‘were there. The deal was to do something spectacular. Our senior military officers have been told by the DIA and other intelligence assets that the sarin was supplied through Turkey – that it could only have gotten there with Turkish support. The Turks also provided the training in producing the sarin and handling it.’ Much of the support for that assessment came from the Turks themselves, via intercepted conversations in the immediate aftermath of the attack. ‘Principal evidence came from the Turkish post-attack joy and back-slapping in numerous intercepts. Operations are always so super-secret in the planning but that all flies out the window when it comes to crowing afterwards. There is no greater vulnerability than in the perpetrators claiming credit for success.’ Erdoğan’s problems in Syria would soon be over: ‘Off goes the gas and Obama will say red line and America is going to attack Syria, or at least that was the idea. But it did not work out that way.’
The post-attack intelligence on Turkey did not make its way to the White House. ‘Nobody wants to talk about all this,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘There is great reluctance to contradict the president, although no all-source intelligence community analysis supported his leap to convict. There has not been one single piece of additional evidence of Syrian involvement in the sarin attack produced by the White House since the bombing raid was called off. My government can’t say anything because we have acted so irresponsibly. And since we blamed Assad, we can’t go back and blame Erdoğan.’
Turkey’s willingness to manipulate events in Syria to its own purposes seemed to be demonstrated late last month, a few days before a round of local elections, when a recording, allegedly of Erdoğan and his associates, was posted to YouTube. It included discussion of a false-flag operation that would justify an incursion by the Turkish military in Syria. The operation centred on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the revered Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire, which is near Aleppo and was ceded to Turkey in 1921, when Syria was under French rule. One of the Islamist rebel factions was threatening to destroy the tomb as a site of idolatry, and the Erdoğan administration was publicly threatening retaliation if harm came to it. According to a Reuters report of the leaked conversation, a voice alleged to be Fidan’s spoke of creating a provocation: ‘Now look, my commander [Erdoğan], if there is to be justification, the justification is I send four men to the other side. I get them to fire eight missiles into empty land [in the vicinity of the tomb]. That’s not a problem. Justification can be created.’ The Turkish government acknowledged that there had been a national security meeting about threats emanating from Syria, but said the recording had been manipulated. The government subsequently blocked public access to YouTube.
Barring a major change in policy by Obama, Turkey’s meddling in the Syrian civil war is likely to go on. ‘I asked my colleagues if there was any way to stop Erdoğan’s continued support for the rebels, especially now that it’s going so wrong,’ the former intelligence official told me. ‘The answer was: “We’re screwed.” We could go public if it was somebody other than Erdoğan, but Turkey is a special case. They’re a Nato ally. The Turks don’t trust the West. They can’t live with us if we take any active role against Turkish interests. If we went public with what we know about Erdoğan’s role with the gas, it’d be disastrous. The Turks would say: “We hate you for telling us what we can and can’t do.”’

Syria: Wide military operations against terrorists carried out, terrorists killed by own car bomb
Army and Armed Forces launched Sunday wide military operations against terrorists' gatherings and dens in several areas around the county.
SANA reporter said that the army units destroyed a workshop for manufacturing explosive devices and home-made rockets near al-Moleha neighborhood in the countryside, killing and injuring scores of terrorists. Mohammad Dyab was identified among the dead terrorists. She added that the army units advanced in al-Moleha city, cutting the supply lines of the terrorists.Other army units eliminate many terrorists in the area surrounding Tameco company in Ein Tarma valley. The army units killed more than 30 terrorists in Alleiah farms in Douma, including Samer Sadeeq. Another army unit killed and injured all members of an armed terrorist group in Joubar neighborhood. She pointed out that the army units killed and injured many terrorists in the farms of al-Sarkha to the southwest of Yabroud. Meanwhile, non-Syrian terrorists were killed in al-Zabadani, including Rashed al-Qader from Kuwait.
Army units killed and wounded members of armed terrorist groups and destroyed a car equipped with heavy machinegun on the road between Nehliya and Kafarnajd towns in Idleb countryside. A military source told SANA that army units razed terrorists' concentrations in Saraqeb, Balshoun, al-Rami, Kafrshlaya in Idleb countryside, killing and wounding many terrorists. SANA reporter in Idleb said that an explosive device went off as terrorists were attempting to plant it in Kafarnajd in Idleb countryside, killing and wounding several terrorists.
A military source told SANA reporter that an army unit killed and injured all members of an armed terrorist group in al-Nsser mountain in the northern countryside of Lattakia, in addition to destroying their weapons and ammunition. Meanwhile, other army units targeted terrorists' dens and gatherings in al-Kabeer village and al-Fronloq woods in the northern countryside of Lattakia, killing 39 terrorists and injuring others, in addition to destroying 5 vehicles equipped with heavy machineguns.
In Homs, an army unit foiled a terrorists' infiltration attempt from al-Ghantto village into Beit al-Nabhan in Talbisa, killing and injuring all its members, a military source said. The source added that an army unit targeted terrorists' gatherings in Ein Hussein, Beit Hajjo and al-Moshajar al-Janoubi in Homs countryside, killing many terrorists and injuring others.
A car bomb exploded when terrorists were preparing it in Souq al-Jaj in Homs city. A number of terrorists were killed and others got injured in the explosion.
Units of the Syrian Arab Army inflicted heavy losses on the armed terrorist groups in Deir Ezzor and destroyed their weapons and ammunition in the neighborhoods of al-Rahidieh, al-Huwieqa and al-Jbeileh. A source in the province told SANA reporter that a unit of the army destroyed a den of an armed terrorist group that calls itself “Liwa Abdullah bin al-Zubeir” in al-Ummal neighborhood and killed all terrorist inside. The source added that another unit clashed with an armed terrorist group that calls itself “Liwa al-Abbas” and killed all its members. The army units destroyed a number of terrorists’ vehicles in Deir Ezzor countryside, some of them were loaded with stolen oil.
Army units inflicted heavy losses upon terrorist gatherings in Daraa al-Balad and in al-Nazhin camp in Daraa province. The army also targeted terrorist gatherings on the Daraa-Tafas and Zamrin-Salmin roads in Daraa countryside, destroying their weapons which included a mortar launcher, eliminating a number of them, and injuring others. Other units targeted terrorists in Beir al-Jamal al-Naimeh and in Oum al-Mayadin, leaving a number of them dead and injuring others. A military source told SANA that the army also clashed with terrorists in Otman village in Daraa countryside and killed and injured large numbers of them. The source added that an army unit killed all members of an armed terrorist group in al-Wardat village while they were trying to infiltrate al-Lajat area. Meanwhile, the army killed and injured a number of terrorists who were trying to assaults passers on Damascus-Daraa highway in the area of Khabab town.

Turkey’s main opposition appeals to top board for cancellation of Ankara vote

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) appealed to the country’s top election authority April 6, asking for the cancellation of results of the contested local elections in the capital city of Ankara. “The will of Ankara’s people does not accurately reflect in the ballot boxes. We expect the YSK [Supreme Election Board] to impartially assess this situation and decide for a repeat of the election,” the CHP’s nominee for Ankara Metropolitan Municipality, Mansur Yavaş, said at a press conference. Yavaş, accompanied by CHP deputies, held the press conference at a hotel across from the YSK, while a huge crowd waited outside the hotel in show of support for him. “We are after each and every vote. If the YSK rejects our appeal, we will take the issue to the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights,” Yavaş said. The CHP has insistently claimed the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rigged the race’s result on March 30, where the AKP incumbent claimed a narrow victory. The provincial board in Ankara rejected the CHP’s appeal for a recount on April 4. As of April 5, Ankara’s incumbent mayor of the ruling AKP, Melih Gökçek, was granted “mayoral mandate” by the president of the provincial election board at a reception held at the Ankara Courthouse. At the same ceremony, AKP Deputy Chair Salih Kapusuz bestowed Gökçek with a belt which reads: “Ankara’s Chief Wrestler Melih Gökçek.”

Pro-Russian protesters storm regional government building in east Ukraine's Donetsk, Lugansk and Kharkov

The rally in support of the Berkut riot police troops, who were detained by the coup-imposed authorities in Kiev, has culminated in pro-Russian protesters seizing the regional administration’s buildings in the eastern Ukraine. Over 2,000 people gathered in Lenin Square in the center of Donetsk to petition for the Berkut officers, who – they believe – are falsely accused of using fire arms against the rioters during the Maidan standoff. The participants in the event called on the “illegal junta in Kiev” to end political repressions and persecution of dissidents, the Itar-Tass news agency reports.
They demanded their right for self-determination to be respected, pushing for a Crimea-style referendum on independence from Ukraine.
The protesters carried Russian national flags, chanted “Russia! Russia!” and displayed banners urging the new Donetsk Region governor, Sergey Taruta, who was recently appointed by Kiev, “to get out.”
An effigy of a Nazi zealot was also burnt in the square, with the action labeled “an act of annihilation of fascism” by the protesters in view of neo-Nazi radicals playing a key role in the Ukrainian coup this February. The people then moved out towards the regional administration’s headquarters, carrying a giant Russian flag.
The confrontation with the police broke out on the porch of the government building, with the pro-Russian protesters depriving a dozen officers of their riot shields.
The demonstrators used the confiscated shields to make their way through the main entrance of the building and occupied the balcony. The Ukrainian flag in front of the administration was replaced by a Russian standard. Eventually, police blocked the demonstrators inside. The violence in Donetsk might’ve been provoked by a banner saying “Goodbye, Russia,” which was placed on the administration, Life-News reports. The administration headquarters were empty, with only guards inside, as Government officials don’t work on Sundays.
The events evolved in a similar way in Luganks where around a thousand people rallied in front of the local Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) office. They demanded the release of protest leader, Aleksandr Kharitonov, who has been in detention since mid-march, as well as 15 pro-Russian activists detained on Saturday.
The people carried Russian flags and chanted “Shame on SBU” and “Freedom to political prisoners.”
According to the Russian Spring website, a policeman was injured and hospitalized as the protesters stormed the SBU building. One of the demonstrators also reportedly suffered a head injury. The governor of Lugansk region and the local Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) chief went out to talk to the demonstrators, which resulted in six of the detained anti-Maidan activists being released from custody.
Violence also broke out in the city of Kharkov where pro-Russian protesters clashed with alleged activists from the far-right Right Sector movement. Fireworks were used as weapons during the scuffle, with several explosions heard. However, there were no reports of injuries as the police managed to quickly separate the sides. Following the incident, the Maidan activists had to crawl inside the corridor, erected by police for their protection, as the crowd threw foreign objects at them.
Pro-Russian rallies are taking place almost every weekend in major cities in the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine since the nationalist coup ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovich, in late February. One of the first laws the new government revoked was the regional status of the Russian language, which sent a clear message to the people in the country’s east. The Republic of Crimea refused to recognize the change of power in Kiev and declared its independence from Ukraine, following the March-16 referendum, in which 96.77 percent of the voters chose to rejoin Russia.

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Video: Solar Flare: Spectacular eruption from Sun's surface

President Obama to attend Fort Hood service
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will attend a memorial ceremony this week for victims of the deadly shooting rampage at Fort Hood, a White House official said Sunday.
The first couple's attendance at the service mirrors one of nearly five years ago when the president and first lady flew to the Central Texas military installation to paid tribute to those killed in another tragic shooting. Details on the trip to Texas this week by the president and first lady are expected to be made public later this week, a White House official said Sunday.
Three soldiers were killed and 16 wounded last Wednesday when Spc. Ivan Antonio Lopez opened fire with a .45-caliber handgun. The incident ended when Lopez shot himself and died.
Fort Hood commander Lt. Gen. Mark Milley said the shooting apparently followed an argument Lopez had with another soldier on the post.
Milley said no evidence suggests that the shooting spree and killings were premeditated.
Killed were Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Michael Ferguson, 39, of Florida; Sgt. Timothy Wayne Owens, 37, of Illinois; and Staff Sgt. Carlos Alberto Lazany-Rodriguez, 38, of Puerto Rico.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. lawmakers, including Texas Sens. John Cornyn, Ted Cruz and Reps. John Carter, R-Round Rock and Roger Williams, R-Weatherford, have visited with the victims.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, was one of the first members of Congress briefed on the shooting at the Texas post.
McCaul is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, which will have oversight of the subsequent investigation into the shooting. More than 150 federal and military investigators are sifting through the events at Fort Hood to complete and investigation into the deadly shooting and to determine what prompted the fatal actions by Lopez.

U.S. Immigration: Yes He Can, on Immigration

If President Obama means what he says about wanting an immigration system that reflects American values, helps the economy and taps the yearnings of millions of Americans-in-waiting, he is going to have to do something about it — soon and on his own. It has been frustrating to watch his yes-we-can promises on immigration reform fade to protestations of impotence and the blaming of others. All Mr. Obama has been saying lately is: No, in fact, we can’t, because Republicans and the law won’t let me.
Mr. Obama is correct when he complains that long-term immigration repairs have been throttled in Congress. Neo-nativist Republicans fixated on mass deportation have blocked a worthy bipartisan bill. But Mr. Obama has compounded this failure by clinging to a coldblooded strategy of ramped-up enforcement on the same people he has promised to help through legislation that he has failed to achieve.
With nearly two million removals in the last five years, the Obama administration is deporting people at a faster pace than has taken place under any other president. This enormously costly effort was meant to win Republican support for broader reform. But all it has done is add to the burden of fear, family disruption and lack of opportunity faced by 11 million people who cannot get right with the law. Because of Mr. Obama’s enforcement blitz, more than 5,000 children have ended up in foster care.
Mr. Obama should know his approach is unsustainable, and immigration advocates and lawmakers have applied intense pressure on him to deport “not one more” deserving immigrant. With reform on life support, he recently told the Homeland Security secretary, Jeh Johnson, to find ways to conduct immigration enforcement more “humanely.”
That would be nice. But that is only the beginning of what Mr. Obama and Mr. Johnson should do.
Those who would qualify for legalization under a Senate bill passed last summer — people who do not pose criminal threats, who have strong ties to this country and, in many cases, have children who are American citizens — should not be in danger of deportation. The one recent bright spot in Mr. Obama’s immigration record has been his decision, made on firm legal ground, to defer for two years the deportations of young people who would have qualified for legal status under the stalled Dream Act.
These immigrants, known as Dreamers, are a sympathetic group, and Mr. Obama’s move to protect them was timely and wise. But millions of other unauthorized immigrants are just as vulnerable and no less worthy. There is no good reason not to extend similar relief to the Dreamers’ parents, or to the parents of citizen children and others who pose no threat and should likewise be allowed to live and work here while efforts to pass reform continue.
Besides deferring some deportations, the administration should adopt an array of policy changes, no matter what Congress does. Mr. Johnson needs to get Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol to make noncriminals and minor offenders the lowest deportation priorities. This has been tried before, through a series of “prosecutorial discretion” memos that have had little positive effect.
If their language needs clarifying, Mr. Johnson, once the Pentagon’s top lawyer, surely knows how to write clear rules of engagement. Some states like California do, too: They now strictly limit the kinds of people local police surrender to federal authorities for deportation.
The administration needs to find ways to turn off the deportation machinery when it gets abused. It should end programs like Secure Communities that enlist local police as immigration enforcers. When immigrants assert their civil and labor rights against abusive employers, it should protect them from deportation and retaliation.
These and other reforms should not be confused with a comprehensive overhaul of immigration, which only Congress can achieve. But they are ways to push a failing system toward sanity and justice.
Mr. Obama may argue that he can’t be too aggressive in halting deportations because that will make the Republicans go crazy, and there’s always hope for a legislative solution. He has often seemed like a bystander to the immigration stalemate, watching the wheels spin, giving speeches and hoping for the best.
It’s hard to know when he will finally stir himself to do something big and consequential.

Washington, D.C.: Number of Families Seeking Shelter in DC Rises Sharply
By: Milena Djurdjic
The number of homeless families in the Washington, D.C. shelter system more than doubled this past winter - well beyond earlier expectations of a 10-percent increase.
The rise, which many consider unprecedented, has surprised some officials. But homeless advocates say it should have been anticipated and that the U.S. capital is becoming too pricey for the lowest-income families.
The fast-growing city has been adding more than 1,000 new residents each month, according to the mayor. But some say this development is leaving the city's poor behind.
Among them are Donnell Harris, his wife Stephanie Williams and their two children, who have been homeless for a year.
“We had our own apartment," he said. "I lost my job, bills got stacked up, rent got stacked up, so we were evicted. It’s been a struggle. Trying to get money just to have somewhere to sleep and have food for the children as well as get my oldest daughter to school.”
The District of Columbia is legally obligated to shelter the homeless when the temperatures drop below freezing. With DC General, a family shelter housed in an old hospital complex, already filled up at the beginning of the winter, the city had to rent more than 400 motel rooms.
Some of the families, including Harris', were placed in public recreation centers, where they slept on cots separated by portable partitions. They had to leave every morning and then wait for hours to reapply for shelter again, but only on freezing nights. A judge recently ordered the administration to stop housing families in recreation centers because, among other things, the practice may be harmful to children.
“It is an experience that no one should have to go through. No one,” he said. Patty Mullahy Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, says the situation should have been anticipated - and blames the entire community for not addressing the problem.
“Families who were on the edge, who were presenting for shelter because they could no longer afford housing in a market like this," she said. "And now their situations are much worse.”
According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, the city has lost more than half of its low-cost rental units and 72 percent of its low-value homes over the last decade. This, as household incomes have not kept pace with the rise in housing costs. Mayor Vincent Gray has pledged another $100-million investment in affordable housing, on top of last year’s $187-million commitment to preserve and build 10,000 units by 2020.
But Council member Jim Graham, who chairs the Committee on Human Services, says the city should be doing more. He warns of dire consequences if the problem of family homelessness is not resolved.
“Because, what we sow we will reap," he said. "And what we are sowing here is all manner of problems relating to child development, education, crime, you name it."
VOA’s request to the DC Department of Human Services to visit the shelters was left unanswered - as well as a request for a comment from the DHS director on why there are so many homeless families this year. Meanwhile, Donnell Harris and his family will no longer be provided shelter because the so-called "hypothermia season" is ending. The warmer temperatures, which many Washington residents welcome, will only bring more struggle for families in need of a home.
“We live day by day," he said. "Whatever comes, that’s what we got to deal with. If we don’t get money tomorrow, then I don’t know what we might do. It is confusing and it is hard.”

Afghan Women Await Poll Results With Hope

Hopes are high that Afghanistan's election Saturday may result in the country's first peaceful transition of power in more than a century. Militant attacks and electoral fraud are the main threats to the vote for a new president, who will take over after President Hamid Karzai ends his second term. Afghan women, whose freedom has often been curtailed, also worry about their future under a new government. Zlatica Hoke has this report.

President Obama hails 'critical' Afghan vote

US President Barack Obama congratulated Afghanistan on its landmark presidential election, saying it was "critical" to securing the country's democratic prospects and continued international aid.
The ballots, which could usher in the country's first democratic transfer of power, "represent another important milestone in Afghans taking full responsibility for their country as the United States and our partners draw down our forces," Obama said in a statement.
"These elections are critical to securing Afghanistan's democratic future, as well as continued international support."
Afghan voters braved threats of violence to line up outside polling stations en masse -- with a final turnout expected to exceed 50 percent, or seven million -- to pick a successor to President Hamid Karzai for the first time since the US-led invasion in 2001.
"Millions of Afghan men and women took to the polls today with courage and commitment," US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.
"This is their moment. The Afghan people secured this election. They ran this election, and most importantly, they voted in this election."
Obama urged election officials to make their formal decision on the outcome fairly, "knowing that the most critical voices on the outcome are those of Afghans themselves."
Karzai has refused to sign a security agreement that would allow the US to keep around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan to train local forces and hunt Al-Qaeda, and relations with Washington have dropped to a new low. Afghans have taken over responsibility for security from US-led forces, and this year the last of the NATO coalition's 51,000 combat troops will pull out, leaving local forces to battle the resilient Taliban insurgency without their help.
Obama, who has had tense ties with Karzai, said "we look forward to continuing our partnership with the new government chosen by the Afghan people on the basis of mutual respect and mutual accountability."
Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel commended the Afghan National Security Forces for providing the security that allowed the voting to take place.
"The progress we have seen in Afghanistan is a testament to the tireless efforts and sacrifices of American, (NATO's) ISAF and Afghan personnel," he added.
"But above all, it shows the strength and resilience of the Afghan people, and of the partnership the United States has built with them. It is a partnership that will endure."
While hailing the high voter turnout as an "important step," top US military officer General Martin Dempsey stressed that many Afghans, Americans and other foreigners had lost their lives to make a potential democratic transition possible in Afghanistan.
"Today's election did not come without significant sacrifice -- the sacrifice of the Afghan people and many Americans and service members from partner nations who have been killed and wounded fighting there since 2001," he said. "We look forward to the outcome of the elections and the opportunity to continue to work together, with a willing partner, for a better Afghanistan."
Since the United States toppled the Taliban regime in 2001, 2,316 American troops have been killed, according to, which uses Pentagon data to estimate combat losses.

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Former President Zardari felicitates people of Afghanistan on elections
Former President and Co-Chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party Asif Ali Zardari has felicitated the Afghan people on peaceful voting with a larger than expected turnout defying the forces that had threatened the polls. On behalf of the Pakistan Peoples Party and on my own behalf I wish to felicitate the people, the government and the officials responsible for the polls in Afghanistan yesterday, he said in a statement today.
Hopefully the Saturday polls will be a watershed mark in the elusive journey of the people of Afghanistan on the path to peaceful democratic transition and leading to peace and stability not only in their country but also in the region, he said.
According to initial estimates the voter turn out was more than 58%.
The Saturday vote in Afghanistan despite threats demonstrates yet again that the people want peace and democracy and those opposed to their democratic ethos are doomed to be frustrated, the former President said.
The elections hold great promise not only to Afghanistan but also to the region. The people of Pakistan which last year witnessed the first ever democratic transition under the watch of the Pakistan Peoples Party will watch keenly as the results of the voice of the people of Afghanistan are tabulated in the coming days, he said.
Peace in Pakistan depends on peace and stability of Afghanistan and the Pakistan Peoples Party looks forward to the strengthening the forces of peace and stability in Afghanistan as a result of the polls, he said.

Bilawal Bhutto condemns threats to journalist Imtiaz Alam
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Patron-In-Chief, Pakistan Peoples Party has strongly condemned deaths threats to renowned journalist South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) Secretary General Imtiaz Alam and asked Federal government to arrange adequate security arrangements for him.
In a press statement issued here, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said death threats to a patriotic and nationalist journalist have exposed level of insecurity among those circles who are opposed to the policy of appeasement adopted by Federal government. PPP Patron-In-Chief pointed out that death threats to Imtiaz Alam following murderous attack on another journalist-anchor Raza Rumi was warning to all those who want integrity of Pakistan as a democratic and welfare state free of injustice, exploitation and discrimination of any kind and manifestations. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari expressed solidarity with Imtiaz Alam and appreciated his brave and bold narrative against terrorism and extremism in the country. He also extended support to the protests of journalists across the country against threats to journalist community.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has a surprise for Pakistani Street Children Football team
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Patron-In-Chief, Pakistan Peoples Party has congratulated Pakistan street children’s team for making serial victories up to the semi-finals in Street Child Football World Cup in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “They have rekindled our hope and reinforced the confidence among the children and youth of Pakistan about the great potential they have as world’s nation having largest majority of youth,” he said in a congratulatory message to Pakistan’s Street Child Football team and its management.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said he has a surprise for the Pakistani Street Child Football team and assured that he would always in the front to project and promote the nation’s youth in every sphere of life. He said steps will be taken to encourage football in Sindh, specially Karachi where world’s great footballers are awaiting their discovery by sports authorities. Pakistani team defeated three countries in matches upto semi-final in Street Child Football World Cup and won hearts back home. PPP Patron-In-Chief also appreciated Azad Foundation, which led the Pakistani team to World Cup, for its cooperation to Peoples Government of Sindh in implementing Sindh Child Act, Juvenile Justice Ordinance, Sindh Child Protection Authority Act in the province. It may be mentioned here that Azad Foundation has declared Social Welfare Department of People’s government in Sindh as one of its 5 friends on its website.

Afghanistan presidential election hit by unexpected problem – too many voters

Emma Graham-Harrison
Country braced for fraud and Taliban violence but failed to anticipate Afghans flocking to elect Hamid Karzai's successor
In anxious preparation for a historic presidential election, Afghanistan fortified its cities against attack, primed observers to detect fraud ... then was blind-sided by a problem no one had even dared to imagine – unprecedented voter enthusiasm.
Defying Taliban threats and the more mundane challenge of rainy weather, Afghans flocked to the polls in such high numbers that ballots were running out in some places by midday. Soon, more than a third of provinces were reporting shortfalls, and as the scale of the problem emerged election organisers scrambled to respond.
"I don't know how I will bear it if I don't get to vote," said 22-year-old Atifa Sultani, who had her finger marked with indelible ink – designed to stop repeat voting – at a station in west Kabul before being told that ballots had run out. "As a citizen it's my right to choose our leader, but I can't try anywhere else, because from my finger it seems I already voted."
Afghans are choosing a successor to President Hamid Karzai after 12 years, and if the handover is smooth it will be the first peaceful, democratic transfer of power their country has ever seen.
For months Kabul was filled with rumours that Karzai would seek to delay or cancel the vote so that he could hold on to power. But he kept his promises to hold the poll on time with an early-morning trip to a polling station near his palace.
"Today is a vital day for us, the people of Afghanistan, that will determine our future," he said after casting his ballot and urged other voters to come out . They did so in numbers and with a determination that surprised even optimists, and even after ballots ran out. Seven million Afghans cast votes, said election organisers, nearly two and a half million more than the last presidential poll, and about 60% of all eligible voters.
In the Kabul station that ran out of ballots, Sultani waited three hours until a last-minute batch arrived, sending organisers who had been muttering darkly about government conspiracies scrambling to reassemble the polling station.
A 77-year-old man who had ignored family warnings about going out in the rain was first in line. "It is my joy to vote," Qamber Ali said, echoing the sentiments of thousands who stood patiently in well-disciplined lines even through downpours. Younger voters posed for photos with their inked fingers and uploaded them to Facebook and Twitter. "Have voted for the future of my country," wrote artist Shamsia Hassani. Hassani was joined by hundreds of thousands of other women, many students and professionals who have come of age during Karzai's rule and were voting for the first time. Ballots ran out particularly fast at voting centres for women, who also made up more candidates than ever before.
Male and female polling stations are separate because many in the conservative country frown on the mingling of the sexes in any context outside of the family. "Of course the massive turnout of women voters is a big slap to all those who want to block us to contribute. Feeling proud to be a woman," said activist Samira Huria, who had returned to Afghanistan to take part in the poll. It was not all good news. The election in some rural areas dominated by insurgents sounded like another vote entirely, with villagers steering clear of voting stations after the Taliban warned them to stay away, commanders taking ballot-boxes to stuff at their leisure, and rocket, bomb and gun attacks.
At least one person was killed, several others injured and more than 200 polling stations closed at the last minute because of security threats. But multiple rings of tight security, with Kabul virtually shut down for days before the election, appear to have prevented any major Taliban attacks.
The insurgents had denounced the elections as a sham, warned that anyone who worked on them or took part was risking their lives, and mounted a high-profile campaign of attacks in the runup to the vote. The bloodshed cut short some international election monitoring missions and prompted many foreigners to evacuate ahead of the poll. In Kabul alone gunmen shot dead nine people, including a prominent Afghan journalist and his wife and two young children as they ate dinner in a city centre hotel, stormed the guesthouse of a landmine removal charity, and attacked two election offices and a ministry in less than two weeks.
Afghan intelligence sources said several squads of suicide attackers were preparing more spectacular attacks on polling day. In response the government declared four days of holiday, sent workers home, shut down all roads into the city and promised people it would guarantee their safety with more than 300,000 police and soldiers deployed around the country.
Kabul voters spooked by the string of attacks said they were unsure if the security cordon would hold but had come to the polls anyway. "I am 100% worried about security, but this is about the destiny of our country," said 23-year-old Aslan, an election monitor who by 10am had already spotted a man who had scrubbed his inked finger and was trying to vote twice.
He was part of a 200,000-strong squad of election observers, mostly tied to individual candidates, who kept a far closer eye on polling than five years ago when the vote that returned Karzai to power was marred by widespread fraud and more than a million ballots were thrown out. It would be foolish to call the election overall a success at this stage. Reports of fraud in 2009 trickled in slowly at first, and even if this poll proves cleaner there is certain to be controversy about which areas were short of ballots, and whether it affected some candidates more than others.
Election organisers reacted fast to the high turnout, extending voting hours, sending out more ballots, and trying to explain their miscalculation to the angry masses of would-be voters. "We surveyed each area, and sent ballot papers based on population," said Ziaul Haq Amarkhil, chief electoral officer for the Independent Election Commission. "If we had sent more papers everywhere [to start with], it could have offered opportunity for fraud." Not all the shortages were resolved, though, and monitors said they would investigate whether any stations ran out because of early-morning ballot-box stuffing. Any complaints will certainly be joined by other cases of abuse. Officials have already made arrests for attempted ballot-box stuffing and voter fraud, when four people were found with over 1,000 voter identity cards.
Even if results are declared clean, they will only be final if one candidate gets more than 50% of the vote. Anything lower triggers a second round runoff, and with strong competition between the top three candidates another polling day seems more likely than not.
Still, Afghans celebrated their extraordinary success in holding a day of voting where the focus stayed mostly on people casting their ballots, not the ones trying to stop them.
"Huge, huge day for Afghanistan. A historic event ends peacefully with millions casting their votes," said Saad Mohseni, the businessman owner of Tolo TV, one of the country's biggest channels. "A massive victory for our people, and a massive kick in the face for the Taliban."


By Adeel Khalid
Pakistan is at inflexion point while the talks with Taliban are taking centre stage in political arena. According to a recent news report, the committees representing the government and the Taliban agreed on to extend the ceasefire and take measures to speed up the dialogue process. The head of the TTP committee, Maulana Samiul haq, confirmed that the ceasefire would be maintained beyond March. However it is a crucial developmental stage in negotiating with Taliban but on government side, but it is reactive incoherent at policy front to border a defined agenda to put forth accordingly in this peace process which is evident from the contradictory rhetoric and unplanned agenda emanating from within the polity of different discourses; reflects inconsistency and irresoluteness on government part to tackle this existential threat.
However, the objectives sought to be achieved unclear and opaque. Obliviously the government cannot afford to accommodate any of the main demands of the TTP without compromising the Pakistan’s Constitution and the prosperity of the country. These demands include the release of hundreds of prisoners, including some high-profile people, and setting up of a “peace zone” to allow free movement of the Taliban. Finally they resist for Sunni (Sharia) rule in Pakistan and the creation of an Islamic Emirate in Pakistan and Afghanistan which are beyond negotiable point for the public, policy-makers and politicians alike.
What is required in essence is the TTP’s surrender? Can this be achieved through talks and at this time? The right time to negotiate with the TTP would be once it is militarily and politically on the defensive. Negotiations can succeed provided these are conducted with the “principles” drafted by the government of Pakistan. These principles should be in aligning with the Constitution of Pakistan.
The recent issued internal security policy of Pakistan; though it aims to continue dialogue and enhance deterrence but inadequacies liquidate; as it is too centralize and narrow to implement in its existence. Certainly it has other shortcomings as well. The TTP is a hydra-headed monster, which includes a score of extremist parties and groups, with diverse aims, composition, locations and affiliations. A large number of its members are foreigners—-Arabs, Uzbeks, Afghans. Its affiliations are complex in nature: al Qaeda supports it; Afghan intelligence collaborates with it and Indian intelligence has infiltrated in it. It is not only difficult to dismantle a Frankenstein but also to engage such a diversified body of threat which is penetrated in every nook and corner of the country.
Can talks and negotiations succeed in such environment? Perhaps that is why the government has distinguished Taliban into good, bad, and ugly Taliban respectively. Whatever the policy be, but it needs to be clearly defined and more importantly secure public support vis-a-vis media. Else, it will fail. As in the case of Ukraine crisis where the internal confusion, corruption and chaos illustrate, can quickly become a self-created threat to a nation.
It is important to identify major irritants which may thwart this peace process as it did in the past. Drones attack can halt this peace process as in case of killing of Hakeemullah Masud, Pakistan interior minister proclaimed it had killed the chances of negotiating peace with Taliban. So the US should maneuver while keeping in mind the ground realities along with the consent of all major stake-holders. Secondly, the experience with negotiating with Taliban has been never happy one and cannot succeed unless they are pursued from a position of strength. Such an incident has been experienced in Swat. Though, lessons should be learnt from the recent examples of successful counter-insurgency operations, such as Colombia, and Sri Lanka.
How to draft a coherent policy at this stage? Pakistan needs to get its policy house in order which is the prerequisite for a coherent policy drafting process and implementing it. This policy should be crafted after establishing the consensus of all major stake-holders coupled with the visionary leadership; it would enable them to evolve a counter-insurgency and counterterrorism strategy in a holistic fashion. The strategy should incorporate the orthodox four Ds formula of dismantling, defeating, decapitating and de radicalization the militants, terrorists, and extremists.
Dismantling all the leadership expulsion of the foreigners within the TTP, end to collaborate with external powers should be the main concern of this political fiesta. Asserting Pakistan’s sovereignty must be the central principle of this policy which should not be allowed to sabotage at any cost. Pakistan army has the numbers and capability to conduct multiple and simultaneous operations to kill or capture TTP militants in Fata, Swat, Peshawar, and Karachi. It should be authorized by the civilian government to do so. Decapitation involves those leaders who remain recalcitrant would be legitimate targets for elimination. Pakistan’s security forces should acquire capabilities to conduct such operations. De-radicalization TTP prevents them to replenish them to gain power which creates anguish and distress in the society.
Talks have been rejected in the past by the elected governments as talks abject the legitimacy of the elected leadership and undermine the democratic spirit in Pakistan.;postID=2901949404725551458

Pakistan: Italian Parliamentarian takes notice of Petition for Sawan Masih

An innocent Pakistani Christian sweeper Sawan Masih, 26, has been sentenced to death under false accusations of blasphemy against prophet Muhammad, after waiting for a trial since March 2013.
These allegations were the result of a personal grudge between Sawan and a muslim friend. These accusations also led a mob of 3000 angry Muslims to burn down a christian village leaving the poverty stricken christian residents homeless and penniless. The Blasphemy laws in Pakistan: 295 forbids damaging or defiling a place of worship or a sacred object. 295-A forbids outraging religious feelings. 295-B forbids defiling the Quran. 295-C forbids defaming the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Except for 295-C, the provisions of 295 require that an offense be a consequence of the accused’s intent. Defiling the Quran merits imprisonment for life. Defaming Muhammad merits death with or without a fine. If a charge is laid under 295-C, the trial must take place in a Court of Session with a Muslim judge presiding These laws have been misused as a weapon to execute revenge and religious intolerance on the religious minorities and Muslims in Pakistan. Pakistani governor Salman Taseer and Federal Minister for Religious minorities in Pakistan Shahbaz Bhatti were assassinated in 2011 for speaking against these blasphemy laws and advocating release of Christian woman Asiya BiBi who is still in prison under false allegations of blasphemy. In response to the viral petition that is being signed from all over the world for the release of Sawan Masih, Italian Parliamentarian for the Democratic Party Paolo Petrini sent an open message to Adan Farhaj President of Federation of Pakistani Christian Associations Italy and Overseas Coordinator All Pakistan Christian League. He said, “This is a chilling story, but unfortunately not the first of fierce religious intolerance. I think it is intolerable that governments have in this time and age allowed ordinances that can be used to target the weaker sections of its society. Such ordinances with the aim to persecute religious minorities need to be sorted out.The international community must have a stronger response to stop such injustices. I, along with a group of Italian parliamentarians have signed a motion on this tragic incident.” Adan Farhaj commended the message sent by Petrini and said, “It is encouraging to see that the voices of the people from around the world has been taken note of by Paolo.I commend the brave statement by him. The petition may or may not help release Sawan but we must continue to try everything within our power to see that justice and equality is exercised. No section of a society should be marginalized because of their personal beliefs as that has nothing to do with the working of the state.” He encouraged everyone to sign the petition to help raise awareness about Sawan’s plight in their communities. Sawan’s lawyer Naeem Shakir has appealed against the death sentence in the high court. The petition which is addressed to Nawaz Sharif the Prime Minister of Pakistan and Andrew Bennet Ambassador for Religious Freedom Canada may help in reviewing the death sentence and the blasphemy laws in Pakistan. The power of social media has become an undeniable force.
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Pakistani Christian Lawyer Terrorized Over Support Christian Human Rights

For working hard to help liberate Asia Bibi, Advocate Sardar Mushtaq Gill, a Christian Human Rights Defender and Chief of LEAD was terrorized for the termination of his bar license to practice in Punjab Bar.
On March 26th 2014, there was a scheduled court hearing of Asia Bibi’s petition, who is convicted of blasphemy, in the Division Bench Lahore High Court, Lahore, which was later postponed and next fixed for April 14th 2014.Gill was also there at court trial along with his team. “On April 2nd 2014 ,one white collar anonymous person came at Civil Court, Lahore and met me at our sitting place and he instructed me to be careful because there is apprehension that someone has plan to make attacked at you by someone and might be you will be get involved in some false criminal cases just due to your human rights work ,”told Gill.
He further stated that Rana Latif Anwar, advocate at High Court, also guided and warned him to be cautious or else he might be slay by somebody and moreover he was told that he was on hit list from last year to till at this time He was informed that there were some scapegraces who often did such like things with other too for their vested interests.
“I and my other staff members were threatened and attacked many times by some unknown persons due to our human rights work in Pakistan but we were not be afraid of such threats and attacks, we know that death is the result of the campaign which we have started against blasphemy law and in the support of persecuted Church,” told Gill.

Pakistan: PCC Condemn Death Sentence To Blasphemy Accused Christian Couple

On April 4, 2014, Additional District and Session Judge pronounced death sentence to a Christian woman and her crippled husband on sending blasphemous text messages during a hearing in Toba Tek Sing Jail when another Christian was previously verdict with death sentence in Lahore Jail.
Dr. Nazir Bhatti said “It is mockery of justice and failing of administration in Pakistan that terrorist and killers of innocent citizen’s cases are being heard in open courts while victims of blasphemy are kept in solitary confinements in jails and their cases are also preceded in jails which indicates pressure on judiciary and standard of justice” “The wave of fear and anger has spread among Pakistani Christians after awarding death sentence to three Christian victims by courts within period of two weeks” Nazir Bhatti
Nazir Bhatti said that Shagufta Kausar and Shafqat Emmanuel are uneducated and incompetent to write English text messages while they testified loss of their cell phone to area mobile shop but still they were retained under blasphemy law by police and judge issued death judgment without seeing evidences. Similar was in the case of Sawan Masih who was supposedly involved in blasphemy case to save Muslim offenders who set on fine more than hundred homes, shops and Church in Joseph Colony Lahore.
Nazir Bhatti demanded instant revoke of blasphemy laws which is diffusing violence towards religious minorities in Pakistan. PCC’s Chief said that mass movement will be taking place in Pakistan to press upon government to revoke blasphemy laws and appealed Civil Society and Muslim political parties to rise their voices against misapplication of Islamic laws. “Pakistani Christian have no voice in Senate of Pakistan and National Assembly of Pakistan after imposition of Joint Electorate which must be noted by International community that basic democratic and human rights of Christians in Pakistan” said Nazir Bhatti
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Pakistan: Police pass on the buck, ask minorities to secure themselves

The Express Tribune
A directive by the Punjab government to enhance security for minorities’ places of worship has resulted in station house officers (SHOs) passing on the buck by issuing a long list of measures to be taken by the administrations of temples and churches.
After a recent directive issued by the home department for the security of minorities’ places of worship, Christian and Hindu worshippers complained that no steps had been taken on ground. According to a story published on March 31, the home department had directed the police to tighten security in view of possible terrorist attacks.
According to a notice issued by various SHOs to temples and churches of the garrison city, the administrations have been asked to take nine steps for their protection. These include the installation of CCTV cameras, storing one month’s footage, securing the place with barbed wire, eight-foot high boundary walls, setting up a police post on the roof, proper lighting and hiring security guards from a registered company which is verified by the police.
Entry gates and barriers should be installed as well, states the notice. Also, the police should be informed before the start of a ceremony so that they can make security arrangements. Representatives of minorities said provision of security is the responsibility of the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB).
“ETPB is the guardian of all temples and it is their responsibility to provide funds for security requirements,” said Hindu-Sikh Social Welfare Council President Jag Mohan Arora. In 2010, we received the same notice and we informed the police as well as EPTB officials, but the latter paid no heed despite repeated requests and visits, he added. “We are in the habit of lamenting after a tragedy occurs but who cares.”
We cannot even arrange sufficient funds for religious ceremonies, how can we set aside such a huge sum to implement these steps? asked Ashok Chand.
Dr Samuel Titus, chairman Clergy Association of Pakistan and pastor St. Paul’s Church, Rawalpindi, said security is provided to big churches only on special occasions. After a suicide attack on a church in Peshawar, the government allowed us to make our own arrangements but when we applied for arms licences, the government rejected the applications. “We have urged the government to permit arms licences for churches,” he maintained. We are capable of protecting our worship places but the government should also take some initiative. It is impossible for a security guard to stop an attacker equipped with sophisticated weapons with a stick.
Rawalpindi Senior Superintendent of Police (Operations) Mian Maqbool said, “We have already taken steps to protect churches and temples.” On special occasions like Diwali or Christmas we provide foolproof security to them. “We even provided parking space which was protected.” At the same time, he brought up the issue of a shortage of police personnel, while speaking about enhanced security.
A delegation is expected to arrive for celebrating Besakhi from India on April 10 for which we have made arrangements, he added.

Pakistani security forces started a crackdown against Baloch bookshop owners, several arrested
The Pakistani police have raided some books and CDs shops in different area of Balochistan and arrested bookshop owners for keeping different books including ‘Waae Watan Hoshken Daar’ by Balochi language writer and poet Major Majeed Baloch.
According to SHO Gwadar, Mr Gul Hasan, a case has been registered against one bookseller, Khoda Bakhsh Baloch for buying and selling ‘Waae Watan Hoshken Daar’ A local journalist Behram Baloch told BBC Urdu that the authorities did not issue any notification to ban this book.
According BBC an effected bookseller from Gwadar said that he did not have Major Majeed Baloch’s book in his shop, however, the police confiscated books about history of Baloch and Balochistan and. The seized books include a famous book ‘The History of Balochistan’ by Lala Hatto and ‘Baloch’ by Dr Shah Mohammad Marri Baloch.
Police sources said the FIR against the book vendors only Waae Watan Hoshken Daar’ and the writer of this book Major Majid has been living in Muscat since 40 years.
He said, “Waae Watan Hoshken Daar ' mean ‘a wood of my country [Balochistan] is more than anything for us.”
Reacting about the confiscations books he said, “You read this book. It is about Baloch history, Baloch traditions, and it about war in Balochistan. This is a history book and it is beyond my understanding why this book is being banned?”
He expressed astonishment on the behaviour of state [Pakistan] and said, “I certainly wrote about human rights violation in Balochistan in my book but now-a-days every newspaper contains such news. Apart of that the book is about Balochistan’s history. Is it a crime to write about Baloch history and geography?”
Gwadar District Police Officer Pervez Khan said, “I still have not seen the whole book but reportedly page 52 and 55 of this book contain some paragraphs which directly incite people against the state and the Army.”
He said, “The government has not banned any material but selling and buying anti- Pakistan items are prohibited by law. Under this law action has been taken against CD and booksellers.”
The provincial information minister, Abdul Rahim Ziaratwal told the BBC that if a book has been banned by the government and it kept in any shop then the shop owner should know about it, but the if the government do not put any restriction on a book and it kept and sold, then it is not the fault of the bookseller. In which case there is should be no action against them.
Meanwhile sources confirmed that Pakistani security forces raided Al Badar Bookshop and news agency and seized a number of books on Balochistan and the Baloch people. The Pakistani forces also arrested Khuda Bakhsh, a salesman at the bookshop. District Police Officer Preves Umrani told Dawn, “Police raided the bookshop after receiving information about objectionable books and other material kept there.
On 13 January, the Pakistnai security forces had raided Atta Shad Degree college in Turbat and confiscated books including works by Bertrand Russell, biographies of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara, a history of Balochistan by Meer Gul Khan Naseer, poetry books of famous poets like Ata Shad – whom Turbat’s only college is named after – Kareem Dashti and Gholam Hossain Shohaz, literary magazines such as ‘Mahtak Balochi’, ‘Mahtak Sangat’, ‘Mahtak Sechkan’, ‘Sangar’, ‘zrumbish’ and much more. Course books on Balochi grammar and literature were also labelled as ‘anti-Pakistani’ because reading and teaching Balochi is considered anti-Islamic and anti-Pakistani by the forces of occupation in Balochistan.
On January 8, 2014, the FC raided Delta English Language Centre in Turbat and claimed to have recovered anti-Pakistan literature and arrested a large number of students, mostly under 20 years of age, on charges of keeping anti-state material.
Earlier on 17 March Pakistani security forces raided a Karwaan English Language Centre at Kosh Kalat area of Turbat town in Balochistan and abducted at least six teacher and three students. The abducted teachers were named as Abdul Salam, Jameel, Muheeb, Meeran, Kalamullah and Siraaj whereas the students have been identified as Muqeeb, Waheed and Jameed.
On 2nd April FC and police raided and sealed two bookshops in Turbat and arrested two booksellers.
Similar raids were carried out in on educational institutes in Buleda, Quetta and Khuzdar area of Balochistan where several students were arrested and disappeared.