Thursday, January 21, 2016

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Islamist fighters in Aleppo, Syria, got reinforcements from Turkey – Russian Foreign Ministry

Terrorists have increased their activities ahead of the next week’s inter-Syrian talks, with insurgents in the Syrian province of Aleppo receiving reinforcements from Turkey, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.
The much-anticipated talks between the Syrian government and different opposition groups are scheduled to take place in the Swiss city of Geneva on January 25.
"Unfortunately, in recent days, it’s especially noticeable that ahead of the planned start of the inter-Syrian negotiations in Geneva the activities of terrorist groups have intensified. Obviously, they’re trying to turn the tide in their favor on the battlefield,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said during a briefing in Moscow.
According to Zakharova, Attempts to launch counter-attacks against the government forces were performed by Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar ash-Sham groups, which “got serious reinforcements from Turkey.”
The increased activity of the terrorists was witnessed in several suburbs of Damascus, Homs and Idlib provinces of Syria, she added.
Russia will continue providing humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in Syria, Zakharova stressed.
She reiterated that Russia’s Emergencies Ministry has performed 30 flights “not only to Syria, but also to Lebanon and Jordan” in January, delivering 600 tons of food and essentials for those affected by the conflict.
Besides humanitarian assistance, “Russia has also been involved in evacuation of citizens who want to leave dangerous areas," she added.
Zakharova said that Moscow was “surprised” by recent comments from Washington, in which “representatives of the US State Department said that they don’t see Russia's efforts in regard to providing humanitarian aid to Syria.”
“This is very strange, especially since the State Department allegedly sees everything, including Russian tanks that are being flown in or crawling into the territory of other states, but there’s no humanitarian aid in sight,” she said.

Zakharova said that Russia is concerned over Ankara’s increased military incursions into Syria, adding that “it cannot be ruled out that… fortifications [built by Turkey] along the Syrian-Turkish border may be used by militant groups as strongholds.
"While all parties involved pin their hopes on the start of a meaningful and… inclusive dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition, external forces continue to help militants in Syria, including terrorist groups, providing them with arms and ammunition," she stressed.
According to the spokeswoman, the Syrian government has sent an official appeal to UN secretary-general and chairman of the UN Security Council over “repeated incursions of Turkish troops into Syrian border areas.”
Since March 2011, Syria has been engulfed in a bloody civil war, in which over 250,000 lives were lost, according to UN estimates.
During those years, the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad battled various opposition and terror groups, including Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) and Al-Nusra Front.

David Cameron accused of silently taking Britain into Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen

David Cameron has been accused of silently dragging Britain into another conflict in the Middle East without parliamentary approval or oversight.
Angus Robertson, the Scottish National Party’s leader at Westminster, said the Prime Minister should admit to British involvement in Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen – where the UK is providing arms, training and advice.
The call comes as new figures released by the Government show that British bomb and missile exports to Saudi Arabia have increased by 11,000 per cent from £9 million to £1 billion over three months last year. 
Saudi Arabia has been accused of war crimes by human rights groups and the legality of British military assistance to the country has been questioned by campaigners.
“Thousands of civilians have been killed in Yemen, including a large number by the Saudi air force and they’ve done that using British-built planes, with pilots who are trained by British instructors, dropping British-made bombs, who are coordinated by the Saudis in the presence of British military advisors,” Mr Robertson said during Prime Minister’s Questions.
“Isn’t it time for the Prime Minister to admit that Britain is effectively taking part in a war in Yemen that is costing thousands of civilians lives and he has not sought parliamentary approval to do this?”
The Prime Minister rejected the suggestion that the UK was taking part in the conflict but admitted that British advisors had a role in Saudi Arabia.
Policemen search for survivors at the site of a Saudi-led airstrike on the police headquarters in Sanaa
“I think the Right Honourable Gentleman started in a serious place and then wondered off. It’s in our interest to back the legitimate government of Yemen. We have some of the most stringent arms control procedures of any country in the world,” he replied.
“Just to be absolutely clear about our role: we’re not a member of the Saudi-led coalition, British military personnel are not directly involved in the Saudi-led coalition’s operations, personnel are not  involved in carrying out strikes, directing or conducting operations in Yemen or selecting targets and we’re not involved in the Saudi targeting decision making process.
“But yes – do we provide advice, help and training in order to make sure that countries actually do obey the norms of humanitarian law? Yes we do.”
Saudi Arabia is intervening in Yemen to fight Houthi rebels, who control the country’s capital but are not internationally recognised as its government. The Kingdom was asked to join the conflict by the country’s Government, which has been pushed out of much of the country’s heartland.
Criticism of the Saudi military operation have however included the bombing of multiple hospitals run by the charity Médecins Sans Frontières and the deaths of thousands of civilians, including 130 at a single wedding.
While international observers have recognised abuses on all sides, in late December UN human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein said that a “disproportionate” number of attacks of civilians in Yemen had come from the Saudi-led invasion force.
“I have observed with extreme concern the continuation of heavy shelling from the ground and the air in areas with high a concentration of civilians as well as the perpetuation of the destruction of civilian infrastructure – in particular hospitals and schools – by all parties to the conflict, although a disproportionate amount appeared to be the result of airstrikes carried out by Coalition Forces,” Mr Zeid said.
Human rights group Amnesty International UK has also accused the Government of ignoring “overwhelming evidence” of civilian targeting by the Saudi Arabian air force.
"Angus Robertson has raised an important point about the UK’s involvement in Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Yemen, a campaign we’re told involves British advisers actually located in the Saudi ‘control room’,” said Allan Hogarth, the group’s head of Policy and Government Affairs.
"Thousands of Yemeni civilians have already been killed in a barrage of indiscriminate Saudi airstrikes in the country and whatever advice Britain has been giving to the Saudis has apparently done little to prevent this appalling death toll.
"Meanwhile, the UK is selling billions of pounds worth of weapons to the Saudis in the full knowledge of the grave risk that they’ll be used to kill Yemeni civilians.
"Instead of brushing aside Mr Robertson’s questions, the prime minister should immediately suspend export licences for all further UK arms bound for Saudi Arabia and allow a full investigation into allegations of serious breaches of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.”

Tajikistan removes headscarves from 1,700 women and shaves beards off 13,000 men to tackle jihadism

Well done and very brave, one small step to show the world at least you are trying, the rest of the world should follow!

Police in the central Asian state of Tajikistan have forcibly shaved nearly 13,000 men and 'convinced' 1,700 women to remove their headscarves in a bid to eradicate radical Islam in the country.
The crackdown, aimed at reducing 'foreign influences', is the latest in a series of moves by the authoritarian government to tackle extremism.

According to Radio Liberty, a central Asian focused blog, who sourced the official Tajik news agency, police 'brought to order' men whose beards were deemed 'too long and unkempt'.

Police also said they had 'convinced' 1,700 women to remove their headscarves, arrested 89 hijab-wearing prostitutes and closed down 162 shops and stalls selling hijabs.
Last week, the parliament voted to ban Arabic or 'foreign-sounding names' after a rise in babies named Mohammad. 
Tajikistan is facing a security threat as thousands of home grown militants aligned Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, have joined forces with the Islamic State on the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border. 

There are also thought to be up to 2,000 jihadis from Tajikistan fighting with ISIS in Syria.
Tajikistan is a majority Muslim country, but has a secular government. In September, the country's only Islamic party was banned from the political system.
The country's president President Emomali Rahmon, has been in power since 1994 and his current term ends in 2020. 
He has been promoting secular values in addition to cementing his power.

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Video - Homs lies in ruins after years of Syrian civil war

Moscow calls US accusations of Russia’s indiscriminate airstrikes in Syria ridiculous

US accusations of indiscriminate airstrikes of Russian Aerospace Defense Forces in Syria are ridiculous, Russian Foreign Ministry’s official spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on Thursday. "Talking about accusations against the Russian side [US accusations of Russia’s indiscriminate airstrikes in Syria], the Defense Ministry holds regular briefings, not only for journalists, but also for military attaches of foreign countries, on all issues that they are concerned about," Zakharova said. "They can ignore Russian humanitarian aid for as long as they want, talk about bombing peaceful civilians, but the position to exist in isolation from reality is becoming ridiculous," she added.

"Stop being ridiculous and use facts that Russia provides on a daily basis," the spokesperson stressed. Russian military operation in Syria On September 30 last year Russia’s Federation Council unanimously approved President Vladimir Putin’s request to launch a military operation in Syria against Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorist groups. Russian Aerospace Defense Forces delivered first targeted airstrikes at militants’ positions on the same day. More than 50 jets and helicopters take part in the operation, including Su-34 and Su-24M fighter jets, Su-25 aircraft, Su-30SM fighter aircraft, and Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters. Since the start of the operation, Russian aviation made hundreds of sorties, destroyed dozens of ammunition depots, explosives production plants and command posts.


Turkish security op, curfew in Kurdish areas puts 200,000 people at risk – Amnesty Intl.

Turkey’s security operations in the mainly Kurdish southeast resemble ‘collective punishment’, and have risked the lives of some 200,000 people, placing residents in the crossfire and depriving them of water and electricity, Amnesty International said.
The human rights watchdog refuted Ankara’s claims that the 24/7 curfew it imposed in areas where the government troops were fighting the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) units were aimed solely at protecting civilians.
“Cuts to water and electricity supplies combined with the dangers of accessing food and medical care while under fire are having a devastating effect on residents, and the situation is likely to get worse, fast, if this isn’t addressed,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Program Director, said.
“In some areas, crippling curfews that don’t allow people to leave their houses at all have been in place for more than a month, effectively laying siege to entire neighborhoods,” he added.
One Kurdish family said that they had to live under the same roof with the decomposing body of their dead relative for nearly two weeks due to the curfew, Amnesty International wrote on its website.
150 civilians as well as hundreds of troops on both sides were killed since Turkey launched its operation in the south-east in July 2014, according to the London-based watchdog.
“Among those killed were young children, women and elderly people, who are very unlikely to have been involved in clashes with security forces,” Amnesty stressed.
The Turkish operations in Diyarbakir, Cizre, Silopi and other Kurdish towns “are beginning to resemble collective punishment,” Dalhuisen said.
Amnesty also blasted the international community for turning a blind eye to what Ankara has been doing with the Kurds.
“While the Turkish authorities appear determined to silence internal criticism, they have faced very little from the international community. Strategic considerations relating to the conflict in Syria and determined efforts to enlist Turkey’s help in stemming the flow of refugees to Europe must not overshadow allegations of gross human rights violations. The international community must not look the other way,” Dalhuisen stressed.
An unnamed senior Turkish official commented on the Amnesty International report, saying that "Turkey has never taken an approach that would endanger the lives of innocent citizens."
"This is a struggle against a terrorist organization that harms everyone in the region and is responsible for the deaths of many people, primarily security forces," the official told Reuters.
The current of violence in the Turkey southeast, where 15 million of the country’s Kurds reside, put an end to the ceasefire between the government and PKK.
On Wednesday, President Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed his unwillingness to search for a peaceful solution to the conflict, which began in 1984 and took 40,000 lives.
"We don't have a road plan in front of us. Those with guns in their hands and those who support them will pay the price of treason,"Erdogan said.
33 PKK militants were killed on Wednesday, while one soldier died and seven were wounded in Diyarbakir, the region's biggest city, the Turkish military said.
Russia also urged Turkey to put an end to the policy of the “extermination” of its Kurdish population on Thursday.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said that Moscow supported the academics who signed a petition calling for an end to Ankara’s violent attacks against Kurds.
“We can’t but support calls for the Turkish authorities outlined in this document to stop the extermination of the local population and the deliberate policy of resettling Kurds,” she said.
A petition, entitled “We will not be party to this crime,” was signed by over 1,000 academics from nearly 90 Turkish and foreign universities last week.
Turkish authorities responded to the petition by detaining some of the signees, with Erdogan denying any human rights violations and accusing the academics of siding with the Kurdish terrorists.

Turkey Freaks Out After Russia Insists Kurds Participate in Syrian Talks

In the fight against Daesh, few forces have been as effective on the ground as the Kurdish YPG. While Russia has insisted that the group be part of the Syrian peace talks, Turkey has steadfastly refused, calling the YPG a "terrorist group."

Earlier this month, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units retook the Kara-choh oilfield from Daesh, also known as IS/Islamic State. Located in Syria’s Hasakah province, the field provided Daesh with vast amounts of crude that was sold on the illegal oil markets.
This is only one example of the YPG’s success in combatting the terrorist group across northern Iraq and Syria. The Kurdish fighters have proven themselves to be one of the most effective ground forces in Syria.
In light of this fact, the Russian government has been pushing for the YPG’s inclusion in Syrian peace talks. But Turkey views the presence of Kurdish forces along its border as a threat, and has refused to acknowledge the YPG’s effectiveness.

"Turkey will be supporting any initiative for a political solution in Syria, except the only criteria we want is that the moderate opposition should be represented by their own will and initiative. There should not be any representation of terrorist groups around the table," Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said during the World Economic Forum in Davos.

"Some circles, including Russia, they want to spoil the opposition side, putting some other elements in the opposition side like the YPG, which has been collaborating with the regime and attacking the moderate opposition."

Turkey’s opposition threatens to delay the UN-hosted peace talks, extending the violence in Syria. Davutoglu said that he already met with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon earlier to discuss his concerns.
The prime minister’s comments follow a familiar pattern of anti-Kurdish policies implemented by Ankara.
On Tuesday, reports surfaced that Turkish troops had crossed into Syria. While ostensibly aimed at liberating the city of Jarabulus from Daesh, the decision came as the YPG was preparing to launch its own operation against the city.

Ankara may be more interested in keeping the YPG from gaining a foothold near the Turkish border. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long warned that a Kurdish advance west of the Euphrates would result in a military response.

Reports also indicated that the Turkish military did not engage Daesh, and that members of the terrorist organization remained unresponsive to the Turkish presence.
The Erdogan administration has also launched brutal operations against Kurdish communities within Turkey. These security raids have left hundreds dead, including civilians, and resulted in the arrest of a number of Turkish academics who have vocally opposed the government’s treatment of Turkish Kurds.

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President Obama Hosts Over 250 Mayors to Strengthen Partnerships and Grow the Economy

President Obama today will host over 250 bipartisan Mayors at the White House during their annual U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C. During their visit to the White House this evening, the President will thank the Mayors for their steadfast partnerships over the past seven years and will outline the Administration’s priorities for cities across the country in the year ahead. The convening will also focus on the economic progress that each city has made since the President took office.
Throughout the week, senior White House officials and members of the President’s Cabinet participated in plenary sessions and panel discussions on priority issues, including: trade, manufacturing, veteran homelessness, transportation, paid leave, climate change, affordable health care, workforce development, education, My Brother’s Keeper and immigration. Today at the White House, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and senior White House officials will interact with Mayors in a panel discussion on criminal justice reform. 
This morning, First Lady Michelle Obama will deliver remarks at the U.S. Conference of Mayors to discuss the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. In 2010, the Administration set the goal of preventing and ending homelessness among veterans. Through the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, launched in 2014 by First Lady Michelle Obama, more than 800 mayors and other state and local leaders across the country have committed to marshal federal, local, and non-profit efforts to end veteran homelessness in their communities. 
Below are some of the ways Mayors are helping to make President Obama’s agenda a reality in cities across the country.
Criminal Justice Reform and Community Policing: Providing a Second Chance and Building Collaborative Relations Between Law Enforcement And Communities
The President has repeatedly highlighted the need for meaningful juvenile and criminal justice reform in the United States that makes our system, fairer, smarter and more cost-effective while keeping the American people safe and secure, and has been joined in that call by leading mayors and local elected officials. The Administration is working with communities across the United States on reforms to address the vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration that traps too many Americans and on putting into practice the recommendations of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing Task Force, which set out a blueprint for strategies to promote effective crime reduction while building public trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
  • Over 40 local jurisdictions attended the White House Community Policing Convening in July 2015.
  • In November 2015, the U.S. Conference of Mayors sent a letter to Congress urging them to pass a criminal justice reform bill.
  • Since the launch of the Police Data Initiative (PDI) in May, five additional agencies have joined PDI: Denver, Spokane, Orlando, Tucson, and Fayetteville—bringing the total number of agencies to 26, with more than 40 data sets released.
  • In November, Newark, NJ Mayor Baraka (D) and Shelby County, TN Mayor Luttrell (R) co-authored an op-ed supporting criminal justice reform with a focus on re-entry.
  • In November, five cities, including Memphis, TN and New Orleans, LA took on the TechHire Initiative by expanding tech training and jobs for individuals with criminal records.
Advanced Manufacturing and Tech Innovation: Paving The Way For Jobs And Skills Of The Future
Mayors are creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs looking to make the next world-changing product, and for students interested in hands-on engagement with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Through the Mayor’s Maker Challenge over 100 cities including Columbus, OH, Scottsdale, AZ, Rockford, IL, and South Bend, IN are changing the landscape of American manufacturing in small towns and big cities.  Last March the President announced hisTechHire initiative, which aims to train Americans with 21st century skills. Since that time 31 new cities, states, and rural communities with over 150,000 open tech jobs, and 500 employer partners, have joined the President to help give all Americans who work hard a fair shot.
  • In St Louis, MO a network of over 150 employers in St. Louis’ rapidly expanding innovation ecosystem will build on a successful MasterCard pilot to partner with local non-profit Launchcode to build the skills of women and underrepresented minorities for tech jobs.
  • Anderson, IN, in collaboration with Purdue University and the Flagship Enterprise Center, is building a 90,000 square foot facility – to be called the Purdue Polytechnic Institute – that will include a 12,000 square foot maker space and a 35,000 square foot incubator.
Trans-Pacific Partnership: Leveling The Playing Field For American Workers
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a new type of tough trade agreement that will put American workers first by including the strongest enforceable labor standards of any trade agreement in history, including in areas like child and forced labor and wages. TPP levels the playing field for American workers and American businesses, leading to more Made-in-America exports and more higher-paying American jobs here at home. Mayors have been on the frontlines, advocating for TPP since they are closest to the innovation and growth that TPP can spur.
  • In June, the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution in support of both Trade Promotion Authority and a Trans Pacific Partnership deal that contains enforceable labor and environmental standards, a uniform tariff system, transparency, and protection of intellectual property rights. Following the resolution’s passage at the conference, the U.S. Conference of Mayors wrote a letter to congressional leadership urging passage of Trade Promotion Authority, with over 100 signatures from mayors across the U.S.
  • In October, a group of Mayors toured a manufacturing facility in downtown Atlanta and called on negotiators to complete a TPP deal before leaving the city. Atlanta, GA Mayor Kasim Reed, who hosted the event and chairs USCM’s Transportation and Communications Committee, was joined by United States Trade Representative Ambassador Michael Froman, Little Rock, AR Mayor Mark Stodola, Chair of the Conference’s Exports and Ports Task Force, Tampa, FL Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Columbia, SC Mayor Steven Benjamin. Upon completion of the trade negotiations in October the U.S. Conference of Mayors reaffirmed their support for TPP.
  • Across the county, mayors have been touring small businesses in their cities, speaking with the media, and writing op-eds explaining exactly why they believe TPP benefits the people in their city. Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, LA hosted Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Robert Hamilton for a small business roundtable at a local economic development group. Mayor Marilyn Strickland of Tacoma, WA hosted Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker for a small business tour, in addition to taking every opportunity to promote the President’s trade agenda. Mayor Chris Cabaldon of West Sacramento, CA testified before the International Trade Centre on behalf of the U.S. Conference of mayors and has spoken in regional press outlets about the benefits to his city and the region. Countless other mayors have written op-eds, toured businesses, and spoken to media about the benefits of TPP.
Education: Furthering The President’s Early Childhood and Community College Education Agenda
Since the President laid out his proposal to expand early childhood education in his 2013 State of the Union Address, cities have taken significant steps to expand high-quality preschool in their communities. Cities like Chicago, IL and Philadelphia, PA have amplified the President’s free community college proposal and advanced free community college programs. 
  • In March, over 50 mayors signed a letter to Congress supporting the President’s America’s College Promise proposal.
  • Since the President’s announcement on free community college last January, seven communities have announced their own free community college programs.
Veterans Homelessness: Marshaling Efforts To End Homelessness For Our Veterans
Through the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, local leaders across the country are ending Veteran homelessness in their communities. Since First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Mayors Challenge on June 4, 2014, more than 684 mayors have stepped up to the challenge.
  • Just six months after the announcement of the Mayors’ Challenge, three major American cities – Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and New Orleans – had eliminated Veteran homelessness.
  • Since the First Lady’s announcement, 19 communities and the Commonwealth of Virginia have effectively ended Veteran homelessness.
  • In November, Virginia was announced as the first state to end veteran homelessness, helping 1,432 homeless veterans in the past year. When Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim signed up for the challenge, an estimated 50,000 veterans were homeless on any given night in Norfolk. By November 11, 2015, the city had met their goal to effectively end veteran homelessness.
Minimum Wage and The Working Families Agenda: Expanding Opportunity For Middle Class Families
Since the President’s 2013 State of the Union Address, about 40 local jurisdictions have taken action to raise wages. Twenty-six cities and counties have approved city-wide increases in their minimum wages for both public and private employees. Fourteen other cities and counties including Palo Alto, CA, New Orleans, LA, Portland, OR and Syracuse, NY raised wages for their city/county workers or contractors.
  • More than 65 mayors signed a letter from the U.S. Conference of Mayors Cities of Opportunity Task Force urging Congress to raise the minimum wage.
  • Since President’s 2014 State of the Union Address, 21 cities and counties have taken action on paid sick leave, and 19 cities and counties have taken action on paid family leave.
Climate and Energy: Launching New Programs and Policies On Climate Change and Energy Efficiency
  • 122 U.S. cities have signed the Compact of Mayors, committing to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions, enhance city resilience to climate change and track their progress transparently.
  • Cities like Little Rock, AR, Portland, ME, Dearborn, MI, St. Petersburg, FL, Flint, MI and San Diego, CA have partnered on the Better Buildings Initiative to make substantial improvements to the energy efficiency of buildings and lighting to save money and replace over 500,000 lighting fixtures from May 2014 to May 2016.
  • A coalition of 18 states, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities and a number of individual cities has joined the legal defense of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan as intervenors and amicus.
  • In December 2014, the White House announced 16 Climate Action Champions, selected for their leadership in climate mitigation and adaptation, and their ability to demonstrate successful examples of climate action for other communities across the United States. The Champions included Boston, Dubuque, Knoxville, Minneapolis, Montpelier, Portland, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and Seattle, and have been receiving targeted federal support to accelerate greenhouse gas emission reductions and climate resilience.
  • Today, the White House announced 10 Communities participating in the Resilience AmeriCorps Program: Anchorage, Boulder, Chicago, El Paso, Minot, New Orleans, Norfolk (VA), Phoenix, Pittsburgh, and Tulsa. These cities will have the opportunity to opt into the Climate Action Champions program. In keeping with the Climate Action Champions’ mission, designated communities will exemplify how underserved areas can work with the Federal government and strategic partners to develop plans for becoming more resilient to extreme weather events, increase civic engagement and community resilience, and become champions of environmental leadership for other under-served communities nationally.
Transportation and Infrastructure: Expanding Ladders of Opportunity Through Infrastructure
The President will continue to act when he can to promote job growth in the transportation sector and put more Americans back to work repairing and modernizing our roads, bridges, railways, and transit systems.
  • In December, the President signed the 5-year Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (FAST Act), which reauthorizes the Highway Trust Fund through 2020, reauthorizes the Export-Import Bank through 2019 and improves the Federal permit review process for major infrastructure projects.
  • Since 2009, the Department of Transportation has awarded 381 TIGER projects in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Cities across the country have been able to break ground on projects to make their communities more livable and sustainable, including the Bronx River Greenway Project and the Phoenix Grand Canal Bike and Pedestrian Improvements Projects.
  • In January 2015, Secretary Foxx challenged city leaders to raise the bar for bicyclist and pedestrian safety by joining a year-long “Mayors' Challenge for Safer People and Safer Streets” effort. Today, over 240 cities have signed on to the challenge and are taking significant action to improve safety for bicycle riders and pedestrians of all ages and abilities over the next year.
  • Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Washington, D.C.’s Vision Zero Initiative to eliminate transportation-related fatalities.
Smart Cities: Launching The Metrolab Network and The Smart City Challenge
In September 2015, the Administration launched the Smart Cities Initiative to help communities leverage technology to tackle key challenges such as reducing traffic congestion, fighting crime, fostering economic growth, managing the effects of a changing climate and improving the delivery of city services. As part of that initiative, over 25 mayors have formed the MetroLab Network in collaboration with their local universities to harness university technical expertise to address city challenges:
  • The founding members – including cities from Atlanta to Seattle and South Bend – have collectively committed to undertaking more than 60 projects over the next year, which will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of infrastructure and services in our cities and communities and increase the productivity and competitiveness of our regional economies.
  • The Department of Transportation launched the Smart City Challenge, which will concentrate federal resources into one medium-sized city, selected through a nationwide competition. Up to $40 million in funding will go to one mid-sized city that puts forward bold, data-driven ideas to improve lives by making transportation safer, easier, and more reliable.
Affordable Care Act: Opening Access To Quality, Affordable Health Care For All Americans
On November 6th, the White House launched the Healthy Communities Challenge to engage key communities with large numbers or high percentages of uninsured in states across the country where strong federal, state and community collaboration can have a meaningful impact on reaching the uninsured.
Local elected officials from 20 cities and counties across the county are participating in the challenge to get their uninsured constituents covered:
  • New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu challenged barbers and hairstylists to connect their customers to free, in-person enrollment assistance; Kansas City Mayor Sly James recorded a PSA which will play 333 times throughout January; Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia has recruited community organizations to undertake large canvasing efforts in areas with high uninsured subsidy eligible populations; and thanks to Detroit Mayor Duggan, the City of Detroit sent out an ACA mailer with the water utility bills that was mailed to over 200,000 households.
My Brother’s Keeper: Expanding Opportunity For All Youth
In 2014, the President launched the MBK Community Challenge, an effort to encourage communities to implement their own coherent cradle-to-college and career strategy aimed at improving life outcomes for all young people. More than 230 communities in 49 states have taken the challenge and over 130 communities have hosted local action summits.
  • Over 50 communities have completed their local action plans
  • Boston Mayor Marty Walsh launched the Mayor’s Mentoring Movement, an initiative in collaboration with Mass Mentoring Partnership to recruit 1,000 new caring adult mentors for Boston’s youth. The effort will offer new empowering relationships for boys and girls ages 7 through 18
  • The city of Lansing and its Mayor Virg Bernero accepted the My Brother’s Keeper Challenge as part of its “Mayor’s Young Lansing” (MY Lansing) Commission and Partnership. The Lansing Board of Water & Light is partnering with MY Lansing MBK to replicate its apprenticeship program across industries. A series of community engagement events in 2014 led to the creation of a new coalition that is working with the Lansing Police Department and regional law enforcement officials to develop strategies and solutions that are improving relationships between police and community.
Immigration: Making Progress in Communities Across the Country
Cities across the country have taken significant steps to welcome immigrants and take other important steps on immigration.
  • In April, the White House launched the Building Welcoming Communities Campaign to create communities that allow all residents to thrive and advance local immigrant and refugee integration efforts. Forty-eight big and small communities from across the country have signed on to date.
  • Cities also worked with the Administration to promote the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship through the Stand Stronger Citizenship Awareness Campaign in September.


White House rebuts Palin blaming Obama for son’s domestic violence case

The White House tried to deflect charges by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin Thursday that President Obama’s policies are to blame for her son’s domestic violence charges.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said sometimes jokes about Mrs. Palin “come pretty easy,” but domestic violence is a serious matter.
“I can tell you that the reaction of some people is to make light of the rhetoric that we see on the campaign trail, particularly from governor Palin, but the fact is domestic violence is not a joke,” Mr. Earnest said. “The issues she’s talking about are quite serious, and certainly issues that we take quite seriously here.”
He said he didn’t know whether Mr. Obama was aware of her comments.
At a rally Wednesday following her endorsement of Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, Mrs. Palin tried to tie her son Track’s recent arrest to the president’s policies toward combat veterans.
“They come back wondering if there is that respect for what it is that their fellow soldiers and airmen every other member of the military so sacrificially have given to this country,” she said. “That starts from the top. It’s a shame that our military personnel even have to wonder, if they have to question, if they’re respected anymore. It starts from the top.”

Slow genocide of minorities in Pakistan

By Elizabeth Roche

From 23% in 1947, Pakistan’s minorities today constitute a mere 3-4% of the population, says Farahnaz Ispahani, media advisor to the president of Pakistan from 2008 to 2012 in her book Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities.
She blames the successive Pakistan presidents and prime ministers for launching a slow genocide against minorities in the country to shore up their political base. She specifically blames Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, the Pak army general who was the country’s 6th president, for creating a militant group to target Shias, Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Could you tell us something about the title of your book Purifying the Land of the Pure: Pakistan’s Religious Minorities?
Pakistan itself means pure land. The reason I chose it is because I have traced in my book, using historical archives, how Pakistan which set out to be a secular albeit Muslims majority state, ended up becoming what it is today. When Pakistan was being formed in 1947, Pakistan’s population of non-Muslims was 23%, today we are somewhere between 3%-4%. So there has been a purification of minorities.
So my big question was where have they gone? What I have uncovered is quite devastating because it has not been one government or one man who has been culpable. It’s not only (former president) General Zia ul Haq. It has been from the time of Mr (Mohammed Ali) Jinnah, the Qaid-e-Azam of Pakistan, as he lay dying, already the political and bureaucratic wheels were moving towards a more Muslim state.
I am saying that for all religious minorities—Muslim and non-Muslim—there has been a purification. This is what I call drip drip genocide. Normally when people talk about genocide, they talk about Nazi Germany or they talk about Yugoslavia. In the case of Pakistan, this is slow genocide, this drip, drip, drip over 76 years.
You refer to the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) founder and ideologue Maulana Abul Ala Maududi in your book. Was this purification the handiwork of politicians only or did religious leaders and scholars also have a role?
Maulana Maududi did not support the formation of Pakistan; he did not think it would be Muslim enough. Mr. Jinnah, as he was dying, talked at length about Pakistan’s minorities and said no matter what someone’s faith was would not matter in Pakistan. But after he died what happened was, most of the people who were in leadership positions in Pakistan, in the Muslim League like our first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan, were not from Pakistan. So they did not have natural constituencies as politicians. You have a man like Mr. Liaquat Ali Khan who himself was very secular in most ways. He becomes the man who brings about the resolution which went into every single constitution we ever had, which was very clear in that it said that Pakistan was a Muslim state. And that the Quran and Shariat and Sunnah (verbally transmitted teachings of the Prophet) are to be part and parcel of the state. It was the ugliest form of realpolitik. What people like Liaquat and Chaudhury Mohammed Ali (fourth prime minister of Pakistan), etc., did was that they revived “Islam is in danger” as the glue to keep them in their positions. Mr. Maududi and his fellow clergymen therefore became of great value to the political leadership of Pakistan to justify their decisions, to keep them in power. And as you go on, when you have the first proper martial law in Pakistan when General Ayub (Khan) takes over, you see the nexus of the military with the mullahs and politicians who were acceptable to the military.
You have talked of the links between politics, religion and the military. How did militancy come to be linked with this?
The first well-known and well-organised terrorist militia that we know about that dealt with religious minorities was created by Zia-ul-Haq. It was called the Sipah-e-Sahaba and its sole job was to harass Shias. So, that is the first group that we see that is armed and trained and reasonably openly by the (Pakistani) government of that time. Some of these groups—not all—in some seasons cross borders and in some seasons there are at home purifying the land of the pure, whether it is blowing up Ahmadi places of worship or Christian worshippers at mass or Shia imambargahs. So the state’s policy that goes back to the very beginning of mixing religion with politics and then religion, politics and the military together has resulted in a terrible situation not just from the point of view of Pakistan’s neighbours but for us Pakistanis as well. Over 60,000 Pakistanis have died due to attacks internally by terrorists.
Of all the politicians who have done their bit for the decimation of minorities, would you say that it was president Zia-ul-Haq who did the most damage?
Yes. Two things, he legalised Islamisation—whether it was bringing in the Hudood (ordinance in 1979 under which Sharia laws applied in cases of extramarital sex, theft and prohibition). From very little things like introducing prayer times in government buildings to very, very, very harsh laws of blasphemy. The other thing would be the birth of these jihadi groups in a very, very big way. He attempted to alter our culture—Pakistani diplomats’s wives could no longer wear saris—they were considered Hindu and un-Islamic. You could no longer say Khuda Hafiz; you had to say Allah Hafiz. These small things have now percolated down and they have shaped an entire culture. So that’s what he did, the small things changing the way people thought, the laws which were then impossible to get around and then the Jihadi groups.
How can this state of affairs be changed?
It has to be through political leadership, even though we saw in (Punjab governor) Salman (Taseer)’s case that in spite of everything when (his security guard) Mumtaz Qadri pumped his body full (in 2011) of bullets the other people stood there and watched. Later Qadri was garlanded and the judge who found him (Qadri) guilty, we had to send the judge and his entire family out of Pakistan. I was in government then. He’s never come back. This book is like a death sentence for me. Civil society at that time had no leadership. And the reaction was don’t even talk about it. Don’t even mention Asiya Bibi (Pakistani Christian found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to death. Taseer opposed her punishment). Look at Salman, he was so foolish. There was no one willing to bury him. I had to find somebody, beg someone to read his last rites. And then, I had to get that person and their family out of Lahore.
So is this the worst for Pakistan and therefore can one say that change can only make things better?
I could never say something like that because its impossible to be so categorical. Pakistan is a functional state still and there is a lot of room for change. I hope things turn around. But I think a big part of it is that jihadi groups have to be dealt with. They can no longer be good jihadi groups and bad jihadi groups. There should be no jihadi groups. Countries can have militaries and countries can have diplomacy. Unless we move past this kind of a situation, the world is losing patience.
Any point when this could be changed?
From the very start. Mr. Jinnah was still alive and they have the temerity to block his speech from the radio. That entire speech was about how important Pakistan’s religious minorities were and how absolutely vital it was for pluralism and to have a successful state for all citizens to have a place. Once you end up introducing a religious law it is almost impossible to amend it or to change it because they are seen as protecting Islam and feelings of Muslims.
In the book, I break this down into four stages – and I call stage one Muslimisation. This comes about between 1945 and 1951. There is a massive decline in Hindu and Sikh populations and therefore Pakistan became more Muslim demographically.
Stage two is Islamic identity. This is where you see from 1958 onwards state-sponsored text books reject pluralism, paint religious minorities very negative, highlight and glorify Islamic history with no South Asian basis. So an attempt was made to forge a Pakistani identity purely on the basis of Islam. The third stage is Islamisation. This is where legislation in an attempt to make the country’s laws more Islamic resulted in creating a legal framework against the minorities. It started in 1974 and continues up to 1988. This was all done in General Zia’s time.
Stage four is militant hostility towards the minorities, which is the stage at which we are and we have terrorism and organised violence.