Saturday, 19 July 2008

Friday, 18th July 2008


As price of corn rises, U.S. catfish farms dry up
LELAND, Mississippi: Catfish farmers across the American South, unable to cope with the soaring cost of corn and soybean feed, are draining their ponds.
"It's a dead business," said John Dillard, who pioneered the commercial farming of catfish in the late 1960s. Last year, Dillard and his company raised 11 million fish. Next year it will raise none. People can eat imported fish, Dillard said, just as they use imported oil.
As for his 55 employees? "Those jobs are gone."
Corn and soybeans have nearly tripled in price in the last two years, for many reasons: harvest shortfalls, increasing demand by the Asian middle class, government mandates for corn to produce ethanol and, most recently, the flooding in the Midwest.
This is creating a bonanza for corn and soybean farmers but is wreaking havoc on consumers, who are seeing price spikes in the grocery store and in restaurants. Hog and chicken producers as well as cattle ranchers, all of whom depend on grain for feed, are being severely squeezed.
Perhaps nowhere has the rise in crop prices caused more convulsions than in the Mississippi Delta, the hub of the U.S. catfish industry. This is a hard-luck, poverty-plagued region, and raising catfish in artificial ponds was one of the few mainstays.
Then the economics went awry. Feed is now more than half the total cost of raising catfish, compared with a third of the cost of beef and pork production, according to a Mississippi state analysis. That makes catfish more vulnerable. But if the commodities continue to rocket up - and some analysts believe they will - other industries will fall victim as well.
Keith King, president of Dillard & Co., calculates that for every dollar the company spends raising its fish, it gets back only 75 cents when they go to market.
"What's happening to this industry is sad, but being sentimental won't pay the light bill," King said.
Dillard and other growers take their fish, still squirming, to Consolidated Catfish Producers in the hamlet of Isola, where workers run the machinery that slices them into filets. With fewer fish coming in, Consolidated Catfish is resorting to layoffs.

The tasty twig, a barbecue tradition
LAMB on rosemary skewers has to be one of the oldest recipes in the world. In ancient times, the meat could just as easily have been goat, or something wilder, and fish was no doubt also a candidate. The idea of cutting branches of rosemary and using them as skewers must certainly have occurred to humans soon after they figured out how to build fires.
Rosemary grows wild as a large, hardy shrub throughout the Mediterranean and places with similar climates, like California, Chile, South Africa and parts of Australia. Figs grow in these same climates by the zillions. And it didn't take Escoffier to figure this one out: figs are good — no, fabulous — when grilled.
The combination with another ancient food, olive oil, is amazing.
I can't improve on what our ancestors did, but here are some points to consider.
Use lamb shoulder when possible; it's fattier and grills better than chunks of leg. Grill the lamb and the figs — nice and ripe, left whole — separately, since the lamb will take a little longer to cook than the figs. The heat can be about the same for both, moderately hot.
If you live in Southern California, you already know where to find rosemary; elsewhere, you may have to look around a bit, or perhaps settle for a package from the supermarket. You want branches with woody stalks, if possible. But if the stalks are too flimsy to poke through the lamb, run a pilot hole through with a skewer. You might throw together a little basting sauce of lemon, garlic and a little more rosemary. I do, but I know that the skewers are just fine without it, and have been for thousands of years.

BP on verge of losing control of Russian joint venture
MOSCOW: For all its effort to retain an equal share in a Russian joint venture here, BP seems to be edging ever closer to losing control.
The British company's four billionaire Russian partners have pressed an unrelenting campaign to oust the joint venture's chief executive, Robert Dudley, who was appointed by BP, and to expel other foreign managers from the company, and from the country, in the latest turmoil in Russia's oil patch.
In the spirit of Kirk Kerkorian's hounding of General Motors or Carl Icahn's putting the feet of Yahoo's board to the fire, the Russian shareholders say their campaign will not let up until BP agrees to shake up the management of one of the world's largest joint venture oil companies.
The venture, TNK-BP, which pumps 1.4 million barrels per day, is also the third-largest energy company in Russia.
Shareholder activism is an improbable role for the Russian oligarchic partners. Even more improbable, critics say, is the ally they have found for this struggle: the Russian government

Gasoline at $4 a gallon in the United States has a way of focusing the mind.
U.S. leaders need to stop playing politics on energy

WASHINGTON: If necessity really is the mother of invention, gasoline at $4 a gallon will force the United States, the world's most profligate user of energy, into a new era of creativity and innovation - as long as America's leaders stop practicing politics as usual.
"Our problem has been a monumental lack of leadership," said Chris Jarvis, president of Caprock Risk Management, a company that advises investors on energy. "There's a golden opportunity now to bring change. And oil at $140 focuses the minds." So does $4 a gallon of gas - in a way $3 a gallon never did.
As far as America's energy habits are concerned - the United States has 4 percent of the world's population and uses almost a quarter of its oil - change is under way. For one, the car culture is changing. Americans drive less and use more public transport (its use is at a 50-year high). Gas-guzzling SUVs are out, hybrids and fuel-efficient cars are in.
On a different level, more U.S. corporations are allowing employees to work from home or save commuting costs by changing to a four-day workweek. Real estate agents report that demand for housing in cities is rising as commutes from suburbia are becoming painfully expensive.
Transportation accounts for almost 70 percent of the 20.7 million barrels of oil the United States consumes every day, and changes in driving habits are a side effect of high gasoline prices. Another unintended consequence: reduced emissions of carbon dioxide from vehicle exhausts, the largest contributors to global warming.
Americans are the world's biggest emitters of carbon, with around 20 tons per person per year. Over all, China, with a population of 1.3 billion, has overtaken the United States as the world's worst polluter. It accounts for 24 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. The United States is second, with 22 percent.
The problem, as President George W. Bush has repeatedly put it, is that "America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world." That dependence has increased sharply over the past three decades: In 1973, the year of the Arab oil embargo against the United States and its Western allies, the United States imported just under a quarter of its oil. By 1991, at the start of the first U.S. war on Iraq, that had climbed to more than 40 percent. Now, it is close to 70 percent.
This is not an addiction that can be cured by lifting an executive order (first imposed by Bush's father in 1990) that banned drilling for oil off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. When Bush ended the ban this week, he portrayed it as a major step toward energy independence. Politics as usual in its purest form.
"The motivation here is political," said Sarah Emerson, managing director of Energy Security Analysis, an independent research firm. "It won't solve the problem."
Partisan opponents of Bush were more blunt. "The Bush plan is a hoax," said Nancy Pelosi, the (Democratic) speaker of the House. "It will neither reduce gas prices nor increase energy independence."
What would? First of all, an end to the partisan squabbling that has stood in the way of a project that would attract the best and the brightest and combine federally set rules with free market ingenuity. "This is not about Republicans vs. Democrats," says the Texas oil billionaire Boone Pickens. "Our country faces what I believe is the most serious situation since World War II."
Pickens is spending $58 million, a good part of it on newspaper and television ads, to convince Americans of the huge scale of the problem. Unless tackled urgently, he says, it would lead to the single largest transfer of wealth in human history - from the United States to oil producers.
"Our economic engine is now 70 percent dependent on the energy resources of other countries, their good judgment, and most importantly, their good will toward us," Pickens says. "Foreign oil is at the intersection of America's three most important issues: the economy, the environment and our national security. We need an energy plan that maps out how we are going to work out of this mess."
Pickens has such a plan, and its centerpiece is wind power, some of it harnessed by his own wind farm, the world's biggest, a project he plans to spend $10 billion on. Electricity from the wind whistling through America's midsection, the Great Plains, would replace the natural gas the United States burns to generate 22 percent of its power.
Then, the freed-up gas would be used to power vehicles. That would displace more than a third of oil imports.
Pickens' plan is not the only one addressing energy problems, but it is the most intensely advertised. Come election time in November, his 80-year-old face is likely to be as familiar to TV viewers as the faces of the presidential candidates.
The plan is not as straightforward as it sounds: The government would have to build new power-transmission corridors from America's midsection to the coasts. Fewer than 150,000 vehicles in the United States currently run on natural gas, and filling stations dispensing it are few and far between.
Minor details for a country that prides itself on its "can-do" attitude.

Toyota develops painting process that uses far less energy
Toyota's Tsutsumi plant has solar panels, grass growing on the roof and ivy crawling on walls to be as green in production as the Japanese automaker's reputation for mileage is exemplified in its Prius hybrid.
Under Toyota Motor's latest drive to make its famous lean production even leaner, it has also achieved a breakthrough in technology for painting vehicles, a senior executive said recently.
The multistep paint job, which includes pretreatment, several coatings, drying and sealing, takes up 24 percent of energy use in manufacturing, according to Toyota.
Takeshi Uchiyamada, the executive overseeing production, said the new method called "3-Wet" dropped one "drying oven" step from the previous three.
The elimination in the multistep process was able to reduce by 15 percent the energy needs compared to old-style painting.
"Our production has grown over the last decade so much the energy required to manufacture each and every vehicle has also grown considerable overall," Uchiyamada told The Associated Press recently.

In U.S., anti-energy speculation bill stirs fear
Financial industry executives are mustering on Capitol Hill to head off a congressional effort to rewrite the rules for the nation's energy markets, saying it could unsettle already nervous markets and push more energy trading abroad, beyond the reach of domestic regulators.
The primary focus of Wall Street's concern is a bill entitled the Stop Excessive Energy Speculation Act of 2008, introduced on Tuesday by a group of Democratic senators led by Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader.
The bill would substantially broaden U.S. regulators' authority over the vast marketplace for privately negotiated derivatives, called swaps. It also would limit the stakes that speculators and other noncommercial energy traders could take, both in private transactions and in the public futures markets, which allow oil producers and users to hedge their price risks.
And it would require regulators to distinguish between "legitimate" and "nonlegitimate" hedging transactions and subject the latter to increased scrutiny and tighter market limits.
Since the bill's introduction, lobbyists for the futures industry and other institutional interests in the energy markets have significantly bolstered their efforts in Washington.

Gore urges change to dodge an energy crisis

"I see my role as enlarging the political space in which Senator Obama or Senator McCain can confront this issue as president next year," Gore said.
He said the United States and the rest of the world were facing unprecedented problems, including growing demand for electricity, dangerous changes in the climate driven largely by emissions of carbon dioxide and political instability in regions that produce much of the world's oil.
"When we look at all three of these seemingly intractable challenges at the same time, we can see the common thread running through them, deeply ironic in its simplicity: our dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels is at the core of all three of these challenges — the economic, environmental and national security crises," Gore said. "We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that has to change."

A Muslim woman too orthodox for France
LA VERRIÈRE, France: When Faiza Silmi applied for French citizenship she was worried that her fluent French was not quite perfect enough or that her Moroccan upbringing would pose a problem.
"I would never have imagined that they would turn me down because of what I choose to wear," Silmi said, her hazel eyes looking out of the narrow slit in her niqab, an Islamic facial veil that is among three flowing layers of turquoise, blue and black that cover her body from head to toe.
But last month, France's highest administrative court upheld a decision to deny Silmi, 32, citizenship on the ground that her "radical" practice of Islam was incompatible with French values like equality of the sexes.
It was the first time that a French court had judged somebody's capacity to be assimilated into France based on private religious practice, taking laïcité - the country's strict concept of secularism - from the public sphere into the home.
The case has sharpened the focus on the delicate balance between the tradition of Republican secularism and the freedom of religion guaranteed under the French Constitution - and how that balance might be shifting. It comes four years after a law banning religious garb in public schools was reinforced. And it comes only weeks after a court in Lille annulled a marriage on request of a Muslim husband whose wife had lied about being a virgin. (The government subsequently demanded a review of the court decision.)

36 hours in Toulouse
IF Paris is the capital of France, Toulouse is the nation's campus. With three major universities and a thriving high-tech center, including the headquarters of Airbus, France's fourth-largest city hums with inventiveness and creativity. Under its medieval church spires, the spider web of cobblestone lanes brims with art museums, theaters, upstart fashion boutiques, all-hours night life and an expanding bevy of fine restaurants serving everything from haute cuisine to hearty cassoulet. And thanks to its location in France's sunny southwest — closer to Barcelona than Paris — Toulouse is suffused with a laid-back Latin vibe. No wonder "La Ville Rose," so named for the dusty rose-hued bricks in many of its old edifices, is France's fastest-growing city.


Another nuclear leak in France

PARIS: Uranium-bearing liquid has leaked from a broken underground pipe at a nuclear plant in southeastern France, the national nuclear safety authority said Friday. It was the second leak discovered at a French site this month.
The Nuclear Safety Authority said experts were trying to determine how much leaked uranium was present at the plant, which is owned by the electricity company Areva.
Areva, which is owned by the French government, is at the forefront of President Nicolas Sarkozy's effort to sell home-grown nuclear energy technology to the rest of the world.
An Areva spokesman, Charles Hufnagel, said the leak of lightly enriched uranium did not spread outside the site in Romans-sur-Isère and had "absolutely no impact on the environment." He said the factory hoped the problem would be classified as Level 1, the most minor of seven possible.
Among all nations, France is the most dependent on nuclear power, with 59 reactors churning out nearly 80 percent of its electricity. The Nuclear Safety Authority said the pipe was believed to have ruptured several years ago. It added that the pipe "was not in line with the applicable regulations, which require shock resistance ability sufficient to avoid rupture."


Irish party declines Sarkozy invite

DUBLIN: Ireland's Labour Party has turned down a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy next week to resolve deadlock over the EU reform treaty, saying the format proposed was "pointless" and a trifle arrogant.
Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore criticised the short time Sarkozy has allotted for a discussion of the stalemate caused by Ireland's rejection of the treaty.
"This kind of idea that President Sarkozy can come to Ireland and persuade us to change our mind or try and hear what we have to say and give us all three minutes each, I think there is a little degree of arrogance in that," he told public broadcaster RTE.


Cavendish, again, in a sprint to the finish

NÎMES, France: Mark Cavendish looks simply unbeatable.
Cavendish, the 23-year-old sprinter from the Isle of Man who rides for Team Columbia, won his fourth stage of the 95th Tour de France on Friday, once again beating the other fastest cyclists on the planet by several bike lengths.
When Cavendish opens up his sprint in the final 200 meters, other riders can look as if they are standing still. On Thursday, on the sprint finish into Narbonne, he rounded the final corner, just under a kilometer from the finish, with at least 20 riders in front of him.
No matter - he simply put his bike into a gear beyond what any other rider has demonstrated on this Tour and swept past them all.
And on Friday, though he started a little nearer the front and was forced to jump into high gear a little sooner than he would have liked, he once again won easily.

"It's unfortunate for the other guys I have to do this," Cavendish said, somewhat sheepishly, after the race when asked if he realizes how his domination of the pack must make the other sprint specialists feel.

Untouchable by birth, undaunted as a politician
LUCKNOW, India: Kumari Mayawati, a daughter of so-called untouchables and India's most maverick politician, stunned the nation last year when she won majority control of India's largest state with an inventive political coalition that fused votes from up and down the ancient Hindu caste pyramid.
Now, with national elections only months away, Mayawati has emerged as the most important low-caste politician in India's history, and she is asserting herself as a rainbow coalition leader whom all Indians can trust to be their prime minister one day. How far she will rise remains to be seen. But there is no disputing her importance.
The advance of so-called low-caste, or Dalit, politicians like Mayawati has reshaped Indian politics for 20 years, although no one from her social rank has so shaken up the country's traditional political order. Dalits represent roughly 16 percent of the population and have traditionally been shunted to the lowest rungs of Indian society.
Mayawati leads the government of Uttar Pradesh, a sprawling northern state with a population of more than 160 million. Her admirers see the rise and reinvention of this unmarried outcaste woman of 52 as a triumph of India's democracy over its deeply conservative and stratified traditions.
Her detractors see her as a symbol of an increasingly crude and unprincipled politics. She is accused of being ostentatious and corrupt and of striking deals with anyone who will advance her political ambitions.

Pakistani bear market has investors raging in the streets
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: Angry investors stormed out of the Karachi Stock Exchange on Thursday, hurling stones and planters at the building in protest over slumping share prices.
The benchmark index fell for the 15th consecutive trading day, the worst losing run in at least 18 years. Angry investors also protested in Lahore and Islamabad, Pakistani newspapers reported.
"I have lost my life savings in the last 15 days, and no one in the government or regulators came to help us," said Imran Inayat, 45, a protester and a former broker in Karachi, Bloomberg News reported. He said his loss was $4,175.
Much of the protesters' anger was directed at the new government, which is perceived as unable to fix an ailing economy plagued by runaway inflation and large budget and trade deficits.
The benchmark index on the Karachi Stock Exchange, the nation's biggest, declined by nearly 3 percent on Thursday. Investors demanded a temporary halt to trading. When the exchange management refused to stop trading, investors went on a rampage. The index has dropped by 36 percent since reaching a record high in April.

Pakistani Taliban take hostages and threaten executions
Peshawar, Pakistan: The Pakistani Taliban have taken dozens of local officials hostage, including police, paramilitary forces and even state bank officials, and threatened Friday to begin executing them unless the government released four of their comrades captured last week.
The standoff has grown over the past week into one of the most serious recent challenges to the government's resolve to curb the militants' rapid expansion just 10 days before Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is scheduled to meet President Bush at the White House.
So far, the government has held firm, dispatching hundreds of soldiers to the area, Hangu, in North West Frontier Province, to engage in the first real fighting with the militants since the two sides agreed to a new series of peace deals earlier this year.
The fighting comes as the government faces mounting pressure from the United States to take stronger action against Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas, which the militants use as a launching pad for attacks against NATO and American troops in southern Afghanistan.
Pakistan's newspapers and television programs have been abuzz the last few days about suggestions in Washington that the United States might take direct action itself in the tribal areas to stop the flow of Taliban fighters into Afghanistan. Such a move would be strongly opposed by most Pakistanis as a violation of sovereignty.


Two French aid workers kidnapped in Afghanistan

PARIS: Two French aid workers were abducted in Afghanistan after gunmen tied up guards and broke into the guest house where they were sleeping, humanitarian organisation Action Against Hunger said on Friday.
The organisation said the two were kidnapped in the early hours of Friday in the town of Nili in central Afghanistan. It said the kidnappers drove away in several vehicles but gave no further details on the incident and did not identify the two.
It said it had suspended operations in Afghanistan, where it set up its first mission in 1979 and where it has conducted a series of operations since 1995.
The French Foreign Ministry confirmed the kidnapping and said a crisis centre had been set up to handle the case with authorities in Afghanistan and Action Against Hunger.
The abduction comes after the kidnapping in May of a French businessman, who was released last month after weeks of behind the scenes negotiations.


NATO force denies Afghan civilian casualty report

KABUL: The NATO-led international force in Afghanistan rejected on Friday reports from Afghan officials that it killed more than 50 civilians in air strikes the previous day in the west of the country.
At least four men were killed in the strikes, a spokesman for the regional police command had said on Thursday. Witnesses said 17 people were also wounded.
But other reports, by Shindand District Chief Mullah Lal Mohammad and a tribal elder, Haji Zalmai, said that more than 50 civilians had been killed in the strikes in the villages of Farmakan and Bakhtabad in the western province of Herat.
"ISAF has thoroughly investigated and rejects claims that ISAF forces killed more than 50 civilians in the Shindand area," the International Security Assistance Force said in a statement.
"Our extensive investigation reveals that the closest airstrikes carried out were 13 km to the South East of these villages. ISAF therefore rejects these claims as baseless."


2 Bangladeshi guards killed, 1 Indian soldier wounded in border clash

DHAKA, Bangladesh: A border clash Friday left two Bangladeshi troops dead and one Indian soldier seriously wounded, military officials said.
The clash occurred when an Indian border patrol vessel tried to prevent cattle from being smuggled into Bangladesh on a boat, said Ashish Kumar Mitra, the head of India's Border Security Force.
The Indian forces were monitoring the boat in the pre-dawn darkness when they were fired upon without warning, Mitra said.
The Indian troops retaliated, believing they were being targeted by the smugglers, he said.
The director of operations of the Bangladesh Rifles border force gave a slightly different version of events.

Col. Mohammad Abdul Halim said the Indian Border Force patrol boat entered Bangladeshi waters and when a Bangladeshi Rifles vessel challenged them to leave, the Indians opened fire.
The incident took place off the coast of Raghunathpur in Chapainawabganj district, 145 miles west of Dhaka, Halim said.

Using bombs to stave off war

LI-ON, Israel:
Israel will almost surely attack Iran's nuclear sites in the next four to seven months - and the leaders in Washington and even Tehran should hope that the attack will be successful enough to cause at least a significant delay in the Iranian production schedule, if not complete destruction, of that country's nuclear program. Because if the attack fails, the Middle East will almost certainly face a nuclear war - either through a subsequent pre-emptive Israeli nuclear strike or a nuclear exchange shortly after Iran gets the bomb.
It is in the interest of neither Iran nor the United States (nor, for that matter, the rest of the world) that Iran be savaged by a nuclear strike, or that both Israel and Iran suffer such a fate. We know what would ensue: a traumatic destabilization of the Middle East with resounding consequences around the globe, serious injury to the West's oil supply and radioactive pollution of the earth's atmosphere and water.
But should Israel's conventional assault fail to significantly harm or stall the Iranian program, a ratcheting up of the Iranian-Israeli conflict to a nuclear level will most likely follow. Every intelligence agency in the world believes the Iranian program is geared toward making weapons, not to the peaceful applications of nuclear power. And, despite the current talk of additional economic sanctions, everyone knows that such measures have so far led nowhere and are unlikely to be applied with sufficient scope to cause Iran real pain, given Russia's and China's continued recalcitrance and Western Europe's (and America's) ambivalence in behavior, if not in rhetoric. Western intelligence agencies agree that Iran will reach the "point of no return" in acquiring the capacity to produce nuclear weapons in one to four years.
Which leaves the world with only one option if it wishes to halt Iran's march toward nuclear weaponry: the military option, meaning an aerial assault by either the United States or Israel. Clearly, America has the conventional military capacity to do the job, which would involve a protracted air assault against Iran's air defenses followed by strikes on the nuclear sites themselves. But, as a result of the Iraq imbroglio, and what is rapidly turning into the Afghan imbroglio, the American public has little enthusiasm for wars in the Islamic lands. This curtails the White House's ability to begin yet another major military campaign in pursuit of a goal that is not seen as a vital national interest by many Americans.
Which leaves only Israel - the country threatened almost daily with destruction by Iran's leaders. Thus the recent reports about Israeli plans and preparations to attack Iran (the period from Nov. 5 to Jan. 19 seems the best bet, as it gives the West half a year to try the diplomatic route but ensures that Israel will have support from a lame-duck White House).
The problem is that Israel's military capacities are far smaller than America's and, given the distances involved, the fact that the Iranian sites are widely dispersed and underground, and Israel's inadequate intelligence, it is unlikely that the Israeli conventional forces, even if allowed the use of Jordanian and Iraqi airspace (and perhaps, pending American approval, even Iraqi air strips) can destroy or perhaps significantly delay the Iranian nuclear project.
Nonetheless, Israel, believing that its very existence is at stake - and this is a feeling shared by most Israelis across the political spectrum - will certainly make the effort. Israel's leaders, from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert down, have all explicitly stated that an Iranian bomb means Israel's destruction; Iran will not be allowed to get the bomb.
The best outcome will be that an Israeli conventional strike, whether failed or not - and, given the Tehran regime's totalitarian grip, it may not be immediately clear how much damage the Israeli assault has caused - would persuade the Iranians to halt their nuclear program, or at least persuade the Western powers to significantly increase the diplomatic and economic pressure on Iran.
But the more likely result is that the international community will continue to do nothing effective and that Iran will speed up its efforts to produce the bomb that can destroy Israel. The Iranians will also likely retaliate by attacking Israel's cities with ballistic missiles (possibly topped with chemical or biological warheads); by prodding its local clients, Hezbollah and Hamas, to unleash their own armories against Israel; and by activating international Muslim terrorist networks against Israeli and Jewish - and possibly American - targets worldwide (though the Iranians may at the last moment be wary of provoking American military involvement).
Such a situation would confront Israeli leaders with two agonizing, dismal choices. One is to allow the Iranians to acquire the bomb and hope for the best - meaning a nuclear standoff, with the prospect of mutual assured destruction preventing the Iranians from actually using the weapon. The other would be to use the Iranian counter-strikes as an excuse to escalate and use the only means available that will actually destroy the Iranian nuclear project: Israel's own nuclear arsenal.
Given the fundamentalist, self-sacrificial mindset of the mullahs who run Iran, Israel knows that deterrence may not work as well as it did with the comparatively rational men who ran the Kremlin and White House during the Cold War. They are likely to use any bomb they build, both because of ideology and because of fear of Israeli nuclear pre-emption. Thus an Israeli nuclear strike to prevent the Iranians from taking the final steps toward getting the bomb is probable. The alternative is letting Tehran have its bomb. In either case, a Middle Eastern nuclear holocaust would be in the cards.
Iran's leaders would do well to rethink their gamble and suspend their nuclear program. Bar this, the best they could hope for is that Israel's conventional air assault will destroy their nuclear facilities. To be sure, this would mean thousands of Iranian casualties and international humiliation. But the alternative is an Iran turned into a nuclear wasteland. Some Iranians may believe that this is a worthwhile gamble if the prospect is Israel's demise. But most Iranians probably don't.

Iran does not expect Israeli or U.S. attack
GENEVA: Iran said on Friday it did not expect an attack from Israel or the United States triggered by the long-running dispute over its nuclear programme.
Diplomats from Iran and world powers will meet in Geneva on Saturday to discuss the nuclear issue. Washington will attend the talks for the first time, a notable shift in policy which has raised hopes of progress.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, arriving in the Swiss city on Friday, said he was taking a positive approach to the talks.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said he did not expect Iran to come under attack. Speculation of a strike on Iranian nuclear sites intensified after an Israeli air exercise last month.
"The possibility of such an attack (from Israel or the U.S.) is almost zero," Mottaki said, via a translator, in an interview with Turkish broadcaster NTV during a visit to Turkey.

Iran hopes for "constructive" nuclear talks
TEHRAN: Iran's chief nuclear negotiator expressed hope for "good and constructive negotiations" as he left Tehran on Friday for talks in Geneva with world powers on the country's disputed nuclear programme.
"If they enter (negotiations) with a constructive approach and by avoiding previous mistakes, we can definitely have good and constructive negotiations," Saeed Jalili was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency.


New talks on North Korean nuclear program set

SEOUL: Top diplomats from the United States, North Korea and four other nations will meet for nuclear talks in the coming week, a South Korean official said Friday, the highest level of contact between the countries amid recent progress on Pyongyang's nuclear disarmament.
The diplomats, including the U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and the North Korean foreign minister, Pak Ui Chun, are to meet on the sidelines of an Asian security meeting in Singapore, which they had already planned to attend, the official said.
Along with the United States and North Korea, the arms talks include China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the organizer of the nuclear talks, China, had not yet made a formal announcement about the meeting.
The talks in Singapore would be the first time the countries' top diplomats have met since the six-nation arms negotiations on the North Korean nuclear program began in 2003.

The meeting comes as North Korea has promised to conclude the disabling of its main nuclear facility by this year, meaning it would not be able to easily resume making plutonium for bombs.
However, the sides have not yet agreed on details for the more critical next step - dismantling the North's facilities and ridding the country of nuclear bombs and radioactive material to make them.


U.S. considers opening a diplomatic post in Iran

PARIS: The Bush administration is considering establishing an American diplomatic presence in Iran for the first time since relations were severed during the 444-day occupation of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran nearly three decades ago, European and U.S. officials said.
The idea would be to open a so-called interests section, rather than a fully staffed embassy, with U.S. diplomats who could issue visas to Iranians seeking to visit the United States. But the officials, who spoke Thursday on the condition of anonymity under diplomatic rules, cautioned that the idea had not been approved by the White House and could be delayed or blocked by opposition within the administration.
The proposal comes as the White House is adopting new tactics in dealing with Iran. With six months left in office, President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appear to be looking for new ways to reach out to the Iranian people as the administration tries to bring a peaceful resolution to the impasse over Iran's nuclear program.
On Saturday, William Burns, the State Department's third-ranking official, will arrive in Geneva to participate in talks with Iran aimed at persuading it to suspend uranium enrichment in exchange for economic and political incentives.
A department spokesman, Sean McCormack, said Thursday that an interests section would not be discussed.

A senior European official said that Burns, under secretary of state for political affairs, had told a number of his counterparts in Tokyo that Rice was committed to moving forward on the decision to put U.S. diplomats in Tehran but that the decision still faced opposition from conservatives opposed to any kind of closer ties with Iran.
"My feeling is that the decision was more or less taken and the administration's problem was when and how to announce it," the official said. "They want to do it, but for domestic political reasons they don't know how and when, and maybe even if, they can do it."
Another senior official from another European country who deals directly with Iran went further, saying Rice had indicated in recent private discussions that the decision was already final.

Electrical risks at U.S. bases in Iraq worse than reported
WASHINGTON: Shoddy electrical work by private contractors on United States military bases in Iraq is widespread and dangerous, causing more deaths and injuries from fires and shocks than the Pentagon has acknowledged, according to internal army documents.
During just one six-month period — August 2006 through January 2007 — at least 283 electrical fires destroyed or damaged American military facilities in Iraq, including the military's largest dining hall in the country, documents obtained by The New York Times show. Two soldiers died in an electrical fire at their base near Tikrit in 2006, the records note, while another was injured while jumping from a burning guard tower in May 2007.
And while the Pentagon has previously reported that 13 Americans have been electrocuted in Iraq, many more have been injured, some seriously, by shocks, according to the documents. A log compiled earlier this year at one building complex in Baghdad disclosed that soldiers complained of receiving electrical shocks in their living quarters on an almost daily basis.
Electrical problems were the most urgent noncombat safety hazard for soldiers in Iraq, according to an army survey issued in February 2007. It noted "a safety threat theaterwide created by the poor-quality electrical fixtures procured and installed, sometimes incorrectly, thus resulting in a significant number of fires."
The army report said KBR, the Houston-based company that is responsible for providing basic services for American troops in Iraq, including housing, did its own study and found a "systemic problem" with electrical work.
But the Pentagon did little to address the issue until a Green Beret, Staff Sergeant Ryan Maseth, was electrocuted in January while showering. His death, caused by poor electrical grounding, drew the attention of lawmakers and Pentagon leaders after his family pushed for answers. Congress and the Pentagon's inspector general have begun investigations, and this month senior army officials ordered electrical inspections of all buildings in Iraq maintained by KBR.

U.S. exceptionalism extends to evidence rule

Bradley Harrison was driving a rented Dodge Durango through Canada in the fall of 2004 with 35 kilograms of cocaine in the trunk when a police officer pulled him over, found the drugs and arrested him.
A year and a half later, an Ontario trial judge ruled that the officer's conduct was a "brazen and flagrant" violation of Harrison's rights. The officer's explanation for stopping Harrison was contrived and defied credibility, the judge said, and the search "was certainly not reasonable."
In the United States, that would have been good news for Harrison. Under the U.S. legal system, the evidence against Harrison, being the result of an unlawful search, would have been excluded from any trial.
But both the Canadian trial judge and an appeals court allowed the use of the evidence. Harrison was sentenced to five years in prison, and the case is now before the Supreme Court.
"Without minimizing the seriousness of the police officer's conduct or in any way condoning it," the Court of Appeal for Ontario ruled in Harrison's case in February, "the exclusion of 77 pounds of cocaine, with a street value of several millions of dollars and the potential to cause serious grief and misery to many, would bring the administration of justice into greater disrepute than would its admission."

The United States is the only country to take the position that some police misconduct must automatically result in the suppression of physical evidence. The rule applies whether the misconduct is slight or serious, and without regard to the gravity of the crime or the power of the evidence.
"Foreign countries have flatly rejected our approach," said Craig Bradley, an expert in comparative criminal law at Indiana University. "In every other country, it's up to the trial judge to decide whether police misconduct has risen to the level of requiring the exclusion of evidence."

COLUMNIST: Ellen Goodman

Self-serve and slave

I finally drew the line at a dinner invitation.
My husband wanted to try a much-touted restaurant where they present you with a platter of raw foods and a hot pot. The prospect of this adventure in dining didn't exactly thrill me. If I want to cook my own food, I answered rather testily, I'll eat at home.
Until then, I had drifted along with the do-it-yourself economy. I bused my own lunch trays. I booked my own movie tickets. I checked myself in at hotel kiosks. I even succumbed when an upscale seafood restaurant expected me to swipe my credit card through a handheld computer as if I were in a supermarket.
But maybe it was the election-year rants about the offshoring of American jobs from steelworkers to computer programmers that finally got me. The outsourcing of work to other countries has produced endless ire. But what about the outsourcing of work to thee and me?
For every task shipped abroad by a corporation, isn't there another one sloughed off onto that domestic loser, the consumer? For every job that's going to a low-wage economy, isn't there another going into our very own no-wage economy?

I'm not just talking about do-it-yourself gas pumping, which is by now so routine that the memory of an actual person washing your windshield has receded into the mists of AARP nostalgia. Back when gas cost $2 a gallon, self-service was offered at a discount. Today, gas is more than $4 a gallon here in the U.S., and in most parts of the country, full-service - a retronym if there ever was one - is available only at a premium.
What's happening on land is happening in air. We are now expected to book our own itinerary, print our boarding passes, and do everything at the airport except pat ourselves down for liquids.
In this self-service economy, we also serve (ourselves) by having intimate and endless conversations with voice-recognition machines simply to refill a prescription drug or check our bank balance. We are expected to interact with "labor-saving technology" without realizing that it's labor-transferring technology.
The job has not been "saved," it's been taken out of the paid sector, where employees have a nasty habit of expecting salaries, and put into the unpaid sector, where Suckers 'R' Us.
I am tempted to say that customer service has gone the way of the house call but that reminds me that even medicine has been outsourced to patients who buy do-it-yourself kits to test and track everything from HIV to blood pressure.
In an era when operations are done on an outpatient basis, nursing care has already been outsourced to family members.
The axis of this evil isn't really globalization, it's privatization. Consider the jobs that have now become part of our personal portfolio.
We've become our own computer geeks as help lines become self-help lines. We've become our own pension planners and financial analysts left to manage our 401(k)s. We are even expected to be healthcare analysts, determining which star in the galaxy of drug prescription plans covers the ever-changing cast of pills in our medicine cabinet.
All of this is framed in the language of free choice. As opposed to, say, free time.
An MIT economist assures me cheerily that many Americans are willing to accept less service for lower cost. In a society built on the value of self-reliance, I am told, we may even feel virtuous when we put together our own bookcase or install our own hard drive.
But I have yet to find an economist who has figured out the human cost of "lower cost," or tallied up the transfer of labor from companies to customers.
I've yet to find a consumer who has added, subtracted, or multiplied the amount of time we are now spending on the second shift of life management.
Remember when women were asking, "Can we have it all?" The answer was that we could have it all only if we could do it all ... and all by ourselves. Now men and women have both won equal opportunity in the do-it-all-by-yourself world. We have officially become our own nonprofit centers.
Welcome to the self-service economy where we are never without work to be done. Let's celebrate by dining out together. Bring your carrot peeler.

Bigger Super 14 playoffs first step in expansion
PERTH: SANZAR officials on Friday described a proposal to expand the Super 14 playoffs to six teams from next season as the first step towards growing the competition and making it the best in world rugby.
The Super 14 at present follows a league format with the top four reaching the semi-finals. Under Friday's proposal from the South African, New Zealand and Australian rugby boards (SANZAR) the top six would be involved in the playoffs over three weeks.
SANZAR, an amalgamation of the three national boards, runs both the Super 14 and Tri-nations competitions.
"We recognise that our product needs a giant leap forward and the expansion of the playoff series is the first concrete step in that evolution," Jonathan Stones, managing director of SA Rugby, told a media conference in Perth.
"The expansion will happen in 2009 and thereafter we are aiming for much bigger leaps forward. We want to invigorate that leg of the competition and keep the interest going for as long as possible," Stones said.

Steve Tew, chief executive of the New Zealand Rugby Union, said SANZAR was trying to ensure the southern hemisphere's best players remained in the Super 14 and Tri-nations competitions.
"We want the most commercially attractive competitions, so our ultimate goal is to retain the best talent.
"We cannot hide from the economic engines that French and English rugby have become and the best way to address that is by having the best competitions. The players want to play in the best competition against the best players," Tew said.

Springboks make four changes for Wallabies
PERTH, Australia: South Africa have made four changes to the starting side that beat New Zealand 30-28 in Dunedin last week for their Tri-Nations rugby test against Australia at Subiaco Oval on Saturday.
Number eight Pierre Spies, centre Francois Steyn, fullback Conrad Jantjes and hooker Schalk Brits come into the starting line-up for the match in Perth.
Spies takes over from Joe van Niekerk, who played in the two tests against New Zealand, Steyn replaces the injured Adrian Jacobs at centre and Jantjes comes in for veteran Percy Montgomery at fullback.
Brits was a late callup for the injured John Smit and was on the bench last week, replaces the banned Bismarck du Plessis, who was suspended for three weeks for making contact around Adam Thomson's eye last Saturday in Carisbrook.
Uncapped hooker Adriaan Strauss, who only joined the squad in Perth on Tuesday, has been named on the bench.

Abkhazia's separatists reject German plan to prevent conflict with Georgia
GALI, Georgia: Abkhazia's separatists on Friday rejected a German plan to prevent a conflict between Georgia and its breakaway province.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany met Abkhaz separatist leaders to outline his plan, which included returning Georgian refugees to Abkhazia, organizing economic recovery programs in the province and deciding its future status.
"These proposals are not acceptable to us," the separatist leader Sergei Bagapsh told reporters after talks with Steinmeier in the town of Gali on the de facto border between Abkhazia and Georgia.
"We are not going to discuss Abkhazia's status," Bagapsh said. "Abkhazia is an independent state."
Separatists, supported by their main backer Russia, also say that the return of refugees is impossible without confidence-building measures.


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