IW: We have good friends visiting from The Shop. We talk. I hear words I have read, words I understand, words of The Shop, but when spoken in The Valley they hit me and I feel myself reeling.
Words like 'spec home', 're-skilling', 'yoga', 'designer gardens', words that are normal and which I do not object to. It is only their context, here in The Valley, that makes them seem so out of place. Words I do not use, words I do not hear, words and worlds I read of but which never touch me here.
I listen to stories. Of people commuting, weekly, to Hong Kong from Sydney; of a woman who is having her swimming pool moved by 3 meters because it 'doesn't work where it is'; of another who expresses envy and regret at that the fact that she is the only one of her friends who 'doesn't live in a proper home, a grown up home', when she herself is living in a glorious AUS$5.2 million house herself. Of the rich Russian women on the Sydney beaches in high heels and Dolce and Gabana (sic?).
We laugh about these things, discuss their meaning, of people's elevation from the earth and their disconnect from the land, food, dirt, value, values.
But it wears me out. I am so tired. I am happy to live in The Valley more than ever, but these verbal manifestations of The Shop, here, in this little Valley, they make me tired. I am so tired.
Drought resistance is the goal, but methods differ
By Andrew Pollack
Thursday, October 23, 2008
GRAND ISLAND, Nebraska: To satisfy the world's growing demand for food, scientists are trying to pull off a genetic trick that nature itself has had trouble accomplishing in millions of years of evolution. They want to create varieties of corn, wheat and other crops that can thrive with little water.
As the world's population expands and global warming alters weather patterns, water shortages are expected to hold back efforts to grow more food. People drink only a quart or two of water every day, but the food they eat in a typical day, including plants and meat, requires 2,000 to 3,000 quarts to produce.
For companies that manage to get "more crop per drop," the payoff could be huge, and scientists at many of the biggest agricultural companies are busy tweaking plant genes in search of the winning formula.
Monsanto, the biggest crop biotechnology company, says its first drought-tolerant corn will reach farmers in only four years and will provide a 10 percent increase in yields in states like Nebraska and Kansas that tend to get less rainfall than eastern parts of the Corn Belt.
At a recent farm show here called Husker Harvest Days, a few thousand farmers were guided past a small plot on which Monsanto had grown its drought-tolerant corn next to a similar variety without the "drought gene." A transparent tent had shielded the plants from any rain through the hot Nebraska summer.
The results were, to be sure, less than miraculous. Both the drought-tolerant and the comparison plants were turning brown and shriveling, and they were about three feet shorter than the lush green irrigated corn growing nearby. But the drought-tolerant plants, which also contained a second gene to protect their roots from a pest, were a little greener and a few inches taller than the comparison plants, and their cobs were missing fewer kernels.
Monsanto said the improvement was significant. And the Nebraska and Kansas farmers who toured Monsanto's plot, many of them facing water-use restrictions and soaring pumping costs for irrigation, said any improvement would be welcome.
"We pump water like there's no end, and that's not going to last forever," said Tom Schuele, a farmer in Cedar Rapids, Nebraska. Monsanto's competitors, including DuPont's Pioneer Hi-Bred unit and Syngenta, say they also plan to introduce water-efficient corn in a few years. And companies are working on plants that can stand up to heat, cold, salty soils and other tough environments.
A small California company called Arcadia Biosciences is trying to develop crops that need only half as much nitrogen fertilizer as a conventional plant. Fertilizer is crucial to modern food production, but the large quantities used today damage the environment. And because fertilizer is made from natural gas, its costs have soared along with other energy costs.
Public sector scientists are also on the hunt. Researchers at the University of California and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines are developing rice that can survive flooding, which causes major crop losses for poor farmers in the lowlands of India and other countries. While rice is typically grown in standing water, the plants will die if submerged for more than a few days.
Many of these advanced crops are being developed using genetic engineering. The technology, already used to make crops that can resist weeds and insects, has spurred worldwide controversy. But in an era in which people are marching in the streets of many countries to demand more food at lower prices, low-water crops might win over areas that now shun biotech crops, such as most of Africa.
"Drought tolerance to me is the most critical entry point," said Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard who has advised African governments on biotechnology. "This is kind of reopening the window for genetic modification."
Critics accuse the biotechnology industry and its backers of exploiting the recent global food crisis to push a technology that has been oversold and that could have unanticipated health and environmental effects.
Indeed, many past predictions of how biotechnology would create novel crops have not come to fruition. And some experts say Monsanto and its peers have not published enough information to prove they can make drought-tolerant crops.
"I want to see more, I guess, from the Monsanto work before I'd be convinced they've got it," said John Boyer, an emeritus professor at the University of Delaware.
Safety questions must also be answered. Changing the water needs of a plant requires a more fundamental alteration of its metabolism than adding a gene to make the plant resistant to insects. "The potential for unintended side effects is greater, so the testing has to be greater," said David Lightfoot, a professor of genetics and genomics at Southern Illinois University.
How much could be gained by use of these new crops is not yet clear. A report in 2007 by the International Water Management Institute, which is part of a network of agricultural research centers, concluded that genetic improvements would have only a "moderate" impact over the next 15 to 20 years in making crops more efficient in using water.
"Greater, easier and less contentious gains," it said, could come from better managing water supplies, rather than trying to develop crops that can flourish with less water.
But many experts say the situation is grave enough that all approaches must be tried simultaneously.
Poor growing conditions can reduce crop yields by 70 percent or more below their potential. American farmers, for instance, average about 150 bushels of corn an acre. But David Hula of Charles City, Virginia, won a competition last year by achieving nearly 386 bushels an acre, a measure of what modern crop varieties can achieve under optimal conditions.
In many areas, lack of water is the biggest limiting factor, and supplies of water for irrigation could be reduced further in coming years in order to supply more water to growing cities and proliferating factories.
Global warming is also expected to lead to drier conditions and more frequent droughts in some parts of the world. Scientists at Stanford, for instance, have projected that corn yields in southern Africa could drop 25 percent by 2030 because of warmer, drier weather.
Breeding water-efficient crops would seem to be straightforward: Just grow crops under dry conditions and choose the ones that do best for the next round of breeding.
It does not quite work that way, however. After several generations, the crops are indeed more resistant to drought. But there is a downside in that they often turn out to have lower yields when there is plenty of rain.
So scientists are harnessing the same genetic techniques that have yielded insights into human health to decipher how plants control water use and adapt to stress. "We've probably made more progress in the last 15 years than we have in the last 5,000 years," said Ray Bressan, a professor at Purdue.
In particular, he said, studies have overturned the conventional wisdom that water use is so complex that no single gene could have a big impact on it. "Single genes are having effects in the field that we never thought would be possible," he said.
That has opened the door for genetic engineering, which allows scientists to add a gene from another species to a plant, or even an extra copy of one of the plant's own genes.
Critics say that biotech seeds, which are patented and tend to be costly, , might not be suitable for poor farmers in developing countries. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a group working for improved farm productivity on that continent, has said that for now it would avoid genetic engineering because greater gains for small farmers can be made at lower cost using conventional breeding.
Indeed, there has been progress developing drought-tolerant crops using conventional breeding, despite the obstacles.
Syngenta, a big Swiss seed and agricultural chemical company, says it will introduce drought-tolerant corn developed by conventional breeding in 2011, followed by a genetically engineered version in 2014.
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico, the institute that sparked the output improvements of the Green Revolution decades ago, has bred drought-tolerant corn that is already being grown in Africa. Marianne Bänziger, director of the global corn program for the center, said the yields are 20 to 50 percent higher than local varieties during droughts, with no loss of yield in wetter years.
Still, her institute, with financing from foundations, is working with Monsanto to develop genetically engineered corn that would be even more water-efficient.
Monsanto has said it would not charge royalties for using its technology in the African corn, to keep the seed affordable. It says that corn customized for Africa could be ready by 2017, only five years after it starts selling drought-tolerant corn to American farmers.
Various other approaches are being tried to make less thirsty crops.
Performance Plants, a Canadian company, adds a gene that causes the plant to start preserving its water more quickly as a drought begins. In one field test, the yield of its genetically engineered canola barely fell when irrigation was cut in half. The yield of a comparison crop fell 14 percent.
Monsanto is going in the opposite direction — trying to keep the plant producing seed when a drought starts, even when its natural response would be to slow down in order to preserve water.
"You don't want a cactus," said Jacqueline Heard, who directs Monsanto's program for drought-tolerant crops. "You want something that keeps a plant very active."
Monsanto will not say exactly what genes it is using, or in which species they originated. But one approach involves transcription factors, which are like master regulators, able to turn on dozens of other genes to orchestrate a plant's response to lack of water.
But with so many downstream genes activated, there could be other effects on the plants besides less need for water. At a recent biotechnology conference, a university researcher showed a photograph of a cotton plant with an inserted gene for a transcription factor. The plant was missing most of its leaves.
No single approach is likely to suffice for all types of dry conditions. "Probably no one has found the magic gene yet," said Jian-Kang Zhu, a professor of plant biology at the University of California, Riverside. "Probably there is no magic gene."
Protests hits tea and tourism in India's Darjeeling
Thursday, October 23, 2008
By Sujoy Dhar
Fresh protests for a separate state in India's famous Darjeeling hills are threatening its tea and tourism industries, traders said, as the Gorkha community continues to press its demand for autonomy.
Gorkhas, who are ethnic Nepalis, are demanding a separate state of "Gorkhaland" be carved out of West Bengal state's Darjeeling region to protect their Himalayan culture and heritage, and protests have picked up again this month.
The ruling communist government in West Bengal opposes the idea, as do Bengali groups in the foothills to the south of Darjeeling. There have been sporadic outbreaks of unrest between ethnic Nepalis and Bengalis as a result.
Caught in this battle are tea traders, who say exports of premium Darjeeling tea may fall 20-25 percent this year due to political unrest in the hills.
The region's vast tea gardens ship highly prized and fragrant brews around the world, churning out about 10 million kg a year.
"This third protest in the past few months has left the garden managers and workers jittery and we estimate 20 percent loss in production in tea gardens," Rajiv Lochan, secretary of the Siliguri Tea Traders' Association, told Reuters.
"This is the end of season and pruning is supposed to begin in a while."
Exports of Darjeeling tea had been expected to rise 20-25 percent over last year's 6 million kg, but now the industry is staring at substantial losses.
Most of it goes to the Middle East, Pakistan, Russia, and Germany.
The Gorkhas have rejected offers by state and central governments to talk about increased autonomy, saying only statehood would solve their problems.
At least 1,200 people died in the first Gorkhaland campaign in the 1980s, but protests ended a few years later after Gorkha leaders accepted limited autonomy.
"We will not settle for anything less than a separate Gorkha state this time," said Roshan Giri, a protest leader of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (Gorkha People's Liberation Front), which is spearheading the protest.
Hundreds of protesters took to the streets this week and forced car owners to replace the government licence plates with ones saying "Gorkhaland."
Tourists have also been avoiding the Darjeeling hills, with thousands of cancellations reported by tour operators since April this year.
"The tourist inflow is 20 percent less and we are estimating an annual loss of 200 million rupees ($4 million)," said Anil Punjabi, who heads the eastern India unit of the Travel Agents Federation of India.
Darjeeling, known for the picturesque Himalayan mountains, tea gardens and hospitality, is a premier tourist destination.
(Editing by Bappa Majumdar and Bill Tarrant)
What the Nose Knows
The Science of Scent in Everyday Life
By Avery Gilbert 290 pages. Crown Publishers. $23.95
First, take a whiff: close your eyes, bury your nose in this newspaper, and sniff. Smell that? The faint oily notes, vaguely shoe-polish-ish, in the printer's ink, mingled with the musty scent of the paper? What memory does it conjure?
Now, savor. This scent may someday be rare, if not extinct, as more and more of us get our news online. But buried in our brains, we'll always have that indelible memory, right? The smell of a newspaper as our own Proustian madeleine. No sense-memory is stronger, nor more intensely personal, than the olfactory kind, many of us believe.
Turns out, we are wrong, Proust included, according to Avery Gilbert, a self-described "psychologist, smell scientist and entrepreneur," whose new book, "What the Nose Knows," is a mildly entertaining collection of scientific facts, pop culture trivia and historical anecdotes about the sense of smell. "Olfactory memory obeys the same rules as memory in the other senses: it erodes with time and is muddied by subsequent experience," Gilbert writes. "The purity and infallibility of smell memory - an insight central to Proust's literary conceit - doesn't hold up to scientific scrutiny." To back up his point, he cites studies showing that rates of forgetting are the same for odors as for sights and sounds. Even so, there is a qualitative difference to an odor memory, and Gilbert nails it: "Why does it feel so magical when a sniff triggers a twinge of remembrance? A lot of it has to do with surprise. You weren't trying to remember the paints, oils and solvents in Grandpa's workshop - the memory popped up, unasked for, when you walked through a random odor plume."
"What the Nose Knows" contains many such interesting facts and insights. In a dozen discrete chapters, he writes about the physiology of the nose, the connection between taste and smell, trends in scent marketing, so-called scent prodigies (not that Gilbert thinks they really exist), and other smell-related topics.
But is "interesting" enough to sustain one's interest over nearly 300 pages? For me, no. I craved a more fleshed-out narrative, whether personal, historical or chronological, to pull me through the book and give it a discernible shape.
Gilbert is at his most engaging when taking on commonly held beliefs about smell, smells and smelling, as with his dissection of Proust's madeleine and odor memories. Readers will also be disabused of the notion that blind people have a heightened sense of smell; that dogs can easily sniff out bladder cancer (not without tremendous training, and even then, not so well); and that the size and shape of a wineglass significantly affects aroma.
Trivia buffs will happily pick up bits they might never have considered, like who invented scratch-and-sniff technology, which perfume pioneered the now ubiquitous perfume ads in magazines, and about the surprisingly rich history of "scented movies." Sprinkled throughout are smell-related quotations by figures ranging from Walt Whitman to John Waters. One of the best lines comes from Andy Warhol. Recognizing that "the smells in my life were all just whatever happened to hit my nose by chance," he created "a kind of smell museum" from his collection of semi-used colognes, so they "wouldn't get lost forever." — Reviewed by Bill Hayes
Torrential rains and floods kill 24 in Honduras
Thursday, October 23, 2008
TEGUCIGALPA: At least 24 people have been killed and thousands evacuated in Honduras after days of torrential rain, landslides and flooding, rescue workers said on Wednesday.
Some 25,000 people are homeless as relentless continue to pound low-lying northern Honduras and downpours swell rivers in some of the poorest parts in the south of the country.
"There are 24 dead and 8 people missing," said senior rescue worker Randolfo Funez.
About 60 percent of the impoverished Central American nation's roads are damaged and crops have been ruined.
President Manuel Zelaya has called a national state of emergency, calling for international aid and warning of a major disaster as rivers burst their banks.
Honduras is prone to flooding, mudslides and hurricanes. In 1998 it was devastated by Hurricane Mitch, which killed about 10,000 people across Central America.
(Reporting by Gustavo Palencia)
Haiti storm damage estimated at £620 million
Thursday, October 23, 2008
By Joseph Guyler Delva
The storms that have battered Haiti since August caused nearly $1 billion (620 million) of damage, World Bank President Robert Zoellick said on Wednesday.
"That's a lot for a country of 8 million people and there's been a terrible loss of lives," Zoellick told journalists as he concluded a three-day visit to Haiti. "The devastation is widespread and it makes your eye pop."
The loss is enormous in a poor country whose gross domestic product was estimated at about $11.4 billion last year.
Zoellick urged donors to give more money to help Haiti and compared the scale of the devastation by saying, "Imagine Hurricane Katrina had affected almost the whole country (the United States) and a much poorer country."
Four tropical storms and hurricanes deluged Haiti in August and September, bringing floods that killed more than 800 people.
The World Bank announced earlier this month it would give $25 million in additional emergency grants to help rebuild bridges and make other infrastructure repairs. The Caribbean country -- the poorest in the Western Hemisphere -- also received a $10 million grant from the World Bank to help the government respond to soaring food prices.
The bank intends to help with watershed management, drainage, soil protection, reforestation efforts and other measures aimed at mitigating storm damage. Some insurance programs developed in other countries may also be implemented in Haiti, bank officials said.
"You can still see the effects of the flooding in terms of taking up roads and bridges and very deep mud that blocks irrigation and roads," Zoellick said after visiting hard-hit areas where people are still housed in shelters.
The World Bank has already forgiven half of Haiti's foreign debt and the rest could be erased by the middle of next year, according to World Bank officials. Haiti's foreign debt amounts to $1.69 billion, including $550 million to the World Bank.
"Haiti's fate is tied with its geography because it is in the midst of a hurricane route -- which is no good," Zoellick said. "But it is also close to one of the biggest markets in the world and that is an advantage.
"We need to minimize risks and dangers and build on advantages."
(Editing by Jane Sutton)
Azerbaijan finds itself in a geopolitical pinch
By Sabrina Tavernise
Thursday, October 23, 2008
BAKU, Azerbaijan: This country has always had tricky geography. To its north is Russia. To its south is Iran. And ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union it has looked west, inviting U.S. companies to develop its oil reserves and embracing NATO.
But since Russia and Georgia fought a short war this summer, its path has narrowed.
Azerbaijan, a small, oil-rich country on the Caspian Sea, has balanced the interests of Russia and the United States since it won its independence from the Soviet Union. It accepts NATO training but does not openly state an intention to join. U.S. planes can refuel on its territory, but U.S. soldiers cannot be based there.
"Azerbaijan is doing a dance between the West and Russia," said Isa Gambar, an Azerbaijani opposition figure. "Until now, there was an unspoken consensus. Georgia was with the West, Armenia was an outpost of Russia, and Azerbaijan was in the middle."
But with the war in Georgia, Russia burst back into the region, humiliating Tbilisi and its sponsor, the United States, which issued angry statements but was powerless to stop the Russian advance. It was a sobering sight for former Soviet states, and one that is quite likely to cause countries like Azerbaijan to recalibrate their policies.
"The chess board has been tilted and the pieces are shifting into different places," said Paul Goble, a U.S. expert on the region who teaches at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy in Baku, the capital.
"What looked balanced before does not look balanced now," he added.
A Western official, referring to Azerbaijan, said: "Georgia was very much a wake-up call. This is what the Russians can do and are prepared to do. Georgia events underscored their vulnerability."
Azerbaijan will be under more pressure from Russia when undertaking energy contracts and pipeline routes that Russia opposes, said one Azerbaijani official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. Officials from the Russian gas monopoly, Gazprom, on a trip here in the spring, offered to buy Azerbaijani gas at European prices, rather than the former reduced rate. That offer, if the Azerbaijanis chose to accept it, could sabotage a Western-backed gas pipeline project called Nabucco.
Rasim Musabayov, a political commentator in Baku, said that under the new conditions, many Azerbaijanis think that selling gas to Russia is not such a bad idea.
New projects carry political risks, he said, and if Russia "will pay us a price we agree on for our gas, why build something new?"
"You can't have a foreign policy that goes against your geography," he added. "We have to get along with the Russians and the Iranians."
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was weak, with a collapsed economy and a scattered, inconsistent foreign policy.
Azerbaijan used that to its advantage. Now Russia is stronger and speaks with one voice, and Azerbaijan has to be more careful in its relations with its big neighbor.
Georgia is now so hostile to Russia that working with it as a partner in the region is increasingly difficult, said Borut Grgic, chairman of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and an expert on Caspian energy infrastructure.
"Azerbaijan will never seek EU-NATO integration at the expense of functional and working relations with Russia," he said. The Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, he said, "is making this balance difficult to sustain."
At no point in the crisis did Azerbaijan take a position that would have made Moscow bristle. When the fighting began, Azerbaijan appealed to Russia, asking it to preserve its infrastructure in Georgia - a port, an oil terminal and a pipeline. Moscow agreed, according to the Azerbaijani foreign minister, Elmar Mammadyarov.
Azerbaijan helped European diplomats enter Georgia while it was under attack, but when the leaders of Ukraine, the Baltics and Poland traveled to Tbilisi to express solidarity with the Georgians, the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev, did not make the trip. And after Vice President Dick Cheney visited Baku in September, Aliyev flew immediately to Moscow for talks with the Russians.
But the issue closest to this country's heart is that of Nagorno-Karabakh, an area in its southwest where Armenian separatists formed an independent enclave in the 1990s. For years, Azerbaijan has tried, through international mediation, to reclaim the territory and allow Azerbaijani refugees who fled to return.
Since the war this summer, the Russians seem to have grabbed the initiative. President Dmitri Medvedev, on a trip to Yerevan, Armenia, this week, said Russia was pushing for a meeting between the Azerbaijani and Armenian presidents.
"I hope such a meeting will take place in Russia," Medvedev said, Reuters reported.
Russia has traditionally backed the Armenians, but times are changing.
"One of the positive effects of the Georgian crisis is that the Kremlin will try to show that they are not crazy guys," an Azerbaijani official said. "That they can be good neighbors, too."
The Russian attitude toward Azerbaijan, one Azerbaijani official said, was that "the U.S. has come to your country and is plundering your natural resources, but is not giving you any support. Why not go with us instead?"
Cheney, on his visit to Baku, also pledged to redouble efforts, causing some Azerbaijanis to remark ruefully that it took him eight years to make the trip.
Ali Hasanov, an official in the Azerbaijani presidential administration, said concrete progress would win many points in Baku.
"If a big country takes a position, stands on the side of unbroken territory, we will follow its interests," he said.
British Gas snaps up stranded E4B power customers
Thursday, October 23, 2008
LONDON: Ofgem has appointed British Gas Business as the temporary supplier of about 40,000 customers of Electricity 4 Business (E4B) after the independent supplier went into administration on Wednesday, the energy regulator said.
British Gas, part of Centrica , will take over as "supplier of last resort" to E4B's small business customers from 00:01 a.m. on Saturday after administrators PwC failed to find a buyer for the company, Ofgem said.
"We are working hard to ensure a seamless transition to British Gas Business for all affected customers and we will be contacting every customer to explain this," Badar Khan, managing director of British Gas Business, said.
Customers transferred to British Gas are free to negotiate new contacts or to switch to another supplier at any time but could face steep rises in their electricity costs until they do so.
A spokesman for British Gas declined to say what charges the temporary customers would face, saying each would be told individually.
"From our perspective the margins are relatively thin," he said. "But it does provide a platform and safety net for those customers."
Jonathan Elliott, managing director of the "Make It Cheaper" switching and advice website aimed at business consumers, said the demise of E4B was another symptom of the lack of competition in Britain's power sector.
"E4B's failure is a wake up call that it's become nothing more than a cosy oligopoly," he said.
"Any new market entrant without some sort of generation capability will really struggle because of the "vertical integration' of a handful of power players preventing real price discovery and wholesale market liquidity."
(Reporting by Daniel Fineren)
Oil powerhouse Venezuela struggles to keep lights on
Thursday, October 23, 2008
By Brian Ellsworth
Despite having some of the world's largest energy reserves, Venezuela is increasingly struggling to maintain basic electrical service, a growing challenge for leftist President Hugo Chavez.
The OPEC nation has suffered three nationwide blackouts this year, and chronic power shortages have sparked protests from the western Andean highlands to San Felix, a city of mostly poor industrial workers in the sweltering south.
Shoddy electrical service is now one of Venezuelans' top concerns, according to a recent poll, and may be a factor in elections next month for governors and mayors in which Chavez allies are expected to lose key posts, in part on complaints of poor services.
The problem suggests that Chavez, with his ambitious international alliances and promises to end capitalism, risks alienating supporters by failing to focus on basic issues like electricity, trash collection and law enforcement.
"With so much energy in Venezuela, how can we be without power?" asked Fernando Aponte, 49, whose slum neighbourhood of Las Delicias in San Felix spent 15 days without electricity -- leading him to block a nearby avenue with burning tires in protest.
Just next door, Carmen Fernandez, 82, who is blind and has a pacemaker, says she has trouble sleeping through sultry nights without even a fan to cool her.
Experts say Venezuela for years has skimped billions of dollars in electrical investments, leaving generation 20 percent below the level necessary for a stable power grid and increasing the risk of national outages. Officially Venezuela has a capacity of 22,500 megawatts for a population of 28 million people, but a sizeable proportion is not working, analysts say.
And while Chavez has won praise for investing in health and education, his government has done little to repair local distribution systems that deliver electricity to end users, from barrio residents to business and industries.
'GOD HEARD ME'
Pastora Medina, a legislator representing San Felix and nearby cities suffering chronic power problems, this month tried to bring the issue up in the national Congress in Caracas, but the legislature's leadership refused to let her speak.
Several hours later, as the legislature discussed a South American integration plan created by Chavez, Congress itself lost power for around 10 minutes.
"Congress wouldn't listen to me, but God must have," Medina said with a chuckle as she recounted the incident later at her office in San Felix.
Though it is a key oil exporter, most of Venezuela's power comes from hydroelectricity generated in dams in the southeast, near Brazil, and sent to the rest of the country. The remainder comes mainly from ageing oil-fired plants.
The transmission system is also suffering from underinvestment, which makes it vulnerable to the failures that caused this year's blackouts.
The government has responded by building dozens of tiny local plants that generate a fraction of a percent of national consumption, a model known as "distributed generation" used in Cuba, where a U.S. embargo impedes electrical development.
But to keep up with demand, Venezuela needed to add 1,000 megawatts of new generation capacity every year for at least the last five years, but instead it has installed only about 350 MW a year.
"We have to reach the most remote villages with the system of distributed generation," Chavez said in recent speech, inaugurating a generator in a town with deficient power.
His government has also promised to accelerate new generation and boost transmission grid investment.
But critics say these small power plants are political quick fixes that avoid tackling the thorny problems of boosting generation and fixing decrepit distribution systems.
"We need a clear energy policy, because the policy we have is not sustainable," Andres Matas, a former planning chief for a state power company. "This is a problem for the entire country."
He said this will require investment in local distribution systems, speeding up generation projects stalled for years by bureaucracy and lifting state-imposed price controls that keep tariffs at about 20 percent of what U.S. residents pay.
It will also require collecting fees from millions of barrio residents who illegally link their homes to the power grid with improvised and dangerous lines -- a move not likely to be popular with a government that depends on barrio votes.
Even as he enjoys strong support for his oil-financed social development campaign, polls show Chavez sympathizers are losing patience with the national and local politicians' inability to tackle bread-and-butter issues.
Chavez last year fired up his supporters with a wave of state takeovers including the nationalization of electricity operations, among them Electricidad de Caracas, which was majority owned by U.S.-based AES Corp.
But his supporters now seem more concerned about deteriorating service than the state ownership.
Chronic power problems take the strongest toll in barrios like those of San Felix -- still bastions of Chavez support -- where power surges routinely burn out home appliances.
"Our refrigerators have burnt out so we can't shop for the week, we can only shop for one day at a time," said Nestor Pacheco, 39. "The situation is serious."
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Eddie Evans)
You can take the vines out of Burgundy, but will they make better wine?
By Eric Asimov
Thursday, October 23, 2008
You heard the one about the suitcase clones, no? It goes like this: In the black of night a guy sneaks into a famous Burgundy vineyard - let's say La Tâche, but it could just as easily be Le Musigny or Clos de Bèze. He takes some cuttings of pinot noir vines, wraps them in wet cloth and smuggles them back to California. He propagates the vines and, voilà! He's got grand cru pinot noir.
Dubious? It supposedly happens all the time - the smuggling part, at least - if we are to believe the marketing for dozens of American wineries. Their promotional materials tell the story of the suitcase clones, or the brand-name version, Samsonite clones. In some variations, it was a friend of a friend who obtained the clones. Either way, vineyards all over the West Coast associate themselves in their marketing with Burgundy's greatest.
Such stories may excite gullible consumers who are looking for something, anything, to distinguish one of the myriad pinot noirs from another.
But the truth is that the origin of a vine, whether from a clone boldly swiped from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti or meekly purchased from the local nursery, is at best meaningless. The grand cru association is a little like picking up a guitar like one Jimi Hendrix used and expecting "Purple Haze" to burst out. Fat chance.
And by the way, it is illegal to import agricultural material without proper quarantining.
Yet the continued fascination with suitcase clones, and with the arcane issue of grape clones in general, hints at the desperation of consumers to gain some sense of control over where their wine dollars are going. The more we know about the clonal selections, soil composition, rootstocks, trellising techniques, pruning methods and degree days, the better we can guess what's going to be in the bottle, right?
To an extent, yes, but even well-informed wine drinkers have a difficult time making sense of many of the technical details of winemaking, especially when it comes to clones. So let's take a closer look at clones and the actual role they play in what's in your glass, regardless of their origin.
Vines grow grapes because they want to reproduce the old-fashioned way, by enticing birds or other critters to eat the sweet fruit, a natural means of transporting the seeds to a new location for planting. Such methods prove inefficient to meet human needs.
The scourge of phylloxera, for one thing, makes it impossible for most vinifera grapevines to grow on their own roots. This makes growing from seeds cumbersome, so instead growers propagate vines from cuttings of parent plants.
The time-honored technique was a mass selection, in which growers would take cuttings from many different vines. The result was a diverse vineyard that produced grapes of many varied characteristics, particularly if that grape was pinot noir, which is somewhat genetically unstable and mutates far more easily and frequently than, say, cabernet sauvignon or syrah. This is why most suitcase clone tales are about Burgundy and pinot noir.
Many growers in Burgundy still believe a mass selection is the best way to plant a vineyard. Since many if not all of the great Burgundy vineyards are mass selections, the folly of filching a few dozen or even a few hundred cuttings is clear: it can't approach the diversity in the original site.
Meticulous growers used only particular vines for their cuttings. Perhaps these vines were the healthiest or produced the most flavorful grapes. Short-sighted growers might have singled out the most vigorous vines. Either way, by narrowing the clonal selection they were emphasizing their preferred characteristics.
By the late 20th century, scientists had grown expert at isolating clones that produced particular aromas and flavors, that were early ripening or slow to mature or were resistant to disease or produced wine dark in color.
In Dijon, France, a series of pinot noir clones became available with such designations as 113, 114 and 115, which were not only free of grape viruses but also emphasized the aromas and flavors of red fruits like cherry and raspberry, and 667, 777 and 828, which were reminiscent of darker fruits.
Regardless of the attention paid to suitcase clones, these Dijon clones have become the dominant selection among California pinot noir growers, particularly recently, when the number of acres of pinot noir planted in California has almost doubled, to 29,191, (about 11,800 hectares) in 2007 from 15,514 in 1999.
An over-reliance on these clones has troubled some wine writers, like Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator and Allen Meadows of Burghound.com, who have singled them out as one reason that so many California pinot noirs taste the same and lack complexity. Both writers, in fact, used the same word: boring.
It stands to reason. In a vineyard with a wide array of pinot noir clones, some will ripen faster, some slower. Some will taste like red fruits, others like black fruits, and some, maybe, will have fresh herbal touches. Blended together, they would most likely produce a wine of more complexity than a wine made from a small number of clones.
Meadows, in his latest issue, argues that the Dijon clones in particular taste pretty much the same regardless of where they are grown, which further contributes to uniformity.
Both writers have urged growers to aim for a greater mix of clones, not just the numbered Dijons but also older clones that go by names like Swan, Pommard, Mount Eden and Calera. There are quite a few others, some of which, in fact, originally came to California as suitcase clones.
One of the best-known suitcase couriers is Gary Pisoni, who owns vineyards and a winery in the Santa Lucia Highlands. The story of his 1982 vineyard rifling has been told so often and in so many different ways that it's difficult to separate fact from myth. These days Pisoni prefers to play down the whole episode, insisting wisely that clones are just a small component of the larger picture, which includes rootstock, soils, trellising and all the rest.
"Don't forget, Burgundy's had hundreds and hundreds of years to find out which clones grow best in which area," he told me by phone. "We're just getting started here in America."
9 convicted in Paris terror trial
The Associated Press
Thursday, October 23, 2008
PARIS: A Paris criminal court convicted nine people Thursday on charges linked to the financing of and association with a terror group.
Safe Bourada, 38, a French-Algerian former prison inmate who admitted establishing an Islamic group that called for armed jihad in France, was sentenced to 15 years in prison while eight others received penalties of one to nine years.
Bourada admitted in court to creating a militant group called "Ansar al-Fath," or Partisans of Victory. The group was suspected of planning attacks on the Paris subway and at Orly airport. It was dismantled in 2005 after French authorities received a tip from their Algerian counterparts.
In 2005, Christophe Chaboud, head of the counterterrorism unit of the national police, told The Associated Press that the group had had "indirect" contacts with Iraq's former Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June 2006 in Diyala province.
The court ruled that one of the group's members - Kaci Ouarab, 31 - had received weapons training in Lebanon in 2005 that was designed to help carry out bombings in France.
Ouarab, whom the court considered "the natural, legitimate and even operational successor" of Bourada, was sentenced to nine years, without the possibility of parole for at least six.
Kais Melliti, 36, considered an important organizing and financial operative, was given eight years - without the possibility of parole for at least two-thirds of that term.
Another suspect, Djamel Badaoui, 31, was sentenced to five years. The court ruled that he was in charge of "seizing goods" - notably by extorting money from prostitutes on three occasions, to finance terror attacks.
Two French converts to Islam - Stéphane Hadoux, 40, and Emmanuel Nieto, 34, - were given three-year sentences, half of which were suspended by the court.
Bourada was one of 36 Islamic militants convicted a decade ago for providing support for bombings that terrorized France in 1995. He received a 10-year term, but won early release in 2003 under police surveillance.
Under the verdict Thursday, he will not be eligible for parole for at least 10 years.
French police say mercury found in Russian lawyer's car not suspicious
The Associated Press
Thursday, October 23, 2008
PARIS: French police are suggesting that mercury found in the car of a Russian lawyer who defends Kremlin foes was spilled accidentally.
Karinna Moskalenko previously said she and her family suffered headaches and nausea and she feared the mercury might have been planted to frighten or poison her. The discovery kept her away from the opening of the trial of three suspects in the slaying of journalist Anna Politkovskaya.
A Paris police official says the mercury came from a barometer that broke while being transported by the car's previous owner, an antiques dealer.
The official says a laboratory concluded the mercury was no longer dangerous. The official is not authorized to speak publicly about the case and asked for anonymity.
French Navy captures 9 pirates off Somalia
The Associated Press
Thursday, October 23, 2008
PARIS: In a blow against high-seas piracy, the French navy captured nine pirates near the Gulf of Aden and handed them over Thursday to authorities in Somalia.
A French navy vessel intercepted the pirates in two small boats in a routine check about 115 miles (185 kilometers) from the nearest coast, the Defense Ministry said.
The pirates were handed over to Somali officials Thursday near Bossaso in Somalia's the Puntland region. The ministry said France received assurances that the prisoners would be treated according to international conventions.
"We wanted to send a very clear message to the pirates that the days of their flourishing and unpunished business is over," Gen. Christian Baptiste, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said by phone.
Baptiste said French sailors turned up assault rifles, grenade-launchers, grappling hooks and ladders on the two boats.
In order not to tip off any other pirates about French operations, he declined to say when or where the hostages were taken into French custody or which French vessel detained them.
The International Maritime Bureau said Thursday that pirate attacks off Somalia's coast have surged 75 percent this year. The Horn of Africa country has had no central government since 1991.
After French citizens were taken hostage off Somalia in two piracy incidents earlier this year, French troops led operations that freed the captives. France is currently holding 12 Somali pirates linked to those two attacks.
"This time, we wanted to show that prevention was possible — even if it's difficult" because the sea zone is vast and the pirates' boats often resemble fishing boats, Baptiste said.
In June, the U.N. Security Council — pushed by France and the United States — unanimously adopted a resolution that allows ships of foreign nations that cooperate with the Somali government to enter their territorial waters to combat piracy at sea.
A NATO flotilla is sailing toward the Somali coast and is expected to begin anti-piracy operations there within the next few days.
Eds: Associated Press Writer Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.
Eight killed in Italian helicopter crash in France
Thursday, October 23, 2008
STRASBOURG, France: An Italian army helicopter crashed in a field in north eastern France on Thursday, killing all eight people on board, the Italian air force said.
The air force press office in Rome said the helicopter had been taking part in military exercises in northern France and Belgium at the time of the crash.
"It caught fire at 4.30 p.m. local time in open countryside not far from Strasbourg. It was completely destroyed. We still don't know the causes," the military spokesman said.
(Reporting by Thoman Calinon and Rome bureau; writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Charles Dick)
The personal cost of a global meltdown
By Julie Scelfo
Thursday, October 23, 2008
More than a million homes have been lost to foreclosure in the last two years in the United States. And according to data from Mortgage Bankers Association, banks are now in the process of foreclosing on 1.5 million more.
The impact of the mortgage crisis has been obvious in both the worldwide credit crunch and the presidential campaign, where there has been a lot of talk about the plight of overextended homeowners. But the specific personal costs of home loss have been less evident, at least to those not paying them.
Not surprisingly, the forced loss of a home - the place where many of the memories that define a life and a family are made - is deeply traumatic, according to Dr. Robert Gifford, an environmental psychologist at the University of Victoria, Canada. This is true, he said, even when the loss is due in part to a homeowner's own financial mismanagement.
"When you choose to move, of course you have to pack up and move, but you've probably chosen a better job, a better place, there's an upward trajectory to your life," Gifford said. "When someone tells you you must leave," he continued, it undermines "a key part of well-being: perceived control over your life."
And given that "the home is the center of the psychological universe," Gifford added, "when people lose it, it's like their planet blew up."
Dr. Rosalind Dorlen, a clinical psychologist in Summit, New Jersey, whose patients include many Wall Street workers, sees the home as a potent symbol of one's place in the social universe, of "how you see yourself and how you want to be portrayed in the world." Losing that symbol can produce depression and a great sense of anxiety, she said.
For those with few financial resources, finding a new place to live can also be challenging.
Forty-four percent of American employees live paycheck to paycheck, according to a survey conducted by MetLife in late 2007, and 48 percent of American households have less than $5,000 in liquid assets, according to Edward Wolff, an economist specializing in the study of poverty and income distribution at New York University. When people in such straitened circumstances cannot keep up with mortgage payments, the resulting damage to credit ratings can make it nearly impossible to qualify for a lease. These families often find themselves at the mercy of friends or relatives, who may or may not be able to take them in.
Some people are taking refuge in tent cities and parking lot communities across the country that have cropped up or expanded recently, from Santa Barbara, California, to Athens, Georgia.'Mom and Dad failed'
Although they lost their three-story tract house in Newbury Park, California, to foreclosure in May, Mike and Kristin Bertrand, both 36, describe themselves as lucky. For nearly a year before it happened, they lived in near-constant panic. Mike Bertrand, an Internet marketer, had been laid off twice in two years, and though he found new jobs relatively quickly, each one paid less than the last. When their income had seemed stable, they had twice refinanced both a first and a second mortgage, increasing their debt from $370,000 to $668,000, and their monthly payments to $4,000 a month. They spent every spare minute, they said, searching for ways to increase their income and trying to persuade their lender to put them on a more manageable payment plan.
Then, in February, Mike Bertrand lost his most recent job. He began feeling desperate and even contemplated suicide. But after an investor who had considered buying their house offered to rent them another one in nearby Thousand Oaks, Mike Bertrand said he felt renewed. The family moved there in May after selling most of their belongings online and at garage sales.
"I was just so happy to get away and get this behind me," he said. "When we signed the lease for the rental and I was writing out the check, I told the landlord, you have no idea how good this feels," Mike Bertrand said. He said it was a relief to know "no one's going to be kicking me out. It was a huge weight lifted off our shoulders."
Kristin Bertrand felt the same way, although some days she is consumed by guilt over the foreclosure. "I made a commitment to make the payments and all of a sudden, no matter how hard I tried, no matter what we did, we couldn't. Then to look at your kids and say: 'You know what? Mom and Dad failed.' It's overwhelming."Savings of $130
Sitting on a shabby green couch in her former boyfriend's loft-style apartment recently, Jody Crispin, 39, gloomily surveyed the toy- and garbage-strewn rug and coffee table in front of her and explained to a reporter why she had no other place to go. In 2006, after three consecutive years of earning more than $100,000 as an ad salesperson for an automotive Web site, Crispin bought a two-story, 2,000-plus square-foot, or 185-square-meter, house, her first real estate purchase, in the Green Run neighborhood of Virginia Beach, for $205,000. The house, for which her monthly payments were $1,650, had bedrooms for each of her sons, Christopher, now 18, and Rush, now 6, and a covered patio where Rush could play outdoors. But almost as soon as she closed on it, Crispin saw a decrease in her sales commissions. Then in August of that year, after a supervisor reassigned some of her clients to another staff member, she made a decision she came to regret: "They told me they were giving accounts I made to someone else. I quit."
Initially, she set out to become a real estate agent. But three months into her coursework she noticed that the for-sale signs in her neighborhood had been lingering for months, and decided it was not a good time to get into the business. Over the next year and a half she found other jobs with a property management company and at a car dealership, but the salaries never came close to her previous earnings.
At first, she said, she kept up with all her bills - in addition to the mortgage payment, her sons needed three operations within three months - by drawing on $15,000 she had put away as a safety net before buying her house. On Aug. 15, after she had missed three payments, the bank sold her house in a foreclosure auction, and over Labor Day weekend she and Rush moved in with her former boyfriend, Rush's father.
The arrangement is especially difficult, she said, because she still has feelings for him, though he is dating someone else and has made it clear that they will never get back together.
At night, she and Rush sleep together on the full-size bed, while Rush's father sleeps on the couch downstairs. And because the place is so small, Christopher, who graduated from high school in June, stayed with a youth pastor from his church until Saturday, when he began renting a place with friends.
"It's amazing, when you have a home, you're thinking about vacations, or who you're going to have over for dinner, or when should you do spring cleaning," said Crispin, who wore a necklace with three rings bearing the words "faith," "hope" and "love." "When you don't have a home, you don't think about any of that stuff. All you think about is when I'm going to have a home again."
She missed two days of work last week because she was too emotionally distraught to face colleagues and is now worried about losing her job.
On Friday, her former boyfriend asked her to move out, but she has saved only $130 toward renting her own place. So she posted a flier at Starbucks offering her big-screen television for sale, and, without a destination, began packing her van.
Greenspan 'shocked' that free markets are flawed
By Edmund L. Andrews
Thursday, October 23, 2008
WASHINGTON: For years, a congressional hearing with Alan Greenspan was a marquee event. Lawmakers doted on him as an economic sage. Markets jumped up or down depending on what he said. Politicians in both parties wanted the maestro on their side.
But on Thursday, almost three years after stepping down as chairman of the Federal Reserve, a humbled Greenspan admitted that he had put too much faith in the self-correcting power of free markets and had failed to anticipate the self-destructive power of wanton mortgage lending.
"Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders' equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief," he told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Now 82, Greenspan came in for one of the harshest grillings of his life, as Democratic lawmakers asked him time and again whether he had been wrong, why he had been wrong and whether he was sorry.
Critics, including many economists, now blame the former Fed chairman for the financial crisis that is tipping the economy into a potentially deep recession. Greenspan's critics say that he encouraged the bubble in housing prices by keeping interest rates too low for too long and that he failed to rein in the explosive growth of risky and often fraudulent mortgage lending.
"You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by many others," said Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, chairman of the committee. "Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?"
Greenspan conceded: "Yes, I've found a flaw. I don't know how significant or permanent it is. But I've been very distressed by that fact."
On a day that brought more bad news about rising home foreclosures and slumping employment, Greenspan refused to accept blame for the crisis but acknowledged that his belief in deregulation had been shaken.
He noted that the immense and largely unregulated business of spreading financial risk widely, through the use of exotic financial instruments called derivatives, had gotten out of control and had added to the havoc of today's crisis. As far back as 1994, Greenspan staunchly and successfully opposed tougher regulation on derivatives.
But on Thursday, he agreed that the multitrillion-dollar market for credit default swaps, instruments originally created to insure bond investors against the risk of default, needed to be restrained.
"This modern risk-management paradigm held sway for decades," he said. "The whole intellectual edifice, however, collapsed in the summer of last year."
Waxman noted that the Fed chairman had been one of the nation's leading voices for deregulation, displaying past statements in which Greenspan had argued that government regulators were no better than markets at imposing discipline.
"Were you wrong?" Waxman asked.
"Partially," the former Fed chairman reluctantly answered, before trying to parse his concession as thinly as possible.
Greenspan, celebrated as the "Maestro" in a book about him by Bob Woodward, presided over the Fed for 18 years before he stepped down in January 2006. He steered the economy through one of the longest booms in history, while also presiding over a period of declining inflation.
But as the Fed slashed interest rates to nearly record lows from 2001 until mid-2004, housing prices climbed far faster than inflation or household income year after year. By 2004, a growing number of economists were warning that a speculative bubble in home prices and home construction was under way, which posed the risk of a housing bust.
Greenspan brushed aside worries about a potential bubble, arguing that housing prices had never endured a nationwide decline and that a bust was highly unlikely.
Greenspan, along with most other banking regulators in Washington, also resisted calls for tighter regulation of subprime mortgages and other high-risk exotic mortgages that allowed people to borrow far more than they could afford.
The Federal Reserve had broad authority to prohibit deceptive lending practices under a 1994 law called the Home Owner Equity Protection Act. But it took little action during the long housing boom, and fewer than 1 percent of all mortgages were subjected to restrictions under that law.
This year, the Fed greatly tightened its restrictions. But by that time, the subprime market as well as the market for other kinds of exotic mortgages had already been wiped out.
Greenspan said that he had publicly warned about the "underpricing of risk" in 2005 but that he had never expected the crisis that began to sweep the entire financial system in 2007.
"This crisis," he told lawmakers, "has turned out to be much broader than anything I could have imagined. It has morphed from one gripped by liquidity restraints to one in which fears of insolvency are now paramount."
Many Republican lawmakers on the oversight committee tried to blame the mortgage meltdown on the unchecked growth of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the giant government-sponsored mortgage-finance companies that were placed in a government conservatorship last month. Republicans have argued that Democratic lawmakers blocked measures to reform the companies.
But Greenspan, who was first appointed by President Ronald Reagan, placed far more blame on the Wall Street companies that bundled subprime mortgages into pools and sold them as mortgage-backed securities. Global demand for the securities was so high, he said, that Wall Street companies pressured lenders to lower their standards and produce more "paper."
"The evidence strongly suggests that without the excess demand from securitizers, subprime mortgage originations (undeniably the original source of the crisis) would have been far smaller and defaults accordingly far lower," he said.
Despite his chagrin over the mortgage mess, the former Fed chairman proposed only one specific regulation: that companies selling mortgage-backed securities be required to hold a significant number themselves.
"Whatever regulatory changes are made, they will pale in comparison to the change already evident in today's markets," he said. "Those markets for an indefinite future will be far more restrained than would any currently contemplated new regulatory regime."
Credit crunch ensnares India
By Jeremy Kahn
Thursday, October 23, 2008
NEW DELHI: The showroom at Uppal Motors, a Honda motorcycle dealership not far from here in an upscale satellite city of India's capital, is usually packed with customers this time of year. It is the week before the Hindu festival of Diwali, a time when many Indians traditionally purchase gifts and more costly items.
But only a comparative trickle of customers have shown up. Sales are down 10 percent, said Virender Uppal, the dealership's owner, and the reason is that India, like many other countries, is going through its own credit crunch, too.
Throughout India, businesses have been grappling with a lending squeeze even though the country had little exposure to subprime lending or troubled Western financial institutions. India is feeling the effects of the global financial crisis but its liquidity crunch has been compounded by a combination of local factors as well.
The call center workers and software programmers Uppal normally sees in his showroom could afford to buy a new motorcycle, he said, if only the banks would lend to them.
"They cannot meet the terms and conditions of the bankers," he said. "Money is not being extended to them."
Five finance companies once had sales representatives right inside Uppal's dealership, ready to help customers arrange instant credit. But three of them, including the Indian arms of Citigroup and GE Capital, recently shuttered their counters.
Those still offering credit have imposed stringent new standards: they want buyers to own a residence; have held their current job for at least a year; and have plenty of money in the bank. And they now insist on a down payment of as much as 40 percent, up from 20 percent.
India's financial sector breathed a sigh of relief last week after the country's central bank took a series of steps to ease a liquidity crunch that pushed overnight interbank lending rates over 20 percent. But the trouble for the country's once-booming economy may be just beginning.
Foreign institutional investors, many desperate for cash to cover margin calls and redemptions at home, have been pulling money out of India throughout the year. Since January, foreign investors have taken $11 billion out of the Indian market, which has lost 50 percent of its value over the period. This wave of selling accelerated over the past month as markets in the U.S. and Europe plunged.
The pull-out of foreign money, combined with fears that slowing Western economies would drag down Indian growth, have resulted in some of the worst one-day declines in India's benchmark Sensex stock indicator since the country's 1990 financial crisis.
The rapid exit of foreign capital has also resulted in a precipitous decline in the rupee, which slid to its lowest level against the dollar in six years. It was trading Thursday at 49.8125 rupees to the dollar.
The Reserve Bank of India, the country's central bank, has revealed that it has spent at least $8 billion to buy rupees in the market in an attempt to moderate the currency's fall. While the central bank has no declared exchange rate target, analysts said they suspected the bank has an informal goal of trying to keep the rupee from trading at more than 50 to the dollar.
So far, India's foreign currency reserves have been adequate to weather this storm. The country's total reserve assets declined about 7 percent from August, to $274 billion in the second week of October, the last period for which figures are available. While that pales in comparison to the $1.9 trillion that China, the other emerging Asian giant, has amassed, economists said it was more than adequate to cover India's debt obligations.
"India from a macro point of view is not that exposed to foreign debt," said Seema Desai, an analyst with the Eurasia Group in London. Desai noted that India's reserves were greater than those of Brazil and far exceeded those of the emerging economies in Eastern Europe, that have found themselves in deep trouble during the recent crisis.
Still, bond rating agencies downgraded India's sovereign debt this summer to near junk status as the country faced a yawning fiscal deficit and spiraling inflation. India's bonds traded lower at the start of October, but have recovered in recent days.
The central bank must walk a fine line between defending the rupee and the fear that its own rupee purchases will take cash out of a system that is already suffering from a severe credit crunch.
In the past two weeks, the central bank has pumped an estimated $21 billion into the banking system. The move helped dial back the rates banks were charging one another for overnight loans to 7 percent.
The central bank also offered some $4.1 billion to the country's mutual fund industry through a special 14-day auction. In addition, the Indian securities regulator has allowed mutual funds to borrow from their foreign arms and, in two cases, to exceed existing limits on borrowing against assets.
India's banks had little exposure to troubled credit derivatives or the international banks that owned them. Crisil, an Indian ratings agency, estimates that only 6 percent of the country's banking assets are held abroad and that the country's exposure to troubled overseas financial companies is no more than $1 billion. India's banks also meet international capital requirements.
But a host of factors combined to severely limit available credit in the banking sector. Earlier this year, the central bank tightened the money supply, raising interest rates and increasing mandatory reserve ratios for banks, in attempt to curb inflation.
On top of this, India's state-owned oil companies were recently required to tap the banking sector to finance purchases of crude oil because the government had not yet issued bonds to help pay for these purchases. India imports 75 percent of its petroleum and the government heavily subsidizes retail fuel prices.
Then came the rapid exodus of foreign capital and the Reserve Bank's own rupee purchases to shore up the flagging currency, which further constrained money available for lending.
"Liquidity had disappeared," said Chanda Kochhar, joint managing director of Icici Bank, India's largest private lender. "It was not as if that brought the system to a standstill. But one should not have a system where this would continue."
Among Indian banks, Icici has been the worst affected by the worldwide crisis, which has required the bank to fight a flurry of rumors that it was in danger of collapse. To stem the panic, the central bank took the unusual step of announcing that it had examined Icici's balance sheet and found the bank to be well capitalized, with sufficient cash to meet depositor demand. It also said it stood ready to support Icici with additional funds if necessary.
Icici has India's largest exposure to the U.S. financial sector, with about $650 million invested in American banks, mostly through Icici's British arm. And in September, the bank announced that it stood to lose about $18 million after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection.
But Kochhar said the bank's losses were tiny in comparison to Icici's $100 billion balance sheet and noted that the bank maintains a risk-weighted capital adequacy of 13.4 percent, a measure of its ability to handle risk, well above the international standard of around 8 percent to 10 percent and in excess of what Indian regulators require.
While the immediate threat to India's banking system seems to have passed, the country's economy is bracing for the effects of a worldwide economic slowdown. India has the cushion of a huge domestic market, 1.2 billion people strong, but its once white-hot growth was cooling even before the current crisis.
The Indian economy expanded at more than 8 percent for the past three years, making it the fastest growing country in the world after China. But this year projections are that growth will fall below that figure, perhaps by a significant margin.
So far, India's airlines have been among the hardest hit companies. Several Indian carriers have defaulted on their fuel bills and the largest airlines are struggling to shed staff in a country where laws and labor unrest make laying off workers very difficult.
India's export-driven service sector is also anxious. Already, Infosys and Satyam, two well-known outsourcing companies, have told investors they expect weaker earnings as their customers in the United States and Europe pull back. Meanwhile, import-intensive industries will be hit by the rupee's fall, which makes the cost of goods from overseas more expensive.
But perhaps the biggest concern is India's infrastructure projects. To compete with China and other big emerging nations, the government has been planning to pour billions in the coming five years into new roads, ports, airports, and power plants - much of it with the help of foreign financing that may no longer be available.
"How much can be achieved," asked Roopa Kudva, chief executive of Crisil, the rating agency, "because of government budget pressure and the drying up of foreign funding?"
Goldman to slash 10 percent of jobs amid slump
Thursday, October 23, 2008
By Daisy Ku and Joseph A. Giannone
Goldman Sachs Group Inc plans to cut 10 percent of its staff, or almost 3,300 jobs, the latest sign the global credit crisis continues to weigh down banks and the economy, sources familiar with the matter said on Thursday.
The cuts are an about-face for a company that had a record 32,569 employees in August and insisted last month that headcount would rise by single-digit percentages this year. The latest cuts reduce headcount to the lowest since 2006.
The cuts, which will affect every businesses and region, reflect weakness in the economy, sluggish banking and trading activity and a decision to rein in principal trading, one person familiar with the situation said.
"These are not the last job cuts you will see," said Michael Williams, dean of Pepperdine University's Graziado School of Business and Management. "There are significantly lower levels of business activity."
The steep cuts show no bank can escape the fallout of a market downturn well into its second year. The fallout has eroded the value of assets held by banks and, as credit dried up, slowed deal activity.
Goldman had largely avoided the kinds of massive mortgage and credit losses that hobbled its peers with losses reaching tens of billions of dollars.
But it cannot sidestep a global slowdown in investment banking activity. Debt underwriting and mergers have virtually ceased and there have been no initial public offerings in 11 weeks.
Like its rivals, Goldman has quietly tried to trim headcount. The bank laid off hundreds of M&A support staff and junior bankers in June due to slowing markets, following an round of leveraged lending and mortgage securities cuts in April.
Early this year, Goldman cut 1,500 people, or 5 percent, following year-end performance reviews.
And as the trading environment grows more challenging, Goldman has put less capital at risk for proprietary trading as well as for clients.
These moves also reflect drastic change in regulation. The collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings and the U.S. bailout of American International Group Inc has eroded investor confidence in the independent broker-dealer model.
Goldman converted last month to bank holding company supervised by the Federal Reserve and then raised $10 billion (6.2 billion pounds) from Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway . These moves, together with a pending $10 billion investment by Treasury, are expected to create a more stable company.
But it will be a Goldman that uses less leverage, takes less risk and makes less money, analysts said. Goldman shares were down $10.50 at $104.21 in late afternoon trading.
The latest moves, on top of continued consolidation among Wall Street's top firms, means more Wall Street jobs losses are coming. New York City Comptroller William Thompson estimates there could be 35,000 job losses in the securities industry.
Barclays plans to cut at least 3,000 jobs from its payroll in the United States, including operations it acquired from Lehman. Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain recently warned that "thousands" of Merrill's 61,000 employees would be laid off as the brokerage is absorbed into Bank of America .
Morgan Stanley , which also has been cutting back in many of the same areas, reduced employment by 4 percent to 46,383 from its peak in November 2007. These figures exclude its former Discover credit card business.
Wall Street's workforce peaked at 200,300 in December 2000 and stood at about 181,000 in July 2008, according to the U.S. Labour Department.
London will suffer an even bigger hit. The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) expects the credit crunch to cost 62,000 financial jobs in 2008 and 2009.
(Editing by Quentin Bryar, Jason Neely and Andre Grenon)
Austria in disbelief after Haider outed as gay
By Dan Bilefsky
Thursday, October 23, 2008
PRAGUE: Austria has been suspended between shock, indifference and denial since Jörg Haider's successor, Stefan Petzner, said in a radio interview that the controversial and charismatic far-right politician, who died in a car accident this month, had been "the man of my life."
Petzner, the 27-year-old who took over from Haider as head of his right-wing Alliance for the Future of Austria, has made teary-eyed appearances on television since his death. Last Sunday, he told the Austrian radio Ö3 that he had felt a magnetic attraction for Haider, whom he met five years ago.
"We had a special relationship that went far beyond friendship," he said in the highly emotional interview. "Jörg and I were connected by something truly special. He was the man of my life."
Officials at Haider's party, which gained more than 10 percent of the votes in September elections, attempted to limit the political fallout from the confession by dismissing Petzner as party leader. But their requests that the radio interview not be rebroadcast were rebuffed by Austrian journalists.
Haider, 58, the governor of the province of Carinthia, was the son of a shoemaker; his parents were both active Nazis. He rose to national prominence in Austria over the last two decades, championing traditional family values, railing against the European Union and calling for an end to immigration. He had cultivated a macho, man-of-the-people persona, and was married with two daughters.
While his country has been clearly gripped by a somewhat un-Austrian outpouring of emotions, commentators there said the effective outing of Haider had been underplayed or largely ignored in the Austrian media, which tend to shy away from the private lives of politicians and other national figures.
While Vienna has an active, obvious gay community, homosexuality remains a taboo in some more conservative parts of the society, and Haider's supporters are intent on preserving his legacy as a traditional family man.
Just Thursday, for instance, the Web site of at least one prominent Austrian daily, Kurier, gave big play to a story about the doubts of Haider's widow, Claudia, on the circumstances of his sudden death. She was pictured behind his coffin with their two grieving daughters.
Reinhold Gärtner, a political science professor at Innsbruck University, said the reaction had been muted because a cult of Haider had grown since his death and his legions of supporters were intent on mythologizing him.
"It has been an open secret for years that Haider was gay, and most Austrians would have preferred for it to remain a secret," he said. "People are trying to turn Haider into a saint, and are quickly forgetting that he was a right-wing xenophobe."
While EU countries like Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium have legalized gay marriage, and politicians in neighboring Germany have willingly outed themselves, Gärtner said that same-sex partnerships remained underground in Austrian political life. There was little debate in Austria on same-sex partnerships, he added, because advocating gay rights was not a vote winner.
Christian Högl, a spokesman for Hosi, the oldest gay rights group in Austria, said the allegations about Haider would have little effect on public attitudes toward homosexuality since most Austrians would ignore it. "Haider could be having sex in front of the cameras with a man, and Austrians would pretend not to see it," he said. "I am surprised that it has not been greeted as a bigger deal, but that is because people are still in denial."
Haider's death has spurred a bout of national grief that some analysts have compared to the emotional outpouring that followed the death of Diana, princess of Wales, in Britain in 1997.
Petzner openly wept on Austrian television on Oct. 11, the day on which Haider's car - reportedly traveling at twice the legal speed limit - overturned and crashed, killing him almost instantly.
'Death With Interruptions': Trying to evade the inevitable
By D.T. Max
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Death With Interruptions
By José Saramago.
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
238 pages. Harcourt. $24; £15.99.
The Nobel Prize in Literature is a confusing gift. The glamour, the affirmation, the open invitation to publish - these are not always healthy for a writer. One hoped José Saramago, the Portuguese author who became a laureate in 1998 at the age of 75, would emerge unaffected.
He is a writer of great discipline who became well known only in his 50s. But the skinny novel "Death With Interruptions," following on the heels of the equally uncertain "Seeing," suggests he is not immune. Saramago's work has had two peaks, one in the mid 1980s with the subtle and masterly modernist novel "The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis," a mind-meld of the author and the great poet Fernando Pessoa set in Lisbon in the epochal year 1936, and another in the mid-'90s when his writing was characterized by a sun-bleached plainness that led to his brilliant parable of societal decline, "Blindness."
His work today feels by comparison begrudging and also a bit unfocused.
The "to be sure" clause: Saramago is 85 now and owes us nothing. And this novel has many pleasures. There is the author's shrewd ironic voice, distinctive even in translation. "Death With Interruptions" begins at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve of an unstated year, when the people of an unnamed country - it feels as if we are in a land with Portugal's political history and South America's geography - suddenly stop dying. People now languish but never quite pass away. No one knows why. Saramago's narrators are often clerks of some sort, lifers, men who have stayed alive by staying out of the way. They are rarely named. Where others would see magic realism, they see stratagems and counterstratagems, the threat that people will game the system. Here the narrator querulously objects to the passing of an era when "there were people who died in full compliance with the rules."
"Death With Interruptions" also has a surprise for a title character; death is nicely conceived by Saramago as a spiteful female shape-shifter who takes a shine to a cellist she can't seem to finish off. But here, as in his other recent books, there is an airlessness to Saramago's writing. One senses that the author, a lifelong critic of capitalism, is mostly interested in pricking the modern state. Critique muscles out character. The book's humor is thin. We make up stories at bedtime because we love our children; likewise the novelist has to want the readers he or she has. With Saramago, the rustling sound is the feeling he's pushing us away.
"Death With Interruptions" is a novel in two parts. The first is the story of the "death strike." The second is death's pursuit of the cellist. The first part is the drier. At the book's beginning, when death first stops killing, ordinary people are thrilled. They realize they are in possession of "humanity's greatest dream since the beginning of time." But soberer minds, worldly minds, minds with priests and troops and capital at their call, prevail. For the institutions of power, the end of death is a calamity. It threatens to bankrupt the pension system. It will put funeral homes and life insurers out of business. The absence of death, at first good news, now threatens to be every bit as big a social catastrophe as the plague of blindness was in Saramago's novel of that name. "If we don't start dying again, we have no future," the prime minister tells the king.
At first no motive is given for the events of the story - why has death taken a holiday? - and the second part of the book works to provide it. The months that follow the death strike are a time of instability. Families carry their loved ones across the border to kill them. The government tries to prohibit it. Then the other underworld - the criminal one - muscles in to get a piece of the action. Finally, seven months after the end of dying, a violet-colored envelope appears on the desk of the director of the director-general of television. (In Saramago's world, such statist jobs still exist; he is the last writer from the other Europe.) The note, signed "death," informs the country that its author will begin killing people again effective midnight that night. The moratorium, she explains, was an experiment that failed. One policy change: she will send her victims advance warning by mail, letting them know they have a week to live. The government is relieved, nursing home directors break out the Champagne and the Mob turns its attention to shaking down funeral parlors. We meet the grim reaper and find she is, not surprisingly, a traditionalist. She shuns e-mail. Mere bone in a hood, she assumes human form when she goes out, and wears sunglasses to protect her newfound eyes. Used to being obeyed, she is willful.
What is bugging her is that cellist - a 50-year-old bachelor who sleeps in striped pajamas with his dog. The man has mysteriously evaded the fatal letter she has tried to send him. Death resolves to visit him in his modest apartment. All she has to do is hand him the envelope in person and her mastery will be restored. But she can't. It turns out that she is as lonely as she is proud. She wants a relationship. And she likes the cellist. "His life runs between the magical lines of the pentagram," she sees. When he plays her Bach's Suite No.6, she is hooked. Death's hands, cold for millenniums, at last warm up.
Is there a particular meaning to the wistful fantasy of the second half of this book, in which a cellist - not even a soloist but just part of the string section - beds the dark lady herself? Death is the ultimate junta, able to make us all disappear. And the cellist, modest, unassertive, resigned, is her equal. So does the cellist represent the power of art? Or is he the working class and death the International Monetary Fund? Or maybe he's just a guy who got lucky with the wrong girl? Saramago's not saying. Indeed the feel of this book is really the sound of no sound, of the unsaid and the unsayable and the too tired to say. Maybe this is just Saramago growing old. Writing novels is hard work. Or maybe even this committed novelist has thrown up his hands at modern life. "Love one another were the words once spoken, and now it is time to begin," Saramago wrote in "Ricardo Reis." Eleven years later, a writer in the midst of the plague of sightlessness in "Blindness" is asked, "Do you mean that we have more words than we need?" He responds: "I mean that we have too few feelings. Or that we have them but have ceased to use the words they express. And so we lose them." So 10 years later, is "Death With Interruptions" Saramago's effort to show that we have lost a few more?
D.T. Max is the author of "The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery."
From Beirut to 9/11
By Robert C. McFarlane
Thursday, October 23, 2008
In the summer of 1983, I became President Ronald Reagan's special representative to the Middle East, with the mission of restoring a measure of calm to Israel's relations with her neighbors, starting with Lebanon. At the time, Lebanon was occupied by Syrian and Israeli forces - Syria since shortly after Lebanon's civil war began in 1975, and Israel since its invasion in June of the previous year.
Scarcely three months into that assignment, however, I was recalled to Washington and named the president's national security adviser.
Just after midnight on Friday, Oct. 21, I was awakened by a call from Vice President George H.W. Bush, who reported that several East Caribbean states had asked the United States to send forces to the Caribbean island of Grenada to prevent the Soviet Union and Cuba from establishing a base there. I called the president and Secretary of State George Shultz, who were on a golfing trip in Augusta, Georgia, and received approval to have our forces prepare to land within 72 hours.
Then, less than 24 hours later I was awakened again, this time by the duty officer at the White House situation room, who reported that United States Marine barracks in Lebanon had been attacked by Iranian-trained Hezbollah terrorists with heavy losses. Again, I called the president, and he prepared for an immediate return to Washington to deal with both crises.
Today is the 25th anniversary of that bombing, which killed 241 Americans who were part of a multinational peacekeeping force (a simultaneous attack on the French base killed 58 paratroopers). The attack was planned over several months at Hezbollah's training camp in the Bekaa Valley in central Lebanon.
Once American intelligence confirmed who was responsible and where the attack had been planned, President Reagan approved a joint French-American air assault on the camp - only to have the mission aborted just before launching by the secretary of defense, Caspar Weinberger. Four months later, all the marines were withdrawn, capping one of the most tragic and costly policy defeats in the brief modern history of American counterterrorism operations.
One could draw several conclusions from this episode. To me the most telling was the one reached by Middle Eastern terrorists, that the United States had neither the will nor the means to respond effectively to a terrorist attack, a conclusion seemingly borne out by our fecklessness toward terrorist attacks in the 1990s: in 1993 on the World Trade Center; on Air Force troops at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996; on our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998; on the destroyer Cole in 2000.
There was no effective response from the United States to any of these. It was not until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that our country decided to go to war against radical Islam.
A second conclusion concerns the age-old maxim never to deploy a force without giving it a clear military mission. In 1983, the Marine battalion positioned at the Beirut Airport was assigned the mission of "presence"; that is, to lend moral support to the fragile Lebanese government. Secretary of State Shultz and I urged the president to give the marines their traditional role - to deploy, at the invitation of the Lebanese government, into the mountains alongside the newly established Lebanese Army in an effort to secure the evacuation of Syrian and Israeli forces from Lebanon.
Weinberger disagreed. He felt strongly that American interests in the Middle East lay primarily in the region's oil, and that to assure access to that oil we ought never to undertake military operations that might result in Muslim casualties and put at risk Muslim goodwill.
Cabinet officers often disagree, and rigorous debate and refinement often lead to better policy. What is intolerable, however, is irresolution. In this case the president allowed the refusal by his secretary of defense to carry out a direct order to go by without comment - an event which could have seemed to Weinberger only a vindication of his judgment.
Faced with the persistent refusal of his secretary of defense to countenance a more active role for the marines, the president withdrew them, sending the terrorists a powerful signal of paralysis within our government and missing an early opportunity to counter the Islamist terrorist threat in its infancy.
Since 9/11 we have learned a lot about the threat from radical Islam and how to defeat it. Our commitment to Iraq is now being vindicated and, if sustained, will enable us to establish an example of pluralism in a Muslim state with a flourishing economy.
First, however, we must win in Afghanistan - truly the decisive battleground in this global struggle. Never has there been a greater need for experience and judgment in the White House.
Unless our next president understands the complexity of the challenge as well as what it will take to succeed, and can lead his cabinet and our country in resolute execution of that strategy, we will lose this war.
Robert C. McFarlane was the national security adviser from 1983 to 1985.
Beirut's bloody Sunday
By Randy Gaddo
Thursday, October 23, 2008
I remember that the morning of Oct. 23, 1983, in Beirut was pleasant and sunny; there was a light breeze, and it was very quiet.
Sunday was generally a day of rest. We were usually given an extra ration of sleep and then a treat, omelets, at the barracks mess hall.
We had no more omelets after Oct. 23.
I had gotten up early because I had work to do. As a Marine staff sergeant and a photographer, I had been sent to Beirut to document the deployment of the troops that were going to try to bring peace to Lebanon after years of civil war.
That morning I had eight rolls of film to develop and print before I helped the rest of my unit waterproof our bunker, a necessity because we were heading into the rainy season. I had set up a makeshift photo lab in the only place we could find running water, a third floor bathroom in the barracks, although I didn't sleep in the building.
At 6 a.m. I was halfway over to the barracks from my tent, and I remember the birds were singing louder than I'd ever heard them, maybe because for a change there was no distant sound of artillery in the mountains. I decided I needed a cup of coffee before I went to work, so I turned back to the combat operations center and got a cup and sat down at my little field desk to plan my day.
About 20 minutes later I heard two or three shots from an M-16.
Before I had time to wonder, I felt a hot rush of air on my face, like a blast furnace. Then I heard and felt a thunderous thud and was lifted up and tossed back several feet like a rag doll.
I was dazed, but fortunately I had my helmet and flak jacket on, and they absorbed a lot of the shock wave. My first thought was that a rocket or artillery round must have hit close by, so I went outside expecting to see a smoldering hole outside the tent. What I did see is something I'll never forget.
Over in the direction of the barracks, where I'd been headed 20 minutes earlier, I saw a mushroom cloud rising several hundred feet in the air. I took off running toward it, and I remember that as I rounded a corner of a building I saw that all the leaves had been stripped from every tree and bush in sight. I saw the cover of an ammo can embedded in the trunk of one tree.
Then, when I reached a spot where normally I would have seen the barracks, I saw the control tower of the Beirut International Airport, which was next to our camp. I stopped dead in my tracks - this simply wasn't what I was supposed to be seeing.
Then things went into slow motion for a while. A heavy gray dust was drifting down, covering everything like a thick blanket. As my brain started engaging again, I focused and began to see things, human things that snapped me back to reality because, without going into gruesome detail, it was obvious many men had died.
I ran back to the combat operations center to report what I'd seen and get help. I saw my boss, Major Bob Jordan, our public affairs officer, covered with dust and looking dazed because he'd been blown out of his rack too. I said - or probably yelled, I don't recall - "The barracks is gone!"
Now, those words in Beirut in 1983 were as impossible to comprehend as the words "the twin towers are gone" were before 9/11. The barracks was a fortress with two-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls.
It had served as a headquarters for Israeli troops; it had withstood artillery and heavy naval gunfire with barely a scratch. Yet it was gone. And with it, some 220 marines, 18 sailors and 3 soldiers died. Hundreds more were injured.
Five years ago, at the 20th anniversary remembrance of the bombing at the Beirut Memorial in Jacksonville, North Carolina, I met one of the many American children who were left fatherless that day.
She had been a baby when the terrorists killed her father, a Marine captain. She had come to find out about her father from the men who had served with him. Her father had written her many letters from Beirut; she had one with her and let me read it.
He had written it in September 1983. In it, he told her that people back home would question why the United States was involved in Beirut and why it was important to let the people there gain their freedom.
He told her that it was far better to confront the terrorist enemy there where they lived rather than have to fight them 20 years later in the United States.
It turns out he was right about everything but the time frame - it took only 18 years for the war to come to America.
Had we stood our ground 25 years ago instead of pulling out after the bombing, it is possible that 9/11 would not have happened.
Likewise, anyone who thinks we can pull back into a shell now and hope terrorism will go away simply isn't looking at the lessons history offers.
People ask if we are accomplishing anything in Iraq and Afghanistan. I say yes. Terrorists no longer have a safe haven in Afghanistan. If we pull out of Iraq before the time is right, guess who moves in: Iran.
The same Iran that trained the Hezbollah bombers who killed 241 of my comrades on that October morning in Beirut. Do we want to look back 25 years from now and regret not having stayed the course again?
Randy Gaddo is the director of Parks, Recreation and Library Services for Peachtree City, Georgia.
Pakistani tribal militias walk tightrope in Taliban fight
By Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah
Thursday, October 23, 2008
PESHAWAR, Pakistan: Two tribal elders lay stretched out in an orthopedic ward here last week, their plastered limbs and winces of pain grim evidence of the slaughter they survived when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the midst of their tribal gathering.
These wounded men, and many others in the hospital, were supposed to be the backbone of a Pakistani government effort to take on the Taliban, and its backers, Al Qaeda, with armies of traditional tribesmen working in consultation with the Pakistani military.
The tribal militias, known as lashkars, have quickly become a crucial tool of Pakistan's strategy in the tribal belt, where the army has been fighting the Taliban for more than two months in what army generals acknowledge is a tougher and more protracted slog than they anticipated. And, indeed, the lashkars' early efforts have been far from promising.
As the strength of the militants in the tribal areas grows, and as the war across the border in Afghanistan worsens, the Pakistanis are casting about for new tactics. The emergence of the lashkars is a sign of the tribesmen's rising frustration with the ruthlessness of the Taliban, but also of their traditional desire to run their own affairs and keep the Pakistani Army at bay, Pakistani officers and law enforcement officials say.
Some in Washington have pointed to the emergence of the lashkars as a hopeful parallel to the largely successful Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq, which drew on tribes' frustration with militant jihadis to build an alliance with American troops that helped lessen violence in Iraq. But there are significant differences, a senior American government official acknowledged. In Anbar Province, he said, the Iraqi tribes "woke up to millions of dollars in government assistance, and the support of the Third Infantry division." But the support by the Pakistani Army and civilian government for the tribal militias has been "episodic" and so far "unsustained," he said. In addition, tribal structures in Pakistan have been weakened in recent years by the Taliban, unlike the situation in Iraq.
The tribesmen, armed with antiquated weaponry from the 1980s Afghan war, are facing better equipped, highly motivated Taliban who have intimidated and crushed some of the militia.
In the last two months, the Taliban have burned the homes of tribal leaders and assassinated others who have dared to participate in the resistance. They have pulled tribesmen suspected of backing the militia out of buses and cars and used suicide bombers against them as they did in Orakzai, the place where the wounded in the Peshawar hospital were attacked.
"We wanted to form a lashkar," said Abdul Rehman, 50, a tribal leader of the Orakzai area, as he lay on his crumpled bed in the Lady Reading hospital. "We were pressured by the government to take action because they warned: 'If you don't take action you will be bombed.' " The lack of consistent Pakistani Army and government support has left some tribesmen feeling betrayed. About 1,000 tribesmen were meeting on Oct. 10 and had just decided to form a lashkar, when the suicide bomber, armed with perfect intelligence for a pre-emptive strike, killed more than 100 tribesmen, and wounded many more.
The next day, government forces struck back in Orakzai but helicopter gunships hit more civilians than militants, forcing a large number of people to leave the area and providing space for the militants to occupy, residents of the area said.
The Pakistani military is counting on the tribal militia to work as localized forces and to pick up some of the burden of the heavy fighting that is now concentrated in the Bajaur part of the tribal belt. "We're concentrating on the hard core, the lashkars are cleansing their areas, taking people out in their areas," said one general.
But in the last four years as the Taliban have deliberately targeted pro-government tribal elders, killing as many as 500 of them, and have attracted uneducated tribal youth with the lure of good money and stature.
Even in the best of times, there are basic unwritten rules about the tribal militia in Pakistan that limit their impact.
The Pakistani military, for example, can lend moral support but not initiate a tribal militia, the generals said. The lashkars come with their own weapons, food, and ammunition. They have their own fixed area of responsibility, and are not permanent.
Indeed great care is taken to make sure the lashkars do not become a threat to the military itself. "We do not want a lashkar to become an offensive force," said one of the generals, who spoke frankly about the lashkars on condition of anonymity. For that reason, the military was willing to lend fire support artillery and helicopters but would not give the militias heavy weapons, he said.
Beyond those rules of the game, the Pakistani Army and government have not been able to inculcate the lashkars with the needed confidence, said Khalid Aziz, a former chief secretary of the North-West Frontier Province.
"You put these people up front and you will get them chewed up," Aziz said. "If you deploy the lashkar on an ad hoc basis they can be an embarrassment."
The lashkars' fragility has been most clearly demonstrated in the Charmang area of Bajaur, a stronghold of the Taliban in the foothills of the mountains that border Afghanistan where the Taliban have been in control for several years, building supply lines and bases.
The Taliban have ruled civilian life in Charmang, imposing taxes, issuing permits for businesses and handing out their form of justice.
Taj Mohammed, 20, a college student in Bajaur who is now a refugee on the outskirts of Peshawar, said that based on promises from the government that they would receive proper backing, his father and some other elders had formed a lashkar in the village of Hilal Khel.
Immediately, he said, the Taliban brought in 600 reinforcements from Afghanistan under the command of Zia ur-Rehman, a well known Afghan Taliban leader.
"This weakened the resolve of the elders," Mohammed said.
Then, the Taliban sowed terror by kidnapping and executing four tribal leaders of the lashkar, leaving their bodies on the roadside, the throats slit.
After the beheadings, there was fighting between the lashkar and the militants, Mohammed said. The Taliban, he said, had "very sophisticated weapons" including rocket launchers and heavy guns. His father had a Kalashnikov.
"The Taliban came to my father as a leader of the lashkar and said, "We will slaughter you."
The Taliban torched houses in several of Charmang's villages, he said, an act that is considered a particular humiliation.
After the four executions, many of the leaders of the lashkar fled and others surrendered. The Taliban burned dozens of houses in four villages, particularly in Babara. A request by the lashkar for help from the military did not materialize, and unlike the lashkar, the military took no casualties in the episode, said Fazl-e Sadiq, a schoolteacher from Charmang who is also a refugee in the Peshawar area. "The villagers became very demoralized," he said.
Mohammed said his father, Mohammed Gul, was betrayed by the elders of the Hanafia Khel tribe, and he fled for his life. "He tried very hard," Mohammed said of his father.
"Now he is in a safe place from the Taliban."
Among the houses that the Taliban burned was his family homestead, built 15 years ago at great expense, he said. "My home is very beautiful, my home is very clean, a big house with 12 rooms," he said in broken English. Thirty members of his extended family, including his wife and 6-month-old daughter, lived there.
"Except for my one clothes, and my one hat," he had little left, he said pointing to a refugee tent with a couple of mattresses but nothing else.
In one area of Bajaur, known as Salarzai, the recently formed tribal militia have proved a success.
But that was largely because the Taliban have never had strong roots there, and the ancient tribal hierarchy of rich landlords presiding over large properties remains intact, tribesmen from Bajaur said.
The people of Salarzai were strongly motivated to keep the Taliban at bay, said Jalal Uddin, the son of one of the prominent local elders. "I felt overjoyed when I was riding with the lashkar because it meant the old tribal system was working," Uddin said.
In a reversal of the pattern elsewhere, the lashkar in Salarzai had recently burned about 20 houses belonging to the militants in the village of Baanda, the only place in Salarzai where the militants have strength, according to Sahibzada Bahahuddin, a journalist in Khar, the capital of Bajaur.
But, so far, the such successes are rare in the rest of the tribal region.
In the longer term, the defeat of the lashkar in Charmang would make the situation much more difficult for the government, Mohammed said. His father felt betrayed, and he doubted his father would take on such a role again. It was now up to the government to win the war on its own, he said.
As he stood at the flap of his tent, cradling his tiny daughter, Soomia, Mohammed said despite the let-down by the government, he wanted nothing more than to return to his lands in Charmang.
"But we must have peace in the area," he said. "When the Taliban are weakened and the roads are safe we will rebuild. All this depends on the government."
U.S. missiles kill 8 in Pakistan
By Pir Zubair Shah
Thursday, October 23, 2008
ISLAMABAD: Missiles fired by remotely piloted American aircraft slammed into a Pakistani village near the Afghan border on Thursday, killing at least eight people in an attack that appeared aimed at a prominent Taliban commander, residents and a militant fighter said.
The dead were all militant fighters, according to residents of the village of Dande Darpakhel. But the missiles did not strike a compound in the village owned by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a Taliban operator with close links to Al Qaeda and an associate of Osama bin Laden. Haqqani was the presumed target of the attack.
The United States has accused Haqqani of organizing some of the most serious recent attacks in Afghanistan against American and NATO forces and of masterminding a failed assassination attempt against the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.
Since September, American-led forces in Afghanistan have frequently struck targets in the region with missiles and, on at least one occasion, with commandos, trying to stem cross-border attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan.
In telephone interviews, the residents and the militant fighter, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not wish to be identified by the authorities, said the aircraft fired four missiles at 1:15 a.m. They said the missiles struck a madrassa and compound owned by Pir Mohammad Roohani, who was in Afghanistan at the time of the attack. One missile hit a room in the compound where the militants were sleeping, the residents said.
The strike happened in the lawless North Waziristan area along the border with Afghanistan, close to its administrative center, Miranshah.
According to American officials, the Haqqani family protects forces from Al Qaeda in their enclaves in North and South Waziristan, provides logistics and intelligence for Qaeda operatives, and acts as a link between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, who share the common mission of driving American and NATO troops from Afghanistan.
The same village was hit by missiles in September, and 23 people — mostly relatives of Haqqani — were killed. There were no reports of casualties among the Haqqani family in the latest attack.
Separately, Reuters reported, Pakistani artillery, backed by helicopter gunships, pounded militant positions in the Bajaur region overnight and early on Thursday, and residents and officials said nine militants were killed. The Pakistani military launched an offensive in Bajaur in August.
Suicide bomber targets minister's convoy in Baghdad
The Associated Press
Thursday, October 23, 2008
BAGHDAD: A suicide car bomber targeted an Iraqi minister during rush hour Thursday morning in Baghdad, killing at least 13 people and wounding more than 20, officials said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military handed over responsibilities for Babil Province to the Iraq government security. The area south of Baghdad includes the Sunni belt once known as the triangle of death.
Babil is the 12th of 18 Iraqi provinces to be handed over and a sign of the improved security situation in the country, but the Baghdad blast underscored the continued dangers facing Iraqis despite a sharp decline in violence.
Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the No.2 U.S. commander in Iraq, said security gains have been remarkable - with the number of attacks falling about 80 percent from an average of 20 a week a year ago. But he cautioned that "while the enemies of Iraq are down, they are not necessarily defeated."
In Baghdad, the attacker rammed a car into the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry convoy as it passed through the central Bab al-Sharji area, a ministry spokesman said.
The Shiite minister, Mahmoud Muhammad al-Radhi, escaped unharmed but three of his guards were killed, a spokesman, Abdullah al-Lami, told the Al Arabiya TV station.
At least 10 civilians were killed in addition to the guards, and 21 people were wounded, according to the police and hospital officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
With Babil's handover to the Iraqi government, the only province left under U.S. control in southern Iraq is Wasit, a rural desert region that borders Iran and has been a conduit for the smuggling of foreign fighters and weapons into Iraq.
Other provinces that remain to be handed over are north of the capital, where violence has been slower to decline after insurgents fled security crackdowns in Baghdad and surrounding areas.
Afghan bombing kills 3 coalition troops
By Carlotta Gall and Taimoor Shah
Thursday, October 23, 2008
KABUL, Afghanistan: The United States military said on Thursday that a roadside bomb had killed three soldiers from the American-led coalition fighting militants.
A U.S. military statement gave no details of the nationality or the precise location of the attack in western Afghanistan, but said a fourth soldier was wounded in the incident.
The governor of Farah Province in western Afghanistan, Ruhul Amin, said on Thursday that a roadside bomb hit a vehicle carrying three coalition members on patrol at night, but he did not specify their nationality or indicate that there had been fatalities.
United States forces in Farah Province run a reconstruction team.
The number of militant attacks has risen sharply this year as the resurgent Taliban, driven out by an American-led force in 2001, seeks to undermine the government of President Hamid Karzai and its western backers.
The bombing came one day after the United States-led coalition said on Wednesday that an airstrike by its forces that killed nine Afghan Army soldiers may have been a case of mutually mistaken identity.
General Zahir Azimi, the spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, said the airstrike in Khost Province in eastern Afghanistan killed nine soldiers and wounded three others, one seriously. Other officials in the area said the attack might have been carried out by helicopter gunships.
In a statement, the coalition said a convoy of its troops had been "involved in multiple engagements" that led to the deaths of the Afghan soldiers. "Initial reports from troops on the ground indicate that this may be a case of mistaken identity on both sides," the statement said.
It did not give a death toll or identify the nationality of the force responsible for the strike.
Colonel Greg Julian, a spokesman for American forces in Afghanistan, said the fighting erupted as coalition troops approached an Afghan Army position.
Afghan anger over airstrikes has been deepening, but mainly over civilian casualties. American and NATO airstrikes have killed some 500 Afghan civilians in the past five years, according to Human Rights Watch and news reports. In one of the most contentious cases, an American AC-130 gunship attacked a suspected Taliban compound in August, prompting assertions by villagers that more than 90 civilians were killed, a majority of them women and children.
The American military initially said five to seven civilians were killed, but a subsequent report by a military investigator put the civilian death toll at more than 30.
Want to be heard in India? You'd better form a militia
By Anand Giridharadas
Thursday, October 23, 2008
MUMBAI: Not long ago, officials in this seaside megalopolis announced plans to retire taxicabs built before 1983.
This was no radical idea: So withered are Mumbai's taxis that they must often shut the radio when they need the horsepower to climb a hill.
But one union leader here didn't like it. Last week he ordered the drivers of 55,000 taxis to strike. A few hundred drivers, needing money, defied him. Strikers smashed dozens of their taxis. Meanwhile, a fleet of newer, air-conditioned taxis, unconnected to the striking union, operated as usual, until mobs attacked its cabs, too. Thousands of officegoers in India's financial capital were stranded.
Five days later, they were stranded again — but for a different reason. A local ethnic-baiting politician was arrested for inciting violence against north Indian migrants. Followers of his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, or MNS, party flooded the streets hurling stones and bottles, and taxicabs were smashed once again, this time because many are driven by north Indians.
From Mumbai to Bengal to the central plains, violence is achieving an exalted new status even by this region's bloody standards. Politically motivated beating and burning and killing, never wholly absent from the subcontinent, have become more than spasmodic human failings. They have started to replace hunger strikes, sit-ins and marches as the basic tools of Indian political life: guiltlessly deployed, fatally effective.
Forget what you've heard about Gandhi and nonviolence in India. This is a nation of militias now.
"Only nonviolence cannot work," said Sandeep Deshpanda, 34, vice president of the student wing of MNS. "Some people understand only when you kick them," he added, citing an old Hindi adage.
The MNS has come to symbolize this broader phenomenon. Earlier this year, its leader, Raj Thackeray, fired a verbal fusillade against migrants in Mumbai. Young party cadres fanned out and began to thrash migrants in the streets. Then he went after Mumbai stores that print their sign board in English but not in the local Marathi language.
His party is a minority in the state legislature; he runs no organ of state. Yet, as his cadres began to smash the windows of uncooperative stores, thousands of other stores tacked on Marathi signs. The city's appearance changed overnight.
Thackeray's successes evidently left an impression on 1,900 employees of Jet Airways, who were fired last week thanks to the global financial crisis. They rushed to Thackeray's office. He thundered that no Jet Airways flight would leave Mumbai until the employees were rehired.
If an Indian politician said that a generation ago, it might have been empty bluster. Today, the threat was taken seriously enough that the airline's chairman, Naresh Goyal, held telephone discussions with Thackeray. After Thackeray's and others' lobbying, the employees were rehired the next day.
"It is disturbing that workers of Jet Airways sought the help of the MNS when they were given the pink slip," The Times of India newspaper wrote in an editorial. "It is as if they were contracting the mafia to serve their private needs because they didn't have any other recourse."
Political theorists define sovereignty simply. What separates Jordan from Lebanon is a state monopoly on force. In sovereign countries, militias do not decide who drives taxis and doesn't, who is fired and isn't. If this is the definition, it is difficult to call India wholly sovereign today.
Tata, an Indian conglomerate, decided not long ago to build the world's lowest-cost car in West Bengal State. It got into a land dispute. Good arguments surfaced on each side. But arguments matter ever less. Goaded by yet another state politician without a majority, activists besieged the Tata plant, pelted stones at journalists and threatened workers. Tata left the state.
In an open letter to West Bengal citizens last week, Ratan Tata, chairman of the group, wrote that they face a choice between "a prosperous state with the rule of law" and "a destructive political environment of confrontation, agitation, violence and lawlessness."
Maoist insurgents are firebombing their way through central India, winning control over some destitute areas. The government's response? More violence. Government security forces, in tandem with a vigilante group called Salwa Judum, have, according to Human Rights Watch, engaged in "threats, beatings, arbitrary arrests and detention, killings, pillage, and burning of villages to force residents into supporting Salwa Judum."
Meanwhile, Muslim extremists blow up markets, Hindu extremists slaughter Christians and politicians convene commissions.
Whatever its reputation, India has never exactly been a nation of pacifists. Gandhi represented just one strand of thinking, and his view is not the only one to have prevailed. From Kashmir's jihad to various secessionisms to Hindu-Muslim riots, political violence is as Indian as tandoori chicken. Yet in the past it was generally seen as regrettable by people with power. It was rarely a workaday tactic, the way hunger strikes are a tactic.
But in recent years the hollowing of the Indian political center has allowed violence be mainstreamed. The major national parties draw ever smaller fractions of the vote. Challenging them are caste-based and regional parties that narrowcast to electoral pockets. Factional identities are hardening as citizens "vote their caste rather than cast their vote," as a popular refrain puts it.
This political fragmentation pits tribe against tribe. It has corroded the faith among Indians that the institutions that hear and answer grievances — the police, courts, media — are neutral. All increasingly are seen as biased, answerable to their different masters, rather than impartial executors of the public good. All contribute to a growing sense of powerlessness. And so if you are a leader of a political faction that wants to be heard, it is not irrational to believe you need a militia of violent young men to make yourself heard.
Yasin Malik once commanded a militant group in Kashmir, waging war against India. Fourteen years ago, he surrendered his weapons and declared himself a "Gandhian." This week, he told me he is struggling to recruit a new generation to nonviolence.
"Gandhi is the person who created and gave the concept of nonviolence to the world," he said. "He inspired Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. But, unfortunately, in India right now Gandhi is no longer relevant."
"I'm in search of Gandhi in the land of Gandhi," he added. "I've failed to find him."
Migrant violence unabated in India's Bihar
Thursday, October 23, 2008
PATNA, India: Protesters in the eastern Indian state of Bihar torched trains and ransacked stations for a fourth day on Thursday in retaliation for attacks on migrants in western India, ignoring an appeal for calm by the chief minister.
Police arrested more than 20 men across the state and authorities cancelled about 25 trains from state capital Patna.
"The situation is very tense ... we are virtually coming to a standstill," senior railway officer Kundan Chaudhary said.
"Thousands of passengers are stranded at various railway stations," he said, adding that the situation was made worse by the large number of people returning to the state to celebrate the Hindu festival of Diwali next week with their families.
The migration of thousands of workers from impoverished northern and eastern states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar into India's booming financial capital Mumbai has sparked a violent backlash, with local resentment fuelled by ambitious politicians.
That in turn has provoked tit-for-tat violence in northern and eastern India, a sign of the strains that inequality is placing on society as the economy booms.
On Wednesday in Mumbai, a local politician, whose arrest had sparked protests in western Maharashtra state and a backlash on migrants across the country, was given bail after spending a night in jail.
Raj Thackeray, head of the small but vocal Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), was arrested on Tuesday for rioting and provoking attacks on migrants.
About 50 people have been injured in clashes with the police in Bihar so far, and a 10-year old boy was killed on Wednesday by a stray bullet after police opened fire in Rohtas district.
In East Champaran district on Thursday, angry mobs torched police vehicles as police beat them back with batons.
The situation was now "under control," district superintendent of police N. Hasnain Khan said by telephone.
In Nalanda district, protesters marched through the streets, shouting slogans and ordering shops and businesses to shut.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar late on Wednesday appealed for calm in a televised speech. "Please save Bihar," he said.
Supporters of MNS, which is fuelling anti-immigrant rhetoric ahead of national and local elections due next year, had attacked north Indian railway job aspirants appearing for an examination in Mumbai on Sunday, prompting calls for Thackeray's arrest.
(Writing by Rina Chandran; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Alex Richardson)
Diane Johnson's 'Lulu in Marrakech'
By Erica Wagner
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Lulu In Marrakech
By Diane Johnson.
307 pages. Dutton, $25.95.
There are some names you can't ignore. When you find them attached to a particular fictional character, you can't assume that blind coincidence prompted the writer's choice. Call your girl-heroine Jane and there may be echoes of Jane Eyre, but the association is not forced on you. And a Cathy does not need to meet a Heathcliff. But the name Lulu? Lulu is a different story. Lulu has a pedigree. Even if the defiant anti-heroine of Frank Wedekind's books isn't at the forefront of your mind as you say the name out loud (your lips will purse, as if you're about to kiss) there's an innocent-yet-louche ring to it. Travel to Marrakesh with Lulu, and you ought to be in for a hell of a ride.
Better, I fear, to stay at home with Cathy and Jane. Plowing through Diane Johnson's latest clash-of-cultures novel, the reader is forced to wonder whether Lulu, her heroine, is concealing her brilliance under a bushel. When will her cleverness, her real vim, be revealed? Surely there's going to be some breathtaking bouleversement? Johnson's Lulu is, after all, a C.I.A. officer - she must have something going for her. She must, at least, be bright. It's true that there's no reason, in the real world, to believe that the people who make up our intelligence community are particularly acute, but this is a novel, and novels have a duty to entertain their readers in a way that reports on the failures of government agencies do not. At one point - when there's a passing reference to "The Good Soldier," Ford Madox Ford's sublime novel whose narrator is a character who reveals far more than he knows - the reader hopes that Johnson may be playing a similar double game. But this book can't rise to that mark.
The story is simple, though one feels its author wishes it were more complex. Lulu is packed off to Marrakesh to investigate - in the desultory fashion in which she does most things - how money passes from Morocco to radical Middle Eastern organizations and suicide bombers. Her cover is the love affair she's conducting with Ian Drumm, a wealthy Englishman and resident of Marrakesh she'd first met on assignment in Kosovo. While staying at his villa, her life intersects with those of his other guests: "a gangly British laureate poet" (whatever that is: does Johnson mean the poet laureate?) named Robin Crumley and his pregnant wife, Posy; Suma Bourad, a young French-Algerian woman on the run from her father and brother, who believe she has been dishonored; and Gazi Al-Sayad, an American-educated Saudi woman who escapes from her husband with the help of Ian, who turns out to be - no surprise, really - her former lover. Along the way Lulu becomes rather more embroiled than she'd like in the capture of Suma's brother, who is suspected of being a terrorist - a capture with unhappy, but once again unsurprising, results.
This book could be trying to be one of two things. It could be an attempt - like much of Johnson's other work, but particularly perhaps her 1987 novel, "Persian Nights" - to offer insights into what happens in human hearts and minds when civilizations collide. It could be an attempt at what's commonly called a thriller - a book to set the pulse racing as the reader watches the heroine scramble from one narrow escape, threatening encounter or romantic entanglement to the next. It could be trying to do both those things at once. The shame is that it does neither.
If Lulu had no depth, if she were just a pair of eyes through which the other characters were clearly and acutely seen, that would be fine.
There's no law that says a novel's central character has to be appealing or likable, no matter what the book clubs tell us. She doesn't even have to be intelligent, as long as the author's shrewdness shines through. Yet here it never does, perhaps because Johnson goes to such great lengths to establish Lulu's dimwitted ineptitude. Upon first arriving at Ian's house, she's surprised at how far out of town it is, which will make it harder to gather the information she needs, of course. You don't need to be a C.I.A. officer to want to know exactly where your lover lives, do you? You could look it up on Google Maps; and it's Google she uses to look up things like the Western Sahara when she wants to know more about the refugee camps there, or "cats in the Koran" when she wonders what Allah has to say on the subject of animals. No fancy classified files for her. She can't remember if Posy went to Oxford or Cambridge and decides she's too shy to ask. Neither does she dare confront her lover with her suspicions that he might still be involved with Gazi; she never even snoops around in his closet - like any normal woman would - just to see, I don't know, whether he folds or crumples his underwear and socks! Never mind being a spy - Lulu doesn't have the brains to be someone's girlfriend.
Perhaps Lulu's cultural insensitivities - describing Gazi in her black abaya as looking like "the wicked godmother at a christening" and her husband's robes as "tablecloths" - are inserted to make the reader feel superior; they don't. The reader feels simply glum, locked in a window-less world of preconceptions never shattered and lessons never learned. I can well believe Johnson might have wanted to show that Lulu never does truly go to Marrakesh - there's a hint of irony in her title. The trouble is that the reader doesn't get there either. This Lulu simply can't live up to her name.
Rice visits Mexico for a meeting about its drug war
By Marc Lacey
Thursday, October 23, 2008
MEXICO CITY: The Bush administration signaled its alarm about Mexico's vicious drug war by sending the American secretary of state on Wednesday to a two-day meeting on improving cross-border cooperation in the battle against the country's powerful drug cartels.
The Bush administration increasingly sees the violent clashes in Mexico as a threat to American security, and the lawlessness was high on the agenda when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived on Wednesday in Puerto Vallarta for meetings with her local counterpart, Patricia Espinosa. The Mexicans had sought the high-level visit to press for greater coordination with the United States in their fight against the heavily armed cartels, but the world economic crisis was also discussed.
Rice's arrival was the latest in a series of visits this month alone by top-level administration officials. Attorney General Michael Mukasey met with his counterpart in Mexico City several weeks back. Last week, John Walters, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, made the rounds of the Mexican capital.
The visits are indications of the Bush administration's desire to lend a hand to President Felipe Calderón's government, which has made fighting the traffickers the centerpiece of its agenda but has nonetheless seen security around the country deteriorate.
"There is a great deal of stress and strain being placed on the Calderón administration in Mexico, and we want to show our support," said a State Department official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
On Wednesday, Mexican authorities were touting the arrest of Jesús Zambada García, a high-level trafficker from the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, after a shootout with the police in Mexico City.
The Mexican government's fight against traffickers comes with considerable risk, because cartel leaders have singled out for assassination numerous law enforcement officials engaged in the antidrug campaign. Calderón has said that he has received numerous threats since he started his antidrug offensive upon taking office nearly two years ago.
Even though the White House successfully pushed through Congress $400 million in aid for Mexico's antidrug effort, Calderón has complained of the need for even more focused attention from the United States. Not only is America the world's largest market for illegal narcotics, but it also provides much of the weaponry used by Mexican cartels.
The violence has directly affected American government facilities. The American Consulate in Monterrey was attacked this month by a gunman who fired several shots at the building and another man who lofted a grenade, which did not detonate. Several days later, after a visit to the building by the American ambassador to Mexico, Antonio O. Garza, gunshots rang out nearby and the consulate was closed for the day.
In Ciudad Juárez, a border city that has experienced more than 1,000 killings this year as part of a raging battle among traffickers, American officials recently reported a series of muggings near the consulate there. Visa applicants visiting the building have been warned not to use cash.
The American Embassy in Mexico City, meanwhile, upgraded its travel alert in recent days for Americans visiting Mexico, warning that drug cartels posed a significant danger, especially along the border. "Firefights have taken place in many towns and cities across Mexico but particularly in northern Mexico, including Tijuana, Chihuahua City and Ciudad Juárez," the alert said. "The situation in northern Mexico remains fluid; the location and timing of future armed engagements cannot be predicted."
During his visit to Mexico last week, Walters heaped praise on Calderón for his "courageous leadership" in taking on the cartels. But he also expressed concern about the spillover effects of the drug war on the United States.
"Some of these groups not only engage in crime and violence in Mexico, but they come across, kidnap, murder, carry out assassinations," he told reporters, noting that the intensity of the violence was still much higher south of the border than north of it.
"Our goal is to reduce the period of suffering as rapidly as possible by bringing these people to justice," he said. "That's what this is all about on both sides of the border."
Walters, a vehement opponent of drug legalization, backed a proposal by Calderón not to prosecute people caught carrying relatively small amounts of illegal narcotics, including cocaine and heroin. Under Calderón's plan, addicts would be treated differently from traffickers and would avoid jail if they agreed to undergo treatment, not unlike similar programs in some parts of the United States. "I don't think that's legalization," Walters said.
Another proposal, put forward recently by a Mexico City lawmaker belonging to an opposition party, would legalize the carrying of small amounts of marijuana. That proposal has been roundly criticized by Mexico's political establishment and is not expected to advance.
Colombia's intelligence chief resigns over scandal
Thursday, October 23, 2008
By Patrick Markey
Colombia's intelligence chief has stepped down after acknowledging her agents secretly spied on left-wing political opponents of President Alvaro Uribe, in the latest surveillance scandal to tarnish his administration.
DAS security agency director Maria del Pilar Hurtado resigned after a leading opposition lawmaker charged this week that officers had illegally kept tabs on members of his Democratic Pole party, the government said on Thursday.
Uribe last year fired his top police chiefs after an illegal wiretapping scandal that fuelled worries about intelligence practices in Colombia, where Washington has spent billions in aid to help fight guerrillas and cocaine barons.
"The country still can and should count on the DAS; it would not be fair for the work of hundreds of agents to be stained by the actions of a few," Hurtado said in a statement.
She will be temporarily replaced by deputy director Joaquin Polo, the government said.
Sen. Gustavo Petro, one of Uribe's most vocal critics, said DAS agents had been monitoring him and other party members on the president's orders. Hurtado said she ordered no such surveillance, but fired an agent involved before resigning.
The DAS has been at the centre of scandals in the past. Uribe's former security chief, Jorge Noguera, is under investigation on suspicion he helped paramilitary death squads hunt down victims. He was jailed, then freed on a technicality.
Uribe, hugely popular for his U.S.-financed crackdown on the country's guerrillas, last year replaced his national police commander and police intelligence chief after they admitted they had no knowledge of the wiretapping of state officials, opposition leaders and journalists over the years.
That scandal broke when a local news magazine published a story about recorded conversations of jailed paramilitaries apparently organizing crimes from their prison cells.
Scores of Uribe's political allies have been jailed or are under investigation for suspected ties to paramilitary commanders who carried out massacres and land grabs in the name of counter-insurgency before agreeing to a peace accord.
(Reporting by Patrick Markey in Bogota; Editing by Eric Walsh)
Australian found innocent of receiving Qaeda money
The Associated Press
Thursday, October 23, 2008
MELBOURNE, Australia: An Australian man who spent time at an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and who met Osama bin Laden was found innocent Thursday of receiving funds from the terrorist group.
Joseph Thomas, a 35-year-old Muslim convert dubbed "Jihad Jack" by the Australian media, was convicted on the lesser charge of possessing a false passport, for which he still faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a large fine.
The verdict marked the end of Thomas' second trial on the charges and a five-year seesaw ride through the legal system since his arrest in Pakistan in 2003.
Thomas was arrested after leaving Afghanistan where, by his own admission, he spent time in an Al Qaedaa training camp and met Osama bin Laden, whom he later described as "very polite and humble and shy."
Thomas was returned to Australia and charged under tough anti-terrorism laws introduced as part of a security crackdown after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist strikes in the United States.
After his first trial, Thomas was sentenced in 2006 to five years in prison for receiving funds from a terrorist organization and holding a false passport. An appeal court overturned those convictions five months later, saying prosecutors had incorrectly relied on an interrogation of Thomas by the Australian police in Pakistan.
Thomas' lawyers had successfully argued the interview was tainted because Thomas had been threatened with execution and deportation to the U.S. military camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in earlier questioning by U.S. and Pakistani authorities.
After he was freed, prosecutors argued that new evidence — contained in post-trial media interviews, in which Thomas talked about bin Laden — had emerged in the case and that Thomas should be retried.
The jury in the second trial on Thursday found Thomas innocent of receiving funds from a terrorist organization but guilty of the passport charge. He was released on bail and required to return to court next week for a pre-sentence hearing.
Since returning to Australia, Thomas has renounced violence and denies being involved in any terrorist plots.
Europe could boost NATO Afghanistan troop levels
Friday, October 24, 2008
WASHINGTON: European nations could contribute more to NATO's mission in Afghanistan if Washington poured in more resources itself and provided a compelling strategy, the U.S. ambassador to NATO said on Thursday.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its highest level since U.S.-led forces toppled hard-line Taliban Islamist rulers after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States for harbouring al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden.
The Taliban and other insurgent groups are particularly strong in the south and east of Afghanistan and enjoy safe havens across the border in Pakistan, officials say.
The United States has long called for its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation to offer more troops for Afghanistan and to place fewer restrictions, known as "caveats" in alliance jargon, on their operations.
The United States has about 32,000 troops in Afghanistan. Approximately 13,000 of them are in the NATO-led force of more than 50,000 troops.
Kurt Volker, the U.S. NATO ambassador, told reporters he believed other members of the Western security alliance would contribute more to the NATO effort if reassured on the U.S. strategy and commitment.
The Bush administration is engaged in a review of its Afghanistan policy, adding to uncertainty among its allies.
"You right now have allies who are concerned about some developments in Afghanistan and they are not sure what the U.S. is doing -- people have talked about some review going on Afghanistan policy," Volker said. "Well the Europeans want to know what that's about. Where does the U.S. come out on this?
"If you have a clear U.S. commitment to Afghanistan and backing that up with U.S. resources and a strategy that makes sense to people ... then, yes, we could also get more input from our European allies as well," Volker said.
Experts say it will take more than just troop increases to stabilise Afghanistan. Better governance, economic development and new efforts to tackle corruption and the opium trade are all widely seen as necessary.
Volker declined to predict whether NATO foreign ministers would offer Georgia a membership action plan, or a formal pathway to joining the alliance, when they meet in December.
Russia invaded Georgia in August after Tbilisi tried to retake the breakaway pro-Russian South Ossetia region. Moscow has since withdrawn soldiers from Georgia proper, but it has recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.
The August war has led some allies to say NATO should delay putting Georgia and Ukraine on a formal membership track.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)
Eminem is back, hesitant but provocative
By Jon Caramanica
Thursday, October 23, 2008
NEW YORK: Four years ago, Eminem, one of the best-selling rappers in history, released his last album of original material, "Encore," and then essentially disappeared. The years since have been pockmarked with personal struggles. He entered rehab in 2005 for a dependency on sleep medication. In 2006 he remarried, and then redivorced, his former wife, Kim Scott, the subject of many of his most vitriolic songs. And that same year his closest friend, the rapper Proof, was killed in a shooting at a Detroit nightclub.
In his new book, "The Way I Am," Eminem hopes to set the record straight. "I'm really just a normal guy. You can ask my neighbors," he writes in the book. "I ride a bike. I walk the dog. I mow my lawn. I'm out there every Sunday, talking to myself, buck naked, mowing the lawn with a chain saw."
Well, one out of three isn't bad. "I do ride my bike, I don't have a dog, I don't mow my lawn," Eminem, 36, admitted in a phone interview from a Detroit studio on Monday night. But otherwise he's been living the life of a suburban father, taking care of three girls: Hailie, his daughter with Kim; Alaina, his niece; and Whitney, Kim's daughter from another relationship.
And now Eminem, born Marshall Mathers, is tentatively re-entering public life with his book, published by Dutton this week. Part autobiography, part photo gallery, part ephemera collection, it's a handsome midcareer (and midlife) roundup for an artist who has been notoriously reluctant to discuss his personal life anyplace but in his music.
"In a way this is the end of the first chapter of his career," said Paul Rosenberg, Eminem's manager. "Em's looking forward now. He's very re-energized and refocused."
Originally intended to be "a scrapbook for my fans," Eminem said, the book grew to include large chunks of first-person narratives culled from interviews with the journalist Sacha Jenkins, and presented in a conversational style. "Rap is one big Fantasy Island," Eminem writes. "It's the place I always retreat to when things get too hectic in real time."
In a section about his family and upbringing, he's discomfitingly frank: "If you go back and look at the abuse that I took, it's no surprise I became who I am. Someone I don't really want to be."
Jenkins said: "I think Em has an appeal that's very everyman. That's his natural voice in the book." He added: "The guy has been out of the mix and not interacting with a lot of people, let alone a writer. But this was an opportunity for him to get a lot of stuff off his chest, especially in the wake of the death of his best friend."
In fact Eminem's memories of how Proof toughened him up as a young man are among the most vivid passages in "The Way I Am." "As difficult as it was to talk about, I had to," Eminem said. He also writes of how much his retreat from public life had to do with Proof's death: "After he passed, it was a year before I could really do anything normally again. It was tough for me to even get out of bed, and I had days when I couldn't walk, let alone write a rhyme. When I tried to put my thoughts together - well, I wasn't making sense when I spoke, so everyone was trying to keep me off TV and away from the press."
But while Eminem discusses some personal topics in the book - fatherhood gets especially lengthy treatment ("Being a dad makes me feel powerful in a way that I hadn't known before, and it's the kind of power I don't want to abuse") - he almost completely avoids other, more familiar subjects, like his exceedingly public battles with his former wife and his mother, Debbie. (Next month Eminem's mother will release a memoir, "My Son Marshall, My Son Eminem.")
"Everyone already knows how I feel about those situations," Eminem said. "I don't want to keep putting Kim and the kids in everything that I do, stuff where it's not necessary." The book, he said, is "more about Eminem and less about Marshall."
And so it's the career artifacts, especially the handwritten lyrics, that receive place of privilege. For years Eminem would scribble down snatches of lyrics on whatever piece of paper was available and carry them around in a backpack. When he wanted to put together a song, he'd riffle through the sheets, pick out some lines that might go together and head into the studio.
"I collect words and then I stack them up," Eminem said of his songwriting process. Often he'd write lyrics in a sort of code, leaving key words out. His reasoning: "If you leave your rhyme pad laying around, no one can make sense of it but you."
More than two dozen of the sheets are reproduced in the book, and they're impressive in both content and appearance - lyrics scrawled at odd angles, in different ink colors, at lengths varying from a few words to complete verses.
"It reminds me of the sort of crazy scribbling and writing like Russell Crowe's character in 'A Beautiful Mind,"' said Rosenberg, referring to the Nobel Prize-winning economist John Nash. "It's an organized chaos of thoughts."
In an era when stars like Jay-Z famously do not write down their rhymes, instead constructing them in their head and committing them to memory, "The Way I Am" is a celebration of a sort of artisanal approach to rhyme.
In 2002 Eminem released the book "Angry Blonde," largely a collection of lyrics - reprinted, not the original handwritten sheets - that sold about 77,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan. But that was near the height of his fame; this is a much less certain time for him. Still "we never worried there wasn't a market," Rosenberg said. "He's certainly done enough over his career to sustain interest, even with having stepped away for a couple of years."
And now Eminem appears ready to return to the world of music. He has been recording with Dr. Dre, with whom he has made his biggest hits, working on songs for his next album, to be called "Relapse." (There are rumors that the album will be released by Interscope before year's end, but there has been no official word yet.) Last week he released a teaser freestyle, "I'm Having a Relapse," on which he sounds vibrant and engaged, stacking characteristically profane and preposterous rhymes atop one another:
In one of the book's most revealing sections, Eminem talks about how he happened upon his signature bottle-blond look, high on Ecstasy, around the time he was recording his first songs with Dr. Dre. It reads like a comic-book origin story, his new identity presaging a path of bad behavior to follow.
Now that he's preparing to re-enter the music world, though, will the peroxide, and all that comes with it, return? "My hair is back to its natural color," Eminem said. "I don't think I'm going back to the dye."
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Word comes from Madison, Wisconsin, that a telemarketer named Ted Zoromski quit his job this week over John McCain's message.
Zoromski was prepared to interrupt people during their dinner hours to encourage them to vote Republican. But when he got the script saying "you need to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home and killed Americans," he packed it in.
"Even though I was paid to do it, I didn't feel comfortable," Zoromski told WKOW-TV.
This story, relayed via Mike Allen on Politico.com, struck me because I once worked as a telemarketer, and it is an occupation so soul-numbing that it is hard to imagine that anything could make it worse. I woke up people on the overnight shift who had just managed to fall asleep for the first time in six days. Sometimes, when there was clearly nobody at home, I would just let the phone ring and ring in order to avoid having to call anybody else.
Once after about 30 rings, I heard the breathless voice of a man who had climbed down off the roof in hopes that this was the critical business call he had been waiting for all year, the one that was going to change his life forever. Imagine his joy when he discovered that it was, instead, an exciting opportunity to purchase an entire packet of portrait photographs of his loved ones at a special discount price.
So truly, if you can come up with something that would send a telemarketer over the edge, you have really overachieved on the offensiveness front.
For a while, John McCain and Sarah Palin were so over-the-top about Barack Obama that people in the crowds started yelling death threats - sometimes while simultaneously begging McCain to "take the gloves off." The idea of what they were hoping to see in a post-glove era scared everybody so much that the campaign tamped things down.
Opening for a McCain rally in North Carolina last weekend, Representative Robin Hayes said he wanted "to keep the crowd as respectful as possible."
In order to pursue that goal as efficiently as possible, Hayes then announced that "liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God." This was an especially unfortunate turn of phrase given the fact that he had begun his remarks by saying he wanted to "make sure we don't say something stupid."
All this was a direct outgrowth of Sarah Palin's own comments in North Carolina, in which she praised the "pro-America" areas of the country. But Hayes had clearly been absent for the day in scurrilous campaign school when they explain that you aren't supposed to specifically name the anti-American parts.
Meanwhile, over on MSNBC, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota was launching into the Obama/terrorist spin when she suggested that the news media should investigate "the views of the people in Congress and find out: Are they pro-America or anti-America." So far, the only person who's felt the impact of her call to reinvent McCarthyism for a post-Communist planet has been her opponent, a hitherto totally ignored Democrat named Elwyn Tinklenberg, who was stunned to discover in the following days that he had received close to $1 million in donations.
When reporters first began covering political speeches in the 19th century, politicians were so appalled at the idea that somebody planned to write down what they said that they would stop speaking if a reporter showed up along the campaign route.
Today, in the post-macaca era, you'd figure that politicians would be so sensitive to the perpetual presence of recording devices that they'd censor their comments even while muttering to themselves when taking a shower. Not to mention comments made right after they have been made up, offered coffee in the MSNBC green room, had a technician install three different recording devices under their clothing and given a seat in front of a large camera.
But the tone of this campaign has given some of the Republican faithful, even those who are members of Congress, the impression that questioning the patriotism of large groups of the population is now O.K.
Right now, all the polls predict than in less than two weeks, Barack Obama is going to be elected president. The McCain campaign disputes this. Large numbers of Obama supporters are also in doubt, possibly because they keep getting e-mails from their relatives in Toledo revealing that Obama has gone to Hawaii not to visit his ailing grandmother, but to destroy evidence that he is not actually an American citizen.
For John McCain, the best question now is not whether he's going to lose, but what kind of a country he'd wind up with if he won after a campaign even a telemarketer can't love.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
The other day I had a conversation with a Beijing friend and I mentioned that Barack Obama was leading in the presidential race:
She: Obama? But he's the black man, isn't he?
Me: Yes, exactly.
She: But surely a black man couldn't become president of the United States?
Me: It looks as if he'll be elected.
She: But president? That's such an important job! In America, I thought blacks were janitors and laborers.
Me: No, blacks have all kinds of jobs.
She: What do white people think about that, about getting a black president? Are they upset? Are they angry?
Me: No, of course not! If Obama is elected, it'll be because white people voted for him.
She: Really? Unbelievable! What an amazing country!
We're beginning to get a sense of how Barack Obama's political success could change global perceptions of the United States, redefining the American "brand" to be less about Guantánamo and more about equality. This change in perceptions would help rebuild American political capital in the way that the Marshall Plan did in the 1950s or that John Kennedy's presidency did in the early 1960s.
In his endorsement of Obama, Colin Powell noted that "the new president is going to have to fix the reputation that we've left with the rest of the world." That's not because we Americans crave admiration, but because cooperation is essential to address 21st-century challenges; you can't fire cruise missiles at the global financial crisis.
In his endorsement, Powell added that an Obama election "will also not only electrify our country, I think it'll electrify the world." You can already see that. A 22-nation survey by the BBC found that voters abroad preferred Obama to McCain in every single country - by four to one overall. Nearly half of those in the BBC poll said that the election of Obama, an African-American, would "fundamentally change" their perceptions of the United States.
Europe is particularly intoxicated by the possibility of restoring amity with America in an Obama presidency. As The Economist put it: "Across the Continent, Bush hatred has been replaced by Obama-mania."
Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, which conducted the BBC poll, said that at a recent international conference he attended in Malaysia, many Muslims voiced astonishment at Obama's rise because it was so much at odds with their assumptions about the United States. Remember that the one thing countless millions of people around the world "know" about the United States is that it is controlled by a cabal of white bankers and Jews who use police with fire hoses to repress blacks. To them, Obama's rise triggers severe cognitive dissonance.
"It's an anomaly, so contrary to their expectation that it makes them receptive to a new paradigm for the U.S.," Kull said.
Europeans like to mock the vapidity of American politics, but they also acknowledge that it would be difficult to imagine a brown or black person leading France or Germany.
As for Africa, Obama's Kenyan father was of the Luo tribe, a minority that has long suffered brutal discrimination in both Kenya and in Uganda (where it is known as the Acholi). The bitter joke in East Africa is that a Luo has more of a chance of becoming president in the United States than in Kenya.
Yet before we get too far with the self-congratulations, it's worth remembering something else.
In the Western industrialized world, full of university graduates and marinated in principles of egalitarianism, the idea of electing a member of a racial minority to the highest office seems an astonishing breakthrough. But Jamaica's 95 percent black population elected a white man as its prime minister in 1980, and kept him in office throughout that decade.
Likewise, the African nation of Mauritius has elected a white prime minister of French origin. And don't forget that India is overwhelmingly Hindu but now has a Sikh prime minister and a white Christian as president of its ruling party, and until last year it had a Muslim in the largely ceremonial position of president.
Look, Obama's skin color is a bad reason to vote for him or against him. Substance should always trump symbolism.
Yet if this election goes as the polls suggest, we may find a path to restore America's global influence - and thus to achieve some of our international objectives - in part because the world is concluding that Americans can, after all, see beyond a person's epidermis. My hunch is that that is right, and that we're every bit as open-minded about racial minorities as Jamaicans already were a quarter-century ago.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
UNITED NATIONS: Major U.S. cities including New York, Washington, Atlanta and New Orleans have levels of economic inequality that rival cities in Africa, according to a U.N. report published on Thursday.
The most balanced city in the world is Beijing, with the most egalitarian cities on average to be found in western Europe, the report said.
"The authors (of the study) find that though the cities in the United States of America have relatively lower levels of poverty than many other cities in the developed world, their levels of income inequality are quite high," the report said.
In the United States and Canada one of the key factors in determining levels of economic inequality is race, the report said.
"The life expectancy of African Americans in the United States is about the same as that of people living in China and some states of India, despite the fact that the United States is far richer than the other two countries," it said.
The report said European countries including Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Slovenia were among those with the lowest levels of inequality.
While Beijing is economically the most egalitarian city in the world, China's special administrative region of Hong Kong, a former British colony, has the highest level of inequality of all cities in Asia, it said.
In Latin America, Brazilian cities "have the greatest disparities in income distribution in the world," the report said, partly because of Brazil's rising unemployment and declining wages.
The U.N. report said that cities in sub-Saharan Africa have the world's highest levels of urban poverty, with more than half of city dwellers living below the poverty line.
The report also said cities in South Africa and Namibia continue to have extremely high levels of income inequality, despite the dismantling of apartheid in the early 1990s.
(Reporting by Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Vicki Allen)
Thursday, October 23, 2008
By Josie Cox
Berlin senators and members of the Muslim community launched a scheme this week to teach imams more about German society and boost dialogue between religious and non-religious groups.
About 25 imams from all over the capital have registered to join the pilot program including German history and politics lessons, with the aim of becoming better informed about the ways of life in the country they live in.
"In today's world, imams are no longer just asked for advice on religious issues," Berlin Integration Commissioner Guenter Piening told Reuters.
"They are also quizzed about mundane, everyday life," said Piening, adding part of the course involved visiting the Bundestag lower house of parliament and then discussing Germany's democratic political system.
Germany is home to about 3.2 million Muslims, most of whom have Turkish roots. Although relations are largely peaceful, the lack of integration is a worry for politicians.
Many Turks live in small communities and cannot speak German fluently, limiting their job prospects.
"I was motivated to join the program because imams have a huge responsibility these days," said Suat Oezkan, 38, one of the imams attending the course, which has two lessons per week.
"The program offers a lot of support and is a wonderful way of creating more transparency between people from all religions," he told Reuters.
The manager, who used to work as a television presenter in Turkey, said education was the only way of breaking down barriers and tackling Westerners' fears about Islam.
The voluntary program was developed and initiated by the Islam Forum Berlin, a group established in 2005 which meets Berlin's Senate four times a year to discuss ways of improving the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in the city.
The Forum groups representatives of the Muslim community with Berlin senators.
Germany's federal government and the EU are funding the program, which is being piloted in Berlin.
"We've received a very positive response from both religious and non-religious communities," Piening said, adding other federal states had expressed an interest in establishing a similar program.
Germany has about 2,500 mosque communities and some 2,250 imams who tend to receive their theological schooling abroad because the training is not readily available in Germany.
As a result, critics complain that they often know little about the German way of life.
Last week, the opening of the first mosque in former communist eastern Germany was marred by protests by residents and a few far-right protesters.
Germany's biggest mosque opens in the northern city of Duisburg Sunday.
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)
By Larry Rohter
Thursday, October 23, 2008
ESPAÑOLA, New Mexico: In the early days of the presidential campaign, Senator John McCain seemed to be in a good position to win support among Hispanic voters. He had sponsored legislation for comprehensive immigration overhaul in Congress, made a point of speaking warmly about the contributions of immigrants and was popular among Latinos in Arizona, his home state, which borders three battleground states here in the Southwest: New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada.
But less than two weeks before Election Day, those advantages appear to have evaporated. Recent Gallup polls show McCain running far behind Senator Barack Obama among Hispanic voters nationwide, only 26 percent of whom favor the Republican. The possibility that McCain can duplicate George W. Bush's performance among Latinos in 2004, when Republicans won 44 percent of the vote, now seems remote.
Both candidates are spending heavily on Spanish-language advertising, and continue to schedule campaign events to focus on the fast-growing Hispanic vote. Last month, McCain held a town-hall-style meeting at a Puerto Rican community center in central Florida; a few days later, Obama, of Illinois, came to this heavily Hispanic city of 9,600 people for a rally at a plaza that dates from Spanish colonial times.
In an echo of his overall slide in the polls, some of the issues that have hampered McCain's candidacy turn out to have had an even greater impact on the Hispanic population. Latinos cite the crisis in the economy as their biggest concern, trumping immigration and the social conservatism that Republicans thought would help expand McCain's appeal among religious, family-oriented Hispanic voters.
And if Republicans were counting on tensions between blacks and Latinos, now the nation's largest minority, driving Hispanic voters away from Obama, that also has largely failed to materialize.
Early in the primary season, when Obama was still a newcomer little known to Latinos outside Illinois, he began campaigning among Hispanic voters, even in states where he knew he would lose to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the favorite among Hispanics. Political analysts say McCain has only sporadically and belatedly sought to engage Latino voters.
"The McCain campaign was never set up in a way that spoke to Hispanics," said Matthew Dowd, Bush's senior strategist in 2004. "Throughout the entire primary, there was no conversation because they thought that was not where the election was. You can't start to campaign in September for the general election among Hispanics. They are very frustrated with Bush and the Republicans, so McCain has a bigger hurdle to overcome."
Hispanics account for three of every eight voters here in New Mexico, where the vote has been extremely tight in the last two presidential elections. Al Gore won this state by just 366 votes as the Democratic nominee in 2000, and in 2004, President George W. Bush triumphed by fewer than 6,000.
In Colorado and Nevada, Latinos account for at least 20 percent of the population and 12 percent of registered voters. Together, the three Southwestern battleground states have 19 electoral votes that are growing in importance for McCain as his electoral map shrinks.
But events seem to be working in Obama's favor. Contrary to what non-Hispanic politicians often assume, immigration does not rank as high on the list of Hispanic concerns as the economy, education and health care.
Instead, surveys show that Latinos see immigration as a tool useful in identifying who is friend and who is foe. That may have complicated McCain's task: despite his sponsorship of the immigration overhaul legislation, he is burdened by nativist elements within the Republican Party.
"The Republican brand has been tarnished as result of the immigration debate and the extreme rhetoric that came out of that debate," said Janet Murguía, executive director of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group. "We think McCain remains an advocate of a comprehensive approach, but his standing has been undermined by those within his own party and the tough immigration plank in the 2008 Republican platform."
To woo Hispanic voters, McCain seems to have singled out three groups for attention in the Rocky Mountain West: Hispanic veterans, owners of small businesses and social conservatives, especially those who are members of Protestant evangelical groups or the charismatic Roman Catholic movement.
James Luján, 47, a deputy sheriff here, fits into the first category. He is a former marine with a son serving in the military in the Middle East, and he said he worried that Obama would withdraw precipitously from Iraq.
"The troops need to be able to finish what they're doing," Luján said. "I've got one son who is 14 and another who is 8, and if we pull out right away, like Obama wants, they're the ones who are going to have to go back."
His wife, Julie, 36, also supports McCain. She runs a hair salon, sells real estate as a sideline, and was excited by McCain's choice of Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate.
"I admire a strong, hard-working woman," Luján said. "We need to get out of the financial casino and be responsible, and McCain and Palin are the people who can do that."
But independent political analysts point to what they say are basic flaws in McCain's Hispanic strategy. Republicans "can talk all they want about abortion and same-sex marriage, but survey after survey tells us that even among socially conservative Hispanics, it's the other issues that matter most," said Christine Sierra, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.
Luján's sister, brother and mother, who work together at JoAnn's Ranch-O-Casados restaurant here, strongly echoed that assessment. JoAnn Casados, 57, argues that Obama "sees it the way we see it."
Casados's son, Orlando, 39, who works in the family's chili business, said, "I'm worried about health care and the price of gasoline, which has driven up the cost of doing business, and I think Obama cares more about how that affects people like us."
His sister Suzanne, 29, added, "Obama is more focused on the things that are really important, like the economy and health care, while McCain is up and down and all over the place."
Though the 2004 election showed Republicans could successfully appeal to Hispanic voters, that experience may provide less of a road map this year than might be expected. The Hispanic electorate has grown greatly since then, its numbers swelled by several million newly registered first-time voters: green-card holders who have recently become American citizens and young bilingual and bicultural Latinos who are sometimes referred to as "Generation ñ."
In addition, the bulk of the Latino vote remains concentrated in states not in play, like California, staunchly for Obama, and Texas, a McCain stronghold. That means the Hispanic vote is likely to be decisive only here in the Southwest and in Florida, where an influx of Puerto Ricans, who traditionally vote heavily Democratic, and Central and South American newcomers, has somewhat diluted the importance of the historically Republican Cuban-American vote.
The Obama campaign in particular has sought to seize advantage of those shifting demographic trends, organizing a voter registration drive in states with large or growing Hispanic populations. In Nevada, the number of registered Hispanic voters has doubled since 2004, to about 120,000, which is seen as a factor that could shift the balance there.
"Nevada is very dynamic, very volatile," said Efraín Escobedo, senior director of voter engagement at National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, an advocacy group. "We're talking about people who are truly the swing vote in Nevada, with very little party affiliation or allegiance to any particular party or candidate."
Initial concerns that Obama would not be able to win over Hispanic voters who supported Clinton in the Democratic primaries have largely disappeared, though signs of what sociologists call "black-brown tensions" still surface. For instance, John Medina, a 70-year-old navy retiree living east of here, has a McCain-Palin sign in his yard and when asked why he favored the Republican nominee, he replied, "Because he's not black."
More common, however, was the attitude that Casados expressed. "We need change, so the fact that Obama is not an Anglo appeals to me," she said. "He understands what discrimination is about, and if he gets in there and does a good job, that will make it easier for all the rest of us, whether black, Hispanic or Indian, to get past that problem."
By Jay Winik
Thursday, October 23, 2008
On March 3, 1801, Thomas Jefferson intoned at his presidential inauguration, "We are all Republicans: we are all Federalists." Then, addressing himself as much to future generations as to the crowd before him, he added, "I believe this . . . the strongest government on earth." Yet with the passing of the founders, the Federalists would cease to exist as a political party, and by 1861 the nation would be engaged in a terrible civil war. What happened in the intervening years?
More often than not, historians treat this period with a wave of a hand, as little more than the run-up to the unbridled struggle between North and South. In his latest book, "Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson," David S. Reynolds, a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the author of "John Brown, Abolitionist," among other books, asks us instead to more carefully consider the brawling, chaotic, boisterous years from 1815 to 1848 as a fascinating age in its own right. In this, he succeeds handsomely.
Along the way, Reynolds traverses much the same era of American history recently chronicled by Daniel Walker Howe's Pulitzer Prize-winning "What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848" and Walter A. McDougall's "Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era, 1829-1877," but he does so with his own unique stamp. Far more than just a political story or, for that matter, a story of Andrew Jackson, Reynolds's book shines a bright light on the cultural, social, intellectual and artistic currents buffeting the nation. Nothing in America during this period seemed to stand still, and nothing was straightforward.
Thus, President James Monroe observed that a growing network of canals and turnpikes and the development of the steamboat were helping stitch a disparate country together, even as other Americans, like DeWitt Clinton, foresaw a calamitous "dismemberment of the Union," East to West, unless it were bound together by a common thread like the Erie Canal. Thus, average Americans worshiped Andrew Jackson as "Everyman writ large," even as the new Whig party saw him as an unbridled despot. Thus, countless utopian movements blossomed across the country - "We are all a little wild here with numberless projects of social reform," Ralph Waldo Emerson breathlessly wrote - along with movements to help the poor, heal the sick and assist the deaf, even as Native Americans were brutally marched to their deaths along the Trail of Tears and plans were being made to ship free blacks off to Africa, or elsewhere.
To be sure, this was also a time when America increasingly established itself on the world stage. Reynolds reminds us that immigrants from Europe came in droves and the nation's population almost tripled; that to the south the United States staked its claim with the Monroe Doctrine, and to the west sought to do the same with the Tyler Doctrine; and that John L. O'Sullivan stirred the imagination of Americans with his call for "Manifest Destiny," which held that the spread of American culture would uplift all of humanity.
But beyond the more familiar tale of geopolitics and presidents, Reynolds deftly underscores the go-go, eccentric, even bizarre nature of the age. Mesmerists, who claimed they could travel through time and magically heal patients, were the rage. The same for phrenologists, who claimed they could read a person's character by feeling bumps on the skull. There was a surge of self-styled prophets bearing God's message: the New York farmer Joseph Smith, who would give us Mormonism, spoke of receiving the Bible from an angel, while William Miller pinpointed the exact year when Christ would return (from March 1843 to March 1844), a year that quickly came and went. Meanwhile, Frances Trollope watched in horror at the burgeoning phenomena of spiritual revivals, where people spoke in tongues and men fell to the ground howling like "maniacs."
With its deeply sensationalist strain, this era also bore more than a faint resemblance to our own time. Much like today's tabloids, penny papers peddled articles about whoredom, divorce, even infanticide, and when stories ran dry, the newsmen simply made them up, once writing about talking man-bats on the moon. At a time of near ubiquitous triumph of image over substance in politics, P. T. Barnum resolved to make a living from the public's craving for the melodramatic, opening a museum that housed a medley of freaks, including a creature half woman, half fish; two-headed animals; and a number of midgets. Still, there was a countervailing strain to the national mood as well; Henry David Thoreau spoke for many when he longed for a simpler, more contemplative time, as did Edgar Allan Poe, who opined, "Democracy is a very admirable form of government - for dogs."
Some critics may argue that much of Reynolds's story is well known - the debates over tariffs, monetary policy and the National Bank - or that there is little new in these pages about John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson and John Tyler, or the great senatorial debates among Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster. Or they will insist that the author doesn't explain in enough detail why various events took the course they did. But given the sweeping nature of this book, all this would miss the point. Reynolds is a thoughtful historian, and "Waking Giant" is as engaging and insightful a narrative of this critical interregnum as any written in many years.
Yet if the heart of this book is the cultural ferment of the age - which Reynolds persuasively argues stems from its militant reform spirit - there is no escaping its darker side. Harriet Tubman, the former slave who helped ferry thousands to freedom, insisted, "Dead niggers tell no tales." But in the passions they aroused, they did tell tales. Within little over a decade after Zachary Taylor's inauguration, Thoreau's civil disobedience had given way to John Brown's belligerence, the heady optimism of the feminists of Seneca Falls to the despair of diplomats failing to mediate the differences between North and South, and the Era of Good Feelings to the blood-soaked fields of Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg and the Wilderness.
When stories ran dry, the newsmen simply made them up, writing about talking man-bats on the moon.
By Clyde Haberman
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Our Lady Of Greenwich Village
Our hero, to use the word loosely, is Wolfe Tone O'Rourke. He's as Irish and as rebellious as the 18th-century revolutionist whose name he bears, Theobald Wolfe Tone. You want Irish? O'Rourke speaks the language as well as he does English, befitting one who (like this novel's author) began life in Dublin and came to America as a lad. Lordy, the man even quotes Yeats during sex.
Too bad he's something of a mess, what with the booze and an occasional snort of white powder. Haunted by ghosts, O'Rourke is: Vietnam, where he was a Navy medic during the war, and Bobby Kennedy, on whose 1968 presidential campaign he worked and whom he guided disastrously to that hotel kitchen in Los Angeles. But sure if he doesn't have a grand way with words, many of them printable. He is sharp as an ice pick, and as lethal when it comes to puncturing the many mountebanks he encounters as a political consultant. At root - and we have no less than his girlfriend's word for it - he is a most caring, decent soul.
Which is more than you can say about virtually everyone else in "Our Lady of Greenwich Village," Dermot McEvoy's comical, jaundiced look at politics, especially the practice of it in New York. Make that malpractice. A sorry bunch of public figures float in and out of the narrative just long enough to leave a foul aftertaste. Some are skewered by real names. Let us simply note that Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Edward Koch, Rudolph Giuliani, Charles Schumer and others are not likely to read this and smile. Also not spared are a flock of barely disguised political and media celebrities like Bill O'Reilly, Don Imus, the late Tim Russert and Susan Molinari, a former New York congresswoman whose career went poof after a burst of national glory.
In politics, O'Rourke leads with his left. So, we must presume, does McEvoy, a senior editor at Publishers Weekly. His heroes are the likes of Michael Collins and Paul O'Dwyer, an Irish-born liberal darling in New York. His villains include everyone in the Bush administration, pedophile priests and the bishops who shelter them, and some gay activists who think their troubles are the only ones that count in this world.
The story gets rolling with Jackie Swift, a Republican congressman improbably elected from the very un-Republican Greenwich Village. Swift suffers a nonfatal heart attack when he is visited by the Virgin Mary, who tells him to do battle against Roe v. Wade. That's the word from his press secretary, anyway. In fact, the congressman collapses during a drug-fueled romp with his chief of staff, one Peggy Brogan. There are three things Swift loves above all else: sex with Brogan, cocaine and old movies. "The Song of Bernadette," about a French girl visited by the Virgin, happens to be on TV and catches his eye while he's in flagrante. The dopey press secretary, three sheets to the wind as usual, mangles the story.
But that's the version the newspapers run with. It leads to political and religious lunacy. Caught up in the tangle are assorted politicians and also some clergymen, including an unsavory Opus Dei priest, a disreputable evangelical minister and the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, an O.K. sort but something of a 25-watt bulb. Into this mix enters O'Rourke, who is visited in his dreams by Our Lady of Greenwich Village and challenges Swift for the Congressional seat.
Perhaps it takes a New Yorker to appreciate all the grenades McEvoy hurls at the city's political class. It may also help the reader to be Irish - and maybe not even then - to sustain interest in O'Rourke's tediously long search for his family roots in Dublin. It surely would not hurt to have been a habitué of the old Lion's Head.
This was a great watering hole in the Village where journalists, novelists, political hacks and more honest types bent many an elbow in one another's company. As the standing joke had it, the saloon was not for writers with drinking problems but, rather, for drinkers with writing problems.
The Lion's Head is dead these dozen years. Here it is called Hogan's Moat. It is a character all its own. Truth be told, it is more likable, and definitely far saner, than almost any other in this book.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
By Louis Charbonneau
The next U.S. president, whether it is Barack Obama or John McCain, will likely shut down Guantanamo Bay prison camp but may decide to keep some prisoners indefinitely, a U.N. rights envoy said on Wednesday.
The prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the system for trying its detainees, has been widely condemned by human rights groups and governments around the world, including close allies of the United States, who say it does not meet international legal standards.
Both candidates seeking to succeed President George W. Bush -- Republican Sen. McCain and Democratic Sen. Obama -- have pledged to close the detention centre where some 255 suspected members of al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated groups are detained. The prison once held as many as 600 detainees.
Martin Scheinin, U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in the fight against terrorism, told reporters he expected the next U.S. president to swiftly follow through on his promise to close down the prison.
This will lead to the "release of those detainees who are ready for release, who have already been determined as posing no threat," said Scheinin.
It will also lead to trials for those suspected of serious crimes who have been deemed ready for trial.
"I would expect the trials to be taken to (U.S.) federal courts," Scheinin said, adding that he was confident the suspects would receive fair trials.
But for those who are neither ready for release or trial, the new administration may decide to seek legislation to create a "regime where indefinite detention would be continued."
"I strongly recommend against that solution," Scheinin told reporters after briefing the U.N. General Assembly's Third Committee on social, humanitarian and cultural affairs.
He said the current legal basis for indefinite detention of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay was deeply flawed.
"But replacing it with an ex post facto law authorizing, after so many years, continued detention -- unavoidably it would be assessed by international human rights bodies as constituting a form of arbitrary detention," he said.
He also chided Canada for refusing to request extradition of a 22-year-old Canadian captive who was 15 years old when he was detained after a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002.
Scheinin said Omar Khadr was a juvenile at the time he was alleged to have thrown a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier.
"It is troubling that Canada is not doing what other countries have done in order to get their citizens or even residents out of Guantanamo," Scheinin said.
(Editing by Alan Elsner)
Some day the manic thrust of China's continuing dash for development will have passed, and the quest for leisure so cherished in developed countries will become as commonplace among Chinese as their current thirst for achievement.
Perhaps by then, new heroes will have emerged to help explain how the world's most populous nation rejoined the ranks of the rich.
For now, the familiar story line credits the former leader Deng Xiaoping (1904-97) for breaking the dismal, decades-long run of misrule and foreign subjugation, feudalism and civil war, and finally the fanatical excesses of Mao Zedong.
Often lost in the telling are the invisible foot soldiers who made China's stirring rise possible: the country's 130 million migrant workers, the subject of Leslie T. Chang's "Factory Girls." This vast and ceaselessly renewed work force has built China's cities, throwing up skyscrapers at a rate never seen before, and has filled China's factories, churning out ever cheaper goods in ever greater quantities to fuel the double-digit growth that has reshaped the world's economy.
Chang, a former China correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, describes this endless flow of labor from the hinterland to the booming cities of the east as the "largest migration in human history." But she gives us something more personal as well, including an extended aside in which she explores her ancestors' roots in China.
The results are deeply affecting.
Her focus, as suggested by the title, are the young women who overwhelmingly staff the factory assembly lines in the new industrial supercities of the Pearl River Delta of southern China. In the course of her narrative, she builds a quiet but powerful case that through their tireless work and self-sacrifice, these women, invisible to the outside world and to most Chinese, are this era's true heroes.
Chang's story centers on Dongguan, a giant factory town whose population is estimated at 70 percent female, where the economy has grown at a 15 percent annual clip for two decades.
The factories are a world of brutal 12-hour shifts and minimal leave, Spartan dormitories, six-month minimum commitments enforced by the withholding of the first two months' salary, and monthly wages that often hover in the $100 range. Fines are assessed for talking on the job, and bathroom breaks are allowed once every four hours.
Despite exploitation like this, the supply of girls willing to trade the dead-end life of the village for the cheating and discrimination of the factory appears limitless. As one chapter title puts it, to die poor is a sin.
If the steely motivation of these young women were only about securing a meager wage, this bargain would not work. One after another, they tell the author that their current jobs are merely temporary stopping places.
For nearly all, the greater goal is self-improvement, which they pursue by frequently jumping jobs, abandoning both friends and back pay as they bluff their way into better and better work.
This self-improvement is also facilitated by night school sessions, which may cost as much as a month's salary and which the young women attend after a full shift.
It scarcely seems to matter that most of these schools are ersatz affairs with few conventional qualifications. They busily copy one another's curriculums, and in turn teach the virtues of lying as a means of getting ahead. "People who are too honest in this society will lose out," one instructor told the author.
The women learn something else important along the way, and in a country that actively discourages religion, it resonates with the force of gospel: "Change soon or it will be too late." We are a very long way from Mao Zedong, who glorified the worker and despised the managers, all the while emphasizing the importance of the collective identity over that of the individual, whose re-emergence in China is an important theme of this book.
Chang's rich narrative takes us deep inside a country that is changing too fast for any reckoning about the outcome or even direction, and she is wise in avoiding easy conclusions or even approval.
"One day, I asked a friend: 'What is life all about? Why are we working so hard?"' she quotes one worker saying. "My friend could not answer." — Reviewed by Howard W. French
By Jim Yardley
Thursday, October 23, 2008
BEIJING: Hu Jia, the soft-spoken, bespectacled advocate for democracy and human rights in China, was awarded Europe's most prestigious human rights awards on Thursday in a pointed rebuke of the ruling Communist Party that comes as European leaders are arriving in Beijing for a weekend summit meeting.
Hu, 35, was chosen by the European Parliament as this year's recipient of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, despite warnings from Beijing that his selection would harm relations with the European Union. Last year, Hu testified via video link before a hearing of the European Parliament about the human rights situation in China. Weeks later, Hu was jailed and later sentenced to three and a half years in prison on a conviction for subversion based on his critical writings about Communist Party rule.
Hu has been one of China's leading figures on a range of human rights issues, while also speaking out on behalf of AIDS sufferers and for environmental protection. His selection comes after he had been considered a front-runner for the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to the former president of Finland, Martti Ahtisaari.
"Hu Jia is one of the real defenders of human rights in the People's Republic of China," said the European Parliament president, Hans-Gert Poettering. "The European Parliament is sending out a signal of clear support to all those who support human rights in China."
The timing may make for a frosty weekend in Beijing as European leaders are meeting with top Chinese officials at the Asia-Europe meeting. Behind the scenes, China had lobbied against Hu's candidacy for the Sakharov award. Song Zhe, the Chinese ambassador to the European Union, wrote a critical letter to the president of the European Parliament on Oct. 16.
"If the European Parliament should award this prize to Hu Jia, that would inevitably hurt the Chinese people once again and bring serious damage to China-EU relations," Song wrote, according to The Associated Press.
China had also warned against awarding him the Nobel, and a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, had described him in scathing terms as a convicted criminal.
"The Chinese government will be upset," said Teng Biao, a legal expert who has co-authored essays with Hu. "But as a responsible nation that is trying to integrate into the international community, China has to understand that its conduct should follow international protocols. It should embrace the criticism as an opportunity to improve China's human rights condition."
Hu remains imprisoned in Beijing and could not be reached for comment. His wife, Zeng Jinyan, a prominent blogger and human rights activist, also could not be contacted. She has lived for months under house arrest with the couple's infant daughter.
The Sakharov award is an embarrassment for the Communist Party less than two months after China's successful staging of the Olympics. But if the Chinese government proved it could smoothly manage the world's biggest sporting event, it also prevented demonstrations at designated protest zones, instituted broad restrictions on the domestic media and placed numerous dissidents under house arrest or surveillance.
Hu's conviction in April was part of a nationwide crackdown against dissidents in what many human rights advocates considered a pre-Olympic silencing campaign. A devout Buddhist, Hu has dedicated himself to a range of issues during the past 12 years, championing the legal rights of Chinese citizens and promoting greater democracy. He also used a personal Web site and e-mails to become a one-man clearinghouse of information on human rights abuses.
Hu graduated from Beijing's Capital University of Economics and Trade in 1996 and almost immediately plunged into China's nascent civil society. He traveled to Inner Mongolia to plant trees as a measure to slow the advance of the Gobi Desert.
By 2000, China was facing the rapid spread of AIDS, a problem the government had initially denied and remained reluctant to publicly confront. Hu formed a nongovernmental organization, Loving Source, and focused on caring for people infected in a blood-selling scandal in Henan Province.
Hu later began joining Internet petition campaigns calling for the release of political prisoners, while also calling on the authorities to uphold the rights of citizens.
His activism quickly made him a target. In 2006, he spent 168 days under house arrest. Rather than disappear from public view, Hu produced a documentary, "Prisoner in Freedom City," in which he filmed state security agents harassing his wife.
Huang Yuanxi contributed research.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
BEIJING: A group of 101 mothers have written to China's Communist Party leadership for help after their toddlers were denied kindergarten places for testing positive for hepatitis B.
China has passed laws in recent years reversing a ban on its 120-130 million hepatitis B carriers from the civil service, and banning companies from using the virus as an excuse to fire or not hire.
But activists and sufferers say discrimination and stigma fuelled by ignorance remain widespread and a number of provincial governments still have laws banning carriers from kindergartens, despite minimal chances of infection from casual contact.
"Our children have already been unfortunate enough to be infected with hepatitis B, and yet to be treated with such discrimination they cannot receive a normal pre-school education," said a transcript of the letter carried in the Beijing News Thursday.
"How will this affect our children's lives? How will stigmatisation affect their character and their growing into adults? We dare not think," it added.
Li Hua, a mother from coastal Shandong province, said the letter targeted Liu Yandong, a female member of China's cabinet, the State Council, with an education portfolio.
"We thought of writing to Premier Wen Jiabao but thought he might be too busy... Then we thought of Liu Yandong because she is the only woman on the State Council... is possibly a mother herself, and can more deeply understand our feelings," Li told Reuters by telephone.
Hepatitis B is usually transmitted from mother to child, but can be passed on through sex, blood transfusions and contaminated needles.
While older children and adults can flush out the virus, children under five usually end up carrying it for life. One in four are at risk of developing cirrhosis -- scarring of the liver -- or liver cancer later in life.
Li choked back tears as she related how a local kindergarten refused her three-year-old daughter, despite its director knowing the virus had a low risk of infection.
"There is not enough information about this disease in the country at the moment. Many people don't understand it. So it is urgent that national policy be issued to protect out our children," Li said.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom and Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Nick Macfie)
Thursday, October 23, 2008
By Igor Ilic
A car bomb killed two journalists in central Zagreb on Thursday in the latest of a series of violent incidents that have hit the capital this year.
President Stjepan Mesic said the blast, which killed Nacional weekly editor Ivo Pukanic, 47, and a Nacional manager, meant "terrorism has become a fact on the streets of our capital."
Pukanic, the owner of the Nacional, which often exposed corruption and human rights abuses, earlier this year reported an assassination attempt against him.
"The state is faced with an unprecedented challenge from the criminal circles. Now it is them or us...rule of law and safety of citizens against criminals, terrorists and mafia," Mesic said in a statement, after calling an urgent session of the National Security Council for Friday.
A visibly shaken Prime Minister Ivo Sanader told a news conference:
"I shall not allow Croatia to become Beirut. This is no longer merely a fight against organised crime. This is something all of us in Croatia will rise up against."
Sanader sacked the interior and justice ministers earlier this month and announced a set of tough 'anti-mafia' laws as part of a bid to tackle organised crime, following a string of unsolved beatings and murders in Zagreb.
The bomb exploded in front of the Nacional building in central Zagreb and state television showed footage of the wrecked car, under which the bomb was apparently planted.
The Zagreb police, who confirmed the identity of the victims, sealed off the city centre while firemen rushed to the scene to extinguish the resulting car fire.
Fighting organised crime and corruption is one of the key requirements Zagreb has to meet if it wants to complete European Union accession talks next year, but analysts said the latest incident did not bode well.
GOVERNMENT LOSES ROUND
"Unfortunately, this means that the state has lost this round of crackdown on crime. This is big blow to Croatia's political system, it shows the system's inefficiency in fighting crime," said Davor Butkovic, an editor of wide-selling Jutarnji List daily.
Earlier this year Pukanic told the police an assailant had fired a gun at him from close range while he was walking in the street, missing him by inches. A police investigation has proved inconclusive and police revoked his protection two months ago.
Earlier this month, the daughter of a well-known lawyer was shot twice in the head in the stairway of the building where she lived, not far from the Zagreb police headquarters.
Also this year, a prominent crime reporter was beaten up on the street, a member of the Zagreb city administration was beaten up with baseball bats and the chief executive of a major construction firm was assaulted with iron bars in September.
Local media have urged a tough crackdown on organised crime, calling for a large-scale police action similar to a crackdown that neighbouring Serbia launched against criminal gangs after its Prime Minister, Zoran Djindjic, was assassinated in 2003.
(Reporting by Igor Ilic; editing by Zoran Radosavljevic)
Georgia says Russia deploying troops in South Ossetia
Thursday, October 23, 2008
TBILISI: Georgia said Thursday that Russia had deployed 2,000 extra troops in South Ossetia in the past week and was preparing to stir up more trouble in the breakaway territory.
Moscow dismissed the charges.
"In the past week, Russia increased the number of troops by 2,000 to 7,000 staff," Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told a news conference.
"We fear Russia is preparing provocations in South Ossetia," he said.
Asked for his reaction, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said all of Moscow's troop deployments to the region were openly declared.
"It's very difficult to comment on official declarations of Georgian representatives because there is very little truth in them," Lavrov said in Moscow.
Utiashvili said dozens of Russian armoured vehicles had been positioned in the disputed Akhalgori region, the southeastern corner of South Ossetia which Georgia insists should be returned to Tbilisi's control under a French-brokered cease-fire deal.
Russia sent troops and tanks into Georgia in August to repel an offensive by the Georgian military to retake pro-Russian South Ossetia, which threw off Tbilisi's rule in 1991-92.
Russia's forces drove the Georgian army out of South Ossetia and then pushed further into Georgia.
The West condemned Russia for a "disproportionate response" and Russian troops have since pulled back from buffer zones around South Ossetia and a second breakaway region, Abkhazia.
The Kremlin has recognized both rebel regions as independent states and said it will station 7,600 troops there to provide security -- a figure Lavrov repeated Thursday.
A 225-strong European Union mission is monitoring the cease-fire, patrolling the former buffer zone around South Ossetia up to its de facto border.
Russia says the mission will not be allowed to operate inside South Ossetia.
Lavrov also called for better cooperation from the European monitors, whom he held responsible for the security of the two regions, to prevent what he said were continued violations of cease-fire agreements by the Georgian side.
"Russia is concerned they are taking a light-hearted view of the situation of what is happening there," Lavrov said of the EU observers.
"This is a dangerous game with fire," he added.
(Reporting by Niko Mchedlishvili; additional reporting by Conor Sweeney; editing by Richard Balmforth)
By Ellen Barry
Thursday, October 23, 2008
SHAVSHVEBI, Georgia: Lyuba Valiyeva, 74, wrapped a wool scarf around her head and ventured across the highway to examine more closely the extraordinary things happening on the plain near the South Ossetian border.
Houses, hundreds of them, were rising from the cropland. Utility poles were being tipped into holes and strung with black cable. The hammering continued late into the night, and every morning, the rows of identical red-roofed houses extended a little farther.
There was, she concluded, not even a small difference between one house and the next; the only thing she could compare it to was a poultry incubator. And the incubator was already twice the size of Shavshvebi.
"What are they going to call it? Lower Shavshvebi?" she asked, and, with genuine curiosity, added, "Will they be able to find enough refugees?"
Two months after the war in South Ossetia, Georgian leaders are adamant that the separatist enclave must be returned to Georgia. But they are also well on the way to building 7,000 winterized houses, at a speed that has shocked international humanitarian aid workers, for refugees who will not be able to return home. Some 31,000 people are in that category, and President Mikheil Saakashvili has promised that each of them will have a new home by Dec. 15.
It is an impressive effort, especially for a country that has never grappled with the 220,000 refugees who fled Abkhazia after a war in the early 1990s. A large population of displaced people, living in constant hope of returning home, poses thorny problems for a society. But it can also be used as a bargaining chip, demonstrating the urgency of return.
The swift building project "is an acknowledgment of reality," said Margaret Vikki, the Georgia country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council. For 15 years after the Abkhaz war, she said, "they never stopped talking about return. There was always rhetoric about 'Next spring in Abkhazia.' This has completely stopped."
It was a question that troubled the workers — many of them refugees themselves — as they troweled cement onto the cinderblock walls of the houses. Each had a different answer for how long refugees would live in the houses they were building, but they counted it in months, not years.
"We will return when the Russians leave. That will happen when we join NATO," said Makhmoud Akatouri, 40, who lost 11 head of cattle and 15 bee colonies when Russians moved into South Ossetia. The stall he built for the cattle, he grumbled, was the size of one of the new houses. On a nearby worksite, Zakro Kvitsinadze was thinking the same thing.
"We like to have big houses. Now we will have to live in a small house," he said. But he brightened when he realized he was talking to an American. "Are you going to help us get rid of the Russians?" he asked.
When compared with state housing programs used in other emergencies — Hurricane Katrina comes to mind — the Georgian building program is swift and bureaucracy-free. Teams of local builders said they would receive 3,500 lari, or about $2,500, for each house completed to government specifications. They are rushing to finish as many as possible, and some said they were working through the night.
Peter Nikolaus, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Georgia, called it "a very, very swift and a very decisive move." His sole criticism, he said, was that the Georgian authorities did not let him and other humanitarian officials know about the effort.
"I felt puzzled," he said. "I realized that the building had already started and almost been completed, and nobody informed us."
The handling of this refugee population offers a stark contrast with what happened 15 years ago, when hundreds of thousands of people fled fighting in the separatist enclave Abkhazia. The government in Tbilisi in those days, led by Eduard Shevardnadze, never publicly acknowledged that the refugees would have to build new lives elsewhere.
Today, 45 percent of that initial group still lives in hotels and dormitories, said Julia Kharashvili of the IDP Women Association, an advocacy group for the internally displaced. At a news conference in Brussels on Wednesday, Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said that Georgia would spend about $700 million to improve conditions for both the old and new waves of refugees. He said the money would come from the approximately $4.5 billion in pledged international aid for that purpose.
At the Shavshvebi work site, a group of deeply tanned workers who had been pushed out of Abkhazia showed little interest in government aid programs. Vakhtang Sukhadze, 63, dreamily described his house in Sukhumi, the capital of Abkhazia, which he last saw 16 years ago, and derided the new structures as "boxes." He has a six-room apartment in Gori, near the South Ossetian border, he said, but he could be packed in a matter of hours if he heard that he could go back to Sukhumi.
"The swallow," he said, "makes his nest where he flies."
Taking a break by the slate-gray foundation, Mirabi Atskhanorahsvili squinted across the flatland at the ridge of hills that rose about two miles in the distance, separating the valley from Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. The real danger, he said, emanated from the hills, where the Ossetians were "uncivilized," not from the Ossetians from the valley like the ones in Shavshvebi.
But as he and his crew put the finishing touches on one house and started on the next, identical one, their minds wandered: What if the radicalism spreads into the valley? What if Russian troops move up to the road and seize the new settlement as soon as it is built? Will they just start over with new rows of houses in another place?
"There are open fields over there," he said, pointing, "in case it happens."
The Associated Press
Thursday, October 23, 2008
Irritated by an advertising campaign on the sides of London buses that promoted Christian evangelism, an informal group of atheists decided to respond with a message of their own. They said Wednesday that they had raised more than $113,000 within hours on the Internet. The money will be used to place ads on 30 buses carrying this message: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."
By Chris Bohjalian
Thursday, October 23, 2008
LINCOLN, Vermont: Any day now, my cellphone is going to ring. This is news only because it will chirp in my home here in Vermont, where until a short time ago there was absolutely no cellphone coverage. Recently, however, Unicel expanded its reach into this small Green Mountain hamlet. I happen to have Verizon, and so it hasn't affected me. But someday, I am quite sure, Verizon will extend its reach as well, and suddenly my cellphone will work from my house.
This is precisely what happened to a friend of mine who has Unicel service. She was home in Lincoln and a few evenings ago, much to her surprise, she heard her cellphone ringing in her purse.
In most ways, I like the idea of my cellphone functioning here. After all, I work from my home. For years I have found important messages waiting for me on my cell, because people with whom I work in Boston or Los Angeles have used that line to reach me, not realizing that it might be days before I would get the message. (Some weeks I am better than others at remembering to call my cell from my land line to check for messages.)
But there is something about the arrival of cell coverage here that also makes me a tad wistful.
Part of my village's allure has always been its remoteness, the sense that we are an idiosyncratic island that is a little timeless, slightly eccentric, and vaguely inaccessible. We are a town of barely 1,000 people halfway up Vermont's third highest mountain. When the Lincoln Gap is closed for the winter - which will be soon - there is only one entirely paved road into the center of town, furthering the sensation that we are a bit like Brigadoon.
And that lack of cell coverage only enhanced our feelings of seclusion and pride: It was one more thing that made us different and suggested that we were of especially hardy stock.
I will never forget when Priscilla Presley and a film crew of 40 descended upon Lincoln one autumn to make a perfume commercial, and the cast and crew discovered much to their horror that their cellphones wouldn't work. It was as if they had been dropped on a desert island without Botox and TiVo.
Moreover, the fact that our cellphones didn't function here meant that sometimes we communicated through that great, rural intermediary: the old-fashioned cracker barrel.
Without cell coverage, we often resorted to Vaneasa Stearns and the Lincoln General Store to get messages to one another. How else is the local septic-system cleaner going to reach the local excavator, when they are both working outdoors somewhere in town and there's no cell coverage to connect them? How else are you going to find someone to milk your llama when suddenly you have to race out of state? The Lincoln General Store was command central in both emergencies.
The feeling is not unlike the solitude we experienced while traveling in an automobile a generation ago. There was a time when we were unreachable in our cars, and so instead of using our phones we were listening to the radio or books on audio. At night we were watching for moose by the light of the moon.
Soon that will change. The one spot where I am able to detach completely from my cellphone is in Lincoln. I am able to go cold turkey here and it is really rather easy because I haven't a choice.
Soon, however, I will be as reachable on my cell in these hills as I am in midtown Manhattan or on Newbury Street in Boston. Sure, I could turn my cellphone off. But I would know that it is capable of receiving calls and text messages, and I have the will power of a toddler in an ice cream shop when it comes to wireless communication.
The reality, plain and simple, is that the last bastion is crumbling.
Chris Bohjalian's novels include "Midwives," "The Double Bind" and "Skeletons at the Feast."
By Sarah Lyall
Thursday, October 23, 2008
LONDON: The meetings took place this summer in various picturesque spots on the Greek island of Corfu: a Russian billionaire's yacht, a Rothschild family villa, a charming local taverna. But questions about what actually happened — who said what, and to whom — have coalesced into a divertingly complicated scandal that has knocked Britain's economic woes off newspapers' front pages for the first time in weeks.
There are many embarrassed participants here. But the most embarrassed could well be the opposition Conservative Party, which until recently was successfully presenting itself as a legitimate, even superior, alternative to the Labor Party, which has governed Britain for 11 years.
The basic issue is simple: Did George Osborne, the Conservative's brash spokesman for economic affairs, solicit an $80,000 donation from the fabulously rich Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska? Osborne says he did not. "We never asked for a donation, nor did we receive one," he declared Tuesday.
But that basic question has been buried under a mille-feuille of issues, including old-school ties, big foreign money, gossipy Westminster politics and the proper etiquette for dealing with indiscreet confidences gleaned while enjoying someone else's hospitality.
And whether Osborne has done anything wrong seems almost beside the point. At the very least, he has shown himself to be an enthusiastic hobnobber with the rich and powerful at a time when the Conservatives are doing their best to appeal to the British masses.
"This raises questions about the honesty and reliability and integrity of the political class as a whole," said Anthony King, a professor of British government at the University of Essex. "People think that this kind of affair is inconsistent with liberal democracy, that this is not the way these things ought to work."
The Daily Telegraph, usually an implacable cheerleader for the Conservatives, scolded Osborne in harsh terms on Wednesday and said the affair had raised serious doubts about his political fitness. "Frankly, he's been a bit of a twerp," an editorial said.
The scandal began, as scandals often seem to in British politics, with Peter Mandelson, a Labor politician believed to be so steeped in the art of ruthless behind-the-scenes politics that he is known as the Prince of Darkness. A confidant of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, he was twice elevated to Blair's cabinet and twice had to leave in semi-disgrace. He then went to Brussels as Europe's trade commissioner.
In the latest twist in his interesting career, he was elevated to the House of Lords by his erstwhile enemy, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and brought back to the cabinet yet again, this time as business secretary.
His rehabilitation provoked a chorus of sniping from his enemies. One anonymous person told The Sunday Times of London that Lord Mandelson had, embarrassingly, "poured out pure poison" about Brown, his new boss, in the ear of "a senior Tory official" at a social occasion.
It soon became accepted that the anonymous person was Osborne, that he was the senior Tory official and that the conversation had taken place in Corfu over the summer, when he and Lord Mandelson were guests of Nathaniel Rothschild, son of the financier Jacob Rothschild and the chairman of the successful hedge fund Atticus Capital.
More unflattering articles about Lord Mandelson followed. Some centered on his relationship with another of Rothschild's friends, Deripaska, the richest man in Russia, whose yacht — said to be 238 feet long and to have cost $150 million — Lord Mandelson had visited in Corfu. Detractors noted that tariffs on aluminum were reduced during Lord Mandelson's tenure in Brussels, to the benefit of Deripaska's aluminum business.
Finally, it seemed, Rothschild had had enough, and on Tuesday, an extraordinary letter from him appeared in The Times of London.
"I am surprised that you focus on the fact that one of my guests, Peter Mandelson, is a friend of another, Oleg Deripaska," Rothschild wrote. "Not once in the acres of coverage did you mention that George Osborne, who also accepted my hospitality, found the opportunity of meeting with Deripaska so good that he invited the Conservatives' fund-raiser Andrew Feldman, who was staying nearby, to accompany him on to Deripaska's boat to solicit a donation."
It is illegal for foreign residents to donate to British political parties. The letter accuses Osborne and Feldman of suggesting that the donation be funneled through a British-based company owned by Deripaska.
What makes the letter so unusual is that Rothschild is an old friend of Osborne. At Oxford, both joined the Bullingdon club, known for its members' tendency to get blindingly drunk and break things. "I like the sound of breaking glass" is its unofficial motto.
Rothschild has not explained why he publicly denounced his old drinking companion. But it appears that he was offended by Osborne's violation of something known informally as the "house-party rule," which holds that you do not betray confidences told to you by fellow guests at a friend's house.
"Perhaps in future it would be better if all involved accepted the age-old adage that private parties are just that," Rothschild wrote.
Osborne, 37, has been considered a rising star of the Conservative Party. On Tuesday, the party issued a detailed account of his dealings with Deripaska. Having first met him at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (where they had a "brief group conversation about the world economy"), Osborne subsequently socialized with Deripaska four times over the weekend in question in Corfu in August, the statement said. Topics of discussion included "British and Russian politics, education and Russian history."
The possibility of making a donation was discussed, the statement said, but with Rothschild — not with Deripaska. In any case, the statement said, the party concluded that a donation "would not be appropriate."
David Cameron, the Conservative leader, stood by Osborne and said he had done nothing wrong. But the incident recalls the financing scandals that hurt the Tories' reputation a decade ago, and once again connects the Conservatives with the moneyed elite when they are trying to shake off those perceptions.
"This is a garden in which no one comes out smelling like roses," said Anthony Seldon, a biographer of Blair who is writing a biography of Brown. "There is a suspicion towards hedge funds, merchant bankers and oligarchs — a sense that this is unsavory. It is very hard to defend yourself against that."
Labor Party members seized on the opportunity to denounce Osborne's behavior. If they sounded gleeful, it was because they had had so few chances recently to deflect attention from their own misfortunes. While the prime minister's personal approval rating has shot up in response to what is seen as his deft handling of the global financial crisis, his party is still trailing the Conservatives by about 15 percentage points in national polls.
Making his weekly appearance before Parliament, Brown called the question of the maybe-solicitation "a very serious matter" and said, "I hope it is investigated by the authorities."
Brown did not specify what he meant by "the authorities." A spokesman for the Electoral Commission said, "We've seen no information to suggest that an offense has been committed."
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