Friday, 12 December 2008

A Place in the Auvergne, Thursday, 11th December 2008

Nuclear deal with North Korea eludes Bush's grasp

By Steven Lee Myers
Thursday, December 11, 2008
WASHINGTON: President George W. Bush's last effort to seal an agreement to dismantle North Korea's nuclear weapons program during his presidency collapsed Thursday, leaving the confrontation with one of the world's most isolated and intractable nations to Barack Obama's administration.
Four days of negotiations in Beijing ended in impasse after North Korea refused to agree to a system of verifying its promise to end all nuclear activity. Among other things, the North Koreans have objected to soil and air samples being taken near nuclear facilities and being taken overseas for testing.
The negotiations over North Korea's nuclear weapons - a major diplomatic achievement of Bush's second term - have often progressed erratically, punctuated by brinkmanship and breakdowns, only to resume again.
North Korea could still return to the bargaining table, officials said, but it is now almost certain not to do so until after Bush steps down in less than six weeks, depriving him of a late diplomatic breakthrough in the sunset of his presidency.
"What's unfortunate is that the North Koreans had an opportunity here," the White House press secretary, Dana Perino, said Thursday. "There was an open door, and all they had to do was walk through it."
Even as the administration pushed to seal an agreement, it appeared North Korea wanted to stall, perhaps to seek different terms from Obama's administration.
As a candidate and president-elect, Obama's team has pledged to take aggressive steps to halt nuclear proliferation by North Korea, as well as Iran, criticizing the president's handling of the confrontation as "ad hoc" and unnecessarily belligerent.
But while Obama has indicated he would be open to talks with Iran's leaders, which Bush has ruled out, he has not proposed a radically different approach to North Korea than the one Bush has pursued for the last two years.
In a debate against Senator John McCain in September, he criticized Bush's initial hostility toward North Korea, saying it resulted in that country's decision to abandon the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and test a nuclear weapon in 2006, but he also acknowledged the diplomatic effort that has since followed.
"When we re-engaged - because, again, the Bush administration reversed course on this - then we have at least made some progress, although right now, because of the problems in North Korea, we are seeing it on shaky ground," Obama said at the time.
Only two months ago, the administration officially removed North Korea from a list of state sponsors of terrorism in an attempt to salvage the agreement, which has been fragile from the moment since it was first reach in February 2007.
The State Department's spokesman, Sean McCormack, said that the administration would not reverse that decision since it had been made "based on the law and the facts."
"That's an irreducible condition," he said on Thursday. "You can't get around that. They met the criteria."
At the same time, however, an administration official made it clear that North Korea could not expect additional reciprocal steps or incentives without accepting a rigid and intrusive system of verification.
"They're not going to get any more from us unless they're willing to take action," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic exchanges.
At the White House, Perino suggested that the United States would now reconsider some of the assistance it has provided under the carefully calibrated agreements that have been negotiated over nearly two years of talks. The aid includes fuel oil that the United States, along with China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, had offered in exchange for North Korea's steps toward dismantlement, but Perino emphasized that no decisions had been made yet.
North Korea's posture in recent talks has prompted some officials to question whether its reclusive leader, Kim Jong Il, was fully in charge following a stroke in August. A French doctor who treated him, François-Xavier Roux, confirmed in an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro that he had a stroke but that his condition had since improved.
Roux, a neurosurgeon based in Paris, told the newspaper that Kim had undergone treatment, but not an operation; he last treated him in late October, he told the newspaper.
North Korea's government has said nothing about its leader's health except to say that foreign reports of his illness were a conspiracy to undermine the country. North Korea's state media has recently showed pictures of the leader in public events, like a soccer match, appearing healthy.
"The photos that have just been published seem recent and authentic to me," Roux said.
"I have the impression that he is in charge in North Korea."
He declined to detail Kim's health, citing medical confidentiality and state secrecy. According to Figaro, two French doctors, an anesthetist and a surgeon, went to Pyongyang in 1991 and implanted a pacemaker in Kim.
Steven Erlanger contributed reporting from Paris.
14 arrested in Belgium for links to terrorism

By Steven Erlanger
Thursday, December 11, 2008
The Belgian police arrested 14 people suspected of terrorist links in raids Thursday, including one man thought to have been planning a suicide attack who had "said goodbye to his loved ones," said the federal prosecutor in Brussels, Johan Delmulle.
Although the possible target was not clear, the arrests came on a day when European Union leaders began a two-day summit meeting in Brussels.
"We don't know where the suicide attack was to take place," Delmulle said. "It could have been an operation in Pakistan or Afghanistan, but it can't be ruled out that Belgium or Europe could have been the target."
Given the summit meeting, which marks the effective end of the French presidency of the European Union, Delmulle said the Belgian authorities felt they had "no choice but to take action today."
Lieve Pellens, a spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor's office, said in an interview by telephone that those arrested included Malika el-Aroud, 49, who calls herself a female warrior for Al Qaeda and writes jihadist screeds on the Internet under the name Oum Obeyda.
Aroud's husband, Moez Garsalloui, was also believed to have been arrested, said Claude Moniquet, chairman of the European Strategic Intelligence & Security Center, a research organization in Brussels.
Garsalloui was released in July 2007 after serving three weeks for promoting violence and then disappeared.
Belgian officials said he fled to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Moniquet said that Garsalloui was one of the three people arrested whom prosecutors said had recently returned from training camps along the Pakistani-Afghan border.
A fourth suspect was tracked to South Asia but has not yet returned, the officials said.
Pellens said in the interview that she believed the cases against the 14 arrested were strong, based on a year of investigation, surveillance and wiretapping carried out by a team of 80 police officers.
She described Aroud, who has been arrested before and released, as "a very important and serious lady," and said the prosecutor "will try to prove in court that she's important, a leader, who takes decisions and raises money."
The case, Pellens said, is about terrorism but also about "grand theft and robbery as a way to raise money for the group." She said that "the investigation was complex and intense, and there were times when all the wiretapping chambers were occupied with anti-terrorism guys working this case."
The police carried out 16 raids in Brussels and one in the eastern city of Liège.
The timing of the arrests was forced by the summit meeting, the prosecutor's office said, and came after threats against Belgium contained in a video sent to Belgian and Dutch television networks at the end of November.
Faced with raising the threat level and disrupting the summit meeting or making the arrests a little early, Pellens said, the decision was made to make the arrests.
A statement from the prosecutor's office said that several of those arrested were suspected of ties to Al Qaeda, and that there are "direct contacts between the group around the suspect 'M.G."' - the initials of Garsalloui - "and important people of the organization Al Qaeda."
The suicide farewell of one of the suspects was captured through wiretaps, Pellens said, who added that the suspect had changed considerably after his return from Afghanistan.
"He became the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the group," she said.
A year ago, the Belgians arrested about a dozen people when the United States provided them with information that an attack in Brussels was imminent, Pellens said. Moniquet said that the pressure from Washington was so strong that the arrests were made before strong cases could be made against the suspects, and all were released the next day. The target was believed to have been an American installation.
To justify the arrests a year ago, the Belgian authorities tied them to an effort to break Nizar Trabelsi out of jail, even though evidence for such a plot was at least six months old at the time, Belgian officials said Thursday.
Trabelsi, a former soccer player and member of Al Qaeda, has been jailed in Belgium since 2001 for his alleged involvement in a plot to blow up a NATO installation in Belgium. He was also alleged to be involved in a Qaeda plot to blow up the American Embassy in Paris, the prosecutor's office said.
He was sentenced in June 2004 to 10 years in prison at a trial where he pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden, whom he had met in Afghanistan. Washington has filed an extradition request for Trabelsi, who has appealed against the extradition.
Those arrested Thursday had ties to Trabelsi and his wife, Belgian officials say.
Moniquet, noting that some of those arrested were returning from Afghanistan, said he is assuming that their target "was in Europe, maybe in Belgium or France."
Basil Katz contributed reporting.

Nicholas D. Kristof: Obama's 'secretary of food'?
Thursday, December 11, 2008
As Barack Obama ponders whom to pick as agriculture secretary, he should reframe the question. What he needs is actually a bold reformer in a position renamed "secretary of food."
A Department of Agriculture made sense 100 years ago when 35 percent of Americans engaged in farming. But today, fewer than 2 percent are farmers. In contrast, 100 percent of Americans eat.
Renaming the department would signal that Obama seeks to move away from a bankrupt structure of factory farming that squanders energy, exacerbates climate change and makes Americans unhealthy - all while costing taxpayers billions of dollars.
"We're subsidizing the least healthy calories in the supermarket - high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil, and we're doing very little for farmers trying to grow real food," notes Michael Pollan, author of such books as "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "In Defense of Food."
The Agriculture Department - and the agriculture committees in Congress - have traditionally been handed over to industrial farming interests by Democrats and Republicans alike. The farm lobby uses that perch to inflict unhealthy food on American children in school lunch programs, exacerbating America's national crisis with diabetes and obesity.
But let's be clear. The problem isn't farmers. It's the farm lobby - hijacked by industrial operators - and a bipartisan tradition of kowtowing to it.
I grew up on a farm in Yamhill, Oregon, where my family grew cherries and timber and raised sheep and, at times, small numbers of cattle, hogs and geese. One of my regrets is that my kids don't have the chance to grow up on a farm as well.
Yet the Agriculture Department doesn't support rural towns like Yamhill; it bolsters industrial operations that have lobbying clout. The result is that family farms have to sell out to larger operators, undermining small towns.
One measure of the absurdity of the system: Every year the American taxpayer sends me a check for $588 in exchange for me not growing crops on timberland I own in Oregon (I forward the money to a charity). That's right. The Agriculture Department pays a New York journalist not to grow crops in a forest in Oregon.
Modern confinement operations are less like farms than like meat assembly lines. They are dazzlingly efficient in some ways, but they use vast amounts of grain, as well as low-level antibiotics to reduce infections - and the result is a public health threat from antibiotic-resistant infections.
An industrial farm with 5,000 hogs produces as much waste as a town with 20,000 people. But while the town is required to have a sewage system, the industrial farm isn't.
"They look profitable because we're paying for their wastes," notes Robert P. Martin, executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. "And then there's the cost of antibiotic resistance to the economy as a whole."
One study suggests that these large operations receive, in effect, a $24 subsidy for each hog raised. We face an obesity crisis and a budget crisis, and we subsidize bacon?
The need for change is increasingly obvious, for health, climate and even humanitarian reasons. California voters last month passed a landmark referendum (over the farm lobby's furious protests) that will require factory farms to give minimum amounts of space to poultry and livestock. Society is becoming concerned not only with little boys who abuse cats but also with tycoons whose business model is abusing farm animals.
An online petition at calls for a reformist pick for agriculture secretary - and names six terrific candidates, such as Chuck Hassebrook, a reformer in Nebraska. On several occasions in the campaign, Obama made comments showing a deep understanding of food issues, but the names people in the food industry say are under consideration for agriculture secretary represent the problem more than the solution.
Change we can believe in?
The most powerful signal Obama could send would be to name a reformer to a renamed position. A former secretary of agriculture, John Block, said publicly the other day that the agency should be renamed "the Department of Food, Agriculture and Forestry."
And another, Ann Veneman, told me that she believes it should be renamed, "Department of Food and Agriculture." I'd prefer to see simply "Department of Food," giving primacy to America's 300 million eaters.
As Pollan told me: "Even if you don't think agriculture is a high priority, given all the other problems we face, we're not going to make progress on the issues Obama campaigned on - health care, climate change and energy independence - unless we reform agriculture."
Your move, Mr. President-elect. I invite you to visit my blog, On the Ground and join me on Facebook. You can also watch my Youtube videos and follow me on Twitter.
China may compensate milk victims
Thursday, December 11, 2008
BEIJING: China is considering compensation for victims sickened or killed by toxic infant milk formula, a government spokesman said, following months of contention over stricken families with unmet demands for redress.
But a lawyer pressing for open redress denounced the plan.
Chinese authorities recently said six children died and 290,000 children suffered "urinary system abnormalities," apparently after consuming Sanlu-brand milk powder and a "handful of other milk powder brands with problems."
A spokesman for the Ministry of Health, Mao Qun'an, said the "relevant departments are now assessing a compensation plan for the Sanlu infant milk powder incident," according to the Ministry website ( ) on Wednesday.
Mao told a news conference that the Ministry was compiling information about the victims who may receive compensation, according to the website.
The Sanlu dairy group, partly owned by New Zealand's Fonterra group, sold milk powder contaminated with an industrial chemical, melamine, that caused kidney stones and other agonising complications in infants. Melamine can be used to cheat quality checks, by producing false readings for protein levels.
But a Beijing lawyer seeking compensation for stricken children said the government plan would not satisfy families' thirst for open accountability.
"This plan is being developed behind closed doors. The victims and their lawyers should be involved in setting the rules for compensation," said Li Fangping, the lawyer.
"The traditional bureaucratic dominance of these issues hasn't changed...So I have big doubts about this plan."
Li said that when he and other volunteer lawyers went to a court in Sanlu's home city, Shijiazhuang, this week seeking to sue the company, a court official said their legal papers would not be processed.
"Clearly, the government does not want these problems aired in the courts, open to the public," Li said.
Chinese media first reported in September that babies had fallen ill from the formula. But officials have since acknowledged that the Sanlu Group, the main source of the tainted milk, and officials hid the problem for many months.
Families of children killed and sickened have turned to volunteer lawyers, threatening to sue Sanlu and perhaps others. But their efforts have been stymied by authorities, apparently worried that court cases could inflame public anger over the scandal.
The scandal has also prompted bans and extra checks on Chinese milk and food products in dozens of export markets, and melamine has been found in a range of products, from candy to eggs.
(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ken Wills and Valerie Lee)

Carbon dioxide detected on distant planet
By Kenneth Chang
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Astronomers testing techniques to search for extraterrestrial life have detected carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet 63 light-years away.
This carbon dioxide, though, is certainly not coming from plants or automobiles. The planet, HD 189733b, is far too big (about the mass of the Jupiter) and too hot (1,700 degrees Fahrenheit, or 925 degrees Celsius) for any possibility of life.
"It's really a proof of concept of using CO2 as a biomarker," said Mark Swain, a research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who led the team that made the discovery.
The findings will appear in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
This year, astronomers, including Swain's group, reported finding water vapor and methane swirling around HD 189733b. And in the Thursday issue of the journal Nature, a different group of astronomers, led by Carl Grillmair of the California Institute of Technology, report that they, too, have detected water around the same planet, using a technique more precise than that used in earlier research.
As seen from Earth, HD 189733b passes directly in front of and behind its parent star as it orbits.
Taking advantage of those eclipses, Swain's group used the Hubble Space Telescope to compare the near-infrared light from the star alone (when the planet was hidden behind it) with the combined light from both.
The difference between the two spectrums revealed the light emitted from the planet, and the mix of colors in the planet's light contained the telltale signs of carbon dioxide at concentrations ranging from one part per million to one part per 10 million, compared with Earth at about 385 parts per million.
Even that much carbon dioxide was a bit of a surprise, because the simplest chemistry equations predicted that carbon would prefer to form carbon monoxide or methane molecules.
One possibility is that the intense ultraviolet radiation from the star, just 3 million miles, or 4.8 million kilometers, away, is spurring chemical reactions to produce the observed carbon dioxide.
"The theorists will have no problem explaining it," said L. Drake Deming, a planetary scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and a member of Swain's team.
Meanwhile, the detection of water by Grillmair's team, using a similar technique but with longer-wavelength infrared emissions detected by the Spitzer Space Telescope, confirms what had been expected: hydrogen and oxygen are two of the most common elements in the universe, and they readily combine into water.
Obama delegation missing at climate talks
By Elisabeth Rosenthal
Thursday, December 11, 2008
POZNAN, Poland: As ministers from 189 countries gather here to hammer out a new climate change treaty, progress is sorely hampered by the absence of one delegation: the team that will forge Barack Obama's climate policy.
The U.S. president-elect has called climate change "a matter of urgency," but his administration-in-waiting has not sent representatives to Poznan, where the United States is represented by the Bush administration. That has left this critical meeting in a bit of limbo, with many delegates saying they were waiting to size up the next administration's environmental commitment before making bold moves of their own.
"It has affected the meeting in a fairly significant way," said Gus Silva-Chávez, a policy expert at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, who has been observing the closed negotiations. "A lot of people think: 'This is not the time to put our cards on the table. Let's wait for the new administration. Why agree to anything now?"'
This problem is exaggerated by the fact that the European Union is struggling to finalize its own climate package - hampered by the global economic downturn - and so its delegates have been unusually quiet. In practice, that has meant little progress on anything except the basic decisions needed to keep the dream of a climate treaty alive.
"We have a sense of urgency, but you don't see any strong decisions" being made here, said Elenita Dano, a member of the delegation from the Philippines. "Political developments in the U.S. and the EU are holding us hostage, and we have no choice but to wait."
The negotiations are meant to culminate in a treaty in Copenhagen in December 2009, which will take effect in 2013 and replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol.
So far, Obama has outlined broad policies but provided few specifics or a timetable for carrying them out. His team is hashing out various options.
His administration could propose a climate bill designed to pass quickly through the U.S. Congress with concrete short-term goals like improving energy efficiency and creating "green" jobs, or it could hold off a bit to craft a more comprehensive policy proposal with long-term emissions reductions charting a course decades into the future.
"The fear is this could become a Clinton health plan, trying to do too much too soon, and ending up with nothing," said Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House staff member now with the National Commission on Energy Policy.
Even at the highest levels, officials in Poznan are awaiting results: "Another climate treaty without the U.S. doesn't make a lot of sense," said Yvo de Boer, head of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the sponsor of the meeting.
Still, the conference has achieved some important goals.
The delegates have agreed on a method for essentially paying countries and communities to preserve forests, through a system of carbon credits. Twenty percent of man-made emissions are attributed to deforestation.
The delegates also are nearing agreement on a fund, conceptualized a year ago, to help developing countries adapt to climate change.
Talk of a climate-change upheaval was muted, since the meeting in Poznan was meant to be a midpoint in talks that would lead to a new treaty next year.
"Expectations for this meeting were pretty low, but we're on track for a work plan covering the next year," said Angela Anderson, director of the International Global Warming Campaign of the Pew Environment Group. "If the pace picks up we could get an agreement by Copenhagen."
Delegates have been hammering out proposals for the past 10 days. On Thursday, various ministers arrive for two days of meetings to approve them.
Still, there were disturbing rumblings that industrialized nations were seeking to scale back emissions-reduction targets recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which suggested that rich countries should cut emissions 25 percent to 40 percent by 2020 to avert disastrous warming. Countries like Italy have suggested that they might have a hard time meeting previous emissions-reduction goals in the current economic malaise.
In addition, a group of developing countries called the G-77 complained that their proposals for help fell on deaf ears. "We got no support from developed countries, whether in technology transfer or finances," said Tasneem Essop, of the WWF South Africa.
Such hopes and frustrations underscore the pressure the new U.S. administration is likely to feel. Jake Schmidt of the National Resources Defense Council said, "Clearly one of the major stumbling blocks has been a lack of leadership at the U.S. level, and that's about to change."
U.S. shift on climate lifts mood at conference in Poznan
By Elisabeth Rosenthal
Thursday, December 11, 2008
POZNAN, Poland: Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts arrived at the United Nations conference here Thursday reassuring delegates from around the world that the United States would take strong measures to combat climate change.
"President Obama will be like night and day compared to President Bush," he said at a news conference, adding that "Congress and the president-elect are committed to movement on mandatory goals as rapidly as possible."
Although the incoming Obama administration has no official representatives at the meeting, where officials are forging a new climate change treaty, the massive glass conference center is crawling with American lawmakers, or at least their staffers, a sign of a transitional and potentially transformative moment in U.S. climate politics.
Over the past two weeks, staff members from more than 50 congressional offices - representing powerful figures like the House speaker, Representative Nancy Pelosi of California; Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee; and Representative Henry Waxman of California, the incoming chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce - have made appearances. The staffers have been so numerous that the delegation representing the Bush administration had to put a sign on its office door: "Executive Branch Personnel Only."
Despite elation at the new U.S. presence, there has been widespread concern among delegates that developed nations would be less willing to make the financial investments in climate change in a time of global recession. In opening the two-day meeting of environment ministers Thursday morning, the UN secretary general, Ban Ki Moon, said there should be "no backsliding on our commitments."
In a roundtable that afternoon, dozens of environment ministers pledged to hold to previous plans for emissions reductions. Stavros Dimas, the European Union's environment commissioner, said, "We are determined, despite economic surprises, to deal with climate change."
He emphasized that the deadlock among EU members negotiating their new climate package was about "modalities, not objectives." The EU has committed to reducing emissions 20 percent by 2020, and Dimas said it would go as high as 30 percent if other industrialized nations made similar promises.
Still, other ministers made it clear that the economic turmoil had made the challenge more difficult.
"If we can bring our finance ministers back on board, we will be successful in Copenhagen," said Sigmar Gabriel, Germany's environment minister, who reiterated Berlin's goal of cutting emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2020.
The negotiations in Poland are meant to culminate in a treaty in Copenhagen in December 2009 to replace the expiring Kyoto Protocol.
But there were some bright spots at the conference. Mexico took the lead among developing nations, committing to reductions and caps on greenhouse-gas emissions - though developing countries are not required to do so under the Kyoto Protocol. Brazil announced that it would cut deforestation 70 percent in the next decade.
But Xie Zhenhua, the representative from China, the world's largest emitter, reiterated his country's position that as a developing nation it should not have such numerical commitments, but instead would "take positive and effective mitigation and adaptation measures."
Also, members of some developing countries said that promises by industrialized nations to help them cope with climate change seemed to be on hold. The fate of a fund to help poor countries adapt to climate change was still unclear Thursday night.
"We are really disappointed with the progress we are seeing in Poznan," said Amjad Abdulla, a delegate from the Maldives, a chain of low-lying islands that is threatened by rising sea levels. "We are drowning, and there is this huge gap in commitment."
Obama picks Daschle to spearhead health-care reform
By Brian Knowton, Robert Pear,John M. Broder
Thursday, December 11, 2008
President-elect Barack Obama on Thursday named a key political ally with deep roots in Congress to take the lead in his expansive plans to remake the American health-care system.
At a news conference in Chicago, Obama named Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader, to serve not only as Health and Human Services secretary but to oversee a new White House Office of Health Reform. That combined portfolio, Obama said, would make Daschle not just a cabinet-level advocate of a health-care overhaul but a lead architect.
"It's hard to overstate the urgency of this work," Obama said, as he moved a step nearer to filling out his cabinet.
With health-care premiums having nearly doubled since 2000 and 45 million Americans lacking health insurance, he said, the question was not how the country could afford to undertake sweeping change amid economic crisis but "how can we afford not to."
"Small businesses across America are laying off or shutting their doors for good because of rising health care costs," Obama said. "Some of the largest corporations in America, including major American car makers are struggling to compete with foreign companies unburdened by these costs."
The president-elect has also selected his top energy and environmental advisers, aides said earlier. The appointees will include a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Steven Chu, and the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Carol Browner. Their selection drew praise from environmental activists as a sign of Obama's seriousness on climate change.
In addition, Obama spent time Thursday with two former secretaries of state, James Baker and Warren Christopher, delving into the question of the limits of executive power, and who can send the country into war.
With a kind of moral passion for universal health coverage, Daschle he will probably have little trouble crystallizing public support for that goal. But while Democrats, with an expanded majority in Congress, are hopeful of realizing their dream of affordable health care for all, the task will be far from easy. Daschle predicted in a recent book that the health-care industry would wage "all-out war to defeat reform."
Two of his ideas could reignite the kind of ideological warfare that sidetracked past health-care proposals.
Daschle wants to establish a Federal Health Board, an independent entity like the Federal Reserve. The board would make coverage decisions for federal health programs and, he said, "reduce or deny payment for new drugs and procedures that aren't as effective as current ones."
But critics say the board would be picking winners and losers among makers of drugs and medical devices, rankling many of them. Daschle himself writes that "doctors and patients might resent any encroachment on their ability to choose certain treatments."
Private insurers already follow many of the coverage decisions made by Medicare, the government health insurance program for the elderly and disabled. Daschle said Congress could go further and link tax breaks for private insurance to compliance with the board's recommendations.
Another volatile question is whether the government should offer its own health insurance plan to people without job-based insurance.
In the presidential campaign, Obama said he wanted to create a nationwide marketplace, a "health insurance exchange," where people could compare and buy insurance policies, creating downward pressure on costs. Daschle has offered a similar proposal.
But Republicans said a government plan would have unfair advantages and could drive private insurers from the market.
Daschle, 61, served 26 years in Congress, including 10 as Senate Democratic leader. He was an early and influential supporter of Obama.
But while he is well-versed in the intricacies of health policy and Senate procedure, the results of his health care work in Congress were mixed.
Republicans, deflecting demands for radical change, often boast that the United States has the world's finest health care system. Daschle wants to deflate those claims.
"We have the most expensive health care system in the world, but are not the healthiest nation in the world," Daschle said Thursday. "Our growing costs are unsustainable, and the plight of the uninsured is unconscionable."
Obama is expected to name his environmental team next week.
Aides said he would name Chu, the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as energy secretary, Nancy Sutley, deputy mayor of Los Angeles for energy and environment, as head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and apparently also Browner, the EPA administrator under President Bill Clinton, as the top White House official on climate and energy policy. Lisa Jackson, the New Jersey environmental commissioner, would be named to head the EPA.
They would be backed by strong allies in Congress who are interested in developing climate-change legislation.
But opposing their efforts will be many Republicans and some Democrats, as well as manufacturers, utilities, oil companies and coal producers who will bear the brunt of the costs of any steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the main culprit in global warming.
Chu shared a Nobel Prize in physics in 1997 for work on supercooled atoms. But at the Lawrence Berkeley laboratory, he has sponsored research into biofuels and solar energy, has pushed hard for practical solutions, and has strongly advocated controlling greenhouse gas emissions.
Obama met Thursday with Baker and Christopher, the two former secretaries of state, to discuss the proposal from a commission they led to revamp the legal process for launching military action. They favor requiring more consultation between a president and Congress.
The proposal would scrap the War Powers Act of 1973, a measure passed in the hangover from Vietnam to give Congress more say in committing troops to the battlefield but largely ignored ever since by presidents. In its place, the commission proposes a law requiring a president to consult lawmakers before any significant military action and Congress to vote up or down within 30 days.
Peter Baker and Jeff Zeleny contributed reporting.
China "cancer village" pays ultimate price for growth
Thursday, December 11, 2008
By Emma Graham-Harrison and Vivi Lin
Once an isolated haven, the Chinese village of Liukuaizhuang is now a tainted hell, surrounded by scores of low-tech factories that are poisoning its water and air, and the health of many villagers.
One in fifty people there and in a neighbouring hamlet have been diagnosed with cancer over the last decade, local residents say, well over ten times the national rate given in a health ministry survey earlier this year.
Many fear they are paying for the country's breathtaking economic expansion with their lives, as surrounding plants making rubber, chemicals and paints pour out health-damaging waste.
"They asked in the hospital whether my family had a history of cancer. I said: 'No, in the last three generations no one had it'," one villager told Reuters, pulling out his x-rays and doctor's diagnosis that he had lung cancer. "It must have a lot to do with the pollution here."
Three decades of reforms and opening up since 1978 have transformed China from a rigidly ideological backwater into the world's fourth largest economy, lifting millions out of poverty, but not without a price.
Nationwide there are dozens of places like Liukuaizhuang, where factories have blackened streams, poisoned farmland and choked the air.
Just 120 kilometres south of Beijing, Liukuaizhuang was a quiet village before the dramatic economic boom was kicked off by a series of low-key Communist reforms on Dec 18, 1978.
Twenty years later almost 100 chemical plants were scattered across what used to be farmland and thirty years on someone in almost every family is dead or dying of cancer -- the youngest just seven years old -- according to a local activist.
Officials agree that the area, dubbed a "cancer village" in domestic media, had a huge pollution problem, although they insist cancer rates are below the national average and all the worst-offending factories are now shuttered.
"The factories were not far from homes and to a certain degree influenced the normal life of the villagers," said the Communist Party spokesman for the county, Huo Junwei.
"(But) we think figures provided by individuals exaggerate pollution problems in our area," he said. "For several years we have been looking into whether there is a link between cancer and chemical production and have not yet got a scientific answer."
In recent years, national leaders worried about the mixed legacy of chasing economic expansion at almost any cost have stepped up calls for a more equitable society and cleaner industry nationwide.
But the pollution around Liukuaizhuang was so rampant that a crackdown driven partly by health concerns began in 2003, long before greener growth became a ubiquitous government mantra.
And activists say waste water and toxic gasses are certainly causing some illness there, even if an apparent link with cancer has not been proved.
"Pollutants including heavy metals like mercury and lead have already got into the food chain and all these chemicals will affect the normal function of cells," said Gao Zhong, an environmental economist with a non-governmental organisation that works to clean the country's polluted water.
Wong Tze-wai, an environmental health expert at the Chinese University in Hong Kong, said it would be premature to assume a link, but authorities should look into whether the number of cancer cases in the village was abnormally high, and if so, why.
"It's important to investigate. We know that many industrial chemicals are carcinogenic and it is not unlikely that they can get into the eco-system," he told Reuters.
The village's richer inhabitants have backed that view by moving away, locals say, leaving behind the old, poor and ill. Some cannot afford even the most basic health precautions.
"We don't have enough money to clean the water we drink. We put it all in a basin and let the pollutants sink," said the daughter-in-law of one lung cancer sufferer.
All are reluctant to discuss the illness as they say health benefits were cut to victims who spoke out in the past, as well as one activist, Wang Dehua, who was jailed for several years.
"A lot of journalists came and went, but it did not change the situation at all," said one middle-aged liver cancer patient whose husband was also diagnosed with cancer recently. Like all the other interviewees she refused to be named.
Some hope may ironically come from the global economic crisis, which is threatening so many Chinese jobs, as the world slowdown has dented demand for the products churned out from the country's factories and so cut their waste.
The villagers say some of Liukuaizhuang's bare bones factories, where paint is mixed in open drums in fume-filled warehouses guarded by vicious dogs, have already gone bust.
The crisis has also spurred Beijing to line up a multi-billion dollar stimulus package. Activist Gao hopes some of the cash will be spent on cleaner technology.
"Now we are facing financial turmoil. There is a good way to stimulate domestic demand and also keep society stable, which is to improve the environment to invest more into this so ... the country will be able to develop with quality," he said.
However there is also a risk that Beijing's leaders, facing rising unemployment and the social problems caused by a slowing economy, will relinquish environmental goals and ease pressure on the heavy industries that have created so much of both the country's growth and its pollution.
Many in the "cancer village" fear the clean up is too late for them but they cling to hope that it will save their children and grandchildren from terminal illnesses.
"Of course I am worried, but what is the use of being worried?" said a lung cancer patient.
"We have to save our concern for the next generation."
(Additional reporting by Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong)

Oil companies carved up the mundane market for paraffin in style
By Doreen Carvajal and Stephen Castle
Thursday, December 11, 2008
PARIS: Surrounded by a moat and four watch towers, the ancient Château d'Ermenonville is not the kind of place anyone would associate with a product as mundane as paraffin.
But the château, a discreet luxury hotel about a 40-minute drive northeast of Paris, and a circuit of others around Europe served for more than a dozen years as bases for executives from some of the biggest names in oil - Exxon Mobil; Royal Dutch Shell; Sasol, of South Africa; and Repsol YPF, of Spain - to fix prices of paraffin, the overlooked wax byproduct of crude oil, that is used in candles, paper cups, lip balm and chewing gum.
The scheme drove up prices to consumers in a plot that probably touched most every household, according to the European commissioner for competition, Neelie Kroes, whose office punished nine oil companies with more than half a billion euros in penalties.
In leveling the fines in October, Kroes released a two-page statement and no supporting documentation, but the International Herald Tribune has reviewed dozens of pages of confidential legal documents that offer an unusual look, filled with drab details worked out in luxurious settings, at the inner workings of a price-fixing cartel.
Most cartels operate in secrecy, destroying documents, encrypting e-mail messages or using prepaid phone cards to erase communication traces. But the paraffin cartel was rare in that some members - notably Tibor Toth, a manager with the Hungarian oil company MOL - kept minutes, and attendance lists.
Cartel members e-mailed invitations and sought RSVPs. They booked each other's rooms and played host to open bars. Documents found when investigators first raided the companies in April 2005 included handwritten notes on stationery from hotels on the cartel's itinerary: the five-star Kempinski in Budapest or Château de Montvillargenne in the bucolic horse country of Chantilly, France.
"Next price increase May/June 2000," a Shell executive scribbled in a note after a meeting in Paris.
Toth, writing in Hungarian, recorded new prices in West German marks, or Deutsche marks. "Raise in January unless first-quarter quantities are reduced, otherwise raise in season, DM 120."
The behavior of this group and its undoing pose significant concerns.
The relaxed clubiness of the paraffin conspirators stokes worries about the hold that price-fixing cartels have on European commerce.
With Kroes cracking down on cartels involving elevators, cement, automotive glass and drugs, total annual fines in the past five years have more than tripled, reaching €2.27 billion, or $3 billion, this year. The money goes into the EU general budget.
Questions also arose about whether the tactics employed by Kroes were the fairest or most effective for ending collusion.
In the paraffin case, as in others, some of the biggest offenders walked off with no, or relatively small, fines because they were first in the door with information implicating less-involved conspirators. And, unlike in the United States, in European Union cases, price fixers do not face the prospect of jail time.
Over all, the number of international cartels has been rising nearly every year since the 1980s, according to John Connor, a Purdue University economist whose studies show that global cartels are bigger and more plentiful in Europe. European cartels are also more likely to include repeat offenders.The paraffin cartel meets,drinks and divides markets
The paraffin cartel involved at least 35 sales or product managers, and in internal memos they used nicknames for themselves and their get-togethers: the Blue Saloon, after a favorite bar in Hamburg; the Appetizer Meetings; even, for one participant, the Paraffin Mafia.
At meetings, they fixed prices and carved up markets for their distinct product lines, speaking of extruder, coating wax, liquid slabs, tea-light candles and grave lights used for tombstones. Their nine companies controlled 75 percent of the European market, and the other 25 percent often fell in with the pricing structure constructed.
Most cartels last five years, according to studies, then sputter out amid recriminations over cheating. European regulators suspect this one may date as far back as the 1970s, based on files plucked from some companies involved. Investigators said that they believed they had firm enough evidence to form a case starting with a Sept. 3, 1992, meeting of five participants at an unknown location, according to the European Commission's confidential 200-page report laying out the evidence.
In the months that followed, a ritual developed, according to the documents: Sasol - the market leader, based in South Africa and with an office in Hamburg - played ringleader and club booster. A product manager, Michael Matthäi, issued invitations by telephone, fax and e-mail. Usually it was for a half-day meeting, with dinner the night before along with a cocktail hour, often with Holger Schröder, sales manager for Shell Deutschland, playing host.
At Sasol, where the club was known as "Blauer Salon," or Blue Saloon, after the Hamburg bar, participants would report back on the gatherings to other executives who kept notes. If executives from other companies could not make meetings, Sasol executives would fill them in, according to the commission's legal documents.
They describe half-day meetings divided into technical discussions about such issues as safety and then to a roundtable debate, with each executive weighing in on prices. Sometimes discussions detoured to the hotel bar.
There was a "general understanding between the attending wax manufacturers to respect each other's main customers in their respective home markets," according to a file submitted by Shell to regulators.
The companies "tried to protect their home markets by creating an atmosphere of mutual trust and good will among themselves," according to a file obtained from Sasol by commission investigators.
The documents show that they shared information about customers, production capacities, sales volumes and even plant maintenance. They talked prices, agreeing on absolute numbers. "Cancel prices of special customers (= those that do not buy, or that buy significantly below last year/budget)," said a Sasol debriefing note. "Goal: to set a landmark!"
Toth, the MOL executive held a more junior position than other sales managers in the cartel, but according to legal documents he was sent to meetings because he spoke English and German. His notes, written in Hungarian, included careful tables and documents with titles like "Candle Industry - Price situation," listing prices for a variety of waxes and the notice of a new price structure.
Memos outlining the agreements contained insider references to some of the biggest paraffin customers - the candle makers Iberceras, of Spain, and Bolsius, of the Netherlands - marked with prices by their names.
Shell and Sasol also agreed, for instance, to shy away from each other's top customers, according to memos each submitted to investigators.
The cartel members also anointed the company to kick off the new prices - usually the market leader Sasol.
For appearance's sake, however, other unidentified companies were enlisted. Customers might not even have noticed because there was never a uniform price increase, just agreement on what specific companies would charge.
The legal documents indicated that they also talked about cheating and a Sasol emissary debated whether to head to Budapest to persuade MOL to drop plans to undercut West European prices.
After the meetings, a flurry of letters was exchanged - some 150 in total. They stipulated relevant prices; if customers balked, cartel members coordinated negotiating strategies by phone.
Some candle makers had their suspicions. During the 1990s, when the cartel was in full swing, the biggest candle manufacturer in Europe, Bolsius, started looking for better prices in Asia, and decided to build a multimillion-euro, 30,000-ton storage depot in Rotterdam for imports, said Vincent Kristen, the company's managing director.
But that failed because the company started to detect a curious pattern. "Soon we found we were getting more or less European prices from suppliers in the rest of the world," Kristen said. He declined to say how much he thought the wax cartel damaged the candle industry, but, he said, "the moment raw materials go up in price, the consumer has to pay more." Experts usually put the figure for a cartel-rigged product at 10 percent above market-driven prices.The party ends and membersof the cartel race to confess
For what would be its last supper, the cartel gathered in late February 2005 in the brightly colored four-star Hotel Madison Residenz in Hamburg. Wax prices were debated, but in its last moments, the cartel was showing strains: it could not reach a deal. Still, the members planned another meeting in May.
Three weeks later, the cartel was shattered. Shell, facing €270 million in fines for its participation in other cartels involving synthetic rubber and bitumen, a thick form of petroleum, revealed the paraffin combine to the EU authorities on March 17, 2005.
By that time, the company ranked among a group of corporate "cartel recidivists" with a record of 14 convictions for repeat cartel activity, according to a study by agricultural researchers at Purdue University.
Under EU regulations, Shell, though, won complete forgiveness of what would have been a €96 million fine calculated by the commission. Other companies - some far less implicated - faced fines eventually totaling €676 million.
The totals grew with the investigation, which built on a series of raids in the weeks after Shell talked. Perhaps the richest trove came from MOL headquarters in Hungary, where investigators discovered Toth's files.
When European regulators raided the MOL offices they uncovered Toth's files with a series of notes on hotel stationary that were arranged in chronological order dating back to 1989.
The race to the confessional did not stop with Shell. Under EU rules, other companies can turn up with evidence and mea culpas to win more limited reductions in their fines. And they did.
Sasol, which the commission identified as the ringleader, pressed for leniency the day after the raids concluded on April 29 and ended up with a 50 percent reduction, lowering its fine to €318 million. More limited discounts were meted out - 25 percent, reducing the fine for Repsol to €20 million, and 7 percent for Exxon Mobil, for a €83.5 million penalty.
Two companies, Total, of France, and Eni, of Italy - both with a record of other cartel activities - received heavy fines, though their participation did not equal that of Shell. Eni attended only one meeting in the first nine years covered in the investigators' complaint.The companies apologize, but shareholders are riled
Since the trustbusters issued the fines, chastened top executives have apologized, with several saying they unwittingly inherited cartel membership from smaller companies they acquired or that their product managers had acted without company knowledge.
Nikolaas Baeckelmans, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil, said his company "deeply regrets our involvement, although limited, in the infringement." He said participation was confined to four Mobil employees who became involved before the Exxon merger with Mobil in 1999 and a single Mobil employee held over in Germany after the merger, who retired in 2003.
Rainer Winzenried, a spokesman for Shell in The Hague, said that it took time to integrate DEA, a German business it purchased in 2002, and which already was a cartel member. Winzenried said that Shell went to the authorities when it became aware of the scheme three years later. "As soon as the new Shell manager discovered that a cartel had been in operation, he reported this anti-competitive behavior and we alerted the European Commission," he said.
Sasol's top executives blamed rogue employees for conspiring in secret. "Unfortunately, no internal control or compliance process can provide absolute assurance against illegal conduct of delinquent employees," said Nereus Joubert, the company secretary at Sasol. "We view such activities as clearly reprehensible and regret that we have not detected these activities earlier."
But questions about how aggressive the companies really were in stamping out bad behavior are being raised by shareholders who watched stock fall with the announcements of fines.
The commission argued that senior managers should have investigated the real purpose of the meetings because attendees were not at any official oil industry function, but they still submitted business travel claims to their companies.
A 2003 memo was sent by an unidentified employee to Exxon Mobil's legal department to discuss the meetings. But, the commission said, Exxon Mobil took the matter no further. The company declined to comment on this information, which was contained in commission documents.
At an angry Sasol shareholders' meeting this month, critics like Peter Lord complained that the European investigation got less than seven lines in its 274-page annual report, according to South African press reports. It referred simply to violations before "Sasol became a shareholder in the European business in 1995." The information failed to note that the cartel violations continued under full ownership through 2005.
Theo Botha, a shareholder advocate in South Africa, also pressed Sasol's chief executive, Pat Davies, about why the company failed to detect the cartel. "The bottom line," Botha said later during an interview, "is that directors need to accept responsibility even though the people have left. Yes they're sorry, but then it's business as usual."
But Davies insisted, "We did do due diligence," adding that "it's very difficult to pick up where there's no paper trail and people don't volunteer the information."
Yet Sasol submitted dozens of documents to obtain leniency from the commission, including memos known as the Blue Saloon debriefing notes.
Until recently, a number of the cartel members continued to keep employees who participated in the meetings on their payrolls. But when asked about their status, some companies insisted they had resigned months or even years ago. A spokesman for MOL, the Hungarian oil company, initially said that the memo writer, Toth, left the company two years ago, later conceding that this was incorrect and stating that he left in the last couple of months. A colleague of Toth's in Hungary said he was working there until October.
IEA sees oil demand rising in 2009 after weak 2008
Thursday, December 11, 2008
LONDON: World oil demand growth will return in 2009 after shrinking this year for the first time since 1983 due to the global economic slowdown, the International Energy Agency said on Thursday.
The IEA's view is in stark contrast to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, which on Tuesday said demand was expected to shrink by 450,000 barrels per day in 2009 following a predicted 50,000 barrel a day decline in 2008.
In its monthly report, the Paris-basd IEA cut its 2008 oil demand estimate by 350,000 barrels a day to 85.8 million barrels a day, a 200,000 barrel a day year-on-year fall.
The IEA, an adviser to 28 industrialized countries, sees demand rebounding to 86.3 million barrels a day in 2009, based on the International Monetary Fund's assumption the global economy will gradually recover in the second half of next year.
"Our working scenario rests on assumed resilience outside of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development regions, albeit with slower growth than in the past five years," the IEA said.
"This month's report saw scant amendment to recent non-OECD demand data, and therefore we resist the temptation to jettison growth for 2009, despite weaker economic indicators in some cases."
David Fyfe, head of the IEA's Oil Industry and Markets Division said the agency's forecast still demonstrated global economic weakness in 2009.
"It's marginally higher growth from a lower base," Fyfe said. "Less than half a million barrels per day of demand growth still indicates a weak market in 2009."
The IEA said non-OECD demand could be revised lower if more pessimistic economic forecasts were borne out.
"Structurally, the West is going to take a lot longer to recover than emerging markets which we see starting to pick-up towards the end of this year, which should support demand," Helen Henton, head of commodities at Standard Chartered Bank, said. "With prices now at much lower levels we could see demand start to recover. The situation might be stabilizing."
As demand has fallen during the economic slowdown, oil inventories in OECD countries have risen sharply.
Stocks at the end of October stood at 56.8 days of demand, well above the five-year average, the IEA said.
It said there would hence probably be lower demand for crude oil from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in 2009.
"Our own supply and demand balances suggest a lower 'call on OPEC' in 2009 at 30.7 million bpd, versus 31.5 million bpd in 2008," the IEA said.
It also lowered its forecasts for supply from outside OPEC in 2009, leading to a 200,000 barrels a day increase in the amount it said OPEC needed to pump to balance the market.
OPEC is expected to cut output by at least one million barrels a day when it meets in Algeria on Wednesday, as the producer group tries to shore up prices which have dropped to about $45 a barrel, more than $100 below an all-time high above $147 hit in July.
OPEC, source of two in every five barrels of oil, has already cut member output quotas by two million barrels a day since September.
Oil prices were higher after the IEA report was released. U.S. crude was up $1.41 at $44.93 a barrel in pre-market trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Oil rises 10 percent after OPEC calls for "severe" cut
Thursday, December 11, 2008
By Rebekah Kebede
Oil surged more than 10 percent on Thursday, settling at nearly $48 a barrel after the OPEC president called for more "severe" production cuts and the dollar fell to a seven-week low versus the euro.
News that Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev said the country was ready to work with OPEC on possible oil output cuts lent additional support to the market.
"We are starting to see the real engine for lifting oil prices, cuts in OPEC production, and it seems likely they will cut production at their meeting next week," said Tim Evans, energy analyst for Citi Futures Perspective.
"Also in the background is Russia rumbling about possible coordination with OPEC and that is bullish if carried out," he added.
U.S. crude settled at $47.98 a barrel, up $4.46, or 10.25 percent, continuing a rebound from near four-year lows hit last week. It was the biggest single-day percentage gain since November 4, when prices ended up 10.36 percent.
European benchmark Brent crude settled at $47.39, up $4.99.
Oil prices are down almost $100 from a record peak of $147.27 scaled last summer as a global financial crisis hits consumer demand for fuel.
OPEC should agree on a more "severe" reduction in output at the meeting next week in Algeria, OPEC President Chakib Khelil said in remarks published on Thursday, which made no mention of a figure.
Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said the world's largest exporter pumped 8.49 million barrels per day of oil in November, less than estimated by analysts and in line with its OPEC target.
That would put the kingdom's output at 560,000 bpd less than the IEA's estimate of Saudi November production, published earlier on Thursday, of 9.05 million bpd.
Industry sources told Reuters on Wednesday they expected January shipments to be below Saudi's existing OPEC target, implying it expects OPEC to agree a further supply cut when the producer group meets in Algeria on December 17.
OPEC member Ecuador also said it wants to slash oil output at the Algeria meeting to stabilise the market.
Russia, which will attend the Algerian meeting as an observer amid calls from some members for Moscow to join in output curbs, said Wednesday it will present its own proposal at the talks.
The U.S. dollar weakened after data on weekly U.S. jobless claims came in worse than expected [ID:nN11392744]. A weak dollar can boost investor demand for oil and other dollar-denominated commodities.
A prediction from the International Energy Agency that world oil demand growth would rebound in 2009 after shrinking this year for the first time since 1983 was also supportive. The IEA also cut forecasts for supply outside OPEC next year.
The IEA's view that demand will grow in 2009 contrasts with that of the U.S. government's Energy Information Administration, which this week forecast consumption would fall by 450,000 barrels per day (bpd) next year.
The Paris-based IEA also lowered forecasts for supply from outside OPEC in 2009, leading to a 200,000 bpd increase in the amount it said OPEC needs to pump to balance the market.
(Additional reporting by Alex Lawler in London, Anna Mudeva in Poznan and Jennifer Tan in Singapore; Editing by Christian Wiessner)

Société Générale and Barclays cleared in French money-laundering case
Bloomberg News
Thursday, December 11, 2008
PARIS: Société Générale and Barclays were cleared of money-laundering charges by a French court on Thursday, while a French regional bank and a Pakistani bank were fined after being found guilty on some charges.
Barclays, based in London, Société Générale, based in Paris, and the French lender's chairman, Daniel Bouton, were not part of a ring that funneled the equivalent of €82 million, or $109 million at current exchange rates, into Israel in the late 1990s, Judge Olivier Leurent said as he read a summary of the decision.
Leurent did find National Bank of Pakistan, based in Karachi, guilty on some charges, imposing a fine of €200,000. Two of the bank's executives were cleared of all charges, while two others were found guilty on some charges, fined €20,000 each and given two-year suspended sentences. Société Marseillaise de Crédit, in southern France, was fined €100,000. Groupe Banque Populaire bought the regional bank from HSBC Holdings in July 2008.
The lenders were among four banks and about 150 companies and individuals tried for money laundering in the so-called Sentier Affair, named after the Paris garment district.
Société Générale declined to comment on the decision. The decision fell outside of Pakistani business hours and bank spokesmen could not be reached for immediate comment. Banque Populaire did not immediately return a message left by telephone.
The National Bank of Pakistan "terminated four employees involved," its president, Syed Ali Raza, said in February. "We then strengthened all our internal controls and plugged all the holes."
The case against the lenders revolved around their role as correspondent banks for Israeli financial institutions. Executives in charge of the banks' compliance monitoring, check processing and international banking services were also named in the court's files.
Correspondent banking allows fund transfers and currency exchanges for banks that do not have offices in large financial centers. It also provides an entry point to the global financial system from countries that permit unlimited cash transactions and anonymous accounts.
In 2002, 88 people, mostly merchants from the Sentier neighborhood were convicted for defrauding banks and insurance companies by reaping €82 million in loans using fake invoices. They received fines and as long as seven years in prison.
Société Générale was one of the banks that filed complaints against the Sentier shop owners in 1997. "At that time, there were no legal or regulatory obligations" to verify checks to prevent fraud, the bank said before the trial. It installed new controls in 2002.
During the first investigation, magistrates found checks issued by French banks cashed by or transferred to third parties in Israel. This trial focused on claims that the banks did not make the necessary verifications before processing the payments.

India calls on Pakistan to do more on terror
By Somini Sengupta, Robert F. Worth and Mark McDonald
Friday, December 12, 2008
NEW DELHI: Calling Pakistan the epicenter of terror attacks against India, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee called Thursday for the government in Islamabad to do more than detain leaders of extremist groups, even as he hinted that India did not "intend to be provoked" into a military conflict.
Mukherjee, speaking to Parliament in its first session since the three-day siege of Mumbai last month, reiterated India's demand for about 40 fugitives and terrorism suspects whom it says are taking shelter in Pakistan. His comments seemed intended to avoid directly criticizing the president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, with whose democratically elected government he said he had "no quarrel."
At the same time, he pressed the Zardari administration to close down the "infrastructure" that enables terrorist strikes against India.
Shortly after the Mumbai attacks, Zardari had described the terrorism suspects as "nonstate actors" over whom the Pakistani government had no control. On Thursday, that statement met with a stinging retort from Mukherjee.
"Are they nonstate actors coming from heaven, or they are coming from a different planet?" Mukherjee asked. "Nonstate actors are operating from a particular country. What we are most respectfully submitting, suggesting to the government of Pakistan: Please act. Mere expression of intention is not adequate."
It was India's first reaction to Pakistan's crackdown on camps and leaders of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based group accused in the Mumbai attacks that left victims 163 dead, along with nine men believed to have been the attackers. Officials in Islamabad announced the arrests earlier this week.
On Thursday, Pakistan ordered the closure of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity in Pakistan, a day after the UN Security Council declared it was a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba and subject to UN sanctions, including the freezing of its assets and a travel ban on four of its leaders, including Zaki ur-Rehman Lakhvi, who was arrested Sunday by Pakistan.
Mukherjee on Thursday also delivered a message to allies and rivals abroad: India would not be dragged into discussions about disputed Kashmir Province, which the minister described as a domestic problem for its government to negotiate. "This is not an India-Pakistan issue. This is not an issue related to Jammu and Kashmir," he said. "This is a part of global terrorism."
India's home minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, in announcing on Thursday an overhaul of the nation's intelligence network, said "the finger of suspicion" points at "our neighbor," clearly meaning Pakistan. Chidambaram took over as home minister after his predecessor, Shivraj Patil, resigned in shame after the attacks.
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party also pledged Thursday to stand by the government.
"We should not be fooled by this kind of operation," Lal Krishna Advani, the opposition leader, said of Pakistan's response so far.
Chidambaram, the country's principal law enforcement official, had previously acknowledged lapses in the security forces' preparedness for the attacks. He revealed an intelligence overhaul in a speech to Parliament in New Delhi - something the prime minister pledged his administration would do in the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attacks.
The Indian security forces' slow response to the attack "exposed their lack of intelligence and lax approach to law and order," said Farhana Ali, a South Asia terrorism expert and former analyst for RAND, a group offering research on policy and security issues.
The restructuring announced will bolster the coast guard and maritime forces, strengthen intelligence agencies with new personnel, establish a national investigative center and set up training courses for anti-terrorism officers, police units and commando squads.
The attacks began on the night of Nov. 26 and ended more than 60 hours later when the last gunmen were killed in a shootout with elite Indian commandos. The assault was apparently staged, the Indian police have said, by a squad of 10 gunmen who used boats to approach Mumbai.
Nine attackers were killed and one was captured.
Since the attacks, there has been an outpouring of anger across India. Last week, tens of thousands of citizens stormed the Gateway of India, a famed waterfront monument near the Taj Mahal hotel, venting anger at their elected leaders. There were similar protests in New Delhi and the southern technology hubs of Bangalore and Hyderabad. All were organized spontaneously, with word spread through text messages and Facebook pages.
Indian citizens and police officials alike have expressed concern about follow-on attacks by terrorists who might have escaped during the mayhem of the assault.
"That's the million-dollar question: Will there be more attacks? I think it's just a matter of time," said Ali, the terrorism expert.
The Indian police had said they foiled an attempt to destroy landmarks and wreak havoc in Mumbai early this year, breaking up a cell of Pakistani and Indian men.
The foiled plot also involved Lashkar-e-Taiba, which suggested that the militant group conceived its plan long in advance and has deeper contacts with radical Indian Muslims than investigators have been willing to concede.
It also pointed up another significant security lapse by Indian intelligence and police forces, who months ago had glimpses of a blueprint for the Mumbai attacks and even a strong indication of the intended targets.
Somini Sengupta reported from New Delhi, Robert F. Worth from Mumbai and Mark McDonald from Hong Kong.
Pakistan moves against charity linked to militants
The Associated Press
Thursday, December 11, 2008
ISLAMABAD: Pakistan ordered the closure Thursday of Jemaat-u-Dawa, a charity linked to a militant group suspected in the Mumbai attacks, a day after the outfit was declared a front for terrorists by the United Nations, officials said.
The Pakistani police said Thursday that Hafiz Saeed, the leader of the charity, was under house arrest.
The move against Jemaat-u-Dawa came as Pakistan was under intense pressure by India and the United States to crack down on anyone on its soil who was connected to the attacks.
"The Interior Ministry has issued instructions to all four provincial authorities to close down all Jemaat-u-Dawa's offices and keep an eye on their activities," said a senior ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
It was not clear whether the order represented a formal ban on the group, nor whether its activists would be arrested.
Earlier Thursday, the authorities in the country's largest city, Karachi, said they had closed nine premises associated with the group, apparently carrying out the order from the central government.
An Associated Press reporter outside one Jemaat office in the city said it was locked up and deserted.
It was unclear what was happening at the group's large headquarters close to the eastern city of Lahore.
Pakistan has arrested at least 20 people, including two people it said were extremists alleged by India to be key players in the Mumbai attacks, but India has made it clear it wants to see more action.
The Security Council on Wednesday declared Jemaat-u-Dawa a front for a terrorist group subject to UN sanctions, including an asset freeze, travel ban and arms embargo.
U.S. officials said the group, which has offices, schools and medical clinics around the country, is a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, a banned militant group accused by India of carrying out and planning the Mumbai assaults.
The United Nations also put three other Pakistanis associated with Lashkar on a terrorist list, which sanctions a freeze on their assets and a ban on travel.
In a statement Thursday, Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani said Pakistan had "taken note of the designation" and "would fulfill its international obligations." He did not elaborate.
Earlier, Saeed, Jemaat's hard-line Islamist leader, denied that the charity was involved in terrorism and denounced the United Nations. He said the group would petition the United Nations as well as national and international courts to overturn the decision.
"If India or the U.S. has any proof against Jemaat-u-Dawa, we are ready to stand in any court. We do not beg, we demand justice," Saeed said at a news conference. "We will not accept any decision taken under Indian pressure. This decision was taken to defame Pakistan."
Pakistan has promised to pursue those responsible for the Mumbai attacks. But it complains that India has not shared evidence from its investigation, underlining the mistrust hampering U.S. efforts to avert a deeper crisis between the two countries.
Pakistan detains one of India's most-wanted
Thursday, December 11, 2008
By Krittivas Mukherjee and C. Bryson Hull
Pakistan put the founder of a militant group blamed for the Mumbai attacks under house arrest Thursday, responding to intense pressure to wipe out what India called "the epicentre of terrorism."
The detention of Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant group who now runs the Jamaat-ud-Dawa charity seen as its front, came after the United Nations placed him on its terrorism sanctions list.
"Police have encircled the house of Hafiz Saeed in Lahore and told him he cannot go out of the home. They have told him detention orders will be formally served to him shortly," Saeed's spokesman Abdullah Montazir said.
India blames LeT for the Mumbai attacks which killed 179 people last month and also for earlier ones, including a 2001 assault on parliament that nearly thrust the nuclear-armed south Asian rivals into their fourth war since independence from Britain in 1947.
A spokesman for Pakistan's central bank said directives had been issued to banks to freeze the accounts of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Saeed and three associates included in the U.N. sanctions, which also impose a travel ban on the blacklisted individuals.
Police in Karachi and Hyderabad sealed the offices of Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Television reports said the charity would be banned though no official announcement had yet been made as yet.
But Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, speaking to parliament before the lower house passed a largely symbolic resolution condemning the attacks and pledging to find those responsible, said Pakistan's efforts had not been enough.
"We have to galvanise the international community into dealing sternly and effectively with the epicentre of terrorism, which is located in Pakistan. The infrastructure of terrorism has to be dismantled permanently," he said in comments that preceded Saeed's house arrest.
Singh said he had told world leaders that India "could not be satisfied with mere assurances."
"We have noted the reported steps that have been taken by Pakistan. But clearly much more needs to be done and the actions should be pursued to their logical conclusion," he said,
He also reiterated that "all means and measures" needed to wipe out militants would be used.
India has been angry at what it sees as the Pakistani government's tolerance of militants, and Indian External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee earlier Thursday said India had given Pakistan a list of 40 people it wants handed over.
Asked by an angry lawmaker why India was not attacking Pakistan after so much proof of its complicity in fomenting trouble in India, Mukherjee replied: "That is no solution."
Indian officials had previously demanded that Pakistan hand over 20 suspected militants and others it wants for past attacks.
Keeping up the pressure on Pakistan, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte arrived in Islamabad Thursday to follow up visits by his boss, Condoleezza Rice, to India and Pakistan last week.
Washington has engaged in intensive diplomacy to stop tensions from mounting between Pakistan and India, and to keep Islamabad focussed on fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Global pressure has seen Pakistan raid several Islamist militant training camps and detain or arrest some of the militant leaders India wants extradited.
Pakistani security forces have arrested around 20 militants in raids, an intelligence official told Reuters Thursday.
Analysts say Pakistani intelligence has ties to some of those India wants, and that its civilian government risks political fallout if it acts against them.
Saeed led the LeT militant group until December 2001, when he quit a few days before Pakistan complied with a U.S. move to put the group on a list of individuals and organizations with links to al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Saeed, one of the most wanted men in India, has since headed Jamaat-ud-Dawa.
(Reporting by New Delhi and Islamabad bureaux; Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)
Suspected U.S. drone strike in Pakistan kills 7
Thursday, December 11, 2008
PESHAWAR, Pakistan: A missile strike, suspected to be from a pilotless U.S. drone, killed seven militants on Thursday in Pakistan's South Waziristan region, seen as an al Qaeda sanctuary, two intelligence officials said.
One of the officials said there may be foreigners among the dead but that he did not know their nationalities.
"The missile hit a house adjacent to a madrasa (Islamic seminary). Seven people are killed," he said.
"Most of those killed are Punjabis," the official added, employing a term used for militants from Pakistan's central province of Punjab.
It was the second suspected strike by U.S. drone aircraft this month, after three people were killed in a similar attack in neighbouring North Waziristan.
There have been over 20 strikes in the last three months in the tribal regions and nearby areas. They reflect U.S. impatience over support provided by militants from Pakistan for the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, and fears that al Qaeda fighters in northwest Pakistan could plan attacks in the West.
Rashid Rauf, a British militant with al Qaeda links, was killed in a similar strike in Mir Ali last month, together with an Egyptian, intelligence officials say.
The latest strikes came amid growing tension between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India over deadly attacks on Mumbai last month.
India has blamed militants based in Pakistan for the attacks on two luxury hotels, a railway station and a Jewish centre in its financial capital that killed at least 179 people.
Pakistan has condemned the attacks, promised full cooperation in investigations and launched a crackdown on an Islamist charity regarded as a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group suspected of being behind the operation.
(Writing by Zeeshan Haider, editing by Mark Trevelyan)
Aircraft carrier contract delayed up to two years
Thursday, December 11, 2008
By Tim Castle
Britain said on Thursday it was delaying a 4 billion pound contract for two Royal Navy aircraft carriers by up to two years to help it meet rising equipment bills and the cost of fighting on two fronts.
The ships had been due to enter service in 2014 and 2016 under a contract awarded in July to BVT Surface Fleet shipbuilding, a joint venture between British defence companies VT Group and BAE Systems.
The joint venture said it did not expect the delay to lead to any cuts in its 7,000 staff.
The Ministry of Defence said it was also dropping U.S. defence firm General Dynamics as a provisional preferred bidder for a new armoured vehicle after failing to reach acceptable commercial terms.
In addition the defence ministry said it remained committed to a 1 billion pound Future Lynx helicopter contract with AgustaWestland, a subsidiary of Italy's Finmeccanica, but would cut its order of the aircraft to 62 from 70.
The aircraft carrier project at its peak is expected to create or sustain 10,000 jobs, with construction taking place at Govan and Rosyth in Scotland, Barrow-in-Furness in northwest England and Portsmouth on the southern English coast.
The decision to delay the carriers came after a review of equipment projects to meet an estimated 2 billion pound overspend in this year's defence budget.
British military spending is under strain from the cost of operating on two fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan, while government tax revenues are seen diving in the economic downturn.
"The aims of the examination were to adapt to the rising cost of high-end defence equipment and to provide more support for current operations," Defence Secretary John Hutton said in a statement.
The carriers are each due to carry up to 36 Lockheed Martin fighter jets but industry reports say these will not be ready till 2017.
"We have concluded that there is scope for bringing more closely into line the introduction of the Joint Combat Aircraft and the Aircraft Carrier," Hutton said.
"This is likely to mean delaying the in-service date of the new carriers by 1-2 years. Construction is already under way and will continue."
The defence ministry said it would also spend an extra 70 million pounds to put new engines in 12 Lynx Mark Nine helicopters to give additional support to British troops in Afghanistan from next year.
(Additional reporting by Sumeet Desai and Philip Waller)
Amid deadly carnage, Iraq attack may offer challenge
By Timothy Williams
Thursday, December 11, 2008
BAGHDAD: A man detonated a suicide vest inside a crowded restaurant in the northern city of Kirkuk on Thursday, killing at least 48 people and wounding 96 others during a meeting of local tribal leaders who were discussing solutions to end the violence that has plagued the city.
The attack, which came at the end of the religious holiday of Id al-Adha, is the worst act of violence in Iraq since June, in what has been a relatively peaceful period in the country.
The casualty figures may continue to rise beyond 48 because at least 25 of the wounded were taken to local hospitals in critical condition, said Colonel Yadger Abdullah, a law enforcement official.
The vast restaurant, adjacent to a highway that connects Kirkuk to Irbil, another large urban center in northern Iraq, may have been filled with as many as 3,000 diners at the time of the explosion, officials said.
The bomber entered the restaurant and stopped in a hallway between three large dining halls before detonating his vest, Abdullah said.
"All of a sudden we heard a very loud explosion," said Shirzad Mowfak Zangana, a supervisor at the restaurant. "Two of the walls collapsed and then the next thing I remember is that I felt blood covering my face. People were screaming. Children were crying. Smoke filled all three dining rooms."
The bombing appeared to be a direct challenge to the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as the United States prepares to draw down its troops and questions remain about whether Iraqi security forces will be able control violence in the country.
Provincial elections are scheduled in Iraq for Jan. 31, though the vote has been delayed in Kirkuk out of fear that elections might exacerbate ethnic tensions.
The restaurant, about 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, north of Kirkuk, is in the heart of an oil area contested by Kurds and Arabs, and where Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has been active.
Major General Turhan Yusef, chief of the Kirkuk police, said investigators had not yet determined who was responsible for the attack.
"We have received some intelligence and are analyzing the information," he said.
But the bombing bore the hallmarks of previous suicide bombings carried out by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and appeared calculated to aggravate the sharp divisions between Arabs and Kurds, who are competing for control of Kirkuk and surrounding areas.
While sectarian tensions have quieted in much of the country, an ethnic fault line remains between Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
The area where the bombing occurred is one of the most heterogeneous in Iraq, with populations of Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen.
The attack also seemed to send the message that despite claims by the American military and the Iraqi government that they have vanquished Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the extremists are still present and capable of doing enormous damage.
"The real objective is to sow division between the various communities and inflame passions among the extremists among them - of whom there are plenty in all the communities - and set them up against one another," said Joost Hiltermann, the director of the Istanbul office of the International Crisis Group and an expert on Kurdish politics.
"If it happened in a Kurdish restaurant, where there were Arabs eating, the Kurds will blame the Arabs and the Arabs will blame the Kurds for not protecting them," he said.
The attack tapped into the political tensions over the unresolved question of who should govern Kirkuk - Arabs, Kurds or Turkmen - and whether the city and surrounding areas should become part of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.
In 2006, a bombing in Samarra destroyed part of a shrine that is holy to Shiites, though the area is predominantly Sunni Arab.
That set off a whirlwind of sectarian attacks and counter attacks that did not abate for nearly two years.
Panel on Iraqi detainees meets
By Campbell Robertson
Thursday, December 11, 2008
BAGHDAD: A committee formed to oversee the transfer of detainees from American to Iraqi custody has met for the first time, the United States military said in a statement. Under the terms of the recently ratified security agreement, American forces must begin releasing detainees or transferring them to Iraqi custody on Jan. 1.
Attendees at the meeting, on Wednesday, included Barhim Saleh, Iraq's deputy prime minister, and General Raymond Odierno, commander of coalition forces in Iraq. American military officials said they would provide the Iraqi government with files on 15,000 detainees on the first day of each month. The Iraqis would then decide on a case by case basis to release them or have them transferred into Iraqi prisons.
Coalition forces are currently holding around 15,800 detainees, the military said, down from a high of roughly 26,000 a little more than a year ago.
In another development that underscored the still fragile security situation in some areas, the head of the provincial council in Diyala said Thursday that his province was far from ready for provincial elections scheduled for the end of January, and asked that they be postponed six months. He said that Sunni insurgent forces still dominated around a third of the province.
In Washington, at a speech at the Center for Strategic for International Studies on Wednesday, Ali al-Dabbagh, the Iraqi government spokesman, said Iraq welcomed the more diplomatic approach to Iran suggested by President-elect Barack Obama.
"If there is anything that happens or any conflict with Iran, Iraq will be the first loser," Dabbagh said. "That is why we are urging the new administration to have a proper dialogue with Iran."
Report blames Rumsfeld for detainee abuses
By Scott Shane and Mark Mazzetti
Friday, December 12, 2008
WASHINGTON: A report released Thursday by leaders of the Senate Armed Services committee said that top Bush administration officials, including Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, bear major responsibility for the abuses committed by American troops in interrogations at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other military detention centers.
The report was issued jointly by Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the Democratic chairman of the panel, and Senator John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican. The report represents the most thorough review by Congress to date of the origins of the abuse of prisoners in American military custody, and it explicitly rejects the Bush administration's contention that tough interrogation methods have helped keep the country and its troops safe.
The report also rejected previous claims by Rumsfeld and others that Defense Department policies played no role in the the harsh treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 and in other incidents of abuse.
The abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the report says, "was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own" but grew out of interrogation policies approved by Rumsfeld and other top officials "conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees."
By the time of the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Rumsfeld had formally withdrawn approval for use of the harshest techniques, which he authorized in December 2002 and then ruled out a month later. But the report said that those methods, including the use of stress positions and forced nudity, continued to spread through the military detention system. It added that their use "damaged our ability to collect accurate intelligence that could save lives, strengthened the hand of our enemies, and compromised our moral authority."
Most of the report, the product of an 18-month inquiry and interviews of more than 70 people by committee staff, remains classified. But the 29-page summary offers the clearest timeline to date linking the acts of Pentagon officials, including William Haynes II, the former Defense Department general counsel, to abusive treatment in the field.
Committee staff members said the report was approved by a voice vote without dissent, but only 17 of the committee's 25 members were present for the vote. McCain, who was tortured while being held as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, has been an outspoken opponent of harsh interrogation tactics, but some other Republicans have defended such methods as legal and necessary.
Most of the facts in the report summary have been previously made public, notably at hearings the Senate committee held in June and September. But the report documents how the military training program called Surveillance, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE, became a major source for interrogation methods as the Bush administration looked for tougher methods after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The SERE training was based on methods used by "a ruthless, lawless enemy," Levin said in a statement. "The techniques were never intended to be used against detainees in U.S. custody," he said.
McCain called the adoption of SERE methods "inexcusable."
"These policies are wrong and must never be repeated," said McCain, who led the successful fight in Congress in 2005 to prohibit military interrogators from using coercive methods.
Book review: 'Unintended Consequences'
Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Unintended Consequences How War in Iraq Strengthened America's Enemies By Peter W. Galbraith 203 pages. Simon & Schuster. $23.
In his compelling new book the scholar and former diplomat Peter W.Galbraith not only reminds us that the Iraq war has been a costly, bungled operation, but he also argues that the war has had the opposite effect of virtually everything that President Bush and his administration promised the American public it would have:
- A war intended to eliminate (what were later found to be non-existent) weapons of mass destruction in Iraq "ended up with Iran and North Korea much closer to having deployable nuclear weapons."
- A war intended to help combat terrorism has led to the recruitment of more terrorists and the spread of Al Qaeda to Iraq.
- A war intended to create a bulwark against the ayatollahs in Tehran turned into a "strategic gift to Iran" and the empowerment in Iraq of pro-Iranian Shiite theocrats.
- A war intended to make Israel more secure has made that country more vulnerable to threats from Syria, Iran and Hezbollah.
- A war intended to showcase U.S. power has ended up underscoring "the deficiencies of U.S. intelligence, the incompetence of American administration and the limitations on the American military."
- A war meant to boost U.S. global leadership "has driven U.S. prestige to an all-time low" over the last five years and alienated important allies like Turkey.
Galbraith makes a persuasive case for these arguments, using his firsthand observations on the ground in Iraq (as a staff member for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later as a consultant for ABC News) and his extensive knowledge of the region to explicate the consequences that the American invasion has had on political and ethnic struggles within Iraq and on larger strategic alignments in the Middle East and wider world.
Certainly many readers will not agree with all his theories. He perversely contends, for instance, that the Iraqi exile and neoconservative favorite Ahmad Chalabi might have done "a respectable job running Iraq," since he was capable enough to help persuade the United States to get rid of his nemesis, Saddam Hussein, "when Iraq posed no threat to the United States." But, all in all, "Unintended Consequences" offers a lucid, pointed and often powerful deconstruction of the Bush administration's blunders in prosecuting the war.
As Galbraith sees it, critics of the war are wrong to focus on matters like the dismissal of the Iraqi army or the draconian de-Baathification decree, issued by L. Paul Bremer III, because such missteps, important as they are, obscure "the larger failure that was the product of incompetence, partisanship and an obsession with ideology over pragmatism."
The root of the problem, he says, was "the absence of presidential decision making": "The self-styled decider never decided the most critical questions about the future of Iraq" - like how to provide security in Baghdad when U.S. forces took it over or how a post-Hussein Iraq would be governed - "and worse, never knew there were critical matters that needed deciding."
Two things, Galbraith contends, "ensured defeat in the days that followed the U.S. takeover of Iraq" - namely the American failure to stop the looting of Baghdad, which "continued unchecked for at least six weeks" and "the decision, made three weeks after U.S. troops were already in Baghdad, to substitute an occupation government for an Iraqi government, and then to put together the occupation government in a slapdash manner with an unqualified American administrator at its head and a staff filled with unqualified Republican Party loyalists."
When it comes to assessing Iraq's future, Galbraith is deeply pessimistic, discounting what others have seen as more hopeful signs. He argues that Bush "has already surrendered Iraq to Iran and to the same undemocratic forces that we invaded Iraq to remove": "Iran's allies dominate Iraq's central government. Iraq is divided along ethnic lines into Arab and Kurdish states and there are civil wars being fought between Sunnis and Shiites in the Arab parts. The United States has no chance of achieving what President Bush has defined as victory: a self-sustaining, democratic and unified Iraq."
And what of the surge? As Galbraith sees it, the surge and the Sunni Awakening have helped defeat Al Qaeda in Anbar, Salahadin and west Baghdad but have also undermined Iraq's unity by establishing a Sunni militia; and the Awakening, which is composed of Baathists, many of whom were part of the anti-American insurgency, could easily turn against the United States again or against the Iraqi government, particularly if America stops providing funds to it.
The "pretense that the surge is a success and that therefore the United States is winning the Iraq War," Galbraith contends, "is the opening salvo in a coming blame game as to who lost Iraq." He suggests that the surge has enabled Bush to "run out the clock on his term in office so as to avoid having to admit defeat" and that running out the clock serves the interests of the Republican Party, setting up a GOP story line for 2009: "When George W. Bush left office, America was winning the Iraq War. His successor - abetted by the Democratic Congress and the faithless American people - squandered the victory and is responsible for the consequences."
Ethiopia says AU peacekeepers want to quit Somalia
Thursday, December 11, 2008
By Tsegaye Tadesse
African Union peacekeepers in Somalia have asked Ethiopian troops planning to leave the country at the end of the year to help them quit Mogadishu too, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said Thursday.
There are 3,200 soldiers from Uganda and Burundi guarding strategic sites in the capital, which has been the focus of a two-year Iraq-style insurgency by Islamist rebels battling the Horn of Africa nation's Western-backed interim government.
The withdrawal of the foreign forces could leave the door open for an insurgent assault.
Ethiopian troops have been supporting the administration, but Meles has become increasingly frustrated by feuding among its leaders, the financial cost of the operation and the absence of any serious, international effort to pacify Somalia.
Addis Ababa says it will withdraw its forces at the end of December, and Meles said the AU soldiers wanted to leave too.
"The African Union, Uganda and Burundi have all asked us to stay behind and provide protection for the safe passage of their troops," Meles told parliament.
"The AU troops in Somalia are our comrades in arms, we have responsibility to provide safe passage during their withdrawal."
Ethiopia's decision to pull out was final, he said, and he blamed the international community for failing to fund the AU mission, AMISOM, to its planned strength of 8,000 troops.
An Ethiopian withdrawal could create a power vacuum and leave Mogadishu open to a takeover by the Islamists, who now control most of the south and central regions and are camped on the outskirts of the city.
The ill-equipped AU troops might be ill-placed to stop that, even if it were in their mandate. Ugandan and Burundian military spokesmen were not immediately available to comment.
Some residents were cheered Wednesday when moderate Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Ahmed returned to Mogadishu for the first time in two years. His opposition faction is in U.N.-led talks with President Abdullahi Yusuf's government.
But the rebels remain deeply divided, and witnesses said clashes between other Islamist gunmen and pro-government forces killed at least 10 people in the city early Thursday.
"We attacked five government bases and even neared the presidential palace this morning," Sheikh Abdirahman Isse Adow, spokesman for the Islamic Courts, told Reuters.
He said his fighters had killed many Ethiopian soldiers, but there was no independent verification of that.
Experts say Sharif has little influence over Islamist hardliners including the al Shabaab group, which the United States accuses of having links to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda.
At a news conference, Sharif condemned the bloodshed and urged the opposition to unite.
"All Islamists must stop fighting and resolve their differences at the negotiation table," he reporters.
"We are very disappointed with those who claim jihad and attack Ethiopian troops who have already agreed to pull out."
A local rights group said Wednesday fighting had killed 16,210 civilians since the start of last year, when allied Somali-Ethiopian forces drove the Islamists from the capital.
About 1 million people have been uprooted, and 3.2 million -- more than a third of the population -- need emergency aid. The chaos has also helped fuel an explosion of piracy offshore.
(Additional reporting by Abdi Sheikh and Abdi Guled in Mogadishu; Writing by Daniel Wallis)
U.S. proposes allowing attacks on pirates on land
By Neil MacFarquhar
Thursday, December 11, 2008
UNITED NATIONS, New York: In an effort to curb piracy off Somalia's coast, the United States began circulating a UN Security Council resolution that would significantly beef up interdiction efforts by permitting foreign forces to attack pirate bases on land.
Until now all military action has been focused on naval measures. The proposal on Wednesday to carry the fight ashore is an escalation opposed by some countries skittish about sovereignty issues.
The U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, is expected at the UN Security Council early next week to engage other foreign ministers from member states on piracy, among other matters.
The U.S. envoy, Alejandro Wolff, said that given the threat the pirates pose to international navigation and to the government of Somalia, "We will leave no stone unturned in dealing with this issue." Any military action on land would be undertaken with the agreement of the Somalian government, he said.
The Somalian ambassador to the United Nations could not be reached for comment, but the beleaguered government has generally supported any action against the pirates.
Diplomats who have seen the U.S. draft said that it spoke of taking "all necessary measures ashore in Somalia," including air attacks, to prevent piracy. It also calls for the creation of a central clearing house in the region for information about the pirates and discourages the payment of ransom for captured ships.
Opposition came on two grounds. Some diplomats said the Security Council had not done enough to bring stability to Somalia, which they called the root cause of the problem.
U. Joy Ogwe, the Nigerian ambassador, said that while African states supported measures to fight piracy, "It is because we are not engaged on the ground that we see so much threat on the seas."
In addition, some opponents said that enough concessions had already been made in allowing foreign powers to encroach on Somalia's territorial waters.
U.S. aims for more troops in Afghanistan
Thursday, December 11, 2008
By Andrew Gray
Defence Secretary Robert Gates said he hoped a U.S. troop increase for Afghanistan would be mostly done by late spring, as his commander warned Afghan forces were three or four years from leading the fight.
Gates, visiting a dusty NATO base near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan on Thursday, criticised the United Nations and the European Union for not doing more to help stabilise the country.
There are some 65,000 international troops in Afghanistan, including more than 30,000 from the United States, struggling to combat worsening insurgent violence which has sparked alarm in Washington and other Western capitals.
U.S. Army Gen. David McKiernan, commander of NATO forces and most U.S. troops in Afghanistan, has requested four more combat brigades and support units -- a total of more than 20,000 troops.
One of those brigades is scheduled to deploy in January.
"Beyond January, we are hopeful that we will be able to send an additional two brigade combat teams by late spring," Gates, who will stay in his post after Barack Obama becomes U.S. president next month, told reporters at the NATO base.
Most of the extra troops are expected to go to southern Afghanistan, the scene of the fiercest insurgent violence.
Washington's ability to send more forces to Afghanistan depends largely on being able to pull some of its 150,000 troops out of Iraq, where security has improved dramatically but commanders caution the situation remains fragile.
Obama has pledged to make Afghanistan one of his top priorities and to send more troops there.
Seven years after U.S.-led forces ended Taliban rule in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, both Gates and McKiernan said a sustained commitment to Afghanistan by Washington and its allies was still needed for years to come.
"It's going to take us another three or four years to develop the army and continue to work on reforming and developing the police to have less reliance on international forces," McKiernan told reporters travelling with Gates.
Both Gates and McKiernan declined to say whether that meant 50,000 U.S. troops -- the likely total after the planned buildup is complete -- would need to stay in Afghanistan that long.
At a town hall-style meeting with U.S. troops in a large tent on the base, Gates renewed criticism of other NATO nations for not providing more troops and other resources to Afghanistan.
He said that, without the United States, the alliance had some 2.5 million men and women under arms, yet had only about 30,000 of them in Afghanistan, which NATO leaders have declared their top operational priority.
"I think it's a real concern that the United States is having to bear a disproportionate part of the burden," he said.
Gates said other NATO nations should be able to supply many badly needed trainers for the Afghan police but he described as "trivial" the number provided by the European Union, which accounts for a large proportion of NATO members.
He also said international aid projects in Afghanistan remained poorly coordinated and the United Nations had not given its top official in the country, a former Norwegian foreign minister, enough support to tackle the problem.
"Unfortunately, in my opinion, the United Nations has not provided ambassador Kai Eide with the resources -- both people and money -- that he needs to do the job," he said.
Asked at the meeting how long the broader war with Islamist militants would last, Gates noted that America's last ideological struggle -- the Cold War -- went on for 45 years.
"How long this will go on is an unknown but I think it will be protracted," said Gates, who was a Soviet analyst at the CIA during the Cold War and later became head of the spy agency.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)
Israeli party tips right as its leader woos centrists
By Ethan Bronner
Thursday, December 11, 2008
JERUSALEM: Primary election results in Israel for the opposition Likud Party this week have put its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, in a bind: His list of parliamentary candidates is notably more hawkish than he is, making it harder for him to campaign on the promise to form a centrist coalition if elected.
Major victors in the primaries held Monday and Tuesday either reject territorial compromise with the Palestinians or are so skeptical of Palestinian intentions and capacities that they dismiss negotiations with them as a waste of time. Netanyahu has been assuring Arab, European and American officials that if, as voter surveys suggest, he is elected prime minister in February he will continue talks with the Palestinians and govern with a broad coalition.
"We see a list which might make it difficult for Netanyahu to govern as he had planned," said Zalman Shoval, his longtime foreign affairs adviser and a former ambassador to Washington, who did not win a secure place in the primaries. "The general public is not represented by the composition of the Likud list."
Analysis in the news media has been much harsher.
In a column called "Return of the Swamp," Nahum Barnea wrote Wednesday in Yediot Aharonot, a centrist newspaper, that Netanyahu was now "a hostage in the hands of the extreme right wing." In Maariv, a center-right daily newspaper, Shalom Yerushalmi, an analyst, called the damage to Netanyahu great.
The Jerusalem Post, a daily that leans right of center, said in an editorial: "Netanyahu urgently needs to tell his Knesset candidates, the voting public and Israel's allies abroad what his party now stands for. Otherwise others, to his detriment, will be only too ready to define it for him."
The hope among officials in Kadima, the centrist party leading the government and seeking to remain in power, is that wavering voters will move toward them from Likud as a result of the primaries.
But the first postprimary polls, conducted Tuesday evening and published in the newspapers Haaretz and Yediot Aharonot, showed no such effect. Of the 120 seats in Parliament, the Haaretz survey found, 36 would go to Likud, 27 to Kadima and 12 to Labor, with the rest to smaller parties; Yediot found the distribution to be 31 to Likud, 24 to Kadima and 11 to Labor. These were largely unchanged from last month.
Analysts are divided on whether or not the nature of the Likud list has sunk in and on whether voters are more focused on the economy, education and crime than on Middle East peace and would still prefer Likud.
"I think the divide between doves and hawks is less relevant because most Israelis don't see peace around the corner," said Ron Dermer, a close campaign aide to Netanyahu. "We are saying: 'Let's not get caught up in an all-or-nothing approach. Let's make steady progress on the ground with the Palestinians and on the domestic agenda.' "
Netanyahu has spoken of promoting an "economic peace" with the Palestinians, bolstering their prosperity and domestic institutions while slowly continuing political negotiations on a two-state solution based on yielding territory. Palestinian officials have expressed despair at such an approach.
For the Palestinians, as well as for outsiders who follow Israeli politics, it may be hard to think of Netanyahu as anything but a hawkish conservative when compared with Ehud Barak, leader of the Labor Party, and Tzipi Livni, the Kadima chief, who both say they will charge ahead on a peace deal. Netanyahu has repeatedly said he will not divide Jerusalem, a Palestinian demand for peace, or go beyond certain red lines regarding Israel's territorial security.
But Netanyahu and his aides have gone out of their way to note that when he was prime minister in the late 1990s he signed an agreement with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on Hebron, the West Bank city. They say he hopes to draw Labor into his government to defang the left. Netanyahu brought several moderates into Likud in recent weeks as part of that effort.
Since previous hawks became more dovish once they were in power, some Israelis argue, the same will happen to whoever wins in February. They point to the change of heart that occurred in former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the departing prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and say Netanyahu will go down the same path.
But the selection this week of a number of Likud candidates seems likely to complicate that analysis. Attention has been focused on the election of Moshe Feiglin to the secure 20th spot on the Likud list as well as a number of others whom Feiglin's supporters helped choose, voting in a bloc.
Feiglin is among the most unyielding of West Bank settlers. He has advocated Israeli withdrawal from the United Nations and the cutoff of water and electricity to the Palestinian areas. He says that there is no Palestinian people and that there will never be a Palestinian state, and that Israel will hold onto everything it has now. In a television interview on Wednesday, he advocated annexing the West Bank and paying Palestinians to leave.
Netanyahu campaigned against Feiglin before the primaries, and his aides say that because of various rules governing the primaries, Feiglin's slot may move down before the February elections.
Still, analysts note, numerous others who are expected to be elected from the Likud Party, while not as hard-line as Feiglin, would make negotiations with the Palestinians hard to carry out and territorial compromise even harder.
Obama may offer Israel "nuclear umbrella"
Thursday, December 11, 2008
JERUSALEM: U.S. President-elect Barack Obama plans to offer Israel a strategic pact designed to fend off any nuclear attack on the Jewish state by Iran, an Israeli newspaper reported on Thursday.
Quoting an unnamed American source close to Obama's administration, the Haaretz daily said Washington would pledge under the proposed "nuclear umbrella" to respond to any Iranian nuclear strike against Israel with a U.S. retaliation in kind.
Iran denies its nuclear programme has military designs. But virulent anti-Israel rhetoric from Tehran has spread fears that the Israelis, who are believed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal, could attack their arch-foe pre-emptively.
The latitude for unilateral Israeli action might be limited by a U.S. nuclear umbrella. Similar Cold War treaties -- NATO in Europe, the nuclear umbrella over Japan -- defended U.S. allies while obliging them to get Washington's nod for military moves.
Asked about the Haaretz report, an official in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government said only: "We do not engage in speculation whose source is unclear."
An aide to rightist opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads a race to replace Olmert in a February 10 election and who has said he believes Obama is serious about preventing Iran from attaining nuclear weapons, declined to comment on the report.
Speculation on the possibility of a U.S.-Israeli strategic pact was stirred two years ago, when President George W. Bush said in an interview with Reuters that his country would "rise to Israel's defence" in the face of Iranian threats.
Obama succeeds Bush in January. A spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv said he could make no statement "on what a future administration's policy might or might not be."
Israel was founded partly as a haven for survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, on the promise that Jews would now look to their own defence. Formally submitting to foreign protection could spell a major credibility crisis for the Israeli government.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Charles Dick)

In Greece, a crisis decades in the making
By Rachel Donadio and Anthee Carassava
Thursday, December 11, 2008
ATHENS: Just four years ago, this ancient capital was remade for the summer Olympics by a new government that surged to power promising reform. Today, Athenians are faced with the worst unrest in decades.
As the capital slowly returned to its workday bustle on Thursday after days of violent protests following the shooting death by the police of a 15-year-old boy, the question on many minds was simply: What happened?
Or perhaps: What didn't happen?
For most Greeks, raised in a culture with a high tolerance for protest and disarray, it appeared that the Olympics were the anomaly, not the violence and government inertia on display here this week.
"The Olympics were a utopia," said Paraskievas Golfis, who was having coffee with his family in an upscale shopping mall that opened two weeks ago in a former Olympics venue here. "Greek reality is what we're living today."
A range of issues - economic stagnation, widespread corruption, a troubled education system, rising poverty, precarious security - were thrust to the fore this week as thousands of Greeks spilled onto the streets to protest against the government.
But were the riots a security situation handled badly or a social uprising waiting to happen?
Many demonstrations turned violent, guided by a relatively small group of self-styled anarchists. Although the government said it would not tolerate violence, it ordered the police not to use force to avoid further bloodshed. In the melee, hundreds of businesses were destroyed around the country, resulting in an estimated $1.3 billion in damage.
That even the peaceful demonstrations became so fierce speaks to the deep well of discontent in Greece today. Conversations with Athenians revealed a widespread feeling that they have been neglected - and this week abandoned - by a government they see as corrupt.
"The government just shows that it's disinterested," said Paraskievas Tilipakis, the manager of a shoe store in the mall. "We've lost our team spirit. That's why we're where we are today."
It wasn't supposed to be this way. In 2004, Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis and his center-right New Democracy party soared to power promising to push the country into the future after decades of Socialist rule.
It pulled off the Olympics, reduced the national debt and boosted employment, but troubles remained. In 2006, the government revised the country's gross domestic product up 25 percent after taking into account the underground economy.
Since narrowly winning re-election in 2007, Karamanlis's government has been beset by corruption scandals and criticized for its handling of forest fires that burned out of control and killed 80 in the summer of 2007.
If people were angry with the government before the protests this week - and angry at what they see as police brutality in the teenager's death - they are equally angry at the government's response.
"Greeks don't feel safe and secure. They don't trust that the police will protect them," said Flora Vamvokou, 32, who was sitting at a Starbucks in the mall with two colleagues from the housewares store where they work. "The president hasn't even come out to address the Greeks and assure them and try to instill some sense of calm."
Her colleague Nicole Tsoukalis added, "This isn't going to end here." Salaries remain fixed at around €700 a month, she said, and the cost of living is rising. All this adds fuel to the fire. "It's a revolution we're living," she said, "an uprising."
But in the Exarchia neighborhood surrounding the Polytechnic University, an anarchist stronghold, some said the situation was not so much a revolution as a security situation that had spiraled out of control.
After the boy's death on Saturday, the violent protests began.
"The first night there was a reaction met with no response by the government," said Dimitris, a clerk in the Stournari bookstore near the university who declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals. "That gave them further impetus - that's why the riots spread."
On a street of charred shops and burned-out cars, he said that anarchists had spared the shop this time but had routinely given it trouble. Still, he would not consider calling the police.
"If you call the police, they say, 'We won't come to Exarchia,"' Dimitris said.
Hundreds of self-styled anarchists have long occupied the Polytechnic University. But since the 1970s, when the police opened fire on students at the school, the police are banned from college campuses unless asked to do so by administrators. They have so far been reluctant, for fear the anarchists will burn the universities down, said Christos Kittas, the rector of Athens University.
Stathis Kalyvas, a political science professor at Yale University and the director of its Program on Order, Conflict, and Violence, said: "Greek society has changed enormously since the mid-'70s. At the time, it was poor, isolated and politically and socially repressed. It is now a wealthy, liberal European society."
Yet the student uprisings in the 1970s still loom large in the public imagination, and the Greek press continues to foster a climate of hostility toward the police.
While violence may not be welcome, the anarchists meet with some popular support.
"The bottom line, in my opinion, is that their hold on Greece can only be explained by the culture of tolerance toward them," Kalyvas said.
Although there were no large demonstrations on Thursday, small groups of militant youths targeted police stations around Athens.
"Things are a scale or two lower today," Panayotis Stathis, the National Police spokesman, said Thursday. "There is a gradual de-escalation, and that's how things will be going."
Yet students have announced more protests for Friday and Monday.
Asked whether they think the crisis will force change, Athenians inevitably say no.
"This is the reality we like because it doesn't seem like we're not doing anything to change it," said Golfis, at the mall. "This is what we like. This is who we are."
A model home plate
By Doug Glanville
Thursday, December 11, 2008
I'm Doug Glanville and my wife approved this message.
Being a major league baseball player has its perks, one of which is the wide-open access you can have to celebrities in all industries. I've met Mia Hamm, I've met "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, I've met Josh Grobin, I've met Michael Jordan. If you added up all the stars I have encountered, the sum of their 15 or more minutes of fame could make a heckuva grandfather clock.
O.K., you got me: Meeting a supermodel probably deserves special consideration. Although I met Tyra Banks in the most random way imaginable.
It all started with Wade Boggs. The Hall of Fame third baseman had an amazing career, mostly with the Boston Red Sox. He was a left-handed hitter who used to slap balls off the Green Monster like he was playing tennis with himself. Eventually he found himself approaching his 3,000th hit.
Let me give you an idea of how remarkable that number is: I ended up with 1,100 hits, and I was an everyday player for most of my nine major league seasons. One year I even had 204 hits in 150 games. Take what I did and multiply it by three. That is a lot of hits.
So, as only the best drama writers could script it, Wade Boggs stepped up to the plate as a member of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and got his 3,000th hit by homering into the right field stands. He galloped around the bases and when he reached home plate, he kissed it.
Now, I know the level of nastiness a home plate can attain. It is a smorgasbord of dirt, white chalk, spit and tobacco - and that's on a good day. So when columnist Jayson Stark of The Philadelphia Inquirer asked my opinion of Boggs's act of passion, I told him, "The only way I would kiss that filthy thing is if Tyra Banks's picture was on it." (Although even when I said it, I would have hesitated to pucker up.)
Well, somehow, that quote made it to The Los Angeles Times, and apparently Banks read it. All I know is that shortly after the season ended, I received a package with an authentic major league home plate inside ... and her picture airbrushed on it. An inscription read, "You don't have to wait 'til you hit 3,000, you can kiss home plate now!" Her birthday was coming up (it was just last week, in fact), and the plate was accompanied by an invitation to a party hosted by GQ magazine in New York.
I thought, "Not a bad way to spend an evening during the off-season."
Still, I didn't believe it. I wouldn't have put it past a teammate playing a practical joke, or even some person three degrees of separation from her entourage wanting to score points with her. But my agent's office was able to confirm that it was not a hoax, and that she had asked her people to find little ol' me.
Now I had to figure out what in the world she might want for her birthday.
I did a little research and found out that her favorite color was green. I was playing for the Phillies at the time, and we were known to have green hats for the St. Patrick's Day game during spring training. Seemed like the perfect gift.
So I rounded up my best friends from college and brought my own mini-entourage to her party. We were escorted to her V.I.P. room and there she was, greeting us with open arms. I believe one of my friends still hasn't washed the side of his face she kissed.
It was a star-studded night. From what I recall, the party also honored her as GQ's first African-American cover girl. Great D.J., too.
Meanwhile, I had broken out my A game: Inside her birthday bag, I made sure to include every possible way a human being could find me if she wanted to. I probably would have implanted a G.P.S. chip in my head and given her the tracking device if I had thought of it.
A couple of months later, on a quiet day at Phillies training camp, I was working out and decided to take a break and check my e-mail. There was one I didn't recognize, and not till I got to the signature line did it appear that it was, apparently, from Tyra. A little skeptically, I wrote back.
To my surprise, she replied. And over time, we e-mailed. She turned out to be an insightful and fun e-pal. She even sent me a handwritten thank-you note for the green hat.
I continue to watch the meteoric rise of her career, and I root for her. She seems to be capturing the hearts of America by her openness and her palpable connection to people, a couple of traits I noticed in the short time I interacted with her. And when I think about some of the more memorable events in my career, I will always think of that home plate with her picture on it and smile.
Still, despite my remark that started all this, I will never in a million years kiss that thing.
Doug Glanville played professional baseball from 1996 to 2004.
Japan learns from history: Focus on the future
By Martin Fackler
Thursday, December 11, 2008
SAKAI, Japan: Despite the rapidly slowing economy in Japan, an army of cranes still moves busily above the archipelago of factories that Sharp is building in this gritty port.
The $10 billion complex, row upon row of hangar-size buildings, will produce up to 13 million liquid crystal display televisions a year by 2010.
If consumer demand does not rebound by then, industry analysts say, the project could end up being the world's most expensive industrial art installation. But the Japanese television maker calls it something else: one of the keys to its survival, particularly in hard times.
"We need to take a longer-term view," said Nobuyuki Sugano, an executive at Sharp. "If other companies slow down spending, we can stay ahead."
Across the globe, companies are battening down the hatches - reducing spending, laying off workers and pulling back on apparent luxuries, like research and development and expansion. In the United States, many people seem to support letting the American automobile industry collapse under the weight of its own lethargy.
Of course, Japanese companies are also cutting back: Sony announced Tuesday that it would eliminate 8,000 jobs. And Sharp said Friday that it would close two LCD output lines making small and mid-sized panels in Japan, shedding 380 temporary workers. But, armed with the lessons of their past, many Japanese companies are cutting back less than their competition, investing instead for the day the downturn ends, however long that takes to happen.
"Unless our sales dry up completely, we have to continue investing," said Kumiko Makino, a spokeswoman for Sanyo Electric, which has refused to cut investment in new battery and solar panel factories. "If we stop, our rivals and competitors will quickly catch up."
That urgency stems from the bitter lessons of the stagnant 1990s.
Strapped for cash, Japanese companies cut back on new factories and development, only to lose ground to hungry Taiwanese and Korean competitors.
While it is too early for numbers to be available, many economists and industry analysts say that Japanese companies have so far maintained higher levels of investments in production, research and development than companies in other countries.
Instead of mass layoffs or cuts in facilities, companies in Japan are cutting part-time staff. (Layoffs of full-time workers remain taboo.) They are also delaying or canceling fewer new factories than elsewhere.
One reason is that Japanese companies have war chests of cash built up during Japan's recovery earlier this decade. Another is that unlike in the United States, shareholders lack the power to demand that cash be paid out as dividends.
Indeed, if the powerful Japanese manufacturing sector has a secret to its success, it may be this willingness to reinvest a lion's share of profits back into new plants and research.
Japan's drive to build bigger, more advanced factories fueled an industrial construction boom that propelled the economic recovery earlier this decade. It also equipped the country with the most advanced factory production lines to try to defend its technological lead over the rest of Asia.
Japanese innovation also helped keep American stores and showrooms stocked with ever less expensive and more sophisticated gadgets and vehicles.
"Japan sees its future as more dependent on capex than Americans or Europeans do," said Robert Feldman, an economist at Morgan Stanley in Japan, using the industry jargon for "capital expenditure," investment in new factories and equipment.
Innovation grew from necessity, too. Feldman noted that with Japan's shrinking population, companies are more likely to try to fill the gaps by investing more heavily in labor-saving machinery, such as robots.
To be sure, the global slowdown has hammered Japan's corporate profits and sent its $5 trillion economy, the world's largest after the United States, into recession. And economists say harder times lie ahead, with the crucial holiday shopping season in the United States looking to be one of the weakest in memory.
That has led to spending cuts. Toyota, which earlier this month predicted its first annual earnings decline in nine years, has said that it will cut capital spending 5.4 percent this year. Blue chip companies including Fujitsu and Canon have also announced cuts in capital expenditure.
Meanwhile, Sony, which announced job cuts, and that it was slashing a third of its electronics investment, has become the General Motors of Japan. Sony, the creator of the Walkman and PlayStation, lost its reputation as an innovator to competitors like Apple and Nintendo. At the same time, it is being challenged on price by rivals from China and South Korea that make less expensive goods.
Over all, revised government figures released Tuesday reported that corporate spending on factories and other facilities fell 2 percent in the three months ending September from the previous quarter, for its third straight quarterly decline. The declines were a major factor in Japan's sliding into recession.
Tetsufumi Yamakawa, the chief Japan economist at Goldman Sachs, estimates that such investment will shrink 1.8 percent this year and 2.1 percent in 2009 before growing slowly.
"The pace of the slowdown in capex has been much sharper than we expected," Yamakawa said.
Still, Yamakawa and other economists say they expect corporate Japan to keep outspending the United States on new factories, even during the current downturn.
Last year, Japan spent 16 percent of its gross domestic product on new factories and production, Yamakawa said. While that is down from the high-growth 1980s, when Japan spent closer to 25 percent, the figure is still high when compared with 11 percent by the United States, he said.
But Japan also knows all too well the dangers of overcapacity. A key cause of the deflation, chronic price declines, that racked Japan's economy in the 1990s was an oversupply of production capacity, which forced companies to keep cutting prices. Also, electronics industry analysts warn that if global consumption keeps falling, even Japanese companies will eventually run out of cash.
"They can't keep this level of spending up forever," said Koya Tabata, an electronics analyst in Tokyo for Credit Suisse. But Tabata said that for now, corporate Japan outspent Asian rivals like Taiwan and South Korea.
Nowhere is that still formidable appetite for factory investment more apparent than along the shores of Osaka Bay, in western Japan. This former rustbelt region has seen a boom in construction of large new electronics and television plants, earning it the nickname Panel Bay.
Panasonic is building what it calls the world's largest plasma TV factory in Amagasaki, a $2.9 billion plant that will produce 12 million TVs a year when finished next year. Sanyo is also expanding two plants for lithium-ion batteries, the type used in laptops and cellphones.
Nor has the army of construction cranes missed a beat at the largest of the Panel Bay projects, Sharp's complex on the site of an abandoned steel furnace. Despite reducing its capital budget this year by 10 percent to $3.2 billion, Sharp says it is not slowing construction, which will also make solar panels.
When opened, the complex is expected to employ 10,000 people and add $11 billion a year in new economic activity. But there are growing fears in the city of Sakai itself that the complex could go the way of the steel furnace that preceded it.
"Sharp tells us not to worry, so we remain hopeful," said Takayuki Kanemoto, manager of the Sakai city hall's investment promotion division. "But we can't even tell anymore what will happen next week, much less in two years."
Senate Republicans doom auto bailout
By David M. Herszenhorn and David E. Sanger
Thursday, December 11, 2008
WASHINGTON: Amid stiff resistance in Senate, prospects fade for U.S. auto bailout
The prospects of a $14 billion government rescue of the U.S. auto industry seemed to vaporize Thursday as the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, spoke out forcefully against the bill, effectively dooming its chances despite the urgings of the White House.
McConnell, in a speech on the Senate floor, said that he and other Republicans had drawn a clear distinction between the Treasury Department's $700 billion economic stabilization plan, which they helped pass in October, and the proposal to aid U.S. automakers, which he said raised questions about which industries or individuals deserved help.
"A lot of struggling Americans are wondering where their bailout is," McConnell said.
Although McConnell voiced support for an alternative plan that was developed by Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, it seemed unlikely that there was any possibility of compromise at this late point in the year.
The House of Representatives on Wednesday night approved a plan, negotiated by congressional Democrats and the White House, to grant $14 billion in emergency short-term loans to General Motors and Chrysler and to require the companies to submit to broad government oversight directed by a so-called car czar who would be appointed by President George W. Bush.
Democrats have indicated that the vote on the auto rescue plan was almost certainly the last major action by the House in this Congress, and they have suggested that if Senate Republicans balk, the Bush administration may have no choice but to find alternative ways to prevent GM and Chrysler from financial collapse.
The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, challenged Republican senators earlier Thursday to propose an alternative to the measure approved by the House and to allow swift votes on the competing plans. McConnell answered that challenge a short while later, saying that the Republicans would oppose the White House plan.
The House had approved the taxpayer-financed auto rescue by a vote of 237 to 170 mostly along party lines. Voting in favor were 205 Democrats joined by 32 Republicans mainly from states heavily dependent on the auto industry; 150 Republicans and 20 Democrats voted against it.
But the more crucial test comes in the Senate. Some Republican senators have called for the automakers to enter bankruptcy, while others said there should be steeper concessions by labor unions and creditors.
For procedural reasons the measure needs 60 votes to advance in the Senate where Democrats currently hold a 50 to 49 majority, including two independents. There is one vacancy because of the resignation of President-elect Barack Obama.
Because of the procedural hurdles, Reid could not force a vote Thursday on the auto measures. If the Republicans refuse to allow immediate votes, Reid has laid the groundwork for a vote Friday morning that would end the discussion if Republicans refused to support the bill.
The White House on Thursday renewed its efforts to promote a rescue plan. "We believe that the economy is in such a weakened state right now that adding another possible loss of one million jobs is just something our economy cannot sustain at the moment," Dana Perino, chief spokeswoman for President Bush, said.
Obama sounded a similar theme.
"I understand people's anger and frustration at the situation our auto companies find themselves in today," Obama said during a news conference in Chicago. "I raised concerns about the health of our auto industry a year and a half ago, when I spoke to industry leaders in Detroit. I urged them to act quickly to adopt new technologies and a new business approach that would help them stay competitive in these changing times. And while they've failed to move quickly enough toward these goals, at this moment of great challenge for our economy, we cannot simply stand by and watch this industry collapse. Doing so would lead to a devastating ripple effect throughout our economy."
General Motors and Chrysler have said they cannot survive much longer without the federal aid, while Ford Motor, which is in better shape than its competitors, has said it will not seek the emergency loans.
As an amendment to the auto rescue plan, the House approved a measure that would require banks receiving assistance from the Treasury's $700 billion economic stabilization program to detail new lending activity each quarter.
Bill Vlasic contributed reporting.Sweden to help carmakers
Sweden said Thursday that it would provide credit guarantees and emergency loans to its ailing automobile industry but that it had no plans to buy stakes in Volvo or Saab, Reuters reported from Stockholm.
The center-right government said that it would provide up to 20 billion kronor, or $2.5 billion, in collateral-backed credit guarantees, directed toward the manufacture of more environmentally friendly vehicles, as well as rescue loans of up to 5 billion kronor.
Germany stands behind joint EU stimulus plan, Merkel says
Thursday, December 11, 2008
BRUSSELS: Germany said on Thursday that it was fully behind an EU-wide stimulus package aimed at pulling the bloc out of recession but insisted it would not follow others in "tossing around billions" to ease the crisis.
The EU summit in Brussels will be dealing with deepening economic problems and also aims to put the EU in the lead of the global fight against climate change. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France urged leaders to set aside differences and agree on a package of moves to cut the bloc's emissions by a fifth by 2020 from 1990 levels.
The 27-nation bloc wants to agree on a €200-billion, or $260-billion, stimulus package to avert a deepening recession, but Germany -- the largest economy in Europe -- has doggedly resisted calls on it to contribute much more than planned.
"We support the view" of the European Commission "that we need to provide 1.5 percent of GDP for the stimulus package to strengthen the economy," Merkel told reporters as she arrived for the two days of talks.
"Germany is aware of its responsibility as Europe's biggest economy and Germany will also look at what we may have to do," she said, repeating earlier suggestions it might top up a first national package worth €32 billion.
But Berlin remains at odds with others like Britain on how to rescue a European economy heading sharply into recession after the worst credit crunch in 80 years, insisting it will not follow them with hefty cuts to value added tax that would damage its budget.
In an interview with Newsweek magazine, the German finance minister Peer Steinbrück singled out Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain for abandoning fiscal prudence and switching to policies that he said would saddle a generation with debt.
"The speed at which proposals are put together under pressure that don't even pass an economic test is breathtaking and depressing," Steinbrück said in the interview, published on the magazine's Web site on Wednesday.
Britain is to pump £20 billion into the economy to 2010 with tax cuts and £3 billion of capital spending. Germany has cited plans worth €31 billion over two years but with a budget impact of just €10.9 billion to 2012.
EU leaders aim to agree how to reach targets of slashing carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020 and winning 20 percent of the bloc's energy from renewable sources such as wind and solar power by that date ahead of global talks next year on a successor to the Kyoto agreement from 2012.
The talks take on a particular importance, coming just over a month before Barack Obama takes over in the White House - a change in leadership many European leaders hope will produce closer cooperation on issues such as climate change. "Europe has no choice other than to reach agreement," said Sarkozy, who wants an accord on the climate package to crown his six months in the chair of the rotating EU presidency.
A French-backed proposal for a deal sought to ease the shock for heavy polluters by protecting steel, cement, chemicals, paper and other industries from the cost of buying permits to emit carbon dioxide from the EU's flagship emissions trading scheme.
If that allays the concerns of countries such as Germany and Italy, negotiations will switch to bargaining with eastern European states over how much money they need to accept a proposal that will punish their coal-dependent power sectors.
Poland's demand for coal plants to get 70 percent of their emissions permits free in 2013, paying for them fully by 2020, had been accepted in the draft, seen by Reuters.
Meanwhile, EU officials were upbeat on chances of persuading Ireland to hold a new referendum next year on the Lisbon Treaty of EU reforms which Irish voters rejected in June over concerns about a loss of sovereignty and Irish influence in Brussels.
In the most explicit acknowledgement yet by Dublin that it could hold a new referendum, Foreign Minister Micheál Martin said such a vote could take place if Ireland won assurances on keeping a permanent seat on the European Commission and that its military neutrality would not be undermined.
Martin said a draft accord circulated by France addressed Irish demands for a guarantee of one seat on the European Commission and that its traditional military neutrality would not be undermined.
"Work remains to be completed with our European partners over the coming months and any second referendum is conditional on satisfactory conclusion of that work," he said in the clearest reference yet by Dublin to a possible re-vote.
The draft document, obtained by Reuters, includes additional assurances on taxation policy, workers' rights and other issues which contributed to Irish voters' rejection of the treaty, and commits Ireland to ratifying the treaty by end-2009.
Will bankers be prosecuted?
By Floyd Norris
Thursday, December 11, 2008
NEW YORK: The Wall Street backlash is under way. If it grows strong enough, it could end with some bankers facing criminal trials.
As with most searches for scapegoats, the process will not be entirely fair. But efforts by the big banks to point the finger of blame elsewhere - to Fannie Mae for guaranteeing bad loans, or to the accountants for requiring the banks to admit they owned assets that were not worth much anymore - seem to be failing at the same time public anger is growing.
One precipitating event is the failure of the huge bank bailouts to do anything for the economy. "Lenders who receive public funds should use those funds to lend," said Christopher Dodd, the chairman of the Senate banking committee. He complained that banks were "hoarding capital" and buying other banks, rather than lending it to people who need credit.
The administration of President George W. Bush had good reason not to impose strong restrictions on the recipients of bailout money; it had to find a way to recapitalize the banking system without putting a stigma on those who took the money. Strict requirements on how the money could be used would have scared away too many healthy institutions.
But the bankers should have known that there was a risk of backlash. Few Americans ever dreamed of making what most investment bankers took for granted. In a year of losses, why should there be any bonuses at all for executives? Talk of the need to keep valued executives does not play well when those are the same executives who got the banks into this mess.
A functioning banking system is necessary for a modern economy to grow, but it is not sufficient. The bank bailout was not designed to rescue the economy, but that fact was not exactly emphasized by advocates.
Washington took longer than it should have to realize the depth of the economic troubles, treating this as a U.S. credit crisis rather than the worldwide recession it was fast becoming. The bailout was the only action in town, and people not unreasonably assumed it was supposed to make life on Main Street better. It hasn't, and that has roused resentments.
If public pressure rises to prosecute one or more bankers, there is the not-unimportant question of what charges could be proven. The bosses at Tyco stole from the company, and those at Enron put out false financial statements that violated accounting rules. WorldCom lied about the nature of its spending, and thus turned losses into profits.
In this mess, on the other hand, there is every indication that many top bankers did not understand the risks they were taking, and were stunned when the losses materialized. That may have been stupid - another reason to think bonuses are inappropriate - but stupidity is not a crime. As a U.S. District Court judge wrote this month in considering claims against the officers and directors of the mortgage lender Countrywide Financial, "the federal securities laws do not create liability for poor business judgment or failed operations."
But that same opinion, by Mariana Pfaelzer, a judge in Los Angeles, offers a road map for any prosecutor who wants to make such a case, even if there is no proof that company executives knew their financial statements understated the losses and risks they were facing.
The Countrywide complaint, she wrote, presents "the extraordinary case where a company's essential operations are so at odds with the company's public statements that many statements that would not be actionable in the vast majority of cases" can form the basis of a complaint.
"For example," she wrote, "descriptions such as 'high quality' are generally not actionable; they are vague and subjective puffery not capable of being material as a matter of law."
But in this case, she said, the complaint claims "Countrywide's practices so departed from its public statements that even 'high quality' became materially false and misleading; and that to apply the puffery rule to such allegations would deny that 'high quality' has any meaning."
It should be noted that the judge's opinion did not find Countrywide had violated securities laws. She just kept alive a suit claiming that the company's executives acted illegally when they falsely claimed to be following tough underwriting standards in making mortgage loans.
She was not making new law. Responding to the last banking crisis in this country, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a bank's puffery defense that had been accepted by a lower court judge.
"If a defendant represents that its lending practices are 'conservative' and that its collateralization is 'adequate,' the securities laws are clearly implicated if it nevertheless intentionally or recklessly omits certain facts contradicting these representations," the court wrote. "By addressing the quality of a particular management practice, a defendant declares the subject of its representation to be material to the reasonable shareholder, and thus is bound to speak truthfully."
That opinion was written about what a bank said in 1990, shortly before its loan losses went through the roof and its stock price went through the floor. But it has a 2008 ring to it. "From a risk management perspective," said a senior Lehman Brothers executive, a few months before the firm collapsed, "we continued to operate in our disciplined manner we're known for."
All these cases were civil cases brought by private parties. So far it is not clear that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission would bring a civil case on such routine-sounding puffery as claiming that lending practices are conservative and disciplined, let alone that the Justice Department would file a criminal case with no more evidence of misconduct than that.
But if the anger against Wall Street grows large enough, that could change. The executives may not have understood how badly they were hurting their banks, but perhaps it can be proved they knew, or should have known, that claims of disciplined and conservative lending practices were woefully wrong.
A crucial lack of trade financing
By James SaftReuters
Thursday, December 11, 2008
LONDON: Trade financing, a basic lubricant for the global economy, is becoming much more expensive and tougher to get, accelerating an already harrowing downturn.
Banks are reluctant to allocate scarce capital to trade financing, which finances cross-border buying and selling, and are very wary about being caught short by defaults by other banks that write letters of credit or by the importers and exporters themselves.
While not the prime cause of the slowdown in global trade, tough conditions for the obscure but crucial corner of finance that fuels the dispatch and delivery of goods and commodities are sand in the wheels.
The stunningly bad trade figures from China underline the problem. China had been expected to show double-digit growth in trade last month compared with November 2007, but the data showed exports falling 2.2 percent from a year earlier and imports sliding 17.9 percent.
"Global demand for Chinese products is vanishing," said Gene Ma, an economist at China Economic Monitor in Beijing. "Secondly, the credit freeze in importing countries has made it hard for Chinese exporters to sell abroad. I heard some Chinese exporters had to cancel shipments as they were worried about getting paid by their buyers."
Chinese banks have been very nervous about accepting letters of credit from abroad, making it tougher for imports to China to get the needed financing. China and the United States pledged $20 billion to promote trade with developing countries last week, but that is a tiny balm for a huge market.
The rule of thumb is that 90 percent of global trade requires financing. Karl Alomar, chief executive of China Export Finance, estimates that letters of credit, which had accounted for about 70 percent of Chinese trade financing in 2007, might now only have 30 percent to 40 percent of the market, in part because of concerns about international banks.
Many deals that would otherwise go through will inevitably be scrapped, while many more will be less profitable. The World Trade Organization's director general, Pascal Lamy, said in November that some transactions that had charged 80 basis points over bank benchmark rates a few months ago were now charging 500 basis points.
It may well take concerted international action by central banks and governments to bring trade financing back to life. But there are many other calls on governments for capital and guarantees and it could prove politically easier to prioritize "purely domestic" issues, like the U.S. bailout proposal for automakers, over trade.
For the weakest importers, like the British retailer Woolworths, denial of trade financing could hasten a death spiral.
"Woolworths is one of the better examples of that," said Sandy Chen, a banking analyst at Panmure Gordon. "Because they couldn't get the credit insurance to effectively fund their pre-Christmas inventory stocking, they couldn't put orders in to shippers in the Far East. Because shippers couldn't get the assurances on whether or not Woollies could pay, they wouldn't ship."
Woolworths had to put its retailing and distribution business under creditor protection.
Even putting such buyer-shipper risks aside, trade financing is vulnerable in the current situation. Banks and, crucially, many nonbank finance companies are having difficulties raising funds and are being required to pay more for them. They are also under considerable pressure to channel their resources into areas that either have a big payoff or, like mortgage lending, win points with their government regulators and shareholders.
Trade financing, though vital, doesn't check off many of those boxes. It is also fairly easy to pull back from without enormous immediate repercussions for the banks, as it involves short-term transactions.
Difficulties with trade financing have also contributed to a 94 percent decline in the price of storage space for dry commodities on large ships.
The Baltic Exchange's chief sea freight index, which tracks fees for shipping resources like coal and iron, is close to a 21-year low.
The chilling thing about the trade financing situation is not its impact in isolation but the way it illustrates how easy it is to send a very highly integrated global economy into reverse.
"If there are significant increases in perceived counterparty default risks leading to a shutdown of one part of the supply chain, it rapidly moves on to the rest of the chain," Chen said. "It's a cycle that feeds on itself."

A new ordeal bleeds Zimbabwe
By Celia W. Dugger
Thursday, December 11, 2008
HARARE, Zimbabwe: Cholera swept through the five youngest children in the Chigudu family with cruel and bewildering haste. On a recent Saturday, they chased one another through hardscrabble streets that flow with raw sewage, and chattered happily as they bedded down for the night.
The onslaught of diarrhea and vomiting began around midnight. Relatives frantically prepared solutions of water, sugar and salt for the youngsters, aged 20 months to 12 years, to drink. But by morning, they were limp and hollow-eyed. The disease was draining their bodies of fluid.
"Then they started to die," said their brother Lovegot, 18. "Prisca was first, second Sammy, then Shantel, Clopas and Aisha, the littlest one, last."
A ferocious cholera epidemic, spread by water contaminated with human excrement, has stricken more than 16,000 people across Zimbabwe since August and killed more than 780. Health experts are warning that the number of cases could surpass 60,000, and that half the country's population of 12 million is at risk.
The outbreak is yet more evidence that the most fundamental public services in Zimbabwe - from water and sanitation to public schools and hospitals - are shutting down, much like the organs of a severely dehydrated cholera victim.
Zimbabwe's once-promising economy, disastrously mismanaged by President Robert Mugabe's government, has been spiraling downward for almost a decade, but residents here say the free fall has gained frightening velocity in recent weeks. Most Zimbabwean schools, which were once the pride of Africa, producing a highly literate population, have virtually ceased to function as teachers, whose salaries no longer even cover the cost of the bus fare to work, quit showing up.
With millions enduring severe and worsening hunger, and cholera spilling into neighboring countries, there are rising international calls for Mugabe to go after 28 years in power. But he only seems to be digging in, and even declared Thursday that the cholera epidemic had ended, just a day after the World Health Organization warned that the outbreak was grave enough to pose "serious regional implications."
Water cutoffs are common and prolonged here, but last week the taps went dry in virtually all of the capital's densely packed suburbs, where people most needed clean drinking water to wash their hands and food, essential steps to containing cholera. On rutted streets crowded with out-of-school children and jobless adults, piles of uncollected garbage mounted and brown sludge burbled from burst sewer lines.
The capital's two largest hospitals, sprawling facilities that once would have provided sophisticated care in just such a crisis, had largely shut down weeks earlier after doctors and nurses, their salaries rendered virtually worthless by the nation's crippling hyperinflation, simply quit coming to work.
Inflation officially hit 231 million percent in July, but John Robertson, an independent economist in Zimbabwe, estimates that it has now surged to an astounding 8 quintillion percent - that is an 8 followed by 18 zeros.
The situation has deteriorated to such a degree that soldiers - Mugabe's enduring muscle - rioted last week on the streets of the capital, breaking windows and looting stores, after waiting days in bank lines without being able to withdraw their meager salaries from cash-short tellers. A midlevel officer who participated in the mayhem, but declined to be identified for fear of prosecution, said troops were enraged that they could no longer afford to buy food or send their children to school.
"As we talk, children of chefs are in private schools learning while ours are playing in dusty roads," he said bitterly, using the local term for the people in power.
Rumors about this extraordinary unrest in the army's ranks have circulated feverishly, with some speculating that the rioting was staged to justify imposing a state of emergency. Others hoped that it finally signaled the beginning of the end for Mugabe.
Still, the Mugabe regime's ability to clamp down on dissent seems intact. The police quelled the riot. Sixteen soldiers now face courts-martial. Beyond that, some 20 opposition party activists and human rights workers have recently disappeared. Last week, armed men abducted a well-known human rights activist, Jestina Mukoko, at dawn while she was barefoot, still in her nightgown and bereft of her eyeglasses, and as her teenaged son looked on helplessly.
Analysts have long predicted that Mugabe's hold on power - which he has refused to loosen even since September, when he signed a power-sharing deal with his nemesis, the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai - would be broken only when the economy completely imploded and daily life became intolerable.
But as the endgame of the octogenarian Mugabe's rule plays out, the human tragedies mount.
In a country that already lays claim to the terrible distinction of having the second-highest proportion of orphans in the world - one in four children have lost one or both parents - the closure of schools and hospitals is hitting these most vulnerable children mercilessly.
Aisha Makombo, 15, has been raising her 11-year-old sister, Khadija, since their mother died of AIDS last year. An expressive girl with a soft, round face, Aisha is HIV-negative, but she has been struggling to get drug treatment for Khadija, who is now sick with AIDS.
She took her little sister - so stunted that she appears half her actual age - to Parirenyatwa Hospital, the largest referral hospital in the country, last year, but crucial test results needed to qualify Khadija for life-saving medications were inexplicably misplaced. On a later visit, Aisha was told the machine that performs the tests was broken. Now the hospital is virtually closed. Aisha said she was referred to private doctors who demand payment in South African rand or American dollars, but the girls have no money.
Aisha's eyes filled with tears as she explained that she had been able to obtain only cotrimoxazole, an antibiotic used to treat opportunistic infections, for her little sister.
Aisha used to escape the sadness of her life by going to school, but two months ago the teachers at her high school stopped showing up.
"She didn't bid us farewell. She just left," Aisha said of her math teacher, the one she misses most of all. "At first, we thought she would come back, but then we gave up hope."
Aisha now scrambles to barter her labor for food, while her little sister, too weak to work, attends a small school run by a nonprofit group. Last week, Aisha started a four-day job, bent over in a field, readying it for planting. In exchange, she was to get two pounds of flour and a bottle of cooking oil, as well as a shirt and blouse for Khadija.
The girls pray together each night before they sleep in the tiny, grubby, windowless room they share. The small house belongs to their grandfather, but he admits that it is Aisha who provides the food for him and her 45-year-old uncle, who sometimes steals the cornmeal she earns, as well as the girls' clothes to sell secondhand.
Yet the girls say they cling to their dreams. Aisha's is to be a doctor, Khadija's a bank teller, each hungering for what the sisters do not have - health and money for medicine and food.
Zimbabwe has one of the world's highest rates of HIV infection, and now a raging cholera crisis. But with the economic collapse decimating revenues needed to run the country's collapsing public health systems, mortality rates among cholera victims here are five times higher than in other countries, public health experts said.
Mugabe's government - in its pursuit of power and money - has also contributed to both catastrophes, analysts say.
Earlier this year, the government jeopardized $188 million in aid from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria by taking $7.3 million the organization had donated and spending it on other, unrelated expenses. Only at the eleventh hour, under threat that the money would be withheld, did the government reimburse the Global Fund for the missing money.
And two years ago, the government took control of the Harare water and sewer systems from the opposition-controlled city council, depriving the local government of a crucial source of revenue to keep services functioning.
"The real motive was to dilute the influence of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and cripple them financially," said Justice Mavezenge, an officer with the Combined Harare Residents Association, a civic group.
Last week, even Mugabe's mouthpiece, the Herald newspaper, castigated the state-run water authority for running out of chemicals to purify the Harare water supply - chemicals it said could have been trucked in from South Africa in less than 24 hours.
The United Nations Children's Fund and international donors have stepped into the void. They have begun trucking 50 tankers of fresh water into the most densely settled suburbs and will be providing water-treatment chemicals for the city over the next four months, said the Unicef acting country director, Roeland Monasch.
But some aid officials fear the epidemic will be impossible to contain because of the failing water and sanitation systems in places like Budiriro, the Harare suburb where the Chigudu children died and where half the cases in the epidemic have occurred.
"We're not going to be able to control it," said one aid agency adviser, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution. "The likely scenario is that people who get sick in places like Budiriro will go home for the festive season and you'll get flash points all over the rural areas."
Cholera stole the five Chigudu children in just two days, on Nov. 17 and 18, and the grandmother and aunt who helped care for them died days later. Their father, who returned home just hours after the last of his children died, got his first inkling of unspeakable calamity when his youngest ones were not there to clamber all over him as he walked in the door.
"I will never get my children back," he said.
The death toll mounts each day. Chipo and Tecla Murape rushed their orphaned 5-year old niece, Moisha, to the clinic in Chitungwiza, a city just south of Harare, last week. Nurses told the family the veins in the girl's arms had collapsed because she had lost so much fluid. No doctor ever saw her, her relatives said, and the nurses never hit a vein. Moisha, a shy, but friendly girl, instead drank rehydration fluids.
Throughout the day, she complained of a terrible thirst and a painful stomachache. On the advice of clinic workers, her aunts did not even hold her hand as she lay dying, for fear of infection. After night fell, the nurses said there was nothing more they could do and suggested that Moisha's relatives take her to the city's hospital, some four kilometers, or two and a half miles, away.
But there was no ambulance. Tecla Murape, 42, swaddled Moisha to her back and set off hurriedly for the hour-long walk, her heart pounding with worry. Under a dark, moonless sky, she took a shortcut through a maize field, leaping across yet another putrid sewage spill. By the time they arrived, Murape's clothes were soaked with Moisha's watery diarrhea. Hours later, Moisha passed away.
Daring young women are on the curl of a new era
By Matt Higgins
Thursday, December 11, 2008
HALEIWA, Hawaii: In July, Christy Manuel arrived at the United States Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, California, fed a parking meter for 20 minutes of time and walked to the shore where her daughter Malia, 14, was competing in a quarterfinal heat.
"I didn't expect to be there all day," Christy said.
But then Malia Manuel upset the former world champion Sofia Mulanovich, 25, to advance, sending her mother back to the meter.
"The guy was giving me a ticket," she said. "I go, 'Whoa, we're still here.' "
Malia, now 15, of Kauai, Hawaii, won two more heats that day to become the youngest champion since the Open began in 1959. Coco Ho, 17, was second.
Those two teenagers belong to a new generation of women who are shaking up the professional surfing establishment. Most are still in high school and remain a few years from competing full-time for prize money. But with a combination of powerful moves and progressive aerials, they have signaled a new era of performance in the sport.
"It's definitely a changing of the guard in women's surfing," said Wayne Bartholomew, president of the Association of Surfing Professionals, the sanctioning body that runs the men's and women's professional tours.
In November, Carissa Moore, 16, won the Reef Hawaiian Pro at Haleiwa, on Oahu, by defeating the seven-time world champion Layne Beachley in the final matchup.
"We're seeing the likes of Carissa Moore blow minds with her tailslides and the like," said Beachley, 36, who will retire from full-time competition after the Billabong Pro Maui, which began Wednesday.
"I've never landed an aerial in my life," Beachley said. "So I feel like I'm retiring at just the right time."
Moore, of Honolulu, and her generation have looked to the men's ranks for inspiration. "We're maybe experimenting with our surfing a little bit, trying different things and really looking at what the guys are doing," she said.
Manuel said she regularly surfed with boys back at her home break on Kauai. "It's made me stronger, for sure, because I just grew up surfing with all my bros," she said.
The new generation came of age at a time when women's surfing has gained in popularity.
"When I started, it wasn't really acceptable to be a woman in the water," Beachley said. "Whereas now it's actually encouraged, accepted and respected."
That is true not only in Hawaii, but worldwide. The next generation includes Courtney Conlogue, 17, of Santa Ana, California; and the Australians Sally Fitzgibbons, 17, and Stephanie Gilmore, 20, who clinched her second consecutive women's world title last week at the Roxy Pro.
"What's happening in women's surfing is pretty much the most exciting thing in surfing right now," Bartholomew said. "There's going to be unbelievable rivalries developing through the years. The actual performance levels are just going through the roof."
In competition, the contrast between the new school and the veterans can be striking.
"I guess what's different is in a heat we're trying to combine power and flow and speed and all these different things," Moore said. "And also at the same time add a little flair and a couple different tricks and stuff."
Some note differences in attitudes, too. During the final of the Reef Hawaiian Pro last month, Ho dropped in on a wave Beachley was surfing, cut her off and launched an aerial.
Ho was cleared of any wrongdoing by the judges. But the move rankled Beachley, who believed it deprived her of a potential winning wave and demonstrated a lack of respect.
"I think it's great that they're taking it to world champs and challenging us," Beachley, a native of Australia, said. "But I just think it's a level of immaturity and insecurity if you have to resort to tactics like that."
Moore defended Ho and her fellow teenagers, saying: "I actually read a lot of different comments that said it seems like this generation is aggressive. They are doing things that aren't cool. I was like, wow. I think most of it is just what you do. It's part of being a competitor."
Moore said of Beachley: "We all have a lot of respect for her. And she's a legend. But when you're in a heat, you have your competitive hunger."
Rather than being shunted aside, Beachley said, she believes that now is the time for her to relinquish her role as a caretaker for women's surfing and make way for the youngsters.
She will continue to compete in select events and run her signature surfing event, the Beachley Classic, held on Manly Beach in Sydney, Australia, each October, which offers the richest prize purse on the women's professional tour.
"The talent of these young girls, and also the tenacity and the hunger, gives me the confidence to leave it in their hands," Beachley said.
For now, Moore appears uncomfortable speaking on behalf of her sport.
"I don't know if I'll ever be that," she said about becoming an ambassador for women's surfing. "It would definitely be an honor."
Still, she has proved to be a leader in other ways. She left her sponsor, the surf apparel maker Roxy, to sign deals with Nike 6.0 and Red Bull in November. A representative from Nike declined to discuss the value of the contract. But a professional women's surfer being coveted by mainstream sponsors has symbolic meaning for the sport.
Despite her new deals, Moore is still a few years away from becoming a full-fledged professional. A junior at the private Punahou School in Honolulu, she plans to complete her high school education first.
"The school part is really, really important," she said. "It mostly keeps me grounded and you always have something to lean back on in the future."
And there are lessons with applications to surfing, too.
"In science we're learning about evolution," she said. "Surfing is survival of the fittest. We've got to adapt, evolve, just stay in the top."
Executions in Congo underscore failure of UN peacekeeping force
By Lydia Polgreen
Thursday, December 11, 2008
KIWANJA, Congo: At last the bullets had stopped, and François Kambere Siviri made a dash for the door. After hiding all night from firefights between rebels and a government-allied militia over this small but strategic town, he was desperate to get to a nearby latrine.
"Pow, pow, pow," said his widowed mother, Ludia Kavira Nzuva, recounting how the rebels killed her 25-year-old son just outside her front door. As they abandoned his bloodied corpse, she said, one turned to her and declared, "Voilà, here is your gift."
In little more than 24 hours, at least 150 people would be dead, most of them young men, summarily executed by the rebels last month as they tightened their grip over parts of eastern Congo, according to witnesses and human-rights investigators.
And yet, as the killings took place, a contingent of about 100 United Nations peacekeepers was just a few minutes away, struggling to understand what was happening outside the gates of its base. The peacekeepers were short of equipment and men, UN officials said, and they were focusing on evacuating frightened aid workers and searching for a foreign journalist who had been kidnapped. Already overwhelmed, officials said, they had no intelligence capabilities or even an interpreter.
The peacekeepers said they had no idea that the killings were taking place until it was all over.
The executions in Kiwanja are a study in the unfettered cruelty meted out by the armed groups fighting for power and resources in eastern Congo. But the events are also a textbook example of the continuing failure of the world's largest international peacekeeping force, which has a mandate to protect the Congolese people from brutality.
In this instance, the failure came from a mix of poor communication and staffing, inadequate equipment, intelligence breakdowns and spectacularly bad luck, said Lieutenant Colonel H.S. Brar, the commander of the Indian peacekeepers based in Kiwanja.
But the killings and the stumbling response to the rebel advance were symptomatic of problems that have plagued the UN peacekeeping force in Congo for years, said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, who investigated the slayings this month. The rebel onslaught was even led by a commander who is wanted on war crimes charges by the International Criminal Court, she said.
"Kiwanja was a disaster for everyone," Van Woudenberg said. "The people were betrayed not just by rebels who committed terrible war crimes against them but by the international community that failed to protect them."
In the past year alone, hundreds of thousands of people in Congo have been forced to flee their homes as the rebels, led by a renegade army general, have waged a fierce insurgency against the government and its allied militias.
In an interview, the rebel general, Laurent Nkunda, denied that his troops had executed civilians here, accusing militias allied with the government of trying to make his rebel movement look bad.
"We cannot kill the population," he said. "It is not in our behavior to kill and to rape."
But extensive interviews with victims, aid workers and human-rights investigators showed that Nkunda's men carried out a door-to-door military operation over two days in which young men and others were executed.
The trouble began Oct. 28, when Congolese Army troops fled the town, fearful of the advance of Nkunda's troops.
The soldiers, who had already been routed by Nkunda's men farther south, looted and raped as they ran, taking everything of value and even forcing some residents to help them carry the spoils, according to witnesses and investigators. Fearful residents had to choose between two bad options: follow the rampaging army or wait to see what the rebels might bring.
With the soldiers long gone, Nkunda's troops took the towns of Kiwanja and Rutshuru without firing a shot. Immediately, they ordered the remaining residents to torch sprawling camps that held about 30,000 people displaced by earlier fighting, proclaiming that it was now safe for the camp dwellers to return to their villages, witnesses said.
"They said there was security, so everyone should go home," said François Hazumutima, a retired teacher who had been living in a nearby camp. "But none of us felt safe."
A week later, on Nov. 4, a group of militia fighters known as the Mai Mai carried out a surprise attack on Kiwanja. But the rebels soon routed the Mai Mai - and ordered all residents to leave.
The soldiers then went house to house, saying they were searching for militia fighters who stayed behind to fight. But many residents who stayed were scared their houses would be looted or were too old or infirm to flee, according to witnesses. Others simply had not gotten the message to leave.
The rebels came to the door of a 25-year-old trader, banging and threatening to shoot their way in.
"There were gunshots everywhere," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. "They asked for money. I gave them $200."
He then watched in impotent horror as the rebels went to his 22-year-old brother's house next door. The man, a student, had no money to offer them. The soldiers ordered him to lie on the ground. They stabbed him in the neck with their bayonets and shot him in the head.
"They said, 'If you don't have money, you are Mai Mai,"' he said. "Everyone who was young was destined to die."
Muwavita Mukangusi said she was out in the fields farming with her husband when the shooting started. Their three young daughters were at home, so Mukangusi ran back. Her husband hid in the fields, returning only at nightfall. The next morning, the rebels came.
"They took my husband," she said, her eyes rimmed in red. "Because I had $50 in the house, I took $25 to them. But it was not enough. I added $25. It was still not enough. They accused him of being Mai Mai."
The rebels beat him, she said, then forced him to the ground and shot him in the back of the head.
According to witnesses and clips of video shot at the time, Jean Bosco Ntaganda, Nkunda's chief of staff, commanded the troops that carried out the killings. Ntaganda, whose nom de guerre is the Terminator, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed while he was commanding a different armed group earlier in the war.
Meanwhile, confusion reigned at the nearby peacekeepers' base. The company of soldiers sits in a spot that is decidedly not strategic, nestled in a valley that is highly vulnerable to incoming fire and has a poor vantage point from which to keep tabs on the surrounding area.
The company's only translator left the base Oct. 26 and was not replaced until more than two weeks later. But even in normal times, communications are limited. To make logistical arrangements, the peacekeepers depend largely on civilian staff members who work normal business hours and have weekends off. Unable to speak to most of the population and with almost no intelligence capabilities, Brar groped his way through a fog of rumor, speculation and misinformation.
"During this whole time, there was an informational vacuum," Brar said.
With just one company of soldiers and three armored vehicles, the colonel's peacekeepers were overmatched, he said. Patrols had to be aborted because rebels and militia fighters opened fire with heavy weapons that could pierce the vehicles' cladding. The peacekeepers said they could not tell the difference between the different armed groups and were fearful of firing on civilians.
The colonel said he was juggling orders from headquarters in the eastern Congolese city of Goma to rescue stranded aid workers and search for a kidnapped foreign journalist. Sending out too many patrols would leave no one to protect the thousands of civilians gathered around the base, trapped in the vulnerable valley.
Making matters worse, the peacekeepers' armored vehicles are largely unable to handle the muddy terrain of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the violence. It was not until the fighting was over that the full horror of the killings was discovered in houses stuffed with dead bodies.
"We launched patrols in areas we thought there would be clashes," he explained. "But we could not be everywhere at once."
Darfur: Another year passes and the world is still waiting
Thursday, December 11, 2008
In January, President Bush said this about Darfur: "My administration called this genocide. Once you label it genocide, you obviously have to do something about it."
Yet, last week - nearly one year later - this is what the International Criminal Court prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, told the United Nations Security Council about Darfur: "Genocide continues. Rapes in and around the camps continue. Humanitarian assistance is still hindered. More than 5,000 displaced persons die each month." How can this still be?
The world has long declared its revulsion at the atrocities committed by Sudan's government and its proxy militias in Darfur and done almost nothing to stop it. It took years of political wrangling to get the Security Council to approve a strengthened peacekeeping force with deployment set for Jan. 1. More than 11 months later, the Security Council has managed to send only 10,000 of the promised 26,000 peacekeepers. Large-scale military attacks against populated areas continue.
Much of the fault lies with Sudan's cynically obstructionist president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir. But Russia and especially China - which has major oil interests in Sudan - have shamefully enabled him. So have African leaders. The United States and its allies also bear responsibility for temporizing, most recently over how to transport troops and equipment to the conflict zone.
Bush said Wednesday that the United States was prepared to provide an airlift. So why has this taken so long?
Now, the war crimes charges Moreno-Ocampo has brought against the Sudanese leader for his role in masterminding Darfur's horrors (burning of villages, bombing of schools and systematic rape of woman) may - may - be changing the calculus in Khartoum.
Bashir recently agreed to peace talks mediated by Qatar and pledged to punish anyone guilty of crimes in Darfur. Until proved otherwise, the world must assume that all of this is theater designed to fool the Security Council into delaying his reckoning at the Hague.
The African Union and the Arab League, seeking to protect one of their own, are pressing the Security Council to delay a formal indictment and arrest warrant, saying it would hurt chances for a negotiated peace. The Bush administration has threatened to block such a move and we hope it stands firm. President-elect Barack Obama and his advisers have called for strong action to end the Darfur genocide. We hope the next administration moves quickly.
But have no doubt: Fixing Darfur, which is increasingly engulfed in inter-rebel warfare, gets harder by the day. The indictment, expected in February, is undeniably deserved. UN officials say that up to 300,000 people have been killed in the Darfur conflict and that 2.7 million have been driven from their homes.
Still it might be worth delaying if Bashir called off his murderous militias, stopped obstructing deployment of a strengthened peacekeeping force and began serious peace talks. The world is waiting.
Even high-end fashion houses resorting to discounts
By Astrid Wendlandtand Marie-Louise GumuchianReuters
Thursday, December 11, 2008
PARIS: In fashion, cut is vital, but Marie Dupuis has found that it can also apply to price. Thanks to a little bargaining, she recently bought a Jean-Paul Gaultier dress at a 40 percent discount for New Year's Eve.
Dupuis, 32-year-old Parisian, expressed surprise at paying €310, or about $400.
"I have never seen that," she said. "It must be because of the crisis everybody is talking about."
The high-fashion bargain is usually reserved for the superrich or celebrities who obtain designer clothing free from fashion houses seeking the publicity. But in the current economic downturn, less-expensive luxury items are becoming attainable to more ordinary, though still relatively well-off, shoppers.
With margins at mainstream retailers under pressure as they fight for a share of smaller customer budgets, the couture house created by Jean-Paul Gaultier is among the high-end brands that are jumping on the promotional bandwagon.
From Paris to Milan and New York to London, a strong increase in promotional sales in recent weeks has come to include luxury brands. In retail generally, the year-end holiday season can account for about 40 percent of annual sales, so the stakes are high.
But the high-end sales offerings are subtle. Instead of advertising discounts in shop windows - which can damage the brand by undermining the notion that quality comes at a price - they lure buyers with discreet "private sales," some of them earlier this year than last.
For example, Sonia Rykiel, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Jimmy Choo, Prada, Armani, Gucci, Tod's, Dolce & Gabbana, Alexander McQueen, Gianfranco Ferré and Alberta Ferretti have been offering discounts or holding private sales, but not at every store or in every country.
Tolerated by European regulators outside the traditional January and July discount seasons, private sales are usually exclusively reserved for loyal customers who receive an invitation by mail. The discounts typically apply to small selection of items.
This year, Reuters reporters found that one could buy a wide range of discounted products without an invitation at Jean-Paul Gaultier and Jimmy Choo in Paris and Prada in Milan.
"Some may say they don't hold them, but they do," said an assistant at a top designer boutique in Milan. "They just don't want everyone to know about them."
A spokeswoman for Jean-Paul Gaultier said: "We do not have any comment to make about private sales. It's down to individual shops to decide them."
Other representatives for brands including Gucci and Armani declined comment. A spokesman for Prada said private sales were usual held at this time of year but declined to provide further details.
A spokeswoman for Gucci Group, which also includes Bottega Veneta and Yves Saint Laurent, said, "Our policy is that we do not give information about our commercial activities."
Altagamma, the Italian fashion industry association, said that it had noted an increase in the number of private sales this year because of the financial crisis but that they were a longstanding tradition for many fashion houses.
On Old Bond Street in London, Avenue Montaigne in Paris and in the Quadrilatero d'Oro in Milan, not many customers could be seen at the end of November and early December.
"I am more careful this year with my money," said Jean-Michel Fouquet, 55, a French aerospace executive buying a €290 Hermès leather bracelet as a gift in Paris. "We are all worried about the economy and our job."
In this downturn, when bonuses are expected to disappear for many highly paid executives, and fortunes are shrinking among the superwealthy from Russia to India, luxury customers' behavior has changed.
The ostentatious, ephemeral or frivolous has been replaced by an urge for quality and strong brands, according to industry specialists.
As the collapse of financial markets has narrowed investment options, this is not all about consumption. Demand persists for custom-made goods, from tailored suits to specially commissioned fine jewels.
"There is a drive towards timeless, very high-end brands," said Pierre Mallevays, a partner at Savigny Partners, an investment banking boutique in London. "If you buy a Louis Vuitton bag, you know that it will not lose much value. But if you buy weaker brand, you are not so sure."
Louis Vuitton and Hermès said they never conducted private sales, and business looked brisk on recent visits to their shops.
Analysts predict that luxury-goods revenue will drop in 2009 for the first time in over a decade at constant exchange rates. Consultants at Bain say global luxury sales could drop as much as 7 percent in next year, while analysts at Bernstein are projecting a decline of 5 percent.
"Channel checks and industry interviews highlight an increasingly promotional environment," Bernstein said in a note, "a clear sign of soft consumer demand."
Analysts said independent shops were being more severely squeezed by the spending contraction than department stores. The French haute couture house of Jean-Louis Scherrer, for example, extended a 60 percent promotional sale this month on evening dresses that it started in mid-November. The fashion house even advertised the fact in the window of its shop off the Champs-Élysées.
"This is the first time I've seen such a sale," a clerk said.
A palace fit for nonroyalty
By Jean Rafferty
Thursday, December 11, 2008
MARRAKESH, Morocco: 'Everything has been done to make an art de vivre.'
The renaissance of the Palais Layadi - from ruin to regal palace in 18 months - is a 21st-century tale of "A Thousand and One Nights."
The palatial compound, which measures 4,000 square meters, or 43,055 square feet, was built between the late 19th and early 20th centuries by Caïd Layadi, a Berber tribal lord.
Now, a French decorator, Jean-Louis Raynaud, and his American design partner, Kenyon Kramer, veterans of their own Marrakesh renovation, are behind the continuing transformation, said to be the largest private restoration inside the walled medina.
The complex includes eight structures, some of which reflect the property's colorful history. There are two riyads, the Moroccan term for townhouses constructed around a courtyard garden. The first, the Palais Layadi, was built for the caïd's family and now is the main reception area. The second, Dar Kabira, was built for the caïd's concubines and now houses the guest wing.
A stynia, which means "pearl" in Arabic, was the pavilion of the caïd's official wife. It now contains one of the compound's two master suites.
There also is Dar Turquia, a two-floor courthouse - Layadi had his own tribunal and prison - that a later owner turned into a Turkish folly and now is the second master suite.
Other small houses and several outbuildings contain a large kitchen, laundry, wine cellar, hammam and staff quarters. A gym, spa and movie theater are still to come.
From the imposing carved cedar entry door through rooms of mystery and magic, where walls gleam with a kaleidoscope of colorful zillijes, or handmade Moroccan tiles, the unusual architecture has been preserved and interiors have been reinvented in a mix of tradition and Western savoir-vivre.
Now there is a new family in residence.
The designers, who are based in Aix-en-Provence, France, count clients like Janet de Botton, the London art collector; Anne Cox Chambers, the former U.S. ambassador to Belgium; and the film director Ridley Scott. In 2001 they arranged a Moroccan tour for another client, the Swiss banker Urs Schwarzenbach and his Australian wife, Francesca, for whom they had done a house in Provence.
The tour was cut short by the attacks of Sept. 11 but they returned the next year and Schwarzenbach was intrigued by the designers' own restored riyad.
"Two or three hours from London or Zurich, you live in a different world. Marrakesh has a history, a culture, real people living there. It's not artificial," is how Schwarzenbach described the city's attraction in a telephone interview. "I fell in love with their place. I told them, If you ever find another like that - it might also be a little bit bigger - let me know."
It took two years for the designers to find the palace, which was put up for sale in five lots. When they presented it to him, the Zurich financier said he immediately saw its "serious potential."
"I have a passion for building," he admitted. "For the last 30 years, I have been doing up houses from Australia to Scotland." (Among them are the recent €310 million, or $400 million, renovation of the Dolder Grand Hotel in Zurich, with new wings by Norman Foster; several farms in Australia; an estate in Scotland; a manor in Oxfordshire; and an entire village, called Hambleden, also in England.)
Schwarzenbach asked the French-speaking designers to negotiate the purchase, which turned out to be long, laborious and frustrating. "It's like a labyrinth: turn right, turn left, stop and make a detour" is how Kramer put it.
"One palace had 74 heirs and each one had to decide to sign the sale contract," Raynaud explained. "Several had moved to France and Germany so lawyers had to find them, bring them back to sign the papers."
Another surprise was finding out that the caïd's last concubine, now 90, had been granted lifetime occupancy in his will. "We were sensitive to letting her stay, but then thought of offering her the choice of another house in the medina or an apartment, things she could leave her own heirs," Kramer said. "She loved the idea and opted for a modern apartment with contemporary kitchen, washing machine and dryer. We were delighted to live in the 19th century, but she bolted right into the 21st century."
The designers initially were occupied with basics, including the installation of a sewer system and a back-up electrical generator. They also turned a former kitchen into a mosque for the workers' daily prayers; eventually it will be used by the staff.
The location, near the route de Fez at the northern edge of the medina, allowed them to remove debris by truck. But a bulldozer could not be brought into the walled-in courtyard, so the pool had to be dug out by hand and the earth brought out in wheelbarrows.
Exterior walls were redone and the 4,000 square meters of interconnecting wooden roofs were tiled and, finally, caulked and waxed. Rooms also were reconfigured to make the two master suites and eight guest suites, each with one or two bathrooms.
The designers also created a dramatic perspective by copying the nearly five-meter, or 16-foot, entrance arch on the far side of the palace reception room, opening up a view of the marble courtyard and garden beyond.
"Arabic culture is about circling around in serpentine corridors. Things are hidden and discovered," Kramer explained. "We decided quite early to cut through from the entrance to make a central axis. Westerners like a panorama, to see the whole picture."
Off the salons on both sides of the garden, shaded galleries provide seating and outdoor dining areas. On the far side, another monumental arch was cut through from the grand salon into the new library where glassed-in bookcases will house 10,000 volumes on Moroccan lore and history.
One of the most beautiful rooms is the stynia's master suite, where a shaft of light falls from a dome 20 meters overhead and, in the shadows, two gilded gazelles from Myanmar crouch by the fireplace.
At sunset, the place to be is on the stynia's highest roof terrace. From here, a visitor can see the Atlas Mountains turning rose pink in the west and the glowing Koutoubia minaret - which, in Marrakesh, is what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.
"You need time, knowledge and, most of all, the patience that Jean-Louis and Kenyon have to cope with the inshallah attitude, 'If God willing, tomorrow perhaps,"' Schwarzenbach said. "A German or Swiss architect couldn't have done what they did."
Neither the designers nor the owner would be drawn out on the cost of the property, but Schwarzenbach noted that the average worker's monthly salary was €200, or $253, so the renovation's cost was "about one-tenth of what it would cost in Europe."
"A grand riyad like that is very rare," said Alban Pamart of Atlas Immobilier in Marrakesh. "The minimum price for such a prestigious property, even needing renovation, would be €1,000 a square meter and renovation, not including furniture or art, would run between €600 to €1,000 per square meter."
Those estimates would put the project cost at €8 million.
"Most of the large properties are new and, in the Palmerie, where one 4,000-square-meter estate is going for €30 million," noted Alex Peto, the Marrakesh property expert for the British real estate company Aylesford. The most comparable thing on his books now is a small renovated hotel in the medina, the 1,200-square-meter Palais Sebban. The 19th-century structure has six suites and nine rooms and is listed at €3,360,000.
"Beauty cannot be measured," Raynaud said. "Nothing has been done to be luxurious; everything has been done to make an art de vivre. I told Mr. Schwarzenbach, 'This will not be your most sumptuous house but it will be a house to make you dream."
Mugabe claims Zimbabwe cholera outbreak stopped
Thursday, December 11, 2008
By MacDonald Dzirutwe
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe announced on Thursday his government had stopped a cholera outbreak that has killed nearly 800 people, but the United Nations said the death toll was rising.
The United States, which has called on Mugabe to step down, said the outbreak was worsening and South African officials declared a stretch of the border with Zimbabwe a disaster zone because of Zimbabweans fleeing in search of treatment.
"I am happy we are being assisted by others and we have arrested cholera," Mugabe said in a speech in which he also attacked what he described as Western plans to invade Zimbabwe and topple his government.
"Now that there is no cholera there is no case for war."
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the toll from the water-borne disease, normally easy to prevent and treat, had risen to 783 and that 16,403 were believed to be infected.
Asked about Mugabe's remarks, OCHA spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs in Geneva said: "The figures speak for themselves. We hope that the joint efforts of the United Nations and government will contribute to halting the epidemic."
U.S. government aid agency USAID said the outbreak had not stopped and announced it was sending $6.2 million (4.1 million pounds) more in aid.
"This is a cholera outbreak that is ongoing and urgent. This is clearly a humanitarian crisis," USAID administrator Henrietta Fore told a news conference in Washington.
The collapse of Zimbabwe's economy and health care system has left victims to fend for themselves and driven hundreds to try to escape to South Africa to seek treatment there.
"The whole of the Vhembe district has been declared a disaster," said Mogale Nchabeleng, a spokesman for South Africa's Limpopo provincial government. The government took the decision after an emergency meeting earlier this week.
The outbreak, coupled with an economic meltdown, has prompted calls for international humanitarian assistance as well as calls for Mugabe's resignation from Western leaders and some within Africa.
Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai reached a power-sharing deal brokered by regional mediator Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's former president, in September. But they are deadlocked over how to implement it.
The MDC said on Thursday that the cholera outbreak showed Mugabe's government could no longer rule the country and accused the ruling ZANU-PF party of orchestrating a campaign of abductions of MDC leaders and activists.
"We remain on the side of the people while ZANU-PF remains on the side of terror. We remain on the side of the downtrodden while ZANU-PF is firmly etched in the dark corner of an avaricious, parasitic elite," the MDC said in a statement.
The French foreign ministry said Zimbabwe had denied visas to a French team of specialists standing by to help stem the cholera outbreak.
"Contrary to what Mr Mugabe says, the cholera epidemic is not under control... France strongly regrets this decision and calls on Zimbabwe's authorities to allow aid to reach the population," ministry spokesman Frederic Desagneaux said.
The United Nations has warned that cholera could infect 60,000 if not treated properly.
(Additional reporting by Paul Simao in Johannesburg, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Brian Rohan in Paris; Editing by Matthew Tostevin)'
Obama to hear panel on changes to war powers act
By Peter Baker
Thursday, December 11, 2008
WASHINGTON: It's not as if President-elect Barack Obama doesn't have enough on his plate with a financial meltdown and a home-state scandal. But now he is delving into the thorny question of who can send the country into war.
In between interviewing cabinet nominees and announcing health care plans, Obama plans to meet Thursday with the leaders of a commission that has proposed revamping the legal process for launching military action, to require more consultation between a president and Congress.
The proposal would scrap the problematic War Powers Act of 1973, a measure passed in the hangover from Vietnam to give Congress more say in committing troops to the battlefield but largely honored in the breach ever since by presidents who deemed it unconstitutional. In its place, the commission proposes a law requiring a president to consult lawmakers before any "significant military action" and calling on Congress to vote up or down within 30 days.
The commission, composed of luminaries from both parties, unveiled its plan in July, but it was largely overlooked in the heat of the presidential campaign. Although Obama has not endorsed the proposal, he could be breathing life into it by meeting with the commission's chairmen and giving them a high-profile platform to make their case.
Sitting down with Obama in Chicago will be two former secretaries of state, James Baker III, a Republican, and Warren Christopher, a Democrat. (Baker and Christopher actually once waged political war against each other, leading the legal teams for George W. Bush and Al Gore during the recount following the 2000 election.)
Other members of the commission, assembled by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, include former Senator Slade Gorton, a Republican from Washington, former Representative Lee Hamilton, a Democrat from Indiana, Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser and Abner Mikva, a former White House counsel.
Obama's office said only that "the meeting is being held at the request of the commission members," so it is possible that the president-elect is merely being polite to some of the country's most respected elder statesmen. Mikva, who was also a congressman and federal judge from Chicago, has been a mentor to Obama.
But some key people on the Obama team have shown interest in the matter. John Podesta, the co-chairman of Obama's transition team, testified before the commission. And Vice President-elect Joseph Biden Jr., a longtime senator, in the past has proposed revisiting the War Powers Act.
If Obama were to act on the report, he would be taking on an issue that has bedeviled the nation's leaders for generations. The Constitution divides war powers between the executive and legislative branches. Article I gives Congress the authority to "declare war" and finance military operations while Article II makes the president the "commander in chief." As a practical matter, though, the balance has tilted increasingly toward presidents, particularly in the last half century as the world has grown more complicated, dangerous and national security threats more fast moving.
Harry Truman sent United States forces to Korea in the 1950s, and John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson sent them to Vietnam in the early 1960s without a congressional declaration of war. Congress in recent decades has voted to authorize military operations without declaring war — in the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 and the resolutions endorsing action against Iraq in 1991 and 2002. But Ronald Reagan, the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton launched military operations in Grenada, Panama and Kosovo without congressional votes.
The War Powers Act, in theory, requires presidents to submit reports on military action, triggering a clock that would force the end of hostilities within 60 or 90 days unless Congress authorizes further use of force. The law, passed over Richard Nixon's veto, has essentially been disregarded by presidents ever since. They typically send reports to Congress "consistent with" the act but not "pursuant to" it, meaning they never start the clock, and Congress has not really sought to enforce the act when it has been ignored.
Many legal scholars consider the act unconstitutional, in particular because it purports to let the legislature overrule the executive's decision through the absence of action rather than an affirmative vote. That is one thing the commission led by Baker and Christopher are trying to fix with their plan, which requires Congress to vote one way or the other within 30 days of the commencement of military action.
"It's not effective, at best," Baker said of the existing War Powers Act during a news conference unveiling the commission report in July. "It's unconstitutional, at worst. It's a bad law that ought to be replaced with a good law, something that would work."
The commission's proposed War Powers Consultation Act of 2009, which it urged Congress to pass in the first 100 days of the next president's administration, still gives enormous latitude to a president, who would not need consent to go to war, and makes it difficult for a Congress to stop him:
A president would have to consult with Congress before any "significant military action" expected to last more than a week or within three days of the start of action in circumstances where secrecy is paramount. This would not include short-term missions such as protection of United States embassies, reprisals against terrorist attacks or covert operations.
Within 30 days, Congress would vote on a measure approving the military action. If the resolution to approve fails in either house, any member could then introduce a measure to disapprove, which would be voted on within five days. If passed by both houses, it could still be vetoed by the president, so as a practical matter, Congress could stop a president's war only with a two-thirds vote in both houses overriding the veto.
Perhaps the more meaningful innovation would be the creation of a Joint Congressional Consultation Committee, composed of the majority and minority leaders of both the Senate and House, as well as the chairmen and ranking members of key committees. This panel would be provided the same intelligence shown the president and have a standing bipartisan staff.
"From the standpoint of Congress, the statute gives Congress a seat at the table in deciding whether or not to go to war," Christopher said in July. He added: "This new statute could give us a new day of consultation between the president and the Congress."

No contact with Blagojevich about Senate seat, Obama says
By Jack Healy
Thursday, December 11, 2008
President-elect Barack Obama said Thursday that he had never spoken to the governor of Illinois about Obama's replacement in the U.S. Senate, and that no one on his staff had been involved in any deal-making regarding Obama's successor.
"That would be a violation of everything that this campaign has been about," Obama said at a news conference in Chicago that was called to announce an appointment to his cabinet.
In his first extended comments on the unfolding scandal, Obama said he was "appalled and disappointed" by the details of a complaint filed by federal prosecutors, who have accused Governor Rod Blagojevich of trying to profit from his power to choose Obama's successor. He also restated his call for Blagojevich to resign.
"I think the public trust has been violated," Obama said. "I hope that the governor comes to the conclusion that he can no longer effectively serve and that he does resign."
Obama said he was compiling information on any possible contacts between his transition team and members of Blagojevich's staff.
"I want to gather all the facts about any staff contact that may have taken place," he said. "We'll have those in the next few days and we'll present them."
He did not specifically lay out what cooperation prosecutors had asked for from members of his team or how they were responding.
Obama added, "Our office had no involvement in any deal-making around my Senate seat - that, I'm absolutely certain of."
Blagojevich was arrested Tuesday on charges that included trying to cash in on his power to name Obama's successor in the U.S. Senate. According to transcripts of taped conversations provided by prosecutors, Blagojevich wanted to parlay his appointment power to secure an ambassadorship, a cabinet position, a high-paying nonprofit job for himself or a lucrative spot on a corporate board for his wife.
The governor's lawyer denied the charges, and Blagojevich returned to work Wednesday to address the state's $2 billion budget gap, a spokeswoman said.
It remained unclear Thursday how the drama would play out. Obama on Wednesday added his voice to the many Illinois politicians who have called on Blagojevich to step down. The State Assembly will convene next week amid calls for legislation to allow a special election to fill the Senate seat that Obama vacated, taking that matter out of Blagojevich's hands. And the state's attorney general said she might refer the issue to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The governor's alleged actions shocked even some in a state considered one of the country's most corrupt. The former Illinois governor Dan Walker, who served 18 months in federal prison on bank fraud charges unrelated to his public duties, denounced Blagojevich's actions as "despicable."
Prosecutors have gone out of their way to say that Obama was not implicated in the investigation. Indeed, Blagojevich is quoted as angrily cursing Obama and his staff in the criminal complaint, saying, "They're not willing to give me anything except appreciation," according to prosecutors.
Still, for the past three days, Obama and his transition team have been forced to distance themselves from a hometown political scandal, one that has shifted public focus away from the president-elect's cabinet appointments and plans for the new administration.
On Tuesday, Obama had made a brief appearance to discuss climate change with former Vice President Al Gore, but instead faced a barrage of questions about his ties to Blagojevich.
Obama said he was "saddened and sobered" by the accusations, and told reporters that he had not been in contact with the governor or Blagojevich's staff.
But those comments contradicted an earlier statement by David Axelrod, a senior adviser, who told Fox News on Nov. 23 that Obama had spoken to Blagojevich about the Senate seat, and that "there are a whole range of names, many of which have surfaced."
Late Tuesday, Axelrod issued a statement saying he had misspoken in his comments to Fox News, and said that Obama indeed had no contact with Blagojevich in the conversations over a replacement.
In the news conference Thursday, Obama was asked how Blagojevich had gotten the impression - as reflected in comments he allegedly made - that neither Obama nor his senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, a possible pick for the Senate seat, was "willing to play ball and why he said those unrepeatable things about you."
Obama said he could not speculate what was going on in the governor's mind.
He added: "Let me say that this Senate seat does not belong to any politician to trade. It belongs to the people of Illinois. They deserve the best possible representation. They also deserve to know that any vacancy will be filled in an appropriate way so that whoever is sent to Washington is going to be fighting for the people of Illinois. I hope and expect that the leaders of the legislature will take these steps to ensure that this is so."
The president-elect said that he believed that there are two different views of politics. One involves sacrifice and public service, the other is that politics is a business - "you're wheeling and dealing and 'what's in it for me?"'
He added that his own campaign had been about changing that view of politics.
"You can get elected by playing it straight," he said. "You can get elected by doing the right thing."
Katharine Q. Seelye contributed reporting.
Scandal is a slap for Chicagoans after Obama euphoria
By Dirk Johnson
Thursday, December 11, 2008
CHICAGO: For Jeff Makowski, a 47-year-old house painter, it had been fun lately to boast to out-of-town friends about Chicago as the home of President-elect Barack Obama.
Now the phone calls are coming the other way, and they are often sarcastic.
"We're a national laughingstock," said Makowski, who was drinking a beer with a work pal on Wednesday afternoon after finishing work on a North Side condominium. "They call up and say, 'What's going on in Illinois? How can you elect these people?"'
Last month, Chicago erected huge banners along Michigan Avenue bearing the image of its hometown hero, Obama, and "our city just beamed," as Peggy Smith, a 53-year-old nurse, put it.
To Makowski and others, the election of Obama had shown the world that Chicago had produced a brilliant politician, a president with the historic purpose of Lincoln - a home-state fellow, of course - and the style of a Kennedy.
But it was a short-lived burst of civic pride that sparkled on Election Night like never before. The arrest on Tuesday of Governor Rod Blagojevich has resurrected the corrupt image of politics in this city and state. The state's previous governor, George Ryan, is in prison on corruption charges, only the latest of a string of Illinois executives to go to jail in the last century.
"In Chicago, we had just gotten past the old stereotypes," Makowski said. "But now we're back to the jokes. You go anywhere and you hear that 'Oh, you guys are from Chicago' business. And then they just laugh at you."
His pal, Dan Frohling, 42, took a swig of his beer and shook his head. "It's a blemish for us," he said. "It's depressing."
For Bruce Hansfurther, a 51-year-old lawyer, it is difficult to be surprised anymore.
"In my lifetime, I've had nine governors - three went to prison and another one might be on his way," he said. "My 22-year-old son reminded the family yesterday that he was the only one of us who didn't vote for Blagojevich. He wrote in his grandmother's name."
Even the young in Illinois grow skeptical. Jimmy Ray, 22, said he thought it was probably good for Chicago to endure some bad news about political corruption, especially given the wild sense of euphoria here about Obama's election.
"He's being expected to ride in on a white horse, end hunger, stop war and deforestation, and maybe cure cancer along the way," said Ray, himself an enthusiastic Obama supporter, as he stood near a giant likeness of American Gothic, a symbol of down-to-earth sensibilities. "The expectations are so ludicrously high. It sets him up for failure. So this Blagojevich thing is maybe good for us, a cold slap in the face. It's a dose of realism for us."
Patricia Sams, a 55-year-old medical assistant, stood at the edge of Grant Park, where Obama electrified the city and the world with his Election Night speech, and pined for the good old days of six weeks ago.
"We were all so elated," Sams said. "Black people and white people and Asian people all hugging, just like it should be."
The latest news, she said, "is obviously embarrassing" for the state. But she cautioned against judging the governor before all the facts come in, and she said he should not be assumed to be guilty "just because he's from Illinois."
Chicagoans say it suddenly feels like a long time since the elation of Election Night on Nov. 4, an unseasonably balmy evening. The streets are now filled with slush again, and the infamous gale known here as "The Hawk," blows off Lake Michigan.
Kathy Burns, a tourist who came here with her husband, Andrew, to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary, said she could sense the sagging spirits among Chicagoans.
"I'm from Louisiana," Burns said of a state that has known more than its share of political corruption, "so I can relate."
As a measure of the pride in this city's connection to Obama, The Chicago Sun-Times printed extras of its Nov. 5 issue, the one whose front page declared, "Mr. President." Oprah Winfrey, who broadcasts from here, waved a copy on her television show. In contrast, the front page of Wednesday's Sun-Times carried the word "Shame."
Despite the disappointment about the corruption case involving Blagojevich, virtually all of the more than a dozen Chicagoans interviewed said it would not dampen the spirit of the Obama victory. One woman could be heard explaining to a visitor, with evident pride, "This is Presidential City, dude."
Smith, the nurse, said she was a "glass-is-half-full girl," determined that politics would improve, even in Illinois. Besides that, she said, she hoped it was going to be helpful to have a local man as president.
Then she spoke like an Illinois voter.
"Let's hope he doesn't forget about Illinois when he's in the White House," she said. "Think of all the perks."
COLUMNIST Gail Collins: The good news from Illinois
Thursday, December 11, 2008
These are troubled times when people yearn for diversion. We like stories about a simple crisis in which somebody does something incredibly stupid that will not cost 100,000 people their jobs. Yet Hollywood starlets and pop singers have been unhelpfully quiet. Then suddenly, there was Rod Blagojevich, seeking bids for Barack Obama's Senate seat with all the subtlety of a tobacco auctioneer.
That's the ticket! Now, if only we could indict the economy ...
Feel free to indulge in a little schadenfreude at the expense of the governor of Illinois. Sure, the last couple of months have been tough. But at least you didn't have to spend your birthday listening to the nation debate whether you were the most corrupt elected official in living memory or simply out of your mind.
Some people might wonder why Blagojevich chose to say potentially incriminating things like "I want to make money" over the telephone at a time when he knew he was the subject of multiple federal investigations. Perhaps his legal problems sent him off into his own little world. There he was, sitting around the house in his blue jogging suit, dipping into delusions of grandeur in which the empty Senate seat becomes a magic key to a Cabinet post, a big-money job for the missus, the presidency in 2016.
Lord knows we've all been tempted to retreat into fantasyland when things get rough. Really, the only thing saving us from succumbing was the lack of a Senate seat to sell.
Those of us who do not live in Illinois had generally not given much thought to Rod Blagojevich until this week. We had never wondered how a person with a 13 percent approval rating ever managed to get elected in the first place, though now I am personally leaning toward the theory that it was the hair. Blagojevich tossed his thick brown mane and the voters told each other: "Yes, he sounds a little dumb. But truly, this is the hair of a reformer."
Illinois is not the only place going through empty-Senate-seat turmoil. In New York, the departure of Hillary Clinton for the cabinet has set off an unseemly scramble, the like of which you usually see only when someone drops a pound of hamburger in the middle of a pit bull convention.
Still, as far as we know, nobody has actually tried to trade anything other than political advantage, the hope of future campaign contributions and the gratitude of one or more special interest groups. You know, the normal stuff. On behalf of my state, I would like to thank the governor of Illinois for making us feel as if this is a good record.
The Senate seat sellathon is actually not the most damaging thing Blagojevich is accused of trying to do. There are, after all, 100 senators, and we know from several centuries of experience that the nation can survive quite nicely even if a sizable minority are brain-dead bank robbers.
Worse, he's upped the already hearty level of cynicism in Illinois voters. He ran for governor as an antidote to the culture that had sent an average of one Illinois chief executive to the clink every 10 years. ("Our state has been adrift. Corruption has replaced leadership," Rod and his hair said in early campaign commercials.) Now look at him. It's the sort of experience that sets the public wondering if there's a way to get reform while avoiding reformers.
In New York, of course, we elected a reform governor two years ago, and he was driven from office by some unpleasantness involving the Emperor's Club VIP escort service. Now, post-Rod, all that seems kind of petty - especially since, as far as we know, Eliot Spitzer even used his own money.
That's something else we have to hold against Blagojevich. He's definitely driven the bar of acceptable political behavior below sea level.
Look at Delaware, where the election left yet another Senate seat vacant and Governor Ruth Ann Minner quickly announced that she'd be appointing Joe Biden's longtime aide, Edward Kaufman, to the job. Given the fact that Biden wants his seat to eventually go to his son, Beau, who is currently serving in Iraq with the Army National Guard, some observers found it a tad convenient that Minner happened to choose a person no one has ever heard of who is intensely loyal to the Biden family and has already promised not to run in the next election.
But now Delaware is looking like the gold standard. It was only political expediency! The state Legislature isn't going to have to set up an emergency election so the governor won't have time to barter the seat away. And everybody in Washington knows the aides do all the real work anyway so nobody will even notice Biden is gone. Good work, Governor Minner!
One thing is clear. We cannot have any more vacant Senate seats hanging around, creating temptation. Next time we have a presidential election, let's try to limit the candidates to governors, retired generals and failed movie stars. Much safer.
In Illinois, a first lady who speaks louder in private
By Pam Belluck
Thursday, December 11, 2008
In the six years since she became first lady of Illinois, Patricia Blagojevich, now 43, has not played a highly public role in her husband's administration.
"She has kept a very low profile as first lady," said Paul Green, a political science professor at Roosevelt University. "She literally could walk down Michigan Avenue and if she didn't have security, 9 out of 10 people would not know who she was."
So the extent of her involvement in the brash telephone conversations that resulted in charges of corruption against her husband, Governor Rod Blagojevich, on Tuesday came as a surprise to many.
In the 76-page federal complaint, Blagojevich appears to be an influential and demanding partner to her husband's schemes to trade the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama for money-making or politically aggrandizing opportunities.
The complaint also shows her participating in a phone call in which the governor discusses trading his influence over the Senate seat appointment to earn money and find his wife seats on paid corporate boards.
And, in a blast of vulgar language, Patricia Blagojevich eggs on her husband when he reportedly threatens to prevent the Tribune Company from selling the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field unless The Chicago Tribune fired editorial writers who had called for the governor's impeachment. She is quoted in the complaint as saying that the state should "hold up that [expletive] Cubs [expletive] ... [expletive] them."
Federal officials have declined to discuss the role of Patricia Blagojevich in the case. She has not been charged in the case. But officials have suggested that she and others involved in the taped phone calls would be looked at as part of the continuing investigation.
Blagojevich has a deep-rooted political pedigree as the daughter of Richard Mell, the longtime Chicago alderman and a leader in Cook County Democratic politics, who is considered to have been instrumental in getting her husband in politics.
"Rod's marriage to her is really what begins his political career," said John Pelissero, a political science professor at Loyola University. "It was really through connections with his father-in-law's influence that he got elected."
The Web site for the governor's office says that in addition to raising the couple's two daughters, Patricia Blagojevich occupies herself with typical first lady issues: raising awareness on children's health, food allergies and literacy, and starting the State Beautification Initiative, which planted native wildflowers along state roads.
But in recent years, Blagojevich, who has a bachelor's degree in economics and a real estate broker's license, has attracted attention through the dealings of her home-based real estate company. Her clients have included people who were awarded state contracts or made political contributions to the governor.
The Chicago Tribune, in an analysis, reported that her firm, River Realty, had earned more than $700,000 in commissions since her husband began raising money in 2000 for his first run for governor. The Tribune reported that more than three-quarters of those commissions came from "clients with connections," not including commissions she earned from Antoin Rezko, a developer and fund-raiser for the Blagojevich campaign, who was convicted of fraud and bribery this summer.
According to news reports over the last year, U.S. law enforcement officials have been investigating her real estate dealings. Officials in the federal prosecutor's office would not comment Tuesday on whether the governor was under investigation for the real estate dealings or anything else.
In September, she became development director for the Chicago Christian Industrial League, which helps poor and homeless families. A spokeswoman, Jenny Brandhorst, said Patricia Blagojevich has "a good knowledge of, obviously, Chicago and the development community. She's done a great job since she's been here."
Chicago newspapers have reported that tax records show that in 2007, the Blagojevich family's income dropped 17 percent, to $214,580 in combined wages. (He earns $177,412 as governor.) In the transcript of the charges against the governor, finding avenues for his family to get more money is a constant theme.
If Ron Blagojevich owes some electoral success to his father-in-law, their relationship frayed over the governor's 2005 decision to close a landfill owned by a cousin of Mell's wife, saying that it had environmental problems. Mell accused the governor of carrying out a vendetta against him and his relatives. Blagojevich said he had the male "virility" to stick with his decision.
Patricia Blagojevich's sister, Deborah Mell, a gay rights activist, was elected a state representative in Illinois last month. She first indicated that she would run for Representative Rahm Emanuel's congressional seat when he becomes Obama's chief of staff, but decided against it.
Mell's spokeswoman, Leah Cunningham Pouw, said her own impression of Patricia Blagojevich was that "she is extremely dedicated to her kids," adding: "I've seen her laughing and playing with them. She's funny; she's light. When you go in their house, there's pictures of their drawings posted on the stairwell."
Asked if she was surprised by the words attributed to Patricia Blagojevich in the transcript, Pouw said, "Well, Rich Mell is sort of known for his colorful language."
Patricia Blagojevich told Chicago Parent magazine last month that she did not want her daughters, Amy, 12, and Annie, 5, to go into politics.
"It's a rough-and-tumble life. Politics in Chicago is like a blood sport," she said, adding that in her husband's case, "I'm looking forward to the day he's not in politics."
Union linked to Illinois corruption scandal
By Steven Greenhouse
Thursday, December 11, 2008
The Service Employees International Union has long boasted that it is on the cutting edge of the labor movement. But it found itself badly embarrassed this week when it was linked by name to Governor Rod Blagojevich's maneuvering to secure some financial gain from picking the next Senator from Illinois.
The federal criminal complaint filed against Blagojevich said his chief of staff, John Harris, had suggested to a service employees' official that the union should help make the governor the head of Change to Win, the federation of seven unions that broke away form the AFL-CIO. The complaint said Blagojevich was seeking a position that paid $250,000 to $300,000 a year.
In exchange, the complaint strongly suggested, the service employees union and Change to Win would help persuade Blagojevich to name Valerie Jarrett, President-elect Barack Obama's first choice, as the state's new senator. And the union would get help from the Obama administration, presumably for its legislative agenda.
Several union officials in Chicago and Washington said that service employees official approached by Harris was Tom Balanoff, the president of the union's giant janitors' local in Chicago and head of the union's Illinois state council. Balanoff, one of the union officials closest to Obama, is widely seen as an aggressive, successful labor leader, who has helped unionize thousands of janitors not just in the Chicago area but also in Texas.
Reached by telephone on Tuesday, Balanoff said, "I can't comment on anything right now."
The Illinois branch of the service employees issued a statement on Wednesday night saying, "We have no reason to believe that SEIU or any SEIU official was involved in any misconduct." It added that the union and Balanoff "are fully cooperating with the federal investigation."
Greg Denier, Change to Win's spokesman, said the federation "had no involvement, no discussion, no contact" with Blagojevich or his staff. "The idea of a position at Change to Win was totally an invention of the governor, and his stance has no basis in reality," Denier said.
Denier noted that the presidency of Change to Win was an unsalaried position. The federation's president, Anna Burger, is the service employees' secretary treasurer and receives only her SEIU salary.
Service employee officials said that the criminal complaint does not allege that the unidentified "SEIU official" did anything wrong. All he did, they said, was listen to Blagojevich and his chief of staff and ferry some messages for them.
A senior service employees official, who insisted on anonymity because prosecutors have asked union officials not to talk, said his union was one of many that backed Blagojevich and has received favors from him. But he said that it was understandable that Blagojevich would ask the service employees for favor because it was so powerful and was seen as one of the unions closest to Obama.
Patrick Gaspard, the former political director of the service employees' huge New York health-care affiliate, 1199, was political director of Obama's campaign.
If Blagojevich was going to approach a union to help land a cushy job after leaving the Illinois governorship, it probably made sense for him to approach the service employees, the nation's fastest growing union.
With more than 1.8 million members nationwide, it is the largest union in Illinois, was an early and generous backer of his gubernatorial ambitions and received some important favors from him. In 2005, the governor issued an executive order that enabled the service employees to unionize 49,000 in-home child care providers who were paid through state and U.S. government funds.
Afterward, the service employees negotiated a 39-month contract that raised the child-care providers daily rates by 35 percent on average and provided them with health coverage.
With Blagojevich evidently hoping to trade favors with President-elect Obama, the service employees seemed like a sensible intermediary because it was widely seen as doing more to elect Obama than any other union. The service employees' political action committee spent at least $26 million on Obama's behalf in this year's presidential campaign, making it by far the largest single PAC donor in the campaign.
The service employees union was by far the top overall donor to Blagojevich's 2006 re-election campaign, with records showing it donated more than $900,000, or about 5 percent of his total campaign funds.
Michelle Ringuette, a service employees' spokeswoman, said the political contributions were unusual.
"Many unions make donations to political candidates," she said, "in the interest of making sure we have elected officials who represent the interest of working families, men and women who get up and go to work every day."
The service employees' president, Andy Stern, is often seen as the nation's most powerful union official, serving as both a dynamo and lightning rod for the labor movement. He led the schism from the AFL-CIO, and now he is seeking to lead an effort to persuade Obama to enact two major pieces of legislation in his first 100 days: universal health coverage and the Employee Free choice Act, a law that would make it far easier for workers to unionize.
Stern was embarrassed early this year when Tyrone Freeman, an official he appointed to run a large, home-care workers' local in Los Angeles, was suspended and later banned for misappropriating hundreds of thousands of dollars in funds. Freeman was found to have improperly directed union funds to his wedding, his wife's company, even to membership in a private cigar club.
Stern has named a panel of experts to develop a tougher ethical code for the union.
Illinois furor tests Obama team
By Peter Baker and Jeff Zeleny
Thursday, December 11, 2008
WASHINGTON: When Representative Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, began exploring whether she might fill Barack Obama's seat in the U.S. Senate, she called Rahm Emanuel. They served in the House together and, more important, he had just become chief of staff to the newly elected president.
But Emanuel was uncharacteristically circumspect. If Obama had a favorite, Emanuel was not saying. And to Schakowsky, he seemed wary about Governor Rod Blagojevich, who would be making the appointment.
"Rahm always has good intelligence," Schakowsky recalled. "In this case, he really didn't. It was not clear to him what the governor was going to do, or at least he didn't share it with me."
For the Obama team in the days after his election to the presidency, the question of who would succeed him in the Senate was a sensitive one. With a new administration to build and a financial crisis worsening by the day, Obama and his advisers had bigger issues on their plate. Moreover, they wanted to keep their distance from Blagojevich, who was already known to be under federal investigation into possible corruption. But many still assumed that Obama's voice would be critical if he chose to weigh in.
Exactly what role he or his team played will be a focus of intense scrutiny in the weeks to come after the arrest of Blagojevich on accusations that he was plotting to trade or sell the Senate appointment. In that sense, the furor could be the first test of the Obama team's ability to manage a burgeoning scandal in an era when intense media scrutiny and partisan attack machinery can escalate almost any incident into a serious political problem.
Obama said Tuesday that he never spoke with the governor about the seat, and prosecutors said neither Obama nor his advisers had been implicated. At the same time, Obama's team has declined for two days to answer questions about what discussions they had about the seat and whether intermediaries had any contacts with Blagojevich's advisers.
Republicans have already raised questions about Obama's refusal to say more and about his past ties with the main characters. Even if Obama remains untouched by the investigation, it shines a light on the corrupt political environment of the state he emerged from and takes attention away from the agenda of change he would rather emphasize.
"This is a huge distraction at the worst possible moment," said Lanny Davis, a former White House special counsel who did damage control for President Bill Clinton. "You definitely want to get out in front of this to put it to bed. The only way to do that is to defy the conventional wisdom and the lawyers in the room and the more conservative political advisers in the room who will say, 'Why should we say anything?"'
Not everyone agrees with that approach. Chris Lehane, another veteran of the Clinton scandal defense teams, said the worst thing would be to put out information that later proves questionable. "It's like the whirlwind," he said. "You get pulled into the vortex more and more, and that's why he has to be enormously disciplined in terms of sticking to your basic points and not putting out information that creates more trouble for you."
That became clear Tuesday after Obama said flatly that he had not talked with Blagojevich about the Senate seat. Within minutes, reporters and Republicans were circulating a two-week-old quote from one of his senior advisers, David Axelrod, saying Obama had spoken with the governor about the seat. Only hours later did Obama's office release a statement in Axelrod's name saying he had misspoken.
Obama stayed out of sight Wednesday, calling for Blagojevich's resignation through an aide and only after other Democrats had already done so. Aides were told by transition lawyers not to comment. But Obama planned to hold a news conference Thursday on health care during which he presumably would be asked about the investigation.
By the account of several Democrats close to him, Obama did not try to insert himself into the selection of his successor, at least partly because of his own strained relationship with Blagojevich and partly because he had long since grown restless with the Senate. He discussed it with some allies, like fellow Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, but not with some others involved.
Schakowsky said she had never talked with Obama about the seat.
Likewise, the president-elect never brought it up with another potential candidate, Tammy Duckworth, the director of veterans' affairs in Illinois, when the two participated in a Veterans Day ceremony, an aide to Duckworth said.
Neither Obama nor Durbin was invited by Blagojevich to offer advice, the Democrats said. "We all have varying levels of cooperation with the governor. Mine was extremely limited," Durbin said in an interview. "I believe President-elect Obama could say the same." He added: "I knew there was a process in place in the governor's office, but I had no idea what it involved."
Emanuel was among the few people in Obama's circle who occasionally spoke to Blagojevich. He declined to answer questions Wednesday, waving off a reporter who approached him as he walked across Capitol Hill.
A Democrat familiar with Illinois politics and the Obama transition, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there probably were telephone calls between the Blagojevich and Obama camps about the Senate seat. It was not clear whether any calls were recorded by federal agents, who had tapped the governor's telephones.
Blagojevich was largely keeping his own counsel on the selection process, several Democrats said. One aide close to Obama and Durbin said it seemed Blagojevich was "on an iceberg," far removed from most party leaders. The governor did not return telephone calls from Durbin for nearly two weeks, Democrats said. Schakowsky said he took days to answer her messages, too. When he did call back, he spoke with her for just 10 minutes as she made her case for the seat.
"I see in retrospect," Schakowsky said, "I probably wasn't in contention - he didn't ask me for anything."
Venezuela indicts opposition leader on corruption
Thursday, December 11, 2008
CARACAS: Venezuela indicted opposition leader Manuel Rosales on corruption charges on Thursday, possibly weakening adversaries of leftist President Hugo Chavez as he seeks to deepen his self-styled revolution.
The indictment, which had been expected, came after the government this year blocked several opposition politicians from running for office, sparking criticism that Chavez was using the state to silence his political enemies.
The indictment opens the possibility that Rosales, who says the charges are trumped up, could be unable to run for president in the 2012 election. Chavez is opening a campaign for a constitutional amendment allowing him to stay in office after his current term ends.
"Today we've come to confront this political lynching that they are trying to do, a terrorist trial, a political trial," said Rosales, a former presidential candidate who last month was elected mayor of Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-biggest city.
"The only thing missing is for them to investigate me for the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy," Rosales told a news conference.
The state prosecutor's office said the charges of "illicit enrichment," punishable by three to 10 years in prison, were based on a government investigation of Rosales' assets in which he was unable to explain the origin of certain funds.
Communications Minister Jesse Chacon said this week the charges against Rosales had nothing to do with politics.
A ruling against Rosales could slow the opposition after it gained ground in last month's elections for governors and mayors by winning several populous states and the capital, Caracas -- although Chavez allies won in most of the OPEC nation.
Chavez is seeking a referendum for early next year on changing the constitution to lift a two-term limit on presidential re-election, a proposal voters shot down last year in a broader constitutional reform referendum.
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Executions in U.S. fall to a 14-year low
By Solomon Moore
Thursday, December 11, 2008
LOS ANGELES: The use of capital punishment in the United States dropped this year, as state and federal courts executed 37 inmates, a 14-year low, according to a new report. Courts sentenced 111 people to death in 2008, the lowest number of new condemnations in three decades.
In 2007, 42 people were executed and 115 were sentenced to death.
The data were compiled by the Death Penalty Information Center, a research and anti-death-penalty advocacy group.
The lull in executions defied predictions that more prisoners would be put to death after a Supreme Court ruling in April upheld the use of lethal injection and ended an eight-month moratorium. Since that decision, Baze v. Rees, states have granted stays in 25 capital cases as courts worked through issues including the mental illness of defendants, ineffective representation and revelations of potentially exculpatory evidence.
Four death row inmates were exonerated in 2009, raising the total number of exonerations to 130 since 1976.
Richard Deiter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said that the decline in executions proved that capital punishment was becoming less popular.
"Revelations of mistakes, cases reversed by DNA testing, all of these things have put a dent in the whole system and caused hesitation," Deiter said.
"I don't think what is happening is a moral opposition to the death penalty yet, but there is a greater scrutiny applied to the death penalty that wasn't there before."
Deiter also said that the economic crisis and budget constraints were dissuading prosecutors from seeking capital trials, which usually cost millions of dollars and take decades to complete.
Death row inmates are also extraordinarily costly.
In June, the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice reported that the death penalty system cost $138 million a year.
California has the nation's largest death row, but has not executed anyone since 2006.
Joshua Marquis, the district attorney of Clatsop County in Oregon and a death penalty supporter, said that prosecutors factored in the high cost of capital cases before deciding whether to proceed.
"Prosecutors are the gatekeepers and jurors are becoming more discriminating about when to seek and apply capital punishment," Marquis said.
Executions declined even in Texas, which led the nation with 26 inmates put to death in 2008. Overall, most of the nation's executions occurred in Southern states.
Jury deadlock in Georgia death penalty case
By Robbie Brown
Thursday, December 11, 2008
ATLANTA: A state jury announced Thursday that it could not reach a unanimous decision on whether Brian Nichols deserves the death penalty for committing a spree of murders, assaults and hijackings in 2005 that terrified Atlanta.
The jurors, deadlocked after 20 hours of deliberation, told Superior Court Judge James Bodiford that they were split 9-3, but did not say if the majority favored death or life in prison. The defense called for a mistrial, but the judge ordered jurors to continue deliberating until 1:30 p.m. while he met with the lawyers.
The jury convicted Nichols on Nov. 7 of murdering four people, stealing five cars, kidnapping a woman and evading police in a chase across Atlanta.
He was on trial for rape on March 11, 2005, when he stole the gun of a sheriff's deputy, shot a judge, a court reporter and a deputy at the Fulton County Courthouse, then killed a customs official during his escape. The spree, known here as the Courthouse Shootings, has transfixed Atlanta for three years and cost the county more than $3 million in legal fees.
Jurors have three sentencing options: the death penalty, life in prison with parole, or life without parole. Under state law, their decision must be unanimous in order for Nichols to receive the death penalty. If the jury remains hung, the judge will determine the sentence, although he may not select the death penalty.

Digital renegades, or captives?
By Evgeny Morozov
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Over the last few months, the so-called digital natives - teenagers who have grown up surrounded by digital technology - have been lauded as a new force that could redefine politics. A flurry of books with titles like "Born Digital," "Grown Up Digital" and "iBrain" point to the emergence of a new type of wired young citizens. A recent three-year study by the MacArthur foundation found that the Internet helps young people to become "competent citizens in the digital age." The success of Barack Obama's presidential campaign, much of it fought over the Internet, has made many of us rethink the role that the Internet could play in the lives of modern teenagers.
However, as history shows, what works in America doesn't always work elsewhere. Few studies have examined the tribe of "digital natives" born outside the well-off and democratic societies of North America and Western Europe.
Are they the "digital renegades," ready to leverage the power of social networking and text messaging to topple their undemocratic governments? Or are they "digital captives," whose political and social dissent has been significantly neutered by the Internet, turning them into happy consumers of Hollywood's digital marginalia?
That latter proposition seems counterintuitive; many recent examples point to the opposite trend. The democratic forces in Ukraine used the Internet to mobilize young people and get them into the streets during the Orange Revolution. Facebook has been used in Egypt and Saudi Arabia to fuel a series of protests. The recent post-election violence in Armenia and Kenya was well-documented on local blogs, while Chinese bloggers continue testing the patience of their state with numerous protest activities - coordinated over the Internet.
What should we make of such examples? The fact that existing political activists embraced the Internet as a tool of mobilization is fairly noncontroversial. What's less obvious is how many digital natives the Internet has turned into digital renegades - and how many into digital captives. It's precisely this balance that will determine what the political landscape of Russia, China or Iran will look like in 10 years.
The early enthusiasm for the Internet as a tool of political change has been pegged to its promise to transform the international order: As the benefits of unrestricted access to information and easy group mobilization were to propagate around the globe, even the most heinous dictatorships were expected to founder. The Internet promised a global triumph of liberal democracy, responsible governance and radical transparency. The digital natives were expected to be in the avant guard of this movement; Facebook was supposed to make the Little Red Book irrelevant.
To the dismay of most policymakers and technology enthusiasts, this has not happened: The Berlin Wall may have fallen, but the Chinese Firewall has been erected in its place. What if the original premise was wrong and the Internet is not a great force for democratic change but rather the clay that keeps authoritarian regimes together?
Whatever the answer to this complex question, it would be wrong to project the American experience to the rest of the world, where the Internet plays a radically different role, particularly in societies with long-established histories of social and sexual taboos.
Consider a 2007 survey of Chinese youth, which found that 80 percent of respondents believe that "digital technology is an essential part of how I live," compared with 68 percent of American respondents; 32 percent of the Chinese said that the Internet broadens their sex life, compared with 11 percent of the Americans.
We have to be aware of the fact that the Internet has given the youth living in controlled societies infinite venues for digital entertainment - without any religious or social censorship - that may not necessarily be enhancing their digital sense of citizenship and civic engagement. Risking the comfort of their bedrooms - with their hard-drives full of digital goodies - for the gloom of a prison cell does not appeal to many of them. The governments are all too happy to promote this new cult of "cyber-hedonism." Whatever keeps these troubled youths from the streets is inherently a good thing. Digital captives are, after all, cheaper to sustain than the real ones.
How does dissent and activism fit in all of this? Is the Tiananmen Square even possible in the age of Twitter, YouTube, and MySpace? As useful as it is, the discussion about digital natives as "citizens by default" is not always helping us to find answers to these questions. That Obama's online campaign has managed to make so many young people engaged in the political process in America doesn't mean much in the international context: In the absence of the local Obama in Russia, China or Iran, young people would continue worshiping Jerry Seinfeld and Paris Hilton (or their local alternatives), leaving the local democratic forces to themselves.
Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at the Open Society Institute in New York, is writing a book about the role of the Internet in controlled societies.
Innovating through openness
By Nelson Mattos
Thursday, December 11, 2008
ZURICH: One of the greatest stories of technological innovation in recent centuries happened with little fanfare or notice. In 1811 - a decade after James Watt's patent expired and his monopoly of the steam-engine market ended - a group of miners got together to produce a monthly journal, the Lean's Engine Reporter, which included performance reports and specifications of the steam engines being used in the tin and copper mines of Cornwall, England. The aim of the journal was to promote the identification and spread of good techniques, and likewise fuel competition and new innovation in steam engines - then the lifeblood of English mining.
Lean's Engine Reporter and the technological advances it fueled taught us a lesson that we're still learning today: Open innovation is better than closed. Open technology - open in the sense that the technology or knowledge is available to the general public for use - encourages new ideas, competition, efficiency and innovation. It can be messy, but it's inclusiveness means that the barriers of entry are low, cost savings occur across the board, and that the best ideas and practices will rise to the top, allowing companies to grow, become profitable and benefit society as a whole.
This lesson is particularly important in Europe. Even though the Web was created here, America has led the first generation of Internet innovation, creating not just Google, but other pacesetters such as Yahoo, Facebook, Amazon and eBay. If Europe is to become the home of the next generation of Web giants, it must keep the Internet open. This requires charting a course that favors open over closed proprietary software standards, ensuring sufficient safeguards on consumer's rights to access the Internet, and allowing innovators to leverage copyrighted material by adapting them to create new products.
The Web has thrived because it has been built on a model of openness. Think of your early Internet experiences. You probably used an online service provider that had different games or chat rooms or articles on its portal. Occasionally there would be a link taking you outside the portal and into an untamed World Wide Web with its chaotic jumble of content.
As disorganized as the Web was, the standards on which it was built were available to all, and were in fact developed by the Web community. No authority dictated what should or shouldn't appear there. Some of what ended up on the Web was likely of little value, but users were able to make their own choices as to where to browse and what to view.
Out of the jumble grew demand for better content. Better content brought more people to the Web, which created more demand for innovation. Eventually, people demanded direct access to this open Web.
Today, that openness extends beyond simply a question of direct access to Web content. In the simplest terms, today's open Web is a ubiquitous network where everyone can share information, integrate and innovate unfettered, and then make their work accessible through powerful Web clients like open source Web browsers.
This isn't a bizarre, niche community building tools that the average person has never seen. On the contrary: It's the software engineers who build your Facebook applications or your chat service. It's open source browsers like Mozilla's Firefox or Google Chrome.
Why is this openness so important? It's not simply a question of philosophy - of believing that transparency and information sharing is right.
First, openness speeds innovation. In an open Web, there are no deals to sign or payments to be made. An open platform lowers the barrier to entry for users, Web site owners, and application developers. In an open Web, there can be another Google, or another Facebook, started from someone's garage with very little capital.
Second, it reduces inefficiency. In the past, developers have wasted time and resources to write Web code to cover basic functions common to most Web sites - like a registration page. Nowadays, thanks to open code-sharing initiatives, developers don't need to waste time reinventing the wheel. They can pull tried and true code and pop it into their program. Moreover, as more and more sharing of code occurs, weaker solutions are weeded out in favor of more robust models.
Third, it makes economic sense. Although it may sound counterintuitive to give something away for free, the resulting popularity and innovation ends up paying off. Consider social networks. Facebook started out with some good, useful applications, but once it opened up its platform to outside developers, the number of applications skyrocketed into the tens of thousands. Today there are more than 140 new applications added each day.
Facebook benefited from a better product by letting others do their building; those developers benefited by never having to build or pay for a platform on which to build.
But we can take it even further - rather than opening up just one particular platform, we could have openness across social networks. That's the idea behind OpenSocial, which was started by Google and is now run by the OpenSocial Foundation. It is an open platform that allows developers to build Web applications that can be shared across social networking sites, from Orkut to Facebook to Bebo.
The final argument in favor of openness is that it promotes greater user choice. Just as the steam engine centuries ago saw a spurt of innovation as a greater number of innovators competed in the market, so will the Web thrive as users are given multiple options, free to pick and move between the best applications and software rather than be locked into one choice.
At Google we believe in openness because it's at the heart of the Web's success. Openness isn't just good for Google. It's good for the developer in Moscow who reaches thousands through his applications; for the small business owner in Seville, who uses an open mapping application to show his customers how to find him; and for the person in Lille or Ljubljana who discovers she has more information at her fingertips than ever before.
Nelson Mattos is Google's vice president for engineering for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Why Athens is burning
By Stathis N. Kalyvas
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Athens, along with several other Greek cities, has been burning for the several days. The rioting was triggered by the death of a teenager killed by the police on Saturday night. How to make sense of a reaction that appears to be so massively disproportionate?
Several observers have pointed to the usual suspects: maladministration and corruption; the collapse of confidence in the government; political scandals; a growing gap between the rich and the poor.
These arguments are wanting: Greece is hardly exceptional in terms of its problems, yet rioting and destruction on such scale are unusual in Europe.
In fact, these riots are a symptom of a deep cultural problem rather than a social one. The rioting youths are not disadvantaged, poor, or even immigrant (as in France). They are, for the most part, regular teenagers, children of the middle class; in fact, the teenager killed by the police lived in one of Athens's most exclusive suburbs. Why are they, then, reacting in such a way?
After Greece's transition to democracy in the mid-1970s, a public discourse of resistance against authority emerged and became dominant. Civil disobedience, including violent demonstrations and the destruction of public property, is almost always justified, if not glorified; the police can only be wrong: If they act too harshly they are brutal; if not, incompetent. This discourse has proven to be extremely resistant to time and momentous world events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, and is promoted in the media. On the one hand, several journalists came of age in the mid 1970s and are openly sympathetic to it. On the other, political entrepreneurs see it as a resource that can be used handily for political or even economic advantage.
As a consequence, all governments since the 1970s have stood by while an anarchist subculture grew, complete with its exclusive urban enclave (the neighborhood of Exarcheia in downtown Athens which is a no man's land for the police). In regular intervals and on a variety of occasions (e.g. Bill Clinton's visit to Greece, various educational reforms, etc.), anarchists engage in violent demonstrations and widespread destruction. These are led by a hard core of 500 to 1,000 individuals which has grown in strength since the late 1990s and fantasizes that it is enacting some sort of 19th century social revolution against the bourgeois. Depending on the popularity of the issue they are joined, by hundreds or thousands of others of lesser commitment and varying motivations, from ideology to simple looting, who are nevertheless socialized into this culture.
Undergirding these actions is a more or less complete absence of sanctions - few people get arrested and almost no one gets sentenced. Participation in these riots is seen as a fun and low-risk activity, almost a rite of passage. This attitude of toleration covers a variety of other acts, such as the widespread use of graffiti, which has totally defaced Athens in the past few years.
The police lack a consistent policy. They are regularly harassed by groups of youths - a recurrent activity that is perceived as more or less normal; badly trained and inefficiently led, they are prone to outbursts of brutality. The cycle is vicious.
Greece's political, cultural, and intellectual leadership has been unwilling to act against this anarchist subculture. In fact, some have fully, and sometimes openly, justified, abetted, and in some instances endorsed it - especially small parties of the left, as well as mainstream left-of-center newspapers.
Clearly, these riots are undermining an already weak government. The opposition Socialist Party is already calling for its resignation. However, this problem won't fade away with the present government. Opportunities for riots will always present themselves. Addressing this problem requires nothing less than a deep cultural shift at the top.
Stathis N. Kalyvas, a professor of political science at Yale, is the author of "The Logic of Violence in Civil War."

IW: This is E., just before he and I share my bed for a siesta.

IW: This is B., taking M. and B. to A.'s as she is taking them down to school after lunch. These are the last words the limpet heard from his mother: 'I'm just off to A's."

IW: This is E. 1.5 hours later. During this time, as I slept and B. worked in the study, with the baby monitor on, E. got up, put on some shoes, and in zero degree temperatures, left the house so silently neither dog, mother, nor father heard him. He walked at least 1.5km down the lane, then onto the main road heading up to the bourg and A.'s driveway. Faced with its steepness and uncleared snow, he sat down in the middle of the road in the snow.
Here he was found by a passing villager who knew us but not we him, and he presented the limptet to his mother in the study where she was working, while the limpets father slept.
All's well that ends well.

Tesco to launch half-price Christmas sale
Thursday, December 11, 2008
LONDON: Tesco unveiled a half-price sale on about 1,000 products on Thursday, seeking to lure shoppers amid signs they are holding out for bigger post-Christmas bargains.
The supermarket group said that from Friday it would be halving prices on products from bikes to beef and perfume to Christmas puddings, with a focus on gifts and essentials for the festive season.
"Customers are telling us that they are delaying their main Christmas purchases as they wait for bargains," Commercial Director Richard Brasher said in a statement.
"Our Half Price Sale reassures customers that we're not making them wait."
Tesco said a survey conducted by ICM showed that shoppers were delaying spending, with 73 percent of participants saying they had bought at least one Christmas gift, down from 78 percent the same time a year ago.
Retailers, including clothing and foods group Marks & Spencer and department stores chain Debenhams, have launched big discounts and promotions in the run-up to Christmas in a bid to revive flagging consumer spending.
But research from credit information provider Experian shows that shopper numbers have remained below levels at the same time last year.
(Reporting by Mark Potter; Editing by Mike Nesbit)
Book review: 'The Northern Clemency'
By Sophie Gee
Thursday, December 11, 2008
The Northern Clemency
By Philip Hensher
597 pages. Knopf. $26.95.
'The Northern Clemency" is a 600-page multigenerational epic set in the northern English city of Sheffield, famous for steel, coal mines and the retrenched male strippers immortalized in "The Full Monty." Written by a distinguished creative writing professor, blurbed by Philip Pullman, a finalist for the 2008 Booker Prize and recently named Amazon's Best Book of 2008, this door-stop volume aims to be a Major British Novel, revisiting the dawn of Thatcher's Britain in the 1970s, the volatile confidence and despair of the '80s and the awakening of Tony Blair's new Britain in the '90s.
Philip Hensher describes a Britain that doesn't get much coverage abroad - it's neither the well-groomed London of Richard Curtis movies nor the grungily council-housed and incomprehensibly accented Britain of Irvine Welsh novels and Mike Leigh films. Hensher's England is forged in sonorous M.F.A.- inflected cadences ("the city had been made by fire out of water") and tempered with local color ("By the time Tim was 7, she had taken to getting into the car, going to Broomhill and filling the morning with the day's small shopping - the fishmonger or the pork butcher, the little supermarket, the greengrocer - maybe the bank, and definitely the little tea-shop for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake.")
The novel follows the lives of two not quite upper-middle-class families living opposite each other on a street overlooking the Yorkshire moors. It starts when the Sellers family moves up from London - Alice and Bernie, who still "went to bed together" every night, and their two odd and unlikable children, Sandra and Francis. Across the road are the Glovers - Katherine, Malcolm and their brood: oversexed but appealing Daniel, dreamy Jane and weird Tim. On the day the Sellerses arrive, Malcolm Glover disappears, suspecting his wife of having an affair with Nick, a handsome but feckless fellow lately arrived from London to open a high-end flower shop. Katherine, filled with rage and despair, violates all the rules of English domestic furtiveness and erupts from her front door gripping Tim's pet snake, whose head she proceeds to mash into the footpath with the heel of her shoe.
The ensuing action, unfolding across 20 years and shifting between Sheffield and London (with detours to Australia), sucks in massive drafts of people and places. Births, deaths and marriages are in ample supply, not to mention a Dickensian cast of minor characters, all dutifully detailed. Details are, in fact, what keep one end of this tome such a long way from the other.
Hensher performs a comprehensive survey of English domestic interiors, from stately homes to council flats: Chatsworth ("the encrusted palace, the dense magic of its gardens and beyond, a landing-strip of water with a single fierce jet, 40 feet high"); a hideous pile purchased impulsively by a rich drug dealer; middle-class interiors so detailed we see the insides of the fridge; depressing lower-middle-class sitting rooms; the sparse interior of a shared house in Clapham; and, finally, the cozy insides of a yuppie couple's first terrace house.
Hensher's take on Englishness is that the national obsession with domestic correctness is underscored by the desire for violence and destruction. The pulverized snake at the beginning and a drowned, mangled body at the end bookend numerous other such episodes, including an over-determined sequence in which the drug dealer's posh, slutty daughter pushes old stone sculptures off the parapet of her dad's new house.
The striking thing about "The Northern Clemency" is that it doesn't do anything new. It resembles a Victorian drama, "Middlemarch" or "Barchester Towers," but there's plenty of Modernism too, Woolf and Forster and even a Waugh-indebted cruelty. A touch of Alan Hollinghurst, notes of Ian McEwan - Hensher's edifice is built solidly from the bricks and mortar of English social realism. No wonder that a central expressive device of the novel is the mushroom vol-au-vent("flaking, soft and clothy") - thrilling in the '70s, scorned and despised in the '80s, finally rehabilitated in the '90s.
Hensher is obviously thoroughly versed in literary history, but he's writing at a moment when a lot of authors choose to keep their influences well-disguised. Hensher's mammoth literary homage raises questions about whether homage is the power play it once was. His use of certain structural echoes is impressive, but if the readers don't get the references, how much sense do they make? Deciding to write like Dickens or Eliot rather than Christopher Paolini or Stephenie Meyer is no longer a no-brainer - because, unlike the times when Hensher's realist predecessors were writing, these days, highly literary books are seldom big sellers.
Hensher's novel is tremendously adroit, reminding us of what it's like to sink luxuriously into the great novels of an earlier era: all-inclusive, interconnected, lavishly detailed, ample. And yet, for the same reasons, it's tremendously dull. Despite all the twists and turns (each beautifully set up and delivered), there are no surprises; this is a book that seems to have been written too many times already. Is it possible that literary prizes are a bit like the Fed's bailout package, subsidizing a prose style invented to describe a world that stopped existing nearly a century ago?
Sophie Gee, an assistant professor of English at Princeton, is the author of the novel "The Scandal of the Season."
Broadcast challenges British ban on assisted suicide
By Sarah Lyall
Thursday, December 11, 2008
LONDON: Almost completely incapacitated by motor neuron disease, Craig Ewert, 59, looked at an interviewer and laid out his options, as he saw them.
"If I go through with it, I have death," Ewert said. "If I don't go through with it, my choice is essentially to suffer and to inflict suffering on my family, and then die."
He chose the quick way. On Wednesday night, Britons could watch Ewert's death on television, in a film showing how he traveled to a clinic in Zurich in 2006 and took a fatal dose of barbiturates. Broadcast on Sky Television, the film - "Right to Die?" - is said to be the first shown on British television of the moment of death in an assisted suicide case.
It has thrown a new bomb into an already contentious debate. It is illegal in Britain to "aid, abet, counsel or procure" suicide. But while the law is clear, its application is murky. Ewert's wife, Mary, was not prosecuted, despite the fact that she broke the law by, among other things, helping him travel to the clinic.
By coincidence, Britain's director of public prosecutions announced Tuesday that he would not file charges against a couple from Worcester who, in September, took their paralyzed 23-year-old son to the same Swiss clinic, Dignitas, so that he could kill himself.
Nor, said the prosecutor, Keir Starmer, would he prosecute a family friend who helped organize the trip.
In a statement, Starmer acknowledged that while there was sufficient evidence to prosecute the parents, Mark and Julie James, it would not be "in the public interest" to do so.
Their son, Daniel, was an avid rugby player who was studying construction engineering. He became paralyzed from the chest down after being injured while practicing with his team in 2007. He had tried to kill himself three times.
He then convinced a succession of doctors that he wanted nothing more than to die and that he could not do it on his own. "Not a day has gone by without hoping it will be my last," he wrote to Dignitas.
His parents begged him to reconsider, until the end. But when he would not change his mind, they said afterward, they resolved to support him.
About 100 Britons have committed suicide at Dignitas in the last decade, said Jo Cartwright, a spokeswoman for Dignity in Dying, a lobbying group. Those cases have often provoked police investigations in Britain but have never ended in prosecutions, she said.
Meanwhile, the authorities periodically prosecute people who have assisted in suicides in Britain. They are rarely sent to jail, Cartwright said, but face many months of distress while waiting to stand trial.
"The law isn't working," she said. "People are being forced to go abroad to die because they have no other options."
Only a handful of places, including Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the U.S. states of Oregon and Washington, allow assisted suicide, and only according to stringent criteria.
Britain's law against it is now being tested by Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis and who is seeking assurances that if her husband travels to Dignitas to help her kill herself, he will not be prosecuted on his return. She lost the case this year but has appealed the ruling.
Parliament has been reluctant to debate the issue. But Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Wednesday that he opposed legislation that would allow assisted suicide.
"I believe it's necessary to ensure that there's never a case in the country where a sick or elderly person feels under pressure to agree to an assisted death, or somehow feels it's the expected thing to do," he said.
Mary Ewert, Ewert's wife, said this week that she was not sorry that her husband's suicide had been broadcast.
"For Craig, my husband, allowing the cameras to film his last moments in Zurich was about facing the end honestly," she wrote in The Independent, a British newspaper. "He was keen to have it shown because when death is hidden and private, people don't face their fears about it."
In the film, Ewert comes across both as severely disabled and absolutely determined that he is doing the right thing. His final moments are almost unbearably poignant.
Lying on a bed at the Dignitas center, he signs a consent form with the help of his wife. In his labored voice, he says, "I love you, sweetheart, so much."
She responds, "Have a safe journey, and see you sometime."
Using his teeth, Ewert presses the button that will turn off his ventilator. He drinks a fatal mixture of barbiturates. And then, as a piece of music he has selected - Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - plays in his room and his wife gently rubs his feet, his life begins to ebb away.


Rural France
Living in France

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