Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Gates of Vienna News Feed 1/6/2009

Gates of Vienna News Feed 1/6/2009Tuan Jim sends an string of important news articles about the gas pipeline crisis caused by the deadlock between Russia and Ukraine. He notes that the affected countries are dusting off alternative sources of energy — fuel oil and nuclear reactors — for electricity generation.

Thanks to AA, Abu Elvis, C. Cantoni, Erick Stakelbeck, heroyalwhyness, Insubria, JD, KGS, Steen, TB, Tuan Jim, Vlad Tepes, xoggoth, and all the other tipsters who sent these in. Headlines and articles are below the fold.
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‘It’s Over’: Ann Coulter Banned for Life by NBC
The Global Poverty Act: Redistributing America’s Wealth
What Congress Knew About ‘Torture’
Willem Buiter Warns of Massive Dollar Collapse
National Post: Ontario Union Calls for Ban of ‘Israeli Profs’
Europe and the EU
2012 Olympic Terror Attack Feared
Burning Car Rams Synagogue Door in France
Denmark: Afghan to Sue for Military’s Negligence
Europe is Headed for Muslim Future, Says Czech Cardinal
Finland Considers Offering Asylum to Guantánamo Detainees
France: Trial of Synagogue Terror Suspects Begins in Paris
Germany: Growing Links Seen Between Hells Angels and Neo-Nazis
Memo: Don’t Rely on the Brits During a Battle
Norway: Anti Israel Demonstrations
Poland to Buy Naval Strike Missile From Kongsberg
Reinventing the European Left
Sweden: Criminal Gang Takes Over Sex Offender Website
UK: 200 Bail Hostels to Open Across Britain — With No Public Consultation
UK: Cabinet Away-Days to Discuss Financial Crisis Cost Taxpayer £600,000
UK: London Jews Under Attack
UK: Suffering in silence
UK: Vicar Takes Down Crucifixion Sculpture ‘Because it’S a Scary Depiction of Suffering’
Vatican ‘Uneasy’ About Muslims Praying Outside Cathedral During ‘Hate-Filled’ Gaza Protest Rally
Violent Night in Stockholm
Kosovo: Ethnic Albanians and Serbs Form Patrols
North Africa
Copts That Become Muslims Without Knowing it
Israel and the Palestinians
Gazans Need to Choose Peace Over Extremism
Hamas Leader: Revenge for Israel’s Gaza Assault Will be Murder of Jewish Children Across the World
How the U.N. Perpetuates the ‘Refugee’ Problem
Israeli General: Never Knew I Was Evacuating My Wounded Soldier Son From Gaza
Middle East: Israel ‘Will No Longer Show Restraint When Attacked’
Western Protests Call for Israel’s Demise
Middle East
Islam: Turkey’s Religious Department to Open Offices Abroad
Strategic Agreement Has Minimal Impact on Most Iraq Operations
Austria: Russia Gas Supply Cut 90% Over Crisis
Bulgaria Presses EU for Permission to Restart Old Reactors
Germany Warns of Imminent Gas Shortage
Have Moscow, Kyiv Crossed the Line in Gas Dispute?
Hungary Gas Deliveries Via Ukraine Halted: Minister
Supplies to Turkey and Bulgaria Halted
South Asia
Dossier Gives Details of Mumbai Attacks
India: Terrorism ‘State Policy’ for Pakistan Says PM
Indonesia: Volunteers Offer to Fight Against Israel
Indonesia: Ex Lawmaker Gets 8 Years for Graft
Far East
Muslim Rebels Killed in Philippine Airstrike: Military
Taiwan Not Impressed by Reported Chinese Plan to Withdraw Missiles
Sub-Saharan Africa
Somalia Leaders Race to Form Government, as Islamists Advance
Latin America
Venezuela Expels Israeli Ambassador to Protest Gaza Offensive
Culture Wars
Prop 8 Protestors Vandalize Church
Terrorists Could Use ‘Insect-Based’ Biological Weapon
The West’s Cultural Continuity: Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel


‘It’s Over’: Ann Coulter Banned for Life by NBC

The “Today” show source told Drudge the network is “just not interested in anyone so highly critical of President-elect Obama, right now.”

“It’s such a downer. It’s just not the time, and it’s not what our audience wants, either,” the source said.

The insiders said Coulter also will be barred from NBC’s cable outlet, MSNBC.

           — Hat tip: JD[Return to headlines]

The Global Poverty Act: Redistributing America’s Wealth

Are Americans responsible for the welfare of everyone in the world? “Obama and Biden think so!” claim many US conservatives. According to conservative activists, there is a clandestine senate bill that awaits signing by President Barack Obama once he’s sitting in the Oval Office.

This legislation requires the President of the United States “to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to further the United States foreign policy objective of promoting the reduction of global poverty, the elimination of extreme global poverty, and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goal of reducing by one-half the proportion of people worldwide, between 1990 and 2015, who live on less than $1 per day.”

“While Champagne glasses clink and bubbly is flowing, a secret Bill is hiding in the background ready to spring to life. The Obama/Biden honeymoon will be the prefect time to launch this lurking monster. They are hoping not a soul will notice,” said conservative strategist Michael Baker.

Senate Bill 2433 is said to be so devastating, that it will strip America of all its sovereignty and dignity.

Fight Global Poverty: Obama and Biden will embrace the Millennium Development Goal of cutting extreme poverty around the world in half by 2015, and they will double our foreign assistance to achieve that goal. This will help the world?s weakest states build healthy and educated communities, reduce poverty, develop markets, and generate wealth.

“This [bill] is custom made for the liberal bleeding-heart crowd [who] will seize our government and clutch the very throats of ‘we the people’.” claim members of the Minuteman Project.

“When I read [this] document I couldn’t believe my eyes! At first I wanted to cut loose of my normal name calling and profanity, but as I read what was already in the Senate and edging closer to becoming law I couldn’t help but to start to weep for our beloved nation,” said Minuteman Steve Susser.

“The future of our nation is very much in peril. Senate Bill 2433 authored by Obama and Biden is nothing less than a stripping of the accumulated wealth of America,” claims Susser.

           — Hat tip: JD[Return to headlines]

What Congress Knew About ‘Torture’

Barack Obama’s choice of former Congressman Leon Panetta to lead the CIA at least puts a grownup, if also an intelligence rookie, in that crucial job. It also means that Mr. Panetta and Director of National Intelligence-designate Dennis Blair will soon have to decide if they want to join the left-wing crusade to purge their agencies of anyone who had anything to do with “torture.”

In particular, at their nomination hearings they’re likely to be asked to support a “truth commission” on the Bush Administration’s terrorist interrogation policies. We hope they have the good sense to resist. And if they need any reason to push back, they could start by noting the Members of Congress who would be on the witness list to raise their right hands.

Beginning in 2002, Nancy Pelosi and other key Democrats (as well as Republicans) on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees were thoroughly, and repeatedly, briefed on the CIA’s covert antiterror interrogation programs. They did nothing to stop such activities, when they weren’t fully sanctioning them. If they now decide the tactics they heard about then amount to abuse, then by their own logic they themselves are complicit. Let’s review the history the political class would prefer to forget.

According to our sources and media reports we’ve corroborated, the classified briefings began in the spring of 2002 and dealt with the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, a high-value al Qaeda operative captured in Pakistan. In succeeding months and years, more than 30 Congressional sessions were specifically devoted to the interrogation program and its methods, including waterboarding and other aggressive techniques designed to squeeze intelligence out of hardened detainees like Zubaydah.

The briefings were first available to the Chairmen and ranking Members of the Intelligence Committees. From 2003 through 2006, that gang of four included Democrats Bob Graham and John D. Rockefeller in the Senate and Jane Harman in the House, as well as Republicans Porter Goss, Peter Hoekstra, Richard Shelby and Pat Roberts. Senior staffers were sometimes present. After September 2006, when President Bush publicly acknowledged the program, the interrogation briefings were opened to the full committees.

If Congress wanted to kill this program, all it had to do was withhold funding. And if Democrats thought it was illegal or really found the CIA’s activities so heinous, one of them could have made a whistle-blowing floor statement under the protection of the Constitution’s speech and debate clause. They’d have broken their secrecy oaths and jeopardized national security, sure. But if they believed that Bush policies were truly criminal, didn’t they have a moral obligation to do so? In any case, the inevitable media rapture over their anti-Bush defiance would have more than compensated.

Ms. Harman did send a one-page classified letter in February 2003 listing her equivocal objections to the interrogation program. She made her letter public in January 2008 after the CIA revealed that it had destroyed some interrogation videotapes. After lauding the CIA’s efforts “in the current threat environment,” she noted that “what was described raises profound policy questions and I am concerned about whether these have been as rigorously examined as the legal questions.” Ms. Harman also vaguely wondered whether “these practices are consistent with the principles and policies of the United States,” but she did not condemn them as either torture or illegal.

This wasn’t the only time a politician filed an inconsequential expression of anti-antiterror protest. Mr. Rockefeller famously wrote a letter to Vice President Dick Cheney objecting to warrantless wiretapping, but then stuck it (literally) in a drawer. Like Ms. Harman, only after the program was exposed did he reveal his missive to show he’d been opposed all along, though he’d done nothing about it.

According to Mr. Goss, some Members at the time even wondered if our terror fighters were harsh enough as they tried to extract potentially live-saving information. Mr. Goss, who later served as CIA director from 2004 to 2006, told the Washington Post in 2007 that, “Among those being briefed, there was a pretty full understanding of what the CIA was doing. And the reaction in the room was not just approval, but encouragement.”

And no wonder. The context at the time was that the government knew very little about international terror networks and further strikes inside the U.S. seemed possible. That the U.S. has so far prevented another attack is due in part to the human information that interrogations have elicited. To have some politicized panel second-guess this now that the public mood has changed would be a more dangerous replay of the Frank Church Committee of the 1970s, which damaged CIA capabilities for years. Now that Mr. Panetta and Admiral Blair will be responsible for keeping the U.S. safe and for maintaining the morale of our spooks, we can’t imagine why they would want such a political spectacle.

The real — the only — point of this “truth” exercise is to smear Bush Administration officials and coax foreign prosecutors into indicting them if Mr. Obama’s Justice Department refuses. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees already possess the relevant facts, and Senator Carl Levin and his staff have spent two-and-a-half years looking at mountains of documents — with nothing to show for it.

If Mr. Panetta doesn’t want to go down as another Frank Church or (Carter-era CIA Director) Stansfield Turner, he’ll tell his fellow Democrats to drop their “torture” vendetta against intelligence officials who were acting in good faith and with the full knowledge of key Members of Congress.

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

Willem Buiter Warns of Massive Dollar Collapse

Americans must prepare themselves for a massive collapse in the dollar as investors around the world dump their US assets, a former Bank of England policymaker has warned.

The long-held assumption that US assets — particularly government bonds — are a safe haven will soon be overturned as investors lose their patience with the world’s biggest economy, according to Willem Buiter.

Professor Buiter, a former Monetary Policy Committee member who is now at the London School of Economics, said this increasing disenchantment would result in an exodus of foreign cash from the US.

The warning comes despite the dollar having strengthened significantly against other major currencies, including sterling and the euro, after hitting historic lows last year. It will reignite fears about the currency’s prospects, as well as sparking fears about the sustainability of President-Elect Barack Obama’s mooted plans for a Keynesian-style increase in public spending to pull the US out of recession.

Writing on his blog , Prof Buiter said: “There will, before long (my best guess is between two and five years from now) be a global dumping of US dollar assets, including US government assets. Old habits die hard. The US dollar and US Treasury bills and bonds are still viewed as a safe haven by many. But learning takes place.”

He said that the dollar had been kept elevated in recent years by what some called “dark matter” or “American alpha” — an assumption that the US could earn more on its overseas investments than foreign investors could make on their American assets. However, this notion had been gradually dismantled in recent years, before being dealt a fatal blow by the current financial crisis, he said.

“The past eight years of imperial overstretch, hubris and domestic and international abuse of power on the part of the Bush administration has left the US materially weakened financially, economically, politically and morally,” he said. “Even the most hard-nosed, Guantanamo Bay-indifferent potential foreign investor in the US must recognise that its financial system has collapsed.”

He said investors would, rightly, suspect that the US would have to generate major inflation to whittle away its debt and this dollar collapse means that the US has less leeway for major spending plans than politicians realise.

           — Hat tip: JD[Return to headlines]


National Post: Ontario Union Calls for Ban of ‘Israeli Profs’

This article may be worth reading in the context of the interview with former CSIS man, David Harris who alluded to infiltration of various Canadian institutions by Islamist agendas.

Ontario union calls for ban on Israeli professors. National Post:

Vanessa Kortekaas, National Post Published: Monday, January 05, 2009

Ontario’s largest university workers’ union is proposing a ban on Israeli academics teaching in the province’s universities, in a move that echoes previous attempts to boycott goods and services from the Jewish state.

The resolution, proposed by CUPE’s Ontario University Workers Coordinating Committee, is in protest against a Dec. 29 bombing that damaged the Islamic University in Gaza.

“In response to an appeal from the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees, we are ready to say Israeli academics should not be on our campuses unless they explicitly condemn the university bombing and the assault on Gaza in general,” said Sid Ryan, president of CUPE Ontario.

The resolution is still being drafted but the union said it will seek to prohibit Israeli academics from speaking, teaching or researching at Ontario universities. The CUPE committee will distribute the resolution to its members at the end of the month.

It will be put to a vote at the committee’s annual conference in February.

Janice Folk-Dawson, chairwoman of the university workers committte, said: “Clearly international pressure on Israel must increase to stop the massacre that is going on daily. We are proud to add CUPE voices to others from around the world saying enough is enough.”

Ms. Folk-Dawson said the committee felt it was crucial to do something.

“This is coming from the rank-and-file members, not just the leadership,” she said…

           — Hat tip: Vlad Tepes[Return to headlines]

Europe and the EU

2012 Olympic Terror Attack Feared

LONDON — Britain’s MI5 intelligence agency has asked for a “brick-by-brick” search of the 2012 Olympic Park site in east London because of the “real possibility” al-Qaida terrorists have planted smart bombs on the site, according to a report from Joseph Farah’s G2 Bulletin.

The Security Service demand came when John Patten, a former Home Office minister and security adviser to the British Olympic Association, warned that inadequate security procedures have left the venue “vulnerable to terrorist attack.”

           — Hat tip: JD[Return to headlines]

Burning Car Rams Synagogue Door in France

Toulouse synagogue damaged by burning car that was slammed into synagogue as protest against IDF operation in Gaza Strip

A burning car was rammed into a synagogue door in southwest France as the interior minister convened Muslims, Jews and police in Paris to warn against contagion from the Gaza conflict.

Damage to the synagogue in a Toulouse neighborhood was limited to a blackened door, and there were no injuries even though a rabbi was giving a course to adults inside, said an official of the regional prefecture, Anne-Gaelle Baudouin.

Police called to the scene found remnants of a Molotov cocktail in the car and a car nearby with three unlighted Molotov cocktails, Baudouin said.

It was not clear whether the incident Monday night was in any way a reflection of frustrations in France as Mideast tensions rise. France has western Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish communities.

Nevertheless Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said she was concerned about the prospect of contagion. She held a meeting late Monday with the heads of the two main Muslim and Jewish groups and police officials to stress the need to “preserve national unity” so that the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the militant Palestinian group ruling Gaza, did not feed passions in France.

Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents in France have risen in the past when Mideast tensions mounted significantly. In 2002, some 2,300 Jews left France for Israel because they felt unsafe. Incidents of Islamophobia also have been reported.

Alliot-Marie asked the French Council for the Muslim Faith and the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France, or CRIF, for “special vigilance” given the “tense international context,” a ministry statement said.

At least 21,000 people protesting the Israeli offensive in Gaza marched through Paris on Saturday, shouting “We are all Palestinians” and “Israel assassin.” A group of some 500 later turned violent, burning Israeli flags, torching cars and vandalizing several shops, police said.

A group calling itself the National Bureau of Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism said in a statement that all such gatherings should be banned because they “incite violence, hate and put the … Jewish community in danger.”

President Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, was on a two-day mission to the Middle East hoping to encourage a temporary cease-fire between Israel and the Hamas organization ruling Gaza.

           — Hat tip: KGS[Return to headlines]

Denmark: Afghan to Sue for Military’s Negligence

A court will decide whether the military violated the Geneva convention when it transferred Afghan prisoners to US forces

A man who claims to have been tortured by US forces in Afghanistan in 2002 is suing the Danish state for what he claims is the Danish military’s negligence for handing him over, knowing there was a risk he would be tortured.

Questions about the transfer of 31 Afghan prisoners from Danish to US forces were raised in the 2006 documentary ‘Den Hemmelig Krig’ (The Secret War), broadcast by public broadcaster DR.

According to DR, Ghousoullah Tarin is seeking 50,000 kroner in compensation from the Danish state. But Tarin’s Danish attorney, Tyge Trier, said the case will also deal with whether Danish forces violated the Geneva convention by handing over the troops.

Tarin, Trier said, believes the Danish forces violated the convention, as they were aware he risked ‘indefensible’ treatment at the hands of the US military.

A decision in the case is expected by the end of the year.

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

Europe is Headed for Muslim Future, Says Czech Cardinal

Prague — Twenty years following the fall of communism the Czech Republic is at EU’s helm.

But for years the EU member states cannot decide what form the constitutional treaty should take.

Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the head of the Czech Roman Catholic Church, is adamant that behind the failure to adopt the euro-treaty is the absence of what Europe feels natural about — Christian values.

“When the Irish said No to the Lisbon Treaty, they said it because the European Union and Lisbon Treaty have dropped the Christian roots,” said Cardinal Vlk in an interview for Aktuálne.cz.

Cardinal Vlk pointed out that it was Christian politicians that came up with the idea of unified Europe. Italian politician and founder of the Christian Democratic Party Alcide De Gasperi, former French Prime Minister Robert Schuman and German statesman Konrad Adenauer are regarded as founders of the European Union.

In the interview Vlk links that the European Union’s flag to Christian values. The flag consisting of twelve stars on a blue background was admittedly inspired by the Bible. In Vlk’s view the circle of stars refers to the twelve-star halo of the Virgin Mary.

Cardinal Vlk was quick to mention the flag was adopted on December 8, a day which celebrates the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Virgin Mary.

As a former head of the Council of Bishops’ Conferences of Europe, Cardinal Vlk protested against the Nice Treaty, which was signed by the European leaders in 2001 in the town of Nice, France. According to him, the Treaty curtailed the freedom of religion and the definition of family was poorly based on Christian values.

Cardinal Vlk expressed strong disapproval of Islamic fundamentalism. “It is abuse of the Quran in the name of power. Islamic fundamentalism sets if someone does not live according to God, he must be killed. That is absurd,” said Cardinal Vlk.

He believes in the dialogue between Christians and Muslims but “in terms of culture and opinions Islam is medieval”.

“I do not want to sound negative… but in Islam a religion assumes the position of the state power and rules the people. Our European Christian experience proved that it is not the right way,” said Cardinal Vlk.

Demographically dying out, Cardinal Vlk expects Europe to become markedly more Muslim in the 21st century because of the low fertility of Europeans the majority of whom are non-believers. It is a well-known fact that countries that are secularized reproduce more slowly than countries that are more pious.

“Muslims in Europe have much more children than Christian families. That is why demographers have been trying to come up with a time when Europe will become Muslim,” Cardinal Vlk claimed.

While European Muslims are living their religion, Europeans are “pagans, as they do not respect their religion”. To face the danger of dying out, Europe needs to install a program of spiritual rehabilitation.

“If we do not restore Europe in terms of Christian values, we will surely die out,” Cardinal Vlk said.

           — Hat tip: Steen[Return to headlines]

Finland Considers Offering Asylum to Guantánamo Detainees

Finnish officials will begin discussions this week on whether to offer asylum to former terror suspects detained at the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Government will have the final say on the matter.

US president-elect Barack Obama has vowed to close the prison as soon as possible. Recently Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado recommended that the EU make a decision on how it would deal with the prisoners at the foreign ministers’ meeting at the end of this month. So far the US has not discussed with Finland the possibility of taking in detainees.

Previously the US had proposed that Finland take in Uighur prisoners, members of a Turkic minority in China. The Uighur detainees are unable to return to China for fear of being tortured. Some 15 Uighurs are currently imprisoned at Guantánamo. The facility houses about 250 prisoners and has held about 750 prisoners since it began operations.

Human rights organisations have demanded that the US close the controversial prison. Ilkka Rentola of the Finnish Foreign Ministry notes that the EU has also been calling for the prison to be shut down since 2006.

It is unclear how Finland would classify the detainees, who have not been charged with any crimes. Most likely, they would be considered refugees.

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

France: Trial of Synagogue Terror Suspects Begins in Paris

Paris, 5 Jan. (AKI) — Three men suspected of the 2002 bombing of a synagogue in Tunisia that killed 21 people, including two French nationals, went on trial in Paris on Monday. Among those on trial is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Pakistani national, believed to have been one of the masterminds behind the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

Mohammed is being tried in absentia, since he is being held at the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Christian Ganczarski, a German convert to Islam who spent time in Afghanistan will also face charges of helping to prepare the attack. He is believed to have been an adviser to Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden before being arrested in France in 200.

Also on trial is Walid Nouar, the brother of the suicide bomber who carried out the attack on the island of Djerba on 11 April 2002, killing 21 people.

Nour is being tried for his involvement in the attack that took place on the island of Djerba on 11 April 2002. The trial is expected to last five weeks.

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

Germany: Growing Links Seen Between Hells Angels and Neo-Nazis

Motorcycle gangs have long kept the police busy with violence and drug trafficking. But now investigators are alarmed by a new threat: Militant neo-Nazis are rising through the ranks of the Hells Angels in Germany.

The man who generally goes by the nickname Maxe wanted to become a model citizen, at least that’s what he said after his release from prison. Markus W. made headlines during a World Cup match over 10 years ago when he and other German football hooligans viciously attacked French policeman Daniel Nivel, leaving him severely disabled. For his part in the attack, Maxe served four years in a French prison for causing “grievous bodily harm.”

After his early release in 2002, he promised to transform from a right-wing thug to a social worker. He wanted to study social sciences and work with people who “have problems with society.” Maxe said he hoped that young people could benefit from his experience: “I can tell you, boys, violence doesn’t pay.”

But only 10 weeks after he was released from prison, police were once again investigating him on aggravated assault charges — although they couldn’t prove anything. Following the broadcast of the World Cup final soccer match between Germany and Brazil in the summer of 2002, he was involved in a brawl at a fair near his hometown of Hanover. Since then, Maxe has regularly appeared before judges on a variety of charges — like insulting a Turk or assaulting an Algerian.

Although he no longer aspires to become a social worker, he has managed to climb the social ladder in one sense: Maxe has worked his way through the ranks in Hanover to become a leading member in the local charter of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.

Aside from his violent history, German authorities have been keeping an eye on Markus W. because he is part of an alarming development. All across Germany investigators have noted an increasing number of contacts between German motorcycle gangs and militant neo-Nazis.

Observations of the far-right scene by agents of the country’s domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, revealed connections to motorcycle gangs, the government said in a recent statement. It also noted “occasional” indications of “joint activities and meeting places as well as isolated cases of cooperation between right-wing extremists (especially skinheads) and motorcycle gangs, primarily at a local level.”

           — Hat tip: TB[Return to headlines]

Memo: Don’t Rely on the Brits During a Battle

Tony Blair used to say that the British voters wanted him to have a Love Actually moment — and tell the President of the United States to get lost, as the Prime Minister played by Hugh Grant does in the film. As Barack Obama prepares to move into the White House, Gordon Brown is more likely to find himself in a Mamma Mia! situation. He is one of several people competing to be the political equivalent of the father of the bride.

Along with Nicolas Sarkozy (Piers Brosnan) and Angela Merkel (Colin Firth) the Prime Minister is begging the most popular man on the planet: take a chance on me. In his new year message, he promised to spend money money money on an economic “coalition for change” with Mr Obama. Now he is racing to be the first leader to visit the president in Washington; to the tune I Have a Dream, he is preparing to woo Barack with policy papers at the G20 summit in London this April.

Like Meryl Streep’s former lovers on the Greek island, however, Mr Brown will end up having to share Mr Obama. The inauguration of a president who is adored by the British public could ironically spell the end of the special relationship between the UK and the US. Just as the voters in this country decide that it is time to get up close and personal with America, so the Yanks are losing their passion for the Brits. Just as the Prime Minister decides it is time to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US president, so he may find the cold shoulder turned on him.

This is partly but not entirely about Mr Obama. Certainly, the President-elect will be the least Anglophile American leader in living memory. Unlike Bill Clinton, who was educated at Oxford, or George Bush, who kept a bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office, Mr Obama has no innate affection for this country — in fact, his grandfather was imprisoned and tortured by British colonialists in Kenya.

When he was looking for a symbolic place from which to address Europe — and the world — he chose not Trafalgar Square but the Brandenburg Gate. It was a deliberate attempt to distance himself from the Bush Administration — by going straight to the heart of what Donald Rumsfeld once called “old Europe”. If he wants to prove his ability to build new alliances, he will not start in this country. “The UK is part of the Bush baggage because of Iraq,” says a senior Foreign Office source. “Obama is not going to be emotional about the transatlantic alliance. He’s a free-thinking politician, driven by science and facts. The UK and Europe look less significant than Asia and Latin America and even over here Europe seems a better focus than the UK.”

The British position has not been helped by Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the Ambassador to Washington, a career diplomat educated at Oxford, whose pin-striped demeanour does not fit easily with the open-necked attitude of the Obama camp. A memo, leaked last year, in which our man in DC described the President-elect as “aloof”, “insensitive” and lacking a track record did not go down well with a politician who already suspected the British of having a superiority complex.

There will, of course, be common ground between Mr Brown and Mr Obama on the recession — both men are strong advocates of a global fiscal stimulus. But the Prime Minister’s vision of himself as sage adviser, offering a helping hand to the youthful novice, is likely to end up as the audacity of hope. The President-elect’s maxim about the challenges being big, but politics being small (which Mr Brown likes to quote) can be transposed on to the transatlantic relationship: rarely has politics in this country seemed so tiny, compared with what is going on in the United States.

Perhaps most important of all, the military alliance between Britain and America — which has cemented the political alliance since the First World War — is beginning to crack. I am told that a report circulating at the highest level in the Ministry of Defence concludes that there are now serious doubts in Washington about the effectiveness of the British Armed Forces. Senior military figures are said to have been surprised, and shocked, by feedback that arrived in Whitehall last month. Described as “highly sensitive”, it raised questions about the worth of the UK contribution to US-led operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It showed that the Americans don’t value us much,” one source told me. “Britain’s military ability is no longer rated as highly as we thought it was.”

This is not a last gasp by the outgoing Bush administration. Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, who has been asked to remain in his job by Mr Obama, is one of those said to have reservations about the British military contribution.

The message has filtered across to the Foreign Office, too. At a diplomatic as well as a military level, concerns have been raised about the quality of British troops and equipment. Too often, the Americans complain, they have had to ride to the rescue of the Brits, rather than being able to rely on them as equal partners. There are question marks in Washington about Britain’s political commitment to military engagement: Mr Brown will not be forgiven if he fails to send substantial numbers of troops to support an Obama surge in Afghanistan.

“The US generals think the Brits need to be taken down a peg or two — that we have not performed well in Basra and Helmand province — and that has trickled up to the Pentagon,” says a Foreign Office insider. “It’s not terminal but it’s an important warning to us that if we are going to trade on our military partnership we are going to have to raise our game.”

Mr Obama won power promising change. Mr Brown wants nothing more than to bask in the reflected glory of that. But it looks as if the Anglo-American alliance will be one of the first targets for change. One minister says the “specialness” in the special relationship will be diluted. It may not survive at all.

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

Norway: Anti Israel Demonstrations

After several warnings, the Oslo police used tear gas to stop demonstrators outside the Israeli Embassy in Oslo on Sunday. There was also a demonstration in Tromsoe against Israel’s operations in Gaza. The demonstration in Oslo started as a legal demonstraion, and was the third against Israel’s attacks against Gaza in the Norwegian capital in a week.

After the police had announced that the demonstration was over, a smaller group refused to leave and threw stones and eggs against the police. This was when the police used tear gas to disperse the group.

Tromsoe is Gaza’s twin town, and the demonstrations there were staged by the Palestina Committee.

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

Poland to Buy Naval Strike Missile From Kongsberg

By Andrew Chuter

Poland has struck a deal with Kongsberg Defence & Aerospace to purchase a ground-launched version of the company’s Naval Strike Missile.

It’s the first export customer for the Norwegian-developed weapon.

The Polish military plans to use the missile to defend its Baltic Sea coast. First deliveries of the weapon system are scheduled for 2011with the final handover of systems due by the end of 2012.

Contract value is initially put at 800 million kronar ($116 million), but Kongsberg officials said there is an option for further weapon deliveries.

The deal will see Norway’s leading defense contractor supply the NSM in conjunction with a command and weapon control system similar to the NASAMS air defense system.

NASAMS uses Raytheon’s AIM-120 AMRAAM missile and is in service with Norwegian and export customers.

State-owned Polish company Przemyslowy Instytut Telekomunikacji (PIT) will supply the radar for the coastal artillery batteries. Polish contractors also will provide the communications and the trucks that will carry the missile launch ramps.

Norwegian officials said that although it is not part of the deal, it is possible they will include the PIT supplied radar in future export efforts with the ground-based NSM system.

The NSM is in series production for the Norwegian navy. First deliveries resulting from a 2007 deal worth 2.7 billion kronar are slated for next year. The missile is destined for deployment on the new Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen-class frigates and Skjold-class missile boats.

The Norwegians also are adapting the weapon for air launch applications. A Joint Strike Missile variant is being developed for possible use on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The aircraft recently was selected by Norway to replace its aging F-16s by the middle of the next decade.

[Return to headlines]

Reinventing the European Left

With rightwing politicians across Europe nationalising banks, pumping public money into the economy, and demanding tighter regulation of “rogue” financial markets, it is hard to tell where the ideological dividing lines in politics now lie.

By helping realise many of their demands, the financial crisis may, paradoxically, have left many of Europe’s leftwing parties weaker. In many countries, opposition socialist and social democratic parties have been left shouting on the sidelines, bereft of relevant new ideas, as the financial storm has raged. But now is surely the moment for the European left to think afresh…

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

Sweden: Criminal Gang Takes Over Sex Offender Website

Criminal organisation Original Gangsters (OG) has assumed control of a Swedish website that exposes the identity of sex offenders, Crime News reports.

The gang has taken the step after the founders of the Kriminellt.com website, four concerned parents, approached them after receiving a series of threats.

“We have families to think about and the threats have recently been getting a little close to home. Call us weak if you will but the family always comes first,” explained the four founders in a statement on the site.

OG leader Denho “Dano” Acar explained that the the gang “wanted to provide a community service” and underlined that taking over the site “has nothing to do with money.”

“Just because we are professional criminals does not mean that we don’t have any morals,” Acar wrote in a statement on the site.

But the move has drawn criticism from some observers concerned that the involvement of the criminal organization might lead to an escalation of violence and an increased incidence of vigilante justice.

Many of the comments on Kriminellt’s user forum are of a threatening nature with specific warnings directed towards some of the convicted rapists, child sex offenders and child pornography offenders listed on the website.

“In a democracy it is of great interest that the state retains a monopoly on the administration of justice and that there is not some form of private punishment,” said retired state prosecutor Sven-Erik Alheim to Crime News.

Many of those writing on the site’s open forum reason that the OG are less likely to succumb to threats and are therefore a suitable and effective means of keeping the site open. A published survey of 89 users showed that 71 percent were “very much in favour” of the new owners.

The site introduces itself by asking a series of questions: Why are convicted criminals protected by the media? Why are no convictions ever published? and Do we not have the right to know if we have a convicted paedophile as a neighbour?

Original Gangsters leader Dehno Acar has promised that the site will continue to address these concerns and will ensure that more offenders are exposed.

“We shall increase the amount of news. More and more will be exposed. We feel it is our duty to do so,” Acar said in an interview with Nyheter 24.

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

UK: 200 Bail Hostels to Open Across Britain — With No Public Consultation

A secret leaked memo last night revealed 200 bail hostels for dangerous criminals are being opened in residential streets across Britain without any consultation with the public. The Government has signed a multi-million pound contact with a private firm to house a mixture of convicts on early release and suspects who are awaiting trial in a desperate bid to ease prison overcrowding. They are being placed in homes in residential streets, rather than being held in jail. They are free to come and go, and have only limited supervision. The existence of the bail hostels caused a storm when it was first revealed by the Mail last year.

Now leaked papers have revealed the full detail of how they are being forced on local communities without any warning. Shockingly, neighbours are only informed about the plans by letter once the hostels have been given the go-ahead. Even local councillors, who are supposed to stand up for the public, are being kept in the dark. Councils have no opportunity to protest about the location of the hostels, which are run by the private company ClearSprings. A copy of a local authority protocol arrangement drawn up by the firm says: ‘ClearSprings is not required to consult with politicians or residents’ groups’. The only groups consulted are police, and high-ranking council officials. Revealing how the plans can be quickly railroaded through, the protocol continues: ‘ClearSprings can assume acceptance if no response is forthcoming from Probation or the Local Authority after 5 working days’. It also suggests the firm is keen to keep a low media profile, and answer any questions from Press trying to uncover the truth carefully.

The protocol says: ‘It is agreed that any enquiries with the media will be treated caution. Where at all possible, discussions will be held between both parties prior to any statement being made by the local authority. It should be noted that ClearSprings have a policy to refer all media enquiries to the press officer for the Ministry of Justice’. The Tories, who obtained the protocol, said the Ministry of Justice — which handed the contract to ClearSprings — was guilty of devising a plan to keep the public in the dark. Shadow Justice Secretary Nick Herbert said:’The Government has failed to provide enough prison capacity so they’ve devised a covert plan to set up what amount to mini open jails in residential areas while avoiding any consultation with the public. ‘Placing offenders in residential properties causes immense aggravation when neighbours suddenly discover what’s going on, only to be told that they are powerless to stop it and the local community didn’t even need to be consulted. ‘Nor is this a sensible way to assist homeless offenders, who receive minimal supervision and support in temporary converted accommodation, when what they need is a long-term programme of resettlement. ‘In place of these clumsy emergency measures we need a proper programme of prison reform to focus on rehabilitation and ensure that public safety and confidence is maintained.’ Those eligible to stay in the 200 hostels, which have 600 beds and are currently being opened across England and Wales, include burglars and muggers. They are not confined to the properties, but normally have to observe a curfew. The initiative centres on reducing the use of remand. Suspects are jailed if the courts are not happy that they have a stable home address and may abscond. The same reason also prevents a convicted criminal from being freed with an electronic tag up to four and a half months early, under the Home Detention Curfew scheme. So Ministers are instead putting them up in the private “bail” houses across the country. ClearSprings has been paid at least £2,391,470 by taxpayers for the contract. The protocol reveals ‘clients’ can be housed for up to 9 months, and receive housing benefit while in the property.

The protocol confirms that the properties are not secured, or manned. It states: ‘The accommodation is not staffed; the clients are self-governing with floating Support Officers’. Neither probation officers nor the local authority can veto ClearSprings’ choice of property, though police have to agree. Local councils have raised concerns about lack of proper consultation.

Hazel Harding, spokesman for the Local Government Association, said: ‘It is outrageous that some councils are being bypassed and not consulted over the location of new bail hostels in the local area by a private company.

‘This is a direct breach of the government contract with ClearSprings. It’s essential that councils are involved from day one in helping to decide where to locate any proposed bail hostel.’

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

UK: Cabinet Away-Days to Discuss Financial Crisis Cost Taxpayer £600,000

Gordon Brown’s ‘gimmick’ of holding Cabinet meetings outside London has cost taxpayers an eye-watering £600,000.

The Prime Minister has taken every senior member of the Government on a string of away-days aimed at proving ministers are listening to people outside the capital.

He wants to shore up support among voters struggling to run businesses or pay mortgages and bills in the economic downturn.

But the three events — one each in Birmingham and Leeds last year, and in Liverpool on Thursday — are costing about £200,000 a time.

Today opposition MPs branded the move a ‘gimmick’ while taxpayers groups called it ‘hypocritical’ for the Government to waste so much money at a time of financial hardship.

They hit out after it emerged that West Yorkshire Police spent £138,000 on security for the event in Leeds on November 28, which included a public question-and-answer session and a closed meeting.

Mr Brown has already admitted that the Cabinet’s first regional meeting, in Birmingham in September, cost £62,000 to stage.

If similar sums were spent for each event, it would cost the public purse £200,000 every time — or a whopping £600,000 for all three.

[Return to headlines]

UK: Council Bosses Fight the Credit Crunch… by Hiring £100k Anti-Recession Guru

Cash-strapped council bosses believe they have come up with a new approach to fighting the credit crunch — by hiring a £100k anti-recession guru.

The taxpayer-funded position has been created by council bosses in a bid to ‘protect people against the economic downturn’.

But the move has been met with criticism from taxpayer groups who have labelled the move as a waste of time and money.

Bosses at Labour-run Lancashire County Council said the move was part of a wider scheme to boost investment in the county.

The successful applicant will be paid up to £93,180, plus a £5,300 car allowance and the council will spend thousands more advertising to recruit to the post.

[Return to headlines]

UK: London Jews Under Attack

Jews across London are facing a surge of anti-Semitic attacks following the continued violence in Gaza.

On Sunday night, three youths tried to torch Brondesbury Park Synagogue in Willesden — earlier that day Israeli troops entered the Palestinian territory.

On New Year’s Eve, a man was pulled from his car just as he was about to drive off and assaulted by three men whom he described as being of Arab appearance. The victim did not suffer any serious injury.

A gang of youths chanting anti-Semitic slogans, waving flags and intimidating locals tried to enter restaurants and shops in Golders Green.

There are also reports from charities of anti-Semetic graffiti going up across the city, slogans include: “Kill Jews” and “Jews are scumbags.”

Barriers at school

In Manchester, barriers have been erected around the King David High School and access has been restricted to passholders.

Police are liaising closely with Jewish groups and have set up “reassurance patrols” in Jewish areas such as Golders Green, North Finchely, Stanmore, Stanford Hill and St John’s Wood.

The Jewish charity Community Security trust has been advising Britain’s Jews on how to protect themselves and taking repots on anti semitic attacks — it says they have taken 24 statements since the violence erupted.

           — Hat tip: xoggoth[Return to headlines]

UK: Suffering in silence

[Comment From Tuan Jim: This Article/Link is Actually Mostly a Podcast — Can’t Listen at Work So I Don’t Know What the Conclusions Are.]

Just over three years ago, 27-year-old Navjeet Sidhu, a mother with a five-year-old daughter and 23-month-old son, jumped in front of a train at Southall station in west London.

Navjeet’s suicide wasn’t a one-off. In fact British Asian women are three times more likely to commit suicide than average.

I wanted to find out what lies behind these statistics. Why are Asian women so much more likely to be depressed or commit suicide? Are police and other social services not doing enough to help?

I was shocked at the extent to which these problems are ingrained and the cases I uncovered.

In this podcast, I speak to a woman who had been kept as a sex slave for years and has frequently tried to commit suicide. I speak to a young woman who became depressed after a failed marriage. And I speak to a man who admits to hitting his (now ex) wife.

To find out more about the problem, I also speak to support groups such as Southall Black Sisters, the police and academics. I interview Gurpreet Bhatti, writer of the play Behzti, which was shut down in December 2004 after protests by Sikh activists, who gives an interview for the first time after that incident.

This is an issue that is literally killing women across the country. It’s time to air the dirty laundry in public.

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

UK: Support for Hamas Crosses a Line

Desperate times call for desperate measures — but there’s still a limit. Palestinians voted overwhelmingly for Hamas during the 2006 elections, frustrated both with Fatah’s corrupt rule and Israel’s utter intransigence at the negotiating table. Anyone who wondered why Palestinians would usher in such extreme leaders need only have looked at how extreme their circumstances had become, and if anything was to blame for driving them into the arms of the Hamas militants, it was decades of occupation at the hands of Israel’s rulers.

However, just because Israel deserves castigating for its behaviour over the years does not mean that Hamas is immune from reprimand: attacks on Israel for the brutal occupation and on Hamas for its wanton murder of civilians are not mutually exclusive concepts, and anyone who thinks that they are only makes matters worse — especially in these dark days of Cast Lead.

Out and out support of those who openly advocate the indiscriminate slaying of non-combatants is inexcusable, whatever the context in which the view is expressed. Yet, in protests around the globe this weekend, that is exactly what was done — as witnessed by hundreds of protesters proudly flying the yellow flag of Hezbollah and the green and white standard of Hamas.

There is a world of difference between promoting a scheme of boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel and promoting terror groups whose stated aims are the slaughter of the innocents. Just because tempers are rising among those who detest the IDF for their actions and can’t bear to watch the suffering of Gaza’s civilians, there is still a line in the sand which must not be crossed. Once it has been traversed, there ought to be no surprise when Israel’s supporters batten down the hatches once more, urging on the IDF even louder and effectively giving the troops political carte blanche to do as they please in their mission.

Similarly, the floods of support for Hamas threaten to overlook quite how counterproductively cruel the group’s own leaders are. Not only did the late Nizar Rayan surround himself with human shields comprised of members of his own family, he even sent his young son to die on a suicide mission in 2001. Here was a man who advocated, and committed, war crimes at every opportunity, and who also showed such total contempt for human life that he was prepared to put his own flesh and blood in harm’s way in his drive to achieve his perverse aims — yet he and his ilk escaped the wrath of the demonstrators scot-free.

Even if the masses protesting in capital cities from London to Jakarta and beyond don’t want to admit that there are serious flaws in Hamas’ tactics, Israelis aren’t so quick to have the wool pulled over their own eyes, and — like it or not — they are the ones who need convincing if the swords are to be beaten into ploughshares any time soon. The collective sense of grief for Gilad Shalit and his family can be felt the length and breadth of Israel; when the same civilians then hear of a man like Rayan who willingly sent his own offspring to die a certain death for the cause, the sense of revulsion and disbelief deafens them to any calls for rapprochement and resolution.

No honest observer can deny that what Palestinians go through, day after day, year after year, is far more painful, far more humiliating, and far more lifeblood-sapping than anything the average Israeli suffers. No honest observer can deny the link between the Palestinians’ loss of hope and their resorting to more and more extreme strategies in their struggle against their oppression. But that doesn’t mean that every avenue down which the Palestinian resistance travels is necessarily the right one, nor even legitimate whatsoever.

Hamas don’t have to fire rockets at Israeli schools and homes. And, even if they choose to do so, they don’t have to base their launch pads inside their own civilian centres, intentionally putting their own wives and children in harm’s way on a daily basis. But they do, and the same protesters so virulently opposed to every facet of Israel’s cruel campaign refuse to raise a murmur of protest, lest anyone should think that by doing so they are taking the enemy’s side.

In Israel itself, the conflict is coursing through the veins of concerned citizens everywhere: televisions and radios in cafes, restaurants and supermarkets blaring out the latest developments round the clock, keeping diners and shoppers tuned into the only subject that matters at the moment. Israelis come in all shapes and colours, with plenty among the electorate opposed to both the scale and style of the offensive, and from the keen arguments taking place in every meeting place it is clear that there is by no means a consensus opinion on the latest developments. To tar all Israelis with one negative brush — and to paint, by extension, all Palestinians as whiter than white — is an entirely false premise upon which to base one’s opinion.

And, by absolving Hamas of any modicum of responsibility for their own war crimes simply because of the conditions in which they’re forced to exist, their sympathisers actually reduce Hamas’s leaders to the status of mere automatons devoid of free will. There is no justification for attacking civilians: not in international law, religious law, nor any basic code of ethics. When the Israeli army launch attacks on civilian targets, they are rightly hauled over the coals for doing so — yet when Hamas and their agents do likewise, suddenly the silence is deafening from those very same apparent champions of human rights.

Those who seek to murder in the name of their cause are to be condemned, whatever camp they are in: that has to be the bottom line. When, as now, there are those so blinded by their rage that they refuse to condemn one side’s crimes simply because they hate the other so much, then the gloves are off and the rulebook is tossed out the window. Flying the flags of Hezbollah and Hamas is an appalling way to make a point from the sidelines — and, in the long term, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will gain from such vicious displays of extremism.

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

UK: Vicar Takes Down Crucifixion Sculpture ‘Because it’S a Scary Depiction of Suffering’

A vicar has removed a sculpture of the crucifixion from the front of his church because it was a ‘horrifying depiction of pain and suffering’ that was scaring off worshippers.

Rev Ewen Souter said the traditional Christian symbol was frightening children and that it would be replaced with a modern, stainless steel cross.

Some of the congregation have reacted angrily to the decision, saying it is another blow to Christian tradition.

One long-standing member of the church, who asked not to be named, said: ‘The crucifix is the oldest and most famous symbol of the Christian church.

‘Pulling it down and putting up something that would look more at home on the side of a flashy modern shopping centre is not the way to get more bums on seats.

‘Next they’ll be ripping out the pews and putting sofas in their place, or throwing out all the Bibles and replacing them with laptops. It’s just not right.’

Rev Souter said today: ‘The crucifix expressed suffering, torment, pain and anguish. It was a scary image, particularly for children.

‘Parents didn’t want to walk past it with their kids, because they found it so horrifying.

‘It wasn’t a suitable image for the outside of a church wanting to welcome worshippers. In fact, it was a real put-off.

‘We’re all about hope, encouragement and the joy of the Christian faith. We want to communicate good news, not bad news, so we need a more uplifting and inspiring symbol than execution on a cross.’

[Return to headlines]

Vatican ‘Uneasy’ About Muslims Praying Outside Cathedral During ‘Hate-Filled’ Gaza Protest Rally

The Vatican today expressed its ‘unease’ at the hundreds of Muslims who gathered in prayer outside a Catholic cathedral during a Gaza protest rally. Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, spoke out after photographs of Muslims kneeling in front of Milan Cathedral, towards Mecca, were published in Italian newspapers.

In an interview with the Vatican’s official newspaper Osservatore Romano, Cardinal Martino said: ‘For me the sight of people at prayer does not trouble me, it is good that people pray. ‘But what really troubled me and left me uneasy was the fact that Israeli flags were burnt and there were slogans, all manifestations of hate and which followed a prayer session.’

There were similar scenes outside a cathedral in Bologna where local bishop Ernesto Vecchi also strongly condemned the sight of Muslims kneeling in prayer. He stormed:’This was not prayer. This was a challenge — not just to the cathedral but to our very system of democracy and culture. This is confirmation that there is a project to Islamise Europe.’

The rally in Milan was led by the city’s Muslim Imam Abu Imad who has been convicted in Italy of terrorism related offences — a fact noted by MP Maurizio Gasparri. The centre right politician said:’When 10,000 Muslims arrive in front of Milan Cathedral, led by an Imam who has convictions for terrorism then public order needs to be looked at. ‘It is evident that this was intended as a threat and the decision to pray and hold the rally in front of the Cathedral is very significant. ‘Italy, unlike many Arab countries, is proud of the fact that it allows religious freedom but fundamentalists must not be allowed to gather and present a possible threat.’

Tonight officials in Milan and Rome said they were investigating the rally and would be speaking to organisers as they had not been given permission to stop in front of Milan Cathedral during the rally. Mario Borghezio, an MEP with Italy’s anti immigration Northern League party, stormed:’The fact that Muslim extremists transformed the Cathedral square into an outdoor Mosque constitutes an incredible provocation. ‘The prayer to Allah recited by thousands of fanatical Muslims is an act of intimidation, a slap in the face for the city of Milan which must remain Christian.’

Just before Christmas Mr Borghezio had also hit out at a Catholic priest who had placed a model mosque complete with minaret in his church Nativity scene.

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

Violent Night in Stockholm

A spate of violent crimes was reported on Monday night in Stockholm. Two stabbings and a serious assault occurred as Sweden prepared for the Eve of Epiphany holiday.

A woman was found by police at 3am on Tuesday stabbed at a restaurant in the historic Gamla Stan district. She was rushed to South Stockholm General Hospital for treatment and her condition on Tuesday morning was unknown. No suspects had been detained by 11am on Tuesday.

A further stabbing occurred on Hornsgatan on Södermalm when a man was attacked and left with minor knife wounds at around the same time of the morning. One man has been detained on suspicion of assault.

Near Kornhamnstorg in Gamla Stan a further two men suffered a serious assault; one was beaten unconscious and another sustained a fractured rib. Both men were taken to hospital for treatment. Police later classified their injuries as minor.

Four young men were stopped in their car near the scene of the assault. Three were arrested and the other was taken in for questioning. The arrested trio are suspected of aggravated assault. According to Södermalm police several of the men have prior convictions.

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]


Kosovo: Ethnic Albanians and Serbs Form Patrols

Pristina, 5 Dec. (AKI) — Ethnic Albanians and Serbs in Kosovska Mitrovica have organised patrols in their districts of the divided town after a series of incidents in which around ten people were injured last week.

Despite the presence of the Kosovo police, the Nato-led peacekeeping force and the European Union police and judicial mission in Kosovo, Serbs and ethnic Albanian feel unsafe, Albanian language daily Koha ditore reported.

The paper quoted a ethnic Albanian, Skodran Sejdiu, as saying international forces weren’t present in the mixed Bosnjacka Mahala area of Kosovska Mitrovica despite earlier promises.

Last week a Serbian youth was stabbed by two ethnic Albanians, and an Albanian was wounded by automatic fire.

A bomb was thrown last Friday at firemen fighting blaze in Bosnjacka Mahala, injuring six. Several automobiles were demolished by a bomb in another part of the town.

Sejdiu blamed the current unrest on “organised structures of the state of Serbia”, while Serbs claim it was the work of ethnic “Albanian extremists”.

“These were not incidents, but hints of violent action by Albanian extremists aimed at taking over northern Kosovo and extending the rule of independent Kosovo to the north,” said former Serbian minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic.

Kosovo government said in a statement it was closely following the situation and appealed for calm.

“We strongly condemn the acts of violence which are contrary to the vision of the government and citizens of Kosovo,” the statement said.

Serbia has no authority in Kosovo since NATO bombing pushed its forces out of the province in 1999, but has kept parallel power structures in the north, to which Pristina government has no access.

NATO airstrikes in 1999 drove out Serbian troops from Kosovo amid ethnic fighting and gross human rights abuses during a two-year war with guerrillas.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. Thousands of people died in the conflict.

The overwhelming majority (90 percent) of Kosovo’s population of two million people are ethnic Albanians.

Most of the 100,000 Serbs that remained in Kosovo live north of Mitrovica, which borders Serbia. Like the Serbian government, they don’t recognise Kosovo’s independence, declared by majority ethnic Albanian politicians last February.

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

North Africa

Copts That Become Muslims Without Knowing it

Daikha Dridi

When he took a new wife, Rami’s father opted for a new life with new children and a new religion: born a Copt, he converted to Islam, the religion of his second wife.

Rami from his part, grew up “normally” next to his mother like a little Copt, he followed religion courses at school (mandatory in Egypt) for Christian students, he went to church once a week and considers himself a young man with a solid faith.

He left school in his teenage years to dedicate himself to the job he still practises today, that of artisan jeweller, and engraves silver jewellery. Rami’s peaceful life changed dramatically in 2002, on the day he went to the Civil Status Department of the Ministry of Interior to recover his new identity card. On that day, he discovered that the civil servants of the Ministry of Interior changed, without consultation, his religion and his name. On his new identity card, his religion was mentioned as Muslim and his name wasn’t Rami Naïm anymore, but Rami Abdallah Abderrahmane Amine.

It looked like a bad joke, but it wasn’t, a real tragedy hit on this young man. The fact that civil servants could think they have the right to convert citizens behind their back revolted him, “even if I wasn’t the Copt believer I am, I find this unacceptable. If I am to choose a religion, it must be of my choice and not be forced to do so without even being informed”, he says with extraordinary calm.

Sitting on the bench of hall number 12 at the High Administrative Court of Cairo, Rami is like a Bouddha of patience in jeans and jacket, slicked hair, a shy look but a determined tone of voice. He knows this hall by heart by now, it’s the fourth time in two years that he comes to hear the verdict for his complaint, a verdict that each time was deferred to a subsequent session.

“I was very young when my father left my mother and today I don’t even know what he looks like. I’m sure that he’s the one who went to request for my change of name and religion”, he tells with cold anger, as if to entertain the endless waiting.

But if for Rami this absurd battle is firstly fought against an invisible and despised father, for several other young Christians it has become an arm wrestling against an arbitrary and senseless mechanism, because their fathers who have converted to Islam, support them and go to the witness box to tell the judges that their choice mustn’t affect their children who have chosen to remain Christians.

Even in these cases “it’s almost useless”, sighs Rami’s lawyer, Adel Ramadane, a young man of the same age, who works for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

According to this organisation that published a report (Prohibited Identities, December 2007) in cooperation with Human Rights Watch on religious discrimination in Egypt, 89 Egyptians have pressed charges for having been converted to Islam unbeknown by the civil servants of the Ministry of Interior. These directors of conscience decide — in violation of Egyptian laws, reminds the report — that the child whose parents are affiliated to two different religions must follow “the best out of the two religions”, namely, it goes without saying, Islam.

This battle is not only a battle of principle, but the change of name and religion on the identity card can concretely affect lives. Since in Egypt, the national identity card is essential for the least transaction, whether it be financial, banking, administrative, for the smallest trip, within the country or abroad, to register at university or to purchase property, for the driving licence, to simply vote or even worse, to get married in a country where mixed marriages are not tolerated.

According to Mr. Ramadane, such judicial affairs didn’t exist before the mid 90’s, when the Egyptian government decided to modernise and computerise the data of the civil status. Since then, the number of Egyptians fighting to change the religious mention on their national identity card has increased proportionally to the rise of religious conservatism in society.

Yet, affirms Mr Ramadane, “up to the year 2006, this court systematically ruled in favour of the plaintiffs, supporting their claims against the Ministry of Interior”, therefore forcing civil servants to apply, though reluctantly, the court’s decision, and to inscribe the desired religion on the identity card and not the imposed one. “Unfortunately, the judge who used to rule the verdicts in favour of our plaintiffs retired last year and the one that replaced him doesn’t appreciate at all the fact that one wants to change religion when it involves abandoning Islam”, underlines Mr Ramadane, who equally defends numerous Egyptians hindered by the administration, born Copts, converted to Islam and wishing to become Christians again.

Yet, changing religion, even if being Muslim, isn’t forbidden by any Egyptian law; the Constitution forbids discrimination on religious grounds or on any other ground and clearly guarantees the freedom of worship and cult. Furthermore, a status law that dates back to 1994, has allowed Egyptians to change and correct the information on their identity cards, including religious filiation.

But the civil servants and some judges apply non written rules, the ones that follow one out of a thousand interpretations of the Charia, stating that a Muslim who wants to change his religion is an apostate.

The new supercilious judge of the High Administrative Court of Cairo dismissed more than 70 converted Muslims who wished to become Christians again, arguing, “to change religion constantly is equal to making fun of religion”.

Then on February 2008, a verdict was welcomed by the defenders of human rights and freedom in Egypt as the first major victory:12 Copts that had converted to Islam, then reconverted to Christianity, were allowed to change their religion item on their identity cards. But the happiness among those who were waiting for their verdict was short, as the Ministry of Interior refused to follow the verdict. Now these claims are waiting to pass a final and unappealable verdict at the Supreme Court.

Cases like that of Rami, fewer than those who have chosen to convert to Islam and wish to go back on their choice, depend on this verdict. A verdict whose date no expert can predict.

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

Israel and the Palestinians

Gazans Need to Choose Peace Over Extremism

The signing of the Oslo agreements between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in 1993 raised hopes for peace on both sides of the Israel-Gaza border. Tens of thousands of Palestinians found work in Israel. Along with their Israeli neighbours, mostly farmers who have cultivated fields adjacent to the border, a shared dream of peace and prosperity was woven.

In those days I served as mayor of the regional council that stretches along the Gaza-Israeli border. The optimism of the time provided me and my Palestinian neighbours with an opportunity to develop a multifaceted relationship: hundreds of young Gazans studied in our academic college; women’s organisations joined forces in summer camps for Israeli and Palestinian children; Israeli environmental experts assisted the mayor of Dir el-Balakh in the strip in dealing with sewage flowing into the sea; and, with the help of European countries, a large plant was designed to provide purified water for agriculture on both sides of the border. Many personal friends from Gaza spent their weekends at the swimming pool in my kibbutz, while I used to dine with my family at the excellent fish restaurants in the neighbouring city.

Things seemed like a dream. At the time we asked ourselves why we had wasted so many years on a bloody and futile conflict. But the time of good neighbourly relations ended abruptly in September 2000, when Yasser Arafat decided to launch the second intifada and drag us all into the bloody whirlpool that extracts an intolerable price from us all to this day.

Even the bold decision, made by prime minister Ariel Sharon, to uproot 7,500 Israeli settlers and raze their homes, in addition to the withdrawal of nearly 15,000 soldiers from the Gaza Strip, did not halt the fire. The targeting of farmers working in the fields, the bombardment of their houses and families, only increased. The rise of Hamas to power following the 2006 Palestinian elections severed the last connections remaining with authorities in Gaza, while at the same time Hamas intensified its actions against members of Fatah.

On a Sabbath evening last May, families in the kibbutz, all dressed in white, headed toward the communal dining hall for the traditional supper. The hall was brightly lit, white tablecloths covered the tables, and candles were placed at the centre of the room. As children and parents calmly made their way, a heavy bombardment of mortar rounds rained into the heart of the kibbutz.

Jimmy Kedoshim, 48, father of three young children, was killed by one of the bombs in front of his wife and children. During those fatal seconds, many people were torn between the need to assist a friend and their obligation to seek shelter for their children and themselves.

The violent death of Jimmy is one aspect of the long and complicated saga we have endured in the last eight years. Thousands of families living near the Gaza border have been affected by the daily bombardment of their communities. Even more have endured this reality in recent days. Over eight years, children have been born into the sound of exploding rockets, and carry these experiences with them every moment. Post-traumatic symptoms have become widespread among children and adults, whose only wish is to lead life in peace.

The time has come for a responsible government to regain its sovereignty and provide its citizens with the personal security they deserve. The Israeli government does not seek to adopt Hamas’s tactics. The Islamist organisation has indiscriminately fired over 8,000 missiles, rockets and mortar rounds into a civilian population over the last eight years. During that time the Israeli military has gone above and beyond to minimise the damage inflicted on the Palestinian population, at times placing Israeli soldiers and civilians at risk.

It is important to remember that the operation taking place in Gaza is not aimed at the Palestinian population with whom we have had close relations in the past, nor is it a punitive act. The operation seeks to restore calm and stability to a region that lacks both due to Hamas’s acts. Peace is a mutual interest. The Palestinians chose to elect an extremist group that has inflamed hatred and suffering instead of investing in education and reducing poverty.

As the battles subside, Israeli forces will return to their bases. We will return to cultivate our fields. The people of Gaza will have to decide whether to maintain a radical and suppressive regime, or whether to seize the opportunity to establish a peace-seeking leadership that will help us all bring back the days of good neighbourly relations.

The choice is theirs.

• Shai Hermesh is a Kadima member of the Knesset and longtime resident of Kibbutz Kfar Aza near the Gaza Strip

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

Hamas Leader: Revenge for Israel’s Gaza Assault Will be Murder of Jewish Children Across the World

A senior Hamas leader has warned Israel that Islamists would avenge the deaths of young Palestinians in Gaza by killing Jewish children around the world.

“They have legitimised the murder of their own children by killing the children of Palestine,” said Mahmoud Zahar, in a televised broadcast recorded at a secret location. “They have legitimised the killing of their people all over the world by killing our people.” Mr Zahar, a hard-line political leader, made his first appearance since Israeli launched its offensive against his organisation.

He claimed victory for Hamas, saying it had succeeded in “destroying Israel’s sense of security” with its rocket attacks.

Palestinian officials said 541 people had been killed in the Gaza Strip over the 10 days of fighting and that 90 people — mostly civilians, including 26 children — had died since Israel’s ground offensive began on Saturday night.

Recent victims were said to include 13 members of a Palestinian family in an Israeli strike on their home in the Beach refugee camp.

Four Israelis have been killed by rockets since the attack began and one Israeli soldier has died.

A Hamas delegation has travelled to Egypt to discuss a ceasefire but its leaders promised to continue the rocket attacks and said fighters would resist Israel’s assault “in every street, every alley and at every house”.

Israel has in turn declined to scale back its assaults on the Gaza Strip, despite strong lobbying from the international community.

           — Hat tip: heroyalwhyness[Return to headlines]

How the U.N. Perpetuates the ‘Refugee’ Problem

Israel’s assault on Hamas is just the latest in a long chain of military clashes, the scripts of which are always the same. On one side, there is the Israeli army. Technologically and militarily superior, its soldiers are motivated by a powerful commitment to their country’s security. On the other, there are Palestinian terrorists whose aim is to kill as many innocent Israelis as possible by unleashing missiles and suicide bombers on civilian centers. Then, when Israel retaliates, they appeal to the world with gruesome images of Palestinian suffering as part of a global campaign to prevent Israel from defending itself.

Sooner or later, the tactics of the Palestinian terrorists work. The voices of protest in response to Palestinian suffering grow louder until international pressure stays Israel’s hand.

Inevitably, some of these protests come from Israelis. Last week, before the tanks had begun rolling into Gaza, the journalist Tom Segev put it bluntly in a column he wrote in Ha’aretz. “A child in Sderot is the same as a child in Gaza,” he wrote, “and anyone who harms either is evil.”

Mr. Segev is correct when he says that the suffering of children on either side is intolerable — this is why the pictures from Gaza make us shudder. But he is wrong to draw a moral equivalence between the two sides. In this, he lends a hand to the Palestinians’ most shameful military tactic: pimping the suffering of their civilians as a weapon of war.

Palestinian children are dying today not because of Israeli brutality, but because their own leaders have chosen to use their children as human shields, and their pain as a battering ram against Western sensibilities.

Of course, it is easy to blame Hamas. It is they, after all, who deliberately put their weapons caches in mosques, their rocket launchers in schoolyards, and their command centers in hospitals — all with the explicit goal of maximizing the tragedy of an Israeli response.

Yet Hamas is not the only Palestinian group at fault. In 2005, shortly after the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, I met with the chief of staff to the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. My question to him: Now that we have uprooted thousands of Jews and empowered Gazans to be masters of their own fate, can we hope that within a year’s time there will be fewer refugees in the camps? “Absolutely not,” he said. “The refugees will be relocated only in the context of the final status [agreement]. How can we move them if we do not know where they will live? Maybe they will live in Israel.”

In withdrawing from Gaza, Israel made painful concessions for peace by forcibly removing Jews from their homes. And yet even the Palestinian Authority, the most moderate among Palestinian political groups, would not consider easing their own people’s plight in the wake of Israel’s compromise. This is because the suffering of the refugees is essential to their broader political struggle.

How does the West respond to the obvious exploitation of Palestinian refugees? Soon after my meeting with Mr. Abbas’s chief of staff, I met with the ambassador of one of the West’s most enlightened countries. I asked: Why are the Palestinians not willing to help their own refugees? “I can understand them,” he answered. “After all, they don’t want the refugee problem to be taken off the agenda.”

This reflexive “understanding” for the Palestinian leaders’ abuse of their own people is the heart of the problem. For decades, the international community has actively assisted in building the terrorists’ unique system of control — over where Palestinians live and in what conditions, and over what they think — by allowing terrorists to turn the refugee camps into the center of the Palestinian war machine. Instead of working to relieve the refugees’ misery, the United Nations has dedicated an entire agency, UNRWA, to perpetuating it. For the rest of the world’s refugees, the U.N. works tirelessly to improve their conditions, to relocate them, and to help them rebuild their lives as quickly as possible. With the Palestinians, the U.N. does exactly the opposite, granting refugee status to the great-grandchildren of people displaced in 1948, doing nothing to dismantle the camps, and acting as facilitators for the terrorists’ goal of grinding an entire civilian population under their thumb. Nowhere on earth do terrorists get so much help from the Free World.

It is not only the refugee camps that the West has helped sustain. For years, Hamas in Gaza — like Hezbollah in Lebanon, and like the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat — has been amassing huge stockpiles of weaponry, most of it under the noses of Western observers who are meant to prevent the import of such weapons. It’s as if we are telling the terrorists: Go on, build your armies, prepare for war. We understand.

The same can be said about the use of children as human shields. Where was the West when Palestinian leaders were actively transforming their children’s classrooms into indoctrination centers for martyrdom?

And so, invariably, the script is played out: Hamas fires its missiles, Israel responds with military force in Gaza, children are killed, their pictures are played countless times on televisions in the West, articles are published saying both sides are evil, and Israel is pressured to stop.

Whether this war will bring about lasting change, or just provide another breather before the next battle, depends to a very large degree on the Free World. A successful Israeli campaign — in which Hamas is eliminated as the controlling force in Gaza — will bring an unprecedented opportunity for Western leaders to change the rules of the game when it comes to Palestinian civilians. It’s time for the West to recognize the human rights of Palestinians — not only when they are suffering in war.

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

Israeli General: Never Knew I Was Evacuating My Wounded Soldier Son From Gaza

Brig. Gen. (res.) Zvi Fogel commanded the artillery strike that provided cover for the evacuation of six IDF soldiers wounded in the Gaza Strip on Monday.

It was only after the six troops were successfully transferred to Tel Hashomer hospital in central Israel that he discovered he had helped to rescue his son.

“They told me it was his battalion, but it never crossed my mind that my son was among the wounded,” he said. “A little before eight my other son phoned me and said ‘dad, we’re going to Tel Hashomer.’“

After a brief hour-long visit with his wounded son, Fogel returned to Southern Command headquarters in Be’er Sheva.

The family and friends of the wounded flocked to the hospital.

“They phoned me a little before eight to tell me that my husband was lightly wounded and was being transferred to Tel Hashomer. I caught a glimpse of him before he was taken into the operating room? his face was a little burnt and I could see the shrapnel wounds,” said the wife of one of the wounded soldiers.

An officer who was lightly wounded in the incident returned to his soldiers in the field right after he was treated.

The father of a wounded soldier, tears in his eyes, stood in the hallway and comforted his daughter. “Thank God he’s only lightly wounded,” he said. “He’s covered in shrapnel. We spoke to him; he can communicate. But he hasn’t told us what happened over there.”

           — Hat tip: Abu Elvis[Return to headlines]

Middle East: Israel ‘Will No Longer Show Restraint When Attacked’

Jerusalem, 5 January, (AKI) — Israel’s Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, signalled on Monday that Israel would no longer respond with restraint to rocket fire from militant Islamist Palestinian group Hamas. Her country’s current military offensive in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip is intended to “change the equation” in the region, Livni said.

Speaking to journalists in Jerusalem on Monday, Livni (photo) defended Israel’s incursion into the Gaza Strip as “legitimate self-defence”.

Earlier on Monday, Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak told MPs that Hamas had suffered a “very heavy blow”, but insisted the offensive in Gaza would continue to defend Israeli citizens.

“We still haven’t reached our objectives,” Barak said.

On the tenth day of the military operation, thousands of Israeli troops, backed by tanks, artillery and helicopters, pushed deeper into Gaza, effectively splitting the north from the south in the the aid-dependent territory.

Israeli Navy, Air Force and special units are also taking part, Barak stated.

Over 500 people have been killed in the military bombardment and ground offensive, most of them Hamas operatives, and over 2,200 have been wounded, Barak confirmed.

The Israeli army killed at least 12 Palestinians on Monday, including a family in Gaza City and another family in Zeitoun, south of Gaza City, according to Palestinian medical officials.

Hospital sources said at least 23 civilians were killed in attacks overnight. Reports say casualties are continuing to pour into the territory’s overstretched hospitals.

Barak defended Israel’s action, saying any country would have taken the same action in the face of Hamas rocket attacks.

At least five Israelis have been killed since the military operation began last month and another six have been injured.

Palestinian militants fired 20 missiles into southern Israel on Monday, the Israeli army said. It said 47 rockets were launched from Gaza into southern Israel on Sunday.

Intense diplomatic efforts are under way to try to secure a ceasefire in Gaza, with separate missions to the Middle East being led by the French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and a high-level European Union team.

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

Netanyahu Nephew Faces Court Martial for Pacifism

A nephew of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s finance minister and former prime minister, faces a three-year prison sentence for refusing to serve in the army.

Jonathan Ben-Artzi, 19, has served seven months in a military jail after being given consecutive sentences of up to 31 days at a time. Army officials are now summoning him to appear at a court martial, which has harsher sentencing powers, on Tuesday.

           — Hat tip: JD[Return to headlines]

Western Protests Call for Israel’s Demise

By Erick Stakelbeck

[Link includes video report]

CBNNews.com — WASHINGTON — Israel’s critics have been out in full force since “Operation Cast Lead” began in Gaza last month.

Thousands of anti-Israel protestors have taken to the streets from Europe and America. Many are calling for the destruction of the Jewish state.

U.S., Athens, London Protest Gaza Conflict

It’s the type of scene we’re used to seeing in the Middle East: groups of angry Muslim men burning Israeli flags and chanting anti-Israel slogans.

But this isn’t the West Bank or Gaza. It’s Athens, Greece — one of the cradles of Western civilization.

In London, a similar scene unfolded as riot police tried to control thousands of unruly anti-Israel protestors.

And here in the U.S., chants of “Allah is great” reverberated through the streets of New Orleans.

As Israel battles Hamas terrorists in Gaza, demonstrations against the Jewish state are intensifying.

Europeans have seen tens of thousands of anti-Israel protestors converge in Paris, Berlin, London and Madrid. American states from Florida to California to New York and Illinois have seen a similar phenomenon — and the large crowds have frequently gotten ugly.

“You see “Nuke Israel” signs and “Kill the Jews” signs and all of that. These are very belligerent protests. These are not peace marches in any sense,” said Cliff May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“What you do not see at these protests,” he continued, “are people saying ‘We want peace. We understand that sacrifices will have to be made for peace. We understand that there will need to be compromises.’ None of that.”

So Who Are These Protestors?

The large majority are Muslims who have immigrated to Europe — a continent whose Muslim population is now 20 million strong and growing daily.

America is also seeing a growth in its Muslim population. It’s a trend that’s reflected in protests like a recent one in Washington, D.C.

“I cry every day, I cry every night,” said demonstrator Fazh Shehad. “You have to stop the killing, you have to stop the killing of children of Gaza.”

Western Muslims have even been joined by the radical left in condemning Israel.

           — Hat tip: Erick Stakelbeck[Return to headlines]

Middle East

Islam: Turkey’s Religious Department to Open Offices Abroad

(ANSAmed) — ANKARA, JANUARY 5 — The Religious Affairs Department of Turkey is planning to open offices abroad, Anatolia news agency reported. The Turkish Religious Affairs Department said that it will inaugurate religious service offices in Albania, Georgia and Kosovo. “The department decided to open offices in Tirana, Tbilisi and Pristina in order to give better religious service and improve brotherhood relations”, the executives of the department said. The request of State Minister, Said Yazicioglu, regarding inauguration of religious service offices in these three countries has been sent for signature to the cabinet members. (ANSAmed).

           — Hat tip: Insubria[Return to headlines]

Strategic Agreement Has Minimal Impact on Most Iraq Operations

The new strategic agreement in Iraq is having minimal impact on troops operating in provinces already under Iraqi control when it took effect Jan. 1, the commander of the 4th Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team told Pentagon reporters today.

Army Col. Butch Kievenaar said the bulk of his “Warhorse Brigade” soldiers are conducting operations in southern Iraq’s Qadisiyah, Najaf and southern Babil provinces. All three provinces have transitioned to Iraqi control — in July 2008, December 2006 and October 2008, respectively.

In addition, the brigade’s cavalry squadron is serving with the 172nd Infantry Brigade in Kabala province. That province was turned over to Iraqi control in October 2007.

“So a lot of the requirements that were specified … in the strategic agreement were already the requirements for us in operations here,” Kievenaar said.

All U.S. military operations in the region are planned and conducted by, with and through Iraqi security forces, he said. “So the provincial government has already been made aware of the operations that we’re doing,” he added.

In addition, he said, the brigade obtains a warrant through the Iraqi government for anyone it detains. Kievenaar’s troops run no detention facility, but instead pass all detainees to the Iraqi army or police for processing before turning them over to the Iraqi civil court system.

“So [the strategic agreement] has a very minimal impact to us here in the province,” he said.

Plans call for the Warhorse Brigade to withdraw its forces from the two joint security stations and two combat outposts where it operates alongside Iraqi security forces before June, as required by the strategic agreement. “And that was part of the plan even without that strategic agreement,” Kievenaar said.

The impact of the agreement is greater, however, for one of the brigade’s two combined arms battalions, operating to the north near Kirkuk. The Tamim province’s capital, within the Multinational Division North region, has not yet been turned over to Iraqi provincial control.

“So when the strategic agreement came into effect, it changed some of what they … were able to do,” Kievenaar said. Most notably, the soldiers began obtaining warrants before detaining suspects and began conducting all operations jointly with Iraqi security forces.

Kievenaar said his troops have “very effective partnership programs” with Iraqi security forces, and are playing a key role in training and helping to professionalize their ranks.

Serving his third deployment to Iraq, Kievenaar said he’s amazed at the capabilities the Iraqi security forces have gained in the past 18 months. “The progress of the Iraqi security forces from then to now is amazing and rewarding, because I’ve seen it from the beginning,” he said.

Kievenaar conceded that al-Qaida and other extremist elements remain, but said efforts targeting their leaders are paying off.

“What we have right now is a situation where your low-level fighters — those guys that would then go out and do something if somebody gave them money, gave them direction and gave them resources — they’re still around,” he said. “Their leaders have been targeted, picked up or they’re hiding in a neighboring country. And every time they … try to come back into this country, they’re effectively targeted and picked up.”

Without leadership, money and resources, low-level fighters “basically return to their normal lives,” he said.

“And so we have a very safe and secure environment right now,” he said, “and I don’t see anything on the horizon that their security force, both the police and the army, cannot handle.”

Kievenaar expressed confidence that the Iraqis will be sufficiently trained to assume full security responsibility for their country when U.S. troops leave Iraq.

“They still need our help, because they don’t have all the enablers that we come with, but they don’t need our help on the day-to-day operations,” he said. “I believe by the time that we leave here, that we will have taught them how to be able to sustain themselves and sustain their training and to do a more effective targeting” against forces that threaten the Iraqi government…

[Return to headlines]


Austria: Russia Gas Supply Cut 90% Over Crisis

Vienna. Austrian gas giant OMV met for crisis talks with regulation authority E-Control yesterday as Russia cut its gas supply to Austria by 90 per cent as a result of its row with Ukraine. OMV announced it was using its natural gas reserves to cover the shortfall. The company said full service can be ensured despite today’s developments.

OMV and E-Control said they will analyse the situation and try to anti- cipate how things might develop.

OMV said Russia had informed Austria about cuts of 30 to 40 per cent in gas flows on Monday night.

“However there were further reductions in sup- ply in the early morning hours. At the moment only around 10 per cent of Russian gas is being delivered to Baumgarten,” a border transit point, OMV said in a statement.

OMV said it was in contact with Russian gas giant Gazprom about the situation but meanwhile was using its 1.7 billion cubic metre natural gas reserve to supply its customers.

Russia cut off supplies to the Ukraine on 1 January over debts, pledging supplies to western Europe would be safeguarded, but some European countries have seen flows fall or stop completely.

ÖVP Economy Minister Reinhold Mitterlehner said he wanted to hold an “Energielenkungsbeirat” (“Energy navigation council”) today at midday.

Mitterlehner stressed that the gas supply is ensured for only three months.

Representatives of Austria’s economy will join the meeting as well as those of the country’s provinces, the Finance Ministry, the Agriculture Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Infrastructure Ministry and the leaders of oil and gas companies.

The summit is Mitterlehner’s emergency option in times when there is the possibility of an energy supply shortage.

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

Bulgaria Presses EU for Permission to Restart Old Reactors

Sofia — Hit hard by the Russia-Ukraine gas row, Bulgaria on Tuesday stepped up the pressure for permission to re-start its old nuclear reactors, shut down in 2006 amid European safety concerns. “We must prepare without delay to re-start the third reactor at Kosloduy,” President Georgi Parvanov said. Bulgaria shut down two 440-megawatt, Soviet-era reactors shortly before it joined the European Union in 2007, meeting Brussels’ demands.

Two even older reactors were turned off in 2002.

Parvanov said the accession contract with the EU allows Bulgaria to revive the two newer reactors in case of a crisis.

“I hope our European partners will not oppose our demands,” he said.

Bulgaria faces a serious energy crisis since Russia turned off the gas taps to Ukraine, which it accuses of stealing gas.

Along with Macedonia, Greece and Turkey, Bulgaria was cut off as collateral damage in the row and now has only about a third of the 12 million cubic metres of gas it normally uses on a winter day.

Kosloduy engineers, who now operate two modern, Russian-built 1,000-megawatt reactors, could bring one of the two older reactors online within a month, the power plant chief executive Ivan Genov said.

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

Comment: It’s Time to See Through Gazprom

The bust-up between Russia and Ukraine that threatens to gum up the gas supplies of much of southern and Eastern Europe hardly comes as a surprise. It is almost part of the New Year ritual and somehow — perhaps Kremlin meteorologists are in on the plot — always seems to strike during a cold spell. Across the continent, radiators run cold.

So why hasn’t the European Union devised some kind of strategy by now to deal with the threat? Years of talk about energy security have generated nothing but hot air.

The fundamental problem is that the west Europeans, and in particular the Germans, have bought into the myth that Gazprom is a normal commercial concern struggling to succeed in the marketplace.

The European Commission pretends that it is behaving in an even-handed way in the row between Kiev and Moscow. Scratch the skin of a Euro-bureaucrat however and you see soon enough that Brussels is in sympathy with the Gazprom line. Ukraine, you will hear, is chaotically governed, is not a reliable friend to the EU; a gas-thief, no less.

There does not seem much doubt, admittedly, that the feuding between the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, and the premier Yuliya Tymoshenko, has sapped Kiev’s bargaining power.

But the fact is that Gazprom is intent on exploiting these divisions; the gas price war is part of its long-game to neutralise Ukraine. Or rather, it is a ploy mounted by those in the Kremlin who dictate Gazprom strategy.

“Gazprom itself is neither good nor bad,” say the Russian authors Valery Panyushkin and Mikhail Sygar, “it is like a Kalashnikov or a Colt that can be used either to intimidate or in defence. Its moral value depends on the intention of the person whose finger is on the trigger.”

In other words, let’s stop talking about Gazprom as a straightforward market player: it is a political weapon.

The key aim of the Kremlin (President Medvedev is a former Gazprom chairman; the Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller was a confidant of Vladimir Putin when he was running St Petersburg) is to stop the EU and Nato expanding to include Georgia and Ukraine. A short war against Georgia discredited its Nato-friendly leadership. Game One to the Kremlin. Ukraine is about to be exposed as a wobbly European ally. Game Two to the Kremlin.

This is not about gas pricing. If it were Moscow could have initiated serious talks about long-term supply contracts rather engaging in annual price wrangles. The Kremlin disrupted supplies after the revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. It lowers gas tariffs for friendly states like Belarus and Armenia.

In 2006 when a Polish energy company outbid Russian competitors in buying a stake in a Baltic oil refinery, the flow of Russian oil to that refinery stopped immediately. Due to “technical problems”. Three days after the Czechs signed a missile defence deal with the US, Russian oil flow dropped by 40 per cent. Technical problems again.

If the EU is serious about energy security, it has to diversify away from Russian supplies as fast as it can. And it should demand more transparency from Gazprom. The Germans are best placed to do this.

Eon, the German energy giant, has a 6 per cent stake in Gazprom; not much, but surely enough to make Gazprom management think twice before acting politically. Its heavy dependency on Russia should give Germany clout.

Instead, it co-operates enthusiastically with Gazprom in building a Baltic gas pipeline that bypasses Poland. The former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has taken the Gazprom shilling and is quick to defend Kremlin policies. And Gazprom, keen to buy friendship in Germany, is sponsoring the football team Schalke. All of this helps dilute the EU aim of energy security.

As long as Germany’s own supplies are guaranteed, why should it worry about the small fry, the central Europeans currently shivering in the Big Chill?

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

Germany Warns of Imminent Gas Shortage

E.on, the German energy group, warned that Russian gas deliveries to Germany , Gazprom’s biggest foreign buyer, via Ukraine could collapse altogether by late on Tuesday afternoon.

As reductions in Russian gas supplies spread deep into Europe on one of the coldest days of the winter, Naftogaz, Ukraine’s state gas company, said it would resume gas talks in Moscow on Thursday, raising hopes of a compromise in the dispute….

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

Have Moscow, Kyiv Crossed the Line in Gas Dispute?

As a bitter cold snap settles in on the European continent, Moscow’s price dispute with Kyiv has begun to inflict collateral damage.

Russian gas is no longer flowing to Bulgaria, Croatia, Turkey, Greece, or Macedonia. In Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Romania it has slowed to a mere trickle.

Since the start of the row on New Year’s Day, when Russia’s Gazprom cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, Moscow and Kyiv have each tried to portray the other as the villain of the dispute and persuade the European Union to take their side.

“Ukraine is appealing to the EU, and it looks like Russia is also playing the Europe card as well,” says Volodymyr Fisenko, a Kyiv-based political analyst. “Moscow is trying to discredit Ukraine in the eyes of European consumers of Russian gas.”

For days, Brussels refused to be drawn into the game, even as gas shipments began coming up short.

But now, facing shortages across Eastern and Central Europe, Czech officials representing the EU Presidency have called the impasse “unacceptable.”

Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra suggested the EU was loath to be drawn into what it believes is a bilateral business issue.

“Neither the Czech presidency nor the European Commission considers itself to be an arbiter in what we consider, at its core, to be a commercial dispute between Moscow and Kyiv about future gas prices,” Vondra told RFE/RL’s Russian Service in a January 6 interview.

Privately, analysts suggest the EU has grown deeply tired of what has become a perennial game of energy brinkmanship played at Europe’s expense.

The Second Time As Farce

The EU weathered a similar dispute between Russia and Ukraine in 2006, and another threatened cutoff last year. But Federico Bordonaro, a Rome-based analyst with the “Power and Interests News Report,” says that this time Moscow and Kyiv have crossed a line.

“They are [both] certainly discrediting themselves,” Bordonaro said. “We can quote Karl Marx here and say that when history repeats itself, it ends up being a farce. It is hard to believe that almost every New Year’s since 2006, Europe is faced with the possibility of a severe cutoff in gas supplies because Russia and Ukraine aren’t able to find a market agreement.”

A quarter of Europe’s natural-gas supplies come from Russia, and 80 percent of them are pumped through a network of Soviet-era pipelines in Ukraine. The same network also supplies Ukraine’s domestic customers.

On January 1, Russia cut off Ukraine’s gas supply, saying that Kyiv owed more than $600 million in back debts. Russia is also seeking to raise the price Ukraine pays for natural gas to $450 per 1,000 cubic meters, which is more than twice what Kyiv says it is willing to pay.

Moscow then accused Ukraine of siphoning off 65.3 million cubic meters of gas destined for Europe via the same pipeline system.

In a televised meeting on January 5, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller to cut off gas delivered to Europe via Ukraine by 65.3 million cubic meters, thereby causing the current shortages in downstream client countries.

Gazprom says it will make up for the shortfall by pumping more gas to Europe via Belarus and through the Blue Stream pipeline under the Black Sea. Analysts, however, say that alternative is a short-term solution at best.

European Splits

Russia says it simply wants Ukraine to pay market prices for gas. Ukraine, however, accuses Russia of using its energy muscle to undermine the country’s pro-Western president, Viktor Yushchenko.

Yushchenko is attempting to lead Kyiv into NATO and the European Union and is likely to face off against Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko — seen as softer on Russia — in a presidential election next year.

Speaking at a press conference in Kyiv on January 6, presidential economic aide Oleksandr Shlapak accused Russia of using energy as a weapon against Ukraine.

“This is economic pressure on our state and it has nothing to do with real European market prices,” Shlapak said. “And as we are facing economic pressure then we have to ask European countries to intervene in the existing situation so we can resolve it together.”

Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov sought to portray the Russian side as affable partners, telling reporters in Moscow that “Gazprom has been and always will be a reliable gas provider” and that the Russian side is ready “to begin talks at any minute.”

A European Union delegation was meeting separately with both Ukrainian and Russian officials on January 6. The EU’s energy commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, is due to join EU foreign ministers in Prague for a meeting on the crisis on January 8.

Analysts say European officials understand that Russia is using its energy wealth to pressure Ukraine politically, but they also fault Ukraine for allowing itself to become vulnerable to such pressure.

The gas dispute is all the more fractious because it exploits existing rifts within the EU itself. EU stalwarts like Germany, France and Italy are more eager to maintain good relations with Russia. By contrast, former communist states like Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic countries are historically more sympathetic to Ukraine.

Worry over the current cutoff, however, may trump traditional political causes. Analysts say even Ukraine’s allies in Eastern Europe are losing patience with Kyiv.

“The fact of the matter is that the Ukrainian government should know better,” says Eugeniusz Smolar of the Warsaw-based Center for International Relations. “On December 31, the Russians will demand, as they do every year, payment for the gas that was delivered. Where is the surprise? Nowhere in the West, regardless of the persuasion of the government, will you find understanding for a situation where you do not pay your bills.”

Alternate Pipelines

Analysts say the current crisis could become a watershed that causes both Europe and Russia to rethink their energy policy.

In an effort to decrease Moscow’s dependence on Ukraine as a transit country, many observers now expect Russia to step up production on the proposed Nord Stream and South Stream pipelines. Nord Stream would route gas to Europe via the Baltic Sea and Germany, while South Stream would supply Southern Europe via the Black Sea.

On January 3, Vondra warned that Europe could react to the crisis by speeding up construction on pipelines bringing gas from new suppliers by new routes into Europe. One such possibility is the proposed Nabucco pipeline, which would transport gas from Turkey to Europe, bypassing Russia.

The loss of credibility carries costs for both sides. It could deprive Ukraine of crucial support and goodwill from Europe as Kyiv’s pro-Western forces, in a season of economic and political uncertainty, seeks greater integration with the EU. And it could derail recent efforts at rapprochement between Moscow and Brussels after relations were severely damaged by Russia’s August war with Georgia.

“In the end, I think the Russians have more room to maneuver than the Ukrainians have. But I believe that at the same time, Gazprom will be looked at as a partner that is a bit less reliable than they want us to believe they are,” Bordonaro says.

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

Hungary Gas Deliveries Via Ukraine Halted: Minister

Document Actions Hungary gas deliveries via Ukraine halted: minister 06 January 2009, 18:02 CET (BUDAPEST) — Russian gas deliveries to Hungary via Ukraine have ceased with effect from 3:30 pm (1430 GMT), Energy Minister Csaba Molnar said Tuesday.

Pressure in the gas pipeline “has been getting lower all day and at 3:30 pm, it stopped completely,” Molnar told a news conference.

The minister said the government had informed Serbia and Bosnia, whose gas is delivered via Hungary, would see their supplies halted.

“We’ve informed Serbia and Bosnia that we can’t ensure the transfer because Ukraine has cut off the gas,” Molnar said.

He described the situation as critical and factories had been requested to switch to alternative fuels.

“During the night, we’ll decide whether the big gas users will have to limit their consumption,” Molnar said.

“At 11:00 am (1000 GMT), the Ukrainians were still promising 20 cubic metres for Tuesday, but at 3:30 pm, they cut off the gas at the Hungarian-Ukrainian border,” said Janos Zsuga, head of FGSZ, the gas supply subsidiary of energy giant MOL.

“Via Austria, we received three out of the usual six million, or half of the normal volume. But there, too, prospects are uncertain,” Zsuga said.

“We’re using our reserves. And that will be sufficient for some weeks. But if the situation doesn’t change after that, austerity measures will be needed, although not for the general population,” he said.

Hungary’s daily gas consumption amounts to 68-70 million cubic metres, made up of 38 million cubic metres received via Ukraine, about six million cubic metres flowing in from Austria via Slovakia, around four million cubic metres from the country’s own gas fields and the rest provided from reserves, which are topped up during the summer months.

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

Supplies to Turkey and Bulgaria Halted

The row between Gazprom and Kiev over the price of Russian gas has started to have a knock-on effect in Europe. Many countries, including Turkey, Bulgaria and Austria, are suffering major disruptions to their gas supplies.

Just as temperatures plummet across much of Europe, several countries are facing a sharp reduction in energy supplies. On Tuesday a number of countries reported major disruptions to gas supplies as a direct result of the dispute between Russia and Ukraine over gas prices. Turkey, Greece, Romania, Austria and Bulgaria have all been affected by Russian energy giant Gazprom’s decision to cut gas exports through Ukrainian pipelines.

Turkey’s supplies through a western pipeline have been completely cut, according to Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler. “Gas from the western line was completely stopped this morning,” Guler told reporters on Tuesday. “Initially it fell to 32 million cubic meters, then we were informed that it would drop to 17 million cubic meters and then it was completely stopped.” Ankara intends to raise supplies from another pipeline that passes under the Black Sea and, according to Reuters, Iran is mulling increasing its gas flows to Turkey.

Earlier on Tuesday, Bulgaria’s Economy Ministry announced that all Russian gas supplies via Ukraine to Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece and Macedonia had been halted on Tuesday morning as a result of the dispute between Moscow and Kiev. “We are in a crisis situation,” the ministry said in a statement. Bulgaria relies almost entirely on Russian gas for its needs and has no access to alternative pipeline routes and with temperatures in the country dropping to minus 15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit) overnight, the government is asking businesses and households to use other fuels…

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

South Asia

Dossier Gives Details of Mumbai Attacks

In the beginning, they were 32. A squad of suicide bombers assembled in Pakistan, they were taught how to make bombs, withstand interrogation, and fight to their death.

They were whittled down to 10, and on a Saturday morning in November, they set sail from Karachi with coordinates plotted on a global positioning set. Once in Mumbai, they went on a killing spree, leaving 163 dead, all the while receiving detailed instructions and pep talks from their handlers across the border.

These are some of the details of their gory mission compiled by Indian authorities and officially shared Monday with the Pakistani government.

The information seems designed to achieve at least two Indian objectives. First, it seeks to demonstrate that the attackers were sent from Pakistan. The dossier, a copy of which was provided to the New York Times, contains photographs of materials found on the fishing trawler they took: a bottle of Mountain Dew soda packaged in Karachi; pistols that bore the markings of a gun manufacturer in Peshawar; Pakistani-made items like a matchbox, detergent powder and shaving cream.

Second, the information seeks to rally international support for the Indian effort to press Pakistan on its handling of militants. It contains a list of 26 foreigners killed in the Mumbai attacks, and chronicles India’s efforts in recent years to persuade Pakistan to investigate suspects involved in terror attacks inside India and shut down terror training camps inside Pakistani territory. In its final pages, it demands that Pakistan hand over “conspirators” to face trial in India and comply with its promise to stop terrorist groups from functioning inside its territory. It was shared this week with diplomats from friendly nations; one described it as “comprehensive,” another as “convincing.”…

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India: Terrorism ‘State Policy’ for Pakistan Says PM

New Delhi, 6 Jan. (AKI) — Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh on Tuesday again levelled charges against Pakistan that it is using terrorism as a state policy. The “sophistication and military precision” of last November’s deadly Mumbai terror attack point to the support of some “official agencies” in Pakistan, Singh said. Pakistan has denied any involvement in the assault, which left 173 people dead and injured hundreds.

“Pakistan was whipping up war hysteria and the Mumbai attacks must have had support from some official agencies within Pakistan,” Singh (photo) told a security conference in New Delhi.

“The terrorist attack in Mumbai… was carried out by the Laskar-e-Toiba,” Singh said, referring to the outlawed Kashmiri separatist group that India has blamed for the attacks. LeT has denied involvement in the Mumbai assault.

Singh said foreigners had been targeted in the Mumbai attacks to stoke impressions of instability in India.

He acknowledged concerns over the ability of India’s security services to thwart such attacks.

“Clearly, there is a need to review the effectiveness of our set up for the collection of technical signal and human intelligence. The training and equipment provided to our security forces also requires a careful review,” he claimed.

He claimed terrorism in India “is largely sponsored from outside the country, mainly Pakistan, which has utilised terrorism as an instrument of state policy,” he said.

Pakistan on Monday received a dossier from India containing what it says is evidence that the Mumbai assault was launched by people with links to “elements” in Pakistan.

After talks the same day with US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher in Islamabad, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani repeated that it would punish any of its citizens if “credible” evidence was found of their involvement in the Mumbai attacks.

Boucher’s visit was aimed improving relations between India and Pakistan which have plummeted since the Mumbai attacks.

The US is worried that worsening ties with India may harm Islamabad’s military operations against Islamist militants in the country’s northwest.

Since Mumbai, Pakistan has already detained top LeT leaders. It has also outlawed a charity widely seen as a front for it.

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

Indonesia: Volunteers Offer to Fight Against Israel

Jakarta, 5 Jan. (AKI) — More than 4,000 Indonesians have offered to support Hamas and fight against Israel, a radical Islamist group has told Adnkronos International (AKI). The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) has been mobilising jihadists to support the ruling Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip against the current Israeli offensive.

“We started the list last Friday and more than 4,000 people registered to go and fight Israel,” Sobry Lubis, secretary-general of the FPI told AKI.

Sobry said the FPI wanted to send only a thousand jihadists and the group was considering the background of the volunteers. Among the criteria is a willingness to die as a martyr.

“We have a list of ten points that volunteers must endorse for them to be considered. One of the obligations is a willingness to be a martyr.”

Sobry did not provide details about finance for the mission, possible departure dates or the group’s itinerary.

The FPI is one of several Indonesian groups to have drawn up a recruitment list. Analysts have expressed doubts suggesting that several groups had sought to do something similar in the past but there was no proof that Indonesians had fought in the Middle East.

Nevertheless, many in Indonesia — the world’s largest Muslim country — feel strongly about the Palestinian issue. Thousands of people have protested in major cities throughout the archipelago against Israel’s offensive over the past ten days.

Jakarta has no diplomatic relations with Israel and the Indonesian government has promised 2 million dollars in humanitarian aid. The Indonesian military has also said it is ready to send troops to Gaza if the United Nations requested members to take part in a peace mission.

An Indonesian humanitarian contingent arrived in Egypt on Monday in a bid to organise a medical aid centre on the border with Gaza.

The FPI is a hardline Islamic group known for conducting annual raids targeting night clubs, bars and venues that failed to observe the holy month of Ramadan.

           — Hat tip: C. Cantoni[Return to headlines]

Indonesia: Ex Lawmaker Gets 8 Years for Graft

The Corruption Court appeared in no celebratory mood Monday, despite the holiday period, as it handed down its verdict to former legislator Al Amien Nur Nasution, sentencing him to eight years in prison for bribery and blackmail.

The panel of justices also ordered the United Development Party (PPP) politician to pay Rp 250 million (US$23,256) in fines or face an additional six months in prison.

The verdict was lower than the 15-year sentence, Rp 500 million fine and Rp 2.9 billion restitutions demanded by the prosecution.

“The defendant has been proven legally and convincingly guilty of violating article 11 and 12 (e) under the 1999 anticorruption law as demanded by the prosecutors in their subsidiary indictments,” presiding justice Edward Pattinasarani read the verdict Monday.

Al Amien — whose trial attracted the attention of gossip shows due to the involvement in the proceedings of his dangdut singer Kristina, who is filing for a divorce — was convicted of multiple charges, including bribery in a case centering on the development of a protected forest area in Banyuasin, South Sumatra, and Bintan, Riau.

He was also convicted of blackmail for his role in the procurement of a global positioning system, including GPS handhelds, and sanitation equipment for the Forestry Ministry.

The prosecutors had brought against him charges of bribery but the justices dismissed the allegations, saying Al Amien had not had the authority to influence a decision made by the House of Representatives Commission IV overseeing forestry and agricultural issues that was the focus of the charges.

“The defendant, as an in-dividual, could not have dominated the voting of among 50 other Commission members and he is not proven guilty of violating the bri-bery charge,” justice Hendra Yospin said.

The justice said the defendant’s vague testimonies during the trial had not aided his defense, but added that his polite behavior and previously clean track record had.

“He has also tainted the image of the House of Representatives and cheated the trust of the people,” Edward said.

“The defendant has never been punished before and he still has a family to be taken care of.

He is still young and we expect he can still improve himself.” Al Amien said he would appeal the verdict.

“I respect the verdict but I will continue to search for justice. I will appeal soon,” he added.

His lawyer, Sirra Prayuna, said he had not decided on a course of action for his client.

“I need to read the verdict first,” he said.

Chief prosecutor Suwarji said he would in the next seven days determine his next course of action against Al Amien.

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

Far East

Muslim Rebels Killed in Philippine Airstrike: Military

As many as 10 Muslim separatist guerrillas were killed in a pre-emptive air strike by the military in the southern Philippines on Tuesday, a military spokesman said.

An air force OV-10 bomber plane spotted about a hundred armed Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) members massing in Kalamansig town on the southern island of Mindanao and dropped a bomb on them, said Lieutenant Colonel Julieto Ando.

“They were planning to attack our soldiers so we launched the air offensive,” said Ando, adding that troops spotted about 10 bodies after the attack but were unable to recover them.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu confirmed that a military plane had attacked their forces but would not say if there were any casualties.

He denied the fighters had planned to attack military positions.

About 500 families were forced to flee the town because of the fighting, local officials in the area said.

The air strike was the latest in a series of skirmishes between the government and the 12,000-member MILF since large-scale fighting resumed in August after the Supreme Court suspended a draft accord intended to forge peace between the two sides.

More than 600,000 people were displaced in fighting that followed, while dozens of civilians, guerrillas and soldiers have been killed in continuing clashes.

           — Hat tip: Tuan Jim[Return to headlines]

Taiwan Not Impressed by Reported Chinese Plan to Withdraw Missiles

Taiwan said Sunday it would continue its arms build-up despite reports that China may cut the number of missiles it has targeting the island, in another sign of improving ties between the rivals.

The Hong Kong-based weekly Yazhou Zhoukan said in its latest issue that the Chinese authorities may reduce the number of ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan although there were protests from the military.

The report, which did not name its source, comes as tensions across the Taiwan Strait have been significantly eased since China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou took office in May.

“It would be our pleasure to see it, if realised,” Taiwan’s defence ministry spokeswoman Lisa Chi said, but she declined to specify the number of missiles China has stockpiled opposite the island.

Taiwan’s defence ministry had previously put the figure at more than 1,300.

“Even so, such a move would have a greater symbolic implication than a material significance, because it would not take long to redeploy such missiles whenever needed,” Chi said.

“We’ll continue strengthening our arms buildup and combat preparedness.”

China and Taiwan have been governed separately since the end of a civil war in 1949 but Beijing considers the island part of its territory and is determined to get it back, by force if necessary.

Chinese President Hu Jintao called Wednesday for the establishment of confidence building measures between the two sides in an address marking the 30th anniversary of a message from China to “compatriots in Taiwan” calling for peaceful reunification.

The two sides last month launched historic direct daily flights, postal and shipping services, in a move expected to boost trade ties.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

Somalia Leaders Race to Form Government, as Islamists Advance

By Peter Heinlein

Somalia’s transitional leadership is struggling to form a new government, following the resignation of former president Abdullahi Yusuf, and trying to prevent Islamist extremists from taking control as Ethiopian troops withdraw. Somalia’s two top leaders are on a whirlwind tour of East African capitals.

Somalia’s prime minister and acting president flew from Addis Ababa to Nairobi as they try to shore up their weak transitional government and prevent a security vacuum as Ethiopia withdraws the troops that helped keep them in power for the past two years.

In an airport interview after three days of talks with Ethiopian officials, Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein, widely known as Nur Adde, said lawmakers are faced with a tough choice.

“There are two options, one is to have the election within 30 days on the basis of the transitional charter, and at the same time there is this issue of Djibouti agreement which provides an enlargement of the parliament and a national unity government and election of the leadership,” he said. “So this is not yet finalized, it is up to the parliament to decide.”

Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin was at the airport to bid farewell to his guests. In a VOA interview, Seyoum said that as the current head of the East African regional grouping IGAD, he had urged Somalia’s leaders to put aside the Djibouti accord and immediately choose a new president.

“As IGAD we have pronounced ourselves that the charter must be respected in letter and spirit, because that is the only legal instrument that provides legitimacy to the transitional arrangement,” said Mesfin.

Seyoum spoke as Ethiopian troops are winding up a two-year effort to prop up the transitional administration in the face of a violent insurgency led by the Islamic extremist al-Shabab group. Many observers fear al-Shabab could capture the capital, Mogadishu and impose Sharia law in a country that has been ungovernable for 17 years.

But the Ethiopian minister said reports of al-Shabab’s strength have been greatly exaggerated.

“I assure you al-Shabab is running from left to right, simply because the government has not established proper local administrations throughout Somalia,” said Seyoum. “So al-Shabab, even 10 armed people can create havoc throughout the country because the government has not been able to extend its infrastructure and administration in the rest of the country, so that is a limitation.”

Somalia’s Speaker of Parliament and acting President Sheikh Adan Muhammad Nur, known as Sheiikh Madobe, admitted fending off the Islamist extremists would be a challenge for government troops. Speaking to VOA in Somali, he said it is time for the international community to make good on past pledges of support.

“There are extremist groups like al-Shabab and it is obvious that they are a challenge. We would not have a vacuum due to the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops,” he said. “We call upon the international community and our African brothers to be true to their word and bring in the forces they promised, and of course the TFG will have their own forces to fill the gap.”

The two Somali leaders will be in Nairobi for the next few days for talks with representatives of the international community on ways of augmenting the 3,400-strong African Union peacekeeping force.

But Speaker Madobe acknowledged the U.N. Security Council has been cool to repeated pleas for a more robust international force.

East African diplomats, meanwhile, are predicting an intense struggle for control of the transitional government among Somalia’s clan-based factions. Several senior figures are said to be jockeying for the post of president, including the current prime minister, Nur Adde, and his predecessor, Mohammed Ali Gedi, who was ousted in a power struggle with former president Yusuf last year.

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Latin America

Venezuela Expels Israeli Ambassador to Protest Gaza Offensive

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela ordered Israel’s ambassador expelled from the country on Tuesday in protest over the Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

The decision by President Hugo Chavez to kick out the diplomat appeared to be the strongest reaction yet to the Gaza offensive by any country with ties to Israel.

The Venezuelan Foreign Ministry announced the move in a statement, saying it “has decided to expel the Israeli ambassador and part of the Israeli Embassy’s personnel.”

The Israeli offensive in Gaza has killed nearly 600 Palestinians in ground and air strikes. Israel launched the attacks Dec. 27 to stop Palestinian militants from firing rockets into southern Israel.

“How far will this barbarism go?” Chavez asked on state television before the ambassador’s expulsion was announced. “The president of Israel should be taken before an international court together with the president of the United States, if the world had any conscience.”

Venezuela’s Foreign Ministry said its U.N. mission is joining with other countries in demanding the Security Council “apply urgent and necessary measures to stop this invasion.”

Israeli diplomats could not immediately be reached for comment. The embassy in Caracas was closed, and it was unclear how the Israeli government would respond.

           — Hat tip: Abu Elvis[Return to headlines]

Culture Wars

Prop 8 Protestors Vandalize Church

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) — Vandals spray-painted swastikas on a Catholic church in San Francisco’s Castro District Saturday night.

It appears the vandals are upset about the Catholic church’s support of Proposition 8, which made same-sex marriage illegal in California.

But, the Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church on Diamond Street is gay-friendly. Many parishioners voted against Prop 8 and they are upset their church was targeted.

           — Hat tip: JD[Return to headlines]


Terrorists Could Use ‘Insect-Based’ Biological Weapon

Terrorists would find it “relatively easy” to launch a devastating attack using swarms of insects to spread a deadly disease, an academic has warned.

Jeffrey Lockwood, professor of entomology at Wyoming University and author of Six-legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War, said such Rift Valley Fever or other diseases could be transported into a country by a terrorist with a suitcase.

           — Hat tip: JD[Return to headlines]

The West’s Cultural Continuity: Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel

by Thomas F. Bertonneau

Sylvain Gouguenheim’s “Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne” reviewed by Thomas F. Bertonneau

Long before the late Eduard Said invented “Orientalism” to exalt Arab culture and Islamic society at the expense of the West, bien-pensants like Voltaire inclined to express their rebellion against the dwindling vestiges of Christendom by representing Europeans as bigots or clowns and raising up exotic foreigners — Voltaire himself wrote about Turks and Persians of the Muslim fold — to be the fonts of wisdom and models of refined life in their tracts and stories. The sultan and dervish look with amused tolerance on the gaucheries of the European rubes. The rubes swing their elbows and knock over the pottery. It was the Eighteenth-Century philosophes and illuminati who coined the pejorative term Dark Ages to refer to the centuries immediately following the collapse of the Roman imperial administration in the West under pressure of the Gothic assertions of the Fifth Century. Liberal discourse often casually extends the same term to apply it to all of medieval European civilization up to the Renaissance. Specialist historians have, however, long since demonstrated that no such absolute discontinuity as the term Dark Ages insinuates ever existed, which means that the Enlightenment version of history is at least partly wrong. And yet the usual story retains its currency, as an item in a kind of liberal folklore.

Part of that story is the motif of the Islamic middleman role in the transmission of classical knowledge to Christendom. According to this motif, the West in the Eleventh Century possessed no first-hand knowledge of the Greek and precious little of the Roman classics. Fortunately (so the story goes) the Muslims had translated Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, knew all about them, and bestowed the gift of their lore on the benighted monks of Italy and France. The benefactors under this notion behave suavely and generously, while the beneficiaries are — to paraphrase a line from a David Lean film — ignorant, barbarous, and cruel.

In the spasm of western Islamophilia that followed the terrorist attacks of 2001, the myth of medieval Muslim learnedness and medieval European illiteracy gained strong new power for the Left whose acolytes have disseminated it with vigor from their ensconcement in the colleges and universities. Facts might have dispelled the myth had anyone cared to notice them. For one thing, Europeans never lost contact with the Byzantine Greeks, who blithely went on being scholarly classicists until Mehmet II bloodily vanquished Constantinople in 1453, slaughtering the literate elites and forcing the peasantry to submit to Allah. The Eighth-Century English church-chronicler Bede reports in his Ecclesiastical History that one of the first bishops of Canterbury, Theodore, was an educated Greek. The Twelfth-Century Icelandic myth-collector Snorri Sturlusson suggests in his Edda that the Norse gods were actually Trojan heroes escaping, like Aeneas, from Agamemnon’s destruction of their city — an interpretation that implies his knowledge of the theory called Euhemerism. Eighth-Century England and twelfth-Century Iceland were remote places, but, in Bede and Snorri, one can attest links to the classical tradition.

Facts like these could easily be multiplied — and a man who multiplies them with muscularity and clear-sightedness is the French historian Sylvain Gouguenheim, who documents them in his remarkable new book Aristote au Mont Saint-Michel: Les raciness grecques de l’Europe Chrétienne (Seuil, 2008). [Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel: the Greek Roots of Christian Europe.] The book is not as yet translated, but it deserves to be known to Anglophone audiences because it brings important truths to many a contemporary conversation…

           — Hat tip: AA[Return to headlines]