Monday, February 27, 2017

US and Canadian stock indices set records for 3rd consecutive session

(February 15) There may be mayhem in the political news market with Trump facing all sorts of criticism about some of his administration members' relationship with Russia. There are also constant complaints about the uncertainty of his policies.

Given all this furore and uncertainty, one would expect investors would be selling due to uncertainty and heightened risk. The markets should be plunging.. However, for three days in a row now the major S&P/ TSX Toronto index has hit new highs along with the three major indices in the US. Are there headlines and roars of approval from the press? No! It is barely worth mentioning. Even the business press appears not to bother headlining what one would think would be historic events for the business world. I could find nothing on You Tube about todays markets!
The S&P/TSX actually rose for the seventh straight day now. It was led by gains in the financial services sector after there was strong economic data from both the US and Canada. The TSX index rose 58.92 points to 15,844.95 or 0.37 percent. Michael Sprung of Sprung Investment Management said: "People are trying to run with the herd and I guess the big danger is that when you run with the herd you might get trampled at some point. One's got to be very conscious of valuation and what they're paying for securities." Manufacturing sales rose in December for the second consecutive month. US retail sales and inflation both rose in January sending bond yields higher.
Data showed Canada's manufacturing sales jumped in December for the second month in a row, and that U.S. inflation and retail sales climbed in January, helping to push bond yields higher. The higher yields reduce the value of insurance companies' liabilities and increase the interest margins for banks. Since the election of Trump on November 8 last year the financial sector has gained more than 14 percent. The TSX index has rallied more than 37 per cent since a three-year low hit in January last year.
Energy shares rose by 0.7 percent in spite of US oil stockpiles reaching record highs. However, US crude prices dropped by nine cents a barrel. The telecoms group rose a substantial 1.8 percent as Manitoba Telecom Services had its sale to Bell Canada Enterprises approved. Gold prices rose.
In the US the S&P 500 also notched up its fifth consecutive session of new highs. Investors are expecting that Trump will soon announce a cut in corporate taxes. There were larger than expected retail sales and consumer prices rose. Corporate earnings growth was the strongest in two years last quarter. At a recent meeting with top executives of US retailers, Trump promised that he would substantially lower taxes and simplify the tax code. He has also promised fewer regulations.
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen indicated that the US Federal Reserve was likely to raise interest rates at an upcoming policy meeting. The odds for a Fed rate hike in March rose to 42 percent from 30 percent two days ago. The inflation rate for January was 2.5 percent. Brad McMillan of Commonwealth Financial Network said: "A year ago, if Janet Yellen had come out with the statement she made, the market would have freaked out because the fundamentals were very soft. Now, if the Fed raises rates it's not going to shake the world because people are confident enough about the fundamentals." Michael Shaoul CEO of Marketfield Asset Management said: “The January US CPI report is a strong set of data which justifies the belief that reflationary forces have been building within the US economy in recent months well in advance of any legislative program being enacted by the new administration.”
US financials rose 0.74 on the expectation of higher interest rates. The Dow Jones Index (DJI) rose 0.52 percent to 20,611.86. The S&P 500 had about the same percentage gain at 0.50 to reach 2,349.25. The Nasdaq added 0.64 percent to 5,819.44. Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies rose approximately 7.2 percent, the best expansion since the third quarter of 2014. For the first quarter this year, earnings are expected to grow even more by 10.7 percent.
Investors are obviously confident that the economy can stand higher interest rates. They are also expecting not only lower taxes and less regulation from Trump but also stimulus spending on infrastructure. There was a selloff in Treasuries while stocks reached new highs. The global MSCI index also closed at a record for the first time since may 2015.
Many in the Trump administration have connections to Wall Street. The US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is an ex-partner in Goldman Sachs. Mnuchin was confirmed on Monday. Mnuchin was finance director of Trump's presidential campaign. At one time Mnuchin also ran OneWest Bank from 2009 to 2015 which became known as a Foreclosure Machine due to its actions during the financial crisis. Part of his job is imposing sanctions but he said nothing about removing sanctions from Russia. Mnuchin said: "Our current sanctions programs are in place, and I would say sanctions are an important tool that we will continue to look at for various different countries … the existing policies are in place." Mnuchin claimed that Trump's plan to reduce corporate and income taxes would stimulate economic growth and enable the government to increase revenue to reduce the debt. He also wanted to increase the debt ceiling as soon as possible.
The investment community must feel that the Trump administration as a whole is pro-business. While some Trump policies may send parts of the liberal establishment into a tizzy, the investment community as a whole appears to find the Trump administration overall to be friendly toward Wall Street and corporate profits. Perhaps, as Nouriel Roubini predicts the stock market honeymoon with Trump will soon be over but as of now the markets continue up even while the political situation moves from crisis to crisis, at least if you believe the media.


Cairo meeting fails to come up with solution to Libya crisis

Egyptian government attempts to mediate a peace deal between Presidency Council (PC) leader of the UN-brokered Government of National Accord (GNA) Faiez Serraj and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA) failed.

(February 15) The LNA is the armed forces associated with the rival government to the GNA the Al-Thinni House of Representatives (HoR) government. Haftar refused to meet with Serraj and Serraj flew back to Tripoli from Cairo. Mohamed Samir spokesperson for the Egyptian Army said that the two did agree that there should be parliamentary elections and a presidential election in February of 2018. However, the Libya Herald claims it was told by a source that although Serraj agreed to the proposal, Haftar did not. Ageela Saleh, said only that he would study the idea. Apparently the Egyptian spokesperson was manufacturing fake news!
Serraj and Haftar were supposed to join in a meeting Tuesday that would have been chaired by Egyptian president Abdel el-Sisi. Serraj waited patiently all day in his hotel while Egyptian intelligence officials pressured Haftar to accept a compromise. Obviously they did not succeed. Haftar refused to accept Serraj's plan for a three-man PC rather than the present nine. He also rejected the proposal to have the position of commander-in-chief to be held jointly by the head of the PC, the HoR, and the State Council plus a supreme military council that would include Haftar. Haftar wants to remain head of the armed forces of any new GNA.
Both sides agreed to set up a committee of 15 members each from the HoR and the State Council of the GNA to consider changes to the Libya Political Agreement(LPA). There is no mention of a meeting for the HoR to vote confidence in the GNA as is required by the LPA. Some time ago the UN envoy Martin Kobler insisted that the LPA can be amended only after the HoR accepts it as it is and votes confidence in the GNA. The Herald suggests that the failure could strain relations between Haftar and Egyptian authorities. I doubt that there will be any significant changes in Egypt's support for Haftar as Egypt sees it as in its interest to continue support for him. He also has Russia and the UAE behind him. Haftar has been consistent in his demands and his attitude towards the peace process. He thinks there is a military solution and has been constantly trying to strengthen his power as the GNA appears to weaken and even faces an attempted coup by the PM of the former Salvation Government that so far the GNA has failed to put down.
In an interview with Arabic newspaper, Serraj explained that there was no meeting between himself and Haftar in Cairo because Haftar insisted that Ageela Saleh take part in the talks, but Saleh had refused to meet Serraj. Saleh said: "The intransigence of each party has resulted in the stagnation of a political solution and has increased the suffering of the Libyan people." Saleh is already sanctioned by the US and EU for allegedly blocking a settlement of the Libyan crisis. In my opinion, Saleh simply follows whatever Haftar wants. Nevertheless, Serraj thought that dialogue would eventually find a way out and that he would announce a new way forward in the next few days. At the same time, Serraj said he doubted that any government formed in the present circumstances could gain HoR approval or public confidence. Given this assessment, it is hard to see how there can be any successful way forward.
Haftar and Saleh remain in Cairo in talks with Egyptian authorities. The former ambassador to the UAE and several boycotting members of the HoR have also been involved in talks. Tarek al-Jaroushi a member of the HoR who attended the talks said: "Seraj must return to the legitimacy of (the eastern) parliament if he really is looking for a Government of National Accord that secures the rights of all Libyans." The GNA does recognize the legitimacy of the HoR but it becomes the legislature of the GNA only once it approves the GNA.
The HoR last rejected the GNA on August 22 last year. Almost six months later there seems little progress in having the HoR and its armed forces join with the GNA. It remains to be seen if US president Trump will involve the US in this crisis.


Saturday, February 25, 2017

US intelligence community may be "out to get" Trump

Dennis Kucinich, a former presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, in an interview on Fox Business Network claimed that the US intelligence community was responsible for leaking information that led to the resignation of Mike Flynn.

Flynn was Trump's national security advisor. The leaked information showed that Flynn had discussed in secret with Russian officials sanctions imposed by the US. The discussing took place before Trump's inauguration. Kucinich argues that the goal was to worsen the relationship between Russian and the US. Trump has argued for improving US relations with Russia. Kucinich said:
“What’s at the core of this is an effort by some in the intelligence community to upend any positive relationship between the U.S. and Russia. And I tell you there's a marching band and Chowder Society out there. There's gold in them there hills. There are people trying to separate the U.S. and Russia so that this military industrial intel axis can cash in.”Kucinich even added that there are those within the intelligence community that are willing to separate the US and Russia in a way that could reignite the Cold War. It seems quite clear that the Cold War has been reignited ages ago especially since events in the Ukraine.
Investigative journalist Gareth Porter said:“Flynn is a figure with a dark side, but hype regarding an ‘illegal’ meeting with Russian ambassador never made sense. I’m glad he’s gone, but the leaks hinting Logan Act treason should be recognized as ‘intelligence community’ political manipulation. The Logan Act is a dead letter and even if it were not, the facts of this case don’t support its application. If it would apply to anything recent, the Logan Act would apply to the letter organized by Tom Cotton regarding Iran in 2015, but hawk Cotton never paid any price.”Glenn Greenwald noted in a tweet: “In January, Chuck Schumer warned Trump not to criticize the intelligence community because of all the ways they have to destroy people.” Schumer Democratic minority leader in the senate, said: “Let me tell you, you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.”
Another article claims:Make no mistake: we have just witnessed an operation by members of the CIA to take out a high official of our own government. An agency widely believed to have brought down democratically elected governments overseas is now practicing the same dark arts in domestic American politics. Almost certainly, its new head, Mike Pompeo, was not consulted.
You can observe psychological warfare being carried out in the media. While Trump media supporters talk about the heinous nature of the fact there were leaks, the liberal anti-Trump media will howl about the heinous conversations between Trump officials and the Russians. Those who broke the law and leaked the documents are heroes for revealing the close relation of some Trump officials with Russia. Of course a different approach is taken to leaks by Edward Snowden which revealed CIA illegal spying. He is supposed to come back to the US and be tried. David Goldman writes:… the CIA has gone out of its way to sandbag Flynn at the National Security Council. As Politico reports: "On Friday, one of Flynn's closest deputies on the NSC, senior director for Africa Robin Townley, was informed that the Central Intelligence Agency had rejected his request for an elite security clearance required for service on the NSC, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation." Townley held precisely the same security clearance at the Department of Defense for seventeen years, yet he was blackballed without explanation. At DoD, Townley had a stellar reputation as a Middle East and Africa expert, and the denial of his clearance is hard to explain except as bureaucratic backstabbing.
Flynn had often criticized the CIA revealing intelligence and operational failures.
We can expect more and more revelations to back the narrative that not just Flynn but Trump have had treasonous dealings with Russia and Putin. The rush of establishment papers to print the latest revelations has little to do with news but everything to do with creating even more disapproval of Trump in the public mind. While there may be a degree of truth in the revelations about Flynn the leaking of the information is a sign that the intelligence community is attempting to control the political situation in the United States. They have plenty of experience overthrowing governments.
However, other parts of the deep state such as many in the Wall Street establishment may be hesitant to have the Trump administration go. It is after all a very pro-business government. Even today US stock markets again reached new highs. There are many members of the Wall Street elite within the administration. No doubt they hope that an accommodation can be reached between Trump and his administration with the intelligence community. However, it may be that Mike Pence is being prepared to replace Donald Trump.

Eleven US Republican Senators urge Trump to keep Guantanao operating

Barack Obama pledged to close Guantanamo during his campaign for president but when he left office on January 20th he still had not been able to keep his pledge.

It became clear as Obama's term neared its end that he was not going to be able to keep his promise to close the base or transfer out all the inmates. As a National Review article pointed out: " The president and his team have expressed frustration that it is now impossible for them to fulfill his 2008 campaign pledge to close detainee operations at Gitmo, which he backed with one of the very first executive orders he signed upon taking office."
Fox News reported last November that Trump had said as long ago as last April "we're gonna load it up with some bad dudes believe me. We're gonna load it up." He also said that he would support trying US citizens accused of terrorism at the base. In order to do that he would need to change federal law and he could still face constitutional challenges.
Now eleven Republican senators are encouraging Trump not just to keep Guantanamo open but to send any new captives to the facility. Also they urge that the review board that can clear prisoners for release be suspended. In a letter to Trump released on Monday the group said: “As you consider policies and actions that may affect [Guantanamo], we want to express our support for maintaining and expanding the utilization of the detention facility during your administration by detaining current and future enemy combatants who pose a threat to our national security.” All eleven senators who signed the letter had been strong opponents of Obama's attempts to close the prison.
Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas organized the letter but it was co-signed by 10 other senators: Roby Blunt (Missouri); Tom Cotton (Arkansas); Jame Inhofe (Oklahoma); John Boozman (Arkansas); Tim Scott (South Carolina): Thom Tillis (North Carolina); Cory Gardner (Colorado); Pat Roberts (Kansas); Steve Daines (Montana) and Orin Hatch (Utah). Since Trump was inaugurated, drafts of an executive order have been circulating. The drafts order that Guantanamo be kept open, and calls for ISIS captives to be sent there. However, Trump has yet to sign an order.
Referring to Guantanamo by its military acronym GTMO the senators' letter said: “During your campaign and transition to the presidency, we were pleased to learn you share our perspective that enemy combatants affiliated with ISIS, al Qaeda, the Taliban and other foreign terrorist organization captured during conflicts involving our armed forces should be housed at GTMO.” The letter also demanded that the Period Review Board that decided whether detainees should be transferred should be immediately suspended as well as the transfers of five detainees that the board already cleared for transfer. The letter pointed out that the director of national intelligence's assessment was that 30 percent of detainees released have been confirmed to be or are suspected of being re-engaged as terrorists. They claimed that the board process was "dangerously flawed by subjectivity and broad interpretation". The letter concluded: “As we continue to engage in conflicts and combat operations around the world, the critical mission the GTMO serves in detaining terrorists who threaten the lives of not only our servicemen, but all American, cannot be stressed enough.”


Toronto and New York markets set new records again

(February 13) The Toronto stock market rose again today after setting records on Friday. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with U.S. president Donald Trump. They both vowed to strengthen economic ties.

The two issued a joint statement after the meeting saying that the two countries have similar priorities and this included the need to bolster trade. On the issue of modifying NAFTA, Trump said that his bigger concern was Mexico and he was only aiming to "tweak" parts relating to Canada in order to better facilitate cross-border trade. There is more than $2 billion in trade between the two countries each day.
Canadian markets strategist Craig Fehr said that the two leaders appeared to be on the same page on a number of issues including the mutual advantages of increasing trade between the two countries. Fehr said:"For those looking at it from a Canadian perspective, this meeting can perhaps be viewed as a sigh of relief — particularly when you compare it to what the rhetoric was on the (Trump) campaign trail where it was much more positioned as NAFTA being unilaterally a bad deal. This is a confirmation that campaign rhetoric was just that, and that the actual execution of any trade agreements or renegotiations are going to be far less harsh than what the original assertions may have suggested."
The Toronto stock market index the S&P/TSX set another record today following on a record close on Friday. It was up at the close to 15,756.58, up 27.46 points. Gains in metals are retail stocks more than offset some losses in the gold and energy sectors. New records were set for the third consecutive session in New York indices. The Dow Jones industrial average was up 142.79 points at 20,412.16, the S&P 500 was ahead 12.15 points at 2,328.25, and the Nasdaq composite rose 29.83 points to 5,763.96.
Fehr said that although Trump's meeting with Trudeau appeared to be one of the most successful he has had with leaders, it is still too early to know what will happen with NAFTA renegotiation:"It is too early. The press conference and the meeting is the first step in a long process of ultimately reaching trade deals over long periods of time that will be beneficial to both countries. We can't take today's meeting as the end point. It's probably more of a starting point, but it's a pretty good start in terms of setting the right tone for what a mutually beneficial relationship can and should be moving forward."Both oil and gas prices fell as did gold.
There are signs that might worry Trump. Many countries with large treasury holdings such as Japan are getting rid of them in large quantities. Supposedly, the world's safest debt market is being seen as less of a sure thing.
An article in BNN surveys CEO's of different companies on the situation. Paul Colborn, President and CEO of Surge Energy had no concern about a possible tax on goods coming from Canada: “I think [a possible border tax] is a real red herring. When I look at it, I think why would they approve the [Keystone XL] pipeline and tie in the biggest oil reserves on the planet for security of supply reasons? It makes no sense to me that there would be a big border tax.”
One company CEO Tom Leighton of Akamai Technology reacted negatively to Trump's travel ban: “The travel ban really runs counter to our culture at Akamai. Diversity and inclusion are very important to us. It makes it hard – or impossible – for some of our employees to travel, causing a lot of concern for our employee base and also our customers.”
Michael Decter president and CEO of LDIC Inc. that manages investment portfolios, thought that lower oil prices had produced a more disciplined energy sector and that Trump policies could send stock markets higher: "[Trump] has injected some unusual uncertainty into the business. But I often say to clients, many of whom as Canadians are not very keen on Mr. Trump as President of the United States, is that he may not be good for the world but he may be very good for the stock market and your portfolio. He is a very strongly pro-business president, he has a very pro-business cabinet." Decter held positions in both the Manitoba and Ontario New Democratic Party(NDP) governments.


NASA employee a natural-born US citizen has phone confiscated with demands for access PIN code at Houston airport

Sidd Bikkannavar a natural-born American citizen claims he was detained on January 30 at Houston International Airport. This was just days after new president Donald Trump signed an executive order banning citizens from seven countries.

Bikkannavar works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His hobby is driving solar-powered cars and he was just returning from a race in Patagonia Chile. Bikkanavar did not expect to have any trouble going through customs. He not only holds a U.S. passport but he is also part of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that allows pre-approved low-risk travelers expedited clearance. Instead of providing Bikkanavar expedited clearance they pulled him aside. They demanded that he turn over his work issued phone and access PIN code.
In response for a request to comment on the case, a CBP spokesperson said in an email:"U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) strives to treat all travelers with respect and in a professional manner, while maintaining the focus of our mission to protect all citizens and visitors in the United States. Due to privacy laws, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is prohibited from discussing specific cases or personally identifiable information regarding the arrival or departure of international travelers. CBP officers are charged with enforcing not only immigration and customs laws, but they also enforce over 400 laws for 40 other agencies."Bikkanavar eventually turned his phone over to the CBP agents and was then sent to a holding area. Bikkanavar finally had his phone returned and was allowed to continue his journey back home.
The Jet Propulsion Lab issued him a new phone and are "running forensics" to determine if the CPB had taken any data or installed a device according to a NASA engineer. February 3rd a judge in Seattle suspended the order and an appeals court in San Francisco unanimously upheld the ruling. Between January 27 and February 1st at least 940 people were prevented from boarding a plane.
Other scientists have also run into trouble because of the Trump ban. Samira Samimi a University of Calgary doctoral student, was born in Iran but is a permanent resident of Canada. She was to go to Greenland to repair drained batteries that are used for equipment that is used to project future sea levels. She was to get a ride on a US Air FOrce C-130 Hercules leaving from upstate New York. Samimi said in an interview:“I came so far, from the other side of the planet, to be free, to not fight for my rights anymore. And this is like a nightmare. I don’t understand how in the 21st century one man can stop this science, stop it, just like that, so easily without even thinking. I’m just sick in my stomach. I don’t want to accept that I’m not going. I can’t do that. I just can’t. This is so stupid, this so doesn’t make sense."Alternative options would cost her as much as $100,000 in new funding. With the recent suspension of the order perhaps she will be able to go after all.
The International Council for Science advocates planners of scientific meetings to ensure that participation of scientists is free from discrimination of any kind. The Council issued as statement saying: "The Council believes that the complex problems of our world can only be solved through international dialogue, collaboration and the sharing and exchange of ideas and research findings." Canadian scientists are organizing to boycott conferences in the US as long as the ban is in force as discussed in a recent DJ article.


Friday, February 24, 2017

Joint US Afghan raid kills 22 civilians in Afghanistan

Both Afghan officials and local residents claim that 22 civilians mostly women and children were killed in a joint U.S., Afghan operation carried out in the southern province of Helmand.
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Jabar Qahraman , the presidential envoy for security in Helmand Province, said the raid against the Taliban killed 13 people from one family and nine from another. Qaraman said: “We are saddened to hear the news of civilians being killed. When the Taliban use civilians as their shield against security forces, such incidents occur.” The United States has yet to admit that there were civilian casualties:
U.S. Navy Cpt. Bill Salvin, a military spokesman, said “we are working diligently to determine whether civilians were killed or injured as a result of U.S. airstrikes” carried out to support Afghan forces in and around Sangin. The investigation is “continuing and has not reached any conclusions,” he added in a written statement.The U.S. does not usually admit at first that there were civilian casualties and does so only when evidence make the casualties difficult to deny. The UN mission in Afghanistan was less cautious as it expressed grave concern after initial inquiries showed the international forces killed at least 18 civilians nearly all women and children. Kareem Atal, the head of the provincial council in Helmand, said a man, two women and two children who were wounded in the raid have been brought to Lashkar Gah the capital for treatment.
Hameed Gul a local resident who lost nine members of his family claimed it was all lies that they were attacking the Taliban he told the Associated Press. Helmand province has seen several months of heavy fighting with the Taliban. The Taliban have targeted the capital Lashkar Gah several times with suicide attacks. On Saturday, a suicide bomber targeting soldiers killed at least seven people.
General Nicholson the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan claims that the US needs to commit several thousand more troops to Afghanistan to break what he calls the stalemate there. It is questionable that there is a stalemate as the Taliban appear to be gaining ground. Nicholson told the Senate armed services committee that there was a "shortfall of a few thousand".
About 8,600 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan since the combat mission ended. The situation is now complicated by the rise of the Islamic State(IS) in Afghanistan. A recent attack claimed by the IS near the supreme court in Kabul killed at least 20 people.
So far, U.S. president Trump has had little to say about Afghanistan but on Thursday he spoke by telephone with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani. Trump was said to have stressed the importance of the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership. A White House statement also said:  “The leaders discussed opportunities to strengthen the bilateral relationship in areas such as security, counter-terrorism co-operation and economic development.” When Nicholson was asked if Trump would be more willing than Obama to take into account the security situation in Afghanistan in deciding on troop commitment General Nicholson replied: “Yes, sir.” The general also suggested that US defense secretary James Mattis might visit Afghanistan in coming weeks.
General Nicholson in written testimony also criticized Russia whom he claimed was strengthening the Taliban and undermining NATO. In contrast, recent remarks by former president Karzai criticize the U.S. and claim that relations of Afghanistan with big powers and neighbors were better while he was president.According to Karzai, there was a thaw in the relations between world powers in Afghanistan when he was serving as president. But now, the ties between these countries are deteriorating.“I told President (Vladimir) Putin that I have worries about Afghanistan, the way the United States and the western allies are conducting the war on terror is not leading us to decrease extremism in our region or in Afghanistan, in fact we see rising extremism in Afghanistan in spite of the massive sacrifices and loss of resources,” said Karzai.There appears no sign so far that Trump is doing anything to repay Russia for its support. If Trump commits more U.S. troops to Afghanistan he will not be keeping his campaign promises not to get the U.S. involved in costly wars but will be following Republican and Democratic hawks in dragging the U.S. even deeper into the conflict once again.


Clashes break out between rival militias in Tripoli

(Febbruary 12) There were clashes between the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade (TRB) led by Haithem Tajouri and a group of mostly Misratan fighters based in Tripoli commanded by Mahmud Baiyu who goes by the name Sharikan.

The Libya Herald reports that there were clashes between the two groups on Saturday in a southern part of Tripoli in the suburbs of Wadi Rabih, Ain Zara, Khala Al-Furjan, and Salahedeen. The clashes involved heavy weapons and tapered off only in the evening.
Locals claim that Sharikan moved to take a number of positions in Wadi Rabih that were held by the rival TRB. In fact it appears to be a turf war among rival militias. Sharikan was successful in the Khala Al-Furjan area. Sharikan is an ally of the Libyan National Guard formed just recently from brigades that are mostly but not all from Misrata. The group appears to be supportive of Khalifa Ghwell who was PM of the former Salvation Government and mounted a coup attempt some time ago. He has headquarters in the Rixos hotel complex. The group is discussed in a recent DJ article. Vehicle convoys of the Guards have entered Tripoli. Not surprisingly, the group is not welcomed by the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) or it Presidency Council (PC). A recent tweet says: "PC statement on National Guard " Outlaws and not Legitimate " "
The Herald reports:Today’s clashes mainly took place along the Wadi Rabih highway linking Swani and airport road in the southwest with Tajoura to the northeast of Tripoli. Sharikan’s area of influence extends from Swani and airport roads to the headquarters of the Man Made River complex at Wadi Rabih which he using currently as one of his bases. Tajouri’s zone extends from Tajoura down to the junction on the Wadi Rabih highroad leading to Ain Zara. The latter is also under Tajouri’s control.
The TRB has been involved in clashes before. On December 1st it clashed with and defeated an armed group associated with the Interior Ministry:The brigade said the reason of the attack is that the armed force was involved in murders, banditry, kidnap and smuggling the illegal immigrants despite the fact that the armed group is part of the Central Security Department of the Interior Ministry.
Just back on January 23rd, the TRB had warned that Tripoli could not bear further armed conflict. Tajouri's TRB is said to be the most powerful militia in Tripoli. At the time the TRB said the political process based on the Libya Political Agreement (LPA) is irreplaceable. However, there appears to have been no sign of much progress since the eastern-based House of Representatives (HoR) rejected the UN brokered Government of National Accord(GNA) on August 22 last year. On its media page the TRB wrote: “We demand everybody keep Tripoli away from their struggle, as its residents cannot bear any new armed conflict inside the city. We announce, as Tripolitans, that we have never assigned anyone to represent us at talks and we confirm that anyone who attempts to act in such a way is just a liar.” The group appears to want to retain a degree of independence from the UN-brokered GNA while at the same time expressing support for the LPA which spawned the GNA. With the new Libyan National Guard entering Tripoli in force and having a number of militia linked with it there is a grave danger of an outright war between groups. Khalifa Haftar and his eastern-based Libyan National Army would no doubt be quite pleased to see his opponents at each others throats.

Veteran's support group raises over $200,000 to support Standing Rock pipeline demonstrators

Veteran's Stand, a military veteran's organization has collected $213,500 to send supplies to the Standing Rock Native American reservation in North Dakota as part of a renewed campaign against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

The pipeline will cost $3.7 billion and run through four states. Critics claim it threatens the water supply of millions of people. The group wrote on Facebook: "We have continued to stay in contact with indigenous and camp leadership and have identified several areas where the Veterans Stand network can continue to serve the needs of the camp and local community."
Michael Woods, founder of the group said to CNN that it was unlikely the group will send a large group of protesters as they have done in the past. He said the group did not want to do anything aggressive in response but wanted to give people a platform. The secretary of communications of the group, Anthony Diggs, spent a week at the Standing Rock Reservation meeting with camp leaders arranging to send supplies and organize volunteers. Last year veterans raised more than $1.5 million to support protests.
The protesters thought they had won the battle when in December then-president Obama ordered the US Army Corps of Engineers to look at ways to reroute the pipeline. Within 4 days of taking office new president Donald Trump signed an executive order to "get the pipeline built" and also restarted the process on the Keystone XL pipeline. Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) the company building the pipeline said that work was beginning immediately and was expected to be completed in about 83 days.
A number of veterans are already returning to Standing Rock and have said they are ready to shield indigenous activists from attacks by an increasingly militarized police force. A number of veterans have already arrived at Cannon Ball North Dakota or are en route after hearing the news that Trump had allowed ETP to drill under the MIssouri river.
The presence of many veterans may make it more difficult for police to remove hundreds of activists who remain camped near the construction site and some hope that their presence will limit the use of excessive force by police. Elizabeth Williams, a 34-year-old Air Force veteran who arrived at Standing Rock late Friday said: “We are prepared to put our bodies between Native elders and a privatized military force. We’ve stood in the face of fire before. We feel a responsibility to use the skills we have.” There are wide differences as to how many veterans will show up. Some organizers estimate a few dozen are on their way but other activists are pledging that hundreds will appear in the coming weeks. In December it was estimated almost 1,000 had taken part in protests before Obama announced the government was denying a key permit. Some critics claimed the veterans were not well organized and not prepared to camp during the harsh winter conditions. Others complained that they did not follow directions of the aboriginals leading the movement.
Matthew Crane, a navy veteran who is helping coordinate a return group said that his group has vowed to be self-sufficient, and help the activists, who call themselves the "water protectors". He said the group intend to provide cleanup efforts, kitchen duties, medical support and even protection from the police if needed. Crane said: “This is a humanitarian issue. We’re not going to stand by and let anybody get hurt.” Jake Pogue, a 32-year-old marine veteran said as he helped organize a vets camp area: “We’re not coming as fighters, but as protectors. Our role in that situation would be to simply form a barrier between water protectors and the police force and try to take some of that abuse for them.”
Dan Luker, 66 year old Vietnam vet from Boston, who visited Standing Rock in December was returning. He said that for many vets, helping the water protectors was "healing". Luker said: “This is the right war, right side. Finally, it’s the US military coming on to Sioux land to help, for the first time in history, instead of coming on to Sioux land to kill natives.” LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, founder of the Sacred Stone camp where Luker and others were setting up their own camp said that she welcomed the return of the vets. Allard said: “The veterans are going to make sure everything is safe and sound. The people on the ground have no protection.”
The protests have seen many arrested. Since last fall police have made roughly 700 arrests. Company private guards and police have been accused of using violent tactics. They have deployed water cannons in freezing weather, mace, rubber bullets, teargas, pepper spray and other less than lethal weapons.


Thursday, February 23, 2017

Strange Dutch sculpture creature a big hit in Russia

Margriet van Breevoort who created the sculpture of an odd creature at the Leiden University Medical Center was surprised when her creation won the hearts of Russian Internet users.
The sculpture has been at the Leiden University Medical Center since Spring last year. Breevort called the sculpture "Homunculus Loxodontus" but when the photo of the creature spread to Russia it became known as "Zhdun" or "somebody waiting for something".
Breevoort told Sputnik:"I wanted to give it a scientific name, like a new species. Homunculus means 'little guy' in Latin, or 'artificially created human.' And Loxodontus is the scientific name for African elephant, referring to the snout." Zdhun is featured in the appended video. It is in Russian as are most videos of Dhun. No text is needed though! As you can see Zdhun definitely has a distinctive appearance. It has a big snout but also large kind eyes and is quite fat.
Breevort explained what motivated her:"I had to make something inspired by the LUMC, the medical center in Leiden, and I didn't want to create something about medicine or illness, but rather about the patients themselves. The way they just have to await their fate in the waiting rooms. About hoping for the best. I wanted it to be a kind of lovable companion, something or someone that gives comfort, but also makes you laugh. In this building, there is also a lot of medical and genetic research going on. So the way the sculpture looks is a bit of a joke towards this research. It's like a failed experiment or product of this research that is hoping and waiting to get better. Like a big, cute, partly human and huggable lump of flesh."
So the statue just sat there for about a year attracting no special foreign interest. Just this January a Russian woman who visited the hospital took a photo of the statue. She published the photo on Pikabu which is the Russian version of Reddit. The statue quickly became a sensation and a meme. Pictures of Zhdun went viral on Russian media and he was made a star in news stories and featured in famous paintings as shown on the appended video. Zhdun is even shown at the Yalta Conference along with Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin. There are also photos with Russian President Putin. Members of Tumblr have named Zhdun Snorp. According to this site "snorp" can mean many things. According to another site:On January 31st, 2017, Tumblr user hellyesbro[7] reblogged a picture of Zhdun sitting in a political meeting with the caption “adjusts microphone/ Snorp” (shown below). The post gained over 35,000 notes and led to the character being spread around Tumblr by the name Snorp.
Zhdun's Russian fans soon outnumbered Dutch fans. Breevort said: "I have been told it is so popular in Russia because they recognize themselves… They share the same mentality, always waiting. It was indeed a big surprise! I never saw it coming!" Breevort created a profile on VK.com and an official public community for Zhdun fans. She said that she spends most of her time at her laptop answering messages but says that she may have better prospects in the future as an artist because of Zhdun's success. According to one site: Homunculus has now taken up residence in a children’s hospital in the Netherlands, tasked with brightening up the lives of young patients.


New Libyan National Guards formed in Libya

(February 9) A number of different armed groups mainly from Misrata have announced the formation of the Libyan National Guards (LNG). Reports claim that dozens of Misratan vehicles entered the capital Tripoli overnight.

According to the Libya Herald the Guards are backing Khalifa Ghwell. Ghwell is the former prime minister of the former National Salvation government that was a rival to the then internationally-recognized government of the House of Representatives (HoR). After the Libyan Political Agreement(LPA) signed in Skhirat Morocco in December of 2015, the Salvation government was weakened. Neither it nor the HoR government recognized the GNA. However, many from the Salvation Government eventually joined the GNA as part of the High State Council. They met as the former General National Congress, the legislature of the Salvation Govenrment, dissolved it and then met as the High State Council. The GNA seized many ministries and militia loyal to the GNA seized the Rixos complex which was the headquarters of the GNC.
On October 16 GNC in what was consdiered a coup attempt Ghwell and armed supporters took back control of the Rixos complex. The GNA has never been able to retake the complex. Many of the GNA's Presidential Guards defected and gave support to the coup plotters. Now it seems that there are an even larger group of heavily armed brigades that will serve as a direct threat to the GNA.
Brigadier Mahmoud Al-Zigal announced the forming of the group. He said that the LNG is not linked to an political party and would operate away from regional, tribal, and politiical disputes. Its main objective was to rid Libya of the remnants of the Islamic State(IS). Although the IS no longer retains control of significant territory since their defeat in Sirte, there are still IS cells here and there throughout Libya no doubt.
Al-Zigal also said:“We will work on the protection of the state facilities and will guard the borders of Libya. We will fight the chaos caused by the spread of arms and shall defend all embassies and foreign diplomatic missions, in addition to our participation in fighting the illegal migration.”
The Presidency Council of the GNA has assigned these tasks to the new Presidential Guard. Just 3 days ago the EU applauded the deployment of the first units of the Guard. According to the Libya Herald the LNG is said to be under the authority of the remnants of the GNC the coup plotters led by Khalifa Ghwell.
Recent clashes in Tripoli have already involved gunmen loyal to Salah Al-Burki whose vehicles bore the insignia of the new LNG. His group clashed with the Abu Sleem Central Security Force of Ghneiwa. One of their main aides was killed in the clashes and they have vowed revenge. The Libya Observer notes that the Libyan National Guard was formed earlier:The Libyan National Guard was formed by the General National Congress in 2015. Military sources close to LNG confirmed that the new established force would not operate under the Salvation Government.It is surprising that the Observer would report that the LNG would not operate under the auspices of the Salvation Government since it, unlike the Herald, was favorable to that government on the whole. It certainly seems that the Guards do not recognize the GNA and is not linked to the eastern HoR government. Unless it recognizes the GNC Salvation government it hardly can claim any authority to guard borders or protect diplomats. It is amazing that the GNA has allowed the coup plotters to remain in control of their headquarters since last October without making any move to dislodge them. With this new development the GNA will be forced to once and for all defeat the group using force.
It is not clear what relationship this new group has to another group formed by the Misrata Military Council. This group joined the Libya Army as discussed in a recent DJ article. These groups however pledged loyalty to the GNA government. No doubt the two groups display a split within Misrata brigades between those who support the GNA and those who do not.


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Trump's first commando raid in Yemen may have failed to reach its main goal

Military and intelligence figures told reporters that the goal of the commando raid in Yemen approved by Trump was to seize or kill the head of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Qassim al-Rimi. Whatever happened al-Rimi appears to have survived.

al-Rimi is claimed to be the third most dangerous terrorist in the world and a master recruiter. In the operation last week, at least one Navy Seal was killed and at least three wounded. In all, it was claimed that 14 al-Qaeda members were killed along with numerous civilians. The 8 year old daughter of Anwar Al-Awlaki, the former U.S. citizen and Al-Qaeda ideologue, was among the children killed according to her grandfather. Multiple military officials claim that al-Rimi is still alive.
An audio recording released after the incident by al-Rimi is claimed by military sources to be authentic. CNN reported:The leader of Al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen has released an audio recording in which he describes President Donald Trump as the "White House's new fool" and says a recent U.S. raid against the group killed 25 people, including 11 women and children. In an 11-minute recording, AQAP leader al-Rimi condemned the January 29 raid, saying, "The new fool of the White House received a painful slap across his face."In contrast to western reports he also claimed that a number of Americans were killed. He did not make it clear whether he was not there when the Seal Team 6 with UAE commandos attacked or if he were elsewhere. There was no comment on the recording by the White House or the Pentagon.
NBC news analyst Juan Zarate, who was a national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, said that even though the raid did not take out al-Rimi it still yielded some victories in that it did kill a number of Al-Qaeda leaders and at least that cell was disrupted and valuable intelligence may have been collected. Planning for the raid had already begun with an Obama plan to accelerate counterterrorism operations in Yemen. The proposal was referred to the incoming Trump administration who also in his campaign promised to accelerate attacks on terrorism.
Trump was told by Defense Secretary James Mattis that the capture of al-Rimi would be a "game changer" an anonymous senior White House official said. A senior US intelligence official told NBC news that things went wrong from the beginning. Residents in the house under attack were alerted. As soon as the commandos landed they came under fire and fighting erupted around houses where women and children were staying with some armed women firing at them.
An MV-22 Osprey called in for backup had a hard landing. It was rendered useless and destroyed deliberately by a pair of Harrier jets and two helicopter gunships who attacked the encampment and destroyed the Osprey according to a military official. White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, called the raid "a successful operation by all standards" and claimed that the raid captured "materials and information that is yielding valuable intelligence". Apparently Trump approved approved the commando operation with no advice or consultation from intelligence officers or military commanders, according to officials familiar with the chain of events. However, it had obviously been in the planning stage for some time as Spicer notes in the appended video.

Trump rally pauses as investors uncertain about future

(February 6) The U.S. markets have pulled back slightly today from the renewed Trump surge on Friday. However, the political furor over Trump moves such as his travel ban seem to be offset by positive expectations of Trump policies with respect to business.

Trump's recent move to change Dodd-Frank regulations on financial institutions was obviously a plus for markets. The Dow Jones average was still above the 20,000 level at 20,045.87 down just 25.59. So far, the political uncertainty and protests caused by Trump policies have not outweighed positive expectations for the future as indicated by market movements.
There are some signs that markets could turn down soon. Bloomberg data shows that the number of articles that contain the word "uncertainy" has reached a record. No doubt Trump can dismiss this as more fake news. However, investors could very well become uneasy if this view that things are uncertain persists. One would think that with such uncertainty the Chicago Board of Options Exchange Volatility index or VIX would be surging higher. It is not. Quite the opposite it has been unusually calm. Yet the Global Economic Policy Index a measure of disquiet among policymakers and politicians is the highest on record.
Another measure that gives a hint of danger is the CBOE Skew Index. This index measures the cost of buying protection against dramatic moves in the S & P 500 index. This index shows that investors are concerned about risks. Another sign that all is not well is that there is a lot of money going into gold and gold stocks. Barnaby Martin, of Bank of American Corp., wrote to investors: “While stocks and corporate bonds have rallied year-to-date, we see a very incongruous kind of calm in the markets at present. Note, that while equity volatility is still hovering around record lows, inflows into gold funds year-to-date in Europe have surged.”
Chris Flanagan also of the Bank of America says that a combination of rising yields and rising gold prices signals market volatility will soon rise. Rising benchmark bond yields together with rising gold prices have happened before previous market drops in 1973-4 and Black Monday in 1987. Further signs for a drop in the longer term are given in a recent article by Nouriel Roubini, Dr. Doom.
In Canada, even though stocks were down overall, many gold stocks rose with Barrick Gold rising 1.4 percent and Agnico Eagle up 1.3 percent to $64.97. The price of gold hit its highest level in three months as worries about the U.S. political landscape and the low loonie led to more investor interest in the metal. The financials group continue to gain slightly with bond yields rising after Trump on Friday promised to ease banking regulations. However, oil prices dropped as US supplies appeared ample and this outweighed OPEC output curbs and U.S. Iranian tensions.
The slight drop in U.S. markets may in part be the result of uncertainty over Trump policies while there was no major new economic data to move the markets. Nearly a hundred companies including Alphabet (Google), Apple, and FJacebook have banded together to present a legal brief that opposes the ban. Goldman Sachs economist, Alec Philips said that although Trump tax cuts and infrastructure funding could fuel growth his restrictions on trade and immigration could negate their positive effects. Adam Sarhan, CEO of 50 Park Investments said: "Investors are in a wait-and-see mode and are looking for the next bullish catalyst to send the market higher. There are concerns regarding the backlash against any protectionist policies that come out of Washington and other countries and investors are seeking clarity."